America Defeats the Baby Boomers

by Jerry Cayford

Boomer-bashing is everywhere. Maybe it’s warranted, but a reality check is in order, because the bashing starts from an easy and false idea about how power has moved in American society. The recent change in House Democratic leadership is almost too perfect an example. As a “new generation” takes power in the top three offices, we quietly ignore the most interesting generational story. We griped about the old guard clinging to power, and we cheer for our new young leaders, but we don’t mention that political power skipped a generation: it passed from the pre-Baby Boom generation to the post-Baby Boom generation. The Boomers themselves were shut out of power. As usual.

Wait! Before you insist the idea of Boomers shut out of power is ridiculous, that Boomers run the world, that at most the effect would be trivial and the concern petty, let me tell you another story, one whose outlines are well known. My father came out of graduate school in 1963 into the best seller’s market academics have ever seen. The Baby Boomers were just starting to hit college age, and universities were scrambling to hire enough professors to meet this huge wave of incoming students. He waltzed into a tenure-track position at a good university in one of the most desirable cities in the world. A few years later, he got tenure, despite publishing only one paper, not even as lead author (an unthinkable feat in the publish-or-perish jungle I encountered some decades later). He stayed there the rest of his career.

Now, it is no disrespect to my wonderful father, who is smart, a terrific teacher, and a valuable asset to his university, to acknowledge that his career started at an opportune time. Contrast his experience with my sister and her husband’s, smack in the middle of the Boomer generation. The year her husband came out of grad school, there were six openings in his field in the whole country. Universities now faced shrinking enrollment as the Baby Boomers passed college age, but were stuffed with tenured faculty still in their thirties and forties. My brother-in-law got one of those six positions—a one-year, non-tenure-track post—saw the writing on the wall, and used that year to apply to the Foreign Service and a viable career. Read more »

This Populist Moment

by Akim Reinhardt

Beetle Baily by Mort WalkerLast week, Barack Obama got beaten up on social media and called out by the press for accepting a $400,000 speaking fee from a Wall Street investment firm. It was the day's major kerfuffle, the non-Trump story of the week, and reactions to it by many of my smart, well reasoned friends surprised me somewhat.

They began with the stance that this isn't an issue. Obama's a private citizen now, so who cares? But lots of people did care. When the story picked up steam despite their protestations, my friends then blamed the loony left for fabricating the issue, launching a general assault on fringe elements of the Democratic party and a firm defense of sensible centrist outlooks. Yet it wasn't just the left. The right predictably piled on as well, without any prompting from the left. The story also transcended the partisan divide as the centrist press ran with it. Christ, even the BBC, the vanilla pudding of international news, covered it.

In the end, the defense of Obama that gained the most traction among my friends, and to some degree in the national media, was a racial analysis. Some claimed that this brouhaha was another example of white people shaming a black man for earning a paycheck, the imposition of a racial double standard since white politicians and ex-politicians do this kind of thing all time.

This needs to be reckoned with. Obama was always held to a higher standard, precisely because he was black; he was always subjected to intense racism, and the racist backlash to his presidency as much as anything helps explain Trump's victory. Was this just another example of that racial double standard? It's an important question to ask.

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On Our Critical Categories: Pretentiousness

by Ryan Ruby

“Ordinary men commonly condemn what is beyond them.” —François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims

6a01bb08d71165970d01bb08f31a8b970d-350wiFor the American reader Dan Fox is an ideal guide to the murky space where class overlaps with taste. His position in the art world—he is a co-editor of the renowned contemporary art magazine frieze—has furnished him with ringside seats to some of the “nastiest brawls over pretentiousness.” Moreover, he is British. The class education the English receive as a matter of their cultural heritage enables them to view the matter more clearly than their American counterparts, whose understanding of class has been systematically retarded by taboo, ideology, and denialism, resulting in a deeply classed society that has no idea how to talk about this aspect of itself.

Class is not “just a question of money and how you spend it,” Fox helpfully reminds us in his book-length essay Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Coffee House Press, 2016). It's also “about how your identity is constructed in relationship to the world around you.” When we divide classes solely on the basis of wealth—into upper, middle, and lower—as we tend to do in America, it becomes easy to forget that the division is not only arbitrary, but also a gross simplification. In fact, the more generally we talk about class, the easier we fall into confusion. The so-called upper, middle, and lower classes are by no means unified groups, whose members view themselves as bound by the same interests. Every member of the “upper class,” for example, may be considered an elite, but this elite group is comprised of a number of class segments, whose members may in turn be ranked on the basis of their access to various kinds of capital (financial, educational, social, cultural, geographical, symbolic, etc.) whose relative importance is in a permanent state of flux.

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