Viva la (conservative) revolution

Book Review: "The Conservative Revolution: How to Win the Battle for College Campuses", by Brendan Steinhauser

By Forrest Wilder
October 2004; pages 4, 15; Number 7.

"Although it is not meant for leftists, a species I have little love for, it is inevitable that they will get the text and use it for their wicked purposes."
-"Conservative Revolution," pg. 2

YCT book review

You can learn a lot from reading your political opponents' literature, although it can be decidedly unpleasant at times. I was reminded of this lesson when reading "Conservative Revolution: How to Win the Battle for College Campuses," the first (and thunderingly bad) book by Brendan Steinhauser, former executive director of the UT-Austin Young Conservatives of Texas and leading luminary of the brainstem campus Right. In a chapter entitled "Educating Your Members and the Public," he counsels his readers to "know the enemy when one is engaging in intellectual battle." Indeed.

Following in the footsteps of David Horowitz (one-time campus radical and current father figure of campus conservatives), Steinhauser comes out swinging wildly at what he calls the "totalitarian Left" and its stranglehold on universities. Like a punch-drunk quarterback he huddles his fellow crusaders and calls for an all-out blitz on the other team, in this case, the Left.

Essentially "Conservative Revolution" is both a playbook detailing the nuts-and-bolts of running a conservative student group and a rallying cry for what Steinhauser calls a "new generation of conservatives," the "new counter-culture on America's campuses." He hints at a utopia in which conservatives will force the "totalitarian left ... to return our campuses to an environment of academic freedom."

I'm not sure what we're returning to, but let's hope it's not the days of segregation, National Guardsmen gunning down students, or women forced into a handful of "suitable" professions.

What's most remarkable about Steinhauser's glorified pamphlet (he uses 12-point font and wide spacing to stretch his book to 160 pages), is the author's notion of what it means to be a young conservative. Besides the usual boilerplate loyalties to God, guns, and country, a conservative is fundamentally what a leftist is not. Although Steinhauser seems distressed over the meager intellectual offerings of conservative thought, he remedies this problem less by constructively defining conservatism than by demonizing the Other, the "evil" and "wicked" left.

Even as Steinhauser fulminates against Marxism, which he understands in only the most vulgar terms, his talk of "revolution;" of "us vs. them;" of the struggle for ideological hegemony reeks of dialectical Marxism.

Of course one shouldn't take this parallel too far. After all, Steinhauser strongly recommends structuring your student group as a "constitutional monarchy" because this model is "necessary for preventing the group from being destroyed by enemies within." Furthermore, he "cannot stress enough the value of having the top position handed down like a dynasty."

This mild authoritarianism, coupled with a rigid ideology and the fact that YCT makes their members pay dues, reminds me of another notorious group at UT: the International Socialist Organization. Maybe things really do come full circle.

When Steinhauser gets really exercised about the state of things, his worldview seems to vault out of a time capsule from the McCarthy era. The corrupting influence of tenured radicals, anti-American Chomskyites, and "biased" liberals at the University is an idée fixed of "Conservative Revolution." Much to his discredit, Steinhauser borrows a page from Ann Coulter ("Treason") and another from Daniel Flynn ("Why Liberals Hate America") and basically accuses liberals of being one step above Satan.

From this black-and-white fantasy world, Steinhauser argues that for far too long conservatives have been "persecuted" at universities, but now - with a little help from some corporate-funded right-wing foundations - conservatives are fomenting a "revolution" on U.S. campuses.

Nevermind that Edmund Burke, the founding father of conservative philosophy centered his work on what he saw as the failure of revolutionary politics, warning against the excesses and unintended consequences of any drastic upheaval. Perhaps this dissonance explains why Burke is conspicuously absent from the reading list in the back of the book, an extensive roster which includes the King James Bible (the official handbook of many Christian fundamentalists), Ayn Rand, and some one-off tracts from more contemporary "thinkers."

On and on, in martial terms, Steinhauser explains that there is a "culture war" underway and that "conservatives are tired of losing," that a "conservative army" must be built, that "one can feel the calm before the storm of the conservative revolution."

Steinhauser is in way over his head here. First of all, he's about 10 years too late for the "revolution." That was led by Newt Gingrich and his phalanx of radical Republicans in the House takeover of '94. But like all revolutions, after regime change, goals became less lofty and the revolutionaries turned into entrenched leaders. Newt bit the dust, but many of the other teeth-gnashing storm troopers are now firmly ensconced in the three branches of government, happily passing out favors to corporations.

Second of all, while Steinhauser is right in saying that conservatives are losing the culture war - and have been for a long time - there's little chance that their utopian goals will ever find a wide audience on college campuses like UT. No matter how many affirmative action bake sales, straight pride marches, and conservative black history days they hold, young Americans are unlikely to embrace YCT's paleo-conservative social agenda.

YCTers and their ilk will continue to spin their wheels, getting angrier and angrier about their lack of success while blaming liberals for the "moral decay" of society instead of attacking the corporations and rampant capitalism that is really responsible for most modern anomie.

Better political observers than I have written widely about this backlash phenomenon - namely the Republican leadership's successful stirring up of divisive "cultural" issues to distract a v e r a g e Americans while they push through a pro-corporate agenda that in turn harms the very grassroots contingent that is manning the barracks of the culture war. Some call this the "Rove strategy;" we might as well label it the "Steinhauser albatross." As Thomas Frank writes in "What's the Matter with Kansas?":

"The leaders of the backlash - the same canny people, remember, who are responsible for such masterpieces of political strategy as the Florida 2000 election result and the campaign for social security privatization - have chosen to wage cultural battles where victory is impossible, where their followers' feelings of powerlessness will be dramatized and their alienation aggravated ... As culture war, the backlash was born to lose. Its goal is not to win cultural battles but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly. Indignation is the great aesthetic principle of backlash culture; voicing the fury of the imposed-upon is to the backlash what the guitar solo is to heavy metal."

Perhaps the frustration in never winning helps explain YCT's strategy as it is outlined the book. And what is this strategy? Basically, it centers around the "controversial event." YCT seems downright obsessed with getting in the so-called liberal media. Steinhauser writes, "The that a sharp group of conservatives can use the media as pawns in their strategy of getting media exposure." The gold standard for success, as it's measured in the book, is headlines - the bigger, the better. Steinhauser pumps his fists at the memory of YCT landing on The O'Reilly Factor and ABC's Nightline in the wake of the controversy unleashed by YCT's professor "watch list." To impress his readers, he recounts controversy after controversy on campus: the affirmative action bake sale, straight pride day, the distribution of a WANTED flyer for a missing Pakistani student, debates with anti-war folks (admitting that "the leftists seemed to be more informed"). But what do these events accomplish? Yes, they probably energize the hard-core members of the organization, but they also alienate as many people as they attract. The Event becomes theatre for the already-converted, and the goal of actually making change is lost. Like many groups on the left guilty of the same thing, YCT's single-minded goal of attaining attention belies a shallowness and egotism that will ultimately undermine their movement.

If this was the end of the story, we could all stop worrying about the Campus Right and get down to real business. Unfortunately, Steinhauser is not all sound and fury. Some of YCT's projects - and the campus right in general - do actually pose a threat. In particular, their neo-McCarthyism should not be taken lightly. Listen to how Steinhauser describes the effects of YCT's "professor watch list," which if measured by media coverage was wildly successful:

"The results of [the professor watch list] were undeniable; instructors at UT were reacting by being much more balanced in their presentations of material ... They were starting to notice their being on the watchlist meant people all over the nation knew you were attempting to further your political agenda with taxpayers' dollars."

He's most likely exaggerating, but nonetheless it's telling that Steinhauser is proud that YCT has succeeded in scaring faculty into stifling their voices. If this is YCT's idea of academic freedom, I am worried, especially since David Horowitz's organization, which is ideologically linked to YCT, is promoting an Academic Bill of Rights in state governments and the U.S. Congress which would institutionalize such measures.

Not surprisingly, the majority of professors on the list lean left. Their crime lies in expressing their point-of-view in the classroom - what YCT labels "indoctrination." The biggest professorial bogeyman of all in Steinhauser's view is journalism professor and outspoken activist, Bob Jensen, who Steinhauser impugns for "stating publicly that he did not think journalism is objective" and "taking ample time out of his class for discussing his gay rights agenda and the evils of capitalism and imperialism." Having taken Jensen's class on media law, I can say that Steinhauser's beef with Jensen seems to be misguided and purely ideological. Jensen is a meticulous purveyor of the proud, but waning ethical tradition of journalism, the one that speaks critically to power when necessary, the one that examines all sides of a story but does not flinch from staking out a position. Jensen is an ideal professor; he is challenging without being a bully; he encourages debate but makes no bones about his opinion. What he does not do is indoctrinate. Those that accuse him of that would find a conservative professor talking up privatization or putting down gay marriage to be entirely "objective."

What marks a good teacher is not his bland neutrality but the ability to teach critical thinking while putting forth a coherent perspective. What's important in a professor is not his political ideology, but the enthusiasm, wisdom, and knowledge he brings to the subject matter.

In the end, this nuanced understanding of media and education will be lost on Steinhauser and the YCT cadre. Who could take a person's intellect or politics on these topics seriously when they pen a paragraph like this:

"One of the best ways to combat liberal bias is to take over the campus newspaper ... Try recruiting some good objective journalists you know and convince them to apply for jobs at the paper ... The idea here is not to convert the media bias from liberal to conservative. Rather, it is to end the practice of bias altogether and replace it with objectivity and fairness. Conservatives are much more likely not to be biased when compared to liberals. This is simply inherent in their mindset, since liberals do not believe in truth or morality ... Be the Tim Russert of your campus paper. Don't dare be the Larry King or Barbara Walters. Having conservatives in the newsroom will ensure that pro-life events and rallies for troops are covered just as frequently as Greenpeace violence and femi-nazi parades."

In a book chocked full of delusional statements, the biggest whopper of them all is Steinhauser's claim that "liberals do not believe in truth or morality." Is this an attempt at humor or a guiding principle? I fear the latter. Such kooky opinions are what troubles me about the campus right. While the left twiddles its thumbs and engages in narcissistic infighting, young revolutionaries - who cut their teeth on Limbaugh and Fox News, not Che and Chomsky - are dead serious about kicking ass and taking names. While progressive activists tie themselves up in knots over "process" and the intricacies of identity, conservatives are organizing, organizing, organizing. It's easy to make mince-meat of Steinhauser's infantile book, but you've gotta hand it to the YCTers - they mean business. They've figured out our tactics and are using them against us. They've got a plan and anyone can read it. Where's ours?

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Wilder, Forrest. "Viva la (conservative) revolution". October 2004. Issue. Vol. 1. No. 7. Pages 4, 15.