I was frustrated as a student activist in the 1980s about our dependency on the narratives and grammar of activism that we inherited from the 1960s and 1970s. Sometimes it felt more like we were historical re-enactors than people living our own lives, making our own struggles. What they had done seemed so much more heroic and consequential, against a seemingly clearer moral canvas, that the temptation to collapse the decade and a half in-between was often too hard to resist.
It wasn’t just us, of course. One reason that temptation felt so powerful was the actual historical moment we lived in: smack dab in the middle of the Reagan-Thatcher era, where everything that progressives felt they had accomplished in the 1960s and 1970s seemed at risk. Sadly, we hadn’t seen nothing yet as far as that goes, but that’s part of the point. Many of us didn’t pick up on the way that the chessboard had been cleared and the rules had changed. We worried, for example, about draft registration because the draft was the mobilizing issue of the Baby Boomers. We didn’t really pay attention instead to what the consequences of a highly professionalized, all-volunteer military lavished with enormous resources might be, because we weren’t going to be in that military (unless the draft was restarted). We worried about South Africa because it seemed to be the last battlefront of 20th Century structural racism without really coming to grips with the new ways that racism had moved into culture and consciousness beyond law and government. And we didn’t really pay that much attention to our generational circumstances, except to know with low-level buzzing irritation that being named as “Generation X” was going to be a lifelong sentence to holding up the gown of the Boomers ahead of us.
This dependency is still with us. I’m sure that there are plenty of our alums who felt a twinge of intergenerational pride at hearing that a Board meeting had been taken over and the campus disrupted: a rite of passage, a ritual completed. But honestly, I think there are three challenges in front of this generation that they desperately need to confront in new ways, with new scripts, without re-enacting the tactics of the past, and without in particular the invariable impulse to turn always to the most tractable, accessible, local target of the college or university according that old script. There are ways in which I think higher education (including Swarthmore) is a culpable part of the problems of the current generation, but much of that culpability lies where the students so far have not been looking for it.
The first challenge is the one where Swarthmore is like many, most, perhaps all institutions and where the activists have so far been pursuing the most directly relevant course of action that names the college as a problem. It’s really clear that not only have we not made progress as a society in terms of sexual assault, domestic violence and harassment but that we are in an uncontrolled descent towards new depths. Making institutions live up to their stated commitments, to hold people accountable, to make assault and harassment carry a heavy cost, is a good first step. I think the next step beyond it is where some creative thinking needs to happen. That can wait until the first step is accomplished but it is worth keeping some eyes on the road ahead. What do I think is down that road? I think this generation is going to have to figure out how to live brave lives that are both sexually vibrant and ethically responsible, and how to make transparency and disclosure a useful rather than destructive part of living those lives. That is going to take telling everybody over the age of 40 to just shut up for a while, because their understanding of sexual freedom and their mappings of privacy and confidentiality and their old battles are an impediment to bringing something new and better into existence.
The second challenge is that this generation, whatever the quality of their education, is likely to be on average or on balance the first downwardly mobile generation in living memory. We’re involved in that inasmuch as we hope to arbitrage a bit against it, to give our students training and cultural capital that will enable some of them to ride against the tide. We’re involved in that inasmuch as we still maintain a commitment to need-blind admission of students with the hope that we can somehow push back ever so slightly against widening income inequality. We’re involved in that inasmuch as we’re sitting on a huge endowment and have generous alumni that tangle us up in the forces and actions that are making a few people very rich while slowly impoverishing the middle-class. But this very much a case where there can be no revolution in one place: it’s so big. Whatever we’re going to do about the bigger problem it is not going to be a matter of activist students vs. complacent institution. It’s not going to be something you solve by Occupying Parrish Lawn. This is going to take a script that no one has written, a story that no one alive has lived. It may borrow grace notes and themes from past generations, but the legitimate anxiety and dread that this generation (activist and otherwise) must be facing as they look ahead is their distinctive challenge to solve. Though it has to be said: the people who’ve so far suffered the most in the Permanent Recession are people of my generation: professionals and workers from their late forties to their sixties who’ve had everything stable and expected pulled out from under them. But the newly graduated know that unless things change, even worse awaits them ahead. This generation is going to need the creativity–and unity–to keep their eyes on this prize, and cut loose from the old scripts and old tactics.
The third challenge is something that I think none of us really understand, and that most intellectual as well as political tools have thoroughly failed to engage or cope with. Why are so many things so bad now? Why is progress of so many kinds, by so many standards, so thoroughly in flight?
When I first started teaching African history at Swarthmore, I taught about 20th Century European imperialism as if it were unmistakeably and irreversibly historical if also exerting huge causal force on the present, as if I were teaching about vassalage or the Franco-Prussian War. One of the most disorienting things in my own life was to find myself in 2002 teaching about European imperialism as a directly relevant, unresolved political question in the present, in both obvious and unobvious ways.
I taught the film “Battle for Algiers” in a class in the 1990s. I scarcely imagined that a short while later I would be confronted with its prescience about torture, that I would see two successive Presidential Administrations aggressively pushing for the normalization and legalization of torture, indefinite detention and assassination.
Things are now sayable in public life that fifteen years ago would have ended a political or media career. Does it even seem imaginable now that Trent Lott had to quit as Senate Minority Leader after praising Strom Thurmond’s campaign for President?
There are a few shining bright spots like the growing public acceptance of gay marriage, or the possibility of some kind of political accord on legal status for immigrants. But in so many other ways, so many things seem so hopeless.
In 1988, I went to a conference in Canada at the start of my graduate school career that was attended by many anti-apartheid activists from South Africa. Most of them were profoundly depressed: the general conclusion at the meeting was that apartheid would persist for years and years to come, that the resistance had been for the time being defeated. None of them knew that negotiations had begun and the state was preparing a measured capitulation. None of us really knew that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union was imminent either. The future surprised us.
In 2013, the future has surprised us in other ways: so many things that seemed achieved or settled seem to have unravelled. Even conservatives have their own anxiety about the moment: no one seems to look at the present with any sense of satisfaction or safety.
So that’s where this generation is going to really need to write a new script, imagine a new struggle, look at the big picture. And I think that script is going to require a kind of proportionality and discipline that so far hasn’t made its appearance, an anti-reductionism. That doesn’t try to play the Hunger Games to win small stakes but grasps that we’re all playing against the Capital.