Fred Dickey's Island of Human Drama
An Uncivil Discourse
An Uncivil Discourse
The Uproar Over David Horowitz's Ad in the UC Berkeley Newspaper Has Challenged One of the Fundamentals of University Life: the Free Exchange of Ideas.
Copyright Los Angeles Times
May 06, 2001|FRED DICKEY, Fred Dickey last wrote for the magazine about a Beverly Hills shooting
For those who love learning, UC Berkeley is a reassuring shrine to how great our state can be. Sather Gate, the peaked tower of the chiming campanile and the muscular granite buildings that never age represent the apex of American scholarship. This place has earned the deep character lines that seam its face. They come from battles fought here during the '60s and '70s for academic honesty and the freedom to espouse ideas, especially unpopular ones. Even tear gas and police truncheons could not hold back the ideas. People's Park, the Free Speech Movement: they called it "Berserkley," but it prevailed.
The campus today is a congested city of thousands of young adults who have come together for the sometimes messy business of learning. Many are products of the new California. Their skins and life experiences span the spectrum, and thus reflect light differently. These differences create tension, which picks its own time and place to erupt, as it did in March.
It began with a full-page advertisement in the student newspaper, the Daily Californian, on Feb. 28. The ad was paid for by an off-campus political action group headed by David Horowitz, a Malibu conservative intellectual and, ironically, a former student radical leader at Berkeley in the early '60s. In the ad, Horowitz declared that a proposal from some African Americans that the U.S. government pay reparations to blacks for slavery would be bad public policy.
The fallout was swift and seismic because the issue quickly mutated into a free speech battle--digging up old bones at Berkeley. The first reaction from administrators and students was puzzlement and resentment because the issue had not been a big deal among them. They didn't seem to realize that Horowitz had sucker-punched them. He is an accomplished author and an intellectual street fighter. Give him an opening with a weak rebuttal and he'll chew your nose off. But he can be chewed on, too. On this day, his intention was to highlight a volatile public issue and then sit back and wait for the reaction--one that would demonstrate his belief that college campuses today give comfort to the enemies of free speech.
The day following the ad's publication, all hell broke loose at the office of the student newspaper. About 40 students, accompanied by a faculty member from the African American studies department, stormed the office and demanded a printed apology. Some students, including members of the newspaper staff, took papers out of campus news racks and destroyed them. After a hurried meeting, top editors of the Daily Californian, which is run by students independently of the university administration, unanimously decided to print an apology and to allot generous space for others to counter Horowitz's arguments. The apology stated that the paper had been "an inadvertent vehicle for bigotry."
Then came another reaction. More than 1,000 e-mails cascaded in, mostly accusing the newspaper's editor, Daniel Hernandez, and the university of cowardly caving in to "politically correct" pressure and undercutting the 1st Amendment. Liberal columnist Nat Hentoff, an authority on the Bill of Rights, wrote, "First, although the ad offended many students, there is as yet no constitutional amendment protecting Americans from being offended. Second, the ad is neither bigoted nor racist. It's part of a continuing debate. And to call Horowitz a racist is to cheapen the word and diminish its moral clout."
At the request of UC Berkeley's student Republican organization, Horowitz spoke on campus on March 13. The auditorium audience was screened by metal detectors and observed by about two dozen campus cops. The speech went smoothly until Horowitz was shouted down by an audience member during the question-and-answer period. He threw up his hands and left suddenly.
Horowitz has since returned to L.A., the students have returned to class and the issue of reparations has returned to the back burner. What remains is the question of what this episode has taught us about Berkeley and other universities whose mission is to encourage a free exchange of ideas in the hope that, through discourse, education will thrive.
THE DAILY CALIFORNIAN IS ON THE 6TH FLOOR OF ESHLEMAN HALL ON the edge of campus. The elevator opens to a ratty barn-like area with stacks of newspaper sitting about. Signs on the walls reflect wacky, risque college humor: "PUKE IN THE SHOWER AMANDA"--the consequence of a party that went too long--and "TOE SUCKING SARAH" suggests . . . well, there's not enough information. The campus newspaper offices are traditionally a fun place, where opinions are shouted and jokes offend with a smile; it's also a place of irreverence, where if 10 people have only nine opinions, a coward is suspected to be lurking about.
But several days after the unanimous vote to apologize for the Horowitz ad, the staff is hunkered down. The student journalists are uncharacteristically tight-lipped and refer questions on the matter to the editor. The solidarity shows some cracks. One editor, Andrea O'Brien, a 20-year-old sophomore from Claremont, speaks softly and a bit nervously as she gives her opinion about the newspaper's action: "In retrospect, I'm not quite so sure that we should have been so quick to apologize for someone else's right to have their speech." Is hers a minority opinion? "Not necessarily," she says quickly.
Daniel Hernandez didn't come to Berkeley from San Diego looking for a fight, but he certainly stepped into the middle of one when he became chief editor of the Californian. He originally approved the ad for publication and was the one most apologetic after it ran. He called the ad bigoted.
Hernandez is a thoughtful, slight young man who walks out of his office with a tentative smile. If he appears shellshocked, it's because he's had some big ones whistle over his head lately and explode close enough to make him duck. An editor of a cable-news network wrote in an e-mail, "Your cowardice and audacity astounded me." Another irate observer e-mailed, "Danny, you are a coward. Get a job as an administrator at UC so you can spend the rest of your life on your knees before mobs of ignorant children." And an attorney e-mailed, "I could carve a man with a firmer spine than you out of a banana. That you may wish to make a career in publishing and the news industry is frightening." There were hundreds more like these. Heavy stuff for a 20-year-old college junior.
The gist of the 10 points in Horowitz's ad was that the Civil War is long over, African Americans are prospering today, and the families of most of today's Americans bear no responsibility for slavery or the Jim Crow laws that followed anyway. Why, he asked, should a struggling recent immigrant have to pay for injustices that happened in another time?
Most of the points were reasonably arguable both ways. The ad was blunt, but not a racist screed. One argument in particular was silly and could be considered offensive: Horowitz suggested that welfare payments to blacks through the years were themselves a form of reparations, and not just a right of equal citizenship.
Hernandez sees the decision to apologize as a defense of minority rights. "I think people are too quick to dismiss political correctness," which he defines as "saying we [minorities] will be addressed in a certain way and we demand a certain amount of respect. Latino and African American students whose ancestors [were persecuted] are now in a position to say, 'We don't have to listen to that.' This is a reversal of fortune, a reversal of suppression."
As for his role as newspaper editor, he says, "There has to be a sensitivity to your readership. This is a very volatile issue for people whose ancestors are being trivialized in such a way. It was obvious [Horowitz] didn't want to spark a debate; he just wanted to be confrontational. The ad also ran on the last day of Black History Month, and, anyway, this is a campus where many people who are black and Latino feel unwelcome. Since the end of affirmative action, our numbers are dwindling, and it just isn't a positive place to be. You walk into a classroom and you're the only non-Asian or nonwhite person there. And if there's an issue about race, you're forced by default to represent your group."
Hernandez is determined to make California a better place for people of color, especially immigrants, which his parents were. Hernandez's father came to the U.S. at 17 and started working as a field hand. He gradually earned a college degree and is now a school counselor. Hernandez says that his family emphasizes the importance of retaining Latino roots and speaks Spanish at home. He entered the university on a scholarship in 1998, after the end of affirmative action. He was notified of his acceptance by a personal phone call from the chancellor.
The future looks great for Hernandez. This summer, he is scheduled to intern at The Times, and when he graduates he would like to attend the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Tom Goldstein, dean of that school, is on the advisory board of the Daily Californian.
Hernandez has taken flak because some see him as an ingrate who doesn't appreciate all of the breaks he's received. But he also gets pressure from those who share his barrio roots. "A lot of my people think I've already sold out. 'You're not working in the community.' Or, 'You're not doing grass-roots work.' Or, 'You want to work in the media elite. Where are you, Daniel? Where are you going?'
"All my life, we lived so close to the border. We lived in a half-country. My world has been Mexico and the U.S. I find it difficult to claim, 'I'm American.' Or, 'I'm Mexican.' I'm not comfortable living in both worlds. I attend fancy receptions to represent the university, and I think, 'God, my cousins are worlds away from this.' And for some reason, it's difficult to reconcile that."
Although the Daily Californian is managed by students, it has a group of advisors who are prominent in journalism. Hernandez would not divulge the entire list, but he did mention a member of the Berkeley journalism department named Paul Grabowicz. When contacted at his office and asked about the Horowitz ad and apology, Grabowicz said, "I'm not going to get involved with that." Other advisors include Goldstein and John Oppendahl, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle. Repeated messages were left for both seeking comment on the controversy, but no calls were returned.
SOME THINGS DON'T CHANGE. STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF SPROUL Plaza, I overhear a young woman say, "My mother is sooooo weird!" I also notice that the large fountain nearby looks bubbly and clean, probably because someone dumped laundry soap into it.
I am waiting to meet a leader of one of the most beleaguered minority organizations on campus. Its followers have few advocates in high places. Many faculty members make fun of them and administrators rarely inquire about their welfare. Were they to stage a street demonstration, they could expect neither fond quotes from a sympathetic press nor community activists pumping fists in support.
The young man who approaches is obviously the one I await. Ben Carrasco's appearance makes it clear he's never put a baseball cap on backward in his life. He's neatly groomed and dressed, which makes him look like a Mormon missionary among these students, some of whom stylishly resemble moving rag piles. He's a graduating senior in political science and plans to attend law school.
Carrasco is editor in chief of the California Patriot, the student conservative newspaper, and a leader of the small coterie of campus Republicans. It was his group that invited Horowitz onto the campus to speak because they thought the principle of free speech had been compromised.
In many ways Carrasco resembles Daniel Hernandez, not only in the snapping black eyes but also in his heritage. He, too, is the son of immigrant parents who have done well for themselves. Yet there is a difference between Carrasco and his counterpart at the Daily Californian. Carrasco does not often refer to himself as a Latino.
His grandparents immigrated from Mexico to Laredo, Texas, where his father was born. From day one, the family objective was to become Americanized as quickly as possible. From what he has been told, Spanish was spoken at home but English fluency was the goal. Carrasco himself speaks almost no Spanish, but realizes that he'll have to become proficient if he wants to become a Republican politician.
Carrasco's father was a quick learner and became the city manager of Austin, Texas, at 34. "I've seen hard work and persistence pay off. My dad is the embodiment of that. He was the son of immigrants, and he's worked hard and become very successful. The lesson of that is very clear."
Asked why he chooses to be an ideological minority on an overwhelmingly liberal campus, Carrasco says, "A lot of students here are from privilege, too, so they're not leftists because of personal injustice. Maybe it's a form of rebellion. My family always stressed patriotism, education, honesty and hard work. I like to think [that] those are conservative values."
Carrasco has been zinged with ethnic barbs. "Kids can be mean, even when they're kidding around. I've been called the usual ethnic slurs, but I just shrug it off. After all, I'm a hardened foe of political correctness so I'd be the last one to complain about stupid comments that generally mean nothing except stupidity."
He is troubled that many minority students take opposition to affirmative action personally. "If you're opposed to affirmative action, you're seen as opposed to black people. That touchiness is what ignited this whole thing about the ad." The experience reminded him that it's considered bad form for conservatives to initiate a discussion on race and other hot-button issues. "Freedom of expression here is taken for granted by the left, but we have to fight for it. It didn't surprise me a bit that the Daily Cal caved in."
Inviting Horowitz to speak on campus was not the first jut-jaw forum sponsored by the campus Republicans. Last fall, Carrasco invited a conservative speaker who argued for the guilt of condemned cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, a cause celebre for some liberals. The speaker, according to Carrasco, was shouted down, threatened, even mooned in the auditorium. Afterward, copies of the Patriot were burned outside, he says.
Carrasco appreciates his education but won't miss the campus. "The whole chip-on-the-shoulder thing, I don't understand it. These students should be the living embodiment about what's great about America. I don't understand why they should be cynical and resentful."
He thinks UC Berkeley is supportive testimony for the American melting pot. "The more fragmented the community is, the more confrontations you seem to have. Seems like a pretty good argument for assimilation to me."
THE UC BERKELEY ADMINISTRATORS IN CHARGE OF MORE THAN 30,000 young adults deserve our sympathy. They are educators and some are blue-chip intellectuals, but they are also bureaucrats in the most kindly sense of the word. It is their job to hire people to clean the chalkboards, schedule classes, make sure the lights go on and off and--most important--to keep the peace. It is in that last function that trouble can easily erupt, and it makes them skittish.
A college administrator who sets guidelines for thousands of students, many still in their teens, is like a tiger trainer. He or she has the upper hand as long as the tiger buys into it. Administrators can't call in cops with clubs whenever students burn newspapers or disrupt meetings. They can only persuade, looking for opportunities to encourage civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas. As the Horowitz ad demonstrated, some universities are better at this than others.
Of the 73 campus newspapers asked to carry the ad, including those at Harvard and Columbia, just 24 accepted. The Brown Daily Herald was one of them. In the protest that followed, Brown University campus journalists and administrators stood their ground in the face of feelings so intense that an appearance by Horowitz was canceled for fear of violent demonstrations. After angry students stole stacks of Brown's Daily Herald to prevent distribution of the ad, Daily Herald staff members personally handed out the next day's issue. Its editors also published opinion pieces challenging Horowitz's views. The interim college president, Sheila E. Blumstein, defended publication of the ad and used the occasion to encourage campus forums where freedom of speech and reparations were discussed.
Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl speaks of Horowitz as though the man had kicked his dog. "He opened up an issue--reparations for slavery--that nobody was talking about," he says in an interview. "I said, 'Why is he doing this?' Also, [the ad] was couched in offensive language. This is a guy who acts outrageously, wants to outrage people, and then cries foul when they are outraged and offended. I think it's all perfectly ridiculous because nobody takes him seriously, except maybe himself."
Berdahl said that reparations was a nonissue on campus. Hernandez said the same thing, as did Charles Henry, chair of the African American studies department. None realized at the time that, within days, the CBS program "60 Minutes" would devote a lengthy segment to the issue, diving into a subject that a great university was reluctant to broach. Henry, who also is the chancellor's affirmative action officer, has acknowledged that interest in the issue has intensified on campus since Horowitz's ad appeared.
Having vented about Horowitz's use of it, Berdahl does rush to the defense of free speech: "The destruction of newspapers is reprehensible and a violation of property rights. However, we are operating in a supercharged environment. We do have people who react to controversial speakers in ways that are wrong and offensive; we have people who have been shouted down, and that's wrong. What you do is try very hard to create an environment that has a modicum of civility."
To show his support for rational debate on campus, Berdahl paid for a half-page ad in the Daily Californian on March 15, urging calm and reminding the campus of the right to free speech. UC Berkeley political science professor Jack Citrin, who has taught at Berkeley for 30 years, considers the chancellor's response illustrative of the halfhearted support that free speech is given at the school: "The standard response is to issue a tsk-tsk statement supporting free speech and then do nothing to make sure it happens. It's window dressing."
That a university chancellor would feel the need to buy an ad to gently remind students of another's right to speak, and then for a senior professor to challenge his sincerity, raises a question about how fundamental free speech is to the school's philosophy. It seems that the spirit of the 1st Amendment would be hallowed on a campus where ideas are born to be challenged.
In recent years, however, a type of political correctness known as "identity politics" has argued for a limitation on the right to openly express ideas that are offensive to minorities and disadvantaged groups. In other words, if what you argue is painful, you should be prevented from arguing it.
Donald Downs, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin and a Berkeley PhD, says, "Many campuses actually have speech codes that are used to suppress ideas. They are the product of people who have departed from traditional liberalism because they feel guilty about the past and are afraid of being called racist. It is destructive to democracy, and it is patronizing to those it's supposed to help."
At Berkeley, the free speech issue was agonized over during a debate before the student senate last fall, well before the Horowitz ad appeared. Finally, a "Resolution in Support of Freedom of Speech" passed--with 11 "yes" votes out of 18. A key part of the resolution opposed book burnings, such as one staged in October by opponents at a conservative students' rally. With that less-than-ringing proclamation as background, it should come as no shock that irate Berkeley students would feel justified in pulling the plug on Horowitz's ideas.
Students, though they would be loath to admit it, take their cue from administrators and faculty. Lacking an institutionalized, firm commitment with teeth to the principle of respecting others' rights of speech, perhaps it's understandable that a handful of students would feel justified in shouting down others or even burning books.
Author Jonathan Rauch, a prominent free speech essayist, says, "Most administrators seem more interested in keeping campuses quiet and covering themselves than taking a strong stand on 1st Amendment rights. They are not particularly sympathetic to opponents of free speech, they just want the problem to go away." What Rauch would like to see is an administrator who would say, "Look, students are paying good money to come here and part of their education is to encounter ideas they might find strange and offensive. If you oppose that, you don't belong here."
Charles Henry has a different view. He turns aside the issue of whether the protesting students and the newspaper staff denied Horowitz his voice. Instead, he focuses on the medium of the message. Henry says--and the Californian editor and the chancellor make the same argument--that because Horowitz's statements were in the form of a paid advertisement, they didn't fall under the umbrella of free speech. "The newspaper issue was one of free speech versus paid ad," Henry says. "Horowitz did not present it as an opinion piece; he paid to have it printed."
To most newspapers, such distinctions are ludicrous, says Jack Quinton, advertising professor and newspaper advisor to San Jose State University's Spartan Daily, which was not approached to carry the ad. "To say that advertising is somehow in a different category of free speech is completely bogus," he says. "Advertising is essential to forming political opinions in this country. The individual's freedom to place an ad is just as important as the freedom to have his voice expressed in opinion pages. They are all ideas, and they all should be heard."
Like Henry, Hernandez insists that Horowitz's point of view should have been on the opinion pages rather than appearing as an ad. When asked if Horowitz would have been given space on those pages, he says, "probably not."
Opponents of Horowitz cite two other reasons for their belief that running his ad was inappropriate. They argue that he was factually wrong in his arguments, and that he was unforgivably offensive in running the ad on the last day of Black History Month.
The idea that the murky labyrinth of history can be reduced to a simplistic "right" or "wrong" makes eyes go wide among some Berkeley scholars. "I cannot believe anyone was taught that at Berkeley," says longtime UC Berkeley history professor Leon Litwack, who teaches African American history. Also, others at the university say that to claim the Horowitz argument was an offense to Black History Month is to relegate that observance to feel-good social therapy, and it is an insult to the history of black Americans, which very nicely stands up to objective scholarly scrutiny.
AUTHOR LOREN LOMASKY, a philosophy professor at Bowling Green University, wrote recently that it is a university's job to teach all students not to insult or deliberately offend others. But equally important, he says, it must also teach them not to be easily offended themselves, to develop a self-protective thick skin to abrasive ideas. To do otherwise is unscholarly and patronizing to any students given such misguided "protection."
"Tolerance and freedom of speech are difficult things to manage," Citrin says. "We don't like to hear what we disagree with. It can be hard for people to accept ideas that contradict their passions. But we've got to learn those things in order for democracy to survive, and good lord, the university is where we're supposed to learn them."
Brown University, and perhaps a handful of other schools, apparently agree with Citrin.
At Berkeley, Bancroft Library opened a long-planned exhibit on April 13 to pay tribute to the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, of which student David Horowitz was a pioneer.
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