Final Edit: Irving Louis Horowitz, 1929-2012

Peter Wood

Irving Louis Horowitz died last week. He was, among his many distinctions, the founding publisher of the journal I now edit, Academic Questions, and a key figure in helping the National Association of Scholars get off the ground 25 years ago. The New York Times published a slightly barbed obituary of him yesterday, quoting some of his detractors and raking up old disputes. Horowitz would probably have welcomed that send-off. He was a man who never hesitated to wade into controversy and did so with the joy of someone born to be an intellectual combatant. His many admirers have been paying tribute, including NAS’s founder, Steve Balch, and Horowitz’s Rutgers colleague Lionel Tiger. Interesting that both begin by referring to Horowitz as a “force of nature.” David Barash, writing on the Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog, alters the formula: “a brilliant and suitably stubborn social scientist.”

Irving was vivid. Wherever he went, whomever he met, he made his presence felt. And he was decisive. His last book, Hannah Arendt: Radical Conservative, which will now be published posthumously, was ignited by what he saw as a series of misguided attacks on Arendt, including Bernard Wasserstein’s “Blame the Victim: Hannah Arendt among the Nazis” in the October 2009 Times Literary Supplement and Sol Stern’s “Hannah Arendt and the Origins of Israelophobia,” in the Winter 2012 issue of City Journal. Horowitz’s first response to the attacks on Arendt appeared in First Things a few years ago, where he complained of “pygmies” who try to cut “heroic figures” down to size in “face-to-face combat with the dead.” But it is characteristic of Horowitz that the rhetorical wind-up is followed by straight intellectual argument. Arendt’s Big Idea was that totalitarianism, whether of the Nazi or the Stalinist variety, was all of one piece. Horowitz defends it with intellectual precision. And then, just as characteristically, returns to the indignation with which he began:

It was Arendt’s remarkable ability to face the double tradition from which she emerged with a sharp-eyed focus that characterizes much of her work: its generosity for the practice of democracy and her fierce determination to explain for herself as well as for others the failure of her former culture to endure despite its qualities. I would say that Hannah Arendt’s work, along with that of Primo Levi, brought to the surface the silence and even suppression of the Holocaust that gripped postwar Europe.

Another of Horowitz’s last works is an essay that we published in Academic Questions the week before his death. In “The Wealth of Nations and the Poverty of Analysts” he turns his attention to the prominent social scientists who visited Libya during Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime at the dictator’s expense and then found ways to temporize with his brutality. Lord Anthony Giddens, Joseph Nye, and Benjamin Barber are hauled before Horowitz’s tribunal and made to repeat things they probably wish they had never said.

He has another essay in press taking umbrage at how Penn State treated football coach Joe Paterno.

My acquaintance with Irving was relatively short but—again characteristically—vivid. We had lunch several times and talked about the journal, ideas, and politics, and he wrote me encouraging letters. He was a figure in my life, however, for a lot longer than our actual acquaintanceship. I subscribed to his journal, Transaction, when I was a junior in high school. The journal was brand new and I was brand new both to intellectual journals and to social science. It was heady stuff. Some adults regret having thrown away their collections of Spiderman comics from the 60s. I wish I had held onto those powerful issues of Transaction. As it happened, I grew up to publish articles of my own in Transaction, under its later name, Society. Something stuck.

In the 1990s, I wrote a book manuscript that I tentatively titled with a nautical metaphor, Rough Drafts in Higher Education. I hopefully submitted it to Horowitz who promptly wrote back, “When do I get to see the finished draft?” I set that manuscript aside.

I crossed paths with him a few more times, once at a conference where he made a scene. He was passionate about the proper uses of the social sciences and didn’t brook intellectual tomfoolery.

But my most important Horowitzian moment came when a prominent European social scientist took umbrage at the inclusion in a book of an essay I had written about the sustainability movement. As high as the barriers of political correctness are on this issue in the U.S., they are higher still on the Continent. The scholar in question declared he would withdraw his own paper and urge all his colleagues to do the same if Horowitz didn’t excise my offending contribution.

He didn’t.

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on March 28, 2012.

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