By Robert R. Thomas
In his penetrating new book, America at War with Itself (City Lights Books, 2017), Henry A. Giroux devotes an early chapter to the Flint water crisis, asserting that it epitomizes a menacing “new authoritarianism” and contends that what happened here was “an act of state sponsored violence.”
His Chapter Four, “Poisoned City: Flint and the Specter of Domestic Terrorism,” opens with a reminder that under what he calls the rule of neoliberalism, the dissolution of historical and public memory is a controlling tool.
Flint is Giroux’s “classic example of how public issues have been emptied of any substance or historical understanding. This is a politics that fails to offer a comprehensive mode of analysis, one that refuses to link what is wrongly viewed as an isolated issue to a broader set of social, political, and economic factors.”
“By restating the relationship between the state and economic power,” says Giroux, “neoliberal logics frame all aspects of conduct, modes of governance, and daily existence in exclusively economic terms.”
But for the author, “there is more at work than flawed arguments or conceptual straightjackets. There is a refusal to address a savage neoliberal politics in which state violence is used to hurt, abuse, and humiliate those populations who are vulnerable, powerless, and considered disposable.”
For Giroux, Flint’s poisoning is a form of domestic terrorism when analyzed in the broader context of power and politics. He pursues this theme with examples of the rise of state violence, connecting dots from Katrina’s disposable commodities to Flint’s, then returning to Flint for a more in-depth account of Flint seen as an act of state-sponsored violence, a crime committed by people against their own people.
“Flint speaks to both a moral and a political crisis of legitimation,” he asserts.
Giroux is a major proponent of a philosophy of education and social movement called critical pedagogy, a combining of education with critical theory.
Critical theory entails critical learning, teaching and thinking—a stepping outside the box of norms of a given system to see how it operates and then taking this knowledge back into the analyzed system to effect the systems efficiencies.
Critical pedagogue Ira Shore defines his discipline as:
“Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse. (Empowering Education, 129)
Critical theory is essentially about liberation and maintains that ideology is the principal obstacle to human liberation.
Through this lens Giroux examines America’s divided condition and sounds an alarm that targets the rise of authoritarianism in the land of the free and home of the brave. In the process, he closely examines the neoliberal ideology that drives this ascending authoritarianism.
Giroux opens his first chapter with a quote by President Dwight David Eisenhower: “And the shadow of fear again has darkly lengthened across the world.”
He doubles-down on Ike’s quote with the opening sentence: “In white America’s collective psyche, and in its traditional narratives of historical memory, authoritarianism is always viewed as existing elsewhere.”
Giroux often quotes from Hannah Arendt and Sheldon Wolin, two renowned theorists of totalitarianism.
“Sheldon, in particular, was keenly aware that the corporatization of the state and civil society, the destruction of public goods and commons, the commercial control of the media, and the rise of an economic survival-of-the-fittest ethos posed a serious threat to American democracy,” writes Giroux.
“For Arendt,” he continues, “these anti-democratic elements in U.S. society constitute what she called the ‘sandstorm’—a metaphor for totalitarianism.”
“America at War with Itself,” says Giroux, “is designed to see through the sandstorm that authoritarianism is unleashing, and to point toward pathways offered by critical pedagogy, insurrectional democracy, and international solidarity.”
Donald Trump’s “punch-them-in-the mouth” America offers the author further signs of rising fascistic power like the complicity of the media and the Republican Party in raising Trump’s flag. Trump, says Giroux, “represents a new form of social disorder—intolerant, authoritarian, and violent—that sees preventable inequality as part of the natural order of things.”
The menace of contemporary authoritarianism, according to Giroux, is fueled by “the emergence of of a predatory neoliberalism that has decimated the welfare state, expanded the punishing state, generated massive inequities in wealth and power, and put into place an ethos in which everybody has to provide for themselves. America has become a society of permanent uncertainty, intense anxiety, human misery, and immense racial and economic injustice.”
Playing into this new authoritarianism, states Giroux, is the dominant celebrity culture, which “is a form of public pedagogy central to creating a formative culture that views thinking as a nuisance at best, or at worst, as dangerous. Treated seriously, celebrity culture provides the architectural framing for an authoritarian culture by celebrating a deadening form of self-interest, narcissism, and civic illiteracy.”
The commons, the public spaces, are privatized, commodified and commercialized—none of it for the public good, states Giroux. “Space, time, and even language are subject to the forces of privatization and commodification and provide a breeding ground for authoritarianism.”
Ignorance is another element of the new authoritarianism. “Clearly,” states the author, “attacks on reason, evidence, science, and critical thoughts have reached perilous anti-democratic proportions in the United States.”
He adds, “In these threatening times, illiteracy is a political tool designed primarily to wage war on language, meaning thinking, and the capacity for critical thought.”
The book’s forward, opens with a quote from Donald J. Trump: “I love the poorly educated.”
Other forms of the new totalitarianism Giroux examines is “the resurgence of religious intolerance that runs through the U.S. like an electric current,” and “militarization dismisses injustice by reinforcing the immediacy of armed authority and martial law over the rights and diversity inherent to civilian democracy.”
America’s appetite for destruction then pursues an analysis of America’s obsession with guns, which Giroux links to the history of Americans’ love of violence.
From American foreign policy to the militarization of American police forces to the economies of the gun industry and culture, he demonstrates that as the acceleration of the move from a welfare state to a warfare state grows, “violence and the impunity of authorities become normalized.”
Turning to the matter of police violence against American citizens, Giroux refers to what his colleague, Dr. Robin D. G. Kelley, described as a war being waged on U.S. soil against unarmed people of color. “The call for police ‘reform,’ echoed throughout the dominant media, is meaningless. We need to change a system steeped in violence, racism, economic corruption, and institutional rot.”
From a global perspective, the book then analyzes global disposable youth in the firing line. A perpetual state of war, the so-called Terror Wars, not only perpetrates war on youth for Giroux, but “it also eliminates what might be called a politics of memory, the legacy of an insurrectional democracy, and in doing so deepens the invasiveness of the militaristic state.”
Giroux wraps up his analysis of America at war with itself with a plea for expanding critical pedagogy “because it emphasizes critical reflection, bridging the gap between learning and everyday life, understanding the connection between power and difficult knowledge, and extending democratic rights and identities by drawing from the shared resources of history and theory.”
Not only is education and learning a responsibility of an equitable educational system for Giroux, it is also a principle of culture.
“The notion of a neutral, objective education is an oxymoron. Education and pedagogy do not exist outside of relations of power, values, and politics,” he states. He echoes calls by other critical thinkers for a new politics that puts justice at its core.
“We need not only a radical critique of capitalism, racism, and other forms of oppression,” concludes Giroux, “but a formative critical culture and politics that inspires, energizes, and provides elements of transformative radical education in the service of a broad-based democratic liberation movement.”
For this Flint resident and victim of state-sanctioned violence, the most visceral aspect of Giroux’s book is the case he makes that what happened here is an act of domestic terrorism. Incendiary language for some, but difficult to beat down.
The facts are that the poisoning of our public water supply was a thoroughly domestic operation. No Islamic terrorists were spotted meddling with Flint’s water nor were any international terrorists among the neoliberal Lansing cabal that gave us the Flint Kool-Aid.
EVM staff writer and commentator Robert R. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.