Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Henry Giroux: America’s Addiction to Violence

I am moved to post this piece by Henry Giroux from December 2015 following the heartbreaking tragedy of two shootings today that are being carried by the major media in our nation. I am also aware that there is a much larger picture that is not covered by the corporate media of how and why it is that violence is so embedded in our daily lives here in America. How truly free are we when the truth is that mass shootings are a daily occurrence in our nation? How healthy are we when the many overt and covert faces of violence permeate our culture, our values, our minds, and the stories we have normalized as part of life? These questions and others bring to me a deep bow to public intellectual and prolific author Henry Giroux, who tirelessly brings us the truth of the larger pictures of what plagues us, connecting dots that otherwise would inevitably be missed by most of us. This is the truth that we need to know. Yes, it is heartbreaking and horrifying. And it is indeed the truth that shall set us free. May we each be brave enough to allow our hearts to break open so we might see a path into growing  and deepening awareness, understanding, healing, and transformation. We are in such deep need of changing the values and the stories we live by. Peace - Molly

Waterboarding scene in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
On December 2 2015, 14 people were killed and more than 20 wounded in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Mass shootings have become routine in the United States and speak to a society that both lives by violence and uses it as tool to feed the coffers of the merchants of death. Violence runs through American society like an electric current offering instant pleasure from all sources of the culture, whether it be the nightly news and Hollywood fanfare or television series that glorify serial killers. At a policy level, violence drives an arms industry, a militaristic foreign policy, and is increasingly the punishing state’s major tool to enforce its hyped-up brand of domestic terrorism, especially against Black youth. The United States is utterly wedded to a neoliberal culture in which cruelty is viewed as virtue, mass incarceration the default welfare program and chief mechanism to “institutionalize obedience.”[1] At the same time, a shark-like mode of competition replaces any viable notion of solidarity, and a sabotaging notion self-interest pushes society into the false lure of mass consumerism. All of these forces point to modes authoritarianism and registers of state violence and an increasing number of mass shootings that are symptomatic of a society engulfed in racism, fear, militarism, bigotry, and massive inequities in wealth and power.
Moderate calls for reining in the gun culture and its political advocates amount to band aid solutions that do not address the roots of the violence causing so much carnage in the United States, especially among children and teens. For example, Hilary Clinton’s much publicized call for controlling the gun lobby and background checks, however well intentioned, have nothing to say about a culture of lawlessness and violence reproduced by the government, the financial elites, the defense industries, or a casino capitalism that is built on corruption and produces massive amounts of human misery and suffering. Moreover, none of the calls to eliminate gun violence in the United States link such violence to the broader war on youth, especially poor minorities in the United States. In spite of ample reporting of gun violence, what has flown under the radar is that in the last three years 1 child under 12 years-old has been killed every other day by a firearm, which amounts to 555 children killed by guns in three years. An even more frightening statistic and example of a shocking moral and political perversity was noted in data provided by the Centers for Disease control and Prevention (CDC), which stated that “2,525 children and teens died by gunfire in [the United States] in 2014; one child or teen death every 3 hours and 28 minutes, nearly 7 a day, 48 a week.”[2] In addition, 58 people are lost to firearms every day. Such figures indicate that too many youth in America occupy what might be called war zones in which guns and violence proliferate. In this scenario, guns and its insane culture of violence and hyper-masculinity are given more support than young people and life itself. 
The predominance of a relatively unchecked gun culture and a morally perverse and politically obscene culture of violence is particularly evident in the power of the gun lobby and its gun rights political advocates to pass legislation in eight states that allow students and faculty to carry concealed weapons “into classrooms, dormitories and other buildings” on campuses.[3] Texas lawmakers, for instance, passed one such “campus carry bill,” which will take effect in August of 2016. Such laws not only reflect “the seemingly limitless legislative clout of gun interests,” but also a rather deranged return to the violence-laden culture of the “wild west.” As in the past, individuals will be allowed to walk the streets openly carrying guns and packing heat as a measure of their love of guns and their reliance upon violence as the best way to address any perceived threat to their security. This return to the deadly practices of the “wild west” is neither a matter of individual choice nor some far-fetched yet allegedly legitimate appeal to the second amendment. On the contrary, mass violence in America has to be placed within a broader historical, economic, and political context in order to address the totality of forces that produce it.[4] Focusing merely on the mass shootings, or the passing of potentially dangerous gun legislation does not get to the root of the systemic forces that produce America’s love affair with violence and the ideologies and criminogenic institutions that produce it.
Imperial policies that promote aggression all across the globe are now matched by increasing levels of lawlessness and state repression, which mutually feed each other. On the home front, civil society is degenerating into a military organization, a space of lawlessness and war-like practices, organized primarily for the production of violence. For instance, as Steve Martinot observes, the police now use their discourse of command and power to criminalize behavior; in addition, they use military weapons and surveillance tools as if they are preparing for war, and create a culture of fear in which militaristic principles replace legal principles. He writes:
This suggests that there is an institutional insecurity that seeks to cover itself through social control, for which individual interactions with the police are the means. Indeed, with their command position over people, the cops act out this insecurity by criminalizing individuals in advance. No legal principle need be involved. There is only the militarist principle. When the pregnant woman steps away from the cop, she is breaking no law. To force her to ground and handcuff her is far from anything intended by the principle of due process in the Constitution. The Constitution provided for law enforcement, but not for police impunity. When police shoot a fleeing subject and claim they are acting in self-defense (i.e. threatened), it is not their person but the command and control principle that is threatened. To defend that control through assault or murderous action against a disobedient person implies that the cop’s own identity is wholly immersed in its paradigm. There is nothing psychological about this. Self-worth or insecurity is not the issue. There is only the military ethic of power, imposed on civil society through an assumption of impunity. It is the ethos of democracy, of human self-respect, that is the threat.[5]

Violence feeds on corporate controlled disimagination machines that celebrate it as a sport while upping the pleasure quotient for the public. Americans do not merely engage in violence, they are also entertained by it. This kind of toxic irrationality and lure of violence is mimicked in America’s aggressive foreign policy, in the sanctioning of state torture, and in the gruesome killings of civilians by drones. As my colleague David L. Clark pointed out to me in a private email correspondence, “bombing make-believe countries is not a symptom of muddled confusion but, quite to the contrary, a sign of unerring precision. It describes the desire to militarize nothing less than the imagination and to target the minutiae of our dreams.” War-like values no longer suggest a flirtation with a kind of mad irrationality or danger. On the contrary, they have become normalized.  For instance, the United States government is willing to lock down a major city such as Boston in order to catch a terrorist or prevent a terrorist attack, but refuses to pass gun control bills that would significantly lower the number of Americans who die each year as a result of gun violence. As Michael Cohen observes, it is truly a symptom of irrationality when politicians can lose their heads over the threat of terrorism, even sacrificing civil liberties, but ignore the fact that “30,000 Americans die in gun violence every year (compared to the 17 who died [in 2012) in terrorist attacks.”[6] It gets worse. As the threat of terrorism is used by the American government to construct a surveillance state, suspend civil liberties, and accelerate the forces of authoritarianism, the fear of personal and collective violence has no rational bearing on addressing the morbid acceleration of gun and other forms of unnecessary violence in the United States. In fact, the fear of terrorism appears to feed, recuperate, and expand a toxic culture of violence produced, in part, by the wide and unchecked availability of guns. America’s fascination with guns and violence functions as a form of sport and entertainment, while offering the false promise of security, which even trumps a more general fear of violence on the part of terrorists. In this logic one not only kills terrorists with drones, but also makes sure that patriotic Americans are individually armed so they can use force to protect themselves against the dangers whipped up in a culture of fear and hysteria promoted by right-wing politicians, pundits, and the corporate controlled media.

Rather than bring violence into a political debate that would limit its production, various states increase its possibilities by taking a plunge into insanity with the passing of laws that allow “guns at places from bars to houses of worship.”[7] Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, based on the notion that one should shoot first and ask questions later is a morbid reflection of America’s national psychosis regarding the adulation of gun culture and the paranoiac fears that fuel it. This fascination with guns and violence has produced a pathology that reaches the highest levels of government and serves to further anti-democratic and authoritarian forces. The U. S. government’s warfare state is propelled by a military-industrial complex that cannot spend enough on weapons of death and destruction. Super modern planes such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter cost up to $228 million each and are plagued by mechanical problems and yet are supported by a military and defense establishment. As Gabriel Kolko observes such war-like investments “reflect a pathology and culture that is expressed in spending more money regardless”[8] of how it contributes to running up the debt or for that matter thrives on “the energies of the dead.”[9] Militarism provides ideological support for policies that protect gun owners and sellers rather than children. The Children’s Defense Fund is right in stating “Where is our anti-war movement here at home? Why does a nation with the largest military budget in the world refuse to protect its children from relentless gun violence and terrorism at home? No external enemy ever killed thousands of children in their neighborhoods, streets and schools year in and year out.”[10]

There is a not so hidden structure of politics at work in this type of sanctioned irrationality. Advocating for gun rights provides a convenient discourse for ignoring a “harsh neoliberal corporate-state order that routinely generates pervasive material suffering, social dislocation, and psychological despair—worsening conditions that ensure violence in its many expressions.”[11] It says nothing about the corrupt bankers and hedge fund managers who invest in the industries of death and trade in profits at the expense of human life, all the while contributing to the United States being the largest arms exporter in the world.[12] More specifically, the call for gun rights also conveniently side steps and ignores criticizing a popular culture and corporate controlled media which uses violence to attract viewers, increase television ratings, produce Hollywood blockbusters, and sell video games that celebrate first person shooters.

While it would be wrong to suggest that the violence that saturates popular culture directly causes violence in the larger society, it is arguable that such violence serves not only to produce an insensitivity to real life violence but also functions to normalize violence as both a source of pleasure and as a practice for addressing social issues. When young people and others begin to believe that a world of extreme violence, vengeance, lawlessness, and revenge is the only world they inhabit, the culture and practice of real-life violence is more difficult to scrutinize, resist, and transform. Many critics have argued that a popular culture that endlessly trades in violence runs the risk of blurring the lines between the world of fantasies and the world we live in. What they often miss is that when violence is celebrated in its myriad registers and platforms in a society, even though it lacks any sense of rationality, a formative culture is put in place that is amenable to the pathology of totalitarianism. That is, a culture that thrives on violence runs the risk of losing its capacity to separate politics from violence: A. O. Scott recognizes such a connection between gun violence and popular culture, but he fails to register the deeper significance of the relationship. He writes:
…it is absurd to pretend that gun culture is unrelated to popular culture, or that make-believe violence has nothing to do with its real-world correlative. Guns have symbolic as well as actual power, and the practical business of hunting, law enforcement and self-defense has less purchase in our civic life than fantasies of righteous vengeance or brave resistance….[Violent] fantasies have proliferated and intensified even as our daily existence has become more regulated and standardized — and also less dangerous. Perhaps they offer an escape from the boredom and regimentation of work and consumption.[13]

Popular culture not only trades in violence as entertainment, it also delivers violence to a society addicted to an endless barrage of sensations, the lure of instant gratification, and a pleasure principle steeped in graphic and extreme images of human suffering, mayhem, and torture. Violence is now represented without the need for either subtlety or critical examination. Relieved of the pedagogical necessity to instruct, violence is split from its moral significance, just as it becomes more plentiful and lurid in order to provide infuse the pleasure quotient with more shocks. Americans now live in “a culture of the immediate” which functions “as an escape from the past” and a view of the future as one of menace, insecurity, and potential violence.[14] In an age of cruel precarity and uncertainty, the present becomes the only register of hope, politics, and survival. Americans now “look to the future with worry and suspicion and cling to the present with the anguish of those who are afraid of losing what they have,” all the while considering those deemed “other” as a threat to their security.[15] Under such circumstances, trust and mutual respect disappear, democratic public spheres wither, and democracy becomes a cover for false promises and the swindle of fulfillment. Another consequence is the merging of pleasure and cruelty in the most barbarous spectacles of violence.[16] One telling example of this can be found in those films in which the use of waterboarding has become a prime stable of torture. While the Obama administration banned waterboarding as an interrogation method in January 2009, it appears to be thriving as a legitimate procedure in a number of recent Hollywood films including, GI Jane, Safe House, Zero Dark Thirty, and Taken 3. In a world in which nothing matters but a survival-of-the-fittest ethos, pleasure and gratification slide into boredom, shielding a pornography of violence from any sense of moral and public accountability.

Please also read Henry's America At War With Itself:

No comments: