Commentary Magazine


Uncivil Wars by David Horowitz

Uncivil Wars: The Controversy over Reparations for Slavery
by David Horowitz
Encounter. 137 pp. $21.95

David Horowitz was inducted into the culture wars at a tender age. A red-diaper baby of the 1940’s, he soaked up his parents’ Stalinist beliefs and attended a camp for “workers’ children,” sitting at the feet of the folksinger Pete Seeger and other prophets of a proletarian paradise. By the 1960’s, he had become a well-known radical author and activist in San Francisco, where he co-edited (with Peter Collier) the magazine Ramparts and befriended the Black Panther leader Huey Newton.

Within a decade or so, however, Horowitz began to rebel against the rebellion. Horrified by the murderous ways of the Black Panthers at home and the Vietcong abroad, he reversed course, eventually declaring that he sympathized with Ronald Reagan and viewed the Left as a dangerously destructive force. Ever since then, his ideological pugnacity has made him the bête noire of his onetime allies. He now runs Front Page, an online magazine that decries political correctness, especially in the universities.

In Uncivil Wars, Horowitz provides a detailed chronicle of his most spectacular assault yet on the campus Left—his recent campaign, waged through college newspapers, against the idea that American blacks deserve reparations for the historical injustices they have suffered. As he shows, his controversial arguments were overtaken by a controversy of a different and, by now, all too familiar kind: whether our institutions of higher learning, ostensibly dedicated to a free and liberal exchange of ideas, would allow him to have his say at all.

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As Horowitz tells it, he was prompted to enter this particular fray after discovering to his alarm that the reparations movement, long consigned to the political fringe, had achieved mainstream respectability. In 2000, the former anti-apartheid activist Randall Robinson published a well-received book called The Debt: What America Owes Blacks. This resulted, in turn, in the formation of a Reparations Assessment Group, led by the Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree. The group’s mission was to file class-action lawsuits against any institution—the federal and state governments, universities, corporations—that may have profited in the past from slavery.

Horowitz responded first with an article against reparations in the online magazine Salon, but it attracted little attention. Nine months later, in the spring of 2001, he revised the piece and submitted it to campus newspapers as a paid advertisement in the form of a ten-point manifesto. There he argued, among other things, that “there is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery,” that the reparations movement was just “one more attempt to turn African-Americans into victims,” and that blacks themselves owed a debt to American whites for the sacrifices made in bringing slavery to an end.

Some college newspapers accepted the advertisement and others rejected it—but everywhere it created a brouhaha. The national press soon chimed in. Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter wrote that Horowitz’s words reminded him of “one of those tiresome rants supporting a . . . National Association for the Advancement of White People.” The columnist John Leo, by contrast, denounced those who rejected the advertisement as the “new censors.” Horowitz was delighted with the tumult, and with the self-incriminatingly outrageous behavior of his campus critics.

At Berkeley, as he reports in a chapter on the reaction there, radical students were already inflamed by the university’s new admissions policy, which, under Proposition 209, forbade racial preferences. The publication of his advertisement in the Daily Californian drew vehement protests, prompting the editors to issue an apology for allowing the paper to become “an inadvertent vehicle for bigotry.” Other students—dressed in black, with veils over their mouths—took their objections into the classroom, shouting down professors in order to show that they would not be “ignored.” As for the Berkeley administration, its response to this blatant attempt at intimidation was, Horowitz writes, “in keeping with its normal policy of appeasing left-wing mischief.” University officials “stayed out of the picture and let the classroom obstructions proceed without reprisal.”

Other campuses on which Horowitz shines his spotlight offered variations on these same themes. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the editors of the Daily Cardinal refused Horowitz’s ad, but their counterparts at the Badger Herald, a conservative student paper, agreed to run it. Their reward for this decision: a public rebuke signed by 72 members of the university’s faculty and administration. At Brown, the editors of the Daily Herald were assailed from a different direction. A self-styled Coalition of Concerned Brown Students, made up of the campus’s “third-world” activists, demanded that the paper donate the money received for Horowitz’s advertisement to the campus’s . . . third-world activists.

Always a canny promoter, Horowitz went on a tour of campuses to confront his critics, who (in his account) did not prove to be very formidable. At MIT, he debated Dorothy Benton-Lewis, head of the National Coalition for Reparations, who gave the following rationale for her activism:

Any time you have to depend on the country that enslaved you to feed, clothe, and shelter you, you are still a slave. There were 4 million slaves at the end of emancipation. We are still enslaved; we are just modern-day slaves.

Looking into the audience of well-dressed MIT students, Horowitz replied, “I don’t see any slaves here.”

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There is much to praise in Uncivil Wars. Horowitz is certainly on solid ground in condemning the reparations movement for its inflammatory rhetoric, shoddy history, and intolerance. As he forcefully argues, the movement represents just one of the many half-baked ideas to which the universities have lent a patina of legitimacy since the 1960’s. It is part of the broader academic effort to reinterpret “the narrative of American freedom as a chronicle of race and class oppression.” The particular irony in this case, Horowitz notes, is that today’s American blacks, far from being the hapless victims of racism, are eagerly sought after by governments, corporations, and universities—the very institutions the activists want to punish.

Still, for all the power of his arguments, Horowitz is often his own worst enemy. For one thing, Uncivil Wars has the feel of a cut-and-paste job. Page after page is filled with excerpts from Horowitz’s own speeches and from coverage of the controversy in university newspapers. Though these long passages help to evoke something of the flavor of combat on campus, after a point they simply grow tedious.

There is also the problem of tone. At times, Horowitz verges on the sanctimonious. Reprinting a lengthy article from the University of Wisconsin’s Badger Herald—which accepted and defended his advertisement—he declares that his “hat is off” to the paper’s young editors. “Our nation’s press,” he pronounces, “will be stronger and more principled if they should choose journalism as their life’s work.” At other times he is guilty of overstatement. Even if one rejects the idea of reparations, it is a bit much to tell American blacks that they should be grateful to the U.S. for, of all things, having liberated them from slavery. As a veteran agitator, Horowitz surely knew that this claim would provoke—and also that, without it, his campaign would never have attracted so much national attention.

Even so, it is only in the context of today’s academy, where a culture of ingrained dishonesty prevails, that most of the points in David Horowitz’s manifesto could seem outrageous. In the end, the most striking thing about his arguments is not their originality but their obviousness, at least for those willing to engage in honest debate on a delicate subject.

About the Author

Jacob Heilbrunn is a writer in Washington, D.C.




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