More Equal Than Thou

Judith A. Baer: Equality Under the Constitution: Reclaim­ing the Fourteenth Amendment; Cornell University Press; Ithaca, NY.
Among the amendments to the Constitution, none were ever more morally justified nor more desperately needed than the three which abolished slav­ery and gave blacks the rights of citizenship and of equal protec­tion under the law. Now, how­ever, the very declarations which once granted blacks their freedom are being twisted into invidious insults against their dignity. In books such as Equal­ity Under the Constitution, left­ liberal egalitarians seek to trans­form this constitutional termina­tion of black slavery into a legal weapon for attacking parental authority and for promoting homosexual license and reverse discrimination. Thus moral, capable, adult blacks are unjustly equated with sexual deviants, rebellious adolescents, and incompetent preference-seekers.

Written as a “broad interpretation” of the 14th Amendment, Ms. Baer’s argument for equality under the Constitution is actu­ally the elevation of leftist pro­paganda far above the Constitution. In her procrustean “recla­mation” of the legislative intent and the philosophic underpin­nings of the amendment at issue, Ms. Baer evades, trashes, and truncates more than she re­claims. For instance, she chooses to “stick to the eighteenth cen­tury” in interpreting life as an “inalienable right” so that she can dodge the abortion issue as merely “vexing” (and antitheti­cal to her feminist agenda), but then she opens “the pursuit of happiness” into a veritable corn­ucopia of Federal protections for 20th-century aberrations abomi­nable to 18th-century sensibil­ities. (Thomas Jefferson would be more than mildly surprised to find his phrase hijacked into a defense of legalized sodomy.) Similarly, Ms. Baer cites the Christian doctrine of the equality of souls before God as the histori­cal basis of “equal respect” as a legal right of every American, but dismisses as irrelevant to our age every Christian conception of sexual ethics or familial integrity.

With “equal respect” for the aspirations to power of everyone on the far left, and utter con­tempt for the sane reasoning of most jurists, philosophers, and scholars located anywhere else on the continuum, she stoops to the same kind of tendentious disingenuity in her analysis of affirmative action. After bewail­ing the past discrimination against minorities and women, she incredibly posits the equity of quotificd “benign discrimina­tion” as superior to the “con­fused and arbitrary” practice of awarding employment and edu­cational opportunities solely on the basis of merit, as manifest in test scores and grades. She con­veniently fails to note that Fed­eral regulations specifying just what fraction of one’s genealogy must be black (or Eskimo) in order to warrant preferential treatment are disturbingly simi­lar to the nazi “Jew Laws” defin­ing just what degree of racial purity kept one out of the gas chambers. Though Ms. Baer terms the practice “benign dis­crimination,” it has actually cast the malevolent shadow of unfair advantage on all women and minorities whose talent and intelligence do not need gov­ernmental inflation, while spawning many bitter jokes among white males about dyeing their skin dark and getting a sex­ change operation so they can get into medical, law, or graduate school. Certainly, after finishing Ms. Baer’s book it is hard not to think that whoever admitted her to graduate school employed the most “benign” discrimination possible, far removed from the most rudimentary standards of merit or intelligence. (BC)


Of Criticism and Credos

Charles Baldick: The Social Mission of English Criticism, 1848-1932; Clarendon/Oxford University Press; New York

Among major religions, Marx­ism is remarkable for its popular ity among Western intellectuals. Officially, of course, Marxism represents itself as an atheistic science. Nonetheless, it features many strikingly religious characteristics: its canonization of saints (St. Karl, St. Lenin, St. Mao, etc.) to whom numerous mira­cles are attributed and to whom iconic shrines are erected; its enforced orthodoxy of dogma; its zealous army of missionaries preaching the regeneration of profit-sinning humankind in the socialist “new man”; and its anticipation of an apocalyptic “end of history” ushering in a new heaven and new earth. Given Marxism’s actual perfor­mance wherever it has been implemented, it might even properly be called an other­ worldly religion, a pie-in-the-sky faith. Nonetheless, Marxism does offer its devotees something increasingly hard to find in the West: a doctrine larger than the self. Such a doctrine can make possible a sense of purpose, a willingness to sacrifice, and a feeling of oneness with others likewise devoted. Because it prescribes a well-defined set of standards by which all of life is to be evaluated, it can also make possible a systematic and rigor­ous literary criticism.

Though Christian ethics and doctrine formed an accepted bedrock in the criticism of Dry­den, Addison and Steele, and Johnson, no such creedal found­ation is visible in most English criticism since Matthew Arnold declared that Poetry itself was to be modern man’s religion. As a Marxist critic, Chris Baldick will have no other gods before Dia­lectical Materialism and its only begotten son, Class Struggle; therefore, he rejects the Arnoldian faith. Indeed, in The Social Mission of English Criticism, 1848-1932, Dr. Baldick proves that despite Arnold’s professed “disinterestedness” the doctrinal amorphousness of his new reli­gion forced him and his follow­ers—the early T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, and the Leavises—into irreconcilable contradictions and groundless subjectivism. Much of what these critics stood for in their fight for cultural and social continuity was quite valuable, but lacking any under­girding metaphysic, they could justify their critical pronounce­ments only by reference to “the well-rounded personality,” “the health of the mind,” “flexibility,” and other equally vague abstrac­tions. Thus, even as these writers demanded more cultural power for the critic-priest as an antidote to mass culture and social disin­tegration, the terms in which they appealed for communal reverence became increasingly private, arbitrary, and opaque. 

For a well-catechized Marxist, such critics make an easy mark for a radical jihad; accordingly, Dr. Baldick has little trouble exposing the logical holes in the robes of this competing critical priesthood. But what Dr. Baldick does not attack is actually more revealing than what he does. His treatment of Eliot leaves un­touched the older, “reactionary” Eliot, who came to realize after his conversion to Anglo-Catholi­cism that literary criticism must have a theological component and that religion not art (and emphatically not communism) must provide the basis for over­coming social antagonisms. Dr. Baldick is no fool: he knows that Marxist evangelists can rush in only where angels do not tread. (BC)


You Are What You Wear

Walter Isaacson: Pro and Con; G. P. Putnam’s Sons; New York

Few people since the time of Swift and Pope have taken into account the correlation between matters sartorial and cerebral. That is, in periods when dress is but a minor concern, thinking is rude andshabby. When care and deliberation are applied to personal raiment, then the ideas produced are finer. One might throw up any number of fops as a challenge to the concept, but then it should become quite clear that their choice of ribbons and silks was motivated by forces similar to those that orient sheep. True dandies like Disraeli and Wilde are proofs that there is an intersection between fashion and intellect. Consider the slovenly hippies of the 1960’s: did any one of them ever formu­late a thought beyond a grunt for sex and drugs? Gaze at a photo graph of the like-suited Polit­buro: it takes a great leap of imagination or a fall into delusion to figure that anything noble is going on beneath the chintzy grey façades. 

In contemporary America fashion is mass-produced; designer labels, ranging from sur­names to animal images, are stamped out like fenders for downsized Chevys. Thanks to the proliferation of brand-name clothes, people think that they are fashionable by tugging them on, but that is only an indication of how far thinking has deteriorated. One doesn’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time picking out his or her daily wear; getting “dressed-up” is a similarly easy task: Calvin’s on top, below, and beneath is a safe bet. In effect, then, fashion—or what passes for it on the ready-to-wear racks at I. Magnin and K-mart—is pack­aged like the foods in a TV dinner. Similarly, thinking—or what passes for it in virtually all social setting—is fitted into little tinny trays. One can pick up a copy of People and not only know who’s who but also what’s what (and vice versa in both cases)—until the next glossy issue hits the bookstore or grocery market. Another of Time Inc.’s progeny is Walter Isaacson, who is an associate editor of the brand-name magazine—the one that offers the mirrors that permit a person to become the man or woman of the year, every year. Isaacson’s Pro and Con is the ultimate (of this year’s model, anyway) in pseudofashionable thinking: it provides facts and opinions both for and against 54 items listed in alphabetical order from abortion to voluntary euthanasia, with matters of signal concern like the designated hitter rule in baseball and returning pop bottles in between. Each item is a bite­-sized chunk (sort of like one of those greasy little frozen egg rolls in both form and substance)—just right for reading while trying to determine whether Ralph Lauren jeans are more suitable than Stanley Blacker denims for the evening’s nosh. Those who have exhausted the pyrite in The People’s Book of Lists and similar collections of trivia (now, in our dislightened age, known as Significa) will be thrilled to the furthest reaches of their walnut-sized brains by Pro and Con.