Henry Giroux Discusses His Latest Book — American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism
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We spoke with Henry Giroux about his capstone work American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism, what the increase in dehumanization and militarization in our society means for democracy, and the importance of historical consciousness under the Trump administration.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
MFU: In your book you talk about remembering as a form of resistance to the violence of organized forgetting. Can you explain this concept of remembering and how it relates to the Kavanaugh case and the #MeToo movement more generally?
HG: When I use the phrase organized forgetting, what I’m invoking is the notion that historical memory, moral witnessing, and historical consciousness, are absolutely central to any notion of what it means to be a critically informed citizen. If you can’t remember the past, as the saying goes — and it’s not a cliché — you don’t learn from it. And it seems to me that we exist at a time when it’s more important to learn from the past probably than anytime in the recent past, given the conditions under which we find ourselves. When you talk particularly about the Kavanaugh case or the #MeToo movement, they represent two different moments in what I would call the question of organized forgetting. One, for Kavanaugh, and that group of extreme right-wing Republicans and conservative institutions that support him, organized forgetting is a virtue because they don’t want people to know about his past. They don’t want to resurrect the past in which women were victims of male violence. They don’t want to talk about how misogyny has so informed American history that it’s time to look at it and step up and say this can’t go on. There’s a long legacy here, and what we’re doing now has to be connected to that legacy, just as one would say capital punishment can’t be understood without looking at the legacy of lynching in the United States — they’re linked, and these links matter. So the Kavanaugh group would love to eliminate history, just as Kavanaugh himself seems to fall into the trap of saying ‘I don’t remember.’ He’s evading the past because the past indicts him. Now the #MeToo movement is saying something else. They’re saying: hey look, there’s a long history of violence against women in the United States; it’s being reproduced again. And there’s a long history of resistance against violence in the United States by women, whether we want to talk about the first, second, third, or fourth waves of resistance. We need to learn from these that history matters in terms of what it means to look at workers struggles, women’s struggles, struggles by blacks, civil rights struggles, gay rights — all of these provide a foundation upon which to develop modes of resistance that matter.
MFU: You talk about being flawed differently. Can you explain what that means?
HG: I’ve taken the concept from a number of people who use it. When you live in a country — as we are in the United States at the current moment — with this emphasis on white nationalism and white supremacy, remember the only public spaces in that dialog that matter are the public spaces occupied basically by white people. Difference becomes a liability. And I think that what we need to recognize is that you cannot have a democracy without these differences. Differences matter. They multiply the dialog, they enhance the possibility of being more tolerant, they speak to a diversity of artistic creativity and flourishing. And I think that to be flawed differently is to acknowledge that being different is not about being flawed. It means flipping the script. It means being different is essential to a democracy, and what’s flawed is the attack on difference — particularly when it comes from white racism, white supremacism, religious fundamentalists, who only see the world in terms of their own narrative. These are people for whom difference is a liability. These are people who believe that difference in some fundamental way is a virus, a pathology. What happens when you call entire races of people animals? When you say Mexicans are rapists and criminals? What does that mean for a democracy?
MFU: Can you talk about what you call the politics of disposability, and what’s on the line when we call on people to resist?
HG: Well I think that one of the things that’s unique about what I call neoliberal fascism, and what I’ve articulated in my book, is that more and more people in this system, particularly under the Trump administration, are considered disposable, they’re considered excess. Either they don’t contribute to the economy in a fundamental way — they’re seen as loafers, they’re disparaged and dehumanized, or they’re seen as basically a threat, as a virus, or a pathology, given what we’ve seen from people coming in from the Southern border — or we see certain attacks against religious groups like Muslims. And I think what we’ve seen is the expanse of disposability. The range of it now is so much broader and wider than we’ve ever seen before. It really does suggest that the United States is falling into the abyss of fascism. It seems to me that what it does is it’s one step away from a logic of genocide against particular kinds of people. When you dehumanize people like this in the most general ways, that’s a pretext for state violence. But I think the other side of this is that resistance is always dangerous. Because as the state becomes more and more oppressive and the welfare state disappears, the punishing apparatus of the state becomes greater. So you have a greater criminalization of social problems, schools are now modeled after prisons, we put kids in jail because they violate dress codes, we shoot kids in the back in African American neighborhoods. We implement a notion of law and order which seems to suggest that the culture of blackness can be equated with the culture of criminality. This is a dangerous logic. Disposability boils down to two things: the state assumes the right to make people disappear, and the right to dehumanize them, and eventually it assumes the right to make them disappear in a way that if we look to the past — if we look to the 30s and 40s in Italy and Germany, and the 70s in Argentina and Latin America — we know what that means; people get killed, students get put in jail, people get tortured. So this logic of disposability is fundamental, it would seem to me, to any society that does three things: enshrines the notion of the self — that says only self interest matters; that says compassion is a liability; and that says among other things the only thing that really matters is making money. You couple those elements that defines a society today and what you’re celebrating is a notion of violence for which disposability becomes a luxury and an offshoot.
MFU: In the book you went into the difference between American and European fascism and how we have a unique version of fascism in the United States. What do you think is unique about American fascism?
HG: It gets wrapped in patriotism. If you look at the ultra nationalism, the notion of white supremacy, the notion of ethnic cleansing, the logic of disposability, the way in which certain groups organize in a friend/enemy sort of distinction, and what I would call the elevation of emotional reason, the way the truth gets disparaged, if you look at the attack on the press, all of these in the United States sort of replicate elements of the past that now take on a kind of veneer of patriotism. Remember, you have a president who has claimed that the press is unAmerican, that they’re the enemy of the American people. You have a president who claims that anybody that criticizes him — like yourself — is somehow apart of the fake news. You have a disimagination machinery at work that seems to cloak all of these elements of a fascism that we’ve seen in the past in a kind of logic that’s, for instance, of America first, it’s endemic to an American way of life, it’s endemic to an appeal to a notion of America that resonates in some ways for a lot of people with what they would like to see, in terms of how they both take up a mythic past and view the present.
MFU: Can you speak about violence as entertainment and the function of the spectacle in society today?
HG: I think that what we need to realize is that we live in a culture of immediacy. We live in a culture in which the cultural apparatuses that dominate the United States — whether we’re talking about major media or we’re talking about screen culture — these cultures are caught up in a culture of absorption, they’re caught up in a notion of spectacularized violence. Violence pays. It’s turned into a sport. And what we’re really talking about is the ongoing militarization of almost every aspect of society. You know that when we take polls of the American public and we ask them what is the most revered institution we have — it’s the military — not the congress, not the presidency, not the criminal justice system — it’s the military. And you see it in intermissions at football games, you see it in video games, you see this saturation of violence that becomes a sport. And I’m not arguing that ongoing let’s say spectacularization and mobilization of extreme violence for money causes people to go out and shoot people, but I think that what it does do is it tends to normalize violence as a way to address social problems. I don’t know what it means to endlessly produce video games in which kids become first shooters. One can say yeah there is a certain amount of fun in that, but at the same time there’s also an ongoing legitimation of violence that correlates with the kind of violence that’s going on everywhere else, people become numb to it. And I think it’s shameful to use it to make money, to raise profits, to enhance the bottom line. When violence becomes a sport, when violence becomes an intense source of revenue, to what degree do we put a limit on this? How far does it have to go before you realize that what we’ve opened up here is something so grotesque, what we’ve legitimated is something so overwhelmingly shameful, in terms of what it says about our culture, that the question becomes what can be done? What other values are at work that can be mobilized? Don’t call for censorship but at least don’t overplay the assumption that violence is the essence of who we are.
MFU: In this book you quote Foucault — “The strategic adversary is fascism…the fascism in all of us, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” Can you talk about this violence within ourselves and how we resist that in relation to the spectacle of violence?
HG: I think that what we need to understand is that people internalize a certain propensity for violence, they internalize a certain numbness to violence, they internalize a certain notion that violence is really nothing more than a sport, and I think that when we do that we tend to treat violence as second nature, meaning that we don’t really think reflectively about it. We don’t think about its consequences, we don’t think about it viscerally, we don’t think about how it really does bear down on people in ways that are quite terrible, and quite destructive, and it ruins families, people get shot in schools. Betsy DeVos is now arguing that one way to stop violence in schools is to arm school teachers. It just tells you something about the way in which money drives politics to make violence appealing so as to basically increase the bottom line, and it tells you that our attitudes toward violence are not natural, they’re learned. So the question has to be raised — where are the sources that are doing this? Where are the teaching machines? Where are the modes of education that constantly flood over us and lead us to believe that violence is fun, it’s something to be enjoyed, or that the only pleasure we have left is to watch violence, sometimes in the most extreme form. How do we organize against the assumption — and it’s an important question — that violence is the most important way to solve social problems? How can we imagine a society not built on violence? How can we imagine a society in which capitalism for instance is not considered the only form of democracy? In my estimation, capitalism is a violent system. It’s based on massive inequalities, it takes away social provisions, it mobilizes power in the hands of relatively few people, it operates that self interest and competition and shark-like individualism is the only modes of agency that matter. How can we imagine a sense of agency for which violence is a liability rather than it seems to me something that’s productive and seen as a resource?
MFU: You wrote that democracy “withers when people spend most of their time trying to survive and no longer have access to the time, resources, and power that enables them to participate in shaping the conditions and institutions affecting their lives.” Can you speak about how this relates to wage slavery and intentionally removing the time to participate in democracy from those who are most negatively impacted?
HG: Let me answer that question by speaking to your generation — okay? My generation grew up when time wasn’t such an overwhelming burden, and in some ways it was a luxury. I went to school in the 60s and 70s and paid $400 a year for tuition. I didn’t have massive loans to have to deal with once I got out of school. My generation wasn’t simply involved, at least many of them, in simply a struggle for survival. The overriding principle was social mobility — getting ahead. Your generation faces a different notion of time, because the level of precarity, the level of uncertainties, the level of anxieties, the economic inequalities, have so deepened, that time has increasingly become a burden for you. Many of you all of a sudden have $50,000 to $100,000 loans, you have to pay those off for the rest of your life, you can’t go into public service, you have meaningless jobs that you have to sort of find yourself doing, many many young people are living with their parents in their basements, you hear young people saying that they can’t get married or live together with other people because it’s too expensive, it’s too much of an obligation. Time can be a luxury or it can be a deprivation, because when it’s a deprivation it bears down on your sense of agency, and on your capacity to be more free and do things. My father was a truck driver. When his car broke down, he walked home. Time was a burden for him. People who have to make a choice between medicine and food? Time is a burden for them. Young people riddled with debt? Time is a burden for them. On the other hand, for people who have wealth, people who have access to goods, people who have access to good healthcare, childcare, time is often a luxury. We’re not just talking about an abstract principle. We’re talking about how the culture and society itself bears down on people in ways to rob them of the time to really be critically informed, joyous citizens. That’s no small matter.
MFU: American Nightmare is published with City Lights publishing in San Francisco. I’m curious if you can talk about your relationship with that publishing house and why you went with them, because it seems like you’ve published all over the world with huge publishers. Is City Lights a place of resistance that is contributing to a more democratic society?
HG: That’s a good question. First of all, there are a number of ways to answer this question. City Lights is a terrific publisher. I love what they do. I love the position they take in the world. I love the legacy of city lights — I mean, can you imagine? I can say to my kids I publish with a publishing house started by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that used to publish the Beats, everyone from Kerouac to Ginsberg. But they also take a stand. This is a publisher that believes books matter, that reading against domination matters. You don’t choose these publishers for money, right? We choose these publishers because they take a position that you can identify with, there’s a sense of real commitment, and a commitment to justice, and a commitment to publishing people who believe in justice and are going to address those problems in a meaningful way. The second thing is more technical. I think it’s deadly to publish with big publishers — they rarely advertise your books, they publish too much, and they do terrible copy editing. Small independent presses have real copy editors. The big publishers send them off to I don’t know where, South China somewhere, and they basically look for comma errors, grammatical errors. They’re terrible when it comes to copy editing. And I don’t want to be identified with big publishers. At this stage in my life, I mean I don’t know who reads my work, but if I can contribute in any way my name, how small it is, to a publisher like City Lights, I’m more than happy to do that.
MFU: Great. Is there anything you’d like to add about the book or the process of writing the book?
HG: I really love this book. For me, this book is a capstone book of a number of issues that I’ve been talking about for a long time. I’ve been talking about authoritarianism for a decade. You know, it didn’t begin with Trump. I mean if we think that Trump is basically the exaggerated offshoot of something strange, the clown who just happened to become president, the reality TV guy who was just in the right place at the right time, I think we really miss something. I think that these anti-democratic authoritarian strains in American history have been around for a long time. We saw them under Bush, we saw them under Clinton, we’ve seen elements of it under Obama, and it’s time to realize that if this country is not going to cancel out a future of democracy, the ideal and the promises of democracy, then we’ve gotta take this kind of work seriously.