Wednesday, May 28, 2003
Cool and conservative: I really never intended on focusing on The New York Times and its problems, but to not address them nowadays is like trying to ignore the elephant in the living room.
In the Sunday magazine, the Times had an article entitled "The Young Hipublicans," by John Colapinto. The article is interesting, informative and proof positive that a conservative never saw the piece before it hit the presses.
Curiously enough, the first "name" to be quoted in the piece isn't Dinesh D'Souza or William F. Buckley, who are often referred to in the piece as major influences on the campus conservative movement, but disgraced former journalist David Brock.
''They have a theory of getting them while they're young,'' says David Brock, a former college conservative who graduated from Berkeley in the mid-1980's. After spending almost a decade as an activist in the conservative movement (during which he published the 1993 liberal-bashing book, ''The Real Anita Hill''), Brock had a change of heart. In 2002, he published a book, ''Blinded by the Right,'' about his former life as a conservative-movement insider. ''People are searching for their identity in college,'' he says. ''The right try to instigate polarization so that it looks like the right wing is the alternative to the left. This is what happened to me. I went to Berkeley because it had a liberal reputation. But I became disillusioned with some of my experiences with the left on the campus and I had a knee-jerk reaction -- or I was looking for an alternative -- and there was the right. There really wasn't anything in the middle.''
No mention of the factual problems with Brock's memoir. Brock's quote sets the tone for later in the piece when we find out that college conservatives are either misguided or working to supress opposing views. It's disturbing that getting your views out in the open is equated with stifling others, but any diminishing of the liberal dominance on college campuses is seen as a threat.
Colapinto also takes on the use of President Ronald Reagan as a recruiting tool for young conservatives.
Besides the flag, the other potent symbol for today's young conservative movement is Ronald Reagan. Because they are too young to recall any of Reagan's live TV appearances (Mitchell, for instance, was born in 1982), today's college students tend to see the former president purely as his image makers tried to present him when he occupied the Oval Office: as a Norman Rockwellian, mist-shrouded icon of Better Times -- an idealized figure of myth. The Washington-based groups know this, and they play on it. When the Leadership Institute, a group formed by a right-wing activist, Morton Blackwell, recruits on campuses each fall, it prominently displays at its sign-up table a huge poster that includes a photograph of Reagan.
(Charles) Mitchell is one of those who has fallen under the spell of the former president. His dorm-room bookshelf holds no less than four Reagan biographies, from which he is given to quoting, as if from Scripture. ''If you study what Reagan wrote and said and believed,'' Mitchell explains, ''it didn't change from at least the 1960's on. People always attack that and say he was intellectually lazy. I don't think so. The guy believed in something. He came to the presidency with three big goals: defeating communism, lowering taxes and recovering the economy. And that's what he did.''
It's telling that Colapinto takes Mitchell to task for basing his admiration for Reagan on books as opposed to images on the boob tube. I must confess, I haven't read a Reagan biography. (I was looking forward to reading Edmund Morris' work (I've read his Teddy Roosevelt biographies) on Reagan, but his use of a fictional character turned me off.) Of course, there's no evidence that any of the Reagan biographies are factually challenged -- like, say Sidney Blumenthal's "The Clinton Wars."
Besides, is this really that horrible of a thing. For many conservatives, Reagan is the most recent ex-president who represented many of their views. (President George H. W. Bush lost his chance when he raised taxes and failed to get a second term.) You can bet that campus Democrat clubs are using Bill Clinton's image to sell their ideas, is that sinister too?
Conservative women also come in for some thinly-disguised scorn from Colapinto.
Regular speakers on campus include Phyllis Schlafly, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ann Coulter, Katherine Harris and Christina Hoff Sommers, author of ''Who Stole Feminism?'' and ''The War Against Boys.'' These women preach that the preponderance of women's-studies classes and the proliferation on campuses of Take Back the Night marches, sex and dating rules and rape-awareness lectures -- all of which are aimed at making women feel empowered on campus -- in fact do precisely the opposite: they infantalize.
One Bucknell conservatives club member, Allison Kasic, buys it.
''Conservatives are inclusive in a way that liberals are not,'' she says, voicing a central theme of the Independent Women's Forum ethos.
It can be disorienting to hear conservatism advanced as the ideology that frees women, but such is the skill with which the right has reframed the issues for the campus crowd, and such is the degree to which the left has allowed its own message to drift into rigidity and irrelevance for many college-age women.
First, Kasic "buys it?" It reads like she's been suckered.
Colapinto also goes on with his line that "It can be disorienting to hear conservatism advanced as the ideology that frees women, but such is the skill with which the right has reframed the issues...." Disorienting if you've been indoctrinated with the outdated liberal dogma that conservatives want women in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.
Then we get to the good stuff.
In fact, much of what (Denise) Chaykun -- and indeed most any campus conservative you meet -- says is something that someone told them to say. This is not to doubt their passion and belief, but it is to be realistic about the language and tactics they've developed to communicate those beliefs.
Ohhh! These mindless conservatives. They're just robots repeating what they've been told. This is different from campus liberals...how?
While it's true that Mitchell and his fellow club members are far closer to 80's right-wingers like D'Souza and Coulter, there are also crucial differences. Many of those Reagan-era conservatives announced their politics on campus with their dress and grooming, the men sporting aggressively conservative Clark Kent haircuts, blue blazers, red ties, loafers; the women tended to wear skirts and heels -- openly adopting the uniform of the Youth for Reagan army. Today, most campus conservatives who hope to be effective won't dress like George Bush or Dick Cheney. The idea is to dress like a young person.
I'm sorry, but somebody has been watching too much "Animal House." College students are college students, whether or not they're liberal or conservative. I was probably one of the more conservative voices on my college campus (I often wrote opinion pieces for the Mustang Daily) and I dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. To suggest that these kids would normally wear "blue blazers, red ties, loafers" if it weren't for the marketing advice they're getting from conservative organizations is laughable.
Finally, we get to the atmosphere about 35 "out" conservatives have been able to create on the Bucknell University campus.
In less than two years, the Bucknell University Conservatives Club established itself as one of the most visible and influential student groups on campus.
Just how influential is clear when you talk to Bucknell faculty members. Geoff Schneider, an economics professor at Bucknell, says that the conservative group's constant charge in The Counterweight, that the university is infected by political correctness and that professors seek to indoctrinate students with a liberal agenda, has had an effect in the classroom. ''As the conservatives have become more prominent, other students are more prone to believe that they are being indoctrinated,'' Schneider says. ''So the openness of a number of students to new ideas and new ways of looking at things has actually moved in a disturbing direction. Students are much more willing to write off something as 'liberal talk' -- oh, I don't need to think about that, that's just ideology -- as opposed to thinking, in a complex way, about all of the different ideas and evaluating them.'' Kim Daubman, a social psychology professor, concurs. Recently she taught a class in which she talked about the theory that news coverage of warfare in Iraq could lead to a rise in homicides in the United States. ''I could see the students rolling their eyes,'' she says. ''I could just hear them thinking, 'Oh, there she goes again!'''
While professors like Schneider and Daubman worry about the potential for conservative activists to stifle intellectual openness among students, they also grudgingly admit to admiring the right-wingers' passion. ''A lot of faculty members talk about the lack of commitment that most students have to anything,'' Daubman says. ''It seems that they're about getting a credential and being able to get a good job. That's why you hear faculty say about the conservatives club: 'At least they believe in something. At least they've got convictions.'''
Professor Schneider seems to equate students' realization that there may be another side to what he's teaching with close-mindedness and stupidity: "What I, Professor Schneider, am teaching is complex thinking, if you don't accept what I say you're a simpleton."
As for Professor Daubman, I think she's right. The kids were rolling their eyes at her theory that "news coverage of warfare in Iraq could lead to a rise in homicides in the United States." Why? Because proving causation would be difficult and the idea is silly on its face.
[cut to interrogation room]
Police officer: Why did you fire the machine gun from the car into that crowd of opposing gang members.
Murderer: Well, I was watching CNN's coverage of the Iraq war and thought: "Why should those Marines have all the fun?"
[back to the real world]
In my 16 years in public education (K-12 and college) I can't remember an occasion where I thought a teacher or professor was giving me conservative spin. But there were plenty of times when I got liberal spin. My high school history teacher was probably the biggest purveyor of the liberal line.
Students aren't taking it anymore, and that worries the liberal academy that is unaccustomed to having to compete in the marketplace of ideas. They "knew" capitalism was wrong. Professors prefer a "planned economy" of ideas -- it makes life easier for them.