Friday, 31 October 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG
  • 'Tis the Season to Be Frightened

    Ebola, Dengue fever, West Nile virus ... Republican ideology created some of these threats in the first place, or managed to make others worse. The climate crisis, which Republicans dismiss en masse, is a key ingredient in all of them.

  • The 0.01 Percent's "I Reap All" Accounts

    At least 9,000 wealthy Americans have amassed $5 million-plus sized IRAs. Multimillionaires and billionaires are shielding vast fortunes from taxation with monstrously huge IRAs.

Between Race and Reason: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Friday, 16 September 2011 07:17 By Susan Searls Giroux, Truthout | Book Excerpt
Between Race and Reason Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

(Image: Stanford University Press)

In late October 2008, just days before the U.S. presidential election, George Monbiot of London’s The Guardian, caught perhaps in a mood of deepening anxiety and dread over the impending outcome, leveled an indictment against the American government and at least half of the electorate in the form of a question: “How did politics in the U.S. come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance?” In a rather unkind primatological allusion, he invoked as evidence the eight-year reign of George W. Bush, the recent vogue of Sarah Palin—and before her, Dan Quayle, apparently to round out the VP wing of “gibbering numbskulls” past and present—as well as the “screaming ignoramuses” in attendance at Republican rallies who insisted that Barack Obama was both a Muslim and a terrorist. “Like most people on my side of the Atlantic,” he ventured, “I have for many years been mystified by American politics. The U.S. has the world’s best universities and attracts the world’s finest minds. It domi­nates in discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed na­tions . . . learning is a grave political disadvantage.”[1] A troubling observa­tion to be sure. How exactly does one make sense of, let alone respond to, such an astonishing contradiction, such an ungenerous play on the con­cept of American exceptionalism? There are, of course, a number of pos­sibilities. (a) Denial: reduce the charge to a hiccup of European arrogance tinged with a bit of resentment. (b) Dismissal: declaim as cynical the blan­ket condemnation of ineptitude among government officials and the fools who elected them. (c) Deflection: assert that the election results—and the resounding defeat handed to the McCain-Palin campaign, which ran pri­marily on emotional appeals to fear and patriotic fervor—vindicate the good sense of the voters and render Monbiot’s judgment too quick. It would be tempting to answer “(d) all of the above” and continue to bask in the warm afterglow of the Obama victory and the ensuing worldwide cel­ebration that marked the end of the Bush era. But, alas, we are not saved.

Indeed the pre-election antics appeared in hindsight little more than an opening prelude to the “delirium,” as The Economist termed it, of the summer of 2009 debates on health care; the furor over the president’s “in­doctrination” of school children; the growing momentum of the “birthers,” unchecked by repeated proof against their claims; and other crazed con­spiracy theorists who showed up at town hall meetings armed to the teeth, leaving many to wonder why the nation surrendered public debate over the most pressing political issues of our time (to say nothing of media cov­erage) to the most extreme and unstable elements of the far right.[2] Even the esteemed journalist Bill Moyers, deeply unsettled by current events, couldn’t resist a bit of uncharacteristic sarcasm: “So here we are, wallow­ing in our dysfunction. Governed—if you listen to the rabble rousers—by a black nationalist from Kenya smuggled into the United States to kill Sarah Palin’s baby.”[3] The peculiar degradation of these three fundaments of a substantive democracy—informed and judicious political discourse, intelligence, and education—in contemporary American politics to which Monbiot and others refer has had a long and storied career, extending back to the early days of the republic. The subject was given unparal­leled examination in Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer-prize winning volume, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published in 1963. It is important to note, however, that for Hofstader anti-intellectuals are neither the “gib­bering numbskulls” nor the “screaming ignoramuses” that Monbiot and a growing chorus of journalists, scholars, and others criticize. Rather, Hof­stadter viewed them as a far more effective enemy to the educated mind and to a vibrant, democratic political culture, which requires for its very survival an abiding commitment on the part of its citizenry to critical thought, moral judgment, the capacity for self-reflection, and an acute awareness of self-limitation. Neither uneducated nor unintellectual, anti-intellectuals constitute the ranks of the “half-educated,” men and women who are “deeply engaged with ideas, often obsessively engaged with this or that outworn or rejected idea.”[4]

Hofstadter describes them as hardly in­different or hostile to the life of the mind, but as “marginal intellectuals, would-be intellectuals, unfrocked or embittered intellectuals, the literate leaders of the semi-literate, full of seriousness and high purpose about the causes that bring them to the attention of the world.”[5] Indeed, he notes, even the most rigorous thinkers are not immune to anti-intellectual mo­ments. Writing in the immediate aftermath of McCarthy era, he locates among the anti-intellectual vanguard the following: highly intelligent and articulate evangelical ministers; religious fundamentalists of various sorts; politicians who inflamed populist and nationalist sentiment (including, he notes, some of the shrewdest); businessmen and other self-appointed spokespersons for practicality, utilitarianism, and free enterprise; right-wing editors with strong intellectual pretensions; anti-Communist pun­dits; and for that matter, Communist leaders, who held intellectuals in high suspicion, if not contempt. What such a disparate assemblage of characters share is a kind of militancy fueled by a severe, fundamentalist morality; he calls them “one hundred percenters,” who brook no ambigui­ties, doubts, equivocations, reservations, and certainly no criticism. Such rigidity they consider evidence of their own toughness and strength—as well as, revealingly, a testament to their masculinity.[6]

Following Hofstader’s logic into the present moment, we would add to these ranks latter-day market fundamentalists, such as Jim Cramer and other disciples of the brilliant and tragically myopic Milton Freedman, and their powerful and embittered friends in the conservative move­ment, such as the peerless Grover Norquist and Karl Rove, Bush’s reputed brain; the intellectual denizens of highly partisan think tanks, from the American Heritage Institute to the Heritage, Olin, Schaiffe, and Coors foundations, like Charles Murray; as well as their learned counterparts in the academy, like Lawrence Mead or Samuel Huntington; the vari­ous crusaders of the Christian right, like Pat Robertson, who called for the assassination of a world leader, and others who rail against science and the rights of women and gays such as Bill McCartney, the founder of the Promise Keepers; demagogic populists like Patrick Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh; jingoistic patriots inspired by Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay; and the impassioned, often inflammatory anti-immigration and anti-terrorist politicians and media pundits, of whom there are far too many, such as Tom Tancredo, Thelma Drake, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coul­ter, Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck. And we would acknowledge, as we do so, the continuing draw of masculinist posturing for both men and women. For nearly four decades, these “leaders of the semi-literate” have assisted in the transformation not only of all three branches of government but of the political culture of the nation as well, swaying the voting public through base appeals to our deepest insecurities and fears, most typically expressed and circulated through racially charged representational codes. In apocalyptic tones, they warned that “traditional American values” and “our American way of life” were on the brink of collapse as a result of some marauding horde—thugged-out young black men, welfare queens, overpopulating Latinos, illegal immigrants, radical Jihadists, or “gay mar­ried terrorists” (in economist Paul Krugman’s satiric phrase). And most Americans went along for the ride. Even those who didn’t buy the coded rhetoric (even as they enjoyed the privileges of a still-uneven playing field) complacently went about their lives, feasting on too-easy credit, flipping houses, or fixating on celebrity culture until all the consumer bubbles fi­nally broke. Though the candidate who stood for change, for a restoration of democratic principle against a rising tide of fundamentalisms—mar­ket, military, religious—won the 2008 election by a respectable but not overwhelming margin, the legacy of the last forty years of conservative counterrevolution did not magically disappear after Inauguration Day.[7]

Nearly a half-century after it was written, Hofstadter’s erudite vol­ume remains essential reading for those troubled by the effects of anti-intellectualism, and the various fundamentalisms that inspire and inflame it, on democratic public life and political culture. In fact, his uncompro­mising analysis of the political climate in which Thomas Jefferson ran for president in the infamous 1800 election—an election that also signaled a revolutionary shift in the political direction of the nation—is particularly instructive in light of the 2008 campaign, which uncannily recapitulated many of the same themes. Jefferson was the first distinguished victim of a decisively anti-intellectual attack, and the assault on him (leveled prin­cipally by Federalist leaders and members of the established clergy) set a precedent for subsequent efforts to render an active, curious mind either trivial and ridiculous or evil and dangerous. The echoes of such efforts to sway the electorate on principles that violate reason, reflection, evidence, and judgment are heard to this day: intellect makes “men” timid and in­effectual; they are likely to vacillate rather than to act boldly in the face of crisis; their intellectual pursuits produce in general a suspicion of, or a hostility to, Christianity; and they are committed to abstract, radical, or even “foreign” ideas over the quintessential American values of God and country.

The capacity for reflective, creative, and critical thought, finely honed argumentation, and public persuasion—talents one might other­wise assume well recommend a candidate for the office of president—were transformed into the gravest of liabilities. Jefferson’s critics assailed his philosophical training and literary talents, which they insisted made him unfit for practical tasks. Their eager acknowledgment of the elegance of his rhetorical style provided only further proof of the man’s lack of politi­cal substance. Said one South Carolina congressman, William Loughton Smith:

The characteristic traits of a philosopher, when he turns politician, are, timidity, whimsicalness, and a disposition to reason from certain principles, and not from the true nature of man; a proneness to predicate all his measures on certain ab­stract theories, formed in the recess of his cabinet, and not on the existing state of things and circumstances; an inertness of mind, as applied to governmental policy, a wavering of disposition when great and sudden emergencies demand promptness of decision and energy of action.[8]

Thought, according to those suspicious of a critical and contemplative mind, inevitably got in the way of action. In addition to these offenses, Jefferson also stood accused of a lack of experience, particularly military experience—the very ingredient which had made his esteemed predeces­sor, George Washington, a patriot, a man of great character, and an effec­tive, no-nonsense leader. Smith, contriving to portray Jefferson’s astonish­ing and wide-ranging intellectual abilities as trivial and ridiculous, mocked his scientific interests and his inventiveness as “impaling butterflies and insects, and contriving turn-about chairs” adding that such merits “might entitle him to the Professorship of a college” but were utterly incompatible with the duties of the presidency and the command of the Western Army.[9]

Such charges should sound strangely familiar. Barack Obama’s re­flective capacities and rhetorical strengths have been frequently acknowl­edged by his opponents, who, interestingly enough, hailed from similar quarters: the religious right and Republican descendants of Federalist persuasion. But the praise, like that heaped on Jefferson, primarily served to underscore allegations of inexperience and unbridled idealism. Like its distant predecessor, the election of 2008 was framed as a choice between military experience and character—the strength of which seemed to rest on an ex-soldier’s patriotic zeal and plain speech, on the one hand, and change—in the figure of a young cosmopolitan and former University of Chicago professor of law who represented new ideas, gifted oratory, and hope—on the other. Then, as now, when the bad news befalls the White House—whether by messenger on horseback or emergency phone call—at three o’clock in the morning, Americans are prompted to vote for a man of action, not intelligence, which is derided as inevitably naïve, “timid,” “abstract,” or “wavering.” Whereas the former law professor was said to lack any military experience and have negligible foreign policy cre­dentials, McCain emphasized his war record, his heroism, his endurance, as vouchsafed by his five-year imprisonment in a Viet Cong POW camp, and above all his patriotism.

Appeals to practicality and patriotism were not the only rhetorical weapons in the arsenal of Jefferson’s opponents—or Obama’s. Hofstadter regales his readers with various efforts to paint Jefferson as a dangerous scourge without faith or morals. His learning and speculation, it was said, made an atheist of Jefferson; he had not only challenged theologians about the age of the earth but opposed having school children read the Bible—vagaries that made him a threat to religion and society. Further proof of his alleged immorality was offered in a litany of accusations: that he was a coward during the Revolutionary War, that he started the French Revo­lution, that he harbored a secret ambition to become a dictator, another Bonaparte. And strikingly, though Hofstadter makes only a passing refer­ence to the charge, the integrity of this white, patrician male was tainted by an association with race: it was asserted that he “kept a slave wench and sired mulattoes,” a dishonor less to his wife than to his white blood—thus, according to the racial reasoning of the time, proof of moral depravity.

Obama was subject to similar demagogic efforts throughout the seemingly interminable two-year campaign cycle. While McCain played the role of the valiant soldier and patriot, Obama stood accused of “pall­ing around with terrorists” like University of Illinois at Chicago professor Bill Ayers and other subversive intellectuals (a redundancy for conserva­tives). Moreover, Obama’s Christianity was called into question repeatedly with insinuations of his secret Muslim faith, as if the espousal of such doctrines were adequate grounds to disqualify him immediately from po­litical office. Indeed, it was Sarah Palin’s very religiosity—in addition to other perceived assets including her folksy demeanor, her status as mother of five, her fascination with guns, and not so implicitly her whiteness as mirrored in the clean, white snows of the Alaskan wilderness—that made this contemporary Annie Oakley such an appealing vice presidential pick for the McCain team. She embraced the very commitments and values of the Republicans’ most stalwart constituency: the Christian right. In contrast, much was made of Obama’s middle name, “Hussein,” which was chanted over and over again at Republican rallies, betraying similar efforts to associate him with the dangerous Middle Eastern dictator, if not quite claiming, as in Jefferson’s case, that he aspired to become a despot. (That accusation, of course, would come within Obama’s first six months of office, when during the summer of 2009, angry constituents at town hall meetings would tout images of the president with a Hitler moustache or feature him on placards with Stalin, Mao, or Che Guevara.) Such charges performed a double duty for the Obama’s critics, casting “Barack Hussein Obama” as not only a threat to all Christians, but beyond the pale of whiteness, both as a man of African descent and as an alleged Muslim, a category that increasingly carries both religious and ethno-racial “civiliza­tional” implication.

Just as Jefferson’s intellectual disposition, his sensibilities, his tastes were pilloried as “foreign,” a clear precursor to contemporary tactics de­signed to generate fear toward those characterized as “not American,” Barack Obama was consistently characterized as alien. Of Jefferson, one Federalist pamphleteer claimed: “It was in France, where he resided nearly seven years, and until the revolution had made some progress, that his disposition to theory, and his skepticism in religion, morals, and govern­ment, acquired full strength and vigor. . . . Mr. Jefferson is known to be a theorist in politics, as well as in philosophy and morals. He is a philosophe in the modern French sense of the word.”[10] The anti-intellectual rejection of the candidate as a “theorist” and a “philosophe” anticipates accusations of anti-Americanism hurled at contemporary intellectuals, particularly those critical of the Bush administration, even as the charge ironically de­picts thinking as a foreign, even subversive activity. Obama was not only educated in various regions of the world including Indonesia, Africa and the United States, but he was also of mixed-race heritage. Most definitely, it was implied, where not emphatically stated, he was “not one of us.”[11] Of course, like Jefferson, Barack Obama did win the presidential election; but the rather shocking figure of the fifty-eight million (46 percent of the popular) votes cast for the McCain-Palin ticket, despite its many alle­giances to the utterly corrupt and generally despised Bush administration, should give us pause. This brief engagement with the Jeffersonian legacy is all the more revealing for the decidedly ironic way in which Jefferson, and much of the iconography of the American Revolution, has been ap­propriated by the far right in post-election America—from “tea parties,” to the incessant appearance of the Gladstone flag and other militia flags featuring rattlesnakes and often accompanied by the slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me,” to the “patriot movement” (and its various calls for revolution, succession, and state sovereignty), which has made Jefferson’s quip that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots” its rallying cry.

Historically speaking, the suspicion of intellect has for centuries spawned a variety of anti-intellectual commitments—the fetishization of folksiness, the cult of efficiency and practicality, jingoistic patriotism, militarized masculinity, and religious fervor. Whereas in the era in which Hofstadter wrote it was still possible to equate mainstream intellectual culture with the culture of liberalism, this is no longer the case. The below-the-radar conservative counter-revolution begun in the late 1960s, coterminous with a highly visible repressive law-and-order crackdown on various civil rights and anti-war protesters, and eventually displaced the liberal hegemony of mid-century America, as its advocates exploited and intensified the anti-intellectualism of the culture. The consequence of this ascendancy has been a crisis of liberal ideals and democratic values, of the very possibility of politics, which has generated a cottage industry of similarly themed tomes that commence where Hofstadter’s probing analy­sis left off.

However, questions remain about whether the presumption that Obama’s presidency commences an officially “post-racial” and “post-partisan” pe­riod of American politics will continue to hold true, providing yet another kind of dubious departure from reality and reason. To be sure the George W. Bush administration, if unsurpassed in the degree of its commitment to anti-intellectualism, was certainly not alone in its willingness to deceive and manipulate everyday “folks.” Over the past century, there have been political leaders—Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton—who successfully tempered their intelligence, invoked a colloquial idiom, claimed an affinity for common values and tastes (Bill and his Big Mac attacks) and survived. Others who were less adept—Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore, John Kerry—simply perished, as their opponents effectively labeled them as too cerebral, too elite, if not also effete, for effective leadership. While it is true that on the campaign trail, Obama exemplified thought­fulness and circumspection and spoke with eloquence and dignity, he also proved adept at staying connected with the everyday, playing hoops with his mates from high school the morning of the election, assuaging the fears of children who faced a daunting move with the promise of a puppy.

In the service of heightening such “exuberant identification” (as Ju­dith Butler describes it) with Obama’s leadership, a few items are missing from the presidential agenda altogether, and their absence weighs heavily against soaring hopes for genuine democratic renewal. Successive bailouts for financials and other industries have proven unhelpful for everyday citi­zens—and particularly citizens of color—facing alarming levels of unem­ployment, impoverishment, and home foreclosure. Yet Obama has chosen to abet the nation’s collective refusal to discuss race and, more emphati­cally, racial injustice—his one speech on the subject notwithstanding.

Yet at no other time have we been more in need of a critically engaged, creative, and thoughtful citizenry who can face with courage and con­viction the challenges—political, economic, ecological, spiritual—that we face both nationally and internationally. Obama is a product of this elite system and will not push against its interests, unless compelled by an in­formed and active citizenry. “Obama used hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign funds to appeal to and manipulate this illiteracy and irratio­nalism to his advantage,” observes Hedges.[12] And indeed the electorate was invited to focus increasingly on the person of this potential leader—his eloquence, his gravity, his unfailing cool, even his jump shot—and a compelling personal narrative that simultaneously invoked the triumpha­lism of America’s beloved immigration mythology and offered a redemp­tive conclusion to its most egregious racial sins. However, Hedges warns that “these forces will prove to be his most deadly nemesis once they col­lide with the awful reality that awaits us.”[13]

I suspect Hedges is largely correct in his assessment. Yet we can not accept that our capacity to think, our educational system, and with it American democracy itself, have reached a terminal stage. And it is because I reject these premises that I argue strongly for academics, admin­istrators, teachers, intellectuals, and others to assume their responsibilities as educators who play a vital role in molding citizens who can actively and critically participate in democratic public life. Hedges is undoubt­edly right about one thing. The electorate is fast headed on that collision course with the reality that the Bush administration sought and that it ap­parently managed to repress for so long. As Obama himself acknowledged in his Inauguration Day speech, few presidents have taken the oath of office under conditions quite so devastating. Perhaps for this reason, ulti­mately, he has been compared to former presidents Abraham Lincoln, also a one-term senator from Illinois who confronted a nation ravaged by civil war; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led America through the Great De­pression and Second World War; and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the civil rights-era commander in chief who inspired America with his youthful idealism and his sense of hope. But it is also for this reason that I’ve gone even further back in American history and invoked the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, who also served in the county’s highest office in turbulent times, who like Obama would lead the nation through the convulsions of revo­lutionary change. Jefferson witnessed a political revolution in France and then in the United States, and was able, as a result of those who fought and died for their country, for its ideals of life, liberty, and equality, to ascend to the position of president of a new nation divided in its search for the way forward. Moreover, he was to serve while Western nations were experiencing yet another, equally profound revolution in economic development; he was a plantation owner and adherent of an agrarian way of life that was about to give way to new forces of industrialization, which would transform the country in ways quite unknown and unimaginable. And there was the fact of slavery, America’s original sin, about which he wrote most eloquently and ambivalently.

In order to meet all of these political, economic, and spiritual chal­lenges, the nation’s third president understood all too well the necessity of an educated citizenry. Having survived his own bitter and contentious po­litical campaign, Jefferson had witnessed first-hand the nefarious and—as we have seen—cataclysmic danger that anti-intellectual, populist dema­goguery poses for a democratic nation. Surely it was this complex set of conditions and experiences that inspired his radical educational thought, for it was Jefferson who was one of the first to put forth a multi-tiered plan for free and universal public education as the primary means of safeguard­ing a young and fragile democratic nation. And it is this legacy that seems to me to offer the most important lessons for the Obama administration, and for those anxious to serve the country in its current state of multiple crises. For Jefferson, education was the primary means of producing the kind of critically informed and active citizenry necessary to both nurture and sustain a vibrant public sphere; he believed that democracy was the highest form of political organization for any nation because it provided the conditions for its citizens to grow both intellectually and morally through the exercise of these faculties. Consider this passage from Jef­ferson’s moving preamble to the 1776 “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” which bears the hallmark of his views on the relationship between education and public life:

Whereas . . . certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights . . . experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have . . . per­verted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of prevent­ing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large; And whereas it is generally true that people will be happiest whose laws are best, and are best administered, and that laws will be wisely formed, and honestly ad­ministered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest.[14]

Jefferson made education central to his philosophical thought and political commitments; it proved the best means for both pre­serving the natural rights of citizens from all forms of tyranny and a means for enabling wise and honest self-government. Jefferson conceived of ed­ucation as a preeminently political issue—and politics as a preeminently educational concern.

As Obama confronts the challenges of the wars he has inherited, an economy experiencing a shift as profound as the industrial revolution which displaced agrarianism as a way of life, the moral stain of a vast car­ceral empire both at home and abroad, as well as a citizenry riven by the divisive and demagogic rhetoric of four decades of conservative counter­revolution, the legacy of Jefferson, and his insistence on the preeminence of education, may well provide the way forward—and, too, a warning. I have attempted to argue that a (raceless) racist logic has shaped each element of these knotted crises—the “civilizational” war on terror as well as the nation’s willingness to transform the welfare state into a neoliberal warfare state—and the ease with which it criminalized the social ills that issued from that pervasive and repressive shift. In fact, as early as 2001, ACLU director Graham Boyd noted that the United States was

incarcerating African-American men at a rate approximately four times the rate of incarceration of black men in South Africa under apartheid. Worse still, we have managed to replicate—at least on a statistical level—the shame of chattel slavery in this country: The number of black men in prison . . . has already equaled the number of men enslaved in 1820. . . . [And] if current trends continue, only 15 years remain before the United States incarcerates as many African-American men as were forced into chattel bondage at slavery’s peak, in 1860.[15]

Following Boyd’s prediction, the ranks of the incarcerated have swollen from 2 million to 2.3 million in the ensuing eight years. We have moved from a time in which black Americans were legally defined as property, to one in which they have been granted 3/5 humanity. From sub-human­ity, they rose to the ranks of second-class citizens, and once a full sched­ule of rights had been achieved equally “before the law,” those rights and entitlements were dismantled along with the social state, which held the promise of their provision. In the fantasy world where “there is no such thing as society,” there are now only dysfunctional men, women, and their families locked up or locked out of the American Dream. Still marked by the original sin of slavery, which we have not entirely repudiated, we now find ourselves in an era ominously reminiscent of that biblical season of plague, only this time it is not divine power striking down the first-born children of Pharaoh’s kingdom because he refused to grant full freedom to all people, but rather the sovereign power of the state seizing every third son born black. Or perhaps we should push even further back in locat­ing an apt metaphor for the present to ancient Babylon, to the building of that colossal tower of Babel, which eventually wrought divine destruction, condemning humanity to endless confused chatter and conflict. What­ever path of destruction Jefferson envisioned for a nation that refused to take heed of its own moral recklessness and injustice, we would do well to heed his warning. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice can­not sleep for ever.”[16] Averting catastrophe—the organizing theme of the second half of this book—will require a most arduous task for the nation’s citizenry: a critical and consistent commitment to think and reflect, to act as citizens who are worthy of a democracy.

1. Monbiot, George. “How These Jibbering Numbskulls Came to Dominate Washington.” Guardian, Oct. 28, 2008..

2. Editor. “American Health Care: Keep It Honest.” Economist, Aug. 20, 2009.

3. Transcript. Bill Moyers Journal, Sept. 4, 2009.

4. Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (p. 21.). New York: Vintage, 1963.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid, 119.

7. For a comprehensive analysis of these various fundamentalisms, see Hen­ry A. Giroux’s Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed (2008).

8. Ibid., 147–48.

9. Ibid., 149.

10. On the blog accompanying the website accompanying his 2009 publica­tion, The Threat of Race, David Goldberg pointed out the racially driven differ­ences in the ways in which relative political newcomers Barack Obama and Sar­ah Palin were embraced by the electorate. He notes: “More than half the whites polled registered harsher senses of blacks than they did of whites. While 50 per­cent of white respondents at least sometimes have had sympathy for blacks, nearly half had never or rarely. Similarly, more than 30 percent of white respondents have never or rarely admired blacks. Nearly half the respondents characterized blacks as at least moderately violent, and 38 percent as lazy. Lest one think that generally stated racial prejudice does not necessarily translate into bias against a particular person, the study also revealed that 47 percent characterized Obama as ‘inexpe­rienced’ while just 4 percent did McCain, 17 percent as ‘un-American’ and just 2 percent did McCain, and only 29 percent ‘patriotic’ while 61 percent did Mc­Cain. Just under 20 percent consider Obama’s religion ‘a reason not to vote for him,’ perhaps a less surprising fact considering that 14 percent still think he is a Muslim.”

11.Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of the Spectacle (p. 111.). New York: Nation Books, 2009.

12. Ibid.

13. Peterson, Merrill D. The Portable Thomas Jefferson (p. 215.), New York: Penguin, 1975.

14. Boyd, Julian P. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Volume 2: 1777 to 18 June 1779 (pp. 526–27). Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 1950. Emphasis mine.

15. Boyd, Graham. “The Drug War Is the New Jim Crow.” NACLA Report on the Ameri­cas. July 31, 2001.

16. Peterson, Merrill D. The Portable Thomas Jefferson (p. 215.), New York: Penguin, 1975.

Susan Searls Giroux

Susan Searls Giroux is associate dean of humanities and an associate professor of English and cultural studies at McMaster University. Her most recent book, "Between Race and Reason: Violence, Intellectual Responsibility, and the University to Come" (Stanford UP), won the prestigious Gary A. Olson Award for Best Book Published in Rhetoric and Cultural Studies in 2010. She has also coauthored, with Henry Giroux, "Take Back Higher Education," and, with Jeffrey Nealon, "The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences Second Edition," a revised and expanded second edition of which appeared in summer 2011. She has published numerous articles in Third Text, Social Identities, The CLR James Journal, JAC, Works and Days, Cultural Critique, College Literature and Tikkun.


Hide Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus
GET DAILY TRUTHOUT UPDATES

FOLLOW togtorsstottofb


Between Race and Reason: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Friday, 16 September 2011 07:17 By Susan Searls Giroux, Truthout | Book Excerpt
Between Race and Reason Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

(Image: Stanford University Press)

In late October 2008, just days before the U.S. presidential election, George Monbiot of London’s The Guardian, caught perhaps in a mood of deepening anxiety and dread over the impending outcome, leveled an indictment against the American government and at least half of the electorate in the form of a question: “How did politics in the U.S. come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance?” In a rather unkind primatological allusion, he invoked as evidence the eight-year reign of George W. Bush, the recent vogue of Sarah Palin—and before her, Dan Quayle, apparently to round out the VP wing of “gibbering numbskulls” past and present—as well as the “screaming ignoramuses” in attendance at Republican rallies who insisted that Barack Obama was both a Muslim and a terrorist. “Like most people on my side of the Atlantic,” he ventured, “I have for many years been mystified by American politics. The U.S. has the world’s best universities and attracts the world’s finest minds. It domi­nates in discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed na­tions . . . learning is a grave political disadvantage.”[1] A troubling observa­tion to be sure. How exactly does one make sense of, let alone respond to, such an astonishing contradiction, such an ungenerous play on the con­cept of American exceptionalism? There are, of course, a number of pos­sibilities. (a) Denial: reduce the charge to a hiccup of European arrogance tinged with a bit of resentment. (b) Dismissal: declaim as cynical the blan­ket condemnation of ineptitude among government officials and the fools who elected them. (c) Deflection: assert that the election results—and the resounding defeat handed to the McCain-Palin campaign, which ran pri­marily on emotional appeals to fear and patriotic fervor—vindicate the good sense of the voters and render Monbiot’s judgment too quick. It would be tempting to answer “(d) all of the above” and continue to bask in the warm afterglow of the Obama victory and the ensuing worldwide cel­ebration that marked the end of the Bush era. But, alas, we are not saved.

Indeed the pre-election antics appeared in hindsight little more than an opening prelude to the “delirium,” as The Economist termed it, of the summer of 2009 debates on health care; the furor over the president’s “in­doctrination” of school children; the growing momentum of the “birthers,” unchecked by repeated proof against their claims; and other crazed con­spiracy theorists who showed up at town hall meetings armed to the teeth, leaving many to wonder why the nation surrendered public debate over the most pressing political issues of our time (to say nothing of media cov­erage) to the most extreme and unstable elements of the far right.[2] Even the esteemed journalist Bill Moyers, deeply unsettled by current events, couldn’t resist a bit of uncharacteristic sarcasm: “So here we are, wallow­ing in our dysfunction. Governed—if you listen to the rabble rousers—by a black nationalist from Kenya smuggled into the United States to kill Sarah Palin’s baby.”[3] The peculiar degradation of these three fundaments of a substantive democracy—informed and judicious political discourse, intelligence, and education—in contemporary American politics to which Monbiot and others refer has had a long and storied career, extending back to the early days of the republic. The subject was given unparal­leled examination in Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer-prize winning volume, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published in 1963. It is important to note, however, that for Hofstader anti-intellectuals are neither the “gib­bering numbskulls” nor the “screaming ignoramuses” that Monbiot and a growing chorus of journalists, scholars, and others criticize. Rather, Hof­stadter viewed them as a far more effective enemy to the educated mind and to a vibrant, democratic political culture, which requires for its very survival an abiding commitment on the part of its citizenry to critical thought, moral judgment, the capacity for self-reflection, and an acute awareness of self-limitation. Neither uneducated nor unintellectual, anti-intellectuals constitute the ranks of the “half-educated,” men and women who are “deeply engaged with ideas, often obsessively engaged with this or that outworn or rejected idea.”[4]

Hofstadter describes them as hardly in­different or hostile to the life of the mind, but as “marginal intellectuals, would-be intellectuals, unfrocked or embittered intellectuals, the literate leaders of the semi-literate, full of seriousness and high purpose about the causes that bring them to the attention of the world.”[5] Indeed, he notes, even the most rigorous thinkers are not immune to anti-intellectual mo­ments. Writing in the immediate aftermath of McCarthy era, he locates among the anti-intellectual vanguard the following: highly intelligent and articulate evangelical ministers; religious fundamentalists of various sorts; politicians who inflamed populist and nationalist sentiment (including, he notes, some of the shrewdest); businessmen and other self-appointed spokespersons for practicality, utilitarianism, and free enterprise; right-wing editors with strong intellectual pretensions; anti-Communist pun­dits; and for that matter, Communist leaders, who held intellectuals in high suspicion, if not contempt. What such a disparate assemblage of characters share is a kind of militancy fueled by a severe, fundamentalist morality; he calls them “one hundred percenters,” who brook no ambigui­ties, doubts, equivocations, reservations, and certainly no criticism. Such rigidity they consider evidence of their own toughness and strength—as well as, revealingly, a testament to their masculinity.[6]

Following Hofstader’s logic into the present moment, we would add to these ranks latter-day market fundamentalists, such as Jim Cramer and other disciples of the brilliant and tragically myopic Milton Freedman, and their powerful and embittered friends in the conservative move­ment, such as the peerless Grover Norquist and Karl Rove, Bush’s reputed brain; the intellectual denizens of highly partisan think tanks, from the American Heritage Institute to the Heritage, Olin, Schaiffe, and Coors foundations, like Charles Murray; as well as their learned counterparts in the academy, like Lawrence Mead or Samuel Huntington; the vari­ous crusaders of the Christian right, like Pat Robertson, who called for the assassination of a world leader, and others who rail against science and the rights of women and gays such as Bill McCartney, the founder of the Promise Keepers; demagogic populists like Patrick Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh; jingoistic patriots inspired by Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay; and the impassioned, often inflammatory anti-immigration and anti-terrorist politicians and media pundits, of whom there are far too many, such as Tom Tancredo, Thelma Drake, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coul­ter, Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck. And we would acknowledge, as we do so, the continuing draw of masculinist posturing for both men and women. For nearly four decades, these “leaders of the semi-literate” have assisted in the transformation not only of all three branches of government but of the political culture of the nation as well, swaying the voting public through base appeals to our deepest insecurities and fears, most typically expressed and circulated through racially charged representational codes. In apocalyptic tones, they warned that “traditional American values” and “our American way of life” were on the brink of collapse as a result of some marauding horde—thugged-out young black men, welfare queens, overpopulating Latinos, illegal immigrants, radical Jihadists, or “gay mar­ried terrorists” (in economist Paul Krugman’s satiric phrase). And most Americans went along for the ride. Even those who didn’t buy the coded rhetoric (even as they enjoyed the privileges of a still-uneven playing field) complacently went about their lives, feasting on too-easy credit, flipping houses, or fixating on celebrity culture until all the consumer bubbles fi­nally broke. Though the candidate who stood for change, for a restoration of democratic principle against a rising tide of fundamentalisms—mar­ket, military, religious—won the 2008 election by a respectable but not overwhelming margin, the legacy of the last forty years of conservative counterrevolution did not magically disappear after Inauguration Day.[7]

Nearly a half-century after it was written, Hofstadter’s erudite vol­ume remains essential reading for those troubled by the effects of anti-intellectualism, and the various fundamentalisms that inspire and inflame it, on democratic public life and political culture. In fact, his uncompro­mising analysis of the political climate in which Thomas Jefferson ran for president in the infamous 1800 election—an election that also signaled a revolutionary shift in the political direction of the nation—is particularly instructive in light of the 2008 campaign, which uncannily recapitulated many of the same themes. Jefferson was the first distinguished victim of a decisively anti-intellectual attack, and the assault on him (leveled prin­cipally by Federalist leaders and members of the established clergy) set a precedent for subsequent efforts to render an active, curious mind either trivial and ridiculous or evil and dangerous. The echoes of such efforts to sway the electorate on principles that violate reason, reflection, evidence, and judgment are heard to this day: intellect makes “men” timid and in­effectual; they are likely to vacillate rather than to act boldly in the face of crisis; their intellectual pursuits produce in general a suspicion of, or a hostility to, Christianity; and they are committed to abstract, radical, or even “foreign” ideas over the quintessential American values of God and country.

The capacity for reflective, creative, and critical thought, finely honed argumentation, and public persuasion—talents one might other­wise assume well recommend a candidate for the office of president—were transformed into the gravest of liabilities. Jefferson’s critics assailed his philosophical training and literary talents, which they insisted made him unfit for practical tasks. Their eager acknowledgment of the elegance of his rhetorical style provided only further proof of the man’s lack of politi­cal substance. Said one South Carolina congressman, William Loughton Smith:

The characteristic traits of a philosopher, when he turns politician, are, timidity, whimsicalness, and a disposition to reason from certain principles, and not from the true nature of man; a proneness to predicate all his measures on certain ab­stract theories, formed in the recess of his cabinet, and not on the existing state of things and circumstances; an inertness of mind, as applied to governmental policy, a wavering of disposition when great and sudden emergencies demand promptness of decision and energy of action.[8]

Thought, according to those suspicious of a critical and contemplative mind, inevitably got in the way of action. In addition to these offenses, Jefferson also stood accused of a lack of experience, particularly military experience—the very ingredient which had made his esteemed predeces­sor, George Washington, a patriot, a man of great character, and an effec­tive, no-nonsense leader. Smith, contriving to portray Jefferson’s astonish­ing and wide-ranging intellectual abilities as trivial and ridiculous, mocked his scientific interests and his inventiveness as “impaling butterflies and insects, and contriving turn-about chairs” adding that such merits “might entitle him to the Professorship of a college” but were utterly incompatible with the duties of the presidency and the command of the Western Army.[9]

Such charges should sound strangely familiar. Barack Obama’s re­flective capacities and rhetorical strengths have been frequently acknowl­edged by his opponents, who, interestingly enough, hailed from similar quarters: the religious right and Republican descendants of Federalist persuasion. But the praise, like that heaped on Jefferson, primarily served to underscore allegations of inexperience and unbridled idealism. Like its distant predecessor, the election of 2008 was framed as a choice between military experience and character—the strength of which seemed to rest on an ex-soldier’s patriotic zeal and plain speech, on the one hand, and change—in the figure of a young cosmopolitan and former University of Chicago professor of law who represented new ideas, gifted oratory, and hope—on the other. Then, as now, when the bad news befalls the White House—whether by messenger on horseback or emergency phone call—at three o’clock in the morning, Americans are prompted to vote for a man of action, not intelligence, which is derided as inevitably naïve, “timid,” “abstract,” or “wavering.” Whereas the former law professor was said to lack any military experience and have negligible foreign policy cre­dentials, McCain emphasized his war record, his heroism, his endurance, as vouchsafed by his five-year imprisonment in a Viet Cong POW camp, and above all his patriotism.

Appeals to practicality and patriotism were not the only rhetorical weapons in the arsenal of Jefferson’s opponents—or Obama’s. Hofstadter regales his readers with various efforts to paint Jefferson as a dangerous scourge without faith or morals. His learning and speculation, it was said, made an atheist of Jefferson; he had not only challenged theologians about the age of the earth but opposed having school children read the Bible—vagaries that made him a threat to religion and society. Further proof of his alleged immorality was offered in a litany of accusations: that he was a coward during the Revolutionary War, that he started the French Revo­lution, that he harbored a secret ambition to become a dictator, another Bonaparte. And strikingly, though Hofstadter makes only a passing refer­ence to the charge, the integrity of this white, patrician male was tainted by an association with race: it was asserted that he “kept a slave wench and sired mulattoes,” a dishonor less to his wife than to his white blood—thus, according to the racial reasoning of the time, proof of moral depravity.

Obama was subject to similar demagogic efforts throughout the seemingly interminable two-year campaign cycle. While McCain played the role of the valiant soldier and patriot, Obama stood accused of “pall­ing around with terrorists” like University of Illinois at Chicago professor Bill Ayers and other subversive intellectuals (a redundancy for conserva­tives). Moreover, Obama’s Christianity was called into question repeatedly with insinuations of his secret Muslim faith, as if the espousal of such doctrines were adequate grounds to disqualify him immediately from po­litical office. Indeed, it was Sarah Palin’s very religiosity—in addition to other perceived assets including her folksy demeanor, her status as mother of five, her fascination with guns, and not so implicitly her whiteness as mirrored in the clean, white snows of the Alaskan wilderness—that made this contemporary Annie Oakley such an appealing vice presidential pick for the McCain team. She embraced the very commitments and values of the Republicans’ most stalwart constituency: the Christian right. In contrast, much was made of Obama’s middle name, “Hussein,” which was chanted over and over again at Republican rallies, betraying similar efforts to associate him with the dangerous Middle Eastern dictator, if not quite claiming, as in Jefferson’s case, that he aspired to become a despot. (That accusation, of course, would come within Obama’s first six months of office, when during the summer of 2009, angry constituents at town hall meetings would tout images of the president with a Hitler moustache or feature him on placards with Stalin, Mao, or Che Guevara.) Such charges performed a double duty for the Obama’s critics, casting “Barack Hussein Obama” as not only a threat to all Christians, but beyond the pale of whiteness, both as a man of African descent and as an alleged Muslim, a category that increasingly carries both religious and ethno-racial “civiliza­tional” implication.

Just as Jefferson’s intellectual disposition, his sensibilities, his tastes were pilloried as “foreign,” a clear precursor to contemporary tactics de­signed to generate fear toward those characterized as “not American,” Barack Obama was consistently characterized as alien. Of Jefferson, one Federalist pamphleteer claimed: “It was in France, where he resided nearly seven years, and until the revolution had made some progress, that his disposition to theory, and his skepticism in religion, morals, and govern­ment, acquired full strength and vigor. . . . Mr. Jefferson is known to be a theorist in politics, as well as in philosophy and morals. He is a philosophe in the modern French sense of the word.”[10] The anti-intellectual rejection of the candidate as a “theorist” and a “philosophe” anticipates accusations of anti-Americanism hurled at contemporary intellectuals, particularly those critical of the Bush administration, even as the charge ironically de­picts thinking as a foreign, even subversive activity. Obama was not only educated in various regions of the world including Indonesia, Africa and the United States, but he was also of mixed-race heritage. Most definitely, it was implied, where not emphatically stated, he was “not one of us.”[11] Of course, like Jefferson, Barack Obama did win the presidential election; but the rather shocking figure of the fifty-eight million (46 percent of the popular) votes cast for the McCain-Palin ticket, despite its many alle­giances to the utterly corrupt and generally despised Bush administration, should give us pause. This brief engagement with the Jeffersonian legacy is all the more revealing for the decidedly ironic way in which Jefferson, and much of the iconography of the American Revolution, has been ap­propriated by the far right in post-election America—from “tea parties,” to the incessant appearance of the Gladstone flag and other militia flags featuring rattlesnakes and often accompanied by the slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me,” to the “patriot movement” (and its various calls for revolution, succession, and state sovereignty), which has made Jefferson’s quip that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots” its rallying cry.

Historically speaking, the suspicion of intellect has for centuries spawned a variety of anti-intellectual commitments—the fetishization of folksiness, the cult of efficiency and practicality, jingoistic patriotism, militarized masculinity, and religious fervor. Whereas in the era in which Hofstadter wrote it was still possible to equate mainstream intellectual culture with the culture of liberalism, this is no longer the case. The below-the-radar conservative counter-revolution begun in the late 1960s, coterminous with a highly visible repressive law-and-order crackdown on various civil rights and anti-war protesters, and eventually displaced the liberal hegemony of mid-century America, as its advocates exploited and intensified the anti-intellectualism of the culture. The consequence of this ascendancy has been a crisis of liberal ideals and democratic values, of the very possibility of politics, which has generated a cottage industry of similarly themed tomes that commence where Hofstadter’s probing analy­sis left off.

However, questions remain about whether the presumption that Obama’s presidency commences an officially “post-racial” and “post-partisan” pe­riod of American politics will continue to hold true, providing yet another kind of dubious departure from reality and reason. To be sure the George W. Bush administration, if unsurpassed in the degree of its commitment to anti-intellectualism, was certainly not alone in its willingness to deceive and manipulate everyday “folks.” Over the past century, there have been political leaders—Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton—who successfully tempered their intelligence, invoked a colloquial idiom, claimed an affinity for common values and tastes (Bill and his Big Mac attacks) and survived. Others who were less adept—Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore, John Kerry—simply perished, as their opponents effectively labeled them as too cerebral, too elite, if not also effete, for effective leadership. While it is true that on the campaign trail, Obama exemplified thought­fulness and circumspection and spoke with eloquence and dignity, he also proved adept at staying connected with the everyday, playing hoops with his mates from high school the morning of the election, assuaging the fears of children who faced a daunting move with the promise of a puppy.

In the service of heightening such “exuberant identification” (as Ju­dith Butler describes it) with Obama’s leadership, a few items are missing from the presidential agenda altogether, and their absence weighs heavily against soaring hopes for genuine democratic renewal. Successive bailouts for financials and other industries have proven unhelpful for everyday citi­zens—and particularly citizens of color—facing alarming levels of unem­ployment, impoverishment, and home foreclosure. Yet Obama has chosen to abet the nation’s collective refusal to discuss race and, more emphati­cally, racial injustice—his one speech on the subject notwithstanding.

Yet at no other time have we been more in need of a critically engaged, creative, and thoughtful citizenry who can face with courage and con­viction the challenges—political, economic, ecological, spiritual—that we face both nationally and internationally. Obama is a product of this elite system and will not push against its interests, unless compelled by an in­formed and active citizenry. “Obama used hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign funds to appeal to and manipulate this illiteracy and irratio­nalism to his advantage,” observes Hedges.[12] And indeed the electorate was invited to focus increasingly on the person of this potential leader—his eloquence, his gravity, his unfailing cool, even his jump shot—and a compelling personal narrative that simultaneously invoked the triumpha­lism of America’s beloved immigration mythology and offered a redemp­tive conclusion to its most egregious racial sins. However, Hedges warns that “these forces will prove to be his most deadly nemesis once they col­lide with the awful reality that awaits us.”[13]

I suspect Hedges is largely correct in his assessment. Yet we can not accept that our capacity to think, our educational system, and with it American democracy itself, have reached a terminal stage. And it is because I reject these premises that I argue strongly for academics, admin­istrators, teachers, intellectuals, and others to assume their responsibilities as educators who play a vital role in molding citizens who can actively and critically participate in democratic public life. Hedges is undoubt­edly right about one thing. The electorate is fast headed on that collision course with the reality that the Bush administration sought and that it ap­parently managed to repress for so long. As Obama himself acknowledged in his Inauguration Day speech, few presidents have taken the oath of office under conditions quite so devastating. Perhaps for this reason, ulti­mately, he has been compared to former presidents Abraham Lincoln, also a one-term senator from Illinois who confronted a nation ravaged by civil war; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led America through the Great De­pression and Second World War; and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the civil rights-era commander in chief who inspired America with his youthful idealism and his sense of hope. But it is also for this reason that I’ve gone even further back in American history and invoked the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, who also served in the county’s highest office in turbulent times, who like Obama would lead the nation through the convulsions of revo­lutionary change. Jefferson witnessed a political revolution in France and then in the United States, and was able, as a result of those who fought and died for their country, for its ideals of life, liberty, and equality, to ascend to the position of president of a new nation divided in its search for the way forward. Moreover, he was to serve while Western nations were experiencing yet another, equally profound revolution in economic development; he was a plantation owner and adherent of an agrarian way of life that was about to give way to new forces of industrialization, which would transform the country in ways quite unknown and unimaginable. And there was the fact of slavery, America’s original sin, about which he wrote most eloquently and ambivalently.

In order to meet all of these political, economic, and spiritual chal­lenges, the nation’s third president understood all too well the necessity of an educated citizenry. Having survived his own bitter and contentious po­litical campaign, Jefferson had witnessed first-hand the nefarious and—as we have seen—cataclysmic danger that anti-intellectual, populist dema­goguery poses for a democratic nation. Surely it was this complex set of conditions and experiences that inspired his radical educational thought, for it was Jefferson who was one of the first to put forth a multi-tiered plan for free and universal public education as the primary means of safeguard­ing a young and fragile democratic nation. And it is this legacy that seems to me to offer the most important lessons for the Obama administration, and for those anxious to serve the country in its current state of multiple crises. For Jefferson, education was the primary means of producing the kind of critically informed and active citizenry necessary to both nurture and sustain a vibrant public sphere; he believed that democracy was the highest form of political organization for any nation because it provided the conditions for its citizens to grow both intellectually and morally through the exercise of these faculties. Consider this passage from Jef­ferson’s moving preamble to the 1776 “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” which bears the hallmark of his views on the relationship between education and public life:

Whereas . . . certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights . . . experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have . . . per­verted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of prevent­ing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large; And whereas it is generally true that people will be happiest whose laws are best, and are best administered, and that laws will be wisely formed, and honestly ad­ministered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest.[14]

Jefferson made education central to his philosophical thought and political commitments; it proved the best means for both pre­serving the natural rights of citizens from all forms of tyranny and a means for enabling wise and honest self-government. Jefferson conceived of ed­ucation as a preeminently political issue—and politics as a preeminently educational concern.

As Obama confronts the challenges of the wars he has inherited, an economy experiencing a shift as profound as the industrial revolution which displaced agrarianism as a way of life, the moral stain of a vast car­ceral empire both at home and abroad, as well as a citizenry riven by the divisive and demagogic rhetoric of four decades of conservative counter­revolution, the legacy of Jefferson, and his insistence on the preeminence of education, may well provide the way forward—and, too, a warning. I have attempted to argue that a (raceless) racist logic has shaped each element of these knotted crises—the “civilizational” war on terror as well as the nation’s willingness to transform the welfare state into a neoliberal warfare state—and the ease with which it criminalized the social ills that issued from that pervasive and repressive shift. In fact, as early as 2001, ACLU director Graham Boyd noted that the United States was

incarcerating African-American men at a rate approximately four times the rate of incarceration of black men in South Africa under apartheid. Worse still, we have managed to replicate—at least on a statistical level—the shame of chattel slavery in this country: The number of black men in prison . . . has already equaled the number of men enslaved in 1820. . . . [And] if current trends continue, only 15 years remain before the United States incarcerates as many African-American men as were forced into chattel bondage at slavery’s peak, in 1860.[15]

Following Boyd’s prediction, the ranks of the incarcerated have swollen from 2 million to 2.3 million in the ensuing eight years. We have moved from a time in which black Americans were legally defined as property, to one in which they have been granted 3/5 humanity. From sub-human­ity, they rose to the ranks of second-class citizens, and once a full sched­ule of rights had been achieved equally “before the law,” those rights and entitlements were dismantled along with the social state, which held the promise of their provision. In the fantasy world where “there is no such thing as society,” there are now only dysfunctional men, women, and their families locked up or locked out of the American Dream. Still marked by the original sin of slavery, which we have not entirely repudiated, we now find ourselves in an era ominously reminiscent of that biblical season of plague, only this time it is not divine power striking down the first-born children of Pharaoh’s kingdom because he refused to grant full freedom to all people, but rather the sovereign power of the state seizing every third son born black. Or perhaps we should push even further back in locat­ing an apt metaphor for the present to ancient Babylon, to the building of that colossal tower of Babel, which eventually wrought divine destruction, condemning humanity to endless confused chatter and conflict. What­ever path of destruction Jefferson envisioned for a nation that refused to take heed of its own moral recklessness and injustice, we would do well to heed his warning. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice can­not sleep for ever.”[16] Averting catastrophe—the organizing theme of the second half of this book—will require a most arduous task for the nation’s citizenry: a critical and consistent commitment to think and reflect, to act as citizens who are worthy of a democracy.

1. Monbiot, George. “How These Jibbering Numbskulls Came to Dominate Washington.” Guardian, Oct. 28, 2008..

2. Editor. “American Health Care: Keep It Honest.” Economist, Aug. 20, 2009.

3. Transcript. Bill Moyers Journal, Sept. 4, 2009.

4. Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (p. 21.). New York: Vintage, 1963.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid, 119.

7. For a comprehensive analysis of these various fundamentalisms, see Hen­ry A. Giroux’s Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed (2008).

8. Ibid., 147–48.

9. Ibid., 149.

10. On the blog accompanying the website accompanying his 2009 publica­tion, The Threat of Race, David Goldberg pointed out the racially driven differ­ences in the ways in which relative political newcomers Barack Obama and Sar­ah Palin were embraced by the electorate. He notes: “More than half the whites polled registered harsher senses of blacks than they did of whites. While 50 per­cent of white respondents at least sometimes have had sympathy for blacks, nearly half had never or rarely. Similarly, more than 30 percent of white respondents have never or rarely admired blacks. Nearly half the respondents characterized blacks as at least moderately violent, and 38 percent as lazy. Lest one think that generally stated racial prejudice does not necessarily translate into bias against a particular person, the study also revealed that 47 percent characterized Obama as ‘inexpe­rienced’ while just 4 percent did McCain, 17 percent as ‘un-American’ and just 2 percent did McCain, and only 29 percent ‘patriotic’ while 61 percent did Mc­Cain. Just under 20 percent consider Obama’s religion ‘a reason not to vote for him,’ perhaps a less surprising fact considering that 14 percent still think he is a Muslim.”

11.Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of the Spectacle (p. 111.). New York: Nation Books, 2009.

12. Ibid.

13. Peterson, Merrill D. The Portable Thomas Jefferson (p. 215.), New York: Penguin, 1975.

14. Boyd, Julian P. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Volume 2: 1777 to 18 June 1779 (pp. 526–27). Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 1950. Emphasis mine.

15. Boyd, Graham. “The Drug War Is the New Jim Crow.” NACLA Report on the Ameri­cas. July 31, 2001.

16. Peterson, Merrill D. The Portable Thomas Jefferson (p. 215.), New York: Penguin, 1975.

Susan Searls Giroux

Susan Searls Giroux is associate dean of humanities and an associate professor of English and cultural studies at McMaster University. Her most recent book, "Between Race and Reason: Violence, Intellectual Responsibility, and the University to Come" (Stanford UP), won the prestigious Gary A. Olson Award for Best Book Published in Rhetoric and Cultural Studies in 2010. She has also coauthored, with Henry Giroux, "Take Back Higher Education," and, with Jeffrey Nealon, "The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences Second Edition," a revised and expanded second edition of which appeared in summer 2011. She has published numerous articles in Third Text, Social Identities, The CLR James Journal, JAC, Works and Days, Cultural Critique, College Literature and Tikkun.


Hide Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus