David Horowitz, the quite successful biographer of America's rich and powerful family dynasties, has now written his own story. Its fulcrum is his account of his journey through the Sixties and out the other side, moving from left to extreme left until a sudden epiphany at the era's end and then rapidly across to America's right intellectual edge.
During much of the time period covered in Horowitz's account of his passage from red diaper baby to Black Panther Party functionary to Ronald Reagan devotee, I was a student leader and an organizer against the Vietnam War, a founder of the draft resistance movement who eventually spent 20 months in Federal prison for refusing my orders to report for military service.
I never knew Horowitz back then, though I knew some of the people he writes about and I reported on others among them when I eventually became a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, so the setting of his "Radical Son," (Free Press, 468 pages $27.50) is familiar to me and I inevitably bring something of my own history to his attempts to recount it.
I found Horowitz' s memoir overstated at best. This quality was most obvious in his insistence on framing his chronicle of himself as the story of the "Generational Odyssey" proclaimed in its subtitle.
As a member of that generation, I took that elevation a little personally. Horowitz's journey may be of interest but it isn't even within commuting distance of being "generational." In truth it represents little outside Horowitz himself.
David Horowitz was the child of communists, a social critic from birth, someone for whom the execution of the Rosenbergs was a big event and distrust of the government was an adolescent given. The generation he claims to embody, on the other hand was a bunch of former Boy and Girl Scouts for whom the World Series was a big event and who had been raised to support the government at all costs.
When they eventually threw off the trappings of that support in disgust at what was going on out in the tall grass near places like Da Nang and the DMZ it was a genuine transformation.
In those days, Horowitz was doing what his parents fantasized about while the rest of us were engaged in what our parents never imagined was possible. The difference was enormous.
His circumstances were unique as well. Most of this generation was defined by the Vietnam War and what they were going to do about it when it came for them. David Horowitz had been out of college more than two years before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution officially opening the Vietnam War was even passed and was exempt from conscription throughout the war's ensuing 10 bloody years; few of his generation could say the same.
He was also far from a representative figure in the political uprising in which he claims membership. During the seminal years of "The Movement" - including the Mississippi Project, the Free Speech Movement, Black Power, the first anti-war demonstrations, the Watts riots, the draft card burnings, Haight-Ashbury, Stop the Draft Week, the march on the Pentagon, and the Tet Offensive, Horowitz was in England, working with European leftists, in a comparatively doctrinaire, Marxism-driven environment that had relatively little in common with the far more spontaneous and experiential stateside New Left uprising.
When Horowitz did return home, he returned to Berkeley, a campus town that resembled nothing else in the universe. There, he fell in with the communal Red Family leftism around Ramparts magazine during the last days of the Johnson administration and kept at it until becoming a fundraiser for the Black Panther Party during the waning days of the Panther icon, Huey P. Newton.
It is understatement to describe his experience as esoteric, even by movement standards. To me, his dilemmas seem less those of a generation than those of a few neighborhoods within walking distance of Telegraph Avenue.
Horowitz has much more to say if he just lets his experience be His experience rather than Our experience and tells us what happened to him. As a source of observation, there is much on which we agree.
Certainly his characterization of the circles he ran in resonated for me. He returned to Berkeley about the time the national draft resistance organization with which I worked swore to stop bothering trying to organize there. It was a place that both talked and listened only to itself.
Horowitz stepped into a profound mutation in what had heretofore been a political awakening relatively free of ideology, and no location mutated more than Horowitz's hometown.
It was as though several square blocks of people all learned to talk Mao at the same time. From that point on, this breed of radicals refined its ideology in a steady lockstep with the increase in its own insulation from realities. They talked a lot about "armed struggle" and "the oppressed" but, not quite up to carrying out their fantasy of armed struggle and unable to qualify as trully oppressed themselves, they became vicarious revolutionaries, devoting themselves to the struggles of others more ideologically acceptable than the middle class from which most of them grew.
The main domestic object of their fantasy eventually became the Black Panther Party, headquartered in nearby Oakland. I debated against Panthers when I was an organizer, shared a cell with one for a day when I was locked up, was once invited to a half hour audience with Huey P. Newton, and covered the Party as a reporter during the last days of Horowitz's loyalty to it.
Huey Newton impressed me as a narcissistic thug and the rest of the Party as self-absorbed and dominated by hustlers who were devoted to the notion that their blackness gave them the right to kill anybody they thought deserved it.
In the mid-1970s, after Newton fled to Cuba when charged with the murder of an unarmed whore in downtown Oakland, even Horowitz, until then a certified true believer, finally became appalled and dropped the cause. I don't blame him. I just wonder what took so long.
In any case, this step out of type precipitated a transformation in which David Horowitz discarded the mantle of his parents' communism and became what his publisher describes as "an intellectual leader of conservatism and its most prominent activist in Hollywood during the eras of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich."
Horowitz likens himself to legendary turncoat Whittaker Chambers, though, again, I found that a bit overblown. From my perspective, Horowitz's self-proclaimed transformation looks
less than transformative.
Horowitz measures his move as extreme because he jumped from left to right, but so what? I, for one, came out of all that time when the country was turned on its ear less than convinced of the importance of left and right. The real difference was between politics that conform to reality and those that insist reality conform to them. Otherwise, ideologues are ideologues.
As far as I am concerned, the great lesson of the time through which David Horowitz tracks himself is the absolute danger inherent in the abstraction of people into faceless issues, to be addressed as a matter of geopolitical theory, regardless of the actual behaviors which are all theories' ultimate lowest common denominators.
Horowitz seemed to have missed that part. Means and ends remain in roughly the same relationship to each other. Be it Huey P. Newton or Newt Gingrich, he still seems to be keeping the company of people who are so convinced they are right that they expect to be able to play by their own rules, doing what they want to whomever they think needs it done to them. It may only be me, but all the time Horowitz is talking about what a curve his life has made, I just see a straight line.
David Harris was the 1966 Stanford student body president when he became a national leader in the opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1968 he resisted the draft, violating the Selective Service Act and spent two years in prison. Upon his release he began a career in journalism. The California resident is now a global correspondent for Rolling Stone and author of six books, including "The Last Stand," and most recently "Our War," published by Times Books last year.
Pub Date: 2/09/97