20th century, 21st century, academia, autobiography, Canada, conservatism, Donald Trump, Eric Hobsbawm, gender, generations, identity, Jayant Lele, Karl Marx, Martin Luther King Jr., race, United States
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.
John Dunkelberg said:
Very interesting and well done. I particularly like your section “… quite possibly the only generation in world history lucky enough to have inhabited a time so prosperous that that ludicrous statement was often true.” Our American exceptionalism has been so shaped by the better part of the last century that combined the rest of the world laid ruin by war (while we were essentially untouched) and a massive increase in productivity via mechanization that led to the middle class having wealth unimaginable to the generations before. Not all gained equally from that wealth, but it fit pretty well the “rising tide lifts all boats” metaphor. Fervent wishes for that golden time to magically come true again will not make it happen, and nor will throwing in with the likes of Trump.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, John. You’re right – we really don’t know how to bring the prosperity of that era back, if it’s possible at all. If anyone did know, they would have done it by now, since rich and poor alike would benefit.
I wouldn’t say it’s just American exceptionalism, though. Canada’s prosperity was just as great – so too Australia and New Zealand, also untouched by the war. (Canadian boomers are just as prone to “do what you love” as American ones.) Even France, West Germany, Japan did great in the 50s and 60s overall. The economic contractions of the 70s and the slash-and-burn economics of the 80s hurt people all through the First World. I don’t think it would be hard at this point for a demagogue to say “make France great again”, either.
Tasha Estey said:
Great post, Amod. As always, you articulate your points with laser precision and honesty. You have always been such a good writer and I continue to enjoy your blog. Thank you!
Amod Lele said:
Thank you, Tasha!
I had a partner’s retreat at my law firm this week and one of the panels was on diversity in the workforce and “unconscious bias”.
After the weekend I visited a Harvard website recommended in the materials and took a couple of versions of the Implicit Association Test. I found it very interesting. The results were actually closely aligned with where I thought my biases were — but with a stronger bias in some respects than I had expected.
I found the test to be a very positive experience. It divorces prejudice from blame. The prejudices we absorb are cultural — and many times beneath the surface.
This comment does not address the main points of your essay — but i thought I’d share this recent experience. .
Amod Lele said:
Yes, I agree – I’ve also taken that test and found it enlightening. Our saṃskāras are below the surface of consciousness.
Racial prejudice is very real, even among people who oppose it, and that has effects independent of economic oppression. That doesn’t mean it’s more important or fundamental than economic oppression, though, and I think Americans in particular often act as if it is.
Eileen K said:
Academia has been something of a bubble as far as I understand, beginning with rapid growth after World War II and the GI bill in America. I’m not sure whether other countries experienced a spillover effect or did the same thing independently (I have no cause and effect research here). Our fathers and my mother(!) were lucky, as their fathers would have most likely found it difficult to find positions as well. I don’t know what there is to do there on a policy level except shrink the size of Ph.D. programs, and that just seems to suck. John and I both looked at Ph.D. programs a year or two into grad school during the aughts and ran away screaming, although we both love to learn things and love to teach.
We had a similar manufacturing boom propped up by the war economy that is getting outsourced and automated. The former may be stanched by domestic economic protectionism, the latter not so much. I don’t know that I want longshoremen doing their old jobs: it’s dangerous, backbreaking stuff. Not to mention miners. Anyway, those jobs aren’t coming back, I think, in any recognizable form.
As a funny-colored woman with professional parents who could send me to private college, there’s been no better time to live so far. Of course, I couldn’t get a job in the humanities doing what I love, but my mom pointed out that that hasn’t really been the case for humans except for a few decades and my music is pretty strange anyway.
All that said, I’d like to apologize on my behalf to others who have been hurt by policies I supported or still do. In some cases I didn’t realize what the costs were. In other cases, I did or do, but believed the gains or right outweighed the harm. I may still support them, but there’s pretty much no law that doesn’t impact people negatively. American politicians aren’t allowed to say they’re sorry they hurt people or really admit it at all, and I believe that does further harm because it’s very easy to stop thinking about downsides that way and de-value in your head the people you have caused problems for.
Thanks for all your thoughts, Amod. Your fans in Seattle squee.
Amod Lele said:
One of the reasons I refer to the mid-century era as a golden age is that things were rough before that too. My father had it better than I did or will. His father, not so much – at that time there would not have been the scholarship that allowed my father to come to the US in the first place.
Those “When I was your age we had to eat dirt and you never heard us complain” stereotypes come from baby boomers talking about their parents, our Depression-era grandparents. But the opportunities available to our generation are more like those available to our grandparents than those available to our parents.
Justin S Whitaker said:
Hi Amod, excellent post. I know you and I have had conversations about/around this very topic a couple times in the past. At the recent “Mindfulness, MOOCs, and Money” conference at Naropa University I attended (which really focused much more on contemplative education and social issues than anything else), I raised your exact concern with Laura Rendón, one of the keynote speakers. She was sympathetic, but still mostly optimistic about the breakdown of the white-male dominated academic world. Many others, particularly women, were as well. Some worries about a “neo-liberal turn” and other economic talk was raised there, but most concerns were about breaking free of constrictive past paradigms and developing more holistic colleges and universities.
Amod Lele said:
Yeah, I hear that perspective a lot. As a minority academic denied the opportunities that my minority father had, I am, shall we say, skeptical of it at best. Far as I can tell, the most far-reaching changes to today’s universities from those of a generation ago are adjunctification and tuition increase. If that’s your holistic paradigm, please sign me up for reductionism.
Justin S Whitaker said:
And I think you’re right that we “progressives” have conceded too much ground on economic issues while celebrating our social victories: “more minority women can go to grad school, yay!” (4 years later) “more minority women on welfare and un/under-employed now have Ph.Ds. Huh?”
So perhaps this is also why Bernie Sanders, for a long time a “one issue candidate” could also rise to the top of a virtually pre-ordained Democratic primary process in talking about wealth inequality. I agree that Trump would be a disaster in the presidency, but I don’t think Obama has done much more than repair the previous disaster and Clinton would follow similar lines.
Justin S Whitaker said:
(sorry to post 3 separate comments, but your “post comment” button is disappearing on me every time I get too much text in this box. It doesn’t seem to be a problem for others, and I haven’t encountered it before. I’m on Win 7 and use Chrome, in case that matters)
The question of where our country is at and should be going digs deeply into our deeper values regarding ourselves, our communities, and society as a whole. Coincidentally, I just wrote a bit about this (inspired by a great talk/paper by Irish President Michael D Higgins):
Another major factor in modern (post-1980s) U.S. academia is the widespread government funding of both private and public colleges — not through taxes and subsidies — but through student loans. This has, in turn, driven the growth of on line and “for profit” institutions geared to students with sub par academic credentials.
In a superficial way, it is endearing that the U.S. values education for all — regardless of ability to pay (student loans have dollar caps but zero underwriting standards) or ability to complete the course of study and to graduate with a chance at a job. One example is our country’s largest law school. University of Chicago? No. Harvard? No. It is Florida Coastal School of Law — a for profit school backed by private equity funds — that accepts students from the bottom quarter of LSAT scores and graduates many students who cannot pass the bar. Because student loans are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy — these students are left with no education, no job, no ability to repay their debts and an exceedingly bleak future.
Europe does it differently. In many countries, there are standards for college acceptance — but government subsidized education.
It is no wonder that Bernie Sanders’ “free college education for all” pitch resonates with Americans.