Six hundred people filled the Michigan Union Ballroom to hear David Horowitz speak March 19 night – with over 400 people standing in the hallway, unable to enter due to the fire code. He spoke about slave reparations and why he finds them insulting to black Americans, about national security and why racial profiling is empirically sound and about historical narratives that he feels leftists are using to push anti-American ideals.
For those who did not attend, it should be obvious by this summary that his speech was contentious. For those who attended, the inflamed and raucous crowd showed that some people wish that Horowitz would just go away.
The question is not whether we should agree with Horowitz. The question is whether we should accept him as a legitimate political thinker.
While there is a vocal and incredibly dangerous minority that sought to disrupt and silence Horowitz’ presentation, the possibility for healthy dialogue does exist at the University. The efforts of the Black Student Union and the Department of Public Safety to maintain order should be praised: The BSU for encouraging civil conduct within the Ballroom and DPS for managing an unwieldy crowd in a professional and respectful manner.
Besides the expected – though still entirely immature – middle fingers, loud and pretentious sighs, derisive laughter and barely whispered comments about “this mother-fucking racist,” there were plenty of tense moments. When asked about the tenor of the meeting, Horowitz said that it had gotten somewhat out of hand. “At the University of Wisconsin, I spoke to twice as many people, but it was much quieter,” Horowitz said. He noted that he had “never had so many black students come” to one of his speeches before. Horowitz willingly admitted his blame for some of the tension. “I shouldn’t have reacted to that first kid. It’s very hard when emotions run so high,” referring to the first question asked, when a student insulted Horowitz’ intelligence for mispronouncing Sierra Leone.
The trouble began when a much larger crowd than expected crammed into the long corridor on the second floor of the Michigan Union. The event’s organizers, Young Americans for Freedom and The Michigan Review, expected the large turnout, but due to their status as student groups, could not properly handle the crowd. Limits on their funding and influence forced YAF and the Review to settle for a smaller venue with an ill-conceived ticketing system.
The University’s role
This forces us to question why the University did not take an active role in presenting Horowitz, or on a broader scale, why conservative student groups feel the need to bring conservative speakers to campus themselves.
Randall Robinson, a proponent of slave reparations, Donna Shalala, former President Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services and Jonathan Kozol, author of “Savage Inequalities,” are a few of the notable speakers that have recently been invited here at the behest of the University. The political bent of these speakers is obvious; they are all very liberal. The University needs to reevaluate its role in facilitating public debate; the University is pushing a debate on this campus not about liberalism versus conservatism, but only over nuances of liberalism.
“The faculty, the adults here, have totally abdicated their responsibility to these kids,” Horowitz said. One of his major points is that the education system is skewed to the far left. Horowitz came out strongly against the sort of education that universities provide, saying that he “cannot fix four years of miseducation in one hour.”
We do not agree with Horowitz’ politics. However, the response Horowitz received on March 19 illuminates the relevance of his criticism of higher education.
The self-proclaimed “intelligent” liberals who polluted the mostly respectful gathering with inane and ultimately self-defeating monologues did nothing to advance debate. Certain liberal students have put on blinders, refusing to acknowledge conservative perspectives yet hypocritically becoming indignant when they feel that conservatives do not take them seriously. The intellectual right voraciously consumes leftist literature; the left is complacent, reading Chomsky and considering themselves well-informed (Horowitz noted that “Chomsky is a sick human being”). “A true liberal should be very concerned about the one-sided nature of the debate,” he said.
We are liberal, yet we begrudgingly agree with his indictment of intellectual liberalism. The antagonistic spirit of the event showed a liberal campus unwilling to create constructive arguments, a campus that refuses to dissect arguments, instead relying on the sort of screaming retorts common on elementary school yards.
The first critique of Horowitz’ speech can be quickly and summarily dismissed; Horowitz did not foster debate because he refused to thoroughly answer audience questions, often sinking to personal attacks on the questioner – he called Agnes Aleobua, Defend Affirmative Action Party member, a “black racist” after she went on a long, unintelligible and disruptive tirade. It is difficult to blame Horowitz for this particular criticism; though he is responsible for snapping back at those who hurled insults at him, he cannot be held responsible for the poor caliber of the questions asked of him. Horowitz has a meandering style of speech which some took as an indication of his skirting an issue. While answering a question regarding whether black people can advance without affirmative action, the questioner repeatedly interrupted him with “will you answer my question? You aren’t answering my question.” This may reflect poorly on Horowitz’ oratorical talent, but it does not suggest that he shies away from debating his points.
The second critique is that Horowitz spits the same sort of rhetoric that he vehemently denounces when it comes from liberals. On this issue, Horowitz is guilty. When confronted on his use of sensationalist device, Horowitz at first tried to distance himself from it. “I often have to work myself out from under what students have done,” he said of the fliers advertising his speech, plastered with the title of his 1999 “Hating Whitey.” But Horowitz has gotten a deserved reputation for using the bully pulpit; his posture and language are extremely confrontational. When pressed regarding these accusations, Horowitz replied that his duty in the face of liberal rhetoric was to “teach conservatives bad manners.” Horowitz’ ad campaigns, his speaking tours and the phrasing in his works speak to a somewhat self-serving nature. He denounces liberal rhetoric while sinking to the same depths; he feigns disapproval when emotions run high, yet he ceaselessly encourages its development.
This critique of Horowitz places him squarely in the rhetoric-flinging crowd that we address in this viewpoint. While speaking with Horowitz, his demeanor was very different from the man who spoke from the lectern – he was calm, seemingly regretful over the night’s events and was genuinely interested in discussion. Horowitz’ interpretation of the past and his statistical evidence is dubious and his reliance on counter-factual history disturbs us. When speaking with us, he was prepared to speak about his views – a quality that he did not display on stage. Horowitz is guilty of presenting himself as a provocateur and for that, perhaps, the University community should not accept him.
A call for real diversity
But his views are nonetheless important – and the University community has been known for trying to silence people with similar views who present themselves in a less confrontational light. Ward Connerly, who was at the helm of California’s opposition to affirmative action (and who was, incidentally, invited by Students for America – not the University) was met with outrage and was eventually driven off the stage. Those of us who were there to hear him speak could feel nothing short of shame for the intolerance that the so-called tolerant left displayed.
Liberalism is ill. It has lost its way. One woman embodied the worst aspects of last evening. Standing in the jammed area just outside of the Ballroom, she repeatedly expressed her desire to shut down the meeting. Pressed to explain what she hoped to accomplish by shutting down the rally, she argued that Horowitz would not feel welcome here and would never return to the University.
No matter how unpalatable or distasteful anyone finds particular ideas, he or she should always be willing to confront them. If this does not occur, Horowitz’ and other conservative intellectuals will continue to attack liberal policies, freed from the burdens of having to defend their ideas against serious intellectual critiques.
“Their jaws drop; they’ve never heard the arguments,” Horowitz told us, referring to liberals who refuse to acknowledge conservative thought. “The conservatives who are in think tanks (who present a minority point of view) are carrying the arguments on a lot of these issues.” Perhaps the conservatism of American politics rests heavily on the fact that liberals are too busy using BAMN-style epithets instead of SOLE-style moderation.
“When I became a conservative, all these names were foreign to me; I’d never heard of them before! That’s not the sign of a good education,” Horowitz said when asked about conservative views in higher education.
In essence, liberalism isn’t just about being able to quote Susan Sontag on command; it isn’t just about reciting Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” in your sleep, it isn’t just about breathing the (noxious) vapors of Cornel West’s “Race Matters.” It’s more than that; it’s about deconstructing the arguments of Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, Robert Nozick, Alan Bloom and William F. Buckley. It’s about reading The Nation and The National Review, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
University liberals must take a place at the vanguard of this sea change. The intolerance toward Horowitz’ conservative views is effective at shielding people from intelligently reconfirming their beliefs, but it does nothing to advance liberal politics. It is only when liberals take on conservative arguments instead of trying to silence them that intelligent liberalism will dominate.
Henretty and Raiji are associate editorial page editors. Peskowitz is a member of the editorial board.