How We Got Here—The Conservative Movement And “Color-Blindness”

Here`s an early 2005 post by a bar blogger named Manhattan Transfer that lucidly summarizes some of the ideological transformations of the last two decades:

In college I somehow got mixed-up in the conservative movement… The main targets of campus conservatism were political correctness. relativism and multiculturalism. Nowadays everyone has some idea what these are but in the early nineties we were still discovering them.

The conservatives countered political correctness with a vigorous support for academic freedom, free speech and free press. The best argument of the proponents of political correctness was that political correctness didn’t exist, that it was a figment of right-wing paranoia. This was defeated through endless anecdote—it’s hard to maintain something doesn’t exist when every few weeks a new example became a national scandal. The latest uproar at Harvard [Larry Summers] is as good an example as any of the censorious mentality that infects so many college campuses.

The conservatives countered relativism with what the left called “ethnocentrism” but the right considered moral universalism. The proposition was that the values of the West might have arisen historically in the Europe but were universally applicable to humans because the Creator or Nature had endowed all men with certain rights and obligations. You can see the appeal of this way of thinking for a conservative—it combines patriotism with a certain kind of high-mindedness. Our ways are the best but not because they are ours but because they are everybody’s.

This was related to the fight against multiculturalism, with its emphasis on the rights of minority groups. In various ways, the Left’s emphasis on valuing the perspectives and protecting or advancing the status of minorities was presented as a rejection of the American tradition of moral universalism, equality before the law, and individualism. The left wanted a society keenly attuned to the differences and diversity of our people; the right wanted color-blindness, merit-based promotion and an emphasis on both our national unity and individual accomplishments. In the mind of a campus conservative, we wanted a society of character while the multiculturalists wanted a society of race and gender.

If they had issued conservative movement cards, I certainly would have been a card-carrying member. Nonetheless, I could not persuade myself that there wasn’t something wrong with the conservative ideology. It insisted that diversity wasn’t an important fact about our country or the world, when all my life’s experiences taught me the opposite. [Manhattan Transfer attended public school in the Lower East Side during the worst of the crack years.] When they did speak up for diversity, conservatives insisted that they stood for a different kind of diversity—diversity of ideology rather than ethnic or sex diversity. But this is one of the least interesting kinds of diversity in the world. Which three women would you rather be stuck in an elevator with: A Stalinist, a neoconservative and a feminist or a Brazillian, a Norwegian and a Thai? What’s worse, no-one mentioned religious diversity, although this has since proven to be extremely salient.

… At some point I started to look at the campus wars of the nineties with a jaded eye. The rhetoric of both sides seemed to conceal what was really going on. The left was engaged in a strategy of subversion in which political correctness, relativism, multiculturalism and feminism were tactics to undermine traditional rules and modes of behavior in American life. The right had adopted what was essentially leftist rhetoric of the early twentieth century—equality and universalism—in an effort ameliorate the effects of the subversion. In other words, the right was trying to use moderate leftist rhetoric to combat extreme leftism. What`s worse is that the right hadn`t persuaded many leftists but had persuaded themselves–they had adopted their own rhetoric as an ideology.

I wasn’t any sort of leftist. In fact, I was well on my way to becoming a decadent reactionary. The pursuit of whiskey, women and wealth seemed to me honorable ways of stooping below the struggle between the forces of leftism past and leftism future.

Consider the concept of “colorblindness,” which conservatives have come to extol in reaction to racial preferences. But is blindness, on the whole, a good thing? Is blindness a desirable attribute in, say, astronomers? How do you keep blindness from turning into ignorance and obliviousness?

There`s a fairly simple solution to this conundrum, but it`s one that seems to be beyond the conservative mindset: no, blindness isn`t a good general policy. Overall, as Faber College said in Animal House: “Knowledge is good.” On the other hand, the metaphor of blindness can be a useful tool in certain policy situations: “Justice is blind.”

What we shouldn`t do is reason from the particular to the general. Judges shouldn`t play favorites in court, so therefore American policy shouldn`t play favorites between, say, American citizens and foreigners.

This really isn`t that complicated, but to get the message across it takes a lot of explanation of how it works in different situations and a lot of willingness to be smeared.