A lecture hall at the University of California, Berkeley.
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Many of the great peace activists of the 20th century, extending from Mahatma Gandhi and Paulo Freire to Jane Addams and Martin Luther King Jr., shared a passion for education as an important part of the democratic project. Refusing to view education as neutral or reducing it to the instrumental practice of training, they sought to reclaim education as a practice of freedom, part of a wider struggle to deepen and extend the values, social relations and institutions of a substantive democracy.
They understood that tyranny and authoritarianism are not just the product of state violence and repression; they also thrive on popular docility, mass apathy and a flight from moral responsibility. They argued passionately that education could not be removed from the demand for justice and progressive social change. In doing so, they recognized the value of education and its ability to transform how people understand themselves, their relations to others and the larger world. In the face of massive injustice and indignity, these prophetic voices refused to look away from human suffering, and embraced the possibility for resistance fueled by courage, compassion and the ability to think otherwise in order to act otherwise.
One of Martin Luther King's great insights was his recognition that education provided a bulwark against both ignorance and indifference in the face of injustice. Like Gandhi, he warned people over and over again not to remain silent in the face of racism, militarism and extreme materialism, and argued that "he who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." Of the civil rights era, King warned that "history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people... In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
Advocates of civic courage and compassion reflected in their words and actions what King called the "fierce urgency of now," reminding us that "tomorrow is today" and that "there is such a thing as being too late." Let us hope that in the midst of our witness to the current revolt against democracy, higher education will neither remain silent nor be too late.
Echoing King's belief that American innocence was neither tenable nor forgivable, the great novelist James Baldwin filled in the missing language of fear and terrorism at the heart of a racist society. His famed "Talk to Teachers" began with an impassioned warning about the times in which he lived, a warning more relevant now than it was when he delivered the speech in 1963. He said:
"Let's begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced... from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible -- and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people -- must be prepared to 'go for broke.'"
In the context of a worldwide rebellion currently taking place against democracy, dissent, human rights and justice, I think we need to "go for broke." Authoritarianism is on the rise once again, emerging in countries in which such a politics, in light of the past, has appeared unthinkable. In Hungary, Russia, India, Turkey and Poland, democracy is being voted down and aggressively dismantled. In addition, a new and dangerous moment has emerged in the United States as it becomes clear that an American-style authoritarianism is no longer the stuff of fantasy, fiction or hysterical paranoia.
This summer in Charlottesville, hundreds of neo-Nazis marched brandishing torches reminiscent of Hitler's Germany while shouting white nationalist slogans such as "Heil Trump," and later unleashing an orgy of violence that led to the deaths of three people. Donald Trump, the president of the United States, stated there were good people on both sides of that rally as if good people march with white supremacists and neo-Nazis who revel in hate and offer no apologies for mimicking the actions that resulted in the slaughter of millions during the fascist nightmare of the 1930s and 1940s.
Donald Trump's ascendancy to the presidency speaks not only to a profound political crisis but also to a tragedy for democracy. His rise to power echoes not only a moral blind spot in the collective American psyche, but also a refusal to recognize how past totalitarian ideas can and have reappeared in different forms in the present. The return of a demagogue who couples the language of fear, decline and hate with illusions of national grandiosity have found their apotheosis in the figure of Donald Trump. He is the living symbol and embodiment of a growing culture of unbridled and naked selfishness, the collapse of civic institutions, and a ruinous anti-intellectualism that supports a corrupt political system and a toxic form of white supremacy that has been decades in the making. There is nothing natural or inevitable about these changes. They are learned behaviors. As shared fears replace any sense of shared responsibility, the American public is witnessing how a politics of racism and hate creates a society plagued by fear and divisiveness.
While numerous forces have led to the election of Donald Trump, it is crucial to ask how a poisonous form of education developed in the larger society, one that has contributed to the toxic culture that both legitimated Trump and encouraged so many millions of people to follow him. Part of the answer lies in the right-wing media with its vast propaganda machines, the rise of conservative foundations such as the Koch brothers' various institutes, the ongoing production of anti-public intellectuals and a visual culture increasingly dominated by the spectacle of violence and reality TV.
On a more political note, it is crucial to ask how the educative force of this toxic culture goes unchallenged in creating a public that embraced Trump's bigotry, narcissism, lies, public history of sexual groping and racism, all the while transforming the citizen as a critical political agent into a consumer of hate and anti-intellectualism.
News morphs into entertainment as thoughtlessness increases ratings, violence feeds the spectacle and serious journalism is replaced by empty cosmetic stenographers. Language is pillaged as meaningful ideas are replaced "by information broken into bits and bytes [along with] the growing emphasis on immediacy and real time responses." In the face of this dumbing down, critical thinking and the institutions that promote a thoughtful and informed polity disappear into the vast abyss of what might be called a disimagination machine. Nuance is transformed into state-sanctioned vulgarity. How else to explain the popularity and credibility of terms such as post-truth, fake news and alternative facts? Masha Gessen is right in arguing that in the Trump era, language that is used to lie and "validate incomprehensible drivel" not only destroys any vestige of civic literacy, it also "threatens the basic survival of the public sphere."
We live in a moment of digital time, a time of relentless immediacy, when experience no longer has the chance to crystalize into mature and informed thought. Communication is now reduced to a form of public relations and a political rhetoric that is overheated and over-exaggerated and always over the top. Opinion and sanctioned illiteracy now undermine reason and evidence-based arguments.
News becomes spectacle and echoes demagoguery rather than questioning it. Thinking is disdained and is viewed as dangerous. The mainstream media, with few exceptions, has become an adjunct to power rather than a force for holding it accountable. The obsession with the bottom line and ratings has brought much of the media into line with Trump's disimagination machine wedded to producing endless spectacles and the mind-numbing investment in the cult of celebrity and reality TV. What kind of democracy is possible when the institutions that are crucial to a vibrant civil society and the notion of the social are vanishing?