Photo of the day

From a Big Picture “daily life” series.  This one doesn’t really fit in with the theme very well (and I do love the theme), but it is awesome:

A small jet is silhouetted against the rising moon on Feb. 25 in the skies above Phoenix, Ariz. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

More on empathy and politics

A little belated, but I wanted to add a couple more takes on Rob Portman’s support for gay marriage only because his own son is gay.  And quite admittedly so on his part.  This really does speak to larger failure of empathy and imagination that is endemic among the contemporary GOP.  First, Yglesias:

But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don’t just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son’s eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn’t that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power.

Senators basically never have poor kids. That’s something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.

And Chait:

It is also possible to change your mind on any of these questions. I support the estate tax. If I discovered my children were due to inherit a fortune from a long lost relative, it’s possible that the experience would prompt me to change my mind. I’d like to think it wouldn’t. And if I did change my mind, I’d have some obligation to explain how I had learned something new in the process of suddenly becoming the father of wealthy heirs — estate planning is way more onerous than I thought! — rather than simply construct a new rationale to suit my newly discovered self-interest. If I simply declared that my children’s newfound wealth had given me a previously absent sympathy for the economic rights of the very rich, you would rightly question the value of my thinking on anything…

Portman ought to be able to recognize that, even if he changed his mind on gay marriage owing to personal experience, the logic stands irrespective of it: Support for gay marriage would be right even if he didn’t have a gay son. There’s little sign that any such reasoning has crossed his mind…

It’s pretty simple. Portman went along with his party’s opposition to gay marriage because it didn’t affect him. He thought about gay rights the way Paul Ryan thinks about health care. And he still obviously thinks about most issues the way Paul Ryan thinks about health care.

That Portman turns out to have a gay son is convenient for the gay-rights cause. But why should any of us come away from his conversion trusting that Portman is thinking on any issue about what’s good for all of us, rather than what’s good for himself and the people he knows?

Meanwhile, Will Saletan, in classic Slate contrarian style, can’t resist a little pushback against all this liberal commentary:

According to liberal columnists and bloggers, Portman’s conversion—the first on this issue by any Republican senator—is too little, too late, and short on “empathy.” But it isn’t Portman who’s having an empathy problem. It’s his critics. They don’t really understand Portman, conservatives, empathy, or how people change…

The bigger this empathy critique gets—the more it reaches beyond Portman and his son toward a grand theory of the GOP—the less it’s about empathy. At its core, empathy is one person’s feeling for another. That’s what gets lost in the political indictments. “Why must empathy among conservatives be tied so directly to their own personal interactions?” asks one writer.

And here’s where Saletan just gets it wrong:

Many of these writers—Yglesias, Chait, Krugman, Steve Benen, and others—are people I respect. When I try to understand their misperceptions of Portman, my best guess (which, to take my own point, could be wrong) is that they haven’t experienced what Portman is going through. When your parents and peers are liberal, reaching liberal conclusions is no sweat. You don’t support SNAP benefits because you know malnourished kids, any more than you support climate-change legislation because you know peasant farmers. It isn’t empathy that leads you to these conclusions. It’s inertia.  [emphasis mine]

I generally like Saletan and he may have somewhat of a point here, but I’m just going to have to call BS.  For starters, why are your peers and parents reaching liberal conclusions?  Their peers and parents?  It’s got to start somewhere.  And you know where it starts?  Empathy for people you don’t even know!  That’s something liberals are pretty good at.  Conservative– not so much.  Damn it– I really do what happens to those poor kids in broken inner-city homes and struggling schools with seemingly no way out and I really do care about those starving kids in Africa and innocent victims of drone strikes.  And all that.  I sure has hell care and have empathy and the more I write the more I’m insulted by Saletan.  Did my parents and do my peers influence my political beliefs?  Absolutely.  Is my empathy for others a core driving value of my policy preferences?  Absolutely?  Rob Portman and your typical GOP legislator?  Dare I say, not so much.

Why Abigail Fisher didn’t get into UT

Her grades.  Years ago, I used to assign a piece about affirmative action in higher ed that made the very important, but very over-looked point, that even with clear racial preferences for racial minorities, very few white students are rejected to a college they would have otherwise been admitted to.  Now, some are, but it’s a pretty small number and most who are convinced that some minority stole their coveted college spot are flat out wrong.  Among such people are Abigail Fisher, the wannabe Univeristy of Texas college student who is at the heart of the case that will probably end affirmative action in higher education.

In a joint Pro-Publica/Atlantic Wire piece, Nikole Hannah-Jones takes a fascinating look at the actual case of Abigail Fisher and why this supposedly sympathetic plaintiff does not actually make a good case against considering race in higher education.  Some key points:

“There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin,” she says. “I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong. And for an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me. What kind of example does it set for others?”

It’s a deeply emotional argument delivered by an earnest young woman, one that’s been quoted over and over again.

Except there’s a problem. The claim that race cost Fisher her spot at the University of Texas isn’t really true…

Race probably had nothing to do with the University of Texas’s decision to deny admission to Abigail Fisher.

In 2008, the year Fisher sent in her application, competition to get into the crown jewel of the Texas university system was stiff. Students entering through the university’s Top 10 program — a mechanism that granted automatic admission to any teen who graduated in the upper 10 percent of his or her high school class — claimed 92 percent of the in-state spots.

Fisher said in news reports that she hoped for the day universities selected students “solely based on their merit and if they work hard for it.” But Fisher failed to graduate in the top 10 percent of her class, meaning she had to compete for the limited number of spaces up for grabs.

She and other applicants who did not make the cut were evaluated based on two scores. One allotted points for grades and test scores. The other, called a personal achievement index, awarded points for two required essays, leadership, activities, service and “special circumstances.” Those included socioeconomic status of the student or the student’s school, coming from a home with a single parent or one where English wasn’t spoken. And race.

Those two scores, combined, determine admission.

Even among those students, Fisher did not particularly stand out. Court records show her grade point average (3.59) and SAT scores (1180 out of 1600) were good but not great for the highly selective flagship university. The school’s rejection rate that year for the remaining 841 openings was higher than the turn-down rate for students trying to get into Harvard.

As a result, university officials claim in court filings that even if Fisher received points for her race and every other personal achievement factor, the letter she received in the mail still would have said no.

It’s true that the university, for whatever reason, offered provisional admission to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were black or Latino. Forty-two were white.

Neither Fisher nor Blum mentioned those 42 applicants in interviews. Nor did they acknowledge the 168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year. [emphases mine] Also left unsaid is the fact that Fisher turned down a standard UT offer under which she could have gone to the university her sophomore year if she earned a 3.2 GPA at another Texas university school in her freshman year.

Now, you may still believe that race has absolutely no place in college admissions.  Fine.  But clearly the person of Abigail Fisher definitely does not make that case.  Nor do the cases of most of the other white persons who are so convinced they are victims of reverse discrimination.  As for Texas’ admission system– I’ve got to say I had not read about it in such detail before and I really like it.  I love that socio-economic conditions, single-parent home, and language barriers are all considered along with race.  That strikes me as totally reasonable and presumably suggests that a Black kid from Plano with two professionals for parents probably isn’t getting any extra consideration.

Finally, I like this explication from Constitutional law scholar (who used to be all over the Op-Ed pages of the N&O before he moved to California) Erin Chemerinksy:

Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, said that the concept of colorblindness holds great rhetorical appeal but that “there is no basis for concluding that the 14th Amendment equal protection clause requires colorblindness.” In drafting the 14th Amendment, he said, Congress recognized “an enormous difference between a white majority disadvantaging minorities and a white majority acting to remedy past discrimination.”

Conservatives challenging these types of programs purport to champion the legacy of the civil rights movement, Haney-Lopez said, but the historical roots of their efforts are much more cynical.

“I think that is incredibly important that people realize that today’s proponents of colorblindness pretend that they are the heirs to Thurgood Marshall and John Marshall Harlan,” he said. “But that is a lie. They are the heirs of Southern resistance to integration. And the colorblindness arguments that they use come directly from the Southern efforts to defeat Brown v. Board of Education.”

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