On Mass Political Inattention

Mojave TV. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

“Most People Don’t Pay Attention to What’s Going On”

Speaking to Salon’s Chauncy de Vega about how the United States is mired in a crisis of democracy that shows parallels with Germany’s descent into Nazism during the 1930s, Norman Ornstein recently noted that “Most people don’t pay close attention, day to day, to what’s going on” in the political sphere.

Speaking just anecdotally, my guess is that Ornstein is correct.  In my experience, most people I talk to outside of my pre-existing left circles have only the foggiest notion about the specifics and meaning of current events. “The news” holds little real interest and significance for everyday Americans. And the notion of doing the work to “pay close attention, day to day,” is simply beyond the pale of imaginable life activity for most ordinary citizens in the nation that absurdly claims to be the world’s greatest democracy.

This is a problem – at least it is a problem for those who would like to live in a polity rooted in popular sovereignty and a society committed to the common good.  It is an appropriate longstanding truism that democracy is impossible without an informed citizenry paying informed attention to political developments. Public knowledge is a matter of life and death, like when people learn on the radio or television that they must evacuate because a major hurricane. The political hurricane of white nationalist authoritarianism – fascism, American-style – is bearing down on the United States today (anyone who thinks it has gone away because Joe Biden is president is living in denial.)

“The Constitutional Crisis is Already Here”

Don’t just take it from an officially marginalized lefty like me. Listen to Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, or, further to the right, the neoconservative imperialist intellectual Robert Kagan.  Kagan wrote this one month ago in The Washington Post:

Our constitutional crisis is already here…The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves…The warning signs may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial. But about these things there should be no doubt:

First, Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president in 2024. The hope and expectation that he would fade in visibility and influence have been delusional. He enjoys mammoth leads in the polls; he is building a massive campaign war chest; and at this moment the Democratic ticket looks vulnerable. Barring health problems, he is running.

Second, Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary. Trump’s charges of fraud in the 2020 election are now primarily aimed at establishing the predicate to challenge future election results that do not go his way. Some Republican candidates have already begun preparing to declare fraud in 2022, just as Larry Elder tried meekly to do in the California recall contest.

Meanwhile, the amateurish “stop the steal” efforts of 2020 have given way to an organized nationwide campaign to ensure that Trump and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020. Those recalcitrant Republican state officials who effectively saved the country from calamity by refusing to falsely declare fraud or to “find” more votes for Trump are being systematically removed or hounded from office. Republican legislatures are giving themselves greater control over the election certification process. As of this spring, Republicans have proposed or passed measures in at least 16 states that would shift certain election authorities from the purview of the governor, secretary of state or other executive-branch officers to the legislature. An Arizona bill flatly states that the legislature may “revoke the secretary of state’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election” by a simple majority vote. Some state legislatures seek to impose criminal penalties on local election officials alleged to have committed “technical infractions,” including obstructing the view of poll watchers…The stage is thus being set for chaos

…and The Fascism is Already Here, as is the Even Graver Climate Crisis

The white nationalist and fascist nature of the menace afoot is about to be demonstrated for those willing and able to pay attention by the trial of the teen militia MAGAt and cop-worshipper Kyle Rittenhouse, who murdered two Black Lives Matter protesters in cold blood with an illegally owned assault rife in Kenosha, Wisconsin in the summer of 2020. The FOX News Republican Party, wherein ideas formerly restricted to the neo-Nazi margins (notions like fascist replacement theory [FRT]) have been mainstreamed, is making a martyr of this racist killer, who epitomizes Jason Stanley’s observation that fascism’s calling card is “lawlessness in the name of law and order.” (The same goes for the tragically but justifiably killed fascist marauder Ashli Babbitt, another contemporary version of the role that Horst Wessel played for the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany). The white racist judge in charge of the trial has just declared that prosecutors can’t call Rittenhouse’s victims “victims”, but that Rittenhouse’s defense attorneys can without evidence call the people Rittenhouse murdered “rioters” and “looters.’ Recall that Trump as president of the United States embraced Rittenhouse and stopped in Kenosha, Wisconsin to defend the killer on the last night of the 2020 presidential campaign.

Which reminds me of the following observation from former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, reported to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa after Parscale spoke to his former boss this summer: “He had an army. An army for Trump.  He wants that back…I don’t think he sees it as a comeback.  He sees it as vengeance.”

The “it” in question is Trump’s distinctly possible return to the White House, enabled by rampant right-wing state-level voter suppression and election nullification efforts underway across the nation.      (I assume Jamie Raskin has his passport updated.)

Meanwhile (to steal a word from Steven Colbert), election officials, teachers, school board members, retail store managers, and even school nurses report violent harassment and death threats being issued by demented Amerikaners and Trumpenvolk who are convinced that nefarious Marxist and globalist “radical liberal” elites steal elections and advance fake pandemics to “end America” and crush freedom.  A significant and growing, ever more hardened fascist cohort is committed to “taking back our country” by “any means necessary” from “the radical Left” (a completely ridiculous description of the corporate-imperialist Wall Street Democrats), people of color, uppity women, and sexually deviant urban areas.  And the lethally influential top fascist propagandist Tucker Carlson has returned from neofascist Hungary to feed millions of his crazed followers the batshit paranoid-style neo-McCarthyism-on-Fentanyl claim that radical Marxist Joe Biden is launching a massive federal campaign to hunt down, imprison, and kill virtuous, God-fearing white Americans. Like Trump and like the rest of the Fatherland News staff, Carlson is fully vaccinated even as he sends thousands of his followers to premature deaths with sadistic misinformation on vaccines and masks. Anything to cripple and defeat the “socialist” (corporate neoliberal) Biden administration and take back full control of the national political order for the Amerikaner Party of Trump.

Then there’s the more literal and even more horrific (strange as that sounds to say) hurricane of the climate catastrophe, the biggest issue of our or any time, and impossible to begin to meaningfully address under fascist rule. It is unsolvable under bourgeois class rule, its main cause (the profits system is also the underlying taproot of fascism). This will be amply demonstrated yet again by the latest farcical world capitalist climate summit (soon to be launched in Scotland without proper representation from the desperately poor “developing” world thanks to imperialist vaccine apartheid). It’s eco-socialism or fascist barbarism if we’re lucky as livable ecology passes by one tipping point of no return after another sliding “forward.”

Narcissistic Indifference

The interrelated onrushes of capitalgoenic fascism and capitalogenic ecocide would be the kind of things to know a thing or two about in detail as part of forming a popular front against the destruction of democracy and the extermination of livable ecology, no?  WTF. Whence the lack of appropriate mass and “close” (serious) political attention?

It’s a problem with multiple sides and dimensions.

One part of the problem is of course narcissistic indifference. Many US-Americans (probably some of your colleagues and/or relatives, dear reader) exhibit childish and selfish disinterest in the political world they inhabit.  They could not care less about the social and political world and common good beyond their sacred personal, home, business, professional, and consumption space. Their obliviousness is distressing, of course, but bear in mind that it has long been richly and powerfully cultivated by the nation’s dominant and giant corporations and their multi-platformed mass media.  A life and sphere of concern focused on self and one’s close circle is the essence of human experience as portrayed in the nation’s television, cinema, and online screens. Ubiquitous and constant advertising relentlessly pitches a plethora of goods and services dedicated to the endless pursuit of a “new, healthier, hotter, and better you.” The often shockingly violent and sadistic mass culture portrays “human nature” as little more than a clash of competing selves, advancing the protection and advance of ego (even if often wrapped in the noxious group identity of Nation) as the meaning of existence.  It’s “I, Me Me, Mine” all day long on the nation’s glowing television., computer, and movie screens.

Fake, Partial, and Biased Attention

Another part of the problem is not so much indifferent absence of attention as the fake political attention of millions who falsely think they are paying meaningful and responsible attention by taking biased information in the form of quick, heavily biased, and richly propagandistic bites on the airwaves, Internet, and cable. Armed with bias-confirming distortions of current events provided by right-wing fascistic outlets like FOX News, the One American News Network, Breitbart News, right-wing talk radio, millions of right-wing Amerikaner Republicans like to think that they are deeply informed as they spout one noxious opinion planted in their head by the likes of Trump and Tucker Carlson after another, like the beliefs that: hard working white people are being “replaced” with immigrants of color by the global elite (when will fascist replacement theory get properly acronymized as FRT?); masking has no positive impact on the reduction of covid transmission; covid vaccinations cause more harm than good; Joe Biden “stole” the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump; the Democrats are “totalitarian” Marxists; and… the list of preposterous and conspiratorial, paranoid-style beliefs goes on and on.

Liberal and centrist Democrats have their own distorting quick-bite outlets (MSNBC, CNN, Politico, N“P”R, and Huffington Post, for example) for rapid fire reinforcement of pre-existing beliefs and a sense of being deeply informed.  While these neoliberal and militantly imperialist outlets have not crossed over into full-on fascist space like FOX News, they are typically less than thorough and truthful in their presentation of current events, to say the least.

Time as a Democracy Issue

Another critical factor rarely given its due in discussions of political disengagement and noxious engagement is the difficult matter of time poverty. Americans have absurdly long working and commuting hours, driving them to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. Look at the following report from a financial website last year:

The US is the Most Overworked Developed Nation in the World

…The U.S. is the ONLY country in the Americas without a national paid parental leave benefit. The average is over 12 weeks of paid leave anywhere other than Europe and over 20 weeks in Europe. At least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the work week; the U.S. does not. In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week. According to the ILO, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.” There is not a federal law requiring paid sick days in the United States. The U.S. remains the only industrialized country in the world that has no legally mandated annual leave. In every country included except Canada and Japan (and the U.S., which averages 13 days/per year), workers get at least 20 paid vacation days.  In France and Finland, they get 30 – an entire month off, paid, every year……for many of us, more work leads to more stress and a lower quality of life. Without time to unwind, take care of your home, spend time with loved ones, enjoy our hobbies, connect with friends, and generally live a more balanced life. Stress is the #1 cause of health problems – mentally and physically. And there are few things that stress us out on a consistent basis like work does, especially when it takes away from all of the other things that life has to offer.

There’s some good data there, but notice anything missing from the discussion of why overwork is a problem in the US? Without a reasonable abundance of time off the treadmill, people can hardly be expected to become meaningfully informed about current events.  Being knowledgeable, up-to-date, and conversant on living history takes mental and physical time and energy that many Americans lack above and beyond what they must spend trying to keep themselves and small circle of loved ones properly fed, clothed, and housed.  Overwork is not just a stress and health issue; it is also a democracy issue.  (It was understood that way by the early American labor movement, which complained that 12- and 10-hour workdays gave wage earners insufficient time to become sufficiently informed and otherwise situated to participate in the popular democracy supposedly created by the American Revolution.)

It’s also part of what makes people susceptible to the rapid-fire, bias-confirming, and purposely distorted coverage and commentary that one picks up on talk radio, cable news, and the Internet. People without time to read about and otherwise study and reflect deeply on current events become especially vulnerable to the pre-packaged propaganda provided by “postmodern” modes of political communication purposely designed to become addictive (as in the case of so-called social media).

I have often heard complaints about Americans’ political inattention from people whose paid professional and full-time job is precisely to follow and analyze current events.  These critics seem absurdly clueless about why someone who spends 9 to 10 if not more hours a day performing tedious tasks while (often enough) staring at a computer screen along with 2 hours a day stuck in a car and hours more trying to manage a household lacks the energy and time to survey national and global news.

Decontextualized and Infantilizing Chaos and Negativity

Even with time and energy to “pay close attention, day to day, to what’s going on” (Ornstein), there’s the problem of how to make any sense of it.  I am referring to the nature of how “the news” is presented in the US: a constant traumatic but fleeting series of chaotic, horrible, and de-contextualized, practically random and de-historicized events that “just happen” with little to no serious attempt at meaningful explanation beyond “that’s the way it is.” News cycles are constantly shifting, replacing one or two urgent, commonly terrible and poorly understood dramas with another story wired to expire before it is properly grasped.

Also militating against properly focused attention and comprehension are the sheer overwhelming blizzard of individual news items, and the recurrent long breaks for expertly crafted, emotionally manipulative, rapid-fire commercials required by the corporate interests that pay for the leading media networks.  Just as a cable news talk show guest starts to offer a hint of real insight on some terrible matter, it’s off to four or more minutes of infantilizing advertisements (including dogs driving SUVs and emus on exercise equipment) for drugs, cars, insurance, investment services, and European cruises.

To make matters yet worse, acts of popular resistance to oppression – signs of hope for a better world beyond soulless capitalist class rule – is treated with contempt in “the news.”  People and movements who fight back against the reigning hierarchies and madness are regularly under-reported and treated with condescension and contempt by good-looking broadcast teams.

It is routine for the nightly news to vastly under-report social movement turnout, as when Chicago’s CBS affiliate blithely described the many thousands who recently came out to march for women’s reproductive rights in that city as “hundreds.” On Chicago CBS-2, the march wasn’t mentioned until the anchor reported the standard litany of inner-city gun violence and crime reports, the routine reactionary news lead, regularly delivered as if deliberately calculated to expand the nation’s globally unmatched racist mass arrest and incarceration system.

“The News” is a negative, stress-inducing experience for many.  The ever-churching media Tilt-a-Whirl of death and destruction is anxiety-inducing enough. The negativity is intensified by the absence of meaningful explanation – that would involve honest discussion of how anarchic capitalism and its related oppression systems imperialism, racism, sexism, nationalism and nativism are wired to lethally assault the common good.  No such discussion is possible in American capitalist media, which is owned and paid for by giant corporate and financial entities who required that mass communications function to manufacture popular consent to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of capital and empire. And without explanation, it’s difficult to imagine solutions to the endless feast of horror served by “the capitalist hyena media.”  Horror without solution is depressing and people often tend to tune out depressing input.  Under the control of the investor class. the news can never really make empowering sense to ordinary people.

No wonder people tune out.

Idiotic and Paralyzing Both-Sides-ism

As if the nonsensical narrow parameters and chaotic presentation of commentary and coverage imposed by corporate ownership and advertising aren’t bad enough, the interpretive perspectives permitted to “debate” current events in the mainstream media are marked by crippling and ridiculous “both sides-ism.” It is considered proper “objective” journalism in the daily and nightly news to let increasingly fascist and eliminationist right-wing Republican operatives be equally heard alongside partly sane liberals and centrists on issues like gun violence, climate change, and voting and abortion rights. (Radical Left thinkers who would make actual sense out of current events are of course considered completely beyond the pale of permissible discussion). Political hacks and officeholders who think that global warming is a minor matter, that vaccine and even mask mandates are totalitarian oppression, and that whites are now the main victims of American racial discrimination (and other ludicrous things) are treated as people who deserve to be heard along with those have some elementary commitment to factual and scientific reality.

It’s as if maniacs who think the Earth is flat deserve equal time with those who know it is round.  In the name of political neutrality, “the news” often produces moral and intellectual paralysis in its consumers – something that has the authoritarian political consequence of shutting people down to informed engagement.  The “expert” from Brookings or the Center for Budget and Policy and Priorities or the Center for Disease Control say this but the “expert” from the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute or Cato says that, so, “whatever.” The sane social democrat Bernie Sanders says X, but, on the other and supposed equal side, the insane right-wing freak Ted Cruz says Y, so, oh well…ZZZ.

Manufactured Complexity

Much of the political news, particularly when it comes to how policy works, is too complicated to be understood in the format in which it is delivered and in the small time slots which most Americans possess to consume “the news.” I think I once heard Chomsky (or some other left thinker) say that (I paraphrase very roughly) “stuff like nuclear physics and math theory is complicated, politics and policy are not” (the argument being that all political developments can in the end be easily boiled down to ruling class power). Well, it might seem simple for people well-schooled in the radical demystifying analysis long advanced by Marxism and other anti-capitalist world views (left anarchism in Chomsky’s case), but current events remain knotty, complex, and often indecipherable for millions of everyday people. It’s a full-time job trying to figure out the byzantine workings of the nation and world’s political, legal, and financial system(s) and then to distill and communicate the meaning of it all (and what we might do about it) to others in a way they can understand.

It’s real work to sift though and read between the lines of “the news.”  I have a doctorate in American history (hopefully an indication of some moderate level of intellectual competence) and have read and written many books on American and global politics, history and society (same parenthetical comment) and I recurrently find myself feeling close to overwhelmed by the arcane workings of US and global politics, law, finance, policy, and economics. I don’t find it remotely mysterious that many Americans would give up on trying to sort it out.

Bad and Amnesiac Education

The chaotic, depressing, episodic, unexplained, mystified, and terror-, paralysis- and confusion-inducing news would be less repellent to people if they came to it with proper bullshit detectors – explanatory frameworks and sorting mechanisms garnered from the schooling they receive as they grow up. Sadly, however, serious public education has been under savage corporate-neoliberal assault for many decades in the US.  The US educational system is an ever more corporate-managed and standardized test-addicted carving knife used to slice out of young brains the capacity for critical, compassionate, and solidaristic thinking. It is a potent transmission belt for neoliberalism, which, as the brilliant left educational theorist and political commentator Henry Giroux says:

‘Operates on the assumption that the economy has to govern not only the market, but also life in society, and…produces an ideology whose most dangerous idea is that all problems are individual, that social problems do not exist. In addition, it normalizes a culture of cruelty, because it suggests that compassion, worrying about others or social justice are undesirable values because they get in the way of the market. There is no notion of responsibility that suggests that you have to connect your experience of the market with the social cost. In short, it is an ideology, not just a series of economic structures, and apart from feudalism, it is probably the strongest ideology that we have seen.’

The vapid capitalist schooling that most Americans are bludgeoned with makes it difficult for them to make reasonable democratic sense of the horrifically delivered news with which they are regularly assaulted.  It also generates astonishing and indeed frightening levels of sheer historical ignorance, turning millions upon millions of Americans into mentally crippled political and moral amnesiacs. American history professors commonly confront High School graduates who can’t say when the American Civil War and World War II were fought and who the different sides were in these epic conflicts. Incoming college students do not know who Hitler was. They have no idea what classic historical fascism was or how it arose, knowledge gaps that make it difficult for them to begin to recognize 21st Century variants of the fascist pathology.  Bearing in mind that most US Americans never take another history class after high school, this kind of K-12 performance means that only a small minority of Americans are likely to have any kind of essential historical context within which to understand current events.

The indispensable analytical framework provided by Marx and his best followers are of course utterly alien to all but a few US-Americans. Insofar as they have heard of Marx and Marxists, who unlocked critical demystifying windows on the historical process, they have often been led to see these thinkers and activists as hideous and sadistic beasts who want to throw people into “totalitarian” dungeons. This key intellectual deficit is only slightly overcome in American so-called higher education, where many professors seem to make it a matter of professional pride to misunderstand and misrepresent Marx.

The popular writings of great American left thinkers like Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or Noam Chomsky’s more popular pamphlets (e.g., What Uncle Sam Really Wants) cannot be assigned in high school without the prospect of blowback from parents, school councils, and principals.

Given their lack of access to basic historical knowledge, “radical” (scientific and historical materialist) theory, and liberating pedagogy, most Americans come out of K-12 schooling and indeed college unvaccinated against the authoritarian virus that is corporate news and the broader Orwellian pandemic that is capitalist thought control. They possess no conceptual framework that would allow them to grasp either the meaning of the chaotic, complex, and fleeting events reported in the news or the reasons for the terrible, deeply reactionary way in which current events are reported.

Mass Illiteracy and Lazy Attention: “The Thinking is Done for You”

We should not forget the critical, mind-deadening role played by flat-out mass illiteracy, one of the great underestimated crimes of contemporary US society. Many US Americans can barely make sense of current events – living history – even if they want to, through the written word. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of U.S. adults 16-74 years old, roughly 130 million people, lack basic proficiency in literacy, reading below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level.

“Reading is largely dead,” a correspondent writes me: “It’s candy crush or trivia crack. Go to an airport. Twenty years ago, everybody had a book or newspaper. Now they just fiddle with their smart phone gadgets.”

I was on the Chicago El recently and was shocked to see a woman reading a book. Then it hit me: I was just shocked to see someone reading a book! That’s like something out of a dystopian novel.

Speaking of dystopia, I received this from a different correspondent: “I have family members that get absolutely hostile when they see me reading. One even went as far to say that if I ever move in with her, I was not to bring any of my books. (She’s a Trump supporter so moving in with her is an absolute no.) But the fit she pitched last vacation when I was reading Greg Grandin’s book, The End of the Myth: From the Fronter to the Border Wall in the Mind of America was something.”

Contemporary American authoritarians don’t have to burn books ala Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451.  They just need to de-legitimize and shame them with television, Internet, smart phones, and right-wing personal bullying.

Elite media presents the problem of mass illiteracy as a failure of the populace, ignoring the role of the dominant capitalist institutions imposing mass crippling language failures on the masses while reserving advanced language for the wealthy Few and their professional-managerial servants.  The left historian and journalist Terry Thomas offers a useful perspective here:

“Isn’t this the way it is supposed to be? Education in capitalist society was never supposed to be about educating the vast bulk of the population, at least in the sense of creating minds able to rationally evaluate circumstances and make informed decisions. It was about inculcating passivity and ‘acceptance.’ I’m sure all those people looking at their gadgets 24/7 are quite literate when it comes buying shit, playing their role in the consumer society, and treating their political lives like buying Geico or Progressive insurance. And of course the students in the elite private schools preparing for the Ivy League know how to read. Part of the resume for running everything. Illiteracy part of the resume for being ruled. What did FDR say? Something to the effect of ‘the core of democracy is therefore education.’”

(Indeed, I am always struck by the unusually large number of young adults I see reading books when I venture down to my childhood neighborhood Hyde Park, home to the University of Chicago.  But that’s a global ruling and elite professional class training ground, where graduates are entrusted with the tasks of coordinating the corporate, financial, and imperial system owned by the unelected dictatorship of capital.  They must “know how to read” and can for the most part be trusted to use that skill in ways that leave the dictatorship intact.)

If they care to look for political news, Americans who can’t read well are going to find it in the less intellectually challenging mediums of television, radio, and “social media,” where right-wing white nationalist voices are disproportionately represented. Fatherland News founder Roger Ailes put it bluntly in a 1970 memo he wrote to Richard Nixon (when Ailes was the subsequently disgraced president’s media advisor): “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: people are lazy. With television you just sit – watch – listen. The thinking is done for you.”

Half a century later, much of “lazy” Americans’ political thinking is done for them by algorithms which deliver the content that makes them feel right on “social media,” with blatant contempt for whether that content is accurate and truthful. That’s a kind of political interest that does not qualify as serious political attention.  It’s more like Orwellian thought control.  It’s authoritarian fake attention. For those sucked into the current right-wing noise and hate machine, it’s fascist attention.

Obsessive Time-Staggered and Candidate-Centered Major Party Electoralism

Laziness is further encouraged by the dominant media-politics culture’s deadly and constant over-focus of mass political thinking on to bourgeois ballot-marking once every four years.  Under the rules of American “election madness,” the nation’s savagely time-staggered “electoral extravaganzas” – pitting one set of ruling class candidates against another set of ruling class candidates once very two or four years- is the sum total of “politics,” the only politics that matters.  Nobody has ever captured the lethal insanity of this narrow concentration better than Howard Zinn in the spring of 2008:

This [election madness] seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. It is a multiple-choice test so narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students.

And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike. We are all vulnerable.

Is it possible to get together with friends these days and avoid the subject of the Presidential elections?

The very people who should know better, having criticized the hold of the media on the national mind, find themselves transfixed by the press, glued to the television set, as the candidates preen and smile and bring forth a shower of clichés with a solemnity appropriate for epic poetry.

Even in the so-called left periodicals, we must admit there is an exorbitant amount of attention given to minutely examining the major candidates. An occasional bone is thrown to the minor candidates, though everyone knows our marvelous democratic political system won’t allow them in.

No, I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death.

I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.

But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.

Under the Election Madness model, millions to political sleep after elections, waking up enough to pay a bit of attention again only in two or four years.  But of course, the nation’s ruling economic and political classes wake to make noxious history every day of the year, year after year. The pay attention 247 and 365.

For Cultural-Educational Revolution – and Responsible Intellectuals

What to do about this?  I’d be lying if I claimed to have “the” answer, but Giroux said something that makes a lot of sense in the 2019 interview quoted above. In the face of neoliberal ideology, Giroux argues “education has to be at the center of any discourse about democracy and that is where the left has failed. They failed because they believe that the most important structures of domination are entirely economic.” That’s a key point. The Left cannot simply skip past education and its role in ideological reproduction any more than it can simply skip past race, gender, or nationality in trying to unite “working people” around a social democratic economic agenda ala Bernie Sanders.  We must dispense with childish economism. There’s no end run around the need for intellectual and ideological struggle, starting with basic literacy and moving up to critical theory. Educators must become schooled in how to equip young people to use their innate beautiful capacities to think critically and outside the narrow parameters imposed by capital, empire, white supremacism and patriarchy.

Intellectuals, academic and otherwise, need to drastically alter their senses of relevant audience and purpose. The great left public intellectual Chomsky once nicely summarized “the moral responsibility of intellectuals” as to tell the truth about things that matter to people who want to and can do something about it in ways they can understand.  That is something that only a tiny number of intellectuals even try to do, much less succeed in doing. On one big issue after another, including the abject authoritarian and I would say fascist menace facing the US, the response of most intellectuals is abject and frankly cowardly avoidance and mystification[1] with an eye to each other and to the powerful, not the broad mass of citizens who need and could use good information.  Their angle of vision and the flavor of their discourse is almost always directed horizontally and incestuously (towards their fellow professional class intellectuals) and up (to ruling elites, rarely outward and down to the broad mass of people. In their insistence on “speaking truth to power” and to themselves, this in ways that most people can’t understand, the intellectuals have abdicated and sold out. The dominant American definition of a “public intellectual” is a paid thinker who functions in the corporate-dominated public sphere, not an intellectual who (like a Chomsky or a Jean Paul Sartre or an EP Thompson) speaks to and for the public and against the capitalist and imperial state. It’s not so much about the Sinclair Lewis maxim that “you can’t get someone to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it” as it is that intellectuals know very well which side their bread is buttered on and what forms of understanding and what types of audience best match their professional self-interest and survival. Some, perhaps many of them understand very well the depth and degree of the horror imposed by the nation’s underlying concentrations of wealth and power but have made the strategic, self-protective, and supposedly “smart” decisions to stay mum.

Given this pathetic relinquishment of responsibility by intellectuals, there are too few thinkers out there teaching and inspiring “ordinary people” on how and why to pay attention to current events/history. For many everyday people, the best thing is to avoid the chattering skulls and scribes even if one does have time and energy to pay attention.

Time and Place for the Dialectically Inseparable Tasks of Knowing and Doing

It is a good time now as always to think about the underestimated problem of, well, time. Many millions of Americans and others the world over desperately need more time to become and stay reasonably informed about current events and how those events fit within the main contours of human and environmental history. Insofar as we can help ourselves and others carve out more time to get up to speed with history, past and present (so as to more effectively and desirably make history), we must create time, space, and place for this intellectual work.  I can think of some viewing and online habits I need to let go of to some degree in that regard (I recently swore off time-and energy-consuming “social media” posts) and I’m sure many other time-pressed Americans can do the same.

Along with time there is place. People young and old new safe places outside the dominant ideological institutions for doing the necessary intellectual work and processing essential information. “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education…Upon our educational system must largely depend the perpetuity of those institutions upon which our freedom and our security rest” (that’s a more extended version of the September, 1938 Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote referenced above)  Today it must be said the “our” corporate-dominated educational system is not remotely about “safeguarding” or advancing democracy and that the nation’s dominant “democratic” institutions (including a government structure captured with explicit neoliberal intent by corporate and financial power, a giant corporate media oligopoly, and an Aldous Huxlean/Ray Bradburyan Internet empire) are fundamentally opposed to freedom and security for all but the nation’s top 10 to (at most) 20 percent. The places and spaces naively entrusted with properly educating “the masses” have been hollowed out and taken over by the minions of concentrated wealth and power.

It isn’t just about knowing, it’s also about doing. We must create spaces both physical and online for the kind of activating democratic political attention coupled both to knowledge and to radical democratic intervention in the historical process. “The point,” as the young Marx knew, is not merely to understand the world and history but to change the world and history.  The question is not simply What is to be Known? but rather What is to be Done? 

We should not exaggerate this dichotomy, however. On one hand, the lack of popular attention and knowledge is intimately related to and bound up with the deep sense of powerlessness – of an inability to do anything to change the world – that the corporate “news” culture helps inculcate.  Masses of people would quickly become more attentive to and knowledgeable about current events if they felt that fighting their way through “the news” and learning how to process it carried inspiring and revolutionary real-world implications for positive social and political transformation. On the other hand, it is essential to understand the world and history to change the world and history in desirable and revolutionary ways.

In any (current) event, radical change is coming no matter what.  There are no longer any non-radical solutions to the “main currents” problems of our time. Capitalist class rule has worn out its environmental welcome; the planet is full and on fire. The safety valves are sealed.  The frontier is closed. The reckoning is here. The sleepy Biden interregnum is a transient, last-ditch bourgeois-democratic holding action and it’s not very good at its job: the ground is already visibly coming out from under its feet. The neoliberal Dems are incapable of anything more than passive, hollow resistance and inauthentic opposition. They can’t even put a fascist monster like Steve Bannon, much less the malignant beast Donald Trump, in jail. The only question is will “resolution” come through a fascist nightmare that thrives on the mass inattention and fake attention imposed by the dominant ideological authorities from the top down or through genuinely popular and liberating, radically democratic movements mobilizing masses of people paying knowledgeable attention and acting on relevant knowledge and information from the bottom up. The current trajectory puts the betting odds firmly on the former outcome, with disastrous consequences.  That must change.


+1. My next book, This Happened Here: Neoliberals, Amerikaners, and the Trumping of America, contains an entire chapter dedicated to exposing the determination of numerous American academic and other intellectuals (sadly including even Chomsky, who deserved credit for having identified Trump as “the most dangerous criminal in human history,” more threatening even than Hitler, and for describing Trump’s party as “the most dangerous political organization on the planet”) to deny that Trump and Trumpism amount to fascism, American style.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).