Why do conservatives hate Oberlin so much?

How did the right get swept into a delusion that the college is a fount of bomb-slinging, purple-haired leftists?

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published June 18, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

A student riding a bicycle on the campus of Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio (AP/Tony Dejak)
A student riding a bicycle on the campus of Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio (AP/Tony Dejak)

When I was an undergraduate at Oberlin in the mid-Aughts, there was a student in my class year who was obsessed with 19th-century British Royal Naval culture. Every Friday evening, he would host a sing-along in a dorm lounge, for which he would bring xeroxes of historical sea shanty lyrics and pass them around so that we could sing along, waving our glasses of “grog.” This was a semi-established event — he had distributed flyers around campus advertising the weekly British Royal Naval sea-shanty singalong and grog-drinking event, which would extend late into the night. Though he was not a resident of the dorm where it took place, he was welcomed into the lounge by its members, and became a fixture of sorts.

Like many well-endowed liberal arts schools in rural areas, Oberlin College functions as a sort of de facto social welfare state, and is designed to encourage and cultivate one’s passions, even if they are not strictly academic. Thus, after writing up a proposal for the student-run activities board, the same student, the British Royal Navy culture guy, was able to plan, organize and execute a ticketed Royal Naval Ball, held in the atrium of the science center. The event featured 20 dishes of authentic British era-appropriate cuisine, cooked by student chefs, several courses of wine and port, and a violinist present to play period-specific music. The whole affair culminated with a traditional, British partner line dance — its sole inauthenticity the fact that we didn’t pay attention to our dance partners’ genders the way the Brits would have.

I mention this story because when I try to explain succinctly what attending Oberlin was actually like, it is a good synthesis of the experience. You could be really into something totally esoteric, even if it wasn’t strictly academic, and often get direct or indirect support for doing it while you were a student. I am a firm believer in the cultivation of these kinds of eccentricities; I imagine a postcapitalist welfare state will encourage the pursuit of intellectual and physical labor that extends outside of what is typically considered “productive,” which has always been an arbitrary category anyway.

In any case, this kind of open-ended intellectual atmosphere isn’t unique to Oberlin. All kinds of liberal arts colleges are like this — creative pseudo-welfare states where you are encouraged to pursue your weird interests. And even though most of my college experience involved, well, taking classes and doing homework, I am frankly thankful my education included a crash course in British Royal Naval culture.

Compare my experience among the students and staff of Oberlin to this description of the college from one of the biased right-wing blogs gleefully covering the recent lawsuit between a local bakery and the college:

The victory of the ordinary men and women of Gibson’s Bakery over the smug, dismissive, arrogant higher ed bureaucrats and their social justice warrior troops is a large part of the reader reaction. It was the deplorables prevailing, once again, and I don’t mean that politically.

There are many reasons to make fun of Oberlin, and I will be the first to do that: There is a small but overly visible minority of entitled Manhattanite trust-fund children, from whose privileged ranks people like Lena Dunham ('08) sprang. As with many nonprofits, the wealthiest donors have untoward power to dictate the institutional whims of the college — and many of those wealthy donors reaped their money from unsavory activities, particularly investment banking and hedge fund management. Like most young people finding their footing in the world, the students are forming and articulating their identities in a way that is often unnecessarily performative and/or self-righteous. The students are not nearly as class-diverse as those at a public university.  And it seems to be a magnet for socially awkward young people — though most are charming once you get to know them.

But the idea of Oberlin students as “social justice warrior troops” is so abominably stupid as to defy rebuttal. Indeed, that kind of rhetoric speaks to a fantasy about Oberlin that many conservatives have. You can see it in the way the right-wing media seizes on every story about Oberlin as a chance to smear it. Breitbart has long been on the Oberlin hate train. Similarly, The Daily Caller gleefully spins any news at the school as bad news, as if the school were a right-wing punching bag on par with Hillary Clinton.

Apparently, there is something deeply, indescribably evil about Oberlin, though what precisely is unclear. And thus, none of these conservative outlets nor commentators ever realize that their idea about Oberlin is a fable.

These fantasies are fully realized in the reactions to just about any article about Oberlin. Salon writer Shira Tarlo wrote a reported story on the Oberlin-Gibsons Bakery lawsuit late last week; she said she got more fury in her inbox from merely presenting the reported facts than any other story she had ever written. Here is one of the more astonishing emails, from a writer who needs a constitutional law refresher course:

You are not a journalist, you are a political actor spreading propaganda.

You are in violation of federal laws regarding fraud propaganda and malice, and are not protected under the 3rd amendment as you are not a journalist.

Enjoy your time writing your Bolshevik propaganda while you can, but know you will be spending your life behind bars or on the street at a certain point. I'd say learn to code, but I believe it is more likely you will be jailed for treason in the coming years.

Sincerely, A Concerned United States Citizen

And another favorite:

Why am I not surprised that Salon would attempt to weasel around on this matter. So glad they nailed these scumbags, many more to come. Mob rule by the Left needs to be stopped.

In the now-famous essay “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt,” Italian critic and novelist Umberto Eco, who himself lived through Mussolini’s regime, identifies fourteen features that presage a totalitarian regime. One of his bullet points, "irrationalism [and] action for action’s sake,” epitomizes to the right-wing rhetoric (and reaction) to anything written about Oberlin:

Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action's sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Hermann Goering's fondness for a phrase from a Hanns Johst play ("When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun") to the frequent use of such expressions as "degenerate intellectuals," "eggheads," "effete snobs," and "universities are nests of reds." The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

It is evident that the mere name “Oberlin” — the concept, the notional idea of it — seems to represent something deeply evil and threatening to the right-wing commentariat. The specific evil is not quite nameable; the aforementioned right-wing legal blog never fully explicates why or how Oberlin harbors “social justice warrior troops”; it is tucked in at the end of a self-congratulatory blog post, as though that fact were somehow self-evident. Likewise, the “Concerned United States Citizen” can’t quite articulate why the Oberlin-Gibsons suit inspires such ire; it merely does. The right-media apparatus has instilled something intriguingly Pavlovian here, in that just as a dog can be made to salivate at the sound of a bell, an infuriated group of “deplorables” can be enraged at the sound of the word Oberlin.

Working at Salon, I know how this works; our magazine’s name, too, causes ejaculatory triggerings among the right-wing, online and angry. Indeed, I have a front-row seat to the immense power of the right-wing punditry to perpetuate a violent fantasy about what we are as a magazine. In the two years I have worked here, we have twice vacated the office due to violent threats from right-wing plotters. Suspicious packages and threatening letters come every few months. The right-wing media loves to paint us as a fount of some form of evil politics — though the specifics to them are often vague, and those outlets never take any responsibility for the hate they engender and the fear in my own life that myself and my co-workers must endure. It is the cult of action for action's sake, hate without reflection or articulation, wrapped in a cardboard box of anti-intellectualism.

This far-right hate-mongering towards Oberlin long predated the Gibson’s lawsuit; indeed, it exists independently of the lawsuit entirely. Interestingly, the Gibson’s family seems nominally uninterested in the way that their case has become seized upon by sadistic right-wingers who see it as symbolic of a cultural victory. I agree with the commentators who have noted that  the sum awarded seems absurd and the legal outcome appears to defy First Amendment guarantees; regardless, I don’t begrudge the Gibson family. I know the right-wing hypocrisies keep piling up here, but I feel compelled to point out again: if the right genuinely believes itself to be the new protectors of First Amendment rights, they seem to have conveniently discarded that belief in reporting on this lawsuit.

The reasons that Oberlin bears the unique brunt of right-wing hate, and the reason it has become synecdoche for “social justice warrior troops,” is probably partly because of its location. Bard, Hampshire or Carleton probably have similar politics, while Wesleyan or Colgate or Williams probably have similar student bodies; but all of those colleges are in blue states (or counties). Oberlin’s situation in the Ohio part of the Rust Belt means that some on the right imagine there is some eternal culture war happening there. But the same kinds of identity politics debates are happening at just about every other school in the country, too — they are merely uniquely exaggerated at Oberlin, because of how closely its tribulations are followed by the aforementioned outlets.

Ironically for the right-wing haters, the staff of Oberlin largely resembles the composition of its midwestern environs. The college staff is comprised of rural local Ohioans that, the right imagines, detest the college. If the right imagines themselves as allies to these “real” Americans, blue-collar folks who work as landscapers, bursars and carpenters, then surely will grieve when some lose their jobs due to the college’s endowment being diminished by the Gibsons lawsuit? Just kidding. Of course they won’t. Theirs is not an ideology rooted in sense.

One of the right's most reliable Oberlin tropes is the idea that the college and its students are at odds, somehow, with the surrounding community. This, too, is a fact belied by history. The school intentionally shed all gates and walls around its facilities around the turn of the last century; unlike Vassar or Columbia or other peer colleges, it is integrated with the surrounding town — no walls, no security guards stationed at its building entrances. Compared to its surrounding townships, the town of Oberlin is economically vibrant, in part due to the college’s largesse: when the local movie theater went out of business, the college bought it, renovated it and kept it open to the public. An annual open-ended creativity festival, The Big Parade, is put on jointly by students and townsfolk. Students and townies commingle in the Experimental College, an open-ended, free school for which anyone can apply to teach a class on anything that anyone can take.

Moreover, the idea that the town is opposed to the college unilaterally is also wrong: a recent campaign by the college's union, which I witnessed when on campus last month, featured posters detailing testimony from staff members as to how they'd helped out students in need during holidays, hosted students for holiday dinners, and fed them when they were hungry. "We are Oberlin too," the flyers read.

Many on the right disparage left-wing campus activism as having been reduced to "grievance politics" — articulating things that are wrong with the world and moaning about them endlessly. Ironically, this is now the fundament of the right. You get the impression from the right-wing reaction to the Oberlin case that they believe so deeply that they are aggrieved, that they are under ideological siege from all sides, that they are suffering so much. Indeed, Trump’s ideological army, the so-called "deplorables," can be identified with the set of non-specific grievances about their culture, that is "white," "normal" American culture (to them). These people feel that they are under siege by an imagined enemy — the fictitious “social justice warrior” and their “arrogant bureaucrat” leaders. I’m not sure how to convince them that they don’t exist. They could drink grog in the co-op and sing sea shanties, or perhaps hang out with the campus staff — to prove to them that, for the most part, Oberlin College consists of college students doing normal college student stuff. But I fear that their fantasies are too vivid now to be refuted by reality.

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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