Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 1999 /21 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760
Reflections on The
Road Taken and Not
THE OTHER DAY I received an e-mail from a stranger that posed two questions I had
been thinking about for some time, and which seemed therefore uncannily personal. "I
was curious," the writer said, "if you have ever looked at your political 'apostasy' and
wondered whether, if circumstances had been different—if you had not been involved
with the Panthers or if your friend had not been murdered by them—you would still be a
Marxist today. Was your apostasy a result of an inexorable intellectual development, or
were you forced into your second thoughts?"
In some form or another, it is a question that everyone gets around to asking. If
circumstances had been different, if I had made this choice or avoided that one,
would my life have been different? And if the answer is yes, which are the
circumstances that would have made me different? It is a question as old as
philosophy—the puzzle of determinism and free will.
Not everyone, of course, experiences such a dramatic turning in their lives as I did
when the Black Panthers murdered Betty Van Patter 25 years ago. But we all have
them. Roads taken and not taken. Decisions that changed our lives, and perhaps our
selves as well. Such changes can be personal as well as intellectual, but each time
they occur they pose for us the question: Are they essential to our being, or only
secondary to who and what we are?
In my own case, I find it easier to answer the question posed about my intellectual
directions. I do not know that the intensity of my ideological transformation, or the tone
of my politics, would have been the same if they had not been provoked by an act of
brute criminality committed by my political allies and friends. But I am confident that the
change would have come. I have many friends and acquaintances who had similar
"second thoughts," in which they found themselves rejecting the ideas and
understandings that motivated them when they were young. I have no reason to
suppose it would have been different for me.
In fact, one of the first pieces I wrote about the incident that changed my political life
was an article called "Why I Am No Longer A Leftist" that appeared in 1986 in The
Village Voice. It drew explicit parallels between the crime the Panthers had committed
and the much larger and more famous crimes that the left itself had committed, and
that had caused others like me to reconsider their beliefs. As a leftist I had developed
habits of mind that caused me to look at "classes" rather than individuals, at social
structures and paradigms rather than events and personalities that could be viewed as
incidental or unique. This attitude made it important for me to analyze my own mugging
by reality to decide whether it was a characteristic and not merely contingent event
before I could allow its lessons to affect my outlook as a whole. In the article I wrote for
The Village Voice, as in my memoir, Radical Son, I did just that.
The personal question is not so easy to resolve. Why do we move in the grooves we
do? Why are there such ingrained patterns to our lives? Such patterns governed my
directions then as they do now. But nobody who knew me then and knows me now has
failed to notice the differences in my life. I wouldn't want to exaggerate these changes,
but they are there. The trauma of this murder and the betrayal it entailed had a
profound effect on me, and made me a different person than I was then, or otherwise
might have been.
If you ask, I will tell you that it was the pain that did it. Pain is the spur that causes us to
move. Every day, following Betty's murder, the pain spoke to me and said: You cannot
stay in this place. If you don't move, you will die. Fear keeps us in the groove. But
now I was caught between fear and a force that proved greater than fear. It was pain
that inspired me to overcome everything that had kept me where I was. It was the need
to escape what I felt was spiritual death that caused me to change.
My e-mail interlocutor's second question was an unexpected one, and more perplexing
than the first: "Do you ever feel that you are wasting your breath? Do you think that truth
will ever matter? No matter what you prove or disprove, in the end the truth will remain
in the shadows of what people want to hear and want to believe."
I agree more than I care to with this observation. It is human beings' wish to be told lies
that keeps us as primitive morally and socially as we are. But such stoic realism is,
after all, what being a conservative is about. It is about accepting the absolute limits
that life places on human hope.
One could define the left as just the opposite. The obstinate, compulsive, destructive
belief in the fantasy of change. In the hope of a human redemption.
I have watched my friends on the left, whose ideas created an empire of inhumanity,
survive the catastrophe of their schemes to go on to unexpected triumph in the ashes
of their defeat. Forced to witness the collapse of everything they had once dreamed of
and worked to achieve, they have emerged unchastened and unchanged in their
destructive illusions. And they have been rewarded for their misdeeds with a cultural
cachet and unprecedented influence in the land most responsible for the worldwide
defeat of their misguided hopes.
I cannot explain this dystopian paradox except by agreeing with my interlocutor that
politics is indeed irrational, and socialism a wish deep as any religious faith. I do not
know that the truth must necessarily remain in the shadows, as he writes. But I am
persuaded that a lie grounded in human desire is too powerful for reason to
JWR contributor David Horowitz is editor of
Front Page Magazine and the author of several books, including, Hating Whitey, Art of Political War, Radical Son : A Generational Odyssey . Comment on this article by clicking here.