Originally posted at The Washington Post by Charles Trueheart.
Dinesh D’Souza is here, at his alma mater no less, laying the lash to affirmative action. He’s deploring the ugly consequences of good intentions.
College admissions by racial preference, he explains patiently to an audience of Dartmouth students, professors, administrators and this college town’s ’60s residue, create a malignancy that spreads through university life. When you admit students to promote racial diversity, you poison your community with race consciousness, he says. You bring out the racist and the racial separatist and the racial combatant in everyone.
His ideas may make him sound like a lectern-pounder, but D’Souza has the gift of sounding reasonable. As he speaks, his splayed hands gently beg understanding. But the words themselves are often harsh.
The university, he says, has become an arena for “cultural Olympics,” where you check a curriculum to see if your brothers and sisters are represented. Students run in “ethnic platoons.” In everything from admissions to housing to syllabus, spineless deans operate under “wink-wink policies of expediency” to keep minorities content. Professors practice “various forms of racial indoctrination aimed at teaching young people not how to think, but what to think.”
The American academic world, D’Souza says, “might be the most closed and intolerant sector in American life.”
For such talk–and the new book that codifies it, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus–D’Souza is the polemical darling of the season.
At 29, he is a shiny new pundit for George Bush’s Washington. He’s not only a palpably smart fellow, he’s already done his turn at the White House–holding a green card, no less. (D’Souza was born in Bombay.) Admirers compare him to William F. Buckley, another onetime campus pamphleteer of the pugnacious right. He has been adopted by, among others, Tom Wolfe, who introduced D’Souza at a highbrow conservative lunch the other day by certifying his impending fame.
“No longer is he going to enjoy the benefits, and there are some, of anonymity,” Wolfe told the Manhattan Institute at the Harvard Club. “The hive is buzzing over Dinesh D’Souza.”
In D’Souza’s chronicle of what’s gone wrong on campus, each of six universities takes the designated hit for his major complaints: The University of California at Berkeley for racial preference in admissions, Stanford for the war over multiculturalism in the curriculum, Howard for the dynamics of campus protest, Michigan for censorship and “racial speech,” Duke for the deconstructionist subversion, and Harvard for the politics of race and gender in the classroom.
Besides the campus interviews D’Souza conducted during his researches, his technique relies heavily on newspaper accounts and outrageous anecdotes, all of it borne along on a narrative river of castigation.
His speeches are much the same. Here at Dartmouth, one of many campus stops on the author’s busy itinerary, D’Souza gestures calmly, even mechanically, as he paces himself through his talking points. He speaks fluently, with just a brush of indeterminate accent.
His audience shifts a little in discomfort, and you can hear agitated mutters of disapproval here and there. But the questions are largely civil. Even so, his first questioner reveals a glimpse of impatience in D’Souza. A 35-ish, professorial man rises to ask, with a small quaver in his voice, if D’Souza isn’t actually proposing a form of academic segregation–effectively denying access to most minority students now attending major universities.
D’Souza will go on to say this isn’t so, but first he announces that he’s tired of hearing two things:
“First, people say: ‘You’re not saying what you really mean.’ And second, people say: ‘Your argument sounds disturbingly like …'”
He will not be pigeonholed, and his own race and color give his arguments a heft they might not otherwise have.
“I fully concede that there has been discrimination, and its legacy endures today. [But] you can’t cultivate respect for a nonracial principle by engaging in racial head-counting. I can see, against the backdrop of India, that this is a policy that doesn’t work. It generates enormous grievance.” He looks almost rueful.
He appreciates the problem. “I have the difficult job of making the case to other ‘people of color,’ as they say, that this is not the right way to go.”
Surfing the Wave
Illiberal Education has gotten a mighty send-off from the Free Press/Macmillan, with multiple serialization in The Atlantic (a cover story), Forbes, the American Scholar; enthusiastic reviews, by and large, from disparate quarters; lavish pats on the head in jacket blurbs from right-wing gurus such as Robert Bork; a six-figure guarantee for paperback rights, for a book whose hardback advance was barely in five figures; and a likely place on the bestseller lists.
D’Souza’s appeal, to judge by the early reactions, lies beyond the right. Like some recording artists, he seems to have crossover power: His comprehensive broadside against the ruling orthodoxies in American academic life–what we know imperfectly as Political Correctness–has won respect from such jacket blurbers as the ACLU’s Morton Halperin and Martin Peretz of The New Republic. Marxist historian Eugene Genovese is everywhere on the case: He’s quoted approvingly in the book, he endorses it on the jacket, and he reviewed it with soulful approval in the New Republic. In The Washington Post, Genovese’s wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, another distinguished scholar of the left, called the book “required” if flawed reading. In Newsday, David Rieff, no apologist for the right, was bothered by D’Souza’s naivete but called Illiberal Education “perhaps the best account of the multicultural follies that we have had thus far.”
If D’Souza were feeling the thrill of all this attention, you wouldn’t notice it. Asked how he feels about the prospect of making money on top of everything else, he can’t come up with words at first. “I don’t think I’ve fully digested it yet. I do think something dramatic and momentous is happening that is shifting the entire debate. Ideological radicalism is facing a profound crisis of conscience. And it’s fortunate that my book is surfing on that wave.”
The challenge to D’Souza is just beginning to materialize: Sociologist Todd Gitlin, writing in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, called Illiberal Education “a book so overheated that it almost undoes its own horror stories.” In The New York Times Book Review, an offended dean took a dim view of the book.
Michael Kinsley describes D’Souza’s writings as “agitprop,” and his presentation of facts selective: “Are you going to use the evidence to think through something, or as a weapon?” Some conservative intellectuals are sniffing privately at D’Souza’s glibness, and at the cut-and-paste quality of his book. An old joke on his name–“Distort D’Newsa”–is heard again.
The Atlantic, whose March excerpt of Illiberal Education viewed with alarm the new scholars at Duke who “deconstruct” and reinterpret literary texts, has received more letters in response to this article than to any article in a decade. The reaction is divided roughly down the middle, tilting against. The writers, many of them from academe, believe he misread the vocally open nature of the university community; the goals of affirmative action and cultural diversity, the writers say, should not to be flushed away in a misguided discharge of reaction to their excesses.
However vigorous the challenge, D’Souza seems already to have tapped into the reservoir of liberal disaffection with the preachments of the un-reconstituted American left, the lode that Allan Bloom discovered with The Closing of the American Mind, and that William Bennett claimed for the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s.
And compared with these brawlers, D’Souza is a gentleman. One editor who has worked with him is struck by his way of “maintaining friendly relations with people he has bitterly opposed–even ridiculed–just because of the kind of person he is.”
He takes as a model, he says in an interview in his Washington office, V.S. Naipaul. That great novelist of Indian origin has written scathingly of fellow citizens of the Third World. “Naipaul is the darling of the ‘thinking right,'” comments an old adversary of D’Souza’s. “Dinesh would like to set himself up as an heir to that.”
To Patagonia and Beyond
D’Souza can be presumed to know something about “multiculturalism,” though his experience has been one of modest privilege.
He is a Catholic, which is an unusual thing for an Indian to be; he grew up a member of a minority group in the country that invented the caste. The exotic byline is a source of curiosity: D’Souza is a Portuguese name, adopted generations ago by ancestors who were converted by Portuguese missionaries in Goa. Dinesh is an Indian name, meaning “God of the Sun.” His parents, who are named Allan and Margaret, followed the post-independence fashion of giving their three children Indian names. (Dinesh offers with delight that his sister’s name, Nandini, “literally means ‘Holy Cow’!”)
Dinesh, whose father worked for Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals, was taught by Jesuits, in a rigorous traditional and heavily British curriculum. As he surveys what he considers the rigid ideological conformity that dominates the university, he thinks of his own high school in Bombay, where, in his telling, “I could identify students who considered themselves monarchists, Fabian socialists, Christian democrats, Hindu advocates of a caste-based society, agrarians, centralized planners, theocrats, liberals and communists.” This is difficult to picture on an American college campus in 1991.
D’Souza came to the United States in 1978 with a purse from the Rotary Club and spent a year living with American families in a border town (population 980) called Patagonia, Ariz. There were 32 kids in his high school class. “It was like going back to eighth grade academically speaking, but I was really there for something different,” D’Souza announces. He used to drive around Arizona and lecture to Rotarians and women’s clubs.
Though his parents had expected him to be back in Bombay at the end of the year, a guidance counselor in Patagonia had encouraged other ideas. D’Souza chose Dartmouth “pretty much out of the catalogue.” He looks and acts today disturbingly like he must have as an eager freshman. Right off the bat, he was writing for the campus daily, active in the international students association, serving on a campus energy conservation committee (this was 1979). He describes himself in the period as “totally apolitical.”
If so, it was for the last time. “Intrigued by these characters,” the chums who split off from the campus daily to start the conservative Dartmouth Review, he defected too. Politicization followed fraternization.
Though D’Souza points out that the Review was more of a salon than a cell–they used to sit around talking about Cardinal Newman, T.S. Eliot and the Oxford Movement in England, he says–outside the salon it quickly became notorious. The paper was chronicled nationally for its guerrilla warfare against the Dartmouth administration and attacked widely for its brutal insensitivities to minorities. D’Souza was its third editor in chief.
D’Souza, in telling this story, is quick to mention that he was considered–by the college administration–a “moderating influence … a constructive influence” on the Review; he even wrote press releases for Dartmouth’s news bureau while on its staff.
But the fact is that he was one of the editors who published the infamous “jive” column–an anti-affirmative action article written in stereotyped black dialect that heated up Dartmouth, and even discomfited the Dartmouth Review‘s wealthy and influential right-wing patrons off campus. D’Souza calls it “a satirical misfire, but I don’t think its objective was racist.”
D’Souza may want to occupy a middle place on the ideological spectrum these days, but–to his credit, given the stigma–he has never failed to come to the rescue of the Review since he graduated and joined the first rank of its alumni defenders.
In Dartmouth’s infamous shanty episode in 1986, a band of students was arrested for tearing down, in the dead of night, plywood shanties erected on the campus green to symbolize and protest apartheid. D’Souza had graduated three years before, but in a Policy Review article titled “Shanty Raids at Dartmouth,” he described the shanties as “makeshift constructions of cloth and wood, insulting the serenity and beauty of Dartmouth on that wintry night.” He called their destruction “a foolish prank, on par with the rowdy rampages of fraternity brothers at Dartmouth every weekend.” He offered an avuncular defense of “this infamous rag,” the “noisy and harmless” Dartmouth Review.
Dartmouth’s latest unhappy appearance in the public press was last January: the major hoo-hah over the antisemitic slogan that persons unknown sneaked into the pages of the Dartmouth Review. D’Souza leapt in to say it was sabotage (which it turned out to be, from within) and to shepherd the undergraduates through the public ordeal. But in conversation he emphasizes that “if you read the paper over the years it has been fairly ecumenical in launching buckshot in a wide variety of directions. And if there is a single criterion that singles people out, it’s really liberalism, and not race.”
Politics and Etiquette
Dartmouth, in large part because of the Dartmouth Reviewt, has taken on a reputation as a fortress of Political Correctness. D’Souza and his confreres are partially to blame for the “bad” press, and thus the bruised recruiting, that afflicts this Ivy League school. (Not that the college doesn’t try to return the favor, dispatching photocopied evidence of a more brazenly ideological D’Souza, circa 1981. On the other hand, the college did provide the hall for D’Souza’s talk.)
The guest of honor, at supper with some of the current student editors before his speech, insists that Dartmouth–in part because of the Review’s consciousness-raising–has come out rather better for the test. The Dartmouth Review, he says, had made it possible for less extreme views to seem respectable. In the civilian world, this is the zone into which Illiberal Education seems to fall.
Today, he says, “if I had to name a PC institution, it wouldn’t be Dartmouth.”
Indeed. The well-dressed lads and solitary lass at the Dartmouth Review supper for its visiting elder statesman note that the turnout for the speech may be thin because of fraternity rush that evening. (It turns out to be about 75.)
Several of these Review types are wearing club ties depicting the Dartmouth Indian–the onetime university symbol, renounced during the last decade, whose wearing now denotes protest, and certainly impudence, toward the Politically Correct. The editor says a woman friend came up to him and said, “Your tie offends me. Why are you wearing it?” He said, “Go away.”
But D’Souza’s Dartmouth, as he talks about it, seems to be drawn from his own experiences a decade ago, before PC had earned its unflattering name. “What happens on an Ivy League campus is that politics tends to become a function of etiquette,” he says. “Young people when they arrive at Dartmouth want nothing more than to be a good Dartmouth man, and they are very alert to social signals that tell you how to do that…”
“If you say, ‘I’m really afraid that what we are witnessing in Nicaragua is a communist plot,’ a professor doesn’t criticize you. He simply looks askance at you … as if to say, ‘You cultural barbarian, where were you raised, have you no sophistication whatever?’ And you wince. … So the next time you go to a cocktail party you talk about ‘no simple answers to complex questions,’ and immediately people surround you with admiring looks.
“It’s politics communicated through manners,” D’Souza says. “It is simply rude.”
At Dartmouth, he says, he was initially attracted to the student majority’s menu of left-wing ideas. “It appeared to be universalist, tolerant, open to the outsider, of which I was definitely one.” But “it gradually dawned on me that there was a governing orthodoxy which I previously was just not aware of because I was part of it.”
D’Souza recalls one incident that sums up the muddle-headedness of so many fellow students. At an international club meal, he met another student who told D’Souza he had always been fascinated by India, that he wanted to visit there.
“What makes you want to visit India?” D’Souza asked the student. “And he said, ‘Well, it’s very liberating.'”
Telling the story, D’Souza assumes a bemused but mischievous pose. “I thought, well, I had a very happy childhood and everything, and there are many positive adjectives I would use to describe it. But if I could choose one it wouldn’t be ‘liberating.’ And being even then of a slightly malevolent cast of mind, I said, ‘What do you find particularly “liberating” about India? Is it the caste system? Is it dowry? Is it arranged marriage?'”
A Cast of Mind
Interesting self-description, that–of having “a slightly malevolent cast of mind.” He says it with a wicked grin that comes through far more often in personal conversation than in his formal speech. Sober-minded D’Souza may be, but polemics are a source of entertainment for him.
At one point, during supper, he says, “I like Socratic exchange. I like debates. And I confess part of the appeal of them, not just for me but for others, is this desire to see people look really bad–made a fool of.” He laughs to show he only half means it.
His skin has provoked misassumptions on his campus research visits. “As a person of color, you’re supposed to harbor certain views. I would interview a dean of multiculturalism or a professor of African American studies, and typically, as I walked into the office and he saw what I looked like, a huge smile would come across his face, as if to say, ‘Welcome, brother, let me show you the blueprints for the revolution.'”
Such “high spirits and sense of the ridiculous,” says his friend and mentor, Policy Review Editor Adam Meyerson, are very much in the Dartmouth Review tradition.
After his graduation in 1983, D’Souza moved to Princeton and, shelving plans to pursue a doctorate in literature (Dante’s Divine Comedy), became editor of Concerned Alumni of Princeton’s dissident magazine Prospect. This was light lifting, he acknowledges. On the side he began writing for National Review, Policy Review and other conservative outlets of the Reagan heyday; he wrote a “critical,” but not very, biography of televangelist Jerry Falwell; with Gregory Fossedal, his old Dartmouth chum now at the Hoover Institution, he wrote a novel called Letters From the KGB, a retelling of The Screwtape Letters of C.S. Lewis.
In the middle of all this extracurricular activity, he had moved to Washington, to an editorial job at the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review. He’s remembered there, and among the Catholic hierarchy, for his piece following the publication of the bishops’ pastoral letters on nuclear arms and the U.S. economy. D’Souza telephoned some of the bishops and, in “deadpan interviews,” asked them basic questions about the issues in the letters they had signed. As he knew he would, he found their eminences less than informed and eloquent, and quoted them at length for “comic effect.”
Soon enough–in 1987–and like a number of other Dartmouth Review alumni before him, D’Souza went to work at the White House. Domestic policy chief Gary Bauer, impressed by his writings, hired him as a domestic policy analyst. He did “overview memos” and some “reflecting on problems,” Bauer says, though he can’t remember any specifically. “I had a roving portfolio,” D’Souza says of his White House job, helping to articulate the Reagan administration’s domestic agenda and to brief visiting pooh-bahs.
As he talks, he picks up a pen on his desk and draws a quick White House organizational chart that shows him to have served in a position analogous to Oliver North’s on the National Security Council staff.
In the fall of 1988, D’Souza served as “director of Catholic votes” for the Bush-Quayle ticket. “Our job was to show that George Bush, despite his WASP origins, affluence and temperament, was nevertheless more congruent with the values of ethnic Catholics, and that [Michael] Dukakis, although seemingly a voice of the immigrant generation, had in fact been captured by the Harvard mentality.”
D’Souza can barely keep a straight face relating this, and ultimately bursts out in laughter. “So this was our mission!” he exclaims.
D’Souza says he talked to Chief of Staff John Sununu about going to work in the Bush White House. “There was a kind of obscene manhunt for minorities in the new administration, and I didn’t want to go that route,” he says. “I became quickly bored with debates on whether to appropriate an additional $38 million for Title X programs. I could not rouse much enthusiasm for this.”
Instead, he accepted the American Enterprise Institute’s offer to become a research fellow, an ideal perch for book- and article-writing. Though his pace and productivity border on the compulsive, D’Souza says he prefers the contemplative life. His mentor and neighbor down the hall at AEI is Michael Novak, the Catholic thinker.
In his spare time, D’Souza edits the Catholic magazine Crisis that Novak and Ralph McInerny founded a decade ago. He’s also the author of a two-volume work, The Catholic Classics, a series of interpretive essays about Catholic thinkers. D’Souza describes himself as “a believing Catholic but a poorly practicing one.”
D’Souza is cleaving to a more contemplative life, with a new place in Virginia, beyond the Beltway. “I was getting an overdose of the Washington harangue, too many cocktail parties where everybody talks about work.”
He wants to dedicate the coming years, he says, to figuring out “how, in an increasingly diverse society, fair rules can be established to arbitrate differences between majorities and minorities, immigrants and natives.”
Along the way, D’Souza made an important choice. Last Oct. 15, he became an American citizen.
“Most stories of immigrants are: ‘I came in rags, and now I employ hundreds.’ Mine was an uncomfortable search for a congruence of values and principles. Was I really at home in the American system as constructed? I concluded ultimately that I was.”
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