(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 288 pp., $20.
Henry Giroux is one of our foremost critical voices. With America’s Addiction to Terrorism, he once again applies his critical pedagogy to the US, finding a common thread of growing authoritarian state terrorism through twelve chapters on such varied phenomena as “selfie culture,” austerity, education, cinema, nuclear proliferation, and the state of public intellectuals, while neatly tying these threads to the more obvious tapestry of racism, police militarization, and torture.
While blaming America’s declining condition on neoliberalism is by no means novel, Giroux surpasses expectations by consistently returning to the compelling central conceit of the work, that the “breakdown of civil society” and decline of the notion of the public good have removed “the ethical grammar to keep the forces of militarization, violence, and state terrorism in check” and in its stead have built a “culture of terrorism” (17.) As Michael Yates notes in his foreword, not only is this evident in the historical trajectory of America from its foundation of slavery, through the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, the deployment of nuclear weapons, to contemporary immiseration through neoliberal policies; terror is central to the concomitant threat of violence against those who dare to resist, to speak up, to effect change.
Giroux uses a thorough examination of the current culture of discipline, repression, purposeful forgetting, and violence to trace the roots of contemporary American society and contrast this current condition with the recent past. What constitutes the ‘past’ varies by area of focus, as the tendrils of the culture of terrorism extended at a dissimilar pace – from the “blur[ring] of the distinction between military and civilian casualties” born of Hiroshima (216), to the “complicit[y] with a new mode of state terrorism” through surveillance in the era of the smartphone (78).
Giroux invokes a wide variety of sources: political speeches, news events and associated coverage, theoretical touchstones like Arendt, Derrida, and Fanon, and sociological scholarship. He uses historical examples to point out that this is not a long-standing, natural, or inevitable state of affairs; rather, these are recent changes, intentionally instituted by human agents. In this way, Giroux avoids the nihilism that so often infects works on this subject: if this ‘addiction’ is a human invention, then humans have the power to reverse it, and further, to improve the situation. Giroux consistently reminds us that the antidote to the poison of neoliberalism is a collective of mass-movements in solidarity, rather than individualized appeasement.
The book is a collection of essays, which together cast a wide yet tightly-woven net. While some readers may view the organization of the work as a mere listing of Giroux’s complaints about contemporary society, the arrangement subtly furthers his overall point: that this multitude of crises shares a common root and intersectionally impacts many of the same groups and individuals, and thus can only be addressed through a broad alliance in struggle against the central cause. (Unfortunately, the editorial essay style also characterizes Giroux’s sources; throughout the book, he cites editorial content, blog posts, and journalism as much as academic scholarship. While this by no means invalidates his argument, it would be strengthened by the inclusion of more rigorous references, rather than second-hand opinion pieces.)
Giroux’s portrait of America is dire, with only his remarkable way with words mitigating the histrionics that occasionally creep in. His repeated invocations of Arendt not only serve as signposts on the road to authoritarianism, but imply American affinities to the most infamous terror-state in human history. This is a bold, but evidently necessary technique, as Giroux devotes portions of three chapters to castigating the cowardice and seclusion of American intellectuals. Taking sharp aim at his peers, Giroux decries the “sordid careerism and the quest for status” which renders contemporary academics complicit with the rising terror-state, and thereby with their own destruction (173). Instead, he offers three resolutions: that academics advocate for the support of education as a public good; that they champion the rights and agency of students as participants, not consumers; and that they directly protest the shift towards a bureaucratically dominated labor force of precariously employed teaching staff. The bold and uncompromising critique thus functions both as analysis and as exhortation.
Central to Giroux’s argument is his distinction between the recent past and the looming present. He does not pine for a conservative mythic past, but rather identifies the social shift which has underpinned the withering of the notion of the public good under the pressures of neoliberalism. He castigates the left for its naïve belief that an onslaught of facts can compensate for the absence of formative training in critical thinking and ideals of public citizenship; without a thorough remodelling of the education system, disclosures fall empty at the feet of a populace trained to never question authority. This point seems particularly prescient in light of recent American political events which bear out David Roberts’ notion of “post-truth politics,” in which political affiliation dictates one’s epistemological framework, rather than the inverse.1 Giroux’s tracing of the shift in public education towards mere technical training is highly pertinent.
Observations that might have seemed extreme only a few years ago now reflect a political culture which seems to have wholeheartedly embraced the authoritarianism and “organized forgetting” (59) fostered by efforts towards the “erasing of public memory” (153) and elimination of the teaching of history entirely (158) which Giroux identifies as common foundations for the titular “addiction” to torture, surveillance, violence, racism, and repression. Indeed, the ascendancy of the “pedagogical power of neoliberalism” (165) now confronts both observers and participants at every turn, as media products do not “merely entertain us; they are also teaching machines that offer interpretations of the world and largely function to produce limited political horizons” (31). Giroux dramatically lays out and demystifies the grim atmosphere that confronts us today, leaving us with a palpable sense of urgency-in-outrage, primed for the book’s closing mandate: “it is time to flip the script” (248).
Review by Leigh Denholm
Graduate Program in Sociology
York University, Toronto, Canada
1. David Roberts, “Post-Truth Politics.” Grist, April 1, 2010, http://grist.org/article/2010-03-30-post-truth-politics/