America on the Edge: Henry Giroux on Politics, Culture, and Education
reviewed by H. Svi Shapiro - January 29, 2007
Title: America on the Edge: Henry Giroux on Politics, Culture, and Education
Author(s): Henry A. Giroux
Publisher: Palgrave/MacMillan, New York
ISBN: 1403971595 , Pages: 280, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com
Henry Girouxs aptly named recent book America on the Edge provides a searing and powerfully written view of this country six years into the current Bush administration. Writing from his exile in Canada, Giroux describes a nation that edges closer to a fascist state as more and more aspects of life are pervaded by an ethos of fear, conformity, authoritarianism, and militarism. The social spaces for dissent have become smaller, public life offers fewer opportunities to bring to bear a critical intelligence, and individuals lives are turned inwards towards private goals rather than shared concerns. Girouxs brilliance as a critical theorist is not compromised in this volume, but his theoretical insights are fully amplified by his explorations of the way daily life, public policy, and political decisions have coalesced to produce an increasingly one-dimensional culture. Such a culture is fixated on profit; racial, class, and imperial power; and masculine violence. Notwithstanding his continuing and important contributions to understanding popular culture, Giroux is perhaps best known for his contributions to our understanding of critical pedagogy. While education is considered in this book as just one part of his larger analysis, he leaves us in no doubt as to its crucial responsibility in breaking through the distortions, deceit, and mystifications that pervade the dominant culture. When understood as a liberating force, pedagogical practices can become a vehicle to make, as he says, knowledge meaningful in order to be critical and critical in order to be transformative (p. 230). In other words, education bears a special responsibility today to cultivate citizens who can resist unthinking conformity with the spirit of thoughtful and courageous dissent; who understand that democratic life concerns the common good and not just private advantage; and who recognize that freedom that is not joined to the quest for a socially just and responsible culture offers only a selfish, even predatory, existence.
One cannot read America on the Edge without seeing the stark choice that is now before us in this country. Giroux vividly describes a nation lurching towards a dehumanizing and demeaning future in which our noblest and most elevating democratic values are eclipsed by a culture suffused with possessive individualism, the pursuit of money and celebrity, blind irresponsibility of corporate power, and an aggressive nationalism sanctioned by a hateful and intolerant version of Christianity. Giroux describes universities that are increasingly divorced from the vision of educating an aware, thoughtful, and ethically sensitive citizenry. Instead higher education more and more sees itself as an arm of the military-corporate state. Its administrators judge their success by the research grants and contracts they can win and by academic programs that are increasingly shaped by the needs of the job market. The notion that higher education represents an autonomous site in which students learn the arts and skills of democratic citizenship is silenced in favor of its role as a place of training human capital for the global marketplace. Giroux sees this ascent of the market society in all areas of our lives. In one poignant chapter, he describes the popular phenomenon of child beauty pageants. Here girls of five and six years of age become packaged as sexual commodities. The degrading spectacle of dressing and parading children before audiences suggests sexuality well beyond their years, a nymphet fantasy for the adult gaze. He goes on to suggest that, within the beauty pageant aesthetic, the line between children and adults is blurred; all of the images depict the cool estrangement of sexual allure that has become a trademark of the commodities industry (p.136).
The pageantry industry, Giroux notes, is a billion-dollar-a-year industry with sponsors like Proctor and Gamble, Black Velvet, and Hawaiian Tropics. Promoters gain huge profits from the events, to say nothing of the small army of providers (such as costume designers, grooming consultants, photographers, and weight reduction experts) that offer support services. Girouxs argument, however, goes beyond discussing the disgusting and dangerous abuse and exploitation of female sexuality that is described here or in the hollowing out of some more expansive view of education that is described elsewhere in the book. The mentality of the marketplace is one that privileges self-promotion over the democratic concern with the wellbeing of the whole. A narrow predatory selfishness shapes human life in place of a concern for the community as a whole. Self-interest eclipses social relationships, and self-sufficiency replaces social interdependence. Freedom in the market-dominated society becomes defined as the capacity to choose among a proliferation of goods rather than the opportunity to shape, with our fellow human beings, the world we wish to live in. And the goals of the market-driven society are always materialistic and about appearance; it is a culture of money, possessions, celebrity, sexiness, and glamour. Ultimately in this kind of world it is not just goods and services that are up for sale: it is ourselves who are more and more on the auction block, as we learn how to manipulate perceptions and sell ourselves to others.
In America on the Edge it is not just the market-saturated world that undermines our democratic values. Capitalism has been joined by a concatenation of ideologiesreligious, chauvinistic, militaristic, racist, and homophobicthat together deeply threaten traditions of free expression, separation of church and state, the rights of habeas corpus, and constitutional protections. The aftermath of 9-11the fear of renewed terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraqhas provided a context in which political criticism of the events of the last five years has been made to appear as a treacherous act of disloyalty. In the either-you-are-with-us-or-against-us world of George W. Bush, patriotism represents flag-waving support for the president and his policies. This Manichean worldview, with its relentless emphasis on evil-doers, prepared the ground for the dehumanizing brutalization of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the ratification of torture as an instrument of interrogation, and the suspension of the most basic of our civil and legal protections in order to permit the generalized surveillance of citizens without court warrant and the holding of prisoners for indefinite periods without charge or legal counsel. The vision of a world divided between patriotic God-fearing Christians on the one hand and dangerous heretics on the other, cemented the alliance between the right-wing, evangelical churches in the United States and the neo-con political elites with their penchant for pre-emptive war and aggressive posturing towards those nations whose interests differed from ours. America had become a nation led by those who espoused a self-righteous, religiously arrogant, militaristic ideology. And anyone who disagreed with this was deemed sympathetic to the enemy. Of course, this group included liberals, the Left, and all those who stood up for human rights and for the possibility of approaching conflict in ways that did not involve military force. For Giroux, the aggressive, hyper-masculine posturing, caught so emblematically in the presidents appearance on the USS Abraham Lincoln after the first phase of the Iraq war, was symptomatic of the larger militarizing of American culture. This militarization could be seen, for example, in the No Child Left Behind requirement that military recruiters have unrestricted access to high school students. The support our troops slogan made it treacherous for politicians to criticize the Iraq war. Giroux notes the extraordinary output of aggressive and military-oriented video games that could be used to entice young men to join up and the increase in sales of toys and games about war and even fashions that utilized military motifs and styles. And of course we should not forget the popular Humveedesigned originally for the armywith its wasteful, oversized, and dangerous presence on our roads that offered a fascistic fusion of power and aggression. Girouxs thoughts about the general militarization of the culture are worth quoting here:
The ideology of militarization is central to any understanding of protofascism since it appeals to a form of irrationality that is at odds with any viable notion of democracy. For instance, militarization uses fear to drive human behavior, and the values it promotes are mainly distrust, patriarchy, and intolerance. Within this ideology, masculinity is associated with violence, and action is often substituted for the democratic processes of deliberation and debate. Militarization as an ideology is about the rule of force and the expansion of repressive state power. In fact democracy appears as an excess in this logic and its often condemned as being a weak system of government. (p. 200)
For Giroux, the slide towards protofascism is undergirded by the whole pantheon of ideological apparatuses and institutions. Under the exaggerated threat of violence, schools became ever more like prisons in the surveillance of students and in the loss of civil rights and the right to free expression. The fixation on the threat of homosexuality to the dominant culture represented not just a politically manipulative distraction from otherand more realthreats to the security of working and middle class individuals but also a way of driving home the need for a conformist culture in which difference is castigated and punished. These tendencies were aided and abetted by the mass media through its supine and sycophantic attitudes towards political power. The timid and passively-accepting manner in which most of the media reported the build up to the Iraq war is now well documented and accepted even by some of those in the media itself. (The New York Times, for example, has now acknowledged its own failures in this regard.) Only after the Katrina disaster did we see some change in this regard. And Hollywood has continued to gross millions through its marketing of films that glorify the American military, as well as through its continued lionization of violent, hyper-masculine heroes. With few notable exceptions, mainstream American movies offer little that provides any real understanding of the United States role in the world or of the dynamics and causes of current global conflicts. Still, it must be said that books like the one reviewed here run the risk of their commentary being overtaken by events. Certainly, in recent months, there has been a significant erosion of the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion. There is now a far wider appreciation of the lies and distortions that paved the way for the war and the discrediting of the government through the corruption and profiteering that followed. The Rights claim to moral guardianship of the culture has become increasingly hollow in light of the continuing revelations of sexual and financial improprieties. There is an increasing recognition of the way this government has protected and enhanced the interests and wealth of the powerful. Whether all of this will amount to any real shift in understanding and attitudes towards the Right in America remains to be seen. Given the underlying structures of power and money and the endless capacity of political operatives to dissemble, it is not easy to be optimistic about this. Still the aggressiveness, venality, and moralistic self-righteousness of the Bush administration has spawned an active counter-politics reflected in the creative and influential wave of documentary film making; in the influence of satiric comedy (one cannot underestimate, for example, the influence of Comedy Centrals The Daily Show on a younger generation); and in the proliferation of critical websites and blogs. Despite the best efforts of the oil interests and their political allies, there is an increasing recognition of the threat to life on earth caused by humanly created climate change. There is growing awareness, and action, about the terrible global disparities in wealtha concern which has become an increasing part of the agenda of many religious communities in the United States. And there is growing reason to believe that the horrendous failure of our policies in Iraq, leading to the deaths of so many thousands of individuals, and the hatred this has engendered around the world for the United States may have seriously undermined the belief in unilaterally-imposed, military solutions to world problems.
Giroux like other commentators such as Zygmunt Bauman and Tariq Ali has, I believe, correctly argued that we face today two kinds of fundamentalism, each of which threaten democratic life (Ali, 2002; Bauman, 2001). Neo-liberalism seeks to reshape every space and every dimension of our lives under the sign of the commodity. According to its creed, every human need is best responded to through the capitalist market; there can be no life outside of the influence of the market. Nation states are increasingly losing their capacity to exercise control over the quality of life and opportunities of a countrys citizens as transnational corporations increasingly dictate not just economic life but every aspect of our public and private world. International organizations such as the WTO and the World Bank, established to represent these corporate interests, strike down democratically-impelled interventions that seek to regulate conditions of work, trade barriers, environmental laws, and the like in the name of unrestricted free markets. The result is a world in which corporate profit usurps all other moral and social considerations. Left only to the dictates of the marketplace, the divisions between the haves and have-nots widen; the earths resources are plundered; environmental toxicity increases; trade increasingly favors the rich and powerful; and culture becomes increasingly vulgar and dehumanizinga world which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
At the same time, we witness the rise of another kind of fundamentalism, one that promises to fill every human need and concern. It offers to its believers a religious faith that fully and absolutely provides answers to satisfy every human dilemma or question. Whether in its Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish guise the true believer is assured that the holy text, and the clerical voices that transmit it, have complete and unambiguous responses to the concerns, ambivalences, and challenges raised by an uncertain and unstable world. The authoritarianism and absolutism in this creed offer little space for the exercise of interpretive reason or a critico-historical view of truth claims. Nor is it tolerant of the claims of other faiths in regard to what is true or right or of the claims by even other streams within the same faith. Such intolerance quickly becomes a license to suppress violently anything that appears to deviate or challenge the one right doctrine. The upsurge of such authoritarianism is the product of complex social conditions. Tariq Ali has traced its origins to the imperialist interventions by the West into the Muslim and Arab world. Militant Islam has become (after the failures of state socialism and pan-nationalism) the form in which mass resentment and political resistance have come to express themselves. Zygmunt Bauman has brilliantly traced the rise of this kind of neo-tribalism to a modernity that has produced a world that is increasingly uncertain and unstable, a world of constant flux and change in which novelty, invention, and self-reflection have freed the individual but at the cost of leaving people adrift in a world where meaningful community and the historical threads of tradition have been radically undermined. The corrosive effects of modernity are certainly the consequence of the spread of the market into all areas of life and in which, as Marx famously noted, all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. But the market here is also joined to a democratic vision that instigates the resistance to patriarchy as well as to an insistence on human rights and individual choice in all areas of culture. Of course Giroux has kept his commentary to American society, which means that this larger and more global view of authoritarianism is mainly absent in this work. But whether viewed within the context of the United States or globally, Left intellectuals while necessarily critical of the dogmatic and reactionary character of religious conservatism, need also to approach with some sympathy the roots of this social movement. Progressive voices such as Michael Lerner and Harvey Cox have eloquently offered an analysis that seeks to locate right-wing, religious expression as a way to mediate and express the anxieties and tribulations of individuals feeling increasingly besieged by a threatening, unpredictable, and tawdry world. It is a world in which the workplace offers less and less security; political elites appear to seek only selfish ends; and culture seems overwhelmingly to degrade and desacrilize human worth. As Lerner has argued, in developing our sensitivity to this anguish, we may find our way to articulating a progressive political path that unites these fractured and conflicting constituencies. After reading Henry Girouxs book, can we be in any doubt as to the desperate importance of moving this country in a progressive direction? Giroux has, with great force and insight, enabled us to see how catastrophic for us all have been the consequences of the emergence to power of this unrestrained right-wing coalition of political, economic, and religious interests. Like few other observers, he has catalogued for us the destructive consequences of this upheaval in all of our lives. Taken as whole, his book gives us a chilling, if not critically penetrating, view of the journey this country has been on for the past six years. In these dire circumstances, we can only be appreciative of Girouxs theoretical astuteness, moral outrage, and enduring commitment to the possibilities of social change.
Ali, T. (2002) The clash of fundamentalisms: Crusades, jihads, and modernity. New York: Verso.
Bauman, Z. (2001) The community: Seeking safety in an insecure world. Cambridge: Polity Press.