Donald Trump’s ascendancy in American politics has made visible a plague of deep-seated civic illiteracy, a corrupt political system and a contempt for reason that has been decades in the making. It also points to the withering of civic attachments, the undoing of civic culture, the decline of public life and the erosion of any sense of shared citizenship. As Trump has galvanized his base of true believers in post-election demonstrations, the world is witnessing how a politics of bigotry and hate is transformed into a spectacle of demonization, division and disinformation. Under President Trump, the scourge of mid-20th century authoritarianism has returned not only in the menacing plague of populist rallies, fear-mongering, threats and humiliation, but also in an emboldened culture of war, militarization and violence that looms over society like a rising storm.
The reality of Trump’s election may be the most momentous development of the age because of its enormity and the shock it has produced. The whole world is watching, pondering how such a dreadful event could have happened. How have we arrived here? What forces have allowed education, if not reason itself, to be undermined as crucial public and political resources, capable of producing the formative culture and critical citizens that could have prevented such a catastrophe from happening in an alleged democracy? We get a glimpse of this failure of education, public values and civic literacy in the willingness and success of the Trump administration to empty language of any meaning, a practice that constitutes a flight from historical memory, ethics, justice and social responsibility.
Under such circumstances and with too little opposition, the Trump administration has taken on the workings of a dis-imagination machine, characterized by an utter disregard for the truth and often accompanied by the president’s tweet-storm of “primitive schoolyard taunts and threats.” In this instance, George Orwell’s famous maxim from “Nineteen Eighty-four,” “Ignorance is Strength,” materializes in the administration’s weaponized attempt not only to rewrite history but also to obliterate it. What we are witnessing is not simply a political project but also a reworking of the very meaning of education as both a crucial institution and a democratizing and empowering cultural force.
Truth is now viewed as a liability and ignorance a virtue. Under the reign of this normalized architecture of alleged common sense, literacy is regarded with disdain, words are reduced to data and science is confused with pseudo-science. All traces of critical thought appear only at the margins of the culture as ignorance becomes the primary organizing principle of American society. For instance, two-thirds of the American public believe that creationism should be taught in schools and a majority of Republicans in Congress do not believe that climate change is caused by human activity, making the U.S. the laughing stock of the world. Politicians endlessly lie, knowing that the public can be easily seduced by exhortations, emotional outbursts and sensationalism, all of which mimic the fatuous spectacle of celebrity culture and reality TV. Image-selling now entails lying on principle, making it easier for politics to dissolve into entertainment, pathology and a unique brand of criminality.
The corruption of both the truth and politics is abetted by the fact that much of the American public has become habituated to overstimulation and lives in an ever-accelerating overflow of information and images. Experience no longer has the time to crystallize into mature and informed thought. Opinion now trumps reason and evidence-based arguments. News has become entertainment and echoes reality rather than interrogating it. Popular culture revels in the spectacles of shock and violence. Defunded and corporatized, many institutions of public and higher education have been all too willing to make the culture of business the business of education, and this transformation has corrupted their mission.
As a result, many colleges and universities have been McDonald-ized as knowledge is increasingly viewed as a commodity, resulting in curricula that resemble a fast-food menu. In addition, faculty are subjected increasingly to a Walmart model of labor relations designed “to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.” Students are relegated to the status of customers and clients.
In addition, public education is under siege to an almost unprecedented degree. Both political parties have implemented reforms that “teach for the test,” weaken unions, deskill teachers, and wage a frontal assault on the imagination of students through disciplinary measures that amount to pedagogies of repression. Moreover, students marginalized by class and color find themselves in schools increasingly modeled after prisons. As more and more security guards and police personnel occupy schools, a wider range of student behaviors are criminalized, and students increasingly find themselves on a conveyor belt that has appropriately been described as the school-to-prison pipeline.
On a policy level, the Trump administration has turned its back on schools as public goods. How else to explain the president’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education? DeVos, who has spent most of her career attempting to privatize public schools while acting as a champion for charter schools. It gets worse: As a religious Christian extremist, DeVos not only supports religious indoctrination in public schools but has gone so far as to argue that the purpose of public education is “to help advance God’s Kingdom.” Not exactly a policy that supports critical thinking, dialogue or analytical reasoning, or that understands schooling as a public good. DeVos is Trump’s gift to the billionaires, evangelicals, hedge fund managers and bankers, who view schools strictly as training and containment centers — and as sources of profit.
On a larger scale, the educational force of the wider culture has been transformed into a spectacle for violence and trivialized entertainment, and a tool for legitimating ignorance. Cultural apparatuses that extend from the mainstream media and the diverse platforms of screen culture now function as neoliberal modes of public pedagogy parading as entertainment or truthful news reporting. As “teaching machines,” these apparatuses — as C. Wright Mills once predicted — have become the engines of manufactured illiteracy while producing identities, desires and values compatible with the crudest market ideologies.
Under these circumstances, illiteracy becomes the norm and education becomes central to a version of zombie politics that functions largely to remove democratic values, social relations,and compassion from the ideology, policies and commanding institutions that now control American society. Welcome to the land of the walking dead.
I am not referring here to only the kind of anti-intellectualism that theorists such as Richard Hofstadter, Ed Herman, Noam Chomsky and Susan Jacoby have documented, however insightful their analyses might be. I am pointing to a more lethal form of manufactured illiteracy that has become a scourge and a political tool designed primarily to make war on language, meaning, thinking and the capacity for critical thought. Chris Hedges captures this demagogic attack on thoughtfulness in stating that “the emptiness of language is a gift to demagogues and the corporations that saturate the landscape with manipulated images and the idioms of mass culture.” Freedom now means removing one’s self from any sense of social responsibility so one can retreat into privatized orbits of self-indulgence, unbridled self-interest and the never-ending whirlwind of consumption.
This updated form of illiteracy does not simply constitute an absence of learning, ideas or knowledge. Nor can it be solely attributed to what has been called the “smartphone society.” On the contrary, it is a willful practice and goal used to actively depoliticize people and make them complicit with the political and economic forces that impose misery and suffering upon their lives. At the same time, illiteracy bonds people: It offers the pretense of a community bound by a willful denial of facts and its celebration of ignorance.
How else to explain the popular support for someone like Donald Trump who boldly proclaims his love for the “poorly educated”? Or, for that matter, the willingness of his followers to put up with his contemptuous and boisterous claim that science and evidence-based truths are “fake news,” his dismissal of journalists who hold power accountable as the opposition party, and his willingness to bombard the American public with an endless proliferation of peddled falsehoods that reveal his contempt for intellect, reason and truth.
What are we to make of the fact that a person who holds the office of the presidency has praised popular “rage addict” Alex Jones publicly, and thanked him for the role he played in his presidential election victory? Jones is a conspiracy trafficker who runs the website InfoWars. He has suggested that the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job” and that the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was faked.
Illiteracy is no longer restricted to populations immersed in poverty with little access to quality education; nor does it only suggest the lack of proficient skills enabling people to read and write with a degree of understanding and fluency. More profoundly, illiteracy is also about refusing to act from a position of thoughtfulness, informed judgment, and critical agency.
Illiteracy has become a political weapon and form of political repression that works to render critical agency inoperable, and restages power as a mode of domination. Illiteracy in the service of violence now functions to depoliticize people by making it difficult for individuals to develop informed judgments, analyze complex relationships and draw upon a range of sources to understand how power works and how they might be able to shape the forces that bear down on their lives. As a depoliticizing force, illiteracy works to make people powerless, and reinforces their willingness to accept being governed rather than learn how to govern.
This mode of illiteracy now constitutes the modus operandi of a society that both privatizes and kills the imagination by poisoning it with falsehoods, consumer fantasies, data loops and the need for instant gratification. This is a mode of illiteracy and education that has no language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility or the demands of citizenship. It is important to recognize that the prevalence of such manufactured illiteracy is not simply about the failure of colleges and universities to create critical and active citizens. It is about an authoritarian society that eliminates public spheres that make thinking possible while imposing a culture of fear in which there is the looming threat that anyone who holds power accountable will be punished. At stake here is not only a crisis of education, memory, ethics and agency but a crisis that reaches into the very foundation of a strong democracy.
In the present moment, it becomes particularly important for progressives, educators and concerned citizens to protect and enlarge the formative cultures and public spheres that make democracy possible. The relentless attack on truth, honesty and the ethical imagination makes it all the more imperative for the public to think dangerously, especially in societies that appear increasingly amnesiac — that is, countries where forms of historical, political and moral forgetting are not only willfully practiced but celebrated. All of which becomes all the more threatening at a time when a country such as the United States has tipped over into a mode of authoritarianism that views critical thought as both a liability and a threat.
Not only is manufactured illiteracy obvious in the presence of a social order and government that collapses the distinction between the serious and frivolous, it is also visible in media platforms marked by the proliferation of anti-intellectual discourses among a range of politicians and anti-public intellectuals who are waging a war on science, reason and the legacy of the Enlightenment. How else to explain the present historical moment, with its collapse of civic culture and the future it cancels out? What is to be made of the assault on civic literacy and the institutions and conditions that produce an active citizenry at a time when massive self-enrichment and a gangster morality are operative at the highest reaches of the U.S. government, all of which serves to undermine the public realm as a space of freedom, liberty, dialogue and deliberative consensus?
One of the challenges facing the current generation of leftists, progressives and cultural workers is the need to address the question of what counts as education, and what it should accomplish in a society that is slipping into the dark night of authoritarianism. In a world in which there is an increasing abandonment of egalitarian and democratic impulses, what will it take to educate young people and the broader polity to challenge authority and hold power accountable? Such a vision suggests resurrecting a democratic project that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond a social order immersed in massive inequality and endless assaults on the environment, a social order that elevates war and militarization to the highest and most sanctified national ideals.
At issue here is the need for educators, progressives, artists and other cultural workers to recognize the power of education both in schools and the wider culture in creating the formative spaces being mobilized against the ideas of justice and democracy. At the same time, there is a need for the left and others to fight for those public spheres that offer alternative modes of identity, thinking and social relations that support democratic socialism and radical democracy.
At the very least, this requires that education be regarded as central to politics, and that cultural apparatuses such as the mainstream media, digital culture and Hollywood films be perceived as powerful teaching machines and not only as sources of information or entertainment. Such sites should be viewed as spheres of struggle that need to be removed from the control of the financial elite and corporations who use them as work stations for propagandizing a culture of vulgarity, self-absorption and commodification while eroding any sense of shared citizenship and civic culture.
There is an urgent political need for the left and progressives to understand and combat an authoritarian society that uses education to weaponize and trivialize the discourse, vocabularies, images and aural means of communication in a variety of cultural sites. Or, for that matter, to grasp that a market-driven discourse does not and cannot provide the intellectual, ethical and political tools for civic education and the expansion of the social imagination.
On the contrary, the pedagogical machinery of capitalism uses language and other modes of representation to relegate citizenship to the singular pursuit of unbridled self-interests, to legitimate shopping as the ultimate expression of one’s identity, to portray essential public services as reinforcing and weakening any viable sense of individual responsibility, and to organize society for the production of violence as the primary method of addressing a vast array of social problems.
One of the most serious challenges facing progressives, educators and diverse cultural workers is the task of grasping education as a crucial political tool that can be used to enhance the capacities of people to translate their hidden despair and private grievances into public transcripts. At best, such transcripts can be transformed into forms of public dissent or what might be called a moment of rupture, one that has important implications for public action in a time of impending tyranny and authoritarianism.
In taking up this project, individuals and cultural workers can attempt to create the conditions that give the wider public an opportunity to acquire the knowledge and courage necessary to make desolation and cynicism unconvincing and hope practical. In a world in which there is an increasing abandonment of egalitarian and democratic impulses, what will it take to educate young people and the broader polity to challenge authority and hold power accountable?
In the age of financial and political zombies, the ability of finance capitalism to cloak itself in a warped discourse of freedom and choice has been weakened. Its willingness to separate toxic economic, cultural and political policies from their social costs has ruptured neoliberalism’s ability to normalize its worldview. The contradictions between its promises and its harsh effects have become too visible as its poisonous policies have put millions out of work, turned many black and brown communities into war zones, destroyed public education, undermined the democratic mission of higher education, flagrantly pursued war as the greatest of national ideals, turned the prison system into a default institution for punishing minorities of race and class, pillaged the environment and blatantly imposed a new mode of racism under the fanciful notion of a post-racial society.
The crisis of capitalism and the production of widespread misery has opened up new political opportunities to reclaim education as a central element of politics and resistance. Education as it functions on multiple levels and through diverse registers matters. It is one of the most powerful sources for changing consciousness, desires and agency itself.
Pierre Bourdieu was right to argue that leftists “must recognize that the most important forms of domination are not only economic but also intellectual and pedagogical and lie on the side of belief and persuasion.” Bourdieu’s concerns about leftists underestimating “the pedagogical and symbolic dimensions of struggle” are more relevant today than ever, given the accelerated political merger of power, culture and everyday life.
Too often leftists and other progressives have focused on domination as mostly an economic or structural issue and in doing so have forgotten about the political role of education and consciousness-raising in providing a language and narrative in which people can recognize themselves, make identifications that speak to the conditions that bear down on them in new ways, and rethink the future so as not to mimic the present. Yet matters of subjectivity, identity and desire are not only central to politics, they are the crucial underpinning through which new theoretical and political horizons can be imagined and acted upon.
In an age in which authoritarianism is dismantling the foundations of democracy across the globe, the ideological and subjective conditions that make individual and collective modes of agency possible — and capable of engaging in powerful and broad-based movements of resistance — are no longer an option. They are a necessity.