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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Playing The Ponies

July 23, 2010

If the D.C. social circuit turns itself out for any function this year, it will be the America’s Polo Cup, the equestrian sport’s equivalent of the similarly-named sailing event.

Or so hope Tareq and Michaele Salahi, who plugged the event (which they’ve organized) on Carol Joynt’s “Q&A Cafe” program in Georgetown. The pair formerly made headlines bluffing their way into President Barack Obama’s first state dinner, gaudily sans invitation.

The aspirational couple.

Since, they’ve been chomping impatiently and loudly at the D.C. social bit. To their advantage, that particular bit is unusually susceptible to chomping because of the transitory nature of that city: the in-crowd changes every four-to-eight years, providing for a cultural memory more myopic than, say, Greenwich, Connecticut.  

The headlining event will be the match between the United States and Costa Rica. The Cup has long been an event of political and cultural significance in D.C., as diplomats and industrialists from competing nations migrate to host countries for the duration of the tournament. President Warren Harding was in the stands in 1923, meeting and greeting benefactors (established and potential) from around the polo-playing world.

The 2011 America’s Polo Cup will be held on the National Mall, set back from the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. Since it’s not sanctioned by the Federation of International Polo, the match is largely thought a spectator event. There is no word yet from the organizers as to the price of tickets, or if security will be any tighter than a White House state dinner.

Like most things Salahi, the Polo Cup is already a little fraud-tarnished: its website once listed India’s Kingfisher Beer as a sponsor but Yashpal Singh, president of Kingfisher’s parent company, disagreed. “We are not sponsoring this event and have informed the people managing this event of that… We have sent legal notices to this effect, and he keeps on advertising us as a sponsor. I don’t know what world he’s living in.”

Land Rover withdrew its sponsorship in 2009, when a charity associated with the event was investigated by the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs for tax irregularities.


Happy Fourth

July 4, 2010

“I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream in the Old World, while still a serf of kings… who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true that even yet its mighty daring sings. In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned, that’s made America the land it has become… O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas in search of what I meant to be my home.”

-Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again


The Violent Red Herring

June 17, 2010

The University of Chicago Press recently released, again, a new edition of John R. Lott, Jr.’s thoughtful book, More Guns, Less Crime. In it, author Lott examines the efficacy of American gun control laws. Specifically, does controlling guns have anything at all to do with controlling crime?

For the third edition running, the answer is an emphatic, and obvious, no. Since the original edition’s first appearance in 1998, none of its critics have been able to refute its logic, or its conclusion: that areas with more guns generally have less crime. Now, drawing on an additional 10 years of data (including deep analyses of Chicago’s and Washington, D.C.’s attempts at gun banning), More Guns, Less Crime is even more sure of that original conclusion.

Guns have always been a red herring when it comes to discussions of violent crime. They’re the professional tools of gangs and criminals and Presidential assassins, but guns can’t fire themselves; they need criminals for that. Without criminals, guns are about as harmful as kitchen knives and sports cars. Some potential for injury, sure… but very little, assuming chef and driver are neither careless nor murderous.

Arguing about guns in the context of discussing crime is what lawyers call “an attractive nuisance”: a dangerous thing which, because of some interesting quality, you can’t help but get involved with. For instance, an unattended go-cart in a grade school parking lot. Kids know it’s dangerous and it’s not theirs, but they just can’t help themselves from trying the key. In that case, the go-cart owner might be liable for injuries: he should’ve known it was likely to entice children and cause them injury.

There ought to be similar laws about gun debates. They’re an attractive nuisance: likely to lure pundits, and very likely to cause injury to any kind of constructive conversation.

Debates over gun control retard productivity because they’re wide of the mark. Guns don’t cause crime, criminals do; the only real way to decrease crime is to decrease those social conditions which breed criminals. Criminals commit crimes because of an inequality of opportunity, poor access to education or professional alternatives, general frustration, and… seriously… a lack of positive role models. No criminal has ever committed a crime simply because guns exist.

The counter-argument goes this way: “That may be true, but still he commits his crime with a gun. So while we work on fixing the underlying social causes, we can at least keep guns out of his hands, and he won’t be able to commit those crimes with a gun anymore.”

The counter-argument is as flawed and false as it is alluring in its simplicity: criminals don’t follow laws; otherwise, they wouldn’t be criminals. The fact that it’s illegal to buy a gun, or to buy a certain type of gun, won’t prevent criminals from buying that gun, or that type of gun, any more than Prohibition kept them from buying liquor.

Texas boasts a much higher incidence of gun-ownership than Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. combined, and also enjoys much more relaxed gun laws than those cities. In fact, Chicago and D.C. have tried their hardest to ban handguns outright. Yet, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. suffer from a murder rate much higher than the national average, and much higher than the Lone Star State’s. Tighter gun laws and fewer guns haven’t made any difference in those cities. In fact, things have gotten worse.

Why? Because guns don’t cause crime. Criminality is bred via certain social conditions and, until we fix those conditions, regulating guns won’t make a bit of difference. We’ve seen this often enough by now that we ought to be convinced of its truth. Unfortunately, we run up against the attractive nuisance: guns are a much easier target than social injustices and, when it comes to discussions of crime, they’re also a very big, dangerous red herring.


Barbarians At The Gate

December 5, 2009

With celebrity gossip and reality television often taking media precedence over coverage of military engagements and economic recession, it’s little wonder that the two would eventually travel perpendicular paths. It may be a testament to the tragic prominence of pop culture “news” in our national consciousness that those paths would cross at so venerable an event as a White House state dinner.

The hopeful Salahis.

The hopeful Salahis.

Aspiring nouveau socialites Tareq and Micheaele Salahi, known for dodging creditors and for courtroom brawls with relatives, secured their coveted fifteen minutes of fame by bluffing their way in to President Obama’s first-ever state dinner. The two engineered the stunt as part of a bid to appear on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of D.C.” reality television series. Previously, Michaele had also claimed to have been a Redskins cheerleader and appeared at a cheerleaders’ alumni event for that team; she was unable to perform any of the cheers and was quickly outed.

The couple (he, a polo-playing vintner and she, a blonde) are in the habit of forcefully rubbing shoulders with those who would rather not. The two maintain a Facebook account which documents, in pictures, their aggresively upward social mobility. His family owns a Virginia winery, the subject of protracted legal battles with his parents: he wants it, they say they need to sell it to pay off his debts. The couple have already lost their Virginia home to foreclosure. A photo of Tareq posing with Prince Charles hangs prominently inside that house and its closets contain, by Michaele Salahi’s own estimate, about 300 pairs of her shoes.

“Nobody wants to deal with them,” say the couple’s Virginia neighbors. “The sheriffs have come by twice already looking for them” in connection with their Maserati and Aston Martin, both of which have been repossessed.

The pair were spotted almost immediately at the White House dinner by a D.C. society columnist who was there to cover the event. The columnist, apparently more in tune with that town’s social radar than the two aspiring insiders, alerted an event staffer that the Salahis appeared out of place. A quick check revealed that neither actually had an invitation. Appropriately fitting that two such ladder climbers, hopeful for reality television riches, would be turned in by one of that ladder’s own guard dogs.


The Honorable Lobbyist

November 2, 2009

Legal Bisnow reports recently that Ed Mathias, co-founder of the nebulous private equity shop Carlyle Group, described business interests without lobbyists on retainer as “extraordinarily vulnerable.” Mr. Mathias was speaking at a Washington, D.C. event at which Patton Boggs attorney Nick Allard also described lobbying as an “honorable, and increasingly essential, profession.”

Mr. Allard further pointed to a growing demand for lobbying services spurred by ever-more complex government regulation of industry and increased Federal spending; businesses have a lot of government hoops to jump through and a shot at a lot of government money, so large rewards exist for the skilled lobbyist who can help to navigate those hoops in search of that money. Mr. Allard is hoping to do just that, helping clients comply with government stimulus spending disclosure requirements.

Mr. Allard and other lobbyists also criticized President Obama’s anti-lobbyist stance at the event; they note “it’s just not good government to refuse to listen to people who disagree with you.”


D.C. Squares

July 1, 2009

Washington, D.C., never known for its sartorial splendor, has shown a surprising alacrity in (re-)adopting an until-recently-forgotten men’s fashion accessory: the pocket square.

The decorative silks and linens have been growing in popularity for years, after a decades-long abandonment, but the ease with which they’ve caught on in D.C. is notable because of that city’s traditional resistance to decoration. An abundance of brightly colored pocket squares raises eyebrows in a town which spent eight years debating American flag lapel pins.  D.C. web blog Politico wordily notes a “small group of politicians who dare to wear the square in a town where flair is rare.”

Rutgers University professor Ross Baker finds no anomoly in the trend: “The pocket square is sort of symbolic of Congress,” he explains, “in that it’s decorative but not necessarily functional.”

Pocket square advocate President Ronald Reagan.

Pocket square advocate President Ronald Reagan.