When we think of institutions that shape our nation’s future, many often think of Congress and the White House, but it was John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, who said that a great deal of the change we see in politics and in society at large actually starts with professors, academics, people he called “scribblers a few years back.” Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the new book “The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture”–and someone who’s been studying and writing about that very thing. This is a transcript of an interview on the Sept. 20 episode of The Daily Signal podcast. It was edited for length, style, and clarity.
Daniel Davis: Heather, a typical observer these days who maybe has been around the United States for a couple decades sees a lot of disturbing changes in recent years: new pushes for identity politics, new racial tension, battles over diversity.
Those things seemed unimaginable 10 to 15 years ago. You argue in your book that this stuff actually stems back to the university. Give us an idea of how that works.
Heather Mac Donald: Well, from a moment a student steps on campus today, he is inundated with the message that he is in a racist, sexist environment. We’re talking about a college campus right now which is an extraordinarily privileged, opportunity-filled environment. He is told to think of himself in one of three categories: He’s either the oppressed, the oppressor, or, if he shows sufficient enlightenment and he’s one of the oppressors, he can move himself out of the oppressor category into the ally category.
Davis: And what is that? What does that entail? Basically keeping your mouth shut and endorsing everything, endorsing all of the guilt and shame that’s poured on you and then you kind of do eternal penance?
Mac Donald: Yes, exactly. You have to support the poor females that are at risk of their lives and help them simply get through the day of this incredible burden to be a college student and a female.
Davis: So where does this, I mean, when did this really start on university campuses? Surely it started somewhere at a certain time? Does it stem back to the ’60s, ’70s, or is this more kind of a new rehashed racism or identity politics?
Mac Donald: Well, there’s several strands of it. In the ’60s, we had the start of racial preferences, which are an extraordinarily destructive policy that don’t do their alleged beneficiaries any good. But the ’70s was a sort of hiatus moment. Multiculturalism hadn’t hit yet. I went to college in the ’70s, and I view myself as incredibly fortunate in that I was allowed to read Chaucer, Milton, Spenser, and Wordsworth without anybody bitching and moaning about the gonads and melanin of those extraordinarily gifted, sublime authors.
I unfortunately wasted my time studying this very arcane, misguided literary theory called deconstruction, but at least I got to read the greatest books without a chip on my shoulder and without anybody apologizing.
The ’80s came. You had Jesse Jackson at Stanford University leading the student know-nothings, trying to dismantle Stanford’s Western civ requirement with the “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western civ has got to go.” Feminism took over, identity politics took over, and the curriculum has never been the same.
Davis: Give us maybe an idea of when a typical classroom that’s doing what you call deconstruction—a literary class—sits down to read, what would have been considered a classic text? What does it look like now to go through that text?
Mac Donald: Well, in the era of high deconstruction, you would not have been interested in the plot. You would not have been interested in character. You would have been looking for signs that the book itself was meaningless.
I’m setting these phrases out and I don’t expect any listener to understand them because it was such a lunatic way of thinking about language. Nevertheless, it was powerful. It seemed sexy. It seemed like a hidden knowledge about language, but that was the ’70s. That was when it was a mandarin science about language and its impossibility.
Today, deconstruction has morphed into something I would say is more pernicious, which is that you look for … in Shakespeare, you’re looking for signs of racism and sexism. You’re looking for the proto-sins that allegedly created a world of oppression. You are not allowed to lose yourself in beauty. Pastoral poetry is an escape into an imaginary world of the beauties of nature and a retreat from the oppression of civilization. These days, you’re only going to be looking for so-called gender stereotypes.
Davis: So how does that translate into our cultural moment? I could definitely see in your description there that sounds a bit like the cynicism that we see on the left toward people who they consider to be in positions of power, people who bear that guilt. How does that translate?
Mac Donald: It translates into our cultural moment because the same obsession with phantom victimology, the same obsession that to read Shakespeare if you’re a female or an underrepresented minority is to be subjected to life-threatening racism and sexism. And I’m not making this up. This is right out of their words.
That same obsession with victimology has gone quickly into the real world, and people believe that every institution now is racist and sexist in the absence of affirmative racial quotas and gender quotas.
Davis: It’s interesting you mentioned life-threatening victimology because I was reminded of that when the Yale law students wrote a letter against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and they were saying that people would die.
Mac Donald: And that view that Kavanaugh was a future murderer … by the time of the hearings, he’s now an actual murderer. One of the Women’s March protesters from the rafters that were trying to shut down the hearings in, again, another instantiation of campus culture transforming the world shouted out, “You are a murderer.” The incredible delusion is just getting worse and worse and worse.
Davis: It seems that, as identity politics takes over, the kind of thing that you’ve just mentioned, the frustrating thing about that is that reason and argument don’t matter anymore.
If you’re from a certain class of people, there’s nothing you can say, there’s no argument you can make that is legitimate or that can be accepted.
Once no one is allowed, once we’ve kind of left the plane of reason that everyone has access to this and everyone can attempt an argument and be considered on a level playing field, then it just seems like chaos and, frankly, oppression.
Mac Donald: Well, it’s a very good observation, Daniel. It operates … what you’re saying about the routing of reason goes on at two levels. Let’s be honest. Everybody has a hard time accepting opposite points of view. Reason is something we all aspire to and we often fail at achieving. We have a tendency, no matter if we’re a liberal or a conservative, to ignore countervailing evidence.
This is something that the scientific method to its enormous credit has liberated us, has conquered want and poverty through trying to overcome those blind spots. But there’s an additional layer to this now, that it’s not just a human failing. The contempt for reason, the inability to follow reason is now, as they say in high theory, being theorized. It’s being affirmatively justified.
Reason and the Enlightenment are being trashed within the academy as themselves sources of oppression. I was the subject of one of these shout-down protests at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Southern California, because I was there to speak about policing and to push back against the Black Lives Matter narrative.
Afterwards, among the numerous student petitions that went out against me justifying the shut down of my speech, there was one that came from so-called students of color at Pomona College, another nearby Southern California college.
I cited this in my book … I urge readers to read it. It is the most extraordinary statement of ignorance that somehow they’re claiming that the pursuit of truth is a way of oppressing minorities, that Enlightenment values are just a way to keep minorities down. The historical ignorance behind this is extraordinary.
In 1860, Frederick Douglass was shut down from a commemoration of the radical abolitionist John Brown. Boston had passed a law saying no abolitionist shall meet. This was what the left is doing today.
Afterwards, Frederick Douglass said, “Free speech is the enemy of tyrants. Five years of free speech in the South would break every chain.” He understood that far from being a tool of oppression, the ability to speak, to challenge power, to speak truth to power—we used to talk about that is what every tyrant fears.
And the most amazing aspect of this current moment is the left, in seizing these tools of oppression and trying to silence nonorthodox speech, are so simplistic in their thinking that they’re unable to reverse the situation and think, “OK, we now control the definition of hate speech, but what if Donald Trump says, ‘OKy, I’m going to start defining hate speech and I’m going to ban it.’” That basic act of objectivity and distancing oneself from one’s own position is apparently beyond the left, the capacity of these leftists.
Davis: Yeah. Being committed to the rule of law you’d think would be in everyone’s interests.
Mac Donald: Everyone’s interest in a level playing field.
Davis: In the long term.
Mac Donald: Right. Because you’re not always going to be on top.
Davis: You’re not always in power.
Mac Donald: Right.
Davis: It’s so true. Well, last question for you. I want to ask you if there’s any hope because so many universities have been taken over by this mentality. And they’re the ones turning out the next generation of students. Of course, you’ve got pockets of certain universities that aren’t like that.
Mac Donald: Right.
Davis: Is there a way back into those universities to renew them and to get rid of this so that the future generations are not tainted by it or are there other ways to capture the next generation outside the universities?
Mac Donald: It’s the final question. It is the most important question, and I’m still struggling with the answer to be perfectly honest. I am heartened by students on campuses that are showing incredible courage in pushing back against this.
I was not political during college. I was a default liberal because I hadn’t thought about it, but I didn’t have to take sides. Today, you kind of have to. And I’m in awe of these conservative students who have the courage to do the affirmative action bake sales and to write about the campus diversity bureaucracy and its extraordinary wastefulness. They need encouragement. They need support.
I think what we … in an ideal world, and again, this is what needs to happen. I don’t know how you do it yet. What needs to happen is people have to beat back this myth that America is fundamentally racist and sexist and that college campuses are places of oppression.
People have to destroy that because as long as that remains the dominant view, the push to censor and silence nonorthodox speech will continue in the name of protection and safety because the equation that is used is that these vulnerable females and underrepresented minorities are at existential threat.
Hate speech, which is an increasingly capacious term, puts them at existential threat. Therefore, in order to preserve their very existence, we need to silence hate speech because they’re under such threat.
As long as people don’t challenge that, as long as they don’t say, “Excuse me, you’re the most privileged human beings in history to be on a college campus,” then that is going to continue.
Donors certainly have to stop funneling billions into their alma maters that allow this diversity ideology to grow. Please do not give to your college campus unless you’re certain that it is committed to teaching the classics with love, reverence, and gratitude.
Davis: Well, the book is called “The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture.” Heather Mac Donald, thanks for being on the podcast.
Mac Donald: Thank you for such a wonderful conversation, Daniel. I appreciate it.