The first issue of The Wesleyan Witness, the cover of which features a prominent photograph of Ronald Reagan against an American flag backdrop, did not go unnoticed. And that was exactly what the new conservative publication on campus wanted.
“We thought it would be funny to put a huge picture of Reagan on the cover since he holds such a stigma with the liberal crowd,” said Reed Sarney ’12, the cover’s designer. “That and [Reagan] embodies some of the things with which some of us identify. We wanted to grab attention.”
The Witness is the culmination of a four-year project that Eugene Wong ‘09, the current president and founder of the Wesleyan College Republicans, initiated during his freshman year. Wong re-organized the group, which had been inactive since the mid-90s, based on the bold conviction that the University had a conservative side—if only there was a group on campus to support it.
“It certainly brings people out of the woodwork,” Wong said. “I believe that it is due to the fact that we recruit, but also the fact that we exist. It was a little nerve-racking as a freshman, but I’m proud of myself for doing it and for what it has become.”
The club has come a long way since Wong sat behind a table outside of MoCon, praying he would find like-minded students without making any enemies. The group now boasts 60 members, up from the 40 who signed up his freshman year, and recruits about ten students every year on average.
Wong, who hails from outside Boston, has always leaned to the right politically. He said that knew that the school was liberal beforehand, but was up to the challenge.
“I wanted to be at a place where I knew I would be engaged,” Wong said. “This school is so one-sided it almost becomes an obligation to join our group.”
Mytheos Holt ’10, who writes a weekly column for the Argus entitled “Mytheology: Wesleyan viewed from the right,” is the new publication’s editor-in-chief, as well as one of the more vocal conservatives on campus. After a derogatory comment was posted on the Anonymous Confession Board (ACB) about a Facebook note he had written condemning “chalking,” Holt bolted to the library to read Barry Goldwater’s “Conscience of the Conservative.” Before long, he was a self-proclaimed conservative.
“When I got here, I didn’t just move to the right, I ran to the right as fast as I could,” Holt said. “ [“Conscience of the Conservative”] made me realize that conservative did not mean pro-Bush. So I thought, the left has rejected me, let’s see what the right has to offer
Holt, too, was conscious of the University’s leftist tendencies. But when Harvard said no, Holt turned to Wesleyan, which he admired for its blunt and sarcastic communicative style. Home-schooled by his mother, a moderate liberal, through the eighth grade and raised without a religion, Holt was taught to question everything—a character trait both he and the University also share.
Not surprisingly, Holt, whose nickname at his private high school in California was “Lord Voldermort,” quickly became known for his in-your-face debate style. He was the captain of his high school’s Model United Nations and lead defense attorney on his school’s mock trial team. He soon became frustrated, however, by the dominant leftist culture on campus, and applied to transfer—but to no avail.
“I made a deal with myself that if I got into Yale, I would become a typical conservative, but if I didn’t I would do to Wesleyan what Bill Buckley did for America,” Holt said. “Three years later, the conservative movement is certainly ascendant at Wesleyan, if not necessarily triumphant yet.”
Though the rise in membership within the College Republicans affirms this statement, many conservatives within the so-called “movement” are less confident. James Hounsell ’11, a contributor to The Witness and an active member in the College Republicans, has met with professors and students who he said are narrow-minded and openly hostile towards conservative opinions.
“The Wesleyan community is in general not open to conservative thought and conservatives have little effect on influencing the political discussion,” Hounsell said. “Most of these kids have never had any of their beliefs challenged and have never had to seriously defend any of their positions. At best they may have heard some professor caricature a few conservative opinions and then refute them.”
In many of the economics courses he has taken, Hounsell feels that professors are essentially brainwashing their students by discussing only one side of the argument—and ridiculing all others. The Witness, he hopes, will finally present a viable alternative to the liberal norm, even if students disagree with the conservative ideas portrayed.
Despite Hounsell’s discouraging experiences, increasing numbers of freshmen members within the College Republicans—many of whom contributed to the journal—have given many on the right hope for a conservative resurgence. The Witness and the College Republicans must walk a fine line between a reactionary message that will stir political debate and a less abrasive strategy that will appeal to disaffected liberals and independents.
The latter strategy worked, at least on Rachel Goodman ’12, who drove up on the first day of orientation as a registered Democrat with a McCain sticker plastered to her car.
Goodman, who is socially liberal and refuses to call herself a conservative, was recruited by the College Republicans over the summer and submitted an article for the first issue of the journal.
“I was looking for a place to rest my political confusion, so I decided to become involved,” Goodman said. “I’ve heard vicious rumors about the mainstreaming of Wesleyan and whatever, which only makes me feel bad about my horribly ‘normal’ freshman class. But I guess I’ll see in years to come.”
Holt’s personal strategy—to move so far to the right that anyone else would appear moderate in comparison—is deliberately controversial and uncompromising. The Witness is not. Originally, the “Wesleyan Adversary,” the College Republicans opted for a less confrontational title, which would be welcoming towards the larger spectrum of conservative politics.
Holt referred to the journal as the “anti-Hermes,” for its role as a promoter of limited government and effective spending both on a national and local, administrative level. To be printed in the journal, the piece must be a well-written conservative argument ideally between 500-800 words, but the position is less crucial than the conservative principles behind it.
“There was a time when a conservative had to have an iron skin and an acid tongue in order to survive on this campus,” Holt said. “The Witness is partially an effort to get beyond that, to say ‘look, now that we’re seen as a legitimate viewpoint on campus, we actually want to do the hard work of being persuasive and interesting, as well as provocative.’”
Professor of Government Marc Eisner, whose seminar entitled “American Conservatism” provides an overview of the post-World War II conservative movement and its consequences. In the course, students learn why conservatives have failed to put their rhetoric into practice and reverse liberal accomplishments, such as the New Deal. In his twenty years at the University, Eisner has also seen a failure in the conservative movement on campus, which has never amounted to more than a small number of students and faculty. The Witness reminded Eisner of the Wesleyan Review, a publication in the early 1990s.
“One can only celebrate the proliferation of student publications that bring new ideas and arguments into the arena,” Eisner said, pointing out the importance of intellectual diversity on campus.
Among students, however, reactions have been mixed—from outrage and scorn to intrigue, at best. Wong is empathetic towards some of the younger members, whose articles were met with dismay, but feels that the campus conservatives should take advantage of their newfound medium for free speech.
“When I got here, there was nothing and now it’s thriving and will have a lasting influence,” Wong said. “The Witness is a testament to our efforts, and will only grow and create more political diversity.”