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November 16, 2012 - 12:04 am
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As its title suggests, however, this is mainly a book about people who maintained their radical faith, recasting reality to fit their beliefs. Horowitz recounts attending a film and talk at a Santa Monica bookstore by released convict Linda Evans, of the Weather Underground, who had served less than half of a forty-year sentence for possession of explosives and terrorist organizing. Now she was attempting to generate sympathy for fellow criminals still in jail who needed public support. Horowitz is fascinated by the sanitized account she provided of the reasons for her allies’ incarceration as well as the warped vision that led her to label as “political prisoners” every person behind bars in America. How can one go on believing, in the midst of so much deliberate and often pointless violence (associates of Evans killed a young black police officer during a botched Brinks robbery), in the righteousness of one’s cause and the innocence of one’s fellow killers? As Horowitz shows, the remarkable upside-down logic is endemic to the hard left, in which nearly any level of violence is justifiable so long as it seeks to destabilize an evil America, seen as unparalleled in its malignancy.

Horowitz’s chapter on “Pardoned Bombers,” about Evans, Kathy Boudin, and Susan Rosenberg, all Weather Underground alumni, is a gripping story of violence, decades-long unrepentance on the part of the trio, and the collusion of journalists, politicians, left-wing do-gooders, and members of the intelligentsia such as Noam Chomsky to whitewash their crimes and massage public opinion. The three women, who sought for years to bring about so-called racial justice through bombing campaigns and armed struggle, continue to proclaim the rightness of their aims. Horowitz’s detailed analysis of Rosenberg’s self-pitying book An American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country details its failures of empathy and outright lies in a way the mainstream media, unaware of or unconcerned about the truth, has never done.

The final chapter of Radicals provides a detailed close reading of the political theory of Saul Alinsky, a man who idolized Al Capone, Fidel Castro, and rebel angel Lucifer, and who dedicated himself wholeheartedly to destroying his country. Horowitz’s reading shows clearly that the radical’s commitment to an unrealizable higher purpose — the earthly salvation of mankind — not only excuses but also mandates disregard for law and personal morality. Alinsky’s hatred of law-abiding liberals stemmed from the fact, as he stated, that they allowed conscience and principles, neither of which he believed in, to limit their work for fundamental change: “They do not ‘care enough’ for people to be ‘corrupted’ for them,” he charged, putting “corrupted” in quotation marks to show that he didn’t believe in such a scruple. Convinced that the overthrow of the American order was an end that justified any means, he advocated the infiltration of the Democratic Party by closet revolutionaries to radicalize it from within. That Barack Obama spent years working with Alinskyites in Chicago and even teaching Alinskyan methods during his tenure as a community organizer highlights the degree to which an anti-American radicalism is now inside the White House. This chapter is essential reading for anyone who wonders why Obama’s activist connections matter to the future of America.

The book’s tour de force is undoubtedly the chapter on “The Two Christophers,” an in-depth analysis of Christopher Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22, interleaved with memories of Horowitz’s personal relationship with him. The reading is masterly in teasing out the blind-spots, half-truths, and evasions that fill this account by a one-time Marxist radical who was able to go only so far in repudiating his leftist dreams. In a superb reading designed to show that “Loyalty to bad commitments leads to moral incoherence,” Horowitz pores over the memoir to find both the overt contradictions of Hitchens’ self-congratulation — his pleasure in having marched in opposition to the Vietnam War, his hatred of Israel and Ronald Reagan, his love for defenders of totalitarianism — and also those moments in the text where the confessing self, in detailing his formative influences, crises, and political sea-changes, reveals more than he intends. Such moments come in verbal evasions, especially a crippling refusal to examine the human misery caused by the causes he supported and to explore the psychological roots of his residual salvationist fervor.

One is struck through this book by the depth and human forthrightness of Horowitz as man and as political commentator. Always incisive, elegant, and wise, his penetrating analyses of the perils of radicalism are tempered by sadness as much as anger, and leavened by the cautious belief — bedrock of all his writing — that human beings can rethink misguided commitments in the light of evidence and reasoned argument. Though exasperatedly impressed by the fact of “how little we human beings are able to learn collectively from our experience, how slowly we do learn, and how quickly we forget,” he has kept on writing in the tempered hope that readers’ nascent second thoughts can grow into a principled refusal of violence.

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Janice Fiamengo is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa, and author of The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada (2008).
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