During my studies at Carnegie Mellon, I learned something profound:

Knowledge cannot be separated from power; civic literacy cannot be removed from public memory; and one should never take democratic freedoms for granted.

Since earning my Doctor of Arts in history in 1977, I have tried hard to maintain that sensibility and have published more than 50 books and numerous articles that connect scholarship to social issues. In what follows, I want to once again take up the mantle of the public intellectual and comment on the need to struggle over—and be vigilant about—the state of American democracy.

We live at a time in which civil liberties, values, and relationships are under siege. Democratic values, commitments, integrity, and struggles are under assault from a wide range of sites in an age of intensified violence and disposability. We now live in an age in which local police forces are militarized, drone strikes wipe out wedding parties and kill innocent people, and the surveillance state threatens to erase any sense of privacy and personal and political freedoms. In addition, consuming appears to be the only obligation of citizenship. Anti-democratic tendencies are also on display in a growing age of lawlessness and disposability that thrives on the purported existence of an alleged culture of criminality. The culture of criminality thesis has taken on a new register as the punishing state increases the range of social behaviors it now criminalizes. If somebody is poor, is unable to pay his or her debts, violates a trivial rule in school, is homeless, or lives in a poor neighborhood, that person is a prime target for the criminal justice system. Fear now drives the major narratives that define the United States and has given rise to dominant forms of power free from any sense of moral and political conviction, if not accountability.

The politics of disposability have gone mainstream as more and more individuals and groups are now considered surplus and vulnerable, consigned to zones of abandonment, surveillance, and incarceration. At one level, the expansive politics of disposability can be seen in the rising numbers of homeless, the growing army of debt-ridden students, the increasingly harsh treatment of immigrants, the racism that fuels the school-to-prison pipeline, and the growing attack on public servants.

On another level, the politics of disposability have produced a culture of lawlessness and cruelty, evident by the increasing rollback of voting rights, the war waged against women’s reproductive rights, laws that discriminate against gays, the rise of the surveillance state, and the growing militarization of local police forces.

We need a new language for politics, solidarity, shared responsibilities, and democracy itself. One place to begin would be to ask: What does a real democracy look like, and how does it compare to the society in which we live?

While at Carnegie Mellon, I learned that hope is the precondition for individual and social agency, that the horizons for change transcend the parameters of the existing society, and that the future does not have to mimic the present. I am still learning those lessons and have always embraced the power of educated hope in service to the promise of a democracy to come.

—Henry A. Giroux (DC’77)