Debating Horowitz

I haven’t been talking about politics here lately. That’s due to any number of factors, including the desire to appear “politically neutral” during my election-themed class last fall. I’ve also found myself wondering for a long time about the effects of blogging on political discourse. Are these blogs merely adding to the cacophany of Crossfires and partisan talk shows? Or can they add something new? My answers here are much more tentative than they used to be, a whiseperd “maybe” rather than the resounding “yes!” of months past.

This ambivalence comes to mind because of the recent discussions of David Horowitz’s comments about university professors. I usually have mixed feelings about tangling with someone like David Horowitz, whose recent project, “Discover the Network,” reads like a demented version of the Kevin Bacon game. Debating Horowitz seems to grant him a legitimacy that seems unwarranted on most topics. But his recent comments in Boulder, Colorado (registration required, bugmenot recommended), deserve special attention because they so utterly misrepresent professor labor. In the article Vanessa Miller reports that,

University professors are a privileged elite that work between six to nine hours a week, eight months a year for an annual salary of about $150,000, according to David Horowitz.

Of course, Horowitz, who spends a lot of time playing gadfly on various college campuses, knows better. So why make such baldly false statements about how hard professor work or how much we get paid? The obvious answer is explicit in his comments: to discredit professors as wealthy elites, out of touch with the common people. Such claims are nothing new, of course, and charges of elitism have been used to discredit academics for some time. And I’d iamgine that most people don’t really believe these numbers, but I could be wrong about that. Such a claim is more strategic than anything else.

More importantly Horowitz’s comments have now compelled several professors, including myself, to respond. And that’s where I have a question. By taking Horowtitz’s bait and resonding to these absurd assertions, aren’t we playing into his hands, giving his arguments the legitimacy they don’t really deserve? I tried to address this point in my comments to Scrivener’s post on Horowitz several days ago, but I’m not sure I quite got it right, although Bérubé’s satirical response makes sense to me as a useful alternative, as I’ll try to explain below.

So what is the answer here? To continue fact-checking Horowitz or others like him? Such an approach re-creates the Crossfire approach, which doesn’t really take us anywhere new. Our facts compete with his facts and the audience scarfs down a microwave pizza as the spectacle unfolds. I’m not sure it applies precisely here because Horowitz is quite a bit different than Bushworld, but Jimbo’s recent comments about exposing the internal contradictions of Bushworld make more sense to me than a straight rebuttal. I’m not sure what that would look like, but I do want to try to start asking these questions again.

9 Comments »

  1. Chris Martin Said,

    February 19, 2005 @ 1:35 pm

    I got into an argument with Horowitz after he delivered a talk at Georgia Tech in 2000. The funny thing about him is that there is a sane component to his personality that understands there are decent people on both sides of the political aisle, but his public persona is that of a jerk.

  2. Chuck Said,

    February 19, 2005 @ 1:40 pm

    I think that’s why I view so much of what he says as so calculated. In the artcile I linked, Horowitz also says that, as a supporter of the 1st Amendment, he doesn’t believe that Ward Churchill should be fired, even if he dislikes what Churchill has to say. That’s why I wonder if it’s worthwhile to feed the beast, so to speak, by responding to him on the level of rational discourse.

  3. Jimbo Said,

    February 20, 2005 @ 8:28 pm

    test comment

    jwb

  4. Jimbo Said,

    February 20, 2005 @ 8:29 pm

    ok it’s apparently working now. When I tried it earlier it rejected the comment for “possible inappropriate material.” I guess it must have been a temporary glitch.

    jwb

  5. Chuck Said,

    February 20, 2005 @ 8:39 pm

    Yes, it should be fixed. There’s an explanation of the problem on the Herders’ main page, but basically an entry consisting only of a space was blacklisted, setting it up so that every entry with a single space would be rejected. Weird stuff.

  6. Scrivener Said,

    February 20, 2005 @ 10:21 pm

    Just a quick point: you say above that you “imagine that most people don’t really believe these numbers” from Horowitz. I’m not sure that’s true (not that you don’t imagine, but that people don’t believe him). I used to hear from family members all the time that I must only work a few hours a day. When my wife was in law school, I’d meet other law students who thought that because I was teaching a 5/5 load, I only had to work 15 hours per week.

    A while back you and G. Zombie were talkign about how little the general public understands about our job–these comments from Horowitz are precisely designed to take advantage of that fact. And yeah, I think you’re exactly rigth that the point is to (continue to) portray us as out of touch with regular working folks.

  7. Chuck Said,

    February 20, 2005 @ 10:28 pm

    That’s a good point. Horowitz’s invocation of that stereotype wouldn’t work if people weren’t buying it. I think the larger point is that Horowitz obviously knows better, deploying (as Jimbo notes) cyncial reason in order to sell books (and to sustain a certain, strategic image of academia).

  8. Jimbo Said,

    February 21, 2005 @ 11:02 am

    I like Mel’s response—I think she left it over at Prof B.’s: A football game lasts maybe three hours. Do you think that the players and coaches only work three hours a week?

  9. Chuck Said,

    February 21, 2005 @ 12:15 pm

    Jimbo, Mel’s comparison is perfect. I’m working on a blog entry about your discussion of cynical reason. Hopefully I’ll be able to write/publish it later today.

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