How to Be a “Dangerous” Professor

Are academics “biased” to the left, as David Horowitz charges? Or do they just see things more clearly than he does?

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When I first heard that David Horowitz had included me in his list of the “101 most Dangerous Professors in America,” I was quite pleased. It was an honor, after all, to receive such a distinction from one of the doyens of the neoconservative movement.

But my ego quickly returned down to earth when, during a debate we had a few weeks ago on Mother Jones Radio, he admitted, without a hint of embarrassment, that he hadn’t actually read any of my books or academic articles, but only perused my website and perhaps a Mother Jones article or two. Indeed, he didn’t even know the intern who actually did the “research” on me for his book.

That’s right, the author of a book that purports to uncover the intellectual and/or political corruption of American higher education—Horowitz can’t make up his mind about which kind of corruption it’s suffering from—doesn’t think he has to read the work of the very professors that he claims constitute a threat to the moral fabric of our society. No wonder he did a full week on Hannity and Colmes to celebrate the publication of his expose; he’s Fox’s dream public intellectual. And no wonder he considers so many professors a threat; they actually do their own work.

One of the few professors Horowitz does seem to know a lot about is Ward Churchill, whose description of 9/11 victims as “little Eichmanns” makes him an easy target. But Horowitz has already said on record that he supports Churchill’s right to speak his mind, so that’s not the problem. Instead, his main complaint is that Churchill doesn’t have a Ph.D., and that he is part of a field—ethnic studies—that doesn’t deserve to exist in the first place. For Horowitz, almost all of the academic fields that have emerged in the last two generations—ethnic studies, whiteness studies, African-American studies, women’s studies, cultural studies, etc.—are utterly politicized and thus unworthy of inclusion in the academy.

How does Horowitz know this? I have no idea. Has he actually read a significant amount of scholarship in any of these fields? It would seem that he hasn’t. But why should he? He “knows” that they are like this, so he has no need to actually experience them for himself. And he also “knows” that it’s impossible for conservatives to get hired in these fields because of a left-wing conspiracy to keep them out of the academy. And how does he “know” this? Because he has “evidence” that hiring committees screen out conservatives. Of course this is nonsense. But since people tend to believe it and since Horowitz has the mantle of authority, it’s just assumed that he’s right.

I wonder how Horowitz might explain the fact that most French professors appear to be just as left-wing, judging from the books I see at bookstores in Paris. Is there a conspiracy there too? I suppose Horowitz would say that, yes, the French academy is just as corrupt as its American counterpart (especially since most of the academic fields he despises trace their roots to postwar critical theory in France). But what about the intellectual class in Italy or Germany or Britain? Why are they all so left-leaning too? Is there a worldwide conspiracy going on here? Perhaps the agents of “world government”—which some paranoid conservatives believe are going to usher in the era of the anti-Christ—are busy making sure that God-fearing Judeo-Christian students can’t get a proper education.

Indeed, Horowitz’s diatribe reminds me of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence against Salman Rushdie, which he issued without having actually read the Satanic Verses first. Had he done so, he might have been surprised to learn that it wasn’t, in fact, anti-Muslim, and that the character who insults the Prophet meets a terrible fate at the end of the book.

But of course, the issue was never Rushdie or the book per se; Khomeini simply realized that he could use the opportunity to further his own agenda. Similarly, Horowitz has no need to read or actually know about the works and people that he’s condemning. He only has to know—intuitively, as all agitators do—that he’s hit on a marketable theme, and then create the fantasy version of academic reality to fit his spin. And so Horowitz generalized from what he claims are two examples of left-leaning schools—Berkeley and Stanford—to say that all of academia, encompassing thousands of colleges, is a hotbed of left-wing radicalism. And he can go on to say that this radicalism a clear and present danger to America’s youth, and indeed, to our national security.

Never mind that Stanford is home to the conservative Hoover Institution, or that several senior colleagues of mine there have expressed the desire to move to places where their work is no longer under constant attack from the right. Even if we accept that these two schools, and dozens more, have a disproportionate number of progressive faculty, how can we make generalizations about the entire post-secondary educational system from these few cases? Aren’t there dangerous conservative-leaning schools as well? How about Liberty Baptist University or Bob Jones University? Or the Army War College?

The real giveaway that Horowitz’s book isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on was his unwillingness and inability to defend the word “dangerous” in the title. On-air host Angie Coiro asked him during our debate why he had told the press that the title was merely a marketing ploy created by his publisher (publishers are always convenient scapegoats in these situations). Horowitz began hemming and hawing and couldn’t get a complete sentence out of his mouth. Finally he explained that what is really dangerous is that professors like me are actually political activists masquerading as professors. We use the hard-earned money of parents across the nation to indoctrinate students and expose them to ideologies that are by their very nature anti-American and even dangerous to its security.

Of course, Horowitz can’t back up that claim, at least in my case—and one can assume most others. How could he, since he has, by his own admission, never read any of my academic writings? Rather the idea of being what he called a “public intellectual” means, for him, that I have no place in the academy, because, he argued, quoting my own biography, that public intellectuals “blend together art, scholarship and activism.”

Instead he suggested that I “get a talk show.” That would be nice, I suppose, but Horowitz once again utterly misses the point about the relationship between being a scholar and an active citizen. And his confusion about how these roles interact for the majority of supposedly “leftist” professors is the most telling thing about the book.

His basic assumption is that these scholars bend their scholarship to their political agenda. But in fact, with most everyone I know, it’s the exact opposite. Progressive scholars have adopted their particular “agendas” because their academic research has revealed a reality on the ground—one that most conservatives refuse to accept—which demands a progressive response. Take the war on Iraq, for example, or the destruction of the environment.

The simple fact is that the world today looks a hell of a lot more like the way it’s depicted by the “leftist” scholars Horowitz finds so dangerous than it does by the scholars on the right. And it’s precisely this ability both to see things closer to how they really are, and to offer explanations grounded in that reality, that makes us professors so dangerous to Horowitz, or so he would have us believe.

In fact, looking at things from France, where a coalition of students, labor unions, intellectuals, and the occasional thug (or as they say in French, casseur) just defeated a rather modest proposal to increase work-place flexibility by allowing employers more easily to fire workers under 26, I’m not so sure he has anything to worry about. Because while the Left is strong enough to stop changes to France’s labor laws, their victories amount to little more than fingers plugging cracks in a dam that is slowly giving way to the onslaught of neoliberal globalization.

The Chrysler dealership in the middle of the bohemian neighborhood where I’m staying, for instance, seems to be doing a nice business selling the same gas-guzzling SUVs that soccer moms all over America love to drive. And gas in France is almost twice as expensive as it is in the US. And it’s not just Paris’s wealthy elite that’s buying them. Across France, and Germany and even Italy for that matter, SUVs are increasingly defacing the roads and the environment, showing that the citizens of “old” Europe can be just as selfish as Americans when it comes to putting their driving comfort ahead of the future of the planet.

The shock of seeing such vehicles in a city where the miniaturized Smart Car has ruled supreme the last half decade is hard to exaggerate. What is clear is that the failure of the supposedly “dangerous” French intellectual elite to offer a serious alternative to the economic status quo is an indictment against the power of the academic Left to impose progressive social change on the larger society.

If there is hope, it’s coming from the “new” world—not the Americas (although there are encouraging, if confusing, signs in Latin America of a reborn Left), but rather from the Middle East, where the world’s largest percentage of young people reside. Several weeks ago, I sat in a seminar room at the American University of Beirut, to listen to students describe how they are thinking outside the box to try to escape the shadow of a brutal civil war and decades-long Syrian occupation. I couldn’t help thinking how much more “dangerous” these activists and their professors are to the interests of the Bush Administration than their counterparts in the US, or even France, where students at the country’s elite universities went on a rampage and destroyed their own computers, copy machines and libraries.

It would seem, however, that President Bush understands the threat all to well, which is why just a few weeks ago he met with the new Prime Minister of Lebanon to discuss how to press ahead with both political and economic “reforms”—the code word for bringing Lebanon fully into the U.S. orbit. This is exactly what many Lebanese activists fear, even as they support American calls for a greater international effort to catch the killers of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. If Mr. Horowitz really wants to find some dangerous characters, he should forget about Berkeley and go to Beirut. There he’ll find one of the major threats to U.S. global dominance, and it isn’t al-Qa’eda. It’s a bunch of college students who speak perfect English and know our history and culture as well as most Americans.


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