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How Liberals Get Conservatives Wrong By: David Horowitz
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, October 15, 2008


In the introduction to Rebels All!,Kevin Mattson’s unconventional look at conservatives, the historian acknowledges that conservative ideas need to be taken seriously. This is a refreshing departure from the wish of most liberals and all leftists that conservative ideas would just disappear. It is also the reason I asked FrontpageMagazine editor Jamie Glazov to interview Mattson and promote his new book. Readers of Frontpage know that I have conducted a five year campaign to urge university professors who are almost universally on the left to assign conservative texts in their courses so that there might actually be two sides to the controversial issues they address. For my pains in conducting this effort to support an intellectual dialogue I have been rewarded with the sobriquets “McCarthyite” and “chief organizer of the campus thought police" by academic leftists who want to teach their political prejudices as though they were scientific facts.

Kevin Mattson is unwilling to acknowledge his colleagues' role in this problem. Instead he lays the blame for the lack of intellectual dialogue at the door of conservatives and their “shrill rhetoric.” I suggest that he pay more attention to his colleagues’ discourse when they pretend to deal with conservative ideas. He might also pay more attention to what conservatives actually do. This conservative magazine has invited numerous leftists like him to come into its pages and promote their ideas and work; and we have treated them respectfully when they do. At the same time, there has been no reciprocity from the other side.

Speaking just from personal experience, I have written ten books in the last decade, nine of which were dedicated to the analysis and refutation of leftwing practices and ideas. Only one of these nine books -- The Professors -- was reviewed or even discussed in the leftwing magazines for which Mattson writes – and then it was hardly to engage my ideas. “Ignore This Book” was actually the title of the review by Professor Cary Nelson that appeared in Academe, the official publication of the American Association of University Professors of which he is the head. Another leftwing “critic,” Professor Michael Berube, has publicly explained that he only writes about my work to “ridicule” and “discredit” it. I am not alone as a conservative in being treated this way by intellectuals of the left.

As it happens my name appears prominently in Professor Mattson’s new book, where I am described as an exemplar of “the post-modern conservative intellectual,” and a leader of the contemporary conservative movement. What follows is my response to his portrait. (As a courtesy, our editors informed Professor Mattson that I would like to respond, once we had showcased his book, and he graciously accepted the offer).

Let me begin by noting what is valuable in the portrait of modern conservatism to be found in Rebels All!. Unlike most writers of the left, Kevin Mattson notices that there is a rebel element to contemporary American conservatism that distinguishes it from the status quo Toryism of the past. Fifty-five years after William Buckley’s protest against the liberal establishment at Yale, and 45 years after the Goldwater movement launched a revolt against the Republican Party's political establishment Professor Mattson has finally recognized these facts and attempted to make a thesis out of them. Unfortunately, in doing so, he regularly confuses style with substance, and tactics with strategy and generally fails to take conservative ideas seriously enough to understand them and therefore to make his book the interesting and rewarding read it could have been.

The profile Mattson has drawn of me, for example, is a caricature not a portrait. I do not subscribe to many of the views he attributes to me – post-modernism being the most obvious -- and he seems entirely ignorant of the books I have written to explain what I actually think. This is no small fault in a historian. Disregarding all that I have written and stood for, Mattson describes me as an “anti-intellectual,” a “relativist” and an “extremist.” A characterization which reflects of course on all contemporary conservatives since I am held up as an "exemplar" in his text. I am in fact a defender of intellectual standards, an anti-relativist and a supporter of moderation in intellectual enterprises. Each of the labels Mattson ascribes to me, if true, would render my campaign for intellectual standards in the university and my efforts to open a dialogue with dozens of intellectuals of the left in the pages of this magazine simply inexplicable. But they are not true. The books I have written, if he would read them, are hardly the works of an “anti-intellectual” or “an extremist.” They are sustained civil arguments with leftist ideas and authors. If he had cared to look, Mattson could have found on my website archive tens of thousands of words I have written responding to leftist attacks, and tens of thousands more defending intellectual standards and the values and virtues of a liberal society, something he claims to cherish.

Because he has not read relevant texts I have written, Mattson picks up and repeats canards from the left that I have been forced to respond to and that I have refuted time and again. Instead of taking on the actual arguments I have made and trying to understand what I believe, Mattson writes sentences that describe me as “fighting the culture wars by writing numerous autobiographies about how he shed his sixties radicalism, arguing that slavery benefited African Americans [and] sponsoring a Student Bill of Rights that would have state legislatures police classrooms for purported liberal content,…” To which I can only say: “No I didn’t.” I wrote one autobiography. I have never argued that slavery benefitted African Americans, and if Mattson had just taken the time to read the little book I wrote about my reparations campaign – Uncivil Wars – he would know this.

Nor is the charge that I regarded slavery as a benefit to African Americans even the worst misrepresentation of what I have said on the subject: “Horowitz’s move from endorsing the Black Panther Party to saying that blacks should be grateful about slavery because it brought them to America – that trajectory serves conservative intellectuals well today.” Notice how while I am the immediate target it is all conservative intellectuals that are in his sights. In fact, I have never said that blacks should be grateful for slavery. What moron would? Yet because this claim – never attached to an actual quote -- appears on leftwing websites, and Mattson has not thought it necessary to read what I actually wrote – whether in Uncivil Wars or in my original article on reparations, which appeared in the leftwing magazine Salon without objection from the editors -- he repeats the falsehood and uses it as a stick with which to beat the entire conservative movement.

Most importantly, since it is a focal point of Mattson’s portrait of me, I have never sponsored any bill calling for state legislatures to police classrooms for liberal indoctrination or, for that matter, to monitor any kind of classroom content. On the contrary, I have stressed and supported the independence of academic institutions. I have never supported a legislative statute to enforce the Academic Bill of Rights. I specifically opposed legislation sponsored by others that would have required professors to provide students with alternate texts if the ones they were assigned “offended” them. I opposed this – as I explained in a published article available on my website -- because this would take classroom authority away from the teacher.

But although I have a public record of defending the independence of the university and opposing a measure that would have put students and professors on an equal footing, Mattson inexplicably describes me as a “populist” fomenting the overthrow of faculty authority. It is true that I sponsored academic freedom legislation four years ago, but the bills I supported were exclusively resolutions to encourage university administrators to honor and enforce academic freedom standards that they themselves had established and that were part of the academic freedom tradition of the American Association of University Professors. There were no enforcement mechanisms in these bills and they did not have the force of law. My purpose was simply to draw attention to the problem. Having been successful in that -- these resolutions put the issue of university indoctrination and academic freedom on the political map -- I haven’t sponsored any legislation since.

In the sentence about my academic efforts Mattson also writes, “[Horowitz] does not sound conservative when he talks about defending right-wing students from left-wing bias.” Mattson is right that I wouldn’t sound conservative if I had said that. But I didn’t say that. In fact, I am on record as saying the exact opposite. I never attack leftwing “bias” because bias is another word for perspective and everybody has one. (I have attacked leftwing ideas because they wrong-headed. But that is different from attempting to expunge a political “bias.”)

My academic campaign is central to Mattson’s analysis of my impact as a conservative. One might think, therefore, that the one book Professor Mattson might have read is The Professors. One would be wrong. In the introduction to The Professors I wrote: “This book is not intended as a text about leftwing bias in the university and does not propose that a leftwing perspective on academic faculties is a problem in itself. Every individual, whether conservative or liberal, has a perspective and therefore a bias. Professors have every right to interpret the subjects they teach according to their points of view. That is the essence of academic freedom.” What could be clearer? What could be more opposite to the view Mattson claims I hold?

Even if my words had not been so clear, my actions were. I defended Ward Churchill’s right to hold reprehensible views and still be a professor. I defended the appointment of leftwing law professor Erwin Chemerinsky as dean of the new law school at UC Irvine when it was withdrawn by the administration because of complaints about his political opinions by prominent donors. I have defended leftwing students against conservative professors. Yet Mattson ignores the clear public record of both my words and deeds in order to misrepresent what I believe and attack me.

Mattson accuses me of being the “chief organizer” of efforts to have the state police university classrooms. This is absolutely false but it is not a trivial accusation. Repeated enough times it is the kind of stigma whose effect will be to drive its target from decent intellectual society. In particular, it has made me toxic enough that prominent liberal intellectuals who respect and agree with my work have told me in so many words that they would not be writing a blurb for my books on the university or reviewing them favorably because they “still have articles they want to write for the New York Review of Books” and fear that they would be blacklisted for any positive association with my ideas. Accusations like this, lead otherwise intelligent individuals who regard themselves as scholars to think they can get away with writing about me without reading my books and putting words in my mouth.

Mattson associates me, for example, with advocates of Intelligent Design theory who want it included in the biology curriculum. I have publicly opposed this. He refers to me as an anti-foundationalist, post-modern relativist, which I am not: “Conservative intellectuals today can even sound ‘post-modern,’ making arguments that you expect from an English professor stoked up on deconstruction and relativism.” Mattson justifies this characterization with a single sentence from The Academic Bill of Rights (the sentence was actually written by Stephen Balch): “Human knowledge is a never-ending pursuit of the truth [because] there is no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge…” But what “post-modernist” would write that there is a “truth” that can be pursued in the first place? The Academic Bill of Rights statement is a very careful worded, limited observation. It says that because no individual, faction, or party is in possession of absolute truth it is important that more than one side to controversial issues be heard. Who would object to this? Yet Mattson does.

Like many leftwing intellectuals Mattson makes a federal case out of a little essay I wrote ten years ago called “The Art of Political War.” An excerpt from the essay appears as the epigraph to his chapter on “Post-Modern Conservatism, the Politics of Outrage and Mindset of War.” Mattson even exaggerates my role in the conservative intellectual movement in order to make my essay seem more influential than it was: “The 1960s had become a permanent fixture of Horowitz’s identity, as it had for the country as a whole. Horowitz was the Sixties hipster marching in line with the ‘Reagan Revolution,’ and he determined the future of the conservative intellectual movement more than [Hilton] Kramer’s or [Irving]Kristol’s anguished, highbrow concern.”

The fact is I wasn’t even a hipster in the 1960s – I was a Marxist who didn’t smoke dope, didn't live in a commune, missed Woodstock, never went to a Grateful Dead concert or the Fillmore, didn’t riot or throw stones at cops, and inhabited a nuclear family. Moreover, my little essay on The Art of Political War was not a working manual or political guide for intellectual conservatives or for the conservative movement. It was very specifically and explicitly a guide for conducting electoral campaigns before mass audiences where the contending parties are limited to 30-second TV sound bites.

I have been attacked with the identical misconception before by leftists who want to turn The Art of Political War into a credo, which it is not. In fact, I devoted a whole chapter of my book Indoctrination U to refuting this claim when it was the focus of an attack on me by The Dean of Faculty at Reed University. In responding to this attack I wrote: “The ‘politics” to which “The Art of Political War” is addressed is electoral politics (or politics before masses), which would not include the controversies I normally engage in as a public intellectual or in the many other books I have written, or in the academic freedom campaign itself.” What could be clearer? Unfortunately, Mattson hasn’t read this book either, though it is entirely about The Academic Bill of Rights.

But he has read “The Art of Political War,” which makes the same point. Here is a passage that Mattson elides from the very excerpt he uses as the epigraph for his chapter: “You have only 30 seconds to make your point. Even if you had time to develop an argument, the audience you need to reach (the undecided and those in the middle who are not paying much attention) wouldn’t get it…. Worse, while you’ve been making your argument the other side has already painted you as a mean-spirited, border-line racist controlled by religious zealots, securely in the pockets of the rich. Nobody who sees you this way is going to listen to you in any case. You’re politically dead.” This is quite obviously advice to Republicans running for election, not conservative intellectuals engaged in intellectual debates.

Even more important, the “Art of Political War” does not argue that approaching (electoral) politics as war conducted by other means is a conservative idea. It argues that it is a necessary idea because the left sees politics as war and, if conservatives don’t also see it that way, they are going to get “killed.” In my text, the principles of political war are introduced with these words: “Here are the principles of political war that the left understands but conservatives do not…” [emphasis added]

The overarching thesis of Mattson’s book is an attempt to connect the conservatism of William Buckley and his generation with conservatism like mine. There are obvious connections between the two but Mattson is ultimately so uninterested in conservative ideas that the connections he makes are an impenetrable mosh. “Horowitz sees himself as a rebel today as much as he was in the 1960s. [No I don’t. -- DH] And he shares the same enemy conservatives chastised in the past – the ‘liberal establishment.’”

No I don’t. The so-called “liberal establishment” today is a leftwing establishment. Unlike Buckley, I identify with 50s liberals like John F. Kennedy, whose politics in my view were identical to Ronald Reagan’s. My political enemies today -- Ward Churchill, bell hooks, Cornell West, Nicholas DeGenova, the editors of the Nation – have views of the capitalist and individualist West that are identical to those of the cold war “progressives” who supported the Communist bloc and its cause and who have absolutely nothing in common with JFK or the liberal establishment at Yale in the 1950s whom William F. Buckley opposed. Mattson treats Buckley as the avatar of the conservative rebellion and I share that view. But I have never embraced a theo-centric conservatism such as that common to Buckley, Kirk and Whittaker Chambers. These three anchor their conservatism in a religious faith. I do not. I am an agnostic. I have outlined my own conservative philosophy in The Politics of Bad Faith - a book Mattson also has not read. My conservatism is conceived as an effort to defend the principles of the American Founding. It is true that according to the Founders we derive inalienable rights from “Our Creator.” I agree that rights have to be derived from a source other than human will. If Mattson has another way to ground rights that are inalienable without invoking a “Creator,” I’m all ears, but until then this agnostic will defer to the Founders.

Here is Mattson’s vision of the conservative movement as expressed in his book and summed up in his Frontpage interview

“Postmodern conservatism takes from Buckley’s model of the conservative the stance of the rebel… From the Sixties, postmodern conservatism takes ‘hipness’ and the ‘new sensibility.’ And then it bundles these things together with an interest in the postmodern ideas of ‘diversity’ and ‘anti-foundationalism.’ Consider the use of the term ‘diversity’ in the original Academic Bill of Rights. The justification for ABOR also argued that ‘there is no humanly accessible truth that it not in principle open to challenge.’ The argument is thus infused with postmodern theories about knowledge – knowledge as contingent, grounded in language games, never foundational, etc. But the conservative weds this postmodern outlook with a stance of war – the ‘political war’ that Horowitz outlines in one of his more popular books (popular among elected Republicans).”

As I have demonstrated this summary is a hodge podge of misunderstood and misrepresented ideas, some of it insightful, most of it misleading and downright wrong. And it all could have been corrected if Professor Matson had done his homework, or picked up the phone and asked me what I meant.

[Editors' note: We welcomed Kevin Mattson to respond to this commentary. Stay tuned for an upcoming issue of Frontpage Magazine where we will post Mr. Mattson's response and David Horowitz's rejoinder].


David Horowitz is the founder of The David Horowitz Freedom Center and author of the new book, One Party Classroom.


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