Kirstein Cited in Major Review of David Horowitz, The Professors

Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and president of the American Association of University Professors, cites me as an example of Mr Horowitz’s attempt to blacklist and castigate progressive faculty.

The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America
Ignore This Book
Reviewed by Cary Nelson; Regnery Publishing, 2006.

Please ignore this book. Don’t buy it. Don’t read it. Try not to mention it in idle conversation. If I have erred in reviewing it, I do so only to persuade you that—just this once—less, rather than more, speech may be the cure for the disease. The well-funded industry that is David Horowitz would like the book’s biased, shoddy imitation of scholarship to enter the national consciousness as doxa. His characterizations of the faculty on his blacklist, among them some well-known AAUP activists, are certainly easy enough to refute. Several Web sites have done just that, which is surely a good thing. But conversational energy expended on disputing his claims seems only to grant him the psychological publicity he seeks.

This is not, therefore, a book itself designed to persuade anyone. Horowitz’s 2006 book tour reinforces that view. C-SPAN recently broadcast his appearance at Duke University. Except for a few decorous protesters seated up front, the auditorium was occupied with fans. When Horowitz bellowed that he wasn’t trying to silence leftists but rather seeking to eliminate “idiots” from university faculties, this witty and well-reasoned argument was met with cheers. Like right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh on the air or right-wing cultural critic Ann Coulter in print, Horowitz preaches to the converted. They come to have their convictions not only reinforced but applauded. Horowitz is the claque,celebrating those who agree with him.

That said, The Professors is certainly one of the most depressing books I have ever tried to read. That such unbridled malice toward progressive faculty exists in the world is depressing enough, but the shallow, casual, purely opportunistic character of what it offers as scholarship may be still more disheartening. The “author,” if that is the appropriate designation for the person who puts his name on the cover of a book assembled by his paid assistants,takes umbrage at the idea that The Professors is fundamentally a black-list. He chooses to call his hundred brief entries “chapters” or “essays,” but an annotated list is what it is.

The assistants who compiled the hundred dossiers skimmed essays, blogs, and interviews for sound bites, taking them out of context and using them in many cases as the central themes of entire careers. That would be bad enough, but the dossiers sometimes step over the line into libel. A statement sympathetic to recent political martyrs made by Paul Foot is falsely attributed to distinguished historian Eric Foner. Horowitz then goes on to slander Foner by way of what is, I suppose, temporal and physical proximity. At a 2003 Columbia University antiwar teach-in, Nicholas De Genova applauded the killing of American troops in Somalia a decade earlier. Foner later spoke at the same event and publicly castigated De Genova. No matter. Horowitz implies that Foner and De Genova are in agreement.

Assaults on the dead, another feature of the Horowitz method, seem still more unsavory. Thus the Foner entry faults him for invoking the memory of actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson, one of the greatest and most powerful singing voices of the twentieth century and a man of unflinching courage. Prevented from performing abroad during the McCarthy period, inclined like many other African American intellectuals to remind us that people of color may justifiably have mixed feelings about military service in a country that denies them equal citizenship, Robeson was also a long-term defender of the Soviet Union. That there is much to be treasured in Robeson’s life is perhaps most minimally signaled in the U.S. postage stamp honoring him. It is this complexity in the life of one of the towering figures in American history that Horowitz crudely suppresses. For him, Robeson is simply a Communist; nothing else matters. For anyone interested in Robeson’s legacy, I recommend any of the dozen recently remastered CDs of his performances. For a scholarly analysis of his career, there is Martin Duberman’s 1989 biography.

Anything approaching judicious analysis is beyond Horowitz’s horizon. Since his researchers were interested only in damning quotes, the entries frequently omit mention, synopsis, or evaluation of their subjects’ major publications. Horowitz’s chapterettes purport to be accounts of a hundred faculty careers. Yet most of them ignore the chief publications at the core of those careers. One would not know from The Professors that AAUP national Council member Michael Bérubé’s first book, published in 1992, was the ground-breaking Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon, a contribution to literary history, or that Bérubé is the author of the critically acclaimed 1997 study of Down syndrome, Life As We Know It: A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child. Horowitz’s entries are fundamentally acts of misrepresentation and erasure, which as much as anything else makes them depressing reading.

Even the supposedly decisive quotes Horowitz’s researchers did find are denied any substantive discussion. Provocative comments that might lead to serious debate are instead treated more or less as evidence of treason. AAUP activist Peter Kirstein’s reference to Communism’s “relatively successful containment of American power from the early 1950s through the demise of the Soviet state in 1991” is simply offered as one more in a series of lunatic left assertions, despite the fact that there is much to be gained in stepping back from identification with the American state and interrogating the effects of superpower confrontation during the cold war. This is precisely the sort of controversial claim that could challenge students’ assumptions and lead them to think in unexpected ways.

Yet many of Horowitz’s attacks on his “101 most dangerous academics” lack even this much support. Over and over again, he indicts individual faculty members for indoctrinating their students without offering either student evaluations or interviews as evidence. From the Vietnam War through the current war in Iraq, faculty antiwar statements in public forums are taken as proof that they aim to brainwash their students. Although his primary concern, so he says, is the effect of faculty political opinion on the classroom, for half the faculty in the book, he offers no explicit comments about teaching at all. For the others, he regularly resorts to unsupported assertion or undocumented anecdote. At public hearings, he has been unable to document his stories of faculty abuse when asked to do so. The whole Horowitz edifice is a house of cards, but that does not stop him from dealing from the bottom of the deck time and again. A story discredited in one venue is retold in the next.

So, finally, does any of this matter? If The Professors is largely preaching to the perversely converted, should we care? Beyond the very useful Internet corrections, the book can be safely ignored. No one can say the same of Horowitz’s drive to get faculty “balance” legislation passed. In state after state, conservative representatives have answered his call to have hearings mounted or legislation introduced to force colleges to track faculty political affiliations and guarantee “balance” in their hiring. That would be a disastrous curtailment of higher education’s necessary independence, so the AAUP has successfully fought it everywhere it has arisen. Coordinating testimony from local, state, and national leaders, the AAUP has consistently persuaded legislators there is no fire behind Horowitz’s smoke signals. Whether the public is comparably persuaded remains to be seen. That is precisely the risk of Horowitz’s heavily funded campaign—that ordinary citizens will come falsely to believe there is a pattern of indoctrination on American campuses.

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