Yesterday Notre Dame's Young Americans for Freedom (or, YAF, pronounced like you're sneezing) invited Conservative provocateur Matt Walsh to speak on the general state of cultural decline, and why "liberals" are to blame for it. I decided to go after speaking with a couple of YAF's (*excuse me!*) leaders in LaFortune the other day. They were thoughtful and intelligent, and we had a great conversation about what it's like to be politically conservative on campus (Notre Dame's campus and campuses more generally). I'm really interested in that topic, partly because I considered myself a political conservative throughout my college experience. (I don't now identify with either side of the political spectrum. When people ask, I say, "Well, I'm Catholic. And in academia. We probably don't agree on anything.")
In any event, I went to the talk hoping for...something. I guess I was hoping to peek inside culture amongst conservative undergrads. I have an insane amount of respect for ND students, and I've found that it's almost impossible to get students to talk about political commitments that aren't currently known to be academically fashionable in the classroom, for good reason. I do think there's a fair amount of thought policing that goes on in academia -- if I were a business major and a republican at ND, why would I risk letting a TA who has almost complete control over my grade, and who may have been sympathetic to this piece of writing, know that? (Seriously?! You'd have failed Murray for what he's written? I'm glad I've never had you as a TA!) Better to keep your head down, I suppose.
I was also hoping for something from Walsh. Some arguments, perhaps, or some real substantive cultural criticism from a political position I don't fully identify with, but that I find tempting in a number of respects.
And what did we get?
What might have been the laziest, most caricatured version of the "liberals are heretics" schtick that anyone who keeps an eye on the Catholic blogosphere scrolls through a couple of times per week.
I mean, you can watch the talk for yourself here if you want. I could also paraphrase all the interesting bits in a couple sentences:
- Notre Dame -- Our Lady's University -- has invited pro-choice speakers to campus. Shame on Notre Dame.
- Notre Dame has a Gender Studies Department! Shaaaaaammmmmmmmmmeeeeeeeeeeeee.
- But Notre Dame just illustrates a bigger problem, which is that Catholics -- because they aren't properly catechised -- are susceptible to liberal ideology, which is basically SATANISM. And what's the problem with liberalism?
- LIFE: liberals want all or most babies dead. Imagine a heap of dead babies as high as Mount Everest. Liberal (satanists) eat that shit up. They LOVE it. They'd probably worship it if that wouldn't give away the fact that they are in cahoots WITH THE LITERAL DEVIL.
- MARRIAGE: Oh the gays! They want to get married, so they deny the existence of Absolute Truth. This allows them to put their feelings in the place truth should hold in cultural debates, and is the reason why people were fooled into rejecting the ultimate rational argument against gay marriage, namely: it's definitional. Gay marriage is definitionally impossible. Like a round square. Or something.
- GENDER: Ha! Heard a good one the other day! There's a gender called "Gender Flux" and one called "agender" -- these FOOLS don't even respect BIOLOGY.
That was about it. I mean, he hated on compassion for a while. (Christ doesn't care about how you feel! He cares about your immortal soul. So let's all be dicks about stuff. That's how you really care about your friends. Shame them into salvation.) He also bemoaned the fact that we're not all a bit more obsessed with mortal sins like pornography and masturbation.
And that was it. I think I've captured the essence of it.
Okay, so let me be really clear about something. I don't think Walsh's claims are all (or even mostly) false. People who know me will likely be surprised by how plausible I find some of the more controversial things Walsh said. I think a lot of these issues are live, and I think respectable intellectual positions have been marginalized by trends in the mainstream (which has been moving swiftly and steadily to left on social issues in a way noticeable even during my lifetime).
I also get why people like watching Matt speak. And reading his blog. Especially conservative college students -- especially conservative college students who feel unwelcome for their political views on campus.
It feels good to watch someone get in the ring, dressed up in all the symbolic gear that lets you know they're the good guys, and kick ass.
Unfortunately in our culture, we're at a point where all one has to do to "kick ass" in this way is to say socially unacceptable things that resonate deeply with underrepresented intellectual positions.
Maybe we shouldn't be encouraging transgendered people to undergo surgical transitions.
Or, maybe marriage ought to be defined in the law as between a man and a women.
Or, maybe mortal sin is a thing, and maybe that's something we should pay attention to.
Okay, so you're not going to convince any opponents by merely asserting (without argument) these claims, but the fact that someone even has the guts to get out there and say it. That they'll even say it on a college campus. I mean, that's all conservative student groups are looking for nowadays.
And -- again -- I completely understand why.
College can be an alienating place (trust me, I know), and academia can be even more alienating for those with views outside the academic mainstream.
But, you guys, we've got to do better.
Walsh offered no arguments. He didn't analyze any of the cases he offered in anything approaching a convincing manner. Take the "ND invites pro-choice speakers to campus" point. Well, ND allows student groups to invite any speakers they see fit. They don't need to. We're a private college campus. But the administration thinks there's value in this policy. In a "free speech" policy. In allowing student groups to invite controversial speakers, regardless of their ideological commitments. Is this a good policy? I don't know. Let's debate it.
- Pro: Of course! Allowing all views to be represented is good for everyone on campus. Those who disagree will come up with stronger arguments if they are exposed to real life interlocutors. Those who agree may find themselves disagreeing with the particular grounds that speaker has for supporting the view. And it's always better for the power to invite speakers to be with the students. If ND started policing campus invites, who would make those decisions? If ND is the sort of place Walsh (and the Cardinal Newman Society and the Sycamore Trust) say it is, why would you want to concentrate that power in an (already corrupt) administration? So, behind closed doors, a secret group of ideology police might have decided that Walsh's speech wasn't of value, could have refused to let YAF (*I'm getting over it, I swear!*) invite him. I'm glad that didn't happen. I wouldn't want that to happen in the future. I think the "open speaker policy" is a good one.
- Con: Notre Dame is a Catholic University, and an influential one at that. She shouldn't give a platform to those who self-consciously reject important church teachings. Instead, she should spend her time bringing to prominence positions that get less of a hearing in the mainstream culture. Perhaps New Wave Feminists (pro-life feminists) could be invited to give secular reasons why abortion is immoral and ought to be illegal. Or perhaps we should just stick to those avowing such positions for reasons internal to Catholicism. In this way, ND could be a "light in the darkness" -- could minister and evangelize, rather than cater to a culture that has already gained too much influence over it.
Who wins? I don't know. We'd have to put these positions into dialogue. Is "free speech" more central to ND's identity than "evangelization"? Are the two commensurable? Is there an in-principle answer to questions like this (something like 1. All Catholic universities have a duty to _______, 2. ND is a Catholic university....)
I don't know. I'd love to hear those arguments. But we didn't get anywhere close to that with Walsh's talk.
And that is the fundamental problem with this event.
In my view, lazy conservative pep rallies do more harm to conservative causes on campus than they do good. I mean, yeah, we got fired up. And, yeah, we saw the clown man say all those taboo things. But there was nothing edifying about what happened last night. There was nothing intellectually stimulating. There was a lot of back patting, a lot of shaming (more than I'd anticipated!), and not much else.
I should say, in closing, that I'm really glad that YAF exists. Seriously. I'm alarmed by the current climate in academia for conservative students, and I think it's laudable for students to be politically active -- especially when their position is so marginalized. Good for YAF for organizing, good for them for choosing to bring in a controversial speaker, good for them for their organizing efforts (the social media campaign for the event was impressive, their leadership is clearly thoughtful, intelligent, and efficient). I really hope to see more of their events on campus. For their sake, though, for the sake of the positions they avow and seek to defend -- I hope that speakers in the future will be more willing to wade into substantive issues.
Now there's a provocative idea.