October 30, 2017
Last month, conservative media celebrity Ben Shapiro came to speak at the University of Utah to approximately 400 people as a guest of the student organization Young Americans for Freedom, a chapter affiliate of the nonprofit national organization Young America’s Foundation (YAF). The free tickets were distributed selectively at the Student Union the Saturday morning before the event. Demand for the tickets far exceeded the capacity of the venue and hundreds of people (including myself) were turned away.
People were interested in hearing the conservative mega-pundit for various reasons. I was interested in the content of his speech. I watched the recording of the talk that was provided by KSL-5. (The YAF at University of Utah also provided a link to a YouTube channel “Trump Truth Watch.”)
I wondered how his language would compare to the blatant racism apparent in the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August. In September, when protests turned violent at another Shapiro speaking engagement, I questioned the impact of protest demonstration against undesirable speech.
The roots of YAF
In opening remarks, a Young Americans for Freedom spokesperson thanked the sponsors who made this event possible without actually naming the sponsors.
A well-funded strategic effort by Young America’s Foundation brings provocative conservative speakers to public college campuses. They advocate on the behalf of the political interests of their donors and undermine faith in public education institutions. They give their ideas away for free on public campuses because they know they are protected by free speech laws. This is an effort to groom future conservative leaders to serve the group’s mission; increasing the number of young Americans who “understand and are inspired by the ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values.”
The organization was formed in 1969 as a coalition between traditional conservatives and libertarians. In 1974 YAF sponsored the first Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) which has turned into the largest political gathering of conservatives in the country. Notable YAF alumni who hold or have held public office include Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle and Jeff Sessions. Ann Coulter is an alumna of the YAF National Journalism Center’s internship program.
The funding behind YAF includes mega-donors Charles and David Koch and the Richard and Helen DeVos family. This coincides with other investments in colleges and universities with the same aim of grooming and recruiting members.
YAF is an associate member of the nonprofit, State Policy Network (SPN) that focuses on policies they refer to as “workplace freedom, education reform and individual choice in healthcare.” SPN policy positions have included reduction in state health and welfare programs, expansion of charter schools and voucher programs and opposition to public-sector trade unions. The organization has ideological relationship with the Heritage Foundation.
Controvery and protest
The topic of Shapiro’s talk at the University of Utah was debunking the “myth” of white privilege. The topic begs for controversy; it’s designed to be offensive.
Part of the appeal of these events is the response of the protesters. The potential of violence draws an audience. Shapiro devoted the opening of his talk to a widely circulated op-ed article posted in local newspapers just prior to his speaking engagement. The letter was signed by Ian Decker, a spokesperson for Students for a Democratic Society-Utah, Black Lives Matter-Salt Lake City and University of Utah Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlan.
“We intend on shutting down Ben Shapiro precisely because we don’t live in a fantasy world where hate speech has no consequences. We believe his hate speech can and will have material consequences for vulnerable people. This will not be a violent protest, but we intend to exercise our free speech in the boldest and most unapologetic way we can, even if Shapiro, his fans, and the University police would have it otherwise,” it stated.
Because Shapiro’s talk falls well within the confines of protected speech, the threat by the activists fell hollow. Shapiro was able to use this to his advantage. An isolated incident of violence at the protest outside also had no impact on altering the course of Shapiro’s discussion. He even noted that the protests and related excitement is good for media coverage.
University Police and other local and federal authorities provided security for the event at an estimated $25,000. The UC-Berkeley Shapiro protest cost an estimated $600,000. These costs are absorbed by the University and taxpayers.
Suggesting speech should be censored for such vague accusations displays an ignorance of free speech laws and turned away not only conservative observers but liberal ones as well.
Hierarchy of victimhood
A key concept Shapiro uses is the idea that the left has created a hierarchy of victimhood that goes as follows, from most victimized to least: 1.) LGBTs 2.) Black “folks” 3.) Hispanics 4.) Women 5.) Jews 6.) Asians, and lastly, 7.) White straight males: “Your opinions don’t matter at all, rich, white, straight males.” The message is that racial and sexual minorities, and women pose obstacles to your success when they claim to be victims and addressing claimed injustices leads to a loss of your individual freedom. This hierarchy is not defended by any formal scientific assessment and, contrary to Shapiro’s hierarchy, Pew research found that a large majority of Americans (82%) say Muslims face discrimination, with 57% saying they face “a lot.” It seems as if this hierarchy is constructed for the self-serving purpose of claiming ultimate victimhood for himself with no basis in empirical social science research.
Shapiro identifies himself with his audience. He teases the audience that the only reason they are not rich now is because they are college students and they spend all their money on pot, only to later make the point that the way to end police brutality is to stop committing crimes. These incongruent statements illustrate the existence of white privilege; drug laws are a joke for white young college males but a harsh reality for people of color.
He frames the NFL protests regarding racially biased police brutality as a protest against the country and our military. He uses a statistic from a database compiled by the Washington Post to demonstrate that you are more likely to be killed by police if you are white. The Post istelf explains that the numbers are “statistically dubious” unless you first adjust for population:
According to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau, African Americans account for 13% of the nation’s population; whites, 77%. Justice Department statistics indicate a black driver is about 31% more likely to be pulled over than a white driver and 23% more likely than an Hispanic driver.
According to Post data, “…police have continued to shoot and kill a disproportionately large number of black males (24%), yet black males are only 6% of the nation’s population.”
Shapiro again dismisses this complicated research and insists racial bias in the criminal justice system is a non-issue.
The next target Shapiro takes aim at is unwed and single mothers. Conservative ideology typically involves concepts like “society works best upon a set of strict rules; rules about morality, authority and national identity.” He emphasizes the idea that poverty is the result of a set of bad choices, entirely within your control. He explains that there are basically three rules in society to be “followed” in order to keep oneself from falling into poverty. 1.) graduate high school. 2.) get a job and 3.) get married before you have kids.
He wants his listeners to believe poverty is a result of having a baby before being married, not graduating and not having a job—when in fact, being in poverty makes you more likely to fall into all three categories. His list of three behaviors is basically what you do when you are not in poverty.
“Women are not victims!” Shapiro insists. “This notion that women all across the United states are being raped, fired, brutalized, and it’s just like the Taliban, and that Donald Trump is a peculiarly anti-woman force in legislation—all this is nonsense.”
The “notion” that Shapiro refers to is a direct reference to a statement by actress Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg criticized the Trump administration for White House adviser Steve Bannon’s advice for the media to “keep its mouth shut” as well as Trump’s promise to prioritize Christian refugees. She stated, “Here’s the thing — we have a constitution that says these are the things we don’t do, this is what makes us different from everybody else,” Goldberg said. “Nobody tells our media to shut up and just take it. That’s not America. That is the Taliban.” This has nothing to do with Shapiro’s statement, “women all across the United states are being raped, fired, brutalized.” Shapiro mis-characterizes and disputes Goldberg’s comments and in so doing, minimizes and dismisses the very real effects women in this country face due to sexual assault, violence and workplace discrimination.
We live in a culture where media personalities wield as much or more political influence over public opinion than elected officials. University and college campuses are vulnerable to partisan propaganda because speakers can stay within the limits of legally acceptable speech and at the same time share ideologies that don’t hold up to academic scrutiny. They rely on free speaking gigs through campus clubs because they aren’t invited by faculty who are serious about research. Ideas that desensitize us to the marginalization or suffering of other people serve the interests of the privileged. Shapiro’s popularity is only increased by misled, disorganized and uninformed protest.
In an age of propaganda, confront the message and not the messenger. Bad ideas are protested by better ideas.
Elisabeth Luntz is a freelance journalist who writes about politics, the environment and social justice. This article was published in the Catalyst Magazine.