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Monday, November 19, 2007

Affirmative Action and...

An outstanding column by Roger Kimball(excerpts):
What is your favorite bit of Orwellian Newspeak? Near the top of my list is “affirmative action.” It’s such an emollient phrase, so redolent of cheeriness (savor the word “affirmative”) and practicality (“action”). What it really means is “discrimination on the basis of sex, skin color, or some other item in the contemporary lexicon of victimology.” But you can—almost—forget that while the pleasing phrase “affirmative action” echoes in your recollection. seems an opportune moment to step back and reflect on the phenomenon of “affirmative action” and its ideological comrade in arms, multiculturalism. A favorite weapon in the armory of multiculturalism is the lowly hyphen. When we speak of an African-American or Mexican-American or Asian-American these days, the aim is not descriptive but deconstructive. There is a polemical edge to it, a provocation. The hyphen does not mean “American, but hailing at some point in the past from someplace else.” It means “only provisionally American: my allegiance is divided at best.” It is curious to what extent the passion for hyphenation is fostered more by the liberal elite than the populations it is supposedly meant to serve. How does it serve them? Presumably by enhancing their sense of “self-esteem.” Frederick Douglass saw through this charade some one hundred and fifty years ago. “No one idea,” he wrote, “has given rise to more oppression and persecution toward colored people of this country than that which makes Africa, not America, their home.”

The multicultural passion for hyphenation is not simply a fondness for syntactical novelty. It also bespeaks a commitment to the centrifugal force of anti-American tribalism. The division marked by the hyphen in African-American (say) denotes a political stand. It goes hand-in-hand with other items on the index of liberal desiderata—the redistributive impulse behind efforts at “affirmative action,” for example. Affirmative action was undertaken in the name of equality. But, as always seems to happen, it soon fell prey to the Orwellian logic from which the principle that “All animals are equal” gives birth to the transformative codicil: “but some animals are more equal than others.”

Affirmative action is Orwellian in a linguistic sense, too, since what announces itself as an initiative to promote equality winds up enforcing discrimination precisely on the grounds that it was meant to overcome. Thus we are treated to the delicious, if alarming, contradiction of college applications that declare their commitment to evaluate candidates “without regard to race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or national origin” on page 1 and then helpfully inform you on page 2 that it is to your advantage to mention if you belong to any of the following designated victim groups. Among other things, a commitment to multiculturalism seems to dull one’s sense of contradiction.

Had he lived to see the evolution of affirmative action, Tocqueville would have put such developments down as examples of how in democratic societies the passion for equality tends to trump the passion for liberty. The fact that the effort to enforce equality often results in egregious inequalities he would have understood to be part of the “tutelary despotism” that “extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd.”

Multiculturalism and “affirmative action” are allies in the assault on the institution of American identity. As such, they oppose the traditional understanding of what it means to be an American...

...developments are abetted by the left-wing political and educational elites of this country, whose dominant theme is the perfidy of traditional American values. Hence the passion for multiculturalism and the ideal of ethnic hyphenation that goes with it. This has done immense damage in schools and colleges as well as in the population at large. By removing the obligation to master English, multiculturalism condemns whole sub-populations to the status of permanent second-class citizens. By removing the obligation to adopt American values, it fosters what the German novelist Hermann Broch once called a “value vacuum,” a sense of existential emptiness that breeds anomie and the pathologies of nihilism.

The bottom line is that the traditional ideal of a distinctive American identity, forged out of many elements but unified around a core of beliefs, attitudes, and commitments is now up for grabs. One academic epitomized the established attitude among our left-liberal elites when she expressed the hope that the United States would “never again be culturally ‘united,’ if united means ‘unified’ in beliefs and practices.”
Right on the mark in dissecting the problem!


Bret said...

In theory, I like the concept of affirmative action. However, I have to admit that in practice, it seems to me to have been mangled and abused so badly, especially in the education establishments (which seem to focus on indoctrination these days instead of teaching more object knowledge), that I can no longer really support it. I suppose I should've realized that it would be badly abused, but I guess I'm a slow learner.

Howard said...

I don't have a problem with what was attempted initially. However, in the long run righting past discrimination with a new form of discrimination was bound to have limits. Unlike retired Justice O'Connor, I think we've already hit the limit and the practice is now counterproductive.

erp said...

I must with disagree with you both. Affirmative action wasn't a good idea for the reason that it couldn't work. If we really want to undo a wrong, we would make sure that the best and brightest of the disadvantaged kids were identified early and brought up to speed, so when they got to college, they could compete on a even field.

After having watched bright kids completely over their heads in an academic and cultural environment as unfamiliar as the face of the moon to them, the notion of affirmative action is shown for the farcical notion it is. Black kids drop out even before the end of the first year even more disillusioned and convinced they can’t measure up. It’s a tragedy and disgrace.

An anecdote I often use. A good looking, bright black kid from a Boston ghetto area who was graduated from Boston Latin was an affirmative action freshman at a college where I worked. A friend who was his adviser tells this story. When they met for the first time, they began chatting about the summer and the student asked my friend where he had grown up. When he replied Connecticut, the student asked, what state is that in? How could this kid hope to compete with his very bright and privileged classmates. He couldn’t and didn’t return after the Christmas break ... and he wasn’t the only one.

The academic who said: the traditional ideal of a distinctive American identity, forged out of many elements but unified around a core of beliefs, attitudes, and commitments is now up for grabs... . is whistling past the graveyard.

Bret said...

I don't think we're in disagreement. I wrote that I should've realized that it wouldn't work in practice. You wrote that AA couldn't work.

Seems like agreement to me.

Arnold Kling wrote about AA today:

Howard said...


By what year were you aware of several examples of the kind you mentioned?

erp said...

Howard, Early '80's. Bret, it's an honor to be on the same page as you.

Hey Skipper said...


IMHO, affirmative action was never any more defensible than the institutional racism that preceded it.

I could go into some lengths to explain why, but I would just be repeating myself again some more.

Joe6Pak said...

Roger Kimball's main point is that AA is the spawn of the liberal elite intellectuals who are taking over the country and trying to reshape it because they are anti-American. Kimball's book "Lives of the Mind" explains the destructiveness of intellectuals' abstractions when applied to social policy. He shows what happens when intellect trumps comon sense and calls for more shared values to rescue us from the temptations of the higher stupidity. In that book he has a great reference to Raymond Aron: "The descendants of Marx and Nietzsche (and Hegel and Freud) come together by many paths. The existentialism of Sartre, the nihilism of Derrida or Foucault, all exhibit a similar intellectual incontinence. What unites them is not a coherent doctrine but a spirit of opposition to the established order, 'the occupatuional disease,' Aron notes, 'of the intellectuals.'" This what makes these issues so crucial to the future of America--this new elite, that is passing on a destructive and revisionist message to today's students, is determined to eliminate the foundations of American culture--the stuff that helped make the country great. This is just another example of the memetic infection mentioned in an 8/31 posting about "suicidal memes meant to undermine Western Civilization." That posting called attention to the recent publication of "Common Genius" that outlines the recurring impact of soft-science intellectuals and how they end by bringing on the collapse of successful societies. Bret admist to being a slow learner and suggests he "can no longer support it." That attitude misses the urgency of the problem. This is not an idle scholarly question to muse about. Every such social engineering experiment and manipulative governmental/judicial program must be vigorously opposed. Time is short. The elites are winning and the common people are the losers!

Bret said...

joe6pak wrote: "Every such social engineering experiment and manipulative governmental/judicial program must be vigorously opposed."

A little too absolutist for me. How about something like "the vast majority of social engineering experiments and manipulative governmental/judicial programs ought to be opposed at the federal level?"

joe6pak also wrote: "Time is short. The elites are winning and the common people are the losers!"

Boy, to hear the elites bitch and moan about how the masses don't listen to them, I'm not so sure they're quite winning yet.

Howard said...


Well put! I'm mildly optimistic - with people like Ward Connerly taking action and with the changes on the Supreme Court (although 1 or 2 more high quality justices are still needed...).