David Horowitz and the Politics of Ad Hominem Distortion
During my days as a college activist, organizing against U.S. and corporate support for apartheid, I can recall the way in which many students, despite agreeing with the goal of our coalition (namely, divestment from firms complicit with the racist government in South Africa), refused to sign any petition calling for the same. Regularly they would offer, through expressions betraying a level of intimidation similar to the cowed masses of communist bloc Eastern Europe, something along the lines of, "Gee, I’d love to sign, but I’m afraid my name would end up on a list somewhere."
Amazing. In a nation that prides itself on being the freest in history, citizens express concern that they would be the victims of political persecution were they to simply sign a petition calling for their college to stop investing in companies that give aid and comfort to a white supremacist regime several thousand miles away.
Perhaps their fears were understandable, of course, stemming as they might have from a recognition of how our government has indeed placed critics of U.S. policy and the business class on shit lists from time to time, using those lists to ruin careers, destroy families, and even imprison those whose criticisms were trumpeted as treasonous.
But whether for these historically understandable reasons, or for others less valid, the fact is that many Americans fear being identified even with causes they support, out of concern that someone in the employ of Big Brother may be watching. And if not Big Brother, certainly his illegitimate stepchild, David Horowitz, whose FrontPageMag.com launched a new venture in February, ominously entitled "Discover the Networks," and which purports to be an "informational database" on the political left.
Although one would think a mere database on the left could be called just that–say, for example, "Informational Database on the Left"–such pedestrian labeling would hardly serve Horowitz’s propaganda needs, which, despite his vociferous denials (akin to nothing so much as those of Lady Macbeth), entail painting everyone to the left of Joe Lieberman as some kind of subversive. Thus, the utterly demented inclusion as "leftists," such persons as reactionary fascist and al Qaeda operative, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Arnold Schwarzenegger supporter Jay Leno, Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, and film critic Roger Ebert.
Nutty or not, the imagery of a shadowy "network" or cabal of leftists panders to the conspiratorial side of right-wing politics and plays especially well on an Internet not known for tight fact checking.
To wit, DTN’s entry for yours truly, which makes more mistakes in just a few short paragraphs than I would have thought possible. On the one hand, I’m honored to make any list of enemies compiled by folks like Horowitz. With characters such as this, nothing comes to mind so readily as Billy Bragg’s classic line, "If you’ve got a blacklist I want to be on it." Yet, one should venture to get one’s smears as on-point as possible. In other words, if you’re going to malign someone, do it with something other than cartoonish ad hominems.
Since the DTN site insists that it places a high premium on accuracy, (much as McDonald’s insists that its salads demonstrate a commitment to nutrition), and makes corrections as soon as mistakes are brought to their attention, I offer here my corrections, for two reasons. First, to demonstrate their sloppiness as researchers, and thus call into question the entire enterprise in which Horowitz and his right-wing culture warriors are engaged; and secondly, to provide the substantive content that David so regularly claims is lacking from the left, if only because he is unwilling or unable to engage the arguments.
Let’s begin with the easiest and most puzzling of errors. According to DTN I was born in 1969. Because of Horowitz’s unwavering devotion to accuracy (please, why are you laughing, stop that), I actually had to call my mother on this one. And sure enough, after a brief phone conversation, and a quick examination of my baby book, we were both relieved to learn that it actually had been 1968, as we had long suspected.
You may think this a minor quibble, but in fact it’s not, because if DTN’s cracker-jack researchers had done even a little homework–say, reading even the first page of the first chapter of my book White Like Me, which they actually mention in the bio–they would have "discovered the birthday," mentioned prominently, and placed in the context of the somewhat unique and portentous history of that particular year. In other words, they didn’t read it, like most conservatives, who feel they can attack someone’s politics without really examining their beliefs in depth, as one would have to do by reading the principal book authored by the person being criticized.
Interestingly, when my bio was initially entered in the DTN database, the first line referred to me as a "failed academic"–an appelation that the editors felt appropriate, apparently because, as they pointed out, I "only" have a Bachelor’s Degree. Given that this level of academic accomplishment put me dead even with right-wing gadfly Dinesh D’Souza, and above Rush Limbaugh and Shawn Hannity, I wrote to Jamie Glazov, Horowitz’s point person at FrontPageMag to inquire about this particular slam. I was expecially interested in learning the academic credentials of two of DTNs own "staff" writers and editors: Michael Tremoglie (an ex-cop), and John Perazzo. Given that I could not find reference to their educational accomplishments anywhere on the web (unlike Glazov and Horowitz), I suspected that it was highly unlikely that either of them had post-graduate degrees. Did not Glazov find it a bit hypocritical to slam me for my "meager" academic credentials, if in fact DTN and FrontPage both have in their employ equally, if not lesser educated writers?
The very next morning, to Glazov’s credit, but also indicating the sliminess of the enterprise (given that I had to point out the irony of the critique myself before anything was done about it), the "failed academic" reference was gone, confirming it seems the equally unimpressive academic resumes of Messrs Tremoglie and Perazzo.
The whole thing had, of course, been absurd from the start, since I had hardly "failed" at academe, any more than I failed at professional basketball, drywall installation or dentistry, which is to say I sought to advance in none of these arenas, becoming instead a civil rights activist immediately after college. This kind of slam is about as fair as if I were to advise you never to eat at David Horowitz’s house because he is a "failed restaurateur," and this I know because he doesn’t own his own bistro.
Never missing an opportunity to smear by association, DTN notes that I opposed the war in Iraq, which of course they characterize as my opposing the toppling of Saddam Hussein. They then insert a link to Hussein in my bio, as if to imply a connection between us, and as if Hussein had been a hero to the left all those years that the right (and particularly Ronald Reagan) was happily supporting him.
Interestingly, the first time I went on record opposing Hussein’s government in Iraq was in 1987, when I was not yet nineteen, during the U.S. "tilt" to his regime, and I did so in a letter to the editor in my local newspaper. My guess is that this would have placed me at least three years ahead of anything David Horowitz ever said about Hussein, which means, following DTN’s logic, that David Horowitz was, throughout the 80s, an apologist for Ba’athist fascism.
My DTN entry continues, by noting that I view the U.S. as a nation "rife with white racism," and that I have "made a name" for myself as a "public denouncer of white people everywhere." In one especially bizarre line, the research staff at DTN claims:
"(Wise) views the United States as a nation overrun by white racists ever-eager to ambush blacks and other minorities so as to vent the cauldron of bigotry that allegedly boils inside of them."
Creative writing skills, vivid fairy-tale imagery, and a stunning knack for mixed metaphors aside, this bears such little resemblance to the truth as to be hardly decipherable. In fact, I view the U.S. as a nation in which racism has been interwoven from the beginning, and in which it continues to operate. But this racism is not principally the individual racism of "evil" white people, let alone those out to ambush people of color due to some kind of boiling hatred, but rather the more impersonal racism of institutions, whose actors perpetrate unequal treatment often without deliberate intent to harm. If anything, it is my argument that white people are far less individually culpable than the institutions in which we find ourselves dominant, the policies and procedures of which continue to advantage whites to the detriment of people of color.
So, for example, I refer to the old boy’s networks that are critical to landing the best jobs (in both white and blue collar professions, as recent research has discovered), and which tend to exclude persons of color, irrespective of ability. This they do, not because of bigotry, but simply because the folks in the networks tend to live around and mostly associate with others like themselves, and the most influential of these networks tend to be white, thanks to a legacy of residential and occupational segregation. In other words, individual white people could be utterly free of any hatred, let alone boiling hatred (oh my!) and still perpetrate racial disparity simply by engaging in the kind of networking that is vital to the landing of most jobs (1).
Of course individual whites do engage in racially disparate treatment, but not because of perfidious intolerance, so much as a social conditioning that has led many of us to believe negative stereotypes about blacks, Latinos, American Indians, and Arabs, among others. So, for example, I tend to think that most police who racially profile do it not because of some vicious Klan-like racism, but because many believe that blacks and Latinos are most likely to possess drugs, even though data from the Department of Justice, among other sources, indicates otherwise. For example, blacks are three times more likely than whites to be stopped in their vehicles and searched for drugs or other illegal contraband, even though whites are nearly four-and-a-half times more likely to actually be found in possession of such items, on those occasions when we’re stopped (2).
In workshops, when I have asked law enforcement officials what first pops into their minds when they see a young black male driving a nice car, they answer, without hesitation, "drug dealer." Conversely, when I ask the same question about a young white man in a nice car, they reply without hesitation "spoiled rich kid, daddy probably bought him a car." These responses don’t make police evil, or bigots, but they do indicate a propensity for the very behavior that can only be called racist, in terms of its impact.
One is surely free to disagree with any or all of that, but at least it should be characterized accurately. My analysis on race has almost nothing to do with personal condemnations of anyone, and in fact, holds that whites as individuals are actually harmed too by structural racial inequality, even as we reap certain privileges from that same structure.
Because even a site about the left must, if David Horowitz runs it, ultimately be about David Horowitz, the DTN site then claims:
"In an e-mail exchange with David Horowitz, Wise maintained that the increase in the prosperity of the black middle class, when compared to the white middle class…is essentially a meaningless statistical trick."
This is nonsense, as one can ascertain by reading the exchange, which is available here (http://www.zmag.org/RaceWatch/wisehoro.htm). Therein I note, regarding the black middle class (which David claimed was actually "doing better than their white counterparts") that its members, "on average have significantly less net worth, lower assets, lower home ownership rates, and tend to more closely mirror the (white) working class." These points are simply incontrovertible, and I provided a source for all of them (one which of course Horowitz then proceeded to ignore, and never to challenge): namely Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro’s seminal work on racial wealth inequality, Black Wealth, White Wealth. (3).
David also insisted in our e-mail exchange, that, "The black middle class is growing faster and increasing its income faster than the white middle class," and then triumphantly concluded: "That’s really all that matters in this discussion," which argument elevates vapidity to new and previously unheard of levels.
As I explained at the time, the fact that the black middle class is growing faster than the white middle class means little, since that would naturally be the result of having started out as a smaller sub-set of the black population, and having more room to grow, relative to one’s overall population size. The white middle class has been entrenched longer than the black middle class, and has been a larger share of the white population than its black counterpart, so its growth rate is going to be smaller, but its relative position to the black middle class will still be far better, mostly for reasons of past wealth accumulation.
Similarly, if you stick your kid in a closet at age two and feed them nothing but bread and water for six months, and then CPS rescues the child and places him or her in a loving home where they receive three squares a day, that child’s growth rate will no doubt outpace the growth rate of the loving family’s other two year old, who had always been fed well. So what? The newcomer will still be far worse off and face serious obstacles in absolute and relative terms, not faced by his or her sibling.
Then, in a reference so utterly obscure that I actually had to go digging just to unearth what in the name of God they were talking about, DTN blasts my "rabid anti-Catholicism," which was apparently demonstrated by my criticisms of Pope John Paul II (before his death), "and the Church’s position on abortion, as well as ill-aimed broadsides at the pedophilia scandal that has rocked the Church."
That’s right, to criticize the Pope, or the abortion views of the Catholic Church, or to criticize the way in which the church has responded to the pedophilia issue is to be rabidly anti-Catholic, according to DTN. By this standard, of course, Mel Gibson is anti-Catholic, given his unyielding criticism of every Pope since Vatican II for being too liberal.
As it turns out, I only wrote about any of this stuff one time in a blog entry. Therein, I criticized John Paul for what was apparently a serious consideration of sainthood for the hallucinatory nun whose visions of Jesus’ suffering on the way to Golgotha, led her to blame "evil" Jews for his death: a view Gibson embraced in his version of the Passion. Perhaps David is comfortable with crazy anti-Semitic nuns and their twenty-first century acolytes (after all, he loves the President, who has said anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus is going to hell), but some of us Jews find this kind of thing a bit troubling. (As a side note, if it turns out that Bush is right about what God requires in order to get a free pass into heaven, David Horowitz and I will both be spending a lot more time around one another in the afterlife than either of us would probably prefer).
DTN then claims, derisively, that I have compared America’s founding fathers to the Afghan Mujahadeen, which of course was not my work, but that of Ronald Reagan, who had a habit of labeling terrorists (like the Muj or the Nicaraguan contras) freedom fighters, and then likening them to Washington crossing the Delaware. I merely noted that indeed both forces–the founders and the Muj–killed a lot of people in defense of their particular vision of the good, so that I suppose Reagan’s analogy wasn’t so far off after all. Again, this is not factually arguable, and the comparison was made by Horowitz’s hero, not me. I simply made the comparison an unfavorable one, rather than an act of dual praise, and it is this–not the comparison itself–which seems to have the folks at DTN so upset.
DTN then issues several drive-by statements, devoid of any specificity, which are correct so far as they go, but which don’t say much about my views beyond the sound byte level complexity favored by many on the right. So, for example, the reader learns that I "loathe capitalism," "think the prison system is racist," support an "overhaul" of the criminal justice system, "support reparations," and am an "incessant critic of Israel."
As for the first three of these, I plead guilty, and am more than happy to debate the points with anyone; to number four I also assent, but only if done systemically, as community-based repair and investment (like with the Marshall Plan or GI Bill), not as separate checks sent to individuals to buy off suffering; and to number five, well, I don’t know what "incessant" means to the folks at DTN, but given that I have written exactly five articles about Israel in almost twenty years of authoring political essays, and have given one speech on the subject, I’m pretty sure that to the intellectually honest, "incessant" would seem like a stretch. Not to mention, so what? I am a Jew who was raised to think that part of my cultural tradition was to question everything I was told by authority figures, which by necessity includes my rabbi and the ADL.
There are several other silly things about my DTN entry, but I’ll end where they do, with a charge that is not only wrong, but in effect amounts to an accusation that I have committed massive tax evasion over the past several years. Namely, they conclude by noting, "Wise commands $4,000 plus expenses per engagement. Hence, he has made well over a million dollars preening himself as an anti-racist, while flagellating whites."
My wife found this one especially interesting, and had our relationship not been as strong as it is, would probably have wanted to know just where the hell all the money had gone. DTN arrived at this figure of course, merely by multiplying two numbers they "discovered," without thinking for a second about how likely the end result of their computation was to be wrong. First, they took from my bio, the number 350, which represents roughly the number of places where I have spoken or done workshops or seminars in the past decade. Then, they called up my booking agent and asked how much I charge for a speech. Because they made the inquiry this spring, they were quoted the price that will be in effect starting this fall. But of course, I have rarely ever received this amount in the past, and have done at least fifty of those 350-plus presentations for no money whatsoever, and several dozen more for only a few hundred dollars at most. Surely David Horowitz knows that asking price and actual payment often diverge.
So, I’ll be waiting for a series of corrections, though not holding my breath. These are people who still argue Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was involved in 9/11, so given their attachment to these biggest of lies, one can hardly expect them to correct their distortions about me, and no doubt dozens of others on the DTN site.
After all, and to paraphrase Barry Goldwater (who within the taxonomy of David Horowitz’s "network" would have been a leftist in his later years), dishonesty in the defense of conservatism is no vice.
TIM WISE is an antiracist essayist, educator and father, and decidedly not a millionaire, unlike David Horowitz, who is exactly that. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.timwise.org. He is the author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005).
(1) Gertrude Ezorsky, Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action. Cornell University Press. 1991; Marc-David L. Seidel, "Friends in High Places: The Effects of Social Networks on Discrimination in Salary Negotiations," Administrative Science Quarterly. March 2000.
(2) Matthew R. Durose, Erica L. Schmitt and Patrick A. Langan, Contacts Between Police and the Public: Findings from the 2002 National Survey. U.S. Department of Justice, (Bureau of Justice Statistics), April 2005.
(3) Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth, White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. Routledge, 1995.