This article was first published in FrontPage Magazine on October 24, 2008.
For a conservative, the hazards of speaking on a college campus are more extensive than you might think. Once the security guards are in place – as they inevitably must be – the risk of getting pied or physically attacked or having one’s speech shut down by raucous protesters is actually a lesser problem than others one regularly encounters at these events.
Far greater is the problem presented by the generally hostile environment a conservative normally encounters on any campus. This includes destruction of flyers advertising one’s event, failure of the campus newspaper to publicize it and failure of professors to recommend or even require student attendance as they regularly do for radical speakers. Equally troublesome for a visiting conservative is the pervasive leftist mindset of a community that is constantly brow-beaten by leftist propaganda and is the subject of relentless intimidation by leftist bigots who will call anyone who disagrees with them a racist or a sexist or an Islamophobe at the drop of a hat. This creates a conventional wisdom which institutionalizes falsehoods such as “Israel is occupying stolen Arab lands or is an apartheid state” or “the Jews control American policy.” The same oppressive atmosphere makes lunatic positions such as the claim that the American government or the Israeli Mossad blew up the world trade center seem reasonable. When I spoke at Central Michigan University last week, for example, my speech was competing with another event, organized by Michigan faculty which featured a once deported Muslim professor – now re-admitted on visa – who argued that 9/11 was an Israeli plot.
At same time, reasonable statements a visiting conservative is likely to make – that the Arabs are guilty of a sixty-year war of aggression whose goal is to destroy the Jewish state – seem one-sided, hard-to-believe and therefore “extreme.” This means that any statement made by such a visitor taken out of context can seem ludicrous and absurd to a campus audience which is likely never to have been confronted by conservative arguments and facts – perhaps never to have heard them presented by an adult member of the academic community.
In this fertile ground, the campus press becomes the most hazardous land mine for a visiting conservative. As a result of changes made twenty and thirty years ago, campus newspapers are independently owned while still drawing on institutional support from universities who give them exclusive distribution rights, and bearing the names of traditional campus newspapers which associates them with the university community. This arrangement allows university administrators to wash their hands of responsibility for the journalistic contents of the papers while providing them with a captive campus audience.
On my campus visits, I have occasionally had really fine student reporters cover my events, and I have had honest but incompetent student reporters garble my remarks. But I have also had ideologically hostile campus reporters who garbled my remarks with political intent. The resulting caricatures have provided useful fodder for the many leftist websites gunning for me on the web. The fact that this ammunition comes with the apparent imprimatur of venerable institutions increases its power to produce collateral damage. It is this hazard to one’s reputation as a public intellectual that presents the most troublesome risk to a conservative who is imprudent enough to accept an invitation to come to a university to speak.
A case in point is the recent visit I made Brown University during Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week – which was “reported” in the Brown Daily Herald.