A Witness, Part III
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 concludes today. We published the first two installments on Tuesday and Wednesday, here and here.

I’ll tell you what the “smart” view of David is: He was a radical of the Left who became a radical of the Right. He was an extremist then and is an extremist now, with the same nasty and flamboyant style. Express this view, and almost every liberal and conservative head will nod: “Yup, yup, that’s how it is.” It is nonsense. No one will contradict you if you say it — but you’ll be a fool.

I cherish a comment that Hendrik Hertzberg, the New Yorker writer, once made to Collier & Horowitz. He said, “You were apologists for Communism then and you are apologists for anti-Communism now.” They are not merely apologists for anti-Communism; they are anti-Communists, as all decent people are (though they will not necessarily be published in The New Yorker).

If you want to classify David politically, you can call him a conservative — with a healthy dose of Hayek in him. “My life experience had led me to conclude that not only was changing the world an impossible dream, but the refusal to recognize it as such was the source of innumerable individual tragedies and of epic miseries that human beings had inflicted on each other in my lifetime through the failed utopias of Nazism and Communism.” Seldom will you read a more conservative sentence. And you will read many more like it, in David’s collected writings. He is constantly inveighing against ideologies, party lines, rigidities.

David is known as a hothead and flamethrower. A rhetorical goon. He can be that. He can also be coolly cerebral. And he can be elegiac, lyrical — as in personal memoirs such as the one about his late daughter, A Cracking of the Heart. He has many moods, many styles. And make no mistake: He can do style.

Christopher Hitchens was supposed to be the most stylish writer and polemicist of his time. But consider an exchange between him and David on the radio. David said something rude — i.e., something true — about Castro. And Hitchens, with his practiced sneer, said, “How dare you? How dare you?” David replied, “Christopher, aren’t we getting a little old for how-dare-yous?” The more stylish person in that exchange was not Hitchens (who, like Paul Berman, would do some political sobering up).

The question of David’s reputation, or standing, is interesting: He has legions of fans, and legions of detractors, some of whom occupy high places. The Left won’t deal with him, of course. He has their number, he has kept book on them — and they resent it. Writes David, “An ideological omertà is the Left’s response to its vindicated critics, especially those who emerged from its own ranks.” I’m reminded of something a liberal intellectual and policymaker once said to Abigail Thernstrom (who migrated from left to right). He said, “I don’t like debating you, Abby, because you always know what I’m thinking, and you know what I’m going to say before I say it.”

And the conservatives? Have they welcomed David with open arms, gratitude, and delight? Not really. They have often been snippy and scornful about David. Grudging about him. How to explain it? I’m sure I can’t, satisfactorily, but I will have a go:

David, they say, can be harsh, obnoxious, and generally impossible. I have no doubt he can. He can also be a peach. Furthermore, David is an activist — not just an intellectual, but an activist. And some conservatives are uncomfortable with activism. They would rather observe, opine, and sigh. David wants to take up cudgels and win. He says to lazy or defeatist conservatives, “Wake up! Fight back! The Left is eating your lunch, but it need not be so!” David is fearless in an environment marked by some fearfulness. He is an upsetter of the apple cart, and the upsetting of the apple cart is not very conservative. When David goes into a university and makes a fuss about the curriculum, some conservatives are embarrassed. They say, “Stop making a fuss. It may cause them to dislike us even more. Plus, aren’t we born to be an oppressed minority?” Some conservatives are content with dhimmitude. And, frankly, there are conservatives who have the sneaking hope that they will be approved by the New York Times et al. “Look, I may be on the right, but I’m not an extremist and nuisance like Horowitz, you know. You can bring me home to dinner.”

Willmoore Kendall once made a wicked remark about Cleanth Brooks, his colleague at Yale: “Cleanth is always the second-most-conservative person in the room.”