Politics & Policy

Time in The Trenches

Campus conservatives need to toughen up.

When I picked up the April 4 issue of The Nation, I had a Rod Serling moment: I was in total sympathy with one of its headlines. “The New PC,” it announced, was the keening of “Crybaby Conservatives”–particularly on college campuses. My alarm had less to do with the magazine’s left-wing orientation than with its usual “radical” posturing and ritual straw-man immolations. I agreed with these guys? If these guys get it, we’re really in trouble.

Folks, meet the crybabies. Time was when conservatives complained about academia’s liberal atmosphere–fog, let’s call it–the way one does about persistent bad weather. The fog might darken one’s mood, but even if it lasted for four years, it would give way one day to the daylight of thick-skinned adult discourse. The new crybabies disagree: Left-wing bias is nothing less than a bio-toxic cloud, poisoning virgin minds, requiring a sort of legal HAZMAT crew to disperse it. The clean-up, if they have their druthers, will not be the task of brave students or their outspoken professors, or pundits, for that matter. In Ohio, for starters, there’s a piece of craven legislation, Senate Bill 24, being considered that demands that universities “provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints.”

Dissent? Viewpoints? Words like these give us a whiff of our favorite trillion-dollar Superfund wasteland–the liberal academy’s pious fuming.

Of course, it’s a conservative’s solemn charge to anticipate the worst, so we must assume that the fog is more chlorine gas than methane. The recent Ward Churchill flap demonstrated that this can be the case. Is that so terrible, though? An important and singularly unpleasant part of Basic Training in the U.S. Army is a stroll through the gas tent, in which soldiers must remove their masks for a taste of the worst. It’s a matter of preparation. Conservatism’s hyperbolic whiners ought to regard their college travails as a turn in an ideological gas tent, not a reason to petition the government for a hostage rescue.

Pardon the analogy’s extremity and you’ll find that it’s accurate. During my tenure as a Dartmouth Review editor, I marked two things of special significance to this debate. The first is the admirable readiness, even desire, of young conservatives to suffer–in the limited context of grades, recommendations, and social approval–for their printed words. Yes, for many of our pea-green kamikazes, it was Cs and romantic rejection before dishonor. (A note to the fearful: Occasionally, rabid reactionary sentiment works in one’s favor. It was Nietzsche who said, somewhat overstating the reality, that wisdom is a woman and can only love a warrior.)

The second phenomenon I observed was the array of weak responses from our left-wing peers: frustration, pique, speechless outrage, even anonymous pre-dawn raids of vandalism and theft on our offices.

What I rarely saw was calm, persuasive, and informed reaction to conservative ideas. Two weeks prior to “Shock and Awe,” at an “open-mic discussion” (read: anti-war bongo jam), I saw the best minds of Dartmouth’s progressive Free Press destroyed by such verbal bunker-busters as “What do you mean by imperialism?” I saw the same dunderheaded hipsters, starved for approval, looking to their radical “Peace Studies” clerics for the answers.

These were not unintelligent students, and I only mean to mock them a little. What they were–and still are–is woefully misled about the underpinnings of the ideas they espouse and of the ones they attack. They enjoyed the frisson of being told they “got it,” presumably because what they “got” was presented to them as self-evident. In their professors’ universe, there had never been a Russell Kirk, a WFB, a (forgive this obsequy) National Review Online. There had only been the sinister spawn of Joe McCarthy.

Readers of NRO are probably aware of David Horowitz’s proposed “Student Bill of Rights”–a.k.a. “Senate Bill 24, Part Two: This Time It’s National!” It gets one key thing right: There ought to be more political and intellectual diversity on campus. Students and their parents are shelling out formidable sums of money for something more than conservative boot camp or left-wing reeducation. The question is, diversity for whose benefit? The conservative student gets his education elsewhere, on this or other websites, while his liberal peer is left with half of one. I don’t wish to be accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, but wouldn’t we be better served to harden ourselves against political gladiators than against scarecrows?

–Stefan Beck is assistant editor of the New Criterion.

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