Fifth Thought: How (Not) to Play the Hunger Games

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.

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9 Responses to Fifth Thought: How (Not) to Play the Hunger Games

  1. Maria Rosales says:

    I have been avidly reading this series. Your thoughtfulness and honesty are compelling. And I am also a professor at a liberal arts school that is dealing with many of the same issues.

    But I was brought up short by your comment that domestic violence and sexual assault have gotten worse. Reports of both have been dropping for a while, both in terms of police reports and in anonymous surveys. Also, many fewer people are killed by partners now than in the 1970s, which, since that crime is harder to hide, makes the drop in reports seem based in a real change.

    (Domestic violence and sexual assault are both seriously under reported, but the evidence does not suggest they are more under reported now than in the past.)

  2. That’s a fair point. I suppose what I meant was that we’re going through a period of grappling with the fact that existing systems meant to protect against or sanction sexual assault have been seriously deficient–that’s happening across many institutions, not just in higher ed. But I also think there’s something to come to grips with in the sorts of reactions surrounding assault that we’ve seen in Steubenville that feels culturally worse to me if not worse in terms of numbers of incidents.

  3. Ben Berger says:

    I was talking on the phone today with one of my best friends from graduate school (also a professor) and it’s amazing how similar our conversation was to this post. My friend insisted that much of what’s going on now is a proxy battle for the larger economic uncertainties and nastiness that you mention. If he ever comes to campus I’ll have to introduce you.

  4. Ben Berger says:

    “Proxy battle” is probably the wrong term. He meant more that students were acting on free-floating angst that, in his opinion, had at least as much (or more) to do with the economic uncertainty and downward mobility as it did with any of the outwardly discussed themes.

  5. Joey Headset says:

    Doesn’t seem like much has changed since I was a student in the late 90s. Speaking generally, college students don’t care about any issue as much as they enjoy making a ton of noise and drawing a ton of attention to themselves. A lot of Swarthmore Activism took the form of “You guys all need to come to our meetings so we can explain why everything you believe is wrong and why everything is your fault.” Your 4th Thought regarding respect is really fulcrum of this matter: you combine old school know-it-allism with the new strain of super-charged entitlement, and you end up with a group of people who are incapable of respecting anybody else.

  6. Sarabeth says:

    I’m a historian of rape (although not primarily in the US), and I’d have to agree with Maria that the narrative of decline doesn’t really fit here. I think much of what we see, instead, is that a huge swath of really nasty unquestioned assumptions about men’s sexual rights over women are being shoved into the spotlight, partly by technological changes–no way that anyone would be talking about the Steubenville case in an age before phone cameras–and partly as a side effect of the increasing entry of sex into public culture more generally. And what we are seeing about the way that our fellow citizens think about the dynamics of sexual consent is really ugly. But it is in not new, it’s just more visible. And in fact, part of this visibility also comes out of the work of a generation of feminists (among whom I include myself) who have had, I think, a bit more success in forcing these conversations that we sometimes are willing to believe, feeling as embattled as we often do.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s really interesting, Sarabeth.

    I think we shouldn’t understate the degree to which “more visible” is new, though. I’ve always thought this is one of the subtle points on which social history and cultural history can diverge. Social history says: practices, behaviors, communities, etc. were there all along and then offers evidence to that effect. Cultural history says: but when they’re known or represented in new places or in new ways, something important changes. Of course this is also just continuity v. change, one of the class structuring themes of historical writing. My inclination is still to think that the changed architecture of discourse around these incidents is a significant event.

    I’m really interested in whether people in their 20s and teens can work out some very different architecture around privacy, transparency and sexual agency, and whether we older folks can give them the space to imagine something different.

  8. Alum says:

    “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.”

    I couldn’t agree more. And, frankly, this is precisely the reason why the college and its faculty should resist the student demands for the formation of an ethnic studies department and mandatory coursework in ethnic and gender studies. It would be nice if the world was otherwise. But unfortunately a robust understanding of intersectionality isn’t much help in swimming against that tide, at least compared to, say, some basic familiarity with statistical data analysis or the ability to write a concise memo free of academic jargon. Adapting the liberal art’s education for a 21st century world and economy is a massive challenge already. Taking a time machine back to the 1980s to refight the culture wars isn’t a particularly useful approach.

    -Swat alum, now a professor at another institution.

  9. Barry says:

    “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. ”

    I agree with the commenters who disagree – what we’re seeing is that what was formerly called ‘that’s life (suck it up, you deserved it, etc.)’ is being tolerated far less. I’ve seen some blogger make the case that we are in the start of an anti-rape culture social revolution.

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