The controversial American activist and author speaks about his writing, the role of scholars, and how his alienation from academia has forced him to look for a job in Turkey or Iran. He also offers his thoughts on his long-time friend, Noam Chomsky.
The Writer’s Corner is a series dedicated to conversations with writers across various genres. From authors and academics, poets and playwrights, screenwriters and songwriters, we will explore what it means to write and the process behind the pen.
There are not many academics in America who are as vilified as Norman Finkelstein. Once the lion of the Left giving lectures around the world, a scholar who authored nearly a dozen books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he is now a lowly figure resigned to the margins of public debate. Having lost both his position within academia and more recently his supporters within the Palestine solidarity movement, his career has greatly diminished.
When speaking to him, he struck me as a man of deep principles. The controversial activist and author would rather face complete alienation rather than capitulate on his beliefs. The tone of his voice though revealed the cost of that conviction and the toll these past few years have taken on him. In our conversation we spoke of his writing and the role of scholars in our society. He was also remarkably candid about his unemployment, the bitterness of losing his teaching post, and the possibility of teaching in Iran or Turkey. Finally, he offered his reflections on his long-time friend, Noam Chomsky.
What follows is an edited version of portions from our conversation:
What are you reading now?
Mostly now on the civil rights movement. I read the first two volumes of Taylor Branch’s three volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr, which is really a tapestry of the civil rights movement. And now I’m reading David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross which is a biography of King and after I finish that, I’ll go back and read the third volume of the Taylor Branch trilogy.
The term forensic scholar has been applied to you. All of your books are exhaustively researched and place an emphasis on factual documentation. You recently commented, “I am a person of detail and mastering the detail.” Is there still an audience for that kind of writing in this twitter age?
people don’t read anymore
No. My books don’t sell anymore. There are many reasons why they don’t sell but one of the reasons is because people don’t read anymore. Forget about reading books of detail, they don’t read at all. Somebody said to me yesterday you should write a book on the Palestine industry, because so many people are capitalizing on the Palestine struggle and making a career, and I said “Write a book?” [Nowadays] you do two text messages, three tweets, and one Facebook posting.
You once said that you’re not a good writer, and that you didn’t care to be. Even more, you have a contempt for good writers who are unqualified to write about politics. Writers who are more concerned about a clever turn of phrase than their subject matter. Do you view your writing as utilitarian, simply a means to convey your arguments, or is there a place for style and creativity?
Yeah there’s definitely a place for style and creativity, for good writers it’s definitely an advantage to have. The problem is when – maybe this is going to sound patronizing – but when English majors decide they want to do politics and they have no background in the field of inquiry and that’s quite common. There’s a left-wing tradition of that and they have deep roots but the most obvious prototype was Trotsky who was a revolutionist part of the day and as he famously had done, as he’s under sealed train going to the front waging the civil war in Russia, he’s writing literary criticism. And Trotsky was both a brilliant political analyst and brilliant literary critic. He happened to combine both.
But most people don’t and what you have now is versions of George Packer, Paul Berman. There’s just a large number of people who know nothing about politics, don’t even think it’s important to do the research side. They simply substitute the clever turn of phrase. The main exemplar of that in recent times was Christopher Hitchens who really hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. But what he would do is come up with three arcane facts, and with these three arcane facts he would weave a long essay. So people say, oh look at that. They would react in wonder at one or the other pieces of arcana and then take him for a person who is knowledgable.
People unfortunately don’t care very much about content. They care about cleverness.
People unfortunately don’t care very much about content. They care about cleverness. That’s the basis on which The New York Review of Books recruits its authors, you have to be as they say, a good writer. And the same thing with The New Yorker. Now obviously there’s a great virtue to being a good writer, but not when it’s a substitute for content. If I have to choose between the despair, austere prose of a Noam Chomsky or the glittering prose of a Paul Berman, well I think that’s not a hard choice to make.
Well in that respect, do you ever have any regrets? As a scholar who’s authored 10 books and numerous articles, do you ever wish you spent more time reading literature, and how might that have impacted your writing?
I do regret strongly that I didn’t read more literature after college because it would’ve certainly improved my grasp of the English language and also because literature is enlightening and it turns you into a cultured, refined person, that’s just a fact. So not just for utilitarian reasons, it would’ve been beneficial for me as a human being. By the way, this may not be much of a defense but some people think I am a good writer.
I’m only quoting you so I didn’t want to make that judgement.
(Laughs) That’s okay.
Slightly a different topic, but it’s been seven years since you held a full-time teaching post at a university. You’ve had a very tenuous relationship with the academy, and in that regard, I’d liken you to figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and Anna Julia Cooper who sought alternative institutions to practice their politics. Can you describe your role now as an outsider, both from academia as well as the mainstream media, to engage with the public, to express your ideas via writing, public speaking, social media etc.
Well, first of all I didn’t teach in order to practice my politics. My politics were strictly compartmentalized from my teaching. I don’t think a teacher should be practicing his or her politics. In politics you want to convince, in teaching you want to encourage people to think. And those are very different. In my experience and in my opinion, those are very different modus operandi. I liked to play the devil’s advocate in the classroom. Quite frequently, in fact you could say most of the time, people didn’t have a clue what my point of view was with a particular question. Very often students came to me during office hours and would say “but what do you think about a particular question we were discussing in class?” And I would always insist it’s not important what I think, the question is what you think, meaning the student. So I didn’t practice my politics in the classroom.
I was a teacher and it was a huge loss for me, it remains a huge loss for me. It’s a source of personal and private disappointment and bitterness frankly, and I have not been particularly productive in the last seven years.
I was a teacher and it was a huge loss for me, it remains a huge loss for me. It’s a source of personal and private disappointment and bitterness frankly, and I have not been particularly productive in the last seven years. Because when you reach my age, most people—there are the exceptions, Professor Chomsky being among them—don’t have the same capacity for mental concentration that you have when you’re in your early 20’s. And so, my teaching complemented my research and my writing and also my political work. It complemented it in the sense that it made for a full day. I can read now say four hours a day, which is really about all I can do anymore. I used to read easily eight, sometimes eleven hours a day with no problem. [In the past] I read four hours a day while the rest of the day was filled out by the teaching. And I’ve lost that which means half of my productivity has now disappeared.
I think my larger question is whether there’s a role for scholars outside of the academy?
The issue is earning a living. That’s the problem. There’s no movement anymore, there’s no material sustenance if you don’t have academia. But there are wonderful people who in my lifetime lived outside the academy and made great contributions. Paul Sweezy who left Harvard when he was an economist and became the editor of Monthly Review. Occasionally he taught an adjunct position but his entire life was really outside the academy. Yeah there was a place, now it’s just very difficult because what exactly are you going to do in order to sustain yourself unless you make good money writing. And there are people who can make good money writing but they’re pretty scarce nowadays.
If you don’t mind my asking, are you currently employed at the moment?
I no longer say I’m unemployed. I say I’m unemployable, it’s different. An unemployed suggests at a certain point in the future, you might be employed. That’s not the case with me. I’m unemployable and unfortunately that’s one of the bits of the web, in particular of Google. When I was younger, you applied for a job they typically asked for three references.
I no longer say I’m unemployed. I say I’m unemployable, it’s different.
Nowadays people don’t ask for references. They just Google your name. And if you Google my name, all sorts of horrifying things come up: Holocaust denier, Nazi apologist, supporter of terrorism. And no responsible administrator in anything, forget about academia, quite literally even the post office. And that’s literal, that’s not poetic. Even for a job at the post office, they won’t consider you.
Have you considered a teaching post outside of the U.S. where the political climate might be different?
This year, I’m down to two countries. One is Turkey where I may be teaching, there’s a good chance. The other is Iran and I’ve been working on Iran but so far it hasn’t been successful. So right now, we’re down to Turkey and Iran because I am finding it intolerable at the present moment, this pointless life.
Okay, moving on then. You mentioned in numerous instances that you grew up in a household of Holocaust survivors, but your parents never shared their haunting experiences with you. It was only after reading about it in books at the age of 13 did you begin to understand what they must have gone through. As you approach 60, your entire career has been shaped by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After decades of diplomacy and countless deaths, there will eventually be a time when fighting will end. And a century from now, a Palestinian student will find one of your books in her library and learn about her history, much like how you did. How do you feel about that?
Well, I don’t want to engage in self-pity but I don’t think that’s going to happen, what you’ve just described. First of all because I don’t think there will be libraries a century from now. Second of all, because if there were libraries, strictly factually, and I understand your question has a larger meaning but for the moment, I’m just going to stick to the facts. My books aren’t picked up by libraries anymore. And because I can’t publish with an established publisher, I’m toxic. So I publish with small publishers, very small like OR Books, my current publisher. And the budgets of libraries have been drastically reduced. That’s the difference from the past. Even middle-level libraries used to have a very broad acquisitions policy. They ordered pretty much everything. There was a time when that was the case, but that’s no longer the case. So as a factual matter, I don’t think the future scenario that you project is going to unfold in the manner that you suggested. But as a metaphorical question, yeah it’s a good feeling to know that.
In the nineteenth century there were a few authors who told the truth about the Native Americans. There was one in particular, her name was Helen Hunt Jackson [who wrote] a powerful book about what was done to the Native population that was called A Century of Dishonor. Theodore Roosevelt hated the book and in his multi-volume history, what was called The Winning of the West, he devotes many pages to attacking Helen Hunt Jackson. And it is an honour to her when you go to a library, pull that book off the shelf and you say, well you know what, the argument that’s always made, back then they didn’t know better. That it was “the times”. And you realize that’s a crock of shit. Except those who wanted to know better did know better. And there were people, to their eternal honour who told the truth. People like Helen Hunt Jackson.
You’ve mentioned Professor Chomsky a few times in this interview - a man I intend to interview in the future. I know he’s been a good friend of yours for many years. What do you most admire about him?
Everyone admires his brilliance but that’s a commonplace. And also, that’s the throw of the dice, God was very generous to him when it came to his mental capacity. Though of course the mental capacity is only, as Thomas Edison famously said, it applies in whole to Professor Chomsky: “It’s 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” Professor Chomsky is a perpetual motion machine. He is an indefatigable worker. But that’s not what I admire most about him, that as I said is discipline which of course I respect, the throw of the dice which is fortune.
The thing that I admire most about Professor Chomsky is he is an absolutely faithful person, he will never betray you. He’s constitutionally incapable of betrayal.
The thing that I admire most about Professor Chomsky is he is an absolutely faithful person, he will never betray you. He’s constitutionally incapable of betrayal. To the point that he will defend friends even though I think he knows they’re wrong, but he won’t ever betray you. And he has a sense of moral responsibility that’s just kind of breathtaking. I cannot tell you, because it’s really hard to imagine how many people I have met in my life who said “reading Noam Chomsky changed my life”. I can’t tell you, it is the most incredible testament to a single human being how many lives, including yours truly, were decisively altered as a result of his prose. It’s a marvel. There are legions of people in the world whose lives were turned upside down literally because of reading him.
I spoke at a rally in Kerala, India. It was about six months ago and it was a huge rally, it was about 60,000 people. These were the unwashed masses, it was a rally from a progressive Muslim organization. The only recognizable name for the rally from anyone in the West, except of course Obama for negative reasons, the only recognizable name for the unwashed masses of Kerala was Noam Chomsky. The organizer of the rally was an absolutely wonderful human being named Shahin, a really devoted, committed, principled fellow. “I want to visit the United States, I’ve tried several times but they won’t give me the visa. I only want to go for one reason. I want to go to Boston and shake the hand of Noam Chomsky.” That’s such an incredible testament for a single human being. From the state of Kerala, in India, this organizer, very smart committed guy, he has one purpose for coming to the U.S. Not the glitter, not the tinsel, not Times Square, not Disney World, not the Statue of Liberty. One reason and one reason alone, to shake the hand of Noam Chomsky. And that’s the impact he’s had on legions of people in the world, including myself.
Somebody said a few nights ago, I was out with a Muslim fellow from Pakistan named Ali Qureshi. He like many other people said, and it’s true, that when Chomsky leaves the scene it’s going to be a huge loss. Not just the loss in terms of the brain power, but I think the bigger loss is for an entire generation, Chomsky has served as the moral compass. That’s no small issue.
With complex questions, whether it’s something like Libya, or Kosovo, or a whole number of other issues – people who don’t have time to research a question in its exhaustiveness – they look to Professor Chomsky to provide the moral judgement. What should we do, which side should we stand on? He served that purpose, and let’s be clear his answers were never obvious. On a specific political question, his answers were never easily predictable. In broad moral judgments yeah, you know where he stands. But should you support a foreign intervention in Libya, should you support the NATO intervention in Kosovo, now where should you stand on Syria?
Those can be quite tricky questions, and the so-called Left can be sharply divided. But for the larger constituent of what you call the Left, the way they resolved their position was they looked to Chomsky because they trusted his moral and political judgment. And once he passes from the scene, that unifying factor will disappear. I think the so-called Left will become even more fragmented than it is now because Professor Chomsky has served as the unifying factor for a broad section of the Left, people just defer to his judgement.