The Inscrutable Campus and the New Left Background

David Horowitz's new book sheds light on the progressive Gestapo in academia.

Huey NewtonReprinted from

To order David Horowitz’s “The Black Book of the American Left, Volume I: My Life And Times,” click here.

One of the many frustrations that critics of ideological trends in higher education face is that so many of our audience do not recognize extreme cases as significant to the overall intellectual condition of the campus.  They hear about Ward Churchill and think, "Boy, he's a wild one," and that's all.  Churchill ran a large "studies" department for many years at a flagship public university, overseeing personnel and curriculum, and prospering in a complex academic machinery, but outsiders don't register the validation of his outlook and how it might have had a wide local influence.  Or they think the same thing about the Michigan State creative writing professor who ranted about Republicans who have "raped" our country, and the same thing about the American Studies Association boycott of Israel.  However heated and forthright are those extremists, they are quickly dismissed as wacky academics, a type that the campus environment has had and will always have, and the best thing to do is to tolerate them when we can and punish them quietly when we cannot, or if the story hits the media, make our punishment so circumspect and deliberative that the administrators look clean and upright.

One reason for this un-serious judgment of Leftist extremists, I think, is because people don't see any genesis for their existence.  They are anomalous, wrong-headed, short-sighted, and local, the judgment goes.  They don't have a history, which is one reason why they can be dismissed.

This is a mistake.  These behaviors are, in fact, a remnant of New Left words and deeds, but I don't know of any way to impress outsiders of that origin without having them read direct and convincing reminiscences of those years.  How do you draw a line between kids at Brown University disrupting a guest lecture in 2013 and students shutting down classes in 1969 if people know nothing about campus protests back then?  How can you demonstrate the similarities between the Group of 88's tactics and the conduct of faculty members long ago who commiserated with and supported disruptive undergraduates when nobody remembers the latter?

A new two-volume collection of David Horowitz’ writings has been published by Encounter Books, and it has this particular application to academia that conservative and libertarian critics need.  Entitled The Black Book of the American Left, it is part-memoir, part-diagnosis, and part-politics, ranging from the anti-Vietnam War Movement to Pinochet to Ann Coulter, but only a few pages on the college campus.

Here is a softer example which Horowitz served to illuminate. Several years ago, my institution Emory University hosted Elaine Brown for a couple of days of lecture, discussion, conversation, and meals.  I attended one event and don’t remember what Brown said, but caught firmly the demeanor and cadence of the delivery.  It was hip, knowing, coy, and canny, not an argument or a thesis, but clipped observations and half-articulated notions about racial and gender identity (if I recall).  The audience, on the other hand, was dutiful and attentive and admiring, the q & a producing none of the customary quibbling and speechifying.  To me, there was an unspoken understanding in the room, a silent awareness that produced a different atmosphere, as if something was going on beneath or above the ostensible activity.

I didn’t understand this odd deference, an exception to the disputatious mores that surface at the many other talks on campus—not until later when I read David Horowitz’ remarks about Brown in a reminiscence going back to Oakland in the 1970s.  At the time, Brown was a figure in the Black Panther leadership, a lieutenant of Huey Newton, and Horowitz was editor of the New Left magazine Ramparts.  In his essay, Horowitz described a menacing and erratic woman, with one personality for “the Party’s wealthy liberal supporters” and another for “the violent world of the street gang.”  He heard her utter death threats to people she wanted to control and he heard her conduct shrewd seductions of people she needed.  She charmed Horowitz for a time, using him to generate funds for a Black Panther school, but her “street passions” increasingly worried him until he came across evidence that Brown had conspired to murder a woman he had brought into the school to keep the books.  (Nothing ever came of the investigation.)

I don’t think that the people in the room at Emory that afternoon knew the details of Elaine Brown’s role in the Panthers.  By then she had developed programs to help underprivileged children and stood popularly as a dedicated enemy of racism, sexism, and poverty.  But one could sense more than simple admiration in the audience; it struck me as a subtle excitement over a former-Black Panther in the room (and a female one, at that).  It wasn’t quite “radical chic,” because none of the attendees earned any social standing from the support, but it certainly counted as a specimen of academic chic, a chance to make contact with genuine radicalism, even if it had ended years earlier.  Here was someone with first-hand experience of ideologically-motivated, morally dicey but ultimately sanctioned violent protest, and it heightened the excitement of the event.

Horowitz’ memoirs demonstrate where that frisson originated, and I think it applies to many cases of malfeasance on campus that have a political tenor.  Many of the outrageous acts of hard Leftists on campus have no effect except to degrade academic standards.  Nobody should, in fact, take seriously an English professor denouncing Republicans except the students in the room who expected something better.  But it did provide the actor a thrilling moment of participation in the old days of SDS, the Free Speech Movement, the Chicago Seven . . .  The extremes of the New Left, the descent into “days of rage,” the radical demands . . . they aren’t overtly common in academia, but they carry over as lingering resentment, feats of intimidation, coercive versions of political correctness.  To understand them, it isn’t enough to examine local conditions.  Observers need to go back to the Sixties.  This collection of Horowitz’ is an illuminating resource.


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