Maurice Isserman: David Horowitz and the Truth

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Maurice Isserman is professor of history at Hamilton College . The author of many books, he is currently writing a history of Himalayan mountaineering.]

One way to fight back against contemporary assaults on the values of the American academy is to expose lies when we hear them. In that spirit, I offer the following story, which suggests how little respect conservative activist David Horowitz has for the truth when it proves politically inconvenient.

On Tuesday evening, February 1, 2005, two days before University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill was scheduled to speak at Hamilton College, Horowitz, who campaigns against “leftist bias” on U.S. campuses, appeared as a guest on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor. He proceeded to bash U.S. higher education in general and Hamilton College in particular as bastions of left-wing extremism.

Churchill had been invited to Hamilton by the college- affiliated Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society, and Culture. The invitation stirred outraged protests, however, after wider publication of previously obscure and highly offensive remarks he had made several years earlier about those who perished on September 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center . He wrote shortly after the attacks that they were not innocent victims but “little Eichmanns” who deserved their fate. As it turned out, on the day of the O’Reilly broadcast, Churchill’s invitation to speak at Hamilton was withdrawn in the face of death threats against him and others.

Using the Churchill controversy as evidence, Horowitz told O’Reilly’s audience that on contemporary college campuses the prevailing political climate is “the kind of intimidating situation you see in societies run by fear . . . hard-core Marxist radicalism.” The show’s transcript also includes the following exchange about an appearance by Horowitz in 2002 on the Hamilton campus.

O’Reilly: You know—but it is to Hamilton ’s credit that you were invited to speak there, correct?

Horowitz: Yes. Well, I—you know, the conservative kids invited me.
It’s a little different when you’re invited as a—you know, a speaker paid by and invited by the faculty. It’s not like the faculty brought me up there.

I’ve been called many things since I joined the history department at Hamilton College , but that was the first time I’ve been called a “conservative kid.” The fact is that it was not conservative kids who first brought Horowitz to our campus: three years ago, I invited him to speak to the students in my seminar on the history of the 1960s and to debate me in a public forum on the legacy of that conflict-ridden decade. In the course of an e-mail exchange on an unrelated matter in summer 2002, Horowitz complained to me that he had never once been officially invited to speak at a college. Because I was teaching a course in the fall where I could slot him in, I spontaneously extended an offer to him to come speak at Hamilton .

But don’t take my word for it—simply go to the archives of Horowitz’s own Web magazine, Frontpage, and look up his blog entry for September 18, 2002: “Today, I am at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., to speak on the [s]ixties. It is one of the rare occasions I have been officially invited, in this case by historian Maurice Isserman [who is] . . . that rare specimen, an honest leftist.” After more compliments to his host and to other faculty members he met while on campus, Horowitz concluded, “ Hamilton College scores better than your average school in terms of diversity of faculty views.”

Contrary to the impression he gave on The O’Reilly Factor, Horowitz was, in fact, an official guest of Hamilton College in fall 2002, invited by a faculty member, introduced at his talk by the dean of the faculty, and generously compensated for his time....

David Horowitz's Reply 10-1-05

Maurice Isserman's attack is based on an invitation he extended me as the result of phone conversation I made to him, which led to an invitation for me to come to speak at Hamilton. This invitation was quite different from the one a faculty run committee at Hamilton made to Ward Churchill, but in his article Isserman is content to conflate them. When confronted by this conflation in an O'Reilly Factor segment nine months ago, I said that I had not been invited to Hamilton by "the faculty" as Ward Churchill had been but had been invited by students, which was in fact the case on the most recent occasion that I had spoken at Hamilton, which happened to be the second time I spoke there. I should have had said I was invited once by a professor and once by students; but I didn't for reasons I will explain.

Now Isserman, without ever having raised it directly to me, has decided to use this trivial incident as a blunt instrument in an attempt to discredit me and the movement for academic freedom with which I am associated. I am posting my reply to Isserman below, which puts the incident in its proper context. I leave readers to judge the matter for themselves:

Reply to Isserman

This is a pretty low blow over a pretty trivial incident. Of the three hundred campus speeches I have been invited to make and of the two campus speeches I have been invited to make at Hamilton, I have been invited to speak by a professor exactly once and never, like Ward Churchill or convicted terrorist Susan Rosenberg, by a faculty committee. Yes Maurice Isserman invited me to Hamilton, but not exactly spontaneously and not exactly without prompting. To begin with, it was I who called him, not the other way around. So part of the initiative belongs properly to me.

Because Maurice Isserman had shown himself in his work to be more open-minded than many of his colleagues, I decided to engage him in a conversation about the one-party state and one-sided curriculum that now characterized the American university that was run by him and his colleagues. Since somebody had mentioned that he taught a seminar in the Sixties (or perhaps he volunteered it himself) I confronted him with the observation that there are about 600 courses that deal with the 1960s nationally, and that although I am an artifact of that era, and the author of its first manifesto, and the former editor of its largest radical magazine, and its most prominent defector and critic, I have never been invited into one of those classrooms (nor are my books assigned to the students who flock to them); nor have I been invited to a single one of the hundreds of symposia on a subject that can be said to be my area of expertise. In other words, I set out to consciously push Isserman to see if I could shame him into inviting me. It was in the course of this conversation that he did invite me, a fact I acknowledged in my magazine Frontpage as he observes.

My O'Reilly moment was a five minute segment. I noted that I had been invited to Hamilton twice (although never as the invitee of a faculty run program like the Kirkland Project which invited Ward Churchill, the topic of the segment). O'Reilly countered by asking whether it wasn't "to Hamilton's credit" that they had invited me to speak. Well, yes, once out of the two times I was there (the second time the only faculty involved were a gaggle of hecklers at my talk); and once out of the three hundred times I had spoken at universities generally -- and then only because I had in effect argued my way in.

I should have said this -- I wanted to say this -- but in the two seconds I had to reflect on my response I couldn't figure out how to convey in a sound-bite all that needed to be conveyed about the reality of these campuses and my visits to them in a way that would reflect my actual experience -- my treatment by university faculties generally and over two decades as an unwanted alien presence (I have actually had leftwing professors organize boycotts of my appearances); the fact that my pariah status derived solely from the sin of not having political views that agreed with theirs.

I couldn't figure out how in a sound bite to rehearse the fact that thousands of faculty invitations were given annually to leftwing non-entities or to conjure the thousands of silent refusals by leftwing faculties to do the decent thing towards conservatives like myself, and to honor the verbal genuflections they regularly made to democracy, pluralism and the usual b.s. that leftists try to convince themselves they believe in.

In the two seconds I had to reflect on the matter, I didn't think I would be able to describe my relationship to the Sixties and to Isserman or summarize the contents of our phone conversation in the sound-bite I knew was available to me.

Perhaps I should been smarter and come up with something really clever, but I didn't. Instead I thought -- if I just say yes I was invited by faculty that would be a really big lie about the reality of my experience on university campuses. So I said what I said -- that I was invited by conservative students, which was true but not the whole truth.

Now a year later, Maurice Isserman -- who has never written to me or contacted me since and who has never included my intellectual end of the dialogue in his many writings on the Sixties-- has decided to weigh in with an entire piece about this trivia in order to suggest that I am liar and thereby to discredit the academic freedom movement with which I am associated. Why would he want to do that, one should ask oneself. What is the academic freedom movement about that is so threatening? Well, it is about attempting to introduce a little intellectual diversity into the academy that Maurice and his friends run. It is to suggest that leftwing professors like Maurice Isserman ought to be concerned about the one party culture they have created in what once were truly liberal universities that honored intellectual pluralism and fairness. Considering this, my only conclusion can be that Isserman must regret bringing David Horowitz to Hamilton. And it would seem from this gesture that he might not even really care if I or anyone like me were ever invited again.

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