Politics is like fashion. It's never finished.
A treatise on the fundamental nature of the political world.
We began with the SCOTUS ruling on affirmative action and I’m slightly more conflicted on the topic than I was when I was 22 and saw a bunch of my Asian-American friends on the short end of AA in medical school admissions. Let me explain.
The hardest challenges aren’t right-versus-wrong. No, the tough stuff comes when you have two goods in tension with one another. And that’s what affirmative action is. It pits fairness against inclusion. We want both. But the reality is that they are in tension.
Some people maintain that one (or the other) of these goods is paramount. I can see the appeal of this worldview. If either fairness or inclusion were obviously more important than the other, then the affirmative action question would be easy to answer.
What I think is easy to answer is that there are certain policy attempts to balance fairness and inclusion that are clearly flawed. And the policy as described in the Students for Fair Admissions case seems pretty damn flawed to me. We can do better.
Paging through the Thomas opinion, though, I was reminded of a meeting I had once with a very rich man. (Forgive me if I’ve told this story before.) He worked in philanthropy and he had this job because his father had made so much money that he had built a very large foundation with his name on it. After passing away, his son—I’m just going to call him “Junior”—took over this philanthropic empire.
By the time I met him, Junior was himself an old man. And in the course of our conversation he wanted to talk about virtue. He insisted that virtue was the pathway to success and that by pursuing virtue, every man could transcend his circumstances and live the good life. In the abstract, I mostly agreed with him. Virtue is one pathway to success and it is difficult to live a good life without having the virtues as your guide.
Then Junior tried to illustrate his point.
Let’s say you’re a perfectly average person, he said. Average parentage. Average intelligence. Average character. “By the time you’re 30 years old,” he asked, “how much money have you made? Probably a million dollars.”
From there he went on to wonder how anyone but the most unfortunate virtuous person could be poor.
This was where I got off the bus.
Clarence Thomas looks at affirmative action and wonders why anyone would need help ascending to the state in which they could afford lavish vacations on luxury yachts. Which really is, as Ketanji Brown Jackson noted, let-them-eat-cake level of obliviousness.
But on the other hand, Thomas is not wrong about the basic elements of fairness that are compromised by affirmative action: Both to individuals on the wrong side of it and in perceptions projected onto its beneficiaries.
Again, the challenge here is that both goods—the fairness and the inclusivity—are important.
One last story.
A few months ago I was talking with a priest friend about currents in the Catholic Church, where we now have radicalized progressives on one side and rad-trad fascists on the other.
My priest friend is deeply theologically conservative. Twenty years ago he would have been categorized as “orthodox” in Catholic world. He never changed his orthodoxy, but also didn’t follow the rad trads over the edge.
His revelation, he explained, was that truth and love must always walk together in Catholicism. The schism we see in the Church these days comes from ideologies prioritizing one at the expense of the other. The rad trads care only for (their conception of) truth. The radicals care only for (their idea of) love. But any Catholic who allows daylight between truth and love does a disservice to both.
This strikes me as a perfect distillation of the Catholic imperative. And it’s how I’ve come to think about fairness and inclusivity, too. Which leads us to what I really want to talk about today . . .
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