Steph’s Adventures at CPAC: The Illustrated Report of DOOM! (Part II)


Outside the Delaware Ballroom, “Gorilla Debt” menaces the crowds.

(Continued from part one.)

After the pop culture presentation, the Marshall Ballroom next hosted a panel on homeschooling and school choice, so once again, I decided to stay put. (And let me tell you, it was certainly a boon to my arthritic ankles and knees that the programs I really wanted to see were, for the most part, in the same location.) After the moderator made his introductions, Lil Tuttle from the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute (woot!) stepped up as the first and, I feel, best speaker.

Tuttle’s angle of attack was quite interesting. She believes that the school choice issue should be framed not just as a social issue, but also as a fiscal issue. In her speech, she pointed out that many states are on the verge of going bankrupt in large part because of the public schools. “School choice is to the state governments what taxes are to the federal government,” she announced. “Many states are in the financial hole, and the public schools are some of the biggest piggies at the trough.” She praised Chris Christie, whom she called a “YouTube sensation,” for going after the teachers unions and their cadillac benefit plans, and urged other Republican-controlled states to follow the same model (and apparently, the governor of Wisconsin is getting right on it – more on that in a separate post). Tuttle then pointed out that public education and public schooling are not synonymous. Public education is an ideal; public schooling, a method. And we can and should look for other ways to deliver a public education to our children, as the old model is rapidly becoming unsustainable. Tuttle urged the audience to support a universal choice program for families at all income levels. If we send a kid to private school on a government voucher, she stated, we will use half the money we currently use to support our public schools. “We must make the case,” Tuttle concluded, “that school choice will promote fiscal responsibility.”

The other speakers on the panel echoed Tuttle’s complaints about the current expense of running the public schools (particularly the cost of propping up exorbitant teacher pensions) and amplified her call for universal choice (which, as I understand it, is the current practice in some European nations). I agreed with their sentiments. As we get closer and closer to the singularity, I believe it may in fact be time to look for alternatives to the traditional model of public schooling. Not only should we send kids to charter and private schools, but we should also allow technology to take up some of the slack. In my own school district, students already have the option to go to “virtual school” to pick up some of their core course requirements. Imagine how much we would save on transportation and physical plant maintanance if other school districts followed Prince William’s lead and created their own distance learning programs. Do I think physical schools will disappear completely? No — but if we give families the option to stay home, that may relieve some crowding issues and, oh yes, perhaps save some money.

But back to my report. After the school choice panel ended, I decided to visit the exhibit hall one more time to acquire a few books and t-shirts. Then I headed back upstairs to catch ISI’s break-out session featuring Rep. Thaddeus McCotter. The portion of the program I was able to see focused heavily on Egypt and the economy. On Egypt, McCotter seemed to echo the worries I expressed in my recent post here. The last thing Egypt needs right now is a revolution, McCotter argued. Revolutions foster instability, and instability opens the door for more radical elements (like the Muslim Brotherhood). If there is to be change in Egypt, it must be incremental — and no organization which has failed to renounce terrorism should be allowed a seat at the table. McCotter also had harsh things to say about the U.S. intelligence community’s failure to notice that an Egyptian uprising was on the horizon. On the economy, meanwhile, McCotter expressed a belief that we should get back to the business of making things. The current status quo – in which much of our manufacturing is handled by China – will not lead to economic health, McCotter stated. We need to remove the regulatory barriers that have pushed manufacturing out of the U.S. We also need to work on making our economy more consumer oriented. Highly centralized welfare states are unsustainable, McCotter declared. “Look at Greece. Look at California.”


A political orientation chart in the exhibit hall highlights the libertarian bent of this year’s audience. (My flag, by the way, is near Sarah Palin, which doesn’t surprise me at all.)

As I remarked at the start of part one, CPAC has really expanded over the years. At any one time, attendees at this year’s convention had to make a choice between five different programs. And so it was with yours truly. Eventually, I had to step out of McCotter’s lecture so I could reunite with my local friend and see a panel on the rise of the conservative female politician. And as I made my way to the Delaware Ballroom, I ran into a whole crowd of people who were lining up to see Ron Paul. Ron Paul was a freakin’ rock star at this year’s conference. He won the presidential straw poll for the second year running, as a matter of fact, which I attribute to the Paulites’ fanatical zeal. To be honest with you, that’s something I don’t understand at all, as Ron Paul is a complete nutbar. He refuses to renounce 9/11 Trutherism and believes we should all become radical isolationists (never mind that after a century of U.S. involvement in conflicts all over the world, isolationism would be utterly irresponsible and possibly suicidal). Indeed, when it comes to our foreign policy, Ron Paul pretty much makes common cause with the hard left. He is absolutely unelectable — but for the past few years, young libertarian ideologues have lionized him as a political demigod and have worked hard to hijack CPAC in his honor. Thus, as you may have heard, quite a few people were booed by the libertarian-leaning audience this year. Now, to a point, I agree with SABR Matt: robust debate keeps the conservative movement healthy. I think, though, that booing is a very tacky and classless thing to do.

Because the Paulites were out in force, the more socially conservative speakers evidently felt under great pressure to defend their beliefs. Speakers from Michele Bachmann to Eric Mataxas to the ladies featured in the Citizens United break-out session I am about to discuss all took great pains to emphasize the importance of social issues like abortion and marriage. The consistency of their message was quite uncanny, actually; indeed, it prompted my local friend to ask me later whether, given my connection to the gay community, I took their comments on marriage personally. My answer? No. Even though I currently support civil unions for gays, I do believe marriage is a sacrament that should be reserved for heterosexual couples — and I also believe that social conservatives are absolutely right to be concerned about the break-down of the American family, as the weakening of the family unit leads directly to government dependency.

Mind you, I think the gay marriage debate is only one symptom of a larger problem, namely: American adults have lost sight of the true purpose of sex and marriage. Sex and marriage do not exist simply to satisfy your biological desire for pleasure, nor are they just means by which two consenting adults can express their love for each other. Sex and marriage serve both a unitive and a procreative function — and our culture’s excessive focus on the unitive aspect has led to a whole host of societal ills, including pre-marital sex, promiscuity, and out-of-wedlock childbirth. I agree with Ann Coulter here: The left is trying to use gay marriage to continue – not start – the grand crusade to destroy the family, and if we’re going to decry gay marriage, we should also decry no-fault divorce, pre-marital sex, and voluntary single-motherhood (among other things). But I’m babbling here. Suffice it to say that I believe social conservatives need to broaden their net beyond the gay marriage issue if they ever hope to overcome the “homophobe” stereotype.

But let us move on to the panel on the rise of the conservative woman, which featured Michele Bachmann, Phyllis Schlafly (of course), a woman from Oklahoma whose name I didn’t catch, and the inimitable S.E. Cupp. By far, Cupp was my favorite panelist. She started her speech by declaring that defining “women” as a separate group within the conservative movement is fundamentally problematic. “I get asked all the time what I think about a particular issue as a woman, and I always respond, ‘I don’t know. Let me ask my uterus.'” (LOL!) Cupp believes that conservativism should transcend identity politics because conservativism is the natural position. Most people, she observed, live their lives as conservatives, even if they declare themselves to be liberals. That’s why the left must always keep busy aggressively asserting its relevance. (Quite true.) “The right, on the other hand, doesn’t have to reinvent its message every few years.” It can change its method of delivery, but its ideas are time-tested and empirically sound. Cupp also remarked in response to an audience question that religious arguments shouldn’t be kicked out of the public debate. “I don’t have a problem with people saying we should do this because God said so,” she stated, which is a pretty interesting position for her to take given that she’s an atheist. (Personally, I think she’s ripe for a conversion, but that is of course her decision.)

All of the speakers on the above panel agreed that women shouldn’t forget to marry and have children — and they all attributed their interest in politics to their experiences at home. Michele Bachmann, for example, told the audience that she got into politics when she saw the crappy education her children and foster children were getting in the public schools. The woman from Oklahoma shared a similar story, then urged the young ladies in the audience not to try “having it all.” “Live your life in chapters, because I can guarantee you’re not going to want to leave your children in the care of a babysitter or nanny.” That seemed like eminently humane and realistic advice to me.

After the women in politics panel, I went out to dinner with my local friend and his wife out in Bethesda, where I had some very good pizza. (Next time you come to DC, definitely try Cafe Deluxe.) Then I returned to the hotel for the big Friday night finish: the Ronald Reagan birthday bash hosted by Citizens United.


I pose with one of the party’s three “Reagans.”


The Ronald Reagan birthday cake made by the “Cake Boss.”

We broke every fire code in existence with this party, and I think the main draw was the above birthday cake, which, by the way, tasted as good as it looked. Still, the movies were also great. Of the two, I thought the first, which introduced the youth in the audience to Reagan using Reagan’s own words, was the best. As a matter of fact, I could feel myself choking up sometimes as the movie hit some of Reagan’s greatest lines. SABR Matt is right: In my lifetime, no president has ever managed to top Reagan when it comes to communicating his ideas to the people, and I think that’s because Reagan’s speeches came from his heart, not his head. He genuinely believed America was a great nation; he wasn’t touting America’s greatness simply to appease the public (yes, Obama, I am looking at you).

Unfortunately, I had to work a full day on Saturday, so the Reagan party was the final event I attended at CPAC 2011. I did not get to see Allen West’s keynote address live, though I did watch it later on YouTube and thought it was excellent — and very presidential. As for my final thoughts? Though the tension between the libertarians and the social conservatives was so thick this year that you could cut it with a knife, I do plan to return in 2012. Indeed, I think I’ll try to get Saturday off so I can see some of the fun stuff the organizers reserve for the last day of the conference.

Steph’s Adventures at CPAC: The Illustrated Report of DOOM! (Part I)

The most dangerous sign you will ever see at CPAC.

If you’re reading this because you spoke to me at the GOProud booth, the Independent Women’s Forum booth, or Rep. McCotter’s lecture, welcome!

Also, a quick caveat: This two-part report will not cover everything. First of all, I also had to work this weekend, so I couldn’t attend the entire conference. Secondly, CPAC has become Dragon*Con. Not only were there official CPAC events running in two ballrooms, but many participating organizations also offered break-out sessions elsewhere in the hotel. Thus, in this Post of DOOM, you will learn as much about my personal hobby horses (feminism, education, pop-culture, and the pro-life movement) as you will about CPAC itself.

That said, let’s begin!

Thursday

Late Wednesday into early Thursday morning, the southeastern suburbs of DC received about a half-inch to an inch of snow. It was a tiny little weather event, but because the roads were not salted, the Thursday morning rush hour was pretty horrendous. As such, I arrived at the hotel well after the official commencement of the festivities and only caught the tail end of Michele Bachmann’s Thursday morning keynote (more on that later).

Between Bachmann’s speech and about 12:30 PM, I walked around the entire exhibit hall. Everyone who goes to CPAC should do this. The speeches and policy panels are great, but I love to talk to people face to face — and, of course, pick up all the free literature. By the time I left, I was weighed down with three bags full of books, pamphlets, fliers and other doodads. Indeed, the pain of toting all of that back to Woodbridge ultimately convinced me to bring my rolling suitcase on Friday.

Anyway, as I was making my circuit around the exhibit hall, I was also privately selecting the winners of my Exhibit Hall Awards. This year’s winners include (in no particular order):

  • Most Creative Display goes to the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a group that promotes common-sense, technocratic approaches to protecting the environment. On Thursday, they had a man-sized hamster wheel; by Friday, they were encouraging passers-by to throw eggs at pictures of Al Gore and Michael Mann (because they have “egg on their faces” thanks to Climategate). Granted, that’s not exactly encouraging civil discussion, but I have to admit I found it amusing (and messy). (Runner up: the NRA. They offered attendees the chance to test their aim with a point-and-shoot video game.)
  • Weirdest Freebie goes to the Newsmax Media booth, where volunteers were passing out free hand sanitizer emblazoned with the Newsmax logo. (Runner up: Hot Air/Townhall. They were passing out yo-yos.)
  • Best T-Shirt for Sale goes to Students for Life, whose t-shirt proclaims that “a woman has a right to her body, even if she’s still in the womb.” Oh snap! (Runner up: Hot Air/Townhall’s “Don’t blame me, I voted for McCain/Palin.” And they were actually giving that one away for free, so yay!)
  • Way to Kill My Back goes to the World Journalism Institute. They were passing out the free books advertised in the picture above.
  • Most Provocative, Eye-Catching Display goes to the David Horowitz Freedom Center and their “Palestinian Wall of Lies.”
  • And lastly, the overall Best Display goes to the Heartland Institute. They had an overwhelming amount of free literature on offer, and it looked remarkably polished.

As I said before, I also went to the exhibit hall to talk to people. For example, I met this gentleman:

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I also got a chance to launch into a variation of my charity care rant at the Independent Woman’s Forum booth, which seemed to grab the volunteers’ attention. And I spoke to some media entity about Sarah Palin, although I don’t really know who it was exactly, as I didn’t get a look at her credential. I wish I could’ve stayed longer and networked further, but alas, I did in fact have to go to work. My students can’t tutor themselves.


Two volunteers representing the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which protects students’ academic freedom on our very leftwing campuses.


The Students for Life booth at CPAC 2011.


Young CPAC attendees threw a lot of eggs at pictures of Michael Mann and Al Gore at the C-FACT booth.


Gun enthusiasts, meanwhile, played a hunting game at the NRA’s booth.


The David Horowitz Freedom Center displays the Palestinian Wall of Lies.

Friday

Now, since Friday is a day off from work for me, I decided to sleep in a little bit on Friday morning so I’d have the energy to stick around for the Citizens United Reagan birthday bash. I ultimately rolled into CPAC just in time to hear Kristan Hawkins from Students for Life speak on the pro-life movement.

Hawkins’ speech was terrific, I thought. After declaring herself an “abortion abolitionist,” she stated that anyone who was born shortly after 1973 was part of the first generation that was deliberately targeted for abortion. I like that she framed it in those terms. It’s good to be reminded that many of my potential classmates were never born thanks to the legalization of abortion. That’s the sort of thing that should fire the blood for the pro-life cause. Hawkins then proceeded to the meat of her speech, which focused, correctly, on ending the demand for abortion. She emphasized that many women are being pressured by their family members, their boyfriends or their friends to abort because of the very real fear that these women will not be able to finish their education or survive financially if they go through with their unplanned pregnancies. Hawkins urged the audience to show these women what real justice looks like by surrounding them with a wall of love and charitable support. In other words, she encouraged the assembled to take the Catholic approach. (On a fairly regular basis, my home church holds diaper and bottle drives for our local crisis pregnancy center. We Catholics do put our money where our mouths are.)

At this point, we shifted to the audience questions. The most interesting question, I thought, came from a gentleman who remarked that caring for these women once they’re already pregnant seems rather like fixing the barn door after all the animals have escaped. I suspect he was trying to broach the topic of sex education, but the panelists (in addition to Hawkins, there were representatives from LifeandMarriage.org and Americans United for Life on the stage) didn’t seem to understand the question and consequently didn’t really answer it. My response? Well, as a Catholic, I obviously can’t advocate for the wide distribution of birth control – and at any rate, I don’t think that really works. Despite years of comprehensive sex education in the schools, kids still don’t know how to use contraceptives correctly and consistently. Moreover, passing out condoms like lollipops frequently serves as a substitute for genuine holistic education on the dangers of sex. To put it another way, all this focus on pregnancy, sores and seepage (and apologies for grossing you out there, but STI’s aren’t pretty) completely glosses over the emotional dimension of sex. Depression is itself an STI. Should we go for abstinence-only then? Well, to be honest with you, I think the problem with any school-based sex education program – whether it’s comprehensive or abstinence-oriented – is that it, by necessity, must be one-size-fits-all. Ideally, parents should be 100% in charge of educating their children on sex, as a parent knows his or her own child best and can tailor any program to that particular child’s needs. If only more parents would take up that mantle of responsibility.

Next up on the Marshall Ballroom roster was Eric Metaxas, author of Amazing Grace (on the life of William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist) and, more recently, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, two books that are now on my must-read list. A local friend and I decided to stick around because we both wanted to see the following panel on engaging America through the pop-culture, so we both were privileged to hear Metaxas speak briefly on the ways in which Christianity inspired the key moral advancements of Western history (i.e., the abolition of slavery, the 20th century fight against totalitarianism, and the civil rights movement). Metaxas urged us not to divide our faith from our civic life, but at the same time, he also warned us not to make an idol of politics. “It’s not just about victory,” he stated. “It’s about doing the right thing.” We will get a well-deserved ass-kicking, he added, if we elect folks who will compromise their principles in order to hold onto their power. “Be true to truth,” he concluded. “Then you’ll really have something to sell.” I personally appreciated Metaxas’ message, as I don’t believe Christianity gets nearly enough credit for all the good it has done in the world. I also feel, as does Metaxas, that social issues do matter, even though fiscal issues rightfully seem more pressing at the moment.

After Metaxas left the stage, the true fun began. I say fun because pop-culture panels usually attract the wise-cracking comedians. Stephen Kruiser of Pajamas Media was the first speaker, and he started the panel by chastising conservatives for their avoidance of pop-culture. Because we’ve traditionally been averse to using the arts to advance our ideas, he stated, “liberals think we’re all 90-year-old white guys.” “We need to fight this image. Going to CPAC always reminds me that we are fun. In my room, the parties started at 1:30 in the morning last night and lasted until 5:30.” (I’m paraphrasing from my notes here, but that was the gist.) Kruiser ended his short speech by urging those in attendance to take back the culture from the left.

Kruiser was followed by Kevin McCullough of Xtreme Media. McCullough’s primary concern was reaching out to independents. He urged us to focus on advancing ideas – and while he didn’t name names, he criticized those conservative icons who have descended to personal attacks. I believed McCullough was basically correct, but I did have one question, which I asked during the Q&A: How do we respond when the left attacks us in that ad hominem manner? McCullough replied that we should let the left be the party of angry. I see his point, but that ultimately feels very unsatisfying to me. If all things were equal, it would make sense to take the blows without fighting back, but all things are definitely not equal. I honestly prefer civility, but sometimes the Big Lies have become so deeply rooted that they just will not be dislodged through mere “polite conversation” on the issues. Just my $.02.

Jason Mattera, author of Obama Zombies and a writer for Human Events, followed McCullough. Mattera declared that Obama, “the first American Idol president,” won the 2008 election mainly by becoming a pop-cultural figure, a thesis that I feel is absolutely correct. Mattera then encouraged conservatives to reach out to the Jon Stewart audience using Obama’s tricks of the trade. “Convert people using Apple, not George Washington,” he advised. “Point out that we would not have Facebook, Twitter, smart phones, or iPads without the free market.” Mattera also urged us to focus on the jobs issue. “If liberals start talking about gay marriage, say ‘no jobs.’ If liberals start talking about health care, say ‘no jobs.’ And if Charlie Sheen invites you to a party, ask, ‘How many hookers and how much cocaine should I bring?'” (LOL!)

During the Q&A, most of the questions (aside from my own) followed the same theme, namely: Where is the funding/support for more conservative cultural products? McCullough and Kruiser both counseled the audience to be patient. They assured us that conservatives are beginning to network in Hollywood and that more conservative projects are in development. All three panelists also told the more creatively inclined in the audience to focus on creating good art. Mattera pointed out that the left is so successful when it comes to getting their message out into the culture because leftwing artists have taken the time to really learn their craft. This is true. There’s no question, for example, that Avatar is a visually stunning production; that’s why Americans flocked to it in droves. In order for conservative film makers to break out of their ghetto, they must learn to become James Cameron. In other words, they must suck it up and work in Hollywood for a while so that they can learn how to make the kinds of movies that will attract large audiences.

(And at this point, I think I will close part one of my report. In part two, I will talk about the school choice panel, the women in politics panel, the Reagan bash, and the social-con/libertarian divide that seemed to permeate the whole conference.)

Regarding the Kerfluffle Over CPAC’s Inclusion of GOProud

I will be attending and reporting on some of the events at CPAC 2011 next week, so I feel I’m obligated to make a statement regarding the controversy over GOProud’s presence at the conference:

As a conservative Catholic, I take seriously the Church’s teachings on homosexuality. I think the Magisterium is right to decry the dualism of the post-modern world, which declares that a “person” is a ghost in a biological machine who can bend that machine to his pure will. Our physical bodies are morally important. Declaring that they aren’t provides justification for a whole host of evils, including premarital sex, drug use, and abortion.

On the other hand, because I myself have close ties to the gay community – because I myself am quite attracted to the gay subculture – I also approach the Church’s teachings on homosexuality with a great deal of ambivalence. I don’t want to tell my friends that their sexual feelings are disordered and that they should give up their hopes for a marriage-like monogamous union with someone they truly love. As such, I have personally embraced a sort of compromise position: Gays can’t get married; they shouldn’t receive the Sacrament of Matrimony. But I don’t object to their seeking civil unions through our secular government. I do believe the Catholic Church is right to advocate for celibacy as the ideal choice for gay men and women, but I also believe we should respect each gay individual’s freedom of conscience. And we should always – always – treat gays with respect and charity; we should welcome them into our businesses, our military, and our political process. Genuine bigotry and violence against gays is something we should never tolerate.

Given this position, I applaud CPAC’s choice to invite GOProud. Most of the gays I personally know are conservative lesbians who hate Obama and the Left with a passion that is comparable to that of most socially conservative activist groups. They aren’t members of the “Cocktail GOP Establishment”; they aren’t “RINO’s”. On most issues, they are as conservative as any Tea Partier. It would be a huge mistake for the Right to kick these folks out of the tent over an issue that simply isn’t a top priority right now. Our number one priority is to remove Obama from office by any peaceful means necessary, and we should welcome all comers to that fight.

To those groups who have pulled out of CPAC because of the inclusion of GOProud, I have this to say: I appreciate your concerns. Indeed, I agree with many of those concerns. But in boycotting the conference, I believe you have missed a great opportunity. Those who oppose you on the issue of gay marriage have legitimate reasons for doing so, and you should open your ears and listen to those reasons. Walling yourself off from opposing viewpoints virtually guarantees that you will persuade no one that your own position is valid. Remember how Christ approached sinners in ancient Israel. He didn’t avoid them; he spoke to them on their own turf, and he did so with love.

ETA: Liz Mair echoes my opinion here.