Crashing "Progressive" Camp · 18 July 2006

By Jacob

The notion that "progressive voices" are in urgent need of "empowerment" against the "growing influence of right-wing groups on campus" might strike many observers of modern academia as amusingly counterintuitive. But it proved an effective pitch for drawing some 1,000 left-leaning students from universities across the country for last week's annual Campus Progress National Student Conference in Washington, D.C. Sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a "non-partisan research and educational institute" that frequently functions as the ideological subsidiary of the Democratic Party, the conference provided three days of instruction in the fundamentals of "progressive activism," an opportunity for networking, and, not least, a forum for fulminating against all things conservative and Republican.

Representative of the latter tendency was former Clinton apparatchik and current Democratic blowhard Paul Begala, who regaled a lunchtime audience with a plodding meditation on the evils of the "radical Right." "Terrorists want to kill us, but right-wingers want to cut taxes," Begala explained, in a somewhat watered-down version of his inflammatory comments during last year's student conference, in which Begala explained that Republicans "want to kill me and my children." (When criticized for those remarks, Begala first blamed the "vast right-wing conspiracy," then mused that "[m]aybe Republicans do want to kill me.") For good measure, Begala cracked that "erectile dysfunction is a disease that only affects Republican men" and announced conservatives were "tearing down the American dream."


This message was subsequently taken up by Center for American Progress president and onetime Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, who made an appeal for a government that, in contrast to the Bush administration, was "committed to the common good," and wished to see the Unites States "respected for our ideals and not just the force of our weapons." Reflecting either a precocious political maturity or a youthful immunity to cheap pandering, the student audience responded with only scattered applause.


More popular were the comparatively measured remarks of the crowd favorite, Illinois Senator Barrack Obama. Obama began by describing the Left's unwillingness thoughtfully to consider conservative arguments as a "poverty of ambition," and bemoaned the "empathy deficit" that divides American politics. Yet, even as he counseled against partisan "cant" and "over-the-top-rhetoric," Obama couldn't entirely resist disregarding his own advice. "Karl Rove," Obama averred, "doesn't believe in government." Of Christians in "red states," Obama said that they had been duped by evangelical leaders into believing that "being a good Christian means being against gay marriage and abortion." Obama also left the impression that his appeals to moderation were based more on an electoral strategy to lure voters away from the Republican fold than out of a genuine interest in engaging with conservative ideas. Summing up his position, for example, he stated that he was "not committed to one way of skinning the cat."

While Democratic leaders like Obama and Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin - the "first non-incumbent, openly gay person to be elected to Congress" - were selling their party's message, the next generation of Democratic activists were being coached to follow in their footsteps. On offer at the conference were a series of panels under the heading of "Media Bootcamp." There students could learn "how to work with the press to get out your message;" how to publish "advocacy writing and blogging;" and "how to make your message pop and take off." Curiously, not one panel focused on the substance of the message that students were to commit their energies to publicizing. Slogans, rather than reflection, were the order of the day. In keeping with that theme, graphic designer Chaz Maviyane-Davies screened images that attacked everything from globalization, such as a mock Coca Cola label reading "Coca-Colonization," to the U.S. liberation of Kuwait during the first Gulf War, which, as Maviyane-Davies saw it, "showed the U.S. and its allies demonstrating their global might." Maviyane-Davies described "human rights" as the inspiration for his work. Meanwhile, Bronwyn Keenan, of New York's Guggenheim museum, exhibited a television advertising campaign urging young people to vote. "I got straight A's, I deserve a good job," and "My god believes in peace," were among the sentiments expressed in the ad.


To the credit of its organizers, not all of the panels at the conference were equally unedifying. Perhaps the conference's most controversial panel was a debate about David Horowitz's book, The Professors, featuring Penn State sociology professor Sam Richards, one of the professors profiled in the book, and this author. Covered in the debate were several points of contention, including the main subject of Horowitz's book: the proliferation of political ideologues and pseudo-scholars in the modern university and the concomitant decline of higher education.


Professor Richards acknowledged that the politicization of academia was a real enough phenomenon. He nonetheless disputed the argument that keeping personal biases and ideology from the classroom is as simple as Horowitz and other critics suggest. "It's much more difficult than you can imagine," Richards said. This author commented that Women's Studies departments and ethnically focused programs were more accurately described as exercises in identity politics than scholarship and exaggerated the accomplishments of certain groups, including women and minorities, to levels that were "empirically untenable." The debate was ably moderated by Adam Jentleson, a policy manager at Campus Progress and a critic of Horowitz's book. While disagreeing with many of its conclusions, Jentleson stated that the book made some "compelling" arguments about the state of higher education.


Many of the students proved equally open-minded. A student from the University of Michigan objected that his professor, Juan Cole, belonged among the professors critiqued in Horowitz's book, pointing out that Cole has made some reasonable criticisms of the Iraq war and that he has testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He conceded, however, that, as The Professors details, Cole affects a far less professional persona on his blog, Informed Comment, which he uses to trumpet his conspiratorial theory that, for instance, "neo-cons" in the Bush administration pressed for war against Iraq so that Israel could steal "Arab land."

Tya Pope, a junior political science and Women's Studies major at Delaware, took issue with the suggestion that Women's Studies programs had no place in the university. She strongly agreed, however, that many such departments are conducted from a feminist perspective and often fail to consider perspectives at variance with feminist ideology, and that the overall effect result was a disservice to students. Still other students made a point of saying that programs like Women's Studies and African Studies were politically slanted, and that while they agreed with the slant - they were liberals, after all - they welcomed a more inclusive curriculum on the grounds that ideologically one-sided courses left them ill-prepared to confront the arguments from the conservative side. In a conference dedicated to "empowering" the Left's future activists, these students were a sign that the prospect was more encouraging than one might have been led to suppose.

Jacob Laksin is a senior editor for FrontPage Magazine.