Sunday, January 22, 2006

McCarthyism Redux

There has been much discussion in the press the past week about the Bruin Alumni Association. The BAA is, of course, part of a nation-wide conservative movement in the past few years which has been agitating against what they see as liberal bias in academia. This is nothing new, of course. In many ways, we can trace the beginning of modern conservatism to academic politics: it was William Buckley's 1951 book God and Man at Yale which kicked off Buckley's career, and gave rise to the National Review. And even Buckley's book was rooted in the context of post-war McCarthyism, which began in the late forties with the Alger Hiss case. One of the key features of the hostility towards Hiss was a general suspicion of the highly-educated, often academic, men who Franklin Roosevelt had surrounded himself with in the 30's and 40's, of which Alger Hiss became the prime example. The Republican Party very effectively managed to convince the public that to be academic was synonymous with being soft on communism.

Since then, this mythology of liberal bias has often invigorated other conservative movements. In the 1980's, the Dartmouth Review served as an incubator for conservative intellectuals like Dinesh D'Souza. In the 1990's, the campus culture wars over identity politics and sexual expression nearly destroyed the NEA and the NEH. In the past few years, the main domestic battleground over the Israel-Palestine issue has taken place on college campuses. And we shouldn't forget that our current president's own reactionary and anti-intellectual conservatism was formatively shaped by his undergraduate experiences at Yale.

So, this whole history noted, I'm still not sure what to make of it. I am not at all worried about the Bruin Alumni Association. Its leader is this young kid, a recent graduate, who is quickly managing to alienate other conservatives, especially conservative academics. It only takes five minutes on the organization's web page to see that he is just in search of attention, that he is more interested in being the next D'Souza or Horowitz then actually creating change at UCLA. The BAA is destined to self-destruct.

I still wonder, however, about the form in which these movements take place. A few observations, just to see if I can make anything out of it.

1. The leaders of these movement are all men. I have yet to hear a single quote in the press from a woman, or read a single article in the campus conservative paper by a woman.

2. It tends to be very small groups of men. One never gets the sense that there is a large silent majority backing them up. I imagine that at UCLA, we are talking about no more than a dozen people actively involved, out of 24,000 undergraduates.

3. These men are often, but not always, white. The exceptions are important to note. One of the leaders here at UCLA, a kid who started his own conservative newspaper that features a regular professor profile titled "Nut of the Month," is Armenian American. Many of those involved are Jewish, radicalized, I imagine, by the Israel/Palestine issue. I am not quite sure what to make of all this.

Certainly, it is worth noting that here at UCLA, the targets which the conservatives have attacked most viciously are Latino and African-American student groups. The Bruin Republicans lead a horrible campaign last year against MEChA, the largest Latino student group, claiming in all seriousness that MEChA was plotting to overthrow the country. They attack student of color groups rather than attacking, say, the Bruin Democrats, or labor groups, or anti-war groups. So much so that in the last student elections here, the Bruin Democrats shamefully teamed up with the Bruin Republicans in an attempt to limit the power of student of color groups. As I say, I am not sure what to make of all this exactly, but race is playing a large role.

4. It is easy to spot that the campus conservatives have adopted the rhetoric of identity politics. They talk about discrimination, about victimization, about being unfairly singled out and punished for who they are. This tactic is extremely effective. I don't think it actually works as they intended--nobody feels sorry for some privileged white boy. But it has completely destroyed the efficacy of that rhetoric, and those of us who care about the issues raised by identity politics have not yet found a new mode of organizing.

Phew! Suffice to say, this all worries me.

Other interesting takes on the BAA:

1 comment:

skrelnek said...

Nice job, Phil. One other thing about this latest campus conservative movement, at least as it's manifested here, is that its favorite tactic is separatism: they didn't like the Daily Bruin, so they founded the Bruin Standard. They don't like the UCLA Alumni Association, so they conjured up the Bruin Alumni Association.

Funny; their rhetoric is based in pluralism ("we just want an open intellectual community where differing points of view are welcome"), but their tactics are segregational.