Too Human...

Insight and freedom of thought are much too expensive, it seems, for our modern university.  Hunter College couldn’t afford it.  Although only paying $18,000 a year they still had to get rid of Professor Norman Finkelstein.  It is, considering his work and international reputation, a derisory salary.  He was a bargain!  Nevertheless, his price, to think independently and speak freely, was too high and so they forced him out.  His response is characteristic, and suggests something of the man: I don’t want much.  Just enough to do what he was born to do: to teach…

Finkelstein was, until denied tenure at De Paul University, one of those professional amateurs I seem always to be banging on about.  That is, a human being amongst mostly professionals and careerists.  The film shows this clearly.  Faults and strengths, they are all there; all destined to create their own problems.  For there are advantages to being a well-behaved employee: a certain civility and respect is almost guaranteed, for the members of the guild or corporation.  Few of us need to be hurt; shown we are stupid, wrong, conventional or at all self-interested.  It protects us from awkward questions, and the results of what we do.  Careerists and professionals can be useful too, and we often need them; it is only when they have too much power that we really should resist.[i]   So it’s no joke siding with a human being in a world of employees.  Imagine it yourself.  Suited up for the day you are now a corporate woman.  On your way to work you’ve left possibly a third of yourself at the front door (more if you’re in the senior management team).  Trained to follow orders, even if you don’t like them; and criticise them silently.  Then I come along.  I don’t follow all the rules; in particular I don’t pay lip service to the conventional pieties, or fake obsequience to the boss – I tell him straight what I think, if I happen to disagree.  How long would it take for you to start resenting me: see my freedom as license, my ideas as bombast.  He’s a bit uppity; full of himself, I’d say…

On the outside rebels look great.  From the inside they are a far trickier proposition – all that angst and upset they often cause…  They need a bit of side, something of an edge: they have to be stubborn and a little unkind; it is the only way they can keep their independence; and do what they must do.  It is hard to be a human being in the corporate world – it’s not the place for them.   A fault can be a virtue, and it certainly is in Finkelstein; but perhaps we must be honest with ourselves, to fully appreciate the problems that can arise.  We love our heroes, but really, could we work with them?

A few will say yes!  Odd ones, I thing you’d agree.

It is interesting the filmmakers matched him with his exact opposite, David Olesker; who truth be told I couldn’t take seriously from the get-go: he sounded like a Radio One DJ from the 1970s.   Oh so very suave and so polished; and not a word of any substance.  But how easy to fall asleep as you listen to his rolling sentences, like a train ride over Salisbury Plain.  This is a useful technique that Finkelstein has never mastered, to his detriment: it guarantees a standing ovation every time.  How popular he’d be!  And we’d always want him back; desperate for some rest after a hard day’s work. 

Although for all his facility Olesker’s final comments gave him away.  They were quite nasty; as well as wrong and completely beside the point.  He has created a fantasy in his own mind about Finkelstein: that he is anti-Semitic.  Having created this fairy tale he then revels in the future torture – here he reminded me of those Christians who prefer their enemies’ hell to their own heaven -: Finkelstein living in Israel.  Leaving aside all the nonsense even if this make-believe were true Olesker would still be wrong!  Finkelstein is not only living in a strongly Jewish area of New York; but that area includes some of the most extreme religio-Zionist fanatics  (a lot of the messianism we see in the settlements comes out of Brooklyn).[ii]  Most Israelis have historically been far more liberal.

Create a demon.  That’s all that matters.  We see him, ugly and red and very menacing, and hear nothing else.  This is a very useful technique.  No wonder David Olesker has such a high reputation.  Though it has nothing to do with truth or knowledge; its an advertising campaign for stolen goods; though a good one, we have to admit that.

Impetuosity has cost Finkelstein dear.  And he keeps doing it!  His behaviour does expose the conformism and moral weakness of the academy – clearly few care about knowledge for its own sake; and are prepared to fight for it.  It should make all of us think a little more clearly about our universities, and all those books and papers, and all that posturing, on radical transgression.[iii] It is words, just words, with no feelings behind them; in most cases.  We can expect little from much of the faculty: it is just a job for them.  Jump back in time to Robert Walpole’s England or the Ancien Régime in France.  How many of today’s academics would be repeating the conventional wisdom of that period; cozying up to Old Corruption or the sclerotic Bourbons, and justifying them as  forces for stability?  Can we say the same of Rousseau, or a little later, Joseph Priestly?  What strikes about these two, and others like them, is we imagine they could think no differently – they didn’t have a choice about their thoughts, for they were part of their personality.

This raises an interesting question.  During the 20th century much of left wing thought has been practiced inside the university – a change from the 19th where the key thinkers were tied to radical groups and the workplace.[iv]  But if most academics are conservative by nature wouldn’t this have some effect on the Left?  That as the behaviour becomes more routine and quiescent wouldn’t we expect the ideas to lose their radical edge; and with it their ability to transform the society?  And that this would happen in one of two ways:  either they become reformist and tame and easily co-opted, or, as they become divorced from daily practice, they become increasing radical, to a point where they are absurd.[v]   The latter an example of ideas bred in the academic hothouse, and which compensates for a person’s conservative lifestyle; while reflecting their specialist concerns.  That is, one of the problems of the Left is its incorporation into the university system, and the dulling of its radical energy as it is decoupled from the wider society and the working man and woman.

Finkelstein’s controversial reputation is in part because he fights against this trend: he is radical and he acts outside the academy, in a political meaningful way.[vi]

He irritates, and he is loud sometimes.  This is not going to get him anywhere near the old crockery on high table.   Though he is funny, sharp and insanely provocative.  He has charisma.  He shocks us from time to time.  Is there anyone who at some point hasn’t said: you’ve gone too far?  His support of Hizbollah’s defence of Lebanon is sound, but to accept it you have to understand his reasoning.  Exactly what his opponents won’t allow.  Challenging Dershowitz, and calling him a plagiarist, is just a little too confrontational.  It felt right, no doubt, who doesn’t want to carve up such dishonesty.  Thus his elation the next day, calling Dershowitz’s book not good enough even to be a shmata.  This is all so very human, and not something we see that often inside the corporation; where everything must be under control.  But later why not heed the calls for moderation, remove the plagiarism charge to reduce the heat…  It suggests a stubbornness that should be a little more flexible.[vii]

Al Jazeera has been showing American Radical over the last couple of weeks.  It covers his upbringing, his activism and his detractors.  My one criticism is that I think it should have concentrated more on his exposure of Joan Peter’s book From Time Immemorial.   This seems to have been a key turning a point.  It was also an opportunity to look into the New York intellectual scene of that time to find out, if only a little, what was going on. 

Towards the end of the film there is a good quote from his brother, which Finkelstein answers in an oblique way.  For his brother everyone has to reach a settlement with the world.  He compares it to swimming in the sea.  Some waves you can take, and keep on going.  Others are too big, and overwhelm you.  Those you learn to avoid.  So it is with life: find only the waves that you can successfully navigate.  This is sound advice.  But what would happen if we all took it?  Would anything worthwhile ever get done?  Wouldn’t we all just adapt ourselves to the prevailing situation; resign ourselves to our environment?  Finkelstein’s response is again characteristic: how one acts will depend on how bad you think the world is.  If you think it is generally OK, then you will advocate for mild reform.  However, if your belief is that the world is radically bad then you will become a radical.  And he will try to change it, even if it comes close to destroying him.

[i] See the excellent quote from Harold Perkin in footnote xiii in my Dropout Boogie.
[ii] See Lords of the Land by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar for a first class history of the entire settlement movement in the occupied territories.
[iii] See Anthony Julius’ thought provoking and excellent Transgressions:The Offences of Art for an overview and analysis.
[iv] Marx and Bakunin of course, but also Robert Owen.
[v] Because ideas are wild and radical it doesn’t follow they are a threat to the established society.  In fact, the wilder and more radical the better, for they are less likely to succeed. Dropout Boogie gives an exemplary case.
[vi] For an almost textbook analysis of meaningful political action see his interview on Democracy Now!   This interview shows him at his very best: his creative rethinking of Gandhi’s legacy, for example.
[vii] I wondered if later there may have been some calculation: Dershowitz’s crusade raising the profile of the book, and thus highlighting the atrocities (I don’t think he would have done it for purely personal ends).  However, as Finkelstein notes in the new introduction, it was killed in America.  Just like his original demolition of Joan Peters.