Heather Mac Donald’s book The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture, was published more than four months ago, but I just checked Amazon, and it still stands impressively among all book sales at #798. It ranks #1 in two sub-categories of education. She appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show, too, and she spent an hour with Ben Shapiro on the Daily Wire’s Sunday Special show.
That doesn’t make The Diversity Delusion a thesis that liberal commentators must accept, but the popularity of the book and Ms. Mac Donald does demand a serious engagement. It only takes one word in the title and one sentence in the body of Paul Gleason’s review of the book in the Los Angeles Review of Books, however, to see what a tendentious and superficial bit of evaluation it is. Right off the bat, you can see that Mac Donald isn’t going to get any justice. The review is worth noting because it exemplifies so well the refusal of liberal academics to address conservative criticisms on their substance.
The title of the review is “Why Are Conservatives So Afraid of Higher Education?” Got that? Conservatives aren’t dismayed at the identity politics of the campus. They aren’t disgusted by the cravenness of administrators. They aren’t angry at the treatment of Scott McAdams, Bret Weinstein, Charles Murray, and Heather Mac Donald herself. No, they are “afraid.”
When liberals characterize conservatives in this way, we know that the description doesn’t fit. Of course, Murray and Mac Donald were frightened when mobs threatened them at Middlebury and Claremont, respectively, but they would have felt the same way if a mob rushed at them on city streets. Besides, Mac Donald’s focus is not on the actual conduct of overwrought student activists. It is on the ideology of panic and victimhood that encourages them to act out. Mac Donald opposes it and writes forcefully against it. To characterize her outlook as fear is to misrepresent it.
This is not a mistake on the reviewer’s part. He teaches religion at Cal Lutheran and USC and pronounces the condition of higher education with authority. He speaks of Mac Donald throughout with condescension, correcting her here and there, pooh-poohing what he regards as exaggerations and misunderstandings. This is where the original characterization of fear comes in. By framing her whole outlook that way, he can play the role of sober observer, acknowledging certain problems in higher education—his critique aims at the way in which higher education maintains social inequalities—but casting the conservative critic as misguided.
“Mac Donald is so predictable”—that’s the subtext of every sentence. Liberals needn’t worry about her book, then, despite its success. We’ve heard it all before (Gleason goes back to William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale). The “afraid” trait nicely reduces Diversity Delusion to generic status. We can ignore it.
Now, here is the sentence from the review that demonstrates the other side of Gleason’s tendentiousness. It’s not the false presentation of the conservative author, but the benign description of the liberal side of things. It comes late in the review when Gleason talks about ways one might keep the university from remaining a “sorting process that reflects existing inequalities.” In a kind of throwaway line, he says:
The promise of affirmative action is that it will work against this tendency, at least a little.
The point comes out of nowhere as if it simply adds one more instance to the list of liberal efforts to promote class mobility. Gleason goes on in the next sentence to note that affirmative action helps some poor students, who proceed to do as well as “their wealthier peers.” In other words, the “promise” is often fulfilled.
To say that, however, Gleason has to ignore research on mismatch and of choice of major that cast doubt on the benefits of affirmative action to the recipients. (The latter study by Duke social scientists found that affirmative action students who intended to major in STEM fields moved to other fields at higher rates than non-affirmative action students, doing so because they didn’t have the academic preparation that their fellows had and couldn’t compete in physics, organic chemistry, etc.)
The blithe citation of affirmative action as a blessing acknowledges none of those complications precisely because they advance the conservative challenge. Even if you dispute the findings, you would have to accept them as legitimate research. It’s much easier to ignore it and get back to people you regard as right-wing polemicists.
The problem isn’t just bias. It is the refusal to consider the human damage that liberal dominance has caused on campus for many decades and by which conservatives are honestly distressed. When liberal commentators such as Gleason condescend to conservatives and overlook difficulties in their own positions, they let the damage continue. It doesn’t occur to Gleason that one reason black students protest vehemently the racism they face is that affirmative action threw them into a situation bound to humiliate them (such as sitting in a statistics class with students who, they realize by Week 2, are far better prepared than they are—after having been assured by recruiters, “You will LOVE our school, we are SO inclusive”). No, instead of taking seriously Mac Donald’s and others’ criticisms, Gleason and others mouth the same complacent dismissals and go back to work.
I am certain that Gleason has never faced students chanting obscenities at him, writing letters to the paper accusing him of fascism and racism, pounding on doors while he tries to lecture, and defacing posters advertising his campus visit. Mac Donald has, but her experience doesn’t get one sympathetic word in his review.
It’s easy to condescend when what you say will evoke nods of approval from every sector of the institution. In the old days, liberalism honored the non-conformist, the outsider, the gadfly. Now, it mocks him and, worse, pats itself on the back for putting him down.
Photo: Heather Mac Donald