CUCR, I first want to acknowledge that you had every right to invite Mike Cernovich and Tommy Robinson to campus. In the op-ed you published following the controversy over your wryly named “Free Speech Month,” you correctly pointed out that although “there are [painful] costs to speech” you should nevertheless be able to invite whomever you please to the University. I agree—as does, to its credit, the Columbia administration. My argument, then, is not that you can’t invite such speakers to campus but that you shouldn’t. Your provocations and your desire to be inflammatory is making a mockery of conservatism and doing a disservice to those of us who care deeply about political dialogue and the open exchange of ideas.
CUCR is the largest right-leaning organization at Columbia, and, in this capacity, you have agreed to shoulder certain duties and responsibilities. You are, for better or worse, the public face of conservatism at Columbia and the primary purveyor of right-wing ideas on a predominantly liberal campus. Your actions, behavior, and statements will therefore shape our peers’ perceptions of conservatives and Republicans. And, as students at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, you must hold yourselves to the most stringent standards of excellence.
And yet, over the past year, you have shown yourselves incapable of meeting such standards. Where was your sense of intellectual excellence when you hosted a propagandist for the most revolting and outrageous conspiracy theories? Where was your sense of decency when you hosted a man who blamed the entire Muslim community of Britain for the terrorist attacks of 7/7? And, to reference your most recent escapade, where was your sense of moral excellence when you invited Ann Coulter—a woman with a vile history of racist comments—to a debate at the University?
I can imagine two justifications for inviting such speakers.
The first potential justification is that to better foster discourse, CUCR should present the entire range of positions on the right. I would counter that there must be limits on the sort of views that CUCR presents, because to invite a speaker is to tacitly endorse that person. For example, would CUCR bring Richard Spencer to Columbia? Or Jared Taylor—founder of the white supremacist American Renaissance? Or Alex Jones, who has called 9/11 an “inside job” and has referred to various mass shootings as “hoaxes”? Presumably not. Although these individuals have a legal right to a platform, it is not incumbent upon you to provide it to them. They are quite free to express their racial hatred and espouse their baseless conspiracies elsewhere.
My objection to these speakers does not come from a desire to enforce my own version of conservative dogma. I am an atheist, but I would love to hear Ross Douthat speak about Catholicism and religious values. I am not a libertarian, but I would readily listen to Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine defend his version of laissez-faire capitalism. I am a foreign policy hawk, but would nonetheless engage with any of the less-interventionist editors of The American Conservative. I could go on. My point is simply this: Republicans and conservatives must draw a line around the people that we will not tolerate on the right. Perhaps we can debate where exactly that line should be drawn. But as a conservative, I refuse to associate myself with crackpots and racists, and I hope this column will make CUCR feel similarly about the matter.
A second potential justification for hosting Coulter et al. might go like this: “No matter whom we bring to campus, CUCR will still be called a racist and sexist organization.” This argument does not hold up to scrutiny. Although a small but outspoken group of radical activists will denounce any belief that deviates from far-left orthodoxy as racist, a substantial portion of Columbia’s student population is willing, perhaps even eager, to hear and learn from serious conservative viewpoints.
In February 2017, two members of Columbia University Democrats wrote an article titled—and I emphasize this—“A liberal case for conservative discourse.” In it, they wrote, “We as liberals understand our responsibility to engage with and debate conservative ideas to develop meaningful campus discourse.” This is everything we conservatives can ask for, granted to us, no less, by board members of CU Dems. More recently, Allison Talker wrote a letter to the editor in which she defended the First Amendment rights of controversial speakers and encouraged liberal students at the University to engage with the opposing side.
So yes, CUCR, there are students listening, students who want to know what conservatism is about, who want to see that the words “conservative” and “intellectual” are not incompatible. You must decide—do you want to be a club that appears to be committed to “triggering liberal snowflakes,” or do you want to be the organization that a provides a platform for serious conservative thought at Columbia?
Conservatism, after all, is not and should not be about upsetting others for its own sake. Conservatism, instead, seeks to affirm certain values and institutions in the face of challenges against them—religion, the family, the rule of law, individual rights, an economic system based on free and voluntary exchange, and so on. I think there are powerful, thoughtful, and ultimately persuasive arguments that could be mustered in favor of all these things. But nobody is going to engage with them, still less to take them seriously, when CUCR cannot seem to take itself seriously. I encourage you, then, to sort yourselves out, stop inviting speakers who advocate the indefensible, and start acting like the responsible representatives of the right that this university—and this country—needs you to be.
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