Marketing conservative counter-culture: a response to Steve Robinson ’11
April 27, 2018
On Monday, April 16, Steve Robinson ’11 returned to campus to give a talk entitled “Conservatism and the Liberal Arts: How Bowdoin Made Me Conservative.”
During his time at Bowdoin, Robinson was outspoken about his conservative beliefs and penned a regular column in the Orient (similar to this one) that was well known for its controversial content and audacious headlines (all of which are archived on the Orient’s website). During his talk, it was clear that Robinson’s affinity for inflammatory rhetoric has not subsided—in addressing a wide variety of political topics, his hard-line conservative opinions were presented with the sneer of superiority typical of someone who loves stirring the pot.
While the talk was rich in explicit policy positions worthy of rebuttal, I think it is most useful to push back on the talk’s underlying premise rather than specific points of contention. At its core, this talk was a marketing pitch for the conservative movement, crafted in a way that presented conservatism as a “cool” and “rebellious” counter-culture to the “status quo” of campus leftism. While few would deny Bowdoin’s campus is predominantly liberal—or at least left-leaning—this idea of conservatism as a brave new “counter-culture” is incredibly dangerous to the very values Robinson himself seemed to exalt: diversity of thought, free sharing of ideas, et cetera.
In order to market conservatism as both brave and rebellious, Robinson first had to present conservatives as a repressed demographic of minority status. He did so through distasteful allegory, frequently alluding to his “coming out moment” which then encouraged more “closeted” conservatives on campus to show their true colors in some perverse moment of self-empowerment. Clearly, equating conservatives at Bowdoin with LGBTQ youth in America is ridiculous and insulting to the actual discrimination and violence the latter faces on a daily basis. Yet the strategy in the comparison is transparent. The conservative movement desperately wants to be oppressed (ironic considering its propagation of legitimate oppression). For all their ridiculing of “safe spaces” and liberal snowflakes, conservative firebrands like Robinson make their waves by peddling a narrative of conservative oppression and fragility. From warnings of “white genocide” from the Alt-Right to laments of censorship from principled centrist conservatives, the ingredients for the narrative are all there.
In the conservative movement, this myth has several functions: policy-wise, it elicits fear, a powerful motive. If you can convince a majority (in this case, white America) that they’re suffering from some sort of imagined oppression, you can then manipulate their fear of this oppression for political gain. On the flip side, you can then martyr conservatives in predominantly liberal communities, like the Bowdoin campus, and hail them as heroes. In Robinson’s talk, this narrative of perceived oppression was used to market himself and fellow campus conservatives as such martyrs—brave pioneers pushing back against some sort of institutionalized bias, willing to lose everything in pursuit of their cause. He spoke of being berated by professors and students alike, spurned by the College president, cut off by friends. At face value, these stories might seem to be deterrents to campus conservatism—but coupled with the rest of his rhetoric, they are merely extensions of a marketing strategy intended to make conservatism “cool.” After all, in an age where #Resist is a medal of wokeness, resistance itself becomes glamorized even if it is against an imagined enemy.
On the topic of bravery, Robinson explicitly referred to liberalism as the “path of least resistance,” asserting that liberals arriving on campus won’t really have their ideas challenged in our current climate and thus equating conservatism with Bowdoin’s own mantra of intellectual fearlessness. The thing is, Robinson himself arrived on campus a conservative. Maybe he couldn’t articulate his positions as well as he can now and some of his views may have shifted around within the sphere of conservatism-libertarianism, but the underlying foundations of his conservative thought were already in place. Thus, the title “How Bowdoin Made Me Conservative” is misleading—a better title may have been “How Bowdoin Made Me a Firebrand.” Maybe there’s an echo chamber issue on both sides of the aisle, with people digging in their heels when faced with opposing arguments. However, to claim that liberalism is the “path of least resistance” is absurd, especially here at Bowdoin. If you really are committed to liberal/leftist causes—especially as a white student—it will involve confrontation with incredibly unpleasant truths that will make you uncomfortable. It will involve confronting your own role in institutionalized power structures that are unjust, reflecting on the language you use and the products you consume. This is no walk in the park. When Robinson dismissed such difficulties as the trivial results of “skin-deep diversity,” he dismissed the very values he was ardently defending: the free sharing of thoughts and individual self-betterment.
I do not want this to come off as an attack on conservative students here on campus. I disagree with your ideas, yes, but I respect your right to them and encourage open debate. This is instead an attack on the marketing strategy that the conservative movement is using to rile you up and a stern rebuttal to Steve Robinson in particular. The free sharing of ideas is not so free when one side is perceived as cooler, more rebellious or more courageous than the other. Mr. Robinson, you are tainting your own values by perpetrating such labels.
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Excellent article, Brendan. This perceived victim-hood by conservatives is both ironic and dangerous, as you aptly put. –Alex ’14