Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Curse of Finkelstein

I had hoped to write some about Norman Finkelstein. So, here are some very inconclusive thoughts...

Norm Finklestein is a fellow who caused quite a bit of controversy when he visited our campus last year. There were anti-Finkelstein protesters, and shouting back and forth, and a general melee of some sort. I wasn't there for any of this, because I am generally ensconced in the library reading by candlelight, but I heard about it later after my dissertation director was named by an anti-Finkelstein group as part of a "climate of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic speech" on our campus. She was bewildered about this, since she supports Israel, is an Israeli, and is also Jewish. Apparently, someone thought that she didn't spend enough time covering the Holocaust in her World Civ course, so into the pot she went with the other raging "anti-Semites" at Mall University. After a week, the whole thing blew over.

Anyway, Finkelstein apparently writes a lot of things about Israel that offend people, none of which I'll likely ever get around to reading until I'm 65 and retired. I have read some of his book on the Goldhagen Thesis, which was fairly good actually. The controversial material seems to be in his book The Holocaust Industry which, according to Inside Higher Ed, "argues that supporters of Israel use the Holocaust unreasonably to justify Israel’s policies." So, it's not hard to imagine why he is controversial.

Anyway, Finkelstein is in University news because he's come up for tenure recently at DePaul University, and apparently the Dean has weighed in that he shouldn't get it. His actual teaching is first-rate, which nobody denies, and he has been published extensively. However, his Dean, Chuck Suchar, claims that Finkelstein is hostile to other points of view, and that his writing borders on character assassination, which seems to be the case, if Finkelstein's website is any indication.

Nevertheless, the Political Science Department has voted to give Finkelstein tenure, as has a college-wide faculty panel. So, the University Tenure and Promotion Board might care what the Dean says, and they very well might not. From the sound of it, people are pretty upset on both sides. The anti-Finkelstein people say that he's a political polemicist, which doesn't sound that unusual for a political scientist, and that his writings tend towards mean-spirited ad hominem attacks, which isn't terribly unusual in academia either, frankly. (The Dean should consider himself lucky to not be dealing with Giordano Bruno!) Moreover, his students and colleagues apparently like him, which should be the first concern of university administration.

On the other hand, the pro-Finkelstein people are claiming that this is an erosion of academic liberty, which seems a bit hyperbolic- can't Deans make their opinions known in these matters? Also, they seem to believe that the Dean's stated desire for polite discourse is some sort of malicious pretense, instead of a fundamental imperative of the University. Doesn't free debate in the university hinge on a defense of some sort of civil discourse? Is the Dean, therefore, really out of line in wanting to protect civil discourse?

So, it's a fustercluck. Either way, nobody's going to be happy. I'd like to come down on one side or the other in some wise and decisive way. But, here's the thing (and the words that are seldom used on blogs!)- I don't know enough to have a strong opinion on the matter. I know the appeal of blogging is the rapid responses and robust assertive style that it offers to readers. However, unless I've read the man's work and had some background in the topic of Israeli diplomacy, I can't possibly speak to whether or not he' a good scholar, which is the key issue. And even though his work looks like the sort of angry screeds that fill the pop politics section of Barnes & Noble, again, I haven't read very much of it at all. So, I'd prefer to remain silent.


gregvw said...

Since you've already mentioned Chomsky twice recently... doesn't he also make a similar criticism of Israels "domestic policies" or is there a significant difference?

Rufus said...

Not really. The difference is that Chomsky got tenure for his work on grammar and then started writing about politics.

Rufus said...

Incidentally, I think his work on grammar is quite good, and I liked Manufacturing Consent (the book). I haven't liked much of his stuff after that though. Also, every time I see interviews with Noam Chomsky, he reminds me of the angry old man who is pretending to be a ghost on Scooby Doo.

I would say that Noam Chomsky probably doesn't agree with Israel's domestic policy, but I don't know if he's ever written about the ways the Holocaust is remembered, which is apparently a big theme for Finkelstein.

gregvw said...

While Chomsky's original claim to fame is in developing the idea of generative grammar in linguistics, he was writing politically charged material at least as early as the 50's.

I've read a number of his books and listened to a few recordings of talks and while I don't agree with everything he says (why should it be the obligation of anyone to do anything?) many of his criticisms of US Foreign policy in particular are well-researched and hard to argue with on the basis of whether we did or didn't do some bad thing. The only wiggleroom usually attainable is for the strict Machiavellians.

Rufus said...

Well, I could be wrong, but I think his tenure was awarded on the basis of his work in linguistics at any rate.

My problem with his political writing has always been that it tends to be incomplete and decontextualized. It's sort of like reading about a boxing match in which only the blows landed by one fighter are documented. I mean, US foreign policy has been disasterous for some time now, so that's fairly easy to prove. Where I disagree with him is often not in how bad US policy has been but in that I tend to be more critical of a number of other countries that aren't the US or US allies than he has been. In general, I would say that I'm probably too negative to get along with the right or the left!

gregvw said...

I think one of the reasons that his criticisms of policy are heavily weighted to the US is that is what we ostensibly have the power to change and frequently the US media conglomerates have no difficulty spotting the splinter in their brother's eye before the log in their own.

It is hard to write critically about foreign policy of other countries in a vacuum as the US seems to have its hand in almost everything.

Rufus said...

Well, right, and that's the difference with polemical or political writing and history. I read a lot more historiography, and hope to write it, and sometimes I think our ideal is to be critical of everyone.