Thursday, March 3, 2011

Changes in My Lifetime

This should be a post for when I am sixty or seventy or older, but this column by Gail Collins on the status of women today compared to when JFK was President struck me.  Plus given all of the political conflict today with the Republicans sliding further and further to the right and into fantasyland (Obama grew up where?), I thought I would focus a bit on how things are different/better than when I was a kid.  Or you can call this post my mid-life non-crisis as I am in my mid-forties, looking forwards and backwards.

So, what has changed?
  •  The Collins piece is about the status of women.  When I started going to conferences, the average young women at the American Political Science Assn meeting was a book rep.  Now, young women are doing very well in the academic job market.  When the market was good a few years ago, the most sought after candidates seemed to be women.  It will take a while for these women to make it to the full professor ranks, but the old boys club guys are on their way out.  Could we be doing better?  Sure.  But the 1970s are long gone where male profs could prey upon their students* and where there were no female role models among the faculty.  The separation between men's jobs and women's jobs still exists in terms of the numbers, but male nurses and female doctors are hardly rare.  Women can serve in most places in the military, even in airborne units, with the last major barrier being between everything else and armor, infantry and artillery.  The big debate of late has been whether men could be waiters at Hooter's.  That is a wonderfully strange discussion that illustrates some progress even at a place that is as retrograde as Hooter's.  We have had three women as Secretary of State (although one was just coming off a stint as one of the worst National Security Advisers), one serious Presidential candidate, one entirely mocked VP candidate and one early but serious one, and the Supreme Court now has more than one token female.  Not perfect, but in comparison to the mid-1970's?  Of course, feminists might prefer the more liberal Court of the 1970's to this one ....
* Does sexual harassment still exist?  Yes, but it is at least now conceived as such, rather than a privilege that comes with the job.  
  • Attitudes about gays.  Gay marriage was unimaginable thirty years ago, as were, essentially, gays.  While things are still called gay if people don't like it, it is a very different world, I think.  I am not a gay teenager so I cannot say for certain, but we have definitely seen huge changes in how gays and lesbians are perceived, what rights they are entitled to (to serve in the military, to get married or almost married in many places, etc.)  It is not a perfect world by any stretch, but it might just be a better one.
  • Race.  Again, not perfect, but better.  There is still an African-American underclass, but there is also a significant African-American middle class.  Inter-racial couples are no longer attention-grabbing, OMG, kinds of spectacles, but just ordinary.  I take that as a measure of tolerance.  On the other hand, our war on drugs has been especially brutal to African-Americans.  So, there are limits to progress.  Other minorities are now serving as Mayors, Governors, cabinet Secretaries, and so on.  Again, not a perfect world, but compared to the 1960's and 1970's, we seek marked improvements. 
  • I am not sure if we have made progress on religious tolerance given the increased power of a portion of the religious spectrum, trying to inflict its views on the rest.  It is harder to tell if there is more or less anti-semitism since opposition to Israel (which often now deserves significant criticism) is often confused with anti-semitism, but we also see prominent folks espousing anti-semitism in ways that we might have seen in the 60's but not so much in the 70's/80's.  
  • Are we more or less xenophobic?  Given that the US is more diverse now than thirty years ago, I would say probably about the same.  
Progress is a relative thing.  I think Americans are doing better in terms of living together amidst are differences, even if the media only covers the intolerance.  In our working lives and in our communities, I believe we are living a more tolerant life, but there is still room to improve.  Segregation still exists, as does discrimination in our laws and in our behavior.  We live in a particularly strident time, and the economy has not proved to be as helpful late in soothing the differences.  But for at least one day, I will be positive and optimistic.

Of course, this all comes to you from my own perspective--no numbers or polls were harmed (or used) in the making of this post.  And, yes, I am, indeed, aware that as a white, male, straight, upper-middle class academic (not to mention a resident of Canada these days), I am in a particularly poor place to judge the progress of racial minorities, gays and lesbians, women, college football players, and xenophobes.  But I am too lazy to change my identities.

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