I had the good fortune to be able to attend the 2019 Heterodox Academy conference. In many ways it was a glittering event featuring intellectual supernovas, like Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker. David Brooks, of the New York Times and the Aspen Institute gave a wonderful and inspiring defense of universities. Coleman Hughes, a Columbia student, fresh from delivering his testimony to Congress on reparations, was also in attendance. The conference was beautifully managed; everything just worked. It featured Ivy League intellectuals and important people of all stripes. I was there too, so the Heterodox Academy made room for a decidedly non-glittering, conservative leaning professor from a western community college (they even recognized a community college club as this year’s ‘outstanding student group’ at their Open Inquiry Awards).
The Heterodox Academy has undertaken a devilishly difficult task: the promotion of “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.” That means bringing together a spectrum of academics ranging from progressive liberals to conservatives, without appearing to tilt one way or the other.
Conservatives like myself are an under represented population in U.S. faculty, relative to the broader population. So initially, I felt excited to be participating in an event where differing viewpoints were welcome. After the 2016 election, like many of my Republican friends, I was on the receiving end of some unpleasant diatribes. At the time I was a member on an important state board. One of my fellow trustees came to me and said, “Donald Trump was elected because you Republicans are all racist.” I was taken aback, especially given that I did not actually vote for him. Variations of this accusation have been leveled at me in multiple contexts ever since.
Many of my Republican friends no longer admit their politics publicly and have asked me to keep their secret. I don’t want to be cowered into keeping my political leanings secret. I don’t think I should have to. After all, they are just my political leanings, not the defining part of my personality. My mother, my sisters and two of my best friends are solidly liberal. My husband and one of my closest friends are firmly conservative. I love all these people.
Ritualistic Bashing of Trump, Milo, Spencer, Fox News
Given the issues I often have to navigate in my home institution and community for being associated with the right in the age of Trump, I thought, “What a relief, to not have to worry about being openly conservative at the HxA conference at least.”
Yet, I was surprised at how many times the names “Donald Trump” and “Milo Yiannopoulis” were evoked – always pejoratively. I think I can see why: Donald Trump has very bad hair while Milo has simply fantastic (apparently jealousy-inducing) hair.
Joking aside, I found myself wondering “why intone these names?” The mere mention of these individuals produced the expected liturgical response from the audience, with titters of laughter or knowing nods of approval. Perhaps, I thought, this is a way to signal in-group membership? Maybe this is a way of saying “I am here advocating for heterodox thought, but I am still a righteous liberal person?” Conceivably these are normal things to say to bond groups together in New York City or Ivy League circles.
Even so, while very far away from point-blank accusations of racism, I don’t think it exactly invites those of us who lean conservative to speak up. The messaging is subtle but clear: “If you like Trump or Fox News, you are not smart and should keep quiet — you are represented by self-promoting provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulis and white supremacists like Richard Spencer.” Why else were there so many specific references to Milo and Spencer who in no way represent conservative intellectual thought, and who haven’t even been on campuses much over the last year?
As for Mr. Trump: while I, like many people, find his personality abrasive — what he represents is important. He received almost 63 million votes and overturned all the expectations of the political class. The American National Election Studies’ 2016 Time Series Election data suggest that about 8.4 million 2012 Obama voters backed Trump in 2016. I am sure that not all of these “switchers” suddenly turned racist. Neither are they bumpkins susceptible to being spoon fed Russian propaganda. Most of them, I would suggest, had their own cogent reasons for changing their vote.
Here, a ‘turnabout test’ may be helpful to illustrate the issue: Imagine you attended a conference where many speakers made negative remarks about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the Benghazi scandal – shoehorning them into conversations where they didn’t necessarily belong – and disparaged CNN or MSNBC, implying that without them there would be a vastly better situation in the county. Imagine most in the audience laughing under their breath and nodding with approval. Would you feel that all viewpoints are welcome in such an environment?
Walking the Walk
Of course, one need not be a Republican or conservative to induce a mob demanding one’s exodus — all that it takes is to buck the wrong orthodoxy. For this, some have experienced calls for their dismissal. Some have lost their livelihoods. The overall cultural message could not be clearer to me — its echoes seemed to penetrate the conference walls as well, even resounding among some who were ostensibly part of the movement to push back against conformity: “if you are going against the ideological left on campus, you better be very careful.”
Later in the day, at a networking event, someone urged me to agree that “foreign interference in an election is terrible and I should admit that the Russians unduly influenced the 2016 elections…” I detected no genuine interest in my views, nor in any divergent perspective on this topic. Conversations like these generally result in an impasse where opinions remain intact.
At the hotel bar, I struck up a dialog with a group from the conference. In the natural course of the conversation I mentioned my conservative leaning to a young attendee sitting next to me. He tried to suppress a look of disdain. After that, he made brief small talk and then abruptly turned, sitting with his back towards me, blocking me out of his group. Maybe this was because I am lower on the food chain as community college faculty, or because I have white hair? I suspect it was because of my politics.
Again, this type of small slight is not that unusual in life. I wouldn’t normally think much about it. But at this conference, which was about viewpoint plurality, it would have been nice if my frame of reference was welcomed – if only as a point of departure for debate. After all, even though I lean “conservative,” maybe we could discover we agree on all sorts of issues. We might learn things about each other that surprise us both.
I know I am not alone in these experiences at the conference. I connected with several other faculty who flew many miles, and even crossed continents, to attend. They were not seeking or expecting a tribe of fellow conservatives — they were simply looking for a community that wants to respect and debate differing viewpoints. It is likely that most others at the conference were after the same thing, at least in principle. Yet, there often seemed to be a significant disconnect between intention and execution. As conservative criminologist John Paul Wright phrased it after attending last year’s conference, “Heterodoxy is hard, even at Heterodox Academy.”
Next year, I would love to see invitations extended to a wider range of serious conservative intellectuals. Maybe a talk by Arthur C. Brooks (former CEO of the American Enterprise Institute and now at Harvard Kennedy School)? Possibly a panel that models engaging in a respectful yet lively intellectual debate, such as Cornel West and Robert George? Perhaps invite Douglas Murray, Roger Scruton or even Victor Davis Hanson to present (although as Dr. Hanson has written a book entitled The Case for Trump, I suspect he would be anathema based on my conference experience this year).
How about Ben Shapiro, Michael Knowles or Carol M. Swain? There is Bert Folsom, Niall Ferguson or the ultimate conservative superstar, Thomas Sowell.
Given that liberal professors and administrators outnumber conservatives considerably on almost all college campuses, doing this would be an opportunity to demonstrate the goals of the organization: Heterodox in name and heterodox in practice.