Response to David Horowitz


Mr. Shaffer is associate professor of history at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. He testified before a subcommittee of the Pennsylvania State Assembly in May 2006 looking into the alleged bias of professors.

Banner ad for History Posters. History Posters. click to see 400+ selections.

It is difficult to respond to a critique of one's work when it is being used as Exhibit A for the thesis that "academic radicals have lost their minds," as David Horowitz titles his response to my review, published in the November 2007 OAH Newsletter, of his book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. Nevertheless, I will respond to several of Horowitz's charges, and I think that readers will see that I have not misrepresented his book, and that he has not rebutted my criticisms of his book.

Let's start with an astonishing statement that Horowitz makes on an issue that I had not discussed in my review: "I have argued that Women's Studies programs that assume that gender is 'socially constructed' are courses in indoctrination which also violate the fundamental precepts of academic freedom." Is Horowitz really saying that there are no differences between women's roles in ancient Greece, pre-Columbian Iroquois society, 19th century China, and the modern U.S. that can profitably be analyzed by looking at the social context of these societies? Is he really saying that such analysis, which is central to Women's Studies programs, to be sure, is beyond the protection of academic freedom? The mind reels at such a narrowing of the permissible boundaries of scholarly discourse.

With regard to my review, Horowitz writes: "Shaffer repeats dozens of false attacks on me that I have already answered…There are replies to every single specific charge made against the book, including the complaints of Eric Foner, on my website…It is tedious arguing with someone who willfully misunderstands the plain meaning of texts and ignores the discussion which has already taken place and is readily available to anyone interested."

Let's examine a few specific examples, some of which had been widely discussed in other commentary on Horowitz's book, but most of which I had not seen mentioned elsehere. I charged that Horowitz, in ignoring the readily available evidence that Eric Foner at a 2003 antiwar teach-in had criticized a speaker who called for the deaths of U.S. troops, had engaged in an "irresponsible" attack on Foner, and that this attack demonstrated the flawed methodology of the book, including "guilt by association, poor research, and selective quotation."

So what does Horowitz's website say about this incident? Horowitz -- or, more precisely, his research assistant, Jacob Laksin, who appears to have written most of the replies on the website to criticisms of The Professors -- acknowledges that the criticisms of Horowitz for neglecting to mention Foner's actual comments on this point at the teach-in are "fair," thus admitting that the attack was not "false." In other words, Horowitz/Laksin admit on his own website that in this case there has been poor research and selective quotation. But then Horowitz/Laksin go on to state on the website that "The Professors neither claims nor implies that Professor Foner endorsed the content of DeGenova's remarks." However, the only possible interpretation of Horowitz's discussion, on p. 178 of his book, linking Foner with DeGenova at that teach-in – the "plain meaning of texts," if you will – is to imply that Foner either endorsed or failed to criticize DeGenova's remarks. Most fair-minded readers will agree that Horowitz's account here is a textbook case of "guilt by association." (Horowitz's book made the same connection between Todd Gitlin and DeGenova regarding that teach-in, and Horowitz's website has the same unconvincing evasive remark that he had not meant to imply that Gitlin had endorsed DeGenova's remarks.)

Horowitz's website includes other rejoinders to Gitlin's criticisms of The Professors. However, I did not locate on the website discussion of the passages I mentioned in my review from Gitlin's The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, in which Gitlin, contrary to Horowitz's assertions in his book, had indeed criticized both the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. Moreover, I did not see in any of the website's headings, or in the titles of any of Horowitz's numerous articles linked to it, any mention of issues involving the substance of my criticisms of Horowitz's distortions of the work and ideas of many professors on his list of 101, including Caroline Higgins, Miriam Cooke, Suzanne Toten, Laurie Brand, and Frederick Jameson, among others. So much for having posted on the website "replies to every single specific charge made against the book." Horowitz attempts on his website to reply to many charges, but he had not posted, at least as of today (11/26/07), responses to many of the charges that I make in the OAH Newsletter review.

I noted in my review that Horowitz criticized Middle East historian Joel Beinin, of Stanford, "in part for insisting that the U.S. went to war in Iraq 'to make and unmake regimes and guarantee access to oil.'" Horowitz responds on this point: "In fact, my text is entirely descriptive and makes no such judgments." Again, let's go back to the "plain meaning of texts." Horowitz's three-page profile of Beinin has ten paragraphs. Eight of these "describe" Beinin's ideas about the Middle East in ways that can only be characterized as judgmental, as the text argues throughout with Beinin's interpretation of U.S. policy in the region, the nature of Israel, the purposes of the first Gulf War and the present war in Iraq, etc. In the context of a book whose goal is to identify "the 101 most dangerous academics in America," such discussions cannot merely be seen as "descriptions." One paragraph of Horowitz's entry on Beinin gives two examples of Beinin's alleged misuse of class time for political purposes. One paragraph, which indicates the depth of Horowitz's misunderstanding of the entire academic enterprise – willful misunderstanding, one really has no choice but to add – criticizes Beinin for including, as recommended reading on his syllabus for an on-line course, a state-run Egyptian newspaper that is anti-Semitic and praises suicide bombings. Any course on Middle Eastern history – really, any course in history – would have to include the reading of abhorrent views; placement of any particular primary source on a syllabus indicates nothing at all about the ideological tendencies of the professor. Will I be criticized because the students in my "U.S. Immigration and Ethnicity" course must read Madison Grant's racist depictions of eastern European immigrants, or Know-Nothing attacks on Catholics? Horowitz's arguments here do, indeed, strike at the heart of academic freedom and the very nature of education.

Horowitz claims that the Pennsylvania legislative hearings on academic freedom were much more benign than my characterization made them out to be, and he quotes the chair of the legislative committee to that effect. Indeed, even the Republican majority in the state assembly (at that time) moved to constrain Gib Armstrong, the main advocate of these hearings, from his extremist agenda, and the comments by the chair (that was Rep. Tom Stevenson, a moderate Republican) reflected this effort. But Armstrong himself did, indeed, seek at each of the hearings to find examples of left-wing professors abusing their students. Armstrong's mindset can be seen in the following examples, which I viewed on a videotape of assembly debate (not the hearings themselves). Armstrong had claimed, to show the need for such hearings, that a biology professor at Penn State University had shown Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911" to his class right before the 2004 election, in an alleged attempt to influence his students for partisan political purposes. An internal investigation at Penn State failed to reveal the errant professor, however, Finally, Democratic legislators Dan Surra and Lawrence Curry found the real culprit: a sociology professor who had shown Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," for a class session on violence in the U.S., which I think most of us can agree is a legitimate use of class time. Moreover, in the initial legislative debate on the resolution, Armstrong (as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up) claimed to have a list of dozens of examples of left-wing professors who used their classes to indoctrinate students, but he would not divulge any of their names. As a colleague put it to me, Armstrong acted like a caricature of Senator Joe McCarthy. Despite Armstrong's now-acknowledged serious misstatement of the facts (the list never did materialize), Horowitz and his publishers were evidently proud to place his endorsement on the book jacket. (Horowitz claims that Democrats on the legislative committee "subverted" its worthy aims, but the minority Democrats on a majority-Republican committee could only do so because Armstrong's case was an embarrassment even to his fellow Republicans.)

I referred favorably in my review to a recent AAUP report on academic freedom. Horowitz calls this report "a disgrace," although his one-sentence paraphrase of the report seems to me to be a distortion of the report's content. In any case, readers can compare the two versions for themselves, and see which makes more sense. I have to note, however, that Horowitz, through his syntax, appears to criticize me for not having read his critique of the AAUP report before I published my review. His brief critique was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on October 12 -- a longer critique appeared on his website November 16 -- while I submitted my review to the OAH Newsletter on October 1. And what is one to make of Horowitz's wording immediately after this criticism of me and of the AAUP report: "On the other hand, it is not surprising that -- as his footnotes show -- he [Shaffer] is familiar with an impressive range of books I wrote as a leftist." Since when is being familiar with the previous books an author wrote problematic for a review? Is the implication here that Horowitz's erstwhile career as a leftist is out of bounds for a review of his present work, or that knowledge of such works is suspect? Horowitz surely knows that his work is of interest in part because of his former views and activities.

There are two larger issues in Horowitz's response to my article that need to be addressed.

First, he says that, despite my claim that he had provided "no basis whatsoever" for the figure he had given that 10% of Harvard faculty were radicals, that figure comes from the number of Harvard professors who voted to censure Lawrence Summers for "politically incorrect" comments. I think readers will agree that my confusion on this point comes not from my cursory reading of Horowitz's book, but from his slapdash writing. Horowitz writes on p. xlv of his long introduction: "If we were to take the Harvard case reviewed at the end of this volume as a yardstick, and assume [his word] a figure of 10 percent per university faculty, and then cut that figure in half to control for the possibility that Harvard may be a relatively radical institution, the total number of such professors at American universities with views similar to the spectrum represented in this volume would still be in the neighborhood of 25,000-30,000." A footnote in the middle of this convoluted sentence says simply, "See page 369." One searches in vain on p. 369 for any discussion of numbers or percentages of Harvard faculty radicals. It turns out that on p. 372 – not 369 – there are two sentences that one can now see are relevant to Horowitz's claim, that 218 faculty members, out of 2100 or so on the Harvard faculty overall, voted to censure Summers. So Horowitz is doing two things here. He provides an incorrect reference to his own book, and then blames a reviewer for not tracking down the error and rectifying the problems in Horowitz's confused writing. Second, he assumes, with no discussion or evidence, that all of the Harvard faculty members who voted to censure Summers are political radicals of the sort represented in his book, and he ignores completely the varied reasons for opposition to Summers by Harvard faculty. (Horowitz did not even make an effort to show that Harvard biologist Nancy Hopkins, who initiated the criticism of Summers's comments on women and science, was a political radical of any sort; he simply equated criticism of Summers with political radicalism.)

Finally, Horowitz accuses me, as he has accused other critical reviewers, of not having read his entire book (all I can say is that I did, indeed, read it from cover to cover), and of misrepresenting his central argument. He claims that he does not "attack professors for specific arguments" – but he does so repeatedly. He claims that he does not oppose left-wing ideas in general, and that he would be as critical of conservative academics who abuse their positions as the professors profiled here allegedly do, but he only singles out left-wing professors here (with the possible exception of biologist Paul Ehrlich, whose ideas are difficult to categorize) and those with alleged ties to radical Islamic causes. (I saw no comments on conservatives who mixed scholarship with academics, such as, say, Condoleeza Rice or Fouad Ajami, who bear some responsibility for the current American mess in Iraq.) I stand by my characterization of his central thesis, which he quotes in his response: "Aside from attacking professors for specific arguments in their research, public statements, and, in some cases, their classes, Horowitz asserts that left-wing professors have taken over the universities and use their positions to indoctrinate students and to prevent moderate or conservative scholars from being hired. Horowitz further argues that these leftwing ideas are not based on legitimate scholarly research, so such professors do not deserve 'academic freedom.' " Horowitz contends that his central point is to unmask activists parading as scholars, which I do not think is very different from my characterization of his thesis. Regardless of the wording, it is clear that Horowitz has a frankly ideological agenda with his assaults on leftwing professors.

I will not stoop to Horowitz's level and say that his response shows that conservatives cannot carry on a debate based on the available evidence, but I will say that his response makes me even more convinced than I was before that Horowitz's attacks are based on sloppy work and a seemingly willful disregard for the use of scholarly standards of evidence. Indeed, I am tempted to say that his sloppy work -- in his book and now in his critique of my review of that book -- stem from his single-minded pursuit of his ideological agenda.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Tim R. Furnish - 12/3/2007

Mr./Dr. Becker,
As a matter of fact, I will look some of these up. But was it really necessary to throw out the ad hominem "intellectual inbreeding" barb?

Carl Becker - 12/1/2007

It doesn’t take an academic or an historian to see that this former Marxist gone neoconservative is a threat to critical thinking.

One example of a distortion is when he talks about the basic truths about the genocidal impact of Columbus and the European settlers on the Americas, the actual history and impact of the enslavement of Black people (Horowitz claims “Black people owe (a debt) to America” for slavery.) Right.

Horowitz is also a historical revisionist,in this case a nice way of saying he distorts history when he said "The Communist left opposed 'American militarism' in the 1930s to prevent the West from stopping Hitler." Never mind that well before the US even pondered going to war with Germany, when Henry Ford was accepting awards from the Nazis and had slave laborers toiling in his German factories that more than a few American communists and plain folk of principle were sailing off for Spain to fight the Franco version of fascism. He also never explained why the Nazi émigrés assumed prominent positions in the Republican Party after the war.

Read The "Art of Political War" where he “urges Republicans to go on the offensive, to reach out to working people and minorities, and to master images, symbols and sound bites.”

That is what Horowitz is doing when he sells censorship and repression on campuses as “free speech” and “academic freedom.” He publicizes examples of the supposed violation of free speech by taking examples of conservative or reactionary students who were disturbed by viewpoints, facts, exposure, and discussion in classes that challenged their thinking. When Horowitz brings up classroom activities, his evidence is always thin.

Back in 2002 he criticized Ramsey Clark because he lent a helping hand to Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. It didn’t matter, of course, that Clark had denounced Saddam Hussein; what probably bothered Horowitz was the fact Clark had called the sanctions against Iraq immoral and barbaric, not the stuff of a civilized people.

There are plenty more distortions, like how in a 5000 word article he "proved" why Israel is good and Palestine bad. But I doubt if you will look for it because it seems there is an intellectual inbreeding going on here amounting to closed minds.

Jason Blake Keuter - 11/30/2007

not only that, in terms of writing books that are readable and make sense, "failing out of the academy" is high praise.

N. Friedman - 11/29/2007


That's fine. I just thought it would be helpful to have mentioned that you had a dog in the fight so that you are not disinterested.

I have my own take on all of this. I watch my kids in school taking history courses in which the things that make history interest and revealing are removed.

For example, my son took a course on ancient history last year. A question was asked on an exam about how imperial governments maintained control. They had studied the Roman Empire and the early Arab Islamic empire - a topic about which I am more than a bit conversant.

My son noted an example that soldiers were allowed to loot and pillage when a city was captured. In particular, he noted that such was a feature of the Shari'a law (which I had taught him about) - something that any study of Islamic law shows to be a fact for all of the major schools - so that soldiers had reason to remain loyal (i.e. profit).

The teacher, perhaps out of ignorance or perhaps out of not wanting to offend or, perhaps, believing a bit too much in mythology that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, marked over what was obviously an astute comment with a big question mark.

Moreover, reading his text book, one might never realize that empires, such as the great Arab Islamic empire, spread by means of war. That scares me. Children are being taught to believe a fairy tale version of the world, where war and religious irrationality are removed and where the only irrational and imperial party is, well, us. Now, the West is irrational and imperial but it is certainly not alone in being so. And, it is the fairy tale that such is the case that is truly destructive.

And, when I read that sort of claptrap also coming from colleges, it occurs to me that college professors may be on the take (e.g. their department receives funding from, for example, Saudi Arabia) or they have an ideological blinder that makes them downplay the prejudices of others - as if there were truly wonderful empires in ancient times that did not exploit people. Obviously, that was not the case and that tolerance, to the extent it exists, is a rare thing in history and basically non-existence other than in very recent times.

Lastly, I read my alma mater's newspaper. There, I learn that any discussion about Islam - a topic of interest to me - is taboo and that great scholars such as Bernard Lewis are supposedly racists. I wonder where students learn that sort of garbage. I find, however, that many professors believe that as well as such has appeared in articles by professors on websites such as CounterPunch so I gather that such is taught. That, I propose, is a bit of indoctrination as it is a big lie.

Now, I see nothing wrong with exposing students to Edward Said - who is the source of that viewpoint about Lewis. But, I gather that some professors at schools see no reason to note that Said's viewpoint has been subject to serious criticism and that, in particular, pretty much everything he said about Lewis was, factually speaking, plain wrong.

And note: my point is not to disparage Marxist points of views. On the contrary. On the study of Islam, among my favorite scholars is famed Marxist scholar Maxine Rodinson. However, I could not imagine Rodinson badmouthing a scholar of the caliber of Lewis. Rodinson was honest in a way that many professors do not appear to be.

In any event, it worries me when I read stuff and see stuff that seems more like indoctrination is occurring than scholarship. I was, however, glad to see your statement that such is not your approach.

Dean Saitta - 11/29/2007

Mr. Friedman--I didn't disclose that I'm listed in Mr. Horowitz's book because I assume that the typical HNN reader is always keen to consider the source, and I'm easy to find on the web. Material on my website should clarify why Mr. Horowitz thinks I belong in his book and why I disagree with him. My post above summarizes the key points of disagreement, based on my reading of his book and lots of other stuff that he's written. I think I'm pretty careful to teach a range of ideas relevant to the classroom subject at hand. I include ideas that have both historical importance and contemporary relevance, that are conducive to sharpening skills of critical thought, and that are necessary for students to understand in order to succeed as professionals and contribute as citizens. I often include ideas that I disagree with. I don't advocate my personal political views in class, but I'm willing to share well-founded convictions with students who want to take the discussion in that direction. I'm much more interested in knowing what my students think about a subject and, especially, in ensuring that they can effectively justify and communicate what they think. Nothing very radical here. Happy to talk more over email.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/29/2007

I think this is one of David Horowitz's worst books, even though his defense of it makes mincemeat of his critics. The book suffers from not being written entirely by Horowitz, and jumps around from case to case without a sufficient central narrative. Yet, Horowitz has always been lucid and persuasive in everything he writes, and in his talks. Many intolerant liberals will go to great lengths to prevent him from getting in front of their students, for good reason. And the left-wing monopoly on campus today is so evil and ubiquitous that Horowitz is clearly on the side of history.

N. Friedman - 11/28/2007

Mr. Saitta,

I would think you might disclose what your website reveals, namely, that you are listed in Mr. Horowitz's book evidently, if I understood your webpage correctly, for some connection you have with the Churchill affair - and, I assume you mean Ward, not Winston Churchill. I also note that your website indicates that you suspect that Mr. Horowitz has downgraded you to being somewhat less of a danger.

Since you are in his book, I would think that you could be a test case for us uninitiated posters to understand his views with reference to you.

If I understand his argument, as stated on this website, he thinks that certain professors use their classrooms to indoctrinate students, not to expose them to a variety of ideas, including ideas the professor may despise. With that in mind, what are your views about teaching and, in particular, about teaching ideas you disagree with? What about advocating political views in class?

Dean Saitta - 11/28/2007

Mr. Horowitz wants professors to be academic and scholarly, yet his book "research" is superficial and sloppy, and inspires no confidence that his accounts of rampant left-wing proselytizing and student indoctrination are accurate. He wants professors to stick to their subjects, yet he fails to realize that disciplinary boundaries have become so permeable, and knowledge so interconnected, that almost any subject can be illuminated by an engagement with others, even those located very far afield. He wants to eliminate advocacy (not necessarily bias) in the classroom, yet he ignores good scholarship showing that both bias and advocacy can work to education's advantage if teachers and students are aware of the university's status as a socially-embedded institution. He claims to be a pro-democracy patriot, yet he rejects Jeffersonian ideals of teaching for citizenship in favor of an elitist model of tweedy professors filling up empty-headed students with disinterested knowledge. He wants to promote intellectual diversity and curiosity, yet he bailed on his own graduate program because, in his stunningly impoverished view of academic life, "everything had been mined...there was nothing to research that was interesting anymore (Chronicle of Higher Education interview, 6 May 2005)." He fancies himself a student advocate, yet he clearly disrespects the ability of students to think for themselves, and he underestimates the resolve of our very best students to battle test their ideas in the classroom. He says he stands for civil discourse, yet his online magazine displays very little of it. If we want to promote intellectual curiosity about the world and honest debate in pursuit of truth, I'm not sure this is a man from whom we should take much advice.

Craig Michael Loftin - 11/28/2007

I'm very confused. You replied that "Most illustratively, he claims the goal of my book is to identify the 101 most dangerous academics in America. That phrase appears once and is no part of the actual argument of the book as anyone who has actually read it knows."

But isn't that the title of the book? Isn't a title supposed to suggest what the book is about, in terms of both argument and description?

Tim R. Furnish - 11/28/2007

I, for one, would like to know a few of these distortions, please.

Carl Becker - 11/28/2007

"It is so simple to distort the meaning of what someone says..."

Yes, yes, absolutely, but Horowitz himself has a history of distortions particularily when defining "academic freedom". Horowitz is always the shabby entertainer who quickly bores.

Tim R. Furnish - 11/28/2007

What is your evidence that Horowitz "failed" in academe? Because he left it? That shows you're probably just as clueless as the (other?) groupthink leftists who simply choose to disparage any of us conservatives who decide to depart the hallowed halls of higher ed--rather than take an honest, intellectual look at why we are doing so.

John Edward Philips - 11/28/2007

Having failed in academe, Horowitz now punishes those who have succeeded by his relentless pummeling of every opinion that disagrees with his. The result? Book sales upon book sales, and an increase in income for him. I have much more important things to read than his book, and little time to waste, even on this response.

N. Friedman - 11/27/2007

I can say one thing to both of you guys. Whatever the actual reason for this debate, it makes me want to read Mr. Horowitz's book to see whether his writing is being distorted and, if so, how.

I suspect that other people will have a similar reaction to this little debate as it does seem that the two of you are discussing different books of the same title.

david horowitz - 11/27/2007

It is so simple to distort the meaning of what someone says, particularly when you don't quote the texts in question, or establish a reasonably accurate context, that I probably should have had my head examined when I decided to try to correct some of Professor Shaffer's distortions of what I have written. For Shaffer has taken the opportunity to repeat the distortions and add some new ones. Most illustratively, he claims the goal of my book is to identify the 101 most dangerous academics in America. That phrase appears once and is no part of the actual argument of the book as anyone who has actually read it knows. Is Professor Joel Beinin, for example, whom Shaffer singles out, a dangerous fellow? Well I have written elsewhere -- and demonstrated -- that he is an apologist for terrorists, specifically Arafat, Hamas and Hizbollah. That would make him dangerous to people not as far left as Shaffer -- who calls a decent American Gib Armstrong "an extremist" because of his concern for students harassed by Shaffer's friends. However this characterization of Beinin as an apologist for terrorists does not appear in The Professors and is no part of its argument. Nor are Beinin's political views nor those of any of the other subjects of the book. Their attitude towards scholarship and teaching is. The fact that Professor Shaffer willfully refuses to concede this point or confront it merely confirms the point I made in the original article. That leftists like him have become incapable of conducting an intellectual argument with people who disagree with their political prejudices. What Shaffer really objects to is that in describing the lunatic fringe that likes to call other people extremists I have exposed their views to a public who may not think them so "progressive" or benign.. .