We rather doubt that William Lamb, a British Prime Minister under Queen Victoria and the Second Viscount Melbourne, would have been a fan of the curious discriminatory practice we call “affirmative action.” But his fondness for the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the honor founded by Edward III in 1348, has at least one thing in common with that egalitarian impulse. The Order of the Garter was, said Lord Melbourne, his favorite honor. Why? “Because there was no damn nonsense of merit connected with it.” On the contrary, it is a thoroughly aristocratic, indeed, a royal distinction. Effort, accomplishment, “merit” do not figure into its metabolism. It is bestowed because of who you are, not because of what you have done.
So it is with affirmative action. It operates on behalf of certain people because of who they are, of what group-identity boxes they may check, not because of what they have done. Its beneficiaries, whose number vastly exceeds the twenty-four Order of the Garter “Companions,” may not be royalty, exactly. Nevertheless, they certainly find themselves eligible for many privileges denied to, and free from many strictures imposed upon, the rest of us.
A case in point is Harvard, by which we mean not only the super-rich, politically correct global enterprise headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but also “Harvard,” the elite cultural leviathan writ large, including not only the Ivy League but also the whole progressive cultural apparatus responsible for that Gramscian “long march through the institutions” whose mission, since the 1960s, has been to transform American politics by first usurping its educational and cultural institutions.
Harvard is back in the news these days as Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard makes its way through federal court. First brought in 2014, the case, in which plaintiffs argue that Harvard violated the civil rights of Asian Americans, has been making national headlines. This is not because it reveals anything new. It has long been obvious, if unstated in polite, i.e., progressive, company, that Harvard, like all elite American educational institutions, discriminates against Asian Americans just as it once discriminated against Jews. The Harvard class of 2022 had 43,000 applicants for just over 2,000 places. Had admission been granted solely on academic and extracurricular accomplishment, you would see fewer white, Hispanic, and black faces in the class of 2022. Everyone knows, even if they are reluctant to say, this.
Exactly how does Harvard determine who gets the magic key to worldly success, or at least to the first tier in snob appeal? (We recall the story of a first date on which the eager, overeager male asked: “So where did you go to Harvard—I mean college?” We are happy to report that there was not a second date.) Hitherto, the Harvard admissions formula has been something of a trade secret, akin to, said one judge, the recipe for Coca-Cola. But Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard is letting in daylight upon magic. The news is full of details about covert review processes, cryptic admissions officer notations, and a “Z-list” for favored names on the wait list. How big of a big gift to Harvard bumps you up a notch on the roster? Does it help if you can trace familial Harvard grads going back to Cotton Mather?
Public interest in the case has afforded an inadvertently amusing amalgam of anticipatory moral outrage (all that elitism and privilege congregated in one place) together with sniffy commendations of “diversity” and its putative engine, affirmative action. Bret Stephens, writing in The New York Times, was of two minds about affirmative action. But he got it exactly right, we think, when he concluded that “The goal of achieving a desired racial composition on campus depends on Wizard of Oz–like schemes of dissembling and doublethink. The core problem with every noble lie is that it can only be concealed by an additional lie, then another. Whatever else it is, it’s the opposite of Veritas.” Bingo.
No one expects this case to be finally decided by Allison D. Burroughs, the Obama-appointed judge who (we note in passing) joined the judicial assault on President Trump’s travel ban. No, this case, orchestrated by the anti–affirmative action activist Edward Blum, was born destined for the Supreme Court. In one sense, it is just another stage in the dialectic that began, in its litigious aspect, with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978. In that case, a deeply divided Court outlawed explicit racial quotas while still allowing race to be “one element in a range of factors” considered in determining admission. This sly combination of interdiction and permission is the elixir of life for legal hermeneuts, of course, who discover hope (not to mention large prospective fees) in the mossy ambiguity of such equivocation.
There are several large issues playing out in the background here. One is the farce of the “Harvards” of our culture preaching diversity and equality while maintaining themselves as bastions of elite—and lavishly government-funded—privilege, wealth, and prestige. One recent study pointed out that at Harvard itself, wealthy students outnumber those of modest means by a factor of 23 to 1. As the commentator Glenn Reynolds has delighted in pointing out, if we were really earnest about spreading equality, one of our first targets would be the Ivy League, which exists to perpetuate a certain progressive ideology and those who embody it. “To reduce inequality,” quoth Reynolds, “abolish the Ivy League.” It would be a start.
Another issue is the shibboleth, the unholy grail, of “diversity.” We have often had occasion to point out in these pages that the ideology of diversity on college campuses is everywhere declaimed and enforced because it is such an effective means of imposing intellectual and moral conformity on any contentious issue. “Diversity” really means enforced homogeneity, beginning with conformity about large-scale political attitudes and wending its way down to the surreal gutter of one’s attitudes towards fashion, diet, and “the environment”: what sorts of Halloween costumes are appropriate, for example, or one’s feelings about fossil fuels and windmills.
At issue is not just the sclerotic conformity that the demand for “diversity” encourages, however. There is also the deeper issue of whether the announced goal of diversity is all it is cracked up to be. “Diversity” is proffered on a golden paten of platitudes as the supreme educational desideratum. But why? On whose authority? If diversity, supposing it could be instituted, is a good thing, what about the claims of a common culture and common tradition? Do not those values also have a claim on our allegiance?
A whiny, overwrought article about Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard in New York magazine concludes by noting that, should the case reach the Supreme Court (as seems likely), it would
give the likes of Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas [“the likes of,” eh?] and even John Roberts the cover they need [“cover,” you see, because of course those Justices cannot be expected simply to say what the law is] to wring their hands and do away, once and for all, with the four-decade experiment of achieving a diverse student body to enrich the college experience.
But here’s the embarrassing question: has that “four-decade experiment” really enriched the “college experience”? Or has it, rather, vastly impoverished the college experience intellectually, socially, and morally?
Just as calls for diversity have typically led to a culture of conformity, so the institution of affirmative action has resulted not in greater equality but greater discrimination. It has not taken race or sex or ethnic origin (or, lately, ontological confusion about whether one is a man or a woman) out of the equation, but, on the contrary, it has pushed those attributes to the forefront of our consciousness. In this sense, affirmative action is a sterling illustration of G. K. Chesterton’s “false idea of progress,” according to which one endeavors not to pass the test but to change the test.
The irony in all this is that, like so many policies emerging from the workshop of progressive do-goodism, affirmative action has come in practice to mean more or less the opposite of what it was intended to mean. 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 evaluating 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 affirmative action seems to dull one’s discernment of contradiction.
The whole history of affirmative action is instinct with that irony. The original effort to redress legitimate grievances—grievances embodied, for instance, in the discriminatory practices of Jim Crow—has mutated into new forms of discrimination. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practices Committee because blacks were openly barred from war factory jobs.
But what began as a Presidential Executive Order in 1961 directing government contractors to take “affirmative action” to assure that people be hired “without regard” for sex, race, creed, color, etc., has resulted in the creation of vast bureaucracies dedicated to discovering, hiring, and advancing people chiefly on the basis of those qualities. Up is down, in is out, “without regard” comes to mean “with regard for nothing else.”
Had he lived to see the evolution of affirmative action, Alexis de 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 soft 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.” It will be interesting to see what happens should Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard come before the Brett Kavanaugh–enriched Supreme Court. The case poses some large questions, about the state of our culture, first of all, but also the state of our elite educational institutions and the power exercised by certain progressive pieties. Until recently, the likely answers to those questions could have been predicted beforehand. It is a sign—we think a beneficent sign—of this unsettled moment that more complex answers may be forthcoming.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 1
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