The last word

Since the last issue

I know that readers wonder how long Jump Cut will keep going. I do too. The tasks of editing and web layout have made it a great companion in the lockdown and in my single life. I am just turning 82 and in good health and compos mentis. So, I want to go on as long as possible with putting it out.

This current issue is a giant one, with its publication delayed because of the pandemic. It is one of our best issues ever. In particular, we have groundbreaking special sections on pedagogy during the pandemic, contemporary media activism, and queer TV. Other writers already have submitted pieces for the next issue; hopefully some of you will be able to act as peer-reviewers evaluating essays as they come in or submit essays of your own. The editorial process will continue until I can no longer coordinate it.

Lots has happened politically since Jump Cut’s last issue came out in 2019. Interestingly, some things changed fast—the lockdown, the move to online teaching, a positive shift in many people’s attitudes toward gender but also a backlash. Some things moved a little—a Democratic President, a more open discussion of structural racism; and some things moved far too slowly—disparities in wealth, restoring the environment. Even though I never would have asked for a pandemic, it heartens me to see things can socially move, even worldwide, because I often feel pessimistically, “Some things never change.”

In that light, the 2016 and 2020 Presidential elections have caused me to reevaluate foundational decisions in my own life. I have prided myself on identifying with the outsider, the artist, the contemplative, the revolutionary, the bohemian, the DIY media maker, the deliberately childless. I looked down on liberal feminism, working for a corporation, allying with the Democratic Party, or entering academic administration. You can read Jump Cut’s long trajectory of editorials and see how our generation’s Counterculture influenced Jump Cut’s founders. It’s our pedigree. In addition, both Chuck and I studied 19th Century European Romanticism, so we knew the background of the personal choices we were making, how those choices were related to capitalism, and how they have continued in different guises into the present. But in fact, that choice to be an outsider has consequences. It often derives from class and race privilege, and it assumes someone else will tend to the work, often tacky and discouraging, of governance.

My shock when Trump came to power and my elation when Biden won were accompanied by chagrin when I looked back at my own snobbishness regarding the moral superiority of standing apart from the mainstream. During the Trump era, I thought about what the grudges were against “progressives” across much of the Midwest, my own place of origin. In looking back, I now see in a new way how my own rise to academic recognition, which began in primary school, was due to chance, parental status, and a meritocracy that serves capitalism well. I was smart, my father was an MD, I later went to good colleges and got a Ph.D.. The Trump era made it pretty late in life to rethink the consequences of meritocracy. Of course, as I now saw much more clearly, meritocracy leaves a lot of people behind; in fact, those not benefitting from it often understand the social structures that this “ideal” derives from and perpetuates. But for years I did not understand this. I felt, “I made it on my own.”

There was a counterbalance. My parents were both dedicated to social service, my father as a country doctor, my mother as a high school teacher. They raised us to take our identity from life in the community. Part of this derived from their never questioning bourgeois respectability, establishing one’s “good name” in that small town. There, part of professional responsibility meant taking on social tasks that needed to be done. What I did not understand theoretically I understood on a gut level: social service combined with access to higher education contributes to one’s own cultural capital, solidifying middle classness.

It is through this lens that I try to understand Trump’s rise and the large vote for him in the 2020 Presidential election, indeed the large number of supporters for political positions I find odious. In fact, I, fellow academics, the people around me, politicians labelled “Washington insiders,” people in the helping professions, and probably many of Jump Cut’s readers often have this kind of class privilege and cultural capital even though they may not have much money. We have benefitted from meritocracy and have not often examined its structural function. Commonly in the Trump era we heard popular suspicion of the way that progressives called on the facts to refute an argument, which is a way of expressing anxiety about how professionals and the intelligentsia get to define the terms of social life. In terms of higher education, we as educators are socially needed to provide a (narrow) pathway for class ascendency, but Trump’s popularity indicates another deep desire that many people in the United States have—to be affirmed in their ordinariness, just as they are. Teachers have cultural capital; they have won something in the competition for secure middle-classness. Many other people are suspicious of higher education, at the same time that they want their children to have access to it. And those of us who have happily lived frugally as outsiders by choice may be leaving governance to run by itself.

I will never forget the night I went to bed assuming that Hillary Clinton would be our U.S. President-elect and woke up the following day to find Donald Trump had won. I assume many of you had the same experience. Many of Jump Cut’s readers are intellectuals—artists, writers, and teachers. A few of our readers have run for political office; many more are involved in political activism. Most of us agree on the value of “facts” and of the arts, and we have rationality on our side. What I am asking for now is that we work toward a clearer understanding of our own privileged position—how we are located in and both change and perpetuate this world.

I analyze my own experience here to draw a lesson from it. That is, many of us, in order to take into account versions of reality other than our own, especially minoritarian positions, need to question our own sense of what is needed, to reevaluate our own locatedness in the world, and to listen carefully to other positions both before and after we advocate for change. This kind of understanding should lead to more informed, more genuinely communal action that engages as many people as possible.

My point is not to impose a guilt trip but to assert that we are always implicated in the dominant systems of our time—race, gender, political, economic. They are in flux and contain contradictions, which we can use to create change, but we never reach ideological or material purity. That which we create still bears traces of, even depends on, that which we would reject. People are socially connected in ways that perhaps we have not been willing to acknowledge.

As political activists, as we locate ourselves and our perspective within a broader analysis of cause and (potential) effect, we have to come to terms with the fact that in any campaign for urgent political action, there is always something left out, or the campaign itself often may have some unforeseen severe consequence. For example, many of us have experienced instances when our group or issues have been the “something left out” of a program for change. That omission, often over a long period of time, may have led us to move in a whole other political direction. In terms of unforeseen consequences, there are many examples in U.S. political history when a good-sounding campaign has had lasting negative repercussions; what immediately comes to mind is Senator Joe Biden’s 1994 war-on-crime bill that led to mass incarceration of Blacks.

In the immediate present, I understand that I and my aged cohort have been first in line for the Covid vaccine mainly because we have filled up the emergency rooms, needed more treatment and died there. Vaccinating us first was the logistical solution. On the other hand, I have seen all along that most people who have stayed at home did so because others could not: food workers across the production and distribution spectrum, health care workers including staff in care facilities, taxi drivers, and delivery and postal workers. Do they get vaccinated as fast as my aged cohort? No. Furthermore, and this is one of the issues our authors raise extensively in this issue of Jump Cut, the rapid and largely successful turn to online education has had deep flaws. Many teachers and students have had to combine their educational work with child rearing, a problem which educational institutions have hardly addressed.  And finally, in dealing with the greatest problem of all, saving the Earth, we can hardly estimate the “who’s left out?” and “what are the consequences?” for the solutions we might agree to work for together.  But we must start.

—Julia Lesage, March 30, 2021