Originally published by National Review Online.
I’ll tell you what the “smart” view of David is: He was a radical of the Left who became a radical of the Right. He was an extremist then and is an extremist now, with the same nasty and flamboyant style. Express this view, and almost every liberal and conservative head will nod: “Yup, yup, that’s how it is.” It is nonsense. No one will contradict you if you say it — but you’ll be a fool.
I cherish a comment that Hendrik Hertzberg, the New Yorker writer, once made to Collier & Horowitz. He said, “You were apologists for Communism then and you are apologists for anti-Communism now.” They are not merely apologists for anti-Communism; they are anti-Communists, as all decent people are (though they will not necessarily be published in The New Yorker).
If you want to classify David politically, you can call him a conservative — with a healthy dose of Hayek in him. “My life experience had led me to conclude that not only was changing the world an impossible dream, but the refusal to recognize it as such was the source of innumerable individual tragedies and of epic miseries that human beings had inflicted on each other in my lifetime through the failed utopias of Nazism and Communism.” Seldom will you read a more conservative sentence. And you will read many more like it, in David’s collected writings. He is constantly inveighing against ideologies, party lines, rigidities.
David is known as a hothead and flamethrower. A rhetorical goon. He can be that. He can also be coolly cerebral. And he can be elegiac, lyrical — as in personal memoirs such as the one about his late daughter, A Cracking of the Heart. He has many moods, many styles. And make no mistake: He can do style.
Christopher Hitchens was supposed to be the most stylish writer and polemicist of his time. But consider an exchange between him and David on the radio. David said something rude — i.e., something true — about Castro. And Hitchens, with his practiced sneer, said, “How dare you? How dare you?” David replied, “Christopher, aren’t we getting a little old for how-dare-yous?” The more stylish person in that exchange was not Hitchens (who, like Paul Berman, would do some political sobering up).
The question of David’s reputation, or standing, is interesting: He has legions of fans, and legions of detractors, some of whom occupy high places. The Left won’t deal with him, of course. He has their number, he has kept book on them — and they resent it. Writes David, “An ideological omertà is the Left’s response to its vindicated critics, especially those who emerged from its own ranks.” I’m reminded of something a liberal intellectual and policymaker once said to Abigail Thernstrom (who migrated from left to right). He said, “I don’t like debating you, Abby, because you always know what I’m thinking, and you know what I’m going to say before I say it.”
And the conservatives? Have they welcomed David with open arms, gratitude, and delight? Not really. They have often been snippy and scornful about David. Grudging about him. How to explain it? I’m sure I can’t, satisfactorily, but I will have a go:
David, they say, can be harsh, obnoxious, and generally impossible. I have no doubt he can. He can also be a peach. Furthermore, David is an activist — not just an intellectual, but an activist. And some conservatives are uncomfortable with activism. They would rather observe, opine, and sigh. David wants to take up cudgels and win. He says to lazy or defeatist conservatives, “Wake up! Fight back! The Left is eating your lunch, but it need not be so!” David is fearless in an environment marked by some fearfulness. He is an upsetter of the apple cart, and the upsetting of the apple cart is not very conservative. When David goes into a university and makes a fuss about the curriculum, some conservatives are embarrassed. They say, “Stop making a fuss. It may cause them to dislike us even more. Plus, aren’t we born to be an oppressed minority?” Some conservatives are content with dhimmitude. And, frankly, there are conservatives who have the sneaking hope that they will be approved by the New York Times et al. “Look, I may be on the right, but I’m not an extremist and nuisance like Horowitz, you know. You can bring me home to dinner.”
Willmoore Kendall once made a wicked remark about Cleanth Brooks, his colleague at Yale: “Cleanth is always the second-most-conservative person in the room.”
In a way, David is a man without a home — an independent, a republic unto himself. Speaking at his alma mater in 2009, he said, “Fifty years ago, my radical views caused me to feel like an outsider at Columbia. Returning as a conservative, I find myself an outsider still — and again it is because of my political views.”
As I was reading My Life and Times, I kept writing in the margins, “True, true!” And as I read about David’s thoughts and experiences, I couldn’t help thinking of my own. Other readers will find the same, I’m sure. I kept thinking, “Yes, that’s what I saw, that’s what I heard, that’s what I felt.” Take the matter of human rights: The people around me constantly yelled about Pinochet’s Chile, Marcos’s Philippines, and, above all, apartheid South Africa. And yell they should have. But what about the people behind the Iron Curtain? And in China, North Korea, and Vietnam? And in Cuba? If you prick or torture them, do they not bleed? Aren’t human rights for them, too?
Obviously, no one can agree with David on every point in the hundreds of pages of Volume 1, or in the thousands of pages of the volumes to come. That would be absurd. In all likelihood, David doesn’t agree with David on every point. (Do you agree with everything you’ve said for the past 25 or 30 years?) But I always want to know what David has to say. Early in that Columbia speech, he praised a professor, saying, “He was there . . . to teach us how to think and not to tell us what to think — therefore to respect the divergent opinions of others. I am afraid this is a vanishing ethos in our culture and a dying pedagogical art in our university classrooms today.” Oh, yes. Like everyone else, David will sometimes tell you what to think. But he is more interested in suggesting how you should think.
Once he was asked, “Do you ever feel that you are wasting your breath? Do you think that truth will ever matter? No matter what you prove or disprove, in the end the truth will remain in the shadows of what people want to hear and want to believe.” David answered, “I agree more than I care to with this observation.” For my part, I can say that David has not wasted his breath. He learned important things in the first stages of his life, and has learned important things since. He has wanted to impart what he knows, and he has many beneficiaries. Everyone? Of course not. Enough beneficiaries, though — more than most ever have.
What has driven him, I think, is what drove Whittaker Chambers and lots of others who left Communism and dedicated themselves to anti-Communism: a desire to tell the truth, and to have other people know the truth. A desire to be free of lies, and to counter them. “Live not by lies!” Solzhenitsyn implored, during the long years of the Soviet Union. Lies want to govern everything, and do, if you let them. David was sick of lies: about the Soviet Union, about the Panthers, about Vietnam, about everything. And he burns to know and tell the truth, insofar as that is possible.
This quality — a respect for the truth, an aversion to lies — has always existed in him, even if it has been suppressed or superseded at times. Age 14, he was walking across the Triborough Bridge to attend a rally for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the atomic spies for the Soviet Union. A political mentor was explaining to him that lying was justified, for revolutionary purposes. David knew this was wrong — felt in his stomach that it was. “The renegade Horowitz,” even then!
“Great is truth,” they say, “and will prevail.” It will, yes — but even if it didn’t, it would still be great.
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