Conservatives and centrist liberals have dedicated an incomprehensible amount of time and attention to the politics of elite college campuses over the past few years. Whenever some angry lefty kids protest an inflammatory conservative speaker, there is a paroxysm of outrage from people like David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan, Joe Scarborough, Bari Weiss, Jonathan Chait, and many others. Most recently, a few minutes of a handful of Lewis and Clark Law School students heckling Christina Hoff Sommers before she gave a speech inspired two full columns in The New York Times lamenting the death of liberalism in the West.
There is a great deal to be said about this phenomenon — from the extremely slipshod way in which key terms like "trigger warning" or "safe space" are defined, to the lack of attention to nationwide data, to the ignoring of instances in which BDS activists, anti-Trump inauguration demonstrators (some 59 of which are still facing serious jail time on a trumped-up riot charge), or minority academics have had their speech much more severely suppressed.
However, I would like to focus on one thing: the fraudulent self-presentation of these speeches in the first place.
The entire point of inviting a hard-right reactionary to give a speech is to bait angry reactions, so that conservatives can play the victim and trick gullible or left-hating centrists. Like Cristiano Ronaldo at his most shameless, they're taking a dive in an attempt to work the referees.
As David Klion points out, the Sommers speech was very obviously intended in advance to insult and infuriate the Lewis and Clark students. She baited them on Twitter beforehand, insulted their intelligence to their face, and then gloated at length when she got the reaction she sought.
But why might students be upset over dedicating school resources to a Sommers talk? After all, Bari Weiss, in her (hilariously corrected) column on the hullabaloo, describes Sommers as "self-identified feminist and registered Democrat."
That description is absurdly disingenuous. Despite her typically dishonest self-branding, Sommers is a ferocious anti-feminist who criticizes Title IX and blames feminism for harming boys. She was an eager mascot of the infamous "Gamergate" movement, the loose collection of gamers furious at perceived feminist encroachment in video game culture, best known for violent threats toward and harassment of female game critics and developers (they called her "based mom"). Worst of all, she appeared on an openly white supremacist podcast and had a cordial conversation with the hosts in which she did not challenge them in the slightest.
Being a performative jerk to "trigger the libs" — perhaps conservatives' favorite political act in modern times — and thus reinforce the caricature of liberals as diaper-swaddled children is the end goal here.
Milo Yiannopoulos used to serve almost exactly the same function for conservative student groups, except he was even more cynically obsessed with self-promotion and media attention. He also rode the Gamergate hordes and incendiary rhetoric like "feminism is cancer" to wide attention and the fury of left-leaning college students. College Republicans and similar groups gleefully invited him to colleges across the country because of his deservedly vile reputation, so he could inspire a backlash. One event he did with Sommers and Steven Crowder was even called "The Triggering." (It was all going well for him until his career melted down after he was found to have defended pedophilia on tape.)
Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who wants to break up the United States into several ethnically pure substates, does exactly the same routine.
That doesn't necessarily excuse students shouting people down, of course. Sometimes young people who are still figuring out their politics have more energy than good sense. Perhaps it might be better, or at least more tactically wise, to simply ignore people like Sommers or Spencer. On the other hand, the heckler's veto is also a form of speech itself.
But let's stop pretending that any meaningful incident of political speech is at stake with these inflammatory conservative speakers. These people are not serious thinkers who are going to crack open the intellectual bubble of campus leftists. They're frauds, liars, and trolls who are cynically exploiting the university system, and the blinders of gullible centrists and liberals, for political effect and their own personal benefit.
Moreover, conservative culture warriors have social media, books, TV, and a dozen other heavily-subsidized ways to get their views heard. It's perfectly legitimate for college students to ask whether inviting a scam artist with noxious political views — Richard Spencer's security needs are reported to run up to $500,000 — is a good use of scarce resources. And even if some Federalist Society chapter invites Jon Yoo to give a talk on constitutional democracy, and a couple students pelt him with grapes painted to look like a child's testicle, swooning face-first into one's Beef Wellington over this affront to liberalism is hysterical nonsense.