Censoring ad not the answer

If David Horowitz were a student in one of my classes and he turned in his advertisement as a paper purporting to analyze the causes of the Middle East conflict, he would have received an F. His argument is one-sided and emphasizes a single cause – anti-Semitism – to explain a conflict whose causes are much more complex. His use of generalizations is also far too sweeping. Needless to say, not every Arab has sought to destroy Israel for the last 50 years. I would also have criticized his use of inflammatory phrases like “the Nazi virus revived.” The flaws in his analysis overwhelm the parts of his argument that have a factual basis; namely, that there is indeed a problem of anti-Semitism in the Middle East.

Debating the flaws of Horowitz’s analysis of the Middle East conflict, however, is a foolish game. He is not a student and his goal is not to provide a balanced assessment of the Middle East. His real objective is not to advance a dialogue, but to expose the tensions on college campuses concerning the values of free speech and multiculturalism. To understand Horowitz’s objective, we have to understand a little bit about Mario Savio and the emergence of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) on the Berkeley campus in the 1960s. Savio was the leader and organizer of a coalition of leftist groups on campus who protested attempts by President Clark Kerr to limit their rights to free speech. Savio’s FSM was successful precisely because he was right: universities should not be in the business of suppressing anyone’s right to free speech, particularly when it concerns unpopular and controversial speech.

An influential member of the Berkeley New Left in the 1960s, Horowitz now tries to show that college faculty members are the contemporary equivalent of Clark Kerr. In his view, free speech is defended as an absolute value when it comes to causes of the Left, but condemned and suppressed as “hate speech” when it disputes the principles of multiculturalism. Horowitz’s challenge is one he cannot lose and editors of college papers cannot win. If editors of a newspaper refuse to accept his ad, they are condemned for not valuing free speech. If they accept the ad, they run the risk of being labeled as abettors of racism. If they accept the ad and later apologize for it, they are ridiculed in the national media for abdicating journalistic principles. The editors of the Record are not the first group of students forced to choose between being labeled censors, racists, or cowards.

The only way out of the trap set by Horowitz is to refuse to play the game. In their initial letter on the controversy, Marc Lynch and his cosigners had it exactly right. They did not call for censorship of the ad and they did not call for any action by the Record. Refusing to fall into the trap, they registered their opinion that the Horowitz ad was a “vile slander against an entire people.”

Unfortunately, in their narrowly passed resolution last week the College Council walked right into the trap. The Record should not have to acknowledge they ran an ad by a “known racist” because, to the best of my knowledge, America does not print an official book of known racists. One can disagree with Horowitz’s well-known opposition to reparations for slavery, but surely this is not enough evidence to conclude that he is a known racist.

As much as we might like to think that there is one right way for handling the Horowitz controversy, it is quite likely that consensus will be elusive. Stanley Fish, the leftist Dean of the University of Chicago at Illinois, recently invited Horowitz to deliver a lecture on his campus. Fish might or might not believe that Horowitz is a racist, but there is no doubt that he sent a strong message to all of his students. The next time Fish criticizes Horowitz, all of his students will listen with greater respect because he demonstrated that his college is willing to tolerate views he surely believes to be wrong. Sponsoring a lecture by Fish concerning why he was willing to invite Horowitz to his campus might provide us with a useful perspective on the current controversy.

Let me conclude on what I hope is a constructive note. First, defenders of the Record’s decision to publish the Horowitz ad should stop assuming that their critics are blind to free speech issues. If I were a Muslim or an Arab student at the College, I would surely be concerned after reading the Horowitz ad. I would also be greatly reassured by the letters of support from members of the college community, including the letter by President Schapiro and Dean Roseman, reemphasizing that the College is and will continue to be a place where all students can study safely and productively.

Second, opponents of the Record’s decision should stop assuming that the editors intentionally or unintentionally aided the cause of racism. Some or all of us can disagree with their decision, but let’s hold off on the charge that the Record published an ad by a known racist. The close vote in CC (14-13-2) shows how much the student body is divided over this issue. Faculty should assume good will on both sides of the debate. Let’s also stop saying you can’t debate racism or free speech since we debate what counts as racism or a legitimate use of free speech all the time. The Gaudino Fund should also sponsor an open forum as soon as possible. In my opinion, this is a much more productive path than the current situation of petitions and counter-petitions, mutual condemnations, and wild accusations. If we choose this path, and refuse to play the losing game Horowitz has set up, we will all be better off.