TRANSCRIPT (This transcript has been edited for clarification.)
Michael Slate: Opening up the show I am happy to have as my next guest Henry Giroux .I found Henry’s article, “Henry A. Giroux | Violence, USA: The Warfare State and the Brutalizing of Everyday Life”, on truthout.org.
Henry is one of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy in the US and he serves as the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario.
The article really grabbed my attention because if you are at all concerned, if you are at all awake, in the deepest sense of being awake, and you look at the society we live in you really have got to question, what is going on in the society? How does it link to the terrible things that are going on in the world? How does this link to the fact that the world is a horror? Henry has written an article that I think really digs into this and poses some very important question. So let’s jump into it right away.
Henry, welcome to the show.
Henry Giroux: Thank you for having me on.
Slate: In your article, which again, I read it a lot since I first found it! It provokes so much in terms of the kind of society we are living in. You talk about how since 9/11, the boundaries between the realms of war and civil life have collapsed. That “the metaphysics of war and associated violence now creep into everyday life.” Now, Henry, what are you talking about there?
Giroux: One of the things that I am trying to say in this piece is that war has become one of our most vaunted and cherished national values. What I mean by that is the United States is not only obsessed with military values shaping foreign policy, but war and militarism have become a mediating force that begins to seep into almost every aspect of daily life. That is we see war and its dynamics of cruelty and punishment seeping into a whole range of institutions. For instance, as I point out in my truthout.org article, we see schools as being modeled increasingly after prisons. We see police forces being paramilitarized. We see popular culture endlessly celebrating the spectacle of violence, and so it goes. What is startling is that the logic of war and violence have become like an electric current that we simply cannot get away from. It is a defining organizing principle that has become one of the few shared mediating forces that now holds everyday life together. In light of the growing militarization of American society, this article registers my growing concerns about the formative culture that actually produces, legitimates and celebrates the ever-present spectacle of violence.
Slate: You also talk about something you call a permanent warfare state. I do think one thing that has become increasingly clear to anybody who is honestly watching what is going on in the world, and what the US is doing in the world, is that there is a permanent state of war on the world launched by the US and fought by the US. It is really trying to establish this globally unchallenged and unchallengeable empire. You talk about this being a permanent warfare state and the consequences of that. Why do you see it as a permanent warfare state and what are some of the consequences?
Giroux: Of course, George W. Bush intensified this policy and one consequence is that the US government now spreads death and destruction all over the globe in the name of advancing democracy. The hypocrisy inherent in that sort of formulation, the way in which it is endlessly legitimated is almost overwhelming. Think of the lies that were produced by the Bush/Cheney regime in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. I also claim that the United States is a permanent warfare state because military adventures now being waged in the name of democracy are illegal, immoral and unjustifiable, but also because the notion of permanent war operates domestically in the name of homeland security and the conservative Christian extremist ideology to which it is harnessed. Take for example, the rise of the right-wing Christian extremists in the Republican Party and the war they are waging on women, workers, youth, and immigrants. Even the lexicon used by United States by some US senators used to justify the despicable National Defense Authorization Act is highly militarized given that the rhetoric refers to the US as a battleground that demands military action.
The consequences are terrible. We have to ask ourselves a number of questions. What are the social costs of having a permanent war state? Who does it benefit and what are the consequences in terms of the massive destruction that it reproduces? What effect does it have on policy at home? How does it become a tool for governance? How does it function as an ideology? How is the logic of war central to a massive cultural apparatus that now uses violence as the ultimate form of entertainment, if not sport itself?
Slate: Exactly. Going back to the beginning of your comment about unleashing this horror on the world—when talk about the mushrooming of war crimes committed by US troops, it’s really sickening. Every time you think it can’t get worse, it does. Everything from the urinating on bodies to soldiers taking pictures with the body parts. All the kinds of things are happening like mindless and remorseless killing. They have released a whole army of remorseless killers on the world and they celebrate this thing. You make a point that this kind of mind-numbing violence isn’t new. The US has done this for almost as long as it has been around, Look at what it has done to the native people. Look at what it did in the dropping of the atom bomb—all the kind of savagery that has been unleashed around the world. That’s not new.
Giroux: Actually, that’s true. I mention in the article that there is a long history of these kinds of savage acts. But I think two things are new. The way this violence is now normalized in the culture is quite extraordinary. It’s everywhere. It’s aligned with almost every public institution and it has evolved into what Anne-Marie Cusac calls punishment creep. This is, modes of hyper-punitiveness have now started to creep into a whole range of institutions unlike anything we have seen in the past. There is something else that you’re getting at that really needs to be said. It sort of operates in the image of reality TV with its survival-of-the fittest ethic and a world modeled after a war of all against all. It seems to me that we are constantly upping the ante on the spectacle and thrill of violence. Audiences just can’t get enough and the entertainment industry is constantly trying to find ways to provide more unconventional shocks and thrills. I think that we, in some way, have arrived at that point where the only thrill we have left is not just simply engaging in spectacularized violence but in some way engaging in the most ruthless and savage forms of violence in order to get the ultimate thrill. When you look at what happened in Afghanistan with the “Kill Team”, it was not enough for these soldiers to humiliate the alleged enemy. They had to kill them, cut off body parts and wear them like trophies, and then film their barbarism in order to voyeuristically return to the grotesque acts of sadism they engaged in. The ultimate act of satisfaction that violence now performs is actually committing the most unbelievable degradation acts on human life. That’s scary. I find that element of pumped up hyper-punitiveness and violence not only deadens the soul and hardens any sense of compassion, but it makes murder more than simply entertainment. It makes it a sport.
Slate: You pointed out something that struck me. It is really troubling. A friend of mine is a young guy who just got out of college a few years back. He was looking at You Tube and he called me up and wanted to show me something he thought was just hilarious. It was just a women out in the country singing with a band. She was singing a backward song up on a stage. They were dancing in a barrel squashing grapes. Suddenly the stage collapses and this woman was very seriously hurt. To the person who was showing this to me there was this comedic sense that he found in the suffering of this woman. It’s a minor example of what you are talking about. The ideas that from the most mundane examples of violence and suffering of people to the most horrible, as you say, we are living in a culture that has normalized all of this and embraced it. It is really, really disturbing.
Giroux: You know, now violence and death now brings cheers from the American public.
Giroux: It is now celebrated as the ultimate form of entertainment. I love your example because I think it is in the small exchange in everyday life that you really begin to see how powerful these kinds of things are. I mentioned in my piece that Susan, my wife, and I saw the film “The Hunger Games” the other night. One might argue that it is a critique of some kind of dystopian society that’s gone mad and ends up devouring its children for sport, but I think this misses the point. What one rarely sees in any critiques of this film, given the enormous kinds of violence that takes place against young people is any understanding of how the film closely resembles in spirit how children have become something of a liability and burden, if not pathology, in American society. The film captures the endpoint of such logic and turns it into the spectacle of violence—all in the service of upping audience ratings and reigning in big profits. When we talk about the violence in everyday life and people gaining satisfaction from it rather than being appalled by it, we have to ask ourselves what is it about this society that is creating, reinforcing, distributing and circulating this culture of cruelty? Where does it come from?
Part of it comes from the fact that all of a sudden we live in a society marked by what some have called “a failed sociality.” We have no language for democracy. We have no language for compassion. We view any form of dependency, any form of regard for the other as humiliating and worthy of scorn. We live in a neoliberal market-driven culture that basically celebrates an unchecked notion of self-interest and narcissism. This is a culture that has gone over the top in its worship of celebrity culture. It views the news as a video game, a source of entertainment where a story gains prominence by virtue of the notion that if it bleeds it leads. So it’s really not surprising in the lack of any substantive existence of a formative culture that would value a sense of compassion and regard for the other that we end up with this moral vacuum in which violence finds suitable legitimation. And of course, formal education has been turned into a quest for private satisfactions and is no longer viewed as a public good, thus cutting itself off from teaching students about public values, the public good, and engaged notions of critical citizenship.
This type of psychological hardness and lack of social responsibility being produced in the culture bears a close resemblance to a type of fascist ideology that historically moved easily from a politics of disposability to the logic of mass murder. We need to bear moral witnesses to the legacy of this kind of fascist immorality and be able to recognize its toxic ideology as it works its way through a number of venues in contemporary American society. These authoritarian ideologies allow people to cling to the false assumption that certain groups in the society inhabit dead zones and are expendable. These anti-democratic narratives legitimate the ongoing dismantling of the social state while reinforcing a politically reactionary indifference to the plight of the poor, children, unemployed, and homeless. These are groups now considered inhabitants of zones of abandonment, refuse that should be excluded from any sense of collective care, individual rights, and social protections. And we see this logic being played out as the American government puts an increasing number of those considered marginalized by class, race, politics, or some other category of exclusion in prisons, in asylums, kills them abroad, or just kidnaps them and assassinates them.
We are at a very dire moment in our history around this question of violence and how it has become the supreme, ultimate and form of glue that both holds society together while at the same time providing an endless amount of entertainment.
Slate: Let me remind my listeners that you are listening to The Michael Slate Show and we are talking with Henry Giroux. Henry is one of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy in the United States. He serves as the Global TV Network chair at McMasters University. He is the author of more than fifty books and over 300 academic articles, including his most recent work, The University in Chains: Confronting the Military Industrial Academic Complex.
Henry, you raise a point that I think is very interesting, especially for someone like me who doesn’t follow sports a whole lot. You raise the point about the New Orleans Saints. You look at this and the convergence of insane, mindless patriarch, patriotism, and utter war-inspired violence and what is going on with the New Orleans Saints is just an incredible example. It should shock the hell out of people.
Giroux: Well it is unbelievable. What I love about that example is …
Slate: You should tell people what the example is.
Giroux: One of the coaches for the Saints was paying players what is called a “bounty” to actually injure other players who were crucial to winning the game. These were players who were stars, players who were playing well, players who represented a threat to the Saints losing the game. Can you imagine? He pays them a “bounty” of $1,500 to seriously injure another player. What struck me about this example was the utter sheer ruthlessness of it. My God, to inflict that kind of injury on another human being in the name of sport—a practice that is frightening because in principle it both mimics and aligns with similar forms of cruelty that have become central to so many other institutions in the country. So the question is not “Wow, isn’t that crazy?” The question is how is it that something like that could not happen, particularly when such practices are being normalized everywhere else. That type of cruelty now aligns with so many institutions. Just look at reality TV or the onslaught of endless shows that focus on crime, or the rise of the punishing state, or whether you are talking about schools now modeled after the culture of prisons. The point is that this celebration of violence and cruelty is everywhere. It is not surprising that we see this logic of violence and punishment creeping endlessly into places where you wouldn’t expect it.
Slate: I was just reading an article about guns in The New Yorker and they were talking about how many guns are owned by –I think there is about one gun for every person in the US. That’s how many guns are in circulation.
Giroux: Nine out of ten.
Slate: Yeah, nine out of ten. That is something you should be really concerned about. But there is something about the way that gets portrayed. It is not that the culture produces this thing but that there is something inherent and particular in relation to youth. One of the areas you concentrate on in the article is what is happening with youth. Conventional wisdom tells us that the schools are a mess. They are a nest of potential killers, juvenile criminals, psychopaths, sociopaths, and that they have to be tightly controlled. You actually get into a pedagogy of brutalizing hardness and dehumanization that is produced and circulated in schools, boot camps, prisons, and other sites. Let’s talk about that.
Giroux: Thank you. That’s a great question. I mean especially for the work I’m doing. One of the things I have been very concerned about over the last decade is that while the left and other progressives talk about women, race, gender, and class, they rarely talk about young people. It seems to me that what we are witnessing in the United States, unlike any other time in history is what I call the “soft war” and the “hard war” on youth. The soft war is more pervasive and touches all youth. It is war waged on youth by infantilizing them through endless commercialization and their ongoing carpet-bombing by an omnipresent world of corporate advertising and public relations. Young people are simply turned into commodities or valued only for buying commodities. The hard war is something else. The hard war is the punishing war.
The hard war means that an increasing number of young people, particularly poor minorities of race and class, are being subjected to what I call the tentacles of the criminal justice system. You see this in many, many sites from malls to schools—particularly in schools. What we have now is we have zero tolerance policies that are basically nothing more than vehicles for the school to prison pipeline. Young black, brown and poor white kids are being thrown out of schools for the most trivial infractions. They are being put in the arms of the criminal justice system for infractions that are as silly as they are mind blowing for the dreadful consequences they produce. I read a story yesterday about a six-year-old girl. Six years old! She was handcuffed because she threw a temper tantrum in her kindergarten class. The school called in the police to deal with her. Can you imagine? I also came across another story in which 11 year old Yaijara Quezada was handcuffed in a Colorado school because she was “argumentative” with an assistant principle. This would be comic if it were not so pervasive. Another recent story reported on an Indian middle school student who handcuffed for spilling milk. How many stories like this do we have to hear to recognize that public schools are now broken given their turn towards punishing students rather than educating them.
Young people now being criminalized because they violate dress codes or commit violations that in the past would have been considered harmless. Too many public schools have become an adjunct of the criminal justice system. We have to ask ourselves, what is it about young people that allowed this country to see them as nothing more than a public pathology and potential criminals? Why is it one of our most valued public institutions, one that should nourish and cherish and invest in children, now basically disciplines them rather than educating them? The underlying logic here is one of war and disposability. For instance, we don’t have a war on poverty. We have a war on the poor. We no longer have an education system that educates. It now criminalizes.
I want to get back to your comment about gun culture and young people. Every year 20,000 children under the age of 20 are killed by firearms in the United States. That figure alone should raise questions about the predominance of violence and the insidious National Rifle Association and its gun culture in the United States. We barely get a blip on the news media or political radar over this issue.
Slate: No kidding, man. Let me remind my listeners that we are talking with Henry Giroux. He is the author of the article “Violence, USA: The Warfare State and the Brutalizing of Everyday Life” which you can find on truthout.org. He is also the chair of English and Cultural Studies at McMasters University in Hamilton Ontario.
For more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other writers in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.
Henry, one of the things as you’re speaking I’ve been thinking about. I remember the first time I went into a high school here in Los Angeles. It was down in Watts. I walked in. A friend of mine was teaching there. She was under fire constantly because she refused to let the school security randomly search her students’ bags for contraband. I noticed that when you came into the school there were video cameras. There was no spot in the school where you were not under surveillance by video cameras. Here is what the authorities used to do. The principle would roll dice. Roll a die. Whatever number came up, 1 to 6—whatever number came up they would go to every room that had that number in it—like it was 103 and the number was 3. They would go to 203 or 302 or whatever. They would go there and do these random searches. They arrest kids, seize contraband, kick them out of school. The idea of being in a cell block was really driven home to me. You make the point that this combination of the militarization of the schools and the privatization of the schools inform each other. That this has real concrete effects in terms of society. You talk about stunting the ability to have critical thinking. Also, creating this situation where people, especially oppressed nationalities and poor think that they are better off in jail than they are in school.
Giroux: There is an interesting link between militarization and privatization. I remember when there was a time when, I think I am older than you Michael, in my generation schools were seen as a public good. They were not seen as simply private good. I think we have completely flipped that script. In flipping that script what has often happened is that the governing principle that organizes schools is now about deskilling teachers, it’s about making students stupid, and educating them to simply take tests. It is about punishing those students who are seen as disposable. It is about defining schools as sites of containment or as a source of profit for hedge fund zombies. It’s about completely eliminating any association between the purpose of schooling and the imperatives of a democracy. The language of democracy has been completely ripped from the discourses of school reform. We no longer use that language. The language now is about efficiency, individual choice, training workers, punishing students and so forth.
What is interesting about this discussion today is that we live in a country where we have the emergence of what I call the punishing state, one that has emerged in tandem with the dismantling of the social state. The only thing left for the state to do is to work in conjunction with corporations, finance capital, and the rich to make as much money as possible while containing those populations, those elements, those individuals who basically oppose deregulation, privatization, the worship of consumerism, and the turning of political and economic power over to the barons of finance capital. The state has so little room left in promoting the public good that the only role left for the state is the massive emergence of police power and the militarization of everyday life in society. Collective security has given way to a culture of fear and securitization. We see it in the way the police are now coming down on these peaceful Occupy movements. Young people are protesting against inequality and greed. Yet, for exercising their constitutional rights they get maced, arrested, or both. What’s the message here about what democracy means in this country in light of those kinds of violent actions?
Slate: That was the point I was going to get into with you was the militarization of the police and I think you’re absolutely right. You look at that and even how the police conduct themselves coming up against Occupy. This constant cloaking them as the Darth Vader and trying to inspire fear and terror in people on the basis of this militarization which is very real when you look at the surveillance, the fire power that they have.
Giroux: One thing about this is that the line between the military, the actual military, the armed forces and the police is collapsing as we all know. Right? Not only do they dress up like elite Special Forces, use sophisticated war technologies, but they are also armed with heavy caliber ammunition. Such high power weaponry has no place on the domestic front. But, they also become a model for a kind of vigilantism in the United States. That kind of police presence, one that emphasizes paramilitary solutions and extreme force in many ways becomes a model for allowing other extremists groups to act in a similar fashion. Force in this case trumps dialogue, reasoned exchange, and more reasonable tactics. Everyone now becomes a potential criminal terrorist in the mindset. Think about Trayvon Martin. This young beautiful black boy who all of a sudden becomes a criminal because he is cutting through a gated community-a community based on notions of exclusion and personal security? We allow civilians who mimic the police to shoot and kill people like this because it becomes a valued response to dealing with dissent, protests, and major social problems. We actually make it legal by the virtue of the laws being imposed? This is not good. I think it is an index of the growing authoritarianism we see in the United States.
Slate: I know you have to run but let me get one more question. In standing up against all of this you say that there should be cultural apparatuses that should be key in shaping an engaged and informed people but they have become little more than market driven and militarized knowledge factories. Quoting Stanly Aronowitz, you say something that is important. That is that “the system survives on the eclipse of the radical imagination, the absence of a viable political opposition with roots in the general population and the conformity of its intellectuals.” In response to that you pose that we need something that goes beyond having a grammar of political disobedience. Can you talk about that a little?
Giroux: Yes. I think there are a couple of things. First, we really need to recognize that education is an essential political force. You have to change consciousness in order to change behavior. I believe reason, in that critical sense, counts. The left and progressives in general have ignored the important notion that pedagogy should be central to any viable notion of politics. They just ignore it and hence have lost any purchase of success in fighting the culture wars. This has to change.
Second, progressives and others need to create alternative public spheres where the American public can learn the knowledge, skills, and values needed to basically challenge much of the militarization, neoliberalism, the market driven culture that has destroyed democracy in the US—what can be referred to as a global insanity we now see shaping much of the world. But we have to do it in ways that connect with everyday life. So, we have to have social movements that engage the concrete issues bearing down on peoples’ lives. We cannot rely on the two-party movement when they are basically in bed with each other. We need broad-based democratic social movements. We need to refigure the terrain of politics in order to do this. We need, in some way, to find the language coupled with the incentives to create those organizations that can change the existing political landscape. Capitalism and democracy are not the same thing. Again, they are NOT the same thing. I think what we need to do is to look at the Occupy movement and young people and workers in countries abroad who are now fighting for the promise of democracy, not its existing reality, and ask ourselves what can we learn from these struggles? What do we need to do individually and collectively in every institution we find ourselves to sort of change the anti-democratic narratives that are shaping American society?
Slate: Thank you Henry for joining us today.
Giroux: Thank you, Michael. Thank you for inviting me.