In the spring of 1986, the Brown Spectator published its inaugural issue. Proclaiming itself “The Right Alternative” to existing student publications, the Spectator aimed to provide an outlet for conservative and libertarian thought on a campus the journal’s staff alleged to be overwhelmingly liberal. Sadly, the Spectator isn’t around anymore. The last article on the journal’s website was published on July 6, 2014; the website, it appears, has been defunct since. (Digitized versions of the journal’s print edition are no longer available online.) This is a shame. In the near future, the journal should be excavated from the dustbin of College Hill history and restored to life.
The Spectator’s resurrection would be a positive development on campus, especially for students interested in activism and progressive politics. For the record, I’m not a conservative, and I don’t want Brown to lose its character as an institution with a student body deeply concerned with justice and equality. In fact, I find mostly everything about American conservatism, particularly as it’s manifested by the Republican Party of President Trump’s first term, profoundly abhorrent.
Still, despite my revulsion toward the twenty-first century Republican agenda, I believe that my experience of Brown and my understanding of American politics could be enriched by the presence of clear-eyed conservative commentary — published on a platform devoted to conservative voices on campus, versus piecemeal contributions to existing student-run publications — from my peers. I want Brown students who lean right to have the opportunity to express their opinions openly, experience the process of putting together a publication and participate in student discourse.
I also want Brown students who lean left to leave campus armed with the ability to articulate forcefully the shortcomings of conservative ideas and reject them in public forums and in politics. I know that, as a progressive on a progressive campus, my views are often enthusiastically reaffirmed by those around me. As much as I like affirmation, however, it does not help me recognize the weaknesses in my arguments or forge stronger ones. The Spectator, in promulgating conservative arguments, could transform this reality. By having our own conceptions of the role of government, faith and justice in American life challenged, progressive students will have the chance to further sharpen our ability to empathize with individuals of different political persuasions and develop a stronger facility with opposing arguments. In turn, we might be better equipped to not only debate and defeat conservative contentions, but also persuade others to embrace a progressive, inclusive vision for America. A reinvigorated Spectator on campus should be good practice for such work.
The Spectator, of course, was not without its deficiencies — and any enterprising conservatives on campus interested in reviving the journal should take care to avoid recreating them. For starters, the Spectator was funded entirely by external groups. According to The Herald, the journal received $2,000 from the Collegiate Network, an organization whose staid, bureaucratic name obscures its function as a sponsor of right-wing publications and activities on college campuses all over the United States. The remainder of the Spectator’s budget came from the Foundation for Intellectual Diversity, a group started by five Brown alums who wanted to amplify “underrepresented ideas” at the University. This reliance on external funding undermines the ability of the Spectator — or any student group, really — to bill itself as an organic, student-driven enterprise. Should there be a new iteration of the Spectator, its student managers ought to secure at least some funding from sources within the University. Even on a left-leaning campus like Brown’s, this shouldn’t be difficult; last semester, the Undergraduate Council of Students approved the creation of a campus chapter of Turning Point USA, a national right-wing group, the first step toward receiving Student Activities Office support.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Spectator’s former editors derived far too much pleasure from deliberate provocation. At an Oct. 20, 2006 lecture given by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an environmental attorney and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, staff members of the Spectator distributed copies of the journal. That issue’s cover story, penned by Sam Quigley ’10, was titled, “Robert F. Kennedy, Jr: Another Joke from the Kennedy Family.” Given the tragic history of the Kennedy family, such an article comes across as an insensitive, bad-faith attack. Quigley justified the Spectator’s acrid, aggressive tone as essential to the vitality of campus discourse. “We have to grab people with rhetoric first,” he told The Herald. Additionally, he said that “negativity is essential to any kind of democracy in order to discredit the current structure.” Assertive, reasoned polemicizing is one thing; berserk writing beyond the parameters of acceptable debate, produced purely for the sake of shocking or provoking readers, is another thing altogether. Hopefully, the editors of a resurrected Spectator will assume a more temperate framework for their writing and editorial decision-making. (And I’m not too worried about the Spectator becoming anything close to a Junior Varsity Breitbart — the alt-right politics exemplified and inflamed by President Trump does not encapsulate the full spectrum of conservative thought, and I think it’s unlikely that Brown students, who’ll have their names permanently attached to their contributions on the internet, will use the Spectator to peddle openly racist, sexist, or anti-immigrant sentiments.)
The task of restarting the Spectator will definitely be hard. Putting together a proposal for consideration by UCS, navigating the minutiae of Undergraduate Finance Board funding and assembling a team of students committed to the project are not easy. But there is a natural constituency for the Spectator, which, if managed properly, can serve a productive purpose on campus. In the grander scheme of things, the Spectator will be a useful training ground for students interested in making arguments about policy and partisan politics at higher levels, or, at the very least, becoming engaged citizens. After all, the fight for America’s soul — whether this country creates opportunities for average folks to get ahead, fully extends civil rights to all of its people or actualizes its highest ideals — is happening now, and young people with even an iota of interest in safeguarding their future cannot afford to sit this one out silently. As Quigley told The Herald, in a democratic society, “the worst thing that can happen is that people become complacent.” Ultimately, I hope that the Spectator, on a campus brimming with political and activist energy, can operate as another bulwark against that complacence.