was recently watching a BBC wildlife documentary on the Discovery Channel. The narrator a British fellow with an accent like Gandalf the White described the scene:
Okay, I'm lying. Or, as Steve Glass or Jayson Blair might say, I'm "fabulating." (My couch just yelled from the other room: "Actually, Jonah, technically speaking Blair would say he's 'stickin' it to Whitey!' but I get your drift.") But, my point is, whenever I read liberals reporting about the goings-on of conservatives I always get the nature-documentary vibe. A liberal reporter puts on his or her Dian Fossey hat in order to attempt to write another installment of Conservatives in the Mist. I've followed this particular brand of reporting for years, it's almost a fetish of mine. Most attempts fail. Of these lesser varieties, there's fear ("Troglodytes!"), mockery ("Irrelevant troglodytes!"), condescension ("I had to explain to them they're troglodytes."), bewilderment ("Why don't they understand they're troglodytes?"), astonishment (Dear God, they're not all troglodytes!"), and a few combinations of all the above.
But sometimes they even succeed, to a point. Thus, like the real Dian Fossey, they manage to saunter into the leafy thickets of conservatism, and are welcomed into a band of gorillas. They hold out the equivalent of a banana or maybe a fistful of grubs for long enough and eventually we come sniffing around. We're intrigued by the creature lavishing attention on us. And the reporter eventually begins to feel as though he has been accepted into the band. Eventually, we conservatives grow comfortable enough around them to return to our old patterns. We scratch and fight and do our gorilla things and the chronicler dutifully takes notes. The notes eventually make their way into an article for the New York Times or The New Yorker or Vanity Fair.
"Who knew?" the readers will say over their morning bagels and coffee in Southampton or Fire Island, "I had no idea conservatives were such intelligent creatures. Why they even have the capacity for emotion and even some rudimentary forms of kindness."
Okay, this metaphor has gone on too long already. But there are a couple of points worth making before we abandon it. No matter how hard Dian Fossey tried, she was never actually a gorilla. Second, no matter how much attention she paid, it's doubtful she understood what the gorillas were doing the way the gorillas themselves did. She may have gotten it right that BoBo was trying to woo Sally (or whatever the apes names were). But she probably could never understand the quality of the affection BoBo felt for Sally, in much the same way that an anthropologist or biologist can assert that you got married out of a natural human instinct to procreate but can't tell you how you feel about your wife.
Oh, and one last thing: Conservatives aren't gorillas, damnit!
It is difficult for me to convey how much I dreaded reading this article. First of all, there's the title, "Hipublicans," which is so simultaneously derogatorily ironic and unclever it merits no further comment. Then there's the cover: five students, grey-skinned and unsmiling, shot from below with a bank of clouds riding in behind them as if to warn: "Something wicked this way comes." Each kid wears an identical George W. Bush T-shirt. As David Frum noted Tuesday, the Times has kept alive its tradition of undermining any text flattering to conservatives should there be any by depicting conservatives as joyless jerks or psychos. David says the Times made these kids into clones, a la The Boys From Brazil. They look more like Children of the Corn to me, but on this point reasonable men may differ. The effect is the same: Conservative kids are automatons creepy automatons.
Then there was the teaser tagline:
You know those pictures of Indians or Pakistanis crammed into, onto, and on the sides of a train? You know, with hundreds of them clinging to the roof? The above line is like the locomotive in one of those pictures, but instead of poor third-worlders, the train is festooned with B.S. Let's see, can someone tell me when gay bashing and blue blazers were required? I know that anti-Communism really was required for most of the last 50 years because anti-Communism defined conservatism but just because the Times and the Left generally have decided that sexual orientation and gay rights are the more important and interesting themes of the 20th century, please don't rewrite the past to fit it. Then there's the assertion that conservatives "learned" that "by acting like everybody else" they can achieve their goals. I see. In other words, if conservatives had their druthers they'd still be fag-bashers who shop at Brooks Brothers, but instead they have to wear the uniform of the lumpen liberals.
Is it so inconceivable that maybe, just maybe, they aren't "acting like everyone else" so much as simply being "like everyone else." No, these kids are like missionaries wearing the garb and aping the lingo of the normals, simply to convert them. And, once they do, they'll put on some chinos and slap around the local florist just like the good old days.
This is how I felt before I read the first word of the article.
Anyway, in response to that Corner post, I received lots of nice e-mail from leaders and members of conservative campus organizations all agreeing with me. But I also received a snarky e-mail from Mr. Colapinto, the author of the article himself. He says that no one brought up NRO in his reporting and, "Oh and what is NRO?" I wrote back a pretty snarky e-mail myself, saying that if he didn't know NRO, that just proves he was unqualified to write the article in the first place. Additionally, I noted, if he thinks David Frum came up with the term "paleoconservative" and that he did so only a few months ago, as he suggests in the "Hipublicans" article, his ignorance of conservatives is extensive. I suggested that maybe no one mentioned NRO to him because he's too ignorant to even ask the right questions. And so on.
So, there I was ready to tear Colapinto a new one in this column; not only was he wrong, but he'd smacked me with a wet fish. But then Charles Mitchell the Bucknell student most prominently profiled in the piece wrote me several notes detailing what an honest guy Colapinto is and what an unfortunate but unintended oversight the non-mention of NRO was.
Fine, fine, though Mitchell would hardly be the first conservative, young or otherwise, to have been Jedi-mind-tricked by a liberal trying to use him how do you think charmers like Jane Mayer and Bob Woodward can afford their summer homes? But then Colapinto wrote me again. He politely explained that "on reasoned reflection" it probably was an oversight and how his follow-up revealed NRO really is "crucial reading" for young conservatives, etc. His initial snarkiness was the result of frustration with other critics of his article. It was a decent and honest and fair note, and while it inconveniently bled out the bile I was going to use for this column, I'm glad he wrote it. His book was excellent and when I saw him at a panel at the Independent Women's Forum he seemed like an entirely decent guy. I take him at his word that he was doing his best to be an honest reporter and I think the article reflects that.
But this doesn't mean I liked his article. I think Colapinto is fair. And let's be honest: Fairness is a huge step up for the Times. But there's a big difference between being fair and being right. Addressing my point that maybe he's the wrong man for the article, Colapinto surmises that maybe the Times was looking for a "fresh face" to write about conservatives. Fine. But this is still Dian Fosseyism with a new gorilla scientist. There's still this fascination with the conservative-as-other. There's still this condescending sense that what makes them tick, let alone what makes them successful, has to be based in either their ignorance or their iniquity. Sure, Colapinto is honestly conveying his astonishment that young conservatives are people, but that astonishment is still insulting and old news. It is inconceivable, truly unimaginable, that the Times would describe young gay, black, or green student activists as the sort of robotic or cynical creatures they assume conservative activists must be. Throughout the Hipublicans piece, we're introduced to what must sound to the layman like an alphabet soup of right-wing groups responsible for alienating the youngsters from the natural liberalism all baby boomers ascribe to youth and the college experience, never mind humanity.
There's the clothing stuff: "Today, most campus conservatives who hope to be effective won't dress like George Bush or Dick Cheney. The idea is to dress like a young person." Hmm, does the fact that they are young people not even play into it? Yes, Colapinto finds conservative off-campus activists to back up his claim that conservative kids are operating in mufti rather than actually choosing to wear faded jeans and worn-out T-shirts. But, Colapinto makes it sound like the kids are buying secondhand clothes in order to fit in. College students don't take that kind of direction.
No, no, they do, says Colapinto. "In fact," he writes, "much of what Chaykun [a campus conservative] and indeed most any campus conservative you meet says is something that someone told them to say."
One need not dwell on such a cheap shot, especially when I'm running so long. But again, this highlights how otherworldly this crowd thinks conservatives are, while at the same time displaying what looks like complete ignorance of the world they themselves inhabit. The idea that conservatives are the students mindlessly repeating what others tell them as opposed to campus leftists is flatly absurd. This isn't an ideological point, but an empirical one. The share of liberal kids who spout Chomsky, or Katherine MacKinnon or, more often, what their own liberal professors tell them as if it is gospel dwarfs the share of conservatives who mindlessly invoke conservatives. I used to participate in something called "The Spitfire Tour" (see here and here for a taste of that buffoonery), and time and again the message was clear: Liberalism and decency are as synonymous as conservatism and bigotry. These kids got this from their teachers and their icons and whenever I questioned them about their views, the vast majority caved. Indeed, leftists on most campuses are so afraid of being challenged that it's extremely difficult to get them to debate right-wingers.
Indeed, the number and sophistication of external and internal organizations helping liberal students get their message across makes the work of conservative groups the Davids against the Goliaths. Let's see: women's-studies departments, black-studies departments, gender-studies departments, the PIRGs which take money straight from student coffers the campus-speaker funds, the professors, the books the professors assign, the main campus newspapers, the various ACLU-type organizations with their student-outreach offices, the Axis of Easels (the artist-actor-musician types who raise money to raise consciousness and raise consciousness to raise money), and of course the administrators themselves who bend over backwards for feminist, black, and gay activists.
All of this adds up to the real secret of campus conservatism's modest success, as Colapinto suggests. The "establishment" on campuses is thoroughly liberal or left-wing, and college kids like to challenge the establishment. The condescension and astonishment we're all used to hearing from the Times has to do with the fact that even rich, spoiled, and successful liberals like Howell Raines, to name just one cannot fathom that liberalism is today the atrophied status quo, and that the one-time rebels are now the silly and pompous establishment they once believed they were rebelling against.
This is simply a fact. Sure, there are college conservatives who are putzes and morons, but colleges are full of putzes and morons. That is the natural state of the universe and it would be foolish to say that conservatives don't get their natural distribution. But the difference between conservatism and liberalism, particularly on college campuses, is the difference between emotion and reason. Campus conservatives must question the conventional wisdom of the culture as well as the privileged testimony of the experts who run their classrooms and schools. You can't do this with emotion alone. But you can stifle this with emotion, which is what liberals do when they scream racism, sexism, homophobia, and the rest. Their shrieks are an attempt to stifle dissent. They say conservative ideas are "mean-spirited," as if that's the same thing as saying "you're wrong." I can call you uglier than a three-day-old tube steak. That's mean-spirited, but it's not necessarily wrong.
That's why the closing paragraph of the article strikes such a hilarious note. Colapinto quotes two professors who fear the rise of conservatism will "stifle intellectual openness among students." Colapinto understands the irony of professors who, for argument's sake, have no problem with speech codes and the totalitarian language of American academia today, fretting that a few more students disagreeing with their professors might be a threat to intellectual openness. My guess is that the editors at the Times and far too many of their readers do not.