TO KICK THINGS OFF AN ARTICLE RECENTLY WRITTEN FOR THE STUDENT PAPER:
This week as President George W. Bush visits the UK in a trip surrounded by controversy, further controversy rumbles on in the US while he's away. What's more, I can't help but reckon that the stories stateside will have a longer lasting resonance over here than any protest against his visit.
Justice Janet Rogers Brown was nominated by Dubya himself to be an Appeal Court Judge, but the appointment was filibustered by Democrats in the legislature. Why? She was right-wing and most notably had opposed the introduction of group quotas for positive action in California. The main root of the controversy sprung from the fact that she was a black woman herself, thus leading to great soul searching from groups that, by instinct, wanted to castigate her as an oppressive white male 'master' of the Right.
For me this raised all sorts of issues. Most notably it made me supremely thankful that the selection of judges in our country has absolutely nothing to do with the political process. We may all hate and sneer upon our politicians but at least we can have some respect for the bumbling bufties who make up our judiciary. Then again, Mr 'Something of the too-far-Right about him' Blunkett will ensure a shake-up there soon enough!
More pointedly though it made me think about the issue of positive discrimination or affirmative action a little more. Don't get me wrong, I would naturally place myself on the side of the civil rights movement, but what has begun to really bug me is a disturbing trend to move away from talking about equal rights for all towards some exercise in social engineering.
Discrimination and unfair, disparate treatment on spurious and irrelevant grounds is wrong. My view is that it should be opposed whenever it so much as threatens to peek its ugly head above the parapet (to mix metaphors). The way forward is a true meritocracy. Unfortunately, at a time when we seem nearer to this goal than ever before the same movement, daunted by this, seems to have had a collective change of heart. Now we very often hear that discrimination is the way to go, so long as the sort of people we oppress and discriminate against are the sort of people who may have been discriminating in the annals of time.
Of course it's not put this way: it's framed as 'positive action' or 'affirmative action' to give it a respectable appearance which it really lacks. In reality it is nothing more or less than discrimination, albeit for an individual purpose. We don't strengthen the arguments against the bigots who naturally discriminate by discriminating for our own purposes ourselves.
This is an issue which is very relevant to Cambridge too: this year Margaret Hodge said that Universities such as ours should lower entrance requirements for students from state school backgrounds and those without a record of going to Cambridge. Will people never learn? The way to improve situations such as this is not by some perverse system of social engineering. Instead the key is to raise the low standards which cause disparities at their root and to tackle discrimination wherever and whenever it exists on any ground other than discrimination.
I was brought to such a quandary by this question this week when I heard about the orchestra in (yes, you guessed it) the USA which had decided on 'affirmative action' as the way forward. Aaron Dworkin, the conductor, wants an orchestra of people who can't play. In this way he thought that they would achieve diversity. No. By constructing a group of those who can best achieve its purpose everyone's endeavour will be best rewarded. Diversity is a desirable not an end in itself.