Old-timers may remember a radio program about a crime-fighting hero called The Shadow, who had "the power to cloud men's minds, so that they cannot see him." Affirmative action has that same power today. Some of the murkiest thinking of our times has come from those defending group preferences and quotas.
Professor James M. McPherson of Princeton University has launched a recent defense of affirmative action that is classic. For example, affirmative action is redefined to include such things as the fact that he and other white males of his generation "received a great deal of support from faculty and families to aspire to a career" and to hope to reach the top, while minorities and women did not.
This was, Professor McPherson says, "a more powerful form of affirmative action than anything we have more recently experienced in the opposite direction." Moreover, he was first hired to teach at Princeton on the recommendation of his faculty adviser at Johns Hopkins, part of "the infamous 'old boy network,' surely the most powerful instrument of affirmative action ever devised."
As if this were not enough special privilege, James McPherson was also part of a generation born "during the trough of the Depression-era birth rate," so that he entered the job market just when the baby boom generation was being educated, at a time when there were relatively few people from the previous generation around to educate them. Therefore he was spared the exhausting job searches of today.
"The jobs sought us, not vice versa," he says. This too constituted -- you guessed it -- affirmative action. Professor McPherson calls it "a sort of demographic affirmative action."
Even if we accept all of Professor McPherson's arguments and redefinitions, what is the conclusion that he reaches? Is he going to resign his professorship at Princeton and his presidency of the American Historical Association as undeserved windfalls? Not on your life!
Instead, McPherson is prepared to sacrifice other people to his vision of undeserved good fortune. "Having benefitted in so many ways from these older forms of affirmative action that favored white males," he says, he cannot condemn the newer version that "seems to disadvantage this same category."
In short, older white males of Professor McPherson's generation benefitted unfairly, so reparations are owed to minorities and women -- not from those who benefitted, but from white males of this generation, including those too young to have had anything to do with the advantages and disadvantages he describes. And we thought The Shadow could cloud men's minds!
This is classic academic self-indulgence in the name of noblesse oblige. Professor McPherson can get credit for noblesse and force someone else to pay the cost of oblige.
This argument is also classic academic thinking in another sense -- talking about people in the abstract, as members of "the same category." As Professor McPherson knows full well from his scholarly work, the 14th Amendment mandates equal treatment for flesh-and-blood individuals, not for abstract categories.
One of the many differences between abstract people and flesh-and-blood human beings is that real people are born, live and die -- taking their sins and their sufferings to the grave with them. Only by focusing on abstract categories that live on can redressing the wrongs of history be made to seem even plausible.
Professor McPherson's argument also confuses gratitude and guilt. He should indeed be grateful for the support and encouragement that he received from family and mentors. But neither he nor they should feel guilty because others did not receive similar support and encouragement.
Anyone who is serious about extending the same benefits to others must become serious about developing the same abilities in others -- that is, raising them up to the same standards, not bringing the standards down to them.
Finally, the notion that demographic trends constitute social injustices to be lamented shows the unreality of this jerry-built argument. But confusing the vagaries of fate with the sins of man is also part of the argument for affirmative action -- and betrays how lacking it is in real arguments.