Is Affirmative Action a cargo cult?

In an earlier entry, I wrote:

Giving a speech is to Obama what building a non-functioning landing strip was to certain South Pacific islanders after World War II (see Cargo Cult). Just as the islanders thought that building a runway would magically bring back the planes and the goods that the Americans had brought to the island during the war and then taken away with them at the end of the war, Obama thinks that giving a speech—even if it’s the same thing that he’s said dozens of times before and it didn’t work then—will enable him conquer all obstacles and achieve whatever he wants to achieve, even fundamentally transforming America. He’s a one-trick pony. Or, shifting our metaphor, he’s a black empty suit—the greatest black empty suit in history, the one who climbed the highest, and, at present, seems to be in the process of falling the farthest.

In reply, James N. writes:

You know, all of Affirmative Action is more or less a cargo cult.

Having the Harvard degree is the same thing as qualifying for admission, doing superior work in real classes, getting real grades, etc.

They mistake the symbol for the thing itself.

Just sayin’

LA replies:

Yes, Affirmative Action is a cargo cult, in which symbols are mistaken for the thing itself. And the main cultic objects of the Affirmative Action cargo cult are the Black Empty Suits (see Joseph Kay’s article on this subject.) The Black Empty Suits are the symbols of black achievement and racial equality that are mistaken for reality. Furthermore, the Black Empty Suits are not only the cultic objects of the cult, they are its believers and practitioners as well. They believe that their own symbolism—having the right degree, speaking the right lingo, wearing the right clothes, showing up at the job—means that they have actually earned their job and are accomplishing something in it.

LA continues:

This is obviously not to say that all blacks in professional positions are black empty suits. However, with the number of blacks with professional-level IQ’s as low as it is, and with Affirmative Action for elite university and professional school admissions and university and corporate hiring and military promotion (remember Nidal Hasan?) as ubiquitous and massive in scale as it is, there have to be a fair number of them.

Consider the epitome of the Black Empty Suit—Cornel West. Now, how many minor Cornel Wests are there in the university faculties, corporations and government departments of America?

Blacks, liberals, and racially correct conservatives may find it offensive that blacks are being referred to here as black empty suits. If that’s the way they feel, all they have to do is get rid of racial preferences for nonwhites, and there won’t be any more black empty suits. But as long as black people are being admitted, hired, and promoted far beyond their abilities and achievements would warrant, there are going to be a lot of black empty suits in the world, and other people won’t be able to avoid noticing it.

LA continues:

How many Chief Moose’s are there in America?

Mike writes:

If we’re to look at Affirmative Action as a cargo cult, I’d suggest that its main practitioners are white liberals and that unfortunately their delusion seems to know no ends. They believe that granting Harvard degrees to minorities will create Harvard-quality minorities. Then when confronted with the obvious mediocrity of figures like Obama and Sotomayor, the Harvard degree then becomes the main evidence of their intellectual capability. It turns into a self-perpetuating cycle. Obama and Sotomayor made very similar statements to the effect of “See, affirmative action is good because it let me in to Harvard—and that was obviously good for Harvard because I’m so brilliant. I’m obviously brilliant, I went to Harvard!”

Blacks and other minorities don’t need to “believe their own hype” to support affirmative action. It makes perfect sense for them to support racial preferences, regardless of whether they serve any higher purpose. Most of them do get caught up in it, but the real cultists are all the whites who still cite Obama as an “intellectual” or Colin Powell as “accomplished”. Support for affirmative action may be dwindling, but faith in its beneficiaries still seems to be strong.

LA replies:

Excellent points. I didn’t mean to suggest that blacks are the sole or even the main believers in the cult, as many blacks know that they don’t have the abilities and they’re putting one over on the world—or, rather, they know that the white man has put them in a position where they have no choice but to put one over on the world.

At the same time, you yourself just gave an example of a minority, Obama, who does believe in the cult—who is, as I put it above, both a cultic object of the cult, and an adherent and practitioner of the cult.

(I’m not sure that Powell qualifies as a black empty suit. Though in recent years he’s abandoned his earlier moderate stand and moved toward leftism and black racialism, my impression is that as national security advisor to Reagan, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Bush the elder, and as Secretary of State under Bush the younger, he performed in his job. Which doesn’t mean that he did a great job or that I approve of everything he did, but that he performed reasonably well.)

January 24

Joseph Kay writes:

As an academic lifer who has witnessed the Black Empty Suits (BES) for many decades, let me offer some personal insight.

The male BES is incredibly valuable. Administrators who can recruit them will advance up the career ladder since this is a valuable marketable talent. BESs are usually hired with “free” money since top administrators have a separate fund for “minority recruitment” so the hiring department adds a body at little direct cost. And what department will refuse a “free” body? The BES is probably unaware of this arrangement and believes that he has been hired via the normal process.

Once hired the BES is made very comfortable since the slightest bit of unhappiness might instigate departure, and “retention” is a key and easily quantified institutional goal. They are allowed to teach cream puff courses, almost always things like “Race and Politics” where they get rave reviews from all their black students. They may present their research at department seminars but nobody will dare ask tough questions.

And there is always money around for released time so the BES can build an academic record necessary for promotion. Everybody loves giving research money to the BES. In the case of government grants, this is a huge windfall for the university since the institution will charge a fee (up to 75%) of the grant for overhead while the grant-giver pays the BES’s salary. So the BES does not draw a salary from his university and the university gets a bonus. A great win-win arrangement

Even a half-witted BES can build a record sufficient for tenure given much lower standards in BES dominated fields. There is an entire BES world of conferences, edited books and specialized journals. BESs are always compared to other BES when granting tenure, not to whites. This is actually official policy—those promoted to Associate Professor with tenure must have a demonstrated record of accomplishment in their respective fields.

All and all, universities have learned to manage the BES. It is a tax, perhaps one akin to a small private firm forced to hire the boss’s mistress.

My colleagues would often ask ourselves if the BES knew he was being coddled, held to much lower standards and being patronized. The consensus was that he was oblivious. The outward activity was decisive, not the content of scholarship.

The upshot is often bizarre lawsuits when a BES screws up so badly that he is denied tenure. It comes as a genuine shock for at least in his mind, he was indistinguishable from his colleagues and nobody ever complained. But, what keeps the peace is that he is quickly hired by some less prestigious but desperate institution, and probably with a large salary increase.

It is a very well-crafted and successful system.

Kristor writes:

Cargo cultists are engaging in gnostic magical operations. It’s a form of idolatry. As with voodoo (that’s the connection to Haiti), idolaters manipulate the symbol to control its referent. They mistake the symbols and inditia for the reality to which they point.

From my perspective, this all harks back to the article I sent you last week, in which I developed a theory of the psycho-genesis of gnosticism—of liberalism as a mental disorder—in the arrested development of the gnostic psyche. Never having been effectively initiated into full adulthood, the gnostic is stuck with one foot in adulthood, and the other still in childhood, a permanent adolescent, a sophomore who never graduates. He copes with reality in all its painful intransigence by manipulating symbols, the way the child does in playing pretend with dolls and toy guns. The empty black suit is playing dress-up.

To be fair, even in this he apes what he sees whites so often doing; most of the whites now in college don’t belong there, either. Our culture decided a long time ago that if everyone got a college degree, everyone would succeed and get a high-class job as a poet or film director or lawyer or college professor (this was a couple decades after we decided that it was the high school diploma that was the key). But unfortunately, it isn’t the college degree that confers success, but rather the intelligence, discipline, and enterprise that in truth are what befit a person for college in the first place. Most of the people graduating college these days have only the average amount of these virtues. Accordingly, many of their degrees are in such demanding subjects as “social justice” or “American studies.” All these fake academic disciplines that have flowered since 1960 are built to provide passing grades to students and jobs to academics who can’t or won’t hack Aristotle or Shakespeare or calculus. Ditto for the whole deconstructionist and relativist schtick, which by insisting that there is no truth deflates the value of the hard, old-fashioned, grown-up disciplines that seek it and reward its discovery. And the graduates all think that because they have a sheepskin, they are entitled to a cushy job as a poet or activist. And, mirabile dictu, many of them do indeed go on to sinecures at government or non-profit organizations where their job is to push more gnostic magical operations—this time in the form of new laws and regulations aimed at preventing this or that part of reality from dying. If they are lucky, they can stay in the gnostic bubble their whole lives.

I should note that symbol manipulation is not itself pernicious per se. Indeed, it is our strength as a species. What is pernicious is mistaking the map for the territory.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 23, 2010 09:16 PM | Send

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