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"The Violence of Organized Forgetting" and "Hope in the Age of Looming Authoritarianism"

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America has become amnesiac - a country in which forms of historical, political, and moral forgetting are not only willfully practiced but celebrated.
Excerpts from and "The Violence of Organized Forgetting" and "Hope in the Age of Looming Authoritarianism"

Henry A. Giroux


"The Violence of Organized Forgetting"


America has become amnesiac - a country in which forms of historical, political, and moral forgetting are not only willfully practiced but celebrated. The United States has degenerated into a social order that is awash in public stupidity and views critical thought as both a liability and a threat. Not only is this obvious in the presence of a celebrity culture that embraces the banal and idiotic, but also in the prevailing discourses and policies of a range of politicians and anti-public intellectuals who believe that the legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be reversed. Politicians such as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich along with talking heads such as Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and Anne Coulter are not the problem, they are symptomatic of a much more disturbing assault on critical thought, if not rational thinking itself. Under a neoliberal regime, the language of authority, power and command is divorced from ethics, social responsibility, critical analysis and social costs.

These anti-public intellectuals are part of a disimagination machine that solidifies the power of the rich and the structures of the military-industrial-surveillance-academic complex by presenting the ideologies, institutions and relations of the powerful as commonsense. 1 For instance, the historical legacies of resistance to racism, militarism, privatization and panoptical surveillance have long been forgotten and made invisible in the current assumption that Americans now live in a democratic, post-racial society. The cheerleaders for neoliberalism work hard to normalize dominant institutions and relations of power through a vocabulary and public pedagogy that create market-driven subjects, modes of consciousness, and ways of understanding the world that promote accommodation, quietism and passivity. Social solidarities are torn apart, furthering the retreat into orbits of the private that undermine those spaces that nurture non-commodified knowledge, values, critical exchange and civic literacy.

The pedagogy of authoritarianism is alive and well in the United States, and its repression of public memory takes place not only through the screen culture and institutional apparatuses of conformity, but is also reproduced through a culture of fear and a carceral state that imprisons more people than any other country in the world. 2 What many commentators have missed in the ongoing attack on Edward Snowden is not that he uncovered information that made clear how corrupt and intrusive the American government has become - how willing it is to engage in vast crimes against the American public. His real "crime" is that he demonstrated how knowledge can be used to empower people, to get them to think as critically engaged citizens rather than assume that knowledge and education are merely about the learning of skills - a reductive concept that substitutes training for education and reinforces the flight from reason and the goose-stepping reflexes of an authoritarian mindset.3

. . .

Youth no longer inhabit the privileged space, however compromised, that was offered to previous generations. They now occupy a neoliberal notion of temporality of dead time, zones of abandonment and terminal exclusion marked by a loss of faith in progress and a belief in those apocalyptic narratives in which the future appears indeterminate, bleak and insecure. Progressive visions pale and are smashed next to the normalization of market-driven government policies that wipe out pensions, eliminate quality health care, punish unions, demonize public servants, raise college tuition, and produce a harsh world of joblessness - all the while giving billions and "huge bonuses, instead of prison sentences . . . to those bankers and investment brokers who were responsible for the 2008 meltdown of the economy and the loss of homes for millions of Americans."4

Students, in particular, now find themselves in a world in which heightened expectations have been replaced by dashed hopes. The promises of higher education and previously enviable credentials have turned into the swindle of fulfillment as, "For the first time in living memory, the whole class of graduates faces a future of crushing debt, and a high probability, almost the certainty, of ad hoc, temporary, insecure and part-time work and unpaid 'trainee' pseudo-jobs deceitfully rebranded as 'practices' - all considerably below the skills they have acquired and eons below the level of their expectations." 5

. . .

Widespread violence now functions as part of an anti-immune system that turns the economy of genuine pleasure into a mode of sadism that creates the foundation for sapping democracy of any political substance and moral vitality. The predominance of the disimagination machine in American society, along with its machinery of social death and historical amnesia, seeps into in all aspects of life, suggesting that young people and others marginalized by class, race and ethnicity have been abandoned.

But historical and public memory is not merely on the side of domination. As the anthropologist, David Price, points out, historical memory is a potent weapon in fighting against the "desert of organized forgetting" and implies a rethinking of the role that artists, intellectuals, educators, youth and other concerned citizens can play in fostering a "reawakening of America's battered public memories."6

Against the tyranny of forgetting, educators, young people, social activists, public intellectuals, workers and others can work to make visible and oppose the long legacy and current reality of state violence and the rise of the punishing state. Such a struggle suggests not only reclaiming, for instance, education as a public good but also reforming the criminal justice system and removing the police from schools.

In addition, there is a need to employ public memory, critical theory, and other intellectual archives and resources to expose the crimes of those market-driven criminogenc regimes of power that now run the commanding institutions of society, with particular emphasis on how they have transformed the welfare state into a warfare state.


1.I take up this issue in Henry A. Giroux, Universities in Chains: Challenging the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Boulder: Paradigm, 2007).

2.Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010)

3.This issue is taken up brilliantly in Kenneth J. Saltman, The Failure of Corporate School Reform (Boulder: Paradigm, 2013).

4. Rabbi Michael Lerner, "Trayvon Martin: A Jewish Response," Tikkun (July 14, 2013)

5. Zygmunt Bauman, On Education (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), p. 47.

6. David Price, "Memory's Half-life: A Social History of Wiretaps," Counterpunch 20:6 (June 2013), p. 14.


"Hope in the Age of Looming Authoritarianism"

In the current historical moment, the line between fate and destiny is difficult to draw. Dominant power works relentlessly through its major cultural apparatuses to hide, mischaracterize or lampoon resistance, dissent and critically engaged social movements. This is done, in part, by sanitizing public memory and erasing critical knowledge and oppositional struggles from newspapers, radio, television, film and all those cultural institutions that engage in systemic forms of education and memory work. Historical consciousness has been transformed into uplifting narratives, box-office spectacles and lifestyle stories fit for the whitewashed world of the Disney musketeers.

As Theodor W. Adorno puts it, "The murdered are [now] cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance."1 The relentless activity of thoughtlessness - worship of celebrity culture, a cravenly mainstream media, instrumentalism, militarism or free-roaming individualism - undermines crucial social bonds and expands the alleged virtue of believing that thinking is a burden.

. . .

Americans are increasingly inspired to think uncritically, disregard critical historical narratives, and surrender to pedagogies of repression. Under the Bush-Obama administrations, American education has been cleansed of any effort to produce students who have the power to think critically and imaginatively and is now preoccupied with producing young people unaware and unwilling to fight for the right to decent employment, access to a good life, decent health care, social justice and a future that does not mimic a corrosive and morally bankrupt present. The organized culture of forgetting, with its immense disimagination machines, has ushered in a permanent revolution marked by a massive project of distributing wealth upward, the militarization of the entire social order and an ongoing depoliticization of agency and politics itself. We no longer live in a democracy, which, as Bill Moyers points out provides the formative culture and economic conditions that enable people "to fully claim their moral and political agency."2 This disembodied form of politics is not merely about the erasure of the language of public interests, informed argument, critical thinking and the collapse of public values, but a full-fledged attack on the institutions of civic society, the social contract and democracy itself. Under such circumstances, the United States has succumbed to forms of symbolic and institutional violence that point to a deep-seated hatred of democracy.

. . .

Historical consciousness matters because it illuminates, if not holds up to critical scrutiny, those forms of tyranny and modes of authoritarianism that now parade as common sense, popular wisdom or just plain certainty. In this case, the American public will not repeat history as farce (as Marx once suggested) but as a momentous act of systemic violence, suffering and domestic warfare. If the act of critical translation is crucial to a democratic politics, it faces a crisis of untold proportions in the United States. In part, this is because we are witnessing the deadening reduction of the citizen to a consumer of services and goods that empties politics of substance by stripping citizens of their political skills, offering up only individual solutions to social problems and dissolving all obligations and sense of responsibility for the other in an ethos of unchecked individualism and a narrowly privatized linguistic universe. The logic of the commodity penetrates all aspects of life while the most important questions driving society no longer seem concerned about matters of equity, social justice and the fate of the common good. The most important choice now facing most people is no longer about living a life with dignity and freedom but facing the grim choice between survival and dying.


1. Theodor W. Adorno, "The Meaning of Working Through the Past," Guild and Defense, trans. Henry W. Pickford, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 215.

2. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), p. 212.

Published in Truthout, , 22 July 2013, 02 December 2013, published here with permission of the author.

Copyright © Henry A. Giroux. All rights reserved.

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