America’s “Most Dangerous” Professors?

David Horowitz targets “liberal” academics—and drags public discourse even lower.

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It’s not often that one gets to be called dangerous by a bona fide expert on the subject. But when I heard about the release of a new book by liberal-hater (and ex-Marxist rabble-rouser) David Horowitz, titled The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, I had a feeling that maybe I’d made the list. After all, I’d already been profiled in his online rag, by the even more conservative founder of Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer (he called me a “Noam Chomsky as Rock Star” character, which would have made a great book blurb, if only my publisher had remembered to use it). And just before I found out about making Horowitz’s hit list a former student emailed me from London saying I had the “quote of the month” on Campus Watch, the originator of the professorial watch lists.

Judging by the combination of congratulations and jealous glances I received from colleagues, it would seem that the only thing worse than being named to a list like this is not being named to it. In fact, while a lot of colleagues are very upset about the very idea of Horowitz’s list, I’ll admit that I would have been really angry if I had been left off. But I can afford such a reaction; given that I’m a tenured professor with a bunch of books either already or in the process of being published (in fact, I think it helped in negotiations for my next book), Horowitz’s attack is at worst a minor annoyance and at best a chance to have a bit of fun, get some free publicity, and maybe increase book sales.

But let’s say I was an untenured professor; or, even worse, an untenured Arab professor, or, more dangerous still, an untenured Palestinian Arab professor who isn’t too thrilled with the Israeli occupation or US foreign policy in the Muslim world. And let’s say that a few students, at the encouragement of people like Horowitz, or his one time protégé, Andrew Jones (the former UCLA student who started his own mini-list of UCLA profs and offered money to students to secretly record classes), started taping my classes, editing my lectures, and doing a “documentary” that took comments out of context and made me look like a raving bin-Ladenite, or at least vaguely anti-Semitic.

Well, then, I wouldn’t be so happy. And let’s say these tapes, or rumors of what I might have said (or more likely, not said) in class started circulating, sending the organized Jewish community into a tizzy and calling for my head on a platter, or at least the denial of my tenure. This may sound like unfounded fears, until you talk to my colleague Joseph Massad, a professor at Columbia, who’s suffered through much of this treatment. Or you can get your administration pissed off at you when wealthy donors threaten never to give your university money because you invited the “wrong” people to speak on campus (although they have no problem inviting Daniel Pipes, the rabidly conservative founder of Campus Watch, to their own gatherings). This happened to me; thank God it was while the campus was flush with money and not last year, when Governor Schwarzenegger drastically cut the university budget.

But it’s not just the threats to individual academics represented by Horowitz et al’s lists that should concern people. There is a larger issue here, which is the professional wrestling-ization of American politics and culture that they reflect. By this I mean that today, more than ever before, the mainstream media–and at base, American culture–prefers Jerry Springer and professional wrestling-style confrontation to actual attempts at reconciliation, and America is the poorer for it. More specifically, The Professors, and the kind of political and cultural discourse it represents, are dangerous to the functioning and purpose of the university, and to the larger notion of both free speech and civil debate that have long been cornerstones of American higher education, and through it, culture.

This dynamic was brought home to me on two consecutive days last week. On Monday, my university, UC Irvine, hosted a dialog between the Palestinian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Manuel Hassassian, and a senior Israeli academic based at the University of Maryland, Edy Kaufman. Despite numerous entreaties to the major southern California media outlets to come and hear their innovative ideas about how Israelis and Palestinians could re-imagine their peace process the event was largely ignored. However, the next day the media flocked to UCI to cover the “unveiling” of several of the now infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons by a small but well funded campus Republican group, which led to an equally large teach-in by Muslim groups outside.

The group that sponsored the unveiling (the very term is a provocation not just to Muslims but also to Jews, for whom unveiling refers to the one year anniversary of a loved one’s death when the tombstone is “unveiled”) is called the United American Committee, a small but well-funded ultra conservative organization that seeks to warn Americans of the Islamic threat to America. It has next to no constituency on our campus. But that didn’t stop it from using the university for its own ends. In fact, UAC’s strategic use of the university as a platform to hold a provocative event is part of a larger trend in which outside groups increasingly use the space, and the commitment to free speech, afforded by university campuses to hold events designed for maximum exposure through maximum insult.

The media’s decision that the first event wasn’t newsworthy, coupled with the national attention that the “unveiling” received, points to how hard it is today for the university to fulfill its core mission of promoting not just diversity of opinion, but also of devising innovative and positive ways of transforming problematic situations. Horowitz’s book–which coincided with a week straight of appearances on the Hannity and Colmes show on Fox News–only makes that job harder.

But it’s not just that Horowitz’s book degrades civil discourse into a verbal free-for-all (as do similar enterprises, such as The Case for Israel, by Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, whose disdain for the truth was revealed for all to see in Norman Finkelstein’s damning new book, Beyond Chutzpah); as important is the utter disregard for accuracy in Horowitz’s profiles. As University of Michigan professor and frequent object of right wing scorn Juan Cole demonstrated in an interview about the book, virtually every accusation that Horowitz made about him or his views was unsubstantiated, and in fact verifiably inaccurate.

Horowitz’s portrayal of my work and views are at least as inaccurate. However, in the genre of Jerry Springer “scholarship,” it matters not at all if accusation have a basis in fact, only that that they’re thrown into the public sphere with enough vehemence, and via the right outlets (Fox, talk radio), to “stick.” In the larger public sphere this disinterest in either presenting or encountering the most accurate version has been demonstrated in spades with the James Frey-Oprah Winfrey debacle over the pseudo memoir A Million Little Pieces, which continues to sell wildly despite being exposed as a work of fiction.

Specifically, Horowitz–or perhaps it was the intern who “researched” the chapter–accused me of being “responsible for a steady stream of anti-American and anti-Israel diatribes.” This is, to say the least, a bit of a stretch, since in my last book, Why They Don’t Hate Us, has several sections criticizing the global peace and justice movement for doing this very thing. More damning, apparently, is his accusation that I am a “rock musician and Marxist.” Now there’s a deadly combination if there ever was one. Except that heavy metal helped bring down the Iron Curtain, not prop it up.

I also, according to Horowtiz, advocate a “quasi-Communist utopia” and a “classless society.” Sounds like these might be nice places to live, but in fact I don’t even know what a quasi-, semi- or neo-communist utopia would look like. As for teaching Marx, I’ve been known to do it on occasion, but so do most business schools. I don’t see any B-School profs on his list, however.

Perhaps more damning is that I “blame Israel and the US for provoking Islamic terrorism.” That’s true, but only in part, since I also blame Muslims, which he neglects to mention, and which is the whole point of trying to offer a more holistic and accurate description of the causes of the war on terror. Horowitz also criticizes me for arguing that capitalism and globalization have caused “war and misery,” but I don’t see him arguing that they don’t; that’s because he’s too smart to enter an argument he can’t win. The point, I guess, is not that they don’t do these things, but rather that by highlighting them I’m putting the capitalist project, or at least American power, in danger).

Even worse, I have the temerity to remind people that war and occupation are wonderful opportunity for corporations to make billions of dollars in profits. For Horowitz such claims are just “Marxist clichés unanchored in any observable reality.” And here we have arrived at the basic dynamic behind The Professors. It is clear that Horowitz and his kind, on the one hand, and myself and most of the other honorees from his list, do not exist in the same reality. Horowitz, like his hero George W. Bush, “creates” his own “reality” (as one senior White House official famously bragged of the current administration), and if they have to destroy other countries, say, Iraq, to do so–in what neocon philosopher and Bush confidant Michael Ledeen gleefully describes as “creative destruction” (the term was originally coined by the sociologist Rudolph Schumpeter to describe the impact of modernity on societies where it appeared)–well, that’s the price of progress.

But it’s pretty dangerous when someone with Horowitz’s supposed clout thinks that war profiteering, which has been amply documented by our own government auditors, is “unanchored in observable reality.” I guess, like Einsteinian physics, it depends on the point of view of the observer. From inside the beltway, and especially the White House and conservative think tanks and K-street lobbyist suites, they hope that no one is observing the rape of the American treasury that has become the Great War on Terror. For the rest of us, I don’t think it’s so easy to ignore.

In the end, what Horowitz clearly wants is that we either support his radical neoliberal-neoconservative agenda or just sit down, shut up, and act like the mobs watching the spectacles at the Colosseum, satisfied with a ticket to the big show and the chance to glimpse Ceasar at one of his well-scripted appearances before his gladiators.

Am I a utopian, as Horowitz charges? Well, I have two young children and would like to see them grow up in a country, and a world at large, that lives up to the high ideals upon which the United States was founded. As I write this at a friend’s apartment in Beirut (a rock musician, I’m afraid to say), more and more of my acquaintances are lamenting precisely the loss of utopian spirit that only a year ago drove Syria out of Lebanon, a feat most of them would have bet their lives wouldn’t occur in the lifetimes only a few months before it happened. What’s clear to them is that as soon as the utopian urge gave way to “realism” and “pragmatism,” politics as usual came back with a vengeance, leaving Lebanon as weak and vulnerable today as it was during the Syrian occupation.

Ultimately, I think that my utopian inclinations are the main threat to Horowitz and his generation of disgruntled ex-leftists, for whom the status quo of increasing corruption, lies, violence and trampled rights can only continue to the extent people don’t believe that another world, or at least another political culture, is possible. I–and I’m willing to bet, most of the professors in Horowitz’s book–still believe that it’s possible for America to live up to its founding promises, to be a force for good in the world rather than just naked self-interest, greed, and the benefit of corporations with ties to red-state Republicans.

Does that make me dangerous? I wish it did, but I fear Mr. Horowitz is giving me and the American people more credit than is our due. As far as I can tell, the American empire is safe and secure, despite my best efforts to topple it. Let’s hope we’re both wrong.


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