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(DV) De Rooij: Undermining Civil Society -- David Horowitz's Corrosive Projects







Undermining Civil Society
David Horowitz's Corrosive Projects

by Paul de Rooij
April 12, 2005

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"A smear is among the simplest of propaganda techniques.  It can take the form of repeated, unapologetic, systematic name-calling, or otherwise implying or asserting that opponents are bad, evil, stupid, untrustworthy, guilty of reprehensible acts, or part of some undesirable category.

A smear might be conducted subtly or vaguely so the target cannot seek legal action against a slander or libel, which must be specific and believable to be legally actionable.  False implications can be masked by otherwise truthful statements." [1]

In a democratic and civil society, one expects a free exchange of ideas, respect for the opinion of others, and it is taken for granted that all members of society are able to air their views without fear. It is also assumed that most members of the society have the potential to remain well informed. [2]  Without this basis, the notion that a society can make the least-worst collective decisions or retain a modicum of civility will be undermined.  Although the United States used to trumpet the glory of its democracy and the related freedoms, it is disconcerting to find many developments that are hostile to the aforementioned assumptions.  All of the following are detrimental to a civil society: truculent right-wing radio-talk shows, the sensationalist Springer-type talk shows, Fox News, . . . and David Horowitz's projects.  This article examines the pernicious nature of some of Horowitz's projects, and it attempts to explain what role they may play in the United States today.  An evaluation of these projects should also put into context Horowitz's campaign for an "academic bill of rights."

An overview

Horowitz, a self-declared former Marxist, is now engaged in a variety of projects ranging from promoting an "academic bill of rights", writing books [3], a database on "leftists" and "jihadists", and the FrontPage "magazine." [4]  FrontPage (FP) is primarily a platform for extreme Zionists to smear leftists, to attack academics who may be critical of Israel or the current US imperial proclivities, and to hurl ritual abuse against "jihadists" – in reality, a thinly-veiled racist attack on Muslims or Arab people.  Denigrating and insulting labels are flung around in FP, and its writers often brand anyone near the left with such labels as "racist", "jihadist", "anti-semite"…, etc.  The American progressive broadcaster Al Franken's photo appears with a "racist" label juxtaposed; Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old ISM volunteer who was killed by the Israeli army, is portrayed as "matron martyr saint for the pro-terrorism Left, the Joan of Arc of Palestinian terrorism"… FrontPage also loves to denigrate: Prof. Juan Cole, Prof. Ward Churchill, Prof. Noam Chomsky… Simply put, civility and integrity are in short supply at FP.

A new Horowitz "project" is the DiscoverTheNetwork database that monitors "leftists"; it applies the same McCarthyite Campus-Watch formula to a wider group of activists.  It draws on the "research" of the articles that have appeared in FP, Campus-Watch, and liberally insults and denigrates those it has chosen to track.  There is no place in a democratic society for such corrosive databases like DiscoverTheNetwork -- these amount to databases of libel. [5]

With friends like these…

One of FrontPages's most pernicious writers is Steven Plaut, a man who "could be thought of as Israel's Daniel Pipes" (Pipes is the instigator of Campus-Watch), and is someone who "launched an Internet site on which he publishes articles that typically espouse far-right positions." [6]  Given that Plaut was born and raised in the US, educated at top US universities, one would have hoped that he had learned the finer points of living in a democracy; however, he now lives in Israel, and this may have dulled his sensibilities. 

For an insight into Plaut's integrity and civility the following incidents should warn anyone about the character of this person:

"[A] young political philosopher and human rights campaigner from Ben Gurion University, Dr. Neve Gordon, was accused by an extreme right-wing polemicist from Haifa University, Dr. Ste[v]en Plaut, of being a supporter of Norman Finkelstein, whose book, The Holocaust Industry, led many on the Right to associate him with Holocaust deniers. When Gordon decided to sue him for libel, Plaut subsequently disseminated articles attacking Gordon on the Internet, including on some extreme right-wing Kahanist sites. Morton Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization in America, also weighed in against Gordon by writing to the President and the Rector of Ben Gurion University questioning the continued employment of Gordon and protesting his libel case which, Klein argued, was an intervention in the civil liberties of Plaut because it denied Plaut's right to freedom of expression!  […]  Writing under assumed names, Plaut has a long history of attacking, labeling, and targeting left-wing scholars in Israel.  One anonymous article appeared under the name of Socrates in the Middle East Review of 2001. …" [7] (emphasis added)

Here is a recent example where Plaut savages Jonathan Cook, an important freelance journalist who frequently writes on Palestine and the Middle East.  Plaut easily brandishes the "anti-semite" slur and here he demonstrates hyperbolic tendencies:

Cook is a self-proclaimed "freelance journalist".  He is in fact a vicious anti-Semite openly endorsing Palestinian mass murder of Jews.  The very fact that he has never been deported nor jailed by Israel speaks volumes about the extent to which the Israeli government is really willing to defend the country and Israelis.  Cook writes anti-Israel propaganda for the Egyptian anti-Semitic daily al-Ahram the anti-Semitic British daily The Guardian, al-Jazaara [sic], and just about any other anti-Semitic outfit you can think of. [8]

In 2004, Plaut stole the email list of an electronic discussion forum based at the Univ. of Haifa. [9]  Then, using this list, a co-conspirator called "Rocky" proceeded to send hateful emails to the forum posing as someone called Yusuf, a "Zionist Palestinian", who also was "your token Arab who adores Israel."  "Rocky" then made the mistake of using CC instead of BCC to forward one of his diatribes. The ensuing email exchange between "Rocky" and Plaut discussing the faux pas was revealed when "Rocky" repeated the mistake by sending it to the entire distribution list! It would make amusing reading were it not for such a sordid attempt at deception, the smearing of others, and interfering in a discussion of Israeli academics on how to obtain a modicum of justice for the Palestinians. [10]  Furthermore, one could well imagine the furor if a Palestinian academic were to pose as a malevolent prankster in a Zionist website posing as Moshe "your token Jew who adores Palestine." Plaut's activities demonstrate a lack of integrity and honesty.  Perhaps one would expect higher standards from a Princeton educated professor, but maybe in Israel, in a business school, this is considered par for the course.  These facts notwithstanding, he is a regular contributor to… FrontPage!

And another dubious operator

A book review is a critical assessment of a book and a means of highlighting its importance to a wider audience.  However, there is another type of book "reviewer" who uses the medium to denigrate books they don't agree with, or to praise books they agree with; book reviews become a means to propagate their ideological stance.  The Amazon book review sections have given rise to a breed of reviewers who use this resource for ideological ends. Alyssa A. Lappen, another FrontPage and Campus-Watch "journalist", is a prolific Amazon book "reviewer".  Her reviews tend to have the following defining characteristics: if the book is favorable to Israel it is generally issued glowing remarks, if the book is critical of Israeli policies it is denigrated, and books that present the Palestinian narrative are similarly savaged.  Books like Joan Peter's From Time Immemorial are issued such glowing praise as "This monumental and fascinating book…."  Note that Prof. Norman G. Finkelstein and Prof. Yehoshua Porath have demonstrated that this book is a "threadbare hoax," a product of the shoddiest "scholarship", and a book written for propaganda purposes. [11]  Lappen issued glowing reviews of dubious texts published by Encounter Books, an enterprise run by Peter Collier, Horowitz's longtime buddy. [12]  Lappen's activities undermine what could be a valuable resource of bona fide book reviews; instead her propaganda imperatives transform the book review section to just another ideologically debased space.  Amazon may well want to implement a more stringent policy to avoid dragging its website further into the mud.

In her FrontPage articles, Lappen often demonstrates a lack of intellectual integrity similar to that found in her book "reviews".  Some of her articles deal with the professors of Middle East Studies at Columbia Univ. (MEALAC), a current Zionist pet hate.  Another favored target for smearing is the ISM, the non-violent volunteer group opposing the Israeli occupation.  To smear the ISM she quotes Walid Shoebat, a dubious "Zionist Palestinian" who broadcasts from a settler radio station and wears a kippa. [13]  To score cheap propaganda points, Zionist organizations have put Shoebat on tour around the US, and Lappen quotes him extensively.  Her technique amounts to the journalistic equivalent of quoting the village idiot.  Shoebat often talks about the hateful nature of "jihad theology," and Lappen uses this to smear the ISM and its founders:

"Not surprisingly, Beit Sahour is also home to Ghasson [sic] Andoni and George Rishmawi, are the co-founders of the Rapprochement Center.  They also co-founded the International Solidarity Movement with Huwaida Arraf and Adam Shapiro.  Both organizations appear to be driven by the malevolent jihad ideology that Walid Shoebat describes."

Now, even a group advocating non-violent resistance and dialog with the Israelis is smeared with Lappen's favorite term of abuse.  Never mind that most of the leading Palestinian activists of the ISM are Christians and that roughly a third of the overall ISM membership is Jewish (including one of the co-founders, Adam Shapiro) -- they still incurs Lappen's "jihadist" scurrilous smear.  It is too much for Zionists to acknowledge that there are sensible and courageous Palestinians seeking to defend their rights using non-violent means.  Lappen and her FrontPage ilk smear Palestinians in the ISM and all other Palestinians with wide brushstrokes, and in the process demonize and dehumanize all Palestinians.

Interpreting Horowitz's various projects

Several foundations pour millions ($13.7m through 2003) into the Horowitz projects, and these range from ultra-right-wing The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, John M. Olin Foundation, to the notorious extreme-right-wing Scaife Foundations. [14]  Why would these foundations support Horowitz's hateful and corrosive operations?  There is one clue in the funding list where one finds the John M. Olin Foundation contributing $15,000 to "support a public opinion study directed by Frank Luntz."  Now, Frank Luntz is a pollster and propagandist for the Republican Party and Fortune 100 companies, but in addition, one of his main preoccupations is defending Israel's image abroad.  Luntz is a proponent of what Zionists call hasbara, i.e., an aggressive propaganda campaign to whitewash Israel's image in the US. [15]  So, from the funding sources we can surmise that pro-Israeli propaganda is one of the purposes of Horowitz's projects.  Furthermore, given the nature of the right-wing funding groups behind his projects one can theorize about the projects' purposes, and these can be categorized as: (1) pushing the envelope and narrowing the political spectrum; (2) an echo chamber effect; (3) smearing critics of the US imperial role and Israel; (4) a ratcheting of smears, and (5) "mirror flak".

i. Pushing the envelope and narrowing the spectrum

Some right-wingers want to transform the political scene by narrowing the political spectrum, and undermining their opponents on the "left".  In order to accomplish this "radical" right-wing dream, projects are promoted to push the political discourse envelope.  Twenty years ago, the American public would have had no stomach for Bill O'Reilly or similar corrosive talk show hosts. [16]  In the meantime, an array of increasingly extreme rightwing propaganda and media were unleashed on the US public.  These projects first appeared on the margins, and then moved towards the mainstream; the right-wing radio talk show format moved into the mainstream.  This process continues today and explains the purpose of the various Horowitz endeavors, that is, to push the envelope, narrow the political spectrum, and move the entire political discourse to the right.  FrontPage makes FoxNews look respectable, and thus serves to legitimize media like Fox.  The implication is that if there are players to the right of Fox News, then Fox can't be all that bad.

ii. Echo chamber effect

A message is amplified and legitimized when several players repeat it.  If Campus-Watch was alone railing against critical academics, then Daniel Pipes' frothing could easily be dismissed as deranged diatribes.  When several players repeat the message, then one propagandist lends legitimacy to the other; the more players, the stronger the legitimizing effect. [17]  This seems to be the reason that a Campus-Watch-type clone has emerged – these organizations even share personnel!

iii. Smearing of critics

The Hasbara Manual, a 131-page propaganda manual, was distributed to US-zionist campus organizations; it lists many techniques to whitewash Israel, and to defuse the message of its critics. [18]  Two of its key recommendations are to: (1) "attack the messenger and not the message", and (2) to "gain points" with the public targets by "manipulating," and diverting them from "rationality," "real examination," and "thinking critically".  Well now, this is a splendid explanation for the role FrontPage and Campus-Watch play in the US today.  Much of what these organizations do is smearing and undermining rational discussion of a range of issues.

Both FrontPage and Campus-Watch have targeted Prof. Juan Cole, and they seem to be particularly incensed by Prof. Cole's Informed Comment, a popular and important news analysis blog. [19]  Prof. Cole is critical of the US war in Iraq, of US policy in the region in general and of US-foreign-policy subservience to Israel in particular.  FrontPage devotes copious resources to smearing Cole in an attempt to discredit Informed Comment.  Prof. Cole has on occasion lambasted the FP libelous attacks on him, but of more interest is his explanation for some of these activities.  Cole suggests that one of the purposes behind the repeated smearing operations is to obtain what he called a "Google Smear".  This is Cole's explanation:

"It seems to me that David Horowitz and some far rightwing friends of his have hit upon a new way of discrediting a political opponent, which is the GoogleSmear. It is an easy maneuver for someone like Horowitz, who has extremely wealthy backers, to set up a web magazine that has a high profile and is indexed in google news.  Then he just commissions persons to write up lies about people like me (leavened with innuendo and out-of-context quotes).  Anyone googling me will likely come upon the smear profiles, and they can be passed around to journalists and politicians as though they were actual information." [20]

iv.  Ratcheting of Smears

It is instructive to read Prof. Joseph Massad's statement to the Columbia Univ. ad hoc committee examining the complaints against him. [21]  Massad describes in detail the ordeal he has been through and the attacks seeking to destroy his academic career.  In his description, it is clear that the smears ratchet in virulence; they build on one another.  The right-wing New York Sun may produce a smear that is then regurgitated with further elaborations in other newspapers and so on.  If all the defamations appeared in one article or in a few accusations, then it would be easy for Prof. Massad to obtain legal redress.  However, how can one sue for libel if the accusations ratchet over time and are attributable to various sources?  FrontPage, Campus-Watch, and New York Sun just regurgitate smears, elaborate them and compound what amounts to libel.  Prof. Massad documents one case where the New York Sun misquoted him, and while he asked for a correction at the Sun, Jonathan Calt Harris (associated with Campus-Watch) wrote an article amplifying the offending smear. [22] Steven Plaut quotes Calt Harris… and the pernicious cycle continues.  When nefarious organizations work in tandem, it is difficult for anyone who has been libeled or smeared to defend themselves.  FrontPage contributes to undermining one of the key assumptions of a civil society, the basic respect for the opinion of others.

v. Mirror flak

Sporadically one finds leftist critiques of different news media, human right groups, NGOs and so forth.  For example, one often finds critical studies of the BBC or CNN output issued by leftist groups, and this author has written several critical articles about Amnesty International (AI). [23]  Right-wing groups aim to counter or neutralize these critiques by what one could refer to as "mirror flak".  While I have repeatedly criticized AI for its dubious record on reporting human rights abuses in Israel-Palestine, one suddenly encounters an article by the notorious Steven Plaut claiming the opposite. [24]  That is, Plaut claims that AI is biased against Israel.  So, by attacking AI, or any organization that has been criticized by the left, the effect of the original critique is neutralized.  AI can claim that it is being attacked by both "left" and "right", and thus must be doing something right.  The same thing happens with the critical studies of the BBC or CNN.  On a regular basis, various groups will produce mirror flak, thus helping these organizations avoid having to confront accusations about their biased stance.  Several articles in FrontPage fall into this category.

Horowitz and his "Academic bill of rights"

A creative writing course at the Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor, assigns some New York Times articles as part of its readings, but there are students who object to this, and assigning reading materials is a constant struggle. [25]  Their objection has nothing to do with the dubious nature of the NYT, but with its "liberal bias"!  Horowitz's "academic bill of rights" would "protect" students from having to read materials that weren’t compatible with their ideological outlook. [26] While purporting to be a "bill of rights", in reality, it aims at politicizing and introducing ideological monitoring into academia.  Prof. Massad's experience with disruptive students makes salutary reading to determine what this would imply. [27]

Perhaps Prof. Rashid Khalidi indicates a basic objection to Horowitz's bill of rights:

"If students were coming to be told ideas that they arrived at university with they would be getting nothing of value here.  If they were not to be challenged, if they were not to be forced to rethink the things that they come here as 18 year olds […] with, what on heavens sake would be the point of a university, what would in heavens name be the point of teaching.  We would just arrive with monolithic conventional ideas, and we would leave with monolithic conventional ideas.  This is why academic freedom is absolutely vital." [28]

And who does Horowitz think he is to have the stature to call for an "academic bill of rights"?  Perhaps this intellectual and moral pipsqueak should first crawl out of the sewer before pontificating about this topic.  Horowitz's dubious projects, his shady past, and his far-right-wing connections suggest that what he is proposing is a frontal assault on academic freedom.  His call for this bill is a bit like a pyromaniac urging safe usage of fireworks. 

Caveat Lector

We are supposed to be living in a democracy, and therefore, by all means, read FrontPage magazine.  However, while enjoying the benefits of democratic rights and civil society one should be aware of the nature of FrontPage and related projects – these aim to undermine these very rights that we may be taking for granted.  This article has just sought to raise awareness about the nature of our contested ideological space and urge a vigorous defense of real participatory democracy, academic freedom and civil society.  It is not enough to shrug at yet more right-wing invective, because much of this poisons our society and must be rejected and uprooted.  Civility in our societies is not an on or off precondition for democracy – it can be poisoned and severely degraded unless it is defended.

FrontPage is not merely a contributor to the "marketplace of ideas," it is a wrecking operation comparable with the book-burners of yesteryear.  It is also a mistaken conception to think that we just encounter a "marketplace of ideas", but a more accurate understanding of our society is that we are confronted with a "battleground of ideas", and here there is no room for complacency and neutrality.

What would Illich have made of this…

Ivan Illich, the radical philosopher and social thinker, once described his childhood years when he was living in Brac, a small island off the Dalmatian coast. [29]  Illich lamented the arrival in 1926 of a loudspeaker that upset harmonious and horizontal relationship, and stated that: "up to that day, all men and women had spoken with more or less equally powerful voices."  After the loudspeaker was installed, there was a scramble to control the microphone and the communication emerged with a distinct vertical bias; many were silenced.  One wonders what Illich would have made of the wonders of the internet. Certainly, he would have regarded projects like Horowitz's FrontPage rag as the equivalent of the village idiot gaining control of the megaphone.

Paul de Rooij is based in London, and maintains a regularly updated data sheet on US-uk military fatalities in Iraq. He can be reached at: (NB: all emails with attachments will be automatically deleted.) Copyright © 2005 by Paul de Rooij.


[1] For a discussion of smears as a propaganda techniques refer to this article.

[2] Individuals have the choice of not informing themselves about their society ­ that is fine. However, what is corrosive is the situation where individuals want to inform themselves and encounter deception, manipulation, and outright lying/smearing.

[3] Horowitz has published several of his books with Encounter Books, the publishing project of Peter Collier, his longtime buddy and co-founder with Horowitz of Center for the Study of Popular Culture -- the umbrella group of all Horowitz's projects. The duo also has co-authored some books. Encounter Books denies that the organizations are related, but they obtain funds from the same right-wing foundations.

[4] For a detailed list of Horowitz's endeavors see: SourceWatch on Horowitz.

[5] There are several reasons why this type of "database" is not legitimate in a civil society. First, the persons smeared do not have recourse to rectify what is stated about them. Most of the "research" on which the articles are based is abusive and libelous. The intention of the database is clearly political, to hound the individuals or to tarnish their reputation. The aims of such databases are deceptive at best and harmful in general. In a democratic society the main ingredients are open arguments and an element of respect; the DTN "database" doesn't apply such simple standards.

[6] Aviv Lavie, Not for the faint-hearted, Haaretz, May 5, 2004. Note that Plaut only publishes in English and most Israelis don't read his articles or blog. His output is mostly meant for US consumption.

[7] David Neuman, "The Threat to Academic Freedom in Israel-Palestine", Tikkun, July 2004.

[8] Steven Plaut, Cooking up Calls for Mass Murder, Sept. 2, 2004.

[9] A copy of email where Plaut boasts that he stole the list can be found here.

[10] Further documentation see: here.

[11] Yehoshua Porath, Mrs. Peters's Palestine, NYRB, Vol. 32, No. 21 & 22 · Jan. 16, 1986. Norman G. Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Second Edition, Verso 2003. Finkelstein states: "So disturbing (and bizarre) was the book's main argument -- that Palestinians had, individually and en masse, fabricated their genealogies -- that I read it with more than the usual care. It quickly became obvious that the said author, Joan Peters, had concocted -- and, more revealingly, that the American intellectual establishment had lent its name to -- a threadbare hoax". (P. 1)

[12] In the 1960s, Peter Collier and Horowitz edited the "anti-war" magazine Ramparts. Since then Collier co-wrote several books with Horowitz, and co-founded the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, the umbrella organization of all Horowitz's projects.

[13] Alyssa A. Lappen, "The Ravages of the Jihad-Occupied Mind", FrontPage, Feb. 17, 2004.

[14] here. For a discussion of Luntz see: Bill Berkowitz, Luntz on the Loose, Dissident Voice, Oct. 26, 2004.

[15] For a further discussion of hasbara see here. For a discussion of Luntz see: Bill Berkowitz, "Luntz on the Loose," Dissident Voice, Oct. 26, 2004.

[16] O'Reilly telling interviewees to "shut up" in his TV program is certainly a corrosive influence in a civil society -- there is no place for this type contemptible behavior.

[17] In several articles, Steven Plaut quotes Jonathan Calt Harris -- one dubious propagandist quoting another to "prove a point." Similarly, Lappen quotes Steven Emerson.

[18] This manual will soon be made available online. However, this article contains a discussion of the manual: Fadi Kiblawi , Israel's Campus Concerns, Palestine Chronicle, Oct. 23, 2003.

[19] Informed Comment.

[20] Juan Cole, The GoogleSmear as Political Tactic, Informed Comment, March 27, 2005

[21] Joseph Massad, Statement to the Ad Hoc Committee, March 14, 2005.

[22] Massad, ibid.

[23] Paul de Rooij, Amnesty International: Say it isn't so, CounterPunch, Oct 31, 2002. Paul de Rooij, Amnesty International: The Case of the Rape Foretold, Dissident Voice, Nov 25, 2003. Paul de Rooij, Amnesty International: A False Beacon?, Dissident Voice, Oct 22, 2004.

[24] Steven Plaut, "Amnesty International -- Not a Reliable Source", FrontPage, June 2, 2003.

[25] Personal communication with professor of this course.

[26] The "academic bill of rights" deserves a longer discussion. Prof. Juan Cole presents good analysis of it and its implications. Furthermore, see Bill Berkowitz's Horowitz's Campus Jihads, Dissident Voice, October 9, 2004.

[27] Massad, ibid.

[28] Rashid Khalidi, Democracy Now!, April 6, 2005.

[29] There are several versions of this account, and there is a longer one in one of his books. However, a shorter version can be found in this speech.

Other Articles by Paul de Rooij:

* Listen to Sharon’s Little Helpers
* Amnesty International: A false beacon
* Patterns of Media Bias and its Consequences
* Pots and Black Kettles: Powell Utters the G-word
* Palestinian Misery in Perspective
* A Political Obituary: Powell, D.O.A.
* Glossary of the Iraqi Occupation
* The BBC and the Quiet Ethnic Cleansing of Palestinians
* For Whom The Death Tolls: Deliberate Undercounting of “Coalition” Fatalities
* The Politics of Crying Wolf
* Demolishing the Myths of the Israel-Palestine Conflict
* Amnesty International: The Case of a Rape Foretold
* Predictable Propaganda: Four Months of US Occupation of Iraq
* The Parade of the Body Bags
* Ambient Death in Palestine
* The Hydra’s New Head: Propagandists, and Selling the US-Iraq War
* Gretta Duisenberg: An Activist in the Trenches
* Propaganda Stinkers: Fresh Samples From the Field
* Arrogant Propaganda: US Propaganda During The First 10 Days of the US- Iraq War
* A Glossary of Warmongering