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March 03, 2005


Gareth Wilson

It's always hard to respond to a joke. But if Democrats seriously think their opponents' ideas can be dismissed as easily as telepathy, astronomy, and demonic possession, then the party will be chaff on the breeze in a generation.


Gareth is also an avid reader of Analog.

Gareth Wilson

"Gareth is also an avid reader of Analog."
Not anymore. I haven't bought one for two months.
As to the original topic, the Democrats have fallen into a nasty trap in their fight against the Republicans. There are several issues where the Republican position is factually incorrect - most obviously creationism, but also global warming. You fight on issues like this by appealing to factual evidence and emphasising the ignorance of your opponent. What the Democrats seem to be doing is extending this tactic to all issues, including those which can't ever be settled by factual arguments or logic. Then you can make jokes about those poor ignorant Republicans wanting to teach their whacky ideas at Stanford. I'm not offended by this myself, but I do wonder if they know how much this attitude is going to hurt them.



I suspect there is a deeper disagreement here: to what extent our moral and political values are actually supported by empirical claims. I think there are a great many aspects of right-wing thought that are based on factual claims that are false: trickle-down, people who are deserving are likely to be able to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, social stratification is a reflection of merit, and so on. I'm entirely on Belle's side, if what she means is that the reason that the educated tend to the left is that education is a process whereby a great many of the foundational beliefs typically appealed to by the right are shown to be false. Of course, there are still possible and actual bases for recognizable right views that have not been shown to be false, but (empirical claim once more) they are not the ones motivating, and generally appealed to, by *most* (certainly not all) conservatives.

Gareth Wilson

"I think there are a great many aspects of right-wing thought that are based on factual claims that are false: trickle-down, people who are deserving are likely to be able to lift themselves up by their bootstraps"

That's a good example of what I'm talking about, actually. "People who are deserving are likely to be able to lift themselves up by their bootstraps" is a moral statement, not a factual one. You can hardly falsify it with a scientific investigation - you'd need a deservometer and a rigorous definition of bootstraps. Not to say it's correct or useful, just that you can't argue against it in the same way you can argue against Intelligent Design or the gobal-warming skeptics.

Timothy Burke

I think Gareth is making an important point. Still, I'd say that the original joke is a good one for responding narrowly to one form of the argument about conservatives in academia, namely, that the sociology of academia should be a mirror of American society. On the other other hand, once you note that the "academia should be a mirror" argument is a silly one, you've incidentally undercut one of the conventional arguments for racial, gender or orientation diversity in the academy, leaving the more powerful but also more controversial proposition that the pursuit of such diversity in the academy is about the correction of particular forms of social injustice and only those forms.


There's at least a prima facie difference between race and sex categories on the one hand, and ideological categories on the other. Race and sex are more or less set at birth and don't result from choices a person makes, and -- says me -- have nothing themselves to do with ability. That's what makes it especially bad to have huge outcome disparities based on race and sex.

And the linked article hits the nail on the head re: the absurd position that all viewpoints should be equally represented in the academy, or represented in proportion to how many people believe them.

Now, maybe there's a more reasonable version of the "conservatives are underrepresented" complaint. If so, we should be glad of the linked article pointing us away from a bad version of the claim, so we can look for the better version.


Folks, you don't want to face it, but you've been hoisted on your own petard.

If you believe in the 'diversity' defense (i.e. its important to have minorities and women in proportional numbers because that 'diversity' of voices will be better for the company/organization/university) then the conservative argument is entirely valid-a 90/10 split between views (as academia seems to be) is impossible to take seriously.

If conservative views are not valid (i.e. they are absent because they are simply bad), then you've undercut your argument for affirmative action. You're excluding views 'without merit', so to be consistent, you've got to acknowledge that a meritocracy is appropriate and attainable. Thus, diversity is no longer a justifiable trump over merit.

Note I'm not saying anything any of you don't already know. You are all pretending to not buy it because, by coming up with some other plausible (but utterly untrue) argument, you can continue as before. I'm not going to convince any of you of it, or convince any of you to acknowledge publically what is going on. But we all know it, and we all know that we all know it. The emperor has no clothes, the Kuhnian Paradigm is breaking down, the old is dying out and being replaced with the new, whatever you want to call it. Maybe this happens every generation, and its the sixties generation dying off. Maybe it happens more infrequently, I don't know. But its happening, and we all know it.



Hm. Timothy, the problem *I* have with Gareth's modest proposal is that I've seen Gareth in operation for years: he's a drive-by political troll, a Kiwi with an unaccountable love for the US's far right.

So I wonder about the good intentions behind his generous offer of advice to US Democrats. (Actually, I don't wonder at all.)



Steve's argument is a classic cheat. He knows something that overwhelms any opposition...he knows what is really in the minds of others. You say he doesn't? He's already covered that, by saying you know it too, but you just won't admit it. So there, no trying to wiggle out of it. Steve's argument is completely unfalsifiable, which is what makes it so attractive.

But isn't it odd that while Steve crows about how liberals "should" see things, he neglects to remind us of how conservatives "should" see things. What Steve fails to mention is that, to the extent one disapproves of the "diversity" argument, it is pure hypocracy to use that argument selectively, merely for the benefit of one's own class. If conservatives believe institutions should not be compelled to aim at diversity in hiring, then conservatives have no room to squawk when they are under-represented among the professional intellectual elite.

In fact, to the extent conservatives believe the quasi-Darwinian line offered by "The Bell Curve" and it's-your-money tax policy, they should understand that the joke offered here is their own view, seen through others' eyes. That's what makes it so nice.

joe o

Gareth may be a troll but I think he is right in this case. In the broader political sense defining conservatism as a type of clear error that you can think your way out of doesn't do much good. Even if it were true, it is insulting to voters with any conservative beliefs.

Julian Elson

Steve, affirmative action (or at least my view of affirmative action) is not about the destruction of meritocracy, but fulfilling it. If you're trying to find the World's Strongest Man, and Bob has a ten-pound bracelet around each of his wrists, and John does not, and Bob bench-presses 850 pounds, and John bench-presses 860 pounds, then it is quite reasonable to say that, without the bracelets, Bob could have bench-pressed 870, and thus that Bob has more merit as a weight-lifter than John.

(Hint: bracelets are a metaphor for discrimination)


I didn't think Gareth was being a troll at all. So I'll reply to his reply to my reply (from a while back). I doubt it's all that hard to cash out "People who are deserving are likely to be able to lift themselves up by their bootstraps" in tolerably non-moral terms. That is, there may be unanalysed moral terms in the analysis, but that's okay, b/c they are not in dispute in the context. Left and right agree about many things, including the core of notions like desert. In the context, "deserving" should be understood as not having been responsible for their own disadvantage. Ah, but what about responsible? Well there are analyses out there which don't beg any questions (try Fischer & Ravizza's *Responsibility and Control*). One of the things that the traditional left has always had a better grasp of than the right - and why education tends to prod people to the left - is social dynamics and enculturation.


Abd Joe O: what's wrong with insulting people with conservative views? They want to take money from the poor and give to the rich; to narrow women's choices and bomb Syria... but we shouldn't insult them? No no, I'm all for gratitious name calling:

# Artichokes!
# Troglodytes!
# Turncoats!
# Bashi-bazouks!
# Olympic Athlete!
# Ectoplasmic Byproduct!
# Balkan Beetle!
# Two-timing Tartar Twisters!
# Terrapins!
# Breathalyser!
# Profiteers!
# Abecedarians!
# Vulture!
# Phylloxera!
# Dogs!
# Hooligans!
# Steamrollers!
# Body-snatcher!
# Ostrogoth!
# Brigand!


John Casey


Affirmative action for political views? Sounds great! Of course, one's political views might be a tad bit more malleable than one's gender or racial characteristics. After all, even as a lifelong Democrat, I could register as a Republican tomorrow, and verbally genuflect at the alter of Reagan/Goldwater/Bush thereafter, or at least until after the job interview. Checking up on this bit of diversity could be a bit tricky, eh?

joe o


People who take money from the poor and give to the rich are greedy. People who want to narrow women's choices are misogynists. People who want to bomb Syria are warmongers. Those labels are effective because people don't want to be seen as greedy misogynist warmongers.

It is silly to assume that conservatism is some kind of logical error that the top 10% smartest people can work free of. It takes more than just the smart kids to win elections.



Of course it takes more than just smart kids to win elections. There is no IQ or education qualification to stand for power or to vote. I also said that by no means all conservatives hold views that can be shown to be false. I said *most* conservatives. There are intelligent, well educated and non self-deceiving conservatives. They are not in the White House, nor do they represent more than a small fraction of the people who voted for the current administration (indeed, I have it on good authority that many intelligent conservatives cannot bring themselves to vote for GWB).


I like artichokes and don't see why they should be made an insult.

Fontana Labs

Just to emphasize Tim's point: the court-approved rationales for affirmative action policies focus on diversity, and, in particular, the benefits of diversity for (say) the educational mission of a university. The 'backward-looking' arguments are on much shakier ground-- that's why the rhetoric on this issue has really shifted from "righting wrongs" to "future benefits."

It's possible to argue that diversity of race provides some benefit that diversity of political affiliation does not, but you end up looking like you're playing dialectial twister. I'm a moderate fan of AA, and I think ideological tests on academic hires would be a fiasco, but lefty dismissals of this sort of parity argument strike me as too quick and poorly thought out.

Walt Pohl

Conservatives don't give a shit about discrimination. Otherwise, they would have mentioned their concern for discrimination for any group other than themselves somewhere along the past fifty years. When you let them pretend that they do, you're just allowing them to frame things in a way that is congenial to them.

The conservative will to power is so relentless that they not be satisfied until every single institution is under conservative control. They already occupy the commanding heights of government and business, but it's not enough. They want it all.

Mary Root

I have yet to meet a conservative arguing against affirmative action who was doing anything to fight our desperately unequal public education system. If poor children in the inner cities (and impoverished rural areas) went to the same quality schools as rich suburban kids, I might believe them when they talk about bootstraps.

Matt Weiner

OK, but there's a poetic justice as fairness issue involved here. Even if conservatives have no moral standing to complain about discrimination, that doesn't mean we have moral standing to ignore it if it's taking place.

That said, I think the most that's called for is increased sensitivity--don't assume the person you're interviewing will appreciate your jokes about Bush, etc. I'm not sure why Labs says that the backward-looking rationales for AA are on shaky ground unless he means shaky legal ground--I'd say that the discrimination women and minorities have faced in the past, and still face today, is enough reason for some, er, affirmative action to try to correct imbalances in representation in academia, and that's why conservatives oughtn't to get the same benefit.

Fontana Labs

I meant legal ground, Matt. There's a moral issue here to the extent that AA benefits are allotted based on race, and race tracks past wrong to individuals inaccurately at best. (Bernard Boxill talks about benefits to groups, if I remember right, but this always struck me as unconvincing.)

Matt Weiner

Hm, I'm not unconvinced about benefits to groups, though I don't know Boxill. Part of it is that I'm fairly well convinced by some of the stuff Marilyn Frye says about oppression of groups, and I think that this means that, for instance, Barack Obama is going to catch a lot of anti-black oppression even if his father was from Kenya and he was raised by the white side of his family. But that means that I'm willing to say that I think AA is largely morally fine. Though if anyone wants to start some AA in these cases I won't be complaining.

Fontana Labs

If B'Obama suffers discrimination, etc., then there are wrongs that we (aha-- hard to say just who that is, of course) can make up to him in the form of preferential treatment-- based on wrongs done to Barack Obama. The problem, of course, is that within the set of people classified as black for AA purposes, there are radically different levels of harms from past injustice, and AA conflates those differences, treating Obama (who has suffered mildly, if at all) just as it treats McX, whose presence in the Robert Taylor Homes is directly attributable to more egregious wrongdoing.

The Boxill argument, or one branch of it (if I remember right, etc. etc.) is that benefitting Smith is fine, even though it's Jones who suffered the harms, because Smith and Jones are both members of a group that has suffered harm. This strikes me as odd, and, were I Jones, I would feel no consolation whatsoever in knowing that my fellow black man had received what's due to me.


Okay... this argument is getting a little weird. First of all, we've all just accepted that 13% number - does it apply to the whole faculty, or just the humanities departments? And what is the Democratic number versus that 13%? One similar-sounding number I ran across in an argument, when examined more closely, was very misleading. They only looked at humanities departments - excluding Econ and hard sciences; when you looked at the entire professor population, the number was much closer to parity. And part of the large gap was explainable by having large numbers who didn't fit into either: as I dimly recall, huge numbers of professors were either unregistered to vote at all or didn't list themselves as either D/R. Anyway, I wonder if we're all getting het up over a joke that, becuase it's a joke, doesn't challenge that 13% number.

And why would we even think that representation of those with a different political party affiliation is in any way parallel to race or gender? Or, for that matter, by those who believe in astrology? There are too many unexamined assumptions and generalizations here about what someone's registered political affiliation means in the first place in how one lives one's life. Ditto re: what affect said political affiliation would have in terms of one's teaching. Looking back at my own academic career (liberal arts major at an Ivy), I can positively identify the political opinions of a few of my professors, but with most of them, I really would have no idea how they'd voted in the last election. What is the relationship between one's listed political affiliation and one's beliefs? And how does this come into play in the classroom?

I think the debate has drifted into the AA realm because it's so hard to figure out the effect that a faculty member's political affiliation would have.

Matt Brown

Why not force the university to let in astrology professors, parapsychologists, creationists? Are the orthodox views so fragile that they won't stand up to competition, or so weakly supported that the students won't be able to tell which views are the best?

And weren't we all a little upset when the big bad Administration kicked out the Ghostbusters?


The hiring of conservatives in Departments of Theology, or in Philosophy spec. Moral Philosophy, might be acceptable. In such cases, the propositions never have to be tested on the basis of fact, only on logic.

Of course, a Graduate School of Economics is really a subdivision of the Department of Theology.

Michael Blowhard

Skipping over all the above quarrels ...

Can someone please tell me why you wouldn't want a bigger range of intellectual/political p-o-v's represented on your campuses (and in your faculties) than you generally have?

It seems to me that these discussions often fail to take into account the kids being educated. Do they really benefit by having entire bodies of thought withheld from them?

It seems to me a terrible injustice to kids not to expose them to a wider range of approaches and thinking than they seem to be getting exposed to these days.


It seems to me that these discussions often fail to take into account the kids being educated. Do they really benefit by having entire bodies of thought withheld from them?

It seems to me a terrible injustice to kids not to expose them to a wider range of approaches and thinking than they seem to be getting exposed to these days

You assume that having a political opinion precludes having a thoughtful discussion of opposing viewpoints. You also assume that people can't discuss anything except from a rigidly ideological and personally biased perspective.

How sad. And how insulting.

(If people can only teach what they themselves believe or experience, a whole lot of historians are going to be out of work. Ditto biologists, astrophysicists, anthropologists...)

If someone is "withholding entire bodies of thought" within their field from their students, that's bad scholarship and bad pedagogy. Adding another person to counter this with equally bad (if ideologically different) scholarship and pedagogy isn't the answer.

At least if you think that the goal of an education institution is education and the pursuit of knowledge, not indoctrination.

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