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SELLERS: The Inconceivable Arrogance of College Activists

'You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means...'

(Ben Sellers, Headline USA) Many of the highly quotable scenes from 1987’s The Princess Bride (based on William Goldman’s eponymous 1973 novel) have been etched into the collective conscious that is American pop-culture.

But one quip, like Andre the Giant’s Fezzik, stands head and shoulders above the rest:

Vizzini: INCONCEIVABLE.

Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

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The exchange is so memorable, so emblematic, that it has now assumed its own meme status.

What makes it enduring is not just the surface-level malapropism, immediately accessible to even younger viewers, but the layers of subtext interwoven within the dynamics of the two characters.

Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya is a person of singular focus—adroight enough to parry with anyone, physically or intellectually, but with little interest in self-indulgent showboating that might waylay him from his life’s mission.

Wallace Shawn’s Vizzini fancies himself the leader of the mercenary trio above, but that role seems to have been largely self-appointed. In reality, his solipsistic buffoonery, masked beneath a thin veneer of supercilious, know-it-all pedantry, is more obvious to those around him than he realizes.

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It is inconceivability, as it were—Vizzini’s notion of absolutism and his refusal to humor any alternatives beyond his own myopic vantage point—that ultimately proves his undoing when the story’s hero, Westley, introduces another variable into the syllogism. (Spoiler alert: The final section of this column goes into more detail.)

LOW TOLERANCE

I was reminded of Inigo Montoya’s warning recently after seeing my old college newspaper pop up once again, like a bad penny, in conservative media.

The world is laughing at UVA snowflakes…” wrote Citizen Free Press while linking to an editorial from the University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily.

The piece, published just under a week ago, called the university to task for daring to allow a conservative on-campus group to host the former vice president of the United States, Mike Pence.

“So-called ‘perspectives’ should not be welcomed when they spread rhetoric that directly threatens the presence and lives of our community members,” wrote the paper’s unhinged editorial board. “… To be silent in the face of those like Pence is a choice—in this case, a choice to fail to protect the lives of those on Grounds [campus] who [sic] Pence blatantly threatens through his rhetoric and policies.”

In the tiredest of tropes, they then invoked the 2017 Charlottesville riots—to which none of the current students likely bore witness—and hamhandedly attempted yet another go at historical revisionism.

“We cannot forget this fact—the first place white supremacists felt comfortable expressing themselves was through a torch-lit march on our Grounds,” wrote the snowflakes. “Let us be clear—we must seriously consider the environment we wish to tolerate.”

It is a far cry from the newspaper that proudly touted itself 20 years ago as the “last bastion of student self-governance.”

Constant overcoddling to promote a sense of learned helplessness and victimhood, audacious brain-washing and a milennial propensity for navel-gazing have long ago leveled those buttresses.

These are students who live alongside a hollow shell of the values they once represented—ideas like honor, self-reliance and free speech. Such values must be first earned and then constantly worked for.

Yet, they keep using these words without actually grasping what they mean.

‘A TRUTH-SEEKING COMMUNITY’

During my time at the newspaper, it likewise faced protests and backlash from both right and left. Indeed, it was something of a rite of passage.

The Cavalier Daily
The Cavalier Daily / IMAGE: screenshot via YouTube

On one occasion, the Cavalier Daily was called out for its decision to reject an ad by right-wing provocateur David Horowitz. And yet, the act of censorship itself spurred a robust debate on the pages of the paper, with civil, rational voices chiming in both for and against the decision.

The Cavalier Daily stood firm by its justification for what was, admittedly, a sort of publicity stunt on Horowitz’s part as he sought to run ads in several college newspapers for the case against slavery reparations.

The “reparations” debate was merely a stand-in, however, for any verboten topic that was designed more to promote controversy than constructive dialogue. Horowitz’s underlying goal was to force a self-examination of the papers’ own values and biases.

It worked.

“A free press does not allow its content to be governed by the whims of a minority—or even majority—opinion,” wrote the editorial board at the time. “Instead, a free press accumulates information and viewpoints, whether paid or unpaid, weeds through them for accuracy and merit, and disseminates them to a larger truth-seeking community.”

A year later, black student organizations were protesting the paper after a conservative columnist directed critical remarks at the school’s Griot Society.

“[T]he column was only a symptom of a larger problem,” complained one unnamed student in a group of roughly 400 who marched on the paper’s offices. “Basically, students for a while now have been pretty fed up with coverage they have received, particularly African-American students.”

Undoubtedly, the left-leaning students who made up the majority of the Cavalier Daily staff were crestfallen. But still, they saw in their work a higher purpose to protect unpopular opinions and popular ones alike, and not to be cowed by those who simply had the biggest bullhorn.

The newspaper’s independent ombudsman was quick to defend the column’s publication, noting that this wasn’t the then-112-year-old paper’s first rodeo.

“It’s usually an opinion column that starts off the annual We-Hate-The-Cavalier-Daily month. This is unfortunate, because if The Cavalier Daily were to censor every column that criticized something, its opinion pages would be worthless,” wrote ombudsman Masha Herbst.

“Despite the problems present in the column, it did what a good column should do,” she continued. “It started people talking. It got people writing letters to the editor and guest columns. It prompted a dialogue. And that’s a terrific thing.”

SOUR GRAPES

Throughout its existence, the Cavalier Daily has been the chalice in a perpetual battle of wits, like that undertaken by Vizzini and Westley.

Sometimes, the poison is in your adversary’s cup. Other times, it is in your own.

Every now and then, a David Horowitz may come along with a double-bluff. But it’s best always to assume there is danger in both when taken in too large a dose.

Conservatives have, like Westley, been long forced to endure the worst venom of cancel-culture and censorship, so much that they have developed a sort of immunity to it.

For much of its life, the Cavalier Daily—-and other independent outlets like it—were able to conceive of such a dialectical give-and-take, and they remained well aware that their very survival—their credibility—hinged on being able to endure the poison with the wine.

Sadly, like Vizzini, they are now so wrapped up in their own absurdities that they—at their own peril—fail to see the bigger picture.

They may revel now in their sanctimonious virtue-signaling, by condemning Vice President Mike Pence and demanding he be silenced rather than opting to extend evenhanded coverage to his event.

But when the cup passes back to them—when those very groups they find common cause with now turn back against them—there won’t be any friends left to carry them along.

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