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Forum Post: Slavery's Legacies of Racism and Dehumanization of Labor Still Poison the US

Posted 3 years ago on Dec. 8, 2013, 6:09 p.m. EST by LeoYo (5909)
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Slavery's Legacies of Racism and Dehumanization of Labor Still Poison the US

Sunday, 08 December 2013 10:32 By Mark Karlin, Truthout | Book Review


In Solomon Northup's narrative of his 12 years as an abducted free man sold into slavery, decscriptions of the atrocities of the practice abound.

Get the Penguin paperback edition of Northrup's Twelve Years a Slave, edited by of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It was orignally published in 1853. Make a contribution of $25 or more and receive it now. Just click here.

Amidst Northup's account of his years as chattel in Louisiana, a particular recollection of the generational passage of the vile mindset of buying people as property and physically abusing (and killing them) speaks volumes about the persistence of racism. For about 10 years, Northup was owned by Louisiana plantation master Edwin Epps, who received great pleasure in having his slaves, including a young woman whom he was raping, frequently whipped. Epps, according to Northup, had a son "of ten or twelve years of age" who himself lashed slaves at will:

It is pitiable, sometimes to see him chastising, for instance, the venerable Uncle Abram. He will call the old man to account, and if in his childish judgment it is necessary, sentence him to a certain number of lashes, which he proceeds to inflict with much gravity and deliberation. Mounted on his pony, he often rides into the field with his whip, playing the overseer, greatly to his father's delight. Without discrimination, at such times, he applies the rawhide, urging the slaves forward with shouts, and occasional expressions of profanity, while the old man laughs, and commends him as "a thorough-going boy."

Although the institution of slavery was ended with the resolution of the Civil War, the attitude of racism handed from one generation to the next in the South - and other areas of the nation - has been remarkably tenacious among a significant segment of the population. In particular, the notion of white male privilege and superiority to those with other skin colors has been largely fueling an incendiary political battle, i.e., whether the United States is a white patriarchal nation or one of cultural diversity and enfranchisement.

Many of the angry white males in the United States partake of the legacy of a depraved culture of slavery that Solomon Northup experienced through the eyes of a free man. One can no longer legally own another person in the United States, but one is free to regard nonwhites with vile contempt. Just listen to Rush Limbaugh. "The other," in such an inherited prejudice, is to be despised, belittled and marginalized.

Although the current popularity of Twelve Years a Slave (the movie and the original book) has much to do with the gripping drama of a free man who suddenly becomes a slave - and ultimately regains his freedom - it is also a timely reminder that slavery, economically, was about profit made from literally disposable laborers. Yes, there was an "investment" in purchasing a slave (a human life), but after that payment, it was all about maximizing productivity of labor to increase wealth on plantations (putting the other uses of slaves aside for the moment). Slaves only had value as laborers and property. The very word "slave" is a dehumanization of those who endured the institution's pain, wrath and evil.

The monetization of people in terms of their value to increase the wealth of a selected elite was epitomized in a nightmarish reality - a living hell that was incorporated into the original US Constitution - in the antebellum South.

In the end, Solomon Northup ultimately had his dignity, family and freedom restored to him. He descended into the inferno but was miraculously able to return to his home in New York state. But a society that uses the majority of its population as financially subjugated workers to create gluttonous profits for a relative miniscule minority of that society is heir to an outlook that sees workers as essentially replaceable property.

Northup observes, in describing the young "Master Epps" (not yet a teenager):

"The child is father to the man," and with such training whatever may be his natural disposition, it cannot be well otherwise than that, on arriving at maturity, the sufferings and miseries of the slave will be looked upon with entire indifference.

Replace the word slave with the majority of Americans who struggle financially and Northup's insight applies - in an altered context of economic privilege - just as well in 2013. The practice of degrading the value of labor so that the wealthy elites can increase their profits is soaring.

Simultaneously, the deluded racism of the Tea Party represents the simmering bilious violence of Southern whites, who were themselves of limited means before and after the Civil War. Instead of resenting the wealthy slave owners and subsequent Southern oligarchy, they heaped their anger and loathing on blacks.

This dynamic was unexpectedly and obliquely alluded to in a speech on December 4 that President Obama gave on growing economic inequality and shrinking economic mobility:

So if we’re going to take on growing inequality and try to improve upward mobility for all people, we’ve got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern. And we have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.

This, too, is the legacy of the world that Solomon Northup unwillingly experienced, the toxic taint of slavery that tarnishes our democracy to this day.

Get the Penguin paperback edition of Northrup's Twelve Years a Slave, edited by of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It was orignally published in 1853. Make a contribution of $25 or more and receive it now. Just click here. https://co.clickandpledge.com/advanced/default.aspx?wid=74192

Copyright, Truthout.



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[-] 5 points by LeoYo (5909) 3 years ago

Chomsky: It Is All Working Quite Well for the Rich, Powerful

Sunday, 08 December 2013 09:28 By CJ Polychroniou and Anastasia Giamali, Truthout | Interview


This is a shorter and slightly revised version of an interview with Noam Chomsky which appeared on Sunday, Dec. 8 in the Syriza-aligned paper Avgi in Greece.

C.J. Polychroniou and Anastasia Giamali: Neoliberal ideology claims that the government is a problem, society does not exist and individuals are responsible for their own fate. Yet, big business and the rich rely, as ever, on state intervention to maintain their hold over the economy and to enjoy a bigger slice of the economic pie. Is neoliberalism a myth, merely an ideological construct?

Noam Chomsky: The term neoliberal is a bit misleading. The doctrines are neither new, nor liberal. As you say, big business and the rich rely extensively on what economist Dean Baker calls "the conservative nanny state" that they nourish. That is dramatically true of financial institutions. A recent IMF study attributes the profits of the big banks almost entirely to the implicit government insurance policy ("too big to fail"), not just the widely publicized bailouts, but access to cheap credit, favorable ratings because of the state guarantee and much else. The same is true of the productive economy. The IT revolution, now its driving force, relied very heavily on state-based R&D, procurement and other devices. That pattern goes back to early English industrialization.

However, neither "neoliberalism," nor its earlier versions as "liberalism," have been myths, certainly not for their victims. Economic historian Paul Bairoch is only one of many who have shown that "the Third World's compulsory economic liberalism in the 19th century is a major element in explaining the delay in its industrialization," in fact, its "de-industrialization," a story that continues to the present under various guises.

In brief, the doctrines are, to a substantial extent, a "myth" for the rich and powerful, who craft many ways to protect themselves from market forces, but not for the poor and weak, who are subjected to their ravages.

What explains the supremacy of market-centric rule and predatory finance in an era that has experienced the most destructive crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression?

The basic explanation is the usual one: It is all working quite well for the rich and powerful. In the US, for example, tens of millions are unemployed, unknown millions have dropped out of the workforce in despair, and incomes as well as conditions of life have largely stagnated or declined. But the big banks, which were responsible for the latest crisis, are bigger and richer than ever, corporate profits are breaking records, wealth beyond the dreams of avarice is accumulating among those who count, labor is severely weakened by union busting and "growing worker insecurity," to borrow the term Alan Greenspan used in explaining the grand success of the economy he managed, when he was still "St. Alan," perhaps the greatest economist since Adam Smith, before the collapse of the structure he had administered, along with its intellectual foundations. So what is there to complain about?

The growth of financial capital is related to the decline in the rate of profit in industry and the new opportunities to distribute production more widely to places where labor is more readily exploited and constraints on capital are weakest - while profits are distributed to places with lowest [tax] rates ("globalization"). The process has been abetted by technological developments that facilitate the growth of an "out-of-control financial sector," which "is eating out the modern market economy [that is, the productive economy] from inside, just as the larva of the spider wasp eats out the host in which it has been laid," to borrow the evocative phrase of Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, probably the most respected financial correspondent in the English-speaking world.

That aside, as noted, the "market-centric rule" imposes harsh discipline on the many, but the few who count protect themselves from it effectively.

What do you make of the argument about the dominance of a transnational elite and the end of the nation-state, especially since its proponents claim that this New World Order is already upon us?

There's something to it, but it shouldn't be exaggerated. Multinationals continue to rely on the home state for protection, economic and military, and substantially for innovation as well. The international institutions remain largely under the control of the most powerful states, and in general the state-centric global order remains reasonably stable.

Europe is moving ever closer to the end of the "social contract." Is this a surprising development for you?

In an interview, Mario Draghi informed The Wall Street Journal that "the Continent's traditional social contract" - perhaps its major contribution to contemporary civilization - "is obsolete" and must be dismantled. And he is one of the international bureaucrats who is doing most to protect its remnants. Business has always disliked the social contract. Recall the euphoria in the business press when the fall of "Communism" offered a new work force - educated, trained, healthy and even blond and blue-eyed - that could be used to undercut the "luxurious lifestyle" of western workers. It is not the result of inexorable forces, economic or other, but a policy design based on the interests of the designers, who are rather more likely to be bankers and CEOs than the janitors who clean their offices.

One of the biggest problems facing many parts of the advanced capitalist world today is the debt burden, public and private. In the peripheral nations of the eurozone, in particular, debt is having catastrophic social effects as the "people always pay," as you have pointedly argued in the past. For the benefit of today's activists, would you explain in what sense debt is "a social and ideological construct?"

There are many reasons. One was captured well by a phrase of the US executive director of the IMF, Karen Lissakers, who described the institution as "the credit community's enforcer." In a capitalist economy, if you lend me money and I can't pay you back, it's your problem: You cannot demand that my neighbors pay the debt. But since the rich and powerful protect themselves from market discipline, matters work differently when a big bank lends money to risky borrowers, hence at high interest and profit, and at some point they cannot pay. Then the "the credit community's enforcer" rides to the rescue, ensuring that the debt is paid, with liability transferred to the general public by structural adjustment programs, austerity and the like. When the rich don't like to pay such debts, they can declare them to be "odious," hence invalid: imposed on the weak by unfair means. A huge amount of debt is "odious" in this sense, but few can appeal to powerful institutions to rescue them from the rigors of capitalism.

There are plenty of other devices. J.P. Morgan Chase has just been fined $13 billion (half of it tax-deductible) for what should be regarded as criminal behavior in fraudulent mortgage schemes, from which the usual victims suffer under hopeless burdens of debt. The inspector-general of the US government bailout program, Neil Barofsky, pointed out that it was officially a legislative bargain: the banks that were the culprits were to be bailed out, and their victims, people losing their homes, were to be given some limited protection and support. As he explains, only the first part of the bargain was seriously honored, and the plan became a "giveaway to Wall Street executives" - to the surprise of no one who understands "really existing capitalism."

The list goes on.

In the course of the crisis, Greeks have been portrayed around the globe as lazy and corrupt tax evaders who merely like to demonstrate. This view has become mainstream. What are the mechanisms used to persuade public opinion? Can they be tackled?

The portrayals are presented by those with the wealth and power to frame the prevailing discourse. The distortion and deceit can be confronted only by undermining their power and creating organs of popular power, as in all other cases of oppression and domination.

What is your view about what is happening in Greece, particularly with regard to the constant demands by the "troika" and Germany's unyielding desire to advance the cause of austerity?

It appears that the ultimate aim of the German demands from Athens, under the management of the debt crisis, is the capture of whatever is of value in Greece. Some people in Germany appear to be intent on imposing conditions of virtual economic slavery on the Greeks.

It is rather likely that the next government in Greece will be a government of the Coalition of the Radical Left. What should be its approach toward the European Union and Greece's creditors? Also, should a left government be reassuring toward the most productive sectors of the capitalist class, or should it adopt the core components of a traditional workerist-populist ideology?

These are hard practical questions. It would be easy for me to sketch what I would like to happen, but given existing realities, any course followed has risks and costs. Even if I were in a position to assess them properly - I am not - it would be irresponsible to urge policy without serious analysis and evidence.

[-] 5 points by LeoYo (5909) 3 years ago

Capitalism's appetite for destruction was never in doubt, but in your recent writings you pay increasing attention to environmental destruction. Do you really think human civilization is at stake?

I think decent human survival is at stake. The earliest victims are, as usual, the weakest and most vulnerable. That much has been evident even in the global summit on climate change that just concluded in Warsaw, with little outcome. And there is every reason to expect that to continue. A future historian - if there is one - will observe the current spectacle with amazement. In the lead in trying to avert likely catastrophe are the so-called "primitive societies": First Nations in Canada, indigenous people in South America and so on throughout the world. We see the struggle for environmental salvage and protection taking place today in Greece, where the residents of Skouries in Chalkidiki are putting up a heroic resistance both against the predatory aims of Eldorado Gold and the police forces that have been mobilized by the Greek state in support of the multinational company.

Those enthusiastically leading the race to fall off the cliff are the richest and most powerful societies, with incomparable advantages, like the US and Canada. Just the opposite of what rationality would predict - apart from the lunatic rationality of "really existing capitalist democracy."

The US remains a world empire and, by your account, operates under the "Mafia principle," meaning that the godfather does not tolerate "successful defiance." Is the American empire in decline, and, if so, does it pose yet a greater threat to global peace and security?

US global hegemony reached a historically unparalleled peak in 1945, and has been declining steadily since, though it still remains very great and though power is becoming more diversified, there is no single competitor in sight. The traditional Mafia principle is constantly invoked, but ability to implement it is more constrained. The threat to peace and security is very real. To take just one example, President Obama's drone campaign is by far the most vast and destructive terrorist operation now under way. The US and its Israeli client violate international law with complete impunity, for example, by threats to attack Iran ("all options are open") in violation of core principles of the UN Charter. The most recent US Nuclear Posture Review (2010), is more aggressive in tone than its predecessors, a warning not to be ignored. Concentration of power rather generally poses dangers, in this domain as well.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you have said all along that the one-state/two-state debate is irrelevant.

The one-state/two-state debate is irrelevant because one state is not an option. It is worse than irrelevant: It is a distraction from the reality. The actual options are either (1) two states or (2) a continuation of what Israel is now doing with US support: keeping Gaza under a crushing siege, separated from the West Bank; and systematically taking over what it finds of value in the West Bank while integrating it more closely to Israel, taking over areas with not many Palestinians; and those who are there are being quietly expelled. The contours are quite clear from the development and expulsion programs.

Given option (2), there's no reason why Israel or the US should agree to the one-state proposal, which also has no international support anywhere else. Unless the reality of the evolving situation is recognized, talk about one state (civil rights/anti-apartheid struggle, "demographic problem", etc.) is just a diversion, implicitly lending support to option (2). That's the essential logic of the situation, like it or not.

You have said that elite intellectuals are the ones that mainly tick you off. Is this because you fuse politics with morality?

Elite intellectuals, by definition, have a good deal of privilege. Privilege provides options and confers responsibility. Those more privileged are in a better position to obtain information and to act in ways that will affect policy decisions. Assessment of their role follows at once.

It's true that I think that people should live up to their elementary moral responsibilities, a position that should need no defense. And the responsibilities of someone in a more free and open society are, again obviously, greater than those who may pay some cost for honesty and integrity. If commissars in Soviet Russia agreed to subordinate themselves to state power, they could at least plead fear in extenuation. Their counterparts in more free and open societies can plead only cowardice.

Michel Gondry's animated documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? has just been released in selected theaters in New York City and other major cities in the US after having received rave reviews. Did you see the movie? Were you pleased with it?

I saw it. Gondry is really a great artist. The movie is delicately and cleverly done and manages to capture some important ideas (often not understood even in the field) in a very simple and clear way, also with personal touches that seemed to me very sensitive and thoughtful.

Copyright, Truthout.

[-] 2 points by LeoYo (5909) 3 years ago

Henry A. Giroux | The Spectacle of Illiteracy and the Crisis of Democracy

Monday, 09 December 2013 09:48 By Henry A Giroux, Moyers & Company | Op-Ed


C. Wright Mills argued 50 years ago that one important measure of the demise of vibrant democracy and the corresponding impoverishment of political life can be found in the increasing inability of a society to translate private troubles to broader public issues. [1] This is an issue that both characterizes and threatens any viable notion of democracy in the United States in the current historical moment. In an alleged post-racist democracy, the image of the public sphere with its appeal to dialogue and shared responsibility has given way to the spectacle of unbridled intolerance, ignorance, seething private fears, unchecked anger and the decoupling of reason from freedom. Increasingly, as witnessed in the utter disrespect and not-so-latent racism expressed by Joe Wilson, the Republican congressman from South Carolina, who shouted “you lie!” during President Obama’s address on health care, the obligation to listen, respect the views of others and engage in a literate exchange is increasingly reduced to the highly spectacular embrace of an infantile emotionalism. This is an emotionalism that is made for television. It is perfectly suited for emptying the language of public life of all substantive content, reduced in the end to a playground for hawking commodities, promoting celebrity culture and enacting the spectacle of right-wing fantasies fueled by the fear that the public sphere as an exclusive club for white male Christians is in danger of collapsing. For some critics, those who carry guns to rallies or claim Obama is a Muslim and not a bona fide citizen of the United States are simply representative of an extremist fringe, that gets far more publicity from the mainstream media than they deserve. Of course this is understandable, given that the media’s desire for balance and objective news is not just disingenuous but relinquishes any sense of ethical responsibility by failing to make a distinction between an informed argument and an unsubstantiated opinion. Witness the racist hysteria unleashed by so many Americans and the media over the building of an Islamic cultural center near ground zero.

Also see: Bill Moyers | Henry Giroux: Zombie Politics and Casino Capitalism

The collapse of journalistic standards finds its counterpart in the rise of civic illiteracy. An African-American president certainly makes the Rush Limbaughs of the world even more irrational than they already are, just as the lunatic fringe seems to be able to define itself only through a mode of thought whose first principle is to disclaim logic itself. But I think this dismissal is too easy. What this decline in civility, the emergence of mob behavior and the utter blurring in the media between a truth and a lie suggest is that we have become one of the most illiterate nations on the planet. I don’t mean illiterate in the sense of not being able to read, though we have far too many people who are functionally illiterate in a so-called advanced democracy, a point that writers such as Chris Hedges, Susan Jacoby and the late Richard Hofstadter made clear in their informative books on the rise of anti-intellectualism in American life. [2] I am talking about a different species of ignorance and anti-intellectualism. Illiterate in this instance refers to the inability on the part of much of the American public to grasp private troubles and the meaning of the self in relation to larger public problems and social relations. It is a form of illiteracy that points less to the lack of technical skills and the absence of certain competencies than to a deficit in the realms of politics — one that subverts both critical thinking and the notion of literacy as both critical interpretation and the possibility of intervention in the world. This type of illiteracy is not only incapable of dealing with complex and contested questions, it is also an excuse for glorifying the principle of self-interest as a paradigm for understanding politics. This is a form of illiteracy marked by the inability to see outside of the realm of the privatized self, an illiteracy in which the act of translation withers, reduced to a relic of another age. The United States is a country that is increasingly defined by a civic deficit, a chronic and deadly form of civic illiteracy that points to the failure of both its educational system and the growing ability of anti-democratic forces to use the educational force of the culture to promote the new illiteracy. As this widespread illiteracy has come to dominate American culture, we have moved from a culture of questioning to a culture of shouting and in doing so have restaged politics and power in both unproductive and anti-democratic ways. Think of the forces at work in the larger culture that work overtime to situate us within a privatized world of fantasy, spectacle and resentment that is entirely removed from larger social problems and public concerns. For instance, corporate culture, with its unrelenting commercials, carpet-bombs our audio and visual fields with the message that the only viable way to define ourselves is to shop and consume in an orgy of private pursuits. Popular culture traps us in the privatized universe of celebrity culture, urging us to define ourselves through the often empty and trivialized and highly individualized interests of celebrities. Pharmaceutical companies urge us to deal with our problems, largely produced by economic and political forces out of our control, by taking a drug, one that will both chill us out and increase their profit margins. (This has now become an educational measure applied increasingly and indiscriminately to children in our schools.) Pop psychologists urge us to simply think positively, give each other hugs and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps while also insisting that those who confront reality and its mix of complex social issues are, as Chris Hedges points out, defeatists, a negative force that inhibits “our inner essence and power.” [3] There is also the culture of militarization, which permeates all aspects of our lives — from our classrooms and the screen culture of reality television to the barrage of violent video games and the blood letting in sports such as popular wrestling — endlessly at work in developing modes of masculinity that celebrate toughness, violence, cruelty, moral indifference and misogyny. All of these forces, whose educational influence should never be underestimated, constitute a new type of illiteracy, a kind of civic illiteracy in which it becomes increasingly impossible to connect the everyday problems that people face with larger social forces — thus depoliticizing their own sense of agency and making politics itself an empty gesture. Is it any wonder that politics is now mediated through a spectacle of anger, violence, humiliation and rage that mimics the likes of The Jerry Springer Show? It is not that we have become a society of the spectacle — though that is partly true — but that we have fallen prey to a new kind of illiteracy in which the distinction between illusion and reality is lost, just as the ability to experience our feelings of discontent and our fears of uncertainty are reduced to private troubles, paralyzing us in a sea of resentment waiting to be manipulated by extremists extending from religious fanatics to right-wing radio hosts. This is a prescription for a kind of rage that looks for easy answers, demands a heightened emotional release and resents any attempts to think through the connection between our individual woes and any number of larger social forces. A short list of such forces would include an unchecked system of finance, the anti-democratic power of the corporate state, the rise of multinationals and the destruction of the manufacturing base and the privatization of public schooling along with its devaluing of education as a public good. As the public collapses into the personal, the personal becomes “the only politics there is, the only politics with a tangible referent or emotional valence,” [4] the formative educational and political conditions that make a democracy possible begin to disappear. Under such circumstances, the language of the social is either devalued, pathologized or ignored and all dreams of the future are now modeled around the narcissistic, privatized and self-indulgent needs of consumer and celebrity culture and the dictates of the allegedly free market. How else to explain the rage against big government but barely a peep against the rule of big corporations who increasingly control not only the government but almost every vital aspect of our lives from health care to the quality of our environment?

Stripped of its ethical and political importance, the public has been largely reduced to a space where private interests are displayed and the social order increasingly mimics a giant Dr. Phil show where notions of the public register as simply a conglomeration of private woes, tasks, conversations and problems. Most importantly, as the very idea of the social collapses into an utterly privatized discourse, everyday politics is decoupled from its democratic moorings and it becomes more difficult for people to develop a vocabulary for understanding how private problems and public issues constitute the very lifeblood of a vibrant politics and democracy itself. This is worth repeating. Emptied of any substantial content, democracy appears imperiled as individuals are unable to translate their privately suffered misery into genuine public debate, social concerns and collective action. This is a form of illiteracy that is no longer marginal to American society but is increasingly becoming one of its defining and more frightening features.

[-] 3 points by LeoYo (5909) 3 years ago

The raging narcissism that seems to shape every ad, film, television program and appeal now mediated through the power of the corporate state and consumer society is not merely a clinical and individual problem. It is the basis for a new kind of mass illiteracy that is endlessly reproduced through the venues of a number of anti-democratic institutions and forces that eschew critical debate, self-reflection, critical analysis and certainly modes of dissent that call the totality of a society into question. As American society becomes incapable of questioning itself, the new illiteracy parades as just its opposite. We are told that education is about learning how to take tests rather than learning how to think critically. We are told that anything that does not make us feel good is not worth bothering with. We are told that character is the only measure of how to judge people who are the victims of larger social forces that are mostly out of their control. When millions of people are unemployed, tossed out of their homes, homeless or living in poverty, the language of character, pop psychology, consumerism and celebrity culture are more than a diversion: they are fundamental to the misdirected anger, mob rule and illiteracy that frames the screaming, racism, lack of civility and often sheer and legitimate desperation. Authoritarianism is often abetted by an inability of the public to grasp how questions of power, politics, history and public consciousness are mediated at the interface of private issues and public concerns. The ability to translate private problems into social considerations is fundamental to what it means to reactivate political sensibilities and conceive of ourselves as critical citizens, engaged public intellectuals and social agents. Just as an obsession with the private is at odds with a politics informed by public consciousness, it also burdens politics by stripping it of the kind of political imagination and collective hope necessary for a viable notion of meaning, hope and political agency.

Civic literacy is about more than enlarging the realm of critique and affirming the social. It is also about public responsibility, the struggle over democratic public life and the importance of critical education in a democratic society. The US government is more than willing to invest billions in wars, lead the world in arms sales and give trillions in tax cuts to the ultra-rich but barely acknowledges the need to invest in those educational and civic institutions from schools to the arts to a massive jobs creation program — that enable individuals to be border crossers, capable of connecting the private and the public as part of a more vibrant understanding of politics, identity, agency and governance. The new illiteracy is not the cause of our problems, which are deeply rooted in larger social, economic and political forces that have marked the emergence of the corporate state, a deadly form of racism parading as color blindness and a ruthless market fundamentalism since the 1970s, but it is a precondition for locking individuals into a system in which they are complicitous in their own exploitation, disposability and potential death.

The new illiteracy is about more than not knowing how to read the book or the word; it is about not knowing how to read the world. The challenge it poses in a democracy is one of both learning how to reclaim literacy so as to be able to narrate oneself and the world from a position of agency. But it is also about unlearning those modes of learning that internalize modes of ignorance based on the concerted refusal to know, be self-reflective and act with principled dignity. It is a problem as serious as any we have ever faced in the United States. At the core of any viable democratic politics is the ability to question the assumptions central to an imagined democracy. This is not merely a political issue but an educational issue, one that points to the need for modes of civic education that provide the knowledge and competencies for young and old alike to raise important questions about what education and literacy itself should accomplish in a democracy. [5] This is not an issue we can ignore too much longer.


  1. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959). See also the brilliant Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York; W.W. Norton, 1992).

  2. Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1966); Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Vintage, 2009); Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2009).

  3. Chris Hedges, “Celebrity Culture and the Obama Brand,” Tikkun (January/February 2010).

  4. Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” Public Culture 12:2 (2000), pp. 305-306.

  5. Zygmunt Bauman, “Introduction,” Society under Siege (Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), p. 170.

This is an excerpt from Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, by Henry Giroux.

Reprinted with permission of the author of Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, by Henry Giroux. Published by Peter Lang Publishing.