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“You need to leave or you’re going to jail,” intones the policeman. The camera pans down to a holstered gun at the officer’s waist.
Evan Coyne Maloney, scourge of the Establishment, is clearly not welcome.
Being turfed out by implacable security guards is an occupational hazard for guerrilla filmmakers. But this is not the lair of some corporate malefactor or scheming politician — these are the sleepy environs of the California Polytechnic State University campus on the central Californian coast.
Maloney has been investigating an incident in which a Republican student was reported to the police for allegedly circulating “offensive racial” material. The student posted a flyer to publicise a forthcoming speech by Clarence Mason Weaver, the black Republican author of It’s OK to Leave the Plantation, which touts capitalism as a ticket out of a supposed welfare culture among African-Americans. Campus authorities said the student’s actions constituted disrupting a meeting, though they settled the ensuing freedom of speech lawsuit out of court, agreeing to expunge the student’s disciplinary record and to foot part of his legal bill, with neither side conceding fault. In the movie, Maloney is seen seeking an audience with Cal Poly’s president to discuss the matter, but getting the brush-off from a mousey official before the armed officer moves in.
The young movie-maker doorsteps the powerful and confronts them with uncomfortable questions. In his first feature, Indoctrinate U, the 32-year-old New Yorker targets university administrators. He levels his video camera at campuses that, he says, have become hotbeds of America-bashing radicalism and zealous political correctness and that tolerate no dissenting (read conservative) opinions. His backers have yet to negotiate a general cinema release for the film, but Maloney’s previous Left-baiting shorts have already made him a rising star in the US conservative movement and recently led one newspaper to christen him the “Right’s answer to Michael Moore”.
Maloney is a former dotcom-er and has been an active Republican since school. He started out by joining the blogging craze with his own online soapbox — brain-terminal.com — that allowed him to take pot shots at liberals. But it was a report on a Washington DC anti-Iraq War demonstration by US public broadcaster PBS that prompted his new career.
Maloney says he was incensed by the narrator’s suggestion that protesters brandishing pictures of President George W. Bush sporting a Hitler moustache and daubed with swastikas represented mainstream US opinion. So he decided to take to the streets, infiltrate anti-war marches and rallies, film what went on and post the results online. The clips garnered a cult following and invitations to appear on right-wing talk-radio shows and even conservative Fox News, America’s most popular cable TV news channel.
While Maloney is reminiscent of Moore in manner, he shuns the shambling, slept-in gumshoe look for preppy slicked-back hair and a polo shirt. And, of course, he flatly rejects the ideological outlook of the director of Fahrenheit 9/11. Yet it was an encounter with his nemesis that spawned Indoctrinate U. Maloney confronted Moore outside his Manhattan apartment in autumn 2003 with charges that he had shamelessly used his public platform to promote liberal causes. “I expected he’d run away,” Maloney recounts. In fact, Moore was charm itself. Guilty as charged, he said. And Moore went on to say that if Maloney felt so strongly, he should have a crack at his own film project. So Maloney used his online video of the exchange to put out an appeal for funding.
Enter Stuart Browning, a fabulously wealthy former technology company mogul and self-described “radical for capitalism”. Since retiring in his forties, he had been casting about for fresh projects. Browning, an avid reader of Maloney’s blog, soon agreed to back a probe into the political climate on US campuses.
The seed of Maloney’s idea was planted during his own undergraduate days at Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University in the early 1990s. He loved his time there, but issues of his conservative newsletter were routinely dumped, unread, in rubbish bins while an editorial he penned suggesting Martin Luther King would have opposed affirmative action drew death threats.
Maloney says he never felt a marked man, but that is beside the point. “We were being preached to about sensitivity and tolerance, but when no tolerance was shown to people sharing my opinion, it seemed that the university didn’t care,” Maloney says.
Browning was also game for taking on academe. “Today, universities teach ‘victim-ology’ and ’state-ism’. That’s antithetical to the way I think,” he says. So he put up $ 250,000, and the two men formed a production company, On The Fence Films. Maloney then hit the road, chasing up reports of political bias, with Browning, the multimillionaire, frequently slumming it as his cameraman.
It is hard to think of Republicans as an oppressed minority, but Maloney says Indoctrinate U will present hard-luck tales from more than a dozen campuses. Last year, he cobbled together footage from three to make a short taster, Brainwashing 101, which he posted online. The downloadable movie opens with a stirring voiceover about how campuses have betrayed their founding charters’ pledges to impart critical thinking and have become places where so-called speech codes governing interpersonal conduct are selectively invoked to censor conservative views.
First up is Maloney’s alma mater, Bucknell, and a professor clearly unaware of who he is tangling with explaining how he wants students to examine their “unconscious racism”. Next stop, Cal Poly and the aforementioned encounter with law enforcement. Then the action shifts to the University of Tennessee, where the public censure of white students who attended a 2002 Halloween party as the Jackson Five in blackface make-up is contrasted with what the film says was public inaction over an incident in which a student called an outspoken conservative Sikh student a “raghead” who should be “shot in the face”.
The fancy-dress students denied racist minstrelsy, saying their get-up was an innocent though misguided reference to their hometown, Jackson, Mississippi. But officials said in a statement that, intentionally or not, their actions were freighted with political baggage, “(recalling) old-time minstrel shows that depicted African-Americans as ignorant simpletons”.
The short was named one of last year’s top-ten documentaries by the conservative Liberty Film Festival. It has also drawn positive reactions from “moderate, centrist” liberals, Maloney says. He rejects charges that he has alighted on a few anecdotes to paint a crude “loony left” caricature of campuses. He argues that liberals hold an “ideological monopoly” in universities that can be traced back to the Seventies when former student activists gained a foothold. “Things have now reached a critical monopolistic mass perpetuated through hiring practices,” Maloney says.
Stephen Balch, president of the conservative National Association of Scholars, says Maloney’s depiction is spot-on. He says “a good many” of the NAS’s 4,000 members specify that the organisation’s correspondence be sent to their homes, rather than faculty pigeonholes, fearful that their career prospects might be harmed. And he points to a cadre of “ideologically intense, politically committed radical faculty who have an antinomian view of the world in which they are the forces of light and people who disagree with them are epitomes of evil”.
Balch cites research that found registered Democrats at Stanford and Berkeley universities outnumbering Republicans by 7.6 to 1 and 9.9 to 1, respectively. Another poll reported that faculty who identified themselves as conservative typically lagged behind self-proclaimed liberals in professional standing. Balch says that this suggests “discrimination based on correlation”.
But Mark Smith, spokesman for the American Association of University Professors, suggests that the dearth of card-carrying Republicans could be “self-selecting”, reflecting differing priorities, with conservatives drawn to higher-earning fields. “I don’t want to get into a debate over this anecdote or that, but I don’t recognise the picture these people paint of higher education,” Smith adds.
Recently, institutions have come under scrutiny from right-wing author David Horowitz, who has lobbied for an “academic bill of rights” that he says would promote “intellectual diversity”. Pennsylvania is to hold hearings on a bill to enact Horowitz’s proposal this autumn, while 14 other states are considering it. Worried academics conjure the spectre of political intrusion, including demands that teaching time be devoted to “intelligent design”, a God-centred theory of creation. Indoctrinate U might be viewed as another salvo in the so-called culture war waged by conservatives against perceived permissive secular forces.
But Maloney describes himself as “fiscally conservative, socially permissive”.
“Reviewers (of Brainwashing 101) would try to characterise us as Bible-thumpers,” Browning adds. “That’s the farthest thing from our approach.” Both call themselves libertarians.
But Kevin Mattson, a history professor at Ohio University, says most liberal professors are more likely to conform to the wishy-washy “not wanting to impose their views” stereotype than being strident ideologues.
He suggests that the notion of a leftwards lurch is a red herring that misses the real drama unfolding on campuses — “corporate-style cost-cutting and students as consumers”.