A review of Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood's Becoming Right
How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives
By Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood
Princeton University Press, 422 pages
When I was a senior at Harvard and the editor of the campus conservative paper, a well-known conservative provocateur strong-armed an invitation to deliver a public speech at the university. He would get an honorarium from a national organization, he told me. All he needed was for the paper to sponsor him. What followed was embarrassing. The “invited” guest delivered an hour-long rant about the difficulties of being a conservative on Harvard’s campus, how it must be, he said, like “living in a ghetto,” how no one understands you, and how you must be subject to constant insults by faculty members and fellow students. The few people who actually showed up for the speech sunk further and further into their seats as the tirade went on. This description of being a conservative at Harvard bore almost no semblance to reality.
A more accurate account of college conservatism is to be found in Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives. Amy Binder and Kate Wood, sociologists at the University of San Diego, focus on conservative student populations at two very different universities and ultimately draw conclusions that transcend the red-state/blue-state paradigm.
The schools have been disguised at the request of their respective administrations and are referred to only as “Eastern Elite” and “Western Flagship.” At Eastern Elite—strongly reminiscent of Harvard—conservative students do not live in a “ghetto.” College Republicans regularly co-sponsor events with College Democrats. Students on both sides of the political aisle often engage each other in serious political discussions in the cafeterias. In addition to having their own paper, conservatives frequently write for the main daily campus paper. They enjoy provoking their classmates, but in an intellectual rather than theatrical fashion.
While conservatives at Eastern Elite correctly perceive their professors to be overwhelmingly liberal, students are not generally subject to political tirades in the classroom. As one Eastern Elite student explained: “If you go to a school like Eastern Elite, you expect a certain level of seriousness from your professors….If you polled them, I’m sure most voted for Barack Obama, and for John Kerry before that, but at least in the courses I took, that did not jaundice in any way their presentation of materials.”
If the professors at Eastern Elite are just being subtle about their bias, such subtlety would be a welcome break for the heartland conservatives at Western Flagship. According to those students, their professors regularly use classroom time to indulge their views of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. In a class on the American Revolution, one student at Western Flagship reported that her professor described those who don’t believe in universal health care as wearing “tinfoil on their heads.” Many conservatives at Western Flagship report receiving lower grades on papers that offer a contrarian take on environmentalism or economics. Others decide to jump through the hoops and tell the professors what they want to hear. Most of them have faced at least one Ward Churchill clone at the lectern, a professor with an activist-level political bias and without intellectual seriousness.
Such professors are not the only factors contributing to the beleaguered feeling among Western Flagship conservatives. Large class sizes mean that teachers rarely interact directly with students of varying political opinions. Core requirements often mandate that students take classes in Ethnic or Gender Studies, the foundation of left-liberal identity politics. And because the living arrangements push most students off campus after freshman year, there is no sense, as there is at Eastern Elite, that students make up a community in which everyone must get along.
One reason it behooves conservative and liberal students at Eastern Elite to get along is that they will soon be ruling the world together. The authors’ interviews with students suggest that they “tend to view their fellow students as classmates they should act respectfully toward because, first, they made it in to Eastern Elite University, so they must be gifted and talented to some extent, and second, they are the people with whom Eastern Elite conservatives will very likely be wandering the same corridors of power at later points in their lives.” We’ll all be at Goldman Sachs soon, so I won’t call you a Communist and you won’t call me a racist. OK?
The civilizing effect of shared destinies doesn’t hold among Western Flagship conservatives; they prefer a “provocative style” of politics. This kind of theater ranges from affirmative-action bake sales to Empty Holsters week, during which students demonstrate for their right to carry guns on campus. Naturally, liberal students respond with counterprotests, during which their members lie down and pretend they’re dead. If conservative agitation is prolonged, it might earn a friendly mention from Bill O’Reilly. Most Eastern Elites express harsh disapproval (with a dash of condescension) when the authors ask them about such tactics.
Because Western Flagship tends to have more of a party atmosphere than does Eastern Elite, its students are less concerned with how these theatrics might play when it comes time polish their résumés. But the difference in behavior also highlights a difference in the kinds of conservatism that dominate at each campus. Libertarianism tends to be more common at Western Flagship, while Eastern Elites subscribe to some combination of fiscal and social conservatism.
Respective religious beliefs shed additional light on the difference between the student populations. Despite the fact that Western Flagship is located in a state that has a “reputation for being a stronghold of the Christian right,” the interviewees were not particularly evangelical. Indeed, the ones at Eastern Elite were more likely to identify themselves as religious than were the Western ones. And among the religious subset at Eastern Elite, the authors found that a surprising portion (11 out 17) were Catholic.
If it hadn’t been clear before now, Becoming Right is really a study of class differences. The Western Flagship students will, we are meant to understand, turn into their generation’s Sarah Palin–loving, Fox News–watching Tea Partiers, while the Eastern Elites will be the future equivalent of Mitt Romney-voting, First Things– or Commentary-reading conservatives. One can quibble about the specifics, and the line between the camps can get very blurry at times, but Binder and Wood are right about the divide. That the faithful folks tend to be at the elite schools confirms findings by Charles Murray and others that religious practice tends more and more to be a characteristic of the upper echelon.
While campus life is not the sole source of the cultural split, the authors make a persuasive case that colleges do perpetuate it. We should care about how these students are formed because, as they note, “college is about the production of certain forms of citizenship.” Or in sociology babble: “Organizational contexts affect shared meanings.”
Despite Becoming Right’s valuable insights, Binder and Wood’s own liberal bias occasionally shows through. In studying this strange species known as conservatives, they seem to think that the subjects overestimate how much of a minority they represent on campus. Conservatives make up 18.5 percent of students at private elite institutions and 20.1 percent of students at public flagships, according to a national survey of college freshmen. But why, the authors wonder, do conservatives see themselves as surrounded by a sea of liberals when the same survey shows that 32.7 percent of students at elite schools and 44.3 percent of students at public flagships say they are “middle of the road”? The authors make no attempt to determine what “middle of the road” means to students. As pollsters know, people of all political bents often describe themselves as “moderate” or “middle of the road” or “independent,” but if you ask them one or two more questions, you’ll be able to put them in a liberal or conservative box pretty quickly. Most college kids fall rather neatly into the former.
Which side, it’s worth asking, really sees itself surrounded by a hostile enemy? The authors include a chapter called “Sponsored Conservatism” about some of the national organizations that support conservative groups on campus, including the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Young America’s Foundation. The chapter has a bit of a “We uncovered more of the vast right-wing conspiracy” air to it. “National organizations,” they write, “are spending significant amounts of money on the next generation of conservative voters and leaders, particularly on the areas of media, politics, and government.” Doubtless, the same could be said of the other side. But don’t hold your breath for the follow-up, Becoming Left.
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Must-Reads from Magazine
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
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Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?
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Podcast: Christine Rosen on Brett Kavanaugh.
The podcast welcomes COMMENTARY contributor and author Christine Rosen on the program to discuss the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Have his confirmation hearings have transformed into another chapter in the national cultural reckoning that is the #MeToo moment?