Thinking Dangerously: Henry Giroux’s The Terror Of The Unforeseen

by Eric J. Weiner

The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic. —Philip Roth, The Plot Against America

The only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is. —R. G. Collingwood

When he was seventeen years-old, my late father-in-law, Mario Gartenkraut, escaped from Poland two days ahead of the Third Reich’s invasion of his town. His family did not believe him when he warned them of the terror that he saw coming. They sent him off to Bolivia in South America, but stayed behind. By the end of the war, all of his sisters and his parents had been exterminated by the Nazis in the death camps. A few of his brothers survived. Mario foresaw the terror of fascism and it saved his life. Most of his family did not and they were murdered. The memory of the kind of fascism that he survived is both a tool for resistance and, ironically, can blind us to things we must resist and overcome. As a tool for resistance, the mantra that we should “never forget” is a powerful way to keep the memories of those we lost alive as well as remember the conditions as they have been represented in official history that led to the systematic murder of millions. But the phrase also plants the seeds of our undoing. The representations of fascism that construct these memories become indelible and as such make it difficult to imagine what fascism might look like in our current times.

Peering at the horizon of our withering democracy for jack-booted soldiers, transport trains, and smoke rising from the ashes of crematoriums makes memory a liability. If we are looking out for one kind of threat based upon the science of historical memory, then we are sure to miss threats to our freedom from other forms of fascism that may be hiding in plain sight. As was true for Mario’s sisters and parents, what we don’t see, won’t see, can’t see, or refuse to see might be the most terrifying thing of all.

The Terror of the Unforeseen, Henry Giroux’s latest salvo against what he calls neoliberal fascism is, first and foremost, a history book. It is, of course, also a cogent critical analysis of current events, particularly as they unfold in the story of Donald Trump’s presidency. But at its core is a deep respect for History’s pedagogical power to teach us as Collingwood writes “what man has done and thus what man is.” Like Collingwood, Giroux sees in History shadows cast beyond the present that reveal in hazy and sometimes horrifying outline what humans might become by taking a complex account of what they have done. Hiding in these late afternoon shadows is the terror of unforeseen advances toward negative freedom, dehumanizing technologies, and state-sanctioned violence against those who have been classified as disposable.

No one can predict the future. The beauty of the future is in the fact that it is gloriously unwritten. Giroux’s apt phrase which captures the hope that lies within this fact is the need to constantly and vigorously workout a “language of possibility.” A language of possibility refers to the need to be able to imagine a future different from the present and past. By employing a language of possibility, we trouble “end of history” proclamations, stave off the fatalism associated with authoritarian discourses, engage in a praxis of building bridges from what is to what could be, and take back control over our ability to imagine a world different from the past. A language of possibility concretizes not a future per se, but the struggle to move the human species toward a new ecology, one built on the premise that we can learn from history in order to avoid repeating its most revolting examples of human and ecological degradation and brutality.

Human history is not lacking in such examples. From endless colonization and slavery to genocide and state sponsored terrorism, humans seem determined to bend the arc of history not to justice or morality, but to their own extermination. It’s not enough that humans are responsible for the extinction of tens of thousands of species and counting. It seems that for many humans the final solution will only be realized when the human species exterminates itself. Assuming we don’t take the planet with us, the remaining species will certainly celebrate our demise as it will give them some hope for their future. In the face of this history and the future that it suggests, employing a language of possibility is difficult. But it is also why it is urgently required.

The title of Giroux’s book, The Terror of the Unforeseen, comes out of Philip Roth’s prescient book The Plot Against America. For Roth, the phrase describes what happens when historians rewrite the evitable as inevitable; that is, they turn disasters into epics by representing them as linear and driven by human rationality. Official histories are examples of 20/20 hindsight. In official historical accounts, our human activities are represented as though the outcomes of these activities were inevitable. It’s like when a person does something particularly stupid in front of other people and immediately says, “I meant to do that!” Similarly, a disaster, in contrast to an epic, is incoherent; it is a result of some degree of social blindness. But like forensic detectives, historians rush into the disaster and start rebuilding the before in an effort to make sense of the now. But the future is also effected by what is possible but unforeseen. This process hides from us a few essential truisms of history: Historical time is not linear, human activity is rationally irrational, and circuits of culture powerfully shape language and memory.

Take for example the attack on the World Trade Centers in New York City in 2001. Fifteen miles away from ground zero, I watched on television the disaster unfold. Within twenty minutes, the disaster had been rewritten by commercial media and the government’s public relations machine as an attack on our way of life, on freedom, liberty and the pursuit of wealth. Soon thereafter, different ideological narratives quickly arose to explain or justify the attacks and the murder of thousands. What was incoherent and incomprehensible became coherent because of its insertion into History. The disaster didn’t have to occur. It wasn’t overdetermined. Yet the way official U.S. history had been represented before the disaster on 9-11 helped to create a large blind spot about what was possible; the terror of the unforeseen was quite literally terrorism.

But as I sat in traffic on route 3 in New Jersey, trying to get back to my apartment in Hoboken, I watched a Sikh in the car next to mine quietly unwrap his dastār in what I imagined was his attempt to become, like me, a visibly invisible player in the disaster that was quickly being rewritten as a historical epic. The memory of that man slowly unwrapping his dastār is as indelible a memory for me of 9-11 as bodies falling from the towers, the cerulean blue sky, and the ashes of the dead and pulverized concrete covering people fleeing into and from the spot now known as ground zero. Beyond the terrorism on display in downtown NYC, the man’s methodical unwrapping of his head piece signaled a different kind of terror, unforeseen then and now. His quiet brown hands unwrapping the peppered white cloth made the hair on the back of my neck bristle against the collar of my shirt. He was afraid. Watching him, I immediately understood the reason for his fear. However afraid I was from the terror of the attacks on the towers, his removal of his dastār suggested a future of state-sponsored terror and human disposability that I could only begin to imagine.

A common cliché about history is that we must learn it in order not to repeat it. But whether history repeats itself or not depends in large part on how human activity is represented as history by historians, media, and government propaganda. How the past is reconstructed strongly conditions how we think and act in the future. These official historical reconstructions hide more than they reveal. Omissions, distortions, and lies create coherence from the human ingredients of divergent activity, arbitrary knowledge, inequities of power, and chance encounter.

Roth’s phrase is used in his novel to explain not only the imagined rise of authoritarianism in the United States with the election of Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh in 1940, but the negative shock that the Left experienced after his defeat of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the shocked elation experienced by conservatives. From The Plot Against America:

And as Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as “History,” harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.

The central point, as I read it, is the harmless history taught to schoolchildren sets up adults to be terrorized by the unforeseen. In our current times, anti-democratic forces, from white supremacy and misogyny to anti-Semitism and xenophobia, are ripping the fabric of collective self-government apart at its seams. With the right kind of leadership, the whole democratic experiment withers and dies. In its slow death, an ideological vacuum opens and another form of government slips in to maintain law and order while promising a triumphant return to an imagined past. The transition is seamless and few are able to see the terror of the unforeseen before it is too late to undo what has been done. The possibility of this hides in plain sight, but the science of history makes seeing it improbable.

In Roth’s fictional account of Lindbergh’s ascendency to the presidency, things in the United States devolve quickly. Violence and more subtle forms of anti-Semitism rise to the surface of everyday life. Roth solved the problem of Lindbergh by killing him off in a plane crash. Conspiracy theories take hold of the public’s imagination and things get worse before they get better. The history of such an event, we are encouraged to imagine, would be told as though it was inevitable. History will record Lindberg’s election as an epic instead of the disaster it was. But the seeds of his ascendency had been planted years before his shocking win. Rarely does history include such mundanity. It’s the old growth redwood, blossoming gardens, the winning rose, and hectares of sweet corn that capture the imagination. What appears to be a barren field gets passed by with barely a nod. Yet just below the surface, those seeds are growing roots. This is where the real action is. Only by ripping the plants out by the root can we begin to change the ecology of the field.

Henry Giroux takes Roth’s apt phrase and runs with it. He is not the first to see parallels between Roth’s Lindberg and Trump’s rise to power. But he provides what I think is the clearest historical map of his rise. The history of Trump’s rise to power, as Giroux writes it, is a story of how seeds of fascism get planted in the fertile soil of neoliberalism. His account of Trump’s ascendency explains it as the disaster it has turned out to be. But Giroux’s historical account is more than an explanation of Trump’s rise to power. It is an ideological and epistemological archeology of what he calls “neoliberal fascism” in the 21st century:

Neoliberalism’s hatred of democracy, the common good, and the social contract has unleashed generic elements of a fascist past in which white supremacy, ultra-nationalism, rabid misogyny and immigrant fervor come together in a toxic mix of militarism, state violence, and a politics of disposability. Modes of fascist expression adapt variously to different political historical contexts assuring racial apartheid-like forms in the post-bellum U.S. and overt encampments and extermination in Nazi Germany. Fascism with its unquestioning belief in obedience to a powerful strongman, violence as a form of political purification, hatred as an act of patriotism, racial and ethnic cleansing, and the superiority of a select ethnic or national group has resurfaced in the United States. In this mix of economic barbarism, political nihilism, racial purity, economic orthodoxy, and ethical somnambulance a distinctive economic-political formation has been produced that I term neoliberal fascism.

Trump is an effect of neoliberal fascism, not its cause. If not Trump, then someone else who embodies a disdain for democratic government, has authoritarian aspirations, a pathological relationship to truth and justice, and a brutal will to power would have slithered in on the back of our anemic democracy. In Trump, the ideology of neoliberal fascism has found its voice and its champion. As an effect of neoliberal fascism, Trump needs help in maintaining the system which in turn reproduces the needs manufactured by fascist ideology. The oxygen of this updated version of fascist ideology according to Giroux can be found in the refusal of people in positions of official power to critically read the signs of our fascist past. He writes:

People of power have turned their backs on the cautionary histories of the fascist and Nazi regimes and, in doing so, willingly embrace a number of authoritarian messages and tropes: the cult of the leader, the discourse of the savior, white nationalism, a narrative of decline, unchecked casino, systemic racism, silence in the face of a growing police state, the encouragement of state endorsed violence, the hollowing out of democracy by corporate power, a grotesque celebration of greed, a massive growth in the inequality of wealth, power, and resources, a brutal politics of disposability, an expanding culture of cruelty, and a disdain for public virtues, all wrapped in an authoritarian populism.

These tropes and messages slip into the hearts and minds of people through the distortion of memory and language. “Words,” argues Giroux, “are emptied of substantive content and the space of a shared reality crucial to any democracy is eviscerated…The danger, as history has taught us, is when words are systemically used to cover-up lies, peddle falsehoods, and undermine the capacity to think critically.” Critical thinking is replaced by a shared cynicism. From challenging the legitimacy of the press to alerting people to the existence of a “deep state,” the ideologues of neoliberal fascism are relentless in using the language of cynicism and conspiracy to mobilize support for the overthrow of all institutions that are identified as serving the interests of those people—“the disposable”—undeserving of compassion, power and respect. The time may be different, but the scapegoats are the same. Jews, people of color, the LGBTQ community, poor people, people challenged by disabilities, immigrants from across the globe, and anyone on the Left (or Right) that doesn’t march in lock-step to the beat of the neoliberal fascist drum are targeted for some form of physical or symbolic violence. People are physically assaulted and reputations are ruined because they simply were exercising their rights as citizens and/or humans. What used to be prideful displays of American exceptionalism are now targets for disciplinary action.

But maybe even more pernicious and threatening to democracy than the physical and symbolic violence we see, hear about and experience on a daily basis is the celebration of violence or the threat of violence as a preferred and legitimate means to an end. Compassion, empathy, respect, compromise, intellectual rigor, mindful consideration, thoughtful struggle, diplomacy, and moral decency are relics of a social and political imaginary no longer valued or operating in this new political landscape. These are replaced by a celebration of tribalism, warfare, denigration, degradation, humiliation, shallow thinking, and rancor. The thing about Nazism and the death camps that troubled so many in addition to the horror of the systemic murdering of millions was how it could happen in an “advanced,” “civilized” society. Indeed, the terror of the unforeseen hides in the distortion of memory and the language of deception and denial. Whether the seeds of fascism lay in enlightenment philosophy itself, as Horkheimer and Adorno argued, is beyond the scope of this essay. But what is certainly true is that technology, advancements in the social sciences, and philosophy do not inoculate us from the barbarism of (post) modernity.

True in Hitler’s Germany and true today in Trump’s America, neoliberal fascism requires an enthusiastic mob and a made-for-TV mobster. Trump, like a character from central casting, fits the bill. Not only does he use profanity and sexually degrade women to position himself as a tough guy for his base but he employs to great effect the language of the gangster. His veiled and coded threats have a chilling effect on his adversaries and a mobilizing effect on his followers. Even some of his liberal critics seem titillated by his gangster persona. It is not a surprise, as Giroux meticulously documents, that violence against immigrants, gay people, and Jews is on the rise. Inciting violence through the use of fear mongering, demonization, and stereotyping, neoliberal fascist ideology has slowly but effectively lowered the bar on what it means to be a responsible citizen. Patriotism is equated with white nationalism while the demands of self-governance are correlated with socialist ideology. Patriots who stand up and challenge neoliberal fascist ideologues on the grounds that their actions are not just immoral but illegal are accused of treason and threatened in not so veiled language with violence and death. His followers run around screaming at journalists on the street or at his Reichian rallies, “Fake news! Fake news!” as they hold up their cell phones to record the interaction. The mobster is nothing without his crew and Trump’s crew seems all too willing to enact whatever punishment he deems necessary to curb dissent and protect its political and economic power. Connect that to a deregulated weapons market, the explicit support he gets from the NRA, white supremacists, and Neo-Nazi organizations on one hand, and the implicit support of the GOP on the other and we have a recipe for a very real constitutional crisis.

In the face of this latest threat to human decency and civic agency, and even as he acknowledges that “the smell of death is everywhere under this administration,” Giroux argues that we must make

education a central element of politics, whose aim is to change the way people think, desire, dream, and act…The challenge we face under a fascism buoyed by a savage neoliberalism is to ask and act on what language, memory, and education as the practice of freedom might mean in a democracy, what work can they perform, and how civic courage can be nourished by collective action and the ongoing struggle to create a broad-based democratic socialist movement.

This has been a consistent appeal in Giroux’s work. He is never defeated nor apathetic in the face of extreme abuses of power. For Giroux, learning from people like Theodor Adorno, domination is always leaky. He recognizes hope in those leaks. Giroux’s theory of hope as a lever of outrage and social change is grounded in his commitment to critical education, collective resistance, and social action for structural change. From critique to possibility, Giroux has always believed in the power of the individual to not only resist, but overcome.

When I first met Henry during a visit he made to UMass Boston in 1997, I was struck by his energy and joie de vivre. Although I had struggled to understand his book Teachers and Intellectuals (1988), I was fascinated by what I did understand and thrilled by the way he used language. I came to learn about all of the negative critiques of his work and use of language, but for me I was hooked. His work taught me a language of critique and possibility that I first applied to my own life and experience and then connected up to a more complex web of ideas. Being a high school drop-out, line cook/dishwasher, and struggling graduate student, I had never met anyone quite like him. In conversation, we spoke the same language. I didn’t know yet what critical pedagogy was and frankly had no idea who he was. I just knew that I needed to learn as much as I could from him. Then I got lucky.

In the time I worked as his research assistant at Penn State University in the Waterbury Forum for Education and Cultural Studies from 1998-2001, I was constantly impressed by his commitment to intellectual development, mentorship, and hope. Even though his work exposed the ugly underbelly of media, Disney, capitalism, and schooling, he was always thrilled and grateful to be in the game. For Henry, a language of possibility is a necessary dimension of critical consciousness. He taught me how to find joy in the struggle, not the win. Not that he didn’t want to win. But it was not the point of social/political struggle. If a guaranteed outcome becomes the precondition of struggle then cynicism will effectively asphyxiate hope. And as we know, cynicism is the opposite of hope. Another way to say this is that cynicism turns the social imagination on its head by always knowing that the fix is in. Referencing Rebecca Solnit, Giroux writes, “hope is a gift that we cannot surrender because it amplifies the power of alternative visions, offers up stories in which we can imagine the unimaginable, enables people to ‘move from depression to outrage,’ and positions people to take seriously what they are for and what they are against.” As someone who flirts regularly with the specter of despair, Henry’s lessons on hope have helped bring me back, time and again, from the edge of hopelessness. His tenacious refusal to give up can be seen in his scholarship’s relentless demand that we not look away, that we bear witness. He gives no quarter.

In The Terror of the Unforeseen, Henry is at the top of his game. And although the book in its entirety is a lesson in trenchant research and critical analysis (with 488 footnotes I was reminded of something Noam Chomsky said about the different standards that are applied to research on the Left vs. the Right), I am most impressed by his continued commitment to a language of possibility. These are depressing times. His work exposes in high relief the multi-pronged threat that neoliberal fascism represents to human ecology. Nevertheless, or rather because of this, the final chapter looks at not just what it means to resist the current attack on human rights, freedoms, and decency, but digs deeper into what it might mean to change the conditions that created the degraded political reality in the first place. According to Giroux, the most visible threats are not the most dangerous. Trumpism, white nationalism, and corporate greed are all viable threats to our humanity and should be resisted and overcome with all the energy we can generate. But for Giroux (and Roth’s narrator in The Plot Against America), the most serious threat is “the terror that is state sanctioned and hides in the shadows of power.” This is the terror of the unforeseen and the struggle against it therefore demands “more than engaging material relations of power or the economic architecture of neoliberal fascism; it also means taking on the challenge of producing the tools and tactics necessary to rethink and create the conditions for a new kind of subjectivity as the basis for a new kind of socialist politics.”

He ends with some essential ideas about what such a struggle will require. First, social isolation is the life-blood of neoliberal fascism. We are not alone and must try and connect in and across communities. We cannot retreat into our tribes and become disconnected from a common language of hope and compassion. The struggle to imagine an alternative to neoliberalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity demands a reaching across our tribal associations. “Radical politics,” Giroux writes, “begin when one refuses to face one’s fate alone, learns about the workings and mechanisms of power, and rejects the dominant mantra of social isolation.” A socialist politics demands a radical imagination connected to an intersectional web of communities fighting against a common enemy and for a similar outcome.

Second, we must work collectively to “reject the ongoing normalizing of existing relations of domination and control while simultaneously repudiating the notion that capitalism and democracy are one and the same.” I am always struck by how often my students don’t know the difference between these two systems. Moreover, many who do know the difference have been taught that although there might be a viable alternative to democracy, capitalism is immutable. They can more easily imagine, as Frederick Jameson famously quipped, the end of the world before they can imagine an alternative to capitalism. Even more troubling perhaps is that many people seem more concerned with the idea of regulated consumption than with the implications of a weakening polity and their diminished political agency.

This leads Giroux to argue, building on Gregory Leffel’s work, for a language of “imagined futures.” More than an appeal to the power of utopian thinking, a language of imagined futures “has to create political formations capable of grasping neoliberal fascism as a totality, a single integrated system whose shared roots extends from class and racial injustices under financial capitalism to ecological problems and the increasing expansion of the prison state and the military industrial complex.” Although Giroux doesn’t speak specifically about the potential of science fiction to guide us in the development of a language of imagined futures, I think it’s a genre that has numerous opportunities. Last and First Men (1930) by Olaf Stapledon is one example of science fiction that continues to impact my own thinking. Science fiction is a disruptive discourse because it moves us beyond naturalized paradigms of language, thought, and behavior. It’s a genre that denaturalizes not just the present, but the very notion of what is possible.

Fourth, Giroux argues for the need to develop what C. Wright Mills called a sociological imagination. Our private troubles are public issues. By learning how to think about our individual problems like this we are rejecting neoliberalism’s most powerful ideological tenets; that is, “working to make the personal the only politics that matters while detaching private troubles from the wider world.” Neoliberal atomization within tribal ideology seems to be what is creating the conditions of hopelessness and apathy that afflict so many. Bombarded by an endless spectacle of gross indecencies, our inner minds seem to be the only place to hide. But even here, we can’t find solace or hope. What Erich Fromm called “anonymous authority” occupies the quiet spaces of unconsciousness. The gnashing teeth of power and violence echo in our ears like the sound of flesh ripping from bone. It’s terrifying but familiar. For Giroux this is not a time to retreat—even if we could—into the personal and private; in order to have a chance of overcoming this latest challenge to our freedom and humanity, we must struggle together to find a common language from which to negotiate our differences.

By mapping the various points of intersection of identity and political interests, what appears to be a fractured tribalism reappears as a cross-section of both divergent and common interests. Like the petals of a flower, our interests touch and overlap, but peeled off from each other, detached from the center, the petal will die. Overcoming atomization and tribal ideology demands that we hold each other’s hands in solidarity even when we don’t agree on each and every thing. We must touch, hold, and caress in order to listen and learn from each other. We must take care and give care to and from people whose experiences in the world might be quite different from our own. As Audre Lorde once said, “I don’t have to be you to work with you.” This requires us to learn to love ourselves but not as a reaction to hating, dismissing, disparaging, or disposing of others. This is a form of “negative love” and will only lead to self-hatred, feelings of guilt and resentment, more violence, and further separation. We are, as Carol Gilligan correctly observed, always in-relation to each other. But we can experience being in-relation in ways that negate our shared humanity or affirm it. Love for ourselves—positive love—must be built on our respect, affirmation, compassion and care for each other. The seeds of resistance and the will to overcome the hegemony of neoliberal fascism will come from the intrinsic power in our collective differences, not in spite of them.