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Living in a Culture of Cruelty: Democracy as Spectacle

The growing dominance of a right-wing media forged in a pedagogy of hate has become a crucial element providing numerous platforms for a culture of cruelty.

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Under the Bush administration, a seeping, sometimes galloping, authoritarianism began to reach into every vestige of the culture, giving free rein to those anti-democratic forces in which religious, market, military and political fundamentalism thrived, casting an ominous shadow over the fate of United States democracy. During the Bush-Cheney regime, power became an instrument of retribution and punishment was connected to and fueled by a repressive state. A bullying rhetoric of war, a ruthless consolidation of economic forces, and an all-embracing free-market apparatus and media driven pedagogy of fear supported and sustained a distinct culture of cruelty and inequality in the United States. In pointing to a culture of cruelty, I am not employing a form of left moralism that collapses matters of power and politics into the discourse of character. On the contrary, I think the notion of a culture of cruelty is useful in thinking through the convergence of everyday life and politics, of considering material relations of power – the disciplining of the body as an object of control – on the one hand, and the production of cultural meaning, especially the co-optation of popular culture to sanction official violence, on the other. The culture of cruelty is important for thinking through how life and death now converge in ways that fundamentally transform how we understand and imagine politics in the current historical moment – a moment when the most vital of safety nets, health care reform, is being undermined by right-wing ideologues. What is it about a culture of cruelty that provides the conditions for many Americans to believe that government is the enemy of health care reform and health care reform should be turned over to corporate and market-driven interests, further depriving millions of an essential right?

Increasingly, many individuals and groups now find themselves living in a society that measures the worth of human life in terms of cost-benefit analyzes. The central issue of life and politics is no longer about working to get ahead, but struggling simply to survive. And many groups, who are considered marginal because they are poor, unemployed, people of color, elderly or young, have not just been excluded from “the American dream,” but have become utterly redundant and disposable, waste products of a society that not longer considers them of any value. How else to explain the zealousness in which social safety nets have been dismantled, the transition from welfare to workfare (offering little job training programs and no child care), and recent acrimony over health care reform’s public option? What accounts for the passage of laws that criminalize the behavior of the 1.2 million homeless in the United States, often defining sleeping, sitting, soliciting, lying down or loitering in public places as a criminal offence rather than a behavior in need of compassionate good will and public assistance? Or, for that matter, the expulsions, suspensions, segregation, class discrimination and racism in the public schools as well as the more severe beatings, broken bones and damaged lives endured by young people in the juvenile justice system? Within these politics, largely fueled by market fundamentalism – one that substitutes the power of the social state with the power of the corporate state and only values wealth, money and consumers – there is a ruthless and hidden dimension of cruelty, one in which the powers of life and death are increasingly determined by punishing apparatuses, such as the criminal justice system for poor people of color and/or market forces that increasingly decide who may live and who may die.

The growing dominance of a right-wing media forged in a pedagogy of hate has become a crucial element providing numerous platforms for a culture of cruelty and is fundamental to how we understand the role of education in a range of sites outside of traditional forms of schooling. This educational apparatus and mode of public pedagogy is central to analyzing not just how power is exercised, rewarded and contested in a growing culture of cruelty, but also how particular identities, desires and needs are mobilized in support of an overt racism, hostility towards immigrants and utter disdain, coupled with the threat of mob violence toward any political figure supportive of the social contract and the welfare state. Citizens are increasingly constructed through a language of contempt for all noncommercial public spheres and a chilling indifference to the plight of others that is increasingly expressed in vicious tirades against big government and health care reform. There is a growing element of scorn on the part of the American public for those human beings caught in the web of misfortune, human suffering, dependency and deprivation. As Barbara Ehrenreich observes, “The pattern is to curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement: starve school and public transportation budgets, then make truancy illegal. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Be sure to harass street vendors when there are few other opportunities for employment. The experience of the poor, and especially poor minorities, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks.” [1]

A right-wing spin machine, influenced by haters like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and Ann Coulter, endlessly spews out a toxic rhetoric in which: all Muslims are defined as jihadists; the homeless are not victims of misfortune but lazy; blacks are not terrorized by a racist criminal justice system, but the main architects of a culture of criminality; the epidemic of obesity has nothing to do with corporations, big agriculture and advertisers selling junk food, but rather the result of “big” government giving people food stamps; the public sphere is largely for white people, which is being threatened by immigrants and people of color, and so it goes. Glenn Beck, the alleged voice of the common man, appearing on the “Fox & Friends” morning show, calls President Obama a “racist” and then accuses him of “having a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” [2] Nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh unapologetically states that James Early Ray, the confessed killer of Martin Luther King Jr., should be given a posthumous Medal of Honor, [3] while his counterpart in right-wing hate, talk radio host Michael Savage, states on his show, “You know, when I see a woman walking around with a burqa, I see a Nazi. That’s what I see – how do you like that? – a hateful Nazi who would like to cut your throat and kill your children.” [4] He also claims that Obama is “surrounded by terrorists” and is “raping America.” This is a variation of a crude theme established by Ann Coulter, who refers to Bill Clinton as a “very good rapist.” [5] Even worse, Obama is a “neo-Marxist fascist dictator in the making,” who plans to “force children into a paramilitary domestic army.” [6] And this is just a small sampling of the kind of hate talk that permeates right-wing media. This could be dismissed as loony right-wing political theater if it were not for the low levels of civic literacy displayed by so many Americans who choose to believe and invest in this type of hate talk. [7] On the contrary, while it may be idiocy, it reveals a powerful set of political, economic and educational forces at work in miseducating the American public while at the same time extending the culture of cruelty. One central task of any viable form of politics is to analyze the culture of cruelty and its overt and covert dimensions of violence, often parading as entertainment.

Underlying the culture of cruelty that reached its apogee during the Bush administration, was the legalization of state violence, such that human suffering was now sanctioned by the law, which no longer served as a summons to justice. But if a legal culture emerged that made violence and human suffering socially acceptable, popular culture rendered such violence pleasurable by commodifying, aestheticizing and spectacularizing it. Rather than being unspoken and unseen, violence in American life had become both visible in its pervasiveness and normalized as a central feature of dominant and popular culture. Americans had grown accustomed to luxuriating in a warm bath of cinematic blood, as young people and adults alike were seduced with commercial and military video games such as “Grand Theft Auto” and “America’s Army,” [8] the television series “24” and its ongoing Bacchanalian fête of torture, the crude violence on display in World Wrestling Entertainment and Ultimate Fighting Championship, and an endless series of vigilante films such as “The Brave One” (2007) and “Death Sentence” (2007), in which the rule of law is suspended by the viscerally satisfying images of men and women seeking revenge as laudable killing machines – a nod to the permanent state of emergency and war in the United States. Symptomatically, there is the mindless glorification and aestheticization of brutal violence in the most celebrated Hollywood films, including many of Quentin Tarantino’s films, especially the recent “Death Proof” (2007), “Kill Bill” 1 & 2 (2003, 2004), and “Inglorious Basterds” (2009). With the release of Tarantino’s 2009 bloody war film, in fact, the press reported that Dianne Kruger, the co-star of “Inglorious Bastards,” claimed that she “loved being tortured by Brad Pitt [though] she was frustrated she didn’t get an opportunity to get frisky with her co-star, but admits being beaten by Pitt was a satisfying experience.” [9] This is more than the aestheticization of violence, it is the normalization and glorification of torture itself.

If Hollywood has made gratuitous violence the main staple of its endless parade of blockbuster films, television has tapped into the culture of cruelty in a way that was unimaginable before the attack on the US on September 11. Prime-time television before the attacks had “fewer than four acts of torture” per year, but “now there are more than a hundred.” [10] Moreover, the people who torture are no longer the villains, but the heroes of prime-time television. The most celebrated is, of course, Jack Bauer, the tragic-ethical hero of the wildly popular Fox TV thriller “24.” Not only is torture the main thread of the plot, often presented “with gusto and no moral compunction,” [11] but Bauer is portrayed as a patriot, rather than a depraved monster, who tortures in order to protect American lives and national security. Torture, in this scenario, takes society’s ultimate betrayal of human dignity and legitimates the pain and fear it produces as normal, all the while making a “moral sadist” a television celebrity. [12] The show has over 15 million viewers, and its glamorization of torture has proven so successful that it appears to have not only numbed the public’s reaction to the horrors of torture, but it is so overwhelmingly influential among the US military that the Pentagon sent Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan to California to meet with the producers of the show. “He told them that promoting illegal behavior in the series … was having a damaging effect on young troops.” [13] The pornographic glorification of gratuitous, sadistic violence is also on full display in the popular HBO television series “Dexter,” which portrays a serial killer as a sympathetic, even lovable, character. Visual spectacles steeped in degradation and violence permeate the culture and can be found in various reality TV shows, professional wrestling and the infamous Jerry Springer Show. These programs all trade in fantasy, glamorized violence and escapism. And they share similar values. As Chris Hedges points out in his analysis of professional wrestling, they all mirror the worse dimensions of an unchecked and unregulated market society in which “winning is all that matters. Morality is irrelevant…. It is all about personal pain, vendettas, hedonism and fantasies of revenge, while inflicting pain on others. It is the cult of victimhood.” [14]

The celebration of hyper-violence, moral sadism and torture travels easily from fiction to real life with the emergence in the past few years of a proliferation of “bum fight” videos on the Internet, “shot by young men and boys who are seen beating the homeless or who pay transients a few dollars to fight each other.” [15] The culture of cruelty mimics cinematic violence as the agents of abuse both indulge in actual forms of violence and then further celebrate the barbarity by posting it on the web, mimicking the desire for fame and recognition, while voyeuristically consuming their own violent cultural productions. The National Coalition for the Homeless claims that “On YouTube in July 2009, people have posted 85,900 videos with ‘bum’ in the title [and] 5,690 videos can be found with the title ‘bum fight,’ representing … an increase of 1,460 videos since April 2008.” [16] Rather than problematize violence, popular culture increasingly normalizes it, often in ways that border on criminal intent. For instance, a recent issue of Maxim, a popular men’s magazine, included “a blurb titled ‘Hunt the Homeless’ [focusing on] a coming ‘hobo convention’ in Iowa and says ‘Kill one for fun. We’re 87 percent sure it’s legal.'” [17] In this context, violence is not simply being transformed into an utterly distasteful form of adolescent entertainment or spectacularized to attract readers and boost profits, it becomes a powerful pedagogical force in the culture of cruelty by both aligning itself and becoming complicit with the very real surge of violence against the homeless, often committed by young men and teenage boys looking for a thrill. Spurred on by the ever reassuring presence of violence and dehumanization in the wider culture, these young “thrill offenders” now search out the homeless and “punch, kick, shoot or set afire people living on the streets, frequently killing them, simply for the sport of it, their victims all but invisible to society.” [19] All of these elements of popular culture speak stylishly and sadistically to new ways in which to maximize the pleasure of violence, giving it its hip (if fascist) edginess.

Needless to say, neither violent video games and television series nor Hollywood films and the Internet (or for that matter popular culture) cause in any direct sense real world violence and suffering, but they do not leave the real world behind either. That is too simplistic. What they do achieve is the execution of a well-funded and highly seductive public pedagogical enterprise that sexualizes and stylizes representations of violence, investing them with an intense pleasure quotient. I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to claim that the violence of screen culture entertains and cleanses young people of the burden of ethical considerations when they, for instance, play video games that enabled them to “casually kill the simulated human beings whose world they control.” [20] Hollywood films such as the “Saw” series offer up a form of torture porn in which the spectacle of the violence enhances not merely its attraction, but offers young viewers a space where questions of ethics and responsibility are gleefully suspended, enabling them to evade their complicity in a culture of cruelty. No warnings appear on the labels of these violent videos and films, suggesting that the line between catharsis and desensitization may become blurred, making it more difficult for them to raise questions about what it means “to live in a society that produces, markets, and supports such products.” [21] But these hyper-violent cultural products also form part of a corrupt pedagogical assemblage that makes it all the more difficult to recognize the hard realities of power and material violence at work through militarism, a winner-take-all economy marked by punishing inequalities and a national security state that exhibits an utter disregard for human suffering. Even the suffering of children, we must note, as when government officials reduce the lives of babies and young children lost in Iraq and Afghanistan to collateral damage. Tragically, the crime here is much more than symbolic.

The ideology of hardness and cruelty runs through American culture like an electric current, sapping the strength of social relations and individual character, moral compassion and collective action, offering up crimes against humanity that become fodder for video games and spectacularized media infotainment, and constructing a culture of cruelty that promotes a “symbiosis of suffering and spectacle.” [22] As Chris Hedges argues,

Sadism is as much a part of popular culture as it is of corporate culture. It dominates pornography, runs … through reality television and trash-talk programs and is at the core of the compliant, corporate collective. Corporatism is about crushing the capacity for moral choice. And it has its logical fruition in Abu Ghraib, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our lack of compassion for the homeless, our poor, the mentally ill, the unemployed and the sick. [23]

Bailouts are not going to address the ways in which individual desires, values and identities are endlessly produced in the service of a culture of cruelty and inequality. Power is not merely material, it is also symbolic and is distributed through a society in ways we have never seen before. No longer is education about schooling. It now functions through the educational force of the larger culture in the media, Internet, electronic media and through a wide range of technologies and sites endlessly working to undo democratic values, compassion and any viable notion of justice and its accompanying social relations. What this suggests is a redefinition of both literacy and education. We need, as a society, to educate students and others to be literate in multiple ways, to reclaim the high ground of civic courage, and to be able to name, engage and transform those forms of public pedagogy that produce hate and cruelty as part of the discourse of common sense. Otherwise, democracy will lose the supportive institutions, social relations and culture that make it not only possible but even thinkable.



[1] Barbara Ehrenreich, “Is It now a Crime to Be Poor?,” New York Times (August 9, 2009), p. wk9.

[2] David Bauder, “Fox’s Glenn Beck: President Obama is a Racist,” Associated Press (July 28, 2009).
Online at:

[3] Limbaugh cited in Casey Gane-McCalla, “Top 10 Racist Limbaugh Quotes,” NewsOne (October 20, 2008).
Online at:

[4] Savage quoted in Thinkers and Jokers (July 2, 2007).
Online at:

[5] Coulter quoted in Don Hazen, “The Tall Blonde Woman in the Short Skirt With the Big Mouth,” AlterNet (June 6, 2006).
Online at:

[6] These quotes are taken from an excellent article by Eric Boehlert in which he criticizes the soft peddling that many in the press give to right-wing fanatics such as Michael Savage. See Eric Boehlert, “The New Yorker raises a toast to birther nut Michael Savage,” Media Matters for America (August 3, 2009).
Online at:

[7] See Chris Hedges, “America the Illiterate,” CommonDreams (November 10, 2008).
Online at:

Terrence McNally, “How Anti-Intellectualism Is Destroying America,” AlterNet (August 15, 2008).
Online at:

[8] For an excellent collection on military video games, see Nina B. Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne, eds. “Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games” (New York: Routledge, 2010).

[9] Arts and Entertainment, “Torture Will Just Have to Do,” The Hamilton Spectator (August 12, 2009), p. Go 3.

[10] Jane Mayer, “Whatever It Takes: The Politics of the Man Behind 24,” The New Yorker (February 26, 2007), p. 68.

[11] Alessandra Stanley, “Suicide Bombers Strike, and America Is in Turmoil. Just Another Day in the Life of Jack Bauer,” New York Times (January 12, 2007), p. B1.

[12] See Judith Butler, “Frames of War.” Also, Slavoj Zizek, “The Depraved Heroes of 24 are the Himmlers of Hollywood,” The Guardian (January 10, 2006).
Online at:

[13] Faiz Shaker, “US Military: Television Series ’24’ is Promoting Torture in the Ranks,” Think Progress (February 3, 2007).
Online at:

[14] Chris Hedges, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” (New York: Knopf Canada, 2009). p. 10.

[15] Eric Lichtblau, “Attacks on Homeless Bring Push on Hate Crime Laws,” New York Times (August 8, 2009), p. A1.

[16] National Coalition of the Homeless, “Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street,” 2008, (Washington, DC, National Coalition of the Homeless, 2009).
Online at:, p. 34.

[17] Ibid., Eric Lichtblau, “Attacks on Homeless Bring Push on Hate Crime Laws.”

[18] National Coalition of the Homeless, “Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street,” 2008, (Washington, D. C., National Coalition of the Homeless, 2009).
Online at:

[19] Ibid., Eric Lichtblau, “Attacks on Homeless Bring Push on Hate Crime Laws.”

[20] Mark Slouka, “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School,” Harper’s Magazine (September 5, 2009), p. 40.

[21] Ibid., Mark Slouka, “Dehumanized,” p. 40.

[22] Mark Reinhardt and Holly Edwards, “Traffic in Pain,” in “Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain,” ed. Mark Reinhardt, Holly Edwards, and Erina Duganne (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p.9.

[23] Chris Hedges, “America Is in Need of Moral Bailout,” Truthdig (March 23, 2009).
Online at:


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