Sunday, 26 October 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

Henry A. Giroux | Intellectuals as Subjects and Objects of Violence

Tuesday, 10 September 2013 09:17 By Henry A Giroux, Truthout | Op-Ed

Intellectuals as Objects and Subjects of Violence(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)Edward Snowden, Russ Tice, Thomas Drake, Jeremy Scahill, and Julian Assange, among others, have recently made clear what it means to embody respect for a public intellectual debate, moral witnessing and intellectual culture. They are not just whistle-blowers or disgruntled ex-employers but individuals who value ideas, think otherwise in order to act otherwise, and use the resources available to them to address important social issues with what might be called a fearsome sense of social responsibility and civic courage. Their anger is not treasonous or self-serving as some critics argue, it is the indispensable sensibility and righteous fury that fuels the meaning over what it means to take a moral and political stand and to continue the struggle to live in a substantive rather than fake democracy.

These are people who work with ideas, but are out of place in a society that only values ideas that serve the interests of the market and the powerful and rich.  Their alleged wrongdoings as intellectuals and truth tellers is that they have revealed the illegalities, military abuses, sordid diplomacy and crimes committed by the United States government in the name of security. Moreover, as scholars, scientists, educators, artists and journalists, they represent what C. Wright Mills once called the "organized memory of society" and refuse "to become hired technician[s] of the military machine."[1]

There is a long tradition of such intellectuals, especially from academia and the world of the arts, but they are members of a dying breed and their legacy is no longer celebrated as a crucial element of public memory. Whether we are talking about W. E. B. Dubois, Jane Jacobs, Edward Said, James Baldwin, Murray Bookchin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Harrington, C. Wright Mills, Paul Sweezy or Ellen Willis, these were bold intellectuals who wrote with vigor, passion and clarity and refused the role of mere technicians or lapdogs for established power. They embraced ideas critically and engaged them as a fundamental element of individual agency and social action. Such intellectuals addressed the totality of problems faced in the periods in which they lived, made their publications accessible, and spoke to multiple publics while never compromising the rigorous nature of their work. They worked hard to make knowledge, and what Foucault called, dangerous memories available to the public because they believed that the moral and cultural sensibilities that shaped society should be open to interrogation. They paved the way for the so-called whistle-blowers of today along with many current public intellectuals who refuse the seductions of power. Intellectuals of that generation who are still alive are now largely ignored and erased from the public discourse. 

Intellectuals of that older generation have become a rare breed who enriched public life. Unfortunately, they are a dying generation, and there are not too many intellectuals left who have followed in their footsteps. The role of such intellectuals has been chronicled brilliantly by both Russell Jacoby and Irving Howe, among others.[2]  What has not been commented on with the same detail, theoretical rigor and political precision is the emergence of the new anti-public intellectuals. Intellectuals who act in the service of power are not new, but with the rise of neoliberalism and the huge concentrations of wealth and power that have accompanied it, a new class of intellectuals in the service of casino capitalism has been created.  These intellectuals are now housed in various cultural apparatuses constructed by the financial elite and work to engulf the American public in a fog of ignorance and free-market ideology. We can finds hints of this conservative cultural apparatus with its machineries of public pedagogy in the Powell Memo of 1971, with its call for conservatives to create cultural apparatuses that would cancel out dissent, contain the excesses of democracy and undermine the demands of the student free speech, anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s. What has emerged since that time is a neoliberal historical conjuncture that has given rise to a new crop of anti-public intellectuals hatched in conservative think tanks and corporate-driven universities who are deeply wedded to a world more fitted to values and social relations of fictional monsters such as John Galt and Patrick Bateman.

Unlike an older generation of conservative intellectuals such as Edward Shils, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Norman Podhoretz, William Buckley and Allen Bloom, who believed in reasoned arguments, drew upon respected intellectual traditions, affirmed the world of ideas, and engaged in serious debates, the new anti-public intellectuals are ideologues who rant, speak in slogans, and wage a war on reason and the most fundamental institutions of democracy extending from public schools and labor unions to the notion of quality health care for all and the principles of the social contract. We hear and see them on Fox News, the Sunday talk shows, and their writings appear in the country's most respected op-ed pages.

Their legions are growing, and some of the most popular include Peggy Noonan, Thomas Freidman, Tucker Carlson, Juan Williams, S. E. Cupp and Judith Miller. Their more scurrilous hangers-on and lightweights include: Karl Rove, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. The anti-public intellectuals are rarely off-script, producing tirades against, among others: the less fortunate, who are seen as parasites; immigrants who threaten the identity of white Christian extremists; women who dare to argue for controlling their reproductive rights; and people of color, who are not American enough to deserve any voting rights. They deride science and evidence and embrace ideologies that place them squarely in the camp of the first Gilded Age, when corporations ruled the government, Jim Crow was the norm, women knew their place and education was simply another form of propaganda.  Much of what these Gilded Age anti-public intellectuals propose and argue for is not new. As Eric William Martin points out, "Many of the proposals themselves are old; not founding-fathers old, but early-20th-century old. They are the harvest of a century of rich people's movements."[3]

What the anti-public intellectuals never include in their screeds are any mention of a government corrupted by the titans of finance, banks and the mega rich, or the scope and extent of the military-industrial-academic-surveillance state and its threat to the most basic principles of democracy.[4] What does arouse their anger to fever pitch are those public intellectuals who dare to question authority, expose the crimes of corrupt politicians, and call into question the carcinogenic nature of a corporate state that has hijacked American democracy. This is most evident in the insults and patriotic gore heaped recently on Manning and Snowden, who are the latest in a group of young people whose only "crime" has been to expose the abusive powers of the national security state. Rather than being held up as exemplary public intellectuals and true patriots of democracy, they are disparaged as traitors, un-American or worse.

The role of the anti-public intellectuals in this instance is part of a much larger practice of self-deceit, self-promotion, and the shutting down of those formative cultures that give rise to intellectuals willing to take risks and fight for matters of freedom, justice, transparency and equality.  For too many intellectuals, both liberal and conservative, the flight from responsibility turns into a Faustian pact with a corrupt and commodified culture whose only allegiance is to accumulating capital and consolidating control over all aspects of the lives of the American public. Liberal anti-public intellectuals are more nuanced in their support for the status quo. They do not condemn critical intellectuals as un-American, they simply argue that there is no room for politics in the university and that academics, for instance, should save the world on their own time.[5] Such views disconnect pedagogy from any understanding of politics and in doing so make a false distinction between what Gayatri Spivak calls "the possibility of civic engagement and democratic action and teaching in the classroom."[6]  She argues that "this is a useless distinction because I think what you have to realize is that it is with the mind that one takes democratic action.  . . . The Freedom to teach, to expand the imagination as an instrument to think "world" is thus deeply political. It operates at the root of where the ethical imagination and the political mingle."[7]  C.W. Mills goes further and dismisses the attempt to take politics out of the classroom as part of the "cynical contempt of specialists."[8]  He then offers a defense for what public intellectuals do by insisting that: 

I do not believe that intellectuals will inevitably 'save the world,' although I see nothing at all wrong with 'trying to save the world'- a phrase which I take here to mean the avoidance of war and the rearrangement of human affairs in accordance with the ideals of human freedom and reason. But even if we think the chances dim, still we must ask: If there are any ways out of the crises of our epoch by means of the intellect, is it not up to intellectuals to state them?[9]

Intellectuals should provide a model for connecting scholarship and public life, address important social and political issues, speak to multiple audiences, help citizens come to a more critical and truthful understanding of their own views and their relations to others and the larger society. But they should do more than simply raise important questions, they should also work to create those public spheres and formative cultures in which matters of dialogue, thoughtfulness and critical exchange are both valued and proliferate. Zygmunt Bauman is right in arguing that it is the moral necessity and obligation of the intellectual to take responsibility for their responsibility - for ourselves, others and the larger world. Part of that responsibility entails becoming a moral witness, expanding the political imagination, and working with social movements in their efforts to advance social and economic justice, promote policies that are just, and make meaningful the promises of a radical democracy.

What might it mean for intellectuals to assume such a role, even if in limited spheres such as public and higher education?  At the very least, it would suggest educating students as informed and critical citizens by providing them with a language that will extend their sense of individual and social agency, deepen and enlarge their intellectual perspectives, and broaden their ability to think critically and engage with wider audiences.  Instead, we educate them to be either low-paid workers who despise the social wage or to become a potential workforce for the Walmart-prison-industrial complex. College campuses, once a hotbed of dissent, have become prime sites in developing weapons of death. Faculty has largely been reduced to adjuncts - out of 1.5 million faculty, more than 1 million hold temporary jobs.  Learning is being turned into a form of commerce or training.  Critical thought is now viewed as an excess in a culture in which a college education is simply a credential for getting a well-paid job.  At best, students are now trained or groomed to be ardent, unquestioning consumers - the children of Aldous Huxley's nightmares - who eventually define their intense investment in pleasure through forms of violence that provide increasingly the only thrill left in a society dominated by surveillance cameras, Reality TV, the culture of cruelty, and the mind-numbing experience of the ever-present shopping malls.

Against the onslaught of anti-public intellectuals, there is a more laudable role that intellectuals can develop such as working with other intellectuals and community groups in a variety of sites to address those important social, political and economic issues that are now destroying all vestiges of the public good and democracy - issues ranging from poverty, war, militarization, the war on women, the privatization and commodification of education, and the full-fledged corporate destruction of the environment.  Though the conditions supporting such practices are diminishing in American society, such public concerns and political interventions, which are largely educational in nature, are particularly crucial issues for those young people, educators and engaged citizens who are struggling to make education a central feature of politics. Instead of holding up billionaires such as Bill Gates, former trader and hedge-fund manager Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and celebrities such as Irish rocker Bono as public intellectuals, there is a need for this generation of youth to be exposed to public intellectuals who are working actively to develop those formative cultures in which social, cultural and economic conditions can be put in places that provide opportunities for young people to learn how to be engaged, socially responsible and critical agents.

In an age of intense militarization, selfishness, commodification and widespread injustices, educators, teachers, artists and other cultural workers must find new ways to struggle against being reduced to what Gramsci once called "experts in legitimation." Of course, there are remnants of such intellectuals such as Jeffrey St Clair, Eric Alterman, Katha Pollitt, Glenn Greenwald, and Thom Hartmann, among others, writing for alternative media such as The Nation, The Guardian, Truthout, CounterPunch, Truthdig and AlterNet and appearing on news programs such as "Democracy Now," but they constitute a small minority. And there is a small subgroup in and outside of the university - people such as David Theo Goldberg, David Palumbo-Liu, Stanley Aronowitz, Carol Becker, Chris Hedges, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Robin D. G. Kelley and others, but they constitute a small minority.

Some have argued, wrongly in my estimation, that such intellectuals, because they address a broader audience and public issues, betray the scholarly tradition by not being rigorous theoretically. I think this is a massive misreading of much of the work published by such intellectuals, as well as a distortion of what is often published in online journals such as Truthout, CounterPunch, and Truthdig.  In fact, Truthout often publishes substantive theoretically rigorous articles under its Public Intellectual Project that are accessible, address important social issues, and at the same time, attract large numbers of readers. I am inclined to believe that at the heart of this misinformed critique is an unadulterated nostalgia for those heady days when one could publish unintelligible articles in small journals and make the claim, generally uncontested, that one was an intellectual because one wrote in the idiom of high theory. Those days are gone, if they ever really existed so as to make a difference about anything that might concern addressing significant public issues.

What does it mean to be a public intellectual at a time when intellectual culture, thoughtful analyses and rigorous criticism are held in such low regard by much of the American public?  At the very least, public intellectuals should work diligently to enable people to translate private issues into public concerns. As C. Wright Mills pointed out some time ago, one of the great threats to a democracy is the collapse of the public into the private and the loss of the ability on the part of the public to connect private troubles to larger systemic issues. This politics of disconnect and its refusal to understand issues within broader historical and relational contexts is the function of a neoliberal mode of public pedagogy that is central to the success of the right-wing counterrevolution and has to be stopped. Clearly, there are a host of issues public intellectuals should be addressing extending from the assault on the environment and the social state to the increasing destruction being promoted worldwide by neoliberal policies against the social state and all democratic public spheres. Understanding how larger structural forces impact our lives offers a challenge to a society that begins and ends with the false chimera of individual responsibility and the myth of unlimited choices.

The influence of this type of atomization so central to casino capitalism does not merely play out as part of the paralyzing logic of the market. It is also present in the endless obsession with identity politics and the distressing fragmentation that has crippled the left and impeded the development of broader social movements in the United States. This is not to suggest that the feminist movement or the struggle for gay rights and related identity-based movements are not important, they are crucial to any viable struggle for a radical democracy, but they cannot be allowed to ossify into dogmatic ideologies and forms of political purity based on exclusionary principles and practices. What is crucial is that such intellectuals not get caught up in isolated and fragmented issues and movements that undermine their potential strengths as well as the ability to recognize the limitations of movements whose struggles are organized around particularistic rather than a more general sense of freedom and justice.

Any struggle for particular rights must be accompanied by the need to develop a larger conversation about society and what has to be done to dismantle its underlying structures of inequality of wealth and power so as to develop broader social movements built on a more organized and totalizing sense of politics and political change. At the same time, given the dire circumstances the world currently finds itself in, the late Tony Judt was at least partly right in arguing that in this day and age one responsible task of the intellectual may not be to imagine a better world in such narrow terms but to prevent the existing one from getting any worse. Of course, Judt spoke from a cautious pessimism that haunted him just before his death, but I am sure he would view that challenge as the most elemental task of the public intellectual and that it would represent just the beginning in a more sustained collective effort to move beyond pessimism to hope as part of a broader effort to restructure the entirety of a corrupt and antidemocratic society.

The dominant reactions to Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA and the PRISM program should shame us as a nation. As a result of revealing crucial information that the government unlawfully kept secret, he has been vilified by the media and labeled a criminal by the Obama administration. The real crime in this case is revealing that your government is wrongfully spying in multiple ways on almost all Americans, regardless of whether they have committed a crime or not. Kirsten Powers is right in arguing that the "real problem is that Snowden didn't understand that his role is to sit and be quiet while the 'best and the brightest' keep Americans in the dark about government snooping on private citizens."[10] In this scenario, the crimes of an authoritarian government appear to be off limits and beyond critique or accountability. In this Orwellian script, peace is truly war, and the acts of criminals are heroic.

Though it is a matter of public record that the US government has killed children through drone strikes in Afghanistan, lied about the reasons that led to the Iraqi war (reproducing a similar refrain for threatening to bomb Syria), refused to prosecute government officials and CIA operatives who openly admitted they either supported or committed torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public barely flinches when brave whistle-blowers are imprisoned, subjected to solitary confinement and labeled as traitors for exposing the crimes of their government. After 30 years of a market-driven immorality, political corruption and a culture of cruelty and irresponsibility, the American public appears lifeless as it moves through a fog of civic illiteracy and unchecked greed and power. All the while, too many Americans appear to be on life support, drowning in a tidal wave of a celebrity-driven commodified culture that makes stupidity a virtue, rewards armies of quasi-intellectuals who parade through the major news channels and talk shows while unabashedly renouncing all connections to civic courage and truth telling, and refuses to make the titans of finance and government accountable for their crimes.  As state and corporate terrorism proliferate, the quasi-intellectuals raise their voices and deliver their scripted slogans only to condemn those brave enough to expose the abuses of a government and corporate elites that undermine all vestiges of a democracy.

We have too many anti-public intellectuals or quasi-intellectuals who no longer believe in the intellectual vocation, truth telling, or the practice of freedom. What is new is not the repression of dissent by the government, but the scope and extent to which various types of intellectuals have been seduced by academia, corporations, the military-industrial-surveillance complex and the mass-culture industries. They have been absorbed into what C. Wright Mills called the power elite, and rather than criticize governmental and corporate propaganda, they produce and normalize it.[11] All one has to do is follow the career of academics such as David Steiner, Nathan Glazer, John Campbell, Glenn Hubbard or Martin Feldstein. Or for that matter the number of college presidents such as Ruth Simmons, one-time President of Brown University, and Debora Spar, president of Bernard College, both of whom sat on the board of directors of Goldman Sachs. There are also the examples of Susan Hockfoeld, the president of MIT who sat on the board of General Electric, and Carol Christ, the president of Smith College, who graced the board of Merrill Lynch with her presence. As Charles Ferguson points out in Predator Nation, this reads like a board of academic shame.[12]  One has to wonder how such powerful academics shaped or stifled the culture of questioning and dissent on their own campuses, especially when it might have been aimed at the types of institutions from which they derived their salaries and helped to legitimate as corporate models of leadership.  Walt Disney, the ultimate self-promoter and cheerleader for the free market would be turning over in his grave with envy in the face of this type of hubris.  

At the same time, those few critical and public intellectuals who voice their concerns almost never appear in the dominant media or are held up as heroic intellectuals. For example, Noam Chomsky, Stanley Aronowitz, Angela Davis and many other public intellectuals well-known in the alternative media are completely absent from the dominant cultural apparatuses. And while many notable public intellectuals are simply erased from the mainstream media, there are others who are removed from textbooks, deleted from the intellectual archive of the country or renounced simply as traitors. A perfect example of this type of censorship and anti-intellectualism was on full display recently when it was revealed by the Associated Press that former Indiana Governor and George W. Bush adviser Mitch Daniels tried to remove a work of Howard Zinn (which has sold over a million copies) from the state's schools in 2010 claiming that The People's History of the United States is a "truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page."[13] There is more than ignorance at work here. There is a willful refusal to know - a type of ideological fundamentalism that thrives on certainty and finds its final resting place in "laboratories of totalitarian regimes."[14] This atrocious act of censorship and ideological rigidity did nothing to slow down Daniels' career as he was recently appointed to be the president of Purdue University, the second largest university in Indiana. With the likes of neoliberal CEOs and conservative warriors such as Daniels heading major universities, it is understandable to find that public intellectuals are in short supply in academia - with many faculty now retreating into impenetrable vocabularies, irrelevant specializations, or crossing over and becoming complicit in serving the interest of the military-industrial-academic complex.[15]

At a time when American society is immersed in the psychosis of war and capital accumulation regardless of the social costs, intellectuals, artists, media pundits, academics, journalists, and other cultural workers should be engaged in a critical dialogue with the American public, and if they are not, I think it is fair to say that they are not public intellectuals and function more like bureaucrats, specialists, and technicians, or even worse, become complicit with the warfare-surveillance state.  Those who work in the realm of ideas and willingly retreat from the notion of intellectual work as a vocation in the pursuit of truth telling and the practice of freedom have been reduced to a subaltern class of legitimation technicians who expand the culture of conformity and the machineries of war, violence and death, even when they are not aware of what the consequences of their withdrawal from society implies. On the other hand, public intellectuals who do engage society critically to expose the mad violence of war, mass surveillance and hyper-nationalism are on the wane, and rather than command attention and respect are relegated to the status of being unprofessional, un-American, or even worse, traitors. A shameful example of this type of hyper-patriotic baiting was on full display when David Gregory, the host of "Meet the Press Sunday," asked Glenn Greenwald why he should not be charged with a crime given his dealings with Edward Snowden. Not only was Gregory impugning the critical work that journalists should do as part of the fifth estate, but actually suggesting that journalists who help expose government corruption and illegality should be subject to criminal punishment. Welcome to 1984.

Since the 1970s, public intellectuals have been under attack, especially in the United States. Dissent is now disparaged, repressed and subject to criminal prosecution as in the widely publicized examples of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. At the same time, the neoliberal coma of normalization and anti-intellectualism has radically undermined those public spheres and formative cultures that are capable and crucial to the production of public intellectuals, dissent and displays of collective civic courage. That is, higher education, the culture industry, and other crucial public spheres have largely been commodified, subject to the imperatives of a casino capitalism that only views intellectuals as servants of the state, military-industrial complex, and corporations. In addition to the ideological and structural crises facing intellectuals, there is the emergence of new electronic and screen technologies that, in the absence of strong public values, can dampen any vestige of critical thought and civic literacy, making it all the more difficult for individuals to think critically, take risks, and act with a sense of civic courage. It has become too easy today for intellectuals to sell their wares to the big banks, financial services and other corporate behemoths that control the commanding institutions of most societies in the West.

The problem goes deeper. Within higher education, what passes as critical pedagogy and teaching has been instrumentalized, stripped of its critical vocation, and is now largely a resource for corporate and military interests.[16] Higher education is increasingly dominated by specialists and data collectors who have become largely servants of the state. The institution has lost its identity, if not relevance, as a source of scholarship serving the public good. Its mission as a democratic public sphere has been eroded in the last 40 years. Part of this retreat from democratic values and any viable notion of the common good is largely due to the increasing corporatization of the university on one hand and the rise of privatized, corporate-funded foundations and the unceasing attack by right-wing cultural warriors, on the other, who mostly produce their own apparatchiks, unapologetically functioning as anti-public intellectuals and uncritical hacks.[17] The Koch brothers for instance are not simply part of the 1%, an economic force that generates massive amounts of inequality in wealth, power and income, they also command a wide swath of cultural apparatuses that produce a mammoth source of public pedagogy waging war against all vestiges of the public good, including public education, unions, nonprofit media, the social wage and any public sphere that does not bear the paralyzing imprint of the market. The Koch brothers and their neoliberal allies have created multiple dead zones of the imagination, spaces where critical thought is hijacked and turned into a cesspool of conformity.

At the same time as higher education comes under the influence of neoliberal modes of governance, faculty are reduced to a largely contingent and part-time subaltern class of underpaid workers, modeled after the labor practices of Walmart.  Too many young faculty and students are deep in debt and their positions are too precarious for them to speak out critically in and out of the classroom on important social issues for fear of losing their jobs.  Similarly, in too many cases, the distorted and business-driven notion of professionalization that increasingly drives certain areas such as the social sciences, humanities and liberal arts sanction and reward modes of scholarship steeped in forms of jargon and specialized languages that a very limited number of people can understand and serves largely to render such work irrelevant in addressing important public issues and communicating to wider publics. There is more than a deskilling of academics at work here, there is also the bullying neoliberal culture of depoliticization.

The instrumental logic of the data collectors too often finds its counterpart in those intellectuals who are lost in their careers and endlessly interview themselves. They do everything they can to make themselves irrelevant while undermining the development of a healthy sense of intellectual vocation and the need for intellectuals to address human suffering, make power accountable, and interpret, question, and interrogate authority rather than simply succumb to it. The issue of how knowledge, values, and social relations are implicated in particular forms of power and legitimate existing social relations and a specific notion of the future is ignored. Rather than address wider publics, they scorn and disdain them, all done with the kind of snobbery and stale witticism that implies how smug this particular class of depoliticized intellectuals have become.  All too often, the only force that offsets them in the academy are a small but loud group of militarized sectarians who argue for a mind-numbing anti-intellectual discourse that collapses intellectual inquiry into biology or into what they call the need for safe spaces. As if intellectual engagement should be attacked for being provocative, unsettling, and willing to contest the common-sense assumptions that students often inhabit.

Of course, education does not merely take place in the institutions of schooling. Most of what people learn today comes from the old, and new cultural apparatuses with their myriad of technologies that raise the issue of intellectual violence to a whole new level. What seems indisputable is that the commanding media, in all of their manifestations from newspapers, radio, television and film leave very little room for critique, substantive dialogue, and informed judgment. These media are mostly engaged in what Chomsky called manufactured consent, producing spectacles of violence, and pushing a celebrity culture that becomes the ultimate model of an enervating mode of consumption. The commanding media are undeniably controlled by a very limited number of mega corporations and mostly offer a venue for whom Pierre Bourdieu called "fast intellectuals" - often second-rate scholars and idiotic pundits - who corner the market in slogans and trendy answers that surprise no one and whose truth value is disregarded next to how they improve audience ratings.[18]

Loyalty to fame, money and authority is far more important to the fast intellectuals than the truth, a sense of social responsibility, or a passion and commitment to a more just world.  These intellectuals do not enrich public life; they degrade it.  At the same time, in the age of digital and electronic media, with its expanding platforms of communication and screen cultures, public intellectuals for the first time since the 1970s have the power to expand their audiences and engage in a level of critical engagement that is crucial to the fate of any civilized democratic society.  Public intellectuals must use whatever resources are available to question the vocabularies, institutions, ideologies and values of neoliberalism and other authoritarian forces of war, violence and privatization that are now threatening the planet. The new media offer a space and opportunity for intellectuals to engage in a new utopian discourse, one in which progressive social change becomes imaginable just as a future is viewed in terms that refuse to imitate the present. Public intellectuals must refuse all vestiges of sectarianism, political purity and moral absolutism. They must engage in modes of self-critique, tempered with an ability to listen to others and a willingness to display what Orwell called the rare moral and political beauty of the "offensiveness" of truth telling and the willingness to make power and authority accountable. Surely, this has to be the foundation for not just imagining a better world, but also collectively struggling for it. We live at a time when those who have the courage to hold authority accountable are treated like criminals and those who, under the authority of the state and mega corporations, commit horrendous crimes are treated as patriots and models of leadership.  The Patrick Batemens of America Psycho are the new normal, and now they are threatening to bomb Syria to make the point that only violence can play an important mediating role in any conflict or be used as the primary resource to address major problems.  In actuality, they have been making that point since the 1960s, and we see its legacy in the needless death of millions of innocent people whose memory demands that intellectuals speak up and challenge the machinery of death that now speaks in the name of empire.



1.

C. Wright Mills, The Causes of World War Three (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958), pp. 124-125.

2.

See, for instance, Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals (New York: Basic Books, 1982) for an analyses and description of such intellectual practices.  See the excellent collection of commentary by Irving Howe, Selected Writings 1950-1990, especially the chapter, "The Age of Conformity," (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), pp. 26-49.

3.

Eric William Martin, "The 1 percent played Tea Party for suckers," Salon (September 7, 2013). Online:  

4.

On the issue of surveillance and its all-embracing tentacles in regulating society, see Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon, Liquid Surveilllance (London: Polity, 2013).

5.

See, for instance, Stanley Fish, Save the World On Your Own Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

6.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Changing Reflexes: Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak," Works and Days, 55/56: Vol. 28, 2010, p. 3. 

7.

Ibid., Gayatri Spivak, pp. 2-3.

8.

Mills, The Causes of World War Three (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958), p. 133.

9. Ibid, Mills, The Causes of World War Three, p. 133.

10.

Kirsten Powers, "The Sickening Snowden Backlash," The Daily Beast (June 14, 2013). 

11.

C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957).

12.

Charles Ferguson, Predator Nation (New York: Crown Business, 2013).

13.

Alex Beam, "A foolish attempt to purge Howard Zinn," The Boston Globe (August 22, 2013). Online:  

14.

  Richard J. Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil (London: Polity Press, 2005), p. 5.

15.

I take up this issue in detail in The University In Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Boulder: Paradigm, 2007).

16. David H. Price, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011).

17.

See Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008); Henry A. Giroux and Susan Searls Giroux, Take Back Higher Education (New York: Palgrave, 2004).

18.

Pierre Bourdieu, On Television (New York: the New Press, 1999).

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission of the author.

Henry A Giroux

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books include:  On Critical Pedagogy (Continuum, 2011), Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability (Paradigm 2012), Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty (Routledge 2012), Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm 2013), and The Educational Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), America's Disimagination Machine (City Lights) and Higher Education After Neoliberalism (Haymarket) will be published in 2014). Giroux is also a member of Truthout's Board of Directors. His web site is www.henryagiroux.com. Truthout readers receive a 30% discount by clicking the link and inserting the Code: TOGIR (please note that this code is cap-sensitive) on the following books: Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future, March 2013; The Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Politics in an Age of Disposability, April 2012; Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror, August 2010; Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race, and Democracy, April 2010; and The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, June 2007.


Hide Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus
GET DAILY TRUTHOUT UPDATES

FOLLOW togtorsstottofb


Henry A. Giroux | Intellectuals as Subjects and Objects of Violence

Tuesday, 10 September 2013 09:17 By Henry A Giroux, Truthout | Op-Ed

Intellectuals as Objects and Subjects of Violence(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)Edward Snowden, Russ Tice, Thomas Drake, Jeremy Scahill, and Julian Assange, among others, have recently made clear what it means to embody respect for a public intellectual debate, moral witnessing and intellectual culture. They are not just whistle-blowers or disgruntled ex-employers but individuals who value ideas, think otherwise in order to act otherwise, and use the resources available to them to address important social issues with what might be called a fearsome sense of social responsibility and civic courage. Their anger is not treasonous or self-serving as some critics argue, it is the indispensable sensibility and righteous fury that fuels the meaning over what it means to take a moral and political stand and to continue the struggle to live in a substantive rather than fake democracy.

These are people who work with ideas, but are out of place in a society that only values ideas that serve the interests of the market and the powerful and rich.  Their alleged wrongdoings as intellectuals and truth tellers is that they have revealed the illegalities, military abuses, sordid diplomacy and crimes committed by the United States government in the name of security. Moreover, as scholars, scientists, educators, artists and journalists, they represent what C. Wright Mills once called the "organized memory of society" and refuse "to become hired technician[s] of the military machine."[1]

There is a long tradition of such intellectuals, especially from academia and the world of the arts, but they are members of a dying breed and their legacy is no longer celebrated as a crucial element of public memory. Whether we are talking about W. E. B. Dubois, Jane Jacobs, Edward Said, James Baldwin, Murray Bookchin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Harrington, C. Wright Mills, Paul Sweezy or Ellen Willis, these were bold intellectuals who wrote with vigor, passion and clarity and refused the role of mere technicians or lapdogs for established power. They embraced ideas critically and engaged them as a fundamental element of individual agency and social action. Such intellectuals addressed the totality of problems faced in the periods in which they lived, made their publications accessible, and spoke to multiple publics while never compromising the rigorous nature of their work. They worked hard to make knowledge, and what Foucault called, dangerous memories available to the public because they believed that the moral and cultural sensibilities that shaped society should be open to interrogation. They paved the way for the so-called whistle-blowers of today along with many current public intellectuals who refuse the seductions of power. Intellectuals of that generation who are still alive are now largely ignored and erased from the public discourse. 

Intellectuals of that older generation have become a rare breed who enriched public life. Unfortunately, they are a dying generation, and there are not too many intellectuals left who have followed in their footsteps. The role of such intellectuals has been chronicled brilliantly by both Russell Jacoby and Irving Howe, among others.[2]  What has not been commented on with the same detail, theoretical rigor and political precision is the emergence of the new anti-public intellectuals. Intellectuals who act in the service of power are not new, but with the rise of neoliberalism and the huge concentrations of wealth and power that have accompanied it, a new class of intellectuals in the service of casino capitalism has been created.  These intellectuals are now housed in various cultural apparatuses constructed by the financial elite and work to engulf the American public in a fog of ignorance and free-market ideology. We can finds hints of this conservative cultural apparatus with its machineries of public pedagogy in the Powell Memo of 1971, with its call for conservatives to create cultural apparatuses that would cancel out dissent, contain the excesses of democracy and undermine the demands of the student free speech, anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s. What has emerged since that time is a neoliberal historical conjuncture that has given rise to a new crop of anti-public intellectuals hatched in conservative think tanks and corporate-driven universities who are deeply wedded to a world more fitted to values and social relations of fictional monsters such as John Galt and Patrick Bateman.

Unlike an older generation of conservative intellectuals such as Edward Shils, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Norman Podhoretz, William Buckley and Allen Bloom, who believed in reasoned arguments, drew upon respected intellectual traditions, affirmed the world of ideas, and engaged in serious debates, the new anti-public intellectuals are ideologues who rant, speak in slogans, and wage a war on reason and the most fundamental institutions of democracy extending from public schools and labor unions to the notion of quality health care for all and the principles of the social contract. We hear and see them on Fox News, the Sunday talk shows, and their writings appear in the country's most respected op-ed pages.

Their legions are growing, and some of the most popular include Peggy Noonan, Thomas Freidman, Tucker Carlson, Juan Williams, S. E. Cupp and Judith Miller. Their more scurrilous hangers-on and lightweights include: Karl Rove, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. The anti-public intellectuals are rarely off-script, producing tirades against, among others: the less fortunate, who are seen as parasites; immigrants who threaten the identity of white Christian extremists; women who dare to argue for controlling their reproductive rights; and people of color, who are not American enough to deserve any voting rights. They deride science and evidence and embrace ideologies that place them squarely in the camp of the first Gilded Age, when corporations ruled the government, Jim Crow was the norm, women knew their place and education was simply another form of propaganda.  Much of what these Gilded Age anti-public intellectuals propose and argue for is not new. As Eric William Martin points out, "Many of the proposals themselves are old; not founding-fathers old, but early-20th-century old. They are the harvest of a century of rich people's movements."[3]

What the anti-public intellectuals never include in their screeds are any mention of a government corrupted by the titans of finance, banks and the mega rich, or the scope and extent of the military-industrial-academic-surveillance state and its threat to the most basic principles of democracy.[4] What does arouse their anger to fever pitch are those public intellectuals who dare to question authority, expose the crimes of corrupt politicians, and call into question the carcinogenic nature of a corporate state that has hijacked American democracy. This is most evident in the insults and patriotic gore heaped recently on Manning and Snowden, who are the latest in a group of young people whose only "crime" has been to expose the abusive powers of the national security state. Rather than being held up as exemplary public intellectuals and true patriots of democracy, they are disparaged as traitors, un-American or worse.

The role of the anti-public intellectuals in this instance is part of a much larger practice of self-deceit, self-promotion, and the shutting down of those formative cultures that give rise to intellectuals willing to take risks and fight for matters of freedom, justice, transparency and equality.  For too many intellectuals, both liberal and conservative, the flight from responsibility turns into a Faustian pact with a corrupt and commodified culture whose only allegiance is to accumulating capital and consolidating control over all aspects of the lives of the American public. Liberal anti-public intellectuals are more nuanced in their support for the status quo. They do not condemn critical intellectuals as un-American, they simply argue that there is no room for politics in the university and that academics, for instance, should save the world on their own time.[5] Such views disconnect pedagogy from any understanding of politics and in doing so make a false distinction between what Gayatri Spivak calls "the possibility of civic engagement and democratic action and teaching in the classroom."[6]  She argues that "this is a useless distinction because I think what you have to realize is that it is with the mind that one takes democratic action.  . . . The Freedom to teach, to expand the imagination as an instrument to think "world" is thus deeply political. It operates at the root of where the ethical imagination and the political mingle."[7]  C.W. Mills goes further and dismisses the attempt to take politics out of the classroom as part of the "cynical contempt of specialists."[8]  He then offers a defense for what public intellectuals do by insisting that: 

I do not believe that intellectuals will inevitably 'save the world,' although I see nothing at all wrong with 'trying to save the world'- a phrase which I take here to mean the avoidance of war and the rearrangement of human affairs in accordance with the ideals of human freedom and reason. But even if we think the chances dim, still we must ask: If there are any ways out of the crises of our epoch by means of the intellect, is it not up to intellectuals to state them?[9]

Intellectuals should provide a model for connecting scholarship and public life, address important social and political issues, speak to multiple audiences, help citizens come to a more critical and truthful understanding of their own views and their relations to others and the larger society. But they should do more than simply raise important questions, they should also work to create those public spheres and formative cultures in which matters of dialogue, thoughtfulness and critical exchange are both valued and proliferate. Zygmunt Bauman is right in arguing that it is the moral necessity and obligation of the intellectual to take responsibility for their responsibility - for ourselves, others and the larger world. Part of that responsibility entails becoming a moral witness, expanding the political imagination, and working with social movements in their efforts to advance social and economic justice, promote policies that are just, and make meaningful the promises of a radical democracy.

What might it mean for intellectuals to assume such a role, even if in limited spheres such as public and higher education?  At the very least, it would suggest educating students as informed and critical citizens by providing them with a language that will extend their sense of individual and social agency, deepen and enlarge their intellectual perspectives, and broaden their ability to think critically and engage with wider audiences.  Instead, we educate them to be either low-paid workers who despise the social wage or to become a potential workforce for the Walmart-prison-industrial complex. College campuses, once a hotbed of dissent, have become prime sites in developing weapons of death. Faculty has largely been reduced to adjuncts - out of 1.5 million faculty, more than 1 million hold temporary jobs.  Learning is being turned into a form of commerce or training.  Critical thought is now viewed as an excess in a culture in which a college education is simply a credential for getting a well-paid job.  At best, students are now trained or groomed to be ardent, unquestioning consumers - the children of Aldous Huxley's nightmares - who eventually define their intense investment in pleasure through forms of violence that provide increasingly the only thrill left in a society dominated by surveillance cameras, Reality TV, the culture of cruelty, and the mind-numbing experience of the ever-present shopping malls.

Against the onslaught of anti-public intellectuals, there is a more laudable role that intellectuals can develop such as working with other intellectuals and community groups in a variety of sites to address those important social, political and economic issues that are now destroying all vestiges of the public good and democracy - issues ranging from poverty, war, militarization, the war on women, the privatization and commodification of education, and the full-fledged corporate destruction of the environment.  Though the conditions supporting such practices are diminishing in American society, such public concerns and political interventions, which are largely educational in nature, are particularly crucial issues for those young people, educators and engaged citizens who are struggling to make education a central feature of politics. Instead of holding up billionaires such as Bill Gates, former trader and hedge-fund manager Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and celebrities such as Irish rocker Bono as public intellectuals, there is a need for this generation of youth to be exposed to public intellectuals who are working actively to develop those formative cultures in which social, cultural and economic conditions can be put in places that provide opportunities for young people to learn how to be engaged, socially responsible and critical agents.

In an age of intense militarization, selfishness, commodification and widespread injustices, educators, teachers, artists and other cultural workers must find new ways to struggle against being reduced to what Gramsci once called "experts in legitimation." Of course, there are remnants of such intellectuals such as Jeffrey St Clair, Eric Alterman, Katha Pollitt, Glenn Greenwald, and Thom Hartmann, among others, writing for alternative media such as The Nation, The Guardian, Truthout, CounterPunch, Truthdig and AlterNet and appearing on news programs such as "Democracy Now," but they constitute a small minority. And there is a small subgroup in and outside of the university - people such as David Theo Goldberg, David Palumbo-Liu, Stanley Aronowitz, Carol Becker, Chris Hedges, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Robin D. G. Kelley and others, but they constitute a small minority.

Some have argued, wrongly in my estimation, that such intellectuals, because they address a broader audience and public issues, betray the scholarly tradition by not being rigorous theoretically. I think this is a massive misreading of much of the work published by such intellectuals, as well as a distortion of what is often published in online journals such as Truthout, CounterPunch, and Truthdig.  In fact, Truthout often publishes substantive theoretically rigorous articles under its Public Intellectual Project that are accessible, address important social issues, and at the same time, attract large numbers of readers. I am inclined to believe that at the heart of this misinformed critique is an unadulterated nostalgia for those heady days when one could publish unintelligible articles in small journals and make the claim, generally uncontested, that one was an intellectual because one wrote in the idiom of high theory. Those days are gone, if they ever really existed so as to make a difference about anything that might concern addressing significant public issues.

What does it mean to be a public intellectual at a time when intellectual culture, thoughtful analyses and rigorous criticism are held in such low regard by much of the American public?  At the very least, public intellectuals should work diligently to enable people to translate private issues into public concerns. As C. Wright Mills pointed out some time ago, one of the great threats to a democracy is the collapse of the public into the private and the loss of the ability on the part of the public to connect private troubles to larger systemic issues. This politics of disconnect and its refusal to understand issues within broader historical and relational contexts is the function of a neoliberal mode of public pedagogy that is central to the success of the right-wing counterrevolution and has to be stopped. Clearly, there are a host of issues public intellectuals should be addressing extending from the assault on the environment and the social state to the increasing destruction being promoted worldwide by neoliberal policies against the social state and all democratic public spheres. Understanding how larger structural forces impact our lives offers a challenge to a society that begins and ends with the false chimera of individual responsibility and the myth of unlimited choices.

The influence of this type of atomization so central to casino capitalism does not merely play out as part of the paralyzing logic of the market. It is also present in the endless obsession with identity politics and the distressing fragmentation that has crippled the left and impeded the development of broader social movements in the United States. This is not to suggest that the feminist movement or the struggle for gay rights and related identity-based movements are not important, they are crucial to any viable struggle for a radical democracy, but they cannot be allowed to ossify into dogmatic ideologies and forms of political purity based on exclusionary principles and practices. What is crucial is that such intellectuals not get caught up in isolated and fragmented issues and movements that undermine their potential strengths as well as the ability to recognize the limitations of movements whose struggles are organized around particularistic rather than a more general sense of freedom and justice.

Any struggle for particular rights must be accompanied by the need to develop a larger conversation about society and what has to be done to dismantle its underlying structures of inequality of wealth and power so as to develop broader social movements built on a more organized and totalizing sense of politics and political change. At the same time, given the dire circumstances the world currently finds itself in, the late Tony Judt was at least partly right in arguing that in this day and age one responsible task of the intellectual may not be to imagine a better world in such narrow terms but to prevent the existing one from getting any worse. Of course, Judt spoke from a cautious pessimism that haunted him just before his death, but I am sure he would view that challenge as the most elemental task of the public intellectual and that it would represent just the beginning in a more sustained collective effort to move beyond pessimism to hope as part of a broader effort to restructure the entirety of a corrupt and antidemocratic society.

The dominant reactions to Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA and the PRISM program should shame us as a nation. As a result of revealing crucial information that the government unlawfully kept secret, he has been vilified by the media and labeled a criminal by the Obama administration. The real crime in this case is revealing that your government is wrongfully spying in multiple ways on almost all Americans, regardless of whether they have committed a crime or not. Kirsten Powers is right in arguing that the "real problem is that Snowden didn't understand that his role is to sit and be quiet while the 'best and the brightest' keep Americans in the dark about government snooping on private citizens."[10] In this scenario, the crimes of an authoritarian government appear to be off limits and beyond critique or accountability. In this Orwellian script, peace is truly war, and the acts of criminals are heroic.

Though it is a matter of public record that the US government has killed children through drone strikes in Afghanistan, lied about the reasons that led to the Iraqi war (reproducing a similar refrain for threatening to bomb Syria), refused to prosecute government officials and CIA operatives who openly admitted they either supported or committed torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public barely flinches when brave whistle-blowers are imprisoned, subjected to solitary confinement and labeled as traitors for exposing the crimes of their government. After 30 years of a market-driven immorality, political corruption and a culture of cruelty and irresponsibility, the American public appears lifeless as it moves through a fog of civic illiteracy and unchecked greed and power. All the while, too many Americans appear to be on life support, drowning in a tidal wave of a celebrity-driven commodified culture that makes stupidity a virtue, rewards armies of quasi-intellectuals who parade through the major news channels and talk shows while unabashedly renouncing all connections to civic courage and truth telling, and refuses to make the titans of finance and government accountable for their crimes.  As state and corporate terrorism proliferate, the quasi-intellectuals raise their voices and deliver their scripted slogans only to condemn those brave enough to expose the abuses of a government and corporate elites that undermine all vestiges of a democracy.

We have too many anti-public intellectuals or quasi-intellectuals who no longer believe in the intellectual vocation, truth telling, or the practice of freedom. What is new is not the repression of dissent by the government, but the scope and extent to which various types of intellectuals have been seduced by academia, corporations, the military-industrial-surveillance complex and the mass-culture industries. They have been absorbed into what C. Wright Mills called the power elite, and rather than criticize governmental and corporate propaganda, they produce and normalize it.[11] All one has to do is follow the career of academics such as David Steiner, Nathan Glazer, John Campbell, Glenn Hubbard or Martin Feldstein. Or for that matter the number of college presidents such as Ruth Simmons, one-time President of Brown University, and Debora Spar, president of Bernard College, both of whom sat on the board of directors of Goldman Sachs. There are also the examples of Susan Hockfoeld, the president of MIT who sat on the board of General Electric, and Carol Christ, the president of Smith College, who graced the board of Merrill Lynch with her presence. As Charles Ferguson points out in Predator Nation, this reads like a board of academic shame.[12]  One has to wonder how such powerful academics shaped or stifled the culture of questioning and dissent on their own campuses, especially when it might have been aimed at the types of institutions from which they derived their salaries and helped to legitimate as corporate models of leadership.  Walt Disney, the ultimate self-promoter and cheerleader for the free market would be turning over in his grave with envy in the face of this type of hubris.  

At the same time, those few critical and public intellectuals who voice their concerns almost never appear in the dominant media or are held up as heroic intellectuals. For example, Noam Chomsky, Stanley Aronowitz, Angela Davis and many other public intellectuals well-known in the alternative media are completely absent from the dominant cultural apparatuses. And while many notable public intellectuals are simply erased from the mainstream media, there are others who are removed from textbooks, deleted from the intellectual archive of the country or renounced simply as traitors. A perfect example of this type of censorship and anti-intellectualism was on full display recently when it was revealed by the Associated Press that former Indiana Governor and George W. Bush adviser Mitch Daniels tried to remove a work of Howard Zinn (which has sold over a million copies) from the state's schools in 2010 claiming that The People's History of the United States is a "truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page."[13] There is more than ignorance at work here. There is a willful refusal to know - a type of ideological fundamentalism that thrives on certainty and finds its final resting place in "laboratories of totalitarian regimes."[14] This atrocious act of censorship and ideological rigidity did nothing to slow down Daniels' career as he was recently appointed to be the president of Purdue University, the second largest university in Indiana. With the likes of neoliberal CEOs and conservative warriors such as Daniels heading major universities, it is understandable to find that public intellectuals are in short supply in academia - with many faculty now retreating into impenetrable vocabularies, irrelevant specializations, or crossing over and becoming complicit in serving the interest of the military-industrial-academic complex.[15]

At a time when American society is immersed in the psychosis of war and capital accumulation regardless of the social costs, intellectuals, artists, media pundits, academics, journalists, and other cultural workers should be engaged in a critical dialogue with the American public, and if they are not, I think it is fair to say that they are not public intellectuals and function more like bureaucrats, specialists, and technicians, or even worse, become complicit with the warfare-surveillance state.  Those who work in the realm of ideas and willingly retreat from the notion of intellectual work as a vocation in the pursuit of truth telling and the practice of freedom have been reduced to a subaltern class of legitimation technicians who expand the culture of conformity and the machineries of war, violence and death, even when they are not aware of what the consequences of their withdrawal from society implies. On the other hand, public intellectuals who do engage society critically to expose the mad violence of war, mass surveillance and hyper-nationalism are on the wane, and rather than command attention and respect are relegated to the status of being unprofessional, un-American, or even worse, traitors. A shameful example of this type of hyper-patriotic baiting was on full display when David Gregory, the host of "Meet the Press Sunday," asked Glenn Greenwald why he should not be charged with a crime given his dealings with Edward Snowden. Not only was Gregory impugning the critical work that journalists should do as part of the fifth estate, but actually suggesting that journalists who help expose government corruption and illegality should be subject to criminal punishment. Welcome to 1984.

Since the 1970s, public intellectuals have been under attack, especially in the United States. Dissent is now disparaged, repressed and subject to criminal prosecution as in the widely publicized examples of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. At the same time, the neoliberal coma of normalization and anti-intellectualism has radically undermined those public spheres and formative cultures that are capable and crucial to the production of public intellectuals, dissent and displays of collective civic courage. That is, higher education, the culture industry, and other crucial public spheres have largely been commodified, subject to the imperatives of a casino capitalism that only views intellectuals as servants of the state, military-industrial complex, and corporations. In addition to the ideological and structural crises facing intellectuals, there is the emergence of new electronic and screen technologies that, in the absence of strong public values, can dampen any vestige of critical thought and civic literacy, making it all the more difficult for individuals to think critically, take risks, and act with a sense of civic courage. It has become too easy today for intellectuals to sell their wares to the big banks, financial services and other corporate behemoths that control the commanding institutions of most societies in the West.

The problem goes deeper. Within higher education, what passes as critical pedagogy and teaching has been instrumentalized, stripped of its critical vocation, and is now largely a resource for corporate and military interests.[16] Higher education is increasingly dominated by specialists and data collectors who have become largely servants of the state. The institution has lost its identity, if not relevance, as a source of scholarship serving the public good. Its mission as a democratic public sphere has been eroded in the last 40 years. Part of this retreat from democratic values and any viable notion of the common good is largely due to the increasing corporatization of the university on one hand and the rise of privatized, corporate-funded foundations and the unceasing attack by right-wing cultural warriors, on the other, who mostly produce their own apparatchiks, unapologetically functioning as anti-public intellectuals and uncritical hacks.[17] The Koch brothers for instance are not simply part of the 1%, an economic force that generates massive amounts of inequality in wealth, power and income, they also command a wide swath of cultural apparatuses that produce a mammoth source of public pedagogy waging war against all vestiges of the public good, including public education, unions, nonprofit media, the social wage and any public sphere that does not bear the paralyzing imprint of the market. The Koch brothers and their neoliberal allies have created multiple dead zones of the imagination, spaces where critical thought is hijacked and turned into a cesspool of conformity.

At the same time as higher education comes under the influence of neoliberal modes of governance, faculty are reduced to a largely contingent and part-time subaltern class of underpaid workers, modeled after the labor practices of Walmart.  Too many young faculty and students are deep in debt and their positions are too precarious for them to speak out critically in and out of the classroom on important social issues for fear of losing their jobs.  Similarly, in too many cases, the distorted and business-driven notion of professionalization that increasingly drives certain areas such as the social sciences, humanities and liberal arts sanction and reward modes of scholarship steeped in forms of jargon and specialized languages that a very limited number of people can understand and serves largely to render such work irrelevant in addressing important public issues and communicating to wider publics. There is more than a deskilling of academics at work here, there is also the bullying neoliberal culture of depoliticization.

The instrumental logic of the data collectors too often finds its counterpart in those intellectuals who are lost in their careers and endlessly interview themselves. They do everything they can to make themselves irrelevant while undermining the development of a healthy sense of intellectual vocation and the need for intellectuals to address human suffering, make power accountable, and interpret, question, and interrogate authority rather than simply succumb to it. The issue of how knowledge, values, and social relations are implicated in particular forms of power and legitimate existing social relations and a specific notion of the future is ignored. Rather than address wider publics, they scorn and disdain them, all done with the kind of snobbery and stale witticism that implies how smug this particular class of depoliticized intellectuals have become.  All too often, the only force that offsets them in the academy are a small but loud group of militarized sectarians who argue for a mind-numbing anti-intellectual discourse that collapses intellectual inquiry into biology or into what they call the need for safe spaces. As if intellectual engagement should be attacked for being provocative, unsettling, and willing to contest the common-sense assumptions that students often inhabit.

Of course, education does not merely take place in the institutions of schooling. Most of what people learn today comes from the old, and new cultural apparatuses with their myriad of technologies that raise the issue of intellectual violence to a whole new level. What seems indisputable is that the commanding media, in all of their manifestations from newspapers, radio, television and film leave very little room for critique, substantive dialogue, and informed judgment. These media are mostly engaged in what Chomsky called manufactured consent, producing spectacles of violence, and pushing a celebrity culture that becomes the ultimate model of an enervating mode of consumption. The commanding media are undeniably controlled by a very limited number of mega corporations and mostly offer a venue for whom Pierre Bourdieu called "fast intellectuals" - often second-rate scholars and idiotic pundits - who corner the market in slogans and trendy answers that surprise no one and whose truth value is disregarded next to how they improve audience ratings.[18]

Loyalty to fame, money and authority is far more important to the fast intellectuals than the truth, a sense of social responsibility, or a passion and commitment to a more just world.  These intellectuals do not enrich public life; they degrade it.  At the same time, in the age of digital and electronic media, with its expanding platforms of communication and screen cultures, public intellectuals for the first time since the 1970s have the power to expand their audiences and engage in a level of critical engagement that is crucial to the fate of any civilized democratic society.  Public intellectuals must use whatever resources are available to question the vocabularies, institutions, ideologies and values of neoliberalism and other authoritarian forces of war, violence and privatization that are now threatening the planet. The new media offer a space and opportunity for intellectuals to engage in a new utopian discourse, one in which progressive social change becomes imaginable just as a future is viewed in terms that refuse to imitate the present. Public intellectuals must refuse all vestiges of sectarianism, political purity and moral absolutism. They must engage in modes of self-critique, tempered with an ability to listen to others and a willingness to display what Orwell called the rare moral and political beauty of the "offensiveness" of truth telling and the willingness to make power and authority accountable. Surely, this has to be the foundation for not just imagining a better world, but also collectively struggling for it. We live at a time when those who have the courage to hold authority accountable are treated like criminals and those who, under the authority of the state and mega corporations, commit horrendous crimes are treated as patriots and models of leadership.  The Patrick Batemens of America Psycho are the new normal, and now they are threatening to bomb Syria to make the point that only violence can play an important mediating role in any conflict or be used as the primary resource to address major problems.  In actuality, they have been making that point since the 1960s, and we see its legacy in the needless death of millions of innocent people whose memory demands that intellectuals speak up and challenge the machinery of death that now speaks in the name of empire.



1.

C. Wright Mills, The Causes of World War Three (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958), pp. 124-125.

2.

See, for instance, Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals (New York: Basic Books, 1982) for an analyses and description of such intellectual practices.  See the excellent collection of commentary by Irving Howe, Selected Writings 1950-1990, especially the chapter, "The Age of Conformity," (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), pp. 26-49.

3.

Eric William Martin, "The 1 percent played Tea Party for suckers," Salon (September 7, 2013). Online:  

4.

On the issue of surveillance and its all-embracing tentacles in regulating society, see Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon, Liquid Surveilllance (London: Polity, 2013).

5.

See, for instance, Stanley Fish, Save the World On Your Own Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

6.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Changing Reflexes: Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak," Works and Days, 55/56: Vol. 28, 2010, p. 3. 

7.

Ibid., Gayatri Spivak, pp. 2-3.

8.

Mills, The Causes of World War Three (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958), p. 133.

9. Ibid, Mills, The Causes of World War Three, p. 133.

10.

Kirsten Powers, "The Sickening Snowden Backlash," The Daily Beast (June 14, 2013). 

11.

C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957).

12.

Charles Ferguson, Predator Nation (New York: Crown Business, 2013).

13.

Alex Beam, "A foolish attempt to purge Howard Zinn," The Boston Globe (August 22, 2013). Online:  

14.

  Richard J. Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil (London: Polity Press, 2005), p. 5.

15.

I take up this issue in detail in The University In Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Boulder: Paradigm, 2007).

16. David H. Price, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011).

17.

See Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008); Henry A. Giroux and Susan Searls Giroux, Take Back Higher Education (New York: Palgrave, 2004).

18.

Pierre Bourdieu, On Television (New York: the New Press, 1999).

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission of the author.

Henry A Giroux

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books include:  On Critical Pedagogy (Continuum, 2011), Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability (Paradigm 2012), Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty (Routledge 2012), Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm 2013), and The Educational Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), America's Disimagination Machine (City Lights) and Higher Education After Neoliberalism (Haymarket) will be published in 2014). Giroux is also a member of Truthout's Board of Directors. His web site is www.henryagiroux.com. Truthout readers receive a 30% discount by clicking the link and inserting the Code: TOGIR (please note that this code is cap-sensitive) on the following books: Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future, March 2013; The Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Politics in an Age of Disposability, April 2012; Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror, August 2010; Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race, and Democracy, April 2010; and The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, June 2007.


Hide Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus