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Column: The Myth of Campus Radicalism

  • David Horowitz speaks at Columbia University in New York, Friday Oct. 26 , 2007. Horowitz, a national political lightning rod, was at his alma mater as part of the so-called Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week he sponsors for college campuses nation-wide. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)



For the Valley News
Friday, November 02, 2018

David Horowitz, the right-wing flamethrower, brought his act to Dartmouth last week in an attempt to smoke out campus radicalism. I suspect he went away disappointed.

Both campus security and Hanover police officers were present to quell any disturbance. As members of the Dartmouth community stood in a queue outside of the Rockefeller Center auditorium, a campus group helpfully distributed a page of Horowitz’s greatest hits. “The Palestinians are Nazis,” Horowitz declared in 2011. “Every one of their elected officials are terrorists.” He also in on record as saying that, “Women have a lower aptitude in mathematics than men, and that is a scientific fact.”

Barack Obama is a frequent target. Horowitz described the former president as “an evil man,” and added: “Obama is an anti-American radical and I’m actually sure he’s a Muslim, he certainly isn’t a Christian.”

Mr. Horowitz, I’ll make you a deal. I won’t tell you who is or is not a Jew. You don’t tell me who’s a Christian.

The event was introduced by the head of Dartmouth College Republicans, Joshua Kauderer, who neglected to introduce himself. (I’d like to think that was out of embarrassment, but I can’t be sure. Kauderer initially agreed to answer some questions I had about the event, but then failed to do so.) Kauderer opened with paeans to political civility and polite discourse and bemoaned the “tyranny of the majority” on campus. He warned that any attempts to disrupt the event “will not be tolerated.”

The ostensible title of Horowitz’s lecture was “Identity Politics and the Totalitarian Threat from the Left.” Turns out that was the most cogent statement of the entire evening. As nearly as I could tell, Horowitz wanted to discredit those he considers the enemies of Israel — “The entire Palestinian cause is based on a series of monstrous lies” — and two maps of the Middle East were projected behind him, though it wasn’t at all clear what the maps were meant to demonstrate. The talk itself was less a lecture than an occasion for Horowitz to hurl insults and invective.

Part of Horowitz’s shtick is that he was one of the “founders” of the New Left who saw the light and became a conservative. Despite the grandiosity of that statement (founder of the New Left?), Horowitz’s political conversion has made him a darling of the far right. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Horowitz and his organization traffic in “hate and misinformation,” especially against Muslims and college professors, whom he accuses of being “communists and pro-terrorists.” The tagline for his magazine reads, “Inside every progressive is a totalitarian screaming to get out.”

Many of the Dartmouth students in attendance sought peaceful ways to protest Horowitz’s hate speech, and on the whole their comportment was both purposeful and restrained. Several wore headphones and did homework. Others walked out at various times. Horowitz, predictably, took the bait. He railed against “the stupidity of the leftists” and remarked about a woman who left the lecture, “another self-inflicted ignoramus.” When several students silently unscrolled a banner, Horowitz raged, “Can we take those signs away from these jackasses? I want those signs destroyed and those people expelled.”

So much for the totalitarian left.

Horowitz labeled Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who testified before Congress about sexual assault at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh, a liar, but his most remarkable statement of the evening, repeated more than once, was, “Nobody is oppressed in America.” (Later, when I asked him about that statement, reading from my copious notes, Horowitz denied saying it.) He also asserted that there was no pay gap between men and women, and declared that, “The only serious race war in America is against white males.”

The ostensible reason for inviting Horowitz to campus was to foster debate. I heartily concur with that sentiment. Any vibrant intellectual community needs a robust exchange of ideas, and I was prepared to engage with his arguments. But Horowitz, flinging out red meat one-liners like a riverboat gambler, presented no argument. I even found myself feeling a tiny — tiny! — bit sorry for him. It must be difficult to be a professional provocateur when you can’t stitch together consecutive coherent thoughts.

If the purpose of bringing Horowitz to campus was to root out radicalism, I have to question the premise. Radicalism? On campus? Any campus? At Dartmouth? Hmmm.

When I was in graduate school, I participated in actions calling for Princeton to divest from South Africa in the days of apartheid. At Columbia, I addressed a rally in support of higher wages and benefits for support staff. But that’s about all I’ve seen in terms of campus protests in more than three decades of teaching. Nothing at all like the student demonstrations of the 1960s and early 1970s.

My introduction to “radicalism” here at Dartmouth was watching in stunned disbelief as a small group of faculty and students succeeded in persuading the president to rescind the appointment of an African bishop and gay-rights champion as dean of the Tucker Foundation back in 2013. Those ornery leftists!

I’m afraid that Horowitz’s outrage, whether sincere or feigned, is misplaced. Dartmouth, let’s recall, is home to the infamous Dartmouth Review, the breeding ground for such future Trumpists as Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza. Besides, let’s face it, any campus in the throes of forsaking arts and humanities in favor of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is unlikely to serve as a breeding ground for campus radicals.

Sorry, Mr. Horowitz, but I think we could use a bit more radicalism on campus. Where’s the outrage over mass incarceration? Where’s the indignation over the Trump administration’s immigration policies or its efforts to renew the nuclear arms race or its dismantling of environmental protections? Students across the country, and especially in places like Georgia, Kansas and North Dakota, should be marching in the streets to protest the massive disenfranchisement of voters.

When I taught my course on the 1960s this past summer, I tried once or twice to suggest, ever so gently, that student protests over the draft and the war in Vietnam might be worthy of emulation. No response.

Why do we see so little radicalism on campus at Dartmouth, or elsewhere? I suspect the reasons are complex, but they almost certainly include the expectation on the part of many students (and parents) that the purpose of a college education is to prepare for a lucrative career. Too many view education in transactional terms: We pay a hefty tuition; you guarantee that my child will secure a golden future.

A liberal arts education, however, is meant to unsettle assumptions and prejudices, to challenge shibboleths, both left and right. It teaches the art of asking questions, something precluded by David Horowitz’s antics. It teaches that authority must always be scrutinized and at times confronted. At its best, a liberal arts education includes a bracing exchange of ideas, sometimes as a prelude to action and sometimes merely for the intrinsic value of engaging in critical thought.

In today’s world, I can think of nothing more radical.

Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion and director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth.