Skip to comments.The Young Hipublicans
Posted on 05/23/2003 5:03:34 PM PDT by Pokey78
There's an element of youthful provocation at work in all this, of course -- an awareness, on Mitchell's part, that any liberal who dares to enter here will reel back in horror. (''It's fun to freak people out,'' as he puts it.) But it would be a mistake to assume that his decor reflects only a sophomoric search for self-definition. Having just completed his sophomore year, Mitchell is a dead-serious political ideologue, a right-wing activist so effective that he has been singled out by leaders of the national movement as one of its rising young stars. This past year's editor in chief of Bucknell's conservative newspaper, The Counterweight, and a founding member of the Bucknell University Conservatives Club, he has come to this small liberal-arts college tucked amid the cornfields in Lewisburg, Pa., not solely to educate himself (he holds down a 3.9 G.P.A.), but also to spread the conservative gospel, to wage war with what he considers an egregiously liberal faculty and administration and to win the hearts and minds of his politically undecided peers. Which is why it is both a joke and not a joke when he announces on his dorm-room answering machine: ''I can't come to the phone at the moment because I'm out advancing the great conservative revolution.''
He's not alone. At campuses across the country, undergraduates like Charles Mitchell have organized for an assault against the university establishment not seen since the 1980's, when Reagan's popularity triggered a youthquake of conservative campus activism. Today's surge reflects a renewed shift pronouncedly to the right on many defining issues, after several years during the Clinton presidency when students gravitated toward more liberal political labels.
As with college conservative movements in the past, the recent wave has been fueled and often financed by an array of conservative interest groups, of which there are, today, almost too many to keep straight: Young Americans for Freedom; Young America's Foundation; the Leadership Institute; the Collegiate Network; the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. These groups spend money in various ways to push a right-wing agenda on campuses: some make direct cash ''grants'' to student groups to start and run conservative campus newspapers; others provide free training in ''conservative leadership,'' often providing heavily subsidized travel to their ''publishing programs''; others provide help with the hefty speaking fees for celebrity right-wing speakers. Through these coordinated activities, these groups have embarked in the last three years on a concerted campus recruitment drive to turn temperamentally conservative youngsters into organized right-wing activists. From Maine to California, students have taken up the offer -- even at such lefty bastions as Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Students at Howard University, a black institution in Washington, have started a group that has been referred to as the ''hip-hop Republicans.'' The Campus Leadership Program has by their own count helped set up 256 conservative campus groups in less than three years. The College Republican National Committee, a group that mobilizes students to campaign, has tripled its membership since 1999 to an all-time high of 1,148 chapters.
The impact has been felt far beyond the campus quadrangles and classrooms. Scott Stewart, chairman of the College Republican National Committee says that campus conservatives were instrumental to the success of the Republican Party in the last midterm elections. ''Students provide the enthusiasm, the excitement and the work that needs to be done for free in political campaigns,'' he says, ''knocking on doors, talking to voters, passing out literature, pounding in lawn signs.'' Then there is the role, historically, that college conservatives have played in shaping Republican Party ideology. A former campus conservative, William F. Buckley, wrote the movement's Ur-text, ''God and Man at Yale.'' Published in 1951, the book attacked his alma mater for spreading ''socialist'' ideas and for its lack of religious instruction in the classroom. To help institutionalize his mission of leaching liberalism from campuses, Buckley helped create the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the first education institute devoted to turning colleges to the right. I.S.I. was one of several groups behind the campus conservative movement of the 1980's, which gave rise to Dinesh D'Souza, Ann Coulter and Ralph Reed, all former college right-wingers who are today leaders in spreading and shaping the Republican Party message. But just how close a college conservative can get to the levers of power is suggested by the ascent of one hard-right, Nixon-loving ideologue who, in 1973, became chairman of the College Republicans and who today is credited as among the greatest influences on President George W. Bush: Karl Rove.
''They have a theory of getting them while they're young,'' says David Brock, a former college conservative who graduated from Berkeley in the mid-1980's. After spending almost a decade as an activist in the conservative movement (during which he published the 1993 liberal-bashing book, ''The Real Anita Hill''), Brock had a change of heart. In 2002, he published a book, ''Blinded by the Right,'' about his former life as a conservative-movement insider. ''People are searching for their identity in college,'' he says. ''The right try to instigate polarization so that it looks like the right wing is the alternative to the left. This is what happened to me. I went to Berkeley because it had a liberal reputation. But I became disillusioned with some of my experiences with the left on the campus and I had a knee-jerk reaction -- or I was looking for an alternative -- and there was the right. There really wasn't anything in the middle.''
The mission of today's college conservatives is, in many respects, no different from what it was in Brock's day, and even Buckley's. But today's movement also differs markedly from ones that came before. Influenced as much by the mood and mores of MTV as it is by the musings of Allan Bloom, today's movement has shaped itself around a new demographic of young right-wingers, one that includes a heavy contingent of women and that draws some of its fiercest ideologues from the middle class. Having spread beyond traditionally conservative hotbeds like Dartmouth, it's a movement that operates in an atmosphere that did not even exist when Buckley and D'Souza were undergraduates: campuses governed by speech and behavior codes introduced more than a decade ago. A result is a new breed of college conservative, one poised to inherit the responsibility of shaping the Republican Party in the years to come.
The Bucknell University Conservatives Club has its origins in the fall of 1999, when a freshman named Tom Elliott arrived on campus. His father is Bently Elliott, former director of speechwriting for Ronald Reagan. Growing up in Alexandria, Va., and attending Easter-egg hunts on the White House lawn, Tom Elliott absorbed by osmosis the central tenets of conservatism: smaller government, less taxes, more military spending, welfare reform, no abortion on demand. He'd never questioned his right-wing beliefs until he entered Bucknell, where, he says, he found his ideas coming under attack from his professors.
''In my spare time, I started visiting conservative Web sites,'' he says, ''so I could arm myself.'' In his sophomore year, he wrote right-wing columns in the student paper, The Bucknellian. Styling himself after his journalistic heroes, like Hunter S. Thompson, Elliott strove for an in-your-face attitude in his writing and came to enjoy his status as the campus's provocateur. But it was not until the summer after his sophomore year that he called on his contacts with conservative interest groups, like the Leadership Institute, to move on his idea of starting a conservatives club and his own right-wing campus newspaper. Elliott enlisted a fellow Bucknell sophomore, Michael Boland, a square-jawed evangelical Christian from Cooperstown, N.Y., the only other ''out'' conservative on campus at the time.
It was, in many respects, an odd marriage. Elliott, a hard-partying frat boy from a privileged background, fits a common stereotype of the college conservative of the 1980's: affluent, confident, connected (his father is a Bucknell alumnus and trustee). When Elliott offers that he ''doesn't take school too seriously, and my grades reflect it,'' you know he's telling you that he doesn't have to worry too much about a career and money (after graduating this month, he plans to ''travel and maybe write a book in the future''). Mike Boland, by contrast, is like many of today's young right-wingers. Determinedly middle class (his dad is an X-ray technician, his mom a teacher's aide), Boland can afford Bucknell's $35,000 in tuition and fees only with the help of financial aid. Studious and abstemious, he works hard to keep up a 3.9 G.P.A. For Boland, the effort that has taken him from a modest background to the top ranks of an elite university bolsters his conservative beliefs on self-reliance. ''If you don't earn it,'' he says, ''you don't appreciate it.''
Boland agreed to join Elliott in starting Bucknell's conservatives club. The two don't agree on every issue (Elliott is against capital punishment; Boland supports it), and they often clash when it comes to how best to spread their message (Elliott likes to use satire and ridicule to raise hackles; Boland prefers close reasoning), but the two share a mind-set common to virtually every college conservative you meet. They describe themselves as defenders of ''individuality'' and ''freedom'' against a campus, and world, overrun by groupthink liberalism and pious political correctness. They also share a belief that despite the common perception of youth being synonymous with progressive, liberal ideals, the true spirit of their generation is solidly, if quietly, conservative.
The polls bear this out. According to the U.C.L.A. Higher Education Research Institute, which has been tracking the attitudes of incoming freshmen at hundreds of colleges nationwide since 1966, student conservatism is increasing in many areas. Asked their opinion about casual sex, 51 percent of freshmen were for it in 1987; now 42 percent are. In 1989, 66 percent of freshmen believed abortion should be legal; today, only 54 percent do. In 1995, 66 percent of kids agreed that wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes; now it's down to 50 percent. Even on the issue of firearms, where students have traditionally favored stiffer controls, there has been a weakening in support for gun laws. ''We're at a record low on this item,'' says the U.C.L.A. Institute's associate director, Linda Sax, an associate professor of education at U.C.L.A. ''We've seen a decline over the last four consecutive years.''
Yet according to Sax, this conservative trend on issues does not necessarily mean that students call themselves right-wingers, or even Republicans. ''Students' opinions of particular issues are not always in line with their own self-placement on an ideological spectrum,'' she says.
Still searching for their identities, many of these kids are not yet prepared to declare a particular political affiliation. This is where the conservative campus activists come in. Having recognized the importance of conservativism to their own lives, they have committed themselves to the task of bringing out the unacknowledged conservatism in other students. The mission of today's activists involves less an act of persuading their peers to accept an ideology than in awakening them to the fact that they already embody it.
Back in early September 2001, Boland and Elliott sent a campus e-mail message announcing the birth of the Bucknell University Conservatives Club. Among those who showed up for the first meeting was Charles Mitchell, a freshman and another middle-class kid attending Bucknell on financial aid. ''You knew right away,'' Boland says, ''that this guy was a warrior.'' Mitchell arrived in Lewisburg from a suburban enclave in Delaware County, Pa., and became intent on being a campus activist. He traces his passion for right-wing politics to his father, who runs a trolley repair shop for Septa, the public transit company in Philadelphia. A member of the N.R.A., Mitchell's father took his son shooting every Friday. ''That was really the beginning for me,'' Mitchell says. ''It seemed to me that the policy of less government in conjunction with gun control made sense. And everything else just kind of followed from that.''
That initial e-mail message brought out only five or six attendees. But soon after, an event took place that would give the club a campus profile it might otherwise have taken months to achieve: the attacks of Sept. 11. When a small coterie of students and professors organized vigils against the American bombing of Afghanistan, the conservatives club staged a counter-rally in support of the troops -- a kind of strategy encouraged by the Beltway-based interest groups that not only helped finance the students' activities but also helped shape them. ''Pro-troops'' and ''pro-America'' rallies were staged, simultaneously, at colleges across the country. The tactic brought results. ''Kids started coming up to us,'' Mike Boland says, ''and asking how they could join up.'' Today, the club has about 35 active members. And each issue of The Counterweight carries supportive letters from students who are not in the club.
A jump in club enrollment post-9/11 was not unique to Bucknell. According to Bryan Auchterlonie, the 24-year-old executive director of the Collegiate Network (a program administered by I.S.I.), the terrorist attacks helped to galvanize right-wing students across the nation. ''Students are upset with what they see as anti-Americanism on campuses,'' Auchterlonie says. ''Patriotism is big now.'' It's a patriotism that the national college movement has pushed to the fore as an issue that can win the sympathies of kids who are not overtly political. ''We handed out red, white and blue ribbons on the anniversary of 9/11,'' Charles Mitchell says. ''I didn't think anyone was going to take them. We ran out in half an hour.''
Besides the flag, the other potent symbol for today's young conservative movement is Ronald Reagan. Because they are too young to recall any of Reagan's live TV appearances (Mitchell, for instance, was born in 1982), today's college students tend to see the former president purely as his image makers tried to present him when he occupied the Oval Office: as a Norman Rockwellian, mist-shrouded icon of Better Times -- an idealized figure of myth. The Washington-based groups know this, and they play on it. When the Leadership Institute, a group formed by a right-wing activist, Morton Blackwell, recruits on campuses each fall, it prominently displays at its sign-up table a huge poster that includes a photograph of Reagan.
Mitchell is one of those who has fallen under the spell of the former president. His dorm-room bookshelf holds no less than four Reagan biographies, from which he is given to quoting, as if from Scripture. ''If you study what Reagan wrote and said and believed,'' Mitchell explains, ''it didn't change from at least the 1960's on. People always attack that and say he was intellectually lazy. I don't think so. The guy believed in something. He came to the presidency with three big goals: defeating communism, lowering taxes and recovering the economy. And that's what he did.'' Mitchell's support for George W. Bush derives from what he sees as one of the current president's Reagan-like qualities: a certain down-to-earth honesty. ''I don't agree with Bush's politics some of the time,'' Mitchell says, ''but he's not phony at all. When he talks, he's just a straight-up honest guy, and I love that. As politicians go, you kind of trust him.''
But a movement based on patriotism and Reagan-worship alone could not have spread so rapidly nationwide. Here's where the left has unwittingly helped to energize the conservative movement. Visit any college campus today, and you're struck by the forces of what the conservatives call overweening political correctness that have seeped into every corner of life. Same-sex hand-holding days, ''Vagina Monologues'' performances, diversity training seminars, minority support groups, ''no means no'' dating rules, textbooks purified of gender, racial or class stereotypes -- for all their good intentions, these manifestations of enforced tolerance can create a stultifying air of conformity in college life. Hence the cries for ''individual responsibility'' and ''freedom of speech'' that are the leading slogans of today's campus conservative movement -- a deliberate echo of the left-wing Free Speech movements of the 1960's and a direct appeal to the natural impulse, on the part of young people, to rebel against the powers that be.
''It's been true through recorded history that the younger generation instinctively rebels against the establishment, whatever the establishment might be, and that definitely is part of what encourages folks to join us,'' says Blackwell, a former head of the College Republicans who trained Karl Rove. ''We know we're turning the tables,'' says Manny Espinoza, the public relations director of the Leadership Institute's Campus Leadership Program, ''and we know it's frustrating the other side, because they know it's their stuff and now we're using it.'' Indeed, the Collegiate Network, which distributes some $200,000 a year in publishing money to 58 student newspapers, issues a handbook, ''Start the Presses!'' which explicitly counsels its conservative charges to ''loosen up,'' to, in effect, get in touch with their inner Abbie Hoffman. ''Don't strive to be thought of as 'serious' and 'respectable,''' the handbook counsels. ''On campus, those words equate to 'irrelevant and ineffective.'''
The Bucknell Conservatives have taken this advice to heart. ''Some club members do want to shock,'' Mike Boland says, ''to incite outrage, to start fires -- because they think that doing so just demonstrates how ridiculous campus liberals can be.'' He cites The Counterweight's satiric twitting of the campus performances of ''The Vagina Monologues.'' The paper has published an annual ''Penis Monologues'' rich in sophomoric humor (''My man-hammer has not clubbed a single baby seal. . . . ''), and each year it sparks anger in the college's various women's support groups. ''Did we print that piece knowing that the feminists would blow a gasket?'' Boland says. ''Yes. But we did it anyway, because it was fun to write and the response allowed us to show how intolerant and intellectually lazy some feminists had become.''
If the interest groups have worked hard to retrofit the college conservative movement as a right-wing version of the leftist Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 1960's, they have worked equally hard to frame the conservative women's movement on campuses as a new brand of empowering feminism. A number of well-financed and highly organized conservative women's groups in Washington have been instrumental in leading the charge, among them the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute and the Independent Women's Forum. The latter has started a ''Take Back the Campus'' crusade, in which an array of well-known right-wing women are brought to colleges by the activist conservative clubs to explore such questions (as the Independent Women's Forum Web site puts it) as ''whether women's-studies programs actually harm women with misleading feminist myths of women as victims.'' (The answer, according to the I.W.F., would be an emphatic yes.) Regular speakers on campus include Phyllis Schlafly, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ann Coulter, Katherine Harris and Christina Hoff Sommers, author of ''Who Stole Feminism?'' and ''The War Against Boys.'' These women preach that the preponderance of women's-studies classes and the proliferation on campuses of Take Back the Night marches, sex and dating rules and rape-awareness lectures -- all of which are aimed at making women feel empowered on campus -- in fact do precisely the opposite: they infantalize.
One Bucknell conservatives club member, Allison Kasic, buys it. She's a 19-year-old who just finished her sophomore year, and she writes a regular column in The Counterweight and has her own rock-music show each Monday on the college radio station. Raised in Littleton, Colo., the daughter of an administrative judge, she is a confident, tough young woman who wears little makeup and favors jeans and T-shirts. As a management major concentrating in marketing, she sees the importance of selling a new brand of conservatism to female students. ''There's the old stereotype of the WASP-y country-club wife or the Bible-study mom from the Midwest,'' Kasic says. ''But that's not what conservative women are anymore.'' Kasic, instead, points to ''stiletto conservatives'' like Hoff Sommers and Coulter. ''We have role models now,'' she says. ''Hip, strong women who exude the message: 'I don't need hand-holding just because I'm a woman.''' Kasic herself plans to be a working woman when she graduates (''I'm no soccer mom,'' she laughs; ''I don't even like kids''), but she respects women who choose a different path -- to be homemakers, like her own mother. ''Conservatives are inclusive in a way that liberals are not,'' she says, voicing a central theme of the Independent Women's Forum ethos. ''We say that women can be executives or stay-at-home mothers.'' Kasic extends this notion to the abortion debate. Herself an anti-abortion Catholic, she says that the Republican Party today nevertheless supports candidates who espouse the right to abortion. ''But the National Organization for Women has never supported a pro-life candidate,'' she says, as proof of the left's narrowness and the right's ''diversity'' (a term the conservative movement has deliberately co-opted from the left).
It can be disorienting to hear conservatism advanced as the ideology that frees women, but such is the skill with which the right has reframed the issues for the campus crowd, and such is the degree to which the left has allowed its own message to drift into rigidity and irrelevance for many college-age women. Another Bucknell conservatives club member, Denise Chaykun, typifies how some young women are only driven further to the right by what they see as the pieties of the left. Chaykun, with her shoulder-length blond hair, faded jeans and rock T-shirt, could have stepped out of a 1970's campus sit-in. But she is one of the most combative and hard-core conservatives at Bucknell. ''You come to college, and the message they give you is 'Your parents are racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, and we're going to take you and change that,''' she says. ''A lot of the courses are mushy stuff about sex and gender and social relations. You can't take a class about a war. We don't have a military historian at Bucknell. Everything is so dumbed down because no one wants to offend anyone.''
This past year's president of the Bucknell University Conservatives Club, Chaykun is also Charles Mitchell's girlfriend. The two met and began dating in high school. Chaykun says that she always had a conservative bent (both her parents are registered Republicans), but Mitchell had a big influence in her transformation from privately conservative high-school student to fierce college activist. For instance, until she met Mitchell, she viewed firearms as ''evil.'' But in her senior year of high school, he gave her a copy of John Lott's ''More Guns, Less Crime,'' which argues that allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns is an effective deterrent to violent crime. Chaykun was convinced. Last Christmas, she was thrilled when Mitchell gave her a semiautomatic .22 rifle with telescopic sight. Chaykun keeps it in a black nylon bag decorated with Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Care Bears and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles patches. She takes her gun with her to an outdoor shooting range near the campus where Mitchell and other members of the club blast away with .357 Magnums and AK-47 rifles at paper targets printed with the faces of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. (Chaykun shoots at a regular bull's-eye.) ''It's a lot of fun,'' she gushes. For Chaykun, the most difficult thing about being a female conservative on a university campus is the flak she catches from other women. ''I get personal character attacks from the feminists on campus,'' she says. ''I try to explain that I'm a feminist, too. But they don't listen. They say, 'Oh, her boyfriend told her to say that.'''
In fact, much of what Chaykun -- and indeed most any campus conservative you meet -- says is something that someone told them to say. This is not to doubt their passion and belief, but it is to be realistic about the language and tactics they've developed to communicate those beliefs. Bryan Auchterlonie of the Collegiate Network makes no effort to conceal that his organization helps to shape messages and provide ''talking points'' for their conservative student activist members. He lists what he calls the ''formal programming'' -- which includes the C.N.'s annual conference, journalism courses, grants, fellowships and summer internships. ''Then there's the sort of ad hoc, off-the-radar-screen type of stuff,'' he goes on. ''It's basically general P.R. advice on how to spin their messages on campus.''
Despite this close relationship between the Beltway-based groups and the conservative campus activists, Charles Mitchell bridles at any suggestion that he and his fellow club members are puppets for larger interests -- not to say operatives in the vast right-wing conspiracy. ''I really have no patience with that viewpoint,'' he says. ''We could be doing The Counterweight with the Campus Leadership Program or without them, with the Collegiate Network or without them. They didn't put us up to this. They'll be the first to tell you that if you don't have the drive to do it yourself, it's not going to happen. We can get as many checks from Arlington as you want, and there still won't be a paper. What matters is having a group of people who are willing to do it.''
In early April, several members of the Bucknell conservatives club, having put to bed an issue of The Counterweight, sat around a burger-strewn table in a school cafeteria and talked about the future of conservatism in America.
''I think the paleos are dying out,'' Mitchell says. He's referring to the conservative movement's Old Guard, whom the author David Frum recently labeled the ''paleoconservatives.'' Mitchell and his friends can't abide them.
''Yeah,'' Kasic agrees. ''Paleos like Pat Buchanan -- and Bob Novak.''
''Trent Lott isn't a paleo,'' Mitchell says. ''He's just a moron. Strom Thurmond is probably a paleo.''
''George Wallace,'' Chaykun says.
''Yeah, and the Copperheads,'' Mitchell says, referring to the Northerners who supported the South during the Civil War. ''People who think Lincoln started the era of big government. That's paleo. The paleos are the people who give us a bad rap. They carry all these tinges of anti-Semitism and racism -- and that's what people expect from us. People expect us to be like Pat Buchanan, like, 'We're diluting our great Western culture by letting immigrants in.' I don't think any of us buy that.''
Kasic says: ''It's not like Pat Buchanan's wrong on everything, it's just the persona -- he's just a grumpy old guy who's always complaining about something. He's not accessible to young kids.''
Mitchell says: ''He worked for Nixon, for God's sake. I'm not a Buchanan conservative. I'm a D'Souza conservative.''
While it's true that Mitchell and his fellow club members are far closer to 80's right-wingers like D'Souza and Coulter, there are also crucial differences. Many of those Reagan-era conservatives announced their politics on campus with their dress and grooming, the men sporting aggressively conservative Clark Kent haircuts, blue blazers, red ties, loafers; the women tended to wear skirts and heels -- openly adopting the uniform of the Youth for Reagan army. 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. When the Bucknell conservatives assemble for their weekly meetings, they look like a typical, if all-white, sampling of American undergraduates, which is to say, there are plenty of ragged T-shirts, backward baseball caps and frayed jeans in the room. Some club members even let their freak flag fly a little. Aaron Hanlon, who attends the school on a grant, recently cut his hair into ragged spikes and dyed it blond. With his skeletal runner's frame and hawklike nose, he could pass as the elegantly smack-addled lead guitarist in a neometal band instead of the hard-right conservative that he is. Corey Langer is a club member just out of his freshman year who dresses in full-goth regalia, complete with ankle-length black overcoat, vintage Ozzy T-shirt, pentagram necklace and an array of ''finger armor'' that he bought at a ''psycho-hippie shop'' near his hometown of Higganum, Conn.
These days, the interest groups encourage a hipper look. Auchterlonie encourages campus conservatives to drop the stiff-as-a-board ultraconservative attire. ''What conservatives really need help on is how to be cool on campus,'' Auchterlonie says. ''We're easily pigeonholed as loafer-wearing jerks.'' On visits to colleges across the country, he tells kids, ''You don't have to adopt, hook, line and sinker, the conservative outfits, conservative haircut, conservative philosophy, conservative everything.''
But the difference between the college conservatives of 20 years ago and today goes deeper than dress. Many members of the Bucknell conservatives club, for instance, endorse same-sex unions. Corey Langer recently wrote a Counterweight article supporting gay marriages. This is a far cry from D'Souza's day, when gay males were termed ''sodomites'' in The Dartmouth Review. In part, the Bucknellians' openness to gays and lesbians can be attributed to the strong streak of libertarianism that runs through the club -- a conviction that the government should stay out of any and all aspects of life, including the bedroom. But you can't hang out long with the Bucknell Conservatives and not form the opinion that their tolerance on issues like homosexuality goes beyond libertarianism.
Like the rest of their generation, they've been trained, from preschool onward, in the tenets of cooperation, politeness and racial and gender sensitivity. As much as they would hate to admit it -- as hard as they try to fight it -- these quintessential values have suffused their consciousness and tempered their messages. You can see it in Charles Mitchell's editorship of The Counterweight. Back in the 1980's, the editors of campus conservative newspapers subscribed to the theory spelled out by D'Souza in his book ''Letters to a Young Conservative.'' ''At The Dartmouth Review,'' he wrote: ''To confront liberalism fully we . . . had to subvert liberal culture, and this meant disrupting the etiquette of liberalism. In other words, we had to become social guerrillas. And this we set out to do with a vengeance.''
D'Souza and his colleagues reveled in the shock and outrage they awakened with open gay-baiting and racist and sexist jokes. Charles Mitchell eschews such vicious tactics. Humor is crucial, but he has no desire to be mistaken for a bigot. ''There are a few conservatives,'' he admits, ''who would say, 'That's good, people are calling you a racist, you must be getting your point across.''' Mitchell rejects this. ''The point is not to create outrage -- at least not for us,'' he says. ''The point is to get your ideas out there and make a difference.'' For Mitchell, the goal is to persuade the politically undeclared students who make up the largest percentage of the college's undergraduate population -- a group he estimates at some 75 percent of all students -- that they are, in fact, already part of the movement. Though they don't necessarily think of themselves as Republican, the stance they take on individual issues -- taxes, abortion, affirmative action -- gives them a conservative identity. And being a conservative can be cool and, as Mitchell puts it, not ''just something that wacko people in Alabama do.''
Within the national college conservative movement as a whole, Mitchell and his fellow Bucknellians are recognized as among the savviest activists in the country. Last December, they were No. 1 on the Young America's Foundation's list of Top 10 Campus Follies, a citation bestowed on campus events that exemplify the most outlandish manifestation of political correctness.
In January, a group of Bucknell club members were invited to Arlington, Va., to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference's annual jamboree, which this year brought out such right-wing luminaries as Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay and the ubiquitous Coulter. There, Charles Mitchell addressed the crowd in a panel of students speaking on ''Real Stories of Real Liberal Bias on Real College Campuses.'' Marveling that he was sharing a microphone used just the day before by the vice president, Mitchell outlined to raucous applause from the crowd of perhaps a thousand the ''campus outrage'' that had put the Bucknell Club on the radar of the national movement.
Last fall, Mitchell and the Counterweight staff published a ''free speech'' issue of their newspaper. Bearing a photo of the rapper Eminem on the cover, the paper contained two articles that tested the boundaries of what the administration calls ''acceptable'' speech. In keeping with the kinder, gentler conservative activism of today, the articles were innocuous enough. (They gingerly examined incidents in which white students were chastised by the university for ''racially insensitive'' acts: in one instance a pair of frat boys dressed up for Halloween in blackface as Serena and Venus Williams; in the other, a white student used the phrase ''What's up, my Negro?'' on the phone with a student he didn't know was black). The articles were carefully written and edited to avoid any hint of endorsement of the acts, but within the heightened atmosphere of identity politics that can govern campuses, the articles were declared racially divisive by offended students, faculty and administrators. Some campus liberals called for The Counterweight to lose its school financing.
To the conservatives, the paradox was obvious: the administration's reaction to the Counterweight stories underlined the very point the editors were trying to make: namely, that the university, in its zeal to ameliorate any possible friction among students, is stifling the open, vigorous, nontimorous exchange of ideas. ''To me, it's sheltering and patronizing,'' Charles Mitchell says. ''I just believe with every fiber of my being that our speech code is wrong, and it has to go. It's completely against everything that this university ought to stand for.'' The imbroglio, however, also provided an unequaled opportunity for the club. The Collegiate Network handbook ''Start the Presses!'' states: ''As a media outlet, you have the power to transform a minor event or fact into a major embarrassment. . . . If the school persecutes you, send out press releases, notify alumni and give the administration a public black eye.'' The Bucknell conservatives followed this playbook to the letter. They sent out a press release to the local newspaper, which put the story on the front page. The club members were booked on the Fox cable program ''The O'Reilly Factor.'' (They were bumped because of the Washington sniper crisis.) Still, they received a lot of mileage from the controversy. As a direct result of the furor, The Counterweight immediately became a must-read publication on Bucknell's campus -- avidly pored over, argued about, debated and discussed by administrators, liberals, African-American students, professors and conservatives alike. Their print run of 2,500 copies is gone within days of hitting the pavements. In less than two years, the Bucknell University Conservatives Club established itself as one of the most visible and influential student groups on campus.
Just how influential is clear when you talk to Bucknell faculty members. Geoff Schneider, an economics professor at Bucknell, says that the conservative group's constant charge in The Counterweight, that the university is infected by political correctness and that professors seek to indoctrinate students with a liberal agenda, has had an effect in the classroom. ''As the conservatives have become more prominent, other students are more prone to believe that they are being indoctrinated,'' Schneider says. ''So the openness of a number of students to new ideas and new ways of looking at things has actually moved in a disturbing direction. Students are much more willing to write off something as 'liberal talk' -- oh, I don't need to think about that, that's just ideology -- as opposed to thinking, in a complex way, about all of the different ideas and evaluating them.'' Kim Daubman, a social psychology professor, concurs. Recently she taught a class in which she talked about the theory that news coverage of warfare in Iraq could lead to a rise in homicides in the United States. ''I could see the students rolling their eyes,'' she says. ''I could just hear them thinking, 'Oh, there she goes again!'''
While professors like Schneider and Daubman worry about the potential for conservative activists to stifle intellectual openness among students, they also grudgingly admit to admiring the right-wingers' passion. ''A lot of faculty members talk about the lack of commitment that most students have to anything,'' Daubman says. ''It seems that they're about getting a credential and being able to get a good job. That's why you hear faculty say about the conservatives club: 'At least they believe in something. At least they've got convictions.'''
John Colapinto, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, is the author of ''As Nature Made Him'' and the novel ''About the Author.''
Amen! You've got another one right here, with my FreeRepublic decal on the back of my car.
When I started college, the first reaction to a lot of this PC stuff. WTF is this s**t?
Most of it is ignored, and that's by most people I know. The libs overextended their hand, and it's now starting to bite em in the ass. Finally.
I can't handle any more -- that's hilarious!!!!!!!!!
Oh, fer crying out loud! When I was in college (1983-87), anybody to the right of the Sandinistas was stifled, sneered at, shouted down, etc.
When I wrote a few conservative things for the school paper, I had humorless feminutty types literally getting up in my face and screeching about me being "a murderer of women and children" because I wrote in support of our bombing of Libya -- but I also had a few people quietly seek me out to thank me for saying out loud what they were afraid to say.
It's about time that these hardcore leftist professors learn the reality that leftism does NOT equal "intellectual openness." They need to understand that it's an ideology, not The Truth.
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