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Bully Pulpit

UNCIVIL WARS: The Controversy Over Reparations for Slavery, By David Horowitz, Encounter Books: 148 pp., $21.95

June 02, 2002|ALAN M. DERSHOWITZ | Alan M. Dershowitz is the author of "Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age." He is a professor at Harvard Law School.

David Horowitz, whose provocative ad against reparations for slavery generated a firestorm on college campuses during the spring of 2001, assures the readers of "Uncivil Wars," his self-serving account of that controversy, that the book's "subject is not me, nor is it the advertisement that provoked such a reaction." He claims that the subject of his book is an idea: the "dubious idea of reparations" and, in a larger sense, "the intellectual vulgarities of American universities in an age of 'political correctness.'"

This is a misleading characterization of "Uncivil Wars," which is, in fact, all about Horowitz and his in-your-face brand of confrontation. Reparations are an important symbol of black solidarity on college campuses, and his ad was calculated to stir raw emotions. If it was accepted for publication, he knew it would create a backlash against the editors who agreed to publish it. If it was rejected, he knew he could cry "censorship." An editor at the Daily Princetonian, whose column Horowitz quotes in "Uncivil Wars," got it exactly right when he wrote:

"Horowitz plays a clever game. He played it with several of our peer college papers in the past few weeks. And he won. When Horowitz submits an ad to a college paper, he hopes that one of two things will happen: Either the paper refused to print the ad, so he can tell the world that conservative ideas are being censored by the liberal college press, or the paper prints the ad and campus activists protest. Both ways, Horowitz gets what he wants.... "

Although Horowitz disputes the accuracy of this description, he acknowledges that he relished "the opportunity to bait the tiger in its lair" when he was invited to Princeton. Baiting is exactly the right word to describe his style. Although he devotes many pages of his book to proving that he is not a racist and, indeed, his animus is based not on the color of people's skin but on their attitudes regarding race, he is a race-issue-baiter. It is a distinction likely to be blurred in the emotionally charged atmosphere Horowitz enjoys provoking.

His repeated claims that the ad was not "intentionally inflammatory" are unconvincing, and he fails to tell his readers that his tactic was not original. Several years ago a man named Bradley Smith used the same tactic when he submitted a Holocaust denial ad to college newspapers around the country.

Perhaps Horowitz omits this history from his account because he does not want to be associated with Holocaust denial, which is understandable. There is a considerable difference between what Horowitz has written, which is largely a matter of opinion, and what Smith wrote, which was demonstrably false. But their tactics are similar.

Horowitz is a master in the art of overstatement. He describes professor Charles Ogletree as exhibiting "hostility to America generally and to white Americans in particular." Now I may lack some objectivity with regard to this accusation because Ogletree is my colleague at Harvard Law School, but in all the years I have known him, both as a student and as colleague, I have never heard him express anti-American or anti-white sentiments. Nor does Horowitz quote or cite a single word uttered by Ogletree, beyond his support for reparations, that would justify such a defamatory characterization.

Horowitz's overstatements are not limited to his descriptions of individuals. They extend as well to the central thesis of his book, namely that there is a pervasive censorship of ideas in colleges all over the country and that conservative views cannot be expressed on most college campuses. He is certainly correct that there is a problem of political correctness on many college campuses as reflected in the childish speech codes that have been enacted in many places. But conservative clubs are alive and well on numerous college campuses.

Moreover, the conservative viewpoint is welcomed, indeed sought, by the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Fox Television and dozens of other media outlets. These media sources are available on college campuses. The conservative voice has a megaphone in Washington and is championed by many of the most powerful forces in America.

This is not to deny that some divisive ideas--particularly about race and gender--are unwelcome by administrators, faculty members and students in many colleges and universities. But Horowitz fails to understand--or more likely understands but fails to acknowledge--that his deliberately provocative ad was not well designed to test whether certain ideas are acceptable on college campuses but rather to test whether certain incendiary attacks on important racial symbols will provoke an emotional response. Despite this failure, he makes an important point.

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