It must have been horrifically awful for homosexuals, as they then were known, in the 1950s. If their orientations or preferences were exposed, they were finished. Their jobs were over. Their marriages were over. Their very lives often were over. And yet they felt a need to find others who shared their orientation. How spot each other? How take the risk of confirming a suspicion? What if wrong?
The secret probe.
Why am I thinking of this? Because I am among the political conservatives at universities in the America of the 2010s. It is a dangerous place for us. We spot others whom we think are like us. But what if they are not? What if we reveal ourselves only to find that we have made a terrible mistake? Will we lose our jobs? Our friends? Our livelihoods? We already have lost most of our movies, our television, our sports leagues, our news, our campuses.
I was sitting recently with a student. The term had ended, and I make myself available to my students for extended one-on-one meetings to answer all questions about course material I have taught, to review prior graded exams, to explain concepts again, to offer career advice and counseling, and — but only if asked — to offer some life advice, too. I do not care what my students believe theologically or politically, how they are sexually oriented, what their ethnicity or race or gender or nationality. Once someone has come under my wings as a student, he or she is my student for life, a member of my extended family forevermore (except that I will not sign PLUS Loans for them). Former students of mine write me years later of their career successes, their marriages, births of their children. Some ask me to help them years later solve quandaries. A few even have asked me to conduct their weddings. When you also have practiced as a rabbi for thirty years, it is not an option to teach callously in the secular sphere without also caring deeply for the welfare and whole-being of every student in and out of the classroom.
So there I was, sitting with a student at one of the recent end-of-term meetings. We had resolved all his course questions, answered and explained all legal concepts, and now we had a few minutes left over just to talk. So we “shot the breeze.” It emerged that this student has an interest in music. “Oh, really?” I asked. “Which genre?”
Suddenly, the student’s voice register dropped several decibels: “Country music.” He was cautious, wary.
It is my personal practice, a practice of some fifteen years, that I never discuss my politics or personal beliefs when teaching. I strongly oppose liberals and other leftists dominating their classrooms with their rabid propaganda and personal political views when their students and their parents are paying tuition for them to learn a subject and get an education, to have their minds expanded and not contracted. It is the scandal of the age — the McCarthyite brainwashing and reign of intellectual and psychological terror on America’s college and university campuses. To be honest and consistent, I necessarily likewise adhere to my value structure: my students do not know my personal political views, only what they pay to learn from me, what they need to know to be great attorneys in the fields of law that I teach. And, yes, to that degree, I do passionately emphasize the primacy of truth, honesty, pursuing fairness and authentic blind justice, the absolute unacceptability of mendacity in any form, and the imperative to represent one’s client with passion, zealousness, and unbridled loyalty — but never at the expense of honesty. That I do preach. But never politics or religion. Not in my classroom.
So there was my student, softly answering that his preferred genre is country music.
“Wow!” I responded . “Me too!” [no hashtag]. I then asked the student his favorite songs, and his selections did not resonate for me. Most were more contemporary. So I told him to grab a pen and make a list. I started:
“The River” — Garth Brooks.
“The Dance” — Garth Brooks.
“If Tomorrow Never Comes” — Garth Brooks.
“The Change” — Garth Brooks.
“Unanswered Prayers” — Garth Brooks.
“Friends in Low Places” — Garth Brooks. (Not everything has to be serious and life-impacting.)
“You Say It Best When You Say Nothing at All” — either Keith Whitley or the Alison Krauss cover (or, best, the overlay of the two after he died).
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” — George Jones.
“That’s My Job” — Conway Twitty.
“Okie from Muskogee” — Merle Haggard.
“OK,” I said. “That’s ten. Here’s another ten. None of them will be on your final exam, but please get acquainted with them this summer after exams are over and grades are posted. And then drop me a note and tell me what you think. So here’s a few more, for extra credit — in life.”
“Always on My Mind” — Willie Nelson.
“How Do You Like Me Now?” — Toby Keith.
“I Wanna Talk About Me” — Toby Keith.
“Independence Day” — Martina McBride.
“Saginaw, Michigan” — either Lefty Frizzell or the George Jones cover.
“Ashokan Farewell” — an instrumental, mostly violin, by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason.
“Ride ’Em, Jewboy” — Kinky Friedman.
“You Never Even Call Me by My Name” — David Allan Coe.
“Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” — George Jones.
“Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” — Alan Jackson.
That last one, to my mind, is the most beautiful Country Song I ever have heard, for its moment and message. I do change one word in its lyrics, though.
So there we were: The Rabbi/Law Professor with a Top Twenty country-music song list, the student masterfully adept at taking notes and never missing a word of the professor’s lecture. Only one thing was missing. It was the secret probe:
“Professor,” he asked. “Your list. I am wondering: Do you like the music of the Dixie Chicks?”
The secret probe.
“No, I can’t stand them. Something changed in their music — I think it was around March 2003 — and, ever since, I never again have listened to any of their stuff. When the radio station starts playing them, I change to Willie’s Roadhouse or Outlaw Country. Or the MLB station. They’re just not my flavor, I guess. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I, uh, I don’t know. Just wondered.”
The secret probe. Now it was my turn.
“Well, since you asked me about one artist, OK if I ask you about one?
“How do you like Contemporary Country — y’know, like, uh, what’s-her-name?”
“Y’mean Taylor Swift?” my student asked.
“Yeah, that’s the one. Taylor Swift.”
“Well,” said my student cautiously, “I used to listen to her. But her music kind-of changed, y’know? So not anymore.”
I nodded my head. “Yeah, me too. Her music just does not seem the same anymore. I think she sold out — y’know, went too Pop for the Grammys crowd, abandoned pure country.”
“Yeah, she sold out,” my student agreed.
The secret probe. Completed.
And as the time allotted for our meeting ended, with another student knocking on my door for her meeting, my student and I had completed the secret probe. We had said nothing. But we now knew. Two artists, one a group and one a solo, and the nights their levies dried and their their music died. Sometimes, as conservatives in the contemporary American university, we find that we say it best when we say nothing at all.
The climate of the American university needs to change. The social and psychological terror of being exposed as a conservative is unbearable for so many, especially young people just entering college, unprepared for what is about to hit them, with their parents paying cash heavily or borrowing extraordinarily for a university education that is not what their parents remember from the American university that once was before the contemporary McCarthy Era. We now live truly in the era that the Left claims existed during the 1950s Red Scare — but now it is truly so, and a much worse Red Scare imposed by the Left.
When I attended Columbia University as an undergraduate, I already was evolving the conservative principles that would guide my life. I remember the late freshman nights in the TV room at the end of the corridor in Carman Hall, the undergraduate dorm. Fittingly, I was assigned to Room 1313B. No Triskaidekaphobic, I. After I had done my last readings for the night centered around the university’s wonderful core curriculum of Contemporary Civilization (works by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Macchiavelli, Montaigne, Kant, Hobbes, Marx) and the Humanities (works by the likes of Euripides, Aristophanes, Moliere, Dante, Cervantes, Stendahl), we would watch TV and “shoot the breeze.” I was alone, the sole conservative in a sea of flaming red liberals and socialists and Marxists, and one football player there on athletic scholarship. But we all were good friends. We argued politics, culture, arts, more politics, and then we laughed together at Mel Brooks second-run movies down at the $1 admission Olympia Theatre.
It never was personal. Sure, Steve and Mitch thought I would one day go to Hell for being a capitalist, but I already was getting that same message from religionists of other faiths who tell me that same thing awaits me for being a Torah-observant Orthodox Jew. I know that the latter love me in their way, and Mitch and Steve got a kick out of me, too. I learned lots from them, and they learned more than they knew from me. As an 18-year-old, I believed in certain conservative ideas and principles that had not yet been battle-tested and that, quite frankly, included some unsupported assumptions that were hokey and ridiculous. They helped me see the difference between gut-blurting and shooting-from-the-lip versus thinking long and hard about tough ideas and emerging with profound concepts built on penetrating truths. In more than a few ways, they softened my rough edges, as did several of my leftist professors. In the decades to come, I would be more effective as a rabbi, as an attorney, as a professor, as a writer, as a thinker, as a person, as a family member because of those long nights amid The Late Show with its Syncopated Clock theme melody. And I came out of the leftist vortex more conservative than ever.
Did I help them refine their thinking, too? I sure hope not!
It was safe in those days to be a conservative at Columbia University. Sure, virtually all the professors outside of STEM — they did not call it by that acronym in those days — were leftists. Sure, the social pressure and dominant groupthink was to conform to extreme leftist thinking. I remember back in 1972, when Nixon ran against McGovern, the Columbia Daily Spectator— so cool, the college had a solid newspaper that got published every day — ran a poll, a Gallup-style survey of how the Columbia student community would be voting in the forthcoming elections a few days away. I do not have the data at hand, so I concededly am exaggerating from memory here,but only by a bit: It was something like 89% for McGovern, 6% for Gus Hall (the Communist whom Obama’s CIA director John Brennan treasonously voted for), 3% undecided, and 2% for Nixon. (Outside, in the real world, Nixon actually won the election by 60.7-37.5 percent, in the biggest Presidential popular-vote landslide in American history.)
So Columbia was crazy-leftist then, as it is now, but then it was safe for conservatives to think out loud in the presence of leftist professors and students. In the greatest electoral upset in American history — far less probable than Donald Trump defeating Hillary Clinton — the undergraduate student body of Columbia University elected me to be one of their three representatives to the University Senate. They knew I would fight their fight like crazy on the one grand issue that united all of us, and indeed there I was fighting the good fight against tuition increases. It was the issue that every student backed, sort of the way the Democrats rode their way to victory by promising last month to protect pre-existing conditions in health care since the Republicans forgot to resolve Obamacare while they were in the majority. In those days and at this seasonal time, it was safe to be pro-Israel and anti-Soviet at Columbia. Nowadays, by contrast, the intersectionally brainwashed students at Barnard vote to boycott Israel, the faculty and students intimidate Zionists on campus at Morningside Heights, and the anti-Jewish environment is so heated there that they even paint swastikas on the doors and in the hallways of Jewish professors’ offices at Columbia University. Lovely. Ivy League in shirt shades of brown.
What happened to our campuses all over the country? We conservatives and the RINOs that we were offered as our Republican guardians in Washington slept while the universities careened left-totalitarian. With the benefit of faculty tenure, a principle that guarantees that professors never, ever,evercan be fired as long as they avoid profound moral turpitude, nothing deters the professor who turns his or her classroom and course into a Bernie Sanders indoctrination chamber. As the federal government created a massive loan system that lends unlimited funds for tuition — even the full $25,000 or $35,000 or $45,000 or $60,000 per year that tuition, room, and board now cost — the universities saw they had the green light to raise their prices into the stratosphere because the Government would feed the addiction endlessly. They now have addicted a generation of graduates to borrow so deeply, in hock to the feds for so much money, that socialism understandably is their only way out of their morass. Since they never will be able to pay off all their student loans any other way, thus never will be able to buy a house and will have to wait till age 40 to have a kid, they understandably need to have your money redistributed to pay off their loans. That is, unless a Ph.D. in Identity Studies one day pays more than, say, uh, a job.
When conservatives apply at the colleges and universities for faculty positions in the social sciences, the hiring is done by those already in the departments. So of course new hires become self-perpetuating, with the Left assuring that future tenureds also predominantly will be Left. Just as it is in what-used-to-be-called “journalism,” just as in Hollywood and on Broadway. And then they will be there for life tenure, too.
The two great buzz terms of the Left — Climate Change and Diversity — are precisely what is lacking at the contemporary university. The climate on campus is one of psychological intimidation and intellectual suppression. During the 2016 Democrat Presidential primaries, even Hillary Clinton supporters felt isolated at Columbia and Barnard, in the face of the Bernie Sanders intimidation. The contemporary American university, from the campuses of the Ivy League in the Northeast to those of the University of California in the West are barren of meaningful diversity. There is no meaningful diversity of thought. No meaningful diversity of ideas. No meaningful diversity of viewpoints in the undergraduate social sciences faculties. Yes, a token conservative here and a token there, just as the racially insensitive perpetuated segregation for decades on the campuses against African Americans, Latinos, and other discrete insular groups.
That is what we need now more than ever in America’s universities: climate change and diversity. A place where a professor and a student do not have to engage in the sophistry of a mental dance where one discloses that he does not like the twangs of the Dixie Chicks and the other responsively intimates that he has lost an affinity for Taylor Swift. Until that day comes, conservatives must do as I do with my undergraduate and graduate alma maters: Before I write a check when solicited by the Alumni Reunion committee, I want to know about the state of climate change and diversity on campus at my alma mater. I then get the information I need — and, as a consequence, I do not write a check. And I have not done so for more than twenty years.
Alison Krauss and Keith Whitley would understand. Sometimes I say it best when I donate nothing at all.