The Art of the Slur: From Joe McCarthy to David Horowitz

About Aaron Barlow

Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter: these are perhaps the best known of the right-wing commentators who seem to have trouble with the truth — although their lies have little impact on their careers. The list also includes David Horowitz, the former leftist who has become a spokesman for right-wing causes and, perhaps more importantly, something of a conservative movement tactician.

From among this august grouping, it was Horowitz who actually codified lying, making it into a tactic rather than just a careless mistake. In his latest book, Dangerous Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, and related writing, Horowitz drips out “misleading information” in an attempt to discredit liberals in academia — claiming, for instance, that a New York University professor teaches a subversive book (are books to be banned from the classroom?) and that a respected Princeton professor is a member of a left-wing legal organization that Horowitz implies is traitorous to America (when he merely delivered a speech to the group).

Horowitz long ago recognized the value of such slurs on both Left and Right. And starting in the 1970s, he began precociously showing the rest of the Right just how to use them effectively. Never simply a defender of any particular right-wing set of beliefs, Horowitz is much more comfortable on the attack — and has shown many on the Right just how well that can work.

A self-styled intellectual and scholar, Horowitz is able to bring his crusades against the academy to public attention primarily because of generous funding from right-wing foundations, particularly the “four sisters”: the Lynde and Harry Bradley, John M. Olin, Sarah Scaife, and Randolph (formerly Smith Richardson) Foundations. Together, they provided his Center for the Study of Popular Culture (now known as the David Horowitz Freedom Center) with more than $1 million in 2003 alone. He also receives substantial funding from the Coors’ Castle Rock Foundation, among others.

Such backing, along with what he earns through speaking engagements, provides Horowitz with a substantial financial cushion — and motivation to keep his name in the news. With negligible grassroots financial support to rely on, he has little choice but to depend on the foundations which back him, funding him because of what his intellect offers the conservative movement as a whole: the poisonous, Rove-like atmosphere he tries to cast over a sector many conservatives loathe.

Aside from his books, speeches, and appearances on television, Horowitz’s main conduit to the public is his Front Page magazine (, an online journal where Horowitz maintains a personal blog. The website, which presents original material, also reprints from a wide variety of right-wing sources and links to other Horowitz projects, such as his “Dangerous Professors” blog and his Students for Academic Freedom ( organization, an “Astroturf” group Horowitz founded and sustains, although the sixty-something Horowitz has not been a student for quite some time.

‘In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but rather to destroy the enemy’s fighting ability,’ says Horowitz.

Unlike many of the contemporary Right, Horowitz can claim no base in the fundamentalist Christian movement, nor does he fit in with the Straussian neo-cons who have become so influential in foreign affairs. A maverick unaffiliated with any particular conservative world view, he made a public conversion to the Right in 1980 when he supported Ronald Reagan. His conservativism comes down to “a single patriotic idea: The revolutionary failures of the Twentieth Century had demonstrated the wisdom of the American founding, and validated its tenets: private property, individual rights, and a limited state.”1 That he still manages to find substantial funding despite his free agent status is a tribute to his skill as a writer and to his ability to provide the sort of strategies that are currently igniting campus Republican clubs and even state legislators.

Student Republican Club activists have embraced Horowitz, bringing him and his tactic of baseless slurs to their campuses. For instance, last year in California the Santa Rosa Junior College Republican Club created a blacklist, “red starring” ten “troublesome” faculty for “openly advocating Communist and Marxist theories”; they eventually retreated to charging “leftist bias” when they could not corroborate their claims.

Their crusade was linked to that of a Republican state legislator who around the same time introduced a “Students Bill of Rights” opposing the indoctrination of impressionable students.2 Nineteen such bills have been introduced by conservative state legislators across the country since 2004, thus far with little success, according to the National Education Association.3 Horowitz provides the inspiration and scurrilous tactics for this ferment.

Who is Horowitz?

The child of Communist parents, Horowitz was himself an important part of the Left for a short time in the 1960s, editing the high-profile Ramparts magazine which carried much substantial material, but also was known for promoting the conspiracy theories of former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison concerning the Kennedy assassination. By the mid1970s, in part due to suspicions over the death of a friend who may have been killed by members of the Black Panthers, Horowitz began the transformation that would lead him from leftwing conspiracism to the right — a change of hats, but accompanied by little change in the belligerent, no-quarter-given attitude he had already developed.

A key to understanding Horowitz is recognizing that he needs enemies, no matter which side he is on. His attacks are so relentless that it is easy to be left wondering what Horowitz himself stands for. In his autobiography Radical Son, Horowitz describes the impact of his conversion:

Like [Whittaker] Chambers, I had become the most hated ex-radical of my generation. And like him, I had discovered that the enemies against who I once battled so furiously were more fantastic than real.[…] I am now as prominent on the conservative side of the ideological divide as I once was in the ranks of the Left. But the conservatives I have joined are unlike the enemies I once imagined.4

He never takes the next step, never considers that his former allies, on whom he turns his wrath today, are no more deserving of it now than the conservatives were, then. Ultimately, it is his simplistic “friends or enemies” attitude that underlies his justification of lying.

Although he may not gather the same notice of the top pundits and political figures, Horowitz works in ways reminiscent of Karl Rove. Each is among the best of the conservative strategists; they influence what others say and do without always winning the prime media focus themselves. George W. Bush, long ago zeroed in on by Rove (who was searching for the perfect candidate), is the type of politician Horowitz was also wishing for when he wrote his 1998 pamphlet The Art of Political War (later incorporated into The Art of Political War and Other Radical Pursuits) which was distributed widely among Republican operatives in 20005 (see box). In this screed, Horowitz wrote:

In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but rather to destroy the enemy’s fighting ability. […] Even if you had time to develop an argument, the audience you need to reach (the undecided and those in the middle who are not paying much attention) would not get it. Your words would go over some of their heads and the rest would not even hear them (or quickly forget) amidst the bustle and pressure of daily life.6

Bush was a perfect mix, able to present the veneer of a “compassionate conservative” while never shying away from the attack politics which both Rove, who endorsed the Horowitz pamphlet, and Horowitz partake of.

Horowitz and Tailgunner Joe

Much of the strategy developed by Horowitz in that pamphlet seems to look back to the successes of “Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy, the ex-Marine who claimed shrapnel in his leg (there was none), to have risen from the ranks (though he enlisted as a lieutenant — and was discharged at the same rank), and more than 25 combat missions (he flew fewer than half that, and generally as a passenger). In his anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s, McCarthy fabricated with impunity — and it never seemed to hurt his career. His implosion was not a result of his lies directly, but more from ill-considered attacks, from his continually acting off the cuff and without considering strategic needs — including his lack of clear goals.

Instead of responding to charges, Horowitz, like McCarthy, changes the subject, turning to attack and accusation.

Fifty years after his death, it sometimes seems we are oversaturated with McCarthy (even Ann Coulter has written a book on him), but his demagogic spirit imbues our time, as a close look at Horowitz shows.

The question of McCarthy becomes even more important in light of the successes of Horowitz, Coulter, O’Reilly, Limbaugh and the others inspired by or echoing McCarthy’s methodology. They seem to have studied him, learning tactical lessons from both his successes and failures. For McCarthy, the real goal was simply winning. Without needing to achieve any other end, his focus turned solely to tactics. This creates a problem for opponents, especially those who try to focus on goals outside of winning, who want discussion and compromise — for neither discussion nor compromise is of interest. Once goals are set aside, it is easy for cynics to then claim that older goals and ideals were thwarted, undermined by their enemies. Rarely, then, does the focus return to the goals themselves. Writing in Harper‘s, Kevin Baker suggests that:

the Right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.7

The only real goal left is defeat of the enemy who has “held them back”; even program implementation becomes meaningless.

The Professors’ “Straw Men”

Recently, Horowitz has gathered attention for the “straw man” he sets up in The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America — the good that America can achieve is being subverted by a group of nefarious academics. His remedies, listed in an “Academic Bill of Rights,” mingle statements no one can disagree with — such as, “The central purposes of a University are the pursuit of truth… Free inquiry and free speech within the academic community are indispensable to the achievement of these goals.” — with a call to arms increasingly embraced by right-wing students, namely, affirmative action for conservative faculty.

Still, he never details the damage done by those academics he sees as the enemies of America. Instead, he takes a page from McCarthy’s playbook, and just offers a slur:

My most difficult task in writing this book was living daily with the knowledge it provides of the enormous damage that several generations of tenured radicals have inflicted on our educational system; and of being cognizant of the unrelenting malice that so many of them hold in their hearts for a country that has given them the great privileges and freedoms they enjoy as a birthright.8

Nowhere in the book does Horowitz detail this “enormous damage” or provide any proof that these academics’ hearts hold “unrelenting malice” towards the United States. Horowitz’s purpose seems not to change academia, but to destroy those he sees as his enemies — so it really doesn’t matter that his charges have no substance and his putative goals no attainability.

The book consists mainly of assertions with little substantive verification, many of which are close to the truth but have been twisted into inflammatory claims. He attacks Richard Falk, the emeritus professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, as a member of the left-wing International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL). While Falk did give talks for them, he was never a member. Horowitz also makes statements about what goes on in classrooms without ever having visited them. In correspondence with me, he claimed he had once tried to visit a class — but a film was being shown. The slight, anecdotal “information” he gleans from a former student or two is sufficient for his purposes.

Many of the problems with The Professors come from unsubstantiated statements that, in the context of a putatively “scholarly” book, can lead a reader to assume they are fact. He claims award-winning director and playwright George Wolfe is anti-Israeli, for example, with nothing to back it up but the assertion itself. There are also lies by omission, such as an attack on New York University professor Todd Gitlin for assigning works by German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, implying that any student contact with the scholar’s writings poses a threat to America. He never mentions that Gitlin also assigns thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Andy Singer Thomas Hobbes, and Edmund Burke — in addition to the Christian Gospels. The list can go on for pages, and does, at the website of Free Exchange on Campus which has catalogued Horowitz’s errors.9 When called on any of these, Horowitz claims the errors are trivial. In fact, each error really is trivial, taken alone. In the aggregate they present a picture of academia that is demonstrably false. The damage is still done, though, because refuting him focuses back on his individual errors, not on the problems with the larger picture they compile.

The Art of the Lie

Why lie, if it can be so easily discovered? The point, for Horowitz, like McCarthy before him, seems to be to lie in such a way that the rebuttal sounds like a splitting of hairs, as he does in The Professors. So what if Falk is not really a member of the leftist IADL? He spoke under its auspices, so the association is there. Even if proven false, the claim has served its purpose. Gitlin does teach Habermas, doesn’t he, even if the writer is a defender of democracy?

The apparent lies put you on the defensive, making it difficult to ask, why, given even Horowitz’s “support” for academic freedom, is it wrong to speak to a leftist legal group, or teach texts that challenge the justness of the current economic structure?

McCarthy was himself a “preposterous liar.”10 But his legacy is not quite so simple, for his lies were only a part of what he was, of what has developed into the extremely effective strategy of people like Horowitz. The premise is that it is not the research that’s important, but the way it is presented. By contrast, FBI Director and Red hunter J. Edgar Hoover based his career on meticulously collecting and analyzing “data” that he often kept hidden (even while wielding it with rare talent).

The Art of Political War Horowitz’s book on “the professors” is little more than a list that, taken as a whole, is meant to paint a picture of universities out of control. Horowitz likes lists, and seems to feel that they constitute argument by themselves. Even his “The Art of Political War” contains lists, including a list of “principles”23 that illuminate his current tactics:

  1. Politics is war conducted by other means:In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but rather to destroy the enemy’s fighting ability.[…]Even if you had time to develop an argument, the audience you need to reach (the undecided and those in the middle who are not paying much attention) would not get it. Your words would go over some of their heads and the rest would not even hear them (or quickly forget) amidst the bustle and pressure of daily life.24
  2. Politics is a war of position:Choose the terrain that makes the fight as easy for you as possible.25
  3. In political warfare, the aggressor usually prevails.By striking first, you can define the issues as well as your adversary. Defining the opposition is the decisive move in all political war.26
  4. Position is defined by fear and hope.When and how to use fear is a political art.27
  5. The weapons of politics are symbols evoking fear and hope.With these audiences, you will never have time for real arguments or proper analyses. Images—symbols and sound bites—will always prevail.28
  6. Victory lies on the side of the people.You must define yourself in ways that people understand. You must give people hope in your victory, and make them fear the victory of your opponent.29

Honesty, clarity, discussion, and compromise: these have no place in Horowitz’s “war.” Lies do.

His mantra, when confronted with his ‘errors,’ is that the ‘mistakes’ are trivial.

Unlike Hoover, McCarthy found more power in the charge than in the foundation, so he could pretty much ignore the information gathering that was Hoover’s bread and butter. It’s the charge in the open that was the thing for McCarthy, and is now for Horowitz.

When lies become part of a tactical package, they become part of a system of justification. According to Sissela Bok, such a system is based on:

three circumstances [that] have seemed to liars to provide the strongest excuse for their behavior — a crisis where overwhelming harm can be averted only through deceit; complete harmlessness and triviality to the point where it seems absurd to quibble about whether a lie has been told; and the duty to particular individuals to protect their secrets.11

Together or separately, these can provide justification for almost any type of lie and provide the underpinning for their use.

Horowitz, who has never served in government, relies least on the last of these excuses — protecting an individual. For his recent book, his invented “crisis” in education provides the first excuse (those nefarious professors have to be gotten rid of — so it is OK to lie about them to accomplish that), and his mantra, when confronted with his “errors,” is that the “mistakes” are trivial, the second excuse.

On his “Dangerous Professors” website, Horowitz reproduces an email he sent to Scott Jaschik of, responding to a question about errors in the book. Horowitz writes, “Without exception the claims that I have seen are all trivial and normal to a book of this size and do not affect in the slightest the argument I have made.”12 Yes, there are mistakes in any book — I called Jim Jarmusch “Joseph Jarmusch” in my last book, and still get emails pointing that out — but that does not excuse them, certainly not in The Professors, where the number of “errors” is staggering. As the work of Free Exchange on Campus shows, there are serious problems with details in at least a quarter of the entries, probably more.13

Notably, all of the professors Horowitz lists in his book are in secure (generally tenured) positions within academia. No one is likely to lose his or her job because of the book. Ward Churchill, even though tenured, did lose his, but for reasons unre-lated to his depiction in The Professors. The errors so common in the Horowitz book make it unlikely that it could be used against any single professor anyway. Here again, clearly, the attack is meant to be against the aggregate, not the individual.

Horowitz seems to justify his slurs exactly as Bok would predict in her description of liars. Bok’s liars see:

those who threatened society [as] outside its moral bounds and, as a result, need not be treated with the honesty due to others. Armed with such a conviction, those who contemplate action against enemies may then throw ordinary moral inquiry to the winds. They see no reason to seek alternatives to lying and rarely question either their own motives or the process whereby they came to see their enemies as enemies, as outside the social contract.14

And this, of course, brings us back once again to Joe McCarthy and the tactics he developed in the early 1950s.

Here is my own modest list showing Horowitz’s overlap with Tailgunner Joe:

1. Claim to Be Acting in the Public Interest:

We need Horowitz to protect the youth of America from leftist indoctrination, just as we needed McCarthy to stop those Communists who had already been purged from government!

2. Claim definite proof (but never precisely reveal it):

McCarthy waved paper around on the floor of the Senate and pointed to it — but never released any paper containing proof of his charges.15 He discovered: If you make it seem real, it will be believed as real. Horowitz’s anecdotes are equally unsubstantiated, such as the ones claiming leftist professors gave students “F’s” to retaliate against their conservative views.16

3. Use numbers:

Part of what brought McCarthy to the fore was his (false) assertion that he knew the specific number of Communists in the State Department.17 If he has a number, the rationale goes, there must be some truth behind it. Horowitz’s “dangerous professors” sometimes number 100, 101, or 103. Horowitz even asserts, with no real supporting evidence, that there are 60,000 leftist professors in America, although he arbitrarily cut that number in half at one point.18

4. Always attack, never defend:

A key to understanding Horowitz is recognizing that he needs enemies, no matter which side he is on.

“Asked by the press to explain some statement that didn’t add up, [McCarthy] would change the subject, bluster, or somehow get away without answering.19

Instead of responding to charges, Horowitz, like McCarthy, changes the subject, turning to attack and accusation.

When Joel Beinin sued Horowitz for using his picture on the cover of a pamphlet, Horowitz responded by attacking Beinin for having bought the rights to the photograph, never accepting that he had made a mistake by not gaining permission before using the picture.20 He attempted to change the conversation from what he had done by attacking what Beinin had done.

Scott McLemee of, also tried to put Horowitz on the defensive and force him to concede his errors, but never succeeded:

Once again, when push came to shove, Horowitz had been obliged to concede that the facts were not quite on hand. But that was only how it appeared. “I didn’t retract what I said,” he wrote to me. “I just acknowledged that I could not confirm the veracity of the student’s claim.”21

5. Justify the Lie (Making Sure You Believe):

The only way I can come to terms with the purposeful deceit that Horowitz, like Joe McCarthy, employs is to imagine that he believes he is justified through his pursuit of what he sees as a “greater good.” Is he like this figure described by Bok:

The powerful tell lies believing that they have greater than ordinary understanding of what is at stake; very often, they regard their dupes as having inadequate judgment, or as likely to have respond in the wrong way to truthful information.22

Both McCarthy and Horowitz have demonstrated intelligence — they never did anything out of stupidity. McCarthy completed four years of high school in one and went on to earn a law degree. Horowitz attended Columbia and Berkeley, earning a Masters degree. Their intellect, I fear, inspired in each of them a contempt for the American public that is demonstrated in their pronouncements, actions and (in Horowitz’s case) writings.

The two share another trait. Though quite smart, neither ever felt that they received respect enough for their brains nor the recognition they desired. For this oversight, are we neglectful scholars to be Horowitz’s targets until his last breath?

Horowitz likes to claim a huge change in his thinking leading to his move from Left to Right. However, if we examine his work carefully, no real change is evident. The tactics he uses now are the same that he used then — and tactics are at the center of everything he does. Though he does seem to believe in his cause (vague as it might be), Horowitz cares less for the ends than for the limelight — and for the fight itself.

End Notes

1 Horowitz, David, Radical Son (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 397.
2 Bacon, David, “Right-wing students “red star” ten instructors: Action timed to conservative ‘Student Bill of Rights’ in California Legislature,” California Teacher (April/May 2005), 15.
3 Another good source on Horowitz-inspired campus and legislative attacks is Free Exchange on Campus, a coalition of 10 groups, including the American Association of University Professors, American Civil Liberties Union, United States Student Association, and Campus Progress/Center for American Progress.
4 Horowitz, 2-3.
5 Berkowitz, Bill, “Not Your Grandma’s Religious Right,” Common Dreams News Center,, 7/20/06.Referencing Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Banana Republicans — How the Right Wing Is Turning America Into a One-Party State (Tarcher/Penguin, 2004).
6 Horowitz, David, “The Art of Political War,” Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey (Dallas: Spence, 2003) 349 350.
7 Baker, Kevin, “Stabbed in the Back!: The Past and Future of a Right-Wing Myth,” Harper’s, Vol. 312, No. 1873, June, 2006, 31.
8 Horowitz, David, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2006), xlviii.
9 Free Exchange on Campus, 5/30/06.
10 Lewis, Anthony, “Demagogue Without a Cause: A Review of Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy by Tom Wicker,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. LIII, No. 10, June 8, 2006, 53.
11 Bok, Sissela, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 166.
12 Horowitz, David, “Article: E-Mail Interview with Scott Jaschik, Editor of,” Dangerous Professors,, 5/30/06.
13 has a Horowitz Fact Checker for easy reference.
14 Bok, 138.
15 Wicker, Tom, Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy (New York: Harcourt, 2006), 128.
16 Jaschik, Scott, “Retractions from David Horowitz,”, news/2006/01/11/retract, 6/20/06.
17 Hofstadter, Richard, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963), 339.
18 Horowitz, David. “Response to Neil Gross.” Dangerous Professors. 2006/02/review-right-left-and-wrong-david.html. 5/30/06.
19 Lewis, 53.
20 Horowitz, David and Jacob Laksin, “Joel Beinin: Apologist for Terrorists,” Front Page Magazine,, 5/30/06.
21 McLemee, Scott, “D’Ho,” InsideHigherEd, _35635, 5/30/06.
22 Bok, 168.
23 Horowitz, David, “The Art of Political War,” 349.
24 Ibid. 349-350.
25 Ibid. 350.
26 Ibid. 351.
27 Ibid. 353.
28 Ibid. 354.
29 Ibid. 355.

Aaron Barlow teaches at New York City College of Technology. You can read his blog at