Should Conservative Professors Come Out as Conservative?
Every week, in different forms -- some dismissive, others tactful -- the question above lands in my e-mail inbox. It comes from conservatives who wince at the thought of an untenured professor publishing right-wing opinions.
There is a sincere concern underlying the question. It goes like this: the apotheosis of any academic's career is tenure, and until one has tenure, one should not tempt fate by alienating the overwhelmingly liberal power structure that decides promotion cases.
Some commenters are earnest in saying "just teach your area of expertise." But for me, all roads lead to political controversy. I've done a great deal of research on the Revolutionary and Civil War generations. I specialize in American literature and have degrees in classics, literature, and political science. And more than any of that, I'm a writer by trade. My book is called The Colorful Conservative.
In the classroom, I have always avoided anything approaching indoctrination, and now I avoid all politics while teaching since the university's General Counsel issued an October 2012 order banning controversial election topics during instructional time. (Many leftist instructors find loopholes ranging from subtle to obvious.)
I don't get into conflicts within my profession as the result of things I do in the classroom. It's my "off-campus" editorial voice that ends up causing a stir, usually because some nameless tattletale wanders into someone's office with a printout of something I've written, whereupon a round of surreptitious chatter starts.
Do not get me wrong: I have received hundreds of supportive letters, which far outweigh these scolding ones. But after receiving enough of the "are you nuts?" variety, I decided that now was a good time to tackle this:
How much are you willing to risk to come out as conservative?
What a long strange trip it's been
For the first eleven years in academia, I was, to any outside observer, simply a weird ethnic minority with an unorthodox past who combined antiquity and postmodernism. I had tattoos, so I must be a lib, right?
It has been almost four years since I wrote my first article (in AT, by the way), revealing to the world that I was conservative. In that article, I criticized Sonia Sotomayor.
Since then much has happened, a lot of it tumultuous and painful.
I doubt myself every day; in fact, several times a day. The viciousness I've faced is extreme -- too much to summarize here. I've worried for my physical safety at times.
But one thing remains certain: I am glad I came out as conservative when I did. To paraphrase an activist friend of mine, "I'm no fan of staying quiet."
Other right-wing academics have to make their choices based on what matters to them more: security or visibility. At least one conservative professor I know believes that these two things come together.
Invisible people are often defenseless against catty academic subterfuge. On the other hand, "notorious" people are magnets for both attackers and defenders. Such calculations depend greatly on context.
After coming out...
For years I was called into superiors' offices and pressured to take down blogs, stop posting on Facebook, desist from using listservs, and remove from view a certificate I'd gotten from George W. Bush's presidential center. Watchdogs called me in to show me a printout from my Facebook page, with various phrases circled in pencil.
My response each time was to comply with the university's requests: I stopped blogging. I disabled Facebook. I stopped tweeting. I took down any signs referring to George W. Bush. I apologized to complainants for making them feel, as they claimed, "worried about their safety" with a conservative extremist on the floor.
I also agreed not to host any of my national security symposia on campus and to scrub from my university page any hyperlinks to off-campus blogs with "offensive" content.
Finally, one day, an administrator called me in to chastise me for hanging a protest letter on my office door.
The protest letter included a photograph from the "NO H8" campaign, with a man in a white T-shirt gagged by duct tape. This was my attempt to be witty and subvert the left's icons.
Rather than homophobia, the letter included a few lines saying I'd been "silenced" and wasn't free to speak frankly because of censorship. It was all rather vague.
Ironically, the administrator did not know that the No-H8 campaign was originally for gay rights, so he thought the picture of a man with duct tape over his mouth came from some Tea Party hate site.
"In light of what's happened to Gabrielle Giffords," the administrator said, "we can't use violent imagery like this; you might incite a right-wing fanatic to hurt someone."
The word "offended" came up a dozen times -- in the context of my colleagues who'd made anonymous complaints.
At the time, I was still struggling with the aftereffects of a head injury I had incurred on active duty in the Army. I was blearily perfecting a manuscript to make the deadline set by my publisher, Rowman & Littlefield. Low on sleep, easily irritated, and exhausted by years of micro-aggressions from liberal guttersnipes, I finally broke.
"When do I get to feel offended?" I asked. "Let's say you were a Jewish soldier, and someone hung posters advertising some slapstick lampoon making fun of Jews. Would you say nothing?"
The administrator stared back in deafening silence.
"Would you say nothing?"
"Yes," he finally answered. "I would say nothing."
No turning back
Yes, it has been hard. No doubt about that. But whenever I doubt myself, I remember those four ignominious words: "I would say nothing." And I cite the following facts to myself:
- Among all the academics I've met during 15 years in this field, I've never come across one who unveiled a totally new personality after tenure. Who you pretend to be in order to get tenure ends up dictating who you are, forever.
- Liberals can make your life a living hell even if you have tenure. The only difference is that if you're tenured, it's a lot less likely that you'll leave your job.
- Security? What job security? I don't make a fortune as a professor. Also, the ivory tower's trashcans are full of tenure files from people who played along and were repaid with a big fat "no" in the end anyway.
- For me, pragmatic silence would have had to extend from the late 1990s to the mid-2010s. That would have meant remaining silent for countless social debates and holding back from defending other conservative academics -- like Mark Regnerus -- when they came under attack. Sixteen years of silence?
- People I know have died in battle to defend freedom of speech. If we don't speak freely, why did they die?
- Had I kept a low profile, I would have never written a book called The Colorful Conservative. Wait a minute -- I wouldn't have written a book at all! I would have lived in not-so-blissful obscurity. Rather than someone unusual and a little disturbing, I would have been something far worse: nobody. Or at least, certainly not myself.