Monday, April 9, 2012

Deciphering Right-Wing Code: What Conservatives Are Really Saying When They Seem to Spew Nonsense

Progressive commentators have been piling on Rick Santorum for a weirdly incoherent statement he made about the state of American history classes in America's colleges. Here's what he said:

"I was just reading something last night from the state of California. And the state of California universities -- I think it's seven or eight of the California system of universities -- don't even teach an American history course. It's not even available to be taught. Just to tell you how bad it's gotten in this country, where we're trying to disconnect the people from the root of who we are...."

The derision Santorum has received is well-deserved. He messed up the facts badly: 10 of the 11 UC campuses do teach US history (the only exception is UC San Francisco, which is exclusively a graduate-level health sciences campus and offers no humanities classes at all).

It also misses the point. It's not news when a conservative says something that was flat-out wrong, or when liberals take smug satisfaction in demonstrating that they are (as usual) factually right. But there was something else Santorum said in that statement that was newsworthy and important -- and in our zeal to debunk the facts, many progressives are completely missing it. 

It's Not About the Facts

The thing to remember is this: Even though right-wing narratives are often factually wrong, they are absolutely never content-free. Stories like this are always about something. And the weirder and more factually challenged they sound to liberal ears, the more important it probably is for us to know what that something is. Too often, our obsession with the gobsmacking wrongness of these statements deafens us to clues to the right's current motives and intentions that are frequently lurking in these strange declarations.

I'm a native-born speaker of right-wing code. And what I heard in Santorum's ramble was, frankly, hair-raising. To my ears, it was a very loud and clear tip-off that conservatives are gearing up an all-out frontal assault on funding for America's public universities.

The Story Beneath the Story

Santorum's brief comment, incoherent as it seemed, communicated a great deal to his audience by artfully triggering a vast universe of essential right-wing memes. Consider what got communicated here.

The University of California may have 11 campuses, but in the right-wing mind, "UC" is code for just one of them -- UC Berkeley, the first and still-flagship campus, which holds a mythic position as Ground Zero for all of Dirty Hippiedom in the conservative imagination. If Satan is alive on earth, there is no doubt that his zip code is 94720. Everything conservatives loathe about the Evil 1960s is epitomized by the very word, "Berkeley."

Oblique as this already is, invoking UC and Berkeley also calls forth the ghost of Ronald Reagan -- always a good thing in conservative stories. Let it never be forgotten that Our Hero made his political bones by standing up to those Dirty Hippie brats while he was governor of California. He punished them by abolishing UC's free tuition -- which is still remembered by the faithful as the first historic salvo in the long war to defund all public services.

Furthermore: picking on UC was telling in another way. When conservatives seriously gather themselves to go after somebody, they always attack frontally, at their intended victim's point of greatest strength. (See also: swiftboating.)  The University of California system has long been regarded as the best public university system in America, and Berkeley as the best single public university in the country. Santorum's story's focus on this particular system -- the biggest, baddest exemplar of its type -- is no random accident. It draws a bead on the strongest target on the field. This is almost always a clear sign that conservatives are lining up their artillery -- in this case, for an open assault on America's public colleges and universities.