Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The danger to education and democracy posed by authoritarianism

Deformed: Authoritarian undercurrents in education, Part II

Many people are perhaps not familiar with the concepts of authoritarianism and right wing authoritarianism. It is a 50 year old social science discipline that grew out of attempts to understand
The 2004 Bush campaign for president was a perfect example of authoritarian social dominators leading submissive and agressive authoritarian followers activated by fear, as expressed in this mashup of the 2004 Republican national convention. As one critic noted, the campaign was composed of "fear, slander and God."
what allowed the Germans in World War II to be so calculatingly brutal. The science took three tacks, one, understanding the personalities of the leaders, two the personalities of the followers, and three understanding the underlying psychological dynamic that allowed a society to veer so far off the tracks of humanity.

Research summed up by Bob Altemeyer in his book, The Authoritarians (free pdf), focused on three main attributes of authoritarians: authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionality. Later other researchers cited resistance to diversity as a fourth characteristic of authoritarians.

These concepts may seem innocuous on the surface, but in reality they add up to big trouble, especially in a democracy. One need look no further than the Bush administration, particularly after 911, to see the way Bush governed in the pattern of a social dominator - someone who leads authoritarians by whatever methods are available, including generating mass hysteria and fear, and lying and making things up out of whole cloth.

George Bush's political adviser Karl Rove went so far as to tell journalist Ron Suskind in 2004 that reporters would always misunderstand Republican politics because they lived in a "fact-based" world, while the Bush Administration "created their own reality." They pushed the limits of ethics and law to the point of what they could get away with without regards to norms of human decency. These are hallmarks of social dominators.

As Altemeyer points out, as dangerous as social dominators are, it is the followers of their leadership who enable authoritarianism through their authoritarian submission and aggression. They are the real threat. When authoritarian aggression is activated by fear racism and violence can be released.

This is significant because America is now one giant fear-generator. It could be argued that the country has been held in various degrees of existential panic since the onset of World War I. Reasons for the panic have varied, but the two big themes have been, first, fear of "Communism," which began after WWI and continued into the 1990s, and the fear of Terrorism since then. Things got so bad that by 2004, George W. Bush, according to scholar Henry Giroux, was able to wage and win a presidential campaign based on "fear, slander, and God."

One theory posits that the authoritarian culture of the slavery pre-civil war south, partially re-instituted after reconstruction, continues in a different form to this very day. Another theory fingers the "poisonous pedagogy" that views child-rearing as a contest of wills, where children are often subject to personal violence then forced to express their "love" for the abuser. This is a common child rearing strategy used by evangelical (fundamentalist) christian religions that make up the political religious right.

Southern whites turned to the Democratic Party after the civil war in response to the Republican Lincoln's fighting of the civil war and freeing the slaves. This antipathy to the Republicans lasted until the 1950s, when national Democrats passed civil rights laws that began to loosen the Southern whites' grip on power.

As others have written, particularly Michael A. Milburn and Sheree D. Conrad in their book The Politics of Denial, the authoritarian culture of the South was derived from the culture of slavery, and those forces have been passed from generation to generation. From the post-reconstruction era, roughly 1890, through the mid 1960s Blacks in the American South were subject to white authoritarian rule, represented in the deprivation of their civil rights, including the right to vote, systematic terrorism and violence, and legalized discrimination. Hatred of government in the South derived from the intervention of the federal government into its affairs following the civil war. Today the Southern states, despite being the biggest recipients of federal dollars, are hotbeds of anti-government sentiment.

Prior to the modern civil rights era southern Democrats were the authoritarians who enabled whites to control the Southern polity and society. As the national Democrats opened to civil rights and principles of diversity Southern whites inevitably shifted to the Republicans, who started appealing to their racism and bigotry in the 1960s with Richard Nixon and Pat Buchanan's so-called "southern strategy." So complete is the authoritarians' party switching that among congressional districts in the Deep South, there is only one white-majority district that has a Democratic Representative. John Dean famously described the authoritarians who now control the Republican Party as "Conservatives Without Conscience." Studies have shown authoritarianism to be strongest in the American South and within the Republican Party. In a time of diminished democracy and the hegemony of money in politics the last thing America needs is the extra dose of authoritarianism delivered with education reform.

Tomorrow: School choice birthed in authoritarian racial animus and market fundamentalism

Yesterday: Part I: Deformed: Authoritarian undercurrents in education

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