Brainwashed: An Interview with Ben Shapiro · 12 May 2004

By Jamie, 05/13/04

Frontpage Interview's guest today is Ben Shapiro, the author of the new book Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America's Youth.

FP: Mr. Shapiro, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Shapiro: It's an honor and a pleasure.

FP: Tell us about the ingredients of your own life that motivated you to write this book.

Shapiro: I've spent some time in public school, and having seen the liberal propaganda put out by lower public education, I thought I knew what I would get when I set foot on UCLA's campus. But I was totally unprepared for the level of radical leftism expressed in the classroom, in the student newspaper, by the student groups. And all this leftism underwritten by either tax or tuition money.

Thankfully, I was already secure in my politics - I'm as right-wing as they come, thanks mostly to my Orthodox Jewish background (and my parents). But I saw that for many students, mainly those who were politically ignorant or apathetic, this overwhelming bias was perceived as truth. If the professor, who presumably has spent years studying his area of expertise, says that George W. Bush is a moron, well, then, he must be a moron. If all your peers believe that US foreign policy is evil, would you risk social ostracism to argue with them? Practically speaking, it's much more fun to have a beer with the liberal guys and girls in your class than to argue with them and spend the evening in your dorm room browsing the Bush/Cheney 2004 website.

I also saw that the problem of leftist indoctrination in the university system was being largely overlooked by the general public (right-wing talk radio and FrontPage excluded, of course). Professors hold a level of respect in our society that in my opinion is largely unwarranted. Somehow, when Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT (a linguistics professor, and a true traitor) speaks about politics, he gets more respect from the mainstream media than political experts like David Horowitz do. A PhD seems to confer legitimacy, a magical wisdom in every subject area. During the massive anti-war protests, which were composed largely of college students, most people thought that these were just dumb young kids out there to have a good time, yell a bit. No one seemed to trace the radical leftism of the students back to the radical leftism of the professors, which was astonishing to me. Having sat in the classroom for hours on end, I can tell you that much of what professors say, if left unchallenged, is very convincing.

I felt this was a problem that needed to be exposed from the inside. The university system is very insular; professors can always claim to be speaking differently outside the classroom than they do inside it. The problem is, they don't. If a professor is anti-American in his outside-the-classroom rhetoric, you can safely bet that it will translate into classroom anti-Americanism. But I didn't want to just claim this - I wanted to document it. So for three years, I sat in my classes and transcribed direct, in-the-classroom quotations from my professors, carefully noting the date of each quotation. Virtually every anecdotal instance of UCLA bias I discuss in Brainwashed is footnoted. I also worked for a year and a half for the UCLA Daily Bruin (the student newspaper) and got involved with student group politics. I researched other universities. I name over 400 professors in Brainwashed, and mention over 200 institutions of higher learning. UCLA is only the tip of the iceberg.

FP: Why do you think the Left is so totalitarian? When I was teaching in academia, though I was a Conservative, I enjoyed giving readings from opposite sides of the political spectrum to nurture debate and discussion. Why is it so unthinkable that a lefty prof would assign David Horowitz or Thomas Sowell readings for discussion? I have never heard of such an occurrence in all my life. Why?

Shapiro: I classify liberals into two groups. The first group is intellectually honest enough to realize that conservatism has some very powerful arguments for it; for them, fear is the underlying factor justifying exclusionary tactics. It doesn't take a genius to realize that capitalism has been far more successful in practice than socialism, or that Judeo-Christian values foster a better society than any other set of values. In an open discussion, conservatives usually win. Couple the fact that liberals lose in open argument with the fact that many liberals believe conservatism to be not just wrong, but evil, and you get your answer: in order to prevent evil (conservatism) from winning out over good (liberalism), we must exclude conservatism from the debate.

Then there's the second group of liberals, the group that really dominates on campus. This group feels that conservatism is simply dumb. Professors tend to be intellectually arrogant anyway, and liberalism by its nature is an extremely elitist ideology. Many professors feel that conservatism is too simplistic to waste time on in the classroom. I cite numerous examples of this in Brainwashed. Professors say that if you're conservative, you're unqualified to clean highways, much less teach a classroom of students. Four professors even created a fully funded study designed to conclude that conservatives are less "integratively complex." Of course, they had to lump together Stalin, Castro, Hitler, and Reagan in order to do this, but the end justifies the means.

FP: Leftist professors aren't really teaching are they? Who is it that they think they are and what mission do they arrogate to themselves?

Shapiro: I really don't believe they're teaching. Putting all the facts on the table, allowing a look at both sides of the political spectrum, that's teaching. Making a case for one side and completely discarding the other side, that's indoctrination. Deans at colleges like University of California at Berkeley have said as much. This isn't to say that it's impossible to learn from professors. In fact, I think that conservative students have a big advantage on campus - they're confronted with liberal arguments every day. If they learn how to combat those arguments, reading outside the classroom - reading Horowitz and Sowell - in order to challenge professors, they learn a great deal. I've always said that conservatives are bound to learn more on campus than liberals, because we have to learn how to fight against what we're hearing - liberals merely hear the arguments with which they already agree. It's the apathetic students who are the most disadvantaged. If you don't care enough to get the other side of the story for yourself, and you know that if you parrot the professor you'll get an A, why bother exploring your political options?

Professors feel that they are the people who shape young Americans. They're largely right. They use their podiums as ideological weapons. Their mission is to forward their version of the "truth." Professors don't believe in objective truth, but they do think that they are, in Thomas Sowell's words, "the anointed" who define what is best for this country. That means promoting activism for causes that they support, from the anti-war movement to affirmative action to Big Labor.

FP: Tell us about the craziest example you know of in terms of how far the Left has gone on campus in terms of totalitarianism and brainwashing.

Shapiro: There are so many examples, it's tough to pick! There are too many areas where campus totalitarianism really takes over: anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, sex, environmentalism, the list goes on and on. Speech codes exist at most major universities, and at some of them, the speech codes prevent anyone from speaking openly about Biblical values - that might be discrimination. For example, speech codes at Tufts University bans "demeaning or derogatory slurs, name-calling and using words or negative images associated with a group on signs to create a publicly hostile environment." So if I create a flyer that says "A man shall not lie with another man as he would lie with a woman - it is an abomination (Leviticus 18:22)" and post it around campus, am I violating the speech code? It's a strong possibility.

I think perhaps the most egregious example of campus brainwashing that I found was the almost universal adoption of moral relativism in the classroom. With moral relativism as the guiding ideology on campus, terrorists and American soldiers, murderers and police officers are equated; sex in any context is excused by the old refrain "who are we to judge?"; all cultures become equally valid.

Perhaps the most striking illustration of this moral confusion is the clear inability of university faculty to draw the line between art and pornography. An example of this: at the San Francisco Art Institute (a graduate school) Professor Tony Labat told his students to create a piece of performance art. One of the students, Jonathan Yegge, took "performance art" at its broadest definition. After finding a volunteer, Yegge took his helper out to a public campus area. In Yegge's words, the following ensued: "He was tied up. He had a blindfold and a gag, but he could see and talk through it. He had freedom of movement of his pelvis. I engaged in oral sex with him and he engaged in oral sex with me. I had given him an enema, and I had taken a shit and stuffed it in his ass. That goes on, he s---- all over me, I s--- in him. There was a security guard present. There was an instructor from the school present. It was videoed, and the piece was over." Labat, the professor, said that the piece was "bad art." Yegge claimed that Labat had approved the piece beforehand. The school condemned Yegge - for not using sexual protection. Having mutual gay oral sex and exchanging excrement in public isn't a problem, but doing it unprotected is.

That's a very extreme example, except for the fact that classes on pornography exist at major universities throughout the country. New York University Tisch School of Art had a somewhat similar incident with one of its students; Kansas University had a very public run-in with a State Senator after reports broke of porno videos being shown in class. At University of California at Berkeley, one two-credit course involved students photographing their genitals, then exchanging the photographs and attempting to match up genital owners with pictures of their genitals; a visit to a gay strip club; public discussions of sex fantasies; and porn star guest lectures. All of this springs from the idea on campus that there is no right and wrong - and therefore, there shouldn't be boundaries on what's discussed in class.

FP: You have actually dared to speak on campuses. Tell us about this precarious experience.

Shapiro: I've actually found it fun. You have to know your facts - professors always ask for footnoted sources, though they rarely provide any for political arguments - but it's terrific preparation for post-graduation life. But that's with professors who are open-minded. I've always thought that most professors are decent about listening to the other side when it's presented by a student - they're just awful at presenting the other side themselves. Unless there's a student there to nail a professor when the professor is out of line, the professor gets away with everything.

That's the story with professors who are respectful of dissenters. But there are definitely some who don't tolerate dissent in the classroom. I don't believe that large numbers of conservative students are purposefully targeted for grade penalization; I think a lot of that is hype. I know that many of my professors have appreciated my input; many have not, and have either ignored or patronized my comments. Still, I think that when conservative students are graded down, it's often due to other factors. Many conservative students I know are terrible at confronting professors, for example. When confronting a professor, there's no excuse for being uncivil. It doesn't do anyone any good to attack a professor in a patronizing manner. If you ask professor pointed questions and the professor retaliates by either ignoring your point or patronizing you, he's the one who looks like a jerk.

At the same time, many professors don't tolerate dissent, so conservative students have to use their heads. If you're afraid the professor will grade you down, keep quiet. It isn't worth sabotaging your grade. Speak to other students outside of class. It's a terrible solution to a real problem, but that's about all many conservative students can do.

FP: What do you think about Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights and Students for Academic Freedom?

Shapiro: Students for Academic Freedom is doing a tremendous job on campus. I've never seen the conservative movement on campus as cohesive or powerful as it has become. Conservative students don't feel like they're alone anymore, and they feel like they have a real purpose, a real fight to fight, and the resources to fight it.

The Academic Bill of Rights is a monumental document. I don't mean that lightly. It is a moderate, reasonable call for balance. Opponents have ripped it, saying that it calls for intellectual quotas, but anyone who has read the document can easily see that it does not. It's just another sign of leftist intolerance that liberals are unable to separate the messenger from the message - in this case, David Horowitz from the Academic Bill of Rights. Whether they like or hate David Horowitz (and it's crystal clear from my experiences that they hate him), they would do well to actually read the Bill of Rights instead of having a knee-jerk negative reaction.

FP: What other ways do you think conservative students and faculty should fight for intellectual diversity?

Shapiro: As I've said before, I think that conservative students are at a decided advantage in terms of what they can get from a liberal college education. If they're strong in their conservatism, they have the opportunity to teach themselves, a skill far more important than the skill of reading assigned textbooks and regurgitating lectures.

Inside the classroom, there's not much that students can do. Confronting professors is often useful, but speaking with other students - not just those who agree with you - is a better strategy. I remember in one class I took (in which the professor was an open communist), virtually my entire section identified as liberal at the beginning of the quarter. After a couple other conservatives and I began speaking with the other students, the situation shifted 180 degrees; by the end of the quarter, almost everyone identified as a conservative. We all sat together in class. In fact, the communist professor began referring to us as "the Republican Row." So students can make a difference.

Students can also make a difference by getting involved in student politics. There's a real market out there on campus for non-PC views. Joining the Daily Bruin was one of the smartest things I ever did. Not only was it the precursor to my syndicated column, it taught me to write concisely and rationally - and students loved it. It was the most well-read column at the Daily Bruin, despite the fact that I was a conservative, or perhaps because of it. Students can also infiltrate student government. Turnout at student elections is usually low, and a motivated group can sneak into the student government. In essence, students need to use liberal instruments to their advantage.

Conservative faculty are in a more difficult situation. As I know from speaking with conservative faculty and reading mail from them, they're often under ideological assault. When I was writing for the Daily Bruin, I had one administrator email me a kind comment; when I asked him if I could forward it to the Bruin editorial board for publication, he declined for fear that he would be retaliated against professionally.

I think that's the real reason you see a lack of conservative faculty at universities - administrative bias. Conservatives don't tend to get hired, and if they do get hired, they have to work in a hostile environment. It's like asking a liberal to work in the offices at the NRA.

I'll be curious to see what effect the Academic Bill of Rights will have on political composition of the professoriate. In my opinion, the university system is too far gone to change radically now in its hiring practices. In Brainwashed, I advocate creating a new university system to compete with the current network. Fox News was able to overtake CNN - and CNN has had to moderate its message in order to attempt to regain its viewers. In 1992, George H.W. Bush had to move to the right in order to siphon votes from onrushing candidate Pat Buchanan. If a university system which is intellectually diverse can be established, the current university system will have to change accordingly.

FP: You are an orthodox Jew. Tell us what it was like for you on campus. And what is it like for Jews on campus?

Shapiro: I'm lucky - I lived off campus, so I didn't really have to deal with the whole set of problems dorm living provides for Orthodox Jews (although I will next year at Harvard Law School). But the Jewish resources that are supposed to be there for support are often severely lacking. The Jewish Student Union at UCLA is somewhat conservative politically, and it pays a heavy price in the pocketbook because of that. The UCLA Hillel is run by a Peace Now, radical leftist named Chaim Seidler-Feller, who has compared Jewish treatment of Palestinian Arabs to Nazi treatment of Jews.

Meanwhile, the anti-Israel bias in the student newspapers, in the student groups, in the classroom, is outrageous. I've had an English professor compare the treatment of Palestinian Arabs to the treatment received by African slaves in 18th-19th century America. I've had professors assign readings blaming the "Zionist lobby" for America's problems with the Arab world. The UCLA Daily Bruin has printed articles comparing Ariel Sharon to Adolf Eichmann. When I attempted to expose the fact that the Muslim Student Association at UCLA is treasonous, I was fired from the Bruin.

It's all right to be a cultural Jew at the UCLA campus - eating lox and bagels, saying "oy" and "gesundheit" - but Zionism is off limits. Until recently, the Muslim Student Association held an annual "Anti-Zionism Week," during which they fundraised for Hamas and Hizbullah. I've been pushed around at pro-Israel rallies by Muslim student group leaders. And that's at UCLA, a hotbed of tolerant liberalism. It's far worse at other universities, like San Francisco State University, where the Muslim Student Association posted flyers depicting a soup can labeled with a picture of a Palestinian baby, reading "canned Palestinian children meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites under American license." Pro-Israel speakers like Daniel Pipes and Benjamin Netanyahu are constantly protested, and often forced to cancel speaking engagements on campus. Meanwhile, terrorist-supporters like Hannan Ashrawi are allowed to speak with tax dollars in Colorado. Divestment campaigns have started up around the University of California system; petitions to divest from Israel have taken root at major university around the country.

Ask anyone if they want a bagel and get a smile. Ask anyone if they support Israel and get either a grimace, a lecture, or possibly even a threat.

FP: Why do you think it is so chic now to be pro-Palestinian and anti-Semitic in academia? Why is Jew-hatred the new call of the Left?

Shapiro: Academia dislikes Israel for the same reason it dislikes America: both Israel and America rely on a set of absolute Judeo-Christian values. For intellectuals on campus, that's unacceptable. Moral relativism is the name of the game, and for many on campus (just like the Democrat Party), the only absolute principles to be adhered to are those approved by the international community. Professors have more respect for the United Nations than for either America or Israel.

There's also a strong stench of victimology here. Whether the issue is race, foreign policy, or economics, professors are constantly attempting to "stick up for the little guy." It doesn't matter whether the little guy is actually evil - as the Palestinian Authority is. What professors (and the left in general) do not understand is that size relative strength is not the issue here - right and wrong are. The left stood unified with Israel until 1967, because until the Six Day War, Israel was always the underdog. When Israel decimated its enemies in that war, it became the aggressor. The left liked Israel for the same reason it likes the Palestinians now: it was a David against Goliath battle. Jews were all right when they were being slaughtered by Nazis, but if they attempt to defend themselves, and are too successful at doing so, they are human rights abusers and genocidal maniacs.

It's not anti-Semitic to oppose certain Israeli policies - I oppose many Israeli policies (mainly because they're too left-wing). It is anti-Semitic to single out Israel for criticism. Palestinian Arabs murder babies in pizzerias, and Israelis respond by blowing up empty buildings. Palestinian Arabs call for a second Holocaust, and Israel attempts to bring wounded Palestinian Arabs to Jordan so that they won't have to imbibe Jewish blood through an IV. Yet it is Israel that is singled out as being the cancer in the region. That is true anti-Semitism.

FP: Mr. Shapiro, we are out of time, thank you. It was a pleasure to have you visit us. We'll talk to you soon.

Shapiro: Thank you Jamie.