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Horowitz Gets an "F" By: Timothy Burke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, July 22, 2005

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When I complained earlier this year that David Horowitz’ “Discover the Network” project lacked any explanation of the political and intellectual linkages it claimed between individuals, Horowitz replied that I was ignoring the detailed support he offered for the project in his book Unholy Alliance, and challenged me to read it. 

Fair enough. I hadn’t read the book, and part of being a responsible scholar is responsibly examining what others claim as evidence or proof.

I think there is an intellectual history waiting to be written that plausibly connects the New Left with some of the forms of romantic anti-Western sentiment among some American (and European) activists and intellectuals that flourished between 1980 and the present. Authors like Ian Buruma and Paul Berman have touched on this, but no one has really fleshed it out completely. For extra credit, that history could probably manage to trace a wider, more diffuse 20th Century history of connections between anti-Western ideas, texts and political commitments within Europe and the United States that would not be isolated in any simple way to “the left” (indeed, would cross over at points to authors and thinkers typically regarded as conservative).


Let’s suppose someone had written that history and also had an acute sense of the relative ideological decomposition of the U.S. left in the 1990s, when fierce ideological divides of previous generations gave way to a much looser set of prevailing tendencies and passive-aggressive implicit compacts among people with very different temperaments and political perspectives not to push too hard on their underlying disagreements. That person might also be able to claim that romantic anti-Western sentiments or predispositions (nothing so formal or worked-out as an ideology) had wormed their way into many strains of left-wing thought and action, or at least that some thinkers and activists tolerated such sentiments in the interest of getting along with potential allies, much the same way that the American religious right often tolerates the presence of small-government libertarianism within its own coalition (and vice-versa) despite profound contradictions between the two perspectives.


This history, if it ever gets written, will need to be written with a lot of specificity, humility and interpretative detail. Horowitz’ Unholy Alliance has none of these attributes. As either a descriptive account of the postwar history of the American left or supportive evidence for a database like Discover the Network, it accomplishes little. Even when Horowitz happens upon valid interpretations or legitimate criticisms, he is so fundamentally incurious, inconsistent or disproportionate in his commentary, his claims so based on half-truths or trivial details, that the book could only possibly persuade the already-persuaded.


Horowitz complains that academics do not take him seriously. When they take him seriously, he complains that they are biased against him. It feels like a rigged game: the only thing that constitutes fair treatment by Horowitz’ standards is essential agreement with him on all but a few trivial particulars. Everything else seems to be the occasion for responses heavy on the ad hominem and laden with diversionary claims. So setting out to look at Unholy Alliance in terms of its merits as intellectual and political history is something of a lose-lose proposition. I’ve tried to read it honestly and carefully. I’m prepared to take seriously an account of the genesis and significance of the critique of Western society or of the Enlightenment or of anti-Americanism in academic or left-wing thought in the United States. I think that there is something to all three arguments if made with care and precision.


Moreover, I do not want to hold general nonfiction writing accountable for failing to be academic scholarship. However, I think even by the general standards of the public sphere, this book is inadequate in a number of ways.


Horowitz is strongly driven by the need to directly connect what he views as the left’s “original sin”, communism, with anti-Western predispositions in the last fifteen years. This drive alone distorts the book’s argument beyond repair as it leads Horowitz to pound numerous square pegs into round holes. Horowitz is careful enough to at least recognize that the communist left of the 1930s-1950s broke apart in the 1960s, though right at the outset, he fails to recognize any meaningful leftist tradition in the United States outside of the Communist Party itself: non-Communist unions, the numerous socialist parties and groups that were not the American Communist Party, New Deal liberals, anarchism, and so on simply don’t exist in Horowitz’ history.


Various forms or factions of leftist politics after the 1950s get lumped together as flavors of “neo-communism”, but Horowitz indiscriminately combines quotations from the 1990s with details from the 1960s and 1970s to characterize each of the factions he perceives. The different factions he describes are an extreme kind of Humpty-Dumptyism, given arbitrary and idiosyncratic labels like “The Great Satan”, “The Anti-American Cult”, and “The Nihilist Left”. The “nihilist left”, for example, is defined by a single person, Noam Chomsky. Whether Chomsky’s views are characteristic of the political practice or ideology of many Americans, a few Americans, or just himself, is never discussed. (Nor is the reasoning behind terming Chomsky a “nihilist”.) The nature of the categorical distinction between “The Nihilist Left” and “The Anti-American Cult” (which is largely defined by Howard Zinn, Norman Mailer, Todd Gitlin, and perhaps anyone who feels that the United States has negative as well as positive aspects to its history) is impossible to distinguish in the analysis. The concrete attributes which make any or all of these individuals and factions connected vary (if they’re discussed at all), and include connections as trivial as Ayatollah Khomeini using the same translator as Frantz Fanon (with the claim that Khomeini hadn’t thought of the world as divided between oppressors and oppressed until his Marxist translator prompted him to do so. Horowitz needs a crash course in the history of Shi’a Islam, among other things.)


I’d at least expect a boilerplate account of the New Left’s infatuation with Third World nationalist movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or an account of how some forms of party authoritarianism made their way into normal and often unwitting practice among left-identified activists (such as “self-criticism” sessions at the end of meetings). But even that is not really to be had here, beyond a few hints or crude gestures: the procrustean bed has been fashioned to Horowitz’ very odd specifications, and everything is cut to fit it.


One of the consequences is that Horowitz doesn’t make anything of the odd fact that of those on the Anglo-American left who have shown enthusiasm for some aspect or another of the war on terror, many are Marxists (both former and still practicing). Another, and to my mind more important, is that Horowitz pays little attention to the existence, let alone importance, of an anti-Communist left in any era of 20th Century American history. This makes it particularly strange, not to mention inaccurate, when he folds in liberals into “neo-Communism”. More problematic is Horowitz’ inability to note or acknowledge the sustained antagonism between the countercultural left in the mid-1960s and the more conventional left represented by the Students for a Democratic Society and their allies. This is important because it was the countercultural or romantic left which most readily embraced late 60s forms of ethnic nationalism and identity politics, which both liberals and many radicals rejected even at the outset, often with increasing stridency. To the extent to which there is knee-jerk anti-American or anti-Western sentiment in the contemporary American left, that romantic strain is its main source.


Horowitz does not seem to be able to distinguish between ideology and sentiment, between a programmatic, thorough political philosophy with clearly delineated goals and semi-conscious attitudes which may exist alongside other very different views or convictions held by someone. Here compare him to David Brooks, who despite his clear conservatism, is able to understand that many people have attitudes or “fashionable opinions” which actively contradict other aspects of their beliefs and lifestyle, both people on the right and the left.


This is pretty much Cultural Anthropology 101, that the substance of most individuals’ everyday consciousness of the world and all the things in it is a jumble of different views held at different levels of deliberate and consistent conviction. The problem with Horowitz here is his sense of politics as contagion, that mere contact with a fully-fleshed out ideology is enough in his view to make someone a full card-carrying devotee of it. The number of Americans in any era who are consciously, programmatically devoted to a consistent, coherent and encompassing ideology is small, and smaller still in contemporary America when compared with the 1950s, even among intellectuals.


Horowitz pays very little attention to the question of whether the views he objects to are actually widely held. He at least mentions this issue when talking about American Communism, citing the work of Aileen Kraditor. The vast majority of the time he simply assumes or asserts, however, citing a handful of prominent American intellectuals as if they stand in for a sizeable constituency or cohort, and as if all of them speak with one coherent intent and voice.


This is another of the spoiled fruits that Horowitz’ determination to connect everything to Communism bears, a sense of politics not just as contagion but as conspiracy. He ends up representing all of his targets as having a clear, instrumental sense of what they are doing and saying and a clear sense of their interconnections to others within the same conspiracy. This isn’t even the “useful idiots” argument popular among some on the populist right, that people on the left are stupidly insensate to the consequences of their arguments or beliefs. Horowitz has intellectuals programmatically pursuing the same ends, with a clear and transparent sense of the implications and meaning of their beliefs.


As a result, not only does Horowitz pay no attention to often-ferocious disagreements among Americans (intellectuals and otherwise) who identify themselves as liberal or left-wing, he reduces everything that his favored targets have to say to nothing more or less than the hidden, instrumental agenda that he charges they are pursuing. Just to mention one example, Horowitz discusses the work of the historian Eric Hobsbawm as a transitional figure between the communist left of the 1950s and the “neo-communist” left of later decades. Here at least the label of Marxist is indisputably accurate, though bringing up Hobsbawm in a book that is ostensibly about the American left is emblematic of Horowitz’ lack of precision. But Horowitz reductively encompasses everything that Hobsbawm has ever written into little more than a nakedly, narrowly, ideological polemic, as if it had no content aside from its instrumental intent, as if there would be no difference between the many volumes of Hobsbawm’s world history and a five-paragraph Marxist credo. Horowitz shows far less charity or interest in any of the texts he reads or individuals he cites to build his polemic than I show to him here, and an inability to admit that people may write and say many things at many levels of sophistication in the course of a life, some of them contradictory, some of them both right and wrong. You may disagree, for example, with the lessons that Hobsbawm draws from world history (as I do) and criticize the ways in which his politics slants his account in a great many ways (as I would), but it is woefully simplistic to disregard all of the detailed, carefully written work as nothing more than a crude polemic. Just as it’s a mistake to cite Norman Mailer as if he were a consistent, careful left-wing thinker rather than a wildly contradictory and hugely fallible artist (not to mention jerk) or to ignore the important real historical issues (not to mention historical facts) that lie within Howard Zinn’s tedious and predictable framing of those issues in The People’s History of the United States. Horowitz drives a steamroller over fifty years of American life and culture, leaving everything flat, one-dimensional and Manichean.


I suppose that quite aside from any political disagreement I have with Horowitz, or any concern I have about his intentions or goals, this aspect of Unholy Alliance more than anything else depresses me. The book lacks even a faint whisper of human curiosity, any appreciation of either moral or empirical complexity. If there’s anyone who should be able to understand both the jumble of motivations that characterize the American left in the last fifty years, or the heterogeneity of the traditions, social character, concrete politics or cultural temperament of a wide and varying range of liberals and leftists have had, it should be Horowitz. Parts of Radical Son, which I have read, suggest that very possibility, that Horowitz potentially could be a sensitive guide to aspects of the recent political history of the United States. (Though one has to suspect that his determination to fit his history of the American left into such a narrow schema has to do an overdrawn sense of his own typicality and the same sense that most Americans of his generation have, right and left, of Boomer self-aggrandizement.)


In Unholy Alliance, Horowitz tells a just-so story instead, forcing everything to fit a preconceived conclusion and sketching out a demonic Other who is damned no matter what “they” do or say. He skims the surface of the public sphere, grabs fitfully and carelessly at a handful of quotes, bashes the usual (and admittedly bashable) suspects like Chomsky over the head, and insinuates at a frantic pace. He is distracted from his account with high-school debater diversions like whether the 9/11 terrorists are or are not “cowards”, as if cowardice is a word that is as empirically cut-and-dried in its meaning as “summer” or “automobile” and repeats various applause lines from the populist right. The book certainly doesn’t document or explain Discover the Network in any meaningful respect. It only confirms the problems with that project.


It’s perfectly true that sometimes it’s hard to document a sentiment, a common thread of feeling, a shared sensibility that connects or unites seemingly disparate individuals across time. I’m very prepared to hear that there is such a sentiment or spirit that romanticizes anti-Western beliefs and politics and produces a kind of anti-American self-loathing among some American intellectuals, which in turn has produced a blindness to the reality of the contemporary world and the challenges to human liberty. Indeed, in some much more precise and focused contexts, I’m not only prepared to believe this, but will and have argued it myself. But only with historical and substantive precision, only with intellectual care, only with curiosity, only with sensitivity, only with a sense of proportion, is such an argument worth making and worth hearing. 


Timothy Burke blogs on Easily Distracted and is an assistant professor in the Dept. of History at Swarthmore College. He specializes in cultural history with a particular interest in popular culture in America, modern imperialism and the history of Africa. His most recent book, Saturday Morning Fever (1999), co-authored with his brother, Kevin Burke, explores American cartoon culture and its influence on Generation X.

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