The Horrid Wit of Horowitz
by James Hall
David Horowitz is the Right's answer to Ariana Huffington. Or to be more fair, he was there first, a shameless turncoat turned self-promoter, a spokesman without great intellectual depth but with a canny ability to say the outrageous thing in defense of newly found principles, and to collect money and a temporary fame in response. Horowitz attacks paper tigers and chatters about free speech, but his method is to insult, not debate, his opponents; and his goal, like the good capitalist he's become, is to cash in on it all.
David Horowitz' brainstorm was to send in college newspapers, at $580-$750 a pop, a vaguely insulting and overstated ad attacking the weak idea of slavery reparations during Black History Month entitled, "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is [sic] a Bad Idea for Blacks--and Racist, too." In singling out slavery reparations, Horowitz picked a wimpy straw man indeed, with between 70-80% of Americans, black and white, opposed to an ill-conceived legal notion without a reasonable method for determining who should get reparations or pay for acts that occurred 140 years ago.
Horowitz' own arguments against slavery reparations broke no new ground for an issue going nowhere fast, a shame when he could have chosen a legitimately important racial issue like police profiling, affirmative action,.or the disparity between crack and powder cocaine laws to focus a good debate on. But then, that wasn't really his purpose.
It's clear that this ad was not designed to debate an already moot point, but to offend and stir up trouble and publicity, which it did in abundance. Calling a proposal made to address victims of racism racist is simply trying to get an opponent's goat in a not-so-subtle way. Equally offensive to is to blame the "civil rights leadership," as Horowitz does, suggesting that blacks are led around by the nose and are unable to think for themselves. (Imagine a conservative's response to the charge that he or she is led around by William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan.)
More insulting yet is Horowitz' charge that since some blacks have worked themselves out of poverty, the failure of the rest to do so is an indication of their 'lack of character.' Or that native African Americans can't do as well as Caribbean black immigrants--who of course came here voluntarily with the motivation to succeed. Or that the descendants of slaves owe a debt to America because things are so much worse in Africa now.
Imagine a young black American student reading without anger the whitewash that Horowitz performed on white Americans' role in supporting slavery. According to him, other blacks and Arabs enslaved African-Americans (An argument similar to today's drug policy blaming addiction entirely on foreigners, when it's clear that there must be a market for drugs here.) Only "a few whites" owned slaves, says Horowitz, ignoring the fact that many non-slave-owning Americans supported the system, even in the North. Horowitz even boasts that northern whites and Abraham Lincoln died to set slaves free, when the truth is that while some died freeing slaves (including many black soldiers), others died to preserve the Union and were ambivalent about slavery at best.
Especially offensive is the Horowitz' ninth point, which exonerates the harshness of slavery by saying that whites ended it (ignoring completely the efforts of black abolitionists), and that blacks actually benefited from slavery, a point that Horowitz has made repeatedly in follow-up editorials.
Not surprisingly, 20 of the 34 school papers Horowitz submitted the ad to refused to print it. This of course was the very reaction he was looking for, letting him cry censorship and make the case that college campuses stifle conservative points of view. But Horowitz sent in his piece as an ad, not as an op-ed piece, and editors frequently reject controversial ads. (Recall, for example, the fairly recent Benetton ads using incarcerated murderers.) Even the conservative Wall Street Journal supports the student editors' right to decide what ads they will or will not accept.
Nonetheless, Mr. Horowitz has made much of these refusals, and of events at Brown University, which did accept his ad and where some 150 students demonstrated against it and tore up 4,000 student papers. And he's made much of colleges like Cal Berkeley, his alma mater, where the editor published his ad but later apologized for it. He points to these acts as proof that there is no free speech on liberal campuses, that opposing viewpoints are shouted down and shut down.
As Horowitz, who was himself a student editor of the Berkeley leftist paper Rampart well knows, most student editors of college papers make their own decisions on their paper's content. There's something ridiculous or at least disingenuous about a writer who admits that his own early career as a student writer, editor, and activist was a complete mistake and who can yet criticize today's student editors for not being wiser than he was.
To accuse liberal campuses of being against free speech Horowitz must ignore substantial evidence to the contrary, including his own recent career as an invited speaker on numerous college campuses when he published his anti-left biography Radical Son in 1997. If college campuses are as dreadfully intolerant as he maintains, then perhaps he will explain why he was invited to Berkeley, Texas A&M, and University of Texas at Austin to speak immediately after this ad flap. Why he was invited to debate scholars at a colloquy of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Why editorials at the Harvard, Yale, and Wisconsin student newspapers support his right to publish the ad. Why the staff at Brown's Herald barricaded themselves in their office to protect copies of Horowitz' ad from demonstrators. Why liberals like Wendy Kaminer at The American Prospect and Matthew Rothschild at Progressive Magazine have written in support of his right to make a civil political argument, and why liberal organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP have condemned the intolerance on the part of his opponents to quash his argument without debate.
Should we feel bad for this champion of free speech and civility who publishes http://www.slaphillary.com on his own website and markets "Slap Hillary" tee-shirts to make a few bucks? I don't think so.
Yes, there are intolerant supporters of the Left, whose ideas of fair play and free speech apply only to their own beliefs, just as there are intolerant supporters of the Right. There are those who want to stifle real debate by using epithets and taking violent action in order to prevent the other side from speaking. (And it should be pointed out to them that in trying to destroy David Horowitz' ad they gave him more free publicity than he could have ever hoped for otherwise. But then again, these are students, and will learn.) But Mr. Horowitz himself is not so much victim as fellow perpetrator of the methods he publicly deplores. By playing his own race card and tarring all campuses and liberals with the same brush, Horowitz commits the same intellectual crime he is complaining was committed on him, forsaking honest debate for verbal vitriol.
Indeed, it's impossible to portray Mr. Horowitz, who parlayed some $750 ads into a slew of television, radio, personal and print appearances around the country, reviving a rather moribund career as an Internet intellectual, part-time columnist and speaker, as anything but what he is--an opportunistic promoter of the same activities and rhetoric he deplores coming from the other side.
© 2001 James Hall