The Magazine

Wannabe-Cons

David Skinner, happy insurgent.

Mar 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 26 • By DAVID SKINNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In defeat, envy. Or so it goes with liberals, who lately seem to covet every asset of the conservative movement, from Rush Limbaugh to, I recently learned, right-wing student publications.

David Halperin of the Center for American Progress, which is looking to fund lefty journalism on campus, complained to the Washington Post that conservative pundits have an "insurgency mentality, even though they run the world." And this mentality, Halperin believes, can be traced to formative experiences like writing for the Dartmouth Review.

Fair enough. But more than money, young liberals who want to be insurgents need a campus establishment with a right-wing, herd mentality to rise against. This would include boorishly pro-American professors and ultraconservative students. Only then would these future Eric Altermans feel like outsiders on campus and rightly deem it cool to afflict faculty and discomfit classmates.

Here, I speak from experience.

Before college, I didn't even know what a conservative was. Animal-rights activists, environmentalists, Communists--these I knew. The wannabes were my classmates at an artsy public school in Manhattan, and often enough their parents were the real thing. When politics wasn't the topic at their kitchen tables, I learned about a subject much dearer to my heart--becoming an artist, which in their telling sounded like becoming a professional grant applicant.

Either way, I had to go to college. My mother insisted. And at a small liberal arts school in the cornfields of Ohio, I encountered campus liberalism in all its socially regulatory, anti-intellectual, dour piety. Nearby Antioch College had instituted a system of consent checks for frisky males. On our campus, few crimes compared to promoting stereotypes, except that of the affluent white male. The cognoscenti spelled women "wymmyn" (perhaps they still do at Harvard) and proudly sermonized on the distinction between the empowering term "person of color" and the racist "colored person."

This tangle of dopey prohibitions was not for me. Among other problems, political correctness was pathologically un-fun, and for amusement I was absolutely starved. The only pleasure of an intellectual sort to be had outside a few classrooms seemed to be over at the conservative magazine, the Kenyon Observer. It ran an exposé of the feminist biology class in which the few male students allowed to participate had to sit in the front row of the auditorium so no female student would be looked down on by a male.

The frat boys running the Observer when I first arrived seemed rich; they were definitely smart; and their magazine had an aristocratic flavor. I remember visiting one in his dorm room and hearing John Coltrane on a pricey-looking stereo, as I admired a handsome hardcover set of Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. In any other student's room you'd find the Indigo Girls playing and Carol Gilligan brooding in the bookcase.

Sadly, the Observer's intellectual élan diminished with my own rise as a writer and editor. Though we never stooped as low as the paper from another school that ranked the hottest girls on campus, our rhetoric seldom ascended above snarky ridicule.

After the multicultural arts journal whose budget dwarfed our own came out, we went to town in an editorial about the pages they'd left blank for lack of contributions. When one of our writers told me the school's president and provost had given him nearly identical interviews, I made him write it up like this:

President Jordan warmly greeted me when I came by to ask about the true meaning of the liberal arts education, referred me to the introductory essay in the course catalog, and then bid me good day. Later that week, Provost Smith also greeted me warmly when I came by to ask him about the true meaning of the liberal arts education, before referring me to the introduction of the course catalog, and finally bidding me good day.

No passage in the magazine that year so infuriated the school brass.

A recent dinner for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Collegiate Network, which helped fund the Observer and many other right-wing campus mags, brought back these memories. What a night! I finally met Kenyon legends and Observer founders Alex Novak, now at Regnery, and David Horner, today a Richmond lawyer. On stage, John Podhoretz and Tod Lindberg finished each other's sentences and squabbled about the early days of the University of Chicago's conservative mag. The crowd of capital bigshots and campus little shots loved it.

It captured the fun we had, we undergrads, who looked for trouble, and enjoyed ourselves at liberals' expense. The left, if I may say so, has every reason to be envious.

--David Skinner