With President George W. Bush only a year away from departing the White House and the Republican succession in turmoil some of the most prominent conservative intellectuals and activists have gathered together for one last great crusade. Movement icons from Robby George of Princeton to Harvey Mansfield of Harvard, from David Horowitz to Brit Hume, raised howls of persecution when they learned that two masked men allegedly attacked a conservative Princeton University student. They insisted that the right-wing acolyte was beaten up "for his conservative views," as Horowitz put it. And they accused Princeton of failing to protect conservatives and upholding a hypocritical liberal double standard. Unfortunately, as I have reported for the Nation, the trumpeted cause collapsed when the victim turned out to be a hoaxer.
The embarrassing episode for the conservative leaders began last week when Francisco Nava, a junior at Princeton University, appeared at the hospital with cuts and bruises covering his face. He claimed that two unidentified men repeatedly bashed his head against a brick wall, shouting to "shut the fuck up."
Nava is a member of a student group called the Anscombe Society. Named for G.E.M. Anscombe, a British philospher who opposed her country's involvement in World War Two, the group was founded to promote "a chaste lifestyle which respects and appreciates human sexuality, relationships, and dignity." The Anscombe Society explained its abstinence advocacy on its website: "The nature of this sexual act is itself unitive--two become one flesh. Sex is thus the actualization of the marital union, concretizing the mutual gift of self between the partners."
Nava, a conservative Mormon, claimed his troubles began when he wrote a column for the student newspaper, The Princetonian, called "Princeton's latex lies." He warned "the infectious threat posed by Princeton's hookup culture" would spread if the school continued its policy of free condom distribution. "What Princeton's condom campaign amounts to is a tacit sponsorship of hookup sex," Nava declared.
Nava claimed in the wake of his column that he and other Anscombe members were bombarded by a deluge of death threats from liberal students enraged by their brave stand against promiscuity on campus. Princeton jurisprudence Professor Robert George, conservative star and occasional White House advisor, also reported receiving death threats as the faculty adviser to his student, Francisco Nava.
On December 13, the Princetonian published a column by an Anscombe member demanding justice for Nava's persecution. "There is an intolerable double standard here -- one that the University must erase if it is to be true to its own core values," Princeton sophomore Brandon McGinley insisted.
Nava earnestly described his plight. "For several days I lived in fear of saying, writing or even thinking anything controversial in class or informally among my friends," he told the Princetonian on December 14.
The following day, Nava placed an emergency call to the campus police, claiming he had just been brutally attacked by two men wearing black stocking caps. They slammed him into a wall, he said, and beat him with a bottle of Orangina. While being escorted to the campus health center by the police, Nava reportedly spotted a student wearing a black stocking cap. "Get that guy's name," Nava shouted to a security guard, pointing at the student. He began hyperventilating and was administered a large dose of sedatives. Almost at once, as soon as Robby George heard about the alleged attack, he rushed to Nava's side and launched the campaign to defend him.
Who is Robby George? As the leading light at Princeton for the conservative movement, George founded the James Madison Program, an academic center within the university that serves as a testing ground for the right's effort to politicize college campuses. As I reported for the Nation in 2006, George's program is funded by a stable of right-wing foundations and a shadowy web of front groups for the Catholic cult known as Opus Dei. An article in Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine then published by George's ally Deal Hudson, highlighted George's machinations, stating, "If there really is a vast, right-wing conspiracy, its leaders probably meet in George's basement."
For years, George has complained that Princeton actively discriminated against conservative students. "If they find out he's pro-life or against same-sex marriage, he might be cut off, or not be able to get through graduate school," he told me, describing the school's purported unfairness.
But before George triumphantly pointed to Nava's beating as proof of anti-conservative bias on campus, he had been presented with evidence that Nava, while at the Groton boarding school, had fabricated a threat against himself and his roommate, head of the Gay-Straight Alliance, in the form of a letter reading "die fags." The letter may have raised doubts in George's mind, but not strongly enough to deter him from attacking Princeton's administration.
In the wake of Nava's latest story about being assaulted, George immediately went to the neoconservative daily, the New York Sun, and exclaimed, "Are there double standards and reforms that need to be made? Absolutely."
George insisted that Nava, in all likelihood, was telling the truth. "Those of us who saw him at the emergency room find it difficult to believe he could have done this himself. The physical manifestations were too evident, too severe," he told the Sun.
George was promptly joined by a chorus of conservative culture warriors infuriated by the lack of outrage. Harvey Mansfield, the most important conservative figure at Harvard, mentor to leading neoconservatives, who has written a book-length ode to machismo called "Manliness" called for a manly response to Nava's supposed beating. "I hope Princeton comes down on them like a ton of bricks, and by Princeton I mean either the university or the township or both," Mansfield proclaimed. "It should be easy for liberals to identify a case of intolerance; they're good at that."
David Horowitz, a neoconservative activist, who has devoted much of his career to combating the supposed scourge of anti-conservative bias on campus, instantly weighed in on the Nava affair. "It's a terrible incident but it doesn't surprise me," Horowitz told the Sun. "The left has now become the hate group."
On December 17, Horowitz reposted the Sun's account of Nava's alleged beating on his website of his magazine, Frontpagemag. Beneath a link to the prominently displayed article, a caption read, "Student beaten unconscious for conservative views."
Fox News anchor Brit Hume also leapt into the fracas. The headline of his report on the Nava affair on Fox's website read, "Little Outrage Over Student Beating At Princeton University." (Hume later corrected his report).
A host of right-wing bloggers joined the outcry. "I wonder if this will get the attention that politically-reversed assaults would get?" mused Glenn Reynolds, the author of the blog, Instapundit. A blogger at Redstate.com mocked author and expert on hate crimes, David Neiwert over the Nava incident, challenging him to report on what could be a "fairly serious hate crime."
For several hours, on December 17, conservatives announced that their darkest fears of persecution had been realized. A pious student had been beaten by liberal brownshirts simply for speaking out in favor of traditional morality. If the student were gay or black, conservatives reasoned, the entire student body would have erupted in massive protests. Instead, the administration stood silently to the side. Princeton graduate and conservative writer Michael Fragoso told the Sun, "There would rightly be outrage had the student been part of some other minority on campus."
At last, an incident surfaced that proved what movement figures had long maintained: campus conservatives are a minority that suffers far harsher oppression than the blacks, Latinos and gays who form the "politically correct" vanguard of liberal identity politics.
But on the night of December 17, as the conservative firestorm was being whipped to a frenzy, there was another development. Nava confessed to Princeton Township Police that he had invented the entire incident. They had suspected the veracity of his tale all along. Signs of an elaborate hoax had been present from the beginning, from Nava's history of fabricating death threats to his cinematic description of his latest victimization.
Nava's sham fit neatly into an epidemic of faked hate crimes on college campuses across America. But in their eagerness to stage-manage the unfolding political drama, leaders of the conservative movement ignored these inconvenient details.
When Nava was exposed as a fabricator, his defenders disappeared almost as fast as they had mobilized. Rather than issue a correction or update, Horowitz scrubbed all accounts of the bogus attack from his website. (Media Matters has taken Horowitz to task for his failure to issue a correction).
Robby George, who had been quick to condemn the university, now praised Princeton for its measured response to the Nava affair. "Princeton, all the way from the administrators down, had the good sense to hold their fire, get the facts first, before drawing conclusions," he told the Princetonian.
George also congratulated himself for his own calmness in the crisis and sharp wittedness in uncovering the fraud. "Within 72 hours," he said, "we were able to expose this as a hoax."
But, of course, Nava's claims were never "exposed" by George or his conservative campus allies. Nava had reportedly confessed to his lying under police questioning. Only hours before George celebrated the "good sense" he and university administrators displayed, he had accused Princeton of upholding a liberal double standard. And while Princeton police investigated dubious details of the alleged assault, George broadcasted his confidence in Nava's melodramatic account.
Nava, a sad young person with a history of self-injuring behavior, now faces expulsion and possible criminal charges. George and the rest of Nava's erstwhile defenders have fallen silent. The mentor has left his protégé to law enforcement. The conservatives have forgotten their would-be martyr.