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The Cost of Living
Henry A. Giroux
Alex n. Dajkovic
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Youth and the politics of domestic militarization, Part I
Henry A. Giroux
There are mounting ideological, institutional, and political pressures among conservatives, liberals, and other advocates of corporate culture to remove youth from the inventory of ethical and political concerns that legitimize and provide individual rights and social provisions for members of a democratic society. One consequence is that there is growing support among the American public for policies, at all levels of government, that abandon young people, especially youth of color, to the dictates of a repressive penal state that increasingly addresses social problems through the police, courts, and prison system. As a result, the state has been hollowed out, largely abandoning its support for child protection, healthcare for the poor, and social services for the aged. Public goods are now disparaged in the name of privatization, and those public forums in which association and debate thrive are being replaced by what Paul Gilroy calls an “info-tainment telesector” industry driven by dictates of the marketplace.
As the public sector is remade in the image of the market, commercial values replace social values and the spectacle of politics gives way to the politics of the spectacle.
Privatizing and Commodifying Youth
In the summer of 2000, The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran two major stories on youth within a three-week period between the latter part of July and the beginning of August. The stories are important because they signify not only how youth fare in the politics of representation but also what identifications are made available for them to locate themselves in public discourse. The first article, “The Backlash Against Children” by Lisa Belkin, was a feature story forecasted on the magazine's cover with a visually disturbing, albeit familiar, close up of a young boy's face. The boy's mouth is wide open in a distorted manner, and he appears to be in the throes of a tantrum. The image conjures up the ambiguities adults feel in the presence of screaming children, especially when they appear in public places, such as R-rated movies or up-scale restaurants, where their presence is seen as an intrusion on adult life. The other full-page image that follows the opening text is even more grotesque, portraying a young boy dressed in a jacket and tie with chocolate cake smeared all over his face. His hands, covered with the gooey confection, reach out towards the viewer, capturing the child's mischievous attempt to grab some hapless person by the lapels and add a bit of culinary dash to his or her wardrobe.
According to Belkin, a new movement is on the rise in American culture, one founded by individuals who don't have children, militantly describing themselves as “child free,” and who view the presence of young people as an intrusion on their rights. Belkin charts this growing phenomenon with the precision of an obsessed accountant. She commences with an ethnographic account of 31-year-old, California software computer consultant Jason Gill, who is looking for a new place to live because the couple who have moved in next door to him have a new baby and he can hear “every wail and whimper.” Even more calamitous for the yuppie consultant, the fence he replaced to prevent another neighbor's children from peering through at him is now used by the kids as a soccer goal, “often while Gill is trying to read a book or have a quiet glass of wine.” But Belkin doesn't limit her analysis to such anecdotal evidence, she also points to the emergence of national movements such as an organization called No Kidding!, which sets up social events only for those who remain childless. She reports that No Kidding! had only 2 chapters in 1995 but has 47 today. In addition, she comments on the countless number of online “child free” sites with names like “Brats!” and a growing number of hotels that do not allow children under 18 unless they are paying guests.
Of course, many parents and non-parents alike desire, at least for a short time, a reprieve from the often chaotic space of children, but Belkin takes such ambivalencies to new heights. Her real ambition has very little to do with providing a space for adult catharsis. Rather it is to give public voice to a political and financial agenda captured by Elinor Burkett's The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless—an agenda designed to expose and rewrite government policies that relegate “the Childless to second-class citizens.” Included in Burkett's laundry list of targets are: the federal tax code and its dependent deductions, dependent care credits, child tax credits among “dozens of bills designed to lighten the tax burden of parents” and, “most absurd of all” an executive order prohibiting discrimination against parents in all areas of federal employment. Her position is straightforward enough: to end “fancy” benefits (i.e., on-site child- care and health insurance for dependents) that privilege parents at the expense of the childless and to bar discrimination on the basis of family status. “Why not make it illegal to presuppose that a non- parent is free to work the night shift or presuppose that non-parents are more able to work on Christmas than parents?” Burkett demands. Indeed, why should the government provide any safety nets for the nation's children at all?
Belkin modifies her sympathetic encounter with the child-free worldview by interviewing Sylvia Ann Hewlett, a Harvard educated economist and nationally known spokesperson for protecting the rights of parents, and the founder of the National Parenting Association. Hewlett argues that parents have become yet another victimized group who are being portrayed by the media as the enemy. Hewlett translates her concerns into a call for parents to organize in order to wield more economic and political power. Hewlett's comments occupy a minor commentary in the text that overwhelmingly privileges the voices of those individuals and groups that view children and young people as a burden, a personal irritant, rather than a social good.
The notion that children should be understood as a crucial social resource who present for any healthy society important ethical and political considerations about the quality of public life, the allocation of social provisions, and the role of the state as a guardian of public interests appears to be lost in Belkin's article. Instead, Belkin focuses on youth exclusively as a private consideration rather than as part of a broader public discussion about democracy and social justice. She participates in an attack on youth that must be understood within the context of neoliberalism and hyper capitalism in which the language of the social, community, democracy, and solidarity are subordinated to the ethos of self-interest and self-preservation in the relentless pursuit of private satisfactions and pleasures. In this sense, the backlash against children that Belkin attempts to chronicle are symptomatic of an attack on public life, on the very legitimacy of those non-commercial values that are critical to defending a just and substantive democratic society.
The second article to appear in The New York Times Sunday Magazine is titled “Among the Mooks” by RJ Smith. According to the author, there is an emerging group of poor white males called “mooks” whose cultural style is fashioned out of an interest in fusing the transgressive languages, sensibilities, and styles that cut across and connect the worlds of rap and heavy metal music, ultra-violent sports such as professional wrestling, and the misogyny rampant in the subculture of pornography. For Smith, the kids who inhabit this cultural landscape are losers from broken families, working-class fatalities whose anger and unexamined bitterness translates into bad manners, anti-social music, and uncensored rage.
Smith appears uninterested in contextualizing the larger forces and conditions that gives rise to this matrix of cultural phenomena—deindustrialization, economic restructuring, domestic militarization, poverty, joblessness. The youth portrayed in Smith's account live in a historical, political, and economic vacuum. Moreover, the teens represented by Smith have little recourse to adults who try to understand and help them navigate a complex and rapidly changing cultural landscape in which they must attempt to locate and define themselves. Along with the absence of adult protection and guidance, there is a lack of serious critique and social vision in dealing with the limits of youth culture. No questions are raised about the relationship between the popular forms teens inhabit and the ongoing commercialization and commodification of youth culture. There is no understanding in Smith's analysis of how market driven politics and established forms of power increasingly eliminate non-commodified social domains through which young people might learn an oppositional language for challenging those adult ideologies and institutional forces that both demonize them and limit their sense of dignity and capacity for political agency.
Of course, vulgarity, pathology, and violence are not limited to the spaces inhabited by the hyper-masculine worlds of gangsta rap, porn, extreme sports, and professional wrestling. But Smith ignores all of this because he is much too interested in depicting today's teens, and popular culture in general, as the embodiment of moral decay and bad cultural values. Smith suggests that poor white kids are nothing more than semi-Nazis with a lot of pent up rage. There are no victims in his analysis, as social disorder is reduced to individualized pathology, and any appeal to injustice is viewed as mere whining. Smith is too intent in reinforcing images of demonization and ignorance that resonate comfortably with right-wing moral panics about youth culture. He succeeds, in part, by focusing on the icons of this movement in terms that move between caricature and scapegoating. For instance, The Insane Posse is singled out for appearing on cable-access porn shows; the group Limp Bizkit is accused of using their music to precipitate a gang rape at the recent Woodstock melee; and the performer Kid Rock is defined in racially coded terms as a “vanilla version of a blackploitation pimp” whose concerts inspire fans to commit vandalism and prompts teenage girls to “pull off their tops as the boys whoop.” It gets worse.
At one level, “mooks” are portrayed as poor, working class, white kids who have seized upon the most crude aspects of popular culture in order to provide an outlet for their rage. But for Smith, the distinctive form this culture takes with its appropriation of the transgressive symbolism of rap music, porn, and wrestling does not entirely explain its descent into pathology and bad taste. Rather, Smith charges that black youth culture is largely responsible for the self-destructive, angst-ridden journey that poor white male youth are making through the cultural landmines of hyper-masculinity, unbridled violence, “ghetto” discourse, erotic fantasy, and drugs. Smith points an accusing finger at the black “underclass,” and the recent explosion of hip hop which allegedly offers poor white kids both an imaginary alternative to their trailer park boredom and a vast array of transgressive resources which they proceed to fashion through their own lived experiences and interests. Relying on common racist assumptions about black urban life, Smith argues that black youth culture offers white youth a wide-screen movie of ghetto life, relishing the details, relating the intricacy of topics like drug dealing, brawling, pimping, and black-on-black crime. Rap makes these things seem sexy, and makes life on the street seem as thrilling as a Playstation game. Pimping and gangbanging equal rebellion, especially for white kids who aren't going to get pulled over for driving while black, let alone die in a hail of bullets (as Tupac and B.I.G. both did).
Trading substantive analysis for right-wing cliches, Smith is indifferent to both the complexity of rap as well as the “wide array of complex cultural forms” that characterize black urban culture.
Smith alleges that the problem of white youth is rooted in the seductive lure of a black youth, marked by criminality, violent hyper-masculinity, welfare fraud, drug abuse, and unchecked misogyny. Smith unapologetically relies upon this analysis of black youth culture to portray poor white youth as dangerous and hip-hop culture as the source of that danger.
Whatever his intentions, Smith's analysis contributes to the growing assumption that young people are at best a social nuisance and at worse a danger to social order.
These articles reflect and perpetuate in dramatically different ways not only the ongoing demonization of young people, but also the growing refusal within the larger society to understand the problems of youth (and especially youth of color) as symptomatic of the crisis of democratic politics itself.
As the state is divested of its capacity to regulate social services and limit the power of capital, those public spheres that traditionally served to empower individuals and groups to strike a balance between “the individual's liberty from interference and the citizen's right to interfere” are dismantled. At the same time, it becomes more difficult for citizens to put limits on the power of neo-liberalism to shape daily life—particularly as corporate economic power is feverishly consolidated on a transnational level. Nor can they prevent the assault on the state as it is being forced to abandon its social role as the guardian of public interests. The result is a state increasingly reduced to its policing functions, and a public sector reduced to a replica of the market. As neoliberalism increases its grip over all aspects of cultural and economic life, the autonomy once afforded to the worlds of cinema, publishing, and media production begins to erode.
Public schools are increasingly defined as a source of profit rather than a public good. Through talk shows, film, music, and cable television, for example, the media promote a growing political apathy and cynicism by providing a steady stream of daily representations and spectacles in which abuse becomes the primary vehicle for registering human interaction. At the same time, dominant media such as the New York Times condemn the current cultural landscape—represented in their account through reality television, professional wrestling, gross-out blockbuster films, and the beat-driven boasts and retorts of hip-hop—as aggressively evoking a vision of humanity marked by a “pure Darwinism” in which “the messages of popular culture are becoming more brutally competitive.”
Unfortunately, for mainstream media commentators in general, the emergence of such representations and values is about the lack of civility and has little to do with considerations of youth bashing, racism, corporate power, and politics. In this sense, witness to degradation now becomes the governing feature of community and social life. Most importantly, what critics take up as a “youth problem” is really a problem about the corruption of politics, the shriveling up of public spaces and resources for young people, the depoliticization of large segments of the population, and the emergence of a corporate and media culture that is defined through an unadulterated “authoritarian form of kinship that is masculinist, intolerant and militaristic.”
At issue here is how we understand the ways youth produce and engage popular culture at a time in history when depravation is read as depravity. How do we comprehend the choices young people are making under circumstances in which they have become the object of policies that signals a shift from investing in their future to assuming they have no future? Certainly not a future in which they can depend on adult society for either compassion or support. Z
Henry Giroux is on the faculty of Penn State and is the author of The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. (Rowman and Littlefield).