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America At War With Itself: The Sandstorm

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This is an excerpt from Henry Giroux's book, America At War With Itself, from the introduction.

Copyright -2017 Henry A. Giroux, used with permission of City Lights Books.

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"And the shadow of fear again has darkly lengthened across the world."

--President Dwight David Eisenhower

In white America's collective psyche, and in its traditional narratives of historical memory, authoritarianism is always viewed as existing elsewhere. Seen as an alien and demagogic political system, it is primarily understood as a mode of governance associated with the dictatorships in Latin America in the 1970s and, of course, in its most vile extremes, with Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini's fascist Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. Both societies glorified war, soldiers, nationalism, militarism, fallen warriors, racial cleansing, and a dogmatic allegiance to the homeland. These were states in which society became armed, security became the raison d'Ã tre of both the citizen and state, and fear became a pretext for giving up one's liberty. Education and the media were the indoctrination tools of authoritarianism, merging fascist and religious symbols with the language of God, family, and country. These cultural systems were used as weapons to achieve servility and conformity among the populace, something many are seeing re-emerge in our current political moment.

In its earlier forms, the language of authoritarianism relied upon the discourse of command and courted mass hysteria, one that produced totalizing world views, punished dissent, disseminated hate-filled propaganda steeped in the vocabulary of ultra-nationalism and racial purity, and emptied language of any substance, reducing it to a ritualized performance. This script is well known to the American public; it has been fully commercialized and marketed in the form of countless products: from films, television series, video games, and works of fiction, to museums and other cultural apparatuses. As a result, the public has been conditioned to perceive totalitarian modes of governance as dead relics from a bygone era rather than as part of a historical narrative with living legacies at play in the present.

Hannah Arendt and Sheldon Wolin, the great theorists of totalitarianism, believed that the fluctuating elements of fascism are still with us and that they would crystalize in different forms. Far from being a thing of the past, they both believed, totalitarianism "heralds . . . a possible model for the future." Wolin, in particular, was keenly aware that the corporatization of the state and civil society, the destruction of public goods and commons, the commercial control of the media, and the rise of an economic survival-of-the-fittest ethos posed a serious threat to American democracy. According to Arendt, the culture of traditionalism, the dismantling of civil and political rights, the ongoing militarization of society, the "religionization of politics,"6 the attack on labor, the obsession with national security, the perpetration of human rights abuses, the emergence of a police state, entrenched racism, and the attempts by demagogues to undermine education as a foundation for producing critical citizenry were all at work in American society. For Arendt, these anti-democratic elements in U.S. society constituted what she called the "sand storm"--a metaphor for totalitarianism.

Historical conjunctures produce different forms of authoritarianism, though they all share an intolerance for democracy, dissent, diversity, and human rights. It is too easy to believe in a simplistic binary logic that strictly categorizes a country as either authoritarian or democratic and leaves no room for entertaining the possibility of a competing mixture of both forces. American politics today suggests different forms of authoritarianism. The possibility of white America becoming a fascist nation has a long legacy in American fiction that includes Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. For Native Americans who were exterminated, descendants of Africans who were dehumanized, trafficked, and enslaved by whites, Japanese Americans subjected to concentration camps, and people of color who have been degraded by violence, coercion, and various forms of apartheid for generations, questions of freedom and fascism are quite different from those historically faced by whites, who never feared racist cops, lynch mobs, or burning crosses.

Nevertheless, following World War II, the shadow of fascism was never far from U.S. shores. It is worth remembering Huey Long's response to the question of whether America could ever become fascist: "Yes, but we will call it anti-fascist." Long's reply indicates that fascism is not an ideological apparatus frozen in a particular historical period, but, as Arendt and Wolin have suggested, a complex and often shifting theoretical and political register for understanding how democracy can be subverted, if not destroyed, from within.

The notion of soft fascism was articulated in 1985 in Bertram Gross's book Friendly Fascism, in which he argued that if fascism came to the United States it would not embody the same characteristics associated with fascist forms of the past. There would be no Nuremberg rallies, overt doctrines of racial superiority, government-sanctioned book burnings, death camps, genocidal purges, or abrogation of the U.S. Constitution. In short, fascism would not resemble the way it has been packaged, marketed, and sold to us as commercial entertainment, nor would it take the form of a previous ideological grid simply downloaded into our political moment. Gross believed that fascism was an ongoing danger and had the ability to become relevant under new conditions, taking on familiar forms of thought that resonate with nativist traditions, experiences, and political relations. Similarly, in his Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton argued that the texture of North American fascism would not mimic traditional European forms but would be rooted in the language, symbols, and culture of everyday life in America. According to Paxton:

No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy.
It is worth noting that Umberto Eco's discussion of "eternal fascism" also argues that any updated version of fascism would not openly assume the mantle of historical fascism; rather, new forms of authoritarianism would appropriate some of its elements, making it virtually unrecognizable from preceding forms. Eco contended that fascism will, if it manifests in America, have a different guise, although it will be no less destructive to democracy. Instead of an all-powerful supreme leader, the government is now controlled by the anonymous and largely remote hands of corporate power and finance capital. More recently, in the face of what Paxton has called an "alarming willingness" on the part of some Republican Party candidates to "use fascist themes and styles," he has updated his own view of fascism as "a mass nationalist movement intended to restore a country that's been damaged or is in decline, by expansion, by violent attacks on enemies, internal as well as external enemies, and measures of authority, the replacement of democracy by an authoritarian dictatorship."12 Rather than cancel each other out, all of these theorists offer up elements that bear traces of old and new forms of authoritarianism. However, the 2016 candidacy of Donald Trump--embraced by white supremacist groups as their "Glorious Leader"--illustrates how the two forms of authoritarianism may now be advanced in one political package.

Until now, the trend has been toward economic sovereignty replacing civic sovereignty as corporate power buys access to elections, governance, law enforcement, national budget, and foreign policy. The more money influences politics, the more corrupt the political culture becomes. Under these circumstances, holding office is largely dependent on having adequate corporate patronage, while laws and policies at all levels of government are mostly fashioned by lobbyists representing big business corporations and financial institutions. As Ralph Nader says, we have entered an era of a plutocracy of maximums for the wealthy few, a democracy of minimums for everyone else.

Moreover, as the politics of Obama's healthcare reform indicate--a gift to the health insurance giants--such lobbying, as corrupt and unethical as it may be, is now carried out in the open and displayed by insurance and drug companies as a badge of honor--a kind of open testimonial to their disrespect for democratic governance and a celebration of their power.

But markets are not the only major institution under the new authoritarianism. As David Theo Goldberg has argued, the military has also assumed a central role in shaping all aspects of society. Militarization is about more than the use of repressive power; whether it be through the use of the police or the armed forces, it also represents a powerful social logic that is constitutive of values, modes of rationality, and ways of thinking. According to Goldberg:

The military . . . has assumed such a central role in modern society's sense of itself, to its sense of and insistence on its own sovereignty and security, that it not only eats up the resources and revenue commandeered by the state; it likewise determines their more general social use and set of meanings. . . . [T]he military is not just a fighting machine. It is both constitutive and instrument of social power and culture. It serves and socializes. It hands down to the society, as big brother might, its more or less perfected goods, from gunpowder to guns, computing to information management, the internet and global positioning systems (gps), vehicles to video games and gaming platforms, fashion wear to some of the very language of critical analysis itself. In short, while militarily produced instruments might be retooled to other, broader social purposes, the military shapes pretty much the entire range of social production from commodities to culture, social goods to social theory.
The commercialization and militarization of the social sphere permeates American society. Rather than forcing the country to adhere to an explicit state ideology, the general public in the United States is largely depoliticized through the influence of corporations over media, entertainment, schools, higher education, and other institutions and spaces. This is what the late Herbert Schiller called "Culture, Inc." The deadening of public values and civic consciousness is also the result of the work of self-serving financial interests, right-wing ideologues, conservative think tanks, powerful commercial media, and a market-driven public pedagogy that acts relentlessly to replace the open power of citizenship with a closed set of pre-defined consumer choices: Coke or Pepsi, Burger King or McDonalds, Republican or Democrat. This neoliberal-driven culture of consumption, commerce, financialization, and self-interest also functions to depoliticize people by encouraging market-driven ideals of unrestrained individualism and self-reliance. Under these conditions, politics becomes inner-directed, lost in a language of therapy, self-help, and self-transformation that has exploded in American culture. Thus, the self becomes cut off from any sense of common purpose and solidarity.

Military glorification pervades popular culture, entertainment, policy, and social relations. For example, the blockbuster success of the Star Wars films, a commercial idealization of war in space, targets the youngest and most impressionable minds. In addition, a pedagogy of historical, social, and racial amnesia is constructed and circulated through a highly popular celebrity culture, all-encompassing consumer culture, and an ongoing display of violence, all of which are reinforced through a regime of neoliberal cultural apparatuses to be found in corporate-driven news, television, radio, and mass entertainment to produce a culture of stupidity, censorship, and diversionary spectacles.

Fight culture now shapes every facet of society, as war-like values, hyper-masculinity, and an aggressive militarism seep into most major institutions in the United States, including schools, the media, and local police forces. The criminal justice system has become the default institution for dealing with all social problems except those caused by Wall Street, the crimes of which are managed without arrests, trials, or prison time. At the same time, low-income communities--particularly communities of color--are considered ignorable or disposable, as in Flint, Michigan, where the local white political establishment stood by while Black neighborhoods were pumped filthy water poisoned with lead.

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and dis the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America's Addiction to Terrorism (Monthly Review Press, 2016), and America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2017). He is also a contributing editor to a number of journals, includingTikkun, (more...)

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