The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine

I’ve been struggling to understand the increase in hostility and rudeness, the decrease in civility and treating people humanely. Interactions between strangers escalate to fury within seconds. Names are called that would have been unheard of decades ago. Car horns are honked within a millisecond of the person ahead of them pausing, even just to wait for a pedestrian to cross. Every day I spend in the city, I’m engaged in combat on a battlefield. And I wonder why this increase, why this devolution to barbarity. I think part of the answer comes in arguments made from Giroux’s book, detailing our culture of cruelty, the normalization of violence and police state causing the fragile social fabric to fray. Part of it comes from our mad scramble to survive, this Darwinian struggle made harder by economic pressures on the poorest but also on the (disappearing) middle class. Everyone except the Koch brothers is feeling the squeeze, so why not cut in line, bump people in the street, and call people unthinkable names to unleash a tiny bit of the frustration boiling under the surface?
As to the book itself, it contains eight chapters that are varying rehashes of the same theme. Honestly, you could read one chapter and say you’ve read the entire book. Perhaps the power is in the retelling, the underscoring of the same message over and over. It’s like having a sane version of FOX news playing in the background throughout the day. The message is: we’re living in an authoritarian state and we seem to like it because we’re numbed and dumbed by violent entertainment/news to the point of not caring. The consumer culture that glorifies corporations tells us to display our love of freedom by shopping. We become increasingly focused on self above all else, real problems are buried in the fog of manufactured crises. “The obsessive pursuit of self-interest is fortified through an equally compulsive refusal of critical analysis, dissent… critical thinking, dialogue, and thoughtfulness…”

As the pleasure principle becomes less constrained by a moral compass based on a respect for others, it is increasingly shaped by the need for intense excitement and a never-ending flood of heightened sensations. Advanced by commercialized notions of aggression and cruelty, a culture of violence has become commonplace in a social order in which pain, humiliation, and abuse are condensed into digestible spectacles endlessly circulated through new and old forms of media and entertainment. (p 51)

Beyond the police state and increasing militarization of everyday life, Giroux points to the disintegration of the education system and the increase in the prison complex. Violent culture, manufactured fear, and the surveillance state are destructive, but even more so is the reaction when you challenge them – suspicion and you’re branded unpatriotic. Why else aren’t we speaking out? Hardship and suffering from the Great Recession, but also the increase in authoritarian measures:

How else to explain the public inaction about everyday violence of poverty, a state of misery to which at least one in every six people in the US currently wallow? Surely, public paralysis in regard to these and other correctable injustices are characteristic of populations subjected to the warfare mentalities perpetrated by deeply authoritarian regimes. (p 133)

Consumer culture strips away our ability to think for ourselves:

Corruption, commodification, and repressive state apparatuses have become the central features of a predatory society in which it is presumed irrationally “that markets should dominate and determine all choices and outcomes to the occlusion of any other considerations.” The political, economic, and social consequences have done more than deface any viable vision of a good society. They have undermined the public’s capacity to think and act in its own interest. This has entailed the destruction of social protections and a massive shift toward a punitive state that criminalizes the behavior of those bearing the hardships imposed by a survival-of-the-fittest society that takes delight in the suffering of others. (p 186)

We’ve become so self-involved that we have no conception of how to treat victims of natural disaster except to take pictures of the “other” as if we’re on vacation:

The atrophy of public values and civic imagination are also on display in the privatization of language, morality, and everyday life…In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the overly washed elite of NYC was discovering poverty while exoticizing the poor. Sarah Maslin Nir pointed critically to the elite’s fascination with poverty porn by noting its “voyeuristic interest in the plight of the poor, treating their trip into disaster areas as an exotic weekend outing.” She noted the complaint of a resident of a Rockaway project who stood by “as volunteers snapped iPhone photos of her as she waited in line for donated food and clothing.” The implications of being photographed were not lost on the Rockaway resident, who commented that she and her friends felt as if they were “in a zoo.” (p 111)

This theme gallops throughout:

Material deprivation, galloping inequality, the weakening of public supports, the elimination of viable jobs, the mindless embrace of rabid competition and consumption, and the willful destruction of the environment speak to a society in which militarized violence finds its counterpart, if not legitimating credo, in a set of atomizing and selfish values that disdain shared social bonds and any notion of the public good. As John Le Carre once stated, “America has entered into one of its periods of historical madness.” (p 191)

The private is all that is left. Chilling.

Americans are now gently coerced to live in an ad-infested bubble of intense privatization, commodification, and civic illiteracy. The public does not merely dissolve into the private, the private is all that is left. (p 214)

Without time, how will we mobilize?

The formative cultures, institutions, and modes of critical agency necessary for a vibrant democracy do not exist in a culture in which knowledge is fragmented, power concentrated in few hands, and time reduced to a deprivation for large segments of the public – one consequence of which is the endless struggle by many Americans to simply survive at the level of everyday life. The commercial colonization of time, space, and consciousness occurs in parallel with most of the population’s need to work more than ever in order to make ends meet. There is no democracy in a country in which for most people time is a deprivation rather than a luxury. Time is crippled when it is trapped within an endless need to fight to merely survive in order to have enough to eat, have access to decent health care, day care, and a social wage. (p 216)

Writer Mark Slouka is quoted on what sounds like the motto of aforementioned FOX news:

Ignorance gives us a sense of community; it confers citizenship; our representatives either share it or bow down to it or risk our wrath. … Communicate intelligently in America and you’re immediately suspect. (p 197)