Weekend Reading

Here’s your serving of weekend reading:

I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people.

The other day I walked past this particular deli. I believe its owners to be good people. I felt ashamed at withholding business for something far beyond the merchant’s reach. I mentioned this to my wife. My wife is not like me. When she was 6, a little white boy called her cousin a nigger, and it has been war ever since. “What if they did that to your son?” she asked.

And right then I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take.

One of the challenges to organizing on campus is getting undergraduate students—many of whom are being buried under mountains of student debt—to realize that their degree will probably not result in the comfortable middle class lifestyle that they’ve been told awaits them after graduation. This runs counter to their day-to-day experiences in which they do not yet find themselves in the uncomfortable position of not being able to pay back their loans. In a way, we are asking students to anticipate their own future failure. We need to think through the temporality of what people are being asked to act on and how that impacts participation. This requires a longer term relationship with students that may even extend beyond the time it takes them to graduate. Community involvement needs to include alumni and a more intergenerational approach to thinking the figure of “the student.”

With regards to graduate students and faculty, we need to dispel the notion that your scholarship can be your activism. Participation in university-based activism means material risk for individuals whose careers are tied to the institution in such an intimate way. Many of our colleagues, while championing anticapitalist, antiracist, and feminist politics in their work, routinely fail to participate in an open struggle to change the structures that govern our lives. While our writing and research can feed, nurture, and illuminate our struggles (and vice versa), the two should not be conflated. As scholars, we need to put our bodies where our theory is.

Given the current state of student debt, a vicious administrative class, and the prevalence of idealism and creativity, we believe that university campuses are logical and essential sites of struggle. That being said, the university is a trap—only university-based struggles that aim at generalization, at escaping the university and becoming part of wider social condition of refusal (as in Quebec), will have a shot at avoiding either recuperation or reformism. For us, this implies a two part, long-term organizing problem: first, organizing enough students to form a powerful bloc capable of acting on the terrain of the university, and second, organizing the communities that surround us.

Another reason Up falls short as political commentary is because pinning a society’s inequities onto the backs of a dozen kids and expecting them to perfectly reflect those ills sets up the project for failure. As Apted comes to realize, one person’s life is not a data point — at worst, it’s an irrelevant anecdote, and at best, it’s a metaphor. It would be a mistake to universalize the experiences of these 14 and hold them up as evidence of England’s failure to provide opportunities for all children.

That being said, the series hints at a number of socioeconomic trends that become particularly relevant to the next generation of characters — the childrens’ children. Tony and his wife take care of grandchildren that their daughter can’t raise. Paul’s daughter went to college and studied art history (a degree she doesn’t use at her job, naturally) while his son has five kids and is precariously employed, leaving Paul and his wife to take over when they’re needed. There were no “twentysomethings” in the original series — with the exception of Suzy, briefly, they all went straight from adolescence to adulthood. That’s not the case for their adult children, who, as Sue points out, are much more dependent on their parents than their generation was.

The very opportunities the original Up characters had seem to be fading, too. Will Sue’s daughters, who decide not to go to college, have a shot at the job their mother had — or will they end up working at Tesco? If tragedy or illness befalls Jackie’s boys, will they have a safety net to soften the blow?

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