"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
David Horowitz has lived a rich, and contradictory, life. He once contributed to seminal leftist magazine Ramparts and hired for the Black Panthers, but then bitterly split with his leftist friends and reinvented himself as a conservative who may be the leading scourge of left-leaning professors nationwide. His crusade to make liberal “indoctrination” a statutory offense has seized the backing of Republican lawmakers and the imaginations of campus followers. Recently, Horowitz launched a new Web site, DiscoverTheNetwork.org, to catalog and expose his enemies on the left.
When I called to interview him for Salon, listed on his site as an “apparatchik far-left” publication practically in league with Islamists, the former Salon columnist was strangely eager to appease me. Famous for breathing fire in public before admiring college Republicans, he scampered when I confronted him about his site’s claims, even promising to rewrite some of them.
Purportedly a serious counterbalance to liberal sites that track conservatives, Horowitz’s online “Guide to the Political Left” lays out what he considers the extensive connections between liberals and terrorists. Its controversial picture gallery of “leftists” runs the gamut from movie critic Roger Ebert and Omar Abdel Rahman, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to crushed Holy Land protester Rachel Corrie and even Sen. John Kerry.
You just can’t separate Ebert from a terrorist like the blind sheik Rahman, Horowitz told me. Chalk it up to the limits of presenting information on a two-dimensional computer screen. “It’s a limitation of — what? Of language? The human mind?” mused Horowitz. “The two-dimensional, three-dimensional, four-dimensional universe?”
The human minds with limitations, of course, belong to his critics. But Horowitz’s latest venture has his critics asking if the right-wing provocateur has finally flipped in his long-running battle with the left.
Columbia journalism professor and longtime liberal activist Todd Gitlin calls the site the “venomous” product of Horowitz’s 1950s childhood as the son of Stalinists, and of his lasting guilt over the killing of a friend by his former allies, the Black Panthers. “The psychodynamics here are not pretty” says Gitlin, whose squashed face appears on the site. As No. 376 on the list, he’s accused of “harboring the belief that his country is ultimately unworthy of his respect and even allegiance.” The Web site, Gitlin says, reflects “a demonology that’s about as unsubtle as the one [Horowitz] pursued when he was a Marxist in the ’60s, except the terms are inverted.”
The Horowitz files at Discover the Network, at last count, span 948 people and 552 organizations, from America Coming Together to the Pearl Jam fan club to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Horowitz says that his critics have fixated excessively on his Web site’s “picture grid” — Paul Begala diagnosed it as “stark raving mad” — and refuse to answer the weightier accusation implicit in Horowitz’s database: that the political left has forged an “unholy alliance” with terrorists. His critics, Horowitz wrote on FrontPageMag.com, “squeal about putting radical Islamists in the same database … as Michael Moore, Ward Churchill and Barbra Streisand.”
“It may seem extreme to some people to have John Kerry in the same database as [Sept. 11 hijacker] Mohammed Atta,” he told me, yet he was at a loss for a way to separate them on his site. It was “an infinite regress,” he said: Toss out Stanley Cohen, lawyer for Hamas, and he’d have to remove the allegedly similarly minded ACLU. Take out the ACLU, and the next thing you know you have to delete Democrats from the “network.”
The searchable site, with a staff of two, opened to the public in February after about two years in development, at a cost of about $500,000 by Horowitz’s estimate. It has met with scattered applause from the right as an educational tool. Conservative blogger “Jeff Blogworthy” declared that the “leftist attack strategy” has been laid bare by Horowitz’s site. “Few people understand the Left like David,” he wrote.
Horowitz offers his A-to-Z master list of leftists as a gift of wisdom through experience — i.e., his transformation from a radical to a repentant, hard-line anti-Communist. But is he the right man to build a cool-headed research database that uses accuracy as a weapon?
Horowitz hopes to outdo progressive watchdog sites like the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks white supremacists, Holocaust deniers and Horowitz himself (whom it labels a bearer of “radical ideas”); Media Matters for America, a site run by Republican turned liberal David Brock (whom Horowitz calls a “snake and liar and a backstabber”); and Media Transparency, a handy database that links Horowitz’s college groups to hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from the conservative coffers of Richard Mellon Scaife and the Bradley Foundation.
Media Transparency’s Rob Levine calls Horowitz’s site a “comic cartoon imitation” of the Minnesota-based liberal site, which Horowitz acknowledged was an inspiration for Discover the Network. “One reason,” Levine says, “is that there just isn’t the same kind of progressive infrastructure and coordination on the left as there is on the right, so in some sense he’s swatting at a chimera.”
The mission statement of Horowitz’s site is to “identify the individuals and organizations that make up the left and also the institutions that fund and sustain it.” For instance, Discover the Network identifies the Ford Foundation as a supporter of “communist front groups” and the Tides Foundation as the “nerve center of the left,” asserting that Teresa Heinz Kerry has funneled $8 million through the foundation “to further her radical environmentalist agenda” (a claim that’s debunked at Snopes.com).
In 1989 Horowitz confessed to Sun Myung Moon’s Insight magazine that fate had bound him, like Ahab, to pursue his “white whale” forever — a quest “to stigmatize the Left and separate it.” But he presents his new project as a fountain of data, not stigma. “I want to make it clear at the outset that I have striven to make an informational database, and not … a ‘tar and feather the left’ database,” he told Salon.
He’s sick of what the other side does, he says, surfing the Web while we talk for examples of anti-Horowitz rants. “It’s like, ‘Is Horowitz a lunatic?’” he says. He ends up at Media Transparency and points to a headline: “David Horowitz’s imagined supporters speak out.” In comparison to that language, Horowitz says, “I feel I set a standard here … I don’t think there’s another site that’s as responsible” as Discover the Network.
Adds staffer Genesio Zenone, the site is an “electronically overdue other side of the argument.”
But many Discover the Network entries run hotter than the ones on Media Transparency. Hillary Clinton’s dossier soars into a many-paragraphed rumination on Clinton loyalists, explaining what one can learn from their “sordid, criminal means” about the evil nature of progressives, whose idealism is skin-deep: “They hate you because you are killers of their dream … Since the redeemed future that justifies their existence and rationalizes their hypocrisy can never be realized, what really motivates progressives is a modern idolatry: their limitless passion for the continuance of Them.”
Confronted with this vitriolic passage, Horowitz concedes it was excerpted from a 2000 piece of his published on FrontPageMag.com, “Progressive Narcissism,” but says his overly reverent staff improperly cut-and-pasted a polemic as an entry in a strictly nonpolemical data source. “I have this problem with my staff,” Horowitz says, “and that is, they won’t touch my words.” He says that while his writings have formed the basis for many entries, they’re supposed to be edited down to just the facts. His editor is going to have to fix that one, he says.
One man who won’t be removed from the database is Ebert, No. 298. “I was surprised to find myself linked to a terrorist I have never heard of,” Ebert said, facetiously. “I was not curious enough about him to Google him, but perhaps he will Google me and, having discovered my wonderful reviews, will renounce terrorism and spend more time at the movies.” (What earned Ebert his spot, the site says, was his criticizing “runaway corporations,” accusing the U.S. death penalty system of inequity, and making an unflattering reference to former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.)
“The one link Discover the Network seems to be missing is ‘David Horowitz and Sen. Joseph McCarthy,’” Ebert says. “David was a respected journalist. He could be a respected conservative commentator. Why does he lower himself to rabble-rousing?”
Told of Ebert’s criticism, Horowitz began to call the movie critic “an a — ,” but stopped and settled for calling him “probably ignorant of everything I’ve ever written.”
In fact, it’s Horowitz’s past work that explains his method of lumping together the individuals and organizations on his site into one vast left-wing conspiracy — including last year’s book, “Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left,” praised by former CIA director James Woolsey for revealing the enemy within. “This is the left that I see,” Horowitz says. “The background for this, for 20 years I’ve had in my head.” With a burning fuse on its cover, “Unholy Alliance” argues that groups who despise one another might actually be working closely together, maybe without even knowing it. This philosophy forms the backbone of Discover the Network, which digitizes theories of Horowitz’s that are long in the making.
You can’t simply connect the dots from Ebert to, say, Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian faction Fatah, on Horowitz’s site. His precariously programmed Java engine puts an interactive graphic on the screen that ostensibly links isolated conspiracies of the “political left,” but a recent attempt to find the link between Ebert and terrorists came to an early dead end at the listing for the International Association of Democratic Lawyers in Brussels, Belgium. Then the program crashed.
Horowitz initially defended the organization of his database, saying that seemingly disparate people are all linked by anti-Americanism. “They [would] probably say that 9/11 or the [Iraq] beheadings were the wrong way to carry out a right cause,” he says. “They come together when it comes to opposing America’s wars, America” — he laughs — “and seeing America as the Great Satan.” And he says “they,” including Michael Moore, must be purged from the Democratic Party for the good of the country.
But later Horowitz announced some revisions to his site. Some of the members of the picture grid, he wrote on FrontPageMag.com, are “patriotic Americans.” So are the editors of Salon, he added. “If you visit the individuals search page [of the site], you will see that we have separated the individuals into five columns, which we identify as ‘totalitarian radicals,’ ‘anti-American radicals,’ ‘leftists,’ ‘moderate leftists’ and ‘affective leftists’ … We have arranged the grid this way, even though we think it feeds certain illusions, to accommodate those who expressed anguish over the grid in its original format.”
He also fixed the description for No. 819, media critic Norman Solomon. He was listed not only as an “anti-American writer” but as a University of California at Berkeley professor, when he isn’t, in fact, a professor of any kind. Recently checking his entry, Solomon said of Horowitz: “Imagine Joe McCarthy with a Web site, proudly stuck in a time warp … Horowitz strains to throw as much mud as he can, evidently with the fervent belief that some of it is bound to harm his targets. Along the way, his material is riddled with demagogic smears, weird leaps of semi-logic and factual errors.”
Days later, the clarifications and changes kept coming. “I’ve modified the descriptive text on the Individuals search page to make clearer that the [database] obviously includes moderates who don’t think America is an imperialist power or the Great Satan,” Horowitz wrote in an e-mail subsequent to our interview.
Still not off the hook, however, are his eternal enemies — college professors — whom he considers the most closely enmeshed with terror. As he explained it to Salon, Washington Democrats are products of the university “feeder system,” an underworld where “40,000 professors have signed antiwar letters.” And that’s the impetus for his “Academic Bill of Rights” crusade in various state Senates, which among other things would outlaw “indoctrination” by liberal professors in classrooms. Defeated in Colorado last year, a similar law is resurfacing in the California Senate this month and is making some progress in the Florida Assembly.
But Horowitz’s crusade is clearly driven by more than a push for diversity; he believes those he disagrees with not only are overrepresented in academia but represent threats to national security. For him, much anti-Bush rhetoric seems to be interchangeable with collaboration with the enemy. He likens Islamic fervor to “Western radicals’ efforts to purify their tainted souls of ‘racism, sexism and homophobia,” saying that the two movements “reflect parallel inclinations … Both are exacting in the justice they administer and the loyalty they demand.”
Is Horowitz concerned that people might read his site the wrong way and believe that Mohammed Atta and a local college professor are literally co-workers? “I can’t be accountable for people who misread what’s here,” he says. The professors he has criticized, he says, complain, “‘I’m getting death threats or whatever.’ I get death threats all the time. The level of our political rhetoric is horrible, and I don’t think very much can be done about it.” He adds: “I treat people the way they treat me.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)