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David Horowitz: Battlefield Notes from a War Gone Unnoticed

Oct 20, 2017 |  Peter Wood

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David Horowitz: Battlefield Notes from a War Gone Unnoticed

Oct 20, 2017 | 

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared at Minding the Campus on October 16, 2017. 

I have been reading essays by David Horowitz for nearly fifty years, starting when he became an editor of the radical new-left magazine, Ramparts, in 1968, and I was a high school student prepping for debates about the Vietnam war. David famously moved beyond his red diaper origins, his Marxist enthusiasms, and his admiration of Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party. In time he became a self-professed conservative. The “Second Thoughts” conference he co-hosted in Washington, DC in 1987 came at a crucial moment for me.

Though I had long since lost any respect for the academic left, and I was strongly anti-communist, I had trouble recognizing the deeper character of my own political views. The forthright stand that David took alongside other formerly radical intellectuals opened my eyes. They made conservative thought thinkable for me: a plausible way to ground my sympathies in a living tradition.

My debt to David Horowitz came home vividly to me in reading his new volume of collected essays—volume eight in a series collectively titled “The Black Book of the American Left.” This volume, The Left in the University, bears the hefty burden of gathering his significant writings on American higher education, 1993 to 2010. A fair number of the 53 essays collected here, I’d read before. Reading them afresh and as part of a whole, however, is to see them in a more valedictory light.

Horowitz—I’ll retreat to the patronym from this point on—has plainly failed at that part of his intellectual project represented by this book. He has not arrested the radical left’s takeover of the university, let alone restored the ideal of a university that teaches “how to think, not what to think.” The diversity of ideas and outlooks that he has tirelessly promoted as the sine qua non of higher education is less in evidence today than it was when he started. Repression of conservative ideas and highhanded treatment of the people who voice those ideas has grown steadily worse. The dismal situation brought by the triumph of the progressive left on college campuses has darkened still further as a new generation of even more radicalized identitarian groups has emerged.

It is not that Horowitz is unaware that he has fought a losing battle. He understands that keenly, and a fair number of his essays ponder that fact. The reader may wonder why, with this failure so evident, Horowitz continues to fight. Surely, he has the motive to collect these essays other than simply documenting twenty-some years of futile campaigning on behalf of a lost cause? Horowitz has seldom lacked for constructive ideas to reform the university. Much of the book consists of his efforts to advance “The Academic Bill of Rights” and other measures that would have improved the situation. The book even ends with a “Plan for University Reform,” accompanied by the plaintiff note, “Written in 2010, before the AAUP eviscerated Penn State’s academic freedom policy.”

Horowitz never holds out hope that his proposals will at some later point leap back to life, as a smoldering coal might with a fresh breeze return to flame. To the contrary, his introduction includes a disavowal of the possibility: I publish it [that last essay] now because I have given up any hope that universities can institute such a reform. The faculty opposition is too devious and too strong, and even more importantly there is no conservative will to see such reforms enacted.”

Why No Greater Success?

What then? Why read this record of failure? One answer is that we can reject the author’s own judgment. Yes, his specific proposals failed, but Horowitz has done heroic work in building a conservative movement that will, I expect, one day prevail in re-establishing a form of higher education centered on the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. There are those of us who look to his work not just with admiration but for practical help in building this movement. The recent Pew poll that found 58 percent of Republicans saying that contemporary higher education has a negative effect on the country is testimony to the existence of this movement and to Horowitz’s actual legacy.

It may be fair to ask why Horowitz didn’t have greater success in the short term. The reasons may be many, but I will mention two. First, Horowitz framed his fight largely as a matter of combatting the Marxist premises of his opponents. He was surely right about those premises, and his collected articles are a gold mine of instances he which he calls out named individuals for their allegiance to the discredited ideas of that revolutionary. The trouble with this framing is that it flies over the heads of most ordinary Americans. To say that a professor is an acolyte of Stalin or an apologist for tyranny in some far-away place registers with only a fringe of Americans who take such things seriously. Who cares if some Ivy League English professor thinks that bourgeois American society is to be scorned and that Lenin or Mao was right? Maybe we should care—and indeed I care—but I also recognize that this point seems meaningless to most Americans who see themselves as “conservative.”

A Thunderbolt in 1983

The oldest essay in the book is a version of a speech Horowitz gave to the Modern Language Association in December 1993. It was a thunderbolt then, and it remains an astonishing tour de force. Horowitz calls out the MLA for “its assault on literature and its abandonment of the educational task,” and for “its burial of the literary subject under a mountain of feminist, Marxist, deconstructionist Kitsch.” He invokes the “empty files of ideological poseurs like [MLA presidents] Catherine Stimpson and Houston Baker to measure its descent into intellectual mediocrity and political attitudinizing.”

But back then, Horowitz was an optimist. His MLA address ends with the observation that “the demonization of American culture” was part of the “lowest ebb” of the American university in its 300- year history. Looking back at 1993 from the high Sahara-scape of academe in 2017, we know that that ebb tide didn’t turn. Its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” (as Matthew Arnold might put it) is now so withdrawn as to be barely audible. But perhaps that is what it took for Americans to begin to wonder whether higher education devoted to crackpot utopianism and un-freedom is really what we want from our colleges and universities.

He Frightened Many People

Horowitz’s anti-Marxist combativeness was one reason his movement stalled. It hit home against the radicals but not with the parents. The other reason his movement stalled, I suspect, is that he is characteristically a warrior and that he frightened many a good soul who might easily have been won over by someone with a lighter touch. Higher education is a context where students and parents want to believe the best. The best about the character and intelligence of the students. The best about the faculty, the campus, the teams. The best about what will come after college. The fierceness of Horowitz’s attacks frightened many who preferred the wish-fulfillment of the colleges and universities. A Jeremiah among critics of higher education, Horowitz’s voice was indispensable, but it was not destined to win large numbers of converts.

I cannot end even a short review of one of Horowitz’s book without acknowledging the quality of his writing. He is a superb essayist who excels at telling compelling stories without deviating a jot from the larger compelling ideas he is arguing. The Left in the University is valued as a preciously detailed account of how the radicals have despoiled American higher education, but it is also a collection of superbly written and argued accounts from the battlefield. Horowitz’s book might be thought of as war correspondence from a war most Americans didn’t realize was being fought.

Image: David Horowitz by Gage SkidmoreCC BY-SA 2.0

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