Deciphering Right-Wing Code: What Conservatives Are Really Saying When They Seem to Spew Nonsense

The Right Wing

Progressive commentators have been piling on Rick Santorum for a weirdly incoherent statement he made about the state of American history classes in America's colleges. Here's what he said:

"I was just reading something last night from the state of California. And the state of California universities -- I think it's seven or eight of the California system of universities -- don't even teach an American history course. It's not even available to be taught. Just to tell you how bad it's gotten in this country, where we're trying to disconnect the people from the root of who we are...."

The derision Santorum has received is well-deserved. He messed up the facts badly: 10 of the 11 UC campuses do teach US history (the only exception is UC San Francisco, which is exclusively a graduate-level health sciences campus and offers no humanities classes at all).

It also misses the point. It's not news when a conservative says something that was flat-out wrong, or when liberals take smug satisfaction in demonstrating that they are (as usual) factually right. But there was something else Santorum said in that statement that was newsworthy and important -- and in our zeal to debunk the facts, many progressives are completely missing it. 

It's Not About the Facts

The thing to remember is this: Even though right-wing narratives are often factually wrong, they are absolutely never content-free. Stories like this are always about something. And the weirder and more factually challenged they sound to liberal ears, the more important it probably is for us to know what that something is. Too often, our obsession with the gobsmacking wrongness of these statements deafens us to clues to the right's current motives and intentions that are frequently lurking in these strange declarations.

I'm a native-born speaker of right-wing code. And what I heard in Santorum's ramble was, frankly, hair-raising. To my ears, it was a very loud and clear tip-off that conservatives are gearing up an all-out frontal assault on funding for America's public universities.

The Story Beneath the Story

Santorum's brief comment, incoherent as it seemed, communicated a great deal to his audience by artfully triggering a vast universe of essential right-wing memes. Consider what got communicated here.

The University of California may have 11 campuses, but in the right-wing mind, "UC" is code for just one of them -- UC Berkeley, the first and still-flagship campus, which holds a mythic position as Ground Zero for all of Dirty Hippiedom in the conservative imagination. If Satan is alive on earth, there is no doubt that his zip code is 94720. Everything conservatives loathe about the Evil 1960s is epitomized by the very word, "Berkeley."

Oblique as this already is, invoking UC and Berkeley also calls forth the ghost of Ronald Reagan -- always a good thing in conservative stories. Let it never be forgotten that Our Hero made his political bones by standing up to those Dirty Hippie brats while he was governor of California. He punished them by abolishing UC's free tuition -- which is still remembered by the faithful as the first historic salvo in the long war to defund all public services.

Furthermore: picking on UC was telling in another way. When conservatives seriously gather themselves to go after somebody, they always attack frontally, at their intended victim's point of greatest strength. (See also: swiftboating.)  The University of California system has long been regarded as the best public university system in America, and Berkeley as the best single public university in the country. Santorum's story's focus on this particular system -- the biggest, baddest exemplar of its type -- is no random accident. It draws a bead on the strongest target on the field. This is almost always a clear sign that conservatives are lining up their artillery -- in this case, for an open assault on America's public colleges and universities.

The Crusade Begins

When wingnuts say stuff like this, it is never, ever offhand. This narrative is making the rounds on the right because somebody is laying the groundwork for an imminent, planned political action. Santorum's screed is the first stage of this campaign. It's a story that justifies the coming action, and puts the issue on the public table for discussion. It explains to right-wing followers that public universities, already well-understood as havens for liberal (!) public employees (!!) who exist only to corrupt the youth (!!!), are now also so blatantly unpatriotic (!!!!) that they no longer deserve taxpayer support.

Further inquiry bore this suspicion out. It turns out that Santorum's weird claims about UC's history departments were a garbled rendering of an op-ed that appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal. (The article is behind a paywall; but the report it referenced, from the conservative Hoover Institution, is not.) The WSJ piece deplored UC's history programs thusly:

This decline in the quality of education coincides with a profound transformation of the college curriculum. None of the nine general campuses in the UC system requires students to study the history and institutions of the United States. None requires students to study Western civilization, and on seven of the nine UC campuses, including Berkeley, a survey course in Western civilization is not even offered. In several English departments one can graduate without taking a course in Shakespeare. In many political science departments majors need not take a course in American politics.

The report goes on to point out that university faculties skew decidedly liberal (perhaps because the facts have a well-known liberal bias), and that nothing but partisan education happens behind those ivy walls.

You can kind of squint sideways and see how Santorum got from here to there.

For the record: it is true that a single "survey course on Western Civilization" isn't offered at most UC campuses. That's because Western Civilization courses are more typically offered in a multi-part series, because the professors don't think it's possible to effectively teach 3,000 years of history in a mere 10 weeks. So all of UC's undergrad campuses offer plenty of courses in both US and Western history, and a lot of students take them to fulfill their general education requirements. However, it's also true that many students choose to broaden their horizons by taking something they didn't already cover in both elementary and high school -- say, Asian or African history -- instead.

Given how fast and loose the WSJ played with this point, it's probably not wise to credit it with much accuracy on the other claims, either.

But the content of this Hoover report isn't as important as the fact of its provenance, its existence, and its publication on the pages of the WSJ. Right-wing crusades almost always start with think-tank reports; and are issuized on the pages of conservative magazines and newspapers. From there, the ideas are picked up and disseminated by Fox, politicians, conservative ministers, and right-wing bloggers. If all goes well, within weeks, legislators will be paying attention, and lobbyists will be presenting them with ready-written legislation to propose to deal with this manufactured "problem."

This is the path we're on now. Santorum was setting the stage. He warned us, very clearly: Following the War on Public Employees and the War on Women, this will be the summer of the War on Public Universities. Whether the proposals will be to revoke their charters, close campuses, or sell off their facilities to for-profit colleges, you can bet that ALEC already has the bills in the can, and will be introducing them in state legislatures presently.  

We can waste our time and energy marveling at Mr. Santorum's lack of facticity -- or we can hear the clear warning of real danger just ahead, and start getting ready to defend our public universities.

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