The first thing that David Horowitz wanted me to know was that he rarely leaves the house anymore. But one evening this past January, he graciously mustered the energy to meet me at a strip-mall steakhouse down the road from his home in California’s Santa Maria Valley, because he wanted to make himself clear. “I’ve been ghettoized,” he said. “My wings have been clipped.”
Just a decade ago, a National Review editor labeled Horowitz “the Most Valuable Player of the Right.” Now, sequestered on an acre and a half of land with his wife and six dogs—five of them Chihuahuas—the 73-year-old ex-Communist firebrand juggles writing projects while keeping his distance from all manner of political distraction. “I don’t read any magazines. I hardly even read FrontPage,” he told me, though he is listed on the online right-wing journal’s masthead as editor-in-chief. “I don’t read the L.A. Times or the New York Times. I despise the Times.”
Within minutes, however, he was grumbling about an article that appeared in the Times Magazine a day before, a long and sympathetic profile of the jailed former leftist zealot Judy Clark, who currently serves a 75-year sentence for her role as accomplice to a 1981 armed robbery—committed in the name of something called the Republic of New Afrika—that left a Brinks guard and two police officers dead. The article begins skeptically but concludes that Clark has genuinely reformed. Horowitz wasn’t buying it. “What I hold against these people is their unreadiness even 40 years later to tell the truth. It’s a total deception.”
This sense of an ongoing total deception—the word “total” is the crucial descriptor–perpetrated by the American left has animated Horowitz’s tireless crusade over the past four decades. A Queens-born red-diaper baby turned architect of Berkeley’s New Left, he spent three decades behind enemy lines; as a result he sees himself as the man best positioned to discover the opponent’s hidden agenda. As chronicled in his gripping, anguished 1996 autobiography Radical Son, the seeds of his political disillusionment were planted by his father’s reaction to Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” detailing Stalin’s crimes; instead of prompting a candid reassessment of his father’s loyalties, it merely confirmed the obstinacy of his Communist faith. Moving to Berkeley for graduate school, and later serving as editor of Ramparts magazine, Horowitz hoped that the New Left could advance a socialist agenda without the encumbrances of the God that failed. But David would eventually loosen the grip on his own deeply rooted dogmas in response to another leftist moral abdication: the support of brutal dictatorships in Cambodia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. “I thought to myself, would I rather be a prisoner in the hands of LBJ or Ho Chi Minh? It’s a no-fucking-brainer.”
Though the intellectual edifice of the revolutionary movement was already crumbling, it took the 1974 killing of Betty Van Patter, a friend he recruited as a bookkeeper for a Black Panther education center, to bring Horowitz to an emotional breaking point. Her murder remains unsolved, but Horowitz has mustered plenty of evidence suggesting that the killing was orchestrated by the Panthers, many of whom he had counted as colleagues and friends.
Rebranding himself as a Whittaker Chambers-style convert, Horowitz has since waged a compulsive rhetorical assault on new left icons like Kathy Boudin, Bill Ayers, Angela Davis, and Tom Hayden, who remind Horowitz of his former self and have built productive lives (and earned university sinecures) without fully reckoning with the enormity of past sins.
Atoning for his own youthful credulity with reactionary firepower, Horowitz has spent the past quarter-century in a mode of permanent apocalypse. “Being in the battle is kind of what I do for a living,” he said. He adopted an Al Pacino growl and likened his role to that of Mafia don: “I try to get out, but they keep pulling me back in.”
If what was once labeled extremism is now mainstream GOP boilerplate, then Horowitz deserves at least some of the credit. In a widely distributed 2000 pamphlet called The Art of Political War, praised by Karl Rove and endorsed by 35 state Republican party chairmen, Horowitz wrote: “In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but to destroy the enemy’s fighting ability. Republicans often seem to regard political combats as they would a debate with the Oxford Political Union, as though winning depended on rational arguments and carefully articulated principles. But the audience of politics is not made up of Oxford dons, and the rules are entirely different. … Politics is war. Don’t forget it.” If you can remember a time when conservative discourse sounded like an Oxford lecture hall, then you have a sense of how far Horowitz has helped to steer this ship off course.
Certainly he must have followed the recent Republican debates with glee, right? He looked at me with disgust. “They make me fucking ill. Politics makes me ill now.”
For Horowitz to remain authentic, and to keep the enemy on its heels, he must cloak himself in paradox. He has made a sport of provoking racially divisive confrontation, but three of his grandchildren are black. He still travels the country making the case for a muscular Zionism, but he has never visited Israel. He rejects economic determinism as a discredited Marxist method of interpretation, but on climate change his “leftist instincts are very suspicious. There’s too much money going to scientists to say there’s global warming.”
Yet in a media climate fueled by one-dimensional sound-bites, both Horowitz’s taste for scholarly provocation and his appetite for paradox no longer match the temper of the times. When not under direct attack, liberal commentators have mostly learned to tune him out, and, more painfully, no university archive has asked to collect his papers and reminiscences, a failing he understands as “a reflection of the ideological debasement of our institutions of knowledge by a movement whose hallmarks are narcissistic self-absorption and intellectual intolerance.” His most deeply felt grievance, however, is a perceived lack of encouragement from mainstream conservative institutions. (This is not necessarily a financial issue: His foundation, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, is underwritten by the Bradley, Olin, and Scaife foundations.) In his turn-of-the-21st-century heyday, shortly after publishing Hating Whitey, an assault on affirmative action and race-based quotas—or “the anti-white racism of the left”—that preceded his campaign against reparations for slavery, Horowitz appeared on op-ed pages, talk radio, and television nearly every day. (He even wrote a bi-weekly column for the liberal Salon.com.) But in 2012, his books are not just ignored by the New York Times, but by the Weekly Standard and National Review. “There are plenty of conservatives who don’t like my manner,” he admitted. “It’s too aggressive, too Jewish, too leftist.”
If you can do some heavy lifting and abstract his achievements from their corrosive consequences, David Horowitz has led an extraordinary American life. He is an authentically passionate and informed public figure standing at the intersection of autobiography, history, manners, and polemic, who has also managed to aggravate the entire American intelligentsia over the course of a long career in part because he can be such a crude and unapologetic propagandist. One need not subscribe to the lurid pamphlets sold by his Freedom Center to get the sense that Horowitz has sacrificed his intellectual capital to devote himself more fully to the movement.
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.
In his gestures toward the spiritual, Horowitz drew considerable inspiration and feedback from his daughter, Sarah, the subject of his most poignant and challenging memoir, A Cracking of the Heart (2009). Born with Turner Syndrome, a debilitating illness that impaired her hearing and eyesight, Sarah was a Democrat, a crusader for human rights and social justice, a poet, and an observant Jew. Despite her physical frailty, Sarah stolidly refused the role of victim, while devoting her life and resources to any individual or group she perceived as less fortunate. Sarah died unexpectedly at age 44 in her apartment, the day before Nextbook.org, the previous iteration of Tablet magazine, published the first interview with the activist poet.
Sarah’s passions made her one of David’s most spirited interlocutors, and at times A Cracking of the Heart serves as an object lesson in political empathy—making it a poignant outlier in Horowitz’s oeuvre. In an earlier memoir, he attested to his inability to internalize the monotheistic religious prophets’ agreement that all human beings, no matter their trespasses, are incarnations of the divine spirit: “[I] cannot embrace this radical faith. I feel no kinship with those who can cut short a human life without remorse; or with terrorists who target the innocent; or with adults who torment small children for the sexual thrill.”
Sarah, who respects her father but harbors little patience for his bluster, hand-writes a response that aims to cut him to the quick. “First, have a little humility,” she begins. “You are not smarter than Moses, Jesus and Buddha.” She continues by articulating as eloquent a plea for understanding across ideological lines as I’ve ever heard:
If you see someone in the fullness of their humanity, you see how they are acting out their own confusion and suffering. This does not justify hurtful or evil acts. It doesn’t even always inspire forgiveness. But if you see someone this way, you respond more in sadness than in anger. And that is simply a more excellent state of being. Even if you’ve never had this experience (and more’s the pity), respect the experience of those who have.
She did not send her father these words. “Or if she did,” he writes, “I failed again to understand them.”
While a magazine profile from 2000 describes Horowitz’s corner office in “a tony highrise … which affords a stunning view of downtown Los Angeles from the twelfth floor,” and mentions a staff of 15 plotting the cultural counterrevolution in a “war room,” the comparably spartan David Horowitz Freedom Center I visited on a sunny January afternoon testifies to diminished circumstances. Having abandoned the West Side for modest quarters in an unmarked, nondescript two-story building in Sherman Oaks, the current Freedom Center is decorated with blown-up Horowitz book covers and posters of Islamofascism Awareness Weeks of the past—and not future: As one employee told me, despite a few successful campus campaigns, the brand eventually “got stale.”
Other than Horowitz, I counted only three full-time staffers, plus an armed security guard.
David Horowitz does not keep an office at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Instead, he met me in the windowless boardroom, sitting between a framed poster of the Italian Communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s revolutionary slogan “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” and a signed original print of one of the notoriously incendiary Danish cartoons of Muhammad.
Satisfied with my progress on his more sober texts—the ones he said he would prefer to be writing—he handed me a collection of Freedom Center pamphlets—“the ones I have to write.” Recent pamphlets that Horowitz has written or co-authored include “Islamophobia: Thought Crime of the Totalitarian Future,” “From Shadow Party to Shadow Government: George Soros and the Effort to Radically Change America,” “Barack Obama’s Rules for Revolution: The Saul Alinsky Model” (which he called his best-selling book of all time), “Obama and Islam,” and “Obama and the War Against the Jews.” (“Obama: The Anti-Israel President” is available as a slickly produced, 10-minute DVD.) Each pamphlet costs $3, but the Freedom Center often sells them in bulk.
In 2009, Horowitz wrote a FrontPage column warning his fellow right-wingers not to fall prey to “Obama Derangement Syndrome,” calling the new president’s speeches “eloquently and cleverly centrist and sober … hardly in the Huey Long, Louis Farrakhan, Fidel Castro vein.” He lightly chastised a fellow conservative thinker for getting “swept up in the tide that thinks Obama is a ‘transformative’ radical.” That temperate language has since been tossed out the window. By 2011, he was calling Obama’s “the most dangerous administration in American history.”
At dinner the previous night, Horowitz had even alluded to the specter of “death panels,” citing health-care reform as proof that “government now controls human life.” He added, “I also believe that there’s an element of his radicalism that likes bankrupting the country. I see Obama as a radical like myself. The same Left. Except the worst part. The Billy Ayers part.”
When I mentioned the fact that Obama’s administration located and killed Osama Bin Laden, Horowitz could only see an improbable and deeply cynical political maneuver: “He understood that he had to protect his national security flank.”
Though Horowitz has an obvious partisan imperative to oppose President Obama, and can certainly market himself as the conservative best equipped to root out a secret Marxist master plan, I find his criticism of Obama, the world’s most prominent radical son, somewhat confusing. Despite his campaign rhetoric, the president is hardly a utopian, and his administration has repeatedly demonstrated its aversion to radical solutions. On questions of race, Obama, like Horowitz, is publicly skeptical of policies based on entitlement and victimhood.
Horowitz never stops testifying to his own break from progressive idealism, but he sees anyone else as irrevocably tainted by past associations. There is only room for one radical convert, and political sympathy has no place in hand-to-hand combat. But Horowitz can no longer deny that his origin story and its lessons have lost much of their cultural explanatory power. And the story was always the point. Horowitz pieced together a philosophy from the wreckage of personal disappointments and lost illusions, yet he knows that fatalism isn’t an easy sell.
“I came out of the left through a lot of pain and a sense of enormous waste,” Horowitz said. “I was an emotional powder keg. I had gotten to age 35—and I’m a very hard worker, and had written a lot—everything that I had done was a waste.”
This is the part of the story when the apostate sees the light. Horowitz isn’t sure he still does.
“Now that I’m older, I see that it’s all a waste. I gotta live with that.”
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Akiva Gottlieb is a writer living in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Akiva Gottlieb is a writer living in Ann Arbor, Mich.