Characteristic of Conservatism Inc. for several decades now has been the practice of having politically correct spokespersons expressing its talking points. Fox News is full of black guests who are encouraged to say what the white hosts are terrified of stating lest they be accused of racism or sexism. Candace Owens, a very attractive black conservative woman, was allowed to observe what scared, white, self-styled conservatives would never say, namely that George Floyd had a long criminal record and may have been high on drugs when a policeman pressed down on his neck with a knee.
There is also an assortment of gays and lesbians on Fox News to comment on LGBT affairs and to create a properly diverse environment. When Fox News all-star Guy Benson, a self-identified gay, announced that he was entering a gay marriage, his colleagues swooned with joy and approval. Benson’s progressive union undoubtedly enhanced his credibility as a critic of extreme transgenderism, which the conservative movement is presently attacking as detrimental to gay identities and particularly upsetting to lesbians. Bruce (Caitlyn) Jenner was also presented on Fox News as a proud transgendered Republican. This came after the channel showed initial reservations about embracing the transgendered Jenner as one of its own.
Why does mainstream conservatism engage in this bizarre practice of featuring designated victim minorities to say what they would not allow vanilla-white Christians to utter? The left does not care how many minorities the right boasts of on outlets like Fox News; they will merely mock these guests as sell-outs. When conservatives play the diversity game, they are dealt useless cards.
There are historical reasons conservatives continue to persist in this delusion. In 1993, a widely publicized incident occurred at the University of Pennsylvania, thereafter, known as the “Water Buffalo affair.” An Orthodox Jewish student named Eden Jacobowitz grew irritated when 15 black girls outside his room began to make noise. Jacobowitz, who was trying to study, became so annoyed that he darted out of his dorm room and told the girls to be quiet. He also fatefully called them “water buffaloes,” which may have been a very loose translation for the Yiddish word “bahemah," meaning a dumb beast. His remark was genuinely offensive, although those at whom he shouted may have been more mystified than insulted by what he said.
The girls complained to the administration and Jacobowitz was expelled from the university. Keep in mind that if a minority had said something far worse to a white student, in all probability nothing would have befallen the offender. Jacobowitz or his supporters, led by Professor Allan Kors, a known defender of free speech at the university, threatened to bring legal action against the school. After some wrangling, Jacobowitz was let back in on the condition that he apologize to those he had offended.
Some observers have noticed salient aspects of this affair. A sizable segment of the Jewish journalistic community, from the neoconservative magazine Commentary to the leftist magazine Daily Forward rallied to the “Yeshiva boy” (meaning a student at an Orthodox Jewish school) pushed around by unfriendly gentiles. Jacobowitz attracted favorable attention because of his background from those who felt a demonstrable ethnic attachment to his cause.
Around this time, another student named Greg Pavlik—a white, Christian, male—had also been pushed around by UPenn and threatened with expulsion after he wrote critically about Martin Luther King, Jr., in the student newspaper. Although Kors went to bat for Pavlik, this student clearly did not have the support community that rushed to Jacobowitz’s defense. One could easily imagine that those who ignored him might have acted differently if Pavlik belonged to an ethnic, racial, or sexual minority group. Then the conservative establishment, by championing Pavlik, could have made it appear that it was championing an historic media-certified victim of discrimination.
It might also have helped the image of Pavlik if he had not identified himself as a paleoconservative and admirer of Patrick J. Buchanan. There is after all the right and then there is Conservatism Inc., which holds the cards. Pavlik chose his allies imprudently.
It appears that establishment conservatives took from the Pavlik incident a critical idea, namely that they needed more fashionable representatives. If the movement identified with groups claiming a history of discrimination, the public might view them more sympathetically. It is also probable that the Water Buffalo incident suggested how the conservative media could develop their own outreach strategy to minority audiences.
They could feature minorities as spokespersons for their talking points, and as they came up with ever more daring forms of diversity, their standing even on the left would improve. Since then conservative elites have offered as examples of diversity Jewish homosexuals, lesbian feminists, and transgendered Republicans, and this list continues to grow.
By now, however, the strategy has run its course and begun to look silly.
Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.