My 15 minutes

"I couldn't be more pleased by the attention," columnist David Horowitz says, as the controversy over his anti-reparations ad rages on.

By David Horowitz
Published April 2, 2001 10:56AM (EDT)

My Andy Warhol moment has come just as I had hoped it would: on offense, baiting the left. The ad I wrote and recently attempted to place in 50 college newspapers challenged a racial orthodoxy that is suffocating the promise of American pluralism and pitting ethnic communities against one another. It is sinking African-Americans into a sea of negativism and hostile posturing that threatens to isolate them and sabotage attempts to elevate those who have been left behind. Denouncing as "racist," "not legitimate" and "anti-civil rights" a president who has brought more diversity to Washington than any of his predecessors, and has vowed to "leave no child behind," is just one emblem of the moral and political bankruptcy of the current civil rights leadership. Claiming "reparations for slavery" 136 years after the fact is quite another.

As a result of the ad I attempted to place drawing attention to this problem, I have been predictably attacked as a racial provocateur and a racist. Those smears are the reason no one else has tried this before me. The smears and attacks are also the reason, ironically, that so much attention has been paid to this issue. More than twice as many editors have refused my ad as have agreed to publish it (the actual score is 34-14), even though I offered to pay for the space to run it. Only eight college papers have been able to print it without incident. Six editors who published it have been visited by howling mobs, and three of those have decided to apologize for doing so. At the University of Wisconsin, Brown and Duke, editors have courageously stood up to mobs bent on intimidating them. The net result has been to bring the issue of intellectual freedom on American college campuses -- and, to a lesser extent, the ad itself -- before millions of Americans who otherwise would have been unaware of them.

I couldn't be more pleased by the attention these issues are getting. And I know from my e-mails, and from the widespread support I have gotten in the press, that other Americans who cherish their freedoms are also pleased.

What's going on here? When I stepped onto the stage last month in the Life Sciences Building at the University of California at Berkeley, accompanied by 30 armed campus police, I was reminded of the old Richard Pryor album cover in which he appears cowering, half-naked and surrounded by hooded Klansmen who are about to lynch him. The cover line is: "Is it something I said?"

Actually, it was something I said. Any understanding of the current controversy can only be gleaned by first focusing on that fact. How is it that the expression of ideas -- let alone ideas shared by a majority of Americans (a Time poll indicates that 74 percent of the public is opposed to reparations) -- should result in a university having to assign 30 armed police escorts to protect me during my campus appearance?

The answer is that we live in a time of racial McCarthyism. Fifty years ago, witch hunters warned that there were "reds under the beds"; now it is something like "racists in the heads" -- a closet bigot behind every white face. There were in fact reds under the beds during the McCarthy era -- a lot more of them (as recently opened Soviet archives show) than many had previously thought. And, of course, there are still racists among us. The problem of McCarthyism was the abuse of a reality that prompted legitimate fear in people. McCarthy and his allies exploited those fears to achieve political agendas unrelated to matters of national security. McCarthy exaggerated the facts, made false accusations and used sinister innuendo to assault his political opponents in the Democratic Party and to stifle opposition from all quarters. Nobody wanted to be accused, however falsely, of being a Communist, or coddling Communists or being associated with Communists.

This is exactly what is happening on matters of race on our college campuses and in the political arena today.

My reparations ad was a straightforward argument that blacks living today are two, three and four generations removed from slavery. Hence, their claim would not conform to existing reparations formulas as applied to victims of the Holocaust, interned Japanese or survivors of the Rosewood race riot. The claim, I argued, would pit the black community against all other ethnic communities, and would focus blacks on their victim status and on negative thoughts about their experience in America. It is possible, by way of contrast, to look at African-Americans as a people who started literally from nothing -- stripped of their language, culture and family roots. But just 136 years later, thanks to their own efforts and the opportunities that America afforded them, they are (statistically speaking) the 10th richest nation in the world. Normally, such an attitude would be called "empowering." In the dispute over my ad, however, it has been called "racist."

In apologizing for his decision to publish my ad, the editor of the campus paper at UC-Berkeley explained that the ad was a "vehicle for bigotry" -- a weasel phrase typical of McCarthyism. What is a "vehicle for bigotry"? Does it mean that someone might misread it and use it to promote bigotry? Does it mean that facts or arguments appearing in the ad may be used by bigots themselves? Or does it mean that some black person's feelings were hurt by the ad, which on sensitivity-trained campuses is interpreted in these times as tantamount to "racism"?

Actually, in these times and on campuses in particular, the definition of racism is increasingly suspect. Case in point: The Badger-Herald, a University of Wisconsin student paper, published the ad on Feb. 28. Five days later, the rival student paper, the Daily Cardinal, published an ad written by the Multicultural Students Coalition. The ad did not reply to the 10 points presented in my ad (and, to this date, there has not been a single ad to my knowledge replying to those points). Instead the Cardinal ad attacked the Badger-Herald as a "racist propaganda machine." The editorial offices of the Badger-Herald were then besieged by a mob of 100 students demanding the resignation of the paper's editor, Julie Bosman, and apologies (for racism) from its staff. These are tactics that have a long and regrettable history that originated with the fascist and communist mobs of the '30s that were sent to break up the peaceful meetings of their social democratic rivals. It's the politics of smear and intimidation, designed to silence opposition and stamp out free speech. Nothing could be more inimical to a university setting, yet not a single student involved in these activities has been disciplined or reprimanded by the University of Wisconsin administration.

Tshaka Barrows is a spokesperson for the Multicultural Students Coalition. The Daily Cardinal interviewed her about her campaign:

Cardinal: Does the Horowitz ad fit your definition of racism?

Barrows: Exactly. Because of the reality of our society, his prejudice was allowed to be institutionalized, and [16,000] of his statements were presented to our campus. He was actively, as well as the Herald, exercising their racism, their power to institutionalize their racism.

Cardinal: [What] is your definition of racism?

Barrows: Racism is having the power to institutionalize your prejudice.

In other words, my offense is publishing my ideas, which Barrows doesn't like. (Her definition of racism, by the way, is a concoction of tenured leftists that accomplishes the feat of defining racism in such a way that "only whites can be racist.")

Insinuating racism -- without taking the trouble to establish actual racism -- is the McCarthy method. It was on display in a column Jonathan Alter wrote about me in the April 2 issue of Newsweek. A color photograph illustrating the column was placed in the middle of the page. It showed one of the student protesters at the UC-Berkeley carrying a sign with the words: "PROTEST DAVID HOROWITZ, RACIST IDEOLOGUE." Alter's article made no reference to the photo. Nor did it explain that the protesters were members of the Spartacist Youth League, a Trotskyist splinter group whose members also denounced me as a "capitalist running dog." The image was allowed to just stand there, making me appear to be a theoretician for the Posse Comitatus or some lunatic fringe group. In his column, Alter derisively dismissed my complaint that I was under siege by "left-wing McCarthyism."

"Please. Newspapers, exercising their own freedom, routinely reject advertising they believe might offend the sensibilities of their readers."

They do. But that's obviously not what happened in this case. Alter attempted to discredit me by describing me as a member of "the extreme right" when, in fact, I am a moderate on abortion, a defender of gays, a strong supporter of civil rights and of large government programs to help inner-city minority kids. What Alter did was use the McCarthy technique of character assassination by exaggeration ("Professor Lattimore is Stalin's chief agent in America"). Alter says that my reasoned ad "reminds [him] of one of those tiresome rants supporting a NAAWP (National Association for the Advancement of White People)" -- which would be classic guilt by association, except that I am not associated with any group or anybody who thinks like this. Finally, Alter imputes to me a mean-spirited agenda that I have never had. "The not-so-subtle subtext [of the ad] was that we've given 'them' enough, and so should give up on addressing the continuing problems of race and poverty in America." Since I am the architect of a congressional bill to provide $100 billion in scholarships to inner-city minority kids, this is hardly a just accusation. Its only purpose is to delegitimize me and stigmatize me as a "racist."

A similar innuendo-laced attack was leveled by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who suggested that while I was not an actual racist, and while "word for word, the ad makes sense," the editors were still justified in not running it, and the campus fascists were really legitimately provoked into their attacks on free speech. His reasoning? Apparently he found my tone and address "insulting" and "offensive."

I'm not sure I can put my finger on what exactly offended me when I first read the ad. It might have been its statement that blacks, as well as whites, engaged in the slave trade and owned slaves. True enough, but only blacks were slaves. It might have been the what's-the-big-deal tone to the argument that almost all African Americans live so much better than almost all Africans that they ought to be downright grateful that their ancestors were kidnapped and dumped on the beach at Charleston. Or it might have been Horowitz's assertion that welfare payments constitute reparations of a sort. This is a downright insulting statement.

This justifies attacks on the editors of newspapers who ran the ad as the managers of a "racist propaganda machine"? What Cohen forgets is that my ad is not an article on reparations, it is a response to the claims of reparations proponents -- a response that students would not be able to hear if I hadn't decided to buy the space to provide them with an opposing point of view.

What I find insulting is that the proponents of reparations have addressed Americans as though white America, en masse, is solely responsible for slavery. They also argue that white America is responsible for its real and alleged aftereffects -- as though no apologies have ever been made for slavery and no recognition of its horrors is on record, as though all the deficiencies of black Americans (income gaps, education gaps and criminal incarceration gaps) are attributable solely or even mainly to white racism and as though all Americans who are not black should feel they owe a debt to all Americans who are black. Now that's offensive.

But that is exactly the case made by Randall Robinson and every other reparations proponent known to me. Has there been an apology for slavery or a recognition by white America that slavery is evil? Of course there has. Abraham Lincoln called slavery an offense to God. He said that every drop of blood from the lash would be paid by a drop of blood from the sword, and called the destruction of the South a judgment of the Lord. This was not in an obscure speech -- it was in his Second Inaugural Address. What more in the way of recognition could be asked?

And what is so insulting about the suggestion that welfare is a form of reparations for injuries done by slavery and discrimination? If the entire income gap between black Americans and other Americans is attributable to slavery and its afterlife -- as Robinson and the reparations advocates maintain -- then of course welfare could be considered an attempt to make up that deficit and repair that injury. Welfare payments to African-Americans represent a net transfer of wealth of more than a trillion dollars from other communities to theirs. Should African-Americans be grateful for slavery because they (incontrovertibly) live better in America than blacks do in Africa today? Nobody in his right mind would say so, and I certainly didn't.

What is at issue, really, in this campus tempest is not so much the right of an individual to publish his views as it is the right of an individual to publish reasonable views on race matters without being tarred and feathered or stigmatized for life.

David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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