My Open Exchange With a Conservative Spokesman
...before he threw me out of his conference.
Opinions, Conor Clarke, Amherst College, Aug. 1, 2006
...before he threw me out of his conference.
By Conor Clarke, Amherst College
When Roger Custer of Young America’s Foundation took to the stage and opened the 2006 Conservative Student Conference, the first thing he explained was why the gathering was necessary. “It’s a shame you have to be here,” he told the 300-odd students in attendance, but liberals’ campus stranglehold leaves YAF with no choice. The left, he continued, “has never been for open debate or discussion.” Instead, it shuts out conservative speakers and, when necessary, engages in name-calling and physical harassment. But confront liberals with arguments and ideas, Custer claimed, “and you’ll win every time.”
The speech was, at root, a paean to the marketplace of ideas—a marketplace that, by Custer’s lights, needed to be wrested away from the odious Left and restored to glorious openness. And it took exactly three hours and 47 minutes to expose this rhetoric for what it actually was: bullshit. I went to the conference, as a reporter for The Washington Monthly, to engage with conservative ideas and continue the research on college organizing that I had been doing all summer. I also agreed to blog on the event for campusprogress.org. But it was not to be. Two events and three posts after Custer’s opening remarks, I was approached by YAF’s spokesman, Jason Mattera, on my way to see Newt Gingrich. “Who do you work for?” Mattera demanded, with a touch of petulance. “The Washington Monthly,” I told him. “Are you writing for anyone else?” “I’m blogging for Campus Progress.”
And that did the trick. “There’s the elevator,” Mattera pointed. “I can have one of my interns push the down button.” But it didn’t end there. What happened to the vaunted marketplace of ideas, I asked. The openness and exchange?
You don’t get the sense, talking to Mattera, that he’s really an “ideas” guy. In fact, like a teenager who lords over his little brother, he seems to revel in power for its own sake—blissfully uninterested in arguments, and completely at ease with force. Indeed, the first justification that escaped Mattera’s lips was this: “Because I said so.” Following hot on the heels of hours of speeches in which conservatives insisted, repeatedly and emphatically, that they have the arguments and ideas to knock collegiate liberalism flat, this gem was delivered without the slightest hint of irony. It didn’t seem to occur to Mattera that “Because I said so” isn’t an especially good argument—or that, in fact, it’s not really an argument at all. (But this is not the first time Mattera has excluded reporters from the YAF conference. When a CampusProgress.org reporter, Julie Siegel, requested press credentials to cover it Mattera denied her, and said he would deny The Nation—the oldest weekly magazine in the country—as well.)
And then, like a thunderbolt, Mattera comes up with this: “You misrepresented yourself.” Hmmm, really? When? Could it have been when I originally asked for press credentials? No: I was, and am, reporting for The Washington Monthly. (Mattera knows and doesn’t deny this: I interviewed him three weeks ago.) So was it when Campus Progress asked me to blog? If so, Mattera would have to insist that any journalist who works for one publication but writes for several is required to give a running disclosure of all future work possibilities. And if that’s the case—if Mattera has stumbled upon some brave new world of journalistic ethics—he would do well to inform the thousands upon thousands of freelance journalists presently at work in the country.
Mattera, however, lacks the courage of those convictions. How should YAF respond, I asked him, if I were reporting for The Monthly and blogging for The National Review? The point of the thought experiment never seems to connect, because Mattera’s response is once again glib and irony-free. “You know what?” he says. “If you were with The National Review, I’d get you a seat right up front and have one of my interns give you a nice massage, and grab you a cup of Sunkist.” (Just who are these interns, forced to fetch drinks, push elevator buttons and give massages?) On Mattera’s intellectual horizon, however, the contradiction never dawns. So is the closeout ideological? “Sure, whatever,” he says.
Some people might call that censorship. And so, it turns out, would Mattera. “Alright,” he admits with a laugh. “It’s censorship.”
Well that settles that. (Unless, of course, Mattera denies everything he said, as he implied he would during our conversation.)
But if there’s a group that should be worried about Mattera’s startling lack of intellectual seriousness, it’s young conservatives. In my brief time at the conference, I had discussions—thoughtful discussions—about everything from taxation to military service. There was much that the conference-goers and I agreed on, but agreement was never the point: I like having my views criticized; it makes them stronger.
And I am perfectly happy to engage with smart, serious conservatives—just as most are perfectly happy to engage with me. But unless arguments and ideas are just window-dressing for cutthroat politics, Mattera should be an embarrassment to his movement.
(In fact, I’m not sure Mattera would have been excited to see at the conference National Review associate editor Alston Ramsey, who has strongly criticized Mattera for blocking Campus Progress from covering it.)
So if there’s a lesson to be learned from the conference, it’s that YAF just can’t stand criticism. For two years running, Campus Progress has opened the doors of its national student conference to reporters of all stripes, including the National Review and Human Events, both publications to which Jason Mattera contributes. But in the end, none of that matters. YAF pays lip service to free exchange, but it’s nothing more than a thin veneer for close-mindedness.
For Mattera, alas, hypocrisy isn’t enough. “I would give you my business card,” he quips as I turn to leave. “But you would probably just hit on me.” I look back, baffled. “Oh come on,” he says with a faux-apologetic grin. “What you liberals need is a sense of humor.”
Oh, of course. Ha-Ha-Ha. Forgive my PC brain for forgetting the timeless humor of homophobia. And maybe, in exchange, I’ll forgive Jason his intellectual cowardice. We can call it even.
Conor Clarke is a senior at Amherst and a summer 2006 intern with The Washington Monthly. His writing has appeared in Alternet and Slate.