Monday, September 18, 2017

The Lumber-Room of My Library--On 3Quarks

What are you reading?

A friend asked me that question recently, and I almost found myself stumped. 

Reading isn't skimming. It's not staring at a screen, spasmodically flipping back and forth between the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, Barron's, electoral-vote.com, Foreign Policy, NRO and anything else to which Twitter would lead. It's certainly not dipping myself into the digital inkwell of the Comments section, finding something to be outraged about, and letting it fly. That's not even writing, much less reading for content.
So, what was I reading? Books. I need books, something to stimulate my brain instead of my adrenals. I could, as I have done countless times, head to Strand and wander up and down the aisles looking for things that might pique my interest. There's always something at Strand. Fiction, non-fiction, history, science, art, architecture and music, tomes on various topics. I am a serious tome fan, and Strand is the place where you can amuse yourself just by scanning the blurbs. "Professor Throckmanshire has produced the definitive work on mid-18th Century Cornish snuffboxes." If that doesn't appeal….

Yet, I have enough books. I know, you can never have enough, but I live in a Manhattan apartment, and, short of tethering rucksacks of them to the outside of the windows (a practice frowned upon by both the City and the co-op board) there isn't a lot of space. The bedrooms are filled with them, the living room stuffed. They are piled up on surfaces and double-deep in built-ins. Of course, a few more wouldn't hurt, but a few more are always arriving—gifts from family and friends, odds and ends on which I couldn't resist spending the kids' tuition money. And the dirty secret was I hadn't read them all yet. I'd been too busy feeding my political obsessions. I didn't need to go to Strand—there was plenty to harvest here at home. Clearly, it wasn't the quantity of books; I was falling down on the reading of them.

There was my problem, and my solution. So, I made my way through the vast expanse of my palatial residence looking for ideas—different ones than those that had distracted me for the last year. I started in my daughter's room. Plenty of options, not all entirely interesting to a man of my years. Some were clearly a no. Books on classical music…possible, but perhaps a little esoteric. The contents of my son's room just didn't inspire. Our bedroom…eh, and there was the omnipresent risk of raising dust if I probed too deeply. The living room held the treasures, if I could just get through the piles and obstructions, the vintage speakers, and, occasionally, the plants.

There's a strange feeling when you do this, going from volume to volume, topic to topic. It's almost like reliving past relationships. This love-interest lasted about three months. This one, somewhat longer, but didn't she dump you because you never understood her, or was it that she didn't understand you? Here's a passion that never quite left, and these few…what exactly was I thinking when I made the time and the space?

Books are tactile as well—they have a heft to them, a certain solidity in the hand that promises inspiration, knowledge, or just entertainment. A book is a book, not just a collection of electrons. You don't click your way around a library; you have to be purposeful. I stretched and peered and craned, as if in an archeological dig, getting down on hands and knees, pulling out the double-stacked ones to expose those behind, looking for something to grab me. I was tempted by two recent gifts, the first on World War II's Operation Mincemeat, and a second, Founding Rivals. Almost there, but was I ready to dive back into non-fiction quite this early? Finally, I rounded a bend and removed some science fiction and a book on chess to unearth the treasures behind. I found myself at #221B Baker Street.


Old love, but definitely loved. Two volumes, the dust covers long gone, the bindings cracked and worn, pages yellowed, even uncharacteristic markings on some of the paragraphs in my uniquely indecipherable handwriting. I don't think I had touched them in 15 years or so, when I was reading them out loud (in my best Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce voices) to my son. These would do. A few adventures with Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his amanuensis, Dr. John H. Watson, late of Afghanistan.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Not Talking About Affirmative Action--On 3Quarks

I don't want to talk about affirmative action. It's a messy, horrible topic. 

I just don't want to talk about it. But earlier this month, the New York Times reported on a new Jeff Sessions initiative to hire political appointees for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division for "investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination." By "intentional race-based discrimination," the AG means race-based discrimination against races other than African Americans or Latinos.

And I don't want to go there. Republicans, largely speaking off the record, see this as a win for Sessions personally, as it pleases Trump at a time where Trump-pleasing might be important for Sessions. And it's a win for the GOP, where affirmative action is broadly unpopular not only among party members, but also with more moderate suburban middle and upper middle class voters who approach the college application period with dread.

I'm still not going to going to be sucked in. Sessions' motives and whatever political calculations they reflect are irrelevant. The historical record on the systematic exclusion of minorities is an irrefutable disgrace, but, when it comes to remedies, particularly their legality, reasonable people can disagree. Either affirmative action is Constitutionally permissible, or it isn't, and the Supreme Court gets to make that decision. To be technical, there's no such thing as affirmative action—it's been banned by the Supreme Court since the Regents vs Bakke decision in 1978. What has been permitted, although narrowed by an increasingly conservative Court (see last year's 4-to-3 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas) is that universities can continue using race as one of multiple factors in their admissions decisions. This is what Sessions is targeting. He really isn't talking about pure merit—he's fine with the 21 other herbs and spices that are the alchemy of determining an incoming Freshman—but race will be out, and he's prepared to use the considerable power, and budget, of the DOJ to make sure it stays out.

What's next? It's not hard to predict that a lot of people who are enthusiastic about Sessions' goal will be end up being both disturbed and disappointed. Until the Supreme Court rules, he can't just snap his fingers and erase any and all considerations of race in the process. And, even if he were given an unlimited budget to pursue this, he wouldn't be able to investigate hundreds of colleges. The best he can do in the short term is to mount a few selective prosecutions of those he sees as excessively friendly to minority applications, and, by extension, hope to intimidate/influence the rest into altering their stated policies.

But here's his real problem (and it's the problem of applicants who expect to benefit from the new policy): The existence of a stated "pro-minority" process is easy to prove. Demonstrating the adverse impact of it on an individual basis as means of achieving redress might be much more difficult. To do that, to find out who really benefited and who was "wronged," he's going to need a lot of personal and granular data on every applicant, not just minorities, and then try to reverse engineer the admissions calculus, substituting his own views of who is worthy for the judgment of the school.

I suspect that this particular exercise will cause quite a bit of unhappiness. As every parent with a high-school-aged child knows, there are no completely objective admissions standards. There are grades, and test results, and every other resume-stuffer that parents can think about, and then there are the "hooks. Were Dad and Grandpa alumni? Is your family ready to endow a Chair? Can you bench press 370 while running a 4.5 in the 40? And when we get past those, did the school of your choice graduate out the entire tuba section of the marching band? Is it trying to develop a specialty major, just hire a few hot-shot professors, and need students to fill its classes? Even if you can't build a new wing on the Engineering Building, can Mom and Dad pay full freight, or close to it? This is data that colleges really do not want to give and many parents would be furious if disclosed. One of the first things they teach you in law school is don't ask a question that you don't already know the answer to. Sessions thinks the discussion is only going to be about race—but he's wrong, and once he (with the eventual support of the Supreme Court) wrings race out of it, it is going to end up being about hard-wired privilege.

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