I’ve always been aware of how lucky I was to be born in the 1960s and not the 1930s; how privileged to arrive into a family and cultural milieu which took post-war progressive politics and social equality for granted; how fortunate to be part of the resulting generation of educated liberals. I’ve always known how different and how much more grim my life would have been had any of those things not been true. I used to feel that it was my great good fortune to be in the world at a moment of humanitarian, social and intellectual evolution that rejected dehumanisation and division, that had egalitarian ideals and honoured the social compact, that holds that whoever and wherever we are, we are all equally important. Like the rest of my cohort, I never doubted the narrative of our own inevitability; that the world and worldview we represented were the leading edge of what would eventually be a generational, global transformation.
Only in the last few years did it begin to occur to me that this moment may prove to be just that – an instant, an anomaly, an aberration. That the mood of the 1930s is far more easily reproduced than that of the 1960s. That culture tends more towards conservatism than progress, and that adherence to social hierarchies may be too ancient and ingrained ever to be abandoned. That education is easier to resent than to pursue. That freedom of thought is less valued than a licence to hate. That we are as a species too inherently tribal and territorial to truly wish for others what we expect for ourselves.
I have chastised myself for thinking this way, without ever quite being able to convince myself that my fears were unfounded. Now, in the era of President-elect Trump, and the Brexit rejection of post-war political alliance (which, let’s not forget, was intended to prevent future wars), and a sweeping populism that is more comfortable with foreign children dying rather than living next door, and a populace that appears to positively revel in its own ignorance of facts … it may be time to confront the folly of my own optimism.
In a weird way I feel luckier than ever. I still have my education and my privilege. I’ve got a little money in the bank (though my US$ account is going be to worth a hell of a lot less once the markets open). I’m a respected writer. I’m fifty years old; if this is the end of a story we believed in, at least I got to spend the better part of my life living in it.
But there’s my brown gay nephew in Florida. There’s my sister and her husband and their three small boys, also brown, also in Florida. There’s my filmmaker brother now doing post-production in California, already an easy target for harassment when he travels because with that colouring and beard and accent and all this fancy equipment, something just doesn’t smell right. Their friends and colleagues and classmates, the kids on the corner and in the nightclub and on their way to the mosque.
I could go on, but you get the picture. I have other sisters and brothers, other nephews and nieces. I always took it for granted that the younger members of my family, and yours, could look forward to at least as good and safe a life as mine. I believed that being born in the 1980s and 90s and the 21st century was even better than the 60s; that those generations would also live my story of progress. I believed that the momentum was with those of us who cherish and uphold that vision of humanity. I can no longer convince myself that this is true.
I’m running low on hope today. I’m going to do what I do, what educated liberal progressive intellectuals do: read, think, write. Debate, argue, engage. I won’t stop fighting for the kind of life I believe everyone is entitled to. But for the first time – and I cannot express how hard it is for me to write this – for the first time, I am no longer certain that we’re going to win.