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Mistaken Identity
Autumn 1997

Ever wonder what a quarter-century inside the Ford Foundation will do to a person? Susan Berresford's inaugural presidential message gives us a sad clue. Berresford was the ultimate Ford insider when she succeeded Franklin Thomas last year as president, having started at the foundation 27 years ago during the tumultuous reign of McGeorge Bundy. Her inaugural address had been eagerly awaited as a portent of Ford's future: it isn't auspicious.

The message's central conceit is that Berresford, having conversed with many anonymous global experts about their fears for the twenty-first century, now shares what she has learned. Her global advisors turn out to be an extremely fearful group: they worry about everything from the lack of "caring, compassionate societies" to the "erosion of such resources as schools and libraries, forests and clean water." Some of what her global experts worry about, such as "changes in gender roles," was underwritten by Ford, but Berresford does not note the irony.

In between scattered non sequiturs and platitudes, one theme clearly emerges: the overriding, all-consuming importance of identity politics. Incredible to say, the head of the world's most prominent private foundation believes that one of the paramount "challenges of the 21st century" will be that of "strengthening . . . identity"—even though ethnic tribes and urban gangs are massacring one another over a surplus of the stuff.

Berresford's anonymous experts echo her fears. They, too, are "intensely worried about . . . whether today's attention to racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity is adequate." Never mind that every large American institution, from Fortune 500 corporations to the military, has embraced "diversity" with a vengeance.

Decoded, Berresford's statement really means that the foundation will continue bankrolling the corrosive identity politics that have already fractured American society and that will undoubtedly do the same for Ford's international grantees. Though Ford thinks of itself as a global foundation, its effete, hothouse concern with "identity," laughably American- and uni-versity-centric, is grossly irrelevant to a world characterized by autocratic political regimes, deadly hygiene, and languishing economies. That her global advisors should allegedly share this concern is a troubling sign that America's cultural elite is opening international chapters.

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