March 17, 2023
In Book Reviews Books Cancel Culture And Academic Freedom COMMENTARY ON FINKELSTEIN'S NEW BOOK
Norman Finkelstein knows something about being cancelled. For someone who has spent his writing career exposing as frauds books revered by corporate culture – starting with Joan Peters’s widely-acclaimed From Time Immemorial – cancellation has gone with the territory. Mainstream reviewers viciously denounced his exposé, in The Holocaust Industry, of exploitation of the Holocaust in the service of protecting Israel from opprobrium. His attack, in Beyond Chutzpah, on Alan Dershowitz’s book The Case for Israel led to Finkelstein’s denial of tenure at De Paul University. For years, he was the darling of the pro-Palestinian Left, but then was cancelled by them as well, after he trenchantly criticised exponents of the “one secular democratic state” solution and full BDS as a “cult” divorced from reality. In his new book he again attacks the Left, for its “cult” ideology – which has been around for decades but has now permeated mainstream society — of cancel culture, identity politics and dogmatic teaching in universities (Finkelstein points out that identity politics has always been part of radical, class-based Left thinking; but it has now taken over).
In Part 1 of this new book, Finkelstein chooses for his targets five iconic texts of the US “woke” left, centring around Black identity politics: first, a 1989 seminal paper — claiming that black women are the most oppressed of all oppressed groups and have replaced the working class — by Kimberlé Crenshaw, coiner of the woke buzz-word “intersectionality” and described by Finkelstein as “the reigning High Priestess of identity politics”; second, an article in the Atlantic (June 15, 2014) by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled “The Case for Reparations”, calling for reparations for slavery (Finkelstein equates this demand, in its divorce from any possibility of realisation, with the call for a full right of return for Palestinians, though he concedes that both demands are “morally unimpeachable” (p. 92, n. 24); third, fourth and fifth, three recently published and widely acclaimed books: White Fragility (Boston, 2018) by the US academic and “racial justice trainer” Robin DiAngelo (who comes from a “poor white” background); and two books by the renowned and highly prestigious Black activist and academic Ibram X. Kendi: Stamped from the Beginning (New York, 2016) and How to be an Antiracist (New York, 2019). White Fragility and How to be an Antiracist are New York Times number 1 best-sellers; Stamped from the Beginning won the 2016 National Book Award for Non-Fiction. Finkelstein writes that DiAngelo’s book has become “a national phenomenon, the go-to text of identity politics”. Finkelstein culminates Part 1 by bringing under his scalpel the “summa summarum” (p. 229) of woke cults: the cult of Obama.
Finkelstein’s takedowns of works of Zionist propaganda have always been entertaining; but his eviscerations of iconic works of “wokery” reveal a vein of playful, zany exuberance that is new. His previous books have tended to be meticulously cool and logical on the surface but driven by underlying passionate outrage; here we find almost the reverse. Though Finkelstein expresses scorn for “postmodernist claptrap” (page 20, n. 25), Part 1 has the feel almost of a post-modernist novel like those of Philip Roth. Underneath the exuberant playfulness and outrageousness of a Philip Roth novel, such as Operation Shylock, we sense an underlying rigorous, directing intelligence — and this is also the case with I’ll Burn That Bridge. On the surface, Finkelstein is letting rip – which seems to be partly why Tariq Ali of Verso Books (as Finkelstein writes in the Preface) called the book “incoherent” We are given picture-poems, with the black/white font reversed to “interrupt racism” (DiAngelo’s favourite phrase); there are passages in Black dialect making fun of DiAngelo’s claims of unique closeness to the Black community; part of the Obama chapter is in the form of a film script, with his entourage – whose memoirs are analysed in highly entertaining vignettes — as the supporting cast; the critique of Obama is accompanied by inset extracts from Sinclair Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry; the text is replete with word play and double-entendres. The sheer fun seems to be partly a reaction to the deadly earnestness of the proponents of cancel culture and identity politics. Also Finkelstein’s subject-matter of “wokeness” is conducive to playful laughter in a way that the subject-matter of his previous books never could be.
Nonetheless, this is essentially a deeply serious book, the main theme of which is the co-option of identity politics by the Establishment as a last-ditch means of preserving the status quo at a time of global emergency, when the capitalist system appears on the brink of collapse, and a transformative, class-based revolution to replace the failed system has a real chance of success – and indeed seems to provide the only hope of avoiding global catastrophe. As Finkelstein puts it (and the same is happening in the UK):
In my day growing up, about 80 per cent of the American people could anticipate, generationally, an incremental improvement in their living standards, while about 20 per cent … were left behind. The ratio has by now been reversed: about 20 per cent do just fine (and then some), while 80 cent have been left further and further behind. That has, unsurprisingly, engendered a seething, volatile cauldron of class discontent. Identity politics is an elite contrivance to divert attention from this class chasm. (p. 371).
Finkelstein shows how the Bernie Sanders campaign – the real thing, in contrast to the hollowness of Obama – was derailed by the weaponization of identity politics. As a result of a combination of a) the machinations of Obama, b) the help of co-opted “woke radicals”, c) the assistance of African-American officials who had been given jobs and perks by the system, and d) the tendency, for historical reasons, of the Black community to act in accordance with the advice of these officials, the crucial Black vote for the Democratic nominee went to the Establishment candidate, Joe Biden. Finkelstein’s unsparing denunciation of co-opted “woke radicals”, including many icons of the left, such as Angela Davis and Amy Goodman, for their betrayal of class politics — in addition to his evisceration of fashionably “woke” and mainly black authors — is probably one reason why the left-wing publishing house Verso cancelled the book by declining to publish it.
But Part 1 is not just a demolition job: Finkelstein contrasts his “woke” targets with radical and universalist Black figures such as Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. De Bois (from whose almost forgotten works he quotes extensively). And the whole book is informed by the highly unfashionable universalist ideas of John Stuart Mill, with his insistence on the pursuit of Truth, and of Immanuel Kant, with his moral categorical imperative.
After the zany fun and impassioned denunciations of Part 1, Part II is partly concerned with combating the fashionably “woke” view that university teachers, instead of presenting both sides of an issue, to encourage students to think for themselves, should take a side and convey this to their students. Instead, Finkelstein puts forward Mill’s approach of presenting both sides of an opinion, in order to approach as closely as possible to the Truth. Part II, which is written in sober, scholarly style, is very different in tone to Part 1, and yet also appears outrageous at first sight in its discussion of whether the subject of holocaust denial should be taught at universities. But Finkelstein’s analysis is clear and convincing. Taking as his target an article by the legal scholar Stanley Fish, Finkelstein’s basic thesis in this section is: if holocaust deniers are viewed as a tiny, uninfluential minority (in The Holocaust Industry, Finkelstein equates them with the Flat Earth Society), then it is pointless to waste university time teaching “a quack proposition” (p. 420). But if, as Fish – along with many proponents of the Holocaust industry – claims, holocaust deniers are a major threat, then university students should be taught holocaust deniers’ arguments, in order to be able to understand and refute them – and university students should ideally be taught these arguments by holocaust deniers, since an idea can only be convincing if taught by someone who genuinely believes in it.
Finkelstein finishes the book by considering his own cancellation case of denial of tenure – not in emotional, personal terms, but by carefully and soberly weighing up complex arguments about the question of “civility” in university life (the reason given for denying him tenure was his alleged “incivility”). How far do a university professor’s extra-mural publicly expressed opinions (such as his or her tweets from a personal Twitter account) affect his or her intra-mural position? Finkelstein’s somewhat surprising conclusion is that extra-mural utterances cannot be separated from a professor’s intra-mural role. But he goes on to say that true scholars, such as Marx, put their “whole being” (p. 490) into their work and that “verbally pugnacious combat, so long as one’s interlocutors get their say, cannot legitimately be construed as crossing the threshold of intolerance…. The uncivil reality, not uncivil words, should be cause for reproach and excoriation, while uncivil words might be called for to bring home the uncivil reality”. (pp. 491-2). True to his belief in putting forward both sides of an issue, the book’s Conclusion consists of two opposing documents: the letter sent to him by the President of De Paul University that denied him tenure (even though the Political Science Department, where Finkelstein worked, voted 9:3 in favour of tenure) and a statement in Finkelstein’s defence by Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews and founder and dean of Holocaust Studies. Readers are asked to make their own judgment as to whether the decision was correct.
More than in any other of his works, Finkelstein has put his “whole being” into this one. So far from being “incoherent”, this book’s main underlying theme seems to me to be unity: human unity, as against the fragmentation of identity politics; the Millian unity of the pursuit of Truth; the moral unity of the Kantian categorical imperative; the unity of the 80 per cent, in order to demand a more just world; and the whole book is the expression, in all its different facets, of one unique personality. Ultimately, this book is a wake-up call to the Left to abandon its fragmented, tribal identity politics and the dogmatic certainties of narrow-minded cult leaders and return to its radical, class-based roots and to the great universalist teachers of the past, Black and white, in order, in this time of emergency, to find a way ahead.