Thursday, September 29, 2011

College Republicans Think They're Smarter than They Are. (In other news, lead appears to be heavier than shaving cream.)

Driving home from a recruiting trip to Houston a couple nights ago, a colleague from the School of Art and I were discussing the nature of satire. It strikes me that three things make satire work: 1). enough similarity to the referent that the ironic juxtaposition is apparent, 2). enough difference from the referent that the ironic (i.e., “not real”) intent is clear to the observer, and 3). recognizable referents. Stated more simply, satire must be comprehensible, funny, and recognized as a joke.

The example I used was this photo that’s been making the rounds on the Internet of late. I think it’s funny, and it’s clearly intended to be so. Understanding it requires a series of data which all must be known to the observer for the joke to achieve its effect: we need to know who McCoy and Spock are; what their relationship to each other is; who Sulu is; the fact that Sulu was played by George Takei, who is openly gay; what “being in the closet” means; and the fact that in the Chronicles of Narnia series of C.S. Lewis, that enchanted kingdom is entered from our world through a closet. Only a viewer with all that information will completely “get” the humor.

Anyway, the notion of satire in real life has arisen of late, thanks to a story from the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, where the College Republicans sponsored a bake sale at which prices for the items on offer varied according to the demographic profile of the buyer: $2 for whites, $1.50 for Asians, $1 for Latinos, $.75 for African-Americans, $.25 for Native Americans. Women of all races get a $.25 discount. Now, as mentioned earlier, for satire to work, the spectator needs to be in on the joke—that’s why the only Aristophanes play that works anymore is Lysistrata, which is about sex (and the threatened withholding of it), which people understand. The transgressions of Cleon (The Wasps) or the purported links between Socrates and the Sophists (The Clouds), not so much. So I was curious what prompted this apparently unfunny parodic outburst.

Turns out it’s something called SB 185, a bill which would moderate but not overturn 1996’s Proposition 209, the Ward Connerly-inspired initiative to disallow Affirmative Action in admissions decisions at California’s state universities. Well, that and the fact that the student government had organized a phone bank to call Governor Jerry Brown’s office to urge him to sign SB 185. As Shawn Lewis, the president of the College Republicans at Berkeley, explains in an opinion piece in The Daily Californian, the bake sale was specifically intended to be offensive:
Some members of the community have been outraged by our event, as they should be! Treating people differently because of the color of their skin is unquestionably wrong, and that’s how we hope people react to the satirical bake sale, along with SB 185. The point is that considering race in university admissions does exactly that — it treats people differently because of their race.
So now that you understand the gag, it’s funny, right? Well, no, I don’t think so, either, but I can see why it passes for terribly clever in College Republican circles.

Indeed, I generally understand those who are suspicious of the alleged need for, or advantages of, Affirmative Action. I’d go so far as to endorse their skepticism. Still, we differ in one significant regard: I kind of like the truth. By that, I refer not merely to analytical things like the fact that research tends to show that minority college students outperform their white peers with the same high school academic profile and board scores, or that significant exposure to other cultures and sub-cultures seems to me an inherent positive. Nor am I talking about the fact that the pricing hierarchy implies (but, of course, never states) that white males would be the most adversely affected by SB 185. In fact, of course, women outperform men in high school and Asians outperform whites, meaning that someone named Jessica Wong is a lot more likely to be disadvantaged by the proposed law than would someone named, say, Shawn Lewis, who, as you no doubt already suspected, is white and male.

Be it noted in this regard that Lewis specifically calls attention to the unanimous support for the “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” by the College Republicans board, which, he tells us, “includes Hispanic, Chinese and Taiwanese representation, with over half of the board being female. The notion that this event was planned by a bunch of insensitive white guys is harshly inaccurate and draws on false, negative stereotypes about Republicans.” I, for one, stand corrected. This inane idea was planned by a bunch of insensitive multi-ethnic men and women, who of course can be just as stupid as white guys.

But what really bothers me here is the bald-faced lying. Here’s Lewis: “The [Associated Students of the University of California, in other words the student government] phone bank intends to send the message to Gov. Brown that all UC Berkeley students support SB 185, but that is not true.” It seems pretty clear to me that two things are true: the student body is largely but of course not unanimously in favor of SB 185, and Lewis has no evidence to support his claim that the ASUC is misrepresenting student opinion. How do I know? Because I’ve spent over 30 years on college campuses less liberal than Berkeley’s; because this guy is, after all, the president of the College Republicans; and because he is demonstrably lying elsewhere.

To wit, here’s Lewis again:
SB 185 does nothing to connect any of this information to the actual socioeconomic status of a college applicant. As the bill is written, public universities would be authorized to use race alone as a factor in the admissions process, but certainly the color of one’s skin is not the only factor contributing to one’s opportunity or access to higher education. Socioeconomic status is a fundamental component of the debate of equity and inclusion on our college campuses, but this bill fails to include it.
This is a compelling argument, and it is certainly true that the left often conflates race and economics. Trouble is, they didn’t this time. It took me about one minute to find the actual bill, which clearly states: “the University of California may, and the California State University may, consider race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, geographic origin, and household income (emphasis mine), along with other relevant factors, in undergraduate and graduate admissions, so long as no preference is given.”

Of course, the reaction on the left—accusations of racism and the like—are just as silly. What Mr. Lewis is doing is exactly what one might expect from the College Republicans at a place like Berkeley: it is smug, sophomoric, provocative for its own sake, and fundamentally dishonest. The first three of these descriptions apply to a good many post-adolescents, the fourth to most political causes, especially (these days) on the right. But, as I’ve suggested before, while all racists are jerks, not all jerks are racists. Mr. Lewis is Exhibit A for this assertion.

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