Victor Davis Hanson writes one of the odder critiques of affirmative action I have seen in a while:
Indians, Basques, Greek-Americans, Arab-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and Chinese-Americans-regardless of their appearance or superficial distance from the dominant “white” tribe” -are probably not going to receive special consideration to trump strict criteria like GPAs and test scores when applying to medical or law schools. American-Indians, Mexican-Americans, and African-Americans are. That any individual of the former group might in fact be far poorer than any member of the latter group matters not at all. That any of the former cadre may also be more instantly recognizable as non-white matters likewise not a whit.
I see what Hanson is trying to do here. He is trying to demonstrate that affirmative action is not a fair system that universally remedies socioeconomic disadvantages of ethnic and minority groups, and I understand that he is not doing this to argue in favor of a more universal system of “positive discrimination.” However, his argument seems to me to be as flawed as the occasional non-interventionist complaint that humanitarian interventionists ignore any number of other atrocities and civil wars around the world. Hanson’s “what about the Punjabis?” plea, which is, of course, entirely rhetorical and not a real complaint about any injustice being done to Punjabis, is the equivalent of the non-interventionist retort, “Well, what about the Congo?” Indeed, what about the Congo? Everyone in the debate knows that the non-interventionist isn’t actually saying that the government ought to be more activist in its overseas deployments and uses of force, and the humanitarian interventionist isn’t going to be embarrassed into abandoning one of his unjustified campaigns just because he cannot, as of yet, advocate for additional campaigns elsewhere. Hanson’s argument will be no more effective, and will instead lend strength to the defenders of the current system.
The non-interventionist raises other humanitarian disasters to show the inconsistency and arbitrariness of military interventions, which usually have little or nothing to do with humanitarian motives and are almost always driven by other, more questionable concerns, but the danger is that the interventionist will readily see through this and note that the non-interventionist has absolutely no interest in meddling in Congolese affairs, either. Having implicitly granted for rhetorical effect the interventionist assumption that Washington must act to halt this or that foreign conflict, the non-interventionist has given up on a far more powerful argument against interventionism as such. This sort of argument saps the foundation of the non-interventionist view, whose strongest claim is that it is inherently wrong and contrary to American interests to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. In the same way, Hanson’s argument here saps the strongest claim that can be made against affirmative action, which is that it is inherently wrong and ultimately harmful to the interests of all involved to take such factors into account for anyone.
The force of Hanson’s protest here dissipates completely once it becomes clear, as it would very quickly become clear, that he wouldn’t want positive discrimination for the Arab or Indian-American, either, even though they might very well face social and economic discrimination because of their background and because of negative stereotypes about Arabs and South Asians that we all know are prevalent in no small part because of “war on terror” propaganda. Indeed, the main effect of this sort of attack on affirmative action isn’t to make a supporter of these measures conclude, “There shouldn’t be any system of preferences or positive discrimination,” but instead the supporter will say, “We haven’t gone far enough in extending this arrangement to all those who need it.” For a laugh, the supporter might add, “Even Victor Davis Hanson agrees!”
Hanson’s litany of the woes of presumably deserving cases that were not taken seriously by the current system at first reads like any bleeding-heart account of social injustice, but at each point in the article the reader is compelled to ask what kind of consideration Hanson thinks the “dark daughter of the Kurdish taxi driver,” his Coptic student and the Okie-descended poor whites deserve. One assumes that Hanson would insist that merit alone should determine outcomes, in which case his Coptic student and the Okie-descendants might do no better, but what would stop a defender of the current system from taking the same examples and saying, “Yes, Hanson has a good point here–we need to create an even more elaborate, detailed system that can take account of the needs of our increasingly diverse population”? As far as I can tell, nothing at all.
One does not make the case for eliminating a policy by saying that it is insufficiently coherent, consistent and universal. Its defenders will simply say, as they have said time and time again, “Mend it, don’t end it,” and will propose to “rationalize” the existing system to remove the flaws Hanson has described. Instead, one should argue that such a policy is fundamentally misguided and wrong. Someone might say that this is a simple sort of argument, but it is all the more compelling and concedes far less for that reason.
On a final Sotomayor-related note, Hanson makes the following incredible claim:
Unfortunately, unlike a Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, or Alberto Gonzales, President Obama has embraced identity politics in unprecedented fashion-and we are reaping what he has sown. In these first days of the Sotomayor nomination, we are not discussing Justice Sotomayor’s judicial competence as much as her Latina identification-and the political ramifications of such tribalism.
Who is this “we” he’s talking about? It’s true that these have become central parts of the discussion about Sotomayor. Hanson neglects to mention that they are central to the discussion at this point because her critics on the right have obsessed about these to the exclusion of almost everything else. If this is what “we” are discussing, it is because so many of Hanson’s colleagues made these the main topics of discussion.