Mize: Who Gets a Spot at the Podium?

David Horowitz doesn’t deserve an intellectual response.

by Frances Mize | 11/1/18 2:00am

The Dartmouth College Republicans billed the talk as a double-hitter. Most emails advertised the hour-long lecture as “Identity Politics and the Totalitarian Threat from the Left,” and another proclaimed “‘Israel is the Victim,’ Hear David Horowitz’s Opinion on Tuesday, October 23rd at 6pm.” The president of the College Republicans opened for Horowitz, a controversial conservative figure, with an articulate speech calling for increased political dialogue on campus. He emphasized the importance of both listening and speaking up, but requested decorum in doing so. 

That kind of rhetoric has become endemic to campus politics. Yet at a time of increasing polarization, both the speakers invited to campus and students’ reactions to those speakers have grown more and more contentious. In response, demands for open discourse and intellectual diversity grow louder. Articles like Bret Stephens’ well-circulated New York Times piece “The Dying Art of Disagreement” and books like Greg Lukianoff’s and Jonathan Haidt’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” abound, all rooted in this idea that students deliberately avoid and have forgotten how to listen to opinions they oppose.

But if you take the case of Dartmouth students protesting David Horowitz as evidence of this, you need to find a new example. The speech made by the president of the College Republicans pleading for discourse was incompatible with the speaker that it prefaced. Horowitz’s violently inflammatory message aside, it is not just the content, but the mechanisms by which he presents his content, that make civil discussion in the face of speakers of his kind so difficult.

David Horowitz attempted to present on two complicated issues, American identity politics and the Israel-Palestine conflict, side by side in an hour long lecture. His effort to speak on both things at once is characteristic of the broad, commingling scope of his work. Horowitz’s “renaissance man” approach to intellectual authority makes him more of an ideologue than an academic. The expansive breadth of his writing, from books entitled “Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left” to “Uncivil Wars: The Controversy over Reparations for Slavery” — subjects ranging a wide gamut —  bar him from the ability to function as a voice of expertise, and instead affix him to an overarching agenda that bleeds into each topic in which he claims to be an expert. This wrenches from Horowitz the professional credibility that he insists he deserves.

Yet it is easy for Horowitz to speak with an air of authority when his stance is perpetually contrarian. This allows him to get by on sweeping, generalized statements and move on when he reaches the spot of an argument that requires nuanced, critical thought. As he did a number of times during his talk, Horowitz skirted these potential complications by brushing off the topic. In his hypocritical distortion, Horowitz employs a surface level, bland rationality, but accuses opposing views of “erasing the details.” Horowitz did not stand up and present a clear argument supported by cited sources and then open the space for discourse. Instead, he stood at the podium (with no supporting media but a projected map of Israel and Palestine) and told the audience what he deems true and what he considers lies. Horowitz presented these points not as opinion, but as fact. He decried the fact that college students no longer possess the spirit of learning that would lead them to listen to him. Referencing students interrupting his talk, he told his audience that this is the most precious time of their lives to learn, and they can’t learn if they close their minds the way that those students have. But if Horowitz teaches in a way that feels more like telling, I wonder how he really defines learning.

As students, our job is to listen to opposing opinions, learn how to rationally present our own points and  incorporate counterarguments with our personal views to make a stronger assertion. However, Horowitz made this nearly impossible. Intellectual propriety and academic standards, like structure and citations, are important not because they reinforce elitism in academia or are the politically correct way of doing things, but because they prove essential for fair, open debate. If someone presents an argument in a series of incongruous, unsubstantiated claims rather than concise, factually-backed assertions, that person’s argument doesn’t just fail. Its ambiguity makes a clear counter argument — an important function in the process of learning — much more difficult to formulate.

Horowitz’s lectures are less an academic argument — an event that would require the attendees to think and listen critically — and more a political show. When someone’s argument rests on leaping, fallacious instigation, that person turns from an intellectual authority into a provocateur. So Horowitz gains credence by distorting his presentation to make it seem like he, a scholarly albeit controversial speaker, is attacked and censored by liberal snowflake students who did not want to hear ideas opposing their own. But by nature of their unconventional and disorganized presentation, these are not really academic assertions, but political ideologies. Therefore, the dissension he solicits is an appropriate political reaction to a political act, not a narrow-minded “refusal to listen.” If Horowitz comes to Dartmouth with a political agenda, he should expect a political response.