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On Contact: The age of manufactured ignorance

On the show, Chris Hedges discusses the age of manufactured ignorance with the scholar Professor Henry A. Giroux.
Education, Giroux writes, has increasingly become a tool of domination as right-wing pedagogical apparatuses controlled by the entrepreneurs of hate attack workers, the poor, people of color, refugees, immigrants from the south, and others considered disposable. A Republican Party dominated by the far right believes education should function as a tool of propaganda and pedagogy of oppression, rightly named “patriotic education.” Dissent is defiled as corrupting American values and any classroom that addresses racial injustice is viewed as antithetical to “a Christian and white supremacist world where black people ‘know their place.’” Banning instruction on “critical race theory” has become the new McCarthyism. Noam Chomsky argues that any reference to the history of slavery, systemic racism or racial injustice now replaces “communism and Islamic terror as the plague of the modern age.” Chomsky, Giroux argues, may not have gone far enough, since GOP extremists argue that the threat of communism has simply been expanded to include critical race theory, Black Lives Matter and other emerging protest groups, all connected and viewed as updated forms of Marxism and part of an international communist global conspiracy. The Red Scare, Giroux warns, is alive and well in America.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the age of manufactured ignorance with the scholar, Henry Giroux.

HG: Power, when it’s invisible, becomes all the more powerful, to use that term.  But I think there are two issues here for me about neoliberalism in relation to your question, that are really central.  One is it operates off the assumption that there’s no such thing as social problems, that there are only individual problems.  And this notion that we’re ultimately and individually responsible for everything that happens to us literally depoliticizes people because it makes incapable of translating private issues into larger, systemic considerations.  So there’s this question of this really putrid notion of market-based individuals, and this inability to translate and bring together, and connect issues that would give people a full understanding of the world in which they live in, what they may be able to do about it.  Particularly as it affects their everyday lives.

CH: “Education,” the scholar Henry Giroux writes, “…has increasingly become a tool of domination as right-wing pedagogical apparatuses controlled by the entrepreneurs of hate, attack workers, the poor, people of color, refugees, immigrants from the south and others considered disposable.  A Republican Party dominated by the far right believes education should function as a tool of propaganda and pedagogy of oppression, rightly named “patriotic education.”  Dissent is defiled as corrupting American values and any classroom that addresses racial injustice is viewed as antithetical to a “Christian and white supremacist world where Black people know their place’”.  Banning instruction on critical race theory has become the new McCarthyism.  Noam Chomsky argues that any reference to the history of slavery, systematic racism, or racial injustice now replaces, in his words, “Communism and Islamic terror as the plague of the modern age.”  Chomsky, Giroux argues, may not have gone far enough, since GOP extremists argue that the threat of communism has simply been expanded to include Critical Race Theory, Black Lives Matter and other emerging protest groups, all connected and viewed as updated forms of Marxism and part of an international communist global conspiracy.  The Red Scare, Giroux warns, is alive and well in America.  Joining me to discuss these dangerous political, cultural, and educational distortions is Professor Henry Giroux who teaches at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and I should add, the author of many brilliant books, which you should all get not off of Amazon.  Let’s talk about this notion of manufactured ignorance.  I’m referring to a piece, by the way, you wrote in Salon that people should read, “Fighting back against the age of manufactured ignorance, resistance is still possible.”  What do you mean by manufactured ignorance?

HG: I mean, it’s an attempt, basically, to suggest that being stupid and uninformed in this age of political reactionaries and gangster criminality is a virtue, that there’s a liability to be able to think, to hold power accountable through, in some way, engage how power works to oppress people, subvert democratic ideals and virtues, and basically follow the path of the enlightenment.  I mean, I think that we’ve arrived at a point where, for the far right, it’s far more important for people to be stupid and ignorant, and not be aware of history, not be aware of being able to critically judge the facts and evidence.  But more importantly, I think that what they recognize and why manufactured ignorance has become a new ideology, being propagated by multiple culture apparatuses on the right, is that they recognize that Dewey was right, John Dewey, when he said, you know, you can’t have a democracy without an informed public.  And this is a party that doesn’t want a democracy.  This is a party that hates democracy, both in its ideals and in terms of its promises, however forward it might be in the United States.

CH: You write about the Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who said, and I’m quoting, “There is no room in our classrooms for things like Critical Race Theory, teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.”  You say this is an updated version of historical and racial cleansing, the call for racial justice you write is equated to a form of racial hatred leaving intact the refusal to acknowledge, condemn, and confront in a public imagination the history and tenacity of racism in American society.  Why is that dangerous?

HG: History is dangerous because basically what it does is it measures the ideals of a--of a country, like not just practices.  And these are people who want to talk about ideals as if they were manufactured by, you know, in Disneyland.  I mean, they--and of course, to be more political about this, they want to whitewash history.  They don’t want to talk about slavery, they don’t want to talk about the genocide against indigenous peoples, they don’t want to talk about Japanese and German during the Second World War, they don’t want to talk about McCarthyism or the Red Scare.  Because they believe that all those issues in some fundamental way raise questions about what the differences is between the democracy we have and the democracy we should have.  And that’s dangerous to them.  And in doing that, that also suggests that people might take into account what are the forces, anti-democratic forces, authoritarian forces, and fascist forces at work in the United States today that basically proved to be an enormous threat, not just to democracy, but to the informed public.  You can’t have democracy without an informed public.  And it seems to me the notion of critique, which could expose systemic inequality, the rules of--or the debate--the visible debate on global change, the threat of nuclear war.  I mean, all the things that the United States, in some way, has to come to grips with, both in its history and its current policies, they want to basically eliminate from discussion.  So everything for them is about the politics of ignorance and the politics of diversion.  But what they have done that’s enormously important is they have used education as a tool that is now central to politics.  And that really is the insight that the right has--seemed to be taking up, that the left has, in some way, I think, missed.  Ignorance is not innocent, Chris.  I mean, it’s not just simply we--the absence of knowledge.  I mean, it’s a willful project, and I think when you see there’s willful project, then you begin to ask yourself who the perpetrator is, who are the institutions behind it, and basically who benefits from this.  That’s the key question, or the key questions.

CH: It does two things, as you have long pointed out.  It erases the capacity to question structures and assumptions of power.  But it also, in essences, deifies the ruling elite.  And you call these--it’s a wonderful term, “dis-imagination machines”.  Explain what you mean by that.

HG: You know, they’re basically an attack on the imagination, and particularly the public imagination.  The ability to--the ability to imagine as a society outside of the one in which people currently exist.  I mean there’s no alternatives.  This is the old Margaret Thatcher argument, you know, this is all we have, there’s nothing else.  So there’s no room for imagining a society that’s for instance a democratic socialist society.  There’s no room for claiming that democracy and capitalism are not the same thing.  Sorry.  That they’re actually antithetical and at odds with each other.  There’s no room for assuming that people can be critical agents capable of collective resistance, holding power accountable, and in some way, mobilizing for a society that is unlike and doesn’t mimic the present.  But I think there’s something else here.  I think that what dis-imagination machines are enormously successful at doing is depoliticizing people and what I mean by de politicizing them, I mean--that doesn’t mean they don’t have a position, but they don’t have a position that in any fundamental way benefits their own sense of individual and collective agency.  That in fact it’s so narrow that they’re supporting people who basically oppress them, or responsible for their own oppression.

CH: You make the point that accompanying this an increase in thought control.  Again, you go back to DeSantis, the Governor of Florida, who signed into law a number of bills that require public universities to conduct annual surveys of students and faculty to assess their personal viewpoints, which you correctly point out as a form of ideological surveillance parading as educational reform.  And then of course the imposition of state-mandated curricula that would include portraits in patriotism, these are his words, that celebrate the US governing model compared with those of other countries, and teach that communism is evil.  Sounds like what you ran into at Boston University, where they pushed you out.

HG: No, that’s absolutely right.

CH: They put--they made war on you and Howard Zinn.

HG: Yeah, no, that’s exactly right.  I mean--yeah.  I mean, at that time, one of the things that the then-president of Boston University said to me in a--in a direct meeting with him, he said, “You know, you’re a great teacher, why do you write this [BLEEP]?  And I think what he was being very frank about, of course, was that he didn’t want to see anything in my work around education that was political or that was critical or that in some way, you know, made the case that education is a democratic public sphere, and a site of struggle over a whole range of issues, precisely both agency and the question of the future.  But I--but I--but I do think that DeSantis is particularly interesting, because he becomes a model for translating, really, propaganda into policy.  And what we’re seeing is, not only a struggle over education in the most fundamentally destructive way possible, but we’re seeing, basically, at attack at all forms of critical thinking, and the labor conditions under which educators work.  I mean, as you all know, Chris, in higher education, 70% of all faculty in the United States are adjuncts, or on limited contracts.  Now, what that means is that’s really an attack, not only on academic freedom, that’s an attack on their--on their ability to basically say anything, the--to keep their jobs, to mobilize, to work with other people.  And I think that what he--when he claims that he’s doing--he and other governors are now claiming of actually passing bills, claiming that if Critical Race Theory, whatever that means for them, it’s a catch-all for everything, as Chris Russo is more than--Rufo, is more than willing to admit, they’re going to start defunding universities, they’re going to cut their budgets by 25%.  And you know and I know, in the age of the neoliberal university, what do you think matters more?  Funding?  Or protecting the civil rights of academics?  I mean, this is a serious--this is the most serious attack, I believe, on education that we have seen since the McCarthy era and prior to that, the Red Scare.

CH: I want to talk about this term of apartheid pedagogy, which you said has, in essence, been imposed on the educational system.  Can you talk about that?

HG: Apartheid pedagogy is a term I use, which I particularly like, because it speaks to segregation.  It’s a pedagogy that basically believes in segregation, it promotes an anti-democratic ethos that says that some groups are disposable.  It suggests that history should be whitewashed, it argues for racial cleansing, both intellectually and theoretically, and academically.  It produces what I--what I--what we have talked about is a form of manufactured ignorance.  And I think it’s a new war that the right--a new term that the right has appropriated to basically dismantle two things, what I would call the revolutionary radical impulses of the 1960s, and secondly, to dismantle these emerging--these emerging protest movements that basically they’re arguing against both systemic police violence and systemic racism.  But even more so, I think I would argue that what’s really at stake under the guise of Critical Race Theory, in the form of apartheid pedagogy, is really an attack on any form of systemic inequality, racial and economic.  I mean, this is the fascist state, if I may use that term, and I don’t use it lightly, consolidating class power in a--in a way that now is basically eliminating all those centers of power that engage in education for the purpose of mainly empowering people.  They want them eliminated.  That’s their goal.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we will continue our conversation on the new Red Scare with Professor Henry Giroux.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the corruption of American education with Professor Henry Giroux.  So I just want to read this passage, “You write democratic conditions do not automatically sustain themselves.”  This is you writing, “Democracy’s fate largely rests in the domain of culture, a domain in which people must be educated critically in order to fight for securing freedom, equality, social justice, equal production and human dignity.”  I think like Gramsci and C. Wright Mills and other writers you have argued, I think correctly, that education is embodied in kind of mass media and popular culture and manipulated by centers of power, not only within institutions of education, and that’s something that we also have to look at.

HG: Oh, I think this is an honor, thank you for bringing this up.  It’s enormously important issue.  I mean, you got to make a--you have to make a distinction between education and schooling.  And it seems to me, you know, these point at different institutional sites, and different places where education takes place.  And I think it’s pretty clear that the major force for education in the United States, it may not be in the universities anymore.  It may not even be in the public schools.  It’s really in a range of cultural apparatuses from the social media, the mainstream media that have enormous power, whether we’re talking about Google or Facebook, the digital media have enormous amounts of power in both shaping how education is defined, which means that it’s not defined in terms of what its obligations are to a democracy, but defined in terms of what is--what its needs are to produce consumers, or what its needs are to produce people who are passive, and won’t raise fundamental questions about the structures of authority, power, the relationships of power, and the interest that drive them.  And I think that particularly among young people, you know--you know, you and I have been around for a long time, I’m a lot longer--me a lot longer than you.  But, you know, people don’t even read books anymore.  People talk in tweets, tweet language, you know, you can see this fundamental shift from a print culture to an image culture.  An oracular politics is what I call it has now come into view, one that’s powerfully shaped by images, by the media, particularly the visual media.  And this has produced a new kind of civic illiteracy, in my estimation, and that civic illiteracy lends itself well to forms of apartheid pedagogy that are ultra nationalist, ultra racist.  And basically a tie to what I call the logic of disposability, meaning that when we define the notion of citizen, we’re really talking about white Christians and nobody else, and that everybody else basically is expendable, they’re excess.  As my friend Zygmunt Bauman used to say, they’re the unthinkable and the unknowable.  And now policies are being put into place that not only through voter suppression and other laws to exclude those people, but basically to dismantle the educational institutions, both in schools and outside of schools in the larger culture that would really bring those questions into focus so they could be understood, criticized, attacked, and reversed.

CH: Isn’t the goal really to obliterate the capacity to ask the right questions in this Socratic notion that knowledge comes from being able to ask the right questions?

HG: I think that’s absolutely right.  I mean, what this is an attack on, if I can rephrase this, is an attack on the habits of questioning, of critical questioning.  It’s an attack on the dispositions that lend people to think beyond the given.  It’s an attack on those people who refuse to normalize what shouldn’t be normalized, who refuse to give up on imagining a society that is unlike the present, the society in which they live.  And it’s also an attack on the notion that it seems to me that individualism is not the essence of what a society is all about.  And that neoliberalism should not be the ultimate measure for defining all aspects of social life.  I mean, these are serious questions that go to the heart of a new kind of updated fascist politics.  That, you know, we need to look at the past, we need to, you know, understand that there are echoes of the past year that are really dangerous.  And this is not a matter of saying Trump was Hitler.  It’s a matter of saying what is it from that period that has been reproduced in different forms in the manner of Hannah Arendt and number of other people that Sheldon Wolin, as you’ve written brilliantly about, that should alarm us, that we should learn from.  And it’s that historical and racial cleansing and the attack on the critical capacities of people that think otherwise and act otherwise that is really at stake here.

CH: And education has essentially become vocational at its lowest levels in poor neighborhoods where people are taught basic numerical literacy to work at low wage jobs, or at places like Princeton or Harvard, where the most--the predominant major is computer science.  And they’re trained as sophisticated systems managers, to steal a line from John Ralston Saul, to maintain the system.  So across the board from--at the low end all the way to the top end of elite education, the humanities which are really designed to be subversive because they’re meant to make you ask questions are just withering away, and not by accident.

HG: Oh, not at all.  I mean, look, when you look at the neoliberal university, and you look at the way in which we talk about governance modeled after the business world, modeled after the corporate world, and we talk about students who are considered clients, not young people that we should educate to be able to, you know, take seriously to be able to sustain and struggle over a democracy, and be responsible, critical and engaged citizens, or faculty, who, in some way, should be the basis of the university, that’s all being eliminated.  I mean, you know, it’s very interesting my wife, Rhonda, you know, is saying--is looking for a job in Canada and she says, you know, all these jobs, they’re all managerial jobs.  There are very few faculty jobs.  And I think that what we’ve seen is the rise of a managerial class in the university that is so devoid of any vision, any democratic vision.  It’s all about the bottom line, you know, it’s basically all about making the university into a center of training.  And it’s not about equity, and it’s not about justice, and it’s not about in some way, teaching kids how to address or faculty urging them to address the immediate social problem.  Humanities has no logic, but the fence in the neoliberal university, because it doesn’t translate immediately into the accumulation of capital.

CH: It’s really that issue of do you teach people how to think or what to think.  And you quote Roger Simon about the vision for education where he said, “the goal in education is to take risks, to struggle with ongoing relations of power to critically appropriate--to critically appropriate forms of knowledge that exists outside of their immediate experiences, and to envision a world which is not yet in order to be able to alter the grounds upon which life is lived.”  You have written extensively about this, what is the goal of education?

HG: I mean, the goal of education is to basically expose young people and others to a wide array of knowledge to make them knowledgeable.  Secondly, it’s--to nurture their capacities to be critical.  Thirdly, it’s to nurture their capacities to be engaged to view themselves as active, informed agents that are absolutely essential for any democracy to survive.  They’re the bottom line of democracy, it seems to me.  When we talk about young people, we’re talking about a generation in which we have to ask ourselves a fundamental question, what kind of future do we want to prepare for young people?  Do you want to prepare a future in which the West is going up in flames, full of climate deniers and vaccine deniers and people who turn lying into a sport and into a tradition?  Or do we want to have active critical citizens who can struggle--democracy has to be struggled over?  There’s nothing about it that suggests it’s going to exist on the basis of a constitution, or some institutions that some liberals argue.  I’m sorry, it doesn’t work that way.  So in a sense, what education is, it’s a struggle over agency identification, values, the future, and the possibility to imagine oneself as being more than what oneself is.

CH: Stuart Hall uses the term, you know, erasure, that education, if you’re educated, you prevent your own erasure.  What does he mean by that?

HG: I think what he means is that in many cases, what education does is it makes people voiceless in order to make them powerless.  It erases their history.  It erases their possibility to have access to quality education.  It erases the possibility for them to be in courses with educators who take risk, you know, who nurtured their critical capacities.  And it seems to me, if we look at the way in which the sort of the hierarchical nature of higher education in the United States not in public education, it’d be kind of basically very clear, this is a class-based racially tiered system.  We know who’s in the elite in Harvard and Princeton.  I mean, Harvard Business School might be labeled as a criminogenic institution by virtue of what it produces among the elite.  And then of course for everybody else increasingly schools are being turned into community colleges, just simply training sites, you know, for the new world order, for the, you know, for global imperialism.  So it seems to me that this question of what education is for what and it’s become, or what kind of institutions are now being shaped to produce it is so at odds with a dream of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Hannah Arendt and others who raised the fundamental question she says, look, when you talk about education, you have to--you have to ask yourself what responsibilities do you have for the future, for young people?  That’s the central question here.

CH: Is the big absence in this neoliberal system that you essentially never--to boil it down to something simple, you never examine power and how it works.

HG: I think it has two elements.  And that’s certainly one of them, because power, when it’s invisible, becomes all the more powerful to use that term.  But I think there are two issues here for me about neoliberalism in relation to your question that are really central.  One is it operates off the assumption that there’s no such thing as social problems, that they’re only individual problems.  And there’s a notion that we’re ultimately individually responsible for everything that happens to us literally depoliticizes people because it makes them incapable of translating private issues into larger systemic considerations.  So there’s this question of this really putrid notion of market-based individualism and this inability to translate and bring together and connect issues that would give people a fuller understanding of the world in which they live in, what they may be able to do about it, particularly as it affects their everyday lives.

CH: Great.  That was Professor Henry Giroux speaking about the Age of Manufactured Ignorance.

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