Thursday, May 10, 2018

How college shaped my politics…30 years ago

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about all the political wackiness on campus: safe spaces, trigger warnings, and ultraliberal professors brainwashing the young. 

The concern, in more conservative quarters at least, is that our colleges will tilt our youth permanently and irrevocably to the left.

But this is not the first generation to encounter leftwing profs. I encountered them thirty years ago. They certainly had an impact on my political beliefs… though not the one they might have intended, or that you might expect. 



If you had told me at the age of fifteen or so that I would ever have any sympathies for conservative ideas, I would have told you that you were crazy. My politics, such as they were, leaned to the left.

I was a sophomore in high school when the nuclear war drama The Day After aired on network television on 11/20/83. The movie, with its realistic depictions of nuclear armageddon, resonated deeply with the 100 million Americans who watched it. Nineteen eighty-three was a tense year in the Cold War. Not since the Cuban missile crisis two decades earlier had the superpowers been so close to open conflict. Many years later, we would learn that the US and the USSR came very close to an accidental nuclear exchange during the NATO Able Archer military exercises. (Ironically enough, this near miss occurred about thirty days before The Day After appeared on television.)

Another thing we would learn years later was that the movie had a deep impact on President Reagan, too. The Day After convinced President Reagan that he would have to find a way to either force or cajole the Soviets to the bargaining table so that serious, bilateral arms reductions could take place. 

But substantive arms reductions would be delayed for several more years. At that time, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union was a bellicose, paranoid ex-KGB apparatchik named Yuri Andropov. (I’ll refrain from dwelling on the observation that Russia is once again under the control of a bellicose, paranoid ex-KGB apparatchik. But sometimes history really does repeat itself.)

What I learned from The Day After was that nuclear war was really, really bad. And so were nuclear weapons! Why didn’t all the adults realize the insanity of the current situation? Wasn’t the solution for us to simply disarm ourselves, and rely on the goodwill of others? What was wrong with President Reagan? Couldn’t he give peace a chance?

That’s what I believed, and I wasn’t alone. There were plenty of left-leaning adults during the 1980s who believed more or less the same thing. 

(By the way: If you haven’t seen The Day After, then you really ought to make a point of seeing it. I recently saw the movie for the second time after a thirty-year hiatus. It has aged well, as topical movies go.)



Mushroom cloud scene from The Day After (1983)



At the age of fifteen I was heavily into rock music. A decade before Taylor Swift was born, the cultural afterglow of the 1960s could still be felt in rock lyrics. The general drift of music, to the extent that it was political at all, was to promote a worldview that was liberal on economic and foreign policy matters, and libertarian on issues of personal conduct. Make love, not war. Rock and roll all night, as one of the songs of that era said.

To complete my left-leaning ideological bent, I participated in a program entitled Youth for World Peace during my junior year of high school. Yes, the bombastic title of the program makes me cringe today. As if what high school students think has ever made any difference. We hadn’t yet earned our diplomas or paid real taxes, but we were going to figure out the solution to the arms race. What were we thinking? And more to the point: What were the adult enablers of ‘Youth for World Peace’ thinking?

My parents, finally, were basically apolitical. My father had recently started his own business, so he made occasional remarks about the need to lower taxes and reduce the size of government. But neither of my parents talked about politics very much. (And who listens to their parents when they’re a teenager, anyway?)



So when I entered college in the fall of 1986, my young mind should have been fertile ground for liberal indoctrination.

The indoctrinators, moreover, were already on the scene. By 1986, the student protestors of the 1960s already made up the bulk of the professorial ranks.


My college profs, 20 years before I met them


I took a class in economics my freshman year. The professor of this class was not an ex-hippie, but a crusty old World War II veteran, a few years away from mandatory retirement. On the first day of Econ 101, he stood before the class and said, “The first lesson of economics is: There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

In Econ 101 I learned about the inevitably of trade-offs when allocating resources. You really don’t get to keep your cake and eat it, too. I also learned about the Law of Unintended Consequences. I learned, for example, that when the government imposes rent ceilings, the ultimate effect is to reduce both the quality and availability of housing in the area where the price ceilings apply. Price ceilings don’t really help anyone, but they sure make liberal politicians feel good about themselves. 



Speaking of college: We can see the Law of Unintended Consequences wreaking havoc in the form of the skyrocketing tuition that the present generation of college students has to endure. 

Colleges provide essentially the same services today that they did when I was a college student. But tuition is much, much more expensive, even when you factor in inflation. 

This makes no sense. If anything, college tuition should be cheaper today, because educational institutions now have access to the efficiencies of the Internet, which were unknown in 1986.

But colleges have been shielded from market forces. The money that the government funnels into universities through the college loan system drives tuition inflation. University officials know that no matter how high tuition goes, the costs will ultimately be absorbed by taxpayer-funded college loans. Therefore, they have no incentive to reduce costs. But I digress.



It wasn’t that crusty old economics professor who turned me conservative, though. It was actually my left-leaning professors, starting with my far left Spanish professor. We students used to call her La Communista, owing to her outspoken political views. 

Through my own reading, I had begun to learn more about communism. While that may sound like an arcane interest today, keep in mind that communism was as timely an issue in 1986 as transgender restroom rights are today. The Soviet Union was still very much a going concern, and a hegemonic competitor of the US. 

My reading taught me about the Soviet gulag archipelago; and a few more economics classes taught me the basic flaws in Marxist economic theory. 

The worst thing about communism wasn’t its inefficiency, but rather, its human cost. I had learned by this time about political prisoners being murdered en masse following the communist revolution in Cuba. Perhaps the bloodiest Cuban revolutionary was Che Guevara, whose image lefties then—as now—liked to display on tee shirts. Ten years earlier, communists in Cambodia had murdered one third of that country’s population. 

I also read articles about the Marxist Sandinistas, who were then in power in Nicaragua, murdering Catholic priests and other dissidents. 


Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega on the cover of Time, October 1986


Communism was not working for anyone, and it would implode within a few short years. But my Spanish professor, whom I’ll call Dr. B, was determined to make our Spanish 201 class believe that communism was the best system for Latin America—and probably for the United States of America as well! Dr. B was  a Bernie Sanders Bernista, decades before anyone outside of Vermont had heard of Bernie Sanders. 

I was eighteen years old and raring to challenge adult authority figures who spouted nonsense. So when Dr. B, aka La Communista, raved about how wonderful Che Guevara had been, I asked her about all the innocent people the man had murdered. I also pointed out that the Marxist revolution had turned Cuba into what Donald Trump would now call a “shithole country”. Cubans were risking their lives in boats in order to reach Key West, after all. 

La Communista’s response was a version of what has since become the standard leftwing response in campus debates: Shut up. When I see contemporary reports of leftist students and professors demanding censorship and the right to rush the podiums of speakers whose ideas they don't like, I'm disappointed but not completely surprised. I witnessed such "liberal" intolerance 30 years ago. La Communista wasn’t about to debate the greatness of Che Guevara with the likes of me. 

(By the way, just out of curiosity, I did a Google search for La Communista. She’s still teaching at the collegiate level, though at a different university. The good news is: She should retire soon.)



La Communista was the most easily caricatured of my leftwing college professors, but she was far from the only one. I had a geography professor who somehow managed to turn every other geography lecture into a rant about the Reagan administration. One of my political science professors coyly suggested one day that the Soviet Union had a “more humane system” than the Western democracies.

Throughout my four years of college, I responded by doing what young people have often done throughout the ages, when treated dogmatically and condescendingly by adult authority figures. I rebelled. Sometimes I spoke out, and sometimes I held my tongue. But the more my professors preached leftism, the more I deliberately exposed myself to conservative ideas, especially in the field of economics. 

I also had a few encounters with my student peers who were in league with the professors. The term ‘SJW’ was unknown back then, but there were plenty of students who were eager to see racism, classism, sexism, and whatnot in the most ersatz items. 

Around this time, there was a raging debate on campuses about whether or not the term ‘freshman’ was inherently sexist. Yes, seriously. On another occasion, a group of students protested because Camille Pissarro’s 1882 painting, The Harvest, had been reproduced on the autumn schedule of classes. The students claimed that the painting was a racist representation of African slaves in the antebellum American south. The only problem with this argument was that Camille Pissarro’s painting was obviously set in the French countryside, and everyone in it is obviously white. But the students protesting the “racism” of the painting were white, too. 

All of this taught me that lefties were combustible, intolerant, and prone to see offense where no offense plausibly existed. By the time I graduated from college, I was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. I had been converted to conservatism not by conservatives, but by overbearing liberals.


Camille Pissarro's The Harvest


Thirty years later, I still lean conservative; but I am no longer as conservative as I once was. Time and experience have taught me that most situations are more complex than the absolutist slogans of either the right or the left take into account. 

The Camille Pissarro painting was not “racist”; and to object to it on such grounds was ridiculous. But this doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist anywhere. Likewise, rent controls are uniformly disastrous. But that doesn’t mean that there is no reasonable role for the government in a free-market economy. 

Anyone can reflexively shout about 'misogynists' or 'SJWs'. But to be a functioning, thinking human being—as opposed to a knee-jerk ideologue—is to evaluate each situation, individual, and argument on its own merits. Some theories and frameworks are more useful than others. All of them are imperfect representations of reality.



There is now a concerted effort on many American campuses to force students to toe the line of a rigid leftwing orthodoxy. While some students willingly support the drive toward a campus monoculture, the adults are the ones ultimately in charge, and the ones ultimately to blame.

Young people always rebel against their elders, in ways both subtle and unsubtle. And they always think for themselves, even when they do so imperfectly, and from flawed premises. 

A recent poll revealed that the Democratic Party is losing the support of American young people. This should not surprise anyone overmuch. 

If a majority of college professors now tilt to the far left, then being a leftie at college is simply conforming to the adult establishment. And when you’re between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, what fun is that?

At the end of the day, leftist professors may push more students to the right than all the Campus Republican rallies and Milo Yiannoupolos speeches could ever aspire to. 

You’ll remember what my economics professor taught me—the conservative one, that is—about the Law of Unintended Consequences. 

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