The Spectacle of Illiteracy and the Crisis of Democracy

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This is an excerpt from Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, by Henry Giroux.

C. Wright Mills argued 50 years ago that one important measure of the demise of vibrant democracy and the corresponding impoverishment of political life can be found in the increasing inability of a society to translate private troubles to broader public issues. [1] This is an issue that both characterizes and threatens any viable notion of democracy in the United States in the current historical moment. In an alleged post-racist democracy, the image of the public sphere with its appeal to dialogue and shared responsibility has given way to the spectacle of unbridled intolerance, ignorance, seething private fears, unchecked anger and the decoupling of reason from freedom. Increasingly, as witnessed in the utter disrespect and not-so-latent racism expressed by Joe Wilson, the Republican congressman from South Carolina, who shouted “you lie!” during President Obama’s address on health care, the obligation to listen, respect the views of others and engage in a literate exchange is increasingly reduced to the highly spectacular wed embrace of an infantile emotionalism. This is an emotionalism that is made for television. It is perfectly suited for emptying the language of public life of all substantive content, reduced in the end to a playground for hawking commodities, promoting celebrity culture and enacting the spectacle of right-wing fantasies fueled by the fear that the public sphere as an exclusive club for white male Christians is in danger of collapsing. For some critics, those who carry guns to rallies or claim Obama is a Muslim and not a bona fide citizen of the United States are simply representative of an extremist fringe, that gets far more publicity from the mainstream media than they deserve. Of course this is understandable, given that the media’s desire for balance and objective news is not just disingenuous but relinquishes any sense of ethical responsibility by failing to make a distinction between an informed argument and an unsubstantiated opinion. Witness the racist hysteria unleashed by so many Americans and the media over the building of an Islamic cultural center near ground zero.

We have moved from a culture of questioning to a culture of shouting and in doing so have restaged politics and power in both unproductive and anti-democratic ways.
The collapse of journalistic standards finds its counterpart in the rise of civic illiteracy. An African-American president certainly makes the Rush Limbaughs of the world even more irrational than they already are, just as the lunatic fringe seems to be able to define itself only through a mode of thought whose first principle is to disclaim logic itself. But I think this dismissal is too easy. What this decline in civility, the emergence of mob behavior and the utter blurring in the media between a truth and a lie suggest is that we have become one of the most illiterate nations on the planet. I don’t mean illiterate in the sense of not being able to read, though we have far too many people who are functionally illiterate in a so-called advanced democracy, a point that writers such as Chris Hedges, Susan Jacoby and the late Richard Hofstadter made clear in their informative books on the rise of anti-intellectualism in American life. [2] I am talking about a different species of ignorance and anti-intellectualism. Illiterate in this instance refers to the inability on the part of much of the American public to grasp private troubles and the meaning of the self in relation to larger public problems and social relations. It is a form of illiteracy that points less to the lack of technical skills and the absence of certain competencies than to a deficit in the realms of politics — one that subverts both critical thinking and the notion of literacy as both critical interpretation and the possibility of intervention in the world. This type of illiteracy is not only incapable of dealing with complex and contested questions, it is also an excuse for glorifying the principle of self-interest as a paradigm for understanding politics. This is a form of illiteracy marked by the inability to see outside of the realm of the privatized self, an illiteracy in which the act of translation withers, reduced to a relic of another age. The United States is a country that is increasingly defined by a civic deficit, a chronic and deadly form of civic illiteracy that points to the failure of both its educational system and the growing ability of anti-democratic forces to use the educational force of the culture to promote the new illiteracy. As this widespread illiteracy has come to dominate American culture, we have moved from a culture of questioning to a culture of shouting and in doing so have restaged politics and power in both unproductive and anti-democratic ways.

Think of the forces at work in the larger culture that work overtime to situate us within a privatized world of fantasy, spectacle and resentment that is entirely removed from larger social problems and public concerns. For instance, corporate culture, with its unrelenting commercials, carpet-bombs our audio and visual fields with the message that the only viable way to define ourselves is to shop and consume in an orgy of private pursuits. Popular culture traps us in the privatized universe of celebrity culture, urging us to define ourselves through the often empty and trivialized and highly individualized interests of celebrities. Pharmaceutical companies urge us to deal with our problems, largely produced by economic and political forces out of our control, by taking a drug, one that will both chill us out and increase their profit margins. (This has now become an educational measure applied increasingly and indiscriminately to children in our schools.) Pop psychologists urge us to simply think positively, give each other hugs and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps while also insisting that those who confront reality and its mix of complex social issues are, as Chris Hedges points out, defeatists, a negative force that inhibits “our inner essence and power.” [3] There is also the culture of militarization, which permeates all aspects of our lives — from our classrooms and the screen culture of reality television to the barrage of violent video games and the blood letting in sports such as popular wrestling — endlessly at work in developing modes of masculinity that celebrate toughness, violence, cruelty, moral indifference and misogyny.

Stripped of its ethical and political importance, the public has been largely reduced to a space where private interests are displayed and the social order increasingly mimics a giant Dr. Phil show where notions of the public register as simply a conglomeration of private woes, tasks, conversations and problems.
All of these forces, whose educational influence should never be underestimated, constitute a new type of illiteracy, a kind of civic illiteracy in which it becomes increasingly impossible to connect the everyday problems that people face with larger social forces — thus depoliticizing their own sense of agency and making politics itself an empty gesture. Is it any wonder that politics is now mediated through a spectacle of anger, violence, humiliation and rage that mimics the likes of The Jerry Springer Show? It is not that we have become a society of the spectacle — though that is partly true — but that we have fallen prey to a new kind of illiteracy in which the distinction between illusion and reality is lost, just as the ability to experience our feelings of discontent and our fears of uncertainty are reduced to private troubles, paralyzing us in a sea of resentment waiting to be manipulated by extremists extending from religious fanatics to right-wing radio hosts. This is a prescription for a kind of rage that looks for easy answers, demands a heightened emotional release and resents any attempts to think through the connection between our individual woes and any number of larger social forces. A short list of such forces would include an unchecked system of finance, the anti-democratic power of the corporate state, the rise of multinationals and the destruction of the manufacturing base and the privatization of public schooling along with its devaluing of education as a public good. As the public collapses into the personal, the personal becomes “the only politics there is, the only politics with a tangible referent or emotional valence,” [4] the formative educational and political conditions that make a democracy possible begin to disappear. Under such circumstances, the language of the social is either devalued, pathologized or ignored and all dreams of the future are now modeled around the narcissistic, privatized and self-indulgent needs of consumer and celebrity culture and the dictates of the allegedly free market. How else to explain the rage against big government but barely a peep against the rule of big corporations who increasingly control not only the government but almost every vital aspect of our lives from health care to the quality of our environment?

Stripped of its ethical and political importance, the public has been largely reduced to a space where private interests are displayed and the social order increasingly mimics a giant Dr. Phil show where notions of the public register as simply a conglomeration of private woes, tasks, conversations and problems. Most importantly, as the very idea of the social collapses into an utterly privatized discourse, everyday politics is decoupled from its democratic moorings and it becomes more difficult for people to develop a vocabulary for understanding how private problems and public issues constitute the very lifeblood of a vibrant politics and democracy itself. This is worth repeating. Emptied of any substantial content, democracy appears imperiled as individuals are unable to translate their privately suffered misery into genuine public debate, social concerns and collective action. This is a form of illiteracy that is no longer marginal to American society but is increasingly becoming one of its defining and more frightening features.

The raging narcissism that seems to shape every ad, film, television program and appeal now mediated through the power of the corporate state and consumer society is not merely a clinical and individual problem. It is the basis for a new kind of mass illiteracy that is endlessly reproduced through the venues of a number of anti-democratic institutions and forces that eschew critical debate, self-reflection, critical analysis and certainly modes of dissent that call the totality of a society into question. As American society becomes incapable of questioning itself, the new illiteracy parades as just its opposite. We are told that education is about learning how to take tests rather than learning how to think critically. We are told that anything that does not make us feel good is not worth bothering with. We are told that character is the only measure of how to judge people who are the victims of larger social forces that are mostly out of their control. When millions of people are unemployed, tossed out of their homes, homeless or living in poverty, the language of character, pop psychology, consumerism and celebrity culture are more than a diversion: they are fundamental to the misdirected anger, mob rule and illiteracy that frames the screaming, racism, lack of civility and often sheer and legitimate desperation.

At the core of any viable democratic politics is the ability to question the assumptions central to an imagined democracy.
Authoritarianism is often abetted by an inability of the public to grasp how questions of power, politics, history and public consciousness are mediated at the interface of private issues and public concerns. The ability to translate private problems into social considerations is fundamental to what it means to reactivate political sensibilities and conceive of ourselves as critical citizens, engaged public intellectuals and social agents. Just as an obsession with the private is at odds with a politics informed by public consciousness, it also burdens politics by stripping it of the kind of political imagination and collective hope necessary for a viable notion of meaning, hope and political agency.

Civic literacy is about more than enlarging the realm of critique and affirming the social. It is also about public responsibility, the struggle over democratic public life and the importance of critical education in a democratic society. The US government is more than willing to invest billions in wars, lead the world in arms sales and give trillions in tax cuts to the ultra-rich but barely acknowledges the need to invest in those educational and civic institutions from schools to the arts to a massive jobs creation program — that enable individuals to be border crossers, capable of connecting the private and the public as part of a more vibrant understanding of politics, identity, agency and governance. The new illiteracy is not the cause of our problems, which are deeply rooted in larger social, economic and political forces that have marked the emergence of the corporate state, a deadly form of racism parading as color blindness and a ruthless market fundamentalism since the 1970s, but it is a precondition for locking individuals into a system in which they are complicitous in their own exploitation, disposability and potential death.

The new illiteracy is about more than not knowing how to read the book or the word; it is about not knowing how to read the world. The challenge it poses in a democracy is one of both learning how to reclaim literacy so as to be able to narrate oneself and the world from a position of agency. But it is also about unlearning those modes of learning that internalize modes of ignorance based on the concerted refusal to know, be self-reflective and act with principled dignity. It is a problem as serious as any we have ever faced in the United States. At the core of any viable democratic politics is the ability to question the assumptions central to an imagined democracy. This is not merely a political issue but an educational issue, one that points to the need for modes of civic education that provide the knowledge and competencies for young and old alike to raise important questions about what education and literacy itself should accomplish in a democracy. [5] This is not an issue we can ignore too much longer.


1. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959). See also the brilliant Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York; W.W. Norton, 1992).

2. Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1966); Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Vintage, 2009); Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2009).

3. Chris Hedges, “Celebrity Culture and the Obama Brand,” Tikkun (January/February 2010).

4. Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” Public Culture 12:2 (2000), pp. 305-306.

5. Zygmunt Bauman, “Introduction,” Society under Siege (Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), p. 170.

Reprinted with permission of the author of Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, by Henry Giroux. © 2011 Published by Peter Lang Publishing. All rights reserved.

Henry A. Giroux holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department and is a distinguished visiting scholar at Ryerson University, both in Canada. He is the author of dozens of books and his website is
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  • Anonymous

    This explains very well why so many people who should not be in the Republican Party are there enthusiastically. On some tribal level, the Republicans have associated themselves with white, stupid and mean.

  • Bill Glaser

    And if you believe President Obama is a liar was President George W Bush? I ask you Jon where are those weapons of mass destruction?

  • Tom

    Michael, As an academic myself, I can agree there is an element of that in his prose, but I think it would be counter to his point to simplify for the purpose of accessibility.

  • Anonymous

    Ironically, Dennis just illustrated the whole point of the article.

  • Anonymous

    Jon, your post stinks of trollism. By “too much information,” I’m guessing you mean that the words were too big for you past the paragraph about Joe Wilson.

  • Janet Vickers

    This is the most concise, insightful interrogation of our society today. Thank you Bill Moyers.

  • Anonymous

    Read “The Age of Oprah”; it discusses this exact topic in much greater, clearer detail.

  • Anonymous

    Read “The Age of Oprah,” which is about this exact topic, except that it’s extremely well written. It explains how racism, classism, and sexism are the true problems confronting our society. However, the neoliberals Have convinced us that each individual is 100% responsible for his or her fate. Americans have bought this hook, line, and sinker, which is allowed neoliberals to redistribute all the wealth to the top and use that power to shape the structure of our society to benefit only the wealthy and powerful.

  • Allen Kincade

    In Syria

  • Anonymous

    The fact that the article is entitled ‘The Spectacle of Illiteracy’ and we only have 20 or so comments, tells me the American people are now so dumbed down, that they can’t make it through an article like this. It has become too painful to read, and way to difficult to understand. Some people want their kids home schooled, some want adventurous charter schools for their children. How about every young person in public schools has to read for the first 5 or 6 years. Doesn’t matter what it’s about… Just read.. With reading comes a broader understanding of the world and how we make it better. I know that’s simplistic, but it’s a page in the right direction.

  • Carl Newman

    Well, I managed to make it thru a whole book by Henry Giroux & what I learned is that he’s a lousy writer; incapable of developing an argument. Too bad because his values are OK. They’re the reason I read his book. I won’t make the same mistake again. There are plenty of very good writers on our side.

  • Mel Ryan-Roberts

    Jon, you’re illustrating exactly what Mr. Giroux is talking about.

  • cuyahogacat

    Unfortunately sometime the politicians are the illiterate, uninformed ones. I sent an email asking my congressman to not support the TPP and got a call from his office wanting to know what TPP was. –No, I didn’t vote for him.

  • Liberty Belles

    By and large I have to agree with many of Mr. Giroux’s analysis as to the sad state of the American public and for that matter the world in general, that has been dumbed down.. but his skewed version of WHO has dumbed society down and the neglecting the greater agenda to keep society at a level of Panem and Circenses is expectantly neglected.

    On the grander scale of slamming the “lunatic fringe” with whom he disagrees with on a political and foreseeable moral/values scale, I cannot disagree with him more.

    His elitist and intellectual snobbery and inability to garner his opinion without the use of grammatical eloquence to ‘prove his point’ leaves one bored and longing for a better dialogue with which to discuss his complaints against those he philosophically disagrees with.

    Having read through this entire article I find it ironic that the very tasks of “illiteracy” that Mr. Giroux seems to want to take into account comes from those with whom he believes, ideologically, he is superior to… in some literacy litmus test within his narrow mind and field of vision beyond the avant garde of liberal progressive think tanks that have hijacked the education system and have systematically lead to the “dumbing down” of society at large. ( see ranks within the global education system to see just how backwards the liberal methodology of educating society has actually put us so far behind on the world scale of educational excellence that we are mediocre at best and oftentimes completely backwards in our way of doing things).

    As is so typical of progressive shills, he neglects to affirm the other half of what our country is…. a national Republic and feigns his attention on the “democratic society” giving us key insight into his agenda.

    Keep in mind that the individuals who actually watch Dr. PHil and Jerry Springer are, by and large, the populace who are supported by government programs that have the actual TIME to watch these crass spectacles lunacy for the sake of entertainment. Government Programs that are designed to “keep” society dumbed down and entertained so that they don’t have to work to accomplish the basic necessities and quite often the luxuries (cars, cellphones, cable TeeVee et al.) What Mr. Giroux and those who mimic his narrow ideology want to do is to teach you WHAT to think rather than HOW to think, which is what the entire educational system has adopted the policy of practice in its teaching methodologies.

    Most of the ‘lunatic fringe” as Mr. Giroux would label anyone with whom he disagrees with on the social and political scale, are the individuals who are the true fuel of this economy and the majority of society in general…who keep giving haughty arrogant journalist such as himself, the freedom to continue to write the professional gobble-dee-gook that he and his elitist followers enjoy relishing in. Journalistic integrity has been compromised indeed.

    And I’ll again point out as another post did…. that Representative Joe Wilson (SC-R)…was right…and had the testicular fortitude to call the President and former Speaker of the House out on their disingenuous ramming of the ACA down the American populace throats under the guise of “it’s good for you” medicinal therapy.

    Time to stop the intellectual meme’s that liberals like Mr. Giroux like to hide behind and start calling things out the way they are. It doesn’t take an embellishment of verbiage to call out the crap that is happening in our society these days…under the helm of the liberal think tanks that like to put you right where they want you and then have the gall to slam you for not being intellectually ‘superior’ as they are.

  • Anonymous

    “With reading comes a broader understanding of the world” — not if the reading material is of the vacuous sort (published works that are typically encountered by students in daily life, such as in magazines, books or newspapers.and technical materials such as Users Manuals and advertising materials which is what Common Core is prescribing.

  • Anonymous

    Wow – that is frightening.

  • Peter Brunner

    Sorry but racism, classism and sexism aren’t the true problems, they are symptoms of the problem which this article addresses. I do agree that the writing style isn’t accessible to all. However it’s not just the neoliberals as you suggest are at fault. It’s broader than that. Those behind bringing this illiteracy are those who are at the top and have been developing this illiteracy for decades. They use any means to get their goals. What they all have in common is Greed……

  • Peter Brunner

    I disagree. It’s not just Republicans, it’s the people who control both parties, the people, corporations, unions, non profits, etc who supply the money for the elections. They are creating this Us vs Them mentality that is in both parties. It’s time to change that.

  • Peter Brunner

    This is an important tho difficult for some to read article. It needs to read and understood by all if that is possible. However I am a bit disappointed that there was no plan presented on how to fix this. I think one important part of returning the country to the state where our elections, candidates and public discuss and finalize a plan of action that we as a nation can agree on. The way to do this is to get the money out of politics. I believe we need a constitutional amendment where the local, state and federal elections are public funded with no outside money from PACs, etc allowed. That way anyone of us could run and win an election without having a money machine which requires selling out our principles and morals. Having real citizens as our leaders tied to the people who elected would result in the changes we need on the social, education, moral and political systems we have.

  • Anonymous

    find and listen to the 95 massey lecture by john ralston saul. he covers this material in a more concise, less academic style. its called “the unconscious civilization”. i’m not sure if giroux knows he is covering old ground…?

  • AllenGreenspan

    Does that include the Bible or other religious scripts?

  • JT Klein

    Well said!

  • Paul Wilhite

    Here’s the Cliff’s notes…if you don’t agree with Giroux …you’re “the mob” …he’s just another leftist accusing his detractors of the very thing he engages in. C- on his good days.

  • Pete Joachim

    With our increase in wealth as a nation, many have come to believe that financial success directly equates to worldly intelligence. Just because one made muchco dollars selling a single product or running a single company that makes or sells “x” – doesn’t automatically make you a leader, a know-it-all, or even a person others should look up to. It just means you were successful at one thing. But subconsciously so many seem to attribute other endearing qualities to wealthy people. Just look at our congress and the CEOs that control them. Why is it that only those with personal wealth can afford to run for office? It’s certainly less about personal character, humility, leadership qualities, intelligence, or national and worldly perception – none of which requires wealth.

  • Heidi Cressman

    In the very first paragraph he says that a congressman’s, admittedly disrespectful, outburst was racist. How is telling the truth racist? He did lie about healthcare.