For anyone interested in freedom of the press, October 18, 2015 is a day that deserves to live in infamy. That night, for what may be the first time in the United States, the student government of an elite American university stripped funding from that university’s campus paper—for the offense of running a conservative op-ed.
The Wesleyan Argus (the campus paper of my alma mater) published the op-ed in question on September 14. Conservative student columnist Bryan Stascavage’s article was titled “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think.” Stascavage, who, by his own admission, was conflicted about his opinions on the movement, raised some rather moderate concerns about its propensity towards excusing, or even encouraging, violence toward police officers. He invited students to question if a more considered approach to police violence was necessary.
For his efforts, he was branded a racist, and a group of radical “student of color” activists started a petition to defund the campus paper that published his piece, and—and I swear I’m not making this up—to burn any copies of the paper found carrying the offending article. Yes, apparently publishing an op-ed that was merely undecided about the question of #BlackLivesMatter was enough for some activists to argue for book burning and press closure.
Next, the Student Government Crackdown
In an act that transforms their credibility into a metaphorical Roman candle, the Wesleyan Student Assembly apparently agreed, and slashed the Argus’s funding from $30,000 to $13,000 while imposing measures obviously meant to punish this indiscretion. Jezebel, of all publications, explains the madness best:
In addition to getting their funding largely chopped, the Argus will now compete against other Wesleyan publications for university funding. [Argus Editor-in-Chief Rebecca] Brill explains: ‘As the resolution is now, the publications with the most readership (this would be found out via Google Analytics) would each get 7 work study positions (stipends of $90 per month) and $800 to be used toward Facebook credit or website updates. The third and fourth place publications would be selected in a student vote for the publications of their choice—these would get 3 work study positions (also $90/month) and $200 for Facebook credit or site updates.’ If left unchanged, these resolutions would go into effect next fall.
That one dumb opinion piece could be the impetus for such drastic change at a major university is a testament to the fact that words matter. It’s therefore incredible, and incredibly ironic, that the newspaper is being penalized so harshly.
That student radicals could bully Wesleyan’s student government into imposing this nakedly political type of punishment for dissent rightly shocks the conscience. The irony here is that, if the radicals had ever bothered to think, they would realize their supposed “cure” for the offense of publishing controversial content will actually make the problem far worse. Had the Argus editors—including Brill, as you will see shortly—had a bit more guts, they could have thrown this precise point in the radicals’ face.
The Argus Editors Are Wimps
Sometime before this brouhaha happened, the Argus gave up the fight for its right to publish as it pleases. I know this because, partially as an “attaboy” to embattled columnist Stascavage, and partially to show the sheltered students of Wesleyan what conservative campus commentary used to look like, I submitted my own op-ed to the Argus on this topic some weeks ago. It was substantially less kind than Stascavage’s.
At first, the Argus seemed content to let me make my point, as Tess Morgan, one of its two editors in chief, cheerily informed me that the piece would publish by Tuesday, October 6 (the Argus publishes biweekly). Good on her! After all, Wesleyan’s own president, Michael Roth, had courageously denounced the effort as an attempt to muzzle discussion, and even a leftist rag like Gawker couldn’t contain its contempt for the activists. There was really nothing left for a self-respecting journalist to do but defy them as loudly as possible.
This would have happened, had not Brill’s timid, self-immolating hand intervened. Less than 12 hours before the publication date, Brill informed me they were actually not running the piece, but were in fact declining it because it contained “coded or offensive language.” Angry and puzzled, I fired back with a sharply worded warning that I would be taking it to a national audience in view of their refusal.
Apparently showing guts in the face of even “offensive” writers was too much for the Argus, however, because I received this hilarious reply from Brill shortly thereafter:
You are of course entitled to do as you see fit, but I’d like to clarify that we are not refraining from publishing your letter due to the view it expresses. We are comfortable publishing unpopular view point in both the Opinion and Letter to the Editor sections. Rather, we object to some of the implicitly racist language your letter uses, namely, the word ‘thuggish.’ If you’re willing to revise some of your wording, we will happily reconsider publishing this.
Firstly, note that a straightforward refusal to publish the piece became a meek request for changing a word the instant Brill’s decision was shown to have consequences. Secondly, at the risk of spoiling my own piece, I should mention that (among other things) it compares #BlackLivesMatter to Robert Mugabe, and denounces the movement straightforwardly as a “fascist hate group.”
Such viciousness as this, mirabile dictu, Brill was quite comfortable publishing, but the word “thuggish?” That was a bridge too far. I don’t think The Onion could come up with a more absurd example of how the legalism of speech policing can miss the forest for the trees.
Let the Flame Wars Begin
Now, I don’t say all this merely to show the extent to which Brill’s spine seems to be made, as Rush Limbaugh might say, from linguini. I also want to illustrate how the Argus could have used a piece like mine to make its case, and in not doing so, lost the one talking point that could have saved the existing state of affairs.
Return to Jezebel’s summary above for a moment, and consider this: newspapers’ funding will now be determined by an apparently straightforward use of Google Analytics. In other words, he who draws the most traffic wins. Now, I can’t speak for the current student body, but when I was a student at Wesleyan, multiple Argus editors told me that my purposefully inflammatory column was the only thing that brought in readership. I would almost be willing to bet one of my own limbs that Stascavage’s supposedly offensive op-ed and the ensuing fallout brought in a flood of traffic to the Argus website. Had my piece been published, I suspect it would have transformed that flood of outraged clicks into a deluge.
In other words, running op-eds like mine and Stascavage’s, rather than functionally illiterate calls for policies like prohibiting paper towels, is the surest means for the Argus to maintain its perch atop Wesleyan’s campus paper hierarchy. Anyone who is familiar with a “Slate pitch” can attest to the economic value of controversy in web traffic. Furthermore, the number of people who read the paper’s print edition makes absolutely no difference to the paper’s analytics numbers, which only measure eyeballs that arrive via the Internet. So even if some activist whose dreadlocks smell of months without the caress of shampoo were to pitch every printed copy of the Argus into the nearest wastepaper bin from now until the end of time, it wouldn’t penalize the paper in any serious way.
Banning Words Is Counterproductive
To conclude, therefore, the new plan actually forces the Argus to publish more of the sort of content that offended #BlackLivesMatter activists, while simultaneously robbing their book-burning pressure tactics of relevance. This was supposed to punish them?
In an alternate universe, Brill and her fellow editors could have made precisely this case to the Wesleyan Student Assembly. They could have brandished copies of Stascavage’s piece, or of mine, and asked their sniveling detractors, “This is what the campus paper will have to read like under your plan, so is this what you want? We don’t want to have to publish only this, but we will.” They could have used hard economic logic to shatter the red, black, and green colored glasses of their critics, and sent these vandals scurrying back to the safe refuge of dorm rooms reeking in Chronic.
Instead, in trying to please everyone, they allowed a policy to pass that practically requires them to please no one, often and loudly. I mourn their lack of courage, but having seen them invite the Gods of the Copybook headings into Wesleyan, I do not mourn the results.
Oh, and for anyone who wants to know what sort of article will drive traffic, I reproduce the piece I sent to the Argus below. Study it well, you illiberal thugs. This is the future your policy requires.
In my years since graduating Wesleyan, I have often been asked by people of all political persuasions how I could stand going here. While I’ve made no bones about my frustrations with the student body, I have always defended the experience as a difficult but ultimately rewarding ideological trial by fire, without which my ideas would be substantially weaker. I even wrote a (qualified) defense of so-called liberal bias in no less a publication than National Review making precisely this point. I have even told conservative students who I have interviewed for admission that this is the most important educational experience they can get, if they can stand it.
I am profoundly thankful that none of those students ended up attending, because judging by what happens to campus dissenters now, I’d never forgive myself if they had.
The recent attempt to silence not only conservative columnist Bryan Stascavage, but the entire Argus, is a national scarlet letter which I believe the university will struggle to shed for years. It is so thoroughly indefensible that even Gawker sneered at the people responsible. To be on the Left and be accused of misunderstanding journalism by Gawker is rather like being lectured on human rights by Robert Mugabe: You have to have f–ked up so profoundly that even the worst actors on the planet can only regard you with slack-jawed awe.
Wesleyan used to know how to handle racial controversies like this, if not with grace, then at least without destroying the foundations of campus discourse. I found myself at the center of a similar controversy when I wrote for the Argus and questioned the credentials of former professor Melanye Price my senior year. I’m proud to say that even though I myself was threatened with everything from libel lawsuits to physical violence for my article, my dissenters at least had the good sense not to attempt this kind of shoddy guilt by association toward the campus paper. They recognized the difference between attacking someone’s views, and attacking a neutral platform that allowed them to air those views.
Similarly, when the Cardinal Conservatives held an affirmative action bake sale in 2011, yes, there were tendentious outcries about the event being sanctioned, but no one tried to argue that the entire idea of public demonstrations should be shut down, or that campus space should only be usable for demonstrations by Students of Color (SOC) as restitution.
But now, even as Wesleyan’s average SAT scores have risen, the student body’s capacity to behave like civilized people has plummeted. Let’s be clear: Compared with what I used to write in the Argus, Bryan Stascavage’s piece on #BlackLivesMatter reads like a Ta-Nehisi Coates column. It is evenhanded, thoughtful, and inviting of dialogue to a fault. Yet according to the minutes of the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), apparently student activists believe it “was not fact-based, and perhaps even openly racist.” Furthermore, they want us to know that “Black Lives Matter is not something that can be negotiated.”
Only in the bizarre alternate moral universe in which Wesleyan resides could such behavior be greeted by anything but incredulous laughter. But fine, you want “fact-based?” Here are some facts:
- #BlackLivesMatter activist King Noble publicly declared “open season on killing whites and police.”
- #BlackLivesMatter has used the writings of Assata Shakur in its training manuals. On the #BlackLivesMatter Twitter, activists can be seen wearing shirts proclaiming “Assata taught me.” Pro-Black Lives Matter Atlantic columnist Adrienne Green has even listed Shakur as a “black leader” while defending the movement. #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Alicia Garza candidly lionized Shakur in an op ed for The Feminist Wire. Shakur, a former member of the Black Liberation Army, is a convicted bank robber and cop-killer who is currently hiding in Cuba to evade arrest.
- #BlackLivesMatter has harbored proven race charlatan Shaun King long after his appropriation of black identity was exposed, for nakedly political reasons.
- #Blacklivesmatter sponsored a panel discussion that included former Black Panther Party chairman Malik Shabazz. Shabazz, besides being another advocate of the murder of cops, is listed as a “racist” hate group leader by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Based on the above, I would say the arguments for burning the Argus, stripping its funding, and demanding it only include columnists of one race echo the arguments of fascist hate groups, but that wouldn’t be accurate, because on the evidence, #BlackLivesMatter is a fascist hate group. Full stop.
So really, the group’s supporters are right that fascism “cannot be negotiated.” It must be crushed. I hope Wesleyan’s Students of Color (SOC) will recognize that in defending this movement and its thuggish intimidation tactics, they only drive home more fully why the Argus would hesitate to publish their missives. Because if this is who they support, they clearly have nothing of value to say.