Q&A: Norman Finkelstein
The intellectual pariah, author of two new books, on Noam Chomsky, BDS, the Holocaust, and Whitney Houston
I got up and, in that tiny little studio in Washington Heights, and I’m pacing back and forth, I did it! I did it! I couldn’t believe it. I was just a graduate student, I was working in a daycare center in Chelsea to make ends meet while writing my dissertation. And so I first went to one of the—now he’s turned out to be one of the leading computer scientists in the world, then he was the head of the theory section at Bell Labs, to make sure the math was right, and he confirmed it.
So, I wrote up my findings, and I sent it to 25 of the leading scholars in the world who are knowledgeable on the subject. Twenty-four never replied.
One Saturday morning, I get a phone call. I pick it up, and the person says, “Hello, my name is Professor Chomsky. I read what you wrote, and it sounds right to me.”
Sometimes I get angry at him, I do. But he changed my life. I don’t think he even knows today where I went to school. He never asked me. Now, part of it of course is Gulliver in Lilliput. From his height, he can’t see the difference. But part of it was, you had to say there was a genuine democratic impulse. I don’t care about your credentials, I don’t care about your pedigree, I don’t care about your letterhead, I don’t care about your publications, let me just read it! You would think he has better things to do with his mind than to sit down and go through land reform in one corner of Northeastern Brazil. And sometimes you think, was this a waste?
If he can lower himself to this kind of unglamorous detail-work, then you can, too?
The details are actually the most interesting, because that’s where you see all the lies.
Intellectuals on the left are every bit as dishonest as intellectuals on the right.
I’ve lived a good life, a blessed life. But as a matter of fact, I’ve been out of DePaul, it’s going on five years, right? There are a lot of academics who are politically sympathetic to me. Palestine’s not an unpopular cause anymore in academia. OK, so let’s ask the question: Has any professor worked to get me a job at any university? I want to be factual. Answer: No.
Has any professor worked to get me a guest lectureship for a year? Answer: No.
Has any professor worked to get me a lecture, even once? Answer: No.
That surprises me—
Let me finish. You were in graduate school, you remember the thing called a brown-bag lunch. Has one professor invited me for a brown bag lunch? Answer: No. We’re not even talking about cost.
You know, there are quite a few professors at Columbia who are pro-Palestinian. Has one of them invited me for anything? No.
The Nation magazine? Thirty years, they’ve let me have one letter in print. I find that funny.
What do you think of Paul Berman, who is in some ways your ideological and literary opposite, but who is also a public intellectual in the old-school sense, without a tenured academic position. Do you feel any affinity with him?
Look, I’ve read his stuff, so I’m not speaking from ignorance. There’s a whole tradition on the left that basically goes back to Trotsky, who was a brilliant political actor and also was a brilliant political writer. And so there’s this whole tradition—I’ll speak now of the American left, of people who are good writers and also want to write about politics. But they don’t know anything about politics.
OK, this tradition had people who weren’t terrible, like Irving Howe, who knew literature, and knew something about politics because he grew up in the ’30s, during the Depression. In more recent years, it’s people who know nothing, like George Packer. He went to Yale, he got a degree in English, and so he thinks he’s qualified to write about politics. OK, it’s not badly written, but he doesn’t know anything about Iraq.
I know it sounds odd, but a lot of politics is having good political instincts. Some people have it, some don’t. Chomsky has it. Trotsky of course had it. But of course you have to be deeply immersed in the subject matter. They’re not interested in the subject matter, they’re interested in a clever turn of phrase. Their model was someone like Christopher Hitchens, whose whole art was: You take three little arcane facts and spin a whole article or essay around it. He’d start an essay on Pakistan by saying, “Oh, Pakistan literally means LAND OF THE PURE!” And you’d think, Oh, he really knows something about Pakistan!
So, you come to Paul Berman, who writes Terror and Liberalism. He finds in the street two pirated volumes of [Sayyid] Qutb, and suddenly he becomes an expert on Islamic texts. Trotsky wrote Literature and Revolution when he was in the iron cart, going from front to front in the Russian civil war. Berman was walking along Atlantic Avenue and saw two pirated editions, and now he’s an expert in Qutb, whose collected works comes to 40 volumes, if memory serves. It’s just so silly. It’s so unserious.
You obviously spent a lot of forensic energy thinking about Jeffrey Goldberg in your new book. Is it your opinion that he acts as a conscious agent of Israeli propaganda campaigns, or do you think that he believes what he writes?
Goldberg is just like Packer. He has some writing talent, but he knows nothing about politics, he has no clue. Just because he lived in Israel for a couple of years … well, there are a lot of people who live in the United States who have no idea what goes on here. He was a prison guard. That doesn’t make you an expert in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There’s no knowledge there.
So, maybe he goes to Israel and they tell him these things, they’re very good at PR, they’re very good at manipulating. He’s a fat kid, and I’m sure they’re excellent in making him feel important—we’re just telling you this, this is your little scoop. And he gets very excited, and he writes it down. Israel is attacking Iran? I think it’s ridiculous, but you have to have some political sense to know it’s ridiculous. No, I don’t think it’s going to happen because Israel went into Lebanon in 2006 and they didn’t kill one Hezbollah leader, so I don’t think they’re going to attack Iran.
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