By fixating on “intersectionality,” hiding behind “trigger warnings” and adding ever-more letters and characters to the “LGBTQIA+” alphabet soup, campus activists marginalize themselves. Expending energy on issues such as bathroom access for the transgendered reduces their movement to the level of trivia. By deliberately shutting out the voices of heterosexual white males, young activists limit the possibility for alliances. It is true that white men built most of contemporary society’s main institutions; but these can be expanded and reformed so that they serve broader swathes of the population. Telling white men that their voices aren’t welcome or useful insults many of us who might naturally be sympathetic to the cause of social justice.
The world currently does favor white men over women, minorities and gays. If you are a white male, you do enjoy a privileged position. Griping about the unfairness, however, is hardly going to help matters. Organizing a million “diversity panels” on elite college campuses might have the real benefit of providing a platform to many who have felt voiceless, but it is not going to spur any structural changes. The focus, instead, should be on the fundamental issues of the day, most of which are not identity-based but socioeconomic. Those looking for a cause to take up should worry less about identity politics and more about economic conditions.
College students should be concerned about our nation’s declining standard of living. Since 1980, wages for most American workers have stagnated. Millions of manufacturing jobs continue to be lost. Thousands upon thousands of family farms have disappeared. Good-paying professions like that of attorney are for the majority of practitioners less remunerative than before. Austerity on the part of the federal government has meant fewer career opportunities in public service for the middle class. And, in a terrifying development that is both a symptom and probably a portent, since 1999 death rates among less educated whites have been rising. Falling life expectancies were observed in Russia right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but have been unheard of until now in the West. The fall of communism was spectacular, unlike our own demographic calamity, which has occurred in silence. Now it’s time to ring the alarm bell.
College students should be concerned about the cost of their own education. From 1982 to 2011, the cost of a college degree in constant dollars rose 570%. Meanwhile, the maximum amount of a Pell Grant increased by only 219% and the median family income by just 144%. The minimum wage during that same time has fallen in real dollars. The ability to work one’s way through college has all but vanished for young people. Consequently, undergraduate student debt loads have risen to an average of $29,400 per borrower. Furthermore, many positions that a liberal arts degree eventually used to lead to, such as that of college professor, are becoming more scarce and less well paid.
College students should be concerned about the continued financial and moral effects of the USA’s invasion of Iraq. Not only did the war add $3 trillion to the national debt (per Joseph Stiglitz) while adding nothing to either the GDP or national security, but the ongoing regional instability it left in its wake is at least partly responsible for causing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. For economic and humanitarian reasons, young Americans need to become involved on these vital fronts. Perhaps the smartest thing politically for them to do is to ensure that our country steers clear of gratuitous military interventions and militarism in general.
A lot of creative destruction has been going on in the national economy, but too many experience only the destruction. Against this backdrop, the esoteric concerns of today’s campus activists fade in relative importance. Society faces larger threats; there are bigger fish to fry.
The 1% know this, and the success of their mission since the days of the Powell Memo has been singular. The share of national economic activity accruing to capital – instead of labor – has been rising inexorably. The average American is a servant of capital, not vice versa. Indeed, according to the New York Times, “[c]orporate profits are at their highest level in 85 years. Employee compensation is at the lowest level in 65 years.” Trillions of dollars that used to go to everyday working Americans now make their way into the pockets of corporations, and often from there to the Cayman Islands and beyond. Moreover, nearly all of the economic growth in the current recovery has gone to the top 1% of earners, who are better off than ever. I’m sure those who have engineered these changes in the American economy – through tax policy, through “free” trade agreements, and so on – are delighted that some of the most politically-inclined students on our campuses are more worried about who can use what bathroom than the bigger economic picture. If these priorities remain, we might someday live in a society where every individual, no matter how quirky his or her sense of identity, feels accepted and comfortable — but certainly by then most of us will have been impoverished.
In fact, the surest way to be able to comprehend properly what is happening in the national and global economies is to pursue a traditional liberal arts curriculum. A grounding in economics, political science, a foreign language, and even literature and philosophy, will give an individual the analytical tools and perspective she needs to understand the world and grapple with its fundamental problems. An obsessive focus on intersectionality and fluency in the LGBTQIA+ realm are comparatively less useful.
As for the famous “trigger warnings” in vogue on campus, these I think do students a disservice. One cannot read “The Great Gatsby,” “King Lear,” “Don Quixote,” or the Bible without running into material that is disturbing. Reading the most substantive pieces of literature is frequently a turbulent experience. That often is what makes the activity illuminating, memorable and possibly even transformational. Indeed, if we were going to affix a “trigger warning” to everything that is potentially upsetting in the world, nearly every aspect of life would need one. “Trigger warning” would be emblazoned above the door frame we pass through to begin each day.
No, jargon and the compiling of lists of grudges and grievances won’t have any effect at all on the juggernaut of global capital. On the other hand, efforts at making policy and social changes could lead to concrete improvement for the bulk of the populace. The focus should be on the economic sphere. And solidarity is needed, not balkanization based on various “identity axes.” College students today should do all of us a favor and keep their eye on the ball.