No Coddling Here: The Thinker’s Careerism, at Everyone Else’s Expense

The Thinker does a disservice to campus conservatives.

By Matthew Pinna

The Maroon op-eds that I hate the most are the ones that feel the need to hedge their support for conservative ideas. Their authors put on a cute song and dance, thinking that they can convince the people who will hate them regardless that, somehow, they’re different. They’re not like those other conservatives—they’re good people—and the more people they kick down and push off to keep afloat, the better they are. They don’t realize that all this does is ensure that, after enough time has passed and they’ve served their purpose, they drown alone.

Ostensibly, the Chicago Thinker was created to counter this phenomenon—to provide the University of Chicago with a real conservative (and libertarian) voice. Run by third-years Evita Duffy and Audrey Unverferth, the student paper launched this previous fall and took campus by storm. Perhaps you saw it in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial board announced two weeks ago that the students behind the Thinker refused to be “coddled.” Perhaps, misled by the Journal’s exceedingly brief yet glowing endorsement, you also thought the Thinker was actually conservative.

The Thinker exists because, at the University of Chicago, being a conservative is not a good thing. Your character will be assassinated, and your family will be slandered. These attacks are not, as some might claim, merely focused on conservative ideas. Instead, they are directed at the personhood of the people that hold them. Some students at this school are, simply put, bad people. No amount of revisionism from those who themselves don’t engage in such behavior can change the fact that I have personally received violent threats and disgusting insults over my four years on campus. This is what the students who try desperately to hedge or outright deny their conservative ideas are trying to avoid, precisely because it feels so terrible. With these facts in mind, the last thing conservatives on campus need is infighting, even though the climate on campus has gotten significantly better since I was a first-year. My understanding of this is what’s kept me, up to this point, from publicly criticizing the Thinker. But, ultimately, without accountability, there cannot be unity.

I understand why a conservative UChicago student would feel like a publication would be helpful. After all, well before the Chicago Thinker’s foundation, I was invited to and attended conferences hosted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)—the organization that sponsors the Thinker—with the hope of starting my own publication. An op-ed of mine defending Thinker managing editor Evita Duffy from the threats she received last spring is even cited on the publication’s “Our Story” page. But I disagree with the Thinker despite my background, because it’s no better than the drowner in the sea of public opinion. It, too, abuses conservatism for its own selfish purposes: tarnishing the already brutalized image of conservatives on campus to build up itself and the careers of its staff.

I always like to say that, at the University of Chicago, the stakes are a little higher. Like it or not, some of our classmates are likely to graduate into influence, and it’s up to us to hold them accountable in their formative years. This was the point of my November column on #CareNotCops, to say that, here, we cannot allow student politicians to get away with lazy solutions and juvenile behavior simply because we agree with what they’re advocating. I would be a hypocrite, then, if I turned a blind eye to the Chicago Thinker, the only outspoken conservative student organization on campus.

Articles like Evita Duffy’s “UChicago Freshman Wants ‘the Next Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley’ Exiled From Elite Universities,” a response to a column by Maroon columnist Kelly Hui, ring with this juvenility. Make no mistake—when I read Hui’s column, I, too, was pissed off. Having already submitted a column in the same period, I asked for a shot at it, but I was told that fellow columnist Ketan Sengupta and others were already working on their rebuttals . I don’t shy from getting into the trenches, as my column responding to columnist Noah Tesfaye’s latest op-ed proves. But Duffy’s Thinker piece went too far. In her closing lines, with no sense of irony, she labels Hui’s argument as being a result of her “youth,” implying that she is too young to realize that she’s being used by her “mentors” and “role models.” Duffy, as a third-year, is likely at most a year or two older than Hui.

I’ve felt Duffy’s anger before. I know what it feels like to watch your friends and your beliefs targeted with impunity. I saw it happen to Duffy during last year’s IOP whiteboard incident, which inspired her to co-found the Thinker that summer. But when she and the rest of the Thinker staff write, they fail to target the insidious misconceptions that actually drive anti-conservative threats. Instead of challenging and complicating stereotypes of conservative students, Thinker articles like Duffy’s do nothing but reinforce them. If calling someone a “radical Marxist” 50 times in one paragraph made them change their ways, by now, Bernie Sanders would be a pharmaceutical CEO, and AOC would be handing out apology hugs and kisses to billionaires. No, if Duffy and other Thinker staffers want to stay true to their mission statement they should begin by actually “confronting counterarguments” and not shouting the same talking points I could find anywhere else.

None of this is to say that a conservative writer—or a writer of any ideology, really—shouldn’t fight back. If someone comes after your character, forget eye-for-an-eye. Take a limb, and set the precedent that if anyone does the same to you or someone you care about, they’ll get the same. But as you battle, remember that it’s about more than your immediate enemies—it’s about everyone else who’s looking in. They’re the ones you can actually convince, and, if rote talking points haven’t yet done the job, they’re sure as hell not going to work coming from a Thinker columnist. Words of praise from people who would have said the same had you etched into a rock “conservative good, liberal bad,” are meaningless if you truly care about doing something that the corpse of Ronald Reagan can’t do already.

What Duffy wrote in her attack piece against Hui, however, is more than just the result of a righteous, misplaced fury. Rather, it’s formulaic, filled with “gotcha” words and paragraphs that entirely disrupt the Thinker’s stated purpose of defending conservative and libertarian voices in our community. It has continued references to elites and the Ivy League, like in the opening paragraph of the article: “replete with obnoxious Ivy League elitism.” This line immediately aroused my suspicions. No University of Chicago student would call themselves “Ivy League”—they’re either too insecure or prideful to do so. Who, then, is Duffy attempting to write to?
“Nancy Pelosi, Big Tech, and the corporate media.” A five-paragraph reminder of Duffy’s whiteboard incident and the founding of the Chicago Thinker. Duffy isn’t talking to the conservatives on campus, who, afraid of losing friends and relentless harassment, keep their beliefs under the covers. Instead, this article feeds into caricatures of conservatism, abusing opportunities for effective counterargument as self-promotion, aimed at the readers of The Federalist—where Duffy frequently cross-publishes her Thinker articles—and national conservative media. Hui, who in an earlier column reveals her decided distaste for capitalism, would likely be among the last people to “take cues” from Pelosi and co. But to the sensationalist, that doesn’t matter. Throw enough tags into a word soup to achieve search engine optimization and it doesn’t matter if they stick—she’s already made you click.

We can see this again in Duffy’s piece “Universities’ Insane COVID Rules and Snitch Culture Are Training the Next Generation to Embrace Totalitarianism,” also published in The Federalist. Throughout her article, she goes down the list of gotcha terms: science as “religion,” “leftist professors,” “Black Lives Matter rioting on campus,” “left-wing orthodoxy,” “rape culture,” and “the Wuhan virus.” Left undefined and lacking any sort of “rigorous” contextualization for the University of Chicago, the overwhelming presence of gotcha terms in these articles prove that they aren’t designed to be read by nor defend a campus conservative—they’re tailor-made for the national media spotlight. This makes sense, as by necessity, any of Duffy’s cross-published articles have to be mostly divorced from our campus. Otherwise, the national readers of The Federalist—who have no specific interest in the University of Chicagowon’t bite. This is why, though her article was published in the Thinker, which is ostensibly designed for our campus, she uses her first 10 paragraphs to talk about COVID-19 measures at other, entirely dissimilar schools like Southern Methodist University and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

I should know: I too have written those “gotcha pieces” for off-campus publications that focus specifically on campus conservatism. Do these pieces help campus conservatives? Sometimes. Sometimes they garner an apology or force an administration to investigate instances of bias, and that’s helpful. But most of the time, they’re nothing more than click generators, designed to generate ad revenue and attention from larger outlets. The Thinker, contrary to its stated intention of wanting to “defend conservative and libertarian perspectives,” has made its name through the grift. Does the Thinker really think, for instance, that airing personal vendettas about students being caught disobeying explicit COVID rules will get those regulations changed? Of course not, and it would be naive to think otherwise.

And, as it turns out, selling out conservatism works. The Chicago Thinker was featured in an editorial by the Wall Street Journal, which reads as if its editorial staff simply plucked from its most recent headlines. Duffy and Unverferth have also been featured on Fox News. Rachel Campos-Duffy, Evita’s mother, is a regular contributor to Fox.

I’ll take this moment to say that I don’t think career building is inherently a bad thing. Students attend top universities like UChicago to get jobs, and anybody who says otherwise is lying, either outwardly or to themselves. Duffy is doing the same thing that so many of you are already doing—she just has a larger platform and network on which to do it. What I do take concern with, however, is disingenuity—pretending to serve the campus conservative community when all they really are to you is a stepping stone to a bigger audience. The Chicago Thinker does precisely this, using the experiences of the attacked conservative to elevate a chosen few, all while wondering why conservatives are still insulted and mocked.

But I am also a pragmatist. Without funding and attention, things can’t get done. To this end, Duffy is the perfect person to help conservatives on campus and even the surrounding South Side community. Through her network, as the daughter of a former congressman and a Fox News contributor, she could open up countless opportunities for the campus, such as through nuanced speakers and educational offerings. In the community, she could marshal funds and political programs that would prove that conservative politics begin and end with the people. Up until now, though, she and the Chicago Thinker have only cared about career advancement and the airing of personal grievances. I don’t care for political stunts about socialism and whiteboards; I care about using the ideas that I believe in to help people.

It’s worthwhile to point out that the Chicago Thinker also publishes more than just self-promotion. It does publish analysis, but it does so on topics that either do not pertain to our campus or that nobody in their right mind would care about. Unfortunately for those who would care for a gripping conservative critique of Stargirl, it is even more relevant to note that such articles are routinely crowded out by the buzz that surrounds Duffy’s contentious articles and media spotlights.

For my first two years on campus, I was furious. I love my family and friends, and for years, I watched them be targeted and ridiculed by self-righteous students, some of whom, at one point, I thought of as friends. As this happened, I also watched liberals, leftists, and conservatives stand by, some doing absolutely nothing and others pretending that it wasn’t happening. I responded with like hatred and dug in, battling anyone who came after me and those I care about.

Two things changed. One, for some reason—and perhaps another student can take a stab at why this is the case—our campus is now a shadow of the toxic environment it used to be, save, of course, for Student Government elections. Two, I realized that, though students would come and privately say that they agreed with me, few actually had the decency to say so when it mattered. That second reason is why, at first, I was so excited to hear that the Chicago Thinker would be published, so that, well beyond my graduation, conservatism could be defended here. It’s also why, when I realized that the Thinker only pretended to care about conservatism, it hurt more than the complacency and cowardice of the previous status quo. At least, back then, students didn’t try to hide that they cared more about themselves when they stabbed their ideology in the back.

Evita, Audrey, and the staff of the Chicago Thinker: I know exactly what you have gone through and it hurts me to see it every time it happens. Please, though, do not forget about who you claim to write for. You’re writing for students so that they can read your articles and know that they and their families are still good people. There’s a time and a place for career building—you can do that while helping on campus in a way that is actually conservative. Otherwise, if you choose to continue down your current path, I’d wish you good luck, but I doubt you need it: I hear that being a professional victim is very profitable these days.

Matthew Pinna is a fourth-year in the College.