Blogs > Cliopatria > Cultural Revolution as Farce?

Mar 24, 2005 5:58 am

Cultural Revolution as Farce?

My father says"any number is a good first approximation for any other number" and, by extension, any historical event or process can be compared to current events if enough context is excluded. I believe that the integrity of historical comparisons matters because historical analogy is mostly a shorthand language that is more often used to wound and rally -- nearly useless in finding common ground -- than to explain or convince.

David Horowitz is Mao? Students for Academic Freedom are the Red Guard? Academic Bill of Rights is the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution? It's pretty standard comparison, given the generally shallow quality of historical discourse, and there's no doubt that it's intentionally overdrawn (speaking of drawing, the modified CCP posters are likely to become ubiquitous images on the left [ha, ha!] and the right [those fiends!] blogospheres in short order. You can view some of the originals here.), but still... it's funny, right? It's good commentary? Some peoplethink so. Lots, in fact [I haven't found a critical link yet. (See below for updates)].

Clever, certainly, to skip over the usual McCarthyist and fascist episodes and go to the left (from which David Horowitz originally hails), but does it really help us understand or resist the politicization of academia? Frankly, the GPCR comparison is one that the FrontPageMag crew would probably be able to produce themselves, for their opponents in academia and elsewhere, too. (There's been enough talk of "Stalinism" in academia lately, don't you think?) So that leaves the question: what does it tell us?

It tells us that this is a political movement concerned with changing an aspect of public life through the use of communication, public comment and, at times, humor, ridicule and rhetorical excess. Sounds like a lot of good rallies I've been to.

And that's all you get... The nature of the problem, the importance of that aspect of public life, the nature and methods of communication and comment, the fairness of the ridicule, the scale and the consequences, are all different. The GPRC was a vast atrocity, combining the worst elements of witchhunts, Inquisitions and McCarthyism with the power of a thoroughly totalitarian modern regime. The results were horrific, in human and cultural terms -- not as much outright death as in the Great Leap Forward (though it was more deliberate), but plenty of personal abuse, fear and suffering, and the destruction of cultural treasures and historical materials is a different sort of crime against humanity. (Yes, I'm teaching 20th century China this semester, why do you ask?) Even McCarthyism wasn't the Cultural Revolution -- God willing, it's the closest we'll ever come; I think there are reasons to be concerned for the political health of the nation and that it can happen here (which is one of the reasons that I have deep reservations about legislating academic matters)... but it hasn't yet.

I do think that David Horowitz has some legitimate points to make, but that he needs to be more careful about how he presents his cases, his arguments, his proposals, how he manages his movement, if he's going to actually appeal to (or at least stop scaring) moderates who share his interest in academic integrity. Horowitz and his staff and allies have declared total vindication (here and here for example), when, as my colleague points out, the details which came out (after much prodding) about the UNC case were mixed: In other words, the case was not an"urban legend" but neither was it a"slam-dunk" (and I hope that's the last time I have to use either of those terms for a while). The professor in this case is clearly guilty of bad question writing and poor record-keeping, but whether there's more involved is going to require corroborating evidence beyond competing testimonies. These are issues worth addressing, but there have to be better cases (ones where the students involved are not trying to be anonymous would be easier on everyone, I think), and I think it's time the discussion moved on.

I believe that the details of these cases matter because we are so often wrong in drawing conclusions about social phenomena. We overreact to our own experience and to the personal experiences of others; we over-rely on logical formulations (or intuition, or"gut reactions") to cover gaps in evidence; we resist restructuring narratives with which we are comfortable. We need to address individuals and episodes before we get to patterns; we need to engage arguments rather than"taking names." If we can keep the conversation civil and focused, we might even change some minds, though that's terribly rare for some reason. If we can agree that there's a problem (and I think there is at least one problem), and on the nature of the problems (we're a long way apart on that score), then we can talk about solutions. I'm going to keep trying.

Update: There's a few critical comments now, including Horowitz's own -- which just seems to have added fuel to the fire, judging by the technorati catalog -- and Alan Allport's where"billmon" drops in to call us"humorless droids." Simon World doesn't say much about it, but he says it clearly.

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More Comments:

Jacob paul segal - 3/21/2005

My apologies to Mr Horowitz. Clearly I misread statements like the following:

'But are they? In fact, the entire database (and a lot of my analytic work on the left contained in previously referenced books and in articles on the web) is designed to show that the common usage of the term “liberal” is a calculated obfuscation determined by leftists to provide themselves with an advantage in the political contest, an advantage that conservatives obligingly (and infuriatingly) seem willing to give them.'

And we can further see the carefulness of Horowitz's distinction in that following are identifed as different types of leftist, not liberal,

Hillary Clinton, Bill Moyers and Justice Ruth Ginsburg
Bill Clinton, Peter Jennings, Maureen Dowd
Barbra Streisand, Katie Couric, Martin Sheen

Strangely Horowitz continues to insist that he be read in a generous fashion while reading all others in the worst possible light.
+Jacob Segal+-

Anthony Paul Smith - 3/20/2005

Yes, except the billmon piece is farce and, as far as we can all tell, you actually believe the insanity you say.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/20/2005

David, They're not false and they're not about you. Actually, not much of anything important is about you.

david horowitz - 3/20/2005

Actually they are allegations that I propagated an urban legend (i.e., lied). So I guess they're about me, ego or no. But the point is the allegations are false.

david horowitz - 3/20/2005

Jacob should pay more attention to the text. His claims about me are simply made up. If anyone cares to check, just go to, click on the "Individuals" icon and see that I provide 5 categories of people on the left: Radical Totalitarians, Anti-American Radicals, Leftists, Moderate Leftists and Affective Leftists. The term "liberal" has been so abused and imprecisely applied that it has hardly any meaning anymore. However, I have always distinguished between liberals and leftists where possible, and have written at some length on these distinctions. Obviously Jacob is ignorant of all my work in this area or simply chooses to ignore it for the purpose of stigmatizing me. Isn't that just what the Senator was about?

Jonathan Dresner - 3/20/2005

Well, not all bloggers are equally qualified to contribute substantively to a discussion, I admit. Nor do I think that blogspace is the be-all and end-all of discourse: I'm a dedicated reader of (and submitter to) old fashioned peer reviewed and/or edited print publications.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/20/2005

If a person has an ego like David Horowitz's, it's _all_ about "me." The five points he claims are allegations against _him_ are not ad hominem points, at all. They are corrections to his propaganda. My colleague, Tim Burke, makes a good faith effort to engage Horowitz about the nature of his claims, in this story and others, at the same post.

Jacob paul segal - 3/20/2005

What could be funnier that Horowitz's complaint about McCarthyism and guild by association when his main arugment now is that liberal equals left and lefts equals islamic-fascism because of a shared anti-Americanism. His front page magazine is also inclined to post graphics of people like Chomsky with Osama bin Laden beard and Mullah garb. Too funny.

Jacob Segal

david horowitz - 3/20/2005

Ralph Luker has made five false charges against me at: I have refuted them in the comment section under his post.

david horowitz - 3/20/2005

I thank Jonathan Dresner for some fair-minded criticism and support for the idea that there can be shared interests in the quality of education even among people who differ on other matters. The attack on me by Billmon is obviously a form of McCarthyism (it's called guilt by false association) . Mike Rosen is not only not a member of my organization I have publicly battled with him over precisely the quote featured as the theme of Billmon's attack. I also dissociated myself from the student's wanted poster. I also wrote a Bill of Rights whose first principle is designed to prevent Cultural Revolutions like the one described (it protects professors' political opinions). I will write about this Monday on

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/20/2005

I agree that the details and context matter but disagree with the implication here (and explicit comments at the Insane Troll) that blogging advances the details a great deal. I've put the broader discussion on my on blog, but the gist of it is that bloggers have great baloney meters but aren't reliable at stuffing better material in their own sausage casings.