February 22, 2006

The groves of academe now echo with howls of outrage over The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America --a new book from Regnery Publishing, a conservative press, by David Horowitz. All over the country, scholars have turned its pages with mounting fury, indignant at not being listed. One prof even did a podcast just to (in his words) “spit n’cuss about being left out.”

In the meantime, Horowitz himself has hit the airwaves. The book is being subjected to searching examination on television programs such as "Hannity & Colmes," where the hosts never read anything more demanding than the label on a can of hairspray.

For my part, I have been studying the book carefully and with growing astonishment. It’s not that everything it says is wrong. Some of the people the book lists are kooks. This is not surprising: The idea that institutions of higher learning may provide a sanctuary for the moderately deranged is not exactly a news flash. (See the brilliant – if slightly fictionalized – expose of life in the scholarly land of Laputa published by the conservative journalist Jonathan Swift in 1726.)

But when Horowitz contends that American faculties are hotbeds of violent anti-American and anti-Semitic sentiment -- that there are tens of thousands of professors who “cheer on the killing of American soldiers and civilians, all the while collecting tax dollars and tuition fees to indoctrinate our children” -- he is obliged to make something resembling a general argument. This is where the trouble starts.

“How many radical professors are there on American faculties of higher education?” he asks. “According to the federal government, the total number of college and university professors in the United States is 617,000.” So far, so good.

Next, he presents it as a given that 10 percent of the Harvard faculty are radicals. (This statistic rests upon a particularly subtle bit of accounting which I do not claim to follow.) Then, in an appealing display of social-scientific rigor, Horowitz suggests that we “cut that figure in half to control for the possibility that Harvard may be a relatively radical institution.” Which leaves us with a ballpark estimate that “the total number of professors at American universities” holding views as “dangerous” as those represented on his list “would still be in the neighborhood of 25,000 to 30,000.”

We then must factor in 100 students per professor per year. That’s three million brainwashed students per year! “This is a figure,” writes Horowitz, “that ought to trouble every educator who is concerned about the quality of higher education and every American who cares about the country’s future.”

Evidently those “dangerous professors” also possess some incredibly well-developed pedagogical skills. According to the Horowitzian calculus, some 95 percent of faculty are not radicals. Somehow the small but hardy cadre manages to undo the “mainstreaming” effect not only of the rest of the university, but of an incredibly robust consumer-capitalist society in a nation where all three branches of the government are under conservative control.

And what about the ideas and beliefs of the dangerous class itself? The fun part of the book comes from reading the profiles themselves, with their single-minded effort to detect menace in the most unpromising cases. Lewis Gordon, a professor of philosophy at Temple University, contends that African-American philosophers might need to think about Africa, slavery, and contemporary racism. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick -- the professor of English at the City University of New York who helped launch the field of queer theory -- reads the novels of Marcel Proust and concludes that they are, well, kind of gay. Caroline Higgins is a professor of peace studies at Earlham College, a Quaker institution.

Sure, there are a few profs out there who consider the greatest problem with Stalin is that he was such a nice guy. (Actually, I can think of two or three of them who didn’t make the list.) And yes, there are academics who still want to drive the Israelis into the sea, or think that Al Qaeda is just misunderstood. Should students be exposed to such ideas? That strikes me as the wrong question. That it even comes up is a reminder of (as someone once put it) the most remarkable thing about Richard Hofstadter’s book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life -- namely, that he kept it to one volume.

The greatest danger such professors pose is that they might turn the classroom into a place where it would be difficult for students to get some needful and refreshing sleep.

But while reading Horowitz’s latest bit of pulp fiction with all the seriousness I can muster, it has been hard to tune out all the laughter at it coming from some academic quarters. Over the weekend, I got a note from Maurice Isserman, a professor of history at Hamilton College. He is not listed as a dangerous academic -- though he has certainly wreaked considerable damage to any effort by Horowitz to present himself as someone with even the slightest regard for accurate or honest discourse. ( See this exchange.)

To judge by his note, however, Isserman was concerned about the damage that Horowitz’s list might do the historical profession. “Most historians I know,” he wrote, “are at least twice as dangerous as the average sociologist, yet they outnumber us on Horowitz' list. I suggest the AHA appoint a commission to look in to this disparity, and see if we can't boost our numbers in any subsequent revisions of the Horowitz book.”

The impulse to mock The Professors is understandable, and perhaps salutary. (A comment by Molly Ivins seems apropos: “As that great philosopher Jimmy Buffett observes, if we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane. Besides, crying and throwing up are bad for you.”) But when I spoke with Isserman a little later, by phone, he sounded more thoughtful.

“I guess the real question is, ‘Why do we have to deal with him?’ ” said Isserman. “This is someone with no credentials -- not just no academic credentials, but no intellectual credentials. He’s never written a book that will still be talked about in 15 years. And yet he’s a major factor that we all have to respond to. Why is that?”

In transcribing his comments now, I notice that something is missing: Isserman’s tone wasn’t really irritated -- or not exclusively, anyway. He was thinking about the Horowitz phenomenon in historical terms.

“On the one hand,” he continued, “Horowitz is self-invented. At the same time, this is in some ways a very old story. In the 1930s you had Delling’s book, so it’s not like he totally invented the idea.” (Isserman was referring to Elizabeth Patrick Delling’s Red Network: A “Who’s Who” and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots, first published in 1934, while Joseph McCarthy was still a college student and part-time boxing coach.)

“Or maybe the book to read to understand him,” Isserman continued, “is Melville’s Confidence Man. I don’t know. He’s a tough one to figure out, and it’s hard to know how to respond. If you argue with his claims seriously, you give him legitimacy. If you mock him, you risk underestimating his influence. He’s a clown, but he’s a dangerous clown.”

By that point, I had decided to contact Horowitz to ask him some questions. I was feeling pretty sarcastic, but also had a theory about the man. After years of tracking his career, I had some hunches on how to interpret him. It was based on a piece called “The Ex-Communists” that Hannah Arendt published in 1953. You can find it now in a posthumous collection, Essays in Understanding 1930-1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism, which Schocken Books finally brought out in a paperback edition just last year.

Arendt started out by making a telling distinction between “ex-Communists” and “former Communists.” The latter group is by far the larger. Many people, she wrote, “at one time or another, and for the most varied reasons, belonged to a totalitarian movement, as party members, as fellow travelers, as sympathizers. Among them are people whose prominence in these parties was never due to their political importance, but who, because they had achieved prominence in some other field, lent prestige to the parties to which they belonged.”

Having belonged to the movement for any number of reasons, they also followed any number of courses upon leaving. Their earlier ideological affiliations “remained an important biographical fact,” wrote Arendt, “but did not become the nucleus of their new opinions, viewpoints, Weltanschaungen. They neither looked for a substitute for a lost faith nor concentrated all their efforts and talents on the fight against Communism.”

By contrast, the much smaller group Arendt calls the ex-Communists did exactly that. They tended to be minor functionaries who once enjoyed some authority within the movement, but otherwise did not have a base of talent or professional accomplishment to draw on, following their disillusionment. Given the political climate, however, they found a ready market for their story. They had, as Arendt put it, “become prominent on the strength of their past alone.”

Anyone familiar with Horowitz’s numerous renditions of his own story – his transformation from semi-prominent white cheerleader for the Black Panther Party to ardent supporter of the Republican Party – may feel a sense of déja  vu at this point in Arendt’s essay.

She even gave a recognizable description of the next step in his career following that ideological sea change. “They work to persuade their former friends to join them: to make a confession, own up to a conversion, and form a solid political group.” That was not quite 35 years before Horowitz convened their 1987 conference in Washington, D.C., called “Second Thoughts,” where many a New Left-over testified, repented, and was reborn.

Arendt, as political thinker, felt obliged to go beyond a kind of rough-and-ready journalistic sociologizing. Otherwise, her essay might not mean that much. She describes the world view of the professional anti-Communists in a way that still feels very recognizable now, long after the demise of Communism itself.

The professionally disillusioned see “the whole texture of our time in terms of one great dichotomy ending in a final battle,” she wrote. “There is no plurality of forces in the world; there are only two.... They can account for the disturbing variety and plurality of the world we all live in only by either discounting it as irrelevant altogether or by stating that it is due to a lack of consistency and character.”

And in that case, the ends justify the means. Anyone who complains about distortions, fabrications, doctored quotations, etc. is missing the large picture. In the heat of combat, intellectual honesty becomes a weakness – and those who demand it are, if not traitors, then at least sorely lacking in seriousness.

This, it seemed to me, accounted for much of what I’d noticed as an amateur Horowitz watcher for almost two decades. Even with a theory to test, however, I approached the matter of contacting him with some trepidation.

Perhaps I overcompensated. My first venture was to send him a list of rather sardonic questions by e-mail. He wasted no time in posting my note to his Web site.

“Clearly,” I thought, “the man is both a gentleman and a scholar.” Oh well, live and learn.

And learn I did! I had asked Horowitz -- who is clearly not reluctant to tell his life’s story -- just how many autobiographies he thought he had in him. He instructed me that he had only written one.

This is fascinating. You have to wonder which one it is. The smart money would bet that it’s Radical Son: A Journey Through Our Times (1997). But perhaps he’s thinking of the account presented in Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties (1989), which he wrote in collaboration with Peter Collier.

Then again, Horowitz does have that volume of selected readings from his writings called Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey (2003), which included a preface noting bitterly that no dissertations had yet been based on a study of his career. To begin filling that lamentable gap in scholarship, the volume contains an introduction called “The Life and Work of David Horowitz” by Jamie Glazov, an employee of Horowitz’s, who is identified as the book’s editor.

Of course, he might have been thinking of The End of Time (2005). Admittedly, I have not read it, though Horowitz’s own Web site calls it a memoir.

So which one is his autobiography? His publicly posted response to my private e-mail message gave me no clue -- though it was otherwise quite instructive, and full of incredible surprises. Horowitz revealed that I am both a “left-wing notable” and extremely well paid.  (These facts have long been well-concealed, particularly from me.)

Pondering all this, it seemed like a good idea to try again. In a follow up note to Horowitz, I sketched out Hannah Arendt’s analysis. I told him that, after reading his work for a long time, it seemed on target.

“In what way is it wrong?” my second query went. “Or to put it in another way: Do you have any interest at all in persuading anyone who doesn't already believe that any means are acceptable to the ends of total war on the people you identify as enemies? (It is the tendency to conduct politics entirely as an effort to destroy enemies that characterizes the totalitarian mind.) Are you taking any measures to make your claims more accurate? You might not like these questions, but they are serious.”

And to give the man some credit, he did answer in a way that was serious, if by no means fully persuasive.

“I do not believe the ends justify the means,” Horowitz wrote back. “My academic campaign for example is pointedly about process. I have not called for the firing of a single professor -- however, anti-American, pro-Communist, pro-terrorist, or just plain lunatic they are. I have defended Ward Churchill's right not to be fired for his Internet article and challenged my friend Governor Bill Owens who called for precisely that. And I did this at the height of the Churchill crisis in Colorado and in the pages of the Denver Rocky Mountain News. ... I have insisted on respect for university principles of shared governance and academic freedom, even when these work to protect leftists. So you've got a caricature of me in your sights.”

The topic then shifted to Horowitz’s reputation for making factual claims that he has had to retract. You can find a selection of cases linked at the end of this blog entry by Michael Bérubé. No single instance means very much, but the pattern is not encouraging.

In regard to what he calls “the Colorado case” ( click here for background), Horowitz admits there was a bad call on his part: “I made a mistake in conceding error, thinking I was dealing with civilized people.... Moreover, my willingness to concede that I may have been mistaken shows the opposite of what you are claiming in this email, namely I do care that the evidence is with me. I am also willing to concede when I think I am wrong.”

I found this statement somewhat puzzling, given that it was embedded in a paragraph insisting that Horowitz had not actually been wrong about anything concerning the Colorado matter. Likewise with other cases in dispute. In one instance, Horowitz went to bat for a student at Foothill College in California. The student said he had received a D on an exam for giving a pro-life answer to a pro-choice professor.

Once again, when push came to shove, Horowitz had been obliged to concede that the facts were not quite on hand. But that was only how it appeared. “I didn't retract what I said,” he wrote to me. “I just acknowledged that I could not confirm the veracity of the student's claim. Nor can my detractors prove that it is false, as they similarly cannot prove that Fahrenheit 9/11 was not shown in a biology class in Pennsylvania.”

A neat bit of logical legerdemain, that last part. If your opponent cannot prove that what you’ve said is impossible, then you have met the criteria for making a serious claim. It is not an argument one ordinarily find made outside UFOlogy conventions. Even there, the standard is usually a bit higher.

Horowitz continued by referring to perhaps his most notorious project, Discover the Network -- the Web site that treated left-wing professors as part of a massive global jihad, along with Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and such hardened Bolshevik cadres as Barbara Streisand and Bruce Springsteen.

In his note, Horowitz did not attempt to make any argument for the sanity of this enterprise. And for that, I salute him. But he apologizes for nothing. The profound intellectual dishonesty of the site puts it on par with photos showing Bush with a little Hitler mustache. But Horowitz insists that, after all, he offers to correct errors of fact, and has given space at FrontPage to academics who want to criticize the site.

In short, scholars who loathe Discover the Network for its vulgarity, viciousness, and utterly cretinizing effect are welcome to help him publicize it. “And yet you persist in portraying me as a Stalinist,” Horowitz wrote me. “What's wrong with this picture?” Horowitz also pointed out that he “offered a $10k reward to any member of the American Historical Association who can back up the false claims about my Academic Bill of Rights made in their resolution denouncing it.”

Unfortunately it is difficult to honor the democratic bona fides of what sound like just so many rather cynical publicity stunts. Last month’s vote by the AHA Council condemning the so-called “Academic Bill of Rights” was unanimous. It was an expression of serious concern by a scholarly organization whose members are capable of grasping the concept of academic freedom.

That nobody has taken Horowitz up on the offer to exchange their dignity for the chance to win valuable cash prizes is not, perhaps, a particularly telling indictment of the academy.

You judge a political figure by his actions as well as his words. In the case of David Horowitz, we have someone who has smeared not simply one professor or another, but the entire academy. He has made inaccurate statements, admitted it, then denounced those who expect public debate to follow some rules of logic and evidence. And he runs a Web site that permits readers to post calls for terror against “dangerous professors.”

And no, I am not saying that without evidence. Consider the case  of James Holstun, a professor of English at the State University of New York, Buffalo. The entry on him in The Professors appears to be a revision of Karen Welsh's article "Buffalo's Bullying Professor," which ran last summer at FrontPage. The day that it appeared, someone writing in the comments section of the site advocated a violent assault on Holstun. Eight months later, that call is still up.

After I pointed that link out to David Horowitz, he wrote back to say: "I absolutely never go into the GoPostal section of the site and never saw this before. We have no screener because we can't afford one and I have been advised by our lawyer that if we edit/censor one letter we have to screen them all or we open ourselves to the risk of a libel suit. If you're asking whether I approve of this I don't. If you're asking whether there are rightwingers who express views that I find repellent I do, and this is one of them."

Appropriate sentiments, certainly -- but again, the lack of accountability is remarkable.

Once, the strongest claim to moral authority that the conservative movement in the United States could make was that it, at least, nourished the idea of responsibility. That carried with it an understanding that some things were honorable, while others were uncivilized.

A question to decent conservatives, then, about the public role of David Horowitz: Why do you put up with it? 



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