Scott McLemee: David Horowitz's Book on "Dangerous" Professors

Roundup: Talking About History

The groves of academe now echo with howls of outrage over The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America —a new book from Regnery Publishing, a conservative press, by David Horowitz. All over the country, scholars have turned its pages with mounting fury, indignant at not being listed. One prof even did a podcast just to (in his words) “spit n’cuss about being left out.”

In the meantime, Horowitz himself has hit the airwaves. The book is being subjected to searching examination on television programs such as “Hannity & Colmes,” where the hosts never read anything more demanding than the label on a can of hairspray....

Over the weekend, I got a note from Maurice Isserman, a professor of history at Hamilton College. He is not listed as a dangerous academic — though he has certainly wrecked considerable damage to any effort by Horowitz to present himself as someone with even the slightest regard for accurate or honest discourse. (See this exchange.)

To judge by his note, however, Isserman was concerned about the damage that Horowitz’s list might do the historical profession. “Most historians I know,” he wrote, “are at least twice as dangerous as the average sociologist, yet they outnumber us on Horowitz’ list. I suggest the AHA appoint a commission to look in to this disparity, and see if we can’t boost our numbers in any subsequent revisions of the Horowitz book.”

The impulse to mock The Professors is understandable, and perhaps salutary. (A comment by Molly Ivins seems apropos: “As that great philosopher Jimmy Buffett observes, if we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane. Besides, crying and throwing up are bad for you.”) But when I spoke with Isserman a little later, by phone, he sounded more thoughtful.

“I guess the real question is, ‘Why do we have to deal with him?’ ” said Isserman. “This is someone with no credentials — not just no academic credentials, but no intellectual credentials. He’s never written a book that will still be talked about in 15 years. And yet he’s a major factor that we all have to respond to. Why is that?”

In transcribing his comments now, I notice that something is missing: Isserman’s tone wasn’t really irritated — or not exclusively, anyway. He was thinking about the Horowitz phenomenon in historical terms.

“On the one hand,” he continued, “Horowitz is self-invented. At the same time, this is in some ways a very old story. In the 1930s you had Delling’s book, so it’s not like he totally invented the idea.” (Isserman was referring to Elizabeth Patrick Delling’s Red Network: A “Who’s Who” and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots, first published in 1934, while Joseph McCarthy was still a college student and part-time boxing coach.)

“Or maybe the book to read to understand him,” Isserman continued, “is Melville’s Confidence Man. I don’t know. He’s a tough one to figure out, and it’s hard to know how to respond. If you argue with his claims seriously, you give him legitimacy. If you mock him, you risk underestimating his influence. He’s a clown, but he’s a dangerous clown.”

By that point, I had decided to contact Horowitz to ask him some questions. I was feeling pretty sarcastic, but also had a theory about the man. After years of tracking his career, I had some hunches on how to interpret him. It was based on a piece called “The Ex-Communists” that Hannah Arendt published in 1953. You can find it now in a posthumous collection, Essays in Understanding 1930-1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism, which Schocken Books finally brought out in a paperback edition just last year.

Arendt started out by making a telling distinction between “ex-Communists” and “former Communists.” The latter group is by far the larger. Many people, she wrote, “at one time or another, and for the most varied reasons, belonged to a totalitarian movement, as party members, as fellow travelers, as sympathizers. Among them are people whose prominence in these parties was never due to their political importance, but who, because they had achieved prominence in some other field, lent prestige to the parties to which they belonged.”

Having belonged to the movement for any number of reasons, they also followed any number of courses upon leaving. Their earlier ideological affiliations “remained an important biographical fact,” wrote Arendt, “but did not become the nucleus of their new opinions, viewpoints, Weltanschaungen. They neither looked for a substitute for a lost faith nor concentrated all their efforts and talents on the fight against Communism.”

By contrast, the much smaller group Arendt calls the ex-Communists did exactly that. They tended to be minor functionaries who once enjoyed some authority within the movement, but otherwise did not have a base of talent or professional accomplishment to draw on, following their disillusionment. Given the political climate, however, they found a ready market for their story. They had, as Arendt put it, “become prominent on the strength of their past alone.”

Anyone familiar with Horowitz’s numerous renditions of his own story – his transformation from semi-prominent white cheerleader for the Black Panther Party to ardent supporter of the Republican Party – may feel a sense of déjàvu at this point in Arendt’s essay....

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