David Horowitz came to town last night for a talk sponsored by the College Republicans. He's a conservative commentator, most recently known as the author of the Academic Bill of Rights. I went along to hear what could be motivating such a bizarre piece of legislation.
What is the Academic Bill of Rights? A series of statements intended to explicitly prohibit political ideology from affecting hiring, firing and teaching decisions made at universities. It was written by Horowitz in 2003, in the belief that because liberals/progressives are over represented on academic faculties, US schools are becoming centres of indoctrination in liberal politics. Conservative students, he says, are often made to feel uncomfortable about their ideas and unable to contribute these ideas to class discussions or assignments.
He also claims there are cases of unfair grading practices, but it's unclear how many of Horowitz's allegations of unfair treatment are true, or just allegations. Most if not all universities have policies in place already that cover what the Bill (and a companion Student Bill of Rights) covers, and it is unclear exactly what the Bill would change or how it would be enforced (as Horowitz was quick to admit in his lecture). But at least 12 states have versions of the Bill pending in their legislatures (including my current home, Indiana, although this appears to be dead in committee for the time being) and there is a bill in the US House of Representatives.
First, I want to mention some things I noted as he spoke, that of course got no coverage in the press (all the college papers are more concerned with telling off protestors for throwing pies at him at Ball State University). They're all things that highlighted for me that this Bill of Rights has nothing to do with fairness in academia and everything to do with an ongoing assault on dissent and free speech.
First, Horowitz gets a standing ovation at the start by about 75-80% of the crowd (a fact which became more and more relevant as the lecture went on). As he starts to speak, about 8 protestors break in with banners calling him a racist (his last excursion onto campuses was to run full page ads in college newspapers about why slavery reparations are wrong and racist). He DEMANDS that they be arrested by security and that their names be given to the Dean who should then expel them. He also accuses them of stifling his right to free speech and talks about why that's ironic (given what they claim to be about). The crowd told the protesters to get out, shut up, and, as the protestors were being escorted out one student in the audience yelled out "Bye-bye Commies", to a titter from the crowd.
I thought he was going to talk about evidence for the whole "conservatives can't get heard on campuses" thing, which would speak to the logical core motivating the Bill of Rights. But he starts out his 45 min lecture with an accusation that modern day progressives and leftists are responsible for the crimes of Stalin's communism, and also that liberals are the intellectual descendants of European fascism, which was driven by identity politics (movements that centre on a sexual or racial or other identity). The former claim has an interesting history, but the latter is more tenuous as identity politics is generally considered to have developed in the 1960s (I'm not an expert but my flatmate is, so I'm taking his word here).
Horowitz continues with his attack on progressive politics: the other thing that defines leftists is that they are "religious fanatics" who believe they can change the world. They want to eradicate racism, sexism, homophobia, etc (hence the development of political correctness) but apparently they are fighting a hopeless cause against human nature - these things have always been around, and therefore its futile (and, in fact, immoral) to try and change them. Expanding on the religious aspect, he claims liberals think of themselves as an army of angels and the GOP as the party of Satan.
There is more; Democrats are the racist party, because all the inner city slums (in LA, DC, Chicago etc) are all run "100% by democrats and leftists" - Democrats who won't let these poor families have school vouchers, which would, goes the claim, allow these kids to switch into better private schools. It's therefore the Democrats who cause (by being in charge) and maintain (by denying vouchers) the poverty in inner city slums (he says the Democratic Party has "their boot grinding the faces of these poor kids into the dirt").
So liberals are evil and racist. Now Horowitz finally gets to campuses: there are some studies (although at least two of them may have been funded by him) that apparently show that liberals outnumber conservatives on faculties by up to 10 to 1. Liberals are evil. Therefore this hateful ideology is the dominant show in town, corrupting the educational process.
"Do you think these things happen at random?" he asks the crowd, and then answers himself. There are so few conservatives because, and I quote, "there is a BLACK LIST [caps to point out he was shouting at this point] that goes back 35 years designed to stop conservatives from getting tenure". This isn't an actual list (it finally transpired) but a mindset, sort of reverse affirmative action in which a liberal always gets picked over an otherwise equal conservative candidates. Asked for evidence of this black list, he gives two anecdotes, about one guy not getting a job because he supported vouchers and another about there being a question on a California job application asking about the person's opinion of a nuclear powerplant down the road. He then says, and again I quote, "I don't need to find lots of examples of this to prove my point."
He ends to another standing ovation by the same people as before, and took some questions. The first one was about "why do the Democrats deny us the right to vouchers?" (shades of Jeff Gannon in the phrasing), which Horowitz answers with a 5 minute diatribe about how all the Democrats want is power. The rest of the questions (all critical of his claims) get no actual answers.
Here are some of the stand-out moments that really blew my mind. They're mostly moments of intense irony or frightening reactions from the crowd:
He went on a rant about how teachers' unions are run by socialists and hence hate America and are hurting the kids. A teacher in the back piped up and said "I work hard to help the kids I teach," and then added "and I supported the war in Iraq." Without missing a beat Horowitz said "You would never support a US-led war because you hate America," to which the crowd APPLAUDED AND CHEERED while he stood back swigging from his water as if he had just said "You, sir, are no Jack Kennedy." He simply denied that the man told the truth about his own opinions and the crowd ate it up.
He talked about the Harvard president story (who came out in a speech saying one of the reasons why women are under-represented at the top levels of engineering, etc, may be (among other things) different aptitudes i.e. women can't do maths). The "thought police" (who, it turns out are the leftists and the feminists) proceeded to force him to apologise, when according to Horowitz the "different aptitudes" claim is a solid scientific fact. Except that part 4 of his Bill reads "Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate."
America is not a racist country, he claimed. There are "one or two racists here and there" but nothing systemic. How does he know? Because of Oprah and Michael Jackson. They are black, came from poor, troubled backgrounds and yet amassed huge fortunes. So there can't be racism. (really, he said this.) There were no genocidal efforts made on the Indians in the 1700s, because "there are more Indians alive now than there were then."
And Ward Churchill (he of the 'little Eichmanns' quote) is racist because his career is partly about US wars against minorities and he must therefore believe that all the Mexicans crossing the border are stupid, running to the arms of a country that will kill them (cue audience titter).
He went on and on about how Churchill using the "little Eichmanns" phrase was such a crime (and indicative of the general liberal America-hating state of the universities). He then proceeded to tell a story about how Nazi doctors viewed Jews as a virus to be destroyed (as a way to resolve the cognitive dissonance of being a doctor who was killing people) and saying that progressives think this EXACT same way about conservatives.
Someone pointed this contradiction out in the Q&A and asked "What makes you different from Churchill?" His response to this and EVERY SINGLE OTHER DISSENTING VIEW was to dismiss it out of hand as irrelevant or incoherent or by making a joke. At no point did he intellectually engage the question - the act of asking the question apparently made the person part of the liberal conspiracy and therefore he could be ignored.
To pre-empt claims that his Bill of Rights is Orwellian, he said opposition to the bill is Orwellian. Why? Because the title of the bill has the words 'academic freedom' in it and anyone who is against academic freedom is "a communist".
And the crowd ... oh, the crowd. I've never been in a room of people being stirred up by rhetoric rather than reason. When they applauded the phrase "you hate America" about the teacher, I was genuinely scared - I think this is a little what it would have been like to be a Jew at a Nazi rally. I know Nazi analogies are tossed around very easily these days, but it was quite incredible. It was like watching Pavlov's dogs: he rang the 'you hate America' bell and they all salivated and applauded him as if they had no choice.
The crowd also told any dissenting people to shut up or to get out, without any sense of irony. Some friends asked him a question (which of course he refused to answer) and they tried to follow up. Horowitz said "What department are you in", and they said "Philosophy". Horowitz and the crowd laughed and jeered and that was the end of their credibility. He moved on without addressing their question with the crowd muttering things like "Oh, philosophy? Well, of course they don't know anything about the real world." They were simply no longer allowed to have an opinion about this lecture.
I've been watching for a long time as Bush stands up and says things like "We need tariffs to protect free trade" - using a buzzword that people like (like "free trade") to justify something that was either irrelevant or contradictory. This was it in real life - using the conservative rhetorical buzzwords triggered a conditioned response from the crowd and they responded "appropriately" to the buzzword, irrespective of the premise. The most obvious other one was "Arrest those protesters and have them expelled ... they're interfering my right to free speech."
Well, if you're still reading, then thanks, and I guess let me know if you wanted to know anything more. This experience has really shaken me - the crowd behaviour, the power of the rhetoric, and the sheer anti-intellectualism are all astounding. I'm becoming more and more convinced that the Left is being bludgeoned over the head by a well oiled and carefully crafted conservative machine 40 years in the making, and that this machine has two goals: to swing the pendulum of power to the right, and then change the rules of the game so it stays there.
The assault on academia and the judiciary is an assault on the democratic mechanisms for checks and balances (the latter explicitly mandated in the Constitution!). The media is no help (except for Jon Stewart, for what that's worth). I'm just trying to do the only thing I can do, namely make as many people as possible hear about events like this. The power Horowitz had over the crowd with his rhetorical set pieces (and that he didn't have with the non set pieces) was literally like being in pre-WWII Germany, and if the Republicans ever find a genuine charismatic, there will be trouble.
Thanks for reading this far.
Department of Psychology