I went inside a rightwing safe space to find out the truth about universities | Cas Mudde | Opinion
Anyone who regularly reads a US newspaper knows that universities in this country are in an existential crisis. No, not because of decades of underfunding, or the partly related ballooning university administrations, but because of “postmodernism” and “safe spaces”. It is one of the few things conservatives and liberals agree on these days. The dominance of “fake courses” and “political correctness” is a major theme in conservative media, from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal, as well as liberal media like the New York Times and, yes, even the Guardian.
Almost all accounts of alleged censorship of “conservative voices” are based on events at private universities, mostly Ivy League schools in the north-east, as well as some “public Ivies”, notably the University of California at Berkeley. But how bad is the situation in the “real America”, ie that vast space between the coasts that is sometimes, derogatively, referred to as “the flyover states”?
To find out, I attended an event at my own university, the University of Georgia (UGA), a public university in a deep-red state. Like most of the universities I have taught at in the US, UGA has a fairly apolitical campus, where only a few usual suspects organize small events around issues like LBTQ rights and the occupation of Palestine. Most students come from Republican homes, holding fairly conservative views without necessarily realizing it. For example, Reagan’s statement that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem”, revolutionary in 1981, is considered apolitical common sense by many of my students.
This week, the local chapter of Turning Point USA (TPUSA) hosted Charlie Kirk, who promised to “expos[e] leftist lies and progressive propaganda”. Kirk founded the organization in 2012, at the tender age of 18. Today, TPUSA claims a multimillion dollar budget and “a presence” on over 1,000 college campuses and high schools across the country”. It is most infamous for its “Professor Watchlist”, a list of professors that are accused of advancing “radical agenda in the lecture halls”. The UGA branch seems to be a relatively modest affair: pictures of their monthly meetings tend to show an average attendance of roughly 20 people.
As I approach the building where the event is held, I see a surprisingly large university police presence. I count at least six UGAPD officers, of which three would also be in the lecture hall during the whole event. This excessive police presence reinforces the impression that “conservatives” are embattled on campus, even though I am not aware of any physical attack on or credible threat to rightwing organizations or students at UGA in the past years. The few protesters, including the inevitable Democratic Socialists of America, seem resigned to being an irrelevant side note to the event.
After signing in and picking up some free goodies from the well-stacked TPUSA table – such as “BDS = BS” and “Socialism Sucks!” buttons and stickers – I go into the large lecture hall, which will soon be almost filled. Some 250 students attend the event, which is a large turnout for a midweek political event at UGA. I guesstimate that some 50 students were protesters, 50 were curious attendees and 150 were true sympathizers – although the number of Make America Great Again hats and Stars and Stripes clothing was disappointingly low.
After a quick, and nervous, introduction by the local chapter president, Kirk took the stage to enthusiastic applause. At first sight, Kirk is an unlikely hero of rightwing students. He did not attend college and believes fewer people should go to college. On the other hand, that is also part of his appeal among conservatives: the self-made man, untainted by progressive universities, who knows things because the truth doesn’t need a degree.
After a quick pandering to the home crowd, saying he supported Georgia against Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship, he starts his attack on the universities. The story is simple, really: universities are full of Marxist professors, who force students to take irrelevant courses, which indoctrinate them with postmodernism and socialism – the fact that these two are diametrically opposed is but a detail. While many students raise their hands when asked whether they have to take “irrelevant courses” for their major, it is unclear whether these are of the Marxist and postmodern persuasion Kirk spoke about.
To back his claims up, he states that Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto is the most assigned book in college. This is a popular claim among rightwing media, based on outdated results from the highly problematic Open Syllabus Project. A more recent count has the writing guide The Elements of Style as the most assigned text, with The Communist Manifesto coming third, behind Plato’s Republic. Interestingly, Marx did not even make the top 10 among the so maligned Ivy League schools, which do have Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, a favorite among conservatives and radical right alike, as the second most assigned book!
The attack on Marxists in higher education leads to a question by one of the protesters, a self-acclaimed Marxist (“I think”), who exemplifies the lazy left’s response to rightwing challenges on campus. Inarticulate and opinionated rather than informed, he becomes the perfect “leftwing” punching bag for Kirk, who happily gives him excessive time to field questions, shooting back with specific clarifications, which overwhelm the student, and thereby “prove” Kirk’s intellectual and ideological superiority.
After that much of the lecture focuses on guns, in which Kirk presents himself as a staunch defender of the NRA and the AR-15. In addition to an excellent one-liner, “there is no first amendment without the second amendment”, he throws out various statistics about guns in the US and abroad, which make him look rational and well-informed, even though many of the statistics are from dodgy studies or are presented out of context. Moreover, Kirk uses an old debating trick: reduce the general discussion to one small specific issue, then argue that the specific issue doesn’t explain the broader issue, and therefore claim that the broader critique is wrong.
After the inarticulate Marxist has regained control of the media, the lecture turns into a student version of a Fox News show, and I decide to call it a night. The next morning, when I wake up, I realize why I was so underwhelmed by my night with Kirk (and the inarticulate Marxist).
In essence, Kirk is just Fox News for college students: overly confident rhetoric, backed up by at best fudged data, taking down a far left straw man. Moreover, in much of the “real America”, including at their university campuses, Kirk is part of the political mainstream, selling a safe space for white conservatives who have convinced themselves that they are the embattled minority.