No Payback

Campus Speech and the David Horowitz Ad

Until a few weeks ago, David Horowitz, erstwhile radical cum arch-conservative, was probably best known as the purveyor of Heterodoxy, an iconoclastic rag that has been delighting the contrarian and outraging the politically correct for most of the last decade. His e-zine Frontpage has also introduced him to Internet-savvy newshounds looking for a little more piquancy in their punditry than TomPaine.com usually delivers. But recently, when Horowitz mass-mailed an advertisement entitled "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks Is a Bad Idea for Blacks—and Racist Too" to an array of college newspapers, he made himself infamous to a whole new klatch of rabble-rousers.

Thirty-five of those papers refused to print the ad. Some of them, like Columbia's Daily Spectator, claim to have done so because they have long-standing policies against printing political advertisements. Others did so of their own volition, and/or under pressure from campus groups, because they found the ad racist and offensive.

Fourteen papers, however, did run the ad, among them Brown University's Daily Herald and the University of Wisconsin's The Badger. At both schools, the entire print run of the issue was stolen by protesters. The students involved have yet to be punished for this infraction, but their malfeasance has made what might otherwise have been a mere blip of controversy into an all-out media blitzkrieg.

Unfortunately, the pilfering of the newspapers has complicated an already sensitive debate over reparations, by bringing the festering campus bugaboo of speech codes to the surface once more. Must we go over this again? This First Amendment lecture is becoming so boring. How many times does the incumbent campus left have to be reminded of the gravity of free speech before it will stop subverting ideas it doesn't like? Will it take a right-wing politburo to teach them the fragility of their own hegemony? Jesus. If nothing else, the ugly spectacle of the histrionic Horowitz, preening and gloating in front of the newscams, should be enough to give them future pause. Horowitz is hyperbolic enough. Proving him right only makes it worse.

As for the reparations debate—which is the more salient issue at stake—it has, for the most part, been buried under the brouhaha. Horowitz's ad makes a number of cogent jabs at the leviathan of black activism and its behemoth cohort, white guilt. It argues, among other things, that the politics of reparations are divisive, that reparations have already been paid in the form of Welfare, and that modern America is rife with immigrants who cannot be held responsible for the sins of other people's fathers. But the ad is not a polemic. These are talking points, not arguments per se. The thing is almost Socratic in this regard.

But few people have chosen to engage Horowitz, which has only served to bury the content of the ad more deeply under white noise. Writing in Slate, for example, William Saletan sidestepped the challenge completely, finding Horowitz guilty of the very faults he decries in black reparationists—profiting from one's own persecution and fomenting racial discord. He attacked Horowitz's rhetorical style rather than refuted his arguments on point—a classic, if somewhat labyrinthine ad hominem. Meanwhile, USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham took the other obvious cop-out—in effect shouting "racist" by comparing Horowitz to David Duke. Naturally, Horowitz lives for this kind of abuse. He can, after all, make a lot of narcissistic hay out of name calling.

So now the argument has mostly morphed into something of a sideshow. Instead of being primarily about reparations as placebo or panacea, or even about the original red herring—free speech on campus—it's become about Horowitz as political apostate. And though it's tempting to surmise that Horowitz intended this all along, that probably isn't quite fair. If he'd wanted only to draw attention to himself, he'd have produced a different kind of document—one that stuck out its tongue rather than put up its fists.

Some of the original subject has peeked through the media circus in the form of a few passionate op-eds on the viability, desirability, and justifiability of black reparations. It would have been nice, however, if more of the students for whom Horowitz originally intended his message could have engaged in unhindered debate from the get go. Typically, they couldn't.

 
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