Friday, May 21, 2010

Radical Son

Stretched out in the back of a car, night flashing by, Norman Finkelstein meditates on another go-round with his antagonists. He seems weary, dejected. He finds solace in his atheism, that he won't be punished by eternity. He sighs and openly wonders if his efforts are even worth it.

Anyone who's debated or argued about the Middle East, specifically Israel and the Palestinians, knows this feeling well. Craziness, hostility, lies, and slander await those challenging the official narrative. And while it's not as bad as it used to be (I entered this world in 1988, during the first intifada, and those early gigs were brutal), Israel remains one of the hottest political buttons to press. You're going up against a nuclear-armed terrorist state with defenders who'll say or do anything to discredit critics. It's not for the meek.

Norman Finkelstein is anything but. He's deliberate and generally soft-spoken, yet serious passion boils just beneath the surface. Push him hard enough and Finkelstein will return fire, sometimes overreacting, which perhaps is his Achilles' heel. Savvy warriors know when to retreat, but not Finkelstein. He'll pound away well after the fact, flirting with his own destruction. Even his closest friends shake their heads when discussing it.

You see much of this in American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein. While not as creatively enticing as Manufacturing Consent, the celebrated documentary about Noam Chomsky, AR reveals enough of Finkelstein's world to make its point. The son of Holocaust survivors whose European family was exterminated by the Nazis, Finkelstein feels compelled to honor their memory by speaking truth to power whenever and wherever he can. He gets really pissed off when hecklers play the Holocaust card with him. His critiques of Israel are so blistering that his attackers feel no compunction about throwing the death camps in his face. At one event, even Finkelstein's parents are mocked. God knows what goes through his mind and heart in moments like that.

Finkelstein most resembles his mother, Maryla, whose voice we hear via audio tape and especially through her son. Maryla witnessed death and suffering in both the Warsaw Ghetto and the Majdanek concentration camp. Moving to Brooklyn after the war, Maryla provided Norman many lessons in political thought, action, and above all, morality. Finkelstein says that toward the end of her life, Maryla worried that he took her example too literally, that she had created a Frankenstein monster. An apt comparison, given the number of torch-carrying villagers who've chased her son over the years.

Finkelstein has earned many enemies, but the one he takes especial glee in tormenting and exposing is Alan Dershowitz. A supposed "civil rights" lawyer who defends Israeli torture and state terror, Dershowitz is a ripe target, made riper by the fact that Dershowitz revels in the spotlight. I doubt he's ever turned down a media invitation. He's well represented in this film, and Dershowitz makes the most of it, slandering Finkelstein every chance he gets. To be expected, as are Dershowitz's personal attacks. He either knows he's on shaky political ground or simply prefers character assassination. Whatever the reason, Dershowitz certainly loves dishing it out.

Dershowitz is fond of saying that if Finkelstein weren't Jewish, his critiques would be considered anti-Semitic. Dershowitz thinks that Finkelstein is anti-Semitic anyway, a classic self-hating Jew. But if we turn Dershowitz's tactic on him, he comes off as badly as he believes Finkelstein does. Essentially, Dershowitz accuses Finkelstein of blood treason, i.e. he's not a "real Jew." Were Dershowitz a gentile, he would sound like a white supremacist. Who else but fascists worry about race traitors? Yet Dershowitz lays it out as if it's a perfectly reasonable view.

But what really riles Dershowitz is how Finkelstein exposed him as a plagiarist, ripping him to shreds on Democracy Now. The look on Dershowitz's face during that debate speaks volumes. His arrogance led him into the lion's den, convinced that he had a winning argument defending Israeli aggression. But once Finkelstein got his hooks in, it was slow torture. He publically humiliated Dershowitz who, for all his bluster afterward, barely held his own. It was a short-lived victory for Finkelstein, however. When Finkelstein was up for tenure at DePaul University, with solid faculty support, Harvard-based Dershowitz campaigned to sink Finkelstein's bid, taking pride in helping to derail his tormentor's academic career. To date, Finkelstein has not recovered.

Was exposing and embarrassing Dershowitz worth it? Noam Chomsky says in the film that Finkelstein should've ignored the plagiarism and gone after Dershowitz's political arguments instead. I don't know if that would've made Dershowitz less vindictive, for even on that front, Finkelstein would most likely be merciless. In any case, this episode showed the limits of dissident intellectual engagement with a celebrated, mainstream, well-connected figure like Dershowitz. The privileged and powerful are interested in the facts only to the extent that they may further enrich themselves. But when protecting their privilege, anything goes, truth and facts be damned. Norman Finkelstein has learned this the hard way. Based on his life and career, that seems to be the only way he knows.

Here's a clip from American Radical. I hope that young woman isn't on a debate team.