Monday, December 04, 2006

Here they go again: "Conformity" on Campus

It is a favorite complaint on campuses today that the views of campus conservatives are marginalized, oppressed, or whatever. David Horowitz has made a living out of this argument, and it is almost taken as a point of faith among anyone who leans anywhere right of center, and even some of the selfsame liberals who worry about their role as oppressors.

But as Wells Tower pointed out in his article in the November Harper's (not online), the Campus Right is alive, well, and well-funded. Young America's Foundation, and other like-minded groups that support campus conservatism, according to Tower, are funded to the tune of about $35 million per year -while the group Campus Progress, one of the few outside groups dedicated to promoting campus liberalism, had a budget last year of $650,000. More telling, perhaps, is the meteoric growth of groups like the Campus Republicans, which have gone from about 650 chapters six years ago to nearly 1,800 today.

In any event, it is certainly true that the "mainstream" of some campus environments, like that of Brown University (where Koko got his B.A.) leans somewhat to the left. But when I happened to pick up the school's daily paper today, out of curiousity while leaving a coffee shop near the campus, I smiled at the headline on the opinion page which claimed that Brown's dominant liberalism amounted to a "culture of conformity" aimed at denying those with opposing views - for writer Benjamin Bright, those on the Right - a chance to speak.

I'm not sure whether it would be silly of me to respond to Mr. Bright in Brown's paper of record itself, as I must remind myself not to use of my bullhorn on that campus which I left two and a half years ago, tempting as it remains. But the idea he presents, though misguided, is common enough that I believe I should respond to it in some form - hence, thank God for the blog.

There may indeed be a culture of conformity at Brown University, and indeed at many other elite colleges and universities throughout the United States. But Mr. Bright is mistaken, I think, to see that culture as primarily concerned with abortion and gay marriage, topics he is surprised to find little debate over at Brown. In fact, I think Bright's appeal to the notions of the inviolability of free speech and the university as a "marketplace of ideas" are a good place to start.

I wonder how the writer would respond if I proposed that the freedom of speech, in and of itself, is not in and of itself an inviolable good, or that I do not like the idea of a "marketplace of ideas" because I do not revere, above all, models of the marketplace. I might have already so offended his sensibilities, and those of the vast majority of the student body at Brown, that I might go no further.

I am not actually making an argument against free speech, but I might at least suggest that it is not the greatest of all possible goods - or the most necessary. For me, food, clothing, and shelter come before freedom of speech - for you cannot speak if you have not eaten.

But while it is inconceivable to me that someone could argue that everyone should not be entitled to freedom of speech, it is easy to imagine a student at a "liberal" university arguing that everyone does not have a right to food or shelter. To put it another way, must we affirmatively go lengths to ensure that all people have food and shelter, as we must ensure that all have the right to speak? Must we do so even if in order to do so we must tax wealthier people and the corporations they own?

These are far from settled questions. They get even less one-sided when you go beyond those basic three and argue, for example, that all people should have guaranteed health care coverage.
Sure, it "costs" a lot less to guarantee freedom of speech than it does freedom from hunger or homelessness. But the notion that cost poses a problem is only based on the fairly inviolable belief in the good of private property, another totem of the liberal university setting.

For advancing points such as these, Ben Bright might possibly call me a "Communist" -others have done worse. Once, on a Brown Daily Herald forum for advancing the radical view that campaign finance reform should pass congress, I was called a "Communist Fag," in spite of my heterosexuality. But is not this sort of name calling as bad as calling someone a "bigot" because they oppose equal rights for gay and lesbian people? Does it not stem from the same feeling of being threatened, and aim towards the same objective of silencing threatening speech?

The culture of conformity at a place like Brown stretches far beyond the basic building blocks of contemporary American politics - freedom over equality, private property over common good. Because the university has a key role to play in replicating the class structure and confirming the notion of the meritocracy, the vast majority of students have few qualms about entering a competitive workforce - or do not question that they can and should compete, and can and should strive for career success. The culture of conformity does not value learning for its own sake, but rather sees it as a vehicle. The culture of conformity does not instill in students an extreme seriousness of purpose, or suggest that the rare privilege of attending Brown University should be taken with solemn dedication to study. The culture of conformity means that most everyone believes that there is nothing wrong with excessive drinking. The culture of conformity says it is fun to play "Beirut".

Even when it comes to the tenets of liberalism that campus conservatives abhor, the culture of conformity falls short of what's advertised. While it may be politically incorrect to make a racist comment at Brown, it was, at least while I was there, perfectly alright in most quarters to use a term like "white trash." To me, the phrase revealed what was widely considered an acceptable level of contempt for the white working class, and beneath it, for the black and brown working classes as well. The general line of thought seemed to be that racism was a serious barrier, so at least people of color had an excuse for their failures to suceed. But white people not succeeding? What was their problem? No one exactly stated this out loud, but it was there nonetheless.

None of these sentiments describe every student I met at Brown - in fact, I met and befriended a great many who subverted the dominant paradigm, as the old saying goes. But that's not to say that the paradigm wasn't there.

This was never more true, I think, than when I objected to that apparently most inarguable truth of post-9/11 American politics - that the bombing of Afghanistan was not only justified, but good. In columns in the Herald in the spring of 2002, I questioned whether the bombing of the Chinese Embassy was unintentional, and whether, indeed, toppling a regime was the appropriate response to the work of Osama bin Laden and his non-state organization. The deep well of hostility that opened up against these columns on the (admittedly, anonymous) campus forums was impressive - indeed, my being called a "Communist Fag" for advocating a bill supported by John McCain was merely the aftershocks of anger from my pieces about the "War on Terror".

Indeed, as Horowitz suggests, there is nothing beyond the pale when one is criticizing those on campus who condemn American foreign policy in the broadest sense. Calling Rachel Corrie a terrorist because she dared to try to block a military bulldozer from destroying a home - even after she has died - is more than reasonable; it is the duty of a patriotic American!

Some might argue that it is only natural for conservatives to respond to supposed "intolerance" of their views with a bit of intolerance of their own. How else to explain this opening paragraph in an article in the new issue of Brown's conservative paper, the Spectator, other than the desire of its author, Joshua Unseth, to serve as a provacateur:

From accusations of police brutality, and BUDS employees seeking increased wages and reduced hours, to gays demanding the restoration of their constitutionally protected blood-giving privileges, and the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms, this year has been one for the books. I have never seen so much protesting in all of my life. But as I recall, we are nearing the end of the protest season. Which got me thinking: where do all the Brown students go after the snow begins to fall?
Where indeed? Either Mr. Unseth is fiercely resisting the culture of conformity by heroically lampooning it, or he is appealing to a different culture of conformity on campus - a culture of irony that rejects anything earnest and serious as naive.

In any case, there's a lot more to conformity than not arguing over abortion.


Magwich the Gruff Australian said...

Koko the Communist Fag-
This is a very good post. Your argument about free speech is provocative and fun for the whole familiy. I really like the point you make (or at least hint at) about free speech costing so little (as compared to, say, health care). Maybe the fact that free speech is so cheap explains why universities love it so much. Columbia has had a big free speech contraversy this year, and our president, Lee Bolinger, has been writing students ad nauseum to keep us updated on his fight for justice--which means kicking out students who stormed the stage when the grand wizard of the minute men was speaking. I find Bolinger's free speech line grotesque for so many reasons, not least of which is the fact that free speech isn't really the issue here; the issue, of course, is that Columbia paid this biggot Jim Gilchrist to come speak. This, I think, is an example of the way that universities use "free speech" not only to champion their own faux "openness," but also to excuse the fact that they will ask anyone to come speak, so long as he or she gets the university a bit of attention. The issue, in other words, isn't whether or not the minutemen have free speech, but whether or not columbia should pay this jerk to come talk--look at how brilliantly Bolinger has shifted the argument!

Betty & Bimbo said...

Bravo, Koko.

I couldn't agree more with the culture of racism and classism lite that prevails on university campuses and in meritocratic ideals. The fact that a few talented students (some of color, some not) from impoverished backgrounds can make it to Yale seemed to justify the dominant paradigm when I was there. Don't argue with meritocracy! Look, here are some people who "made it"! Also, words like "white trash" and "ghetto" used as an adjective flowed freely in New Haven, 1999-2004 (super senior status gives me extra perspective). : )

Magwich makes a good point about Gilchrist that also reminds me of the "fairness" exhibited by the country's major newspapers when covering the immigration debate. Not every story or heated issue has two separate but equal sides, people. Every time you write a story about immigrants, you don't have an ethical obligation to in turn publish the views of an extreme and isolated racist segment of society who call the immigrant contribution to the U.S. "turning America into a third world cesspool". It would be as if everytime they interviewed a black politician, they said "and now for the other side of the story" and gave Michael Richards six drinks and a microphone.

Joshua Unseth said...

"Sure, it 'costs' a lot less to guarantee freedom of speech than it does freedom from hunger or homelessness. But the notion that cost poses a problem is only based on the fairly inviolable belief in the good of private property, another totem of the liberal university setting."

Wonderfully stated.