The new semester has left me little time for the life of the mind. But once again the local email discussion list has goaded me into action. This time, someone posted a column on affirmative action by Crispin Sartwell, a professional philosopher whose work I read with occasional interest and amusement. This time I was interested, but not amused.

Sartwell says that this is what conservatives believe about affirmative action:

(1) “[T]here is a hierarchy of human quality [or merit], and in principle we could rank Americans from 1…to 275 million…and hence determine their just desserts.”

(2) “[H]uman merit can be measured by...SAT scores.”

(3) “There is a hierarchy of institutions, and where you end up in this hierarchy determines your prospects as well as defining your essential value as a human being.”

(4) “Affirmative action is tantamount to apartheid or Jim Crow, and those who oppose it have assumed the mantle of Martin Luther King, who said that people should be judged by the quality of their characters and not the color of their skin. The advocates of affirmative action are bigots who are asserting race privilege.”

He concludes: “if we're going to have this debate, it had better rise to a higher level, because so far the arguments against affirmative action have been dishonest, vicious, and fallacious. Come up with something better or shut up.”

* * * * * * * *

Sometimes, when I read stuff like this, I wonder why I even try to participate in public debate. What’s the use? It simply doesn’t seem to matter what you say. Your opponents won’t listen to you. They don’t think you’re worth listening to. They would rather argue with some imaginary evil demon of their own creation. And they expect you to play along with their tawdry fantasy. Who needs it? Who needs to be smeared and shat on so that self-deceiving ideologues can preen in public?

Many conservatives have thought and written about affirmative action. Some of their arguments are stronger, some are weaker. But none have argued for (1), (2), or (3) above. Not one, not ever. The reason is simple: because they do not believe such things. Not one, not ever. Sartwell provides not a single quotation in support of his vicious and calculated slander. He can’t. There aren’t any. He names six names: George Bush, John Ashcroft, Anne Coulter, Andrew Sullivan, Michelle Malkin, Pat Buchanan. Not the names I would choose to represent conservatism on this issue, but let that pass. Even granting his list of enemies, he has no case. If you doubt me, do your own research. I have. All six are innocent as charged. They do not say such things because they do not believe them. Sartwell is lying. He has allowed ideology to turn him into a liar.

Or is it ideology? Maybe it’s money. Maybe he just figures that this is the sort of thing editorial page editors will want to buy. I hope that’s not it.

And what about (4)? Many conservatives do indeed argue “that people should be judged by the quality of their characters and not the color of their skin.” And they do indeed believe that affirmative action, as actually practiced, often violates this principle.

Here is Sartwell’s rebuttal:

“[T]he whining of people who have been oppressors for centuries should be the occasion for summary execution. That black people have been enslaved, lynched, exploited, despised, impoverished, imprisoned is actual injustice. That Suzy Creamcheese has to go to Michigan State instead of Michigan because Michigan admitted a black person with lower SATs is nothing. Really. Nothing. If you make these things equivalent in your arguments, you are either being entirely disingenuous, or you are so deluded in your privilege, your empty rhetoric, and your slavish worship of institutions that you have become deeply evil without noticing it.”

Now this is rather like arguing that Palestinians on the West Bank have no right to complain about the Israeli settlement policy because, after all, the Holocaust was worse. It is a weak argument, and it does not become any stronger because Sartwell throws around words like “disingenuous,” “deluded,” “empty,” “slavish,” and “evil,” and suggests that those who feel differently from him are “whining” and ought to be shot.

I have never mistaken Sartwell for a subtle or careful thinker. But I used to think he was an honest one.