There are, I suppose, no truly interesting and important political arguments that reduce very well to placard-size, to the sort of thing you can chant in front of a public building or carry around on the end of a stick. But I'm hard pressed to think of a collection of issues less well suited to this treatment than those raised by the case of Allan Bakke - the white would-be medical student who has claimed that the University of California denied him a chance to compete fora place in one of its medical schools strictly because of his race. My own hope (and expectation) is that the Supreme Court, which heard the case last week, will find a way to blur the edges of the controversy and reaf-firm the important values raised by both sides. You say that is fudging the issue? Fine. It ought to be fudged.
One of the important values I have in mind is Bakke's insistence that government supported institutions not be permitted to treat some individuals better and others worse solely on account of their race, no matter how "benign" the purpose. The other is the university's insistence that certain compensatory programs are justified to help people who have been demonstrably hurt by past acts of official racial discrimination.
Never mind the university, in this case, seems to have engaged in an especially questionable racial program, one that evidently strained the bounds of acceptable practice. The point is that these values so not have to be in comflict, for there are ways of organizing compensatory programs so theywon't dance so close to the edge of out-and-out racial-preference schemes. To support one of these values, in other words, does not require you to reject the other. Yet many people insist on viewing the matter otherwise, forcing it into the mold of an us-against-them political or racial issue.
Anti-Bakke demonstrators were on the street in Washington last week. According to an AP report, 1,000 students at Berkeley protested a student-newspaper editorial supporting him. And civil-rights leaders along with assorted liberal spokesmen have come down hard against Bakke, just as various Jewish and ethnic groups have mounted the barricades in his behalf. None of this can occur except at a certain cost to the complexity and honesty and fairness with which the subject is discussed. Politics does that to issues. It foreshorters and distorts and sacrifices cumbersome reality at the altar of public "impact." It also generates intense emotions. Surely the issues raised in the Bakke case can only become socially murderous given this treatments racial preference, racial characteristics, racial entitlements, racial qualifications (or lack of them) for certain jobs and certain rewards.
But my objections to the sloganeering approach go beyond its potential for setting off an ugly and destructive conflict. It also corrupts our understanding. The pro-Bakke view, for instance, is all to often transformed into a simple, false assertion that all these so-called "affirmative action" programs are little more than a cover for putting unqualified and incompetent minorities, mainly blacks, into plummy positions they couldn't otherwise achieve or handle - and at the expense of people who , by rights, should have the job or place in the school or whatever it is.
That is a relatively obvious and predictable distortion, however. Far subtler are the condescending implications of much that is being argued on the other side by people who regard themselves as political and social liberals. Blacks and other racial minorities are demeaned by a view which holds that, intellectually speaking, until proved otherwise, they are all "disadvantaged" and in need of special help to compete. Yet, this is a view I have often heard expressed by people who consider themselves on the do-good, racially progressive side of the issue.
One hardly knows where to begin counting its pernicious effects. It is dehumanizing in that it refuses to see the individual, submerging him instead in the racial group which becomes the only reality. It is also insulting. One of the most mindless and damaging arguments that has been put about by so-called friends of minorities in this fracas is that a ruling for Bakke would undo all the gains made since enactment of the great civil-rights statutes of the '60s. The implication is that those gains were strictly the product of special help and various props which, if removed, would spell the end of black achievment.
I think those laws, removing as they did constraints on everything from political participation to freedom to have a sandwich in a public place, made it possible for black people to organize their energy and enterprise in ways available to the rest of us all along. And I think it is patronizing and wrongheaded to attribute the big changes that occured after the enactment of those laws to something other than the talent and will of a people only lately liberated. To hear some of the alleged friends of minorities tell in however, all rank and position and power and progress has had to be ... well, you know what I mean . . . Given to them.
All that is a matter of attitude, of course. There is, in addition, the practical matter of the kinds of laws and rules we wanr established. As reduced to its political short form, the anti-Bakke argument often seems to contemplate foisting a new kind of dependency on blacks, an elitist Lady Bountiful handing out of "rewards" in measured portions: here . . . take 15 out of 100 openings . . . stay special and slightly stigmatized and dependent on our favor . . . do you mind terribly if we write it into law that we must do this because you are black and, well,"disadvantaged"?
I think it is - inadvertently - anti-black in impact and patronizing as hell. And to those who tell me they are only arguing for a short catch-up period in which government and other institutions will be invited to make these racial distinctions in a stark flat-out way, I reply that they have more faith in bureauccratic sensibility than I do. When did the managers of our government and large institutions ever handle this kind of grant of authority in any but a clusmy and dangerous manner? My generation of liberals is currently hot and bothered by the excesses of our intelligence agencies. They forget that the writ to tap wires and break in was given in a "benign" anti-Nazi cause a generation earlier. And they are naive in thinking that current "benign" purposes are any guarantee that a bureaucracy will be using its power to deal with citizens on a racial basis "benignly" a generation hence.
But as they say in the Supreme Court, we don't really have to reach those issues, at least not if we insist on viewong the Bakke case in all its precious complexity. There are times when politics can only make things worse - and this is one of them.