One thing you can say for David Horowitz: After almost 40 years of work as a political journalist, after a career in activism dating back to the civil rights struggle, after courting both Black Panther and Gopac tiger, after a miraculous conversion from the radical left to the woolly right, after writing books and columns beyond number, he is now capable of outwitting a bunch of college students.
For Horowitz the 62-year-old columnist and self-styled conservative strategist whose political "War Room" recruiting page invites visitors to answer "Yes, I want to join David Horowitz's War Machine and help him beat the Democrats!" the hubbub over his now-notorious slavery reparations advertisement has brought a mudslide of publicity. Friend and foe alike are applauding the "brilliant" way he has brought the national conversation around to himself. Reasonable citizens, for whom any mention of Horowitz and his ongoing battles against long-forgotten hobgoblins causes Excedrin PM-level drowsiness, can not be blamed for having missed this particular debate. So here's one insomniac's summary:
Last month, Horowitz sent an advertisement bearing the jawbreaking title "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea for Blacks and Racist Too" to 52 college newspapers. Many student papers among them the rags of Cornell, Columbia, Harvard and Yale declined to run the ad. The ones who did run it paid the price. Students at Berkeley confiscated copies of the Daily Californian and occupied the paper's offices. Young scholars at Duke protested, while the de jure Ivy Leaguers at Brown a school that already suffers from being the punchline at the end of any list of the Seven Sisters disappeared the entire run of the student paper. It was this hysterical reaction that allowed Horowitz to get to his main point that leftists have no tolerance for free speech.
Media coverage has generally viewed this dustup as a brilliant piece of performance art by Horowitz, with the reparations issue being seen as a red herring to get to the larger issue of campus censorship. In a typical description, the Washington Post's Michael Powell clearly at sea without the support of longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger wrote: "Horowitz's trap was so well laid that its jaws slapped shut before the students realized what had happened." Adding support to this theory is the reparations price tag $24 trillion thrown out by Jack E. White in Time, as clear an indication as any why the "issue" of slavery reparations strikes actual taxpaying Americans as little more than a conversation starter for underemployed eggheads.
It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss Horowitz's commitment to his personal set of race skirmishes. The former Marxist has, after all, turned out a whole book, Hating Whitey and other progressive causes, which finds caucasian haters under every mattress. He generates pamphlets linking Hillary Clinton with the "racial left" and articles on racial McCarthyism. He found the title "Hating Whitey" choice enough to use it again, as the title of a chapter in his followup tome The Art of Political War.
But this may just be a diversionary tactic by the political Warrior. Horowitz learned the art of editorial bluster from Warren Hinckle, whose publicity stunts included burning down a University of San Francisco equipment shed and then demanding the arsonist's arrest in the USF student paper. His ability to milk this particular story indicates a competent tactician at work, one who has now provided stunning evidence in support of the supreme tenet of his career that the American left is a totalitarian force. Since we're always eager to give praise to a successful self-promoter, it's tempting to applaud Horowitz for shining a light up this particular orifice of American academia. Who can honestly say they're not shocked to learn that the best minds of the next generation are so hostile to open and forthright debate?
Well, for starters, anybody who has actually been to college. You might have many fond memories of dear old school days: that mid-lecture crackup by the alkie professor, those fumbling copulations in your stinky dorm room; that hilarious loss of bowel and bladder control at Ye Olde Rathskeller. But free speech? Does anybody recall college as a place that valued reasoned discourse? For all the Platonic notions we may have of the pursuit of ideas, the Aristotelian reality of the college experience involves heavy helpings of thin-skinned combativeness, post-adolescent superciliousness and CISPES meetings.
And when has it ever been any different? Horowitz's argument presumes that there was some point in the past when students were open and reasonable thinkers, the kind of people who would blanch at brownshirt bullying of their political opponents. But exactly who were these students? Were they the Roman discipuli who beat the crap out of their teachers for assigning too much homework? The Goliard students who terrorized medieval Europe with drunken rampages and bad poetry? The Oxonians who launched a bloody riot against locals in 1867? The 1,500 Harvard men who pelted passersby with light bulbs during the Exam Week Riot of 1930? The class clowns of the Cultural Revolution? The straight-A students of the Taliban? If college tyros have ever been strong supporters of rational discourse, they've been pretty careful in covering up the evidence. This isn't a matter of leftists turning colleges into unruly zoos. The schools have always been zoos; and on those rare and dangerous occasions when free and open debate has flourished, the end result has generally involved Socrates drinking hemlock.
Not surprisingly, the topics on which schools do provide some semblance of open discussion are matters of utter self-concern. You can always count on a lively debate about whether the "Western Canon" should be retired, whether the student union should provide a vegan menu, or whether we should boycott the lunch trucks until they bring back the cheese fries. Any attempt to crack down on fraternity parties is guaranteed to touch off a McCain-Feingold-worthy disputation (with the school paper's token conservative penning columns with titles like "Censoring Greeks?"). Colleges excel at producing materials, such as Frederick M. Wheelock's Latin grammar, that work perfectly within a closed system but turn to vapor when exposed to the wider world. The same rule applies to debate and discussion. That 52 colleges are incapable of accommodating intrusions from the post-diploma world even a segment of that world as insular and self-regarding as the think-tank circle jerk that keeps Horowitz's beard neatly trimmed, and even over a question as ultimately without consequence as this thought experiment on reparations should not shock us, but cheer us. This is how it's supposed to work.
Somewhere between the childhood activities of pretending to be doctors, cops or firefighters and the adult activities of pretending to be Republicans, Democrats or CEOs, we pass through a state of supreme pretense, in which we're decked out in the clothes of adulthood with few or none of the responsibilities, in which we can throw our passions into safe and meaningless crusades. These crusades are fun, they feel important, and they can easily engage our passions. And in general nobody gets hurt, because they only people who don't realize it's all a big game are the students who are playing and the occasional 62-year-old man who can't resist bullying stupid kids.
Courtesy of Addison DeWit
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