Journal-January 8, 2021
W. E. B. Du Bois’s Autobiography is conventionally chronological until he suddenly springs on the reader a chapter entitled “My Character.” Of character in general, he says “that the sort of person a man was would in the long run prove more important for the world than what he knew or how logically he could think.” This chapter is replete with all manner of personal insights. I’ll mention three:
· Although Du Bois was worldly wise and far from lacking in carnal knowledge (his biographer describes him as a “priapic adulterer”), he recalls this incident when he was already 60 years old:
In the midst of my career there burst on me a new and undreamed of aspect of sex. A young man, long my disciple and student, then my co-helper and successor to part of my work, was suddenly arrested for molesting men in public places. I had before that time no conception of homosexuality. I had never understood the tragedy of Oscar Wilde. I dismissed my co-worker forthwith, and spent heavy days regretting my act. (emphasis added)
Young people nowadays who think the world hasn’t changed, and can’t change, should ponder this. That’s what the US was like before the 1970s. Indeed, the oddity is not that Du Bois sacked the poor fellow, but that he later felt remorse.
· Du Bois was known to be diffident and stand-offish with white people. Here’s his explanation:
I did not seek white acquaintances, I let them make the advances, and they therefore thought me arrogant. In a sense I was, but after all I was in fact rather desperately hanging on to my self-respect. I was not fighting to dominate others. I was fighting against my own degradation. I wanted to meet my fellows as an equal; they offered or seemed to offer only a status of inferiority and submission.
Obama’s biographers report, on the other hand, that he never felt comfortable around Blacks and always preferred the company of white people. Whites sing Obama’s praises because he’s such a mediocrity (the telltale sign of a fake white liberal is they never miss an occasion to publicly attest how “brilliant” he is), while Obama eats up the praise because he imagines he’s so superior to other Blacks (he never passed up the occasion to publicly talk down to them). But whites felt uncomfortable around Du Bois because he and they both knew he could match, and then some, a white person any day of the week, and Du Bois never for a moment doubted the natural equality of Black people.
· Du Bois was by instinct a pacifist, but he wasn’t dogmatic:
I revered life, I have never killed a bird nor shot a rabbit. I never liked fishing and always let others kill even the chickens which I ate. Nearly all my schoolmates in the South carried pistols. I never owned one. I could never conceive myself killing a human being. But in 1906 I rushed back from Alabama to Atlanta where my wife and six-year old child were living. A mob had raged for days killing Negroes. I bought a Winchester double-barreled shotgun and two dozen rounds of shells filled with buckshot. If a white mob stepped on the campus where I lived I would without hesitation have sprayed their guts over the grass.
Go Willi! On the other hand, I can forgive V. I. Lenin everything except that he relished hunting!
In my youth I was firmly of the opinion that communists were by definition good people and everyone else was bad or, at any rate, somehow deficient in human sympathy. It took me a long time to figure out that character—“the sort of person a man was”—would prove a much more reliable gauge than ideology. I will never forget the occasion of this rude awakening. In the early 1980s I had befriended a Vietnamese Communist then employed at the U.N. Ours was the classic mentor-protégé relationship. I held in awe his rich revolutionary experiences and he repaid this deference with every kind of generosity. As his assistant I attended a U.N. conference in India, after which he promised to hire me as editor of the conference papers. I marked time for two years before the funds finally came through. After signing the contract and celebrating with drinks, we went out for lunch. Over the meal he expressed worry that, although nearly fifty, he hadn’t yet secured his future. Jokingly, I told him that he could always go work in a factory. Whenever I myself had despaired of finding employment, he had advised me, as one Communist to another Communist, to seek factory work. Suddenly he fell silent; even if in jest, a line had been crossed. The next day he tore up the contract. This was my adieu to Communism, if not to communism.
My second chastening experience in character occurred during my tenure battle at DePaul in 2007. Here’s what the left-leaning Nation magazine wrote in “solidarity”:
Among the numerous comments on the case, the most thoughtful come from University of Chicago historian Peter Novick. . . . Novick … appealed for “pluralism” in the academy: “There are those who relish the adversarial role, who delight in combat, whose greatest joy is in advancing a cause… such people are often inclined to stretch evidence to the breaking point, and occasionally beyond…. Professor Finkelstein seems to be of that number, as does Professor Dershowitz.” That was not his own style, Novick said. While it would be “disastrous,” he wrote, “to have a university composed exclusively of people like Finkelstein and Dershowitz,” it would be “equally undesirable to have a university composed exclusively of people like me.”
In other words, I was Dershowitz’s doppelganger. Wasn’t that obvious? Dershowitz was the senior-most professor at Harvard Law School and a serial liar, I was an itinerant academic whose entire public career was built on exposing fraudulent scholarship of the powerful. (My old “comrade,” Roane, who is currently a Senior Editor of The Nation, stood by silently, uttering not a syllable in my defense.) Meanwhile, Matthew Rothschild and Ruth Coniff, editors of another left-leaning periodical, The Progressive, alleged that I was a quasi “Holocaust denier.” But here’s the thing. The dean of Holocaust scholars, indeed, the founder of the field of Holocaust Studies, was Professor Raul Hilberg. It happens that Hilberg was a rightwing Republican, he swore by the Wall Street Journal. When asked about my tenure case, here’s what Hilberg said:
Leaving aside the question of style — and here, I agree that it’s not my style either — the substance of the matter is most important here, particularly because Finkelstein, when he published this book [The Holocaust Industry], was alone. It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth when no one else is out there to support him. And so, I think that given this acuity of vision and analytical power, demonstrating that the Swiss banks did not owe the money, that even though survivors were beneficiaries of the funds that were distributed, they came, when all is said and done, from places that were not obligated to pay that money. That takes a great amount of courage in and of itself. So I would say that his place in the whole history of writing history is assured, and that those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed, albeit, it so seems, at great cost.
The moral is, Don’t judge a person by their ideological cover.