Young Americans for Freedom at U.Va. has made quite the name for itself. From last fall’s controversial 9/11 sign featuring a plane flying into the twin towers to their hosting of Mike Pence this past spring, as well as this semester’s event with Kellyanne Conway, YAF at U.Va. has consistently caused drama and raised tensions on Grounds. As one of the loudest right-wing voices at the University, YAF at U.Va. is a stark testament to the decay of conservatism. Gone are the days of conservatives striving to generate a deeper understanding of politics. Instead, YAF at U.Va. seeks only to divide students of differing political perspectives. Its choices of speakers show its true colors — a hollow commitment to free speech solely motivated by a desire to cause controversy. The only way to effectively create an environment productive to free speech is through students organizing together and effectively ignoring YAF at U.Va.’s antics.
Young America's Foundation as a national organization found its beginnings with the famed conservative intellectual William Buckley Jr. and the Sharon Statement. As YAF’s founding document, the statement still guides the organization to this day. The statement is considered “a succinct summary of the central ideas of modern American conservatism” by the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Its central premises focus on a negative conception of freedom and a deference to religion, tradition and the free market.
I am not arguing that things such as religion or tradition are inherently bad. Instead, I argue that the conservatism of the Young America’s Foundation is marked by a regressive quality that is antithetical to any conception of progress. In “The Constitution of Liberty,” Friedrich Hayek states that conservatism, “by its very nature, cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving.” Despite being a thinker admired by many conservatives, Hayek chose to position himself as a classical liberal. Hayek recognized that the attempt to preserve traditions at the cost of progress was an impossible political strategy to maintain, and as such, he advocated that people who want to preserve freedom and values can’t just hold back history, but should move it forward in a way that works. In this sense, Hayek recognizes that there is value to be had in tradition, yet it cannot be at the cost of the polity nor the free market’s ability to grow and change.
At the forefront of conservative student activism is YAF’s attempt to slow the progress that student movements have brought to many universities. Yet it goes about doing so by causing disturbances and appealing to ideals — such as freedom of speech — it does not truly stand for. One need only look to the national organizations advocacy of censoring a book in libraries featuring LGBTQ+ youth, as well as denying the well-documented, high number of queer youth suicides. Going even further back into YAF history reveals infamous chapters such as the Michigan State chapter — which YAF National immediately distanced themselves from — that was labeled a hate group by the SPLC. YAF’s appeal to tradition is one that is masked through the veil of liberty and freedom from oppression by the state as outlined in the Sharon Statement. However, this version of tradition requires the oppression of queer people for simply existing which can only be enacted through state enforcement and supression of civil liberties that would bring about a more equitable society.
As a CIO on Grounds, YAF at U.Va. has chosen to stir the pot, rather than attempting to legitimately be constructive. For instance — the Berlin Wall memorial and the aforementioned callous 9/11 sign, the “In Defense of Mr. Jefferson” event which sought to ignore Jefferson’s disturbing relationship with Sally Hemmings by saying “nobody is perfect” and the invitation of Mike Pence to Grounds when the former vice president totally misconstrued the basics of critical race theory are all examples of unconstructive events that seek to rewrite history and advance a fictitious culture war. I am certain that nothing productive will come from inviting more individuals who helped enable former president Donald Trump to spit in the face of democracy.
YAF at U.Va.’s events have done nothing to engage with ideas in a critical way, nor do I believe they help make the University and its students “great and good.” Instead, they have only made dialogue less effective, rendering it impossible for students in the center or on the left to interact with conservative students in a way conducive to reaching a deeper conclusion about the pressing issues of the world. A simple look at the Young America’s Foundation Instagram will show a bevy of memes featuring transphobic and homophobic conspiracies from unreliable news sources like the Daily Wire. At a base level there is an inability to converse in good faith with someone if they cannot accept that marginalized groups should have a basic right to respect.
As a student body, we should do our best to organize and show that we will not engage with the poor behavior YAF at U.Va. has exhibited. The Solidarity Forever event organized last semester in response to the Pence talk is the prime example of what should be done in place of engaging with YAF at U.Va. Dialogue is vital if we are to reach a better understanding of diverse perspectives and the issues we as students and citizens face, yet engaging with YAF at U.Va. in said dialogue will not achieve that desired result. YAF is a prime example of a hypocritical paradox that has no interest in standing by its claim to the virtues of freedom — if it did, it might have an interest in sparking discussion about ideals as opposed to being a mere troll on Grounds.
Ryan Lanford is an Opinion Columnist who writes about politics for The Cavalier Daily. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.