Bringing Up Baby
D'Souza's Illiberal Education
By Scott Henson
September 1991; pages 8-9, 14; Volume 3, No. 1
Dinesh D'Souza's book-length attack on affirmative action and curriculum reform, Illiberal Education. has generated tremendous publicity, particularly for a 29-year old author whose first book, an admiring biography of Jerry Falwell published in 1984, remains virtually unknown and unread. The splash created by D'Souza's book makes more sense in its context, as part of a national, well- funded, and to a large extent coordinated attack on multiculturalism in particular and Left activism generally.
D'Souza's discussions in his book, and in the slew of magazine articles published last spring, do not contain strikingly new analysis - his doctrinaire, neoconservative arguments follow directly in the lineage of another neoconservative, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who 26 years ago laid the foundation for D'Souza's critiques in his controversial report on the black family. Moynihan argued that blacks' problems stemmed from breakdowns within the black family, and denied that racism or prejudice played a significant contributory role in black unemployment or poverty.
Moynihan, like D'Souza called for a "color blind" public policy, promoting traditional American family values. In an United States that had only recently dissolved Jim Crow in the Deep South, Moynihan's arguments were not taken seriously.
Illiberal Education, spouting the same neoconservative party line, has enjoyed greater success with this "blame the victim" argument than did Moynihan. But the evidence indicates that D'Souza isn't simply a young thinker with similar ideas to, or even influenced by neoconservative thought. A handpicked mouthpiece, financed by Beltway neoconservative moneybags since his teens, he's merely one more in an increasingly long series of right-wing authors attacking affirmative action, curriculum diversity and student activism. Other examples include: Tenured Radicals by Roger Kimball, The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, and Profscam and The Hollow Men by Charles Sykes. More books have been funded and will appear in the coming year.
D'Souza's personal history offers a prime case study of the process by which a handful of right-wing institutions can turn a virtually unknown writer into a national public figure - all it takes is money.
His career began as co-founder of the notorious Dartmouth Review, one of the first in a string of right-wing student newspapers funded by what was then the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA). In September 1990, IEA merged with the Madison Center to become the Madison Center for Educational Affairs. The Dartmouth Review taps into conservative funding sources that have supported D'Souza at various times throughout his career. In 1989, for example, the John M. Olin Foundation approved a $150,000 multi-year grant for the Review, according to the 1989 Olin Annual Report. Olin also funded D'Souza's work on Illiberal Education. With all this money and more, the Review's staff is able to publish a weekly magazine on a campus with only 4500 students.
According to Louis Menand writing in the New Yorker, while D'Souza served as editor-in-chief, the paper ran a "lighthearted interview with a former Klan leader and illustrated it with a staged photo of a black man hanging from a tree on the Dartmouth campus." He also published an article on affirmative action entitled, "Dis Sho Ain't No Jive, Bro," written in a parody of black vernacular - for example: "Now we be comin' to Dartmut and be up over our 'fros in studies, but we still be not graduatin' Phi Beta Kappa." The latter article made national headlines, and catapulted the Review to the notoriety it (apparently) enjoys to this day. After the "jive" article, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY) stepped down from the Review board of advisers in disgust.
D'Souza himself in 1986 defended these and other exploits in an article published in the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review, where he bragged that the Review during his tenure "commented on gender issues: 'The question is not whether women should be educated at Dartmouth. The question is whether women should be educated at all.' Further: 'Any man who thinks a woman is his intellectual equal is probably right.' On politics and morality: 'We deny the foul rumor. Ted Kennedy was nowhere in the area of Catalina Island where Natalie Wood drowned.' On the Atlanta child murders: 'I ain't killed nobody,' Wayne Williams said, confessing his crimes at last.'"
D'Souza goes on in the article to lament that "Some of these items were dumb and should not have been printed. But we thought they were hilarious at the time, and some even had the added merit of being true." That some of these statements might be racist or sexist apparently never occurred to D'Souza. In any case, he never addresses in Illiberal Education or elsewhere, the role that he and others like him played in creating the racial- and gender-based divisions he bemoans in his book.
In 1983, D'Souza took a job editing Prospect, an alumni magazine started by a conservative organization called the "Concerned Alumni of Princeton." Apparently D'Souza's polemically bigoted style appealed to his new employer, because he proceeded to generate the same type of bile-filled journalism as had the Dartmouth Reviewunder his command.
Menand writes that "under D'Souza's editorship, at a time when Princeton was trying to increase the number of women in its student body and on its senior faculty, the magazine published an article making fun of women's studies, and an article, written by D'Souza, in which the sex life of a female undergraduate, who had declined to be interviewed by the magazine, was described without her consent." William Greider recounts that Prospect under D'Souza derided the women's center as nothing but "freaks and frumps," and declared it the "pockmarked face of feminism."
Prospect's favorite targets under D'Souza were women's studies, feminism, sex education on campus, gay rights, counseling women on birth control, and other issues related to women. In his first article for the magazine entitled "Let's Mainstream Women's Studies," D'Souza complained of "perspiring feminists" and declared that "no longer do slaterns have abortions to prove they are liberated." Responding in a letter to the editor, history professor Maurice Lee, class of 46, called D'Souza "ill informed and the possessor of ... a remorselessly adolescent sense of humor." He corrected D'Souza on one important point: "anyone understands," wrote Lee, that "women don't have vasectomies."
In the October 1984 issue, D'Souza complained of "Mondale's Effeminate Style," all but openly gay baiting the then-presidential candidate for his high pitched voice and soft-spoken demeanor. In a letter to the editor the same issue, an alumnus complained of Prospect's "flagrant anti-feminism and paranoic homophobia, both expressed in the sniggering terms that I have not heard since high-school days in locker rooms."
After his tenure at Prospect, and after publishing his Falwell book, D'Souza worked as managing editor of Policy Review, the theoretical journal of the right-wing Heritage Foundation. There D'Souza wrote a sympathetic analysis of Rev. Sun Myung Moon's theology, noting that many prominent right-wing groups take money from Moon's Unification Church, which lavishly funds anti-communist organizations worldwide.
Of charges of Moonie brainwashing, D'Souza writes, "civil libertarians are right to point out that there is a fine line between 'being brainwashed' and 'discovering the truth,' and who is to say that this sort of control is not what the Moon convert was looking for in the first place?" After probing Moon's doctrine to determine whether it is inherently socialist, D'Souza decided that it is not terminally so. He concludes on a bright note, pointing out that "America is home to many religions that originally attracted hostility but have since gained comfortable respectability." Citing Mormons and Christian Scientists, D'Souza declares, "In these examples, the Unification Church finds hope."
Articles like this one soon attracted the attention of the Reagan Administration - in 1987, D'Souza moved from the Heritage Foundation to become a "domestic policy analyst" under Reagan. While D'Souza today portrays himself as a champion of the first amendment, at the time he promoted, among other issues, Attorney General Ed Meese's anti-pornography campaign. And for a man who just a few years before published an article decrying feminism's "pockmarked face," he was not above drawing on the arguments of feminists to make his point for banning pornography. While the issue of suspending free speech to ban pornography remains one of the most bitter disputes among feminists today, D'Souza was able to embrace this decidedly illiberal idea without blinking an eye.
After his stint with the Reagan team, D'Souza hooked up with his old neoconservative pals at the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA) to start writing his next book. In 1988, D'Souza received, through the IEA, a $30,000 grant from the John M. Olin Foundation to begin working on a book tentatively titled The New Elite, which would become Illiberal Education. From there, even though D'Souza was still an unknown to most everyone in higher-education circles, the far-right accepted him as one of its own.
In 1989, D'Souza became a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Olin upped its ante to $50,000 for that year. The Olin Foundation also provided funds, $30,000, for the first Madison Center conference in October 1989, at which a then-almost unknown D'Souza participated in a panel discussion on "The Politicization of Education." (The Madison Center, founded by Allan Bloom and former Education-Secretary-turned-drug-czar William Bennett, would merge with the IEA the following year.) In 1990, Olin gave D'Souza another $50,000, and through the Madison Center authorized another $20,000 grant for "promotion" of his book upon publication.
Meanwhile, D'Souza kept busy researching his book, and making occasional appearances. According to the July/Aug, 1990 Accuracy in Academia (AIA) newsletter, Campus Report, D'Souza spoke on "race, gender and class issues on campus," at the July 6-7, 1990 AIA Conference, Campus Report said D'Souza complained of '''victims studies' classes (i.e. Women's, Gay and Lesbian, Afro- American, and Native-American Studies) [which] can be traced back to the problem of admission by affirmative action rather than merit." The newsletter went on to report that "D'Souza said that the idea of anything non-Western being superior is the 'new cultural imperialism.'''
One might dismiss such wild-eyed, convoluted arguments as poor reportage on the part of AIA, except that D'Souza kept repeating it. In a February 18, 1991 New Republic article, for example, D'Souza made basically the same argument: Affirmative action creates an unqualified group of minority students on campus who then embrace "minority separatism" to "seek support and solace from others like them." To avoid facing up to their own inferiority, then, minorities demand curriculum reforms and greater representation of minorities among faculty and administrators.
This line of "reasoning" ignores the history of black thinkers like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, who called for separatism well before anyone had invented the term "affirmative action," and whose arguments have since been adopted by groups other than blacks. This history easily discredits D'Souza's simplistic arguments, but his neoconservative rhetoric is touted nationwide as the ascendant wisdom.
While one might agree or disagree with the merits of separatism, blaming its existence on affirmative action borders on the ludicrous. Perhaps the most commonly heard arguments for separatism today come from lesbians, who want to pull out of patriarchal society and establish separate spaces for women. These mostly college- educated women pursue this philosophy despite the fact that no university in the United States provides affirmative action for gay people.
Clearly the juggernaut of favorable publicity for D'Souza's book did not stem from the strength and cogency of his arguments. His reliance throughout his career on a handful of well-funded neoconservative institutions, and his systematic attacks on women and minorities, betray a right-wing political agenda, despite his invocation of "free speech" and calls for return to "liberal education."