David Horowitz Is Homeless
The 1960s radical decades ago switched his politics, fleeing the New Left to become a conservative provocateur. Then the right wing left him behind.
Radical Son, which I would not hesitate to rank among the key political autobiographies of the 20th century, positioned the born-again Horowitz as a potential emissary to post-sixties progressives who had quietly lost hope in the idea of a liberated future. Though the book eventually seizes the opportunity to settle personal scores, most of his “generational odyssey” is charged with sympathy for those who felt that revolutionary ends could justify the most unsavory means. Horowitz’s riveting portrait of Huey Newton—at one time a close friend—paints the tempestuous, drug-addled Black Panther Party co-founder as both personally seductive and actively repellent—and by extension, renders the author almost criminally credulous. “I was naïve, always a slow learner,” Horowitz told me, but in Radical Son he chisels a kind of intellectual currency out of a postwar mass of accumulated disenchantment and trauma. This largely nonpolemical cautionary tale offers the same moral to radicals of every ideological stripe: The collapse of certainty is a universal constant.
But if Radical Son failed to provoke a collective mea culpa from Marxists and liberals, Horowitz’s public airing of his “second thoughts” also didn’t earn him a permanent front-row seat at the table of right-wing punditry. “There’s no solidarity among conservatives,” he said. “They don’t think of it as ‘Horowitz is a real asset, and we have to support him.’ That bewildered me. If I hadn’t created my own platform, I wouldn’t be able to function as an intellectual.”
He will say anything to get a rise out of the politically correct but is generally careful not to alienate his ideological compatriots. There is considerable political daylight between Horowitz and Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann, but both have accepted invitations to speak at recent Freedom Center retreats. Horowitz pointedly does not endorse candidates. The prospect of an unregulated free market does not enthrall him, and he does not vocally oppose same-sex marriage. The Freedom Center, until 2006 known as the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, rarely pretends to offer policy expertise. His experience with radicalism has left him suspicious of clarion calls to social progress.
Horowitz’s attachment to the right seems as much a product of his love of provocation as a sign of deeply held ideological beliefs. When New Republic editor emeritus Marty Peretz was vilified for writing in 2010 that “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” Horowitz’s public response was to essentially wish that he had said it first. When Newt Gingrich courted outrage with his statement that Palestinians are an “invented” people, Horowitz used his FrontPage blog to back up the claim. Just last week, Horowitz’s Freedom Center took to his least-favorite major newspaper to publish an ad likening the anti-Zionist boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement to Nazism. “The Holocaust began with boycotts of Jewish stores,” it reads, “and ended with death camps.” For its principal agitation, the ad names specific American professors whose rhetoric Horowitz holds directly responsible for the recent anti-Semitic murders in Toulouse, France.
Horowitz is unlikely to ever abjure or muzzle his pugnacious, left-baiting side, and it’s unclear if he even wants to, but for the sake of his legacy it may not matter. Brooklyn College political scientist Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, told me that Horowitz’s bid for intellectual respectability is beside the point, because “the heroic age of conservative ideas is over. Not permanently. But for now it is, because the movement was so successful. Conservative ideas do best when the movement is in a minority position, and they are forged in the crucible of the struggle. They’re formed in battle. And there’s no battle today, because there’s no real Left.”
As Horowitz and I continued our dialogue, skipping from topic to topic with a pronounced lack of urgency, he kept urging me to read his books—specifically, three short recent memoirs, all written over the past decade, each one focused on Last Things and surprisingly devoid of certainty. And so I did.
The End of Time (2005), a collection of personal reflections written in the wake of Horowitz’s battle with prostate cancer, is consciously modeled on Pascal’s Pensées. Mournful and emphatically agnostic, the book continues Horowitz’s refusal of the consolation myth of historical progress, reaching the conclusion that “We are creatures blind and ignorant, stumbling helplessly through a puff of time.” It also extends Horowitz’s lifelong struggle with his father’s radical legacy, providing a new frame: “My father’s disappointment was the gift he gave me. … His melancholy taught me the lesson he was unable to learn himself.” In the book’s most provocative passage, Horowitz compares his father’s embrace of Marx’s secular prophecy to the murderous theological zeal of Egyptian terrorist Mohammed Atta, ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks. “Even though my father prided himself on being a practical man without illusions, he shared with Mohammed Atta and his believers an impossible dream. Their dream was to change the world. What Mohammed Atta wanted was an escape from this life.”
This is not an unusual Horowitzian rhetorical gambit, and Horowitz has elsewhere written at length about an apparent “unholy alliance” between the political left and radical Islam. But to read on is to find Horowitz caught in a rare but welcome humanist gesture:
Some may regard these speculations as unreasonable. How can a man invoke his father in the same sentence as Mohammed Atta? My answer is, How not? Was Mohammed Atta not flesh and blood; if you pricked him did he not bleed? What did Mohammed Atta hope for but a better world; and what progressive soul does not wish for that? […] The act that ended Mohammed Atta’s life and thousands of innocent others was surely evil. But except for the terrible deed itself, there is not an inconsiderate gesture attached to his memory. He appears to have been an ordinary man who was seduced into committing a great crime in the name of a greater good. Is this not the most common theme of the human tragedies of our time?
Coming from the man who invented “Islamofascism Awareness Week,” this impressive and deeply personal feat of moral relativism seems downright treasonous.
His more recent mini-memoir A Point in Time (2011) continues to court and then sidestep the possibility of personal and historical redemption through careful readings of Dostoevsky and Marcus Aurelius, and displays a mature and uncondescending attitude toward religious faith. “Can we dispense with this reverence for impossible worlds as atheists insist we must? Dostoevsky’s answer is that we cannot. … What can he have meant by this? Perhaps that if we were not inspired by an ideal world we would be reduced to the savagery of this one. Or, if we did not look forward to something better, we would not look forward at all.” He recognizes the human need for comforting stories while acknowledging that we are the only ones who can tell such stories. Unlike Leo Strauss or Irving Kristol, who prescribed religion as a political tool for the sustaining of moral order, Horowitz seems despondent that he cannot take the metaphysical leap of faith.
What remains of Revisionist Zionism, the ideology of the late Benzion Netanyahu, is its 11th commandment: Don’t be a fool.