January 15, 2013

A Patronizing Look at Campus Conservatives

By Bruce Bawer

Need any further evidence of the insularity and obtuseness of the academic left - of its stubborn and unreflecting conviction of its own virtue and superiority, its breathtaking incomprehension of and condescension toward those who don't share its ideology? Me neither. Nonetheless, a new book entitled Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives (Princeton University Press) turns out to be a splendid example of all of the above. Amy Binder, a Stanford-educated professor of sociology at UC-San Diego, and Kate Wood, her student, have written what they call "the first book-length study to be conducted on the contemporary campus right." 

Interviewing self-described conservative undergraduates at a pair of colleges that they identify only as "Eastern Elite" and "Western Flagship" - one an Ivy League school, the other the main campus of a state university system in the West - the authors discover very different sets of conservative "styles" at the two institutions. Among conservatives at Flagship, they say, "provocation is mainstream," as demonstrated by an "eye-popping event known as the Affirmative Action Bake Sale," where, to underscore the injustice of group preferences, Young Republicans charge different prices based on group identity. Conservatives at Elite, the authors tell us, are too "intellectual" to conceive of such a stunt, which the authors clearly find shocking and tasteless.

Indeed, conservatives at Elite, where liberals are in the clear majority, "complain much less about their liberal peers than do students at Western Flagship," where moderates outnumber liberals. A few Elite conservatives employ what the authors characterize as "highbrow provocation...a pedigreed National Review style." But most reject provocation tout court, instead "comport[ing] themselves almost as if by an unwritten code of conduct, to which all other members of the Eastern Elite community...likewise adhere." Rather than provocation, in short, conservatives at Elite opt for what the authors label "civilized discourse." Why? Because, the authors repeatedly insist, Elite has a "strong institutional culture of civilized discourse," exercising an influence that "so strongly...favor[s] civilized discourse" that "civilized discourse drowns out all alternatives." 

"Leftist students know they won't get in trouble for
committing vandalism, so long as it's the right kind

So, at least, claim the authors. But their own interviews tell a different story.  One member of Elite's pro-life group recalled designing posters in which fetuses said what they wanted to be when they grew up. "People hated them . . . tore them down and defaced them. But I learned from that experience." The authors' comment on this story? That "the pro-life group...didn't like the controversy they were creating and dumped those tactics for the civilized discourse style that seemed more appropriate for their campus." The authors miss entirely the real point of the story: that tearing down and defacing posters isn't "civilized" - it's vandalism. They don't understand that what this anecdote illustrates is the taming of Elite conservatives by leftist students who feel righteous and powerful - and who know they won't get in trouble for committing vandalism, so long as it's the right kind. The authors have presented an account of ideological tyranny - and don't even realize it.

So it goes. One Elite conservative notes that every day, it seems, the school paper "bashes Sarah Palin," calling her "dumb" and "a religious nutcase." Another says that when she's in groups of students, "you'll very often hear people...talking about how crazy or bigoted or irrational conservatives are." A third says that "in a lot of my lectures...there were a lot of Sarah Palin jokes" by faculty. And a fourth mentions a roommate who said at dinner "that she was going to vote for John McCain....and for an hour a couple of people...said that she was denying children education and she was sending soldiers to their death. And she came back to my room crying."  Yet the authors continue to praise Elite's "civility," to assert that students and faculty alike "regard the classroom as an unacceptable space in which to grind one's political axe," and that if Elite conservatives eschew provocation it's because they belong to a sophisticated community that "requires a more refined mode of political expression." 

"At hard left Ivy schools, a conservative who vigorously speaks her mind risks losing all.”

Yet what their evidence actually shows is that their Elite interviewees have been tamed.  It makes sense: a conservative who gets into a hard-left Ivy school is likely to know something about "playing the game." One such student, recalling a Palin-bashing prof, says she'd certainly never "walk up to him and say, 'I support Sarah Palin,' because it's just, you know, that's just something that you learn when you're like six. If you want to make people happy, you say what they say." She knows that at a place like Elite, a conservative who speaks her mind as vigorously as liberals do risks losing all. Another student observes that while it's common in Elite classrooms for liberals to deliver rambling political rants, conservatives never answer back because that would be "inappropriate." The word appropriate crops up in another Elite student's statement that even at dinner with dorm friends she'd "never say I voted for John McCain...because it just would...it's just not really a socially appropriate thing to do." One student puts it this way: at Elite "there is a kind of sense that people wouldn't necessarily talk in class if they were conservative, so there was kind of an underground feeling." 

The authors call this civility. Some might use another word. Perhaps the aptest way to sum up the situation at Elite is this: the liberals are out and proud, while the conservatives, with few exceptions, are closeted.  Some have been intimidated, bullied, even terrorized into being closeted. And the authors like it that way. Their prose drips with condescension toward the conservative kids at Flagship, whose robust, unapologetic expression of their conservatism and willingness to challenge their professors' politics the authors consider the sign of people with "aggregate lower SAT scores." (The authors insist they're not putting down Flagship students' intelligence - but they keep doing just that.) Unlike the Elite conservative who keeps mum in the face of ranting liberal profs because she wants "to make people happy," a student at Western Public (a college in Flagship's state system) tells how she responded to a history professor who said Obamacare opponents "sit in their houses with tin foil on their heads": she went up after class and told him that he was insulting her family and neighbors.

What do the authors make of this? They suggest the girl was inspired by "the taste for confrontation supported by [conservative] student organizations" at her school. It doesn't cross their minds that her conduct was admirable - founded in self-respect, integrity, and a willingness to "speak truth to power" (an activity that people like the authors don't seem to recognize when the power is on the left and the speakers are on the right). For them, troublemakers like this girl form an unpleasant contrast to the Elite conservatives whom they admire for rejecting the national GOP's "highly partisan confrontational tactics" - exemplified, in their view, by "Sarah Palin's mocking tone" at the 2008 GOP convention about "Barack Obama's history of community organizing." Like liberal students' vandalism, Democrats' Palin-mocking plainly doesn't register, in the authors' minds, as confrontational.

Needless to say, if these student conservatives were being harassed, insulted, and worse because they were, say, black or female, the authors would treat it as a casus belli; they would not view acquiescience in prejudice as "civility"; and they'd recognize the bravery of those who resist. But because the kids are conservatives, the authors are clueless about what they're reporting on here. Wood neatly demonstrated this cluelessness in a recent interview, suggesting that the fact that some liberal kids turn conservative at college disproves the notion that universities are sites of "liberal indoctrination." Wood doesn't grasp why truly liberal-minded young people, confronted with what goes by the name of liberal nowadays, would start identifying as conservatives. In sum, Becoming Right is fascinating and illuminating - but in ways of which the authors are entirely unaware.   


Bruce Bawer's latest book is The Victims' Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind. 


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