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    The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
           -Milan Kundera, as quoted by David Horowitz

Winston Churchill's old aphorism, "any man under thirty who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over thirty who is not a conservative has no brains", though it contains a great deal of truth, also misleads.  It does so by its implication that liberalism, as a belief of the young, is a function of being uninformed and emotional, while conservatism, as a belief of the old, comes only with experience and a dying out of passion.  This gives both sides too little credit : liberalism is intellectually defensible, just as conservatism is consistent with compassion.  The fault line that separates the two philosophies lies not along an age barrier but between two central human concerns, the competing desires for security and freedom.  History is nothing more than a long struggle of the one against the other, with a tendency towards equilibrium.

What Churchill's dictum successfully pinpointed is that the true believers on either side, by pushing their ideals to their logical ends, wind up seeming either naively utopian, the Left, or callous, the Right.  Modern Liberalism, with its exclusive concern for economic security and its tendency towards state imposed equality, seems brainless to us both because it doesn't work and because the political system that produced Churchill and us has tended to favor the other side.  That other side--which we now call conservatism but which is really classical liberalism--with its exclusive focus on maximizing freedom, appears heartless because it contemplates allowing some, perhaps most, people to fail, rather than intervene to save them from themselves.  It is not at all surprising that the battle between these world views should be so polarized because at their extremes they really are mutually exclusive : equality (of results, not of opportunity) is simply incompatible with freedom.

Churchill's formulation also points up a curious phenomenon : no one ever makes the conversion from conservative to liberal; the traffic is all in the opposite direction.  This does not make liberalism any less valid a viewpoint, but it does suggest that it represents a temperament which one either has at an early age, or will never have, and that it can not be arrived by the application of reason and logic.  In some sense you are born believing that security from the vicissitudes of life should be man's paramount ideal, regardless of the means necessary to obtain this end, or you are not.  Conservatism, on the other hand, is a birthright of some, but it can also be arrived at via intellectual endeavor, or simply by perusing the evidence of liberalism's failure.  That is, people arrive at conservatism as a function of faith, of thought, or by trial and error.  All are welcome, but there are important differences between them, differences which are clearly evident in David Horowitz's book, Radical Son, particularly by comparison to Whittaker Chamber's great memoir, Witness, to which it is often, unwisely, compared..

I like David Horowitz's writing well enough; his column for Salon is amusing and his publications, Front Page and Heterodoxy are valuable resources.  In particular, I appreciate his uncanny ability to get under the skin of his former comrades on the Left; no other conservative columnist is attacked so frequently and vituperatively.  And I think Radical Son has some value, especially for Horowitz's inside portrayal of the radical Left in the 1960's and 70's.  But, at least for me, it fails as a chronicle of Horowitz's conversion and it appears especially weak alongside Witness. Radical Son is a self-justification and a boast, Witness was a self-mortification and a warning.

Though he was a red-diaper baby and a Marxist himself, Horowitz asks the reader to believe that at virtually every step of his political life he entertained profound doubts about the beliefs and methods of those around him.  As these moments pile up--especially when he is working for the Black Panthers--it becomes increasingly difficult to believe his veracity.  It is of course possible that his career of extremism was accompanied all along by these myriad gnawing doubts, but it is much more likely that today's conservative Horowitz looks back on the young radical Horowitz with such disdain that he transfers today's doubts to the past.

Then as Horowitz makes his break with the Left and undertakes a slow drift to the Right, he is so bent on preserving the self-image that he used to have, that he is never able to fully embrace what he's become.  His conversion is couched almost completely in terms of the violence, intolerance, and failures of the Left.  His acceptance of conservative approaches to problems is always cast solely in terms of a kind of utilitarianism and accompanied by profuse avowals of his continued passion for social justice.   In the end, he seems to want to believe that he is essentially unchanged, that he has always simply been in search of the good of others, that he once believed that Marxism would provide that good, but that its failures and the concurrent successes of conservatism convinced him otherwise.  So he changed sides without ever actually changing his core beliefs.  Here's a fairly representative quote :

    I make no apologies for my present position.  It was what I thought was the humanity of the Marxist
    idea that made me what I was then; it is the inhumanity of what I have seen to be the Marxist
    reality that has made me what I am now.

Of course the Marxist idea is to take from those who have and give it to those who don't; the "humanity" of this can not be simply accepted, whether such action is humane and just lies at the core of the argument.  But this tortured formulation does, not coincidentally, allow him to portray himself as not a dupe when he was on the Left and not heartless now that he's on the Right.  The whole thing is hugely dishonest and smacks of a man who can't face either what he was or what he is.

Compare Horowitz's story, as many of the critics did, to the story Whittaker Chambers had to tell in Witness.  Chambers began his memoir with a letter to his children (available online and well worth reading in its entirety), wherein he sought to explain his conversion :

    I was a witness. I do not mean a witness for the Government or against Alger Hiss and the others.
    Nor do I mean the short, squat, solitary figure, trudging through the impersonal halls of public
    buildings to testify before Congressional committees, grand juries, loyalty boards, courts of law. A
    man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a
    witness for something.  A witness, in the sense that I am using the word, is a man whose life and
    faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he
    does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences.

This stands in stark contrast to Horowitz both because Chambers states his case in the positive, rather than as a mere reaction to the excesses and failures of the Left, and because his conversion, unlike Horowitz's, came at a time when the conclusion of the struggle was still in doubt.  It is easily forgotten today, and many have reason to hasten our forgetfulness, but when Chambers abandoned communism in the mid 1940's it still had forty years to run as a serious contender with democracy, especially among elite opinion.  As late as the early 1980s academics and intellectuals still thought that Communism might eventually triumph, but were at least certain that it would continue as a viable political/economic alternative.  In fact, when Chambers switched sides he thought he might well be leaving the winning team to join the losing.  By the time Horowitz moved to the Right, Ronald Reagan was president and Communism, if not yet recognizably doomed, was on the run.  His switch, though sensible, required none of the moral courage that Chambers displayed.

Fairly or not then, Horowitz comes across as a man whose political conversion came at little personal expense and is not deeply felt nor well considered.  No principles are involved; it is all on the surface.  Here again it is helpful to look at what Chambers wrote in his letter :

    One thing most ex-Communists could agree upon: they broke because they wanted to be free. They
    do not all mean the same thing by "free." Freedom is a need of the soul, and nothing else. It is in
    striving toward God that the soul strives continually after a condition of freedom. God alone is the
    inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of
    interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of
    the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul
    there is no justification for freedom. Necessity is the only ultimate justification known to the mind.
    Hence every sincere break with Communism is a religious experience, though the Communist fail to
    identify its true nature, though he fail to go to the end of the experience. His break is the political
    expression of the perpetual need of the soul whose first faint stirring he has felt within him years,
    months or days before he breaks. A Communist breaks because he must choose at last between
    irreconcilable opposites-- God or Man, Soul or Mind, Freedom or Communism.

    Communism is what happens when, in the name of Mind, men free themselves from God. But its
    view of God, its knowledge of God, its experience of God, is what alone gives character to a society
    or a nation, and meaning to its destiny. Its culture, the voice of this character, is merely that view,
    knowledge, experience, of God, fixed by its most intense spirits in terms intelligible to the mass of
    men. There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the
    wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

    The crisis of Communism exists to the degree in which it has failed to free the peoples that it rules
    from God. Nobody knows this better than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The crisis of
    the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. It exists to the degree in
    which the Western world actually shares Communism's materialist vision, is so dazzled by the logic
    of the materialist interpretation of history, politics and economics, that it fails to grasp that, for it,
    the only possible answer to the Communist challenge: Faith in God or Faith in Man? is the
    challenge: Faith in God.

    Economics is not the central problem of this century. It is a relative problem which can be solved in
    relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age. The Western world does not know it, but it
    already possesses the answer to this problem--but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom
    He enjoins is as great as Communism's faith in Man.

Chambers, contrary to the assumptions inherent in Churchill's bon mot, burned with passion, a passion for Freedom.  At its most basic, conservatism is indeed a belief that "freedom is a need of the soul;" this need, so evident in Witness, does not similarly burn within the soul of the David Horowitz revealed in Radical Son.  Therefore, while the book succeeds as an indictment of the Left, it fails utterly as a statement of faith.


Grade: (C)


See also:

David Horowitz Links:
-PROFILE: Our Friend, the Trump Propagandist: We knew David Horowitz when he was a radical leftist. Then he became a conservative. Then he joined the MAGA cult. (Ron Radosh, 5/05, New Republic)

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOKNOTES : Author: David Horowitz Title: Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey Air Date: April 13, 1997 (C-SPAN)
    -EXCERPT : from 'Radical Son" by David Horowitz :Scenes from the 60's
    -The Center For The Study Of Popular Culture
    -FrontPage Magazine
    -ARCHIVES : David Horowitz (Salon)
    -ARCHIVES : "David Horowitz" (Jewish World Review)
    -Political War : The War Room (David Horowitz)
    -ARCHIVES : David Horowitz (Upstream)
    -INTERVIEW : Interview with David Horowitz ( June 6, 1997, Chuck Baldwin Live)
    -ESSAY : Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks - and Racist Too (David Horowitz, | January 3, 2001)
    -ARTICLE : To Print Or Not To Print: Ad Kindles Outrage (ANDREW S. HOLBROOK, Crimson)
    -ESSAY : Late night with David Horowitz The conservative columnist defends his views in the former Mecca of free speech. No chairs are thrown, but somebody pulls the plug (Cary Tennis, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Mob Rules: Horowitz vs Censorship (Wendy Kaminer, The American Prospect)
    -INTERVIEW : Free Speech in the University : Conservative writer tweaks with campus politics over issue of reparations (NEWSWEEK)
    -PROFILE : Master manipulator mounts phony campaign about slavery : Rewriting  history in the name of free speech (Eric Alterman, MSNBC)
    -RESPONSE : Alterman's Deliberate Distortion :  A letter to MSNBC's Eric Alterman (Stephen Brooks, | March 28, 2001)
    -ARTICLE : Editorial is no paper tiger (ROBERT STERN, Trenton Times)
    -EDITORIAL : A message to our readers (Daily Princetonian, Wednesday, April 4, 2001)
    -ESSAY : I Didn't Buy A Gratuitous Slander : Horowitz Responds to the Wall Street Journal ( | April 10, 2001)
    -ESSAY : Who's afraid of the big bad Horowitz? By refusing to run his ad blasting reparations for slavery, cringing campus journalists are giving the racial provocateur publicity that money can't buy (Joan Walsh, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Indeed He Is Risen! (Paul Weyrich, Free Congress, April 13, 2001 )
    -ESSAY : Who Killed Christ? (Evan Gahr, American Spectator)
    -ESSAY : Weyrich Assailed for Citing Jews in Christ's Death  (Thomas B. Edsall, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY : Blinded by the right :  A prominent conservative  leader makes an anti-Semitic comment, and his colleagues on the right look the other way. (Joe Conason, Salon)
    -ESSAY : A slip of the tongue : Paul Weyrich offended Jews with his recent column, but is it  worth burying his career over a single statement in a 40-year public life? (David Horowitz, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Face facts : David Horowitz accused me of lying, but he's the one who plays loose with the facts on Reagan-era conservatism. (Joe Conason, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Back to Our Roots (David Horowitz, National Review, May 13, 1991)
    -ESSAY :  Guns don't kill black people, other blacks do : The NAACP's ludicrous idea to sue gun manufacturers is yet another attempt by the left to avoid personal responsibility for some individuals' bad behavior. (David Horowitz, Salon)
    -OPED : A Real-Life Bigot : A  former leftist earns a place on the wild-eyed right  (Jack E. White, TIME)
    -RESPONSE : David Horowitz responds to Time magazine's "slander"  (David Horowitz, Salon)
    -RESPONSE : Camille Paglia defends David Horowitz : The Salon columnist slams the editors behind Time's attack on Horowitz for their "late summer slip-up." (Camille Paglia, Salon)
    -PROFILE : David Horowitz's Long March (SCOTT SHERMAN, The Nation)
    -PROFILE : Looking for Mr. Right : Who's Running the Conservative Club in Town? (DAVID CORN, The Nation)
    -PROFILE : David Horowitz: Sore Winner (Jack Shafer, Slate)
    -DOSSIER : david horowitz (disinformation)
    -ESSAY : The Chorus and Cassandra (Christopher Hitchens,  Grand Street Magazine, Autumn 1985)
    -ESSAY : A Drudge Report : Net gossipmonger Matt Drudge got sued after running a libelous story about a liberal Clinton aide. L.A. conservative gadfly David Horowitz came to his rescue. (Denise Hamilton, Phoenix New Times)
    -REVIEW : of RADICAL SON A Journey Through Our Times. By David Horowitz (Richard Gid Powers, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey by David Horowitz (James Bowman, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of  Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey   by David Horowitz (Christopher Caldwell, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Radical Son (Stephen Goode, The Washington Times)
    -REVIEW : of Radical Son (Bob Kolasky, Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW : of Radical Son  World's Oldest Red Diaper Baby Tells All (John J. Reilly)
    -REVIEW : of Destructive Generation Second Thoughts About the 60' By Peter Collier and David Horowitz (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Destructive Generation Second Thoughts About the 60' By Peter Collier and David Horowitz (David Burner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  THE KENNEDYS An American Drama. By Peter Collier and David Horowitz
(Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE KENNEDYS An American Drama. By Peter Collier and David Horowitz (Ted Morgan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE FORDS. An American Epic. By Peter Collier and David Horowitz (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE FORDS. An American Epic. By Peter Collier and David Horowitz (Joseph Nocera, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE ROOSEVELTS An American Saga. By Peter Collier with David Horowitz (John A. Garraty, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE ROOSEVELTS An American Saga. By Peter Collier with David Horowitz (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Hating Whitey: And Other Progressive Causes by David Horowitz (Josh London, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of  Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes by David Horowitz (Robert A. George, Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW : of The Race Card - White Guilt, Black Resentment, and the Assault on Truth and Justice Edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz (Brad Zuber, Intellectual Capital)

1960'S :
    -REVIEW : of POLITICAL PASSAGES Journeys of Change Through Two Decades 1968-1988. Edited by John H. Bunzel (Charles Paul Freund, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of America Divided The Civil War of the 1960s. By Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin (Brent Staples, NY Times Book Review)

    -ESSAY : Ex-Conservatives & Other Silly Folk : An over-hyped, overdone story. (Jonah Goldberg, National Review)
    -ESSAY : The Ex-Cons Right-Wing Thinkers Go Left! (Corey Robin, Lingua Franca)