Diversity: The Invention of a Concept
By Peter Wood
Encounter Books; 351 pp. $24.95

Book Review by John Derbyshire

The New Criterion
March 2003

E pluribus plurimum


A few weeks ago I happened to acquire a copy of Carleton Coon's 1965 book The Living Races of Man.  What a gem!  Coon was an anthropologist — was in fact Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.  His book is a world-wide survey of human types, with a thorough classification into races and sub-races, buttressed by a wealth of physiometric, linguistic and archeological data.  The real fascination of the book, though, is the illustrations at the end:  128 black and white photographs of human beings from every part of our planet.  "A Russian Lapp" ... "A Tungus woman" ... "An Ainu man of Hokkaido" ... "A Mayan-Spanish Mestizo of Yucatán" ... "A Negrito woman of Mindanao" ... "An Irishman from County Cork" ... "A farmer of Rajasthan" ... "A Vedda of Ceylon" ... "A young Zulu woman" ...  Leafing through these pictures, one marvels at the sheer physical variety of humankind, at the astonishing diversity of our common species.  At the same time, of course, one cannot help but reflect that no respectable publisher (Coon's was Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) would contemplate bringing out such a book nowadays.  Nor, for that matter, would any anthropologist think of submitting one.

Peter Wood is Professor of Anthropology at Boston University, and in the book under review he has taken diversity as his title and his topic.  This is not, however, the diversity that is so apparent in Carleton Coon's photographs.  A great deal of water has flowed under the bridge since 1965, and it is nowadays considered a breathtaking violation of good manners to notice the kinds of things that Coon made it his life's work to study and elucidate.  Wood's topic is the doctrine of diversity as it is pressed on us by the great and the good — by, that is to say, college administrators, corporate human resources officers, producers of plays, movies, TV shows and artworks, politicians, church leaders, and, when all efforts at persuasion and propaganda have failed, trial lawyers.  Such a book is long overdue. Amidst all the cant of our age, there is probably no word more prominent or ubiquitous than "diversity," yet I am not aware of any previous attempt to encompass this concept in a way that is properly skeptical, yet accessible and thorough.

Concept?  Doctrine?  Dogma?  What is it exactly, this "diversity" we are all enjoined to celebrate with such enthusiasm?  Peter Wood declares that it is an ideology.  He explains:

The word [i.e. "ideology"] is not neutral; rather, it registers my judgment that diversity offers a closed loop of thought and experience.  Once one enters this loop and accepts the main propositions of diversity, it is difficult to see out of it.

Note the italics, which are the author's.  Throughout this book, he italicizes the word "diversity" wherever it refers to this ideology he is discussing, in order to distinguish this sense of the word from its older meanings.  From this point on, I shall follow the same practice, for the same reason, and also to give my reader the flavor of Wood's approach.

Where did it come from, this ideology of diversity?  Peter Wood notes the oddity of the fact that such a powerful idea, energetically propagated across the whole of society for a quarter of a century, has no founding text to refer to, was inspired by no charismatic teacher, was carried forward with no mighty struggles or cruel reverses, has roots in no significant philosophy.  "It arrived unparented," says Wood, "as a kind of collective emanation of ponderous academic silliness."  We just woke up one morning and there it was, demanding that we "celebrate" it.  In its impact on the individual psyche, diversity is indeed an ideology in the sense Wood describes;  yet it is a shallow and trivial one — essentially a folk superstition, a pop-culture fad like the Hula Hoop or body piercing, with no intellectual moorings at all.  One of the author's key insights, in fact, is the lightness and essential frivolity of diversity, especially by contrast with actual diversity.  As he says at the end of a chapter titled "Diversity Before Diversity" (in which, however, I am sorry to see that the labors of Carleton Coon pass unmentioned):

Once upon a time, Americans encountered the world's diversity with awe, anger, prejudice, disgust, erotic excitement, pity, delight — and curiosity.  Then we recast ourselves as champions of tolerant diversity, became fearful of inconvenient facts, and lost interest.

You notice this loss of interest especially among children.  In the Empire Boys' Annuals of my own British childhood, the human world was a diverse place indeed, populated by head-hunters, cannibals, Polynesian bungee-jumpers, ferocious Gurkhas, exquisitely polite Japanese, reed dwellers, cave dwellers, tree dwellers, suttees, thuggees, fellows who inserted four-inch wooden disks into their lower lips and women who elongated their necks by adding a metal ring every year.  Now youngsters are assured that though people who live in foreign parts may sometimes look a bit odd, they are really just middle-class Americans in thin disguise.  Little Masai boys like to play soccer, says the "Social Science" textbook issued to my fourth-grader.  In China they prefer volleyball.  Uh-huh.  Is it any wonder that Americans find it difficult to summon up interest in the world beyond their borders?  When Longfellow, an Anglo-Saxon Unitarian, used the metrical structure of the Finnish Kalevala to write an epic poem about American Indians, he attained diversity without striving for it.  The typical diversiphile of today would confidently deride such a production as "inauthentic," while knowing nothing, and desiring to know nothing, about either medieval Finns or 16th-century Iroquois chiefs.  Diversity is a cult for the ignorant, unimaginative, and incurious.  The idea that it is beneficial to either individual persons or to society at large is supported by not a single shred of evidence. 

Diversity as practiced in the United States is in fact a very pale thing, the magnification and glorification of tiny differences, promoted with all the deep historical and geographical insight of a kindergarten “Our Friends Around the World” class.  As Peter Wood says, “We no longer have access to the unalloyed feelings of amazement, repugnance, pity and horror that some cultural differences might indeed warrant.”   If you seek to celebrate diversity by joining the Taliban, subjecting your daughters to clitorectomy, or declaring the intention to throw yourself on your husband’s funeral pyre, you will be locked up as a danger to society.  My own circle of acquaintance includes several Chinese couples who immigrated during the 1980s.  Their American-born children, now entering their teens, are indistinguishable in tastes and habits from any other American kids.  They eat pizza, follow baseball, memorize Britney Spears lyrics, and introduce reported speech with the “like” construction.  Their command of Chinese extends no further than a handful of domestic commonplaces.  When they get to college, though, they will be initiated into the mysteries of diversity.  Kindly mentors will induct them into “Asian-American” student societies, where they will learn that anger, shame and loathing are the correct responses to the society their parents embraced with such gratitude and relief.

Though the diversity ideology lacks any serious philosophical foundations, there are of course origins.  A principal begetter was Justice Lewis Powell of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Writing a stand-alone opinion in the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Powell asserted that the goal of "attaining a diverse student body" provided a "constitutionally permissible" reason to allow racial preferences in college admissions.  None of the other justices concurred with this point, so it has no force in law.  None the less, in asserting the desirability of diversity, Justice Powell lit such a candle by God's grace in America, as (it seems) shall never be put out.  Peter Wood gives over his longest chapter to a detailed analysis of the Bakke case, its antecedents, and its consequences, demonstrating all too clearly that Supreme Court Justices are very far from being the best and brightest legal brains of their time, are in fact much more often colorless mediocrities chosen and confirmed because they give the least offense to the largest number of political interests — or nowadays, the worm Ouroboros chewing on its tail, for reasons of diversity.

The notion of diversity as a thing desirable in itself was not altogether new at the time of Justice Powell’s obiter dictum.  Most race-preference schemes up to that time, however, had justified themselves as remedies for past injustice, looking back to Lyndon Johnson's 1965 Howard University speech, in which Johnson declared the principle of “affirmative action,” and to that same president's Executive Order 11246, which gave that principle its name, and charged the federal bureaucracy with the task of promoting it.  By 1978 these remedial programs were increasingly unpopular, and awkward question were beginning to be raised about how long it would take to remedy the injustices in question, and how we would be able to tell when the remedying was complete.  Justice Powell's assertion that "attaining a diverse student body" is a desideratum by itself, without regard to any past discrimination, was just what the social engineers needed.  The ideology of diversity was born, and has now spread itself into every corner of our society and culture.

Peter Wood gives a comprehensive survey of diversity's scope.  It is most at home in the Academy, of course, and the 31-page chapter titled "Diversity on Campus" is one of the strongest in this book, and the most unsparing.  Writing of Martha Nussbaum's attempted defense of diversity, and of her description of the campus as a place where "faculty and students grapple with issues of human diversity," Wood comments:

The "grappling" is her ennobling conceit for the festering discontents, censorship and fear; the gloating privilege; the rotting intellectual insecurity; and the regnant falsehoods that diversity has brought to most campuses. ...  [T]he real world of diversity is no idyll.  Rather, it brims with tribal vanities, assertions of entitlement, sour anti-Americanism, disdain for freedom and equality, and prideful ignorance.

Whew!  As this passage illustrates, Peter Wood is a terrific polemicist, with a lethal gift for exposing cant and a masterful turn of phrase.  When reviewing a galley copy like this (that is, a book that cannot be sold after review to my neighborhood second-hand dealer), my habit is to mark the text up with highlighters:  yellow for key steps in the author's arguments, red for false or dubious assertions, and green for pointed, well-turned sentences worth quoting in my review.  This copy of Diversity has much more green than usual — far more than I can fit into the space the gentle editor has assigned to me.  Here are just a few cuttings from that greenery.  On the Academy again:

Diversity only preserves some of the outward appearance of liberal education, while substituting its own antiliberal agenda on every crucial point.

On the use of "diversity consultants" in business:

Diversity advocates create the problems that diversity consultants are then hired to ameliorate.

On the divisiveness of diversity:

Do Americans know how to put their differences aside and work together?  For the most part, the answer is definitely yes.  Does diversity augment this aspect of our national character?  No, we manage it despite the imposition of diversity, which is often pulling in the opposite direction. 

On diversity in religious practice:

As I gauge it, the differences among American religions are small though important; but construed through the lens of diversity, the inverse image appears:  the differences are huge yet somehow inconsequential.

For all its delights, this is a flawed book, with a hole at its center.  Peter Wood is an inhabitant of the Respectable Right, and so is scrupulously deferential to what William F. Buckley, Jr., the leading light of this faction, has called "the prevailing structure of taboos."  This book began, in fact, as an essay posted on the National Review Online website.  As one so often finds these days with books that seek to challenge current sociological pieties while staying within the bounds of acceptable comment — bounds drawn and vigilantly patrolled by left-liberal opinion elites — this approach weakens Peter Wood's case.  Why, after all, is the diversity racket so persistent?  Intelligent people everywhere scoff at it and constantly make jokes about it.  Even TV sitcoms do so.  A recent episode of Fox TV's Andy Richter Show revolved around a workplace diversity wrangle, and had characters uttering lines like: "So I am supposed to celebrate your difference while at the same time totally ignoring it, right?"  (I note, however, that this show seems to have been canceled.)  Why, when wellnigh everybody — including, very likely, some large subset of the diversicrats themselves — knows that it is all nonsense, do we let it go on? 

We all know the answer.  Without massive gerrymandering of the "affirmative action" or diversity type, black Americans would pool at the bottom of postindustrial society even more conspicuously than they currently do.  This state of affairs would be grossly offensive to American ideals of justice, equality, and national identity, all the more so in an age like the one we seem to have entered, when our country is under the constant threat of attack by foreign terrorists, and we are being reminded once again that if we do not hang together, we shall hang separately.  For an optimistic, idealistic people like ourselves, wishful thinking is an irresistible temptation.  We can, after all, always fall back — as Carleton Coon did in The Living Races of Man — on the hope that science (in this case, benign genetic engineering) will relieve us of our contradictions before they become too acute.  When our idealism conflicts with reality, therefore, it is reality that must yield.  Mr. Wood has fallen in with this principle.  Races, he declares, "are social conventions, not biological realities."   I wonder if he has ever watched the finals of an Olympic men's sprint event?  Or looked into The Living Races of Man?  The real dilemma facing America is that we can have a meritocracy, or we can have equal outcomes by ancestry group, but, unless the information now coming in by every post from the human sciences is all utterly wrong, we cannot have both.  Both, of course, is exactly what we insist on having, and diversity is our current attempt at squaring this unhappy circle.

Never mind.  Diversity is a fine book, full of cogent arguments, curious facts, and nasty slimy things that burrowed away unnoticed under the foundations of our culture till Professor Wood turned them up with his trowel.  Given that "prevailing structure of taboos" we should be grateful for such a vigorous and literate defense of truth, sanity and scholarship against the ever-pressing forces of unreason; and to any minor logical flaws in such a defense, we should turn the same blind eye that Peter Wood has turned to the 800-lb gorilla on his living-room sofa.