USA Inc.: Challenging the culture of violence and corruption

by Henry A. Giroux

What is happening in America these days? From acts of violence to the corruption of corporations and the abuse of children, the USA seems quite far from the light of dawn that comes after twilight’s last gleaming. The promotion of violence in virtually all aspects of the media, the degradation of its education system and the war by the elites and the rich on the underprivileged and the have-nots, have created a new meaning for the war on poverty – there is indeed an active war waged upon the growing underclass and vulnerable, if not the formative cultures and institutions that make democracy possible.

Look at the current reporting about the recent tragic shooting in Aurora, Colorado, which is very discouraging. The media response to the alleged murderous rampage by James Holmes largely focuses on the guns he used, the easy availability of the ammunition he stockpiled, the booby trapping of his apartment and the ways in which he meticulously prepared for the carnage he allegedly produced. This is a similar script we saw unfold after the massacres at Columbine high school; Virginia Tech; Fort Hood; the supermarket in Tucson, Arizona; and the more recent gang shootings in Chicago. Immediately following such events, there is the expected call for gun control, new legislation to limit the sale of assault rifles and a justifiable critique of the pernicious policies of the National Rifle Association. One consequence is that the American public is being inundated with figures about gun violence ranging from the fact that more than 84 people are killed daily with guns to the shocking statistic that there are more than 31,000 gun-related deaths annually. To bring home the deadly nature of firearms in America, Juan Cole has noted that in 2010 there were 8,775 murders by firearms in the US, while in Britain there were 638. These are startling figures, but they do not tell us enough about the cult and spectacle of violence in American society. Another emerging criticism is that neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney has spoken out about gun control in the aftermath of the Aurora shooting. Gun control matters, but it is only one factor in the culture of symbolic and institutional violence that has such a powerful grip on the everyday workings of American society. The issue of violence in America goes far beyond the issue of gun control, and in actuality, when removed from a broader narrative about violence in the United States, it can serve to deflect the most important questions that need to be raised.

Violence saturates our culture both domestically and in our approach to foreign policy. Domestically, violence weaves through the culture like a highly charged electric current burning everything in its path. Popular culture, extending from Hollywood films and sports thuggery to video games, embraces the spectacle of violence as the primary medium of entrainment. Brutal masculine authority and the celebration of violence it embraces have become the new norm in America. Representations of violence dominate the media and often parade before viewers less as an object of critique than as a for-profit spectacle, just as the language of violence now shapes our political discourse. The registers of violence now shape school zero-tolerance policies, a bulging prison-industrial complex and a growing militarization of local police forces. State violence wages its ghastly influence through a concept of permanent war, targeted assassinations, an assault on civil liberties and the use of drone technologies that justifies the killing of innocent civilians as collateral damage. Just as body counts increase in the United States, so do acts of violent barbarism take place abroad. Increasingly, we are inundated with stories about American soldiers committing horrendous acts of violence against civilians in Afghanistan, with the most recent being the murders committed by the self-named “kill team” and the slaughter of men, women and children allegedly by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. The United States has become addicted to war and a war economy just as we increasingly have become addicted to building prisons and incarcerating minorities marginalized by class and race. And, moreover, we have become immune to the fact of such violence.

Violence in the United States is a commodity mined for profit, a practice that has become normalized and a spectacle that extends the limits of the pleasure quotient in ways that should be labeled as both pathological and dangerous. We are not just voyeurs to such horrors; we have become complicit and reliant on violence as a mediating force that increasingly shapes our daily experiences. The culture of violence makes it increasingly difficult to imagine pleasure in any other terms except through the relentless spectacle of gratuitous violence and cruelty, even as we mourn its tragic effects in everyday life when it emerges in horrifying ways such as the senseless killing in Colorado. Increasingly, institutions are organized for the production of violence such as schools, prisons, detention centers and our major economic institutions. Rather than promote democratic values, a respect for others and embrace social responsibility, they often function largely to humiliate, punish and demonize any vestige of social responsibility. Our political system is now run by a financial oligarchy that is comparable to what Alain Badiou calls a “regime of gangsters.” And as he rightly argues, the message we get from the apostles of casino capitalism carries with it another form of social violence: “Privatize everything. Abolish help for the weak, the solitary, the sick and the unemployed. Abolish all aid for everyone except the banks. Don’t look after the poor; let the elderly die. Reduce the wages of the poor, but reduce the taxes on the rich. Make everyone work until they are ninety. Only teach mathematics to traders, reading to big property-owners and history to on-duty ideologues. And the execution of these commands will in fact ruin the life of millions of people.” [1] It is precisely this culture of cruelty that has spread throughout America that makes the larger public not merely susceptible to violence, but also luxuriates in its alleged pleasures.

We are a country gripped in a survival of the fittest ethic and one consequence is not merely a form of hyper masculinity and a new-found indulgence in the pleasure of violence, but the toxic emergence of a formative culture in which matters of ethics, justice and social responsibility are absent from what it means to create the conditions for a citizenry able to hold power accountable, produce citizens capable of caring for others and offer the conditions for young and old alike to be able to think critically and act compassionately. Justice in the United States has taken a bad hit and its absence can be measured not only in the vast inequalities that characterize all facets of everyday life from the workings of the justice system to the limited access poor and middle-class people now have to decent health care, schools and social protections, but also in a government that separates economics from social costs while selling its power and resources to the highest bidder. America needs to talk more about how and why violence is so central to its national identity, what it might mean to address this educationally and tackle the necessity of understanding this collective pathology of violence not just through psychological and isolated personal narratives, but through the wider ideological and structural forces that both produce such violence and are sustained by it. [2] But, of course, the American public needs to do more than talk, it needs to organize educators, students, workers, and anyone else interested in democracy in order to create social movements capable of changing the power relations that create the conditions for symbolic and systemic violence in American society. 

Added to this decline in America’s moral strength is the scandal involving Jerry Sandusky. The Freeh report makes clear that there was a concerted attempt to cover-up the acts of a serial predator, Jerry Sandusky, while willfully disregarding the welfare of the children he abused. Given the reporting of the last year, much of this is not news, though the report makes clear the nature and depth of the cover-up, while providing some important new details. While the Freeh report reveals that the cover-up at the top of the Penn State administration “was an active agreement to conceal,” it raises further questions about how the justice system works in this country when it comes to prosecuting the rich and powerful who sink more and more into a bottomless pit of corruption and moral irresponsibility. At his press conference, Louis J. Freeh, when asked if criminal charges should be brought against a number of people, including former President Spanier, replied that “it’s up to others to decide whether that’s criminal.” While Freeh’s reply suggest he is acting cautiously given that some of the people who hired him may be indicted, he unknowingly touches on another related and important issue. That is, justice in America works primarily for the rich and powerful and against the poor and marginalized. And that Freeh’s response or equivocation reveals what is well known — the rich and powerful rarely get prosecuted for their crimes or what The Economist has called “the rotten heart of finance.” Just ask the CEOs who run Barclays, JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, GlaxoSmithKline, and so it goes.

Let’s be clear, what is on trial here is not simply those who colluded to protect the reputation of a storied football program and the reputation of Penn State University, but a society governed by radicalized market-driven values, a survival of the “fittest” (or most ruthless) ethic and an unregulated drive for profit-making regardless of the human and social costs. This is an ethic that now renders many children and young people as disposable, refusing to acknowledge its responsibility to future generations while creating the social, economic and political conditions in which the pain and suffering of young people simply disappears. As a number of recent banking scandals reveal, big money and the institutions it creates now engage unapologetically in massive criminal behavior and corruption, but the individuals who head these corporations extending from JPMorgan Chase Bank to Barclays are rarely prosecuted.

The message is clear. Once again, crime pays for the rich and powerful. We can only understand what happened to the young victims at Penn State if we also acknowledge what recently was revealed about the criminal actions against children exhibited by GlaxoSmithKline. In this instance, Glaxo illegally marketed Paxil to children, gave kickbacks to doctors and made false claims about the drug even though one major clinical trial found “that teens who took the drug for depression were more likely to attempt suicide than those receiving placebo pills.” Penn State and Glaxo are symptomatic of a much larger shift in the culture and the relations of power that shape it.

Rather than representing a society’s dreams and hope for the future, young people, especially poor white and minority children, have become commodities to be mined for profit and/or pleasure and disposable after they have served those purposes in the age of casino capitalism and big money. It is crucial that the American public combine the kind of institutional abuse we see at Penn State, GlaxoSmithKline and Barclays with the values and relations of power that are responsible for a society in which 53 percent of college graduates are jobless, social provisions for young people are being slashed, corporations get tax deductions while state governments eliminate vital public services and students assume a massive debt because it is easier for the federal government to fund wars and invest in prisons rather than in public and higher education.

Connect these dots and Penn State becomes only one shameful and corrupt marker in a much larger scandal that reveals an ongoing and aggressive war on youth. Everywhere we look, young people are under siege. Twenty percent of young people live in poverty and over 42 percent live in low-income homes. Young people now find themselves in debt, jobless, incarcerated or unemployed. Stories about young people being denied the right to vote, being abused in juvenile detention centers, taking on jobs that pay the minimum wage or worse living at home with their parents while unemployed and facing a bleak future rarely seem to arouse the concerns of the American public or its governing politicians. All the while, the ruling corporate and financial elite use their power to punish those marginalized by class, race and ethnicity — slashing social benefits, increasing tuition, refusing to abolish punitive bankruptcy laws, denigrating young people as lazy and refusing overall to invest in their future. The Penn State scandal has to be understood within a broader political, economic, and cultural landscape. Not only is it symptomatic of a growing culture of cruelty, hyper-masculinity, big money, big sports empires, corporate power, academic illiteracy, and the unchecked power of the privileged elite, but also as part of a larger war on youth, public values, and the democratic mission of the university and any other non-commodified public sphere.

Until we understand how the larger culture of political, institutional and economic corruption abuses young people, rewards the rich and destroys democracy, Penn State will become a side show that will simply distract from the real issue of what constitutes child abuse in America. The scandal of Penn State has become the scandal of America.

(For my interview on this topic please see: Political Context)

[This article combines two recent pieces: Henry A. Giroux: Colorado Shooting is about more than Gun Culture and From Penn State to JPMorgan Chase and Barclays: Destroying Higher Education, Savaging Children and Extinguishing Democracy]


1. Alain Badiou, “The Rebirth of History (London: Verso, 2012), p. 13.
2. I want to thank Brad Evans for his advice regarding the importance of emphasizing structural violence.

[Thank you Henry for this important piece]

The writer holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. His most recent books include: Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, On Critical Pedagogy and Twilight of the Social. His website is at

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