Saturday, December 03, 2005

Alito, Roe, conservative politics

I'm not sure how much significance should be attached to the fact that in 1985, Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, then a Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration, penned a memo outlining a legal strategy to chip away at Roe v. Wade by asking the Supreme Court to uphold a Pennsylvania law imposing some restrictions on abortion (rather than launching a frontal assault on Roe itself) while making it clear in the brief that the administration opposed Roe. (What a surprise, that.) Alito was working for an administration opposed to abortion; as the Washington Post article makes clear, the Reagan Justice Department ended up going further than Alito had advised and explicitly asking the Supreme Court to strike down Roe. It's pretty clear that Alito has right-to-life sympathies, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's a zealot out to overturn Roe. Overall, his record suggests someone of a pragmatic rather than ideological disposition. The latest report is that he told Arlen Specter he regards the ruling that legalized abortion as "embedded in the culture" and therefore deserving of considerable respect as precdent.

But then there's the other Alito story making the rounds of the blogosphere: the one about his association with a group called Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP). According to The New York Times:

In an application for a promotion in the Reagan administration in the fall of 1985, Judge Alito was asked to provide information about his "philosophical commitment" to administration policies and listed his membership in Concerned Alumni.

According to Obsidian Wings:

CAP is generally described as 'a conservative group'. But this is as misleading as calling the John Birch Society a 'conservative group' would be. There are lots of conservatives who are thoughtful and intelligent, and who have real intellectual integrity. Conservatives like this did not tend to join CAP. CAP was dedicated to finding outrages that it took to be caused by the horrible fact that women and minorities were being admitted to Princeton. The need to find outrages generally came first; any encounter with facts came later. For this reason, CAP tended to attract not conservatives per se, but the sort of conservative who is forever getting deeply hysterical about some perceived threat to a supposed previous golden age, who sees such threats everywhere, and who is willing to completely distort the truth in order to feed his (and it generally was 'his') obsessions.

The post extensively documents the fact that CAP was not simply opposed to affirmative action, courses driven by left-wing politics, attempts to purge Dead White Males from the curriculum, and all the other things that came to be known as "political correctness in the academy." It really did support white male privilege, and Princeton's status as a bastion of such privilege. Its founders lamented the days when Princeton alumni could attend "homogeneous" reunions made impossible by "an undergraduate student population of approximately 40% women and minorities." It opposed sex-blind admission policies and favored quotas:

Asa Bushnell, then chairman of CAP, told the New York Times in 1974 that “Many Princeton graduates are unhappy over the fact that the administration has seen fit to abrogate the virtual guarantee that 800 [out of roughly 1,100] would continue to be the number of males in each freshman class.”

In 1983, CAP's magazine, Prospect, was taken over by Dartmouth Review alum Dinesh D'Souza, whereupon it got embroiled in a rather ugly incident which prompted a group of students to petition the administration (unsuccessfully) to block delivery of the magazine to the dorms. And no, this was not a case of PC hysteria over a critique of Afrocentrist courses. The offense was a cover story called "In Loco Parentis," telling the story of a Hispanic first-year student whose mother wanted to take her out of the school after learning that she was in a sexual relationship with a male student. After the mother refused to continue paying for the girl's education, the university allegedly extended extra financial aid to enable her to stay on campus -- an action Prospect found scandalous. While the magazine used a pseudonym, an accompanying article identified the student by her actual name, which D'Souza described as "an honest-to-goodness goof." The 1984 New York Times article on the imbroglio can found here (copy posted by Eric Muller).

How damaging is this to Alito? Well, the Times story says that, by all accounts, he was not actively involved in the group (formed shortly after his graduation from Princeton in 1972) and was not among its financial backers. Perhaps he simply cited it to shore up his conservative credentials when applying for the job. I don't know to what extent it was possible for a Princeton alumnus to have some contacts with CAP and not know what the group is about.

But I think that, Alito aside, this story does tell shed the spotlight on the ugly side of campus conservatism; and that's an important thing to remember for those of us who have fought battles against left-wing "political correctness" in the academy.

Yes, the academic left has engaged in some pretty bad behavior, and has often gratuitously and viciously branded anyone who questions left-wing dogma on race and gender as "sexist" and "racist." But the campus right hasn't always been a collection of noble souls, either. And the charges of sexism and racism haven't always come out of thin air.


maurile said...

In Alito's recently submitted Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire, under the list of organizations he has belonged to, he included:

"Concerned Alumni of Princeton: This was a group of Princeton alumni. A document I recently reviewed reflects that I was a member of the group in the 1980s. Apart from that document, I have no recollection of being a member, of attending meetings, or otherwise participating in the activities of the group. The group has no current officers from whom more information may be obtained." (Page 7.)

Cathy Young said...

Thanks for the info! According to the New York Times CAP basically withered away in the late 1980s because younger-generation campus conservatives could no longer relate to its reactionary brand of conservatism.

William R. Barker said...

Thanks for pointing out this "CAP" issue, Cathy. I would hope and expect that Senators will question Judge Alito on the matter during the confirmation hearings. I mean... I'm all for full disclosure. While I believe Alito is an excellent nominee, as always, I'm willing to be proved wrong. (*SMILE*) Frankly, though, what I'm really looking forward to is Judge Alito and his supporters making a principled legal argument to support the widely held belief that regardless of a person's views on abortion policy, Roe was - and is - simply bad law.

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