Review: Russell Jacoby - "On Diversity"

This book was a hard one for me to crack.

As a matter of fact, I think it's still cracking around.

I don't think I would have loved to be the editor where this material is concerned, as Jacoby skips not only between subjects, ages, and personal theories much like a bouncing ball but altogether, it's a dense read. It reminds me of trying to read Hegel, who Jacoby references in one of these pages.

He starts the book by problematising diversity in the sense that he makes a case for diversity not necessarily being for good:

For instance, Asian American actors want more roles in Hollywood films and American television. Fine. But only in the loosest sense does this entail more diversity.

He goes on:

Whatever the group and whatever the context—African Americans, Latinos, disabled people, women, immigrants—the issue is always their underrepresentation; and the implicit or explicit argument is that they perform equal to any other people. Compare this common situation with the less typical one where groups stand outside the mainstream, and only want to stay outside. We do not hear complaints from the Amish or Hasidic Jews of underrepresentation. They wish to remain apart, rare exemplars of difference that seek to remain different. “The Amish are so different,” writes Ira Wagler in his memoir, Growing Up Amish. The Amish reject cars, trucks, electricity, and telephones—and sometimes indoor plumbing. They speak a variant of German; and throughout his memoir, Wagler refers to outsiders as “the English.” He observes of the Amish, “Mostly, they just prefer to be left alone.”

I almost started feeling badly at that point, but Jacoby digresses:

In a period of political regression, I do not want to be misunderstood about group diversity. All groups deserve representation. To end discrimination in any domain is exemplary. But to halt discrimination under the guise of diversity muddies the waters. The demand for equality or justice does not need cultural enhancements. Sometimes more is less. Nevertheless, I do not want the criticism I offer of diversity to be misconstrued. If the choice is between the KKK’s white supremacy and Bank of America’s diversity, I stand with the Bank of America [...] My object, in any event, is not to criticize the jargon of diversity for something worse, but for something better. To understand what renders diversity ideological is to understand what devitalizes it, an endeavor to realize, not junk it.

Phew, good.

Jacoby veers between childhood and Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, questioning "known facts" and using blatant and exaggerated language. A couple of examples of this:

“Most people around the world,” writes the historian Niall Ferguson, “dress in much the same way: the same jeans, the same sneakers, the same T-shirts.” He notes “there are just a very few places where people hold out against the giant sartorial blending machine.” Consider the worldwide success of blue jeans, which originated at the firm of a German-Jewish American merchant, Levi Strauss, in San Francisco. Ferguson attributes the success of blue jeans to money and marketing. Yet he admits it was more than just hype. The great answer to capitalism, Soviet communism, could not manufacture desirable trousers. “Perhaps the greatest mystery of the entire Cold War is why the Worker’s Paradise could not manage to produce a decent pair of jeans.”

The poor person who manages to dress like a rich person wants to be a rich person. Fair enough. Let us not pretend otherwise.

He goes into language via colonialism, childhood (again) via Stefan Zweig, and how boredom affects children:

Benjamin might be considered a specialist in boredom. He once asked, What is the “dialectical antithesis to boredom?” He never answered. In any event, the issue is not just boredom, but the activities and imagination that boredom might sustain. Does boredom have a history? Does its form change over time? Strange to say, boredom too has its specialists, who contrive an exact method, the Multidimensional State Boredom Scale, for an inexact topic. Others gather in international conferences—yes, international conferences on boredom!—where they lecture to each other about boredom. Its history does not get much attention, although some scholars have sought to trace the genesis of boredom and distinguish it from kindred conditions such as melancholy or sloth. A Philosophy of Boredom and Boredom: A Lively History are two of many recent books. A few historians view boredom as little more than an eternal ailment of life, a new name for “acedia,” the torpor that bedeviled monks.

There's an interesting section on the evolution of Lego, the toy, and how it compares with the Erector set.

All in all, this book is interesting, but I don't recommend it to readers who aren't willing to crack the nut that is Jacoby's language; as unwieldy and spiraling that it is, it also has quite some payback to offer if you're willing to invest time and your mind.

This book is published on 2020-02-25.

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