Critical Pedagogy and the Future

Overcoming Fascism’s God Complex and the Attack on Reason

Columns by David Badash and Tom Boggioni were published recently in RawStory. One was about Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, and the other about the Arizona Republican Party’s nominee for governor, Kari Lake. Both were frightening. Yes, frightening in the sense that they reveal the extent to which Christian nationalism has poisoned America’s bloodstream. I’ve published numerous works about the dangers of Christian nationalism, not because I am against Christians or Christianity. Quite the opposite: I’m a Catholic largely influenced by the tradition of liberation theology, and I am not shy about my criticisms of the Catholic Church. I’m also a socialist and a social scientist whose political work is grounded in the Marxist humanist tradition and whose scientific work has developed from critical theory and the sociology of knowledge. I’m not a part of the ‘new atheism,’ as some might suspect. What bothers me most about Christian nationalism is the religious demagoguery of many of its well-known Republican adherents, their passionate love affairs with themselves, and what I believe to be the way their leading pundits misconstrue their claims to have been divinely appointed by God to lead America into the future. The way these political triumphalists use stochastic terrorism, or the incitement of a violent act through public demonisation of a group or individual through acts of political demagoguery, is not, as some maintain, harmless hyperbole. Consider the voiceover of DeSantis’ recent election advertisement that claims God has created Ron DeSantis as his chosen warrior to serve, much as Christ does, the people of the United States of America and to protect their freedom:

‘On the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said: “I need a protector. So, God made a fighter.’

‘God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn and kiss his family goodbye, travel thousands of miles for no other reason than to serve the people, to save their jobs, their livelihoods, their liberty, their happiness.” So, God made a fighter.’

‘God said, “I need someone to be a strong advocate for truth in the midst of hysteria. Someone who challenges conventional wisdom and isn’t afraid to defend what he knows to be right and just,” so God made a fighter.’

‘God said, “I need somebody who will take the arrows, stand firm in the wake of unrelenting attacks, look a mother in the eyes and tell her that her child will be in school. She can keep her job, go to church, eat dinner with friends and hold the hand of an aging parent taking their breath for the last time.” So, God made a fighter.’

‘God said, “I need a family man. A man who would laugh and then sigh and then reply with smiling eyes when his daughter says she wants to spend her life doing what dad does.” So, God made a fighter.’

Enter Ron DeSantis, our newly ordained saviour. DeSantis is not unlike many US presidents who claim to have been put in the White House by God and that God has directly counselled them during times of crisis. (Nowhere does DeSantis acknowledge that his advertisement is a rip-off from a 1978 speech by conservative radio broadcaster Paul Harvey).

While in office, Ronald Reagan wrote a letter saying, ‘My daily prayer is that God will help me to use this position so as to serve Him. Teddy Roosevelt once called the presidency a bully pulpit. He exclaimed, ‘I intend to use it to the best of my ability to serve the Lord.’ After an unsuccessful 1981 assassination attempt caused Reagan to reflect upon his faith, a Secret Service guard protecting Reagan recalled him saying, ‘God knew I needed a nudge. God wanted that assassination attempt to happen. He gave me a wake-up call. Everything I do from now on, I owe to God.’ The words of Bush Jr. became more difficult to forget when he proclaimed, ‘There is only one reason that I am here in the Oval Office and not in a bar. I found faith. I found God. I am here because of the power of prayer.’ He revealed the fervour of his Christian faith to a Palestinian delegation during the Israeli-Palestinian summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nabil Shaath was the Palestinian foreign minister at the time and also part of the delegation. She famously remarked: ‘President Bush said to all of us: “I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan. And I did. And then God would tell me, George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq. And I did.”’ The US-backed military campaign that defeated Islamic State militants in Iraq resulted ‘in $45.7 billion in damage to the country’s houses, power plants, schools and other civilian infrastructure,’ according to a new assessment by experts at the World Bank and the Iraqi government. It has been reported that more than 500,000 children have died as a result of UN-imposed sanctions in Iraq. Population-based studies produce estimates of the number of Iraq War casualties ranging from 151,000 violent deaths to 1,033,000 excess deaths. Not to mention 7000 American casualties.

Was Bush Jr.’s decision to encourage former Soviet satellite countries to join NATO a response to a religious directive? ‘Dear George, move east and take NATO to the steps of Russia. Yours, God.’ Has God actually installed Donald Trump as his Chosen One, the new Moses? Or is he really, as Samuel G. Freedman noted, ‘the Pharoah of 2020 America’ or his court magician, who, on April 23, 2020, when the number of Covid-19 deaths had the country in an apocalyptic frenzy, ‘metaphorically donned a cloak and turban – Johnny Carson doing a ‘Carnac the Magnificent’ – [and] announced the miracle cure of ingesting bleach or Lysol.’ The cold-blooded leviathan we call Christian nationalism has regurgitated the entire lie that Jesus wants to place Trump on a throne inside the Oval Office. The challenge for Christian nationalists is to create conditions of collective association in which Americans will spontaneously identify Christianity with white culture, with the European roots of America and will be willing to weaponise Christianity against the dark pagan forces of its Democrat opponents whom far right denizens claim are communists and blood-gulping Satanist pedophiles opening the spigots of an alien invasion, allowing the border to be overwhelmed like some monsoonal flooding of the Rio Grande.

Lee Papa, known as The Rude Pundit, responded to the DeSantis ad with the remark: ‘If Barack Obama had made an ad like this, evangelicals would have burnt down the country in a ragegasm.’ I would agree. VICE News’s Paul Curst said, ‘I’m not an expert on Christian theology, but I did go to Catholic school for a while, and I don’t remember reading “God created the governor of Florida in order to save America from the libs” in the Old Testament.’ This megalomaniacal political advertisement testifies beyond a doubt to the toxic audacity of DeSantis. It should strike an irreverent chord among all Christians but likely resonates well with Trump’s base. What this says about Americans who support Trump is staggering – but this is by no means an original insight.

At this time of Republican political ascendency and all the God-talk about Jesus and Christian nationalism, we need to be particularly concerned with antisemitism, which is on the rise. We exist more estranged than ever from our Jewish brothers and sisters. We are connected mostly digitally through platforms on which we’ve allowed this estrangement to thrive. Kanye West’s (Ye’s) antisemitism is a demolition device lodged in the structural unconscious of the nation. It cranks a timing device that continues to tick. It has been ticking for a long time. The New York Times reports that antisemitism is ‘one of the longest-standing forms of prejudice’ and that Kanye has about twice as many followers on Twitter as the world’s population of Jews. Antisemitism thrives today in many forms, including as a species of digital fascism. One of the most recent examples is Kayne’s post on Twitter that he would “go death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.” Fortunately, he was removed from Twitter. High-ranking Republican party members have largely been silent. Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has repeated antisemitic diatribes over the years, and Trump has demanded that Jews that don’t support him ‘get their act together.’ Their cowardice surrounding their refusal to denounce antisemitism is based on a fear of alienating the most extreme conservatives and Trump’s base.

There are no spaces into which anti-Semites can escape where they can presume to have the moral high ground when it comes to justifying antisemitism. No one can hide in arguments about the politics in the Middle East, or debates over ‘free speech’ speakers in university auditoriums, or behaviour in city streets populated by men in kippahs, or in ancient feuds between religions. Nor is it possible to take refuge in the role of the Catholic Church in influencing Catholics throughout Europe to view Jews as an existential threat. Sorry, there are no excuses. Antisemitism does not make history; it destroys it. It strips history of the historical; it freezes time into an ugly, festering wound. Antisemitism can be direct or can be simply an inference. Those who would celebrate the Tree of Life (L’Simcha Congregation) shooting or the attackers of the New Jersey kosher market share a Judeophobia that dates back to ancient times, even prior to the state-sponsored persecution and murder of European Jews on an industrial scale by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945, history’s most extreme example of antisemitism.

Let me give but one example of the myth that the leaders of the Russian Revolution were Jews. David Kertzer writes,

As Mussolini’s Fascists were marching on Rome in October 1922, La Civiltà Cattolica published a feature article titled ‘The World Revolution and the Jews.’ Keep in mind that the Jesuit journal was established by Pope Pius IX in 1850 to spread the pope’s views on social and political issues to the Catholic world, that its editor is appointed by the pope, and that no article could be published before its text was reviewed and approved by the Vatican. The leaders of the Russian Revolution, the journal argued, were not ‘indigenous Russians’ but rather ‘Jewish intruders.’ Indeed, it claimed, of the five hundred or so leaders of the Bolshevik regime, ‘those of the Jewish race comprise a full 447.’ This argument, along with these bogus numbers, was directly taken up by the Nazis and comprised one of the central elements of the Nazi demonisation of the Jews. One might ask just how all this fits into the church’s official historical account. Indeed, as this brief quote illustrates, even that last refuge of distinguishing between an anti-Semitism based on race and an anti-Judaism based on religion is anachronistic. In these decades, there was no clear distinction between race, religion, nationality, and what would later come to be known as ethnicity.

We need to acknowledge that blood libels and vicious myths about the Jews still circulate on the internet and denounce it. These false accusations against Jews of consuming the blood of Christian children date from the 13th century and made their way to Poland and Germany in the 18th century, and the view that Jews knead the blood of Christian children into the unleavened cakes at the Seder service played well in Nazi Germany and have made their way in QAnon conspiracy theories. QAnon updates this myth for the modern age utilising modern technology to recreate a moral panic surrounding Jews, in which ritual murder, and the machinations of George Soros, become a whetstone against which QAnon adherents hone their violent rhetoric. We have two white Aryan gods fighting over dominance of the Republican Party. It is a fight between the Aryan Gods, Odin and Thor, who are currently smashing through the gold and silver palaces of Asgard, with Odin (Trump) currently holding the advantage over Thor (DeSantis). Of course, QAnon, true to form, will no doubt find some way to blame the Jews for all of this.

One of the sayings that we have about critical pedagogy is that it involves tikkun. The term has its roots, of course, in the mystical writings of the Lurianic kabbalah, and historically has referred to a specific cosmological account where Adam was exercised to restore God’s divine light that had been shattered and disbursed during the act of creation. Acts of repair were meant to imply religious acts, but I use the concept in a more contemporary sense, and, in my use, it can be seen as synonymous with the popular concept of social justice and God as the idea of unconditional justice. By repair, I am referring to creating conditions of possibility for producing social relations of solace and hope to restive and aggrieved populations who are suffering under the forces and relations of domination and oppression. In one immediate sense, we can think of repairing the world created by the singular evil of certain men – I am thinking here of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most evil men in history, who was as intimately connected to the execution yards as to opulent palaces and high culture that overlapped with his ferocious quest for power and burning sense of mission, namely, his investment in the extermination of the Jews and the Germanization of Europe. But I am also referring to the concept of ‘mipnei tikkun ha-olam,’ which in the ancient Mishna refers to public policy initiatives designed to protect the vulnerable and the dispossessed. Here I am examining the efficacy of the term’ social sin,’ which refers to the structural manifestations of power and, in my own Catholic tradition, refers to abolishing institutionalised and systemic racism, misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia, antisemitism, and the systematic exploitation attached to capitalist social relations of production – not to mention ecocide, genocide and epistemicide (the destruction of the cosmovisions and history of indigenous peoples). I found the idea of healing and repairing the world created by ‘social sin’ useful in my approach to critical pedagogy, which is grounded in Latin American Catholic expressions of liberation theology and the Jewish concept of tikkun.

What the Arizona Republican Party’s nominee for governor, Karti Lake, is telling supporters, is as equally as ludicrous as the cringeworthy propaganda commercials posted by DeSantis. She is reported to have shared the following sentiment in a recent speech she gave in Nevada: we need to reduce the amount of education our kids get in science, math & history. In North Carolina, the dominionist Lt. Governor, Mark Robinson, said that he wants to keep science and history out of some elementary school classrooms. Fox News host Pete Hegseth, who Donald Trump, when he was president, wanted to nominate to head the Veterans Administration, is reported to have said this:

Everything about the confines of my classroom was created by progressives 100 years ago.… You mentioned the rows. You mentioned that approach – the bell ringing. God being removed, of course, lunch breaks, lunch breaks, different subjects, Social Studies…. The idea we’re not going to study civics, history, philosophy, theology, we’re going to create psychology and social studies and split it all up as if we can dissect human nature and through a scientific method which they’ve invented…. That’s right, create more perfectible human beings by controlling how they think and what they think, all created by progressives…. Did you take social studies? I took social studies. The progressives made it up it – it’s, it’s a made-up conglomerate of subjects meant to silo the way that we think as opposed to basing all of wisdom in God’s wisdom, in His word, and it all makes sense, looking at it through that lens.

Comments by Hegseth and Lake recall Donald Trump’s 2016 declaration, ‘I love the poorly educated.’ The attacks on critical race theory and the teaching of the history of slavery and racism in America throughout the nation’s public school classrooms underline the desire to, as Donaldo Macedo would put it, further stupidify and domesticate the country. This is a call to return to what Paulo Freire has criticised as ‘banking education,’ and in the case of contemporary US politics, simply providing students with what they would need to enter the workforce, raise a ‘traditional’ heterosexual family, and worship God in an evangelical church whose pastor speaks in tongues like Paula White (snake handling would be a secondary priority), punish women who have abortions and the doctors who perform them, fight whatever foreign enemies threaten America’s freedom, target gender-affirming care which would include prohibiting medical interventions, including surgery, for transgender youth, charge homosexuals with a sex crime, and require teachers to sign loyalty oaths. Clearly, the attacks on progressive education are at full tilt.

Science shouldn’t be seen as an enemy of religious faith, nor should religious faith be seen as an enemy of science. There is, after all, a strong connection between scientific and religious thought. Tom McLeish notes in The Conversation that ‘Aristotle effectively set the Western template for studying the natural world in the 4th century BC.’ He also points out that ‘Early Islamic figures were responsible for very rapid progress in a number of scientific fields, notably maths, medicine and the study of light (optics).’ He points to the work of the 13th-century Oxford theologian and later Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, ‘who was also a pioneering early scientist’ who contributed, astonishingly, to our ideas of experimentation, the big bang theory of the cosmos, the concept of multiple universes, and the philosophy of nature. We need look no further than Francis Bacon or Isaac Newton, who worked within a religious framework. And there are also early contributions from ancient Jewish history and Biblical science.

Fascist governments require a dumbing down of the populace. It is more difficult for them to exist in a nation of critical thinkers. In order for fascism to flourish, the State has to subdue its citizens into a consenting, hegemonic mass that executes the will of the state. Freire distinguishes between banking education and problem-posing education. Banking education works from the premise that teachers are the sole authority on what knowledge is of most worth to students and maintains that students must be subservient to that authority and to the established educational power structures. Students in this model are to receive knowledge from the teacher in a passive fashion, which grooms students into an obedience to decontextualised formats of knowledge that are set to memory so that they can be repeated through rote types of learning. However, Freire, Giroux and others want students to grasp knowledge dialectically in relation to current problems and injustices in the larger society with the aim of transforming society in the interest of social justice for the oppressed, the immiserated, the subaltern toilers of the world – all accomplished within an ethics of compassion, caring and fairness, mindful of the ontological vocation of education, which is to become more fully human. For critical educators, knowledge is not fixed into binary grids of approval or disapproval; it is not unchangeable; it cannot be deposited like money into a bank, since this is the way knowledge is constructed and engaged in the oppressive, fixed, seemingly unchangeable wider society where hierarchies of power and privilege are set in stone by capitalist social relations of production and circulation. This banking model mirrors the structure of an oppressive society in which the oppressed and the oppressors are ontologically divided, and the gap between them is seemingly unbridgeable and made to seem natural, ordained, fixed, closed for repair. It advocates that reality is essentially fixed and requires a catechism that is dogmatic and authoritarian. It is the perfect anti-dialogical vehicle for continuing political oppression and working against the liberation and emancipation of the oppressed.

We need to reject the dehumanising and digitised factory model of education advocated by Lake, DeSantis and others that pacifies the manifold complexity of knowledge, reducing knowledge to information, and presenting it to students as always ready for easily digestible consumption. It is no surprise that critical pedagogy is not welcome on the menu in a society that fears the creation of a critical citizenry, preferring instead a consumer citizenry. In critical pedagogy, students and teachers together control the educational process that prepares students to engage in a larger socio-political struggle, challenging oppressive social conditions and working towards a more just society in a way that informs the conditions and imperatives of humanism and socialist democracy. Of course, there is no one set of methodologies that works for each and every student. Curricular materials are based on the needs and interests of students and are co-constructed between the teacher and students, always grounded in student experiences and the everyday circumstances and realities of their lives. It is imperative that students are able to understand the social, political, and economic realities of their lives within colonial settler societies such as the US so that they can learn to become social critics and activists in pedagogical contexts spawned in the lifeworld of dialectical analysis and dialogical engagement that leads to transformative praxis.

Critical pedagogy enables students to choose topics and themes that are most meaningful and most relevant to their own lives and come to an awareness that there are opportunities to resist destructive conditions and situations in their lives. They can create opportunities to foment revolutionary praxis – to challenge existing problems in society and take necessary steps to improve the social order by linking critical reflection to transformative praxis, which can contribute to the positive, emancipatory and liberatory transformation of society. Teachers can’t empower students. They can only create the conditions for students to learn to empower themselves. You can’t teach anyone anything, as Myles Horton once said, you can only create the conditions for students to learn, inside and outside of the classroom. Students learn by solving problems, by actively engaging in practical knowledge creation. This creates opportunities for students to learn about the reproductive process of society, the class, gender, racial, colonial and religious antagonisms that create an inequitable status quo society, and to become cultural workers who can rewrite their experiences and perceptions of reality through what Freire called reading the word and the world. Schools and institutions of learning can be modelled on workers’ cooperatives, rather than on neoliberal institutional structures of competition and capitalist accumulation and consumption. As Josh Winn points out, worker cooperatives might be considered a ‘model of prefigurative politics.’ In the political context, ‘prefigurative’ and ‘immanent’ would represent two forms of praxis. As Winn puts it,

On one hand, prefigurative practices are the ‘embodiment, within the ongoing political practice of a movement, of those forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal.’ This is a positive standpoint that affirms the possibility of agency while acknowledging its historical and material limits. To the extent that worker cooperatives are prefigurative, this positive approach undialectically reifies the standpoint of the worker in the cooperative as embodying its own emancipatory kernel. This affirmation of labour has been the standpoint of almost all worker struggles of the 20th century, and as both a theoretical and strategic position, it must urgently be questioned.

On the other hand, worker cooperatives can be understood as establishing a negative standpoint, as a practised immanent critique. Such a critique is what Postone conceives as a reflexive attempt to critically confront ‘both the reality and the ideals of capitalist society, indicating the historically determinate character of both.’ Thus, as a negative critique, this particular cooperative constitution of labour points to what is, and, therefore, what is not (but could be). Understood as both positively prefigurative and as negative, immanent critical practice, we can argue that the labour of a worker cooperative ‘is not undertaken on the basis of what is but of what could be, as a potential immanent to the existent society.’

The idea of worker cooperatives being both an immanent critique of the is and prefigurative of the ought – is fundamental to the work of critical pedagogy. The purpose of critical pedagogy is to create pedagogical awareness on the part of students that they need not learn to view themselves as pawns in a game whose outcome is preordained but can come to see themselves as active agents in their own education and history through the development of critical consciousness that helps them evaluate, as Giroux puts it, social authority and asymmetrical relations of power and privilege. The classroom becomes a site of dialogic interaction, where students learn to distinguish sound argument and dialectic reasoning from merely holding an opinion. Students learn the reasoning process behind the generation of social facts. This, in turn, creates modalities of self-reflection that generates courses of action that can improve the living conditions of oppressed groups. Teachers can create liminal spaces in their classrooms by levelling oppressive authoritarian power relations in the classroom. The idea here is to be part of the development of a larger critical public sphere that generates a critical citizenry that can exercise power over the conditions which determine the outcomes of their own lives. This enables marginalised groups to reclaim their lost voices and identities. Critical pedagogy enables students to approach questions of race critically, beyond the stale didacticism of current teaching practices that focuses on sharing information rather than producing knowledge through an engagement with the world. Students need to challenge everyday racism and practices of exploitation by understanding the difference between holding an opinion and reasoning one’s way from empty assumptions to the realm of understanding, comprehension and justification. This stipulates engaging with dialectical reasoning through dialogical exchanges with others. When students are engaged in critical consciousness, they are able to make connections with the outside world and intervene within it; they are able to comprehend how the reproductive hierarchies within class society create ethical, epistemological and ontological barriers to becoming fully human and the urgent necessity to overcome them. Political leaders proclaiming divinity, urging schools to reject science and history and advocating for traditional asymmetrical relations of power and privilege are only going to create the condition for fascism to take over what remains of democracy in this country. It will discourage students from analysing analogies, learning to classify information, being adept at constructing deductive arguments, testing hypotheses, recognising fallacies in reasoning and distinguishing between arguments and opinions, between formal logic and dialectical reasoning, between didactic and dialectical teaching methodologies, and egocentric and sociocentric thought.

In this bleak interregnum, we stand at a crossroads in the United States. Our catering to corporate power has imperiled decades of social and political gains. We have become favorable to the idea of violence and self-deception as means for solving our problems. We are poised to lose what remnants of democracy remain after the continued brutal assaults on truth and reason over the last six years. We have dragged roadblocks across turnpikes and throughways to the future. We have mined the intersections, convergences and crossings with dread and self-doubt. We have lacked the courage to reason our way to knowledge. We have not discerned the difference between virtualism and realism. The internet has empowered our indignation but not our means to defend centuries of enlightenment thought, culminating in the digitised existential scream of Edvard Munch. We can hear the cries for blood and vengeance in the echo chambers of the Big Lie, we can see it in the effervescent smiles of young fascists marching lockstep on warm, torchlit evenings. We cannot let civilisation slip into barbarism. We must reopen thought to analysis, pedagogy to liberation, education to freedom.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). Critical Pedagogy and the Future: Overcoming Fascism’s God Complex and the Attack on Reason. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.