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The state of conservatism on campus

<h6>Claire Thornton / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Claire Thornton / The Daily Princetonian

Did you hear the news? Apparently, “true political diversity and debate at the Tory is all but dead,” or so says Shane Patrick ’24 in a column published in The Princeton Tory last month. Patrick argued that the organization has become obsessed with two issues — “free speech and Israel.” Though Patrick’s assertion that Catholic students are severely underrepresented in the Tory and repelled by the organization’s focus on free speech and Israel politics is unwarranted, he isn’t wrong to point out the single-mindedness and tunnel vision of conservative groups on campus. 

Why are the topics of interest in the Tory and other other conservative groups on campus so uniform? The answer does not lie with a lack of diversity, but instead in intellectual laziness.

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The Tory focuses on free speech and Israel because the campus conservative movement has one main goal: to fight culture wars. On campus, this manifests in crusading for free speech protections and blindly advocating for Israel. If conservatives, like Patrick, truly want to embrace more ideological diversity in their organizations, they should focus on engaging individuals in meaningful political discourse, rather than existing solely to react to the “other side.”

It’s not the Tory’s fault that Israel is so divisive on college campuses, but the copious defenses of Israel leveled by the campus conservatives is a prime example of their obsession with waging the culture war. Earlier this year, for example, left-wing students on campus sparked a debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when they introduced a referendum calling on the University to dissociate from a construction company associated with the Israeli military. Conservative students, in response, waged a campaign of distraction by emphasizing the association between “BDS activity” and “antisemitic incidents,” without demonstrating that Jews at Princeton were in actual danger, rather than engaging with the critique offered by the activists: that Israel is a racist, settler-colonial nation. Conservative students were right to fight back: Israel is not a colonizer nation (see here and here why). But by subsuming all of their activism into reacting to progressives’ protests, conservatives prioritized the campus culture war over constructive projects. 

Similarly, while I think it’s only charitable to assume that conservatives care about freedom of speech, this concern is not enough to explain the reason behind the multitude of right-leaning free speech focused events and pieces. Rather, the battle over free speech is another arm of the culture war.

Campus conservatives use free speech as a tool to fight political opponents. Rather than engage in meaningful and interesting conversation about issues important to their cause, conservative groups simply display an agenda by inviting controversial speakers and arguing over the value of their presence. This was on prime display last year when the Princeton Open Campus Coalition and The Tory invited Abigail Shrier, a controversial anti-trans activist and author to campus. When those on the left criticized the event, conservatives spent shockingly little amount of time defending the content of Shrier’s speech. Instead, organizers picked a fight with The Daily Princetonian over a non-issue, and used this to support a whiny agenda claiming speech suppression by progressives, who had simply responded to the event with educational and discussion-based events.

Crying wolf over first amendment violations is much easier than engaging in critical discourse about why Shrier’s views on transgender issues are worth hearing. Thus, conservatives engage in a cycle of self-help in which they systematically attempt to provoke reactions and then ignore those critiques based on the very freedom that they strive to uphold. 

Certainly, progressives engage in the culture war, including in debates about Israel-Palestine and free speech on campus. But they don’t suffer from the same single-mindedness as the conservative movement. The issue lies in aims. Left-wing campus groups deal with a diverse range of issues that sometimes contradict each other and are not cohesive. All conservative organizations on campus seem to be part of a coordinated machine designed to fight the culture war. This includes the Tory most of all, which consistently publishes two-paragraph ‘news’ articles that are derisive and unexamined on events which they see as fodder for their political campaign (see recent short-form coverage here, here, here, and here).

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Patrick, like most conservatives on campus, has no conception of how steeped in the culture war the Tory is. Instead, he resorts to trying to stir up division between Catholics and Jews at the Tory by including a worrying subtext in his piece. Citing a lack of Catholic presence on the Tory as a reason for its “pro-Israel” coverage, he suggests that there is a certain religious hegemony on the Tory masthead which is carefully coordinating positive coverage of the Jewish State. While Jewish students have served as prominent members and leaders of The Tory, this line of thinking harkens to an old antisemitic trope that Jewish individuals are over-powerful. By associating the religious makeup of the Tory staff with its focus on Israel events, and specifically critiquing its current religious diversity, Patrick approaches this harmful line of thinking. 

Patrick’s engagement with antisemitism is not just repulsive, it’s laughable as a solution to the single-mindedness of the Tory. The idea that conservatives of any religious group should choose not to follow lockstep with the conservative agenda on campus because the Catholic Church is iffy about free speech or the existence of Israel is absurd. Within the context of the campus culture war, political polarization trumps religious affiliation.

I fully support political and intellectual diversity in all spaces of this University (see my thoughts here). But no number of antisemitic insinuations or whining in the Tory can fix the real problem: conservatives on campus are reactionary, not original. Though the nation’s culture wars cannot be ended by students, a first step to improvement might be avoiding organizations like the Tory, which claim to be both a news source and an ideological journal. If Patrick would like to see work from a politically diverse set of individuals committed to “urging people to think deeply, think critically, and think for themselves,” I would suggest that he pick up a copy of the ‘Prince’ next time he sits down to read campus publications.

Abigail Rabieh is a sophomore columnist, prospective history concentrator, and Jewish student from Cambridge, Mass. She can be reached by email at arabieh@princeton.edu, on Instagram at @a.rabs03, or on Twitter at @AbigailRabieh.

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