I have previously published eight books, including with Cambridge University Press and Columbia University Press. However, the publishing history of my latest book — which explores the topic of diversity — was very different and, to my mind, telling about the current state of intellectual diversity on American campuses.
No university press seemed willing to publish it. An obvious possible reason for this cannot be discounted: the book lacks the scholarly gravitas to earn an academic imprimatur. Yet after futile efforts with numerous university presses over several years another reason emerged: the book engages in an enterprise taboo on campuses today, a debunking of diversity. In fact, I do not attack diversity itself – rather, the myths surrounding it. I argue that despite all the hoopla, the world is becoming not more, but less diverse. In the natural world we see the loss of habitat and species diversity. This is not news. Scholars regularly raise the alarm over the loss of natural diversity.
Yet to shift the frame of reference to culture and society, the opposite observation is not only made and celebrated, but enjoined by diversity offices and regulations. We are instructed that society is becoming increasing diverse. On the face of it, this seems unlikely: how could the domain of culture diversify as the domain of nature homogenizes? The short answer? It cannot. The same forces that standardize the landscape and its occupants standardize the urbanscape and its denizens. Globalization entails that people become increasingly alike; they wear the same athletic gear, watch the same shows, buy the same stuff. The malls in Dubai and Denver look similar. We live in age of Google, Facebook and Apple. Diversity may be the slogan of the moment, but uniformity is the reality.
This does not mean all differences vanish, but they may weaken. Economic inequality, for instance, sharpens. But this phenomenon cannot be tackled by the diversity idiom. In general, the inescapable leveling forces imply that diversity devolves into empty categories that signal group identity or affiliation, but not fundamental differences among individuals. Moreover, with few exceptions, the various groups share the identical goal of American-style prosperity — which also puts a question mark on the substance of ‘diversity.’
Dissent and Its Limits
Should this argument get a hearing on campuses through a university press? Apparently not. After all, it suggests that diversity is more an ideology than a reality. The argument rains on a very large parade and nowadays the professoriate does not like to get wet. To criticism it responds with avoidance at best, censorship at worst. Refutation has gone out of style.
Consider that a 2017 academic paper, “The Case for Colonialism”—an article whose argument I in no way second—and which appeared in a professional journal, The Third World Quarterly, spurred petitions signed by some sixteen thousand academics who demanded its retraction. Sixteen thousand! How many read or know about The Third World Quarterly? The aggrieved did not rebut or contradict. They simply wanted the piece disappeared. It was.
My case is hardly as dramatic, and I don’t pretend I am a victim. My point is merely to indicate the limits of dissent about diversity. Almost everyone values controversy—or so they claim. But “controversy” does not float outside of society; it has its own parameters. Controversial to one group is unacceptable to another — and nowadays campus champions of diversity, anti-colonialism, ‘deconstruction’, etc. find much unacceptable. Boundary crashers by day, they work as border guards by night. They summon the authorities when their own program gets examined.
The left historically opposed censorship and suffered from it — but in the name of beleaguered groups or ‘social justice’ many campus leftists have become converts. Yesterday’s free-speechers are today’s speech squelchers. Free speech has been branded the ideology of old white guys. Farhana Sultana, a geography professor who organized a petition that demanded “The Case for Colonialism” vanish, explains: free speech is frequently a canard used to “shut down the right to free speech by variously positioned Others and those who work on anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-colonialism, feminism, and social justice advocacy.” The “variously positioned Others,” such as Professor Sultana, a Princeton University graduate who describes herself an “internationally-recognized” scholar and a “post-colonial subject,” possess the credentials to censor “variously positioned” insiders such as those she labels “wealthy white men.” 
The language is as clunky as the ideas are suspect. It is late in the day to believe that anti-colonialism or anti-fascism immunizes its exponents to toxic practices. But for campus believers it is always morning in history. Even an against-the-current feminist like Laura Kipnis backs the new generation of academic censors. “Shove your cherished ‘civility’: free speech always meant speech for the few.” Those of us who have not joined the censorship cause belong to a dwindling band.
Death by Committee
I naively imagined that my manuscript on diversity would be snapped up by a university press. A readable and scholarly book on a hot current issue would surely find takers. Aren’t university presses dedicated to challenging conventional wisdom? To giving voice to dissident ideas? Yes, but within limits. A revisionist book on the American civil war or Richard Nixon might find favor, but these topics remain circumscribed. Diversity cuts across too many domains and sparks too much criticism. Indeed I was told by one editor exactly that: my manuscript would evoke too much criticism. In today’s university, that spells trouble. We market, the editor instructed me, a book “first and foremost in conventional academic circles before being able to consider also its crossover potential as a source of debate.” As your book “is quite wide-ranging, it would likely receive too many specific points of critique or questioning as we tried to move forward with it in our review processes here.” So much for “debate” that challenges “conventional academic circles.”
I slogged through eight leading university presses, associated with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, University of North Carolina, Oxford, Cambridge and the University of Chicago. I will not pretend the door was always slammed in my face. On one occasion an editor expressed enthusiasm for the manuscript and informed me he would begin the review process—and despite my inquiries I never heard from him again. Typically, an editor guardedly opened the door and began the process of sending out the manuscript for review. This was already a problem in the era of over-specialization; the book did not fall into any neat category and reviewers were difficult to find. The manuscript pleased a few reviewers, irritated some, enraged others. They found it too polemical, too wide-ranging, too incoherent, too irreverent, too… everything. Those who didn’t trash it had suggestions for revisions.
I revised the manuscript several times to meet what I thought were the more reasonable objections. I spent almost a year with one university press. After four months I learned that reviewer A wanted changes before approving publication; reviewer B hated the manuscript. With the encouragement of the editor I made revisions for reviewer A. Six months had gone by. The manuscript was sent out again to reviewer A. Another few months passed. Reviewer A was only half-convinced by the revisions. The cautious editor wanted another round of revisions before submitting the manuscript to the publishing board and again to reviewer A. And he would bring in a new third reviewer. The editor made no promises that additional revisions would satisfy him, reviewer A or his board; nor did he know what a new third reviewer would demand, which were likely additional revisions. We were at month nine and another six months were in the offing with the real possibility that I would be in exactly the same place where I began: nowhere. I hadn’t planned the book to be posthumous. I bid adieu to the press—the editor expressed no regrets—and I started the same merry-go-round elsewhere. After two years of negotiations with eight presses I had not advanced one inch. I threw in the towel.
I will also not pretend that the reviewers were uniformly bad-tempered. Some were enthusiastic, some were thoughtful, some were both. The most thorough report asked for serious revisions, but also dubbed the manuscript brilliant and wanted the publisher to publish. In his report, Daniel Gordon — a history professor at UMass Amherst who identified himself in his text — offered some general reflections about university publishing. “This is an edgy book that will draw criticism. Academic publishers sometimes avoid publishing books that do not elicit consensus. Consensus is easy to achieve when a book makes no original arguments or is highly specialized. It would be ideal if the top academic presses published more works designed to create debate, to challenge conventional thinking—provided there is sound scholarship, which in this case there certainly is.” It was not to be. Gordon was a minority of one. The editor never responded to his comments. The book died at that press.
The most illuminating events came early in this saga. The manuscript thrilled an editor, who sent it out to two readers. The reports came back very positive. Still, the editor wanted some revisions. With revisions completed, favorable reports and his own backing, smooth sailing lay ahead. I met the editor, who offered me a contract. He put me in touch with the presses’ advertising and PR people. A provisional publication date was established. We were all set. We only needed the approval of the publishing board, a formality since it had never once turned the editor down. Until now. Doubts arose in the inner sanctums of the publishing house. The “controversial” nature of the manuscript, I was informed– its attack on myths about diversity — gave the willies to the board. It was decided to settle the matter with a third reader’s report, this from someone billed as a “senior expert on education and diversity.” How this person was selected and why one additional report would outweigh the first two and the judgement of my editor remains unclear to me. When a friend heard of the reader’s specialty, he commented that my goose was cooked. And so it was.
This senior expert on diversity, anonymous to me, frothed at the mouth. “The book uses lots of references to lots of important people and imagines that it makes a smart, powerful argument…It will garner some praise, no doubt, from circles that want to critique diversity.” But the book is bunk, a sloppy travesty of scholarship and argument. The manuscript represents “the worst in ‘scholarship.’” The reviewer passed a death sentence: “A university press should not publish a book like this.”
In a flash, my intrepid editor surrendered. He raised a “white flag” and sent me on my way. Everyone must have been pleased. The diversity maven protected the campus from an unsanctioned critic of the field; and a spineless university press joined other presses and avoided controversy. The diversity savant, a speed reader to boot, closed the report with these words: “I regret…having spent three hours reading through this text. I hope this review saves others that wasted time.” The prudent reader might heed this advice.
On Diversity: The Eclipse of the Individual in a Global Era will be published February 25, 2020 by Seven Stories Press. Readers can learn more about the work, and pre-order, here.
Russell Jacoby is a Distinguished Professor in Residence of History at the University of California Los Angeles.