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"At the tender age of 28," began an article in the November 1990 issue of Esquire, "Dinesh D’Souza has the dubious distinction of being a has-been."
Seven months after that line appeared, D’Souza’s book, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, was No. 6 on the New York Times best seller list. It stayed on the list for 15 weeks.
It probably would have been more accurate for the magazine to say that D’Souza, now 30, clearly ranks among the top young public-policy makers in the country.
D’Souza and his book, more than anyone or anything else, are recognized as the vanguard of those fighting the philosophy of what’s become known as political correctness, or PC.
"The agenda of the PC movement," he told Investor’s Business Daily, "is to delegitimatize the idea of the West, the idea of America, and to taint those ideas as being irretrievably linked with imperialism, sexism and a host of other evils."
In addition to disagreeing with this basic premise, D’Souza emphasizes his disagreement with the tactics of those espousing the notion of political correctness, which has acquired more notoriety than any specific ideas.
Such tactics, he says, include employing sensitivity terms to the point of absurdity, such as "differently abled" for handicapped or "animal companions" for pets.
A far more serious aspect of PC, however, is its perceived intolerance for those expressing views that do not toe the PC line.
D’Souza said PC activists, "though few in number, employ enormous leverage over everyone else."
"This is prosecuted by accusing all the dissenters, however modest, of being bigots, because that accusation is perhaps the most pungent epithet in the language," he said.
"As a result," he continued, "this small group is able to impose its agenda. The attack on motives is very effective because it essentially says the dissenters are not merely wrong, they are immoral. They are not in need of persuasion, but of therapy."
"That," said D’Souza, "is the premise that underlies sensitivity training and education on campus."
D’Souza, a native of India, left when he was 17 to be a high-school exchange student in Arizona. From there, he entered Dartmouth College, where he became one of the early editors of the controversial Dartmouth Review, a conservative campus newspaper that waged guerrilla warfare against the liberal administration and would soon spawn more than 60 offspring at colleges across the country.
D’Souza defends what have been called the "sophomoric antics" of the paper’s staffers, observing, "They were largely carried out by sophomores."
After graduating, he served a short stint as editor of the Princeton University alumni magazine, then two years as managing editor of the Heritage Foundation magazine Policy Review, in which the most controversial articles — including those on the politics of U.S. Catholic bishops, on feminists and on the politics of television news — were penned by D’Souza himself.
In 1987, the twilight of the Reagan administration, D’Souza was invited to join the staff at the White House, but he says his importance there has been overstated.
"My department was policy development, which had the utopian mission of coming up with new policies," he said. But by this late stage in the administration, "Only a few of these saw their way to the president’s desk."
One of D’Souza’s proudest moments came last year, when he became a U.S. citizen. In praise of what he calls the unique American system of cultural diversity, D’Souza noted that while no one would think of him as anything less than an American citizen, "You can go to India next week and live out the rest of your life there, but you’ll never be considered an Indian."
The Jesuit-trained D’Souza is now the editor of the Catholic political magazine Crisis and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington.
D’Souza doesn’t just upset his critics, he infuriates them. When a section of his book appeared in The Atlantic, the magazine received more letters on it — pro and con — than it had gotten on any one article in a decade.
Detractors often refer to D’Souza’s writings as dangerous. The International Socialists of America distribute a pamphlet called "Who is Dinesh D’Souza?," and recently two new coalitions of what D’Souza called "radical academics" have mobilized "to combat my malevolent ideas."
Said D’Souza: "I seem to have gotten under the skin of every aging hippie, every depressed post-Marxist kook, every radical feminist who has hung out in academic enclaves. I’ve gotten used to the phenomenon of being heckled by people twice my age."
Yet even some representatives of the far left have eagerly signed on to D’Souza’s cause, such as leading Marxist professor and historian Eugene Genovese, whose endorsement appears on the back of the book and who gave it a good review in The New Republic.
Also providing endorsements for the book were the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington, D.C., director, Morton Halperin, New Republic Editor in Chief Martin Peretz and Marxist professor William Banks of the University of California, Berkeley, as well as conservatives Robert Bork and Tom Wolfe.
D’Souza gives the most credit for the wide acceptance of his book to Yale Professor C. Vann Woodward’s favorable review in The New York Review of Books. D’Souza said Woodward, considered by some the dean of American historians, and an inspiration to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., made Illiberal Education "acceptable, perhaps even chic, within the liberal intelligentsia."
D’Souza thinks that race may be the issue of the 1990s, "for a number of reasons."
"Race has always been a very potent issue, even as a subterranean one," he said.
Support for the most contended racial issue, affirmative action, he said, "is now eroding as it becomes apparent that the contemporary definition of affirmative action is not widening the pool of recruits or searching for qualified candidates in minority communities, but in fact routinely awarding scarce admission seats and jobs to members of some minority groups who are markedly less prepared or qualified than others of stronger credentials who are turned away."
He does not see the support for Louisiana gubernatorial — now presidential —
candidate David Duke as a sign of growing racial intolerance.
"I don’t think the Duke supporters, most of them, are likely members of the KKK, and when Duke was the head of the KKK, his support was very small," said D’Souza.
"I think what benefits Duke is the cloak of secrecy that surrounds issues of race, particularly affirmative action. He appeals to people’s secret concerns, concerns that should be legitimately articulated but have no proper public outlet," he said.
Further, said D’Souza, "The frequency with which political activists have been running around calling everyone who disagrees with them racists has played into the hands of Duke. If George Bush is a racist, if the president of Stanford is a racist, if David Duke is a racist, that accusation obliterates very important distinctions that need to be preserved."
He added, "I think as these issues are debated with civility as well as candor in the general society, Duke’s support will erode."
D’Souza freely granted that he couldn’t "say the things I do if I were white." But, he said, "My goal is to lift the curtain of taboo that surrounds these subjects, precisely so they can be more freely discussed by others."
"I also take delight," he said, "in frustrating the stereotypes of many of the campus activists."