David Horowitz’s new book, "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America," was published in early February to considerable fanfare encouraged by a tidal wave of promotion from the right-wing echo chamber. This is the same echo chamber that made “swift boat” a household word in September 2004. The book itself is sloppy and unimpressive, an apparent rush job.
The criticism of me, for example, consisted of two out-of-context quotes from articles where I criticize the news media and the Bush Administration. This is presented as prima facie evidence that I am a dreadful teacher who uses the classroom to harass students to adopt my political views, my campus-wide, student-elected teaching award notwithstanding. By the same “logic,” quotations could be taken from many professors in America, and nearly all conservatives, to establish that they propagandize in the classroom. By Horowitz’s evidentiary standards, Harvard’s Stephan Thernstrom, who endorses The Professors on its cover, should be ridden out of academia as a narrow-minded bigot who abuses students who disagree with his pointed views.
In short, the book is clueless about how classroom teaching actually works; it would astound him to learn that many professors with strong political views – of whatever stripe – go to great lengths to provide an open classroom. The people Horowitz vilifies in his book know exactly what it is like to hold unpopular positions – to be attacked as “dangerous” for going against the dominant interests of society -- and we tend to have considerable empathy for those who disagree with our political views in our own classrooms. In fact, that explains why Horowitz’s lengthy and much-publicized campaign to locate conservative students who have been harassed in the classroom by left-wing professors has produced few, if any, credible witnesses. But, as I will argue, this is a ruse, so that lack of evidence means no more to Horowitz than the lack of WMD did to Bush and Cheney as they planned the invasion of Iraq.
The entire premise of the book is flawed. If Horowitz believes, for example, that publicly supported universities have an obligation to have faculties that represent the range of U.S. political opinion, and that it currently tilts too far to the left, he should follow the logic to its obvious resting place. Generals and military officers are far more important to the functioning of a government – and, as history shows in depressingly frequent detail, a much greater threat to democratic governance -- than anthropology professors. In the United States the military is enormous, it is entirely funded by taxpayers, and the officer corps is significantly right-wing Republican. There is hardly a liberal Democrat in the bunch, and I dare say probably not a single soul to the left of the Clinton-Kerry center of the Democracy party. That means tens of millions of Americans have no political allies directing the most powerful military in human history, while the hard right feels like it has died and gone to heaven when it visits the officers’ quarters on Election Day. If Horowitz is going on some sort of rampage about getting political balance in important publicly funded professions, he can only be taken seriously if he starts at the Pentagon. When he has established how to do it there we can proceed to the campuses.
But the point of Horowitz’s book is not to make a coherent principled critique of academia and suggest reforms to solve the problem. Were that the case, Horowitz would be obsessed with the rabidly pro-market bias in most economics and business schools – and more than a few political science departments. In these classes and departments, students who are pro-labor union, critical of so-called “free trade” deals like NAFTA, and in favor of progressive taxation, living wage ordinances, strict environmental regulations and aggressive social spending are made to feel like their positions have little intellectual merit. They are ostracized. Yet Horowitz has no concern for these students, or for their rights. Screw them.
Horowitz’s mission is clear: to attack critical work in the academy, especially critical work that does not restrict itself to the classroom, but sees intellectuals as having a necessary public role. Visible public outreach is A-OK for Milton Friedman, Stephan Thernstrom, the neo-conservative crowd, and denizens of the right, but strictly off-limits for liberals and the left.
For these reasons I would imagine that principled conservatives will run from this book faster than they would run away from a line-up for a voluntary IRS audit. But the book is important and requires a response that goes beyond pointing out its sloppiness and incoherence; we need to put what Horowitz is doing in a broader context. In my view, the best way to make sense of the book and what it represents is to see it as part of the broad attack on the autonomy and integrity of institutions and individuals who conduct independent and critical thought. It is this type of independent and uncorrupted inquiry – work that is not under the thumb of powerful political or commercial interests -- that is mandatory if viable self-government is to succeed. The space for this type of inquiry has to be fought for and preserved, and it is always considered with a certain amount of suspicion by those in power, who prefer minimal public interference with their exercise of power.
Indeed, it is revealing that Horowitz uses the term “dangerous” as a pejorative in his book’s subtitle. Dangerous professors are those with ideas with which Horowitz disagrees. This is a ludicrously opportunistic and undemocratic framing. The entire premise of a viable democratic public sphere is that what some perceive as “dangerous” ideas be protected, even encouraged, and permitted to be thrown into debate. Especially, above all else, in universities.
In our society the two institutions commissioned to provide the substance of a democratic public sphere, as a place for critical inquiry, are the news media and academia.
Hence, to get a better sense of what is happening today with the attack on universities, consider what has happened with U.S. journalism. Back in the early 1970s professional journalism was at its peak. Journalists had relative autonomy from the demands of owners and advertisers and relatively lavish budgets. I do not wish to exaggerate the quality of professional journalism even at its peak; local news media tended to ignore the foibles of powerful local bigshots and all news media relied far too much on official sources, especially in coverage of foreign policy. Indeed much of my career has been spent documenting the limitations of professional journalism, even at its best. But on balance what it provided in the 1960s and 1970s looks awfully good through 2006 eyes.
Since the 1970s the autonomy, resources and critical wiggle room of professional journalism has come under attack on two fronts. First, as media ownership consolidated corporate owners began to think the idea of professional journalism made a lot less sense. After all, corporations aren’t charities, and why should their shareholders bankroll a public service? So newsrooms have faced serious cutbacks in resources for investigative, political and international coverage. In its stead far less expensive and politically trivial celebrity coverage has risen in prominence. Commercial values play an increasingly visible role in what passes for journalism today.
The second front in the war on journalism came from the political right. To the political right, it was mandatory to make journalism more sympathetic to right-wing politics if the right was going to win political power. A very high percentage of right-wing funding went to various means of pushing the news media to the right. The overarching theme was that the media had a strident liberal bias that required journalist to be softer on Republicans and tougher on Democrats if they wished to be fair. The campaign has been a rousing success. One need only look at the weak-kneed press coverage of Bush’s scandals and foibles, and imagine how a President Clinton or Gore or Kerry would have fared if he had done similar deeds, to see the effect.
While these two attacks on journalism were independent of each other for the most part, they had the same effect: reduce the power and autonomy of journalists and make journalism more fearful of antagonizing the political right.
Universities and news media share a certain ideological importance as I have already noted. But as institutions they have quite different traditions. News media have been the province of profit-driven firms for the most part, whereas universities are non-profit, often public, institutions. Yet the attack on universities has followed the same pattern as the attack on journalism. The dominant issue on campuses for the past two decades has been the incessant commercialization of universities, from marketing of classes to corporate funding for research and activities. Increasingly our major universities are linked to commercial institutions and commercial values, which work to undermine, even eliminate, much of the public service ethos of these institutions. Now the distance is further to travel with universities than with media, because they begin as non-profit institutions, but the direction is unmistakable. And the destination is nowhere anyone should want universities to be. It is the great crisis facing universities today, and about this crisis people like David Horowitz have nothing to say.
This brings us to Horowitz’s attack on “dangerous” professors, those faculty like myself who dare to hold political opinions Horowitz disagrees with and which he would like to see banished. This is taken directly from the playbook for the right-wing attack on “liberal” journalists. The point is to intimidate dissident voices, to make them temper their words in their classrooms, and be very careful about what they do when they venture off-campus. Right-wing faculty are free to shout their views from the mountaintop – after all, they are the oppressed minority merely trying to balance the dominant left, much like the blowhards at Fox News – while left-wing faculty are supposed to shut up and go with the flow if they wish to be regarded as legitimate professionals and keep their jobs. As I discussed at the outset, it is a thoroughly unprincipled exercise with a crude political agenda. Combined with the commercial restructuring of universities the goal is to make intellectual life as ineffectual as our journalism has become.
It is a prospect that is unacceptable and must be opposed, in both media and higher education. It is a battle for the soul of our nation, and the future of our polity.
Robert W. McChesney is the co-author, with John Nichols, of Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (New Press). He is the founder of Free Press, www.freepress.net.