26 July 2005 - Tuesday

Politicization and scholarship

I have suspected for some time now that no opponent can harm a cause as much as an advocate can. When either side of an argument makes an exaggerated or especially a defamatory claim (e.g., Bush is in league with the Bin Laden family, or nobody ever shot at John Kerry), he invites all people of good will to denounce him. It doesn't mean they will, but it is an open invitation.

In his column at Inside Higher Ed today, Scott McLemee explains why the politicization of academic life can hurt the politicizers. McLemee compares the intellectual legacy of his late conservative friend and colleague, David W. Miller, with that of David Horowitz.

Now, David Horowitz is the conservative activist who groups Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Barack Obama on the same list of "individuals who seek to promote leftwing agendas through the political process." Horowitz also considers the late Ayatollah Khomeini a member of the "religious left" along with William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International. This is all supposed to be very useful; as "a guide to the political left," Horowitz' site DiscoverTheNetwork "defines the left's (often hidden) programmatic agendas and it provides an understanding of its history and ideas."* The site also includes a section on academia.

A few days ago, Timothy Burke, whom I have always found very reasonable, wrote a response to Horowitz' book Unholy Alliance, which elaborates on the charges made on the Web site. Here's what Burke concluded:

Iím very prepared to hear that there is such a sentiment or spirit that romanticizes anti-Western beliefs and politics and produces a kind of anti-American self-loathing among some American intellectuals, which in turn has produced a blindness to the reality of the contemporary world and the challenges to human liberty. Indeed, in some much more precise and focused contexts, Iím not only prepared to believe this, but will and have argued it myself. But only with historical and substantive precision, only with intellectual care, only with curiosity, only with sensitivity, only with a sense of proportion, is such an argument worth making and worth hearing.

In the same publication, Horowitz responded by claiming not to have been writing rigorous intellectual history of the Left at all. His book was instead a description of "the religious character of the left -- its utopian hope and its nihilistic rage -- that determines the political choices it makes." Actual thought apparently plays a minimal part in the Left's ideas. So subtlety was unnecessary:

The left is an Anti-American cult. The same is true of its nihilism, which is universal in the left. I picked Chomsky as an exemplar of the nihilist strain in the left because for him it is obsessive. Todd Gitlin would not describe the United States as worse than Nazi Germany, the way Chomsky does. But I demonstrate from his own words (a privilege Professor Burke does not offer me) that he comes close enough. In particular, his view of America is so negative as to justify his opposition to a war for the freedom of 25 million Muslims and the future of democracy in the Middle East.
Close enough? Let's hope Horowitz doesn't write a book about any other religion. "Some Baptists may not say that Rome is the Antichrist, exactly, but they come close enough to deny the doctrine of transubstantiation."

So, back to Scott McLemee, who read both of these articles and drew some conclusions. He viewed Horowitz' rebuttal as "petulant, abusive, and interminable" -- and self-absorbed. Horowitz had responded to a call for serious analysis with an emotional outburst.

Whether you agree with this assessment of Horowitz' work or not, note well how McLemee says it has affected him, in contrast to the careful scholarship of his conservative friend:

Now, over the past couple of years, Iíve tried hard to honor the memory of David Miller, who, in the year before his death at the ridiculously young age of 35, taught me so much by his example ó by his decency, his modesty, and his wry indulgence of what he must have seen as muddled leftist attitudes. For one thing, itís meant striving to understand things, from time to time, as he might; to consider the strongest, most coherent forms of conservative argument.

To that end, my reading diet now includes a certain amount of right-wing intellectual output ó journals like The Modern Age and The Claremont Review of Books, for example, and books by Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, and Willmoore Kendall. Itís not necessary to enjoy this stuff, or to agree with it. But it does seem important as part of the process of thinking outside oneís familiar ruts.

But now itís time to go another step. There is only one way to keep from reinforcing the worst impressions of the conservative movement. Henceforth, I will never read another word by David Horowitz.

| Posted by Wilson at 9:38 Central | TrackBack
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