Affirmative Distraction

July 29, 2010

Please excuse this article’s being here posted in place of overdue original content, but it makes some good points, and makes them well… especially for The New York Times. Though, it’s heartening that venerable rag hired Ross Douthat and let him write this. Mr. Douthat, in addition to NYT columnist, doubles as film critic for National Review and hails from New Haven, Connecticut. He joined the paper in 2009 and his career will bear watching.

In March of 2000, Pat Buchanan came to speak at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. Harvard being Harvard, the audience hissed and sneered and made wisecracks. Buchanan being Buchanan, he gave as good as he got. While the assembled Ivy Leaguers accused him of homophobia and racism and anti-Semitism, he accused Harvard — and by extension, the entire American elite — of discriminating against white Christians.

A decade later, the note of white grievance that Buchanan struck that night is part of the conservative melody. You can hear it when Glenn Beck accuses Barack Obama of racism, or when Rush Limbaugh casts liberal policies as an exercise in “reparations.” It was sounded last year during the backlash against Sonia Sotomayor’s suggestion that a “wise Latina” jurist might have advantages over a white male judge, and again last week when conservatives attacked the Justice Department for supposedly going easy on members of the New Black Panther Party accused of voter intimidation.

To liberals, these grievances seem at once noxious and ridiculous. (Is there any group with less to complain about, they often wonder, than white Christian Americans?) But to understand the country’s present polarization, it’s worth recognizing what Pat Buchanan got right.

Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities. Unsurprisingly, they found that the admissions process seemed to favor black and Hispanic applicants, while whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to get in. But what was striking, as Russell K. Nieli pointed out last week on the conservative Web site Minding the Campus, was which whites were most disadvantaged by the process: the downscale, the rural and the working-class.

This was particularly pronounced among the private colleges in the study. For minority applicants, the lower a family’s socioeconomic position, the more likely the student was to be admitted. For whites, though, it was the reverse. An upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications.

This may be a money-saving tactic. In a footnote, Espenshade and Radford suggest that these institutions, conscious of their mandate to be multiethnic, may reserve their financial aid dollars “for students who will help them look good on their numbers of minority students,” leaving little room to admit financially strapped whites.

But cultural biases seem to be at work as well. Nieli highlights one of the study’s more remarkable findings: while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances. Consciously or unconsciously, the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing or “Red America.”

This provides statistical confirmation for what alumni of highly selective universities already know. The most underrepresented groups on elite campuses often aren’t racial minorities; they’re working-class whites (and white Christians in particular) from conservative states and regions. Inevitably, the same underrepresentation persists in the elite professional ranks these campuses feed into: in law and philanthropy, finance and academia, the media and the arts.

This breeds paranoia, among elite and non-elites alike. Among the white working class, increasingly the most reliable Republican constituency, alienation from the American meritocracy fuels the kind of racially tinged conspiracy theories that Beck and others have exploited — that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Marxist hand-picked by a shadowy liberal cabal, that a Wall Street-Washington axis wants to flood the country with third world immigrants, and so forth.

Among the highly educated and liberal, meanwhile, the lack of contact with rural, working-class America generates all sorts of wild anxieties about what’s being plotted in the heartland. In the Bush years, liberals fretted about a looming evangelical theocracy. In the age of the Tea Parties, they see crypto-Klansmen and budding Timothy McVeighs everywhere they look.

This cultural divide has been widening for years, and bridging it is beyond any institution’s power. But it’s a problem admissions officers at top-tier colleges might want to keep in mind when they’re assembling their freshman classes.

If such universities are trying to create an elite as diverse as the nation it inhabits, they should remember that there’s more to diversity than skin color — and that both their school and their country might be better off if they admitted a few more R.O.T.C. cadets, and a few more aspiring farmers

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Pretenders To The Throne

May 19, 2010

Rush Limbaugh is an author, in the most sluttish sense of that word (that is, its loosest and most non-discriminatory application). So are Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity. They’ve all published (and, to some extent, written) books. “Books” is another loosely and generously applied word, but it’s true all their books share some commonality: they’re double-spaced, published in large font, and don’t include any words requiring a dictionary. These guys know their audience, and it’s not the Harvard political science department. Rush himself has less than a year’s worth of Southeast Missouri State University under his belt.

William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote real books. The single-spaced kind, with no pictures. He graduated from Yale University and published his first, God & Man at Yale, shortly thereafter. It was revolutionary for its time, and he followed up with over 50 more; some political discourse, others spy novels, travel journals, or biographies. He also served briefly in the Central Intelligence Agency, as a field officer in Mexico, and hosted the talk show Firing Line. He wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column, On The Right, ran for mayor of New York, and founded a magazine, National Review. NR is still a bastion of conservative thought… not just of party line conservatism, but of conservative thought. Through it, he mentored young thinkers like Dinesh D’Souza and Richard Brookhiser.

Rush & co. are noisy, arrogant pretenders to Buckley’s throne. Buckley earned the title Lion of The Right; today’s pundits are hyenas cackling over the lion’s leavings. None enjoy his intellect or joi de vivre; Buckley was playmaker, coach, and commissioner of a game in which the rest are Monday morning quarterbacks. They abstain from play, whereas Buckley launched a movement and defined conservative thought. Limbaugh and the others define only conservative rhetoric, and trust their audience not to spot the difference.

William F. Buckley, Jr.


The Party Line

March 29, 2010

The Grand Old Party has lately been a house divided; Lindsey Graham and Olympia Snowe (R-SC and R-ME, respectively) keep a moderate tack, while conservative armchair quarterbacks like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly harangue them for imaginary disloyalty to the party.

Messrs. Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Beck, and the rest would do well to look up one other famous Republican, Abraham Lincoln, who served this country as President and wisely observed that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Where once Ronald Reagan and Bill Buckley sought to invite conservatism as a whole into a “big tent,” Rush & Co. seem more eager to divide the house at every turn. This is helpful to neither the party overall, nor national dialogue.  

The recent Congressional passage of landmark healthcare legislation seems poised to force the issue, and perhaps some reconciliation: the fighting and voting over President Obama’s health bill was vicious, to say the least, and neither side escaped unbloodied. Politically, the bill’s passage may have two effects: one, hardening even further the resolve of conservatives in opposing liberals, and the other: emboldening the Obama administration and encouraging it to tackle other reforms. Chief among those other reforms will likely be modifications to the banking and financial industries.

Here, some compromise may be had: though conservative Republicans have traditionally favored big business and seen government as an engine to promote economy (while Democrats believe economy is an engine itself for social good, and should be regulated to that end), the extent of public distaste for banks and business is so great now that politicians of either stripe may find themselves obligated to push financial regulations, despite their historic allegiances to either side.

The public cry for financial reform may prove able to forge cross-aisle coalitions, as Democrats and Republicans toe the same line for the sake of votes. Coalitions like that may be beneficial to Americans overall, in reigning in bankers and financiers, but will hopefully be at least equally beneficial to the GOP in terms of fostering an ability to compromise and move forward, at least with one another.


Brooks, On Rush & Co.

October 4, 2009

David Brooks is the oft right-leaning, and sometimes actually conservative, journalistic sore thumb which sticks out at the decidedly leftist rag The New York Times.

In his October 2 article, “The Wizard of Beck,” he reaches some of the same conclusions this web log did in a recent post called “Civil Service.” Chief among them: loud-mouthed, red faced “radio jocks” like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly are prolific fonts of sound and fury but, ultimately, signify nothing. They push reactionary positions which are neither realistic nor productive, and which often are hardly conservative at all. In general, they’re long on noise and short on ideas. Perhaps it’s telling that none of these radio pundits has ever held, or even run for, public office. They prefer the comfort of criticism removed from responsibility. As Mr. Brooks puts it:

“It is a story of remarkable volume and utter weakness. It is the story of media mavens who claim to represent a hidden majority but who in fact represent a mere niche — even in the Republican Party. It is a story as old as “The Wizard of Oz,” of grand illusions and small men behind the curtain.”

Which begs two questions. The first is, how long will rational, conservative voters abide these men? The second: has The New York Times been scouring this web log for inspiration?

Sound and (chubby) fury.

Sound and (chubby) fury.

Addendum:

Mr. Limbaugh has responded to the criticism in an e-mail to web log Politico, asking, “How many Americans know who David Brooks is?” Which is a shame, and an insult: Limbaugh’s answer to Brooks’ article isn’t a response to the critical points at all, or even a logical defense. It’s misleading rhetoric, and it implies that not many Americans are literate enough to stay abreast of one of our country’s oldest and most respected, albeit decidedly liberal, news publications.

Limbaugh, in one sentence, managed to illustrate perfectly the potentially fatal schism the GOP faces: the split between David Brooks, Bill Buckley, and the educated, intelligent conservative… and the hateful, obtuse, and ignorant wretch who trusts in Rush. In short, the split between The Wall Street Journal and the Klan’s monthly mailer.


Civil Service

September 17, 2009

The House of Representatives passed a resolution Tuesday of this week by a roll call vote of 240 – 179 to formally disapprove of Representative Joe Wilson (R, South Carolina) for yelling “You lie!” during President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress.

This web log is generally supportive of Republican politics, as they exist classically; that is, a limited Federal government, low taxes, a strong military, and an emphasis on personal responsibility in designing social policies. These politics concern themselves more with economics and the philosophy of government, and less with ambiguous morality. This is not to say this antiquated philosophy is completely without an agenda of social issues to push; quite the opposite. The classical Republican’s values are decorum, decency, a deep respect for tradition, the observance of occasion and solemnity, formality (when due), and chivalry.

William F. Buckley, Jr., the father of modern conservatism, would never have interrupted the President of the United States. He especially would not have during such a rare occasion as a joint session of Congress. A quick perusal of Buckley’s 30-plus years hosting Firing Line, compared to equal perusal of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, reveal a Republican pundit with an overabundance of three qualities those more contemporary hosts apparently make do without: intellect, charm, and manners.

William F. Buckley, Jr., at work.

William F. Buckley, Jr.: intellect, charm, & manners.

Buckley was foremost a gentleman; it was in his blood. He was a Yale man and a yachtsman, an author, columnist, CIA agent, speaker, lecturer, and bon vivant of the highest degree. He was charming and gracious to guests on his show, many sworn liberals through and through, and he skewered them politely with wit and insight. He did not raise his voice. He did not insult his guests when they made points contrary to his own. He just quirked an eyebrow, bit the tip of his pencil, and softly said, “Ah yes, that is interesting, but isn’t it actually the case that… .” 

It is worth noting that Buckley, who passed away recently, accomplished decidedly more for the cause of conservative politics than any syndicated bully today could hope to. He wrote over 50 books and more than 4,000 newspaper columns, hosted Firing Line for over 30 years, and founded National Review. The last is credited with the advent of modern conservatism, which Buckley all but invented single-handedly.

Buckley, if he still concerns himself with these things, is likely rolling in his grave at Representative Wilson’s atrocious breach of etiquette. The life blood of democracy is debate, President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote once, and the most productive debates are civil. Good ideas are drowned out by shouting.

Republicans like Rush Limbaugh accuse more centrist colleagues of deserting the party’s values for not taking an equally hard line as he does. He would do well to remember that those values should rightfully include courtesy, honor, gentlemanly conduct, decorum, and decency, and to read General Horace Porter’s 1865 account of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, a man of as opposite a political stripe to Lee as could be imagined:

“All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed [Lee], and he had the personal sympathy of every one who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial. General Grant now stepped down from the porch, and, moving toward him, saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present; Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded.”

If Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant could manage this degree of civility toward one another after the bloodiest conflict in the history of our nation till then, surely Congressmen and radio hosts can too.