Phi Beta Cons

An “Activist” Problem

NR’s dutiful intern, John McCormack, reported last week on a dust-up between Jason Mattera, spokesman of Young America’s Foundation, and a reporter from Campus Progress, Julie Brinn Siegel, whom Mattera denied press credentials to cover a YAF conference. YAF’s president responded here, though his response was limited in scope. But Jason was all over the place in his version of events at Human Events Online. That elicited an eviscerating response from Campus Progress’s director, David Halperin.
Halperin calls Mattera “indignant, sneering, and wrong”—and he backs that up with some pretty compelling points. It seems hard to dispute the “indignant” and “sneering” parts. When Julie originally e-mailed Jason about press credentials, and identified her organization, Jason responded with “LOL,” as in “Laugh out loud.” At the end of the exchange–which, I should add, was a professional response to a professional query–he suggested that if she had a “problem with that decision, you can complain to the Foundation’s media department spokesman. Oh wait . . . that’s . . . me. :)”
If you think that’s sneering, read the Human Events Online piece, starting with the incredibly awful title: “Yes, We Discriminate—Against Quacks.” Quacks? Come on. It’s not funny, and it’s not accurate—especially considering the tone of Julie’s and David’s (mostly) level-headed assessments. Mattera’s first mention of Julie, on the other hand, is followed by a parenthetical which says “hopefully not a Clintonesque intern.” Jason mocks her for citing her work as a high-school and college journalist, calling those “adolescent accomplishments.” He accuses Campus Progress of “scurry[ing] around for publicity” and of being from “another planet.” On those points: First, the Clintonesque line is a crass, indefensible insult to direct at a young woman. Second, everyone starts somewhere, and college journalists routinely get access to many events where other press is invited, regardless of ideological bent. And since the YAF conference is targeted toward college students, mocking someone for being in college is out of place (as is dismissing The Nation as an illegitimate news outlet). Third, in Jason’s previous writings on “activism”—which I will discuss below—scurrying around for media attention is, in his estimation, precisely the goal that activists should pursue.
Halperin’s factual take-down is pretty sufficient, so I’ll avoid getting into those weeds. On the larger issue: No one disputes YAF’s right to refuse to credential Julie. The real question is whether the decision was the correct one. I, like our intern, think it was decided incorrectly—and the way Mattera has chosen to handle it publicly speaks to a very distressing tendency, which, I believe, flows from an obsession with “activism.”
Nothing bad could have come out of allowing Julie to attend the conference—especially since, as Jason repeatedly notes, it is going to be on TV. Take our intern as a prime example of why ideological opponents should be admitted to events like this. John went to the Campus Progress conference, and wrote up this thoughtful post—which addresses, as he calls it, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Based on Julie’s tempered writing, I’d venture she’d similarly give the YAF conference a fair shake. Some conservative ideas will make it through the fog of even the most biased observer–and that’s an unqualified boon to the conservative movement.
But Mattera is content to set up straw men and dismiss Campus Progress as nothing more than a “Soros front group” or a “socialist smear group[]”—points that YAF’s president, Ron Robinson, very sadly echoes. That argument possesses about the same intellectual gravitas as calling George W. Bush a shill for Halliburton and Exxon because they gave money to his campaign. It’s an easy way to avoid a real argument, but it’s just as bankrupt coming from conservatives as it is coming from liberals. 
I’d venture that this tin ear for public discourse arises from Jason’s much-ballyhooed “activist mindset.” One of the central dangers of becoming obsessed with “activism” is that you lose your bearings. With no moorings, it becomes easy to become contemptuous, to let irrational anger replace cool logic. As Jason writes in The Conservative Guide to Campus Activism, “Don’t respect [liberal] beliefs; treat them with the utmost contempt.” That, in my mind, is entirely the wrong attitude. In contradiction to Jason’s constant talk of an all-out, no-holds-barred intellectual war, politics is not a zero-sum game: Ideas matter, and so does the manner in which they are conveyed. Conservatism doesn’t owe its success to sidewalk chalkings and the occupation of administration buildings. But it does owe a lot to the failed 1964 Goldwater campaign.
The central problem with conservative “activism” is not necessarily that it exists, but that conservatives become obsessed with it, and use it as a crutch, a stand-in for discriminating, tasteful debates. Young conservatives should be driven by logic, not the potential for media attention. They should be inspired by wit, not indignity. And they should fight their fights with a smile on their face, not a sneer. Giving into those impulses, as the inveterate activist eventually does, will only lead to childish apoplexy (and, I might add, incredibly dull writing).
I’d certainly welcome any other views on this matter, especially a response from Jason, who is a sometime-contributor to this blog.

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