Hardened Cultures and the War on Youth – An interview with Henry Giroux

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Tyler Pollard interview with Henry A. Giroux.

Interview by Tyler Pollard from the McMaster Center for Scholarship in the Public Interest. The interview was part of the 2013 Summer Institute “War on Youth.”


Some Key Thoughts
Dr. Giroux dicusses how youth have been retranslated from a social investment into a liability. This is particularly true for low income youth and youth of color.

Children are taught that their purpose is to consumer, and at the same time to treat oneself as a product.

There is a merging of schools and prisons from schools becoming part of the “pipeline” into the prison system, to modeling themselves after prisons with growing police presence in the schools.

In a supposed “post-racial society”, there is now a blindness to the issues while the effects of racism become both more visible and more insidiuos. All we need to do is look at incarceration statistics and the growing wealth inequality.

We are losing an understanding of why the social contract is important to society – particularly democratic socieities.

Racism is becoming normalized.**

There is a hardening of the culture that deadens empathy and is accompanied by a “floating sense of responsibility” – one that does not “anchor” anywhere.

Youth are inculcated into social media and commercialized intrusion into their lives. The so-called public space is accessed.

Transcript in extended entry

Hardened Cultures and the War on Youth: An interview with Henry A. Giroux

With Tyler J. Pollard


1. Henry A. Giroux [hereafter referred to as HG]: When I talk about the war on youth I’m talking about a number of forces that have come together to situate youth in a way in which they are no longer as seen as a social investment but are instead seen as a liability. This is particularly the case for low income youth and youth of color. What I’ve tried to do in my most recent work is to talk about the war on youth in three registers. First is the soft war, which is the war of commodification in which youth are commercially carpet bombed endlessly and defined basically as markets or literally are defined as commodities themselves. [Youth] are consistently taught that the only obligation of citizenship is consumerism, or they’re told that they need to become a brand, that they need to actually sell themselves, that the only way of presenting their identity in the world and being in the world and experiencing the world is through the language of commodities and the language of the market.

Second, the hard war [on youth] is a more serious war, [which] affects poor and minority youth who increasingly find themselves targeted by what I call the youth-control-criminal-complex. What this means is that increasingly we find young people who’s behavior is being criminalized. For instance, we have zero tolerance polices in schools that bear down in a highly discriminatory way on poor minorities. What we find is that when these kids commit even the most trivial of infractions find themselves being pulled out of class, handcuffed, and taken to jail. [The hard war is] evident in the degree to which schools have now become a major supplier of the “school-to-prison pipeline” and are now largely modeled after prisons as a result of, [for instance], more police. It’s also quite clear that even in the media we see young people, especially poor black and brown kids, being demonized and being seen as a threat to society. When we talk about the hard war what we’re talking about is one of the most egregious consequences of [what I call] the punishing state. [The US is] not only waging war across the board on public services, public goods, and basic institutions necessary for democracy, it’s also waging war on young people. This is really tragic because it speaks to a country that has lost its soul–that has no sense of the future [or the] young people that symbolize that future.

Third, another register [necessary for addressing the war on youth] is the rise of the surveillance state and modes of control that are increasingly organized around forms of security, control, watching, and so on. This is particularly egregious because there’s really a pedagogy of surveillance at work here. Young people are consistently lured into self-policing… [into] display[ing] and translat[ing] really private information into the public arena [by] share[ing] it with Google, Facebook, Twitter, and all these companies that are really using [the information] to create data mines so they can make it easier to determine what the market needs of these kids are. The other side of this is that all of this information is being shared with the government. [Moreover] schools have basically become security machines–filled with cameras, filled with police, [students] always being watched. Rather than being defined as valuable resources, students now are essentially being defined as a threat. What they’re learning in schools and other institutions is that the most important forces mediating their relationship to society are institutions of control.

These three registers [the soft, hard, and surveillance wars] point to something unique in what we’re seeing in the US. We’re seeing a country that has turned its back on young people.


2. HG: At the heart of the war on youth are two interrelated issues. First, you have the rise of a [neoliberal] market-driven philosophy based on the writings of Hayek, Friedman, Ayn Rand, in which a society is being produced that believes that the market is the only template for judging every aspect of society. This is a market-driven philosophy that believes that agency itself should be shaped in the interests of market driven values, and that questions of completion, questions of deregulation, issues of privatization really should dominate the market as a whole. It’s a philosophy that believes that profit making is the essence of democracy. It’s a philosophy that argues that public goods should be turned over to private interests; that profits should be privatized and the costs should be socialized; it’s a philosophy that creates a culture of cruelty because it believes that dependency is a pathology and a liability; and it’s a philosophy that is at war with those dimensions of the 1960’s in which you had young people fighting for their rights in universities and other places, in which you had the emergence of the Great Society, and you had an indication that the social contract had viability and value. I think what we’re seeing at the present moment is a counter-revolution one that is trying to turn the clock back to the Gilded Age in which white men ruled the country–the 1%–and through their wealth took control of the commanding institutions of society.

The [second and interrelated issue] is that society that has become blind to issues of race and class. What we’ve seen in the alleged post-racial society is the emergence of a colorblind philosophy and a racial amnesia that refuses to understand how the forces of racism are now working in a more insidious way because they have become more invisible while the effects have become more visible. All you have to do is look at incarceration rates among minorities–70% of incarcerated people in the US are people of color–[or] the way in which wealth and unemployment is being distributed along racial and gendered lines and what you have are populations that are now seen as disposable in ways like we’ve never seen before. This is not unlike what we saw during times of slavery insofar as citizenship is not a category that these groups any longer fit into. They’re not citizens–they’re “other,” they’re “othered,” and they’re pushed to the margins of a society that has no sense of why a social contract would be good not only for minorities but good for democracy itself. We have policies of racial exclusion and segregation now at work all parading under the name of choice, in which the burden of the problems that poor minorities have to face is essentially laid on their door–“every man is an island.” [The effect of this is that] systemic and historical constraints are basically ignored in the name of character–that is, blaming minorities as individuals for allegedly not buying onto the American dream. This is a very insidious kind of racism because it’s so normalized in the concept of common sense and in the concept of historical and amnesic blindness that is very difficult to identify anymore.


3. HG: First of all, any discourse about the culture of cruelty is not a moralistic discourse. This is not moralism. This is not about shaming people. [Rather, the culture of cruelty is] a discourse that is trying to understand the relationship between institutions, ideologies, and policies, and the kinds of effects that it has that bears down on a culture and shapes it in such a way that it produces a kind of hardening, a certain indifference to matters of empathy, a certain refusal of ethical considerations, [and] what Hannah Arendt called a floating sense of responsibility–one that’s no longer anchored, and in may ways is disappearing. We see this all over the place. I think there are [two] registers that we can point to. Increasingly we have a culture that’s being militarized–not only are markets being militarized by virtue of defense industries joining hands with politician and the government, but we see it at the level of everyday life. We see [militarization] in the spectacle of violence. We see it in the rise of John Gault characters right out of Ayn Rand, who now get transformed into the American Psycho, Patrick Bateman. Wee see it in the words of politician who increasingly are promoting policies that are so cruel that they’re just mind blowing. When Newt Gingrith say that he thinks that poor kids in schools should have to work for free meals you get a touch of what that cruelty is about. Or when you hear it in the words of politicians who claim that people on welfare are simply “moochers.” Or in the words of a recent hedge fund operator who claimed that homeless shelters generate poverty because they bring people into a web of dependency. You couple [all of this] with the para-militarization of the police… Rather than create institutions that address social problems you now create local police forces that are now armed with weapons that were used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars so what you get are police forces that are now transformed into SWAT teams. You have SWAT teams invading poker games; [you have] SWAT teams over-reacting with force and high-tech technology in order to deal with young people who are allegedly causing trouble. The end result of this is an enormously high level of violence, which is completely unacceptable–kid’s are being shot, [and] people are being put in jail for no reason whatsoever.

The second register is the punishing state. What people often don’t get with the rise of the punishing state is that as the social state collapses and the culture of cruelty expands, power still has to be legitimated. So, you have to ask yourself “how are you going to legitimate a mode of power that is steeped in such iniquitous relations of power?” This is particularly the case around questions of wealth, income, and political control. [In fact, punishment is] one the few ways left for the empire to legitimate itself [especially] given the vast [economic] contradictions that have emerged. [To legitimate the neoliberal regime of power the US has] built a punishing state, [governed according to the logic of] “punishment creep:” [punishment] creeps from the prison into the school into the mall into airports into various surveillance technologies, into the ever growing presence of police, into an expanding culture of fear, and into words that matter because they shape behavior–words like terrorist, unpatriotic, or un-American. I recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Hamilton Spectator in which the first response [from commenters] was “why don’t you love America it’s given you so much?” There’s an implication that dissent is somehow unpatriotic, and that the only way to deal with [dissent] it is through [incarceration]. [This is what the US is] doing with whistleblowers–people who are heroes for exposing government corruption are not lauded as heroes, [but rather] they’re actually punished. We see this mode of punishment working in a number of ways. We see it working on failed consumers–on people who can no longer consume and are [thus] seen as a dredge on the market. We see it in people who are dissenting. We see it being used against young people who don’t fit in–who are “othered,” who are immigrants, who are black, who are brown, who are poor, and who symbolize trouble for a country that wants to define the public sphere as white and Christian.


4. HG: First, one of the myths that we have to destroy when we talk about the new media is that the internet represents a new form of democracy. This is just wrong, misguided, and politically reactionary. The dream might be interesting, but the reality is something else. The new media is basically controlled by a handful of corporations–from Google, to Yahoo, to Facebook, etc.–and I think that we what we increasingly see is that media is an attempt to produce a particular kind of subject. This is a subject that is privatized, utterly self-absorbed, [who] collapses the public into the private, and is intent on sharing personal information in ways that are irrelevant, defines the notion of community so abstractly as to drain it of any meaning, and feels that the only obligation they have to the world is buy products and shop. I don’t want to place the blame and the burden of that on the consumer. What we have is technology that is very sophisticated in mining data and offering an alleged public space for young people that really is commercialized and privatized–you can join in but the range of options that you have are limited if they’re not limited by commercials, they’re limited by what’s accepted as prevailing discourse–the ongoing utter privatization of discourse and the sharing of private information that really doesn’t need to be shared. There’s an assumption that new media is for display, that’s it’s really about displaying [one’s private life]. So in terms of new media’s commodification and it’s attempt to directly appeal to a shared sense of community, and to use that shared sense of community as part of what we might call, to use the Blochian term, the swindle of fulfillment, is pretty intense and dangerous.

Secondly, this technology is being used for all kinds of modes of surveillance. If you have a [smart phone] you can be tracked anywhere in the world–you’re tracked [because] you have a GPS in that phone. These technologies are not innocent. We now know that the National Security Agency (NSA), as well as a number of other intelligence agencies in the US mine data from almost every electronic device that we have. So everything that we say, every note that we exchange, every comment that we make, every video that we make, every exchange that we make is being stored somewhere. And with technology that can retrieve that information so quickly on the basis of marking certain kinds of words or sentences and so in, this is enormously dangerous and really spells the end of democracy. That technology used improperly in that way poses a real threat, in my estimation, to democracy.

Of course, the other side of this is that when the values that drive that technology and offer a space for it to be used in a more empowering and productive way then we see people using it in ways such as organizing politically and making power invisible and accountable. Wikileaks, for instance, suggests an alternative way for these technologies to work; suggests that the media can act as a fourth estate. Given that the concentration of power is so intense around the media all across neoliberal societies, it might be the case, and I’ve argued this in my work, that new media offers one of the few opportunities [and spaces] that we have left for [challenging neoliberal regimes of power]. I know some people disagree with that–Stanley Aronowitz, Zygmunt Bauman, and others tend to disagree with that, but I have differences withthem over this. [Aronowitz], for instance, thinks that the new media doesn’t have enough depth, that it presupposes that people know what you’re talking about, and that it’s exploratory more than analytical. However I don’t think that’s true. There are a number of sites where you have both–you have op-ed pieces and then you have scholarly pieces. At Truthout.com, for instance, a site I’m involved with, there is a Public Intellectuals Project, which is far from exploratory. So through these projects and others we are seeing young people using this new media in ways that are productive and serve democratic ends. We are also seeing institutional infrastructures emerging in the form of online media that are trying to fill the void left by a corporate media that’s utterly controlled by relatively few and dangerous interests.


HG: I think that new media is an enormously important site of struggle. Young people growing up in this world today need to not only be capable of critiquing, assessing, and reading texts and screen culture, but they also need to learn to be cultural producers. [In order to make a difference] you have to be a cultural in this age. You have to know how to work this media in ways in which it can be made public and reach out to vast audiences. My generation didn’t learn this and often have a hard time with new media. We didn’t grow up touching screens. We grew up surrounding by oral and print cultures, which are very different. So I think that ultimately the struggle over the media is going to constitute one of the greatest struggles that will determine whether young people today will end up growing up in a democracy or not.


5. HG: I think it helps to make a distinction between scholars and intellectuals. Scholars often write in a way that seems to suggest that questions of detail and rigor and a kind of mechanical inhabiting of the word is really what matters. Their involvement with their work is like a science. Intellectuals, on the other hand, dance with words and they occupy words as a kind of love affair in which words should mean something and should address important social and political issues. I think that intellectuals have an enormous role to play, and not only because I think their voices are valuable, and let me be clear, I think there are a wide range of voices that constitute intellectuals, but when we’re talking about the university, to define yourself simply as a scholar who has no interest in what’s going on socially and politically in the world, is to fall into the unfortunate position of not being able to defend the conditions of your own labor. And that’s dangerous. You have to be able to defend what you do. You have to be able to convince people why your work is important because the public increasingly doesn’t believe that the university has any relevance.

University professors have a certain responsibility simply by the nature of the work that they do. They deal with ideas. They have the time–although increasingly as academics become casualized and become an army of part-time serfs it’s more difficult for them to get the time. In any case, at the very least intellectuals, scholars, researchers, etc., have an obligation to define themselves as public intellectuals so that they can fight over the conditions of their own labor. They also need to define themselves as public intellectuals in order to make it clear that the university is one of the few places left where modes of imagination, critique, and knowledge that matters can be learned and in which you can generate the formative culture that makes a democracy possible.

Moreover, public intellectuals must refuse to view young people as simply consumers of services. To view any educational space simply as a space where goods are exchanged, where products are produced, or where training gets confused for education, is in fact to become complicit in a kind of authoritarianism that wants to turn the university into a factory and into another space for the reproduction of neoliberal ideology, governance, and policy. Above all, I think that intellectuals need to be heard, they have to raise questions that other people don’t, and they have to make the invisible visible. In fact, holding power accountable is perhaps the highest calling of any intellectual.


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