Posts Tagged ‘Political correctness’

How neoliberalism feeds political correctness

September 14, 2016

Maximillian Alvarez, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, wrote in the current issue of The Baffler that the real driver behind “political correctness” on American university campuses is the neoliberal idea that students are customers, and that the job of the university is to give the customers what they want.

education-in-liberal-artsThe traditional idea of the university was that the professors were the custodians of knowledge, that their job was to impart knowledge and wisdom to students and that their work should be judged by their peers.

The neoliberal idea of the university is that professors are vendors and students are customers, and that the measure of a university’s success is the ability to maximize enrollment and tuition.

Alvarez wrote that the conflict over “political correctness” is a conflict over which of the university’s customers are more important—the students and parents, or the wealthy donors.  (In the case of public colleges and universities, there is a third customer—the businesses that depend on public institutions to provide vocational training.}

Here’s what Alvarez had to say:

When professors today say they fear their students, they’re really saying that they’re afraid their students’ reviews and complaints will get them fired.

What professors fear are the changing administrative policies that have pinned the fate of their job security to the same unstable consumer logic behind Yelp reviews and the reputation economy.

The image of the wise, hard-nosed professor who upends her students’ assumptions about the world, who provokes and guides heated debates in class about subjects that may offend as much as they enlighten, rests on a whole host of factors that no longer enter into the crabbed, anxiety-driven working life of the casually employed academic.

Nor do such factors typically emerge in our debates about political correctness at universities.

Three in particular are worth highlighting.

First, tenure for faculty is disappearing—and along with it the sort of job security that once made university teaching an attractive long-term career.

Now the lion’s share of college teaching jobs goes to part-time (adjunct) instructors and non-tenure-track faculty.

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A left-wing critique of political correctness

July 22, 2016
Paul Street

Paul Street

Paul Street, a smart, marginally-employed left-wing writer, wrote a good article for Counterpunch on why people like him oppose so-called “political correctness.”

He gave a number of examples, but I’ll just quote one of them.

… I have started to become at least mildly irritated by the ever-increasing number of Chinese university students in Iowa City at and around the University of Iowa.  Why?  Because of racism and nativism.  No. Not at all.  It has nothing to do with racism or nativism.  I’m anti-racist and anti-nativist.

It’s about class, politics, and the ever-skyrocketing cost of college tuition in the United States. The young Chinese showing up all over campus town America are very disproportionately from the upper slices of mainland Chinese society. Their parents have accumulated enough wealth and income to send their only children to college overseas and often in very high style.

This wealth is culled from the massive state-capitalist super-exploitation of a giant Chinese working class that has been forced into a vast industrial complex of global capitalist production.

That is the source of the money that is passed on to the privileged class progeny of Chinese “Communist” Party elites who can be seen driving around in BMWs and living in pricey condominium apartments in Iowa City, Iowa, Madison, Wisconsin, and countless other U.S. university communities today.

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Trump, Putin and political correctness

March 18, 2016

A blogger named Jeffrey Feldman pointed out Donald Trump’s unique definition of political correctness.

Most people define “political correctness” as being overly concerned about saying offensive things.  Donald Trump’s idea of “political correctness” is being overly concerned about beating up people who disagree with you.

Vladimir PutinThis is one of the things that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have in common.  No wonder they speak of each other with respect.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have often expressed their mutual esteem, and this is one of the things they have in common.

Putin is a strong nationalist whose aim is to make Russia great again.  He has no inhibition about the use of power and violence to crush opponents.  By Trump’s definition, he is politically incorrect.

LINKS

The One Key Phrase Trump Changed to Incite Violence Against the Left by Jeffrey Feldman for frameshop.  (Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist).

Putin: The Rule of the Family by Masha Gessen for the New York Review of Books.

Stalin, Russia’s new hero by Alec Luhn for the New York Times.

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Free speech on and off the campus

September 4, 2015

When I reported on business in Rochester, NY, for the Democrat and Chronicle in the 1980s and 1990s, I found that most people were terrified of saying anything that might offend an employer or potential employer.

People could be fired or not hired for having a bad attitude, let alone saying or doing something that was out of line.

The only people I knew who were unafraid to speak as free Americans should were self-employed crafts workers and professionals, civil servants, tenured college professors and union members with good contracts.

AFDLogoSo-called “political correctness” in universities is a minor subset of a much bigger problem.  It is not as if it were the only threat, or even the main threat, even to academic freedom.

But two wrongs don’t make a right.   I take “political correctness” seriously, even though I have never been a member of academia myself, for the same reason I take killings by police more seriously than I take killings by criminal civilians.

The university community, and the scientific community, should embody free inquiry.  And liberals and progressives should be in the forefront of those defending free inquiry.

I attended the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate in the 1950s, and I believe in the famous UW Regents’ statement of 1894 of its commitment to “that fearless and endless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

You can’t have free inquiry when people are afraid to say what they think, or even to tell a joke.  Click on the links below for examples of what I mean.

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 I am triggered by people who fear books and speech by Alex Small for Physicist at Large.

The Timothy Hunt Witch Hunt by Jonathan Foreman for Commentary.

What Happened to a Govt Scientist Whose Findings Stood in the Way of Big Oil’s Plans for Arctic Drilling by Kamil Ahsan for AlterNet.

The right not to have one’s feelings hurt

August 12, 2015

I read a lot about the new intellectual culture on college campuses, and how it is becoming dangerous to say anything that will hurt the feelings of any member of a well-organized minority group.

I don’t know how seriously to take this.  I have friends who are college teachers, and I never hear them speak about any of this stuff.

But to the extent that such attitudes exist, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt point out in The Atlantic, it does not help students prepare for the rough and tumble of life after graduation.  They note that the federal government has defined freedom from “unwelcome” speech as a civil right.

Federal anti-discrimination statutes regulate on-campus harassment and unequal treatment based on sex, race, religion, and national origin. 

Until recently, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights acknowledged that speech must be “objectively offensive” before it could be deemed actionable as sexual harassment—it would have to pass the “reasonable person” test. 

Source: Reason.com

Source: Reason.com

To be prohibited, the office wrote in 2003, allegedly harassing speech would have to go “beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.”

But in 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply “unwelcome.” 

Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are now applying that standard—defining unwelcome speech as harassment—not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well.

Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim.  Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.

via The Atlantic.

Without knowing specifics, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of the universities who protect students from “unwelcome” speech also make the same students pay sky-high tuition and have the students taught by underpaid adjuncts.

Source: Sirandal

Source: Sirandal

Nor would I be surprised if certain big corporations decided to protect employees from “unwelcome” speech while at the same time paying substandard wages, fighting all-out against unions and buying supplies from foreign sweatshops that employ child labor.

In fact, speech codes could be an effective weapon against union organizers and other malcontents, especially those who come from rough backgrounds and never learned the new etiquette.  Nearly everyone has said something “welcome,” or can be accused of having said something “unwelcome.”

LINKS

How Trigger Warnings Are Hurting Mental Health on Campus by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt for The Atlantic.

Microaggressions & Mind-Forg’d Manacles by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

‘Microaggressions’ and ‘Trigger Warnings,’ Meet Real Trauma by Chris Hernandez for The Federalist.

How “political correctness” empowered Trump

August 11, 2015

So-called “political correctness” has spread out from its original habitat on college campuses to society at large.  The backlash against this partly explains the popularity of Donald Trump.

An article in The Federalist, quoted by Joseph Cannon on his Cannonfire blog, describes the problem.

Since the Republican implosion in the 2012 election, much of American political discourse has centered not so much on whether particular ideas are wrong as on whether they can be expressed at all. [snip]

Witness the constant barrage of arguments that people who dissent from leftist causes are on the “wrong side of history,” as if history is something that can be predicted in advance like the weather.

[snip]  The idea that egalitarian principles require us to legally sanction gay marriage might be persuasive, but the idea the same principles should allow gay-rights proponents to trample religious freedom is a much harder sell. Therefore, prudence requires not overextending that argument for it to maintain its effectiveness.

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Rape on campus, and due process of law

June 8, 2015

There’s a new documentary film out about how college administrators frequently ignore rape of students on campus.

I think there is an inherent problem with pursuing charges of rape through complaints about violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments rather than the criminal courts.

Title IX bans discrimination based on sex, on penalty of losing federal aid.  The argument is that failure to punish rapists is a form of sex discrimination.  The standard of proof violation of Title IX in an administrative proceeding is less than that required for conviction of a felony in the criminal courts.

I can understand why rape victims hesitate to complain to the police.  Rape is the only crime which, sadly, is regarded as shaming to the victim, and also is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

The problem is that college administrations are not set up to administer criminal justice and they have a conflict of interest between doing justice and protecting the good name of the college.

A trained prosecutor is the best qualified person to deal with an actual crime, and college students should be subject to the same laws as everybody else.  Keeping college rape cases out of the criminal courts is the equivalent of the “benefit of clergy” during the Middle Ages.

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The main thing wrong with so-called ‘P.C.’

February 9, 2015

In October 2001, shortly after America invaded Afghanistan, some of its Navy personnel were preparing missiles that were going to be fired at al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds.  One of the Navy men … … wrote the following message on his missile: ‘Hijack this, you faggots.’

… … When they heard about what had happened, the upper echelons of the Navy were outraged. They expressed ‘official disapproval’ of the homophobic message. … … Some unofficial guidelines were issued … …

… … What these Navy people were effectively saying is that it is okay to kill people, but not to offend them. … …

This really captures the warping of morality that is inherent in political correctness, where one becomes so myopically focused on speech codes, on linguistic representation, that everything else, even matters of life and death, can become subordinate to that.

via Brendan O’Neill | spiked.

The main thing that is wrong with so-called “political correctness” is that its goals are compatible with gross inequality and injustice.

It is imaginable that a future society may have conquered racism, misogyny, homophobia, able-ism and even class-ism and still be a police state committed to endless war on behalf of a tiny financial oligarchy.

That is why elite universities that have hate speech codes and teach “oppression theory” can pay sweatshop wages to their adjunct instructors and raise tuition as high as the traffic will bear, and why Fortune 500 companies and big Wall Street banks can “honor diversity” and still work against the interests of the vast majority of the American people.

I got a taste of this when I worked for a Gannett newspaper when Allen Neuharth was CEO of Gannett Co. Inc.  Under his management, Gannett made a good-faith effort to recruit and promote women, ethnic minorities and also people from diverse backgrounds—not just members of the Ivy League elite.

I think this was good for Gannett’s newspapers because a newsroom (unlike, say, an air traffic control tower) needs to be open to diverse viewpoints and backgrounds.

But “diversity” also gave Neuharth cover for paying wages below the standard for the industry and for being extremely anti-union, far beyond what devotion to the corporate bottom line would justify.

I remember what a waste of time the newspaper’s “diversity training” sessions were.   They seemed more like an exercise in divide-and-rule than anything else.

The extreme example of the contradiction I’m talking about is the celebration of Martin Luther King Day by the staff the Guantanamo Bay base, whose inmates are denied basic human rights.

I honor the struggle for equal rights for African-Americans, for women, for gays and for all the other groups who’ve been unfairly marginalized.  I see these struggles as part of an overall struggle for equal justice for all, which also is the struggle on behalf of the majority of the population for economic justice and basic civil liberties.

Without a vision of the common good and equal rights for all, and without a realistic strategy for achieving it, the disparate groups with their separate grievances will be played off against each other, and the powers that be will win.

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A case study in ‘political correctness’

February 7, 2015
marriage

Source: XKCD (Randall Munroe)

One good example of political correctness in action is how the right to gay marriage in the United States has become an unquestioned orthodoxy.

I have no quarrel with the right gay marriage.  It makes our nation more inclusive.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.   I’m glad that gays are no longer a persecuted minority, essentially outside the protection of the law.

I do have a problem with unquestioned orthodoxies that shut down debate.  A case in point was the firing of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla Firefox last year.

Eich was a co-founder of the company and the inventor of the JavaScript programming language.  By all accounts, treated employees, including gay employees, decently.

But somebody dug up the fact that, in 2008, he had contributed $1,000 to Proposition 8, the California referendum to ban gay marriage.  A few days after being named CEO, he was ousted.

Now he’s a rich and talented person who should be able to do all right for himself, so I don’t think this is the worst thing that ever happened to anyone.   As Kathleen Geier pointed out, people in more precarious positions than Eich are fired every day for much more arbitrary reasons, including wearing a necktie the employer didn’t like.

My interest in the case is in the arguments given to justify his firing.  His views were offensive to most people in Silicon Valley.  Does that mean it would be okay for a company headquartered in, say, Utah to fire a CEO for supporting gay marriage?

Gay employees would feel uncomfortable working for a CEO who opposed their right to marry.  This is the flip side of the argument most commonly used against gay rights.

The right of openly gay people to serve in the U.S. military was opposed on the grounds that straight troops would feel uncomfortable.  And this, arguably, would be a more important consideration on the battlefield than in an office in California.

In an earlier era, this was a common argument against hiring African-Americans.   Business owners told me that they had no objection to hiring qualified black people, but their customers wouldn’t feel comfortable with it.

Brendan Eich has a right to express his opinion, but he does not have a right to be free from the consequences of expressing his opinion.   Would you apply this reasoning to, say, Hollywood screenwriters who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era?

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Why I am ‘politically correct’ (up to a point)

February 6, 2015

quote-let-me-never-fall-into-the-vulgar-mistake-of-dreaming-that-i-am-persecuted-whenever-i-am-ralph-waldo-emerson-227115

Whenever I hear someone say in a belligerent tone that he or she is “politically incorrect,” I take it to mean that the person is about to say something offensive or vulgar, and that anybody who criticizes is a timid conformist.

There are words I don’t use—”nigger,” “kike” and “faggot”—that are the language of murder.  They are the vocabulary of lynch mobs hanging black people, Cossacks conducting pogroms against Jewish villages, homophobes beating people sometimes to death.

bus_stop_colorFor that matter, I refrain from using words such “redneck.”  It originally was a derogatory term used by the Southern elite for men who worked all day in the hot sun, which is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

If I want to be treated with courtesy, I extend courtesy in return.  I make a reasonable effort to avoid giving offense.   I expect in return that other people not take offense when no offense is intended.

Being polite doesn’t mean that I self-censor what I say.  It means that I try to think of ways of saying what I have to say so that other people will listen, and that I listen to what they have to say in return.

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I’ve been called “racist” a few times during my life.   This didn’t shut me up..

I said I don’t deserve to be called by the same word that is used for Klansman and or Nazis.  I was told that this was not what was meant.  “We are all racists,” the other person would say.

I don’t agree, but I stopped taking offense.  If the meaning of “racist” is “average insensitive, ignorant white guy,” it probably applies.  But then another word is needed for the likes of David Duke.

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Women on the Internet are subject to terrible abuse, including threats of rape and dismemberment, especially when they express a pro-feminist point of view.

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Liberals, the left and academic freedom

February 6, 2015

quote-i-disapprove-of-what-you-say-but-will-defend-to-the-death-your-right-to-say-it-voltaire-334856I was a college student in the 1950s, the heyday of Joe McCarthy, and strongly believed in academic freedom, which was under attack.

The idea was that Communists, and people thought to be in sympathy with Communists, did not have the right to freedom of speech because they—by definition—did not believe in it themselves.

We liberals insisted that free speech was for everyone.  We frequently quoted John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and others who insisted that freedom meant that people on all sides of a question had a right to be heard.

The big issue was whether a student organization called the Labor Youth League, which was on the attorney-general’s list of subversive organizations, should be permitted on campus.  We liberals said it should.  The correct response to Communist arguments was to refute them, not to suppress them.

Our principles were that any student organization that followed impartial university rules should be permitted, and any college professor who was met impartial academic standards should be permitted to teach.  True education meant exposure to a diverse ideas, including ideas we might not like.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been been a part of the academic world.  But I get the idea that my concept of academic freedom is no longer taken for granted on campus.   There is a whole campus sub-culture based on a vocabulary that is new to me—”cis-gender,” “tone police,” “micro-aggression”, and, by some accounts, little tolerance for deviation from the new norms.

A graduate student named Fredrick deBoer wrote:

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 19 year old white woman — smart, well-meaning, passionate — literally run crying from a classroom because she was so ruthlessly brow-beaten for using the word “disabled.”  Not repeatedly.  Not with malice.  Not because of privilege.  She used the word once and was excoriated for it.  She never came back.  I watched that happen.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 20 year old black man, a track athlete who tried to fit organizing meetings around classes and his ridiculous practice schedule (for which he received a scholarship worth a quarter of tuition), be told not to return to those meetings because he said he thought there were such a thing as innate gender differences.  He wasn’t a homophobe, or transphobic, or a misogynist.  It turns out that 20 year olds from rural South Carolina aren’t born with an innate understanding of the intersectionality playbook.  But those were the terms deployed against him, those and worse. So that was it; he was gone.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 33 year old Hispanic man, an Iraq war veteran who had served three tours and had become an outspoken critic of our presence there, be lectured about patriarchy by an affluent 22 year old white liberal arts college student, because he had said that other vets have to “man up” and speak out about the war.  Because apparently we have to pretend that we don’t know how metaphorical language works or else we’re bad people.  I watched his eyes glaze over as this woman with $300 shoes berated him.  I saw that.  Myself.

via Fredrik deBoer.

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Free speech and offensive speech

January 12, 2015

joesaccoonsatire1200I think freedom of speech is meaningless unless it includes the right to say, write and draw things that offend people.

I think it is a bad thing when people do not speak their minds for fear of retaliation—legal, economic or physical.

I think it is a bad thing—although a lesser bad thing—when people go out of their way to be insulting and offensive just to show they have a right to be insulting and offensive.

I think this is particularly true when the target of the insults and offense is an unpopular minority.   This is what usually falls under the heading of “politically incorrect”.

I think ridicule should be directed upward against the rich and powerful, not downward against the poor and weak.

This is all a way of making it clear that when I say  I really, really dislike the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, I am not trying to justify censorship or excuse murder.

The cartoons don’t seem to have any point except shock value, and I think.  They remind me of Hustler magazine.  And while the cartoonists have lampooned every institution in France, all the ones I’ve seen on-line target the Muslim religion.

Admittedly, I have not read the content, and I as an American may not appreciate how the French see them.  This is my personal reaction, not an authoritative judgment.

I believe in the principle of “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  I defend the right of museum curators to exhibit obscene and anti-Christian art works.  I defend the right of Holocaust deniers to publish their false opinions.  I defend the right of people to do all kinds of things I wish they wouldn’t do.

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How political correctness shields oligarchy

May 21, 2014

 The survivalist blogger Dmitry Orlov thinks debating “political correctness” is a way to prevent discussion of real issues of American politics.

Discussions of social policy, especially with regard to such things as the rights of women and sexual and racial minorities, play a very special role in American politics.  … It has recently been shown that the US is not a democracy, in which public policy is influenced by public opinion, but an oligarchy, where public policy is driven by the wishes of moneyed interests.

Dmitry Orlov

Dmitry Orlov

On major issues, such as whether to provide public health care or whether to go to war, public opinion matters not a whit.  But it is vitally important to maintain the appearance of a vibrant democracy, and here social policy provides a good opportunity for encouraging social divisions: split the country up into red states and blue states, and keep them in balance by carefully measured infusions of money into politics, so as to maintain the illusion of electoral choice.

Throw a bit of money at a religious fundamentalist candidate, and plenty of feminists, gays and lesbians will vote for the opposing kleptocrat who will, once elected, help Wall Street confiscate the rest of their retirement savings, in return for a seat on the board; throw another bit of money at a rainbow-colored lesbian, and plenty of bible-thumping traditionalists will vote for the opposing kleptocrat who, once elected, will funnel tax money to his pet defense contractor in return for some juicy kickbacks.  This part of the American political system works extremely well.

On the other hand, if some matter comes before the politicians that requires helping the people rather than helping themselves and their wealthy masters, the result is a solid wall of partisan deadlock.  This part works very well too—for the politicians, and for the moneybags who prop them up, but not for the people.

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Political correctness and repressive tolerance 2

April 7, 2014

quote-i-disapprove-of-what-you-say-but-will-defend-to-the-death-your-right-to-say-it-voltaire-334856

I once wrote a post in defense of political correctness.  In it I argued that the phrase “political correctness” was used by people who wanted to immunize themselves from criticism for saying things that were insulting, vulgar and bigoted.   I am politically correct in that sense.  I believe in treating people with courtesy and respect, and part of that is avoiding language they consider insulting

I think there are certain opinions of which I have a moral obligation not to allow to go uncontradicted.

I think there is such a thing as “murder language” — epithets used by Cossacks conducting pogroms against Jews, by lynch mobs stringing up black people, by homophobes who beat gay people to death — and I don’t think such language is socially acceptable

But these considerations don’t apply in the resignation of Brendan Eich, the Mozilla CEO who was unmasked as having contributed to supporters of Proposition 8, the California referendum against gay marriage, and who refused to back down from his belief that marriage is only between men and women. 

I haven’t heard any allegation that he was unfair to gay employees of Mozilla.  In fact, nobody would have known about his opinions if somebody hadn’t taken the trouble to dig it out.

I am a paleo-liberal, who came of age during the Joe McCarthy period, and I see a parallel between what happened to Brenden Eich and the blacklisting of the great Hollywood scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo for his support of Communist causes.  

Of course Eich is in a better position to retire on his millions than Trumbo had of earning a living when he was banned from working in Hollywood.  On the other hand I think Trumbo’s illusions about the Soviet Union were a much more serious mistake (to put it mildly) than Eich’s failure to keep up with received opinion about gay rights.

One thing they have in common is that they are being punished not just for their past political record, but for refusing to back down from their convictions.   Both Eich and Trumbo could have saved their careers if they had recanted, even if nobody believed their recantation was sincere.

Proposition 8 was supported by a majority of Californians.  That is a lot of people to declare ineligible for executive positions in high tech companies in Silicon Valley. 

At the time Proposition 8 was on the ballot, Barack Obama declared his belief that marriage was only between a man and a woman.  I don’t recall anybody who thought this made him ineligible for public office.  (more…)

Should the Redskins change their name?

June 19, 2013

Keith Knight K Chronicles Washington RedskinsI’m not a football fan, but I thought this Keith Knight cartoon was funny.

Click on The K Chronicles and The Knight Life for more from Keith Knight.  Hat tip to Daily Kos.

The Ivy League as gatekeepers for the elite

December 10, 2012

In my previous post, I wrote about an article by Ron Unz in The American Conservative about admissions policies at Ivy League universities, and their disparate impact on different ethnic groups, in particular the seeming unfairness to smart Asian-American applicants.  In this post, I want to write about a broader question, the role of the Ivy League as gatekeepers to the elite.

I remember a remark by President Obama some time back about how he recognized that hedge fund managers, by and large, were smart people because many of them had been his college classmates at Harvard.  It is an illustration of how the top people in Washington, Wall Street and academia form an inner circle.  Part of Obama’s success is due to the fact that, in spite of his middle-class origins, he was able to make a favorable impression on people in top positions.

Ron Unz in 1999

Ron Unz in 1999

I have a problems with the whole idea of an elite group with gatekeepers who decide who gets in.  This goes against what I was brought up to believe that the United States was all about—that an Andrew Jackson or an Abraham Lincoln could become President, a Thomas Edison could become a great inventor or an Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford could become a great industrialist, without any of them having to produce formal credentials to show their entitlement to a high position.

True, we live in a society in which people in top positions need to have more specialized knowledge than they did in an earlier era.  But that knowledge can be acquired in many places, not just in a few elite universities.  In the past couple of decades, the United States has had an increasing concentration of wealth at the top, a decline in upward mobility among American social classes, and a declining quality of leadership in government and corporate America.   (If you doubt the latter, then you are happier with the American economy and the American position in the world than I am.)   If the elite class and its gatekeepers did indeed produce superior leaders, I wouldn’t be so critical of the process by which they are selected.

The anecdotes in Unz’s article raise the delicate question of “political correctness.”  This does not apply to the sons of privilege, such as Mitt Romney (Brigham Young BA 1971, Harvard MBA & JD 1975) or George W. Bush (Yale BA 1968, Harvard MBA 1975), who are assured an admission no matter what their opinions might be.   But for someone from a more modest background, such as Barack Obama (Columbia BA 1983, Harvard JD 1991) or Bill Clinton (Georgetown BS 1968, Yale JD 1973), a lot would depend on the interviewer’s subjective impression.

I find it easy to imagine, but impossible to prove, that an interviewer could have a political bias that a high school student who campaigned against the death penalty probably was a well-rounded person, but somebody who campaigned in favor of the death penalty was intellectually and morally backward.   I don’t have any direct knowledge of this, and would appreciate comment from anybody who does.  I bring this up only because the comment thread on Unz’s article indicates a widespread perception that this is indeed the case.

Unz proposed a twofold reform:

  • To the extent a university wants to claim that it is highly selective, admissions should be based on test scores.
  • To the extent a university wants to claim that it is diverse and “looks like America,” admissions should be based on a lottery of everyone who meets minimum qualifications.

I don’t think there is any chance the Ivy League universities will accept such a proposal, and I don’t favor the federal government regulating admissions to private universities.  What is needed is a change in attitude, in which people are judged based on their achievements and proved capabilities, rather than their credentials.  This will be a long time coming, because so much of the existing elite was chosen precisely because of their credentials.

Equal opportunity should be provided by state universities, with, as in an earlier era, free or affordable tuition to everyone who can do college work.  And educational and charitable institutions with huge investment portfolios should be required to devote a minimum percentage of those portfolios to their official purposes, or forfeit their tax exemptions.

Click on The Myth of American Meritocracy  for Ron Unz’s full article.

Click on Paying Tuition to a Gigantic Hedge Fund for a sidebar by Ron Unz claiming that Harvard University is more of an investment fund than an educational institution.

Click on Harvard as Hedge Fund: Harvard Replies for Harvard’s reply and Ron Unz’s additional comment.

Click on Quantitative Sources and Methods for Ron Unz’s documentation of his claims.

Click on The claim that Harvard admissions discriminate in favor of Jews? I don’t see it for rebuttal by statistics expert Andrew Gelman [added 2/16/13]

Click on This Man Controls California for a 1999 profile of Ron Unz in The New Republic

Click on Ron Unz – Writings and Perspective | Views, Opinions and Notes for his web log.

Why I am not “politically incorrect”

April 12, 2011

The first time I ever heard the phrase “politically correct,” it was used by people on the left to kid each other about going overboard on their ideology.  Then it came to be used a derogatory term for people – but only on the left – who tried to win political arguments by defining the other side as racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever, rather than making a case that their own view was factual and moral.

Now the phrase “politically correct” is used to preemptively silence people who object to bigotry, cruelty, injustice, vulgarity or bad manners.  In fact calling people “politically correct” is a way to enforce a form of political correctness, and it seems to me that it is much more widespread and effective than the left-wing kind.

These thoughts were promoted reading about how President Obama’s outreach to the democracy movement in Egypt was denounced for being politically correct since, it is assumed, the only reason not to help murderous corrupt tyrant stay in power is a kind of weakness.

Glenn Beck (whom I don’t think we’ve seen the last of) once objected to Braille signs next to doorways as being “politically correct.”  Rush Limbaugh is famous for making inflammatory statements and then. when people get angry, claiming to be a victim of political correctness.  Republican senatorial candidate Sharron Angle said during the campaign last year that autism is “a politically correct special interest.”  Many white racist web sites boast of their political incorrectness, but I’ll just link to one.  All these people seem to think they’re doing something brave.

Some years back I learned the phrase “the language of murder.”  This refers to the language of lynch mobs as they hung black people, of Cossacks who burned Jewish villages and murdered Jews in pogroms, of homophobes as they beat gay people to death.  If I use their vocabulary, I am aligning myself with them..

What is so hard about refraining from using language that I know that people consider insulting?  If someone confined to a wheelchair prefers to be called “physically challenged” rather than “crippled,” it costs me nothing to respect the person’s wishes.  Yet tens of books have been written ridiculing this idea.

“Political correctness” is a prejorative term for taking offense where none is intended.  “Political incorrectness” is a boastful term for deliberately being as offensive as you possibly can, and then acting as if you were being persecuted when the other side reacts.

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