Propaganda 101 at "The Point"
On the rare occasion when I’m not teaching seminars on socialist lesbian vampires and forcing students to sing a rousing chorus of “The Internationale,” I teach college writing.
When I talk to students about how to put together an effective argument, I make a point of mentioning that two of the things that will immediately make your audience suspect that you’re not dealing with them honestly are being evasive in stating your position and using obvious hyperbole to make your point. Both of these are telltale signs of a writer/speaker who is attempting to mislead or manipulate the audience, and who probably hasn’t thought through his or her own position in a rigorous way to begin with. It doesn’t take long for an intelligent reader to sniff out a poseur when the text reeks of desperation, and that’s the underlying source of both evasiveness and hyperbole. Those who use them know that their argument won’t cut it on its own merits.
Perhaps you sense where I’m going with this.
In the latest installment of what’s become a mini-series infomercial for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, “Point” correspondent Dina Nesheiwat interviews Sarah Longwell, Communications Director of the ISI.
As in yesterday’s installment, the ISI’s political affiliation goes unmentioned. Instead, the segment presents the ISI simply as a source of classroom materials, grants, and scholarships that encourage the “discussion of diverse topics and viewpoints.”
But as we saw yesterday, the ISI’s president has clearly stated that the raison d’etre of the organization is to advance a conservative political agenda on college campuses.
Can there be any doubt that the underlying thesis of this series of “Points” is that college campuses are far too liberal and that conservatism must be actively imported into higher education to make up for this bias?
But if that’s the thesis, why haven’t any of the “Points” thus far stated this position? Why have they been wrapped in the trappings of disinterested news segments and failed to mention ISI’s stated political agenda? If this thesis is valid and easily supportable, why isn’t it simply asserted and defended? Must “Point” viewers be misled in order to accept the position advocated by Hyman & Co.? If so, what does that tell us about the strength and validity of that position?
Instead, we get snippets of an interview with Longwell who, among other things, states that, “The problem is not that kids [sic] are getting a biased education. It's that they're getting no education at all.”
Really? College students aren’t getting any education at all? Do you actually believe that, Ms. Longwell?
Fortunately for us, we don’t have to leave that hanging as a rhetorical question. Longwell has kindly answered that question for us, courtesy of a quotation from her found on the website of Kenyon College, from which she graduated in 2002.
"I took 'Quest for Justice' with (Professor of Political
Science) Pamela Jensen, and it changed my entire life . . . Professor Jensen
taught me to think and to discuss in a way I never had before . . . The
conservative role models that I had at Kenyon were unbelievably decent and
good-hearted people . . . They showed me a vision of conservatism that I wanted
to emulate—always wanting to give back and contribute."
So apparently Longwell did get an education in college, one that she says is directly responsible changing her life and with getting her employment at ISI.
But surely Kenyon College is a rose among thorns, right? It must be some evangelical Bible college that is not representative of liberal arts education as practiced at today’s colleges.
Actually, it’s not. Kenyon College is a small, private liberal arts college of the sort that can be found across the United States (and from which I myself graduated). Apparently, Longwell was able to not only get an education but find conservative role models at the same institution that has graduated Paul Newman, Mark Rosenthal (CEO of MTV), Carl Djerassi (inventor the birth control pill), and Allison Janney (the actor who plays the Chief of Staff to Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett in The West Wing).
But Kenyon must at the very least stick exclusively to the tried and true curriculum that does not veer into anything that might be taken as culturally progressive, right? Unlike all those other colleges around the country, where (according to Kenneth Cribb, president of the ISI) you’re more likely to be taught about the undead rather than about James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” Kenyon must offer thoroughly traditional courses that would have been as familiar to students in 1905 as they are in 2005.
Let’s take a look at a brief list of Kenyon College offerings, followed by my creative interpretation of what folks such as Cribb and his friend Pat “The Assassin” Roberts might say about them:
ENGL 103.02 “Monsters and Monstrosity” [Satanism! They’ve banished God and replaced him with Beelzebub!]
ENGL 103.03 “Seductions” [My God! They’re teaching children how to seduce one another? What’s the final exam—an orgy?]
ENGL 103.04 “Other Worlds” [New Age nonsense is being taught instead of the classics!]
ENGL 265 “Postcolonial Modernities: South Asia and the Middle East” [Multiculturalism run amok!]
ENGL 318 Cinema and Sexuality [They’re feeding pornography to our kids!]
PHIL 225 Existentialism [It’s godless AND French!]
RELIGIOUS STUDIES 232 Afro-Caribbean Spirituality [They’re talking about Voodoo, baby!]
RELIGIOUS STUDIES 225 Jesus and the Gospels [That’s cool.]
RELIGIOUS STUDIES 443 Voices in Contemporary Islam [AHHHHHHH! They’re siding with the terrorists! Support the troops! U-S-A! U-S-A!! U-S-A!!!!]
ECON 332 Russian Economic History [Marxism!]
POLITICAL SCIENCE 341 Soviet and Russian Politics [Communism!]
POLITICAL SCIENCE 200 Liberal Democracy in America [‘Nuff said.]
ANTHROPOLOGY 321 Evolution and Human Evolution [I’m not familiar with these terms.]
SOCIOLOGY 232 Sexual Harassment: Legal Questions and Normative Expectations [Feminazis running the academy!]
WOMEN’S AND GENDER STUDIES 121 Lesbian and Gay Cultures [Aha! Our arch-nemesis: the radical gay agenda! Don’t let our babies grow up to be sodomites!]
Alright, I’ve driven this into the ground, but you get the picture. Even the beloved alma mater of the communications director of the ISI offers a list of classes that could be mischaracterized as radical, frivolous, or both. If you actually look at the course descriptions, however, you’ll see that these are actually intelligent, well-designed courses that take up important issues and look at them from a number of perspectives. That’s what a humanistic, liberal arts education is all about.
Moreover, these courses are offered in addition to the more standard courses that one would expect (and find) at any reputable institute of higher learning, not in place of them. To this extent, Kenyon is representative of the contemporary American college or university (if anything, its course offerings look slightly less traditional than the average college or university).
The point is that Longwell is being more than a little disingenuous when she says that today’s college students are getting “no education.” She certainly doesn’t believe that in her own case, despite the fact that the college she went to would be an even fatter target than most for the sort of distorted, paranoia-mongering silliness that her organization traffics in.
There are certainly problems in higher education (the people who teach and work at colleges and universities would be the first to agree with this). But people like Hyman, Nesheiwat, Cribb, and Longwell aren’t interested in the real issues facing higher ed. They are preoccupied with forwarding a political agenda under the guise of disinterested commentary.
That’s certainly their right. I just wish they’d have the courage of their convictions to be a bit more honest and upfront about it. As it is, the series of “Points” we’ve seen this week are works that attempt to cover up their political motivation and rely on distortion and exaggeration to get the audience to accept their argument, an argument that is tacitly acknowledged as unable to stand on its own merits by the very people making it.
There’s a word (perhaps one that you learned about in college) that describes this kind of text: propaganda.
And that’s The Counterpoint.