Doing the Right Thing : Founded a Generation Ago by William F. Buckley, the Young Americans for Freedom Are the Shock Troops of U.S. Conservatism
“Hitler was a liberal.” --YAF member, USC
THEY THROW fake money at Alan Cranston. At gay activist rallies, they carry “No Special Rights for Sodomites” placards. Dressed as doctors, they bash the heads of dummy babies outside the offices of pro-choice Republicans. Depending on whom you believe, they rig campus elections or are systematically cheated of votes by “radical-riddled” student councils. They make life miserable for liberals, whether college professors, Democrats or Republicans like Pete Wilson. They love noise, argument, debate, counter-demonstrations, media attention. Blink an eye and they’re short-haired Abbie Hoffmans or Jerry Rubins standing on their heads.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. June 24, 1990 For the record:
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 24, 1990 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4B Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
In the story April 29 by Clancy Sigal, a quote was attributed to a UC Northridge YAF member. Our apologies to Cal State Northridge for the copy-editing error.
Meet today’s campus tummlers-- Young Americans for Freedom.
For years, I’d vaguely heard of YAF as a right-wing rent-a-mob. A bunch of cranks, nerds and bigots, my friends said. Then a YAFfer enrolled in my writing class at USC. He liked books and stood up to me in class and seemed passionate about something other than himself. Another, dubbed the “Fascist funster,” went around campus like Zorro, stamping “KGB APPROVED” on radical student posters. They milled around Tommy Trojan on the quad, outshouting the feminists and anti-apartheid activists. Loudmouthed rabble rousers, they reminded me of somebody I’d almost forgotten: me, 40 years ago.
“We in YAF love trouble.” --YAF former national chairman Sergio Picchio
IT WOULD BE EASY to underestimate the influence of YAF on the American right. Despite its national paper membership of 55,000--California, with up to a fifth of its members, increasingly packs the leadership and calls the shots--YAF is constantly on the brink of breakdown, dissolution, terminal splits. It once even expelled the son of its founder, William F. Buckley.
Most mainstream Republicans scorn YAF as “too extreme.” But President Reagan still sits on its advisory board, and party seniors are wary of criticizing YAF for fear of dousing the fire in the GOP belly. Republican party regulars, afraid of alienating the undecided voter, keep their distance, but I suspect they are secretly fond of, and at times badly need, YAF. In critical contests, YAF foot soldiers can make the difference.
On campuses, most students see YAF either as too “weird” or too serious. Mention YAF in my classroom, and there are nervous giggles. Yet, by thriving on exclusion and avoiding respectability, YAF keeps going as the dark conscience of American conservatism.
Although anti-Marxist by definition, YAFfers are the “Leninists,” the fiery ideologues of the right in their dedication to sustained analysis over short-term acceptance. Their idea of a lousy time is not having anyone to argue with.
“I want perfection, not compromises or seconds, the bold banner versus the pale pastel.” --Jim Bieber, California state chairman
YAF GOES ITS own furious way, drawing in its wake students as young as elementary school age who are bonded by the thrill of ideas and a conspiracy theory of liberal control. Self-starters by nature, often loners but occasionally the most popular students, they are--for American youths--amazingly at ease with European-tinged ideas and geopolitics that other kids glumly trudge through in Poly Sci 101. They are a classroom delight or nightmare, depending on how tolerant the teacher may be of hard-line prodigies.
I’m used to it. For the past 30 years, I’ve lived abroad, mainly in Britain, where ideology is taken as seriously as the weather. Anyway, thinking ideologically is a habit that had already hooked me when I was a student Communist at UCLA in the postwar 1940s.
When I tell YAF members that I used to be a Red, they don’t skip a beat. “It’s OK by us,” shrugs one YAF member at USC, “because at least you’re not a liberal.”
“No advance without confrontation.” --Richard Delgaudio, former YAF national board member
YAF WAS FOUNDED in 1960 in the Sharon, Conn., mansion of William F. Buckley, whose immediate aim was to push a Barry Goldwater presidential “boomlet.” Buckley, aided by a young ex-Communist, Marvin Liebman, wanted YAF to be the spearhead of a new kind of student movement, a Jesuit-style cadre to push conservative ideas as well as combat what Buckley viewed as the cancerous disease of liberalism that he had loathed since his Yale undergraduate days.
Originally shaped in the cerebral image of its wealthy, intellectual East Coast founder, YAF has increasingly emerged as a California-style populist group, hellbent on more street action and fewer hallway debates over the theories of columnist Russell Kirk, novelist Ayn Rand, economist Ludwig von Mises and other rightist intellectuals who influenced Buckley’s original cell. Indeed, older YAF alumni--affectionately termed OAFs (Old Americans for Freedom)--express quiet unease at YAF’s increasing “Christianization.” As YAF’s center of gravity has shifted to the Southwest, the organization has become preoccupied with less abstractly intellectual, more “social” issues as defined by certain clergymen. Social is YAF’s code word for sexual and personal.
“I felt alone in the room when (Operation Rescue leader) Randall Terry said you’re damned if you don’t believe in the Bible,” a 22-year-old Jewish YAFfer from Garden Grove told me at last summer’s annual YAF convention in San Diego, where Terry and Oliver North were star speakers. At this year’s convention, attended by several hundred delegates, the biggest fights seemed to involve the pro-Republican versus the anti-Republican YAFfers.
Conservative Catholics, Jews, libertarians, Young Republican defectors, an Afro-American or two, Ayn Rand fans (“Randies”), John Birch disciples and free-market enthusiasts, high school debaters and closet feminists who hate the feminist movement--YAF is a fascinating mixture of hot and cool. It encompasses ambitious, calculating power players and angry, idealistic firebrands sharing a gut sense that being an outsider who’s Right is infinitely preferable to being a “squish” like George Bush--or even second-term Ronald Reagan--who sells out for mere votes or popularity. “We’re Young Americans for Freedom, not Young Americans for Efficiency or Expediency,” explains Ken Royal, a recent UC Irvine graduate.
If there’s one thing that unites all YAFfers, it’s a triumphant outsiderness.
“I wasn’t there during black slavery--why should I pay for it?” --YAF activist, San Diego State
BOB AQUARO’S MOST vivid childhood memory is watching the evening news on TV and seeing his fire-fighter father fall under a burning wall. He was there when his badly burned father was brought home from the hospital on a stretcher. That’s why, Aquaro says, he vehemently opposes affirmative action. “I want Dad to have the best backup possible, not from some guy who got in under the wire because of his skin color.”
A “Reagan baby” born in 1969, Aquaro, a USC junior, is proudly blue-collar, part of a San Fernando cop-and-fireman culture. If for any reason graduate school doesn’t work out, he wants to be a fire fighter, too.
Like more than half the YAF people I met, Aquaro is the first in his family to go to a four-year college. It’s a struggle. Outside school, he works almost full-time and has to scramble for loans and scholarships to pay USC’s $500-a-unit tuition. He does not, however, have much time for minorities in a similar predicament who, he feels, are weakened by welfare handouts and special quotas that are inherently racist in their assumption that blacks and Latinos can’t compete equally. Many YAFfers eagerly accept federal loans and other student-based affirmative-action grants while denouncing any form of state intervention.
Though a Cub Scout, Aquaro never fit in among other Valley teen-agers. “I was your neighborhood intellectual who liked to read books and, God forbid, didn’t care for rock. You get points for being dumb, so I pretended to be lazy. You’d be surprised how many girls and guys in high school are afraid, because of peer pressure, to show brain power. High school’s a pretty totalitarian place. Just when you’re learning to fly, teachers shoot you down.”
Precise, controlled, accountable, Aquaro, with his pipe and tweed jacket, looks and sounds more like a professor than I do. He doesn’t have a lot of time or patience for idle fun. As with so many YAFfers (and for me at UCLA years ago), politics is his varsity sport--and he’s a great broken-field runner. Though fond of quoting John Locke and the Federalist papers, he confesses that the John Birch Society pamphlet “None Dare Call It Conspiracy” “blew me out of the Republican Party into conservatism. It explained to me for the first time how things really are.”
How are things? “I have very little control of my life. Do you know anybody who does?” It’s so self-evident, Aquaro believes, as to be hardly worth arguing that “our lives are controlled by a small, wealthy, influential ‘liberal’ elite--including every modern President but Reagan--concentrated in the Trilateral Commission, the Rockefellers, some powerful Washington politicians and the rich men around the Council on Foreign Relations who run the world to suit themselves.”
If the rich distort our lives, why is Aquaro so adamantly opposed to anything that could help the helpless poor? As usual when I’m dense, Aquaro sighs and draws despairingly on his pipe. “Big business,” he explains patiently, “is pro-Big Government, and Big Government is pro-minority because it makes people easier to control.” This is usually where our wrangles can go on for hours.
Aquaro says that what he fears most is brainwashing, the destruction of his spontaneous mind. “Teachers: They clip your wings. If you don’t learn to think for yourself early, you’re dead from the neck up. I don’t want to be a soldier in the army of the walking dead.”
“I was 11 when President Reagan was shot. I remember March 30, 1981, the way liberals cry over Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated--except that my Camelot was just starting.” --UCLA activist
YOUNG AMERICANS for Freedom was born the year before the formation of the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society, its nemesis. YAF veterans cheerfully admit borrowing their confrontational style from SDS; they like the comparison. “We’re today’s counterculture,” proudly asserts UCLA graduate Colin Metcalfe, a Canadian young conservative and YAF campus chairman who came south to bask closer to the glow of the Reaganite revolution. “If I’d stayed in Canada, I’d have toed the party line. In California, I’ve learned that ideology, not party, comes first.”
Many YAFfers were recruited through college or Young Republican clubs. Most now view Young Republicans with amused contempt as “country club conservatives.”
It’s not always easy for an outsider to grasp the nuances of YAF’s factional disputes. For example, YAF is proud of its libertarian strain. Yet when Cal State Northridge senior David Knatcal, former L.A. county YAF chairman, recently broke away with several other chapters (including San Jose State, Pierce College and Antelope Valley College), one of his complaints was that his chief rival, Jim Bieber, was “too libertarian.” Knatcal also frankly admitted that he was getting out because Bieber, not Knatcal, had been appointed California state chairman. One of the disarming things about YAF is that its members hardly bother to disguise their personal rivalries as lofty philosophical disagreement.
This sort of internecine warfare is meat and drink to a true-blue YAF member. Despite or perhaps even because of it, YAF has sustained an impressive continuity over 30 turbulent years that saw the demise of other right-wing youth groups. One reason for its staying power is the steadying presence of its OAFs.
“When I was a USC student, I got along better with the Marxists than the old-line FDR New Dealers. We were both trying to bring down the liberal establishment.” --Steve Wiley, former YAF national vice chairman
JOVIAL, TWINKLY Steve Wiley could have doubled for James Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life"--including the part about bailing out the insolvent bank. Four years ago, Wiley, now 39, went back on “active duty,” leaving his flourishing contracting business in Torrance to help drag YAF back from the brink of ruin because of bad debts and poor morale. “Reagan’s victory was almost the worst thing that could have happened to us,” he says. “Our best guys either went home or used the Reagan connection as a stepping stone to jobs.” Younger YAFfers sneer at YAF alumni who “sold out” to become Reaganite “big fat consultants.”
A wry, hard-working family man, Wiley is YAF’s “Good Sam,” the guy who does the drudgery but hardly ever gets the applause. Unenvious by nature, he’s terribly proud of YAFfers who have moved on and up. YAF graduates--those who survive its grueling test of self-education, picket-line confrontations, endless meetings and chronic back-stabbing that members tend to accept as part of a rough game--can go surprisingly far in American politics. YAFfers abounded in Reagan’s White House as speech writers (Wiley himself still ghostwrites for Reagan) or Cabinet undersecretaries, including Jim Lacy at the Department of Commerce and Michelle Easton at the Department of Education. California Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Lomita) is an ex-YAF member, and Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) is a current member. Wiley claims that up to 90% of United States conservative groups are staffed by YAF alumni and that most Reagan-era YAF government appointees were kept by George Bush.
“YAF is the boot camp of American conservatism,” Wiley says. “Our purpose is to train leaders, not win popularity contests. Very few people occupy the national ‘choke points'--the molders of opinion, the definers of debate in the media, colleges or government. We’re training journalists and bureaucrats and professors. It’s our job.” Paradoxically, YAF nurses its talent best in hard times for conservatives. But wherever ex-members go, “Once a Marine always a Marine--we try to instill this.”
I can’t imagine anyone less military or hard-line than genial Steve Wiley. A Boy Scout leader, he can’t stand Orange County’s leading anti-Semite, Tom Metzger. And he worries about YAF’s “new influx from the religious right--the Christians are infiltrating us, and that isn’t what YAF is, or used to be, about.” YAF’s increasing Christianization, he admits, makes it less sensitive to Jewish fears, although the Jewish Anti-Defamation League currently gives YAF a clean bill of health.
Like his opposite numbers in SDS, Wiley looks back on the ‘60s with a certain nostalgia. USC, where he was a history major, was caught up in Vietnam anti-war protest, and there was plenty of excitement--even fistfights--for a 19-year-old patriot. Those were blood-quickening times, and Wiley acquired a respectful affinity for his SDS enemies. “If they hadn’t existed, maybe we wouldn’t have,” he says, laughing. But no rosy haze blinds him to YAF’s permanent aim: to rid America of liberals in influential places, including academia. Like most YAFfers, he asserts as fact that USC liberal professors, then as now, routinely give right-wing students punitively poor grades.
Wiley is a paradox, a ‘60s man in a radically traditionalist organization. For most of YAF, the ‘60s is a sort of Antichrist, the bottomless source of much of today’s social evil, because that’s when the professors and bureaucrats who run contemporary America came to maturity and were infected by the dope-rock-sex protest scene. Wiley casually accepts that YAF “is the SDS of the right; we were both made up of Catholics and Jews. Except SDS was upper-middle-class and we were lower.” This distinction is crucial for Wiley. “Go to any campus parking lot,” he says, echoing what other YAFfers tell me, “and the Porsches and BMWs belong to the liberals. We drive the broken-down old Fords and Novas.” A glance at the San Diego convention-site parking lot belies this, but what counts for YAFfers is the belief, not the fact.
It’s hard to view this sane, decent, sensible apparatchik as a YAF die-hard. But Wiley’s heart was and still is with what he fondly calls “the real street kids, ready to fight.”
“You don’t find the average person in YAF.” --Melanie Grace, former YAF Member
STEVE WILEY’S father was an Indiana farm boy who came west to run an El Monte gas station. Many YAF parents have roots in the Midwest or South; few, if any, are wealthy. Small-businessmen or self-employed service workers, they did not, by and large, benefit from California’s boom economy. They got along, survived, built families, made good homes. As related by their YAF children, these parents felt squeezed between the large corporations and growing federal regulation that’s seen as just another way of handing their lives over to Big Business. At the same time, increasingly vocal and sometimes-violent minorities took over the cities that conservatives had all but abandoned.
YAF’s moral base is extended suburbia, which in Southern California means almost anywhere except Los Angeles city--La Canada Flintridge, the Antelope Valley, Chatsworth, Reseda, Riverside, Garden Grove, Yorba Linda and the lonely ideological plains of Orange County. Feeling threatened by a complex modernism, YAF families tend to treat the whole United States as a small town and its residents as having values in common. A big-city mentality that enforces a certain bruised tolerance is fairly foreign to them.
Even at their most sophisticated-- YAFfers are debaters at heart--they are not far from an outlook that Muncie, Ind., or North Platte, Neb., might have found congenial in the 1950s. There is a genuine yearning for decency, coherence, stability and the hard-work ethic. That small towns have changed seems not to matter. What counts is a YAFfer’s belief that an injustice has been done to a certain class of Americans who see themselves as the rocklike builders of this country. It’s as if there were only a finite amount of oxygen in America, and “the liberals,” “the cocktail-party set,” the Ted Kennedys, Barney Franks and affirmative-action zealots are taking too much and leaving the “real” Americans to strangle psychologically.
YAFfers know from their own and their parents’ experience that, for some reason, hard work doesn’t always pay off. They are the first generation of young Americans that does not expect to live as well as their parents, and there is a deep-down, anxious desire to know why. Who is the culprit? In moments of doubt or despair, all a YAFfer has to do is think about who actually runs the nation--its politicians, teachers, bankers and media magicians--and doubt vanishes.
“On your average American campus, you’re always operating behind enemy lines. The enemy camp is any liberal establishment. Any public institution, that is.” --YAF alumnus, San Diego State
THE IDEA OF an “enemy camp” is deeply embedded in YAF consciousness. It probably began with William F. Buckley’s late-adolescent gloss on his family’s pious, fairly dark Catholic view of human possibilities: original sin versus the liberal optimism he found so obnoxious among his Yale teachers. Gradually, YAF’s notion of an enemy camp against which one is a secret resister, a guerrilla of the free spirit, evolved to focus along more specific class and even geographic lines.
Today’s Young American for Freedom fighter defines his--emphasis on the gender--enemy as more or less the whole official American culture. This culture is transmitted, and increasingly corrupted, by a mandarin caste tutored in the Ivy League and headquartered in the Northeast Corridor between Washington D.C., and New York City. But agents of this diseased, distorted culture can be found in his own family, his junior high, his college-freshman classroom--even the FBI and CIA.
The real enemy of most YAFfers is the elite culture.
This is where the symmetry between the old Communist Party and YAF breaks down. We Communists were mainly sons and daughters of poor Eastern European immigrants who hungered for their children’s education, any education, which they couldn’t afford for themselves. Elite culture--even when criticized as “bourgeois"--was implicitly a good thing. It incubated the values that our parents felt were noble and humane. Today’s YAFfer would snort derisively at this as simplistic and naive, if not downright vicious. “No wonder all you Commies became such good liberals,” was how one YAF member, who never tired of trying to teach me the error of my ways, put it.
“Racism sucks because it’s just another form of collectivism.” --Orange County YAF member
YAF’S SENSIBILITIES are masculine, racial and resentful. But, says Stan Salter, a 21-year-old black UCLA student and YAF vice chairman of Los Angeles County, “There’s too automatic a link in people’s minds between conservatism and racism. Be careful of stereotypes. I read Malcolm X early, but also, by the age of 8 or 9, I was already a conservative. Crime is my gut issue.”
Because he’s seen the reality of drugs in his South-Central neighborhood, Salter hasn’t much time for YAF’s libertarian fringe which insists that non-interference with drug users is more important than imposing controls on those who use them. “When you see what I have on the streets, you’re inclined to be more practical than philosophical,” he observes. But he is equally adamant that “unjust treatment of blacks does not justify black crime or revenge.”
In most ways, Salter, a businessman in the making, conforms to the normal YAF profile. “I had bizarre hobbies as a teen-ager--business and politics,” he says, smiling. “Being cool in high school was not my goal. I gave up trying to be popular in the sixth grade.”
Salter is a walking advertisement for school busing, one of YAF’s betes noires. Beginning in the fourth grade, he was bused to white schools, which may help explain his impressive self-confidence, especially when faced with an unfriendly crowd of whites. The last time I saw Salter he was on a TV news program, coolly arguing with demonstrators at a pro-choice rally in Rancho Park.
Articulate but reserved, argumentative but cool, Salter--a ghetto child--doesn’t have the quick charm of someone who is hastening to distance himself from his community. He is black as a fact but not as a statement. The self-sufficiency he exudes probably is as much a product of his community as it is of the skills he acquired in crossing the line. He is proud that his parents broke the color line by being the first black family on his previously all-white block, now gang turf.
Salter’s boyhood dream was to go to UCLA. A “Bruin at heart,” he even marched for affirmative action his first semester in Westwood. Initially, YAF repelled him because of “misinformation” that it was racist and extremist. “If you’re not active in the organization, you think it’s a training ground for little Lyndon LaRouches.” He soon found UCLA to be a hotbed of left-wing activity “where liberal dogma is made welcome and catered to.” Excluding the economics department, most of his professors, he says, were biased to the left. “They pretend to be neutral, but you could always tell by the buzz words.”
Because I’m a Bruin at heart myself, Stan Salter throws me back into a UCLA past that I’ve never escaped. My soul was shaped by the Daily Bruin, which, of course, Salter labels ultra-left because it didn’t print all of his letters to the editor. Deja vu! In the 1940s, we campus Communists picketed Westwood barber shops that refused to cut blacks’ hair, and we sought to desegregate Fraternity Row. Salter, who can’t wait to get into the money hustle (“Capitalism is a legitimate system as long as it’s colorblind”), is unimpressed with my radical war ribbons. But he’s also curiously reluctant to disassociate himself from his brief fling with the student left. “I’m still a campus radical,” he insists. I understand. That’s what I keep telling myself, too.
“People said YAF was a bunch of hard-core nuts. I thought, wow, that’s for me.” --Jim Bieber
YAF IS NEANDERTHAL male, and YAF women may even like it that way. During one of the San Diego convention debates, a leading YAF woman assumed a provocative stance at the microphone. “Can I say something?” she asked. “Only so long as you keep your hands behind your back that way,” responded a YAF youth from the platform. YAF men hovered anxiously around the women I was interviewing and didn’t feel shy about interrupting; nor were their intrusions resented. Outside the San Diego hotel where YAF hastily organized a counterpicket to a demonstration by pro-choicers protesting Randall Terry’s presence, YAF women in their sophisticated blue cocktail dresses were even more militant than their comrades. “Bull dyke bitches!” they screamed across a line of mounted police. “Mao, Stalin, Hitler, too, they’re pro-choice just like you! Lesbian bitches!”
Sex and students are inseparable. YAF is not a church group but full of fiery, hotblooded activists at a particularly sensitive age. I kept as much of a blind eye as possible to after-hours activities at the convention, so let’s just say that some YAFfers probably were up to what I was doing, or wanted to be doing, at their age. These are not fundamentalist bluestockings, to say the least. They are as rowdily fixed on sex, albeit in political terms, as any other Joe or Jane College. They are also, increasingly, a single-issue group: abortion.
“Girls in politics are wackos.” --YAF officer at San Diego convention
MY LINGERING image of Melanie Grace: hairbrush in hand, without makeup or shoes, on the hastily called YAF counterpicket in San Diego, screaming at the pro-choicers and rallying her troops: “Come on you guys, let’s yell at these people!”
Away from the picket line, Grace is the classic small-town cheerleader (at Moreno Valley High School) and active student-government type. A strong young woman from a supportive family, Grace implicitly accepts the leadership of men (“I’m no man hater”) but wouldn’t dream of subordinating her identity or intelligence to them. She is an American conservative woman in her mother’s image who is on her way--as a 21-year-old UC Riverside pre-law student--to accomplishing what our times permit and encourage daughters to do that their mothers couldn’t.
Because Grace is a pale-skinned, green-eyed blonde, most people wouldn’t guess that her Texas-born mother is part Latina. (Her Arkansas-born father has his own heating-air conditioning business.) Grace is a “blue-diaper baby” whose Republican-activist parents “inspired me to action with their example.” Ernestine Grace, chairman of the Moreno Valley Beauty Pageant while holding down a full-time secretarial job, also is a volunteer teacher in an adult literacy program. “My mother,” Grace says, “taught me to carry myself with dignity, to look out for myself and never to doubt that hard work cannot be denied. If you accomplish, it will be recognized.”
Until her boyfriend, David Knatcal, left YAF in a dispute, Grace’s ambition was to rise in YAF and then run for Congress. “It’s a lot easier to come through the ranks in an unsophisticated place like Riverside.” But she’s followed Knatcal into an even more conservative group, the hitherto southern-based Students for America. She probably would have made it onto YAF’s national board, since the group promotes women even while it espouses policies that would keep them in the kitchen: “This country will be a third-rate power if more women don’t get married and have kids,” YAF elder statesman Charles Wiley (no relation to Steve) thundered from the San Diego convention platform; young men throughout the hall nodded in agreement.
Politics is in her blood. Melanie, like many in the U.S. anti-abortion movement, incubates some powerful pro-feminist sentiments. In the fourth grade, with her mother’s blessing, she circulated a student petition to improve cafeteria food. She wants to help people, to lead them. “People look for a leader. They may not know how to express their dissatisfaction, so you have to articulate the issues.”
I can almost hear my old Communist bosses in Chicago and Los Angeles, both women, applauding her words. The difference is that they both went to jail, and--in my opinion--Grace’s politics speak for their jailers.
“I’m young and I don’t want to settle for less.” --UC Northridge YAF member
GRACE UPSETS ME insisting, as do all YAFfers, that “Liberal teachers are very aggressive. You have to write what they tell you, or they fail you. A lot of students are on grants or loans, so you have to be extra careful.” But, in YAF terms, I’m a liberal teacher (if not worse) and . . . and what?
Hanging out with YAFfers has raised my consciousness about how people like me, who once were the “little guys,” can be perceived as the oppressors. In the years since I left college, an American liberal-left has emerged from McCarthy-era persecution to something more problematical and contradictory--not the underdogs anymore, but custodians of underdogs: teachers, social workers or administrators.
It’s no use for me to tell YAFfers that most ex-Movement types muddle along on ‘60s ideals and $25,000 or less a year. What YAFfers see on TV and in other media, and maybe even in the classrooms, is an affluent, often-glitzy lefty who is light years away from the reality of a Fullerton or Dominguez Hills on-loans student who knows, as his predecessors did not, that a college degree no longer guarantees anything. To this person, somehow, actor Martin Sheen being handcuffed over El Salvador or Morgan Fairchild counterpicketing Operation Rescue seems more a slap in the face than a cry from the heart.
YAF isn’t the little guy, either. It’s a ferociously combative, nonviolent, authoritarian, confrontational academy for aspiring right-wing bureaucrats who, once in office, including the Oval Office, seem perfectly content to cut student loans and other welfare benefits for the lower-middle class whence they came.
But YAFfers aren’t bureaucrats yet. They’re the sons and daughters of mainstream, conservative, hard-working, worried Americans who have taken the full shock of America’s massive social changes since World War II. Their parents’ generation, and mine, prospered modestly as a direct result of that war and the benefits accruing to its survivors, especially the GI Bill of Rights. But the social elevator that lifted us all seems to be slipping its cables.
Bob, Stan and Melanie are coming of age on the downside of the American Century. Their psychic reality, as reflected both in the enviable comradeship and cutthroat rivalries of YAF, is more ambiguous, even threatening, than mine was at their age. They are children of the 21st Century, burdened, or blessed, with a mind-set from the 19th. That doesn’t seem to leave a lot of room for pity, not even for themselves. Or, as a USC YAF member told me, “Compassion is someone else’s job.”