Language and the Politics of the Living Dead
by Henry A. Giroux
In a robust aspiring democratic society, language along with critical thought have a liberating function. At best, they work together to shatter illusions, strengthen the power of reason and critical judgment and provide the codes and framing mechanisms for human beings to exercise a degree of self-determination, while holding the throne of raw governmental, military and economic power accountable.
Language in such a society is robust, engaged, critical, dialectical, historical and creates the conditions for dialogue, thoughtfulness and informed action. Such a language refuses to be co-opted in the service of marketing goods, personalities and sleazy corporations. Needless to say, it is a language that is troubling and almost always threatening to the guardians of the status quo. As Toni Morrison said in another context, this is a language, a way of reading and writing the world, that “can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace ... [that makes visible] the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.”
In authoritarian societies, language works to produce forms of historical and social amnesia, using the media, universities, and other sites of public pedagogy to cover the visual landscape with a coma-producing ignorance. This coma allows the living dead to further experiment with those political mechanisms and social filters employed to freeze meaning, limit the discourses of freedom and make certain ideas unspeakable, if not unthinkable.
Tales of repression, cruelty, human suffering and evil disappear from public memory, becoming invisible as politics works through a zombie-like language to make unjust and repressive power invisible. This type of coma-like amnesia seems to have become one of the defining features of the new American century. At the same time, this language and the ideologies and modes of governing it supports are always conditional, open to resistance and capable of being challenged by new modes of discourse, understanding and courage. One example can be seen in the ongoing resistance emerging in Iran against the use of state power to extend its ever-increasing restrictions on the new media and Internet to curb the power of the living and vital language of dissent.
Language that is coma-producing always serves the interests of the living dead, becoming zombie-like in its ability to sap meaning of any political and ethical substance. Such a language is suffocating, Orwellian in its hypocrisy and death-dealing and cruel in the relationships it often produces and legitimates.
For instance, as Michael Moore points out in his film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” a number of blue-chip companies take out insurance policies on their employees without telling them. Not only do such policies offer tax breaks for the rich, they also provide very lucrative sums of money when an employee dies. Irma Johnson found this out the hard way after her husband Daniel died of brain cancer. She discovered that the bank that had fired him received close to $4.5 million dollars in insurance proceeds, she got nothing. The corporations refer to these lucrative and cruel schemes as “dead peasant policies.” This is a discourse in which the living dead literally benefit from the deaths of their fired employees - zombie politics at its most transparent.
Of course, at its best, language can invite us to think beyond the given and the realm of common sense, becoming a powerful force for unleashing the power of insight, imagination and possibility. Yet, we live at a time when language is often deployed by those with social, political and economic resources that narrow its horizons, close down its appeal to truth claims and empty meaning of any viable substance. When employed by those corrupted by power, language is often stripped of elements of critique, thoughtfulness and compassion. Such a language cheapens public values, the notion of the common good and increasingly appropriates all potential spaces for a viable politics through a debased appeal to self-interest, personal fears, money and national security.
If successful, the language of oppression and cruelty becomes normalized, removed from the sphere of criticism and the culture of questioning. Such a language does more than normalize ignorance, illiteracy and irrationality; it also produces a kind of psychic hardening and deep-rooted pathology in a society increasingly willing to eliminate the policies that enable social bonds and protections necessary for a substantive democracy. The living dead with their wealth and power now produce the walking dead who are relegated to the dumping sites of modernity such as urban ghettos, prison-like schools, refugee camps, and prisons.
This language of cruelty, a zombie-inspired discourse of sorts, has been given a new life within the last few decades as it has become the lingua franca of powerful American politicians, corporations, and many in the dominant media. And it is mobilized to both dismantle the liberating function of critical reason and to stifle criticisms of a society that appears to be adrift. Such a discourse turns hate-talk into a commodity and human suffering into a spectacle.
Rarely do we find a robust language at work in the corporate-mediated public domains that provides a sustained criticism of an imperial presidency, an economic system removed from all political and ethical constraints, a debased and debasing celebrity culture, a market-driven notion of consumerism that strips people of any other vestige of agency, an utter disregard for the lawlessness and inequality caused by casino capitalism, a permanent war economy and a discourse of contempt aimed at those marginalized by poverty and race in America. While there are certainly criticisms of such practices and policies at work in American society, they are either marginalized, trivialized or simply treated with disdain and viewed as irrelevant by those in power.
Flashpoints in a culture often signal the rise of this language of cruelty, suggesting ruptures in the democratic fabric of a country that speak to something foreboding in its present and future that is not merely disturbing, but portends a new kind of evil, a gathering storm capable of ushering in a new kind of authoritarianism. Hurricane Katrina, declarations supporting torture by elected officials, bailouts for the rich and indifference for the poor and millions of people sleeping on the street or in tents signal something new and despairing about American society.
The story continues. For instance, in June 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney, in response to revelations of torture at Guantánamo, claimed that the prisoners in the detention camp inhabited something similar to Club Med. According to Cheney, “They’re living in the tropics. They’re well fed. They’ve got everything they could possibly want.” What is most scandalous about this remark is not the sheer duplicity of the misrepresentation, or even the trivialization of human rights violations, but the attempt to silence or make disappear an ever-expanding narrative of extreme cruelty and pain inflicted on the bodies of those who have been forced to inhabit, without any legal rights, what would be more aptly called Club Torture. We know from a number of reports and from the leaked images of Abu Ghraib prison that US combatants in various detention centers have been subjected to the most horrendous forms of torture, often severely injured and left to suffer with irreparable mental anguish. In other instances of torture and abuse, detainees “have been murdered.”
But, there is more at work in Cheney’s comments than fabrications designed to promote certain convenient ideological illusions central to the then new world order promoted by the Bush administration. There is also a hidden order of politics that suggests a certain psychic hardening of the culture, the triumph of a debased language and politics over any semblance of ethics and civic courage - clearly reinforced by the loss of a critical media, schools that actually teach young people to think critically and those public spheres where viable public analyses can take place. This is a new register and expression of cruelty for the American empire because it now defines itself unapologetically and with great arrogance through its exercise of what could be appropriately called radical evil.
Evidence of this type of psychic hardening and moral depravity extends far beyond the more recently revealed torture memos, the media’s embrace of Sarah Palin’s talk about death panels, the gleeful expressions of racism that are back in fashion, the rise of hate-radio and the triumphalist justifications for imperial power that fuel the language of the likes of Dick Cheney, Glenn Beck and Fox News.
Even after President Obama condemned torture and made it illegal once again, those politicians and lawyers who supported torture and played a prominent role in both legitimating it and sanctioning it under the Bush administration refused to exhibit the slightest bit of self-reflection or remorse over their support for a state that tortures.
For instance, in a revealing interview with Deborah Solomon of The New York Times at the end of November 2009, James Inhofe, a conservative Republican senator from Oklahoma, stated that he did not think that the naval base at Guantanamo should be closed because it was “a real resource.” Inhofe then talked about Guantánamo - this Gulag for the stateless roundly condemned all over the world - as if it were a vacation spot generously provided by the US government for detainees who, in actuality, were legally but unjustly rendered as part of America’s war on terror. What is even more astounding is that Inhofe seemed completely unwilling to entertain the overwhelming and substantial body of evidence now available as a matter of public record that proves that many of the detainees at Guantanamo were subjected by the American government to sexual abuse, human rights violations and the systemic practice of torture. He stated, without any irony intended:
“The people there are treated probably better than they are in the prisons in America. They have more doctors and medical practitioners per inmate. They’re eating better than anyone has ever eaten before…. One of the big problems is they become obese when they get there because they’ve never eaten that good before.”
There is more than denial and ignorance at work in Inhofe’s answer. It is also symptomatic of a society that is no longer capable of questioning itself, unraveling its ability to think critically and act in a morally responsible way. This is a society in which language has become so debased and corrupted by power that moral and truth claims are no longer open to examination and the consequences spell catastrophe for democracy.
In another interview, Solomon asked John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer and one of the architects of the torture memos, if he regretted writing the memos, which offered President Bush a legal rationale for ignoring domestic and international laws prohibiting torture. Exhibiting a complete indifference to the moral issue at stake in justifying systemic torture, Yoo provided an answer not unlike those provided by Nazi war criminals prosecuted at the Nuremberg military tribunals in 1945. He states: “No, I had to write them. It was my job. As a lawyer, I had a client. The client needed a legal question answered.”
More recently, it was widely reported in the dominant media that there are over 39 million people on food stamps, and six million of these people have no other source of income. Put another way, “About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.” These figures become all the more tragic when we learn that one in four children are on food stamps. Surely such a story should move the American public to both question any society with this degree of inequality and move in some transformative way to address the needles suffering of millions of people.
When the story was reported in The New York Times, it was largely descriptive, the language used was bloodless, sterile, lacking any sense of either urgency or suggesting the need for political action on the part of the American public. The one criticism in the article came from John Linder, a Georgia Republican, and a ranking member of the House panel on Welfare policy. Displaying what can truly called a zombie politics and language only fit for persuading the living dead, he criticized the food stamp program arguing, “We’re at risk of creating an entire class of people, a subset of people, just comfortable getting by living off the government.”
Linder’s use of language mimics the moral depravity we find in the words of hot-shot investment bankers who hand out billions in bonuses while millions are starving because of the financial markets’ recklessness. For the bankers, bonuses are, as one CEO put it, a form of God’s work. There is more at play here than ignorance; there is also a deep sense of scorn for any viable notion of the welfare state and the necessity of government to address in a profound way the needless suffering of those caught in the expanding network of systemic inequality, unemployment and poverty.
This use of dead language, stripped of insight, ethics and compassion, has now become commonplace in America and suggest that we have become a country with no interest in modes of governance that extend beyond the narrow and often ruthless interests of investment bankers, mega-corporations, the ultra-rich, the Department of Defense, and casino capitalism. Linguistic appeals to present day zombies erase any viable notion of the social, public sphere and the common good.
Rather than talk about the responsibilities of the welfare state and social safety nets for the millions of Americans in need, government and corporate spokespersons employ a language of bare life - devoid of compassion and a respect for the other so as to erase the social and all of the human bonds and conditions necessary to provide human relationships with joy, dignity, hope, justice and a measure of moral and social responsibility.
The realm of the social, the glue of public life and the common good, within this death-inspired language has been utterly privatized and cut off from the political, economic and moral connections that give society any viable identity and meaning. As the language of war, finance and markets drive politics, matters of ethics, social responsibility, thinking from the place of the other and addressing the conditions under which it becomes possible to apprehend the suffering of others become not only difficult, but is more often than not treated with contempt.
Zombie language, with its appeal to the living dead, erases the social as it privatizes it and can only imagine freedom through the narrow lens of self interests, exchange values and profit margins.
Troubles are now privatized, resulting in “yet more loneliness and impotence, and indeed more uncertainty still.” Society in this view is a network of random connections and disconnections, tied to furthering the interests of competitive individuals and fueled by a rabid individualism. Zombie language is more than Orwellian in that it does not merely offer up illusions; it arrogantly celebrates those values, structures, institutions and modes of power that are on the side of death, the perpetuation of human suffering and a world view that cannot think beyond the maximizing pleasures of grotesque, power, wealth and privilege.
Cheney, Inhofe, Yoo, the heads of the commanding financial institutions, and too many others to name exhibit and legitimize the type of zombie language along with an unethical mode of behavior that is chilling in its moral transgressions and telling in its reflection of the political and moral corruption that has taken hold of American culture. But the cruelties and crimes that these individuals, corporations and administrations produce as official policy through a language of the living dead could not have taken place if there was not a formative culture in place in the United States that, in its silence and complicity. supported and enabled such a discourse and its accompanying acts of barbarism and cruelty.
Within such a culture, as Judith Butler reminds us, it becomes increasingly easy for human life to be sacrificed to an instrumental logic, a totalitarian view of authority, and a discourse of fear. Such a culture loses its moral compass, sanctions cruel polices that produce massive human suffering and disposability and, in the end, becomes unable to entertain those norms or shared conditions that make human life possible, that apprehend the dignity of human life or offer the political and moral frameworks “to guard against injury and violence.”
Under such circumstances, individual rights, protections and civil liberties disappear as the most barbaric state-sanctioned practices are carried out with only minor opposition registering among the American people. Zombie language and its accompanying practices and policies are nourished by the ego-centric politics of individualism, the punishing values of casino capitalism and the harsh logic of privatization in which all problems are now shifted onto the shoulders of individuals, who have to bear the full consequences for solving them. The culture of cruelty that emerges in this market-driven ideology and the language that legitimates it point not merely to the death of public values or to a society that is politically adrift, but, more importantly, to the unleashing of institutions, ideas, values and social relations that may lead to the demise of democracy itself.
 Toni Morrison, “Peril,” in Toni Morrison, ed. “Burn This Book” (New York: Harper-Collins, 2009), pp. 1-2.
 Agence France-Presse, “Cheney Says Detainees Are Well Treated,” New York Times (June 24, 2005). Online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/24/politics/24cheney.html?pagewanted=prin....
 Three reports are especially useful on this matter. See Laurel E. Fletcher and Eric Stover, “Guantánamo and Its Aftermath: US Detention and Interrogation Practices and Their Impact on Former Detainees” (Berkeley: Human Rights Center and International Human Rights Law Clinic, 2008), online at: http://ccrjustice.org/files/Report_GTMO_And_Its_Aftermath.pdf; International Committee of the Red Cross, “ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value” Detainees,” pp. 1 - 30; and Center for Constitutional Rights, “Report on Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment of Prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba” (Washington, DC: Center for Constitutional Rights, 2006), online at: http://ccrjustice.org/files/Report_ReportOnTorture.pdf.
 Deborah Solomon, “Global Warning: Questions for James Inhofe,” New York Times (November 29, 2009), p MM16.
 Deborah Solomon, “Power of Attorney: Questions for John Yoo,” New York Times (January 3, 2010), p MM15.
 Jason Deparle and Robert M. Gebeloff, “Living on Nothing but Food Stamps,” The New York Times, (January 3, 2010), online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/us/03foodstamps.html
 Jason Deparle and Robert M. Gebeloff, “Living on Nothing but Food Stamps,” The New York Times, (January 3, 2010), online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/us/03foodstamps.html
 Zygmunt Bauman, “Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty” (London: Polity Press, 2007), p. 14.
 Judith Butler, “Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?” (Brooklyn, New York: Verso, 2009), p. 3.
Source: Truthout. Reprinted with permission.