Two Versions of Bullshit
On October 20, the Times published two op-ed pieces which require some comment. This post, therefore is obviously belated, for various reasons: one of which is the depressing feeling of waking up every day to confront yet more evidence of the collective insanity of such massive extent that…, never mind.
But to begin, two brief notes on that insanity. First, what is coming out of the hearings by the Joint Committee on January 6 Insurrection, is how close this came to being a successful coup d’état. which was the manifest intention of the leaders. The purpose of the coup was to assassinate Mike Pence (and presumably also Nancy Pelosi), so that the Electoral College would not receive a certification of the election results. And then…we don’t know. But what we can say is that this attempted coup came closer to success than, for example, Hitler’s Munich beer hall putsch, that was supposed to climax with a march on Berlin–355 miles away! It was more like Mussolini’s March on Rome, but even that ended with a bargain between him and the King, rather than an outright seizure of power. Oh, except that this was a merely a large tourist group….or a collection of FBI agents pretending to be white supremacists or neo-Nazis…or neo-Nazi tourists?
Second, the lack of ordinary humanity in Trumpworld is so constantly astonishing that…well, is anyone any longer susceptible to astonishment? Here is the T-Shirt that the revolting Donald Trump Jr. is proudly and smilingly wearing: “Guns don’t kill people. Alec Baldwin kills people.”
Now, on to The Times’ contribution to bullshit:
I. The Case of the Uncompromising Compromise
The first, by a scholar from Claremont College (whose name I’ve somehow mislaid–apologies!), is a precis of a book he’s written. The article is called “A Tough Compromise Is Possible on Abortion.” I quote at length to give the gist of it:
“Why have pro-life sentiment and activism survived this past half century of far-reaching social liberalization? Because the abortion conflict was never really a culture war. Instead, it’s a quarrel within what philosophers call the liberal tradition focused on individual rights, in this case, concerning the rights of women versus the rights of embryos.
“This is why Americans tend to make a clear distinction between abortions in the first trimester and those in the second and third. And, thus, Americans balance the clashing liberal claims they hear by giving considerable weight to pro-choice arguments early in pregnancy and more consideration to pro-life ones as the fetus develops…. As a large body of research shows, providers usually dislike providing abortions at some point in the second trimester when the fetus becomes more recognizably human.”
He then adverts to the Mississippi law, presently before the Supreme Court, which bans all abortions after 15 weeks (based on “pre-viability”), without exception. In other words, overturning Roe v. Wade. This, the 15 weeks, is the “tough compromise.”
Really? For people who believe that women’s control over their reproduction is a basic human right, it’s not a “compromise,” it’s a devastation. Just look at the nightmare that Texas has become for women. And why is it a ”tough compromise” for the anti-abortionists? As it happens–-and it doesn’t just “happen” — 11 states, among them Mississippi,“have trigger bans on the books which would instantaneously ban abortion if Roe is overturned.” An absolute ban. So much for the 15 weeks: an absolute ban.
In other words, it’s all a charade, and the pre-viability concession is simply a trap to entice the necessary five votes from the Supreme Court. As Dave Leonhardt put it, “Given the court’s conservative majority, many observers expect it to either overturn Roe or weaken it, freeing states to enact tight abortion restrictions.” Thus the seemingly thoughtful analysis of public opinion and provider concerns is “bullshit.” Whatever those of us hoping for the salvaging of Roe V. Wade might think, compromise is not for one second on the table, public opinion or provider doubts to the contrary. That train has left the station and crashed, along with The Wreck Of Old 97.
II. The Case of the Meritorious Individuals
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology invited the geophysicist Dorian Abbot, “who studies climate change and whether planets in distant solar systems might harbor atmospheres conducive to life,” to give “a prestigious public lecture this autumn. Then a swell of angry resistance arose. Some faculty members and graduate students argued that Dr. Abbot, a professor at the University of Chicago, had created harm by speaking out against aspects of affirmative action and diversity programs. In videos and opinion pieces, Dr. Abbot, who is white, has asserted that such programs treat ‘people as members of a group rather than as individuals, repeating the mistake that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century.’ He said that he favored a diverse pool of applicants selected on merit.”
Where to begin? Hitler “made a mistake?” If only he’d been a liberal individualist, 6 million lives would have been saved. Before we know it, BLM will be establishing concentration camps for dissident white liberals. And coming to understand that they’re all just a random collection of “individuals”rather than the group that they’ve been treated as for several centuries. One can only hope ’that Dr. Abbot knows more about life in other galaxies than he does about life on the Planet Earth.
To continue with his thought,“We’re not going to do the best science we can if we are constrained ideologically.” Having written at great length about it, I can testify that there’s no science of any kind related to affirmative action. Depending on your point of view, it’s an ethical or unethical construct to begin with. But that’s not the main point; there are facts. And beliefs and facts are always intertwined, neither can be fully developed without the other. And facts are what Abbot has none of; in this realm, he’s not a scientist but rather a simpleton.
His “contribution,” after all, is about “merit, “ or what Bret Stephens calls “excellence.:” Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the faintest idea what “merit” actually means, or for that matter is.
To have “merit” (the noun) is to merit some thing (the verb), that is, to deserve it. You tie a granny knot and light a fire without using matches, you get a “merit badge.” You’ve done something you were taught to do, and learned how to do it correctly. So, what do you have to do to “deserve” entrance into Harvard, or any institution of higher education, according to Abbot?
The answer from all the meritocrats, is always the same: grades and scores, “objective” indicators of desert that have happily replaced the old world of class privilege. They ignore the historical fact that these indicators have always been used to justify inclusion or exclusion, depending on the standpoint of the speaker.
To be sure, the objective indicators often still work the way they were supposed to, most notably in the case of historically helping Jews and Asian-Americans (until quotas set in). But today they primarily benefit young people who have been intellectually stimulated from birth, groomed really, by parents, private tutors, prep courses for the SATs, public or private elite schools that offer a curriculum that essentially goes into the first year of college–in other words, by favorable conditions in family and society.
In “scientific fact,” there is a definite correlation between SAT scores and social class–a fact that’s leading colleges and universities to drop the SAT requirement. At Smith years ago, the Director of Admissions, a feisty Irishwoman on whose Committee I briefly served, would drop into the “C” (begone) pile, any applicant from places like Scarsdale or New Trier or Cambridge who had second-tier grades and scores, and no record of volunteer work, saying that they were just drifting through life, and had nothing to offer Smith (or the world). As it is, all those “objective” requirements, including grades, tell us nothing more than that certain people are good at taking tests and getting grades. (As an example, I scored 785 on my LSAT, possibly the highest score in the entering class, and dropped out of NYU Law School after one semester, subsequent to being totally bored, sleepwalking through it all, and getting a 78 on the final exam.) Whether young people are good at making the world a better place, or have so far unrealized ambitions that might be sparked by a newly available opportunity, is another question entirely; about which the meritocrats have nothing to say.
Here are, rather, a few examples of affirmative action at work, albeit in unexpected forms.
1. A few decades ago, at a middle school in Philadelphia with a mostly black constituency, a dedicated schoolteacher set up a chess team (on his own dime) and encouraged students to try out for it. In return, he would teach them the rudiments, and then elaborations of, the game: according to intellectual elitists, a game associated with the highest levels of intelligence–abstract reasoning. Three years after he began his voluntary effort, four boys from a school no one had ever heard of, went to the national tournament finals and became the middle school champions of the United States. By 1998 there were ten championship trophies sitting in the principal’s office. Of course, no one who’s ever accepted a challenge from one of the black guys sitting in the southwest corner of New York’s Washington Square Park will be surprised by this story.
2. A feminist economist (an ex-Smith student) spent a summer in Brooklyn (perhaps more than one) teaching Macro 101 to welfare mothers. At the end of the seminar she gave them a final that consisted of explicating and justifying the best macro-economic policy they could think of for the social order. They all came up with the same answer–guaranteed annual income. I’ve been on panels with philosophers who’ve written whole books on this subject, and come to the same conclusion.
3. In the 1970’s, in the period of ‘open admissions” at the City University, a young political scientist at Brooklyn College volunteered to teach one of the remedial classes for those beneficiaries of the new order who were deemed not ready for college-level work; none of the tenured professors would touch those classes. She looked over the classroom–again, mostly black students–and chose one book to be the semester’s text: Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. She started with the Introduction, and began going through it with the students one sentence at a time, explaining whatever they didn’t understand. By the end of the Introduction, they grasped exactly what was going on, and by the end of the semester Marcuse was their guy–he spoke to them. They were educated.
Back to Abbot, he gives the game away by proposing to abolish legacy admissions (indeed) but grouping it with athletic scholarships. In what way does physical talent not “merit” recognition? The limits of mind/body dualism, and of the supposed primacy of intellectual attainment, have never been so inanely demonstrated. So we’re to believe that say Candace Parker, Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Jim Brown, Sue Bird, didn’t deserve financial help from state universities; nor do all those young female soccer players who come to American colleges to hone their skills–quite possibly winding up on their nations’ Olympic teams? Really? No “merit?”
To conclude this discussion of merit, and also of athletics, in 1972 a first-year female student–with no appointment–walked into the office of UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma and, asked to identify herself, announced, “I’m Jennifer Rizzotti: make me your point guard and I’ll take you to the Final Four”–where UConn had never been. Four years later she took him to the Championship, and UConn achieved a national stature it never had–and still has. Maybe the Coach knew something Abbot doesn’t know?
Beyond these rhetorical questions, the main point here is that pseudo-meritocrats such as Abbot (and Stephens) implicitly reject the democratic version of education, which is that all individuals, whatever their backgrounds, and whatever their particular talents, can benefit from higher education–and so too the social order as a whole. They’re elitists, posing as upholders of “standards.” They have every right to express that position, but no right to expect recognition of their supposedly superior intellects from those whose ambition they’d re press with their simplistic and ignorant anti-egalitarianism.
Having said that, of course I need to consider the argument that to many readers will be even more important than the question of merit: the argument about “free speech” and “academic freedom.”
As one critic put it, “Just because many objected to Dr. Abbot’s views about affirmative action policies does not mean that Dr. van der Hilst [the Head of the relevant division] has the right to deprive M.I.T. of scientific knowledge and expertise.”
He’s got to be kidding. Abbot’s the only guy around who can explain life in other galaxies? Or climate change? There will be no more public lectures at M.I.T.?
Moreover, we learn that “This is a debate fully engaged in academia. No sooner had M.I.T. canceled his speech than Robert P. George, director of Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, invited him to give the speech there on Thursday, the same day as the canceled lecture. Dr. George is a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance, which is dedicated to promoting academic debate….The controversy surrounding Dr. Abbot’s canceled talk speaks as well to a tension manifest in progressive circles between social justice and free speech. Some faculty members have come to see identity and racial inequities as more urgent than questions of muzzled speech.”
Some speech has no doubt been muzzled here and there, in many ways, as has always been the case. This certainly did not happen to Dr. Abbot. I’d love to be so “muzzled.”
As for affirmative action, “Last year he laid out his thoughts in videos and posted them on YouTube….Loud complaints followed. Dr. Abbot has since taken the videos down.” Not before his own complaint that “I don’t want to live in a country where instead of discussing something difficult we go and silence debate.”
Actually, there are debates all over the place about affirmative action, which by and large have gone against its proponents in Supreme Court opinions, where it counts. And as for being silenced, no one made him take those videos down. But Abbot’s real problem is that he speaks definitively about matters of which he is wholly ignorant. No doubt he gets it right about life in other galaxies. But the general principle holds when we are asked to honor–and honor is the accompaniment of a “prestigious lecture”by a guest — “false in one, false in all.”
III. Oh Yes, “Cancel Culture” and Free Speech
“Sights Set on School Districts As G.O.P. Targets Race Theory”
“Peter Greene notes that 2021 has been a year of attacks on public education, and he introduces us to an organization that is a little-known but influential player behind the scenes. It has actively sought to destroy teachers unions and to bring Christian beliefs into the classroom. That is, their version of Christian beliefs…Those numbers are now growing. a boom in conservative Christian schooling, driven nationwide by a combination of pandemic frustrations and rising parental anxieties around how schools handle education on issues including race and the rights of transgender students.”