The Carolina Review and the Dangerous Incompetence of Campus Conservatives
When I was a freshman, a student in my year wrote an article for the conservative website The College Fix. He slandered a professor teaching a class that he found un-American. As a result, the professor was the target of harassment and death threats. The student, Alec Dent, wrote regularly for the UNC conservative publication The Carolina Review.
Then, some weeks ago, I joined a student sit-in protesting Silent Sam. A student approached us, named Zach Kosnitzky. He, too, was a writer from The Carolina Review. He interviewed us, and asked whether we wanted our pictures taken. Except for two of us, we all said no. Even so, a picture of all of us appeared on The Review’s website the following week. I found this distressing, and wondered why he asked, if he was going to disregard what we told him anyway.
Because of these two incidents, I became interested in the Review, its critiques, and conservatives on campus in general. I want to explore their way of thinking, and consider its effects. I will examine two articles of theirs. First, the one Kosnitzky wrote after photographing the sit-in. Second, an article Alec Dent wrote for the Review last year.
So: in what article was my likeness featured? Mostly, it was a list. After a brief introduction, Kosnitzky cites issues that he considers more important than Silent Sam. He implores protesters to pay attention to these issues instead of the statue. Here are some of them:
Ironically, conservatives in power are ignoring most issues he lists. Many they are making worse. And these are the politicians the Review and its writers say they support. I have put a link on each issue to a recent instance of a conservative politician making the situation worse.
Then, at the end, he makes a critical assertion:
“Opponents of the statue claim that it deters African-American applicants from applying for admission. No one has provided any data to support this.”
A look at the evidence refutes this. No student group where voices of color are prominent has ever been in favor of the statue. The biggest of these groups (BSM, Chispa, ASA, etc.) are in ardent, vocal opposition to it. Further, in 2018, LeRoy Frasier died. He was one of the first African-American students allowed to attend UNC. When asked about racism in Chapel Hill, his brother, Ralph Frasier, mentioned Silent Sam as a symbol of it.
But a deterrence from admission is not the primary reason students want it down. The primary reason is what the statue represents. We know this from Julian Carr’s own speech, which he gave at the statue's dedication in 1913. He brags about assaulting a person of color, and praises the Anglo Saxon race. I am forced to wonder whether Kosnitzky is aware of this historical context, when he defends the remnants of white supremacy with a vapid statistical argument.
Kosnitzky also mentions that, at the sit in, he spoke to someone who “wasn’t a fan of the Review.” That was probably me, although that isn’t quite what I said. I asked him if he had ever read the Review article that claimed Socrates in the lineage of conservatism. He said he hadn’t. I said he should read it, if he was writing for them.
This article is a useful artifact of campus conservatism in its essence. Titled “The Conservative Provocateur,” Alec Dent wrote it for the September 2016 issue of The Review. It reads as a sort of call to arms for level-headed conservatives to take up the holy banner of civil discourse, which must be defended from extremists and SJWs. Don’t be like Milo—instead, be like Socrates. Its basic message (that civil debate is important, and name-calling is bad) is agreeable, though nothing new. But the significant flaws in its reasoning are quite ideologically revealing.
There are more or less three places where it gets a little wacky. The first is where he says:
“While civil discourse isn’t strictly a conservative concept, more and more frequently over the years it’s fallen to conservatives to defend it.”
With this generalization he gives no examples, nor any reference to how long “over the years” is meant to be. From context, Dent likely has some conception of a historical canon of “conservative” thinkers that have stood for civil discourse. At least that’s my reading—I could just as easily be wrong, because his concrete meaning is not clear. It is a statement you already agree with if you do, or you don’t if you don’t: in effect, it is substance-less.
He goes on to name two people in his conservative canon. The first, I kid you not, is George W. Here’s the second point where shit really goes off the rails:
“George W. Bush, on the other hand, did an excellent job of promoting conservatism. Agree or disagree with him, Bush’s ‘conservative with a conscience’ is precisely what we as conservatives are supposed to be. Not hateful, not bigoted, not reactionary, but calm, proper, and caring.”
Bush, as the trope goes, is playing foil against a lurking Trump. He’s presidential, and not outwardly a dick. But what does Dent say are Bush’s strengths? He promotes conservatism (put another way, he’s good for the brand). All his adjectives only describe how he acts in person, how he presents himself to TV cameras and crowds. It does not mention what Bush believes, what he did, or even what he said. It addresses the superficial exclusively. What is here is an impression of Bush, devoid of the specificity that would make it a meaningful point. This is a common fixture in the Review: statements that have little meaning beyond aestheticizing a vague, boundless nostalgia for a former condition, without any concrete terms.
If Bush’s conservatism has a “conscience,” I shudder to think what conservatism without one is. The man Dent believes exemplifies conservatism is nearly universally despised in the rest of the world. So much so that he had to cancel his trip to Europe in 2011 out of fear he would be arrested and tried for war crimes.
After Bush, Dent names his other canonical conservative. Socrates. Here is his description of Socratic philosophy:
“He engaged people in conversation. He talked them through the issues, listening to all points of view and bringing them to a logical conclusion. In doing so he, and his interlocutors, could separate the correct view from all the wrong ones.”
I’m not sure if they teach Socrates in the journalism department (from whence Dent hails) but my classics major has entailed me spending time with the gadfly of Athens. If we assume the conventional story of Socrates, then Socrates had no interest in separating the correct view from all the wrong ones. In fact, his entire philosophical project was the opposite. The most famous line of Socratic philosophy is “I know only that I know nothing,” from the Apology. A very important element of Socratic philosophy is that Socrates never proposes a single, logical conclusion.
Yet, here Dent claims the opposite. Why? First, because Dent does not seem to have a clear understanding of Socrates, and so he invents one for his rhetorical purpose. But also because his constructed Socrates is how campus conservatives see themselves: “biting and annoying the city, provoking it into action.” This seems to be how Kosnitzky sees himself. Kosnitzky’s whole piece is written with coy apathy and condescension. But this tone is not bolstered with any reasoned argument, nor any constructive vision—nothing more than that he thinks protesting is lame and that some stuff is more important than the statue.
But in the case of Alec Dent, it surpasses the intellectually lazy, and enters the dangerous. In 2015, Dent wrote “UNC’s ‘Literature of 9/11’ course sympathizes with terrorists, paints U.S. as imperialistic,” an article for College Fix. Dent’s piece made the rounds in conservative tabloids, reached Fox, and earned the course’s professor harassment and death threats. When Dent talked to WRAL, he admitted that he did not take the course, nor had he read anything that was assigned in it. He never mentions this in his original article. He had quite literally judged the books by their covers. Perhaps this is similar to how he researched Socrates: similar too, perhaps, to how Kosnitzky learned about the statue.
I want to address Dent directly. Do you consider it possible that if, while researching your article about the 9/11 seminar, you had read any of the texts you were critiquing, or visited any class discussion, your view maybe would have been tempered, and this professor would not have been harassed? Is a smear piece against a class you ideologically disagreed with an example of Socratic civil discourse?
I am not cherry-picking these articles. I have read many articles in the Review and conservative-authored letters to the Tar Heel. I have read articles on their website The College Fix and when they write for the Odyssey. What they do write, I have found. The elements I discussed are what you find. They live in vagueness, ahistorical reasoning, sappy rhetoric, jingoism, moralism, and unclear prose. Demonstrably, they do not meaningfully engage with the work that they critique. Nor do they have the historical knowledge of the university required to understand its current issues.
Remember this when campus conservatives complain about not having venues for their points of view. (Although, why should they be complaining when they have their own glossy print magazine that hardly anyone reads, besides me?)
Dent is not alone in this sort of action. The right-wing campus group Turning Point USA routinely harasses people it doesn’t like, namely people of oppressed groups. In one instance last November, members of a chapter in Illinois shouted racist slurs and made veiled threats upon the children of Tariq Khan, a Muslim professor. Groups on the right have tried to get speakers like Richard Spencer to come to UNC. In the nineties, while the left was organizing to support the housekeeping staff, the UNC College Republicans were nobly counter-protesting the anti-apartheid movement.
In its name, the Review wants to live up to William Buckley’s famous periodical. But Buckley would never take these critiques seriously (although he too supported war criminals and white supremacists). At their best, writers articulate what a group of people want to say. If you consider the conservative writers on this campus, they say nearly nothing. This alone speaks volumes. But in action, they are so incompetent that they are dangerous.
Ever still, I’ll be sure to read whatever they put out next. I can only hope it’s as good as the one where Kosnitzky swears that women like baseball too.