Paul Loeb's Campus Takeover

Mark Zunac

Complaints over campus indoctrination are often prompted by those customary features of campus life that (not unjustly) seem to present the university unhinged: speaker shoutdowns, protests, bias response teams, pronoun mandates, and the like. However, the focus on the sensational, the egregious, and the infantile tends to ignore the division between the scorched-earth schema of balaclava-wearing Antifa types and those who are finding it more efficacious to enact from within a much subtler radical social transformation. This strategy, alive and well within the university, recalls Antonio Gramsci’s “march through the institutions,” manifested in the Age of Trump by an intensified focus on party politics.

If it had not been already, it is now exceedingly clear that the academic Left remains more than ever firmly committed to creating citizens in its own image. As evidence, one need look no further than the Campus Election Engagement Project (CEEP), an organizing apparatus whose stated mission is to get “as many . . . students as possible to register, volunteer in campaigns, educate themselves, and turn out at the polls.”1 This effort appears to be the culmination of the career of Paul Rogat Loeb, which he has devoted to translating political agitation into tangible political gain and shepherding revolution chic onto college campuses and into the cultural mainstream.

Loeb founded CEEP in 2008, and his presence on campuses has grown markedly since then, aided by the appearance in syllabi everywhere of his political anthology, The Impossible Will Take a Little While (2004).

Loeb cut his teeth protesting the Vietnam War while at Stanford, a legacy that informs his current advocacy for environmental activism and U.S. demilitarization as well as his affinity for anti-corporate populism and progressive social justice. His indefinite suspension from Stanford in the spring of 1971 for a series of civil disobedience protests likely also helped convince him that activism’s greatest glories are often precipitated by manufactured martyrdom.2

That experience, along with subsequent years at New York’s New School for Social Research, made Loeb a suitable candidate for work at Liberation, a magazine of the radical New Left that ran from 1956-77. From 1974 through the fall of 1976, Loeb served as editor, or, in the Leninist argot of the magazine’s masthead, an equal member of the “Liberation Collective.” The magazine embodied tenets of today's social justice movement and displayed some of the same contradictions. Steve Gold’s “Unlearning White Racism” (March/April 1969), for example, could be a template for today's “Cultural Studies.” Both denounce racism while deploying their own versions of racist ideology. By contrast, the article in its Readers’ Forum, “Do You Have Rape Fantasies?” (July/August 1976) represented that moment, now long past, when “the Left promoted “free love” and believed women should act on their sexual appetites with the same freedom from constraint as men. Today, of course, Women’s Studies departments espouse a view of women's sexual agency in which women are depicted as exceptionally vulnerable and in need of a broad array of institutional protections.

In any event, Loeb’s affiliation with the magazine was sufficient to establish his reputation as a man of the hard Left, albeit one who eventually recognized the need to moderate the tone, if not the substance, of his revolutionary proclivities. The experience may have also taught him to downplay the conflict between preaching the values of collectivism while acknowledging the realities and opportunities of free markets; agonizing over accepting paid advertising at Liberation probably paved the way to commanding substantial fees on the campus lecture and workshop circuit, where he remains today.

This general intellectual profile has an umbilical relationship to CEEP, which presents itself to colleges and universities as a nonpartisan entity committed to nothing more than encouraging responsible citizenship through electoral engagement. It provides resources to administrators and instructors for how best to involve students in elections, including candidate guides, issue advocacy papers, reviews of state election laws, and voter registration booths during election cycles. According to its website, in 2016 CEEP worked directly with 300 schools across the U.S. and, in partnership with other advocacy groups, distributed its materials to nearly 1,000 more.3

This may seem a benign, even laudable activity, but one might reasonably wonder why such an aggressive and comprehensive effort to aid colleges in getting their students to register and vote has been undertaken, or why these institutions have so willingly abetted it. Presumably if the NRA organized and disseminated similar “nonpartisan” voting guides and offered their resources as a way to help students understand vital Second Amendment issues, more than a few on campus would balk. Not many question CEEP, however, and this is in large part a credit to the organization’s messaging as well as its optics.

Social justice ideology is typically presented to the public in benign and abstract language designed to preemptively disarm any potential opposition. The animating spirit of CEEP, then, was anticipated by Loeb’s 2003 book, Soul of a Citizen, which was revised and updated in 2010. The book is a primer on the value of activism for electing Democrats and pushing progressive policy goals, and it is an essential read for anyone seeking the rationale for the presence of CEEP on campus. Its rhetoric is distinct from the vituperations that lace academic disciplines like whiteness or gender studies, but its content is perfectly aligned. Employing anodyne phrases such as “community involvement” to serve as a front for progressive zealotry, the book argues that “participation in public life often requires us to confront blindness, shortsightedness, greed, and the will to dominion that theologians call evil.”4

Perhaps Loeb anticipates that readers will fail to impute political motives to his identification of evildoers, but he makes abundantly clear in what realms such villains may be found. The depredations of those enemies of progress are catalogued in the book and cloaked in the matter-of-fact tone of self-righteousness. Readers are regaled with tales of George Bush’s “outright falsehoods,” Barack Obama’s unfair treatment by Fox News, “bitterly right-wing” bartenders, and “corporate interests” that invariably “prevent significant change.”5

Loeb also refuses to shrink from using anecdote to imply generalized character flaws, most memorably when relating one soldier’s tale of abusing a Korean dancer. Loeb innocently asks, so as not to have to actually make an assertion, “Did the military environment teach the young soldier to view the barroom dancer as something less than a full human being?”6 As Peter Wood has reminded us, this stylization is a rhetorical trick called praeteritio, and it is here employed by Loeb as a way to introduce an idea without owning it. For the social justice warrior, a slur delivered as an interrogative serves well to insulate one from having to defend it.7

Loeb’s commitments, for anyone willing to notice, are to a revolution from within, and he is certainly aware that ideas, however delicately they are presented, have consequences. This explains his hesitancy to advocate for anything that will not impel some grand institutional shift. Volunteering and personal acts of compassion will only go so far, since they are largely self-contained and politically unprofitable. While Loeb often invokes Christian and Catholic social teaching to demonstrate how broadminded and nonpartisan he is, he actively dispenses with the notion of Catholic subsidiarity, favoring heavily centralized, top-down political solutions as the surest means to that always sententiously framed idyll, “change.” For Loeb, it is essential to “elect wiser leaders or pressure major economic, political, and cultural institutions to act more responsibly.”8

In this way, the book finds as principal inspirations such luminaries of the radical Left as Saul Alinsky, Audre Lord, Howard Zinn, George Lakoff, Bill McKibben, Gloria Steinem, Jonathan Kozol, Harvey Milk, Morris Dees, and Barack Obama. He finds their adversaries in George W. Bush, entities like “Exxon and big tobacco,” and corporations such as Walmart, Disney, and the Gap. Moreover, Loeb proves that social justice sensibilities are fungible, since the demise of a group organized around the “Reagan-Bush Central American wars” can easily become one that takes on these corporate giants.9

Loeb’s allegiances are made clear elsewhere as well. Whether gushing that “The Occupy movement has done something amazing” or lamenting “the Republican war on reality,” Loeb is very clear that in order to defeat the evils of capitalism, corporatism, conservatism, carbon consumption, and the U.S. military, young people must be inspired to elect leaders who will join in that effort. Using data that suggest political views harden in youth, Loeb seeks to capitalize on the perceived leftward drift of the younger generation.

He justifiably sensed an opportunity in 2008, realizing that there is no better, more conducive place for immersion into leftist social teaching than the campus. The ideological infrastructure was already there, as has always been the will to political power. All that was perhaps missing was a direct link that would parlay the passion of the young—and the easy complicity of their overseers—into resounding electoral victory.

As Loeb argued in a 2008 article on that year’s primary elections, “That so many young Obama supporters are turning out to rally, volunteer, and vote suggests that he might be one of those watershed candidates who really can bring a new generation into politics and help shape their long term loyalties, permanently enlarging the Democratic share of the electorate.”10

To assist in the effort, members of Loeb’s listserv would have received during the 2016 election season a “Guide to Using CEEP Candidate Guides,” so that full advantage could be taken of classrooms full of potential voters. The document contained such helpful tips as “Millennials love to spread ideas online, so distribute a link to the guides via social media networks [and] text blasts.” That piece of advice would explain CEEP’s partnership with The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere program, which “empowers Millennials to register voters and engage in issues activism.”11

Every email sent by Loeb to his listserv flogs the assertion that the efforts are nonpartisan, but Loeb’s interests outside of the project belie its stated benign intentions. Loeb understands that the issues students are propagandized to care about can be unreliable motivators for increasing voter turnout. And yet, in order to enact the kind of social change propounded in his writings, young voters are going to be needed. If nothing else, Loeb is surely doing his part. The crux of his efforts can be summarized by the assertion that appears near of end of Soul of a Citizen:

Activists who practice radical patience continually address urgent issues, while at the same time recognizing that success depends not only on changing specific policies but also on broadening the stream of those who are involved in social change, developing new political relationships and creating new opportunities for citizens to take a stand.12

The march through the institutions has perhaps never sounded so salubrious. Such is the luxury of campaigning on issues raised in his books, however abridged they need to be to pique Millennial interest. When the “nonpartisan” election guide states that candidate Hillary Clinton will “Make public college tuition free for students from families earning $125,000 or less,” while candidate Trump “considers tuition subsidies and loan refinancing too costly,” one can almost hear the sound of Millennial sneakers beating a path to the polling booth. Under the broad category of “Gay Rights,” it’s Clinton “Yes” and Trump “No,” along with the modest qualifier, by no means redemptive, that the latter will “Leave decisions and legislation to the states.”

The questions asked are leading toward the existence of a moral absolute, one that is adumbrated by interpretations of candidates’ answers. On one of the most contentious issues of that election the guide asks, “How would you address America’s 11 million illegal immigrants? Should undocumented young people who entered the U.S. before age 16 & meet certain conditions get protection from deportation?” Clinton’s take is a relatively lengthy exposition of the author’s conception of the candidate’s position, while the explanation of Trump’s position begins with the caustic and notably divisive phrase, “Build wall.”

Only one of these answers is made to seem reasonable, and enhanced border security is transmogrified into an unethical and inhumane violation of the rights of children.

The Left delights in talking about political “dog whistles” to more easily facilitate accusations of bigotry and discredit opposing ideas. Yet Loeb, whose reductionist voter guides serve to exploit the demographics-as-destiny approach to politics, exemplifies the technique. In this way also, Loeb fulfills the need to “meet students where they are” by loading questions and providing simplified answers outside of any context surrounding salient issues. The success of his efforts on campus is no wonder, since the target audience is comprised of a generation educated by those who reflexively demonize political opposition and delegitimize ideas that would forestall utopian dreams.

Building on the momentum gained through its involvement in the 2017 Virginia and Alabama statewide elections, CEEP has added resources for 2018 that, among other things, will “combine voter registration with orientation,” “make campus newspapers key election hubs,” “replicate [efforts at Virginia Commonwealth] to restore felon rights” and, in Florida, “address the disenfranchisement of 1.7 million felons.” It has also added, in case anyone doubted the pervasive presence of politics in the classroom, a primer on “How faculty could teach the Trump Budget.”

It is of paramount importance to the progressive mind that students come to see themselves as political beings before anything else. Their increased militancy on campus is a reminder that the political has indeed become personal, supplanting reason as the prerequisite to knowledge. Loeb himself would caution young revolutionaries that science and rationality should never subsume the university’s political objectives. As he counsels in his book, “we should never be completely seduced by [reasoned arguments] into laying aside our core values.”13 For political activists like Loeb, core values should never be swayed by reason so long as they are the right core values.

So yes, Loeb’s “nonpartisan” voting guides as well as other documents such as his “nonpartisan” guide to Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination are nonpartisan because he says they are, and because they do not explicitly endorse a candidate. But Loeb’s cards are on the table, and in the context of his life and work, educators and administrators should be vigilant when his organization attempts to pry its way into already politically charged enterprises like freshman orientation or general education classes.

CEEP is, after all, the embodiment of the service learning brand of the New Civics outlined in the National Association of Scholars 2017 report, Making Citizens. A survey of CEEP allies, which, in addition to the Andrew Goodman Foundation, include other notionally nonpartisan entities such as Campus Vote Project, League of Women Voters, Election Protection, and Common Cause, confirms the report’s conclusion that the New Civics aims to conscript students into activism for progressive causes under the auspices of “civic engagement.” The project’s “Keystone Partner” is Campus Compact, whose transition from apolitical service and volunteerism to the radical service learning program is also detailed in Making Citizens.14 CEEP has in fact recently released a guide that encourages faculty to offer course credit for involvement in CEEP’s mission, noting that even those courses ostensibly inapplicable to service learning— like English composition—can be contorted to qualify.

On the question of indoctrination, the unimpeded permeation of Paul Loeb’s Campus Election Engagement Project into campuses across the country should illustrate how brazen it has become. In addition, given the ideological uniformity of campus gatekeepers, any efforts to resist it will likely be consigned to the leftist mythology of voter suppression or “hate speech.”

Yet alternatives to teaching a more responsible brand of civics are available, and the need for their deployment on campus is more pressing than ever. There also appears to be growing student demand for them. Great Books programs steeped in classic works of philosophy, literature, and history have been instituted at UNLV, St. John’s, and Monterey Peninsula College. So have programs that emphasize the foundations of Western culture and governance, such as the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization at Texas Tech or the Classical Liberal Institute at NYU. These programs are models for what a true civics education can be. In an age in which students are trained as activists before anything else, the pursuit of truth and knowledge must once again become paramount. Paul Loeb’s efforts, if nothing else, throw into bold relief the glaring absence of anything resembling higher education’s most fundamental mission, and provide further evidence of the need to proceed apace with meaningful correctives.

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