David Martin Jones
The Dark Side of Sunshine
31st January 2022
The fictional University of Sunshine, Bayside, on America’s West coast, is the best public university in the world, ‘because it is the most enlightened university in the world’ declares its President.
British exchange lecturer, Dr Simon Ranald, soon finds himself out of his depth. Despite teaching international politics at London’s politically correct Riverside University, Simon finds the Bayside campus an altogether more challenging proposition. On the most progressive campus in America, the World and International Studies Programme (WISP) teaches peace not war. The History department, which still teaches war, ‘is so last century’. Meanwhile the Director of Asian Studies prefers Asia to the west because it has ‘no white racism’.
Identity is everything on the Bayside campus and micro aggressions are detectable everywhere. As one sympathetic student tells ‘pale, male and stale’, Simon, he will have to pretend to be ‘melatonin and estrogen challenged’. His British accent too is a worry at a university where glorifying imperialism is a sackable offence. This, however, is only the beginning of Simon’s woes. His head of department reprimands him for assigning too much course reading. Bayside students ‘expect their lecturers to tell them what not to read’ and prefer learning in ‘less prescriptive ways’, finding their inner voices by constructing ‘narratives’ . A cynical programme director explains the system:
“We validate the instructors, so that they can validate the students. Then the students validate us. So that the institution appears valid to their recruiters.”
It all sounds so familiar.
Bruce Newsome’s The Dark Side of Sunshine is a provocative debut novel. Through his alter ego Simon Ranald’s Candide-like adventures, Newsome satirizes woke, cynical self promotion and the corrupt scholarship that now prevails on most US and UK campuses. The satire recalls earlier university novels like Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man and David Lodge’s Changing Places. Surprisingly, despite the wealth of material currently available, the genre has fallen into desuetude. Like everything else on the contemporary campus it has been cancelled, this time by the increasingly woke publishing industry itself rather than no-platforming students. Newsome, a former lecturer in international politics at the University of California, Berkley, has, to his credit, made a brave attempt to revive the genre.
Like David Lodge’s Philip Swallow, Simon Ranald is a naïve Brit exposed to the high octane enthusiasms of US academe. He falls victim to what Mary McCarthy identified as the university’s ‘ferocious envy of mediocrity for excellence, the ruling passion of all systems of jobholders’. As Newsome reveals, this passion for mediocrity now requires imposing a constantly changing progressive ideology on both students and staff . As the Chancellor of Bayside declares, ‘If you’re not progressing, you’re regressing’.
Academic success, Simon discovers, requires not substance but a distinctive progressive style. The university Vice Chancellor for Intolerance of the Intolerant maintains incoherently that substance begins with style. ‘All human beings are interchangeable’, he muses, ‘all stories are reducible whatever the culture. And stories are the only things people remember whatever the facts’. The university’s publicity manager tells Simon to start a blog. ‘Students are enlightened and can work out conclusions from a blog … Your job is to communicate the simplest version of anything’.
Meanwhile, the ubiquitous service for Disabilities Accommodation For Inclusivity (DAFI) informs Simon his teaching creates unnecessary stress. This is particularly the case when he assumes responsibility for a course on right wing extremism. When he changes the course title to counter terrorism and counter extremism, his woker students, of course, object. The course is cancelled and the students awarded A grades to relieve their anxiety.
The university, nevertheless, remains theoretically committed to academic freedom. The only problem is, as the university chancellor helpfully explains, ‘sometimes we need freedom from free speech’. Freedom, from this progressive perspective, ‘begins with solidarity’. His Riverside University equivalent agrees, adding that ‘pluralism begins with consensus’. A free speech activist is subsequently banned from the campus for inciting hatred. ‘Support free speech, ban the bigot!’ exclaim protesters from the sinister campus activist group the ‘Fascist Fighters’.
The end of Simon’s year abroad coincides with the US presidential elections. The university senior leadership team enthusiastically support the progressive feminist candidate, Trixie Downer. Her loss shocks both student activists, the university hierarchy and the big tech companies that serve on its boards. The President cancels classes for a week for reflection, ‘to reaffirm our values of respect and inclusion,’ and to facilitate ‘student healing’ from the shock.
Returning to London, an increasingly deracinated Simon finds his alma mater Riverside University attempting to keep up with its American twin. Its new director renames the institutuon Riverside Diversity. Living in London, Simon feels like he is ‘watching ancient Rome turn into modern Rome’.
Newsome’s self-published novel is a thoughtful and prescient antidote to the self-lacerating homilies on our imperial and colonialist crimes currently on display in most bookshops. Some of Newsome’s targets, it should be said, don’t quite come off. A progressive academic claiming that Churchill was really a Remainer doesn’t work and the university’s China fixation is perhaps under explored. The difficulty with campus wokery is that its fanatic enthusiasms are often much stranger than fiction. Newsome, nevertheless, has written a welcome and refreshingly original satire on its many shortcomings.
David Martin Jones is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is co-author of Terror in the Western Mind: Cultural Responses to 9/11, published by Academica Press.
Bruce Oliver Newsome, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas, Permian Basin. The Dark Side of Sunshine can be purchased here.