Why do I never recognize the universities hated by conservatives?

I’m a creature of academia. I attended college starting in 1975, and essentially never left — I went on to do graduate school, post-docs, and taught at a couple. I’ve been at both the small liberal arts college (DePauw, UMM) and the great big state school (Universities of Washington, Oregon, and Utah, and Temple University). I talk to students and faculty and staff every day for decades now, and at worst you could say maybe I’m a little too close to this environment, but you certainly can’t argue that I know nothing about what goes on on college campuses.

But then I read these stories from outsiders about what it’s like to be on an American campus, mostly by people who haven’t been here in ages and probably had just a transient experience before leaving, and they’re all about as accurate as if I were trying to describe life on Mars. They are distinguished by their total lack of awareness of reality and the vehemence with which they condemn students.

Case in point: Andrew Sullivan. It’s pure madness.

Over the last year, the most common rebuttal to my intermittent coverage of campus culture has been: Why does it matter? These are students, after all. They’ll grow up once they leave their cloistered, neo-Marxist safe spaces. The real world isn’t like that. You’re exaggerating anyway. And so on. I certainly see the point. In the world beyond campus, few people use the term microaggressions without irony or an eye roll; claims of “white supremacy,” “rape culture,” or “white privilege” can seem like mere rhetorical flourishes; racial and gender segregation hasn’t been perpetuated in the workplace yet; the campus Title IX sex tribunals where, under the Obama administration, the “preponderance of evidence” rather than the absence of a “reasonable doubt” could ruin a young man’s life and future are just a product of a hothouse environment. And I can sometimes get carried away.

I’ll give him a different rebuttal: you’re clueless, Mr Sullivan. Your “intermittent coverage of campus culture” is so detached from reality, so thickly slathered with conservative bullshit, that it is an unrecognizable caricature.

What “neo-Marxist safe spaces”? “Neo-Marxism”, by the way, is an empty buzzword generally used by terrified “neo-conservatives” who are upset that students explore new ideas outside the conventional, capitalism-worshipping straitjackets conservatives would rather we brainwashed students into worshipping. We actually encourage students to think, rather than accept the received wisdom of hidebound old farts. We ask them to look at systems of thought with new eyes and a wider perspective, and we tell them it’s OK to question that system. That’s it. That does not imply that we’re sitting around inculcating them with the sacred words of Lenin and Mao.

Most of our students are solidly middle-class, not interested in rocking the boat too much. It’s kind of ironic that our universities are accused of promoting communism when the most common rationale students and administrators use to get students to attend is that it’s the path to a good, well-paying job. You’d think that if we were busy indoctrinating them into neo-Marxism that they’d wake up somewhere around their junior year, look around, and realize that they’re imbedded deeply into an institution with a vested interest in moving them into the bourgeoisie, and they’d riot. Or leave. We’re not seeing much of a revolution right now because the rising costs of a university education have already filtered out most of the citizens with an interest in overthrowing the system.

At best we can stir up a modicum of social consciousness. Yeah, you’re here at a university, we’re going to try and make sure you acquire at least middle-class status (here’s your alumni newsletter, please donate!), but hey, if we can make you aware of your privilege and advantages, and the fact that not everyone in our country shares them, we can dream that you’ll help promote some incremental change for the better.

That’s the extent of campus radicalism. Relax, hidebound old farts. David Brooks still has his sinecure at the NY Times, and Andrew Sullivan will still get TV appearances where he can pretend to be an enlightened conservative. I wish it were otherwise.

As for “white supremacy,” “rape culture,” or “white privilege” — those are real things. I know that when you get snugged down tightly in your socio-economic slot, it gets harder to see them, because you are no longer exposed to as many contrasts, and you’re now rewarded for conformity rather than enquiry. It’s not that campuses are narrow and constraining and forcing people into radicalism, it’s that your life as a cossetted, privileged, boring white man means it’s easy for you to move right into a secure bubble and never think again. You’re the one being warped by your milieu, not the students. They tend to be liberated to think in new ways, a freedom they may never have to the same degree again. There’s no hothouse here. That’s reserved for defenders of the status quo in the non-campus universe, who will forever strain to suppress novelties that might emerge from a free-thinking environment.

But Sullivan wants to claim that he’s not totally against new ideas. He just hates the boogeyman du jour of conservative thought, “identity politics”. It’s ironic that people like Sullivan who are so committed to preserving the privileges of a narrow group, white men, are also committed to demeaning efforts to extend those privileges to all citizens in the name of denial of opportunity to all others.

The reason I don’t agree with this is because I believe ideas matter. When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education as we have long known it toward the imperatives of an identity-based “social justice” movement, the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well. If elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large. What matters most of all in these colleges — your membership in a group that is embedded in a hierarchy of oppression — will soon enough be what matters in the society as a whole.

Oh, look at the projection! Identity politics is what people other than white males do to create oppressive power structures around race or sex; when white men erect power structures around their positions to block those others from achieving equality, well, that’s just fair and generous, not identity politics at all! The thoughtful people on college campuses aren’t at all interested in building silos of power for themselves and no others — they look at the identity politics of white men for white men and want to tear down those walls. That’s the ideal, anyway. I fear that most of them will graduate and find themselves forced to conform in order to keep themselves housed and fed within that hierarchy that Sullivan loves so much.

And, sure enough, the whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse. The idea of individual merit — as opposed to various forms of unearned “privilege” — is increasingly suspect. The Enlightenment principles that formed the bedrock of the American experiment — untrammeled free speech, due process, individual (rather than group) rights — are now routinely understood as mere masks for “white male” power, code words for the oppression of women and nonwhites. Any differences in outcome for various groups must always be a function of “hate,” rather than a function of nature or choice or freedom or individual agency. And anyone who questions these assertions is obviously a white supremacist himself.

Oh, christ. So much nonsense.

Groups form in response to pressure from dominant, oppressive forces. They aren’t about suppressing individuality — to the contrary, they’re all about finding power in unity to resist the opposition of an overwhelming pressure to succumb to your myth that American culture is about “merit”. It ain’t.

For example, I often hear people mock the idea of different pronouns, or that the LGBT acronym keeps expanding to include more letters. How ridiculous, they say — I can’t be bothered to learn how to reference someone with all those weird new pronouns, and I will resist the neo-Marxist Left’s effort to pollute my language; or they laugh at the alphabet soup of LGBTTQQIAAP2S or QUILTBAG or whatever unique set of terms a particular group chooses to use. But there’s a reason for that: it’s not about conformity to a group, but the opposite of that, where people are trying to build structures under which everyone is free to express their personal, unique identity, where differences are encompassed with respect and no one is trying to dictate that individuals must fit into two and only two narrow types, the masculine and the feminine. How can Sullivan honestly defend the concept of individual agency while complaining about people who demand their own?

Speaking of conformity, though, I’ve noticed that status quo warriors like Sullivan are all speaking the same set of codes. Hierarchies are good. Everyone fits into the hierarchy on the basis of pure merit. Privilege doesn’t exist, except that dominance is good and natural, so somehow some people are privileged (but they must have earned it!). Cultural factors are negligible before the power of biology, and if it’s biological, it is necessarily good and true. History and environment don’t matter when Nature is the sole determinant of your status. Anyone who is not a conservative capitalist is a neo-Marxist.

It all makes me wish college campuses were seething hotbeds of chaos and rage, rising up to shatter these lies.

But I’m here. I know. They’re actually all fairly complacent places where students learn and maybe think a bit more than they do in Andrew Sullivan’s world, and just that is enough to make conservatives quake in their jackboots. That world is an upside-down place where demanding tolerance of diversity is bigotry, and where calling out men on harassment is a witch hunt. Let’s all hope his world continues its decay and dies off eventually.


  1. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I have definitely noticed that anything to left of conservatives is labeled Marxist these days. Libertarians use it for anybody who doesn’t agree with them either. So, it really makes me wonder what would happen if they stepped out of a time machine onto a major campus back during the ‘Nam War and the radicalization of campuses.
    I was there then, so I know what Marxism is and how it sounds. I also know how today’s progressives sound. Huge difference. Even the democratic party left falls short of Marxism.
    I’m also sure the same conservatives are scared shitless having to compete on a truly equal playing field against anybody not like them. White, male, and borderline incompetent. They are fearful they would lose, and that fear makes them give out those microagressions to all those who are different.

  2. screechymonkey says

    I can’t remember if this is something PZ has said before, or if I got it from some other university professor/blogger: “I’m lucky if I can get my students to do the reading and hand in assignments on time, you think I have the power to brainwash them?”

    There absolutely are instances of left-wing silliness on college campuses. That’s totally to be expected. People make mistakes, young and inexperienced people tend to make more mistakes, and so young people who are trying on new ideas and getting into politics are going to make some missteps. What’s different about today isn’t that “SJWs” have run amuck; it’s just that any time something silly happens at some tiny college you’ve never heard of, it goes viral and people like Sullivan are holding it up as the sign of the apocalypse rather than just an outlier. It’s not like you have to look hard to find examples of right-wing excesses in education, either. Just this week, a teacher was charged with assault for grabbing a student who exercised his Constitutional right not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t think that’s part of some new trend of right-wingers abusing their power — that shit has been going on for decades, it’s just that you never used to hear about it unless it happened in your town.

    Oh, and one last thing. There’s a worthwhile debate to be had about what the role of campus officials should be in adjudicating sexual misconduct, and what rules and burdens of proof should apply, but wringing his hands about the use of “the ‘preponderance of evidence’ rather than the absence of a ‘reasonable doubt'” just shows Sullivan’s ignorance. “Preponderance of evidence” is used routinely in civil courts. Specifically, if an alleged victim sues her alleged rapist, she doesn’t have to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in order to win a judgment for potentially huge amounts — something that “could ruin a young man’s life and future” at least as much as being expelled from one college could. O.J. Simpson was acquitted in criminal court, and found liable for millions of dollars in civil court on a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, and I don’t recall Sullivan uttering a peep about that being unjust.

  3. rietpluim says

    Seriously, everyone called liberal in the US would be considered a-little-right-of-center in our country. Marxism is so much more to the left it fell off the political spectrum.

  4. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    The right is at a significant disadvantage in academia because academia–at least at its best–stresses at least a modicum of rigor and evidence-based reasoning in its thought. Glib recitation of anecdata and cries of “Freedom” coupled with chest thumping and wrapping oneself in the flag don’t get you very far.

    Conservatives have to explain why they can’t compete, so it must be “Marxist brainwashing.” Most conservatives I knew went to the business school and I am sure they never saw the inside of a class on a Friday morning, let alone an afternoon. Meanwhile I was staying at the physics building most nights ’til 2 AM and on a first name basis with the owls on campus.

  5. busterggi says

    Conservatives created their image of what college/university is like back in ’67 when they decided that all higher education was controlled by hippies (like Micahael Savage who got his docorate at UC Berkley in making granola).

  6. nomdeplume says

    “places where students learn and maybe think a bit more than they do in Andrew Sullivan’s world, and just that is enough to make conservatives quake in their jackboots” – sums it up beautifully.

  7. Elladan says

    I think it’s pretty clear that the right wing lunatic view of universities is meant as a rhetorical weapon to clear the way for a partisan takeover and GOP commissars directing which ideas are permitted. It’s not meant to be connected to reality: it’s meant to create a situation where people are happy with the mass-firing of academia.

  8. Jeremy Shaffer says

    How can Sullivan honestly defend the concept of individual agency while complaining about people who demand their own?

    Because, either intentionally or out of ignorance, he confuses Individualism for individuality.

  9. tbp1 says

    Basically this is the article I’ve been wanting to write for years. I would have different specific examples, but it covers the waterfront. Saved me a lot of work.

  10. says

    “That world is an upside-down place where demanding tolerance of diversity is bigotry, and where calling out men on harassment is a witch hunt.”

    and straight men get to use intraLGBT+ politics to score points on a gay man.

  11. Helen Huntingdon says

    Where on earth did Sullivan get the notion that notorious rape factories are cuddly “safe spaces”? Is there lithium in his drinking water or something?

    Oh, wait, he means they’re safe for people like him, with penises and all. The rest of us don’t count, apparently.

  12. says

    I should say through, yes the general thrust of the post is correct. I use to teach at the community college level. It’s frankly bizarre how different college experience is from what conservatives say it is.

  13. Artor says

    I hadn’t heard of the acronym QUILTBAG being used pejoratively. I’d only heard it from Q and Q-allied people. I think it’s one of the most perfect acronyms I’ve ever seen. It stands for inclusiveness and diversity, while the letters in it cover a dizzying variety of orientations. Plus it’s easy to remember, and it rolls off the tongue. And if you’ve ever seen a quiltbag in the flesh, so to speak, they are beautiful things made of diverse parts come together.

  14. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    Plus it’s easy to remember, and it rolls off the tongue.

    A little pattern-matching leads me to suspect that to be the basis of its rejection.

  15. Danny Husar says

    >What “neo-Marxist safe spaces”? “Neo-Marxism”, by the way, is an empty buzzword generally used by terrified “neo-conservatives” who are upset that students explore new ideas outside the conventional

    I don’t think anybody has a problem with studying Marxism in an academic context. Marxism has been historically proven to result in humanitarian, cultural and economic disaster every-time it is attempted. I cannot for the life of me figure out how an open Marxist could be employed by any credible Academic institution. To me, it’s akin to hiring an open Fascist.

    >As for “white supremacy,” “rape culture,” or “white privilege” — those are real things

    “White Supremacy” certainly is. “White Supremacy” and “Islamic Jihad-ism” are basically the only two international ideologies that result in terrorist and violent attacks against civilians in the Western World. The other two, I’m not so sure.

    Besides the unnecessarily inflammatory label, “Rape Culture” is a meaningless concept. Apparently modern societies (as represented by the developed world) are a ‘rape culture’, but then if that’s the case, then all societies in the modern world are a ‘rape culture’. And since the modern age is the most egalitarian in the history of human civilization, then all of human history is a ‘rape culture’. So at the end, what is it that this concept is supposed to identify? There is nothing to contrast it with, and there is no end state that will result in no rape culture.

    “White Privilege” may exist in certain contexts but there is very little evidence that being white is the most important factor in establishing failure or success of an individual. It is certainly not the only ‘privilege’ that exists. Other examples include:

    – Tall-person privilege.
    Tall people tend to make more money.
    – Being raised in a two-parent household privilege.
    Many studies show that kids raised in a two-parent households do better than kids raised in a single-parent household.
    – Asian-American privilege.
    Asian-Americans as a racial demographic do better than all other groups in America.
    – STEM privilege.
    Having aptitude, skills and training in STEM fields in this age will lead to more economic prosperity than having an inclination towards the Arts.
    – Talent privilege.
    Some people are born with a certain predisposition for highly valued skilled. Lebron was an incredibly hard worker, but he also had the body and a brain that made it possible for him to become one of the best basketball players of all time.
    – Extrovert Privilege
    Extroverts tend to do better.
    – Rich parent privilege.
    Regardless of race, a kid born to affluent parents is going to do better than some poor white kid in Alabama.

    and on and on and on and on.

    There are hundreds of ‘privileged’ dimensions that constitute each individual. Each individual is privileged in one area and disadvantaged in another. I have never seen any evidence that being ‘white’ is the dominant predictor of success in America. I have seen many studies that strongly suggest other factors (such as being raised in a stable family unit) are much more strongly correlated with outcomes. What makes this concept so nefarious is how blunt of an instrument it is and the ‘gas-lighting’ it evokes. A white kid in a trailer park in Alabama will look around and wonder when the hell his ‘white privilege’ is supposed to kick-in.

  16. Akira MacKenzie says

    That does not imply that we’re sitting around inculcating them with the sacred words of Lenin and Mao.

    Given the way our civilization is crumbling, maybe it’s about time the started.

  17. flange says

    The self-righteous Social Justice Warriors who are destroying society. The “politically correct” liberals who ruin their world. The criminal immigrants. Marxist universities. That pesky First Amendment. Know-it-all scientists. The deficit (when Democrats are in power.) The Right (Republicans) need mythical straw men to blame and pummel.

  18. Crys T says

    So Danny @17 doesn’t think “rape culture” has any meaning. Yet one more dude strutting in, in total ignorance, musing briefly on a topic that others have been theorising about for decades, and – because it doesn’t immediately make sense to him or apply to his personal experience – he dismisses it. So surprising.

    Fuck all the Dannys of this world. I am fucking done with his type of idiot man, bloated with the hot air of his own self-importance, dismissing women’s ideas simply because those ideas don’t fit the rules set up by men. Go crawl back under the slimy rocks you emerged from. I am no longer going to dignify the curdled jizz squirting from your pseudo-intellectual wankery by pretending it’s worthy of debate. It isn’t.

    And just fyi: if you think smarmily sneering, “You seem angry” will be an adequate comeback or will shame me, you’re wrong: anger is good. Requiring anyone who’s had to spend a lifetime dealing with the fuckwitted hordes of Dannys that swarm this planet, squirming up to our faces in order to vomit their stupidity into them on a daily basis, to not be a tower of burning rage is irrational.

    Until these shit-for-brains, self-adoring gasbags learn to shut the fuck up and learn from their betters, you’d better prepare for a lot of us to be in permanent Hulk Smash mode.

    And I haven’t even got started on the utter idiocy of his position on white privilege.