Oldspeak: “We should be wary of the opinions of billionaires who have very little practical knowledge of education, championing seismic changes in our education system, that have little to do with education and everything to do with producing a uniform product that will be competitive in the “global marketplace”. Our children are not widgets to be fit in some corporate meat grinder, our teachers are not technicians maintaining and testing parts for a plutocratic machine. They are thinking, feeling, creative and uniquely skilled beings, not durable goods to be profited from by “Market driven forces”
From Henry A. Giroux @ Truthout:
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone … is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced … from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible – and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people – must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen. -James Baldwin
Baldwin’s words offer a glimpse into a legacy of bad faith, culture of cruelty and politics of humiliation that seems to have gained momentum in American society since he spoke those words in 1963. His words reflect something of the all too evident brutish transformation of the revolutionary zeal that marked an earlier era’s investment in substantive democratization to that which piously and patriotically calls itself revolutionary some 50 years later, and seeks nothing less than the total destruction of the democratic potential of American education. Not only have such pernicious practices descended on America like a dreadful and punishing plague, but they are now ironically embraced in the name of an educational reform movement whose “revolutionary” pretension is antithetical to the civil rights revolution for which Baldwin was fighting. Once eager public servants in the fight for equality and justice, teachers are now forced to play with a severe handicap, as if assembled on a field blindfolded and gagged. The one constancy that runs through these last several decades, less obvious only because of its utter pervasiveness in public life, is summed up by Baldwin as the legacy of “bad faith and cruelty.” Bad faith and cruelty are now combined with a power-assisted politics of humiliation, all the more acute, because such commitments circulate continually as spectacle in a 24-hour media cycle universally assessable in a digital and commodified culture.
When I refer to a culture of cruelty and a discourse of humiliation, I am talking about the institutionalization and widespread adoption of a set of values, policies and symbolic practices that legitimate forms of organized violence against human beings increasingly considered disposable, and which lead inexorably to unnecessary hardship, suffering and despair. Such practices are increasingly accompanied by forms of humiliation in which the character, dignity and bodies of targeted individuals and groups are under attack. Its extreme form is evident in state-sanctioned torture practices such as those used by the regime of torture promoted by the Bush administration in Iraq and in the images of humiliation that emerged from the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib prison. The politics of humiliation also works through symbolic systems, diverse modes of address and varied framing mechanisms in which the targeted subjects are represented in terms that demonize them, strip them of their humanity and position them in ways that invite ridicule and sometimes violence. This is what the late Pierre Bourdieu called the symbolic dimension of power – that is the capacity of systems of meaning, signification and diverse modes of communication to shield, strengthen and normalize relations of domination through distortion, misrepresentation and the use of totalizing narratives.(1) The hidden order of such politics lies not just in its absences, but its appeal to common sense and its claim to being objective and apolitical. Culture in this sense becomes the site of the most powerful and persuasive forms of pedagogy precisely because it often denies its pedagogical function.
Such practices and the cultural politics that legitimize them are apparent in zero-tolerance policies in schools, which mindlessly punish poor white and students of color by criminalizing behavior as trivial as violating a dress code. Such students have been assaulted by the police, handcuffed and taken away in police cars and in some cases imprisoned.(2) The discourse of humiliation abounds in the public sphere of hate radio and Fox News, which provides a forum for a host of pundits, who trade in insults against feminists, environmentalists, African-Americans, immigrants, progressive critics, liberal media, President Barack Obama, and anyone else who rejects the militant orthodox views of the new media extremists and religious fundamentalists. Policies that humiliate and punish are also visible in the increasing expansion of the criminal justice system used regularly to deal with problems that would be better addressed through social reforms rather than punishment. Homeless people are now arrested for staying too long in public libraries, sleeping in public parks and soliciting money on the streets of many urban centers. People who receive welfare benefits are increasingly harassed by government agencies. Debtors’ prisons are making a comeback as millions of people are left with no recourse but to default on the myriad of bills that they cannot pay.(3) The growing number of people who are jobless, homeless and increasingly living beneath the poverty line are treated by the government and dominant media merely as statistical fodder for determining the health of the GNP, while their lived experience of hardship is rarely mentioned. Millions of people are denied health care, regardless of how ill they might be, because they cannot afford it. Rather than enact social protections such as adequate health care for everyone, the advocates of free-market capitalism enact social policies that leave millions of people uninsured and treated largely as simply disposable populations who should fend for themselves.
Echoes of such cruelty can be heard in the discourses and voices of right-wing and conservative politicians such as Joe Miller, the Republican candidate for US Senate in Alaska, who has stated that he wants to abolish Social Security. We hear it in the words of anti-government libertarians, who insist that all problems are self-made and claim that those who suffer from a variety of misfortunes whose causes are outside of their control are undeserving of government help and protections. In this neoliberal cutthroat scenario, one’s fate becomes exclusively a matter of individual choice and hence “interpreted as another confirmation of the individuals’ sole and inalienable responsibility for their individual plight.”(4) The arrogance of power, cruelty and discourse of humiliation that frame this discourse have become viral in a society that has learned to hate any vestige of the social contract. We hear it in the words of the super rich such as Bill Gates, who insists that pension payments should be reduced for retired teachers, a hypocritical and heartless demand coming from one of the world’s richest people and, ironically, one of the world’s best-known philanthropists.(5) We see the politics of humiliation and cruelty at work in the efforts of politicians to slash food stamp benefits, openly deriding the poor while doing so. Within this discourse of neoliberal fundamentalism and adherence to free-market values, social protections and spending entitlements are viewed as forms of big government corruption that need to be abolished, giving credence to a notion of market freedom in which everyone is expendable or potentially disposable. In reality, the culture of cruelty and the politics of humiliation make it easier for people to turn away from the misfortunes of others and express indifference to the policies and practices of truly corrupt individuals and institutions of power that produce huge profits at the cost of massive suffering and social hardship.
Even more disturbing is that this growing culture of humiliation works in tandem with a formative politics of dislocation and misrepresentation. One example can be seen in the efforts of Gates (Microsoft), Philip Anshultz (Denver Oil), Jeff Skoll (Ebay), and other members of the corporate elite to use their power and money-soaked foundations to pour millions into a massive public pedagogy campaign that paints America’s system of public education, teacher unions and public school teachers in terms that are polarizing and demonizing.(6) Humiliation in this case parading as generosity couples with an attempt to divert attention from the real problems and solutions needed to improve American public education.(7)Real problems affecting schools such as rising poverty, homelessness, vanishing public services for the disadvantaged, widespread unemployment, massive inequality in wealth and income, overcrowded classrooms and a bankrupt and iniquitous system of school financing disappear in the educational discourse of the super rich. Moreover, the policies promoted by such anti-public reformers are endlessly legitimated through a massive public relations campaign that is one-sided, politically reactionary and sectarian in its attempts to disparage and drown out more critical and progressive voices. The foundation for this mode of soft domination can be seen in the ways in which the rich and elite institutions use the popular media to promote their ideologies, especially those that promote the impoverishment of public values, public spheres and democratic public life. Movies such as “Waiting for Superman,” “The Cartel” and “The Lottery” function as huge propaganda machines masquerading as truth-telling art, produced and circulated within a cultural apparatus that takes its cues from the Disney empire’s slick and powerful marketing machine.(8)Sprinkled with the pixie dust of urgency, a desperate call for reform and alleged good will, the new market-driven cultural apparatus and public pedagogy of the educational anti-reformers bombard the American public with films and other media that denigrate public education while promoting the values of casino capitalism. And, yet, the American people largely endorse the “culture of philanthropy,” unlike the British who, as Terry Eagleton points out, “[N]o more want their children’s education to depend on billionaires than they want Prince Charles to hand out food parcels in Trafalgar Square to the deserving poor. Most British students believe that higher education should be a public responsibility and should come free.”(9) This is precisely the position that the anti-public reformers want to eliminate from any discourse about public and higher education.
The discourse of these so-called educational reformers is simplistic and polarizing. It lacks any understanding of the real problems and strengths of public education, and it trades in authoritarian tactics and a discourse of demonization and humiliation. For example, rather than educate the public, “Waiting for Superman” carpet bombs them with misrepresentations fueled by dubious assertions and denigrating images of public schools and teachers. Beneath its discourse of urgency, altruism and political purity parading in a messianic language of educational reform and a politics of generosity are the same old and discredited neoliberal policies that cheerfully serve corporate interests: privatization, union busting, competition as the only mode of motivation, an obsession with measurement, a relentless attack on teacher autonomy, the weakening of tenure, stripping educational goals of public values, defining teacher quality in purely instrumental terms, an emphasis on authoritative modes of management and a mindless obsession with notions of pedagogy that celebrate memorization and teach to the test. High stakes accountability and punishing modes of leadership, regardless of the damage they wreak on students and teachers, are now the only game in town when it comes to educational reform – so much so that it is called revolutionary. At the same time, Gates and his billionaire friends gain huge tax write-offs from the money they invest in schools, while at the same time reaping the rewards of controlling institutions funded by public tax revenues. Gates and his cronies use these tax deductions to control public schools and the tax paying public, in this case, loses valuable tax revenue, and cedes control of publicly funded schools to the rich and powerful corporate moguls. This isn’t philanthropic, it is morally and politically irresponsible because it represents a form of hostile generosity that serves to expand the power of the corporate rich over public schools, while offering the illusion of enriching public life.(10) It gets worse. Many hedge fund operatives and banks invest in charter schools because they get windfall profits by “using a little-know federal tax break” called the New Markets Tax Credit “to finance new charter-school construction.”(11) Once the buildings are finished, they are rented out to public school districts at exorbitant prices. For instance, one Albany “school’s rent jumped from $170,000 in 2008 to $560,000 in” 2010.
Democratic goals and public values no longer have any merit in a reform movement in love with the logic of measurement, profit and privatization. This is not a reform movement, but an anti-reform movement, that can only imagine schooling within what my colleague David L. Clark calls “an eternal present of consumption and subjection.” It is a movement that appears to kill critical thought, the ability to think imaginatively and any notion of pedagogy that takes matters of individual autonomy and social empowerment seriously. In the name of reform, we now face increasing numbers of schools that either bear a close resemblance to the old Ford factory production lines or are modeled after prisons. These are the new dead zones of education, increasingly inhabited by demoralized teachers and bored students and largely supported by the new educational reformers. Manufactured contempt for public schooling breeds more than misrepresentation and a politics of humiliation. It also covers up the real problems public schools face when locked into the ideology and practices of the anti-public reform movement. There is no mention of the cheating and corruption of school administrators, dumping of underperforming students, deskilling of teachers, refusals to take students for whom English is not their first language or who have learning disabilities and other forms of violence that accompany such reforms now being undertaken with the blessing of the super rich and corporate power brokers of casino capitalism. Charter schools have become the dressed-up symbols of the new politics of disposability – presenting well-scrubbed, uniformed children as symbols of order and middle-class values. In actuality, the anti-public reformers who embrace charter schools have little to say or do with the millions of children who are arguably the most disposable of all – kids with various learning and physical disabilities along with poor white and black kids who will never be counted as relevant in a system in which conformity and high test scores are the tickets to success. These kids are shunned by the army of privateers and pushed into schools that warehouse, punish and use disciplinary methods rooted in the culture of prisons. At the same time, these reformers demonize public schools and public school teachers, but they are silent about the fact that some of the most extensive studies of charter schools have found that fewer than 17 percent of charter schools outperform traditional public schools.(12)
Excessive wealth and power do more than direct high-level educational policy in the United States, although their influence in that realm should not be underestimated;(13) they also circulate and promote their ideologies and market-driven values almost completely free of a sustained critique across the dominant cultural and media landscapes of America. The educational force of the wider culture has now become the weapon of choice in promoting market-driven educational reforms and denigrating American public education and its struggling, hard-working teachers. This marketing machine explains the well-publicized and orchestrated hype over the movie “Waiting for Superman,” a bought-and-sold product that offers no critiques and lets the right-wing talking heads and hedge fund advocates provide most of the commentary.
For example, not only are there endless numbers of newspaper editorials, television series, media advertisements, YouTube clips, and every other imaginable element of the new and old media promoting “Waiting for Superman,” but it is also being highlighted by NBC as part of its series “Education Nation,” sponsored no less by the for-profit University of Phoenix. What is incredible about this series is its claim to offer a balanced commentary on the state of education, when, in fact, it is an unabashed advertisement for various versions of corporate educational reform. The enemies it targets are the system, teacher unions, tenure and teachers whose students do not do well on high-stakes assessment tests. The film’s misrepresentation breeds more than uniformed citizens, it also collaborates with the dominant media to promote a form of public pedagogy in which the school reform policies of the anti-public school advocates become the only game in town.
Examples of this massive form of corporate-sponsored pedagogy – of which “Waiting for Superman” is only one example – become almost omnipresent, moving in relay-like fashion through a corporate cultural apparatus that promotes an anti-public ideology with its denigration of public education and other institutions of the welfare state as if it were just a matter of common sense unworthy of debate, critical interrogation or opposing arguments. How else to explain, for instance, the overwhelmingly positive reviews this deeply biased and conservative film has generated from the dominant liberal and corporate media? In part, this can be explained by the propaganda blitz engineered by the corporate backers of the film. We get a glimpse of the hermetic and sutured nature of this campaign from Dana Goldstein in her catalog of the venues that have promoted the film. She writes:
“Can One Little Movie Save America’s Schools?” asked the cover of New York magazine. On September 20 The Oprah Winfrey Show featured the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim, of An Inconvenient Truth. Tom Friedman of the New York Times devoted a column to praising the film. Time published an education issue coinciding with the documentary’s release and is planning a conference built in part around the school reform strategies the film endorses. NBC, too, will host an education reform conference in late September, Waiting for Superman will be screened and debated there and many of the reformers involved in its production will be there. Katie Couric of CBS Evening News has promised a series of segments based on the movie.(14)
In this case, the dominant media is providing the broader cultural landscape and mechanism through which such a film receives endless praise as one of the most significant commentaries on educational reform to come along in years. And, yet, the film is nothing more than an advertisement for charter schools, corporate values, market-driven reforms, a slash-and-burn mode of leadership that glorifies tough-love policies, which bear an eerie resemblance to the way boot camps are run in the military, and a polarizing piece of propaganda aimed at undermining public education while also demonizing and humiliating teachers. Exhibiting an unquestioned faith in market values and charter schools, it is in denial about both the public schools that work and the need to improve public schooling rather than turn it over to the advocates of free-market fundamentalism and a discredited casino capitalism. The success of this film ultimately speaks less to the persuasiveness of its arguments than it does to the way it is being bankrolled and promoted aggressively by hedge fund operatives looking for a quick profit. Diane Ravitch has aptly called this group – made up of the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations, and others who “are committed to charter schools and to evaluating teachers by test scores” – the “Billionaire Boys’ Club.”(15)
Within this pedagogical apparatus and marketing spectacle, high-quality schooling for all students is now replaced by the closed and demeaning logic of the lottery, cloaked in the sanctimonious language and magical aura of “individual choice.” Life and its various facets such as schooling become within this panacea of choice a perpetual search for bargains and consumer goods rather than a search for justice. As morality is rendered painless and stripped of any social responsibility, the new anti-public reformers render poverty and inequality invisible as important factors in promoting school failure. At the same time, they argue with no irony intended that the absence of choice is the most profound cause of educational failure. Under such circumstances, equity is divorced from excellence just as the public good is replaced by individual choice and the private good.
It gets worse. There is no talk in this film or among these so-called billionaire educational reformers about the connection among democracy and schooling, learning and civic responsibility, the dignity of teacher labor or the violence that is done to education when the only way we can talk about it is by using industrial metaphors. The repeated emphasis on education producing a product, as if it were designed simply to produce durable goods, does nothing more than justify its treatment as a machine to be repaired rather than a complex social institution made up of living, breathing human beings. Schools in this stripped -down discourse exist free of the relations of iniquitous funding systems, class and racial discrimination, poverty, massive joblessness, overcrowded classrooms, lack of classroom resources, rotting school buildings, lack of basic services for children in need, and so on. This absence is not a minor issue because without a larger understanding of the political, economic and social forces that impinge on schools in different contexts it is impossible to understand why and how some schools fail and some children are underserved. Successful schools cannot function without public services that help children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds just as they cannot function adequately when a society refuses to pay teachers decent salaries, provide them with high-quality teacher education and make financial and ideological investments in order to validate teaching as one of the most dignified and civically cherished professions in the country.
Moreover, there is little or no attempt on the part of the wealthy class of educational misinformers to analyze schooling as a place where students learn about the operations of power and what it means to take risks, engage in critical dialogue, embrace the important lessons that come with shared responsibilities, or learn the knowledge, skills and values needed to be imaginative and critically responsible citizens. Instead, we are told – not surprisingly by the hedge fund reformers and billionaire gurus – that schooling is about the production of trained workers, memorization is more important than critical thinking, standardized testing is better than teaching students to be self-reflective and learning how to read texts critically is not as important as memorizing discrete bodies of allegedly factual knowledge. Having their desires and skills shaped in such a way, students and teachers are reduced to a permanent underclass, denied the opportunities to develop a capacity and motivation to challenge the power and authority of a rich elite. Pedagogical practice in this neoliberal framework is cleansed of any emancipatory possibilities, stripped clean of its capacity to teach students how to engage in thoughtful dialogue and exchange and use their imagination in the service of understanding the lives and experiences of individuals and groups different from themselves. In addition, all of this educational nonsense is reinforced daily with the silly, if not destructive, notion that wealth guarantees wisdom and that wealthy hedge fund types and the culture of finance offer both a good model for ethical behavior and airtight insights in how to organize schools. Under such circumstances, the corporate controlled media slavishly repeat and sanctify almost anything that is said by the rich and the famous, suggesting that what they have to say not only has merit, but provides a valuable resource for guiding policy, especially educational policy. I was reminded of this recently when Gates appeared on “NBC Nightly News” and stated that any form of teaching and knowledge that cannot be measured is useless. And there was not a shred of criticism from Brian Williams to indicate the reactionary implications of such a statement.
Within this anti-public educational discourse, with its relentless claim to political innocence, its celebration of individual choice and excessive competition, allegiance to corporate values, unflappable sense of certainty and Wild West mode of governance, there is a mode of engagement and politics of representation that not only mimics an arrogant, corporate-based world view, but increasingly deploys a strategy of humiliation as a way to wage war against anything that promotes public values and the public good. What does it mean when NBC News presents a video clip without adding any of its own critical framework or commentary of Republican Gov. Chris Christie addressing members of the New Jersey Teachers’ Union about his plan to strip teachers of tenure and reduce them to the status of clerks with no job security and dismal working conditions and then adding to his explanation with the following insult: “Your performance was awful, you didn’t do what we asked you to do, your didn’t produce the product we wanted you to produce, but we don’t look at that, all we look at is are you still breathing,”? Disregarding the foolish suggestion that the purpose of education is to produce something akin to an industrial product, Christie’s commentary is beyond demeaning and ignorant. It is symptomatic of a type of public bullying that has become a prominent feature in American society and takes its cue from a shift in the larger culture away from a discourse of social investment and compassion toward one of insults, disdain, unchecked individualism and scorn for both public values and the institutions and people who work as public servants in them.
Unsurprisingly, Christie is a governor who not only wants to balance the New Jersey state budget on the backs of teachers, but is also, as Les Leopold reports, “resolutely opposed to reinstituting the ‘millionaires’ tax’ – even though the state’s fiscal crisis is a direct consequence of what millionaires and billionaires did on Wall Street.”(16) Economic Darwinism with its ruthless survival-of-the-fittest ethic is more and more legitimated both through an outright attack on teachers, public servants and unions and through a mode of public pedagogy in which humiliation is used to wage war on one’s opponents, preventing any attempt to create the conditions for thoughtful dialogue, exchange and debate. Anger rather than understanding and thoughtful reflection is now the most celebrated feature of a society that scorns the connection between reason and freedom. The unmediated and evidence-free outburst now rules, and the more stupid and insulting it is, the more attention it gets as it circulates through a screen culture addicted to spectacular displays of indiscriminate ranting that can be packaged to improve viewer ratings.
Outrageous spectacles of cruelty and humiliation have become the weapon of choice among those elites and corporate moguls now waging war on the social state and vital public institutions and services.(17) This is particularly true for the increasing assaults on public education by a diverse group of anti-public educational reformers, armed with their hedge fund connections and limitless trust funds. And while these corporate power brokers often couch the discourse of humiliation in terms less harsh than what we hear from right-wing politicians and hate-talk, shock jocks, their anti-public discourse with its polarizing enemy/friend divide and demonization of teachers and teacher unions furthers among the general public a culture of silence and complicity in which debate, dialogue and thoughtful exchange are largely absent, while media spectacles substitute for the genuine public spheres that make such reasoned practices possible. The educational reformers claim to uphold important educational principles and, yet, behind their cocoon of privilege, wealth and power is a pedagogical machine and cultural apparatus that shuts down the very public spheres in which such principles become operative.
What has become increasingly clear is that teachers are the new scapegoats for the market-driven juggernaut that is sucking the blood out of democracy in the United States. The call for charter schools and vouchers and the appeal to individual choice emulate the language of the bankers who were responsible for the economic crisis of 2008 and the suffering and destruction that followed. The blatant ideological effects of this ethically sterile discourse have now taken on a more militant tone by flooding the media and other commercial spheres with a politics of humiliation that, to paraphrase Michel Foucault, mimics war, annihilation, unconditional surrender and full-fledged battles. Public schools and teachers are now the object of a sustained and aggressive attack against all things public in which they are put in the same disparaged league as advocates of health care reform. And what should be obvious is that they now occupy such a position not because they have failed to do their jobs well. but because they work in the public sphere. Public schools, teachers and unions have become objects of enormous scorn and targets of punishing policies. So-called reformers such as Michelle Rhee, who took over the District of Columbia public schools three years ago, have become iconic symbols for enacting educational policies based on a mix of market incentives such as paying students for good grades, merit pay for teachers and firing teachers en masse who do not measure up to narrow and often discredited empirically based performance measures.(18) Reform in this case is driven by a slash-and-burn management system that relies more on punishment than critical analysis, teacher and student support and social development. The hedge fund managers, billionaire industrialists and corporate vultures backing such policies appear to view teachers, unions and public schools as an unfortunate, if not threatening remnant, of the social state, and days long past when social investments in the public good and young people actually mattered and public values were the defining feature of the educational system, however flawed. This hatred of public values, public services, public schools and teachers is only intensified by a wider culture of cruelty that has gripped American society.
The growing culture of humiliation in the United States suggests that anyone who does not believe in the pursuit of material self-interest, unbridled competition and market-driven values is a proper candidate to be humiliated. If one makes even the slightest gesture of protest toward the dissociation of economics from ethics, the stripping from social relations of any vestige of public values, the undermining of important modes of solidarity or the promotion of a market fundamentalism that views social responsibility as a weakness, they are fair game to be publicly denigrated and insulted, or at least dismissed as irresponsible. Next to the ethos of a society now driven by the metaphors of war and survival of the fittest, any critical reference by individuals or groups to the social problems affecting American society or concerns voiced about the need to reclaim civic courage and defend the institutions that deepen democratic public life invite scurrilous comments intended to embarrass and humiliate. When the disadvantaged make reference to their plight, they are viewed and labeled as human beings who lack dignity and are subject to insulting remarks, just as the social programs designed to alleviate such suffering become the objects of a discourse that both humiliates and punishes. Consider, for example, presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee referring to people with pre-existing health conditions as houses that have already burned down – a cruel and crude attempt to place himself in good stead with the health insurance industries. There is also the all-too-common example of Sharron Angle, who claims that insurance companies should abolish insurance coverage for autism, mocking the term as if it were some kind of reference for a joke told on Comedy Central.
It gets worse. When the Republican candidate for governor of New York Carl Paladino shamelessly stated, “that space in prisons should be turned into work camps in which poor people would get … classes in personal hygiene,” the dominant media ignored the underlying hatred for the poor such a statement expressed.(19)When it was revealed in the press that Paladino had emailed his friends images and photos of “a group of black men trying to get out of the way of an airplane that is apparently moving across a field [with] the caption: ‘Run niggers, run,'” the American public barely blinked. In fact, Paladino’s poll reatings increased, furthering his quest to become the governor of New York.(20) When Rush Limbaugh speaks to millions in terms that are racist, demeaning and thoroughly uncivil, the media responds compliantly by treating such views as just another opinion among many. Humiliation as a mode of discourse and public intervention – enacted upon others with no apologies – has become so commonplace in American cultural politics that the only time we notice it is when it literally results in young people committing suicide, as in the recent tragic deaths of Seth Walsh and Tyler Clementi.(21)
The politics of humiliation is fluid, mobile and capacious as it increasingly spreads and infects almost every public and commercial sphere where ideas are produced and circulated. As an ideology, it is politically reactionary and morally despicable. As a strategy, it seeks to denigrate and silence others, often targeting those already disadvantaged, while promoting unthinking self-interest, arrogance and certitude at the expense of critical thought, dialogue and exchange. Unfortunately, America is now being shaped by an anti-educational reform movement that uses the politics of humiliation for creating stereotypes about public schooling, teachers and marginalized youth. At the same time, the movement wins supporters from the dominant media and corporate elite by celebrating the very market-driven values that plunged America into a financial catastrophe. And yet, despite these grave circumstances, we seem to lack the critical language, civic courage and public values to recognize that when a country institutionalizes a culture of cruelty that increasingly takes aim at public schools and their hard-working teachers, it is embarking on a form of self-sabotage and collective suicide whose victim will be not merely education, but democracy itself.