Bruce Newsome’s The Dark Side of Sunshine is a provocative debut novel. Through the Candide-like adventures of his alter ego, Simon Ranald, Newsome satirizes the woke ideology, cynical self-promotion, and corrupt scholarship prevailing on U.S. and U.K. 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 publishing industry itself rather than by deplatforming students. Newsome, a former lecturer in international politics at the University of California, Berkeley, has, to his credit, made a brave attempt to revive it.
The 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” says the university 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) doesn’t teach war, only peace. The history department, which does teach 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 microaggressions are detectable everywhere. As one sympathetic student tells “pale, male and stale” Simon, he will have to pretend to be “melanin and estrogen challenged.” His British accent, too, is a worry at a university where glorifying imperialism is a sackable offense. 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 program director explains the system:
“It is really a sham. 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.”
Like David Lodge’s Philip Swallow, Simon Ranald is a naïve Brit exposed to the high octane enthusiasms of U.S. academe. He falls victim to what Mary McCarthy identified as the “ferocious envy of mediocrity for excellence, the ruling passion of all systems of jobholders.” The contemporary university passion for the mediocrity it calls excellence now extends, as Newsome shows, to 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, is about style over substance. The “vice-chancellor for intolerance of the intolerant” believes 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 stress. This is particularly the case when he assumes responsibility for a course on right-wing extremism. When he changes the course title to counterterrorism and counterextremism, students object. The course is canceled 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 chancellor helpfully explains, “sometimes we need freedom from free speech.” Freedom, in this progressive view, “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 U.S. presidential elections. The university senior leadership team enthusiastically supports 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 university president cancels classes for a week for reflection, “to reaffirm our values of respect and inclusion” and to enable “student healing.”
Returning to London, shellshocked Simon finds his alma mater Riverside University attempting to keep up with its American twin. Its new director renames it Riverside Diversity. Living in London, Simon feels he is “watching ancient Rome turn into modern Rome.”
Newsome’s self-published satire is a welcome antidote to the self-laceration for our imperial crimes on display in most London bookshops. Some of its 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 underexplored. The satire also predates recent attempts at “decolonizing” the curriculum. 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 of its many shortcomings.