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Beyond the Politics of the Big Lie: The Education Deficit and the New Authoritarianism

The American public is suffering from an education deficit and growing inability to think critically.

Part of the Series

The American public is suffering from an education deficit. By this I mean it exhibits a growing inability to think critically, question authority, be reflective, weigh evidence, discriminate between reasoned arguments and opinions, listen across differences and engage the mutually informing relationship between private problems and broader public issues. This growing political and cultural illiteracy is not merely a problem of the individual, one that points to simple ignorance. It is a collective and social problem that goes to the heart of the increasing attack on democratic public spheres and supportive public institutions that promote analytical capacities, thoughtful exchange and a willingness to view knowledge as a resource for informed modes of individual and social agency. One of the major consequences of the current education deficit and the pervasive culture of illiteracy that sustains it is what I call the ideology of the big lie – which propagates the myth that the free-market system is the only mechanism to ensure human freedom and safeguard democracy.

The education deficit, along with declining levels of civic literacy, is also part of the American public’s collective refusal to know – a focused resistance on the part of many members of society to deal with knowledge that challenges common sense, or to think reflectively about facts and truths that are unsettling in terms of how they disturb some of our most cherished beliefs, especially those that denounce the sins of big government, legitimize existing levels of economic insecurity, social inequality and reduced or minimal government intervention in the field of welfare legislation.”(1) The decline of civility and civic literacy in American society is a political dilemma, the social production of which is traceable to a broader constellation of forces deeply rooted in the shifting nature of education and the varied cultural apparatuses that produce it, extending from the new digital technologies and online journals to the mainstream media of newspapers, magazines and television. Politics is now held hostage to what the late Raymond Williams called the “force of permanent education,” a kind of public pedagogy spread through a plethora of teaching machines that are shaping how our most powerful ideas are formed.(2) For Williams, the concept of “permanent education” was a central political insight:

What it valuably stresses is the educational force of our whole social and cultural experience. It is therefore concerned, not only with continuing education, of a formal or informal kind, but with what the whole environment, its institutions and relationships, actively and profoundly teaches…. [Permanent education also refers to] the field in which our ideas of the world, of ourselves and of our possibilities, are most widely and often most powerfully formed and disseminated. To work for the recovery of control in this field is then, under any pressures, a priority. For who can doubt, looking at television or newspapers, or reading the women’s magazines, that here, centrally, is teaching and teaching financed and distributed in a much larger way than is formal education.[3]

William’s insight about the relationship between education and politics is more important today than it was in the 1960s when he developed the idea. The educational force of the wider culture is now one of the primary, if not most powerful, determinants of what counts as knowledge, agency, politics and democracy itself. The machinery of permanent education and the public pedagogical relationships these create have become the main framing mechanisms in determining what information gets included, who speaks, what stories are told, what representations translate into reality and what is considered normal or subversive. The cultural apparatuses of popular education and public pedagogy play a powerful role in framing how issues are perceived, what values and social relations matter and whether any small ruptures will be allowed to unsettle the circles of certainty that now reign as common sense. But education is never far from the reach of power and ideology. As the major cultural apparatuses and technologies of public pedagogy are concentrated in a few hands, the educational force of the culture becomes a powerful ideological tool for legitimating market-driven values and social relations, based on omissions, deceptions, lies, misrepresentations and falsehoods benefiting the apostles of a range of economic, educational and religious fundamentalisms.

For the first time in modern history, centralized commercial institutions that extend from traditional broadcast culture to the new interactive screen cultures – rather than parents, churches or schools – tell most of the stories that shape the lives of the American public. This is no small matter since the stories a society tells about its history, civic life, social relations, education, children and human imagination are a measure of how it values itself, the ideals of democracy and its future. Most of the stories now told to the American public are about the necessity of neoliberal capitalism, permanent war and the virtues of a never-ending culture of fear. The domestic front revels in the welcome death of the social state, the necessary all-embracing reach of the market to determine every aspect of our lives, the reduction of freedom to the freedom to consume, the pathology of social relations not under the rule of commodities and finance capital and the notion that everyone is ultimately responsible for their own fate in a world that now resembles a shark tank.

Democracies need informed citizens to make them work and they can only survive amid a formative culture that produces individuals willing to think critically, imagine otherwise and act responsibly. America seems to have moved away from that possibility, that willingness to think through and beyond the systemic production of the given, the pull of conformity, the comforting assurance of certainty and the painless retreat into a world of common sense. Hannah Arendt understood the danger of such a state, which she famously called the banality of evil and described as a “curiously quite authentic inability to think.”(4) For Arendt, this was more than mere stupidity, it was a mode of manufactured thoughtlessness that pointed both to the disappearance of politics and constituted one of the most serious threats facing democracy. That threat is no longer merely a despairing element of philosophical reflection – it has become the new reality in American life. The political, economic and social coordinates of authoritarianism are all around us and through the educational force of the broader culture they are becoming more normalized and more dangerous.

There is little distance between what I am calling an education deficit and the reigning market authoritarianism, with its claim to be both synonymous with democracy and unquestionable in its assumptions and policies. The education deficit, a hallmark achievement of neoliberal capitalism, has produced a version of authoritarianism with a soft edge, a kind of popular authoritarianism that spreads its values through gaming, reality TV, celebrity culture, the daily news, talk radio and a host of other media outlets now aggressively engaged in producing subjects, desires and dreams that reflect a world order dominated by corporations and “free markets.” This a world that only values narrow selfish-interests, isolated competitive individuals, finance capital, the reign of commodities and the alleged “natural” laws of free-market fundamentalism. This type of turbo capitalism with its crushing cultural apparatuses of legitimation does more than destroy the public good; it empties democracy of any substance and renders authoritarian politics and culture an acceptable state of affairs. As the boundaries between markets and democratic values collapse, civil life becomes warlike and the advocates of market fundamentalism rail against state protections while offering an unbridled confirmation of the market as a template for all social relations.

Notwithstanding the appeal to formalistic election rituals, democracy as a substantive mode of public address and politics is all but dead in the United States. The forces of authoritarianism are on the march and they seem at this point only to be gaining power politically, economically and educationally. Politicians at every level of government are in collusion with corporate power. Many have been bought by industry lobbyists. This despicable state of affairs was particularly evident in the 2010 elections. Commenting on the colonization of politics by big money in that election, Charles Pierce captures the power dynamic and ideological relations that were in play at that time and have intensified since. He writes:

In 2010, in addition to handing the House of Representatives over to a pack of nihilistic vandals, the Koch brothers and the rest of the sugar daddies of the Right poured millions into various state campaigns. This produced a crop of governors and state legislators wholly owned and operated by those corporate interests and utterly unmoored from the constituencies they were elected to serve. In turn, these folks enacted various policies and produced various laws, guaranteed to do nothing except reinforce the power of the people who put them in office.[5]

More recently, The New York Times reported that soon after President Obama took office, “he cut a closed-door deal with the powerful pharmaceutical lobby [abandoning] his support for the reimportation of prescription medicines at lower prices.”(6) For the Times, this back-door deal signified “to some disillusioned liberal supporters a loss of innocence, or perhaps even the triumph of cynicism.”(7) In actuality, it signified a powerful new mode of capitalism that not only controls the commanding heights of the economy, but has now also replaced political sovereignty with an aggressive form of corporate governance. The state and elite market forces, perhaps inseparable before, have become today both inseparable and powerfully aligned. From Reagan’s assault on the values of the welfare state to Obama’s bailout of the mega banks and the refusal to end the Bush tax cuts, corporate sovereignty as the pre-eminent mode of US politics is hard to miss. And the surrender of politics to corporate rule and an amalgam of antidemocratic forces is not a one party affair. As Bill Moyers and Michael Winship have argued, “since 1979, 377 members of the Forbes 400 list or richest Americans have given almost half a billion dollars to candidates of both parties, most of it in the last decade. The median contribution was $355,100 each.”(8)

As is well known, President Clinton implemented deregulation policies that led directly to the economic crisis of 2008, while at the same time enacting welfare reforms that turned a war on poverty into a war on the poor. In fact, the most radical economic measures that Clinton undertook “related to further deregulation of the economy [amounting to] some of the most comprehensive deregulatory reforms of the 20th century.”(9) Similarly, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy not only increased the power of mega corporations and financial services to influence policy for the benefit of Wall Street titans and the rich more generally, but also largely punished the middle class and the poor. The Citizens United Supreme Court ruling made especially visible the hidden operations behind contemporary politics: big money translates into political power. The economist Joseph Stiglitz is correct in insisting that, “We’ve moved from a democracy, which is supposed to be based on one person, one vote, to something much more akin to one dollar, one vote. When you have that kind of democracy, it’s not going to address the real needs of the 99%.”(10) Stiglitz’s point is right in one sense, though the current political system has nothing substantively to do with democracy and everything to do with a new form of authoritarianism shaped by the converging interests of the financial elite, religious fundamentalists, anti-public intellectuals and corporate political powerbrokers.

This new mode of authoritarian governance is distinct from the fascism that emerged in Germany and Italy in the mid part of the twentieth century. As Sheldon Wolin has pointed out, big business in this new mode of authoritarianism is not subordinated to a political regime and the forces of state sovereignty, but now replaces political sovereignty with corporate rule. In addition, the new authoritarianism does not strive “to give the masses a sense of collective power and strength, [but] promotes a sense of weakness, of collective futility [through] a pervasive atmosphere of fear abetted by a corporate economy of ruthless downsizing, withdrawal or reduction of pension and health benefits; a corporate political system that relentlessly threatens to privatize Social Security and the modest health benefits available, especially to the poor.”(11) According to Wolin, all the elements are in place today for a contemporary form of authoritarianism, which he calls “inverted totalitarianism.”

Thus the elements are in place: a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one part, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens and domestic dissidents.[12]

The democratic deficit is not, as many commentators have argued, reducible to the growing (and unparalleled) inequality gap in the United States, the pervasiveness of lending fraud, favorable tax treatment for the wealthy, or the lack of adequate regulation of the financial sector. These are important issues, but they are more symptomatic than causal in relation to the democratic decline and rise of an uncivil culture in America. The democratic deficit is closely related, however, to an unprecedented deficit in critical education. The power of finance capital in recent years has not only targeted the realm of official politics, but also directed its attention toward a range of educational apparatuses – really, a vast and complex ideological ecosystem that reproduces itself through nuance, distraction, innuendo, myths, lies and misrepresentations. This media ecosystem not only changes our sense of time, space and information; it also redefines the very meaning of the social and this is far from a democratic process, especially as the architecture of the Internet and other media platforms are largely in the hands of private interests.(13) The educational pipelines for corporate messages and ideology are everywhere and have for the last twenty-five years successfully drowned out any serious criticism and challenge to market fundamentalism.

The current corrupt and dysfunctional state of American politics is about a growing authoritarianism tied to economic, political and cultural formations that have hijacked democracy and put structural and ideological forces in place that constitute a new regime of politics, not simply a series of bad policies. The solution in this case does not lie in promoting piecemeal reforms, such as a greater redistribution of wealth and income, but in dismantling all the institutional, ideological and social formations that make gratuitous inequality and other antidemocratic forces possible at all. Even the concept of reform has been stripped of its democratic possibilities and has become a euphemism to “cover up the harsh realities of draconian cutbacks in wages, salaries, pensions and public welfare and the sharp increases in regressive taxes.”(14)

Instead of reversing progressive changes made by workers, women, young people, and others, the American public needs a new understanding of what it would mean to advance the ideological and material relations of a real democracy, while removing American society from the grip of “an authoritarian political culture.”(15) This will require new conceptions of politics, social responsibility, power, civic courage, civil society and democracy itself. If we do not safeguard the remaining public spaces that provide individuals and social movements with new ways to think about and participate in politics, then authoritarianism will solidify its hold on the American public. In doing so, it will create a culture that criminalizes dissent, and those who suffer under antidemocratic ideologies and policies will be both blamed for the current economic crisis and punished by ruling elites.

What is crucial to grasp at the current historical moment is that the fate of democracy is inextricably linked to a profound crisis of contemporary knowledge, characterized by its increasing commodification, fragmentation, privatization and a turn toward racist and jingoistic conceits. As knowledge becomes abstracted from the rigors of civic culture and is reduced to questions of style, ritual and image, it undermines the political, ethical and governing conditions for individuals to construct those viable public spheres necessary for debate, collective action and solving urgent social problems. As public spheres are privatized, commodified and turned over to the crushing forces of turbo capitalism, the opportunities for openness, inclusiveness and dialogue that nurture the very idea and possibility of a discourse about democracy cease to exist.

The lesson to be learned in this instance is that political agency involves learning how to deliberate, make judgments and exercise choices, particularly as the latter are brought to bear on critical activities that offer the possibility of change. Civic education as it is experienced and produced throughout an ever-diminishing number of institutions provides individuals with opportunities to see themselves as capable of doing more than the existing configurations of power of any given society would wish to admit. And it is precisely this notion of civic agency and critical education that has been under aggressive assault within the new and harsh corporate order of casino capitalism.

Anti-Public Intellectuals and the Conservative Re-Education Machine

The conservative takeover of public pedagogy with its elite codifiers of neoliberal ideology has a long history extending from the work of the “Chicago Boys” at the University of Chicago to the various conservative think tanks that emerged after the publication of the Powell memo in the early seventies.(16) The Republican Party will more than likely win the next election and take full control over all aspects of policymaking in the United States. This is especially dangerous given that the Republican Party is now controlled by extremists. If they win the 2012 election, they will not only extend the Bush/Obama legacy of militarism abroad, but likely intensify the war at home as well. Political scientist Frances Fox Piven rightly argues that, “We’ve been at war for decades now – not just in Afghanistan or Iraq, but right here at home. Domestically, it’s been a war [a]gainst the poor [and as] devastating as it has been, the war against the poor has gone largely unnoticed until now.”(17) And the war at home now includes more than attacks on the poor, as campaigns are increasingly waged against the rights of women, students, workers, people of color and immigrants, especially Latino Americans. As the social state collapses, the punishing state expands its power and targets larger portions of the population. The war in Afghanistan is now mimicked in the war waged on peaceful student protesters at home. It is evident in the environmental racism that produces massive health problems for African-Americans. The domestic war is even waged on elementary school children, who now live in fear of the police handcuffing them in their classrooms and incarcerating them as if they were adult criminals.(18) It is waged on workers by taking away their pensions, bargaining rights and dignity. The spirit of militarism is also evident in the war waged on the welfare state and any form of social protection that benefits the poor, disabled, sick, elderly, and other groups now considered disposable, including children.

The soft side of authoritarianism in the United States does not need to put soldiers in the streets, though it certainly follows that script. As it expands its control over the commanding institutions of government, the armed forces and civil society in general, it hires anti-public intellectuals and academics to provide ideological support for its gated communities, institutions and modes of education. As Yasha Levine points out, it puts thousands of dollars in the hands of corporate shills such as Malcolm Gladwell, who has become a “one man branding and distribution pipeline for valuable corporate messages, constructed on the public’s gullibility in trusting his probity and intellectual honesty.”(19) Gladwell (who is certainly not alone) functions as a bought-and-paid mouthpiece for “Big Tobacco Pharma and defend[s] Enron-style financial fraud … earning hundreds of thousands of dollars as a corporate speaker, sometimes from the same companies and industries that he covers as a journalist.”(20)

Corporate power uses these “pay to play” academics, anti-public intellectuals, the mainstream media, and other educational apparatuses to discredit the very people that it simultaneously oppresses, while waging an overarching war on all things public. As Charles Ferguson has noted, an entire industry has been created that enables the “sale of academic expertise for the purpose of influencing government policy, the courts and public opinion [and] is now a multibillion-dollar business.”(21) It gets worse, in that “Academic, legal, regulatory and policy consulting in economics, finance and regulation is dominated by a half dozen consulting firms, several speakers’ bureaus and various industry lobbying groups that maintain large networks of academics for hire specifically for the purpose of advocating industry interests in policy and regulatory debates.”(22)

Such anti-public intellectuals create what William Black has called a “criminogenic environment” that spreads disease and fraud in the interest of bolstering the interests, profits and values of the super wealthy.(23) There is more at work here than carpet bombing the culture with lies, deceptions and euphemisms. Language in this case does more than obfuscate or promote propaganda. It creates framing mechanisms, cultural ecosystems and cultures of cruelty, while closing down the spaces for dialogue, critique and thoughtfulness. At its worst, it engages in the dual processes of demonization and distraction. The rhetoric of demonization takes many forms: for example, calling firefighters, teachers, and other public servants greedy because they want to hold onto their paltry benefits. It labels students as irresponsible because of the large debts they are forced to incur as states cut back funding to higher education (this, too, is part of a broader effort by conservatives to hollow out the social state). Poor people are insulted and humiliated because they are forced to live on food stamps, lack decent health care and collect unemployment benefits because there are no decent jobs available. Poor minorities are now subject to overt racism in the right-wing media and outright violence in the larger society.

Anti-public intellectuals rail against public goods and public values; they undermine collective bonds and view social responsibility as a pathology, while touting the virtues of a survival-of-the-fittest notion of individual responsibility. Fox News and its embarrassingly blowhard pundits tell the American people that Gov. Scott Walker’s victory over Tom Barrett in the Wisconsin recall election was a fatal blow against unions, while in reality “his win signals less a loss for the unions than a loss for our democracy in this post-Citizens United era, when elections can be bought with the help of a few billionaires.”(24) How else to explain that Tea Party favorite Walker raised over $30.5 million during the election – more than seven times Barrett’s reported $3.9 million – largely from 13 out-of-state billionaires?(25) This was corporate money enlisted for use in a pedagogical blitz designed to carpet bomb voters with the rhetoric of distraction and incivility.

The same pundits who rail against the country’s economic deficit fail to connect it to the generous tax cuts they espouse for corporations and the financial institutions and services that take financial risks, which sometimes generate capital, but more often produce debts and instability that only serve to deepen the national economic crisis. Nor do they connect the US recession and global economic crisis to the criminal activities enabled by an unregulated financial system marked by massive lending fraud, high risk speculation, a corrupt credit system and pervasive moral and economic dishonesty. The spokespersons for the ultrarich publish books arguing that we need even more inequality because it benefits not only the wealthy, but everyone else.(26) This is a form of authoritarian delusion that appears to meet the clinical threshold for being labeled psychopathic given its proponents’ extreme investment in being “indifferent to others, incapable of guilt, exclusively devoted to their own interests.”(27) Nothing is said in this pro-market narrative about the massive human suffering caused by a growing inequality in which society’s resources are squandered at the top, while salaries for the middle and working classes stagnate, consumption dries up, social costs are ignored, young people are locked out of jobs and any possibility of social mobility and the state reconfigures its power to punish rather than protect the vast majority of its citizens.

The moral coma that appears characteristic of the elite who inhabit the new corporate ethic of casino capitalism has attracted the attention of scientists, whose studies recently reported that “members of the upper class are more likely to behave unethically, to lie during negotiations, to drive illegally and to cheat when competing for a prize.”(28) But there is more at stake here than the psychological state of those who inhabit the boardrooms of Wall Street. We must also consider the catastrophic effects produced by their values and policies. In fact, Stiglitz has argued that, “Most Americans today are worse off than they were fifteen years ago. A full-time worker in the US is worse off today then he or she was 44 years ago. That is astounding – half a century of stagnation. The economic system is not delivering. It does not matter whether a few people at the top benefitted tremendously – when the majority of citizens are not better off, the economic system is not working.”(29) The economic system may not be working, but the ideological rationales used to justify its current course appear immensely successful, managing as they do to portray a casino capitalism that transforms democracy into its opposite – a form of authoritarianism with a soft edge – as utterly benign, if not also beneficial, to society at large.

Democratic Decline and the Politics of Distraction

Democracy withers, public spheres disappear and the forces of authoritarianism grow when a family, such as the Waltons of Walmart fame, is allowed “to amass a combined wealth of some $90 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of US society.”(30) Such enormous amounts of wealth translate into equally vast amounts of power, as is evident in the current attempts of a few billionaires to literally buy local, state and federal elections. Moreover, a concentration of wealth deepens the economic divide among classes, rendering more and more individuals incapable of the most basic opportunities to move out of poverty and despair. This is especially true in light of a recent survey indicating that, “Nearly half of all Americans lack economic security, meaning they live above the federal poverty threshold but still do hot have enough money to cover housing, food, healthcare and other basic expenses…. 45 percent of US residents live in households that struggle to make ends meet. That breaks down to 39 percent of all adults and 55 percent of all children.”(31) The consequential impacts on civic engagement are more difficult to enumerate, but it does not require much imagination to think about how democracy might flourish if access to health care, education, employment, and other public benefits was ensured equally throughout a society and not restricted to the rich and wealthy alone. And yet, as power and wealth accrue to the upper 1 percent, the American public is constantly told that the poor, the unions, feminists, critical intellectuals and public servants are waging class warfare to the detriment of civility and democracy.

The late Tony Judt stated that he was less concerned about the slide of American democracy into something like authoritarianism than American society moving toward something he viewed as even more corrosive: “a loss of conviction, a loss of faith in the culture of democracy, a sense of skepticism and withdrawal” that diminishes the capacity of a democratic formative culture to resist and transform those antidemocratic ideologies that benefit only the mega corporations, the ultrawealthy and ideological fundamentalists.(32) Governance has turned into a legitimation for enriching the already wealthy elite, bankers, hedge fund managers, mega corporations and executive members of the financial service industries. Americans now live in a society in which only the thinnest conception of democracy frames what it means to be a citizen – one which equates the obligations of citizenship with consumerism and democratic rights with alleged consumer freedoms. Antidemocratic forms of power do not stand alone as a mode of force or the force of acting on others; they are also deeply aligned with cultural apparatuses of persuasion, extending their reach through social and digital media, sophisticated technologies, the rise of corporate intellectuals and a university system that now produces and sanctions intellectuals aligned with private interests – all of which, as Randy Martin points out, can be identified with a form of casino capitalism that is about “permanent vigilance, activity and intervention.”(33)

Indeed, many institutions that provide formal education in the United States have become co-conspirators with a savage casino capitalism, whose strength lies in producing, circulating and legitimating market values that promote the narrow world of commodity worship, celebrity culture, bare-knuckle competition, a retreat from social responsibility and a war-of-all-against-all mentality that destroys any viable notion of community, the common good and the interrelated notions of political, social and economic rights. University presidents now make huge salaries sitting on corporate boards, while faculty sell their knowledge to the highest corporate bidder and, in doing so, turn universities into legitimation centers for casino capitalism.(34) Of course, such academics also move from the boardrooms of major corporations to talk shows and op-ed pages of major newspapers, offering commentary in journals and other modes of print and screen culture. They are the new traveling intellectuals of casino capitalism, doing everything they can to make the ruthless workings of power invisible, to shift the blame for society’s failures onto the very people who are its victims and to expand the institutions and culture of anti-intellectualism and distraction into every aspect of American life.

Across all levels, politics in the United States now suffers from an education deficit that enables a pedagogy of distraction to dictate with little accountability how crucial social problems and issues are named, discussed and acted upon. The conservative re-education machine appears shameless in its production of lies that include insane assertions such as: Obama’s health care legislation would create death panels; liberals are waging a war on Christmas; Obama is a socialist trying to nationalize industries; the founding fathers tried to end slavery; and Obama is a Muslim sympathizer and not a US citizen. Other misrepresentations and distortions include: the denial of global warming; the government cannot create jobs; cuts in wages and benefits create jobs; Obama has created massive deficits; Obama wants to raise the taxes of working- and middle-class people; Obama is constantly “apologizing” for America; and the assertion that Darwinian evolution is a myth.(35) Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney continues spinning this spider web of lies unapologetically, even when members of his own party point out the inconsistencies in his claims. For instance, he has claimed that, “Obamacare increases the deficit,”(36) argued that Obama has “increased the national debt more than all other presidents combined” and insisted that Obama has lied about “his record on gay rights.” He has falsely claimed that, “Obama promised unemployment below eight percent,”(37) dodged the truth regarding “his position on climate change” and blatantly misrepresented the truth in stating that, “he pays a 50% tax rate.”(38) Diane Ravitch has recently pointed out that in making a case for vouchers, Romney has made false claims about the success of the DC voucher program.(39)

The politics of distraction should not be reduced merely to a rhetorical ploy used by the wealthy and influential to promote their own interests and power. It is a form of market-driven politics in which educational force of the broader culture is used to create ideologies, policies, individuals and social agents who lack the knowledge, critical skills and discriminatory judgments to question the rule of casino capitalism and the values, social practices and power formations it legitimates. Politics and education have always mutually informed each other as pedagogical sites proliferate and circulate throughout the cultural landscape.(40) But today, distraction is the primary element being used to suppress democratically purposeful education by pushing critical thought to the margins of society. As a register of power, distraction becomes central to a pedagogical landscape inhabited by rich conservative foundations, an army of well-funded anti-public intellectuals from both major parties, a growing number of amply funded conservative campus organizations, increasing numbers of academics who hock their services to corporations and the military-industrial complex, and others who promote the ideology of casino capitalism and the corporate right’s agenda. Academics who make a claim to producing knowledge and truth in the public interest are increasingly being replaced by academics for hire who move effortlessly among industry, government and academia.

Extreme power is now showcased through the mechanisms of ever-proliferating cultural/educational apparatuses and the anti-public intellectuals who support them and are in turn rewarded by the elites who finance such apparatuses. The war at home is made visible in the show of force aimed at civilian populations, including students, workers, and others considered disposable or a threat to the new authoritarianism. Its most powerful allies appear to be the intellectuals, institutions, cultural apparatuses and new media technologies that constitute the sites of public pedagogy, which produce the formative culture necessary for authoritarianism to thrive.

While a change in consciousness does not guarantee a change in either one’s politics or society, it is a crucial precondition for connecting what it means to think otherwise to conditions that make it possible to act otherwise. The education deficit must be seen as intertwined with a political deficit, serving to make many oppressed individuals complicit with oppressive ideologies. As the late Cornelius Castoriadis made clear, democracy requires “critical thinkers capable of putting existing institutions into question…. while simultaneously creating the conditions for individual and social autonomy.”(41) Nothing will change politically or economically until new and emerging social movements take seriously the need to develop a language of radical reform and create new public spheres that support the knowledge, skills and critical thought that are necessary features of a democratic formative culture.

Getting beyond the big lie as a precondition for critical thought, civic engagement and a more realized democracy will mean more than correcting distortions, misrepresentations and falsehoods produced by politicians, media talking heads and anti-public intellectuals. It will also require addressing how new sites of pedagogy have become central to any viable notion of agency, politics and democracy itself. This is not a matter of elevating cultural politics over material relations of power as much as it is a rethinking of how power deploys culture and how culture as a mode of education positions power.

James Baldwin, the legendary African-American writer and civil rights activist, argued that the big lie points to a crisis of American identity and politics and is symptomatic of “a backward society” that has descended into madness, “especially when one is forced to lie about one’s aspect of anybody’s history, [because you then] must lie about it all.”(42) He goes on to argue “that one of the paradoxes of education [is] that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.”(43) What Baldwin recognizes is that learning has the possibility to trigger a critical engagement with oneself, others and the larger society – education becomes in this instance more than a method or tool for domination but a politics, a fulcrum for democratic social change. Tragically, in our current climate “learning” merely contributes to a vast reserve of manipulation and self-inflicted ignorance. Our education deficit is neither reducible to the failure of particular types of teaching nor the decent into madness by the spokespersons for the new authoritarianism. Rather, it is about how matters of knowledge, values and ideology can be struggled over as issues of power and politics. Surviving the current education deficit will depend on progressives using history, memory and knowledge not only to reconnect intellectuals to the everyday needs of ordinary people, but also to jumpstart social movements by making education central to organized politics and the quest for a radical democracy.


1. Tony Judt, “Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century” (New York: Penguin, 2008), p.420.

2. Raymond Williams, “Preface to Second Edition,” Communications (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), p. 15.

3. Ibid.

4. Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture,” Social Research 38:3 (Fall 1970), p. 417.

5. Charles Pierce, “Democracy vs. Money in Wisconsin,” ReaderSupportedNews (June 2, 2012).

6. Peter Baker, “Lobby E-Mails Show Depth of Obama Ties to Drug Industry,” New York Times (June 8, 2012).

7. Ibid.

8. Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, “Pity the Poor Billionaires,” (June 1, 2012).

9. Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, “Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 60-62.

10. Cited in Amy Goodman, “How Citizens United Helped Scott Walker in Wisconsin,” The Guardian UK (June 7, 2012).

11. Sheldon Wolin, “Inverted Totalitarianism: How the Bush Regime Is Effecting the Transformation to a Fascist-Like State,” The Nation (May 19, 2003), p. 14. Wolin develops his theory of inverted totalitarianism is great detail in his Sheldon S. Wolin, “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

12. Sheldon Wolin, “Inverted Totalitarianism: How the Bush Regime Is Effecting the Transformation to a Fascist-Like State.”

13. For an excellent analysis of media in late modernity, see Nick Couldry, “Media, Society, World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice” (London: Polity, 2012).

14. James Petras, “The Politics of Language and the Language of Political Regression,” Global Research (May 24, 2012).

15. Stuart Hall and Les Back, “In Conversation: At Home and Not at Home,” Cultural Studies 23:4 (July 2009), p. 679.

16. I have taken up this issue in detail in Henry A. Giroux, “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex” (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2007).

17. Francis Fox Piven, “The War Against the Poor,” (November 6, 2011).

18. See the many examples in S.E. Smith, “Police Handcuffing 7-Year-Olds? The Brutality Unleashed on Kids with Disabilities in Our School Systems,” AlterNet (May 22, 2012).

19. Yasha Levine, “Malcolm Gladwell Unmasked: A Look into the Life & Work of America’s Most Successful Propagandist,” The Exiled (June 6, 2012).

20. Ibid.

21. Charles Ferguson, “The Sellout of the Ivory Tower and the Crash of 2008,” Huffington Post (May 22, 2012).

22. Ibid.

23. Bill Moyers, “Interview with William K. Black,” Bill Moyers Journal (April 23, 2010).

24. Goodman, “How Citizens United Helped Scott Walker in Wisconsin.”

25. Ibid.

26. For a brilliant analysis of the effects of casino capitalism on those marginalized by race and class, see Dorothy Roberts, “Fatal Intervention: How Science, Politics and Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century” (New York: The New Press, 2011). For a sustained and convincing argument for equality in the service of democracy, see Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, “The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone” (New York: Penguin, 2010). See also Tony Judt, “Ill Fares the Land” (New York: Penguin, 2010).

27. William Deresiewicz, “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths,” New York Times (May 12, 2012), p. SR5.

28. Paul K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancato, Stephane Cote, Mdndoza-Denton and Dacher Keltern, “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (February 27, 2012). A summary of these reports appears in Thomas B. Edsall, “Other People’s Suffering,” New York Times (March 4, 2012).

29. Joseph Stiglitz, “Politics Is at the Root of the Problem,” The European Magazine (April 23, 2012).

30. Joseph E. Stiglitz, “The 1 Percent’s Problem,” Vanity Fair (May 31, 2012).

31. Reuters, “Nearly Half of Americans Struggling to Stay Afloat,” (November 23, 2011).

32. Tony Judt, “I Am Not Pessimistic in the Very Long Run,” The Independent (March 24, 2010).

33. Randy Martin cited in Patricia Ticineto Clough and Craig Willse, “Beyond Biopolitics: The Governance of Life and Death,” Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 3.

34. See, for example, Laurie Bennett, “Ivy League Presidents Find Time for Corporate Boards,” Maced (June 30, 2010); Jack Stripling and Andrea Fuller, “College Presidents Serving on Boards of Trustees’ Companies,” MAICgregator (January 16, 2012). Charles Ferguson develops this theme in his Academy Award-winning film, “Inside Job” and in his book, “Predator Nation,” by focusing on prominent economists such as Larry Summers, Martin Feldstein and Glenn Hubbard, all of whom appear shameless in their complicity with corporate power, greed and corruption.

35. There are endless list of such lies on the Internet. See, for example, Sandy Screeds, “Short List of GOP Lies,” Daily Kos (June 8, 2012). See also Chris Mooney, “Reality Bites Republicans,” The Nation (June 4, 2012), pp. 6-8.

36. Jess Coleman, “Five Lies from Mitt Romney,” Huffington Post (May 24, 2012).

37. Ibid.

38. All of these positions and their respective sources can be found at: Jueseppi B, “The Complete ‘List Of Lies’ by Willard Mitt Romney,” (May 8, 2012).

39. Diane Ravitch, “The Miseducation of Mitt Romney,” The New York Review of Books, (June 5, 2012). Online here.

40. See, for example, Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Walter Jacobs and Amy Lee, “The Sites of Pedagogy,” Symploke 10:1-2 (2002), pp. 7-12; Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar and Elizabeth A. Provinelli, “Technologies of Public Forms: Circulation, Transfiguration, Recognition,” Public Culture 15:3 (2003), pp. 385-397; Lewis Lapham, “Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill, a Brief History,” Harper’s Magazine (September 2004), pp. 31-41; Henry A. Giroux, “The Politics of Public Pedagogy,” in Jeffrey Di Leo, et al. (eds.), “If Classrooms Matter: Place, Pedagogy and Politics” (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 15-36; and Henry A. Giroux, “Neoliberalism as Public Pedagogy,” in Jennifer Sandlin, Brian Schultz and Jane Burdick (eds.), Handbook of Public Pedagogy (New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 486-99.

41. Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy,” Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 102.

42. James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” The Saturday Review (December 21, 1963). Online here.

43. Ibid.