May 18, 2001

Truth, free speech, and the search for a solution

About a week ago, the day before David Horowitz's infamous lecture, while outside the Reynolds Club, I attempted to engage a gentleman from the Spartacus League in a discussion. Addressing his claim that Horowitz is a racist idealogue, I asserted that, in my belief, many of Horowitz's claims, particularly those most often identified as racist, are blatantly ignorant and stupid. Giving Horowitz the benefit of the doubt, however -- as should be given to all human brothers and sisters -- I did not believe that anything said in his anti-reparations advertisement could, without introducing unwarranted preconceived associations and interpretations, be considered racist. Thirty seconds later, despite my belabored iteration and reiteration of my support of slavery reparations and my conviction that many of Horowitz's "Ten Reasons" are utterly obtuse and shallow-minded, my Spartacus brother had informed me that I agreed with David Horowitz and had accused me of being racist.

David Horowitz was right about at least one thing: racial McCarthyism is real, is horrifying, and -- unless progress is defined as increased hatred and mistrust -- is counterproductive to progress. By focusing on racial McCarthyism, a current phenomenon for which the left is almost entirely responsible, I don't mean to imply that leftists are the only perpetrators of the type of sociopolitical evils of which racial McCarthyism is an example. I specifically identify liberals because, firstly, they are the group in which I have most prominently witnessed the horror of expression suppression over the past few weeks. Secondly, I do so because it disturbs me that I, a leftist, am becoming increasingly terrified of the left. And, finally, most importantly, I don't like to watch a cause in which I believe be crippled by the manner in which it is supported.

People are pursuing justice in a very curious way. It's not that the combative mode of operation exhibited by, for example, the campus left over the past few weeks isn't understandable; it's born of an entirely justified anger and frustration. But we become so caught up in our anger that we direct it towards inappropriate objects. We become more concerned with attacking persons and personalities than attacking issues. I have no personal connection with David Horowitz, and, as such, his fate doesn't matter to me at all. When it comes down to it, even his beliefs don't concern me or anyone else on this campus who doesn't have a relationship with him. We must immediately recognize that whether David Horowitz or anyone else is a racist or not is peripheral to and distracts us from what is really important. Despite the way we find ourselves acting, we all know that what matters is the issue of reparations and collectively resolving it.

Becoming preoccupied by labeling and attacking persons is so dangerous because -- at the risk of sounding trite -- all of the ideas a person has to offer are not contained in their label. Whether he is a racist or not, David Horowitz has proffered some extremely important truths as well as some brutally insensitive and obtuse falsities. But we, as people who want to know and actualize truth, can't allow his mistakes to eclipse those of his contributions that are valuable. Whether or not you agree with my evaluation of the dichotomy of David Horowitz, consider the point generally. Unless we are to be blinded to reality by hostility, we must categorize ideas and purported truths by their intrinsic merit rather than by our judgment of the person that propounds them.

But we continue to dismiss each other and substitute positive action with expressions of anger. We must realize that, while our anger is legitimate, it is sociopolitically futile to manifest it as unilateral hostility. The result of the antagonistic methodology of my leftist brothers and sisters is precisely increased antagonism. The right is not won over to the left by being yelled at. Calling them names does not convince opponents of reparations that reparations are a good idea. All that this verbal violence does is further alienate the already opposed parties from each other and damage the possibility of solution.

A case in point: During Horowitz's lecture, I despairingly observed the dynamic of the audience's response to Horowitz's pronouncement of the statistic that blacks, irrespective of rates of arrest and conviction, commit a disproportionate number of crimes in America. I observed, generally, that the Horowitz supporters in the crowd nodded in approval (approval of what?), while the Horowitz opponents dismissed his datum by shaking their heads, scoffing, or muttering (sometimes shouting) "racist" or "stupid." (I identified people as Horowitz supporters or opponents by noticing that the members of each group consistently, dutifully, unfailingly performed their party's characteristic head motion -- up-down or left-right, respectively -- throughout the lecture.) There are many ways that Horowitz's opponents could have responded to his claim. The sampling of the data, for example, could have been challenged, and perhaps this line of contention would have yielded truth previously concealed. In fact, all that needed to happen was for someone to follow directly Horowitz's argument: that blacks are not institutionally disadvantaged because disproportionate incarceration rates are the result of disproportionate perpetration rates, and ask the question, "What do you, Mr. Horowitz, believe is the reason for the higher rate of criminal transgression by blacks than whites?" Not a dismissal, not a rebuttal, not even an assertion: just a question. And Horowitz would have been forced, as far as I can imagine, to answer in a way that would either be dishonest, elusive, bigoted, or would contradict his argument that African Americans have reaped a net benefit from slavery; because his argument was, at that moment, self-inconsistent.

I understand, of course, that such a question could not have been asked of Mr. Horowitz at literally that moment without the asker being disruptive to the lecture and being ejected from the auditorium by the police. And I understand that it is uncertain whether that question would have made it to Horowitz in the short, mediated question-answer session after the speech. But I also understand that it really doesn't matter. Horowitz would go home and, failing to see the fallacy in his logic, go to sleep satisfied that he presented a convincing, consistent argument. Meanwhile, we would go out on the streets and ask our friends the questions we wanted to ask Horowitz. We would ask Horowitz supporters the questions we wanted to ask Horowitz. We would write to our local newspapers and make our arguments. If we are right, and if people didn't block up their ears and minds and dismiss us dogmatically, we would begin to convince people that Horowitz's argument was flawed. And once people were convinced, Horowitz wouldn't matter anymore.

But in the BSLC, we were yelling so loud and shaking our heads so vigorously that we couldn't feel ourselves think, so we missed opportunities to make the progress that we wanted. The point is that we must react differently than we did in there. We must allow Horowitz and everyone else to speak his piece and then get out and speak ours thoughtfully and clearly. As I witnessed in the lecture hall that evening, one contingent's aggressive and vocal dismissal of an idea begets the passive, silent dismissal of that group by anyone who doesn't already agree with them (and sometimes by the people who do). This is a much more insidious and dangerous dismissal, one that truly ruptures lines of communication and renders both sides incapable of convincing the other of any truth. With such dismissal, people settle into their dogmas and prejudices and stop thinking about the truth of issues. And then everything is lost.

As I boarded the CTA 171 outside the Reynolds Club on Friday, a woman from the Spartacus League stood on the curb distributing leftist literature. She spoke her mind coherently and lucidly. A fellow U of C student, boarding ahead of me, shouted at her, "Oh, so you're a commie pinko!" She said something back -- something that sounded like a more highly developed sentence than the one she was assailed with -- but I couldn't hear it and neither could my right-leaning brother in front of me because with every ascending step onto the bus he shouted mechanically, "commie pinko, commie pinko." He only stopped once he was far enough inside the bus that the acoustic boundary he had before erected vocally between himself and his leftist sister could now safely be provided by glass windows. We sat down across from each other and, in a bitterly ironic moment, he looked at me and said, "You just can't talk to those people."

Thought, respect, and the struggle for a solution have been replaced by dogma, dismissal, and antagonism. We must recognize collectively that the latter are, while understandable reactions to difficult social situations, completely useless in themselves and are nothing but pathological byproducts of the pursuit of the former.

I don't care one whit about David Horowitz or about labeling people as good guys or bad guys, and I don't think you should either. I do care about truth and justice and trying to begin to repair the damage that has been institutionally inflicted upon an entire subculture of people for a long, long time, and I care about respecting humans' humanity in the process. And, if we want for anything positive to ever happen, you should too.