Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Disposable Citizen

Several years ago, the American educator Henry Giroux moved to Canada to take the Global Television Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. From there he has continued to write about the land of his birth. His criticisms have been clear-eyed and stark. Writing yesterday about Paul Ryan's proposed budget, Giroux had this to say:

It is a story that embodies a kind of savage violence that makes clear that those who occupy the bottom rungs of American society - whether they be low-income families, poor minorities of color and class or young failed consumers - are to be considered disposable, removed from ethical considerations and the grammar of human suffering.

Giroux then expands on Ryan's -- and the Republican Party's -- notion of the disposable citizen:

At the heart of this account is an ideology, a mode of governance, and a set of policies that embrace a pathological individualism, a distorted notion of freedom, and a willingness both to employ state violence to suppress dissent and to abandon those suffering from a collection of social problems ranging from dire poverty and joblessness to homelessness. In the end, this is a story about disposability and how it has become a central feature of American politics. Rather than work for a better life, most Americans now work to simply survive in a survival-of-the-fittest society in which a growing number of groups are considered disposable and a drain on the body politic, economy, and sensibilities of the rich and powerful. What is new about the politics of disposability is not that public values and certain groups are now rendered as excess or redundant, but the ways in which such anti-democratic practices have become normalized in the existing contemporary neoliberal order. A politics of inequality and ruthless power disparities is now matched by a culture of cruelty soaked in blood, humiliation and misery. Private injuries are not only separated from public considerations in Ryan’s story, they have become the object of scorn just as all noncommercial public spheres are viewed with contempt, a perfect supplement to a chilling indifference to the plight of those disadvantaged because of their class, health, race, age and disability. There is a particularly savage violence that fuels Ryan’s account and that violence has made America unrecognizable as a democracy.

What is truly chilling is how many people have bought Ryan's story. Canadians, by the way, are in no position to feel a sense of schadenfreude. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is implementing the same agenda north of the border. For both Ryan and Harper, citizens are disposable.

Their agenda has moved from policy to pathology.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.


karen said...

I'm reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. Its quite heartbreaking how similarly the modern poor and the book's "Okies" are spoken to and about. I am at the point where Steinbeck talks about how the owners are right to fear the hungry, where if the hungry would just get together, they could take over the land. I don't know whether to feel hope or despair. It seems like we have heard these same words over and over throughout history and yet this same scenario keeps happening.

Owen Gray said...

You're reading a beautiful and an angry book, Karen. Perhaps you've reached the passage where Rose of Sharon nurses the old man.

It's poignant -- and it captures the desperation and the nobility of those who have been judged disposable.

It also lights a fuse in any serious reader of the book. If those who have been written off manage to organize -- think Idle No More -- those who hold the reins of power will be washed away.

Lorne said...

Two comments here. Owen, your post reminded me of Mitt Romney's disastrous declaration that he was not interested in 47% of the American citizenry because "they believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing..." It was indeed a chilling admission of moral bankruptcy.

Comment Number Two: Karen, in all the years that I taught The Grapes of Wrath, not once did I ever tire of it, so rich and deeply infused with Steinbeck's own deep morality and outrage at injustice. It is a book that, in many ways, has never been more timely. I wish everyone would read it.

Owen Gray said...

I agree with both your points, Lorne. We should not forget that Romney chose Ryan to be his running mate.

Obviously, both men have learned nothing from their defeat.

Secondly, some grumbled when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize. Those who grumbled didn't understand East of Eden. They didn't understand Of Mice and Men.

And, most of all, they didn't understand The Grapes of Wrath.

Dana said...

Owen, the grumblers understood all too well.

They have won too, by the way.

Owen Gray said...

The grumblers are the new philistines, Dana. Mathew Arnold identified them back in the days when the sun never set on the British Empire.

And our present government, who wishes Canada was still Britain's adoring stepchild, don't know they're the new philistines.

Dr. Atomic said...

Steinbeck is interesting in that he believed that the reason socialism never took hold in America was that the poor did not seem themselves as being exploited, but merely as "temporarily embarrassed millionaires." In other words, they didn't care about the obscene amount of wealth held by the elites, because they believed that they themselves would be one of those elites one day!

And I don't think this attitude changed since Steinbeck's time. Americans tolerate a huge level inequality because they believe that their country possesses an exceptional level of social mobility, even when statistics show that the majority of Americans die in the same social class into which they are born.

Owen Gray said...

Steinbeck knew his myths. But he also understood how elites could use myth to manipulate the dispossessed.

If the poor truly believed they were only temporarily embarrassed millionaires, the rich were home free.