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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 21, No. 2, 2022
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Robert J. Lewis
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Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




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. He is the author of more than 50 books including The Educational Deficit and the War on Youth and Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism. Many of his essays, including The Spectacle of Illiteracy, appear on his website at His interview with Bill Moyers is must viewing. He was recently named one of the century's 50 most significant contributors to the debate on education.

We must see now that the evils of racism,
economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together . . .
you can't really get rid of one without getting rid of the others . . .
the whole structure of American life must be changed.
Martin Luther King Jr.

YOUR COMMENTSThe brutalizing horrors of a fascist past are with us once again. This is most evident in the growing support for bigotry and white nationalism among Republicans and their base, buttressed by the increased presence of armed militia and an increasingly well-armed populace. Within the current abysmal historical moment, a mix of aggrieved agency, a tsunami of conspiracy theories and an expanding culture of lies fuel a massive political effort to legitimate and normalize white minority rule.

Underlying this authoritarian political project is a massive ideological scaffolding reproducing the lethal workings of repressive power and a formative culture solidifying the identities and agents willing to embrace a political landscape of fascist agitation and violence. This is a pedagogical effort to refute elements of the past as a site of injustice, all the while enabling a machinery of exclusion and disposability wedded to the logic of white supremacy and what Kimberly Williams Crenshaw calls "The Unmattering of Black Lives."

Talk of civil war has emerged at a time when violence becomes a powerful force for shaping language, addressing social problems and emerging as a central organizing principle of politics. Central to this brutalizing of civic culture and the social imagination is the need to acknowledge that long before violence becomes normalized in society, politics descends into what John Berger once called ethicide — a formative culture composed of "agents [who] kill ethics and therefore any notion of history and justice."

At work here is a collective disavowal of social responsibility and the removal of political, discursive and economic actions from any sense of the social costs involved. Central to the turn towards ethicide is a Republican Party waging a counterrevolution against the foundations of democratic rule. This is a right-wing political party wedded to a politics of dehumanization, social abandonment and terminal exclusion, which accelerate the death of the unwanted. This amounts to a politics of ethicide in which ethical boundaries disappear, language is emptied of ethical referents, zones of social abandonment become normalized, racial purity is embraced, historical amnesia is celebrated and a culture of cruelty becomes commonplace.

Toni Morrison remarked that the prevailing formative culture of neoliberalism and its underlying fascist politics "is recognizable by its need to purge, [and] its terror of democratic agendas." It "produces perfect capitalists," defined largely as consumers, indifferent to ethics and more than willing to criminalize and pathologize the enemy, reward mindlessness, and maintain, at all costs, silence." Morrison's insights are all the more relevant in an age when the lines between democracy and authoritarianism are collapsing. Her warning necessitates a heightened critical vigilance at a moment when the culture is shifting, new political formations are emerging and new identities are being produced.

This is particularly true given the regressive formative culture that has been at work in producing the agents involved in the current attacks on democratic institutions, policies and laws. This is a formative culture rooted in hate, bigotry, cruelty, infused with a spirit of vigilante violence. Far removed from democratic values, it has provided the language and political signposts to support the attack on the Capitol, women's reproductive rights, voting rights and racial justice as part of a broader effort to successfully display its affirmation and merging of politics, white nationalism, imperialism and violence. In addition to these policies, this emerging formative culture has forecasted the "bald political calculus" of a rising unique American authoritarianism.

The coup attempt on Jan. 6, 2021, was a death-dealing expression of mass violence that has a deep resonance with the past that has once again manifested itself as an organizing force of the present. This contemporary expression of violence has a long history grounded in what Achille Mbembe has called necropolitics, or the politics of death — an upgraded species of fascist politics that defines whose lives are worthy of human value, citizenship and occupying the public sphere and, more specifically, who is considered disposable and excess.
American legal scholar Laurence Tribe observes that Trump's Republican Party not only "embraced the violence of 6 January," they also supported a governing form "that almost always comes wrapped in violence" and is endemic to fascism. How else to explain the threats and "murderous violence" by Trump's followers aimed at school board members who support pupils wearing masks, medical personnel who support lockdowns, election officials who refuse the lie of fraudulent elections and politicians who dare to disagree with Trump's policies?

Political scientist Robert A. Pape argues that a new politically violent mass movement has developed to restore the Trump presidency. This includes "21 million adamant supporters of insurrection [who] have the dangerous potential for violent mobilization" and are willing to shed bloodshed for their cause. What are we to make, for that matter, of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signing legislation "that gives legal protections to people who drive their cars into protesters in the street," and defines individuals as criminal felons if in the midst of the protests they break windows or engages in other alleged illegal activity? These are just a few of the many signposts indicating that the revival of fascist conditions that led to Jan. 6 are not only still with us but are becoming normalized and reinvented every day.

Violence in its spectacularized forms tends to produce a shock value that hides the often "slow violence" of everyday life. This is evident in the border violence waged against undocumented immigrants, the homeless deprived of the most basic social provisions, poor people of color whose culture is equated with criminality and fill America's prisons. It is also evident in poor housing conditions, people struggling to put food on the table, support payments for the poor that tie them to a politics of mere survival and "bare life." One element of fascism that has returned with a vengeance is the relationship between fascism and big business. Not only is this evident in the numerous examples of how the financial elite sponsor voter suppression laws, provide millions to push their economic and political interests through lobbying efforts, control the media and attack government policies that enhance the welfare state and extend government policies that benefit the common good, but also in their hoarding of wealth and power.

Necropolitics finds its most powerful expression not in isolated attacks on the government or in plans to kidnap and kill politicians, however horrible such acts are, but in producing and normalizing forms of massive economic and political inequality that kill. For instance, in a new report by Oxfam, it is estimated that "inequality is contributing to the death of at least 21,000 people a day, or one person every four seconds." At the same time, "The world's ten richest men more than doubled their fortunes from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion — at a rate of $15,000 per second or $1.3 billion a day — during the first two years of a pandemic that has seen the incomes of 99 percent of humanity fall and over 160 million more people forced into poverty."

Oxfam makes clear that extreme inequality kills, inflicts violence on the vast majority of people on the globe and "has unleashed this economic violence particularly acutely across racialized, marginalized and gendered lines." Moreover, this greedy financial elite is killing the planet as "the richest 1 percent emit more than twice as much CO2 as the bottom 50 percent of the world, driving climate change [which contributes] to wildfires, floods, tornadoes, crop failures and hunger." Predatory capitalists such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg amass huge profits while trafficking in death and misery, all the while paying little in taxes. Oxfam recommends clawing back the tax gains that have been given to the rich and reversing the attack on workers' rights, unions and the welfare state. These are not insignificant demands, but they say nothing about the relationship between capitalism and fascism, nor do they associate a murderous inequality with a call to end neoliberal capitalism.

It is impossible to separate the breakdown of civic culture, the collapse of language and a rise in insurrectionist violence in the United States from the plague of gangster capitalism. Under a regime of privatized utopias, hyper-individualism and ego-centered values, human beings are reduced to self-sufficient atoms of self-interest, removed from relations of mutual dependency. A neoliberal market-driven society has given rise to a culture of fear, uncertainty and danger that numbs many people just as it wipes out the creative faculties of imagination, memory and critical thought. Rather than live in a historical period that awakens the critical faculties, Americans now occupy a social order that freezes and numbs the capacity for informed judgment. Turning away from the collapse of reason, justice and democracy appears to have become habitual for most Trump supporters.

As democracy is increasingly viewed with contempt by large segments of the public, the moral mechanisms of language, meaning and morality collapse. What emerges is a cruel indifference that takes over diverse modes of communication and exchange — a singular register of the rise of a fascist politics with its scorn for democratic values, identities and social relations. Surely this is obvious today as all vestiges of the social contract, social responsibility and modes of solidarity that get people working together give way to a form of social Darwinism with its emphasis on violence, privatization, ruthlessness, cruelty, war, modes of hyper-masculinity and a disdain for those considered weak, dependent, alien or economically unproductive.

While it has become increasingly clear that democracy is under siege, little has been said about something inherent in the unfolding of a savage and ruthless capitalism and its embrace of an updated form of fascist politics. Lost here were the workings of neoliberal machinery with its massive inequalities in wealth and private power, its comfortable alliance with structural racism and a political system driven by money and the concentrated control of the ultra-rich and corrupt financial institutions. This is an economic system with profound malignancies, one that has given rise to pernicious relations of power that have transformed the Republican Party into a force that, as Noam Chomsky states, "is driving organized human society to suicide." He goes further and argues that however weak democracy is in the U.S., it "is intolerable to the GOP wreckers." He writes:

Nothing is overlooked in their systematic assault on the fragile structure. Methods extend from "taking hold of the once-overlooked machinery of elections" at the ground level, to passing laws to bar the "wrong people" from voting, to devising a legal framework to establish the principle that Republican legislatures can "legally" determine choice of electors, whatever the irrelevant public many choose.

Narrowing the debate about the attack on democracy to the attack on the Capitol and spectacularized forms of violence creates the conditions for cynicism, despair and a politics that sabotages itself by virtue of its narrow focus. Moreover, by isolating these events, history disappears and with it the ability to learn from the past in ways that allow us to further understand the long-standing forces and patterns that work to dissolve the line between democracy and authoritarianism. Under such circumstances, remembrance no longer functions as an activity of interrogation, criticism and renewal dedicated to the promise of freedom; on the contrary, it now functions as an "organized structure of misrecognition." What is under attack by conservative forces is what Tony Morrison described in her novel Beloved as "rememory" — a way of thinking memory afresh. As Gabrielle Bellot observes, this takes place in spite of the fact that

the terrors of the past still live in the present. [As can be seen] in an age when Republicans in Texas and Idaho, among other states have approved legislation prescribing how current events are taught in the classroom severely curtailing discussions of Black American history, and when it is all too common for conservatives to dismiss the existence of systemic racism or the relevance of historical acts of anti-Black violence. In an era when it is still all too common to see Black bodies under the heel of white cops.

Memory has become a site of repression. Its underlying project is the creation of a history without an individual and collective democratic subject. Systemic violence, racial injustice and political corruption have now disappeared from history. In part, this whitewashing of history takes place through both increasing acts of censorship in the schools and through the efforts of Republicans in Congress and their allies in right-wing media to rewrite history by invoking the horrors of 1930s fascist regimes to criticize health workers and policymakers trying to save lives in the midst of the pandemic crisis. This type of moral nihilism is displayed by Tucker Carlson, a white supremacist and Fox News host who has compared Biden's vaccine mandates to Nazi medical practices, and Fox News contributor Lara Logan, who has compared Dr. Anthony Fauci, Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, to Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who was known as the "Angel of Death" for experimenting on Jews in the concentration camps.

These propagandistic efforts to induce a climate of fear along with a moral and political coma are meant to turn reality on its head, all of which is part of the Republican Party's dangerous efforts to produce a public consciousness trapped in the fog of historical amnesia and unchecked ignorance. The current assortment of Republican zombies are not merely reactionaries for a new age. On the contrary, to paraphrase Raoul Vaneigem, they are people who have a corpse in their mouths.

The violent attack waged by the armed loyalists to Donald Trump on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, constituted a major political and constitutional crisis in the making. But recognition of the seriousness of the attack did not lead to a deeper understanding of its underlying historical, political and economic causes. Largely ignored in the mainstream media was the growing threat of authoritarianism accelerated through the merging of white supremacy ideology and the savage mechanisms of a neoliberal economy, both of which were powerful forces in creating the conditions for the insurrection. The underlying necropolitics driving the surge of right-wing populism and the attack on the Capitol was largely decoupled from neoliberal capitalism and its related institutions of violence: white supremacy, inequality, the prison-industrial complex, unequal humanity, disposability, militarization, colonialism and its propagandistic cultural apparatuses, what C. Wright Mills called "the observation posts, the interpretation centers, the presentation depots." Underlying this attack was a counterrevolutionary politics whose aim was the elevation of white nationalist rule and a politics of disposability. In this instance, politics turned deadly with the rise of an authoritarian narrative, in which, as Mbembe states in a different context, those who do not matter are relegated to "death worlds . . . forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead."

None of this appears out of the ordinary in the current historical moment, suggesting that, as Coco Das points out, America has a "Nazi problem." At the same time, it is crucial to stress that I am not suggesting that the former Trump administration was a precise replica of Hitler's Nazi Germany. Yet as Churchwell and a number of historians, writers and critics have argued, there are important parallels that cannot be ignored. Fascism has deep roots in American history, and its basic elements can crystallize in different forms under unique historical circumstances. Rather than being a precise replica of the past, fascism should be viewed as a series of patterns that emerge out of different conditions that produce what Hannah Arendt called totalitarian forms.

As the late Daniel Guerin, one of the more authoritative experts on fascism, made clear, there is no one single version of fascism, and indeed "there are many fascisms." Fascism is not interred strictly in a specific history, and its different histories are crucial to understand because it mutates, evolves and often lies dormant, but it never goes away. The potential for fascism exists in every society, and what its histor(ies) teach us is that there is much to lose if we fail to learn its lessons. In the current era, there is no perfect fit between 1930s Germany and Trump and his followers, but there are alarming echoes of history.

The threat of fascism is especially acute under neoliberalism, which exacerbates the worst elements of gangster capitalism. This includes, most emphatically, the widening of the scourge of inequality, a contempt for social responsibility, promotion of racial hatred, the acceleration of a politics of disposability, a corrupt alignment with big business and a belief in the necessity of a heroic leader. Peter Dolack is right to argue that while "militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats" are basic elements of a fascist politics, "the most critical component is a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism." He concludes by stating that "As long as capitalism exist, the threat of fascism exists." This may be an understatement. If anything, the United States may be well beyond the threat.

If a form of mass resistance is to take place to avoid a fascist coup in the future, it is essential to develop a new language for equating freedom and democracy. This necessitates challenging the basic tenets of neoliberal capitalism and connecting the push for civic literacy. The latter is fundamental to creating a mass movement dedicated to the principles of democratic socialism. Real substantive and lasting change will not come without the existence of mass movement in America. Angela Davis has long advocated that mass movements coupled with a radical shift in consciousness about what kind of world we want are the key to radical change. She is worth quoting at length:

. . . what I am saying is that in order to make real, lasting change, we have to do the work of building movements. It is masses of people who are responsible for historical change. It was because of the movement, the Black freedom movement, the midcentury Black freedom movement, that Black people acquired the right to vote — not because someone decided to pass a Voting Rights Act. And we know now that that victory cannot simply be consolidated as a bill passed, because there are continual efforts to suppress the power of Black voters. And we know that the only way to reverse that is by building movements, by involving masses of people in the process of historical change. And this holds true for the current administration.

Rather than wage war against neoliberal capitalism in the abstract, it is crucial to wage an educational campaign in which activists speak to people in a language they understand, one that makes visible the problems they face and provides them with a moment of recognition capable of altering their commonsense assumptions about how they deal with the problems they experience. This means addressing fundamental concrete problems such as the threat to social security, funding public education, abolishing student debt, providing free child care, implementing universal health care, providing a social wage for everyone, eliminating homelessness, dismantling the prison-industrial complex, curbing gun violence, making neighborhoods safe, massively curbing military budgets in order to expand programs to eliminate poverty, homelessness, food insecurity and decaying infrastructures, among other issues. These deeply rooted issues begin not with abstractions about predatory capitalism but with a language in which people can recognize themselves.

In addition, there is a crucial need to wage a political and educational campaign to defend schools and other institutions that provide the conditions for people to think critically, question authority, learn the tools for making informed judgments and embrace what it means to be moral witnesses and engaged citizens. Making education central to politics demands a new language, a different regime of desires, new forms of identification and a struggle to create new modes of thinking, subjectivity and agency. It is important to stress that direct action, cultural politics and political education are crucial tools to mobilize public attention as part of a broader campaign both to inform a wider public and create the conditions for mass struggle.

The United States is in the midst of a cultural war infused by a counterrevolutionary movement that is waging a full-scale attack against ideas, truth, rationality, ethics and justice. This is a site of contestation and struggle over minds, emotions and modes of agency; it takes place in diverse cultural apparatuses that must be challenged, redefined and appropriated as sites of resistance. Fascism removes the language of aggrieved identity, pain and rage from the structures of capitalism while undermining the ideals and promises of a socialist democracy. In part, this is done through a cultural politics that produces civic illiteracy, manufactured ignorance, moral decay and historical amnesia, all the while promoting apocalyptic fears that feed off an exaggerated discourse of alleged catastrophe facing white civilization.

Against this regressive educational and cultural project, a new anti-capitalist politics must arise. Such a struggle needs a new vision, one that merges the power of critique in multiple sites with "a positive, forward-looking program for real change." Only then will a mass movement arise infused with a language of both critique and hope, willing to engage in the long struggle against fascism and the battle for a future in which matters of justice, freedom and equality become foundational in the struggle for a democratic socialist society. Democracy is under siege in America as the result of a counterrevolutionary movement and criminal conspiracy being waged by right-wing extremists at the highest levels of power and government. There is no room for balance, compromise and indifference, only mass resistance.

Pandering to racist fears and white racial anxiety, Youngkin also stated he would ban from schools what the right wing is inaccurately describing as “critical race theory,” a term which actually refers to a body of legal scholarship, but which right-wingers like Youngkin are using as a catch-all to describe any discussion of systemic racism in the U.S. And Youngkin made the boldface and dangerous assertion that educators are destroying America. Days later, Youngkin received 50.6 percent of the vote, defeating Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

Youngkin’s attack on Virginia teachers’ ability to discuss structural racism are just one example of the GOP’s ongoing attack on public and higher education — an attack that is closely aligned to a fascist politics that despises anyone who holds power accountable and sees as an enemy anyone who fosters liberating forms of social change or attempts to resist the right wing’s politics of falsehoods and erasure.

The Republican Party makes clear that educational practices that inform, liberate, empower and address systemic problems that undermine democracy are both a threat to its politics and a deserving object of disdain.

The Republican Party’s view of “patriotic education” draws directly from the playbook of previous dictatorships with their hatred of reason, truth, science, evidence and the willingness to use language as a source of dehumanization and violence. This is a language that operates in the interests of manufactured fear while producing a void filled with despair. This is a form of apartheid pedagogy that embraces the cult of manufactured ignorance, freezes the moral imagination, erases unsettling forms of historical memory and works to discredit dissent among individuals and institutions that call attention to social problems.

The attacks on suppressed histories of racism represent an updated modern civil war. This is a war against reason and racial injustice that reproduces itself through the production of, as Toni Morrison herself notes, “cultivated ignorance, enforced silence, and metastasizing lies.”

Matters of conscience, social responsibility and equity have been purged from a Republican Party that feeds off the ghosts of an authoritarian past. Its disdain for justice and civic responsibility is also evident in its defense of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, its refusal to accept the election of Joe Biden as president and its immersion in a culture of lies.

The spirit of the Confederacy is obvious in the GOP’s voter suppression laws and its support of white nationalism and white supremacy. The spirit of U.S. authoritarianism is also alive in the Republican Party’s efforts to capture the machinery of state power in order to invalidate state elections along with attempts to suppress the votes of people of color. Such actions are frighteningly similar to attacks on Black voters during Reconstruction.

The legacy of Jim Crow and an updated version of the Southern Strategy are the driving forces in the Republican Party’s attempts to remove from public and higher education, if not history itself, any reference to slavery, racism and the teaching of other unpleasant truths. In this instance, white racial fears are activated, functioning like a coma to enlist the public in increasing acts of censorship, surveillance, and other practices that deaden the moral imagination and sense of civic justice.

The current policing of education in the United States cannot be abstracted from a larger strategy to identify the institutions and individuals who “make trouble” by uncovering the truth, resisting the warmongers, and exposing the violence at work by those politicians who invite the public “to become vigilantes, bounty hunters and snitches.” Drawing on the work of Russell Banks, I believe that the current attacks on educators who teach about the history and contemporary realities of racism are part of a broader attempt to silence those “committed to a life of opposition, of speaking truth to power, of challenging and overthrowing received wisdom and disregarding the official version of everything.”

Authoritarianism and education now inform each other as the Republican Party in numerous states mobilizes education as a vehicle for white supremacy, pedagogical repression, excision and support for curricula defined by an allegiance to unbridled anti-intellectualism and a brutal policy of racial exclusion. Republican legislators now use the law to turn public education into white nationalist factories and spaces of indoctrination and conformity. Republican state legislators have put policies into place that erase and whitewash history, and attack any reference to race, diversity and equity while also deskilling teachers and undermining their attempts to exercise control over their teaching, knowledge and the curriculum.

Horrified over the possibility of young people learning about the history of colonization, slavery and the struggles of those who have resisted long-standing forms of oppression, the Republican Party subscribes to a politics of denial and disappearance. Science, racism, truth, climate change and dissent are now relegated to a politics of terminal exclusion and social abandonment. Attacking discussions of racism in public schools and higher education, they have made clear that “the ancient lie of white supremacy remains lethal.” History now repeats itself with a vengeance given that the Republican Party has a long legacy of pandering to racial resentment and white supremacy. This is a legacy that extends from Richard Nixon’s war on Black people and Ronald Reagan’s racist use of the myth of the welfare queen to Donald Trump’s birther arguments and the demonization of Mexicans, Muslims, Black journalists and athletes, and the reference to Haiti and African nations as “shithole” countries.

Horrified over the possibility of young people learning about the history of colonization, slavery and the struggles of those who have resisted long-standing forms of oppression, the Republican Party subscribes to a politics of denial and disappearance.
As part of the ongoing culture wars, various Republican governors have banned the teaching of what they are inaccurately deeming “critical race theory” in public schools, and have also threatened to cut back state funding for public universities that introduce anti-racist issues to students, including a great deal of the founding literature of Black Studies and other sources that provoke discussions that offer a remedy to racial injustice. At the core of these attacks is a totalizing attack on critical thinking, informed judgments, truth and the core values that inform a critical notion of citizenship.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. has eloquently argued that what is at stake here is the freedom to write and bear witness, the freedom to learn that liberation and civic literacy inform each other, and to recognize that the freedom to teach and learn is under siege in a culture that is being policed by the new authoritarians. How else to explain that Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), the chair of the House General Investigating Committee, required that Texas school districts provide a list of over 800 books used in classrooms and libraries.

Not surprisingly, all of these books address important social problems. Krause also asked schools to report whether his designated list of books might make students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” Karen Attiah notes that, “looking at Krause’s list, it’s hard not to conjure up images of totalitarian regimes and violent groups that have gone after books throughout history, from Nazi attacks on works considered ‘un-German’ in 1933 to al-Qaeda destroying precious manuscripts in Timbuktu. A gander at Krause’s list reveals an almost exclusive focus on race and racism, sex and sexuality, LGBT issues, abortion and — gasp — even puberty.”

It gets worse. In Wisconsin, Republican legislators want to banish certain words, such as “white supremacy,” “structural bias,” “structural racism,” “whiteness,” “multiculturalism” and “systemic racism.” For the Republican Party, words are dangerous, especially those that encourage critical interpretations, expand human agency and produce sentences that open the possibilities for self-determination and a more democratic social order. Banning words and books constitutes a pedagogy of unlearning and disappearance, particularly with respect to care, empathy for the suffering of others, solidarity and the courage needed to confront injustices. Banning books and words injects ignorance into the public sphere, making reason toxic and justice irrelevant. Banning books and words is tantamount to a totalitarian dictatorship of illiteracy and politics of elimination. Even more, it both erases the genocidal brutality that such practices produced in the past and normalizes the possibility of their appearing again in the future.

In Wisconsin, Republican legislators want to banish certain words such as “white supremacy,” “structural bias,” “structural racism,” “whiteness,” “multiculturalism” and “systemic racism.” Words and books that offer oppressed people the opportunity to gain self-representation and the ability to narrate themselves are now viewed by many Republicans as unpatriotic. Words that unfold in books that speak to a critical engagement with history, engage the possibilities at work in the unfolding of the human condition, and “bear witness to the full range of our humanity” are increasingly subject to an updated form of repression that prefigures authoritarian models of governance.

Words that encompass the far reaches of human intelligibility, offering an emancipated notion of individual and public agency are now examined with a heightened racial frenzy produced by a Republican Party and its acolytes who support the toxic principles of white supremacy and a politics of disposability. In this discourse, language functions to suppress any sense of racial justice, moral decency and democratic values. It is indebted to a politics of erasure and manufactured ignorance, and it wages a major assault on reason and justice. Moreover, it turns lethal by paving the way for a rebranded form of fascism. As part of its attack on and whitewashing of history, memory is trapped in a present that is wedded to a form of historical amnesia. Under such circumstances, words, language and thought itself are being erased or misrepresented so as to operate in an educational climate marked by what Richard Rodriguez once called “an astonishing vacancy.”

Fears about banishing books feature prominently in a number of dystopian novels that provide alarming examples of future authoritarian societies. Such lessons appear lost on a sizeable portion of the general public for whom the current historical moment imitates the horrifying fictional narratives explored in dystopian novels such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where books are outlawed or relegated to memory holes connected to incinerators used to destroy them.

American authoritarianism is alive and well. The Republican Party and its allies are waging an aggressive onslaught against any institution, policy and ideal that upholds democracy. In a startling statement that resonates with the previous horrors of history and the war on critical intellectuals, academics and journalists, Republican J.D. Vance, who is running for the Senate in Ohio, stated that “The Professors are the Enemy.”

This deadly contempt for academics is present not only in the ways in which the neoliberal university has stripped them of ownership over their working conditions and modes of governance, but also in its utter disregard for their role as citizen scholars and public intellectuals. This disregard was unabashedly visible when the University of Florida prohibited four university professors from providing expert testimony in lawsuits challenging state policies endorsed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.In this blatant act of censorship, possibly a signal of what is to come, the University of Florida administration decided that it would look to the Republican governor to decide how to regulate university speech and the public activities of its faculty. As Robert C. Post, a Yale law professor, pointed out,

The university does not exist to protect the governor. It exists to serve the public. It is an independent institution to serve the public good, and nothing could be more to the public good than a professor telling the truth to the public under oath.

Fortunately, this blatant assault against freedom of expression and academic freedom was reversed as a result of mounting public and legal outrage.

The ominous shadows of history are once again flooding the United States. Historical memory serves us well in making clear that the banishing of words, ideas and books is the precondition for the horrors that produced the fascist politics of the 1930s in Europe and later in the 1970s and ‘80s in authoritarian regimes in Latin America. Republican J.D. Vance’s attack on academics mirrors a statement made by Gen. Millán Astray, a firm supporter of Francisco Franco, who on October 12, 1936, while attending a speech given by the Dean of Salamanca University in Spain, shouted, “Long live death . . . death to the intellectuals!! Down with Intelligence.” This grotesque utterance occurred in the midst of a civil war in which intellectuals were tortured, murdered and sent into exile. The terror it both evokes and legitimizes has now become an organizing principle of the Republican Party.

The banning of books also has historical precedents that speak powerfully to the dangerous authoritarian spirit that now animates Republican Party politics. On the evening of May 10, 1933, over 40,000 people gathered in Berlin in what was then known as the Opernplatz. At the urging of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, more than 25,000 books labeled as “un-German” were burned. Soon afterward, book burnings took place across Germany in a variety of university towns. The purpose of the book burnings was to “cleanse” Germany of the literature of “racial impurity” and dissent and “purify” the German spirit. There was more at work here than what the novelist Andrew Motion called a monumental “manifestation of intolerance;” there was also a forecasting of the killings, mass murders, disappearances and genocide that would follow this symbolic act of racial hatred and purification.

The banning of books in the United States, which bears a dangerous resemblance to the Nazi book burning, represents a startling vision of the Republican Party’s disdain for democracy and its willingness to resurrect totalitarian practices linked to earlier periods of censorship, repression, terror and state violence. In this case, as the great 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine observed rightly, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people.” The banning of books and the dehumanizing of the writers who produce them is one step away from habituating the wider public into accepting the transition from censorship to more overt criminal acts on the part of the state. Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole perfectly captures the implications such actions have for developing into a full-fledged form of authoritarianism. He writes:

As a society the American people are being habituated into accepting cruelty on a wide scale. Americans are being taught not to see other people as human beings whose lives are as important as their own. Once that line has been crossed … then we know where that all leads, what the ultimate destination is. There is no mystery about it. We know what happens when a government and its leaders dehumanize large numbers of people.

The Republican Party is not calling for the burning of books or the imprisonment of authors they target as “un-American,” (at least not yet) but the spirit that animates their calls for censorship, historical cleansing, so-called racial purity, disposability and politics is alarming and a precondition for something much worse. The Nazi assertion and threat proclaiming, “The state has been conquered but not the universities” could very well be viewed as a central feature of the Republican Party’s war on critical race theory, the banning of books and its all-out war on higher education as a democratic public sphere.

The attacks on critical modes of thinking in the United States are at the center of a looming civil war in which the horrifying phantoms of the past have been re-energized and now threaten to appear once again. Beneath the spectacle of the MAGA hats, the criminal assault on the Capitol and an expanding culture of lies, there is a reactionary cultural politics financed by corporate interests and legitimized by powerful social media platforms, conservative foundations and other cultural apparatuses whose endpoint is the death of democracy.

At the current moment in the United States, manufactured fear is now coupled with the mass production of ignorance and the surging political power of U.S.-bred authoritarianism. These forces work in tandem in order to destroy higher education, which is one of the few public spaces left where truth and justice can be taught, and resistance can be cultivated against the looming danger of normalizing white supremacy and an updated form of American fascism.

It would be wise for educators and others to heed Toni Morrison’s warning, so prophetically accurate at the present moment: “If the university does not take seriously and rigorously its role as a guardian of wider civic freedoms, as interrogator of more and more complex ethical problems, as servant and preserver of deeper democratic practices, then some other regime or menage of regimes will do it for us, in spite of us, and without us.”

Clearly, faculty, students, and others who take democracy seriously must work together to make higher education take on the responsibility of addressing the authoritarian cracks that have appeared in U.S. society. Critical education helps us to remember that justice and what it takes to be human are inextricably connected and cannot be removed from a politics of solidarity. Justice is on hold in the United States, and, in part, this suggests that educators and those who refuse to live in a fascist world need to rethink the meaning of education and how it works as an instrument of empowerment, resistance and possibility. Fascist mythologies, racist social practices, misogynist governing structures and the prioritization of market values must be removed from higher education. Moreover, new structures of power must be enacted, and education must be reclaimed as a civic practice rather than as a series of commercial exchanges. Only then will it be possible for higher education to operate as a democratic public sphere that takes seriously the notion that democracy requires an informed citizenry and education is the foundation for that to happen.

Repressive forms of political education saturate everyday life and produce both a reactionary shift in mass consciousness and a crisis of civic imagination. In part, this is due to an attack on democratic modes of education and public understanding in a variety of cultural apparatuses, extending from public and higher education to social media. Heightened racial hysteria has become normalized and needs to be challenged in all the cultural sites in which it appears. The pedagogical apparatuses of culture have turned repressive and dangerous, and need to be uncovered, resisted and overcome. The threat they expose to democracy should be foregrounded, and, in part, this is a role that higher education needs to address.

As Toni Morrison has observed, colleges and universities need to embrace “powerful visionary thinking about how the life of the moral mind and a free and flourishing spirit can operate in a context” of tyranny. In part, this means constructing liberating pedagogies that address the dangers of white nationalism, white supremacy, political corruption and fascist politics. It also means educating students and providing faculty with the tools, time and space to create widespread forms of resistance in conjunction with other groups outside the university in order to fight against the authoritarian attacks that constitute what amounts to a new civil war.

As Toni Morrison has observed, colleges and universities need to embrace “powerful visionary thinking about how the life of the moral mind and a free and flourishing spirit can operate in a context” of tyranny. The struggle over education is too crucial to ignore or lose. The stakes involve not just the struggle over history, knowledge and values, but also over the truth, justice, power and the social conditions that make democratic modes of agency, identity and dignity possible. The danger democracy faces in the U.S. is almost unthinkable given the impending threat of fascism. Given the seriousness of this impending danger, historian Robin D. G. Kelley rightly observes, “We have no choice but to fight.”

One entry into such a struggle is to recognize that democracy and capitalism are diametrically opposed to each other. The current racist attacks on higher education cannot be successful in the long run if capitalism remains in place. Not only is there a need for critical educators to do everything possible to develop forms of popular education and a cultural politics that challenges the corporatization of the university, but they must also produce an anti-capitalist consciousness central to any viable notion of equality, freedom, justice and social change. Predatory capitalism is incompatible with democracy given the staggering inequalities it produces in wealth, income and power. David Harvey is right in asserting that “The fundamental problems are actually so deep right now that there is no way that we are going to go anywhere without a very strong anti-capitalist movement.” What needs to be addressed is that the most powerful big lie in the United States is not that Trump won the 2020 election, but the normalized claim that capitalism and democracy are synonymous.

The struggle for a radical democracy suggests the need to develop a new language that enables people to think in terms of broader solidarities, necessary for overcoming a fractured political landscape. This should be a language that touches people’s lives, provides a comprehensive understanding of politics, offers a concrete program for social change and lays the foundation for a broad-based movement that will unite around a society steeped in the principles of democratic socialism.

Democracy and education have been pathologized under neoliberal capitalism and have drifted into a space that mimics the ineffable terrors of the past. Higher education in a time of growing authoritarianism must address the question of what its role is in a democracy and whether it is willing to define and defend itself as a democratic public sphere and protective space of critique and possibility.

As Hannah Arendt once put it in her seminal essay, “The Crisis in Education:” “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

The struggle over education must be seen as part of a crucial struggle for democracy itself. As Primo Levy warned us, “Every age has its own fascism.” His words are more prophetic than ever given the current collapse of conscience and the willingness, if not glee, of the Republican Party to embrace an American-style fascism.

As Amartya Sen once argued, it is time “to think big about society” — to move beyond the despair, isolation, theoretical abysses and political silos that stand in the way of developing a strong anti-capitalist movement. The danger facing the United States is real and must be met with the utmost resistance by a mass movement of workers, young people, academics, teachers, feminists and others who believe that making education central to politics is an urgent political necessity.

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By Henry Giroux:
Banning Books
Homage to Paulo Freire
Plague of Manufactured Ignorance
Racial Cleansing and Erasing History
Plague of Historical Amnesia
Recovering from Trumpism
Tribute to Noam Chomsky
The Ouster of Trump
White Supremacy in the Offal Office
The Plague of Inequity
Covid and our Embattled Society
Trump and the Corona Death Waltz
Neoliberal Fascism
The Terror Unforseen
Interview of H.A.Giroux
The Normalization of Fascism
The Public Intellectual II
Bertrand Russell: Public Intellectual
Thinking Dangerously in Dark Times
Democracy in Exile
Authoritarianism in America
Violence: US Favourite Pastime
Losing in Trump's America
In Dark Times Teachers Matter
The Age of Civic Illiteracy
Exile and Disruption in the Academy
What Society Produces a Donald Trump
From School to the Prison Pipeline
Orwell & Huxely
American Sniper and Hollywood Heroism
Selfie Culture
The Age of Disposability
In the Shadow of the Atomic Bomb
Killing Machines and the Madness of the Military
The Age of Neoliberal Cruelty
The Politics of the Deep State
Challenging Casino Capitalism
Crisis in Democracy
America's Descent into Madness







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