Where PC Meets Free Speech: A War over Ads about Slavery Reparations Is Not as Black and White as It Might Seem

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, April 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

Where PC Meets Free Speech: A War over Ads about Slavery Reparations Is Not as Black and White as It Might Seem


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


When I was in high school, my history teacher assigned us a well-written but crudely argued book by a left-wing historian named David Horowitz. The book depicted the United States as a disgustingly racist and imperialist power, and our homework was to think critically about Horowitz's argument. Where was he right? Where was he wrong? This idea that political discussion could be shaded--that it was possible to be partly right and partly wrong--had escaped Horowitz altogether, but it stuck with me.

Since the 1980s, Horowitz, a former editor of the radical monthly Ramparts and co-author of best sellers about the Kennedys and the Rockefellers, has become a right-wing agitator, throwing stink bombs from the other side. Actually, he didn't have to move that far, since the thinking of the extreme left and extreme right, as Hannah Arendt explained, is strangely similar. His Manichaean mind is largely out of fashion in a post-cold-war world; the only ramparts we watch are at ball games. But juicy targets remain: PC thinking has enjoyed a longer shelf life than it deserves. So Horowitz and his left-wing critics are keeping each other in business.

The 52 college newspapers confronted last month with his now infamous and intentionally inflammatory advertisement (titled "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea--and Racist Too") were in a tight spot. If they published the ad and sparked protests, they would bolster Horowitz's point about political correctness; if they refused the ad, they would bolster his point about the lack of free expression. Both happened, and the provocation succeeded brilliantly.

The ad, which reminds me of one of those tiresome rants supporting a NAAWP (National Association for the Advancement of White People), is detonating on campus this year. At Berkeley, students stormed the offices of The Daily Californian to demand an apology after the newspaper ran the ad. They got one. At Brown, student protesters threw away thousands of free copies of The Brown Daily Herald issue containing the ad. At Duke, hundreds demonstrated. Suddenly Horowitz, who constantly tells blacks to stop acting like victims, gets to play the victim himself. How infuriating.

The case is a carnival of such contradictions. The Wall Street Journal Web site and The Boston Globe were among those news organizations righteously editorializing that young college editors should run the ad. But spokesmen for the Journal and the Globe now refuse to say whether those newspapers would have run the ad themselves. Is that "left-wing McCarthyism" (Horowitz's charge against the college papers)? Please. Newspapers, exercising their own freedom, routinely reject advertising they believe might offend the sensibilities of their readers. When asked by NEWSWEEK, several major papers, including the Baltimore Sun and the Seattle Times, said they would have rejected the Horowitz ad (NEWSWEEK is among several publications saying it would have run it).

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Where PC Meets Free Speech: A War over Ads about Slavery Reparations Is Not as Black and White as It Might Seem
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