On April 9, 2009, a rowdy group of about 60 students protested the appearance of neo-McCarthyite culture warrior David Horowitz in Austin. Because Horowitz repeatedly targets me in his attacks on progressive and critical intellectuals, I was part of the protest.
On April 18, The Wall Street Journal published a lengthy opinion column by David Horowitz in which he condemned the demonstration and impugned me, University of Texas students, and several activist organizations. He not only claimed that the protest was an attempt to silence his free speech, but also argued that my reasonable contribution to the discussion was a pretense. In spite of a recent rash of withdrawn speaking invitations to left-wing professors (e.g., Norman Finkelstein, fired at DePaul and refused a scheduled lecture at Clark College)–not to mention the spate of firings and denials of tenure on political bases at universities across the country–he claimed that leftists never face protest or censorship when they speak.
In response to his account here in The Wall Street Journal, I shall make three arguments. First, his account and his demagoguery in general are full of lies, distortions, and exaggerations. Second, protest, even disruptive protest, is neither violent nor censorious. Finally, David Horowitz should be confronted loudly and often wherever he goes, because he represents nothing less than the thought police. In Orwellian fashion, he projects his thought-police role onto his opponents as a disingenuous strategy of disciplining academics who hold views contrary to his (unfortunately influential) orthodoxy–and who might actually make sense to independent-minded students.
First, Horowitz’s account of the evening, not to mention the content of his entire lecture, is full of lies, distortions, and exaggerations. The only assault he has ever “faced” involved a cream pie. That he travels around with a hunky bodyguard and routinely calls the police on protesters (now, there’s censorship) is a bit of over-the-top self-aggrandizing drama. He is no victim of the left. 60 students posed no threat to his safety, and neither did I, a 45-year-old professor. Furthermore, when I rose to speak, and when I began to make sense, he cut off discussion and launched into a hysterical rant, calling students little fascists. I had merely asked why he disrespected students so much as to think that they are so vulnerable to indoctrination. I explained how how his targeting of me has resulted in real, actual threats and voluminous hate mail against me; I discussed how his activities and that of others amounted to a New McCarthyism that has put numerous scholars across the country at risk (now, there’s censorship). I also explained that just as I keep my family life separate from the undergraduate classroom, so do I separate my activism from my pedagogy. He had no answer to these criticisms and questions. Instead, he and others started claiming that my appearing reasonable and genuine (even going so far as to invite any audience member into my class) was a manipulative act.
His “work,” likewise, is shoddy and riddled with lies. I invite readers to the check website freeexchangeoncampus.org for detailed account of his misrepresentations about me and others in their report “Facts Still Count.” In general, his presentation made a number of questionable claims. For example, he claimed that race is no longer a barrier to achievement in the U.S., that gender is biological (and therefore so is women’s alleged inability to do math), that renowned Black scholars like Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson are “buffoons” and “clowns” (note the invocation of slavery-era stereotypes.)
In an infamous instance during his round of “Islamofascism Awareness Week” tours, Horowitz claimed that a photo used to dramatize the oppression of women in Islam (in which a woman is shown being beaten and buried alive); it turns out that the photo is from a Dutch film, De Steen.
He claims that he humanities are riddled with nefarious faculty indoctrinating their students in disciplines that don’t count as scholarship, yet he says nothing about the evident ideological uniformity of the business school, aerospace engineering, and the like. Contrary to his accusations, Sami-al-Arian does not lead a terrorist group and Iranians for Peace and Justice have not officially endorsed or supported Hezbollah or Hamas. My courses do, in fact, include readings in anti-feminism and the conservative movement. One can discover the same errors with regard to the syllabi and records of all of my award-winning colleagues. (One rather humorous error is that he claims that the author of my text on social movements is the radical Robert Jensen, when it is a much less scary Richard Jensen.)
As Horowitz publicist Patricia Jackson noted, “We don’t generally fact check.” Yet Horowitz claims that his right to free speech has been abridged. Last time I checked, libel is illegal and not covered by the First Amendment.
Second, it is wrong to equate protest–even loud, disruptive protest–with censorship. Public disruption has been a staple of movements for social change in this country from the Boston Tea Party forward. (In this light, it is incredibly ironic that conservatives who claimed to be acting in the tradition of the Boston Tea Party last week also would condemn our protest. The BTP was nothing if not rude and disruptive.) Our norms of decorum are ridiculous when compared to other countries’ forms of political discourse. Take, for example, the British Parliament, where booing, heckling, and shouting are the order of the day.
Protest is not censorship; it is simply the exercise of more speech. Where would our democracy be without disruptive protests for women’s rights, civil rights for minorities, and for the meager protections and rights afforded gays and lesbians today? Indeed, where would our democracy be without the (very violent and disruptive) war for independence or without Sherman’s (very violent and disruptive) march to the sea?
Third, I hear the argument from all quarters that even witch-hunters like Horowitz deserve their say and that they should be allowed to speak respectfully and uninterrupted. However, if one acknowledges that the man is a witch-hunter, giving him a platform is akin to aiding and abetting his program of imposed orthodoxy and the purging of radicals from the academy. One recent case in point was reported today in InsideHigherEd: The College of DuPage just adopted his Orwellian-misnamed “Academic Bill of Rights,” which, among other things, “includes language that some professors fear will make it impossible for them to explain to students that issues such as evolution are not in question in reputable scientific circles. . . . The measure also seems to rule out the possibility that faculty members could teach a course from their philosophical perspective, and seems to equate doing so with disrespect for students.” The climate that David Horowitz and others of his ilk have fostered legitimates the firing and disciplining of faculty. He says he doesn’t call for people to be fired. He doesn’t have to.
Do you know at whom I wish someone had hollered early, loudly, and often?
The Joe McCarthy of the “I have here a list”–or, in Horowitz’s case, a book, or two books, or three books, or the Internet network of intellectuals as terrorists–fame. In hindsight, many defenders of freedom would have challenged him more vociferously had they recognized what he represented. David Horowitz is a modern-day McCarthy. Award winning teachers and dedicated, respected scholars face censorship and dismissal because of the climate that David Horowitz fosters. We do not let witch-hunters or other complete and total enemies of free speech take a platform unchallenged. (Appallingly, some conservative respondents to Horowitz’s column have argued that McCarthy had the right idea.)
I am a socialist. However, contrary to Horowitz’s rantings, I am not a Stalinist. My politics are quite the opposite of fascism, and I invite readers to explore the differences between, say, Trotskyism and fascism before making any further accusations. To seek a world in which ordinary people control the conditions of their existence is neither fascism nor Stalinism. To criticize a world in which we get devastating wars for oil but not universal health care is not terrorism. To recognize the sickening fact that capitalism goes into crisis not because there is too little to go around, but because there is too much–while people starve on the streets, join the unemployment lines, and lose their homes, vast office buildings stand vacant and tons of grain are dumped each year because they cannot be sold– does not make one a Stalinist. Working people are paying for the crisis that greed and power made. It is no wonder that a Rasmussen poll taken last week indicated that only 53% of Americans believe today that capitalism is better than socialism. (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/10/rasmussen-capitalism-poll_n_185665.html) I’d like to keep the campuses a space where we can debate these matters of grave significance–not whether faculty are involved in an imaginary program of insidious mind control.
Horowitz’s inflamed rhetoric is no more than casuistry and demagoguery, aimed at getting universities to discipline their faculty even as campus social movements emerge from their doldrums. There is a connection here. Campuses are historically sites of truly open debate, critique, and activism. The ground has shifted radically under the feet of conservatives as recent events have inspired Americans to question the terms of existing society and to protest inequality and injustice. It seems that the academy is the final flag in the culture war, and conservatives like Horowitz are holding on by their teeth. That his column was published in The Wall Street Journal lays bare the connection between this culture war and the defense of capitalism as an economic system.
Even when desperate, the speech and action of David Horowitz have consequences, and these consequences have absolutely nothing to do with protecting undergraduates from left-wing indoctrination. I invite you to look up the cases of Jonathon Kovel and Norman Finkelstein, and the lesser known cases of political harassment and dismissal of teachers like Loretta Capeheart.
No, we will not stand by silently while the hysteria of an increasingly desperate witch-hunt builds. We will not leave the new McCarthys to speak in peace so long as they threaten actual academic freedom.