Where cowards have no names

On Amazon.com, reader reviewers can share their thoughts about books like mine, but don't expect the hardcore leftists to identify themselves.

Published May 1, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Through its online review section, the Internet bookstore Amazon.com offers authors a snapshot of how its audience compares with that of its rivals -- especially in the political sphere.

Since Amazon takes a libertarian approach and rarely interferes with reader reviews, it also provides an excellent lens through which to view the cultural hegemony of the left. Anyone who doubts this need only surf the site and compare the treatment of hot-button conservative authors like me with comparable writers on the left.

One caveat to be noted is that in my case I have clouded the original picture a bit by complaining to Amazon that certain reader comments violated the site's guidelines, which exist to prevent compulsive flamers from posting ad hominem smears. (The guidelines require all reviews to "focus on the book's content and context" and declare that "comments that are not specific to the book will not be posted.") As a result of my complaints, several particularly nasty posts about my work were removed.

Nevertheless, it is clear that many leftists believe that it is their mission to go onto sites like Amazon and warn unsuspecting surfers that authors like me are dangerous, and that our work should be quarantined.

This kind of attempt to obstruct the marketplace of ideas, which is familiar to anyone who has ever enraged the hardcore left, is carried out by people so cowardly or paranoid that they use pseudonyms and refuse to divulge their e-mail addresses. It may be that they see themselves as soldiers in a clandestine force, resisting an oppression so powerful that it will hunt them down and destroy them if their true identities are discovered.

Of course, a well-known attribute of paranoia is the capacity of the victim to project onto others his own aggression. Therefore, the flames posted against me didn't bother me as much as the sense that their presence reflected a general erosion of civilizing standards in our culture.

But the comparative features of the Internet reveal more than the presence of leftist activists. The reviews from institutional sources on the site are also extremely illuminating. Take the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, which purports to represent a large and diverse audience, but in fact has come under the control of partisan ideologues. Its reviews amount to little more than in-house memos to the radical left.

Other institutional reviews, from sources that would seem to be above politics altogether, have as their primary audiences libraries and retailers. These include Kirkus Reviews, Book List and the Library Journal, which though obscure, are important factors in the success of many books. Internet bookstores like Amazon post their comments at the top of their review sections, giving them extra influence in the buying decisions made by visitors to the sites.

I received a rave review from Kirkus with my first book, which was an attack on America's role in the Cold War. That was 35 years ago. Since then, however, Kirkus and Library Journal have not looked as kindly on my work. The reason is that these services draw heavily on professors from academic institutions that have been thoroughly politicized by the left.

Now, I would be the first to admit that the concept of an "objective" review is ludicrous and that, even in scrupulous hands, reviews routinely display a political bias. But it is one thing to have a partisan agenda and quite another to systematically misrepresent that agenda as something else.

What came as a shock even to a veteran of ideological wars like me was that Amazon's own reviewer slipped an ideological knife into the ribs of my autobiography, "Radical Son." How could a bookstore -- whose only reason for being was to sell books -- deliberately set out to sabotage one of its own products? It also didn't seem in keeping with the spirit of unrestrained capitalism that characterizes the dot-com world.

Upon making inquiries, I discovered that a favorable review of "Radical Son" by one of Amazon's contract writers, Scott Shuger, had been spiked to make room for the negative notice. I also did a spot-check of Amazon's reviews of leftist authors like Noam Chomsky and Cornel West, and found words like "genius," "brilliant," "enlightened" and so on, much like the pufferies you would expect from a merchant hyping his wares.

No official Amazon reviewer or Kirkus commentator referred to these writers' works as ideologically biased or "doctrinaire," as they had mine. To avoid the possibility of falling into a narcissistic trap, I also checked the page of another high-voltage conservative, Robert Bork.

Sure enough, the Amazon review denigrated Bork as a historical footnote and hypocrite, calling his book "an extended attack against everything liberal" -- when, in fact, the book's central argument is that liberal ideals are good until they are taken to extremes.

Armed with ammunition like this, I began an e-mail appeal to Amazon. On a trip to Seattle to promote my book's paperback edition, I dropped by Amazon's headquarters, where I met the individual in charge of reviews. He was a reasonable fellow, and when my next book appeared, it received a very fair review from the site.

This, however, triggered a reaction from the kind of leftists who feel the need to invade the neutral spaces in our culture, like Amazon, to sabotage those who disagree with them.

Another of my books, "The Politics of Bad Faith," was recently published in paperback. It consists of my intellectual framework for rejecting the left, and therefore examines the main political issues confronting my generation -- the Cold War, the question of socialism and whether the ideals of the left are implicated in the crimes that have been committed in its name.

As you would expect of such a book, it contains detailed analyses and invites discussion and/or refutation by opponents. It is indicative of the left's approach to intellectual disagreement that though it has been 15 years since I first published parts of this book, I can't cite a single attempt by any "progressive" (with one exception) to meet its challenges or engage its arguments. The one exception is the intelligent and reflective review of "The Politics of Bad Faith" in Salon by then-managing editor David Weir. On the other hand, that review (by editorial decision) was a short one and not a point-by-point encounter with the underlying theses of my work.

This silence, which is in effect an effort to pretend that such views don't exist, contrasts strikingly with the response to writers who have conducted mirror journeys from right to left. Political writers like Michael Lind and David Brock, who offered (quite feeble) explanations for their own political metamorphoses, have not only been welcomed by leftists but critiqued in detail by conservatives, including me.

The appearance of "The Politics of Bad Faith" inspired two reviewer comments on Amazon by individuals who hated it (and me) and gave it a one-star rating (the lowest possible). Their remarks illuminate the way by which hardcore leftists approach ideological critiques of their worldview.

The first of the customer reviewers was a "D. Lamkin" from Burke, Va., who stated: "One of the United States' many cultural factions is the one Horowitz represents so well -- those who would like nothing better than to turn the clock back to that wonderful time in U.S. history when minorities 'knew their place' and women were (supposedly) content to tend 'home and hearth' while the dominant white male 'hunted and gathered' in the U.S. economic marketplace."

The writer then did allow that despite our mean-spirited, reactionary and racist views, writers like me should at least be tolerated. On the other hand, he argued, if the shoe were on the other foot, "the author of 'The Politics of Bad Faith' would not extend the same courtesy to dissenters from his viewpoint" because "that would negate the premises he argues in this book."

Actually, the premise of my book -- not to mention everything I have done in my political life since leaving the left -- is precisely the opposite of what "D. Lamkin" claims. Not only do I believe in liberty and freedom of expression, but it is my central argument that all forms of socialism, and all efforts to create conditions of economic equality, are incompatible with liberty and individual rights, and that is why I oppose them. I believe the American Founders created our constitutional covenant with this understanding, and I specifically define conservatism in those terms -- as a defense of the constitutional covenant.

The attempt to identify me with a political faction in America that wants to put minorities and women in their place and preserve the dominance of the white male is typical of the way leftists attack those who disagree with them, regardless of what the facts may be. For students of Stalinism, this is known as the tactic of "amalgamation," as when Trotskyists were lumped by Stalin with fascists and monarchists.

The accusation that conservatives want to hold back women and minorities is a pure fabrication; it is political libel. But it is one that leftists hold dear.

The second customer review of my book stated: Horowitz "is simply wrong. The roots of evil, if we can discuss such in meaningful terms, certainly are not in minorities or multiculturalism or treating women as something other than doormats. If the roots of evil exist, they are in the willingness of people like Horowitz to glorify the individual at the expense of society."

First, to reiterate: I have never said or written anything to remotely suggest that minorities are the root of evil or that women should be treated like doormats. The truth, once again, is quite the opposite. As for my criticisms of "multiculturalism," they are focused very specifically on the efforts of radicals to use multiculturalism as a way of first attacking and then deconstructing America's own culture of freedom.

On the other hand, this reviewer inadvertently lets the leftist cat out of the bag. In pinpointing the freedom of the individual as the enemy of the future, he identifies the actual pivot point in the great political debate dividing left from right. It's not about a desire by conservatives to hold women and minorities down. It is about whether submerging the individual in the state and putting society under the tutelage of a political elite is the way to liberate anyone -- and, most particularly, minorities, women and the poor.

By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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