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Critique of 'Orwellian' America backfires

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This book's abstract title forehadows similar problems with its text.

Henry Giroux's latest work calls for re-inventing America. Problem is, you'd never know it from its title or subtitle.

Giroux is an American-born professor of English and cultural studies at Hamilton's McMaster University, and author of six previous books on public-policy issues. Though he lives and works here, Canada gets nary a mention in the book. His critque applies solely to the United States, a nation he sees as "descending into madness."

His thesis is that the noble experiment of American democracy has been hijacked by the rich and powerful, resulting in a political and economic system "carefully packaged in a consumerist and military fantasy."

His cited evidence of this includes "shock-and-awe austerity measures; tax cuts that serve the rich and powerful and destroy government programs that help the disadvantaged, elderly and sick; attacks on women's reproductive rights; attempts to suppress voter-ID laws and rig electoral college votes; full-fledged assaults on the environment; the militarization of everyday life; the destruction of public education, if not critical thought itself; and an ongoing attack on unions, social provisions and the expansion of Medicaid and meaningful health-care reform."

The right wing in American politics, particularly the Republican party and the Tea Party movement, are his main targets. But liberals, the Democratic party and U.S President Barack Obama are also indicted in his jeremiad against "a predatory culture" that "celebrates a narcissistic hyper-individualism."

Giroux is fond of the adjective "Orwellian," referencing George Orwell's novel 1984, with its dystopian society haunted by officialdom's refrain of "Big Brother is watching you."

Ironic, on the evidence of this book.

Giroux may be right that contemporary America exhibits Orwellian tendencies. But so does Giroux's writing.

He writes prose like the Orwellian newspeak beloved of Big Brother, only more opaque.

Orwell hated jargon, pretentious diction and the use of a five-dollar word when a two-bit one works just as well. Giroux is his polar opposite.

He employs academic and social-science buzzwords -- frequently neither defined nor explained -- and constructs sentences so unwieldy it's often hard to follow his arguments.

The book is replete with such sentences: "The structures of neoliberal violence have diminished the vocabulary of democracy, and one consequence is that subjectivity and education are no longer the lifelines of critical forms of individual and social agency."

Or this: "At stake here is a notion of pedagogy that both informs the mind and creates the conditions for modes of agency that are critical, informed, engaged and socially responsible."

If your object is to pen a clarion call to the masses to rise up and change the United States of America, you've got to write clearer and punchier prose than that.

Giroux makes a lot of trenchant points about the disparity between the rich and the poor in the wealthiest country in the world, the subordination of notions of community to capital-market imperatives, and the increasingly breached civil rights of U.S. citizens in deference to the need for security and surveillance.

But he also paints so dark a picture that he dare not admit any glimpses of light in his account. Too often his absolutism suggests zealotry, not acuity.

Worse, he descends to juvenile name-calling of those he disagrees with, such as "the neoliberal and neoconservative walking dead who roam the planet sucking the blood and life out of everyone they touch -- from the millions killed in foreign wars to the millions incarcerated in our nation's prisons."

More, and more lucid, analysis might have elevated Giroux's critique beyond a left-wing ideologue venting his spleen.


Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 G7


Updated on Saturday, August 16, 2014 at 8:44 AM CDT: Formatting.

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