One indisputable fact about my new book The Professors is that it has upset a lot of people. Indeed a veritable army of detractors has formed to attack it. Thus it has been denounced by a coalition of left-wing organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of University Professors, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, People for the American Way and George Soros’ children’s crusade, Campus Progress. It has been assaulted by the left-wing blogosphere and by radical sites like Counterpunch.org, 17 of whose contributors appear in my book.
The theme of these attacks is monotonously and in an oddly self-refuting fashion the same: “The book is a McCarthy blacklist and as a tenured radical I’m upset that I’m not in it.” The point of these attacks appears to be to dissuade other academics from reading The Professors or considering its argument. Therefore a principal tack of the attackers is to avoid mentioning its argument at all. Scott McLemee’s attempt at a review (“ D’Ho!”) in Inside Higher Ed conforms to this pattern.
You would never know it from McLemee’s article, but The Professors is not about any threat from left-wing ideas as such. It is about the intellectual corruption of the university, and the intrusion of political agendas into the academic curriculum. I know this statement will come as a surprise to those familiar only with the attacks themselves, so here is what the book actually says: “This book is not intended as a text about left-wing bias in the university and does not propose that a leftwing perspective on academic faculties is a problem in itself. Every individual, whether conservative or liberal, has a perspective and therefore a bias. Professors have every right to interpret the subjects they teach according to their individual points of view. That is the essence of academic freedom. But they also have professional obligations as teachers, whose purpose is the instruction and education of students, not to impose their biases on their students as though they were scientific facts.”
The “dangerous” theme, which has provided critics with a federal case is a marketing motif dreamed up by the publisher and is confined to the subtitle and the flap copy. The word “dangerous” does not appear anywhere in the 112,000 word text, and the notion that these professors are dangerous forms no part of the argument of the book. I will grant that since the book is marketed this way, and since the radicals portrayed are all on the left (are there any right-wing radicals left on university faculties?) the idea is fair game. But if left-wing academics think they can kill The Professors by focusing fire exclusively on this target (it’s a revival of Red Channels), they should think again.
The Professors was published on February 13, and at its present rate of sale, approximately 60,000 individuals will buy a hardback version of the book in the coming year. Among them will be students, parents, university administrators, faculty members of an independent mind, trustees, donors and politicians sitting on the education and appropriations committees of state legislatures and the federal government. They will recognize the attacks on the book as caricatures and will not be persuaded by all the noise.
To his credit, Scott McLemee, has actually read at least one page of the book, but unfortunately has failed to understand what he has read. The passage concerns my claim that using Harvard as a yardstick, about 10 percent of the faculty at any university probably hold the kind of radical views represented by the professors in my book, which would amount to 60,000 professors nationwide (I cut the figure in half in the book to provide the most conservative estimate). Says McLemee: “This statistic [the 10 percent radical representation at Harvard] rests upon a particularly subtle bit of accounting which I do not claim to follow.”
Allow me to explain it Scott. Larry Summers, the most powerful president in the history of the modern research university (now removed) was censured by 218 members of his faculty after expressing a view that the faculty left regarded as “politically incorrect.” Alan Dershowitz, a famous faculty liberal, has described the forced resignation of Summers as “an academic coup d’etat by one small faction … the die-hard left of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.” This die-hard left, which is powerful enough to fire a university president, is the subject of my book. I am confident that many people whose intellectual oeuvre is not (like McLemee’s) focused on an obscure Carribbean Trotksyist, will be interested in what The Professors has to say about them.
After failing to understand the fairly straightforward English of my text, McLemee resorts to ridicule and defamation. He cites Maurice Isserman, a leftist professor at Hamilton College who appears to want to eliminate me from the discussion altogether. “Why do we have to deal with him? This is someone with no credentials -- not just academic credentials, but no intellectual credentials. He’s never written a book that will still be talked about in fifteen years.” Brave commentary from a man who has not written a book that anyone talks about this year.
It is undoubtedly a futile exercise to dispute the meaning of my writings with a man like McLemee who has trouble understanding the plain meaning of words. But I will respond to his charge that I am an “ex-Communist” who has only one note to sing namely his conversion from the good old left to the bad neo-conservative right. By way of providing evidence for this silly claim, McLemee rehashes a bad joke from Michael Bérubé’s blog, which refers to my book “ Left Illusions, one of his six or eight of fifteen memoirs about his intellectual odyssey from far-left-firebrand to wing-nut crank.” Such elevated discourse from the literature professor. (I have replied here.)
In preparation for his Inside Higher Ed piece, McLemee wrote to ask me how many autobiographies I had written. I told him one. Refusing to accept the truth for an answer, McLemee suggests I have written four, including Radical Son, Left Illusions, Destructive Generation and The End of Time.
Radical Son is indeed an autobiography, the story of a life. Destructive Generation has only a single essay by me (the others are co-authored with Peter Collier) which is a letter to a former comrade on the left about why I have rejected the left. This is not an autobiography in any reasonable sense of the word (again I understand that McLemee has difficulty with both reason and words). Left Illusions contains a second letter I have written (in this case to my political mentor, the late Ralph Miliband) about why I rejected the left. It is also an argument and not an autobiography. Then there is the “memoir” The End of Time, which is a meditation on life and death that uses fragments of my life from the period after the completion of Radical Son. It is no more an autobiography than Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. But then McLemee concedes that he hasn’t actually read the book in order to comment on it (why does that not surprise me?).
Stanley Fish, who does not share my politics and is a literary man, has read the book and has this to say about and by implication about Maurice Isserman’s attempt to make me an unperson literarily speaking: “Most memoirs only mime honesty. This one performs it. Beautifully written, unflinching in its contemplation of the abyss, and yet finally hopeful in its acceptance of human finitude. And as a bonus, it gives us a wonderful love story.” Nor is he the only liberal to comment favorably on the intellectual quality of my work. Walter Isaacson has judged The End of Time “a poignant rumination on the meaning of life and the meaning of death. Horowitz faces his intimations of mortality with both emotional and intellectual depth. He has captured it all beautifully."
McLemee’s inclusion of some of my written responses to his queries and his ridiculous charges is commendable; his repetition of the false and malicious claims made by Bérubé and others about incidents like the Colorado exam is not so commendable. I have shown the shoddiness of these charges more than once and provided McLemee with references. Instead of letting readers know that these exist (one can be found here), McLemee links an article from Inside Higher Ed that was written in the middle of the controversy and was based on incomplete information, and of course reflects poorly on me. Par for the course. I would like one leftist to attempt to deal with the actual facts in this case and come out with the conclusion that McLemee and his friends do. But I’m not holding my breath.
McLemee’s attack on Discover The Networks is as lacking in intellectual seriousness as the rest of his piece. As I told him, I have written more than 20,000 words explaining the database, redefining it in response to critics on the left, inviting those critics into the pages of my magazine to explain their complaints and answering them. Discover The Networks is unique in allowing subjects to complain about their profiles and in making corrections where warranted (and posting them for all to judge). The complaints about Discover The Networks come from people who think the left should not be portrayed, defined or analyzed at all. As it happens, and as I pointed out to McLemee there are more than half a dozen leftist sites which exist only to smear conservatives and which refused to make corrections when these are pointed out. His outrage is hypocrisy and nothing more. And it will have no affect on visitors to the site who recognize its quality. In the last year the number of these visitors was five million.
In my correspondence with McLemee I explained that I was unaware of the comment on Holstun until he pointed it out to me. If he will give me the url, I will take it off the site. Will this change his attitude towards me? Hardly. But I will do it anyway. Perhaps he will remonstrate with his leftist friends who send e-mails to my editors to this effect: “Please tell David to slit his throat.” We live in rough times. And some people can’t resist making cheap political shots out of the material to hand.
McLemee ends his piece with the familiar wish -- shared by Isserman and Bérubé -- that I would just disappear. This is the wish of the inarticulate and the ineffectual, and it will not be satisfied.
David Horowitz is president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture.