A Witness, Part II

by Jay Nordlinger
The meaning of David Horowitz

Editor’s Note: This year and next will see the publication of The Black Book of the American Left: The Collected Conservative Writings of David Horowitz. There will be ten volumes in this collection, each having a theme. The general theme of the collection is the American Left, from which Horowitz sprang. The first volume, now available, is called “My Life and Times.” Jay Nordlinger’s piece will be in three installments, the first of which we published yesterday, here.

In 1984, David cast his first Republican ballot — for Reagan, who was running for reelection against Walter Mondale. “I did so because he was opposing the efforts of the Sandinista Marxists to turn Nicaragua into a socialist gulag like Cuba. I had supported Fidel; I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.” Foreign policy was vitally important, yes, but David’s thinking at large had shifted. In 1999, he wrote, “As a leftist, I had developed habits of mind that caused me to look at ‘classes’ rather than individuals, at social structures and general paradigms rather than particular events and personalities . . .”

That 1999 article was long after his coming-out. In 1986, he wrote a piece for the Village Voice called “Why I Am No Longer a Leftist.” More than 20 years later, David Mamet would come out in the same publication in a piece called “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’” The response to David — David Horowitz, I mean (though the same applies to Mamet, really) — was not thoughtful consideration. Not many asked, “Does our old comrade have a point?” The response was furious, embodied in a piece for the Voice by Paul Berman called “The Intellectual Life and the Renegade Horowitz.” That word “renegade” was a high honor for David: It was what the Stalinists had called doubters and dissenters in the 1930s. (After 9/11, Berman did some political sobering up.)

A switch from left to right is not necessarily a bright career move. You give up a lot: including entrée to the most respected publications. David found doors shutting in his face — not just at Left publications, but at “mainstream” publications, particularly the New York Times. In going from left to right, you go from the Kingdom of the Cool to the Kingdom of the Much Less Cool, at least. The New Leftists, David’s old comrades, found homes in all the respected publications. They prettied up, airbrushed, and prospered.

In the course of My Life and Times, David quotes some famous words of Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” David is a rememberer, not a forgetter. “Oh sure,” he says, “like Gitlin and Hayden I would prefer to recall the glory days of my youth in a golden light” — referring to Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden, two stars and definers of the New Left. But “for me the era has been irreparably tarnished by actions and attitudes I vividly remember, which they prefer to forget.” David is like a witness to a crime — to many crimes — who won’t shut up about what he saw while others just want to glide on.

He makes the Left hugely uncomfortable, for instance in his use of the words “we,” “us,” and “our.” A sample: “The results of our defense of the Cuban revolution are indisputable. Cuba is an island prison, a land of regime-induced poverty, of misery and human oppression greater by far than the regime it replaced.” Who on the left could stand to hear that?

When people talk of the Sixties, they tend to talk of “crazy times” that were also “idealistic times.” Yes, yes, some people went too far — but those people were few in number, and most people’s hearts were in the right place. David spoils the party by saying, No. The fog machine operates ceaselessly; David dispels the fog.

In 1990 or so, someone introduced him to an audience as “a former peace activist and civil-rights worker.” David got a kick out of that: He had been a Marxist revolutionary! Today, fog covers the Black Panthers. Huey Newton was basically MLK with an edge. Just as the Communists had been “liberals in a hurry,” the Panthers were civil-rights activists with a streak of impatience. This myth is intolerable to anyone who knows about the Panthers.

You may enjoy this aside: Elaine Brown, a blood-soaked Panther, once admitted to David, privately, “The poorest black in Oakland is richer than 90 percent of the world’s population.”

No one, but no one, wants to remember the Vietnam War — meaning, again, the aftermath of that war. George W. Bush gave many speeches in his eight years as president. Probably the Left liked none of them. But there was none they hated more than a speech Bush gave in 2007, in which he spoke of Iraq and the Middle East in the context of Vietnam and Indochina. Here are some inflammatory paragraphs:

. . . many argued that if we pulled out there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people.

In 1972, one anti-war senator put it this way: “What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince, or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they’ve never seen and may never have heard of?” A columnist for the New York Times [Sydney Schanberg] wrote in a similar vein in 1975, just as Cambodia and Vietnam were falling to the Communists. “It’s difficult to imagine,” he said, “how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone.” A headline on that story — dateline Phnom Penh — summed up the argument: “Indochina without Americans: For Most a Better Life.”

The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea.

The squeals following that speech were long, loud, and livid. And guilt-tinged.

After 1985, David’s writing was “driven by two urgencies,” he says: “a desire to persuade those still on the left of the destructive consequences of the ideas and causes they promoted”; and “the frustration I experienced with my new conservative peers who did not seem to understand the malignancy of the forces that were mobilized against them.”

Early in his career, he did some teaching at Berkeley and elsewhere — but he has done most of his teaching in his writing. The term “public intellectual” makes some of us gag, but that’s what David is. He has read a lot, across the spectrum: He knows his Marx and his Mises, his Gramsci and his Kolakowski. He wears his learning lightly, though: It peeks out now and then, as when he quotes one of these gents (or quotes Shakespeare, for that matter). One quality of David’s writing is self-criticism — not in the Maoist sense, but in a true one: David is unsparing about himself and the mistakes he has made. Would that his critics were half as honest.

An editorial reminder: We will publish the last installment of this piece tomorrow.