|Image from Young America's Foundation|
The book is a good way to dive into the minds of some smart conservative writers, especially if the book is approached with an honest interest to understand their worldview.
Before I begin discussing the substance, though, let me critique one thing about the construction of the book: everything about it suggests that we'll be hearing from young people. The book bills itself as from the "next" generation. John Podhoretz's blurb promises "the unapologetic testimony of the young conservatives." And in the introduction, Goldberg promises to demonstrate that "conservative kids are just a bit, well, better—better at explaining and articulating their ideas...", and he describes the book as one "of essays by young conservatives," specifically contributors who "are younger and far less well-established than were the bullpen of contributors to Upward and Backward" (xiii). But disappointment hit when I read a little bit further down:
For the record, the formula for determining whether someone counts as "young" is simple: Are they younger than me? (Again, for the record, I am forty years old as of this writing...). (xiii)Then I realized that it was silly for me to expect anything else. To many conservatives, these are the young people: those in their twenties and thirties. No one younger, of course, has anything interesting to say. For those who care, I did some quick estimations, and the median age of the authors appears to be 26. Only a few appear to still have been in college when they wrote their pieces, and all had graduated by the time it was published. Whatever else the book is, it's indicative of a certain attitude towards young people: because even though Goldberg is correct to denounce "cheap identity politics that says your ideas and arguments count more—or less—simply because of your demographic cohort" (xvii) (and I certainly don't hold the authors' age against them), when a group of adults and established professionals are portrayed as "young" conservatives, a blind spot towards actual youth is revealed.
But the book itself is a delightful mix of contradictions, interesting characters, and a window into authentic conservatism.
The book has profound issues, of course: some the normal problems of fierce conservatism, some (I think) revelatory of interesting things. I think it's good to explore some of those fundamental flaws before moving onto the substantial admirable portions of the book.
The trope of conservative victimhood permeates several of the essays, which is particularly interesting, considering that Goldberg warns conservatives away from the "narrative of victimization" (xi). But perhaps it's not that surprising that some of the authors Goldberg finds cannot say away from that narrative, since Goldberg himself introduces the familiar cast of characters: the supposed left-wing "mainstream media" (xviii) and the liberals who control the "commanding heights of culture" (xi, xviii). The narrative finds expression in Robin Dembroff's essay, "The Conservative Gene" (in fact, it's almost the entire point of that essay: liberals are mean, nasty people who judge you based on the fact that you're conservative, whereas conservatives tend to be smarter and more open minded), in self-serving assumptions that "graduate schools...looked past the encouraging evidence of grades, standardized test scores, and recommendations, to the subversive fealty to tradition and common sense, conveyed in my writing samples" (Justin Katz, 74), in conclusory statements about how "professors believe their role is to ensure that students graduate with the 'correct' set of views...the toxic combination of groupthink and political correctness has turned many American campuses into prisons of the mind" (Evan Maloney, 92), in the absolute self-righteous certainty that liberals are bullies and conservatives are pure-spirited (Ben Shapiro's essay, "Why I'm Glad Liberals Are Bullies"), and in casual throwaway statements about the "intellectual imperialism of the Left" where "the Left often rules with such florid arrogance that George III himself would have been embarrassed" (Ashley Thorne, 214, 223).
And the authors also have weird views of what they call "the Left" (although sometimes instead they call them "Obama's devoted zombies": Katherine Miller, 111), including the seeming imputation to the entire political side of the views of "Left-wing 'queer' theorists, who argue that binary sexuality is a social construct" (James Kirchick, 85), the idea that 'the Left' tells "honeyed lies that everyone is the same and that therefore those who have more must have ill-gotten their riches" (Matt Patterson, 142), or the accusation that "to the far Left, truth and right did not matter. What defined morality was the perceived position of each side within a global system. Though outnumbered by its enemies, Israel was a strong military ally of the United States and therefore could do no right, just as the Palestinians could do no wrong" (Joel Pollak, 150). Other gems include the belief in a conspiracy of "Leftist control freaks" (Todd Seavey, 194) and that conservatives "face liberal bullying on a daily basis, from the elementary-school level through grad school and on into their careers (particularly law, education, and Hollywood)" (Ben Shapiro, 208).
As well as these distorted views of the left in general, we get this caricature of multiculturalism:
As it is practiced in academia, multiculturalism holds that all cultures are equal, except Western culture, which has a history of oppression and war, and is therefore worse. All religions are equal, except Christianity and Judaism, which are both worse, because they informed the beliefs of the capitalist bloodsuckers who founded this racist, sexist, homophobic country. According to multiculturalism, all races are equal, except Caucasians, who long ago went into business with slave traders in Africa, and therefore they are worse. The genders, too, are equal, except for those paternalistic males, who with their testosterone, greed, and aggression have turned this planet into a polluted, war-torn living hello, so therefore they are worse. (Evan Coyne Maloney, 94-95)If you're determined to see nothing more than a caricature of others' views, that's all you'll see.
Of course, this isn't a universal problem. In her essay, "Liberals Are Dumb: And Other Shared Texts," Rachel Motte gives a powerful appeal (one that could have been addressed to several of her fellow contributors) to abandon the meme that "Liberals Are Dumb[/Evil/Destined To Destroy The Country]" and to be more thoughtful about their own education and thought.
One person in particular who could have benefited by heeding Motte's essay, perhaps, is Ben Shapiro. In "Why I'm Glad Liberals Are Bullies," Shapiro takes on, among other things, affirmative action at California's universities. Affirmative action is one of those "liberal" causes that many liberals are uneasy with. There are certainly strong arguments on both sides, and I at least am always hesitant about my opinions on it. What was most disappointing about Shapiro's piece is that he chose to engage with a strawman rather than exert himself in the tougher argument. Rather than focusing on his own intellectual advancement, as Motte might recommend he do, he bought whole-heartedly into the meme that "liberals are dumb," and then indiscriminately tried to make fools out of those who support affirmative action.
He set the stage with a laughable reduction of the arguments in favor of affirmative action to: "'diversity' fanatics who for decades had insisted that skin tone rather than merit be the leading criteria for a UC slot" (204). Even though he posited a far more extreme version of affirmative action than actually existed ("skin tone" was not a "leading" criteria under affirmative action programs), he wasn't willing to even engage those arguments in favor of it. And in his haste to attack the "diversity fanatics," he (perhaps unreflectively) made some strange bedfellows, suggesting that a problem with affirmative action was that it made "SAT scores...a last priority rather than a first one" and raised the importance of SAT-IIs (207). It's odd to hear a conservative praise a centralized, ineffective assessment tool like the SAT — unless, of course, he did well on it.
This review is already far too long, and there's too much more to criticize. I'll do a few quick shout-outs: an appeal to image over substance ("The Smoker's Code" by Helen Rittelmeyer), entitled whining about the "feminizing" of men ("Man Up" by Katherine Miller), and calls for censorship in the classroom ("The Girls I Knew At Yale" by Nathan Harden and "Ducking the Coffins: How I Became an Edu-Con" by Ashley Thorne).
But my copious disagreements and problems with the book aside, there are some important voices in here, voices that everyone must take seriously. Nathan Harden is right to question whether the environment on college campuses has become degrading to students; James Kirchick is worth listening to when he describes the conservative nature of the gay-rights movement (how does our support for the right to marry inform our opinions about family life more broadly, and can we all become family values voters?); I've already complemented Rachel Motte's essay: people of all political stripes need to invest both in thinking and action; and Bill Rivers in "Free to Serve" drives home a powerful point: the best changes happen from within a community, and the best government is one that encourages and supports those efforts — a fact that liberals too often forget.
This is not a book of young conservatives, but it is a book of smart and generally thoughtful conservatives. And more importantly, it's a book of human conservatives. These writers aren't the constructed personas of Fox News pundits or talk radio hosts. They're men and women, together with all their commitments and all their failings. Some of them are crass and rude, or whiny and entitled. But that's humanity. And that's one important lesson from this book (to quote a quote that found its way into the book multiple times): conservatives are people to.