In the early 1960s, my father finished his PhD in political science from Cornell. Under the restrictive and racialized American immigration rules of the day, he needed to work in a neighbouring country for two years before he could come to the US. So he applied for six tenure-track faculty jobs in Canada. He was offered five of them. The sixth, at the relatively low-prestige Memorial University of Newfoundland, turned him down with a curt letter that said “In our competition, you failed to qualify.” He found it amusing that such a lower-tier school would say such a dismissive thing when he had offers from so many places higher in the hierarchy.
This story ceased to amuse me when I received my PhD from Harvard in the late 2000s and began applying for faculty teaching jobs myself. I sent out nearly two hundred job applications, most of them for tenure-track jobs, across Canada and the United States, and a few off the continent. I received not one tenure-track offer anywhere. If Memorial University of Newfoundland had offered me a position, I would have taken it without hesitation and been grateful to have the opportunity. The same applies to most of my generation in academia. To those coming of age in the 21st-century university, my father’s story sounds as implausible as if he had wandered into the White House, said “I’d like a job as President of the United States”, and been offered it on the spot. But it was and is true. His experience was in Canada, but as far as I know, those faculty of his generation with a similarly prestigious degree who could apply for jobs in the United States had a comparably wide range of opportunities.
This intergenerational experience should highlight how the story in the academic humanities and social sciences from the 1960s to the 2010s has been above all a story of decline. Many North American leftists look at the real accomplishments made in areas of race, gender and sexuality and see this period as a time of unalloyed progress. I cannot.
I say this, moreover, as a brown man, with visible Indian ethnicity. I have been a victim of racism but not very much; my father, an immigrant from India, experienced considerably more, as one would expect in those older times. But overall, I would give my eyeteeth to have had the experience that he had, racism and all. I want to cry out to the universe: call me Paki, call me boy, disregard my opinions at meetings, pass me by in a taxi, put additional immigration barriers in my way beyond those there now, deny me apartments because of the colour of my skin. But please, give me that chance to make my living reading and writing and teaching about the ideas I love, in a place of my choosing. I want the chances that my father had, that I never will. Compared to that, the sort of racism that both he and I have experienced is a minor, trivial detail.
I’ve been thinking about this point a lot in light of the recent political rise of Donald Trump. His political slogan is a masterful one: make America great again. It recalls the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, where my father and people like him – not necessarily white – faced a level of opportunity unprecedented in human history. The generation following them, the baby boomers, still often give their children the awful and reprehensible advice to “do what you love and the money will follow”, because they were quite possibly the only generation in world history lucky enough to have inhabited a time so prosperous that that ludicrous statement was often true. A great many of my friends’ parents still sometimes ask why their children can’t “just” be a writer for a living. There is a lot to miss about our parents’ times. Within the limited context of my personal life experience, the real and important progress that North America has made on racial issues does not make up for this great loss.
In his The Age of Extremes, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm refers to the boomers’ mid-century glory days as the golden age of capitalism. That description resonates with my experience just as it would with Trump’s core voters: members of the American white working class, who in the ’50s and ’60s enjoyed comfortable living standards in a unionized manufacturing sector that has now been gutted, and which has now seen its mortality rates increase significantly, mostly from suicide and drug abuse, in a way that non-whites have not. I at least have benefitted from progress against racism; the poor white people who vote for Trump do not even benefit from that. Even though Trump has ludicrous and counterproductive “solutions”, he at least acknowledges there is a problem, a grave one. Trump is a despicable human being and his proposals disastrous, but I deeply understand why his slogan of restoration resonates with so many. And it has become clear to me that many people of my social standing do not.
Consider in this light a Slate article claiming that only white people want to make America great “again”. It’s not as if the author actually asked any non-white people what they think on this topic. Sure, I’m entirely opposed to Trump and what he stands for; as president he would not fix anything, he would likely make everything worse. But when it comes to Trump’s implicit claim that the mid-20th century was a golden age from which we have fallen – well, within the limited context of the history and family history of at least this non-white person, that claim is more true than not. I have experienced the destructive force of late-century capitalism just as Trump’s white working-class supporters have. It crushed my dreams. Progress, my ass.
But I am lucky, and privileged, in a way the American white working class is not. I couldn’t fulfill my dream of teaching and writing philosophy for a living, but before too long I was able to pivot – to make a living off of educational technology instead, in a way that let me put aside enough time to write in my spare time, as an avocation. It’s not the life that I had dreamed of – the sort of life my father had – but it is a very good situation nevertheless. For those who grew up thinking they would work in their parents’ unionized auto plant and now instead work at Walmart, there is no such consolation. For them there is simply a world lost – replaced by a new world whose overlords, even before Trump’s rise, would have thought of them primarily as “bigots”.
For these reasons, while I remain firmly on the left side of the political spectrum, I never describe myself by the term American leftists now commonly use to describe themselves: progressive. That term suggests a belief that, in general, change is good – a belief I do not share. I noted a while ago that I tend to consider myself a conservative in the literal sense, and that in some ways because of my left-wing convictions rather than despite them. I wish to conserve the achievements of the unionized golden age of social democracy against the rabid forces of capitalist change that wish to take us to a capitalist world of more naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation than ever before. These forces were personified in Ronald Reagan and Marget Thatcher, but grew ever more powerful in the years following them. All of this holds visibly true in academia, which I can only see as following a downward spiral under the corrupting influence of capitalism.
There has been progress – good change – over the past few decades, of course. The first time I described literal conservatism, I noted the contrasting power of Martin Luther King’s call that in the face of serious injustice one cannot wait patiently. For women, for gays and lesbians and bisexuals, for black people, each taken as a group, the United States and the world have become considerably more hospitable places. To American black people who grew up amid segregation, it would be a cruel joke at best to describe the mid-century as a golden age. I cannot imagine that they would be so quick to make the wish I expressed above, to take the experience of mid-century racism in exchange for economic opportunity. Women are a more complex case in this respect: one may note that despite his frequent sexist remarks, Trump still has many female supporters; one poll late last year even found more than half his supporters were women.
In all this, the widespread decline in economic opportunity of the decades since the 1960s is as real as the cultural progress. The decline of manufacturing employment that has immiserated the white working class, overall, has hit black people at least as hard. American society has become much better and more just in some respects, much worse and less just in others. I don’t think it’s worth trying to assess whether these changes constitute a net gain or loss, whether one outweighs the other at the scale of the United States as a whole. But it is worth reminding ourselves, always, that the losses are as real as the gains. A President Trump would accomplish nothing to fix those losses and would likely make them worse. But unless we can find a way to fix them, we are likely to face more Trumps in the future. And if we do not at least recognize that the losses are real and important, we will be blindsided and utterly unprepared when that happens.