Last week The Stanford Daily reported a curious story concerning Niall Ferguson, a conservative historian who is a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. The story itself, although ugly, isn’t that important. But it offers a window into a reality few people, certainly in the news media, are willing to acknowledge: the bad faith that pervades conservative discourse.
And yes, I do mean “conservative.” There are dishonest individuals of every political persuasion, but if you’re looking for systematic gaslighting, insistence that up is down and black is white, you’ll find it disproportionately on one side of the political spectrum. And the trouble many have in accepting that asymmetry is an important reason for the mess we’re in.
But how can I say that the media refuses to acknowledge conservative bad faith? While some journalists remain squeamish about actually using the word “lie,” and there’s still a tendency for headlines to repeat false talking points (which are only revealed to be false in the body of the article), readers do get a generally accurate picture of the extent to which dishonesty prevails within the Trump administration.
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It seems to me, however, that the media makes Donald Trump’s lies seem more exceptional – and more of a break with previous practice – than they really are. Trump’s seven-lies-a-day habit and his constant claims of being victimized by people who accurately report the facts are only a continuation of something that has been going on in the conservative movement for years.
At a fundamental level, after all, how different is Trump from Fox News, which has spent decades misinforming viewers while denouncing the liberal bias of mainstream media? How different is he from Republicans who accused Democrats of fiscal irresponsibility and now denounce the Congressional Budget Office when it points out how their tax cuts will increase the deficit?
And the same kind of bad faith can be seen in other arenas – very much including college campuses. Which brings me back to the Stanford story.
Ferguson is, as it happens, one of those conservative intellectuals who hyperventilate about the supposed threat campus activists pose to free speech – indeed, calling the campus left the “biggest threat” to free speech in Trump’s America. At Stanford, he was one of the faculty leaders of a program called Cardinal Conversations, which was supposed to invite speakers who would “air contested issues.”
Among the invited speakers was Charles Murray, famous for a much-debunked book claiming that black-white differences in IQ are genetic in nature. Not surprisingly, the invitation provoked student protests. This was the context in which Ferguson engaged in a series of email communications with right-wing student activists in which he urged them to “unite against the S.J.W.s” (social justice warriors), “grinding them down.” And he suggested “opposition research” against one left-wing student. A student!
Ferguson later sort of apologized, but it was more of an “I’m sorry that you feel that way” than a true apology, and he began by decrying the fact that these days few academic historians are registered Republicans, which he takes as ipso facto evidence of biased hiring and a hostile environment.
So what’s really going on here? It’s true that self-proclaimed conservatives are pretty scarce among U.S. historians. But then, so are self-proclaimed conservatives in the “hard,” physical and biological sciences.
Why are there so few conservative scientists? It might be because academics, as a career, appeals more to liberals than to conservatives. (There aren’t a lot of liberals in police departments – or, contra Trump, the FBI.) Alternatively, scientists may be reluctant to call themselves conservatives because in modern America being a conservative means aligning yourself with a faction that by and large rejects climate science and the theory of evolution. Might not similar considerations apply to historians?
But more to the point, conservative claims to be defending free speech and open discussion aren’t sincere. Conservatives don’t want to see ideas evaluated on their merits, regardless of politics; they want ideas convenient to their side to receive (at least) equal time regardless of their intellectual quality.
Indeed, conservative groups are engaged in a systematic effort to impose political standards on higher education. For example, we now know that the Koch brothers have used donations to gain power over academic appointments at at least two universities.
So what does all this mean for the rest of us? Mainly, it means that if you’re in any role that involves informing people – whether it’s in education or in journalism – you shouldn’t let right-wingers, as Ferguson would put it, grind you down.
These days, both universities and news organizations are under constant pressure not just to be nicer to Trump but to respect right-wing views across the board. The people making these demands claim to want fairness.
So you need to remember that this claim is made in bad faith. It has nothing to do with fairness; it’s all about power.