Our cultural columnist, a recovering conservative, explores the motivation behind reactionary writer Bari Weiss's announcement of her new unaccredited university in Texas to counter so-called cancel culture.
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The new University of Austin, announced earlier this month on Twitter by writer Bari Weiss, describes itself as a necessary and urgent counter to what its founders describe as the “illiberalism and censoriousness” currently dominating the American university system. Someday very soon, university backers promise, the project—“UATX” is its cutesy initialism, at least until the actual University of Texas at Austin comes at the organization with a copyright suit—will be housed at an actual brick-and-mortar location in Central Texas, become accredited, confer degrees, and, most importantly, provide an academic home for ideas that are, they say, simply too hot for the modern academic institution.
That those too-hot ideas—among them the celebration of free-market capitalism, eugenics and white supremacy, xenophobia, and transphobia, per the résumés of some of UATX’s founding trustees and advisors—are also cultural hegemonies championed by the richest and most powerful people and institutions thriving today in the Western world does not seem to be a problem for these self-styled revolutionaries. And why should it? This dippy bunch is not actually engaging in a genuine paradigm shift in the ivory tower; think of it more like the University of Pity Party at Austin.
Of course this project is silly. It’s brought to you by a group of wealthy—some of them mind-blowingly so—elites who are mostly known for whining about “cancel culture” and being rewarded handsomely for it. The very premise of UATX is preposterous, predicated on a subset of highly successful and privileged people’s unseemly thirst to be cast as victims in a grand narrative of—hilariously enough—intellectual and economic oppression. This scrappy underdog “university’s” board of advisors includes Larry Summers, former secretary of the treasury and president emeritus of a little college in Boston called Harvard (perhaps you’ve heard of it?). Other founders and advisors are professionally affiliated with Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, and UATX’s seed money flows forth from tech bro Joe “paternity leave is for losers” Lonsdale, a venture capitalist who co-founded the creepy surveillance/data-mining software company Palantir.
In a fund-raising plea published in the New York Post, Lonsdale described UATX as “challenging a jealous orthodoxy.” So far, they have built a website. Lonsdale also wrote that he and his brave compatriots “expect to be scorned, mocked, and even viciously attacked.” Indeed, two of UATX’s own advisors immediately abandoned the project as soon as it was announced.
I took a particular interest in the University of Austin for a couple of reasons: First, I live in Austin and am fascinated and exhausted by the current trend of characterizing this city as a uniquely attractive safe space for a particular brand of whiny, entitled, tech-bro chauvinist chicanery. Sure, Joe Rogan and Elon Musk live around here. So do over 100,000 voters who just overwhelmingly shot down a pro-cop city proposition that would have expanded our police force at critical expense to our city’s public and social services. So why Austin? We’re not exactly a socialist oasis, but we’re as blue as any other Texas metropolitan area, more so than some. Why not choose a more ideologically friendly geography—say, Abilene, or Amarillo, or Conroe? You’ll get the same business-friendly Texas tax benefits in Arlington or Waco or Midland, and run into a lot less hassle from pissy local-government liberals like the ones here. What did Austin ever do to deserve this?
I think the explanation might be as simple as rank classism. Austin’s righteously earned a reputation for courting spendy hipsters and coastal techies with events like South By Southwest and the ACL Festival, making us attractive to new money types hoping to maintain a kind of lazy urbanity while lowering their taxes. Because look: Bari Weiss and Joe Lonsdale and Larry Summers aren’t trying to mix with the rednecks, the goat-ropers, the gun-toters, or the mega-churchers they probably believe lurk anywhere and everywhere outside the Austin city limits. But neither do they want to compete with the truly deep-pocketed national and international power players in Dallas or Houston. After all, this whole goofy project exists because it seems its backers believe they aren’t getting the proper respect they deserve from the old-money old guard.
They want to be conservative and cosmopolitan, to have it all and every way: to complain about being canceled, but on national television. To spew bigotry, but dress it up as free thought. To be anti-intellectual while running a university. To be contrarian, but never be contradicted.
How do I know? Well, for the second reason I took an interest in UATX: because, once upon a time, I was the kind of student the University of Austin hopes to (someday) court for enrollment (if it ever gets accredited), a conservative-minded youth who, but for the nefarious influence of “illiberal” academia, could have grown up to be an unapologetic right-wing firecracker bitch in the manner of Ann Coulter, or, less bitchily, perhaps a Caitlin Flanagan (a UATX board of advisors member).
I don’t remember every detail of my application to New York University 20 years ago, but I am certain I did not downplay what was then one of my greatest achievements: becoming the founder and president of my suburban North Texas high school’s Young Republicans club. My late high-school years were consumed with the contentious 2000 presidential election, which I saw as a battle between righteous culture warriors—Christian, anti-abortion, pro-capitalist—and the sinfully misled communists literally hell-bent on redistributing the hard-earned money of bootstrapping Americans. I didn’t want to be seen as too square, of course, so I also joined my school’s gay-straight alliance and styled myself a libertarian, reading Ayn Rand for fun because I was an intellectual, a sort of contrarian’s contrarian.
NYU was, of course, a culture shock for a small-town kid in the big city, navigating life away from her helicopter parents for the first time. But I was also genuinely surprised—oh, to be young again!—that the Greenwich Village campus was not exactly teeming with people who shared my right-wing worldview.
Back home, I’d been cocooned in conservatism—at school, at church, even at my mall job—surrounded by people who earnestly believed we were fighting every day for traditional values and economic freedom. That we had practically no one to fight against in our carefully curated corner of white affluent suburbia didn’t seem relevant—I’m not sure it even occurred to me. I certainly didn’t choose a liberal, northeastern private school because I was spoiling for a fight; I wanted a great education at a prestigious institution where I could pursue a number of professional paths in a big cosmopolitan city.
In New York, many of my new peers didn’t want much to do with me, a smart-ass know-it-all who said and did things that dismissed their lived experiences and identities under the guise of just asking questions. Even the students who agreed with me politically weren’t charmed by my tactics. I didn’t just disagree with people, I wrote obnoxious, didactic posts on the college message board supporting the Iraq War, certain my pinko classmates would soon see the many errors of their pinko ways. I ridiculed student protests and laughed in the faces of my would-be friends when they talked about social justice and activism, deriding them as lightweights who didn’t understand the real world and rational, objective thinking.
In contrast to the sharp rebuffs of my peers, I rarely experienced anything but the mildest pushback from left-leaning faculty. Far from being pressured to conform to left-wing groupthink by a socialist academic cabal, I got excellent grades and I was encouraged to share my ideas—offensive and ill-considered as they undoubtedly were—in class discussions. Oh, I had brilliant professors who planted seeds that would flower years later, but at the time, my own views hardly shifted. To the contrary (I was, after all, a contrarian) I dug in harder, sure that I was a powerful voice for the preservation of good old-fashioned American ideals, a bold defender of capitalism and the free market.
So when Joe Lonsdale says he’s “challenging a jealous orthodoxy and expect(s) to be scorned, mocked, and even viciously attacked,” I get it. I know what it is to be an insufferable, pretentious asshole who feels entitled to people’s attention. I also know that attention, even positive attention, is not ultimately going to satisfy Lonsdale—or Bari Weiss, or Niall Ferguson, or any of the middle-tier pseudo-intellectuals involved with UATX—because attention alone doesn’t slake the deep-down thirst of insecurity. And insecurity is at the heart of this endeavor.
There’s nothing worse than an insecure contrarian, and I know because that’s precisely the kind I was, back when I was haranguing my college classmates about their politics and wondering why nobody really wanted to hang out with me. I didn’t just want my peers’ attention; I wanted their affection and their appreciation, irrespective of anything I might say or do to hurt or offend them. I wanted to feel powerful and righteous at their expense, and to have them thank me for it. I had earned nothing, and wanted everything: conservatism, in a nutshell.
But truly great assholes do not give a single fuck; they wouldn’t be caught dead bemoaning cancel culture, or complaining about who doesn’t let them play in the sandbox, because it is of no consequence to them. You don’t try to start a university with Larry Summers and gobs of seed money earned from government defense contracts because you’re a maverick who doesn’t play by the rules. You do it because you want to be accepted on legacy institutional terms, by legacy institutional people, and you’re angry that they either didn’t give you the complete and thorough ass-kissing you thought you deserved the first time around or—and to the insecure contrarian, these are the same things—they told you to fuck all the way off with your wanky, offensive bullshit.
You don’t start a university for people who hate universities because you feel cool, confident, and assured of your place in the world as nonconformists. That’s not upsetting the apple cart—that’s just building another fucking apple cart.
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