Politics & Policy

The Conservative on Campus

Some memories, some points.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Harvard Salient is the conservative publication on that campus. Last week, it held a dinner in honor of its 20th anniversary. Prof. Harvey Mansfield — who has been a faculty adviser of The Salient from the beginning — delivered remarks. So did NR’s Jay Nordlinger. A version of Mr. Nordlinger’s remarks appears below.

Thank you for inviting me. It’s a great honor to be here. I know that every speaker says that, as a matter of course — but, in this case, it couldn’t be more true. There are few people I admire more than conservatives on campus. Really, they’re some of the best and bravest people I know. The smartest, the toughest, the most spiritually resilient. Sometimes in life, I have simply marveled at the existence and grit of conservatives on campus.

I remember one kid at Harvard. He was an undergrad while I was a graduate student. We were in at least one class together. I can’t remember his name — not sure I ever knew it — but I can see his face, clearly. I’m fairly certain he worked on The Salient — this would have been 1986, ‘87, in there. I thought maybe I would see him tonight. Anyway, he wore on his lapel — or on his shirt or whatever — this little pin of tiny feet. I looked closely at it; I guess I asked what it was. And he said it was meant to represent the unborn, to express an anti-abortion position. I remember thinking this was maybe the bravest, studliest kid I ever knew. I could no more imagine myself doing it than walking on the moon. This guy was outspoken in class, too: not obnoxious, but bold, sure-footed, and unflinching. He seemed indifferent to any barbs or scorn that could be directed at him.

Really, I was kind of in awe. I’ve never forgotten him.

I myself wasn’t all that brave. I guess I wasn’t all that “conservative” either, when I started out. But, by the time I got through with college, I was ragingly conservative — the Left had seen to that. I have sometimes wondered, “If the Left weren’t so awful — so mean, so dishonest, so hateful — would I still be a liberal?” I remember the aftermath of the first debate in the presidential election of 2000, Gore versus Bush. My impression was that Gore had cleaned his clock. But the public thought that the vice president had been rude and boorish — terribly off-putting. I said something like, “Good thing Gore’s such a jerk — he saved our bacon.” (I have cleaned up that quote.)

But I apply this idea to my own experience: I would like to think that I would have arrived at my present positions through sheer reason and inquiry. Maybe I would have. But there’s a bit of backlash in me — or rather, a response to the Left as I found it.

That was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, my hometown — one of the perfect villages of the Left in this country. This is the atmosphere in which I grew up. I’m not talking strictly of the university, though I would attend it, as an undergraduate. I’m talking about the elementary schools, the secondary schools, the arts scene, the press, the physical environment — everything.

Round my way, “conservative” was something of a dirty word. It was an obscenity, really. It meant bigot, racist, ignoramus, exploiter, and other unpleasant things. There was always the vague — or sometimes not so vague — association with Nazism. The Left was the party of enlightenment, compassion, reason, and so on.

I will simplify, grossly: American history was a story of barely relieved oppression, hypocrisy, and destruction. What mattered was slavery, McCarthyism, Jim Crow, and Japanese internment — everything else was superfluous. Pictures of Che and Mao were everywhere. Ronald Reagan was a villain, intent on re-enslaving blacks and degrading women, and on incinerating the world. Why had he been elected? Rosalynn Carter spoke for many: “He makes us comfortable with our prejudices.”

I had many turning-points — a great many (if it’s possible to have more than one) — but one of those was the assassination attempt on Reagan. I saw the bravery, the grace, the humanity. I could never again accept the cartoon of Reagan as an empty-headed, soulless nuclear cowboy. I saw that all those drawing that cartoon were either dumb or lying. Besides, my grandparents liked him, and they were the best people I knew — so how bad could he be?

“I REMEMBER. I WAS THERE.”

I attended the University of Michigan — began in 1982. To say the place was soaked in political correctness is to say too little. (And, by the way, some people now maintain that “political correctness” was a term invented by conservatives to mock the Left. Not so. As Bob Dole once said, I remember. I was there. “Political correctness” was used utterly unironically by the Left, to denote behavior and thought that was acceptable, and behavior and thought that was not.)

People weary, I guess, of conservatives’ war stories from campus. I guess we sometimes look whiny and self-pitying. I certainly don’t want to be whiny and self-pitying — we should leave “victimhood” to others. But I do want to be realistic, and I tell you that there was a whiff of violence in the air, on that campus of mine. There really was. Of course, you have to be careful whom you talk to this way, because you could be marked off as an exaggerator or paranoid or worse. But, again, I remember, I was there. You got the clear sense that, if you weren’t careful in what you said or did, things could turn out very badly for you.

Ideology — not scholarship, not learning — was king on that campus. (“Dictator” would be a better word.) I knew a kid who took chemistry, physics, and the other hard sciences — I did not. He came back to the dorm one day to say that one of his instructors had spent the whole session talking up the FMLN in El Salvador — this was in math or something. Professors and, even more, the teaching assistants were using their lecterns as political podiums. They were proselytizing, indoctrinating. I thought this was wrong — I mean, quite apart from my own political beliefs, which were forming. I thought: “You know, I wouldn’t do this, if I had this power, this responsibility — the academic lectern.” And that wasn’t just self-flattery: It was true. I wouldn’t. I still wouldn’t. And that knowledge had an influence on me.

It sounds ridiculous to say now, but it took something like an act of courage to buy a conservative magazine, in certain shops. I had seen Buckley on television — I was interested in National Review. I couldn’t believe that such views could be expressed, and so self-confidently, even cheekily! I took to buying National Review, Commentary, The American Spectator. But one had to screw up one’s courage. The clerk, if he knew about the magazines — and, amazingly, he often did — would glare or scoff or make some remark. My friend and colleague Andy Ferguson remembers buying the conservative magazines out in Berkeley, at a shop called Moe’s. He’d feel the need to say something like, “Well, have to see what the opposition’s up to.” I’d say the same thing: plead diversity, curiosity, you know. William Safire once quipped, “I have to go down to the corner newsstand to buy a Hustler magazine, so as to have something respectable to hide my National Review in.”

In Ann Arbor, I worked at a bookshop called The Little Professor. The manager there wouldn’t put out right-of-center magazines, or gun magazines. A friend of mine nicknamed it The Little Suppressor.

As a student, I kept my head down, mostly — although I was too mouthy, then as now, to do so entirely. I once took a class in classical rhetoric — it was in the classics department. Had a wonderful professor, and a highly ideological, radicalized T.A. As an exercise, I wrote a rebuttal — to be delivered by Reagan — to Mario Cuomo’s celebrated keynote address at the Democratic convention in San Francisco. The T.A. said something like, “He [Reagan] doesn’t deserve such eloquent words, and I can’t imagine him delivering them” — this, about the finest political speechmaker of our times! But she could not help giving me a grade of A, much as it might have rankled.

I then wrote a little speech responding to some of Bishop Tutu’s criticisms of the United States. Tutu had just won the Nobel Peace Prize, I believe, and was regarded as a saint. That tore it. The T.A. was aghast, writing a nasty note on my speech — and giving me a bad grade (must have been an A minus). (Just kidding — I’m sure it was worse than that.) Somehow I had the gumption to take it to the professor, suggesting that I had been ideologically graded. He agreed immediately and graciously, and plunked an A on that speech. Such a man keeps the flame burning, however low, on campuses.

And I’m sure, incidentally, that he’d never voted Republican, and never would — he was just a real teacher.

THE SCURRIERS

At Harvard, I found the atmosphere much less stifling: more open, more pluralistic, more in line with what a university should be. Ideology and politics weren’t the only point, and maybe not even the main point. But still: This is a modern Western university. If Ann Arbor was owned by the Left, the Left had at least the majority share in Harvard.

Here I go again, with my war stories, but I’ll never forget something that happened to me after class one day. It was dark outside. Must have been dead wintertime — 6 o’clock or so, when it can be very dark. (I fancy that this adds a little drama to the story.) A young man from the class scurried up to me, sort of looking around, making sure that no one was looking. He said to me, “I just wanted to tell you that I like what you say in class, and think that you get short shrift, which isn’t right.” Then he scurried off.

I’m sure this has happened to a lot of us here in this room. Funny thing is, I hadn’t thought of myself as getting short shrift — one is simply used to it. It’s normal. Also, I really hadn’t said very much — I mean, I was hardly Braveheart. I had probably offered some tentative suggestions that perhaps the reigning orthodoxy should be questioned — and this must have made me seem like Yeltsin on the tank, or something. I certainly did a lot less than, for example, those who wrote for The Salient. But — in those days, at least — even some cautious peeps seemed thrilling, to some: and could get the peeper marked as a heretic.

Here’s a simple lesson I’ve learned, in my time as a journalist, as a public writer. You all know it: When you speak, you speak for lots and lots of people who either can’t speak or won’t. You are not speaking merely for yourself. You are giving lots of others comfort and encouragement, whether you find out about it or not. Most of the time, you won’t find out about it. But more often than you might suppose, you do. I hear from people all the time. And when you hear from one, you can figure that that person stands for ten, a hundred, a thousand — who knows?

It can be rather annoying to have “private support.” That’s what Tom Sowell calls it: “private support.” People scurry up to him all the time, too, particularly black people: “Nice going, Tom, tell it like it is” — then they scurry off. As I once heard Sowell put it, “I’m right behind you, Tom — WAY behind you.”

But that’s okay. Part of being a public conservative is to be on the front line, absorbing shots, and firing them off, for the sake of non-fighting others, not least. I can’t tell you how grateful I was for National Review, Commentary, and the other conservative publications when I was in school. I’m grateful for them now, of course. But it will never be the same. Never again, I’m sure, will I seize those magazines with the same desperate hunger — the hunger for something different from what I was being fed, and for a validation that, no, I wasn’t crazy: these were legitimate, even correct, views. Anti-communism wasn’t a sickness, wasn’t an element of the paranoid style; it was, at a minimum, human decency, a modicum of compassion for one’s fellow man.

I had a class here on the history of post-war foreign policy, taught by a nice ADA liberal — a Kennedy-Johnson liberal, a solid academic citizen, a good guy. We had in that class a German — a West German, no doubt — who was more or less a communist. I once heard him speak of the “Katyn accident,” referring to the massacre committed by Soviet troops in Poland. One day — after we’d written some papers, I guess — the professor called both of us up to the front of the class to speak, in opposition to each other. We were to debate the origins of the Cold War: Who was responsible? Uncle Sam or Uncle Joe? I realized we were being posited as extremes. One fellow was speaking for — and here I am only being honest — the communist lie; the other fellow, me, was speaking for what was only the clear truth of the matter, nothing fancy. I’ve never forgotten that.

I also remember — this’ll be my last story, from Harvard — an appearance by Armando Valladares at the Kennedy School. Valladares, of course, is the great Cuban dissident, the author of “Against All Hope.” He is sometimes called “the Cuban Solzhenitsyn,” and not without reason. Valladares had come out of long imprisonment and torture, and he wanted to tell an elite audience about it. Of course, he faced hostile questioning: How dare you say that you were abused in Fidel Castro’s country! If you were, you must have deserved it, gusano. That was the tone of the questioning.

But the truly remarkable thing was that the school put someone on the platform in opposition to Valladares: some professor, from the faculty here. He pointed out the alleged great strides that Cuba had made in health care and literacy — the usual propaganda. Valladares responded, Maybe so, but other countries have those things without torturing people, without the denial of basic rights — why can’t we?

I guess I keep talking about never forgetting, but I will never forget that Harvard felt the need to “pair” Valladares with someone who was on, more or less, the other side. It was as though a survivor had been paired with a professor ready to provide a more “nuanced” view of the Nazis. That seems a horribly harsh thing to say, but I have for the last couple of years been immersed in the story of totalitarian persecution in Cuba. It’s pretty bad.

In time, I became what we call a “conservative” — though I still sort of choke on the term. This has to be a hangover from my youth. I like to consider myself a genuine liberal, believing in limited government, equality of opportunity, equality under the law, pluralism, toleration, constitutionalism, colorblindness, a robust, internationalist foreign policy, sound and equal education, a common culture, etc. Nowadays, that makes you a flaming right-winger. But it shouldn’t be so.

It sure doesn’t take much to be a “conservative” now, does it? It takes, really, not being a leftist. One of the things I do, when talking to young conservatives — interviewing them for internships and so on — is ask, “Why are you a conservative,” or, “What kind of ‘conservative’ are you,” or, “How did you happen to become what we call a ‘conservative’?” One day I put this to a young man in my office. He said, “Well, my parents are survivors, and . . .” — then he sort of fumbled around, at a loss for words. And I interjected, “Oh, you mean you’re anti-evil.” And he broke out into a broad smile and said, “Yes, I’m anti-evil.”

PROFESSORS TO CELEBRATE

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m so grateful for the courage and persistence of conservative students and professors. You have meant a great deal to me, and to countless others. You may think my gratitude somewhat weird. Conservative students now, I have noticed, are amazingly self-confident. They have kind of a swagger, a breeziness. That, I never had. Maybe times have changed. The Cold War is certainly over, and that was important. It could be, too, that all that good conservative work in the vineyard has borne fruit. It may be that there is now no great penalty to being an “out” conservative on campus: a penalty administered in grades, social discomfort, and so on. But in my time and place, I assure you, to be known as a conservative was to be labeled an untouchable, practically. And when you found someone who thought like you — or who was at least willing to tolerate you — you felt a delight, a relief, and a gratitude that was almost unbelievable.

I was saying how grateful I was for conservative students and conservative professors. Faculty members who are willing to associate themselves with conservative students and their activities are greatly to be prized. I’m sure it’s not always easy for them; they don’t want to be “conservative” professors; they just want to be professors. And we should stand, I believe, for the depoliticization of the campus. But I bless those right-leaning professors who are willing to be “involved” — there’s a great Left word: “involved.” I bless those willing to stand up to ideological bullies, or to show independent-minded students how.

And when a Stephan Thernstrom is attacked — threatened by the bullies — we must rally around him, protecting him, and showing him who his friends are: who are the people on campus willing to defend the old principles of liberalism, or, I should say, the principles of the old liberalism.

In addition, we should do everything we can to thank and encourage and praise the liberal professor — even the leftist professor — who is fair to us, who understands and abides by the spirit of scholarship. Those professors, too, are a breed greatly to be prized. I remember a professor I had at Michigan, a woman named Emily Cloyd, who taught Johnson and Boswell. She was in love with books and ideas and history. Had studied at Columbia. I talked to her once — I sensed I could — about the oppressiveness I was finding on campus. She said that, in her day, it had been a problem to be too left — openly left — so she understood. I didn’t quite trust that there had ever been such a day; it seemed impossible! But I appreciated her kindness and understanding.

And then there was my beloved Barbara Fields, the historian of the South. For the last many years, she’s been at Columbia. A leftist in her political beliefs, she was still a shining example of a teacher, determined to give her students the tools to investigate and think for themselves. Her standards were daringly high: and they were academic standards, never ideological ones. She valued fine writing, because she thought it ought to go with fine thought. She was patient and generous with me, jousting with me during office hours, teasing me, listening to me summarize some article in the recent National Review, letting my beliefs develop, not trying to steer them but demanding that they have reason and grounding.

Professor Fields is now, down in New York, my friend. When clucking over something wrong in our economy, she’ll say — invariably — “your beloved free market.” And she remains my model of what a university professor should be. She has no use — none whatsoever — for political nonsense on campus, and she is duly embarrassed and disgusted when “her side” acts up, as it can’t help doing.

You may have heard about a class at U-Cal, Berkeley, on “The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance.” The course description advises, “Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections.” On the one hand, I appreciate this little caveat. At some schools, the entire course catalogue should have stamped on it, “Conservatives are encouraged to seek other curricula.” Entire schools should be stamped, “Conservatives are encouraged to seek other schools — here’s a map to Hillsdale, Michigan.” On the other hand, of course, this is an outrage to be fought against. I don’t want a conservative counter-culture and counter-establishment, necessarily (although these things arise out of necessity); I’d rather have integration and openness and political disinterestedness, certainly on campuses.

At many schools — including Berkeley — our student publications are being stolen. Stolen in bulk. Thrown out, burned, whatever. And the administrations, as usual, aren’t defending us, or are doing so weakly. I wonder whether it’s possible to shame these alleged liberals: to utter the words “free speech” and “First Amendment” and “diversity” and “tolerance,” and see them hang their heads. Maybe it’s not possible: These are some awfully illiberal liberals we’re dealing with. But let’s at least flush them out, as leftist enforcers, hypocrites, or cowards (an unlovely line-up).

THE GHETTO AND WITHOUT

I must tell you, I’ve always been of two minds about conservative papers on campus. I guess I wish they didn’t have to exist; I wish we could be simply part of the mainstream, accepted, unremarkable; I also wish I pitched for the Detroit Tigers. But I see that progress is being made. Your Ross Douthat, who was an intern of ours at National Review last summer, is a columnist for The Crimson — the big time (sorry). An intern coming to us this summer is Jason Steorts, also a Harvard student. He doesn’t write for The Salient at all; he, too, is a columnist for The Crimson. And I say, Great. Hats off. But thank God for The Salient: a place to go home to, a refuge when others have shut you out — our Israel.

Let me confess something to you, speaking of the Jews. When I was young — quite young — I was appalled at the notion of Jewish country clubs. I thought that was a disgusting notion: a country club only for Jews? It was unfriendly, separatist, un-American. But when I got a little older, I learned something about the origin of those Jewish country clubs: It’s not that Jews wanted to build them; it’s that they were barred from the other clubs. If they wanted to belong to a club — if they wanted to play — they had to build their own. So they did.

I feel that the same is true with us. We have had to build our own, because we haven’t been let in by others, or weren’t. As I indicated, I’m all for going mainstream, if possible. By all means, avoid the conservative ghetto, or get out of it, if you’re in it — but let us tend that ghetto, for as long as we need it. And, of course, we do need it. I work in conservative opinion journalism, always have — no one else has asked me! Although I may bridle now and then, I’m deeply grateful for our conservative homes: National Review and all the rest. If I were rich, I’d donate like crazy to them — these journals have always existed on the kindness of strangers, but strangers who are friends.

Permit me to say that we conservatives have an advantage, in a way. You may view this as a species of ridiculous bright-side-ism, or silver-lining-ism: but we should be pretty tough, pretty battle-hardened. We have not been lulled by popularity, and we have seldom known the comfort of the herd. We know what it’s like to have “Nazi” yelled at us — this has happened to children of survivors, to survivors themselves, to everyone. We know what it’s like to have swastikas daubed on our newspaper boxes, our doors. Not to be trite on you or anything, but sweet are the uses of adversity, my friends. I sometimes think that, being a conservative in an iron-fisted left-wing environment, you almost have to be like a black man in the pre-civil-rights South: You have to do everything better. You have to be smarter, more tenacious, less reproachable. Your paper has to be so good that there’s no way some teaching assistant can screw with it. Your articles have to be five times better to get published. You have to be five times better to be hired. And so on.

Again, I don’t want to go in for victimhood. But neither am I unmindful of realities as I have witnessed them with my own eyes.

About a week ago, I received a letter from a high-school senior in Chicago. He says, “I am president of our Conservative Club at school. Including me, there are four members. Our school has 2,300 students. Our district has two schools of approximately equal size. The other school doesn’t even have a conservative organization. On the other hand, in my time here, I have seen the likes of the SDS (yes, that SDS) and various other clubs enjoy not only great attendance, but also great cooperation from our school’s administrators. I was told by one of my administrators that the only reason I started my club was to promote the hatred of homosexuals. He said this to my face. The fact that he himself, like many of my teachers, is homosexual is irrelevant. The fact that a teacher can tell a student what his morals are without even knowing or questioning the student is appalling, especially in a school that has spent over $100,000 on a ‘Respect Initiative,’ designed to foster respect throughout the school.”

I imagine this kid is going to do just fine — in college, and after. Life doesn’t allow him to be a baby.

Once again: There are few people I admire more than the conservative on campus. I have learned from them, been inspired by them, and been emboldened by them. They have sort of set my path in life. Happy anniversary, and give ‘em hell.

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