Why Do Conservatives Think Spewing Racism Is Braver Than Protesting It?

Conservatives want you to know that college kids are entitled, whiny whiners, who are soft and scared and also whiny. Representing the rabid, performative outrage right, Michelle Malkin titled a recent post “The ululations of radical college crybabies” and sneered at college protestors for such unimaginable demands as asking for the hiring of more black faculty and renaming buildings honoring racist President Woodrow Wilson. Students; they are weak, and they are frightened.

Not, though, as frightened as conservatives themselves, who following the Paris attacks have engaged in a public orgy of paranoia. Chris Christie showed his manly fortitude by declaring that New Jersey would not receive any Syrian refugees, not even “orphans under age 5,” because being tough means trembling before infants fleeing from war. Erik Erickson went to even more bizarre lengths, declaring that after the Paris attacks, he was afraid to go to a movie theater to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “I have no confidence in this Administration to keep us all safe, particularly in light of President Obama’s statement today that there’s really no way to stop this stuff,” Erickson explained. “There are no metal detectors at American theaters.”

Conservatives mock students for being scaredy cats; liberals now have a chance to mock conservatives for the same. And inevitably, some more centrist commenters have taken the opportunity to lump both factions together under a single umbrella of cowering. Most notably, Jeet Heer, a senior editor at the New Republic, wrote a Twitter essay in which he argued that both campus political correctness and the terror of Syrian refugees were related to an American culture of fear. Americans are so safe from foreign threats, and modernity is so comfortable, Heer argues, that both the left and the right have forgotten what real danger is. “This is not to say PC is okay,” he concludes, “but if you want to attack the culture of fear it springs from, maybe look in the mirror.”

Casting a pox on everybody’s house is always a popular and rational-seeming position. But “rational-seeming” doesn’t necessarily mean “rational.” College students are concerned about, and protesting against, ongoing racism on campus. While they’re doing that, the U.S. right flings itself into a paranoid nativist lather about immigration. Donald Trump has taken the opportunity to push his campaign in an even more fascist and racist direction (a Black Lives Matter protestor was beaten at a Trump rally last week). College students who say racism is a live issue in the United States aren’t manufacturing terrors. They’re just looking at the news.

The actions of college students don’t seem exactly fearful either. At the University of Missouri, student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike to protest administrative indifference and racist incidents on the campus. You can agree or disagree with Butler’s goals, but he risked his life to draw attention to injustice; that’s hardly an example of cowardice. The school’s football team then went on strike in support of Butler. They took a stand that could easily have resulted in adverse consequences and disciplinary action. That seems like bravery to me, not an example of a “culture of fear.”

Maybe instead of using “culture of fear” as a way to lump anti-racist protestors and racist demagogues together, it might be more useful to look for another way of explaining these two different movements. Rather than fear, we might talk about purity.

The panic over Syrian immigrants is undignified, cruel, and awful. But part of the reason it’s undignified, cruel, and awful is that it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Syrian immigrants in the first place, which means it’s not exactly about fear. Donald Trump has been spewing hatred about immigrants for months, and the Republican party as a whole has been engaged in hyperbolic rhetoric about building walls on every border for years. Anti-immigration groups express various concerns about immigrants — that they’ll take jobs, that they’ll participate in terrorism, that they’ll commit crimes. But the very variety of the fears suggests that those fears are secondary to the hatred. The bottom line is a rejection of outsiders and people who are different. Various fears (even, improbably, of Star Wars) are then used to justify the hatred.

Leftist college students are also accused of rejecting difference, because they don’t want to listen to certain speakers, or because they want trigger warnings about certain books, or because they want name changes to certain buildings. But again I think the claim that students are afraid of speech obscures the actual issues. What students are asking for is for universities to recognize, and welcome, a broader range of students with a broader range of experiences. Naming a building after Woodrow Wilson is a message that a campus was built by and for racists, and racists still hold sway. Students who protest that are saying that the experiences and lives of black people on campus matter. Our campus should be a place where they are welcome.

Again, you don’t have to agree with every student demand or tactic (I personally think trigger warnings are likely to do more harm than good overall). And you can certainly argue that schools need to be open to free speech — though it seems like that would include vigorous debate about the naming of campus landmarks and the invitation of speakers. But you do have to acknowledge that leftist student goals and motivations are substantially different than right wing anti-immigrant ones. Students want a world in which difference is welcomed. Chris Christie and Michelle Malkin want a world in which borders are sealed and America’s purity is kept pristine.

Rather than standing at a distance and whining about how everyone is whining, it seems like the more courageous thing to do in this debate is to pick a side.