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The Standard Reader

From the January 27, 2003 issue: Tom Paulin's anti-Semitic prose poem and Peter Wood's new book on diversity.

Jan 27, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 19 • By J. BOTTUM
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are tout court anti-semitic

is designed daily by some schmuck

to make you shut the f--k up

Perhaps, at the greatest level of abstraction, opposition to the existence of Israel isn't necessarily anti-Semitic. But we don't exist at that level of abstraction in the world as actually constituted. Perhaps there were moments before Hitler came to power when anti-Semitism could be distinguished from anti-Zionism. But those moments are long gone. The point here, however, is that Paulin's type of opposition to Israel doesn't bother much with making the distinction, because it knows that it cannot be anti-Semitic: Anti-Semitism is exclusively a rightist phenomenon, and leftists alone have inherited the robes of the heroes, from the Dreyfusards to the anti-Nazi underground.

Indeed, it's something even more than that. When, in "On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card," Paulin writes that the Palestinians are the victims of the victims, when he tells an interviewer that the Israelis are "Nazis," he is insisting that the moral impulse that once opposed anti-Semitism is now opposed to Israel. The Palestinians are the victims of the victims, you see? Paulin cannot be anti-Semitic--because he knows how moral he is, because he's the self-proclaimed heir of those who hated anti-Semitism. He was "dealt the anti-Semitic card," but it is his opponents who are the true Nazis: the ones who play the a-s card-- / of death threats hate mail talking tough / the usual cynical Goebbels stuff.

This makes no sense in any inner precinct of the mind, but the existence of the anti-Israeli left proves that it is persuasive in the confused suburbs where political emotion takes the place of thought. When Paulin writes of our Enlightenment / savants and philosophes going down the rungs . . . / back into that bony stinking ragshop / whence they sprung, he imagines he's echoing Yeats. But how Yeats actually concluded "The Circus Animals' Desertion" is: I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Yeats knows that the poet ought first to suspect himself. Paulin knows nothing so unself-righteous.

Columbia University recently announced that it won't offer Tom Paulin a permanent post--as indeed it shouldn't. "On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card" proves the man is no historian, no thinker, and no poet.

--J. Bottum

Books in Brief

Diversity: The Invention of a Concept by Peter Wood (Encounter, 360 pp., $24.95). This book provides the sympathetic reader with a dilemma. It's hard not to delight in Wood's erudite, elegant, often hilarious critique of the diversity movement, but his generosity toward his subject keeps him from building a decisive brief against it.

Wood is an anthropologist by training, and his book is a testament to what an anthropologist's disposition, unblinkered by turgid theory or political dogma, can bring to a topic. His sensitivity and intelligence are on display in his chapters on nineteenth-century America's ardent curiosity about "other cultures" and mainstream Protestantism's damaging embrace of diversity. Chapters on the Bakke fiasco, diversity myths on college campuses, and the business world's craven and faddish diversity fixation are so dolefully illuminating it actually hurts.

Wood is a spirited and learned defender of the liberal principles that "diversity" subverts, but it's not clear that another defense of those principles can even begin to work its way through the diversity fog that has descended over the culture.

This reflects Wood's intellectual generosity, his insistence on treating "diversity" as an idea and not merely a pathology. In its practical everyday workings, however, the ideal of diversity is pathological. Wood's book would have worked better as an indictment if he had focused more on the creepy Soviet-style lying that diversity requires in practice and less on the foolishness of diversity as a social ideal.

Maybe, in addition to Wood's brilliant biography of the concept of diversity, we need what a postmodernist might call a genealogy of the practice: a concrete documentary account that, through a steady accretion of facts, exposes its constitutive idiocy, mendacity, and tyranny. For if Wood's book proves anything, it is that the incoherence of the concept of diversity is rivaled only by its banality.