Authoritarianism’s Footprint and the War Against Youth
by Henry A. Giroux
December 8, 2003

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As the federal government is restructured as a result of right wing assaults by the Bush Administration, it has dramatically shifted its allegiance away from providing for people’s welfare, protecting the environment, and expanding the realm of public good. As a result of such a shift, the social contract that lies at the heart of a substantive democracy has been nullified -- a contract that provides for social provisions against life’s hazards, that ensures a decent education, health care, food, and housing for all, but especially for those who are marginalized by virtue of sickness, age, race, gender, class, and youth. As the social contract is shredded by Bush’s army of neo-liberal evangelicals, neo-conservative hard liners, and religious fundamentalists, government relies more heavily on its militarizing functions giving free reign to the principle of security at the expense of public service and endorsing property rights over human rights. A spreading culture of fear in an age of automated surveillance and repressive legislation has created a security state that gives people the false choice between being safe or free. As a result, constitutional freedoms and civil liberties are compromised as the FBI is given the power to seize the records of library users and bookstore customers, the CIA and Pentagon are allowed to engage in domestic intelligence work, and the Patriot Act allows people to be detained indefinitely in secret with access to either lawyers or family. Even children are being held without legal representation as enemy combatants in possibly inhumane conditions at the military’s infamous Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. One wonders how the Bush administration reconciles its construction of a U.S. Gulag for children with their fervent support of family values and the ideology compassionate conservatism.

Under such circumstances, as Arundhati Roy argues, “the fundamental governing principles of democracy are not just being subverted but deliberately sabotaged. This kind of democracy is the problem, not the solution.” [1] Authoritarianism’s shadow becomes increasingly darker as society is organized relentlessly around a culture of fear, cynicism, and unbridled self interest--a society in which the government promotes legislation urging neighbors to spy on each other and the President of the United States endorses a notion of patriotism based on moral absolutes and a! n alleged mandate to govern, which, if John Ashcroft is to be believed, comes directly from God (of course, with a little help from Jeb Bush and the U.S. Supreme Court). Increasingly, we are told by President Bush, John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney and others that patriotism is now legitimated through the physics of unaccountable power and unquestioned authority, defined rather crudely in the dictum “Either you are with us or with the terrorists.” [2] Such absolutes, of course, have little respect for difference, dissent, or for that matter democracy itself. Politics in this instance has much less in common with public engagement, dialogue, and democratic governance than with a heavy reliance on institutions that rule through fear and, if necessary, brute force. Within such a set of circumstances, the criminal justice system now serves as one of the primary models for how to manage and! contain populations within a wide range of public spheres. In this context, the prison industrial-complex can best be understood as a model for enforcing the criminalization of social problems, policing communities, suppressing dissent, punishing and containing students of color, and reconstructing the state as a force for domestic militarization. The importance of the prison-industrial complex can be seen in the fact that the United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world–more than two million, and though it comprises only five percent of the world’s population it houses more than 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

Democracy has never appeared more fragile and endangered in the United States than in this time of civic and political crisis. This is especially true for young people. While a great deal has been written about the recent war and occupation of Iraq as well as the passing of new antiterrorist laws that make it easier to undermine basic civil liberties, there is a thunderous silence on the part of many critics and academics regarding the ongoing ‘war’ waged against young people in this country, which is now being intensified as a result of the state’s increasing resort to repression and punitive social policies.

In a society deeply troubled by their presence, youth prompts in the public imagination a rhetoric of fear and disdain that is increasingly being translated into social policies that signal the shrinking of democratic public spheres, the high jacking of civic culture, and the increasing militarization of public space. The sheer inhumanity this government displays towards the working poor and children living below and slightly above poverty level can be seen in the decision by Republicans in Congress to eliminate from the recent tax bill the $400 child credit for families with incomes between ten thousand and twenty six thousand dollars. The money saved by this cut will be used to pay for the cut on dividend taxes. As a result, as Bill Moyers observes, “Eleven million children punished for being poor, even as the rich are rewarded for being rich.” [3] Instead of providing a decent education to poor and minority youth, we serve them more standardized tests; Instead of guaranteeing them food, decent health care, and shelter, American society offers them the growing potential of being incarcerated, buttressed by the fact that the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that sentences minors to death and spends “three times more on each incarcerated citizen than on each public school pupil;” [4] instead of providing them with vibrant public spheres, we offer them a commercialized culture in which consumerism is the only obligation of citizenship; instead of providing young people with decent housing, we give excessive tax cuts to the rich, tax cuts that could easily provide crucial aid to the 11 million children who live in poverty, the 8.4 million who lack health insurance, the 5.6 million young people who are out of work and hope, and the more than 1.35 million children who are homeless at some point each year. While the United States ranks first in military technology, military exports, defense expenditures and the number of millionaires and billionaires, it is ranked 18th among the advanced industrial nations in the gap between rich and poor children, 12th in the percent of children in poverty, 17th in the efforts to lift children out of poverty, and 23rd in infant mortality. [5]

While my focus is on the relationship between zero tolerance policies and education, my analysis points to a broader set of repressive conditions and forms of domestic militarization that not only target young people across a wider variety of public sites, but also undermine the guarantee of rights and institutional structures that are characteristic of a meaningful and substantive democracy. Growing instances of such repression and domestic militarization can be found in the rise of the prison-industrial complex, the passing of retrograde legislation that targets immigrants, the undermining of civil freedoms through anti-terrorist legislation such as the Patriotic Act, the increasing presence of gated communities, the wide-spread use of racial profiling, police brutality against people of color, and the ongoing attacks on the welfare state. Of course, state repression is not new, but what is unique about contemporary political culture is that the shift away from policies favoring social welfare, protecting the environment, and regulating corporate power is directly correlated with a growth in prisons and other forces of domestic militarization in the United States. As Paul Street points out “The growth in spending on prisons is directly related to a decline in the growth of positive social spending in such poverty- and crime-reducing areas as education, child care, and job training.” [6] We live at a time when the forces and advocates of neo-liberalism are not only attempting to undermine all efforts to revive politics as an ethical response to the demise of democratic public life, but are also aggressively waging a war against the very possibility of creating forums that provide the conditions for critical education, especially those that link learning to social change, political agency to the defense of public goods, and intellectual courage to the refusal to surrender knowledge to the highest bidder.

For many young people and adults today, the private sphere has become the only space in which to imagine any sense of hope, pleasure, or possibility. Market forces narrow the legitimacy of the public sphere by redefining it around the related issues of consumption and safety. Public spaces are either being privatized, under-funded to the

point of collapse, or increasingly subject to surveillance and police control. Big government, generally considered a curse to advocates of neo-liberalism, is now popularly presented as a guardian of security–security not in terms of providing adequate health care or a social safety net, but with increasing its role as a policing force, resulting in the ongoing abridgement of basic freedoms and dissent, the criminalization of social problems, and the prioritizing of penal methods over social investments. Young people, especially those who are poor are no longer considered in need of help in a society marked by deep racial, economic and social inequalities, instead they have become the problem. Moreover, such perceptions signal a growing shift in the public's consciousness of young people and a willingness to support legislation that portrays many young people a! s a threat to the social order.

What is one to make of social policies that portray youth, especially poor and minority youth, as a generation of suspects? What are we to make of a social order -- headed by a pro-gun, pro-capital punishment, pro-big business, pro-Empire building conservative such as George W. Bush -- whose priorities suggest to urban youth that American society is willing to invest more in sending them to jail than providing them with high quality schools and a decent education? How does a society justify housing poor students in schools that are unsafe, decaying, and with little or no extra curricular activities while at the same time it spends five times more annually–as high as $20,000 in many suburban schools–o! n each middle class student, housing them in schools with Olympic swimming pools, the latest computer technology, and well cared for buildings and grounds? What message is being sent to young people when during the 1980s and 1990s “state and local spending on corrections grew at six times the rate of such spending on higher education.” [7] How does a society claim without irony that racism has ended in the United States when 29 percent of all black men will have spent some time in jail over the course of a lifetime or when in a state such as New York “more Blacks entered prison just for drug offenses than graduated from the state’s massive university system with undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees combined in the 1990s.” [8] In this instance, the culture of domestic militarization, with its policies of containment and brutalization, becomes more valuable to the dominant social order than any consideration of what it means for a society to expand and strengthen the mechanisms and freedoms of a more fully realized democracy. [9]

As the state is downsized and basic social services dry up, containment policies become the principle means to discipline youth. For instance, in many states across the country, but more recently in New Jersey, child welfare officials place foster care children in juvenile detention centers rather than placing them in “foster-care group homes, where they can get intense mental health care and regular education.” As this example illustrates, children are now punished lacking a decent home, treated as criminals and placed in facilities that make it clear to them they are neither wanted or cared about. It is this turn away from social compassion to punitive and harsh discipline that provides the context for the emergence of zero tolerance legislation aimed at the public schools, policies that simply extend to young people the elements of harsh control and regulation implemented in other public spheres where inequalities breed the conditions for poverty, suffering, misfortune, and resistance. Marginalized students learn quickly that they are surplus populations and that the journey from home to school no longer guarantees them a job; on the contrary, school now becomes a training ground for their “graduation” into containment centers such as prisons and jails that keep them out of sight, patrolled and monitored so as to prevent them from becoming a social canker or political liability to those white and middle class populations concerned about their own safety. Schools, especially those in poor rural areas and urban centers, increasingly resemble other weakened public spheres as they cut back on trained psychologists, school nurses, programs such as music, art, athletics, valuable after school activities, and the school year itself. As Jesse Jackson points out, schools not only fail to provide students with a well-rounded education, they often “bring in the police, [and] the school gets turned into a feeder system for the penal system.” [10]

Across the nation school districts are lining up to embrace zero tolerance policies. According to the United States Department of Education about 90 percent of schools systems nationwide have implemented such policies in order to deal with either violence or threats. [11] Many educators first invoked zero tolerance rules against those kids who brought guns to schools. But over time the policy was broadened and now includes a gamut of student misbehavior ranging from using or circulating drugs, harboring a weapon, to threatening other students--! all broadly conceived. Under zero tolerance policies, forms of punishments that were once applied to adults now apply to first graders. Originally aimed at “students who misbehave intentionally, the law now applies to those who misbehave as a result of emotional problems or other disabilities” as well. [12]

Unfortunately, any sense of perspective or guarantee of rights seems lost as school systems across the country clamor for metal detectors, armed guards, see-through knapsacks, and, in some cases, armed teachers. Some school systems are investing in new software in order to “profile” students who might exhibit criminal behavior. [13] As a one-size fits all solution to school problems, zero tolerance policies redefine students as criminals and as a result more and more young people are either suspended, arrested, or expelled from school, often for ludicrous reasons. For example, two Virginia fifth-graders who allegedly put soap in their teacher’s drinking water were charged with a felony. [14] A 12-year-old boy in Louisiana who was diagnosed with a hyperactive disorder was suspended for two days after telling his friends in a food line “I’m gonna get you” if they ate the all the potatoes! The police then charged the boy with making “terroristic threats” and he was incarcerated for two weeks while awaiting trial. A 14-year-old disabled student in Palm Beach, Florida was referred to the police by the school principal for allegedly stealing $2.00 from another student. He was then charged with strong-armed-robbery, and held for six weeks in an adult jail, even though this was his first arrest. [15] There is also the equally revealing example of a student brought up on a drug charge because he gave another youth two lemon cough drops. [16] As Larry Grossberg points out, youth under sixteen cannot get a tattoo or get their ears pierced without the consent of an adult but are considered old enough to be tried and jailed as an adult, and put to death-- and the numbers are increasing at an alarming rate. [17]

Zero tolerance laws, while a threat to all youth and any viable notion of equal opportunity through education, reinforces in the public imagination the image of students of color as a source of public fear and a threat to public school safety. Zero tolerance policies and laws appear to be well-tailored for mobilizing racialized codes and race based moral panics that portray black and brown urban youth as a frightening and violent threat to the safety of ‘decent’ Americans. Not only do most of the high profile zero tolerance cases involve African-American students, but such policies also reinforce the racial inequities that plague school systems across the country. For example, the New York Times, has reported on a number of studies illustrating “that black students in public schools across the country are far more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled, and far less likely to be in gifted or advanced placement classes.” [18] USA Today reports that “In 1998, the first year national expulsion figures were gathered, 31% of kids expelled were black, but blacks made up only 17% of the students in public schools.” [19]

Within such a climate of harsh discipline and disdain, it is easier to put young people in jail than to provide the education, services, and care they need to face problems of a complex and demanding society. [20] As the criminalization of young people finds its way into the classroom and every other aspect of social life, it becomes easier for school administrators, educators, and legislators to punish students rather than listen to them or, for that matter, to work with parents, community justice programs, religious organizations, and social service agencies. [21] The notion that children should be viewed 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 a society that refuses to invest in its youth as part of a broader commitment to a more substantive democracy. Young people are quickly realizing that schools have more in common with military boot camps and prisons than they do with other institutions in American society.

Under this insufferable climate of increased repression and unabated exploitation, young people and communities of color become the new casualties in an ongoing war against justice, freedom, social citizenship, and democracy. As the foundations of the national in-security state are being solidified through zero tolerance policies, anti-terrorist laws, soaring incarceration rates, the criminalization of homelessness, racial profiling, and anti-immigration policies, the forces of repression become more integrated, marked by an increasing combination of various elements of federal and local law enforcement agencies. Under such circumstances, it is time for intellectuals, cultural workers, students, and activists who inhabit a wider variety of public spheres and social movements to take a stand and remind themselves that collective problems deserve collective solutions and that what is at risk is not only a generation of young people and adults now considered to be either a generation of suspects or a threat to national security, but the very promise of democracy itself.

At the heart of any democracy is a respect for liberty, freedom, justice, and those aspects of the social contract that provide safety nets for people in need and equal opportunities for all to be individual and social agents. Compassion, justice, responsibility, and civic courage infuse citizenship with a publicness that acknowledges the importance of recognizing not only our relationship to others, but the need to keep extending the boundaries of justice, recognizing that in a democracy a society is never just enough. As theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Arundhati Roy, and Edward Said have reminded us, intellectuals have a special responsibility to use their talents to uncover the imposed silence of normalized power, to create the conditions for a culture of questioning and a critical dialogue around crucial social issues, and to present alternative narratives that both make dominant power accountable and offer alternative democratic views of the future. Intellectuals, especially academics, need to connect their work to a larger public and assume a measure of responsibility in naming, struggling against, and alleviating human suffering. This suggests working with others to produce knowledge in a variety of public spheres that can address those forms of social suffering, relations of power, and cultural formations such as the concentrated media that pose a threat to democracy. Academics need to reject the cult of professionalism and assume the role of citizen scholars, which means as the late Edward Said pointed out, maintaining “a kind of coexistence between the necessities of the field and the discipline of the classroom, on the one hand! , and of the special interest that one has in it, on the other, with one’s own concerns as a human being, as a citizen in a larger society.” [22] Such a recognition places a particularly important demand upon academics who increasingly seem to have de-politicized the very possibility of politics as they retreat into the most arcane discourses, specializations, or simply a moral indifference to the outside world. Rather than consolidate authority, academics need to make it accountable, tempering a reverence for power and authority with a deep distrust of its motives and effects. Academics need to reclaim not only their intellectual courage but a sense of ethical responsibility. Connecting academic work to social change should not be summarily dismissed either as partisan nor viewed! as a burden. Arundhati Roy has argued that there are times in a nation’s history when its political climate makes it imperative for intellectuals to take sides. Given the assault being waged by the Bush Administration on public services, the welfare state, the environment, workers, civil rights, and democracy itself, I believe that this is a crucial time in American history for academics to make their ideas and voices felt in the struggle to reclaim democracy from the market fundamentalists and powerful corporate interests. [23] Pierre Bourdieu is right in suggesting that the time is right for intellectuals to assume responsibility for creating an international social movement that would exercise real influence on transnational corporations, nation states, and non-governmental agencies. [24] Intellectuals have a special responsibility to make sure that protests provide the conditions for new social actors and constructive modes of social action and political intervention, rather than allowing protests to degenerate into what Alain Touraine has called “pointless denunciations.” Intellectuals at all costs must fight against the assumption the mythic assumption of the neo-liberal order that there are no alternatives and in doing resist the slide into cynicism and apathy with a new political language and vision, one marked by a discourse of critique and possibility.

Matters of responsibility, social action, and political intervention do not simply develop out of social critique but also forms of self-critique. This suggests that the relationship between knowledge and power, on the one hand, and scholarship and politics, on the other, should always be self-reflexive about its effects, how it relates to the larger world, and what it might mean to take seriously matters of individual and social responsibility when it comes to addressing those forms of human suffering that are produced by inequalities that are foreign to any viable democracy. And this is particularly true when addressing the needs of young people. Children have always symbolized the future, provided a broad script for making hope meaningful and justice possible. They have become a central category to reclaim not only the importance of the social contract and democracy, but to invigorate politics with a project in which young people become the referent for what it means to struggle for a better and more just world. Of course, the burden of responsibility is not just on adults, but also calls to young people to reject the current Enronization of public life, and to take the government back from the religious zealots, neo conservative fanatics, and market fundamentalists who are truly trampling on constitutional freedoms, collapsing the rule of democracy into the rule of capital, and making the world a better place for a very small group of powerful individuals and wealthy corporations. Zero tolerance policies point not only to the undermining of public education, the militarization of public life, but also the death of democracy. These are dangerous times, and it behooves all of us to wake up and begin to step forward collectively in order to stop this slide into the abyss of authoritarianism.

Henry A. Giroux is the Waterbury Chair Professor of Education at Penn State University. His most recent books include: Breaking in to the Movies: Film and the Culture of Politics (Blackwell, 2002); Public Spaces, Private Lives: Democracy Beyond 9-11 (Rowman and Littlefield 2003); The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear (Palgrave, 2003). Email: girouxh@mcmaster.ca. Visit his website at: www.henryagiroux.com. This article first appeared in the St. John's University Humanities Review, Nov. 2003. Thanks to SJUHR editor Mike Pozo. © Henry Giroux, 2003.

Other Articles by Henry A. Giroux

* Why Aren’t Children Included in the Debates About the Impending U.S. War with Iraq?


1. Arundhati Roy, War Talk (Boston: South End Press, 2003), p. 34.

2. President George W. Bush, Address to Joint Session of Congress, “September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks on the United States.”

3. Bill Moyers, “Deep in a Black Hole of Red Ink,” Common Dreams News Center. (May 30, 2003). Available on line at: www.commondreams.org/views03/0530-11.htm 

4. Heather Wokusch, “Leaving Our Children Behind,” Common Dreams News Center (July 8, 2002), available online at www.commondreams.org/views02/0708-08.htm p. 1.

5, These figures largely come from Children’s Defense Fund, The State of Children in America’s Union: A 2002 Action Guide to Leave No Child Behind (Washington, D.C.: Children’s Defense Fund Publication, 2002), pp, iv-v, 13.

6. Paul Street, “Race, Prison, and Poverty: The Race to Incarcerate in the Age of Correctional Keynesianism,” Z Magazine (May 2001), p. 27.

7. Salilm Muwakkil, “Throwing Away the Key,” In These Times (May 26, 2003), p. 8.

8. Paul Street, Ibid., p. 26.

9. Even more shameful is that fact that such discrimination against African-Americans is often justified from the Olympian heights of institutions such as Harvard University by apologists such as lawyer Randall Kennedy who argue that such laws, criminal policies, and police practices are necessary to protect “good” blacks from “bad” blacks who commit crimes. See Randall Kennedy, Race, Crime, and the Law (New York: Pantheon, 1997).

10. An Interview with Jesse Jackson, “First Class Jails, Second-Class Schools,” Rethinking Schools (Spring 2000), p. 16.

11. Kate Zernike, “Crackdown on Threats in School Fails a Test,” The New York Times (Thursday, May 17, 2001), p. A21.

12. Quoted from a report on zero tolerance laws by the American Bar Association. Available at www.abanet.org/crimjust/juvius/zerotolreport.html 

13. See Brian Moore, “Letting Software Make the Call,” Chicago Reader 29:49 (September 8, 2000), p. 18.

14. Ellen Goodman, ‘Zero Tolerance’ Means Zero Chance for Troubled Kids,” Centre Daily Times (Tuesday, January 4, 2000), p. 8.

15. These examples are taken from a report on zero tolerance laws by the American Bar Association. Available at www.abanet.org/crimjust/juvius/zerotolreport.html 

16. An Interview with Jesse Jackson, “First Class Jails, Second-Class Schools,” Rethinking Schools (Spring 2000), p. 16.

17. Lawrence Grossberg, “Why Does Neo-Liberalism Hate Kids? The War on Youth and the Culture of Politics,” The Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies 23:2 (2001), p. 117.

18. Tamar Lewin, “Study Finds Racial Bias in Public Schools,” The New York Times (Wednesday, March 11, 2000), p. A14.

19. Marilyn Elias, “Disparity in Black and White?” USA Today (December 11, 2000), p. 9D.

20. As has been widely, reported, the prison industry has become big business with many states spending more on prison construction than on university construction. See, Anthony Lewis, “Punishing the Country, The New York Times (December 2, 1999), p. A1.

21. It was reported in the New York Times that in responding to the spate of recent school shootings, the FBI has provided educators across the country with a list of behaviors that could identify “students likely to commit an act of lethal violence.” One such behavior is “resentment over real or perceived injustices.” The reach of domestic militarization becomes more evident as the F.B.I. not only takes on the role of monitoring potentially disruptive student behavior, but also to the degree to which teachers are positioned to become adjuncts of the criminal justice system. The story and quotes appear in Editorial, “F.B.I. Caution Signs for Violence In Classroom,” The New York Times (Thursday, September 7, 2000), p. A18.

22. Edward Said, “On Defiance and Taking Positions,” Reflections On Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 501.

23. See Arundhati Roy, Power Politics (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2001).

24. Pierre Bourdieu and Gunter Grass, “The Progressive Restoration: A Franco-German Dialogue,” New Left Review 14 (March-April, 2002), pp. 63-67.



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