Skip to content Skip to footer

Book Burning in Arizona

There is more at work in the attack on ethnic studies than the rise of Tea Party politics and specific acts of censorship.

Part of the Series

Every once in a while, events flash before us that might, at first, seem trivial or commonplace given how in tune they are with the political and ideological temper of the times; but, in reality, they sometimes contain a hidden order of politics and flight from social and moral responsibility that convey a frightening truth about the dark authoritarian forces driving American society. Such forces are often associated with a passion against equality, driven by an appeal to nationalism and defended as an act of patriotism. In actuality, the willingness to defend persistent and deeply rooted forms of racial, economic and social inequality is often driven by a fear of those deemed “other,” whose presence, voices and ideas defy the crippling registers of intellectual conformity and forms of knowledge that merely reinforce “common sense,” the status quo and right-wing populism.

Resentment and contempt for equality cross over into bigotry as such forces propel conservative politicians and anti-public bureaucrats to punish those marginalized by race and ethnicity while also attempting to eliminate those public spheres, bodies of knowledge, and social relations that give voice to the complex histories of difference and the multilayered cultures and bodies of knowledge that allow the designated voiceless to narrate themselves. The policies that accompany this politics of resentment, bigotry and contempt towards those deemed as pathological and disposable promote a form of racist-inflected anti-intellectualism whose goal is to regulate those ideas, individuals and groups that offer a different – and, often, critical – reading of history, politics, culture and the social landscape.

Current acts of censorship and state racism are dressed up as a form of ideological purity and moral certainty that attempts to cleanse the broader polity of those modes of remembrance that allegedly sully and contaminate American culture and character. Such acts contain traces of an earlier authoritarian ideology that was fundamental to the shaping of the totalitarian states of Germany and the Soviet Union in the first part of the 20th century.

For instance, in April 1933, the authorities of Nazi Germany ordered a literary purge – a burning of books, papers, and artworks considered degenerate because they allegedly undermined what was defined as “pure” German language, culture, and traditional values. Authors whose works were burned for harboring dangerous ideas and troubling knowledge included Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, John Dos Passos, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Andre Gide, George Grosz, Franz Kafka, Andre Malraux and Karl Marx, among others. All of these authors apparently published works that threatened the gatekeepers of ideological purity and political fundamentalism. The identification of such nefarious works led to the passage of a series of laws in which censorship and the burning of books were quickly followed by, as Heinrich Heine notes in the above epigraph, the burning of men, women, children, and others deemed a threat to the Nazi politics of ideological and racial purity.

Within a short time after the book burnings, the Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws, institutionalizing the racial theories embraced by the Third Reich. Under these laws, anyone who had three or four Jewish grandparents was defined as a Jew, subject to legal restrictions that revoked their right to citizenship in the Reich, forbade them “to fly the Reich or National flag,” and prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of “German or related blood.”[1]

In such instances, laws were introduced to legitimate what might be called legal illegalities – states of exception in which certain individuals and groups, as Giorgio Agamben has noted, could be punished with impunity because the juridical apparatus was now shaped by a notion of governance and sovereignty that had no respect for matters of justice and the democratic rule of law.[2] The state of exception and the laws that produced it then became indistinct. The power of the courts and the crafting of the law were shaped by a perception of the other as deviant, inferior and a threat, while the courts and the law simultaneously provided a justification for both subjugating such groups and making them expendable.

These events might seem far removed from a country such as the United States, which makes repeated claims to support democratic institutions, humanitarian values, human rights and equality. Yet, within the United States today, there are an increasing number of events signaling not only the emergence of elements of authoritarianism, but also the failure of a society to come to grips with the frightening truth that American democracy is under siege and is giving way to forces that are utterly indifferent to the values and ideals of a viable democracy.

For instance, within the last decade under President George W. Bush and President Obama, we have witnessed an undeniable attack on civil liberties through legislation – extending from the passage of the Patriot Act of 2001 to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012 – which gives the government the right to conduct warrantless surveillance, detain American citizens indefinitely and use the power of the military to detain suspected terrorists in the United States.[3]

This is not all. The United States government now has the legal power to assassinate “any citizen considered a terrorist or an abettor of terrorism,”[4] kidnap citizens and non-citizens and transfer them to other countries to be tortured, suspend due process, expand the prison system, and do all of this covertly under the protection of state secrecy laws. It can remain silent with impunity while government officials, including a former president and vice president, sanction state-administered torture.

As politics became an extension of war in the United States, particularly in the aftermath of the tragic events of September 2001, national security and the ever-widening net of militarism have trumped any appeal to democratic rights. With the looming edifice of the national security state casting its shadow over the United States, Jim Garrison offers a critique of the NDAA that goes to the heart of the dark clouds of authoritarianism that are gathering over the nation. He writes:

The question screaming at us through this bill is whether the war on terror is a better model around which to shape our destiny than our constitutional liberties. It compels the question of whether we remain an ongoing experiment in democracy, pioneering new frontiers in the name of liberty and justice for all, or have we become a national security state, having financially corrupted and militarized our democracy to such an extent that we define ourselves, as Sparta did, only through the exigencies of war?[5]

Indeed, it increasingly appears that the United States has given up on its claim to democracy, however tainted its democratic ideals may have been before 9/11.

Authoritarian societies mark their presence in more ways than the suspension of civil liberties and the ongoing militarization of everyday life. They are generally preceded by a formative culture – notable for its hatred of critical thinking, disdain for the truth, and devaluation of compassion, civic courage, and social responsibility. This is a formative culture whose pedagogical task is to create subjects who are mobilized by fear, self-interest, political affiliation or ignorance to invest emotionally and politically in regimes that cripple the public’s sense of agency. Such regimes immerse people in “a language that erases everything that matters”[6] and offer them a space in which they can assume the role of detached bystanders, indifferent to the demands of ethical responsibility and justice for all. In a society that elevates a survival-of-the-fittest ethic to a national ideal, there is no room to appeal to human solidarity or call for a moral response to instances of suffering and widespread racial targeting.

In fact, at the present moment in American society, human solidarity and democratic values are scorned just as a moral response to the plight of the other is viewed with disdain and seen as a sign of weakness. Witness the culture of cruelty touted by the current run of Republican presidential candidates, who barely blink when asked about how capital punishment embodies the legacy of slavery, who unapologetically suggest that child-labor laws be suspended so poor youth of color can work as janitors in their schools, or who endlessly complain that the poor lack a work ethic and are undeserving of social protections.[7] Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich believe that the social safety net, rather than being inadequate, is overextended and promotes a nation of dependents, an army of unrepentant moochers, creating what right-wing politicians and anti-public intellectuals call an “entitlement society.”

The supposed cure in this case is simply to abolish the safety net and let the free market work its delusional magic, so that the poor, elderly, sick, unemployed and homeless can rely upon their own resources to take care of themselves. In the meantime, the contemporary neoliberal mantra to downsize, privatize, outsource and deregulate continues to promote economic policies characterized by moral and political lawlessness. At the same time, high priests of casino capitalism remain undeterred in their drive to accumulate capital for the few while promoting planetary immiseration for everyone else.

What’s missing in the right-wing analysis of the issues facing Americans is not merely any sense of compassion or social responsibility, but any understanding of the social and economic costs of such policies. While the political rhetoric marshaled by politicians such as Gingrich and Romney is as delusional as it is cruel and unjust, the real issue at work here is the price to be paid in any society for these types of political and economic measures. Not only do such norms and policies create massive inequalities in wealth, income and power, they also produce practices that are responsible for massive amounts of human suffering.

The fact of the matter is that under the regime of neoliberal capitalism in the United States, social spending is vastly inadequate, given that 39 percent of all adults and 55 percent of all children live on or below the poverty line. Approximately 146 million Americans – that is, 1 in 2 Americans – are low-income or poor.

Making matters worse, as blogger Diane Sweet points out, is the lack of affordable housing: “approximately 3.5 million people in the U.S. are homeless, many of them veterans…. In addition, 1.6 million kids are homeless at some point in a year.”[8] In the richest country in the world, over 30 million are unemployed and 50 million are without health care, while 1.4 million filed for bankruptcies in 2009.[9]

Under such circumstances, politics works to create heartless and savage zones of abandonment, or what Achille Mbembe calls “death worlds” – a form of “death in life.”[10] Hollowed out and stripped of its civic functions, politics takes as its first priority creating the conditions for corporations and financial institutions to act without restraint, while modalities of hypermasculinity, unchecked individualism and armed power become the measure of national greatness. The formative culture that supports such a politics is one in which the celebration of market fundamentalism and war are destined to become the most enduring symbols of the American way of life.

Given the current emergence of these authoritarian tendencies in American society, Arundhati Roy offers a prophetic warning:

Today, it is not merely justice itself, but the idea of justice that is under attack. The assault on vulnerable, fragile sections of society is at once so complete, so cruel and so clever – all-encompassing and yet specifically targeted, blatantly brutal and yet unbelievably insidious – that its sheer audacity has eroded our definition of justice. It has forced us to lower our sights, and curtail our expectations.[11]

As Roy rightly argues, the ground in which the formative culture of authoritarianism takes root – and is, then, sustained – can be located among those abstract realms of law, policy and national security. What is often revealed in associated practices, values and discourses is that an unrelenting desire to pursue the imperatives of justice – which should be fundamental to any viable democracy – is redirected to achieve something like its opposite: the individual’s right to the “pursuit of material self-interest” at any social cost; an ardent and uncritical admiration for consumerism and unfettered markets; a persistent indifference to the rise of “broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid and the uninsured”; and a disdain for the public sector so venomous that it seeks nothing less than the death of the social.[12] Business- oriented pedagogies now merge with a politics of fear and revived and unapologetic racism in order to facilitate the rule of an uncivil society that trades in terror, exclusion, racial segregation, “ardent consumerism and Hobbesian anarchy.”[13] What we are witnessing in the United States is the rise of a right-wing political and economic class that wants to take the country back to the inequalities and social cruelties that marked Gilded Age of the late 19th century.[14]

It is worth remembering the period in the late 19th century when giant corporations and robber barons controlled state and national politics and subjected blacks, women, immigrants and the poor to the savage rule of free market capitalism, leaving the disadvantaged on their own, and, often, defenseless, to confront the effects of the structural violence and ideologically powered social Darwinism that shaped the forces governing their lives.[15]

It was also a period in which dissent was viewed as un-American, and those who had the courage to speak out against political corruption were treated with disdain, often subject to police brutality or simply fired from their jobs. Furthermore, it was a period in which racial and ethnic differences, rather than bigotry, were seen as the enemy of democracy. Historical memory was whitewashed, regarded as sacred and only worthy of an unquestioning adoration, rather than the respect that came with critical dialogue, thoughtful interrogation, and informed judgment and debate. Cultural memory’s claim to historical legitimacy was invalidated because it was invoked to devalue the truth by erasing from history those narratives, stories and modes of analysis that challenged the dominant histories written by the elites in order to serve the interest of those privileged few who controlled the commanding economic, political and cultural apparatuses of the times. These tarnished dominant histories and their legacy of distortion are on the rise again.

As our contemporary social order convulses, the American public stands witness to a symptomatic and troubling rebirth of those dark forces shaping the institutional structures and policies of the Gilded Age, now celebrated by the financial elite with an unabashed arrogance. Yet, perhaps no historical precedent aspired to reach the depths of moral emptiness, political corruption and savage cruelty that characterizes those bankers, hedge fund managers and financial tycoons who have swindled away the wealth of the working and middle classes in order to make themselves one of the wealthiest and greediest classes on the face of the globe.

But with egregiously unequal wealth and power comes more than privilege. There is also the use of unlimited resources to devalue, marginalize, and punish those individuals and groups that desire to share in the wealth, abundance, and opportunities that nourish what has been called the American dream. Critical thinking, informed judgment and literacy itself have taken a hit as an obsession with profit margins has eclipsed the value of wisdom, the civic functions of the arts and humanities, and the complex labor of creating a diverse body of informed citizens. The call to competitiveness hides a deep fear, if not hatred, of those considered expendable, foreign or unreliable consumers. At the current moment in American history, the merging of the punishing state, an increasingly persistent racism, and a growing inequality in wealth and income has produced an America comfortably settling into a moral coma and a politics of fear and resentment.[16]

Two recent events in Arizona provide flagrant examples of what might be called the emergence of a virulent racism in the service of repressive educational policies and cultural practices fueled by anti-democratic and authoritarian interests. The first event involves the banning of ethnic studies as a result of the passage of Arizona House Bill 2281, which forbids public schools, as well as charter schools, in the state from offering courses that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government,” “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” or “advocate for ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”[17] Crafted at a time when Arizona is at the forefront of a number of states in enacting a right-wing offensive that produces anti-immigrant and anti-Latino opinions, sentiments, and policies, the law was designed not only to provide political caché for Arizona conservatives seeking political office, but also to impose regulations “which [would] dismantle the state’s popular Mexican-American/Raza Studies programs.”[18]

In one highly popularized incident, the current Tea Party conservative Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal – making good on an earlier claim that he would “stop la raza” – notified the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) that, as a result of the new law banning ethnic studies, the popular Mexican-American studies program was in violation of the ban and TUSD would lose $15 million in annual state aid unless it was terminated. The program was eventually eliminated in spite of the fact that it was credited “with reducing dropout rates, discipline problems, poor attendance and failure rates among Latino Students.”[19]

The attack on ethnic studies was soon followed with a decision by the TUSD board to ban a number of books associated with this field of study. The list of removed books, in some cases literally taken out of the hands of crying students, includes classic texts such as “Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years,” published by Rethinking Schools; “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,” by Rodolfo Acuna, and the internationally acclaimed “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” by Paulo Freire. In an attempt to eliminate any texts or class units where “race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes,” the TUSD board also banned Shakespeare’s play, “The Tempest.”

What is important to note about the book-banning structure is that it applies to a school district not only founded by a Mexican-American, but also one in which more than 60 percent of the students are from a Mexican-American background. As author Jeff Biggers suggested, the racism at work in this form of “book burning” is not so hidden in that “the administration also removed every textbook dealing with Mexican-American history, including “Chicano!: The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement ,” by Arturo Rosales, which features a biography of longtime Tucson educator Salomon Baldenegro. Other books removed from the school include “500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures,” by Elizabeth Martinez, and the textbook “Critical Race Theory” by scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic.”[20]

There is more at work in the attack on ethnic studies and the banning of books considered dangerous to children in the Arizona schools than the rise of Tea Party politics and specific acts of censorship (this would be a typical liberal interpretation of these events). There is also the emergence of deeper structures of a systemic racism and the increasing mobilization of neoliberal ideology to justify the ongoing attacks on people of color, immigrants and those considered other by virtue of their class and ethnicity.

In the first instance, race is not ignored. On the contrary, it is either coded as a style, a commodity, or devalued as a criminal culture and defined as a threat to a supposedly under-siege white, Christian nation. What follows, then, is that race is more and more erased as a political category and reduced to the narrow parameters of individual preference, psychology or prejudice. Privatizing race preserves the dominant power structures that produce modes of structural racism that extend from racial discrimination to racial exclusion practiced by schools, governments, banks, mortgage companies and state policies, among others.

Within this type of privatized discourse, racism survives through the guise of neoliberalism as a kind of repartee that imagines human agency as simply a matter of individualized choices – the only obstacle to effective citizenship and agency being the lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility. Privatizing racism functions as a racial mythology that both encourages individual solutions to socially produced problems and reveals a false sense of conceit used by those who claim that racism is nothing more than “a psychological space free of racial tension.”[21] Even worse is when racism is disavowed, yet appears in another guise through a language of punishment that persecutes and demonizes anyone who even raises the charge of racism. For instance, as Professor Roberto Rodriquez makes clear:

students … protesting the elimination of the [Tucson School] district’s Mexican-American studies program, have – without a hearing – been directed to perform janitorial duties this Saturday: an amazing message, right out of Newt Gingrich’s playbook (he has been campaigning in the GOP presidential nomination race, proposing the idea that students should be hired as janitors to teach them a work ethic). Apparently, TUSD administrators are paying attention.[22]

Meanwhile, many of the institutions that deal with youth – schools, juvenile detention centers and the criminal justice system – continue to adopt punishment strategies instead of addressing systemic racism. This is evident, for example, in the rise of zero-tolerance policies in schools – which disproportionately punish African-American youth – but is also evident in many routine disciplinary practices.

The fear is that ethnic studies can be taught in ways that provide a critical reading of history, power, ideas and institutional mappings. This is viewed as dangerous by conservatives and white supremacists because classroom learning can be used to expose specific modes of racial exclusion, class inequalities, and the ongoing punishing and silencing of the voices of young people. What many of the newly elected Tea Party ideologues recognize is that critical pedagogy has the power to challenge persistent racial injustice in the United States. More importantly, they fear the role that such a pedagogy can play in empowering minority students to become informed citizens who might exercise their rights by changing the fundamental institutions and power structures that affect their lives.

How else to explain Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne’s claim that ethnic studies courses address particular groups, promote ethnic resentment, teach rudeness and do not teach individuals – even when an audit commissioned by Arizona’s right-wing Superintendent of Schools proved all of these claims false?[23] What is ignored in this updated notion of racist blabber is that racial hierarchies are rooted in unequal relations of power and make a significant difference in influencing people’s lives and shaping contemporary American society. As sociology professor Charles Gallagher explains:

[t]his approach erases America’s racial hierarchy by implying that social, economic and political power and mobility is equally shared among all racial groups. Ignoring the extent or ways in which race shapes life chances validates whites’ social location in the existing racial hierarchy while legitimating the political and economic arrangements which perpetuate and reproduce racial inequality and privilege.[24]

Not only has Horne invoked racist attacks against Mexican-Americans for over a decade, but he also has a long history of criminal behavior, including being banned for life from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). As a Tea Party favorite, he has been able to indulge his anti-immigrant racism with impunity, particularly since assuming public office in a state whose tough immigration laws have elevated it to one of the most high-profile states targeting and waging a racist attack on immigrants and all Latinos.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal has become the most prominent public figure defending the banning of ethnic studies and the books associated with it. Biggers’ characterization of Huppenthal as “the Sheriff Arpaio of Ethnic Studies” may be understated.[25] Huppenthal has been a spokesperson at Tea Party gatherings, attended a rally where “participants openly called President Obama a ‘Nazi,'” and stated that the Mexican-American Studies program produced modes of indoctrination similar to what was replicated in the education of the Hitler Youth – that is, the Hitler Nazi Jugend paramilitary organization.[26]

Huppenthal has argued for modes of pedagogy “based on the corporate management schemes of the Fortune 500.” What is clear is that he lacks any understanding of education unless it is shaped largely by market-driven values and dominant power structures. Hence, it is not surprising the he has dismissed the work of the internationally celebrated educator Paulo Freire, because Freire used the word “oppressed” in the title of his most famous book. Huppenthal dismisses the author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” as a Marxist and a demagogue, revealing that he knows nothing about Freire’s philosophical grounding in the work of liberation theology, humanism, linguistics and a range of other fields. Nor does he know anything about Freire’s work on critical literacy, dialogue, empowerment and social responsibility, or the principle that education should be used to prepare children for a more ethically just life.[27] Huppenthal appears both confused and confusing in that he argues without irony that banning books is the best way to teach kids how to think critically.[28]

Buried beneath Arizona’s new mode of education, pedagogy and politics is a return to a frightening antidemocratic ideology and a set of reactionary policies. This turn to censorship – banning ethnic studies and critical thought in general – suggests a new intensification of the cultural wars of the 1980s and represents a new and determined effort to make sure public and higher education do not enfranchise emerging generations of Mexican-American “others” marginalized by race and class.[29]

Huppenthal, Horne, and their government employed talking heads target critical thinking, literacy and informed dialogue as the enemy of education, and any historical narrative that challenges the status quo is dismissed as indoctrination because it may be provocative and unsettling – more threatening, apparently, to Huppenthal’s own identity than to the identities of the students who have actually taken the Mexican-American Studies courses and repudiate his arguments. His claim that teaching courses in Mexican-American studies promotes racial resentment is simply a cover for his own racist disdain for knowledge that troubles right-wing views of a conflict-free narrative of American history. If Huppenthal had his way, US classrooms would only be permitted to teach the Donald Trump/Walt Disney view of history, one that celebrates the growth of corporations, the pioneering role of business in promoting progress throughout the world, the centrality of the military in American life, the ethos of the 19th-century robber barons, and an uncritical view of American society based on white Christian narratives and principles.

Horne, Huppenthal and their ilk recognize that the continuing significance of race generates contested meanings of history, challenges traditional modes of curricula and knowledge, implies taking seriously the diverse histories and complex voices of students, and raises serious critiques about the discriminatory and disciplinary practices that minorities of class and color are subjected to in America’s public schools.[30] Haunted by the specter of anti-racist critiques, pedagogies, and social relations, Horne and Huppenthal attempt to eliminate those critical pedagogies that would make visible the need to interrogate the histories, cultural artifacts, texts, and policies that sustain complex forms of racism and racial exclusion in the schools, government, and other commanding edifices of the larger society. Thus, there is more at work in Arizona’s state-sponsored attack on ethnic studies than the conceit of racist and academic neutrality. School policy functions, in this case, as part of a much larger design by the American right to leave its own distorted history behind while erasing all of those public spheres, languages, pedagogies and modes of critique that provide the pedagogical conditions for constructing critical agents that make a democracy functional.

Arizona is but one example of how, at the current moment, what goes into American culture, what is aired in the media, and what is taught in both public and higher education is being intensely policed by right-wing fundamentalists in all sectors of society. What this points to is a war being waged aggressively against immigrants, youth and those deemed disposable. We are witnessing the rise of new zones of punishment, abandonment and exclusion, and the growing perception of the other as deviant, inferior, threatening, and expendable becomes a justification for the subjugation of the immigrants and poor people of color. This emerging reality needs to be understood as part of a broader war waged on young people, especially those marginalized by class, race and ethnicity, and as an attack on the formative cultures that make a democracy possible.

Consequently, the pressing question now becomes, what role do various cultural apparatuses, including schools, play in creating the formative culture and institutional foundation for a growing authoritarianism? What the banning of ethnic studies and its archive of critical literature makes clear is that any pedagogy that challenges “common sense,” stands up for the values of freedom and reason, points to a more just world, and embraces public values that promote democracy is not only dangerous to many right-wing ideologues and reactionary politicians, but is also targeted for erasure from the public schools and, increasingly, from the culture at large.

The example of Arizona can show us how cultural pedagogy in the form of school curricula such as Mexican-American studies is truly intimidating to racist conservatives because it offers histories that include the voices of the oppressed and marginalized and presents knowledge that may open the prospect of “encountering the self through the otherness of knowledge … bring[ing] oneself up against the limits of what one is willing and capable of understanding.”[31] The pedagogical notion that things are not what they seem to be, that the maxims that justice demands the “translation of responsibility into the language of society” and that a “‘just society’ is a society which thinks it is not just enough” poses a real threat to the right-wing demagogues, particularly those who now shape American educational policy.[32]

Banning courses that might provide a critical voice to the oppressed as well as expand the ethical and political horizons of those not oppressed constructs as its enemy any pedagogy that attempts to empower young people by providing them with the knowledge, skills, and values needed for self-development, critical agency, autonomy and civic responsibility. What is dangerous to Tea Party ideologues is not simply the presence of books and courses that harbor critical ideas, but the possibility that this kind of learning may persuade young people to contest the modes of education produced in and out of schools and encourage them to engage in antiracist struggles over the distribution of institutional power and its material effects. These idealogues understand – and fear – forms of critical development that translate ideas into social movements engaged in a struggle to democratize resources, power and equal access for everyone in society.

This essay began with a comment on book burning by the Nazis. I return to this reference because we are now at a point in US history when we are incorporating many authoritarian elements of the past into the current social order. Racial exclusion takes many forms and operates through diverse material and ideological institutions and practices – including antidemocratic modes of persuasion and violence. What must be recognized in this instance, in addition to the threat to democracy posed by such practices, is that, for democracy to survive at all, it needs to nourish critically informed agents. It requires young people willing to give constant attention to those relations of power, institutions and public spheres that make a real claim to democracy. To become indifferent to the formative culture that enables informed judgment, critical consciousness, civic courage and social responsibility is to strip democracy of any meaning, to make it hollow, if not meaningless – and in doing so, to prepare the way for an updated, 21st-century mode of authoritarianism.

In other words, what we see happening in Arizona poses a threat both to critical education and to the very nature of democracy itself. Not only does it represent the growing marginalization of youth of color, but it also speaks to a larger war, in which certain bodies, histories and modes of knowledge become pathologized and viewed as disposable. This is a war in which bodies disappear, histories are erased and democracy is left in ruins. The Arizona censorship of ethnic studies, the destruction of associated knowledges and the silencing of dissent is one of those events that flash before us in ways that might at first suggest nothing more than a silly, irrational or anomalous happening. But that is far from the actual case. Placed within a long view of history, it clearly signals the formation of those antidemocratic forces waiting in the shadows for an opportune moment to enshroud the entirety of the United States in what the philosopher Hannah Arendt once called, “dark times.”


1. See “Nuremberg Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, September 15, 1935.”

2. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), especially pp.71-115.

3. See, for example, Glenn Greenwald, “With Liberty and Justice for Some” (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011).

4. Jonathan Turley, 10 Reasons the U.S. Is No Longer the Land of the Free,” Washington Post (January 13, 2012).

5. Jim Garrison, “Obama’s Most Fateful Decision,” Huffington Post (December12,2011).

6. Angela Y. Davis, “Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture” (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), pp. 90-91.

7. See Paul Krugman, “Romney Isn’t Concerned,” New York Times (February 12, 2012). See also Paul Thomas, “Gingrich’s Strategy: Racism,” Daily Censored (January 25, 2012).

8. Diane Sweet, “3.5 million homeless and 18.5 million vacant homes in US,” Occupy America (December 30, 2011).

9. David DeGraw, “The Economic Elite Have Engineered an Extraordinary Coup, Threatening the Very Existence of the Middle Class,” AlterNet (February 15, 2010).

10. Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” translated by Libby Meintjes, Public Culture, 15:1 (2003), p. 21.

11. Arundhati Roy, “Peace and the New Corporate Liberation Theory,” The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize Lecture, Sydney Morning Herald (November 4, 2004).

12. Tony Judt, “Ill Fares the Land” (New York: Penguin, 2010), pp. 2, 12.

13. Jean and John Comaroff, “Criminal Obsessions After Foucault: Postcoloniality, Policing, and the Metaphysic of Disorder,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Summer 2004), p. 84.

14. Robert Reich, “The Rebirth of Social Darwinism,” Robert Reich’s Blog (November 30, 2011).

15. I have written about the emergence of the second Gilded Age in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, “Twilight of the Social” (Boulder: Paradigm, 2012); Henry A. Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society” (Boulder: Paradigm, 2009); Henry A. Giroux, “Public Spaces/Private Lives” (Boulder: Paradigm, 2003).

16. This theme is taken up brilliantly in Susan Searls Giroux, “Between Race and Reason: Violence, Intellectual Responsibility, and the University to Come” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

17. See “Fact Sheet on Arizona House Bill 2281,” Ethnic Studies Week, October 1-7, 2010. The legislation can be found here.

18. Jessica Calefati, “Arizona Bans Ethnic Studies,” Mother Jones (May 12, 2010).

19. Roxana Rahmani, “Arizona HB 2281 Aims to End Ethnic Studies in Tuscon,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review (April 16, 2011).

20. Jeff Biggers, “Who’s Afraid of ‘The Tempest’?” Salon (January 13, 2012). See also the important work of Roberto Cintli Rodriquez who has made a number of important contributions on the attack on indigenous voices, culture, and history. See his blog at: See also, Roberto Cintli Rodriguez, “Arizona’s ‘banned’ Mexican American books”, The Guardian, (January 18, 2012). Online:

21. Charles Gallagher, “Color-Blind Privilege: The Social and Political Functions of Erasing the Color Line in Post Race America,” Race, Gender, and Class 10:4 (2003). Some of the best work written on critical race theory can be found in a number of books by David Theo Goldberg. See, for example, “The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism” (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).

22. Roberto Cintli Rodriguez, “Arizona’s ‘banned’ Mexican American books”, The Guardian, (January 18, 2012). Online:

23. Amy Goodman, “Tucson Orders Closure of Mexican-American School Program as Ethnic Studies Faces Nationwide Threat,” Democracy Now! (December 29, 2011).

24. Gallagher, “Color-Blind Privilege.”

25. Jeff Biggers, “Will Tucson School Board Stand Up and Defend Ethnic Studies?” (January 9, 2012).

26. Jeff Biggers, AZ School Chief Compares Mexican-American Studies to Hitler Jugend (As He Endorses White Supremacist-Backed Candidate),” Huffington Post (January 12, 2012).

27. All one has to look at in this case is some of Freire’s later work. For instance, “Pedagogy of Hope” (New York: Continuum Press, 1994) and “Pedagogy of Freedom” (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999).

28. Amy Goodman, “Debating Tucson School District’s Book Ban After Suspension of Mexican American Studies Program,” Democracy Now! (January 18, 2012).

29. This theme is taken up brilliantly by Christopher Newfield in his examination of the culture wars that have plagued higher education in the 1980s. I believe his theses extends to the attack on public education as well. Well worth quoting on the issue, he writes: “To oversimplify somewhat, conservative elites who had been threatened by the postwar rise of the college-educated economic majority have put that majority back in its place. Their roundabout weapon has been the culture wars on higher education in general, and on progressive cultural trends in the public universities that create and enfranchise the mass middle class. In “Unmaking the Public University,” I show that the culture wars have coincided with the majority’s economic decline for the simple reason that these wars propelled the decline by reducing the public importance and economic claims of the American university and its graduates. While most commentators have seen the culture wars as a distraction from economics, I show that the culture wars were economic wars. They sought to reduce the economic claims of their target group—the growing college-educated majority—by discrediting the cultural framework that had been empowering that group.” Christopher Newfield, unmaking the Public University (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 208), p. 6.

30. I have taken up this issue in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” (New York: Palgrave, 2010). See also Christopher Robbins, “Expelling Hope: The Assault on Youth and the Militarization of Schooling” (New York: Suny Press, 2008).

31. Roger I. Simon, “A Shock to Thought: Curatorial Judgment and the Public Exhibition of ‘Difficult Knowledge,'” Memory Studies (February 25, 2011), pp. 2. See also Deborah Britzman, Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Toward a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning (Albany: State University of New York, 2003).

32. Zygmunt Bauman and Keith Tester, “Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman” (London: Polity Press, 2001), p. 65, 63.

It takes longer to read this sentence than it does to support our work.

We don’t have much time left to raise the $15,000 needed to meet Truthout‘s basic publishing costs this month. Will you take a few seconds to donate and give us a much-needed boost?

We know you are deeply committed to the issues that matter, and you count on us to bring you trustworthy reporting and comprehensive analysis on the real issues facing our country and the world. And as a nonprofit newsroom supported by reader donations, we’re counting on you too. If you believe in the importance of an independent, free media, please make a tax-deductible donation today!