Conservatives, Sarah Palin & Affirmative Action

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For decades now, we’ve heard the right-wing complain about affirmative action: “It corrodes our meritocracy. It undermines standards. It leads us down the path to second-rate power. Merit is the sole legitimate basis for determining success.”

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In this way, conservatives have attempted to argue that their opposition to affirmative action is not racially motivated, but rather flows from noble principle.

There are general problems with this argument. For one, conservatives’ hand-wringing about merit seems not to apply to the estimated half of all job openings in the United States that aren’t posted and instead go to connected insiders.

Nor do such concerns apply to legacy admissions at universities, which account for a significantly higher percentage of entries than does affirmative action, especially at elite schools. (Though most media have been too polite to make much of it, John McCain himself would never have been accepted into the naval academy on his own merits and his well-documented abysmal performance while there would have sunk the career aspirations of a less well-connected midshipman.)

Both types of preferential treatment-legacy admits and non-competitive hires-disproportionately benefit the already better off. But if there were any doubts that the right-wing’s harping on affirmative action as the cause of declining American standards was disingenuous, Sarah Palin’s selection as the GOP’s choice for Vice President and the right-wing’s defense of her as a viable candidate should put those questions to rest.

To call Palin mediocre might be overly generous. Regardless, only a movement as contemptuous of American political institutions as the modern right, could argue with a straight face that she merits serious consideration as a possible President of the United States.

Her obvious, willful ignorance of basic knowledge and her evident pride in that ignorance were on full display when she crowed during the VP debate, “I’ve only been at this for, what, like five weeks.” This comment demonstrated her monumental self-delusion (does she actually think she’s been a quick-study?) and her conviction that being no more well-informed than a typical American adult is actually a badge of honor.

All of which is par for a movement that doesn’t actually care about merit. Instead, the modern right concerns itself with defending the ramparts of white privilege against the onslaught of “uppity” minorities and their liberal enablers. Hence, when blatantly inept aspirants prove themselves to be willing stooges for the perpetuation of that privilege, they become heroic precisely because of their lack of merit and qualification.

In a recent Newsweek article, Jon Meacham reminds us that we’ve been down this road before: “In 1970 a Nebraska senator, Roman L. Hruska, was defending Richard Nixon’s nomination of U.S. circuit Judge G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. An underwhelming figure, Carswell was facing criticism that he was too ‘mediocre’ for elevation. Hruska tried an interesting counterargument: ‘Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.'”

As Meacham notes, we can certainly come from humble circumstances and achieve great things. But the right-wing seems to aspire to mediocrity; they celebrate ignorance, lack of curiosity and an insistence that you need not ever be self-critical because you have no need to try to improve yourself. In these traits, the movement sees resoluteness. Others might reasonably see in it a recipe for arrogant incompetence.

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson penned a favorite phrase of conservatives, the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” This phrase is supposed to (a) convey compassion for those coddled poor souls whose low standards have only made them worse off in the long run, and (b) to project deep, serious thought about the need to uphold timeless verities and lofty standards worthy of a great nation.

But that’s all a sick joke in the face of the endemic crony-ism of the Bush years, the right wing’s embarrassingly thin arguments for defending baldly cynical nominees to the Supreme Court, like Carswell and Clarence Thomas (you don’t have to be white to play this game) and now Sarah Palin.

The bigotry on display here is, however, anything but “soft”-the undeserving are perfectly qualified as long as they show proper contempt for the actually under-privileged. And those “low expectations” are to be praised and fiercely defended so long as they’re in the service of bigotry and contempt.

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