This week on Moyers & Company…
What’s at stake here is not just the fact
that you have rich people who now control
the economy and all the commanding institutions
of society. What you have is basically a transgression
against the very basic ideals of democracy.
I mean, it’s hard to imagine life beyond capitalism.
You know, it’s easier to imagine the death
of the planet than it is to imagine the death
And a farewell tribute to Nobel novelist Doris
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Welcome. A very wise teacher once told us,
“If you want to change the world, change the
metaphor.” Then he gave us some of his favorite
examples. You think of language differently,
he said, if you think of “words pregnant with
celestial fire.” Or “words that weep and tears
that speak.” Of course, the heart doesn’t
physically separate into pieces when we lose
someone we love, but “a broken heart” conveys
the depth of loss. And if I say you are the
“apple of my eye”, you know how special you
are in my sight. In other words, metaphors
cleanse the lens of perception and give us
a fresh take on reality. In other words.
Recently I read a book and saw a film that
opened my eyes to see differently the crisis
of our times, and the metaphor used by both
was, believe it or not, zombies. You heard
me right, zombies. More on the film later,
but this is the book: “Zombie Politics and
Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism”.
Talk about “connecting the dots” — read this,
and the headlines of the day will, I think,
arrange themselves differently in your head
— threading together ideas and experiences
to reveal a pattern. The skillful weaver is
Henry Giroux, a scholar, teacher and social
critic with seemingly tireless energy and
a broad range of interests. Here are just
a few of his books: “America’s Education Deficit
and the War on Youth,” “Twilight of the Social,”
“Youth in a Suspect Society,” “Neoliberalism’s
War on Higher Education.”
Henry Giroux is the son of working class parents
in Rhode Island who now holds the Global TV
Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies
at McMaster University in Canada. Henry Giroux,
Pleasure. It’s great to be here.
There’s a great urgency in your recent books
and in the essays you’ve been posting online,
a fierce urgency, almost as if you are writing
with the doomsday clock ticking. What accounts
Well, for me democracy is too important to
allow it to be undermined in a way in which
every vital institution that matters from
the political process to the schools to the
inequalities that, to the money being put
into politics, I mean, all those things that
make a democracy viable are in crisis.
And the problem is the crisis, while we recognize
in many ways is associated increasingly with
the economic system, what we haven’t gotten
yet is that it should be accompanied by a
crisis of ideas, that the stories that are
being told about democracy are really about
the swindle of fulfillment.
The swindle of fulfillment in that what the
reigning elite in all of their diversity now
tell the American people if not the rest of
the world is that democracy is an excess.
It doesn’t really matter anymore, that we
don’t need social provisions, we don’t need
the welfare state, that the survival of the
fittest is all that matters, that in fact
society should mimic those values in ways
that suggest a new narrative.
I mean you have a consolidation of power that
is so overwhelming, not just in its ability
to control resources and drive the economy
and redistribute wealth upward, but basically
to provide the most fraudulent definition
of what a democracy should be.
I mean, the notion that profit making is the
essence of democracy, the notion that economics
is divorced from ethics, the notion that the
only obligation of citizenship is consumerism,
the notion that the welfare state is a pathology,
that any form of dependency basically is disreputable
and needs to be attacked, I mean, this is
a vicious set of assumptions.
Are we close to equating democracy with capitalism?
Oh, I mean, I think that’s the biggest lie
of all actually. The biggest lie of all is
that capitalism is democracy. We have no way
of understanding democracy outside of the
market, just as we have no understanding of
how to understand freedom outside of market
Explain that. What do you mean “outside of
I mean you know, when Margaret Thatcher married
Metaphorically. Two things happened. 1) There
was this assumption that the government was
evil except when it regulated its power to
benefit the rich. So it wasn’t a matter of
smashing the government as Reagan seemed to
suggest, it was a matter of rearranging it
and reconfiguring it so it served the wealthy,
the elites and the corporate, of course, you
know, those who run mega corporations. But
Thatcher said something else that’s particularly
interesting in this discussion.
She said there’s no such thing as society.
There are only individuals and families. And
so what we begin to see is the emergence of
a kind of ethic, a survival of the fittest
ethic that legitimates the most incredible
forms of cruelty, that seems to suggest that
freedom in this discourse of getting rid of
society, getting rid of the social– that
discourse is really only about self-interest,
that possessive individualism is now the only
virtue that matters. So freedom, which is
essential to any notion of democracy, now
becomes nothing more than a matter of pursuing
your own self interests. No society can survive
under those conditions.
So what is society? When you use it as an
antithesis to what Margaret Thatcher said,
what do you have in mind? What’s the metaphor
I have in mind a society in which the wealth
is shared, in which there is a mesh of organizations
that are grounded in the social contract,
that takes seriously the mutual obligations
that people have to each other. But more than
anything else– I’m sorry, but I want to echo
something that FDR once said,
When he said that, you know, you not only
have to have personal freedoms and political
freedoms, the right to vote the right to speak,
you have to have social freedom. You have
to have the freedom from want, the freedom
from poverty, the freedom from– that comes
with a lack of health care.
Getting ahead cannot be the only motive that
motivates people. You have to imagine what
a good life is. But agency, the ability to
do that, to have the capacity to basically
be able to make decisions and learn how to
govern and not just be governed–
As a citizen.
As a citizen.
A citizen is a moral agent of–
A citizen is a political and moral agent who
in fact has a shared sense of hope and responsibility
to others and not just to him or herself.
Under this system, democracy is basically
like the lotto. You know, go in, you put a
coin in, and if you’re lucky, you win something.
If you don’t, then you become something else.
So then why when I talk about the urgency
in your writing, your forthcoming book opens
with this sentence, “America’s descending
into madness.” Now, don’t you think many people
will read that as hyperbole?
Sometimes in the exaggerations there are great
truths. And it seems to me that what’s unfortunate
here is that’s not an exaggeration.
Well, madness can mean several things. It
can mean insanity. It can mean lunacy. But
it can also mean folly, foolishness, you know,
look at that craziness over there. Which do
I mean, it’s certainly not just about foolishness.
It’s about a kind of lunacy in which people
lose themselves in a sense of power and greed
and exceptionalism and nationalism in ways
that so undercut the meaning of democracy
and the meaning of justice that you have to
sit back and ask yourself how could the following,
for instance, take place?
How could people who allegedly believe in
democracy and the American Congress cut $40
billion from a food stamp program, half of
which those food stamps go to children? And
you ask yourself how could that happen? I
mean, how can you say no to a Medicaid program
which is far from radical but at the same
time offers poor people health benefits that
could save their lives?
How do you shut down public schools and say
that charter schools and private schools are
better because education is really not a right,
it’s an entitlement? How do you get a discourse
governing the country that seems to suggest
that anything public, public health, public
transportation, public values, you know, public
engagement is a pathology?
Let me answer that from the other side. They
would say to you that we cut Medicaid or food
stamps because they create dependency. We
closed public schools because they aren’t
working, they aren’t teaching. People are
coming out not ready for life.
No, no, that’s the answer that they give.
I mean, and it’s a mark of their insanity.
I mean, that’s precisely an answer that in
my mind embodies a kind of psychosis that
is so divorced– is in such denial about power
and how it works and is in such denial about
their attempt at what I call individualize
the social, in other words–
Individualize the social, which means that
all problems, if they exist, rest on the shoulders
You are responsible.
You are responsible.
If you’re poor, you’re responsible if you’re
ignorant, you’re responsible if–
That’s right, that the government– the larger
social order, the society has no responsibility
whatsoever so that– you often hear this,
I mean, if there–I mean, if you have an economic
crisis caused by the hedge fund crooks, you
know and millions of people are put out of
work and they’re all lining up for unemployment,
what do we hear in the national media? We
hear that maybe they don’t know how to fill
out unemployment forms, maybe it’s about character.
You know, maybe they’re just simply lazy.
This line struck me, “The ideology of hardness
and cruelty runs through American culture
like an electric current…”
Yeah, it sure does. I mean, to see poor people,
their benefits being cut, to see pensions
of Americans who have worked like my father,
all their lives, and taken away, to see the
rich just accumulating more and more wealth.
I mean, it seems to me that there has to be
a point where you have to say, “No, this has
to stop.” We can’t allow ourselves to be driven
by those lies anymore. We can’t allow those
who are rich, who are privileged, who are
entitled, who accumulate wealth to simply
engage in a flight from social and moral and
political responsibility by blaming the people
who are victimized by those policies as the
source of those problems.
There’s a new reality you write emerging in
America in no small part because of the media,
one that enshrines a politics of disposability
in which growing numbers of people are considered
dispensable and a drain on the body politic
and the economy, not to mention you say an
affront on the sensibilities of the rich and
If somebody had to say to me– ask me the
question, “What exactly is new that we haven’t
seen before?” And I think that what we haven’t
seen before is an attack on the social contract,
Bill, that is so overwhelming, so dangerous
in the way in which its being deconstructed
and being disassembled that you now have as
a classic example, you have a whole generation
of young people who are now seen as disposable.
They’re in debt, they’re unemployed. My friend,
Zygmunt Bauman, calls them the zero generation:
zero jobs, zero hope, zero possibilities,
zero employment. And it seems to me when a
country turns its back on its young people
because they figure in investments not long
term investments, they can’t be treated as
simply commodities that are going to in some
way provide an instant payback and extend
the bottom line, they represent something
more noble than that. They represent an indication
of how the future is not going to mimic the
present and what obligations people might
have, social, political, moral and otherwise
to allow that to happen, and we’ve defaulted
on that possibility.
You actually call it– there’s the title of
the book, “America’s Education Deficit and
the War on Youth.”
Oh, this is a war. It’s a war that endlessly
commercializes kids, both as commodities and
Example being that the young people can’t
turn anywhere without in some way being told
that the only obligation of citizenship is
to shop, is to be a consumer. You can’t walk
on a college campus today and walk into the
student union and not see everybody represented
there from the local banks to Disneyland to
local shops, all selling things.
I mean, it’s like the school has become a
mall. It imitates the mall. And if you walk
into schools as one example, I mean, you look
at the buses, there are advertisements on
the buses. You walk into the bathroom, there
are advertisements above the stalls. I mean,
and the curriculum is written by General Electric.
We’re all branded–
They’re branded, they’re branded.
–everything is branded?
Where are the public spaces for young people
other learn a discourse that’s not commodified,
to be able to think about non-commodifiable
values like trust, justice, honesty, integrity,
caring for others, compassion. Those things,
they’re just simply absent, they’re not part
of those public spheres because those spheres
have been commodified.
What does it mean to go to school all day
and just be taking tests and learning how
to teach for the test? Their minds are numb.
I mean–the expression I get from them, they
call school dead time, these kids. Say it’s
dead time. I call it their dis-imagination
Yeah, yeah, they rob– it’s a form of learning
that robs the mind of any possibility of being
imaginative. The arts are cut out, right,
so the questions are not being raised about
what it means to be creative.
All of those things that speak to educating
the imagination, to stretching it, the giving
kids the knowledge, a sense of the traditions,
the archives to take risks, to learn about
the world, they’re disappearing.
I heard you respond to someone who asked you
at a public session the other evening–“What
would you do about what you’ve just described?”
And your first response was start debating
societies in high schools all across the country.
That’s right. One of the things that I learned
quickly as a result of the internet is I started
getting a ton of letters from students who
basically were involved in these debate societies.
And they’re saying like things, “We use your
work. We love this work.”
And I actually got involved with one that
was working with– out of Brown University’s
working with a high school in the inner cities
right, and I got involved with some of the
students. But then I began to learn as a result
of that involvement that these were the most
radical kids in the country.
I mean, these were kids who embodied what
a critical public sphere meant. They were
going all over the country, different high
schools, working class kids no less, debating
major issues and getting so excited about
in many ways winning these debates but doing
it on the side of– something they could believe
And I thought to myself, “Wow, here’s a space.”
Here’s a space where you’re going to have
a whole generation of kids who could be actually
engaging in debate and dialogue. Every working
class urban school in this country should
put its resources as much as possible into
a debate team.
My favorite of your many books is this one,
“Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of
Casino Capitalism.” Why that metaphor, zombie
Because it’s a politics that’s informed by
the machinery of social and civil death.
Death. It’s a death machine. It’s a death
machine because in my estimation it does everything
it can to kill any vestige of a robust democracy.
It turns people into zombies, people who basically
are so caught up with surviving that they
have no– they become like the walking dead,
you know, they lose their sense of agency–
I mean they lose their homes, they lose their
And so this zombie metaphor actually operated
at two levels. I mean, at one level it spoke
to people who have no visions, who exercise
a form of political leadership that extends
the politics of what I call war and the machineries
of death, whether those machineries are at
home or abroad, whether they’re about the
death of civil liberties or they’re about
making up horrendous lies to actually invade
a country like Iraq.
So this– the zombie metaphor is a way to
sort of suggest that democracy is losing its
oxygen, you know, it’s losing its vitality,
that we have a politics that really is about
the organization of the production of violence.
It’s losing its soul. It’s losing its spirit.
It’s losing its ability to speak to itself
in ways that would span the human spirit and
the human possibility for justice and equality.
Because we don’t think of zombies as having
They don’t have souls.
They’re driven by lust.
The lust for money, the lust for power.
Well, that’s, I guess, why you mix your metaphors.
Because you talk about casino capitalists,
zombie politics, which you say in the book
shapes every aspect–
–of society .
Yeah, at the current moment. This is what–
Well, first, let’s begin with an assumption.
This casino capitalism as we talk about it,
right, one of the things that it does that
hasn’t been done before, it doesn’t just believe
it can control the economy. It believes that
it can govern all of social life. That’s different.
That means it has to have its tentacles into
every aspect of everyday life. Everything
from the way schools are run to the way prisons
are outsourced to the way the financial services
are run to the way in which people have access
to health care, it’s an all-encompassing,
it seems to me, political, cultural, educational
And it basically has nothing to do with expanding
the meaning and the substance of democracy
itself. What it has to do is expanding– what
it means to get–a quick return, what it means
to take advantage of a kind of casino logic
in which the only thing that drives you is
to go to that slot machine and somehow get
more, just pump the machine, put as much money
in as you can into it and walk out a rich
man. That’s what it’s about.
You say that casino capitalist, zombie politics
views competition as a form of social combat,
celebrates war as an extension of politics
and legitimates a ruthless social Darwinism.
Oh, I mean, it is truly ruthless. I mean,
imagine yourself on a reality TV program called
“The Survivor”, you and I, we’re all that’s
left. The ideology that drives that program
is only one of us is going to win. I don’t
have any respect for you. I mean, all I’m
trying to do is beat you. I just want to be
the one that’s left. I want to win the big
And it seems to me that what’s unfortunate
is that reality now mimics reality TV. It
is reality TV in terms of the consensus that
drives it, that the shared fears are more
important than shared responsibilities, that
the social contract is the pathology because
it basically suggests helping people is a
strength rather than a weakness.
It believes that social bonds not driven by
market values are basically bonds that we
should find despicable. But even worse, in
this ethic, the market has colonized pleasure
in such a way that violence in many ways seems
to be the only way left that people can actually
experience pleasure whether it’s in the popular
medium, whether it’s in the way in which we
militarize local police to become SWAT teams
that actually will break up poker games now
in full gear or give away surplus material,
equipment to a place like Ohio State University,
who got an armored tank.
I mean, I guess– I’m wondering what does
it mean when you’re on a campus and you see
an armored tank, you know, by the university
police? I mean, this is– everything is a
war zone. You know, Senator Graham–when Lindsey
Graham, he said– in talking about the terrorist
laws, you know these horrible laws that are
being put into place in which Americans can
be captured, they can be killed and, you know–the
kill list all of this, he basically says,
“Everybody’s a potential terrorist.”
I mean, so that what happens here is that
this notion of fear and this fear around the
notion of security that is simply about protecting
yourself, not about social security, not about
protecting the commons, not about protecting
the environment, turns everybody into a potential
enemy. I mean, we cannot mediate our relationships
it seems any longer in this culture in ways
in which we would suggest and adhere to the
notion that justice is a matter of caring
for the other, that compassion matters.
So this is why you write that America’s no
longer recognizable as a democracy?
No. Look, as the social state is crippled,
as the social state is in some way robbed,
hollowed out and robbed of its potential and
its capacities, what takes its place? The
punishing state takes its place.
You get this notion of incarceration, this,
what we call the governing through crime complex
where governance now has been ceded to corporations
who largely are basically about benefiting
the rich, the ultra-rich, the big corporations
and allowing the state to exercise its power
in enormously destructive and limited ways.
And those ways are about militarizing the
culture, criminalizing social–a wide swathe
of social behavior and keeping people in check.
What does it mean when you turn on the television
in the United States and you see young kids,
peaceful protestors, lying down with their
hands locked and you got a guy with, you know,
spraying them with pepper spray as if there’s
something normal about that, as if that’s
all it takes, that’s how we solve problems?
I mean, I guess the question here is what
is it in a culture that would allow the public
to believe that with almost any problem that
arises, force is the first way to address
I mean, one has to recognize that in that
kind of logic, something has happened in which
the state is no longer in the service of democracy.
Well, George Monbiot, who writes for “The
Guardian,” wrote just the other day, “It’s
business that really rules us.” And he says,
“So I don’t blame people for giving up on
politics … When a state-corporate nexus
of power has bypassed democracy and made a
mockery of the voting process, when an unreformed
political funding system ensures that parties
can be bought and sold, when politicians of
the main … parties stand and watch as public
services are divvied up by a grubby cabal
of privateers, what is left of the system
that inspires us to participate?”
I mean, the real question is why aren’t we
Why aren’t we in the streets?
I mean, that’s the central question for the
American public. I mean, and I think that
question has to address something fundamental
and that is what we have, while we have an
economic system that in fact has caused a
crisis in democracy. What we haven’t addressed
is the underlying consensus that informs that
crisis. What you have is basically a transgression
against the very basic ideals of democracy.
We have lost what it means to be connected
And I think that’s coupled with a cultural
apparatus, a culture, an educative culture,
a mode of politics in which people now have
gone through this for so long that it’s become
normalized. I mean, it’s hard to imagine life
beyond capitalism. You know, it’s easier to
imagine the death of the planet than it is
to imagine the death of capitalism. I mean–
and so it seems to me–
Well, don’t you think people want to be capitalist?
Don’t you think people want capitalism? They
I’m not sure if they want those things. I
mean, I think when you–when you read all
the surveys about what’s important to people’s
lives, Bill, actually the things that they
focus on are not about, you know, “I want
to be about the Kardashian sisters,” God forbid,
I mean, I think that what–they the same way
we want–we need a decent education for our
kids, we want, you know, real health care.
I mean, we want the sense of equality in the
country. We want to be able to control the
political process so that we’re not simply
nameless and invisible and disposable.
I mean, they basically–they want women to
be able to have the right to have some control
over their own reproductive rights. I mean,
they’re talking about gay rights being a legitimate
pursuit of justice.
And I think that what is missing from all
of this are the basic, are those alternative
public spheres, those cultural formations,
what I call a formative culture that can bring
people together and give those ideas, embody
them in both a sense of hope, of vision and
the organizations and strategies that would
be necessary at the very least to start a
third party, at the very least. I mean, to
start a party that is not part of this establishment,
to reconstruct a sense of where politics can
Well, you write that the liberal center has
failed us and for all of its discourse of
helping the poor, of addressing inequality,
it always ends up on the side of bankers and
finance capital, right.
Are you talking about Obama?
I’m talking about what you say.
I know, I know. I’m–
But you do, I must be fair and say that you
go on in that same chapter of one of these
books to say isn’t it time we forget trying
to pressure Obama to do the right thing?
Obama to me is symptomatic to me of the liberal
center. But the issue is much greater than
him. I mean, the issue is in a system that
is entirely broken. It’s broken.
Elections are bought by big money. The political
process is not in the hands of the people.
It’s in the hands of very few people. And
it seems to me we have to ask ourselves what
kind of formative culture needs to be put
in place in which education becomes central
to politics, in which politics can be used
to help people to be able to see things differently,
to get beyond this system that is so closed,
so powerfully normalized.
I mean, the right since the 1970s has created
a massive cultural apparatus, a slew of anti-public
intellectuals. They’ve invaded the universities
with think tanks. They have foundations. They
have all kinds of money. And you know, it’s
interesting, the war they wage is a war on
The war on what it means to be able to dissent,
the war on the possibility of alternative
visions. And the left really has– and progressives
and liberals, we have nothing like that. I
mean, we always seem to believe that all you
have to do is tell the truth.
You shall know the truth, the truth will set
Yeah, and the truth will set you free. But
I’m sorry, it doesn’t work that way.
Which brings me to the book you’re now finishing
and will be published next spring. You call
it “The Violence of Organized Forgetting.”
What are we forgetting?
We’re forgetting the past. We’re forgetting
all those struggles that in fact offered a
different story about the United States.
How is it organized, this forgetting?
It’s organized because it’s systemic. It’s
organized because you have people controlling
schools who are deleting those histories and
making sure that they don’t appear. In Tucson,
Arizona they banished ethnic studies from
the curriculum. This is the dis-imagination
machine. That’s the hardcore element.
The suffocation of imagination?
The suffocation of imagination. And we kill
the imagination by suggesting that the only
kind of rationality that matters, the only
kind of learning that matters is utterly instrumental,
So what we do is we collapse education into
training, and we end up suggesting that not
knowing much is somehow a virtue. And I’ll
and I think what’s so disturbing about this
is not only do you see it in the popular culture
with the lowest common denominator now drives
that culture, but you also see it coming from
politicians who actually say things that suggest
something about the policies they’d like to
I mean, I know Rick Santorum is not– is kind
of a, you know, an obvious figure. But when
he stands up in front of a body of Republicans
and he says, the last thing we need in the
Republican party are intellectuals. And I
think it’s kind of a template for the sort
of idiocy that increasingly now dominates
What is an intellectual, by the way? The atmosphere
has been so poisoned, as you know, by what
you’ve been describing, that many people bridle
when they hear the term intellectual pursuit.
I mean, yeah, I think intellectuals are–
there are two ways we can describe intellectuals.
In the most general sense, we can say, “Intellectuals
are people who take pride in ideas. They work
with ideas.” I mean, they believe that ideas
matter. They believe that there’s no such
thing as common sense, good sense or bad sense,
but reflective sense.
That ideas offer the framework for gives us
agency, what allows us to read the world critically,
what allows us to be literate. What allows
us to be civic literacy may be in some ways
the high point of what it means to be an intellectual–
Because it suggests that how we learn what
we learn and what we do with the knowledge
that we have is not just for ourselves. It’s
for the way in which we can expand and deepen
the very processes of democracy in general,
and address those problems and anti-democratic
forces that work against it. Now some people
make a living as a result of being intellectuals.
But there are people who are intellectuals
who don’t function in that capacity. They’re
truck drivers. They’re workers.
I grew up in a working class neighborhood.
The smartest people I have ever met were in
that neighborhood. We read books. We went
to the library together. We drank on Friday
nights. We talked about Gramsci. We drove
Gramsci being the Italian philosopher.
The Italian philosopher. I mean–
The pessimism of the–
Of the intellect, and optimism of the will.
Right? I mean, we–
You see the world as it is, but then you act
as if you can change the world.
Exactly. I mean, we tried to find ways to
both enliven the neighborhoods we lived in.
But at the same time, we knew that that wasn’t
enough. That one– that there was a world
beyond our neighborhood, and that world had
all kinds of things for us to learn. And we
were excited about that. I mean, we drank,
danced and talked. That’s what we did.
And I assume there were some other more private
And there was more private activity.
You know, you are a buoyant man. And yet you
describe what you call a shift away from the
hope that accompanies the living, to a politics
of cynicism and despair.
What leads you to this?
What leads me to this is something that we
mentioned earlier, and that is when you see
policies being enacted today that are so cruel
and so savage, wiping out a generation of
young people, trying to eliminate public schools,
eliminating health care, putting endless percentage
of black and brown people in jail, destroying
the environment and there’s no public outrage.
There aren’t people in the streets. You know,
you have to ask yourself, “Has this market
mentality, is it so powerful and that it’s
become so normalized, so taken for granted
that the imagination, the collective imagination
has been so stunted that it becomes difficult
to challenge it anymore?” And I think that
leads me to despair somewhat. But I’ve always
felt that in the face of the worst tyrannies,
They’re resisting now all over the world.
And it seems to me history is open. I believe
history is open. I don’t believe that we have
reached the finality of a system that is so
destructive that all we have to do is look
at the clock and say, “One minute left.” I
don’t believe in those kinds of metaphors.
We have to acknowledge the realities that
bear down on us, but it seems to me that if
we really want to live in a world and be alive
with compassion and justice, then we need
educated hope. We need a hope that recognizes
the problems and doesn’t romanticize them,
and also recognizes the need for vision, for
social organizations, for strategies. We need
institutions that provide the formative culture
that give voice to those visions and those
You’ve talked elsewhere or written elsewhere
about the need for a militant, far-reaching,
social movement to challenge the false claims
that equate democracy and capitalism. Now,
what do you mean “Militant and Far Reaching
I mean, what we do know, we know this. We
know that there are people working in local
communities all over the United States around
particular kinds of issues, whether it be
gay rights, whether it be the environment,
whether it be, you know the Occupy movement,
helping people with Hurricane Sandy. We have
a lot of fragmented movements.
And I think we probably have a lot more than
we realize, because the press gives them no
visibility, as you know. So, we don’t really
have a sense of the degree to which these–
how pronounced these really are. I think the
real issue here is, you know, what would it
mean to begin to do at least two things?
To say the very least, one is to develop cultural
apparatuses that can offer a new vocabulary
for people, where questions of freedom and
justice and the problems that we’re facing
can be analyzed in ways that reach mass audiences
in accessible language. We have to build a
formative culture. We have to do that. Secondly,
we’ve got to overcome the fractured nature
of these movements. I mean the thing that
plagues me about progressives in the left
and liberals is they are all sort of ensconced
in these fragmented movements that seem to
suggest those movements constitute the totality
of the system of oppression that we are facing.
And they don’t.
Look, we have technologies in place now in
which students all over the world are beginning
to communicate with each other because they’re
realizing that the punishing logic of austerity
has a certain kind of semblance that a certain
normality that, in common ground, that is
affecting students in Greece, students in
Spain, students in France.
And in this country?
And in this country. And it seems to me that
while I may be too old to in any way begin
to participate in this, I really believe that
young people have recognized that they’ve
been written out of the discourse of democracy.
That they’re in the grip of something so oppressive
it will take away their future, their hopes,
their possibilities and their sense of the
future will be one that is less than what
their parents had imagined.
And there’s no going back. I mean, this has
to be addressed. And it’ll take time. They’ll
build the organizations. They’ll get– they’ll
work with the new technologies. And hopefully
they’ll have our generation to be able to
assist in that, but it’s not going to happen
tomorrow. And it’s not going to happen in
a year. It’s going to as you have to plant
seeds. You have to believe that seeds matter.
But you need a different vocabulary and a
different understanding of politics. Look,
the right has one thing going for it that
nobody wants to talk about. Power is global.
And politics is local. They float. They have
no allegiance to anyone. They don’t care about
the social contract, because if workers in
the United States don’t want to compromise,
they’ll get them in Mexico. So the notion
of political concessions has died for this
class. They don’t care about it anymore. There
are no political concessions.
The financial class.
The financial class.
The one percent.
The one percent. That’s why they’re so savage.
They’re so savage because there’s nothing
to give up. They don’t have to compromise.
The power is so arrogant, so over the top,
so unlike anything we have seen in terms of
its anti-democratic practices, policies, modes
of governance and ideology.
That at some point, you know they feel they
don’t have to legitimate this anymore. I mean,
it’s because the contradictions are becoming
so great, that I think all of a sudden a lot
of young people are recognizing this language,
this whole language, doesn’t work. The language
of liberalism doesn’t work anymore.
No, let’s just reform the system. Let’s work
within it. Let’s just run people for office.
My argument would be, you have one foot in
and you have one foot out. I’m not willing
to give up the school board. I’m not willing
to give up all forms of electoral politics.
But it seems to me at the local level we can
do some of that thing, that people can get
elected. They can make moderate changes.
But the real changes are not going to come
there. The real changes are going to come
in creating movements that are longstanding,
that are organized, that basically take questions
of governance and policy seriously and begin
to spread out and become international. That
is going to have to happen.
But here’s the contradiction I hear in what
you’re saying. That if you write about a turning
toward despair and cynicism in politics. Can
you get movements out of despair and cynicism?
Can you get people who will take on the system
when they have been told that the system is
so powerful and so overwhelming that they’ve
lost their, as you call it, moral and political
Well let me put it this way. What we often
find is we often find people who take for
granted the systems that they live in. They
take for granted the savagery– the sort of
things that you talked about. And it produces
two kinds of rage. It produces an inner rage
in which people blame themselves.
It’s so disturbing to me to see working class,
middle class people blaming themselves when
these bankers have actually caused the crisis.
That’s the first issue.
Then you have another expression of that rage,
and that rage blames blacks. It blames immigrants.
It blames young people. It says, “They’re
not–” it says about youth, it says, “Youth
is not in trouble. They’re the problem.”
And so, all of a sudden that rage gets displaced.
The question is not what do we– the question
is not just where’s the outrage. The question
is how do you mobilize the rage in ways in
which it’s not self-defeating, and in ways
in which it doesn’t basically scape– be used
to scapegoat other people. That’s an educational
issue. That should be at the center of any
politics that matters.
One of your intellectual mentors, the philosopher
Ernst Bloch, said, “We must believe in the
principle of hope.” And you’ve written often
about the language of hope. What does that
mean, the principle of hope and the language
of hope, and why are they important as you
see it in creating this new paradigm, metaphor
that you talk about?
Yeah, I mean, hope to me is a metaphor that
speaks to the power of the imagination. I
don’t believe that anyone should be involved
in politics in a progressive way if they can’t
understand that to act otherwise, you have
to imagine otherwise.
What hope is predicated on is the assumption
that life can be different than it is now.
But to be different than it is now, rather
than romanticizing hope and turning it into
something Disney-like, right, it really has
to involve the hard work of A) recognizing
the structures of domination that we have
to face, B) organizing collectively and somehow
to change those, and C) believing it can be
done, that it’s worth the struggle.
That if the struggles are not believed in,
if people don’t have the faith to engage in
these struggles, and that’s the issue. I mean,
that working class neighborhood that I talked
to you about in the beginning of the program,
I mean, it just resonates with such a sense
of joy for me, the sense of solidarity, sociality.
And I think all the institutions that are
being constructed under this market tyranny,
this casino capitals is just the opposite.
It’s like that image of all these people at
the bus stop, right. And they’re all– they’re
together, but they’re alone. They’re alone.
If we have zombied politics, if we have as
you say, metaphorically, zombies in the high
levels of government, zombies in banks and
financial centers and zombies in the military,
can’t you have a zombie population? I mean,
you say the stories that are being told through
the commercial corporate entertainment media
are all the more powerful because they seem
to defy the public’s desire for rigorous accountability,
critical interrogation and openness.
Now if that’s what the public wants, why isn’t
the market providing them? Isn’t that what
the market’s supposed to do? Provide what
The market doesn’t want that at all. I mean,
the market wants the people, the apostles
of this market logic, I mean, they actually
the first rule of the market is make sure
you have power that’s unaccountable. That’s
what they want.
And I think that, I mean, what we see for
the first time in history is a war on the
ability to produce meanings that hold power
accountable. A war on the possibility of an
education that enables people to think critically,
a war on cultural apparatuses that entertain
by simply engaging in this spectacle of violence
and not producing programs that really are
controversial, that make people think, that
make people alive through the possibilities
of, you know, the imagination itself.
I mean, my argument is the formative culture
that produces those kinds of intellectual
and creative and imaginative abilities has
been under assault since the 1980s in a very
systemic way. So that the formative culture
that takes its place is a business culture.
It’s a culture run by accountants, not by
visionaries. It’s a culture run by the financial
services. It’s a culture run by people who
believe that data is more important than knowledge.
You paint a very grim picture of the state
of democracy, and yet you don’t seem contaminated
by cynicism yourself.
No, I’m not.
How do we understand that?
Because I refuse to become a part of it.
Become I refuse to become complicitous. I
refuse to say–I refuse to be alive and to
watch institutions being handed over to right
wing zealots. I refuse to be alive and watch
the planet be destroyed.
I mean, when you mentioned– you talk about
the collective imagination, you know, I mean
that imagination emerges when people find
strength in collective organizations, when
they find strength in each other.
Believing that we can work together to produce
commons in which we can share that raises
everybody up and not just some people, that
contributes to the world in a way that– and
I really don’t mean to be romanticizing here,
but a world that is we recognize is never
just enough. Justice is never done. It’s an
endless struggle. And that there’s joy in
that struggle, because there’s a sense of
solidarity that brings us together around
the most basic, most elemental and the most
important of democratic values.
Henry Giroux, thank you, very much for talking
Thank you, Bill.
Henry Giroux and I spoke of how zombies are
an appropriate metaphor for a society whose
political, media, and financial institutions
are without a soul. They walk a world in
which the lust for power and wealth corrupts
absolutely and sucks away real life.
We know a lot about zombies here at Moyers
& Company. Not that there are any on our production
team — that we know of — but because one
of our editors, our friend and colleague Rob
Kuhns, has made a mesmerizing documentary
about the creation of George A. Romero’s
movie classic “Night of the Living Dead.”
It’s the granddaddy of all the zombie movies
and TV shows so popular today.
What’s striking about the documentary, entitled
“Birth of the Living Dead,” is how Rob Kuhns
places the 1968 movie in its particular place
and time, when civil unrest and violence gave
the nation nightmares, and zombies were a
metaphor for an American public deeply troubled
GALE ANNE HURD in Birth of the Living Dead:
In the time that “Night of the Living Dead”
came out, you don’t feel safe in your home
anymore. There are things that are overtaking
us over which we have no control and there’s
that fear and I think that the zombie apocalypse
takes inspiration from that fear and it’s
why audiences connect with it in a way that
is not quite obvious on the surface but is
really in the subtext.
MARK HARRIS in Birth of the Living Dead:
It’s an unsettling element of the movie that
the people who seem most likely to be able
to thwart this incursion of the living dead,
it looked like a lynch mob. The resonance
for people who would have spent the last 10
years watching, you know, white southerners
vow to prevent the desegregation of schools,
for instance, it would’ve been really pretty
And dogs in “Night of the Living Dead” there’s
a very specific cultural resonance. You know,
black men being chased by dogs is one of the
ugliest images of the civil rights movement,
and was very much part of the national visual
vocabulary of any moviegoer other than a very
little kid who would have gone to see this
movie. And again it connects to this idea
that it’s not as simple as the good guys versus
the undead. There are the good guys, the
not good guys and the living dead.
LARRY FESSENDEN in Birth of the Living Dead:
They seem to be getting a certain amount of
pleasure out of putting down these monsters
and being able to go out and hunt people and
SAM POLLARD in Birth of the Living Dead:
They seemed really real to me. They felt real,
those guys. I wasn’t sure they were actors.
MARK HARRIS in Birth of the Living Dead:
It’s a really interesting, squirmy, political
aspect of the movie that’s intentionally unsettling.
I think Romero wants you to feel uncomfortable
with the fact that the so-called victors at
the end of the movie are exactly the kind
of people you’re inclined not to root for.
You can find out how to see the entire “Birth
of the Living Dead,” and learn more about
it, at our website, BillMoyers.com.
We end as we began this week, with a metaphor;
in this case, the phoenix—that great bird
of ancient Greek mythology—reborn and rising
from its own ashes, a bright and colorful
symbol of renewal. That’s how the Nobel Prize-winning
writer Doris Lessing described the storyteller
she believed is deep inside each one of us.
“It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the
myth-maker that is our phoenix,” she said,
“that represents us at our best, and at our
Doris Lessing died last Sunday, age 94. “There
is no doubt fiction makes a better job of
the truth,” she wrote, and so she proved in
her master work, “The Golden Notebook,” and
the many other novels written throughout a
literary career that spanned six decades.
She was an iconoclast. She didn’t suffer fools;
she said what she meant and meant what she
said, with no holds barred and no subject
I spoke with her ten years ago as she described
growing up in Africa and her one great love,
the written word.
BILL MOYERS in NOW:
Do you never stop writing?
DORIS LESSING in NOW:
No. I’m compulsive. And I deeply think that
it has to be something very neurotic. And
I’m not joking. It has to be. Because if I’ve
finished a book, and this wonderful release,
which I’m now feeling. It’s off, it’s in a
parcel, it’s gone to a publisher. Bliss and
happiness. I don’t have to do anything. Nothing.
I can just sit around. But, suddenly it starts,
you see. This terrible feeling that I am just
wasting my life, I’m useless, I’m no good.
Now, it’s a fact that if I spend a day busy
as a little kitten, racing around. I do this,
I do that. But I haven’t written, so it’s
a wasted day, and I’m no good. How do you
account for that nonsense?
BILL MOYERS in NOW:
Was there what we call an ah-ha moment, a
eureka moment, when you knew that you were
going to spend your life writing, rather successfully
or not. Was there such a moment?
DORIS LESSING in NOW:
Well, I was writing all my childhood. And
I wrote two novels when I was 17, which were
terrible. And I’m not sorry I threw them out.
So, I wrote. I had to write. You know, the
thing was, I had no education.
BILL MOYERS in NOW:
You left school at age 14, right?
DORIS LESSING in NOW:
Fourteen. Yeah. And I wasn’t trained for anything.
BILL MOYERS in NOW:
What was there in a young girl, you know,
12, 13, 14 or 15, that said “I want to write?”
DORIS LESSING in NOW:
I was, at that time, being what we now called
an au pair. I was a nursemaid. And it was
pretty boring. So I thought, “Well, let’s
try and write a novel.” I wrote two. I went
back to the farm, and wrote two novels.
BILL MOYERS in NOW:
DORIS LESSING in NOW:
This was in Africa.
BILL MOYERS in NOW:
Where did that idea come from? Had you read
a lot? Had somebody–
DORIS LESSING in NOW:
I never stopped reading. You know. I read
and read and read. And it was what saved me.
And educated me. So, writing a novel seemed
to be a way out.
BILL MOYERS in NOW:
As you talk I think of the traumatic century
you lived through, all those events. You were
born right at the end of the first Great War.
You lived through the Great Depression. You
lived through the Second World War. You lived
through the nuclear era, the Cold War, genocide,
the collapse of the British Empire. I mean,
does anything remain of the world you knew
when you were young?
DORIS LESSING in NOW:
Nothing. Nothing at all. The World War I–
I’m a child of World War I. And I really know
about the children of war. Because both my
parents were both badly damaged by the war.
My father, physically, and both, mentally
and emotionally. So, I know exactly what it’s
like to be brought up in an atmosphere of
a continual harping on the war.
BILL MOYERS in NOW:
He couldn’t stop talking about it? Your father
couldn’t stop talking about it?
DORIS LESSING in NOW:
No. He was obsessed with it. It was terrible,
you know? These men were — had been so traumatized.
Though, of course, outwardly, they were very
civilized and good and kind and everything.
But in actual fact, they were war victims.
BILL MOYERS in NOW::
We keep having wars despite the fact that
great novelists tell us the truth about wars.
DORIS LESSING in NOW:
Well, we don’t have much effect, do we? Do
you know when I first recognized that horrible
truth, I was standing in Southern Rhodesia.
I was very young, and watching the night’s
bag of prisoners, the Africans who were being
caught out without passes. Hand cuffed, walking
down the street. With the jailers, white,
in front and back. And I looked at that and
I thought, “Right, well, this is described
in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and all the others.
So what have they achieved?” is what I thought.
Didn’t stop me writing novels, though. I think
we might have a limited effect on a small
number of people. I hope a good one.
BILL MOYERS in NOW:
But you keep writing.
DORIS LESSING in NOW:
Yes I do. I have to.
You can see my entire conversation with Doris
Lessing at our website, BillMoyers.com.
I’ll see you there and I’ll see
you here, next time.