On Campus

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.

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