Propaganda alert - Macleans.ca
 

Propaganda alert

Campus conspiracy theories — not just for nutjobs anymore


 

In this piece, I’m about to break a cardinal rule of the Internet (twice!) and lend traffic and promotion to sites I consider inherently ridiculous. I allow myself this exception to the rule because the two sites are at opposite ideological extremes. I figure the net effect should be about even.

For some time now, Campus Conservative Watch has been a bit of an inside joke. This site alleges a vast and organized attempt by conservative forces to subvert the student movement and to infiltrate campuses across Canada. Particularly funny is this bit, where they call out the media. Macleans On Campus is one of the targets. And while there are sometimes opinions on this site that I don’t agree with either, I can absolutely promise that I wasn’t subjected to ideological screening before I was recruited to write here. If I had been, I can’t imagine I would have passed muster by any conservative standard.

That is the problem with Campus Conservative Watch, after all, and why some think it’s just a really elaborate joke. We all dislike people coming from different political perspectives, at times, but when you lump them all into a group and allege conspiracy among them it’s just a little too convenient. Anyone who disagrees with you — and in particular with your paranoid theories — becomes a part of the opposition and therefore a part of the conspiracy! It’s very neat and self-proving. This site uses the term “conservative” in the way McCarthy used the term “communist.” It’s a bogeyman word intended to encompass everything disagreeable and threatening. And needless to say, any term that removes discussion from the substance of what’s actually going on and turns the opposition into a faceless “them” is self-defeating at best and dangerous at worst.

And then, I ran across The Undercurrent. I’m still a little stunned this “campus newspaper” actually exists. I don’t even have words — you’ll just have to read it.

The Undercurrent is a campus newspaper. It is written for college students across the country, with additional articles from the Ayn Rand Institute op-ed program and other writers.

By “the country” they mean the United States. But they don’t seem to have any issues with distributing the paper in Canada too. And you know, it does look like a campus newspaper! Initially, I was fooled into thinking it was a local product of some sort. It’s especially tricky at U of T Scarborough because our local paper is The Underground. It’s very plausible that some clever person figured they’d riff off that with The Undercurrent. But no such luck.

The very notion of producing an ideological propaganda piece of this nature and calling it a “campus newspaper” is highly suspect. In what sense is it “campus?” It only tangentially relates to education issues. It is written mainly by students, yes, but certainly not from U of T. By that same definition I could credibly describe the local Starbucks as a “campus initiative” because the employees are mostly students of one sort or another. But we all know that isn’t what we mean in the ordinary sense of the word when we describe something as belonging to the campus. We mean our campus. This isn’t a campus newspaper. It’s propaganda aimed at a valuable demographic that the right-wing fringe is seeking to influence. I can’t possibly describe it as anything else. It isn’t even a national conspiracy — it’s an international one!

I almost feel as though I owe an apology to Campus Conservative Watch. They were right all along! Or I’d owe them an apology, at least, if they actually noticed this rag and said something about it. Instead, I suppose, they were focused on the “conservative conspiracy” among students who happen to not like the CFS. But I’ll give them points for effort, at least. When I finally realized what I was looking at, in The Undercurrent, I thought immediately of the paranoid little blog that almost-could. Wow they missed a chance to be relevant!

And here I’m left with a depressing thought. In spite of my desire to believe otherwise, post-secondary campuses are, in fact, a ripe target for ideologues. Conspiracy theories all sound nutty, on first glance, but that doesn’t mean they are all wrong. The student movement has been subverted before and may be again. And the culprits, lest I be misunderstood, come from every portion of the political spectrum. The fringe left, as it were, is no more above dirty pool than the fringe right.

All I can suggest is that students remain alert for bullshit of this sort on campus, and call it out when you see it. Extremes from one side inevitably breed extremes on the other. Those who are most inclined to cry “foul!” on the opposition are often the last to accept criticism or scrutiny themselves. So be especially skeptical of anyone who alleges someone else is lying and then demands you accept their own claims uncritically. What could be less consistent than that? Be critical of my claims as well. Review the material for yourself. It’s certainly a trip, if nothing else.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.


 

Propaganda alert

  1. I blush to admit it, but many years ago I had an Ayn Rand phase (I got better, really I did) and wrote a couple of pieces for an Objectivist/Libertarian campus paper that put out two or three issues at, um, a western Canadian university. Some people got mad at us; everyone else ignored us thoroughly. I cringe to think about it now, but at least we wrote original content for it.

  2. What the hell is the issue? Unapproved writing appearing on campus? Thought police left out of the loop? When I was a young man at University, Marxist materiel from all over the world was readily available in bins all over campus. So what?

    An institution devoted to political and economic thinking develops content in a format designed to reach a college student demographic and actually distributes it to the targeted group using like-minded people on campus. Just think about the level of conspiracy ~ they must have got two or three folks together and planned to publicize their ideas and actually included students as someone who should be engaged. Conspiracy!!!

    Where’s the Star Chamber ~ what kind of country have we become when we let people actually express their opinions without vetting? And not only that, conservative opinions, and not only that, opinions that didn’t originate at the U of T. What the hell is going on, anyway? Is this anyway to CONTROL a university environment???

  3. Sure, watch out for “…bullshit of this sort”, but let the usual left-wing claptrap bullshit just slide on through! Campuses in Canada are over-run with politically-correct socialist thought, communist-thought, and whatever-is-your-revolution-today thought news.
    So, for a breath of fresh air, try The Undercurrent website: http://the-undercurrent.com/

  4. @Brian – You know, everyone has phases, and if this were produced locally I think I’d feel different about it. I really do agree – that’s an important distinction. It isn’t the complete end of the discussion, but I’d feel differently if local students were at least writing something, rather than just passing off some external publication with a very definite agenda as a “campus newspaper.”

    And as for the rest, I find it rather refreshing to be accused again of being a left-wing shill. As long as I’m drawing accusations from the fringes on both ends of the spectrum I feel a lot better about things. As someone very wise once said – the surest sign that you’ve been fair is that no one leaves happy.

    I see my article actually brought out the Randies. That’s awesome, and I’ll allow their comments to stand for themselves. Considering that the bulk of what I initially wrote was just ignored, I can’t imagine that my reply would be treated better. But I hope they stick around. For all that people throw the term “conservative” around here it might be nice to hear from some hardcore right-wingers – if only to put things back in perspective.

  5. Methinks you are sleeping with a night-light on. A magazine with a political bent is circulated on college campuses with a name that would help its circulation, and that becomes a conspiracy worthy of alarm? Gee, you got to get out more.

  6. I can see two potentially misleading things about The Undercurrent.

    1. I tend to expect a campus newspaper to be local. ‘Campus’ usually referring to THIS campus. Though The Undercurrent does state in it’s about page “The Undercurrent is an independent multi-campus publication”, and it’s pretty quickly apparent that the issues originate in the USA.

    2. The expectation of news to (at least try) to be objective. I find the description of ‘cultural commentary’ from the websites homepage to be a little more accurate to the content.

    But really these are more the expectations I bring when I pick up a campus newspaper. Whether my expectations are right or wrong, The Undercurrent seems to be exactly what they say they are and doesn’t seem to be trying to mislead anyone.

    I expect my propaganda to be much more veiled :D

  7. Well, I’ll certainly agree that it’s unsubtle propaganda! But it’s never been my experience that propaganda needs to be subtle to work. If anything, the principle of the “big lie” suggests otherwise.

    I don’t object to the ideas of Ayn Rand on campus. I’m sure her books are in the university libraries. But the fact remains that universities have explicit rules about distributing third party materials on campus – be they newsletters, pamphlets, advertising, whatever. If you stick something to the walls without permission they take it down. If you hand out materials in the halls you’ll be asked to leave. There are ways for students to obtain permission to do these things but that’s exactly the point – you need permission and you need to be a student. Can you imagine if this were not the case? Students are a valuable demographic – both politically and commercially. If there were no rules to restrict this it would become a free for all!

    By masquerading as a “campus paper” the Undercurrent manages to sit quietly on news stands intended for actual campus papers, and mostly escapes notice (and prompt recycling) on that basis. I do not for an instant believe this is accidental. Yes, the illusion is thin enough once you look twice. But most people don’t. And so this is nothing more than a deliberate and cynical attempt to get away with something otherwise not permitted.

    And no – the fact that it’s been done by other people in the past doesn’t make it right.

  8. Well if it’s against policy then that’s that. It makes sense that materials ought to be somewhat controlled, though I’m more worried about the hallways simply becoming overcrowded with this-or-that special interest materials than propaganda swaying students hearts… I hope that somewhere along somebody’s student career they learn to think critically. At least enough not to mistake commentary for fact.

  9. As a writer for The Undercurrent, I would like to briefly respond to Mr. Ryback’s statements about our publication. He seems to think The Undercurrent has hidden the fact it is an international newspaper distributed for college students on campuses. We have never concealed this – in fact, if one picks up our recent Fall print edition, included is the list of college campuses it is distributed to. Mr. Ryback also suggests that we are deceiving college students into thinking The Undercurrent is a campus newspaper because it is printed by their campus. It is not. The Undercurrent is printed and distributed solely by those that want to promote our ideas. It is a campus newspaper because it is distributed on campuses for students. A city paper is not printed by the city, but is a city paper because of where and to whom it is distributed.

    That he should call our content “bullshit” and “right-wing fringe” without ever once mentioning or quoting this content content, only our relation to Ayn Rand, represents a lack of honesty and accuracy. Both The Undercurrent and Ayn Rand have repeatedly attacked the Right for its flaws, including its nationalistic, socialistic, and religious elements. We are not right-wing, nor are we left-wing – we are Objectivists, and our viewpoint is unique to us.

    It is even more ironic that if one takes the popular notion of propaganda, Mr. Ryback’s article is a perfect example: a call to rise up against something, without much evidence or explanation, because it should not be allowed by a higher authority. In another sense, The Undercurrent is also a perfect example of propaganda: a publication distributed to challenge ideas for a better culture. Which is the greater example of free thought? And if Mr. Ryback has such issue with us distributing on his campus without permission, why has he written an article instead of raising this to the attention of his college’s administration? That should have been the first thing he had done if he so disagrees with our distribution method.

    The Undercurrent is completely honest that our goal is to spread Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism to college students, and we do it every semester in print. Picking up our Spring print edition would be the chance for your readers to decide for themselves whether The Undercurrent is what Mr. Ryback suggests it is, or if it is something else. And if your paper disagrees with the content of the Undercurrent, please considering addressing that content rather than engaging in ad hominem.

    Sincerely,
    Daniel Casper
    The Undercurrent, Guest Editor

  10. So in summary, it’s a campus newspaper because it’s on my campus? Regardless of whether it belongs on my campus, was produced on my campus, or has anything to do with my campus? It’s a campus newspaper solely because you’ve managed to get it there. I want to be sure I’ve got that point quite clear. Because by that same definition, as soon as I manage to sneak past your front door and into your home, I cease to be a trespasser and somehow become a guest.

    Let me be clear one final time. My difficulty with your agenda is not that it is unapologetically right-wing (you won’t convince me otherwise by calling the mainstream right “socialists,” btw) but rather that you believe you are entitled to advertising space on private property merely because you manage to sneak in there and hide on newsstands intended for actual campus papers. It would piss me off just as much if you happened to be a Communist rag. And yes, I’d call it a rag then too. Not because I lack respect for thoughtful Communist observations or even (with some self-restraint) for thoughtful Randian observations. But I lose respect for every point of view when proponents of that perspective stop following the rules that apply to everyone else. If you don’t want people to call you out for your behaviour in this way there’s a simple remedy. Stop it!

    You want to distribute your ideas on my campus? Pay to post fliers just like everyone else does! You think they’re all just too stupid to invent “campus newspapers” for themselves? Every religion, ideology, and advertiser in sight would have a “campus paper” of their own if it were allowed. As a union exec I routinely cleared crap of this sort out of our student center – in particular large bundles of advertising from a particularly aggressive company called “Campus Xpress.” They too were trying to scam their way into access to the student demographic. But at least they were under no illusions they were entitled to be on our newsstands. They were just hoping to get away with it.

    You score points by pointing out an ad hominem attack (an attack against the person) only when it isn’t warranted. In this case it is. It isn’t the content of the Undercurrent I object to. It is precisely the conduct of your people that I object to. Get off my campus news racks! And yes, I’d say the same thing to anyone else putting stuff there that doesn’t belong. No matter if it has “campus newspaper” blazoned across the front or not. Being “on campus” and being a “newspaper” does not transform you into a campus newspaper – nor does it license you to be there. The assumption that you are automatically entitled to display space alongside actual campus papers – when no one else thinks so and would clearly love to get away with it if they could – is unspeakably arrogant. So yes, my attack is ad hominem. Because the “hominems” in this case bloody well deserve it.

  11. So, referring to a “campus Starbucks” would be misleading and deceptive? The paper is written specifically for students and distributed only on college campuses. That makes it a campus newspaper.

    The only potentially legitimate argument here is that The Undercurrent distributed its papers in violation of University rules. Two things make me doubt this is the real source of Mr. Rybak’s annoyance: 1. The allegation is not even mentioned in the original article. 2. In the subsequent comment that makes the allegation, no proof is given.

    Lastly, I’m positive that if the paper Mr. Rybak had encountered on campus was a Greenpeace-published environmental activism newspaper aimed at students, he wouldn’t have blinked, let alone penned a paranoid essay warning of deceptive ideological propaganda.