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In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed that Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists are content to murder only a handful of people. They stop killing, he explained, because “they have no ideology.”
One instantly comprehends the truth of this insight, and even anticipates its ramifications. There exists a quantum leap in evil between the MacBeths of this world on the one hand, and the Hitlers, Stalins, Mao Tse Tungs, Che Guevaras and Osama bin Ladens on the other.
But Solzhenitsyn does not explain how it is that so many intellectuals can apply exquisitely sensitive moral calipers to the character flaws in Shakespearean murderers, turning them this way and that in the light cast by civilized codes of behavior, while ideological massacrists inspire in the same minds a paralysis of the critical thinking process so impervious to reason as to amount to a pathology.
One need not have experienced such cognitive dissonance to analyze it: Lifelong anti-leftist historian Jamie Glazov’s 2009 book, United in Hate: The Left’s Romance with Tyranny and Terror, for example, ably parses the phenomenon.
But actual converts from the ideology that produces the paralysis not only know where the bodies are buried, in the old cliché; they have seen for themselves the very graves being dug.
Thus, personal narratives written by former left-wing activists, tales of gradual, sorrowful awakening and trenchant self-examination, are significant value added to any serious student earnestly seeking to understand the source of the strange ecstasy binding otherwise normal people to their culturally self-loathing wheel of fire.
And for these students, the writings of former New Left leader David Horowitz have, for the past 30 years, amounted to the most compelling vivisection of the American left since Whittaker Chambers’ majestic 1952 apologia for his six years in the Communist underworld, Witness.
Were it not already spoken for, Witness would have served very well as the title for Horowitz’s new book, The Black Book of the American Left: Volume I: My Life and Times, the first of a projected nine volumes of Horowitz’s collected conservative writings. For, as Horowitz writes, regarding his motivation for a life of polemical combat in one of the book’s essays, “The End of Time,” (also the title of his 2005 personal memoir),
“I was a witness. I needed not to forget what I had learned through pain, and to pay my debt. I needed to warn whom I could and to protect whom I might. If I had a mission to name, it was about wrestling with the most powerful and pernicious of all human follies, which is the desire to stifle truth in the name of hope.”
Horowitz was, like so many other Jewish sons and daughters of his generation, a “red diaper” baby. His parents were staunch communists to the end of their days, undeterred even by Khruschev’s 1956 unveiling of Stalin’s paranoiac purges and wholesale decimations. Clinging to the post-Stalin wreckage rather than swimming away altogether, Horowitz championed the resurgent New Left’s neo-communist shibboleths at Berkeley, ground zero of the counter-cultural 1960s, for several years co-editing Ramparts, the left’s most important student literary and political magazine.
The pivotal moment in Horowitz’s ultimate break with the left was the 1974 murder by the Black Panthers of Betty Van Patter, a fellow activist personally recruited by Horowitz for administrative work at an Oakland, California community center, understood by Horowitz to be wholly devoted to disadvantaged black children, but in fact a shell for laundering criminal Panther activity.
Van Patter’s dawning comprehension of that truth marked her, as a potential witness, for doom. She was murdered on orders from Elaine Brown (now a darling of academe) under the direction of then-exiled Panther leader Huey Newton (chronicled in the essay “Black Murder Inc”).
Although technically blameless, Horowitz never got over the shock or his sense of guilt for enabling her involvement with the Panthers. The event scarred his soul, but also jump-started his liberation from illusion, and fired the forge of his “Ahab-like” resolve for the great crusade that was to occupy his remaining time on earth. In “Reflections on the Road Taken and Not,” he writes, “The pain said:
‘You cannot stay in this place. If you don’t move, you will die.’”
Betty’s murder is one of two recurring tropes that haunt the collection’s essays. The other is a cover of Ramparts magazine, described in the essay “Repressed Memory Syndrome” and elsewhere, featuring a seven-year old boy holding aloft the flag of the Vietcong, America’s enemy in Vietnam. The cover line read: “Alienation is when your country is at war and you want the other side to win.” Horowitz authored those words, and for lasting shame, that fact rivals his unwitting enablement of Van Patter’s murder.
Van Patter, though, has greater importance as the existential bright line between innocence and knowledge. Not just knowledge of evil itself, but the knowledge that good people are prepared to ignore evil in the name of ideology. Horowitz was stunned that Betty’s murder and other acts of thuggery by the Panthers could be glossed over by his friends – and even, passively, by her own daughter – on any grounds, let alone those of historical racism. But they were. “I had believed in the left because of the good it had promised. Now I learned to judge it by the evil it had done.” When he began to judge the left publicly, (see his 1985 article, written with Peter Collier, “Goodbye to All That”), Horowitz lost virtually every friend he ever had.
The considerable value of The Black Book of the Left – this volume and the ones to come – does not lie in the originality of the material, obviously. All the essays and articles herein are reprints; the events and themes they reprise have been exhaustively mined elsewhere in Horowitz’s capacious oeuvre.
But easy accessibility to the highlights of Horowitz’s 30 years of battle with the left, and their distillation into 400 pages of accrued wisdom, grouped under the headings “Reflections From my Life,” “Reflections on the Left,” “Slander as Political Discourse,” and “Two Talks on Autobiographical Themes,” makes it a worthy addition to any critical thinker’s bookshelf.
The full value of the collection, however, will only be realized with the tenth volume, an index to the whole. As a fleshed-out companion to the comprehensive database of bare facts contained in discoverthenetworks.org (the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s “most significant achievement,” in Horowitz’s claim), It will then be a non-pareil, holistic reference guide to the crimes, the criminals and their enabling fellow-travellers (especially in the academy) of the American left’s last five decades, and of particular value to university students struggling to maintain their intellectual integrity in forensically corrupted environments.
Horowitz is incapable of writing a dull essay on any facet of his personal and polemical adventures, and I would hesitate to recommend some over others for the first-time reader of Horowitz’s work. But for those, like me, who are well acquainted with his work already, certain essays will resonate more than others. Because of changes in my own life – notably a late-life entry into journalism – my appreciation was sharpened for episodes I seem to have missed or given short shrift to years ago, in particular those dealing with media bias.
“A Political Romance” is a good introduction to the neophyte unfamiliar with Horowitz’s personal story, but that is not why I single it out. The “romance” of the title is leftist utopianism, and the essay, finely crafted as one would expect, describes Horowitz’s awakening to the realities behind the dream. In format and tone it is exactly the kind of reflection one frequently sees on the “Lives” end page of the New York Times Sunday magazine.
That’s because it was commissioned for the “Lives” page. But once delivered, it was rejected. A few weeks later, however, a similar reflection was published in “Lives,” this one written by a leftist who had faltered in her loyalty to leftism but in the end renewed her faith in what she still believed was a noble cause (see the Introductory essay, “My Life and Times”). That was the left-affirming angle the NYT wanted, and here is proof, if proof were needed, that the New York Times shills for the left, even unto the very last page of the Sunday magazine.
Overstatement, a skeptic would say. One ideological editor does not a conspiracy make. Which is why, for those interested in media bias, I would also recommend the 1998 piece, “Political Cross-Dresser: Michael Lind Perpetuates a Hoax.” Here the left-leaning bias of the elite mainstream media is laid bare in all its systemic dishonor.
Michael Lind used to be a conservative, although as a newly-minted leftist, he claimed never really to have been a conservative, but was in his heart always a liberal. So let us rather say it was in conservative rhetorical vineyards that he labored in relative obscurity as a mediocre thinker and writer of whom Horowitz was only vaguely aware. His interest quickened at news of Lind’s defection to the left; here, ostensibly, was a Doppelgänger in reverse.
Horowitz’s own 1985 public defection (“Goodbye to All That”) had provoked retribution in the media that was “swift and without limit.” Formerly widely published and laureled as a leftist, he was shunned and vilified as a conservative. His and Collier’s writings were now unwelcome at the previously open-armed The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books and The New Republic. So he was keen to see the media’s response to a counter-defector.
Within months, cover stories and lead articles by Lind appeared in the same publications that had snubbed Horowitz. He became a senior editor at, successively, Harper’s, The New Republic and The New Yorker. He signed three lucrative book deals, including an account of his damascene conversion, Up from Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong, whose flap copy described Lind as “a former rising star of the Right” (which he was not), and which was gushed over by Gore Vidal, who compared Lind to Alexis de Toqueville!
According to Horowitz’s numerous quoted outtakes, Lind paints the conservative community as a roiling sea of misogynist, trigger-happy white supremacists and blood-sucking corporate oligarchs, with America’s top conservative writers – Charles Murray, no less! – limned as latter-day Manchurian candidates issuing propagandist tracts dictated by monies-dispensing conservative foundations. In lengthy, eye-opening detail and with returnless logic, Horowitz handily rebuts the worst excesses of Lind’s calumnies. But to ignorant, credulous readers, the book must have appeared as a damning indictment of conservatism.
The article ends on a rueful note with a quoted warning to Horowitz from former Commentary Magazine editor Norman Podhoretz, who – even though he was never as far down the leftist rabbit hole as Horowitz, and did not pay nearly as high a price for his rightward shift – knows a thing or two about the media: “When you were on the left, you got away with everything. Now that you’re on the right, you’d better be careful because they won’t let you get away with anything.” Q.E.D.
For the general reader, my recommendation for special attention is the essay, “My Conservatism,” first published in 1993. I think many conservatives have no problem speaking out instinctively for or against government policies, but they often have difficulty in articulating what exactly it is about their worldview that distinguishes them from leftists.
This essay is crammed with succinctly enunciated insights that clear away the cobwebs and provide excellent talking points for conservatives in debate.
Horowitz reminds us that conservatism is first of all not an ideology, but rather a mental and temperamental disposition, so to speak. Conservatives accept the fact that human nature in its fundamentals does not change. So there are limitations to the changes any society will accept without coercion. They do not theorize about what their societies would look like in a perfect world; they ask and try to answer the obvious question, “What makes a society work?” (see the essay, “Can There be a Decent Left?”).
They want to make the world a better place, but are guided by the knowledge that it cannot be made perfect, and hastening improvement artificially rather than organically is not wise. As Horowitz notes in his essay, “Keepers of the Flame,” [L]ife is made better only incrementally and with great difficulty, but it is made worse – much worse – very easily.”
Conservativism is “rooted in an attitude about the past rather than in expectations of the future.” Ideology is about the future. And herein lies the unbridgeable chasm between the two. “Since ideologues of the left are committed to an imagined future, one that re-establishes the Eden of our mythic beginnings, to question them is to provoke a moral rather than an empirical response: Are you for or against the equality of human beings? To dissent from the progressive viewpoint is not a failure to assess relevant facts but to an unwillingness to embrace a liberated future. It is, therefore, to will the imperfections and injustices of the present order.”
I must append to that a pithy remark from the essay “Neo-Communism III,” “A key to understanding the mentality of the left is that it judges itself by its best intentions, while judging its opponents – America chief among them – by their worst deeds.” Just so.
Conservatism is not a religion, though most religious Americans are conservative. But since leftism is so fixated on a future utopia, it is a kind of religion, whose god is “social justice,” in pursuit of which all is permitted. As in other fundamentalist religions, a member who renounces belief in any part of the belief system is a danger to the whole left community. As Betty Van Patter’s murderer, Elaine Brown, once put it:
“Faith was all there was. If I did not believe in the ultimate rightness of our goals and our party, then what we did, what Huey [Newton] was doing, what he was, what I was, was horrible.”
Well, she was horrible. And since she has never publicly recanted or repented of her complicity, she still is horrible, yet the honors and the emoluments roll on for her. And not just for her. The universities and the government, homes to the best and the brightest, are full of horrible people like her, or people who hobnob with horrible people.
It is worthwhile remembering at this juncture that it was the best and the brightest in the government and the universities who supported the communist government infiltrator, Alger Hiss, against all evidence of his perfidy. In Witness, Whittaker Chambers writes:
“It was the enlightened and the powerful, the clamorous proponents of the open mind and the common man, who snapped their minds shut in a pro-Hiss psychosis, of a kind which, in an individual patient, means the simple failure of the ability to distinguish between reality and unreality, and, in a nation, is a warning of the end.”
Plus ça change…
Horowitz’s writings reveal that today many of America’s political and academic elites, including the president of the United States, are similarly blind to the moral treachery of those close to them, associates who in the past have committed terrible crimes or who dream of committing them in the future, yet they choose to honor and protect them.
All of them, though – plotters and enablers alike – insist that it is conservatives – people who never murdered anyone, never covered up for murderers, never kept silent about murder at home and abroad, whether committed in the name of ideology, ethnic nationalism or religious triumphalism – who are the horrible ones.
The Black Book project was conceived of as a dual challenge: to persuade leftists of the destructive consequences of their ideas; and to persuade conservatives of the malignancy of the forces mobilized against them.
Horowitz is a born fighter, but even lifelong happy warriors can experience moments of frustration, when all their labors seem to have been in vain. When he defected, Whittaker Chambers told his wife, “I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side,” but that it was “better to die on the losing side than to live under communism.”
Horowitz has acknowledged that while conservatives like his message and his writing, they don’t act on his advice. All Cassandras may be forgiven if they believe they are on the losing side of history.
But then, nobody predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Horowitz has pointed out on several occasions. In a recent interview, Horowitz said he believes “Obama has awakened [conservatives].
They’re getting it.” He also said, “I am an optimistic person.” A lucky thing for us all, and may his tribe increase.
Barbara Kay is a columnist with Canada’s National Post.
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