Henry A. Giroux: It Is Impossible to Be Radical Without Being Optimistic in the Pandemic Age

In this wide-ranging interview with educators from the University of Barcelona, Henry A. Giroux examines the COVID-19 crisis as part of a more comprehensive crisis of politics and morality and what he calls “pandemic pedagogy.” Giroux argues that in a time of crisis, the relationship between language and politics becomes more vivid, if not urgent, and as such, makes clear the dominant underpinnings of the ways in which the Trump regime has used language in the service of fear, political opportunism, corruption and the violation of human rights. Giroux argues that the notion of the plague is more than a medical concept and refers to ideological and political plagues that set the broader context for understanding how Trump’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has produced unimaginable suffering, massive deaths, and the further legitimation of lies and right-wing violence. Giroux argues that Trump increasingly weaponizes language to attack almost any form of criticism regarding his handling of the crisis. According to Giroux, there are no demilitarized spaces in Trump’s America. Nor are there any spaces left untouched by neoliberal capitalism and its financialization and commercialization of everything. As Giroux points out, the pandemic has revealed the toxic underside of neoliberal capitalism, with its assault on the welfare state, its undermining of public health and its affirmation of the economy over human needs and life itself.

Under such circumstances, a pandemic pedagogy emerges in the propaganda machines of the right-wing media. These cultural apparatuses echo the Trump regime’s support for conspiracy theories, lies about testing and cures for the virus — all the while engaging in a politics of evasion that covers up both Trump’s incompetence and the machineries of violence, greed and terminal exclusion at the core of neoliberal capitalism. One consequence is that truth, evidence and science fall prey to the language of mystification, legitimating a tsunami of ignorance and the further collapse of morality and civic courage. What this pandemic reveals in shocking images of food lines, the stacking of dead bodies and the state-sanctioned language of Social Darwinism and racial cleansing is that war has become an extension of politics and functions as a form of pandemic pedagogy in which critical thought is derailed, dissent suppressed, surveillance normalized, racism intensified and ignorance elevated to a virtue. Giroux argues that the coronavirus pandemic has made clear the false and dangerous neoliberal notion that all problems are a matter of individual responsibility.

The pandemic has shattered the myth that each of us is defined exclusively by our self-interest, and that individuals are solely responsible for the problems they face. Both myths have completely broken down as it becomes obvious that as the pandemic unfolds, shortages in crucial medical equipment, lack of testing, lack of public investments and failed public health services are largely due to austerity measures and regressive tax policies that have drained resources from public health, public goods and other vital social institutions. The pandemic has torn away the cover of a neoliberal economic system marked by what economist Thomas Piketty calls “the violence of social inequality.”

Giroux concludes by analyzing the role that higher education plays in responding to the pandemic, which mimics a neoliberal logic, and makes clear that the pandemic has to be addressed in a way that redirects higher education to educate its students as critical agents who can both hold power accountable and work in the future to eliminate the economic, political and educational conditions that allow such pandemics to erupt in such death-dealing forms.