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Democracy in dark times

Harper's attack on culture an assault on critical thought and engagement
October 02, 2008
Henry Giroux
The Hamilton Spectator
(Oct 2, 2008)

Philosopher Hannah Arendt, writing in the aftermath of the shocking carnage caused by authoritarian governments during the first half of the 20th century, argued that monstrous deeds often committed on a gigantic scale had less to do with some grand notion of evil than with a "quite authentic inability to think."

For Arendt, the absence of a capacity for thinking, making judgments and assuming responsibility constituted the conditions not merely for stupidity but for a politics exemplified in old and new forms of totalitarianism.

We should pay attention to Arendt's insight in understanding the larger implications of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent attack on "ivory tower elites" and the "arts." There is more at stake in this assault than simply the demeaning assumption that working-class people are ignorant and that intellectual culture is simply the preserve of the highly educated. We should further note the refusal to acknowledge the role that concentrated corporate power plays in producing a media geared towards educating people exclusively as consumers or worse.

More importantly, Harper's critique is best understood as an attack on critical thought and civic literacy, the rudimentary conditions for an engaged citizenry and vibrant democratic politics.

Democracy cannot work if citizens are not self-judging, curious, reflective and independent -- qualities that are indispensable for young people and adults if they are going to make vital judgments and choices about participating in and shaping decisions that affect everyday life, institutional reform and governmental policy.

Culture in this sense is not a luxury for the so-called elite; on the contrary it is the product of a vast array of traditional and new modes of education -- extending from schools to the new media -- that offer the possibility of providing its citizens and residents with the knowledge, passion, civic capacities and social responsibility necessary to acquire the skills of governance and address the most serious problems facing the nation and the globe.

What is so dangerous about Harper's attack on the arts, culture and intellectuals is that it exhibits a deep-seated disdain for a democracy that, as American philosopher and social critic John Dewey pointed out, needs to be reborn in each generation through the development and expansion of a culture of questioning and careful engagement with complexity.

That would be a culture that supports a society in which democracy is linked to the promise of critical inquiry, reflexivity, democratic values and ideals that embrace culture as part of the discourse of civic literacy and social responsibility.

A vibrant, diverse and critical culture is not marginal but central to educating citizens and residents to participate in and shape a real democracy. Harper's attack on culture speaks less of his disparaging remarks about working-class people, intellectuals and the arts than it does to his distrust of those modes of critical inquiry, questioning and agency that give meaning to Canada's claims to being a substantive and inclusive democracy.

Harper's anti-intellectualism is more than a political ploy to indulge a dangerous populist sentiment (one that comes right out of the Karl Rove playbook used by President George W. Bush). It is also an attack on those cultural practices that hold power and authority accountable, provide a language for thinking beyond the given state of affairs and decry declarations of powerlessness dressed up in a disdain for pointy-headed intellectuals.

In light of Arendt's warning about the relationship between government-sponsored ignorance and the "dark times" that precede and slowly strangle vibrant democracies, Harper's attack on culture and the arts should be the subject of a much wider debate.

Henry Giroux is Global Television Network Chair Professor in the department of English and cultural studies at McMaster University.


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