Friday, March 31, 2006

When Public Intellectuals Have Enemies

I know the topic is a little out of vogue now, but I've finished reading David Horowitz's The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, and have a few comments to make about it.

First off, two caveats: I haven't read every word of the book, since most of it is biographies of those afore-mentionted 101 dangerous dudes. I read some closely, skimmed some, and skipped over some altogether, so my comments aren't the result of an extremely close reading. Also, Horowitz sent me a free copy of his book (I'm not really sure why, since I've never met him, and have only exchanged a couple of polite e-mails with him). My opinion wasn't swayed by the surprising gift, but I just thought I ought to disclose that just in case.

The whole "dangerous" rhetoric is a bit silly, and doesn't really meld neatly with the content. In his first e-mail to me (which was apparently a response to this satire I did of his book title), Horowitz distanced himself from the word "dangerous," saying that it was an unfortunate device by the publishers to sell books. He then offered to send me a copy of his book and, being an English professor, I was more than happy to accept it.

As I said before, the bulk of the book is the biographies, and I was surprised by how fair it was. In the biographies I saw, Horowitz doesn't cherrypick the political positions in the profiles; if, for example, the object of the profile publicly broke with the Left one issue or another, he says so. Also, he opens each piece with the professor's credentials, and a list of accolades they have received.

What most struck me, though, was that in every case I read, he was criticizing the professors based on published works or public statements they had made. From the hue and cry around the book, I had been under the impression that he had been going through people's trash or interviewing their ex-wives to dig up dirt on them. This use of public speech leads me to my point here.

When one makes a public statement (like this blog post), one cannot protest if people publically disagree with it. We can protest that people willfully misread it, or misinterpreted it, or critiqued it unfairly, but implicit in the act of making a public statement is the agreement to be publically critiqued. We hope that when we publish papers, for example, that people will be convinced by our arguments and proclaim us geniuses, but we all understand that there will be those who will argue against us.

Many of the people profiled by Horowitz have played openly on their political statements to garner praise from their political allies. It strikes me as unfair for someone to say that you are permitted to praise their public politics, but not to criticize them. If Horowitz had been trotting out private comments made to friends, that would be one thing; calling people to task for their published works and public statements is quite another.

A lot of energy was expended around the idea that Horowitz was "naming names." The names he named, however, we already in the public arena. I expect to receive a lot of scorn from people about this post because they don't like Horowitz, or because they do like someone whom he calls "dangerous." I don't like receiving hate mail, but in publicly posting this to the Wordhoard I am knowingly making myself vulnerable to people criticizing my words. If one does not want one's ideas available for criticism, one should not publish them. If one does not wish to make one's ideas public -- one shouldn't be a professor.

I've got some less-supportive things to say about what Horowitz writes about academic freedom, but I'm out of time. Perhaps next week.


  1. Good stuff, I am actually going to read this book now.

  2. You wrote:

    We can protest that people willfully misread it, or misinterpreted it, or critiqued it unfairly, but implicit in the act of making a public statement is the agreement to be publically critiqued.

    While I can't speak for the "willfully" part, not being psychic, I am sure you must be aware of Horowitz' misrepresentations (which are not limited to this book, of course). Check out this post (scroll down to the bit about "economic transformations" to see some wonderfully clear examples.