You may or may not know that Norman Finkelstein, the author of such books as Image and Reality of the Israel – Palestinian Conflict, (which I cited in my One Nation Under God post) as well as Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history, was denied tenure at DePaul University in Chicago last June. The university’s president, the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider claimed that it was due to Finkelstein’s “ad hominem attacks” on scholars with opposing views.
“In the opinion of those opposing tenure,” Holtschneider wrote in a letter to Finkelstein, “your unprofessional personal attacks divert the conversation away from consideration of ideas, and polarize and simplify conversations that deserve layered and subtle consideration.”
It is suggested, however, that the decision was taken because of pressure applied to the University by Alan M. Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard University. Last year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education report, he sent a “dossier of Norman Finkelstein’s most egregious academic sins, and especially his outright lies, misquotations, and distortions” to members of DePaul’s law and political-science faculties. Dershowitz main beef with Finkelstein (edited)comes from an allegation stated in Beyond Chutzpah that Dershowitz plagiarized Joan Peters in his book The Case for Israel, as well as showing that Dershowitz’s book contained a number of factual errors. It was probably also exacerbated by the fact that when both men appeared in a debate on Democracy Now! Dershowitz seemed less familiar with the contents of his own book than Finkelstein.
However, the denial of tenure of Finkelstein and others in DePaul have raised a huge debate about the limits of academic freedom in the US and about how there is now a form of censorship going on whenever the subject of Israeli policy with regard to its treatment of Palestinians and the US Government’s complicity with that policy are discussed.
So, last Friday, the 12th of October, a conference on the issue of academic freedom was organized in Chicago by a number of organizations but mainly by the British publisher of Finkelstein’s books Verso, and was chaired by Verso’s Editor, Tariq Ali.
Indymedia Chicago has provided the MP3s on the Academic Freedom Chicago site set up for the conference but I’ve provided links to them here. You can listen to some of these speeches below by clicking the play button or download them from here.
Finkelstein’s speech is the last one and perhaps the most compelling. His topic, the place of civility in academic life, relates to the main criticism brought against him, that he engaged in ‘ad hominem’ attacks on opponents and used uncivil discourse when making his arguments. The speech is 38 minutes long but he really gets to the point about 20 minutes in when he cites the reaction to a phrase used in Noam Chomsky’s book Turning the Tide. In that book Chomsky referred to Gene (edit: should be Jeane. Thanks Hugh :})Kirkpatrick, then UN Representative for the Regan Administration as ‘Chief Sadist in Residence’. Finkelstein’s point was that all of Chomsky’s scholarly references and footnoting were ignored. Instead the controversy raged about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of using that phrase to describe Kirkpatrick.
Sometimes, he argues, it is necessary to give a cry from the heart, to tell the unvarnished truth rather than engage in clever word games that ultimately have no meaning.
He then goes on to ask why polite incivility, or the clever put down (which he adds, the British specialize in), gains precedence over inpolite incivility, when the former, because it is clever and more specific, is actually more vicious and hurtful.
About 24 minutes in though, he makes an important point about Christopher Hitchens (which he refers to initially as Professor, but stops himself with a laugh). Hitchens, he argues, specialized in the clever put down, first for the left and then for the right. In both case it was obvious that he was merely being rhetorically clever and that such statements were ‘just a game of words’ – ‘there’s no moral virtue in it’.
Well it seems that Christopher Hitchens has abandoned the clever word play, judging by a recent description of his performance at a conference called the Freedom from Religion Convention dealing with science, religion and atheism that was supposed to play to the gallery. Having finished with that topic upon which is recent book is based, however, he decided to ‘bang on’ being unsure of the time allotted for him to speak.
“Then it was Hitchens at his most bellicose. He told us what the most serious threat to the West was (and you know this line already): it was Islam. Then he accused the audience of being soft on Islam, of being the kind of vague atheists who refuse to see the threat for what it was, a clash of civilizations, and of being too weak to do what was necessary, which was to spill blood to defeat the enemy. Along the way he told us who his choice for president was right now — Rudy Giuliani — and that Obama was a fool, Clinton was a pandering closet fundamentalist, and that he was less than thrilled about all the support among the FFRF for the Democratic party. We cannot afford to allow the Iranian theocracy to arm itself with nuclear weapons (something I entirely sympathize with), and that the only solution is to go in there with bombs and marines and blow it all up. The way to win the war is to kill so many Moslems that they begin to question whether they can bear the mounting casualties.
It was simplistic us-vs.-them thinking at its worst, and the only solution he had to offer was death and destruction of the enemy.
This was made even more clear in the Q&A. He was asked to consider the possibility that bombing and killing was only going to accomplish an increase in the number of people opposing us. Hitchens accused the questioner of being incredibly stupid (the question was not well-phrased, I’ll agree, but it was clear what he meant), and said that it was obvious that every Moslem you kill means there is one less Moslem to fight you … which is only true if you assume that every Moslem already wants to kill Americans and is armed and willing to do so. I think that what is obvious is that most Moslems are primarily interested in living a life of contentment with their families and their work, and that an America committed to slaughter is a tactic that will only convince more of them to join in opposition to us.
Basically, what Hitchens was proposing is genocide. Or, at least, wholesale execution of the population of the Moslem world until they are sufficiently cowed and frightened and depleted that they are unable to resist us in any way, ever again.
This is insane. I entirely agree that we are looking at a clash of civilizations, that there are huge incompatibilities between different parts of the world, and that we face years and years of all kinds of conflict between us, with no easy resolution. However, one can only resolve deep ideological conflicts by the extermination of one side in video games and cartoons. It’s not going to work in the real world. We can’t simply murder enough Moslems to weaken them into irrelevance, and even if we could, that’s not the kind of culture to which I want to belong.”
Because this is only a paraphrasing of what Hitchens said we are denied the full luster of his finely gilded words. However, on the basis of this it doesn’t sound very clever to me.