Ours is a time of monsters and bogeymen as the world cracks wide open. It reminds me of the last lines in the first stanza of Yeats’s Second Coming,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The debate about the terrible war in Gaza has taken on an odd face: an attack on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). It requires a tricky magic to transform DEI into the latest bogeyman and the reason for the rise of antisemitism on college campuses. Those full of passion who rail against critical race theory and applaud the Supreme Court’s decision upending affirmative action now believe that DEI initiatives undermine the true mission of higher education with a so-called left-wing orthodoxy that stifles free speech and mocks merit. That argument, or some variant of it, has joined with strident criticisms of student protests against the war in Gaza. The protests reveal, they argue, that American universities and colleges are hotbeds of antisemitism, where “social justice warriors” dictate what can be said and hurl words like decolonization and settler colonialism to batter, silence, and threaten their opponents.
DEI is the Frankenstein monster. For these critics, policies around diversity result in the hiring of unqualified people to lead our most elite institutions who then fail to respond appropriately in moments of crisis. DEI also distorts the application of speech code policies. After the murder of George Floyd, for example, universities and colleges bent over backwards to respond to the demands of Black students and now, when Jewish students feel threatened, administrators hide behind free speech. Here DEI singles out some students for special treatment, the critics claim, while leaving others vulnerable and allowing antisemitism to flourish. The student protests in support of Palestinians, some believe, are a consequence of what Alan Bloom called in 1987 “the closing of the American mind.” For over thirty years, the argument goes, there has been an assault on classical liberal education. Radical professors indoctrinating students. Activism displacing the cultivation of critical thinking. Political correctness suffocating free and open inquiry. With the ascendence of left-wing orthodoxy Israel can be seen as an oppressor while students ignore the reality of the history of Jews.
All this amounts to an odd mishmash of argument, lament, and ugliness between strange bedfellows.
Like many others I believe DEI on college campuses should be reexamined. Diversity can be imagined as a problem to be managed or as a value to be cherished. As a problem, diversity enters the picture when so-called “others” demand inclusion and “we” must decide how to deal with those demands. This “we” calls up a particular history grounded in the American dream, in the idea of hard work and merit, and self-reliance. But this “we” stands apart from the actual diversity of the country; it has, as James Baldwin noted, “almost nothing to do with what or who an American really is.” Understood in this sense, diversity is something to be managed, because the very idea of “we” narrows our view of who we are.
Seeing diversity as a value to cherish, however, orients us differently. We begin with a recognition that diversity is constitutive of who we are, and our aim is to reflect it in our institutions and in our civic arrangements. The irony is that we often think we are treating diversity as a cherished value, but we are really trying to manage it. We end up checking boxes, more concerned about compliance, and less interested in the value itself. An add-on. Not something fundamental to who we are that becomes a critical part of how we assess whether we are fulfilling the overall mission of the institution.
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The motivations of right-wing critics like Representative Elise Stefanik, Ed Blum, and others seem less about wrestling with the diversity that has always been there but can now no longer be ignored, than about reasserting a certain view of the country and of higher education. I am uneasy when I see, hear, or read them. Their voices sound familiar, an echo of an ugly past. Twain was right, history rhymes.
Under the guise of a commitment to a classical liberal education, right-wing critics are pursuing illiberal ends that deny the value of diversity all together. They ignore or downplay the history of exclusion that has defined much of the history of places like Princeton, Harvard, or Yale. For them, meritocracy alone resolves historical inequity. Color-blind equality, the equal treatment of individuals regardless of group identity, is the only remedy to generations of policies that have produced our society. And, for these critics, diversity initiatives occasion only the compromise of standards, an attack on merit and, for some, an assault on the idea of whiteness itself. DEI is the latest bogeyman; George Soros and the globalists had their turn. Who knows what “monsters” wait in the shadows.
Be careful. The spike in antisemitism on college campuses has little to do with DEI offices and programs. Some of it is bound up with the rise of white supremacy in the country. Some of it is tied to nasty partisanship as politicians invoke fears of conspiracy theories like the Great Replacement funded by Jewish globalists. But, in the end, it is the war in Gaza that has ignited passions among students deeply concerned about a broken world. They are debating and arguing, protesting and counter protesting. Some hold noxious views, trading in the basest stereotypes of Jews or describing the deaths of innocents on October 7th as deserved. But most who protest are genuinely committed to the rights of Palestinians. They are doing what students do, but in a country that seems to have forgotten how to disagree.
We must be careful that we don’t end up aiding those who want to suffocate what makes our universities and colleges the envy of the world. They remain the best training grounds for a thoughtful, robust democratic citizenry. Perhaps, more importantly, we must be careful not to fall for the siren song of the “we” that demands an “other.” DEI is not the monster or bogeyman here. To use worries about antisemitism on campus to attack diversity is at best dangerous and at worst a terrible manipulation that uses one bigotry to attack another. Doing such a thing feels like a kind of tricky magic that can demand the cost of one’s soul.