Hope after Abu Ghraib

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 Against the New Authoritarianism: Politics after Abu Ghraib
Pessimistic intellectual Henry Giroux could use some optimism of the will

YOU WOULD NEVER GUESS the Iraq adventure would so soon unravel the Bush administration or its terror project from reading Henry Giroux's book, Against the New Authoritarianism: Politics After Abu Ghraib. Giroux, a renowned American thinker on education who recently moved to Canada to teach at McMaster, has assembled here a bleak series of essays on the connections between the rise of neoliberalism, the decline of public spaces and of people's sense of agency or political possibility, and the rise of militarism as a culture and organizing principle in American society.

Giroux makes a convincing case that the Bush administration and neoconservative forces represent the rise of a kind of fascism, or proto-fascism as he calls it, in a new historical configuration specific to the twenty-first century American state. He defines fascism as:

a political philosophy [that] exalts the nation and race âe" or some purified form of national identity âe" over the individual, supports centralized dictatorial power, demands blind obedience from the masses, and promotes a top-down revolution. As a social order, it is generally characterized by a system of terror directed against perceived enemies of the state; a monopolistic control of the mass media; an expanding prison system [and] 'the glorification of violence on behalf of a national cause'.

Giroux enumerates many of the features that define American authoritarianism: the rise of the security state, including a vast âeoegulag archipelagoâe interring a huge percentage of African American men and other marginalized populations; attacks on higher education, specifically the humanities, including censorship of scholarship in the name of ideological âeoebalanceâe and âeoediversityâe ; the pressure, especially for academics and the media, to be âeoepatriotically correctâe or risk harsh public discipline. He describes the process of building a culture of militarism and nationalism: the consolidated ownership and political enfeeblement of the mass media; the glorification of violence through the military-entertainment complex, including, for example, violent, martial video games or reality shows exalting violence, humiliation and masculine aggression; militaristic school cultures of lockdowns, surveillance and zero-tolerance discipline stressing obedience and punishment; the mobilization of fear directed at vaguely defined foreign enemies, namely Islamic terrorists; and a rising tide of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia.

Giroux argues that neoliberalism has created the conditions in which this authoritarianism can flourish, by attacking, limiting and reducing the public sphere, and by systematically disciplining marginalized people though increased exposure to the vicissitudes of the market. By proclaiming and enforcing its inevitability, neoliberalism attacks people's sense of power to change things, and diminishes the public, political, and ideological space in which authoritarianism can be exposed and contested.

Mostly, Giroux writes about what's wrong, and that's what he is best at. The meat of the book is two long chapters, of five total, one describing the rise of American fascism, the other a chapter called âeoeEducation after Abu Ghraib.âe This essay is the most theoretical, but also the weakest. It suffers from excessive repetition and lack of clear thinking. In examining how the photographs of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib have been interpreted under the authoritarianism Giroux describes, the chapter looks for lessons in Theodor Adorno's âeoeEducation after Auschwitz,âe which is âeoea call to refashion education to prevent inhuman acts.âe

In order for such images to be seen for what they are, Giroux argues, education must promote self-reflection and critical attitudes to power; it should form citizens who see themselves as political agents, free, and capable of questioning and resisting systems of power, domination and violence; it should form citizens who are always capable of seeing the humanity in other people. Little for a left-winger to argue with there. But three problems with the book as a whole weaken this chapter in particular.

The first is the writing and the presentation of ideas. Giroux often writes at great length and using an academic cant that gives little payoff in theoretical traction. Many passages are pleonastic in character: they run on and repeat ideas in a slow avalanche of clauses without corresponding gain in insight. As crucial a word as âeoepedagogy,âe which Giroux uses ubiquitously, is never introduced or explained. In many places the word seems to be deployed without doing any specific work. It could be replaced by âeoepoliticsâe or âeoecultureâe or âeoeideologyâe with no loss of coherence, generality or specificity.

Of course, all those ideas are related; but if it's worth using the word âeoepedagogyâe in particular, there should be a reason why, and except in the cases where Giroux is specifically talking about educational institutions, the reason why he is invoking âeoepedagogyâe is nowhere in the book made clear. For him, âeoepedagogyâe is obviously a much broader and more involved concept than the mere âeoemethod of teachingâe that the dictionary will tell you, but you will have to look beyond his book to find out what that broader concept of pedagogy might be.

Nor does he say why, for example, âeoephotographic imagesâe in particular âeoenecessitate the ability to read critically and to utilize particular analytical skills that enable viewers to study the relations among images, discourses, everyday life, and broader structures of power. As both the subject and object of public pedagogy, photographs deploy power and are deployed by power, and register the conditions under which people learn how to read texts and the world.âe Is this simply an application of his general point about the need for critical approaches to the relation between power and representation? If so, it did not need repeating. But if, as the rhetoric and the focus of the book suggest, it is a specific point being made about the photographic image, we are given no argument as to what might distinguish photographs in particular as needing this ability.

The second major problem with the Adorno chapter is that for all his talk about the need for critical pedagogy, Giroux barely descends from his abstract discourse to give us a picture of how to do it. His frothy diagnosis of the problem is generously sprinkled with questions about what we can do about it:

What pedagogical practices might enable the public to foreground the codes and structures that give photographs their meaning while also connecting the productive operations of photography with broader discourses?

[...]

What kind of education connects pedagogy and its diverse sites to the formation of a critical citizenry capable of challenging the ongoing quasi-militarization of everyday life, the growing assault on secular democracy, the collapse of politics into a permanent war against terrorism, and the growing culture of fear increasingly used by political extremists to sanction the unaccountable use of presidential power?

Well, yes. Exactly. After nearly 150 pages with no practical translations of Giroux's ideas on offer, I found myself pulling my hair out, saying, answer the questions already. When Giroux finally does get around to giving us a âeoehowâe of critical pedagogy that answers his questions, it boils down to a banal list of recommendations: âeoeteach-ins, reading groups, public debates, and film screenings.âe

As someone who has been involved in political organizing, I've often found that postmodern thought doesn't give a lot of traction or direction when it comes to developing concrete strategies that work in the real world. The obverse of the lack of practical traction of much postmodern thought is the utter banality and unoriginality of the strategies that many postmodernists actually do suggest, for all their new-fangled vocabulary. Perhaps that is why Giroux in his writing, like many of his academic confederates, is happier wandering through forests of juxtaposed abstractions than grappling with how, actually, concretely, to change the world. It's a much safer place to be, with little risk of being confuted by practical experience.

Giroux may be bang-on when he names âeoethe bankruptcy of the old political languages and the need for a new language and vision for clarifying intellectual, ethical and political projects, especially as they work to reframe questions of agency and meaning for a substantive democracy,âe but at the end of the book, I didn't feel Giroux had moved us any closer to an adequate new political language.

The third major problem with Giroux's book is that its various parts lie uneasily together. Some of this dissonance is stylistic. Several of the pieces were written for other publications, and were addressed to very different audiences, some general, some academic. But there is a theoretical incoherence as well. Giroux argues that photographs like the images of torture at Abu Ghraib âeoegenerally legitimate particular forms of recognition and meaning marked by diversion and evasion.âe By this, he means, for example, that the Abu Ghraib images will be interpreted as a problem of âeoea few bad apples.âe

Yet, the images seem to have had the opposite effect, as evidence and context have accumulated around them to argue against the rationalizations of the Bush administration. The problem with Giroux's account is that his volcano-cloud of gloom obscures our view of how this happened. If, as he argues, we are experiencing the rise of a new and pervasive kind of authoritarianism, which he calls proto-fascism, then how does he account for the sources of resistance and the continued high level of opposition to Bush by the American public, despite the pandering of the elites in media and political circles? What are the differences between our time and previous manifestations of fascism that have prevented the consolidation of totalitarian control?

Likewise, he argues that the new authoritarian discourse trains people in masculine aggression, cruelty, humiliation and fear, and that this prepares the way for atrocities like Abu Ghraib. Yet he also says that under conditions like those faced by soldiers in Iraq, âeoeneither education nor an ethics of peace may be enough to prevent fear and anxiety from turning into murderous action.âe This may well be true, but it seems to undermine Giroux's central contention that one purpose of critical pedagogy should be to prevent inhumanity from happening at all. Conversely, even in the thick of brutality, some people do make different choices, like the helicopter pilot in the My Lai massacre: how does this happen? Giroux is tacitly conceding that when you look at events at a level of fine-grained detail, theories of social determinism break down and can give way to individual difference or simple human biology.

The high note of Giroux's book is a short chapter called âeoeWhen hope is subversive.âe It reiterates many of the same points made elsewhere in the book about public spaces, time and political agency, although more succinctly. The âeoehopeâe of the title is not merely a personal affect. Rather, Giroux writes, it is âeoepart of a broader politics that acknowledges those social, economic, spiritual, and cultural conditions in the present that make certain kinds of agency and democratic politics possible.âe He goes on:

Hope becomes meaningful to the degree that it identifies agencies and processes, offers alternatives to an age of profound pessimism, reclaims an ethic of compassion and justice, and contends for those institutions in which equality, freedom, and justice flourish as part of the ongoing struggle for a global democracy.

Yet ironically, Against the New Authoritarianism is filled with pessimism and dread. I do not share that pessimism about our predicament. But I have the benefit of hindsight. Since Giroux wrote the book, Hurricane Katrina has exposed the Bush administration's feet of clay. An unceasing wind of scandals, criminal indictments, NSA wiretap revelations, and the ever-deteriorating security of Iraq has winnowed the tinsel bravado from the Bush administration. But even before Katrina shattered the media consensus, there was never consensus of public opinion, and Giroux gives too little weight to this fact. Is there a relevant historical difference between this America and earlier manifestations of fascism that needs to be brought out to explain this, whether it is the advent of the Internet and mass communication technology, or some other factor? That is an interesting story that Giroux doesn't tell.

For Giroux, one danger was that the Abu Ghraib photos could be used to entrench fascist discourse by triggering mass denial and rationalization. Even at the time, that did not seem plausible. The story of âeoepolitics after Abu Ghraibâe has not been the story of deepened fascism. It has been the exposure of the limits of authoritarian power and the hollowness of âeoeproto-fascistâe rhetoric, as well as the resilience of resistance, even if this resistance is not radical or transformational. Iraq has seen many empires come and go: Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, Mongol, Ottoman and British. Now it will be the place where the American empire reached its high water-mark and visibly began to ebb. If we can perceive an exact point where the waters began to ebb, it might be Abu Ghraib.âe"Corvin Russell

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