A correspondent queries Finkelstein

January 30, 2021

In Letters To Finkelstein

Dear Professor Finkelstein,

I finished the first lecture in a series of ten given by you. It’s about fascism, and speech, and John Stuart Mill. Near the end of the lecture you spoke about courage and what it means to be brave with your decision to speak. You told a story. Riding home on the subway a homeless man and three younger gentlemen got on at the same time. The homeless person smelled terrible, and the other three openly mocked him for this. You immediately sympathized for the homeless man, for he didn’t choose to smell terrible and the three other men were tormenting a man whose life was already filled with pain. So you imagine another scene, following it: what if the homeless man took a bottle and smashed it open, then attacked the three jeering men, possibly killing one or two of them? You say you would not feel sympathetic for the victims, you would not think that their teasing was particularly brave, you would not “shed a single tear for them.”

            This shook me. I’ve watched hours of interviews, lectures, debates, and a documentary on your life’s work; I’ve read one of your books. You’re a personal hero of mine. So when I hear you talk about your lack of sympathy for three men who were murdered… Well, that’s what this letter is all about, isn’t it? It’s a way for me to figure out my feelings on the matter. These three men were not brave – I agree with you there, they were cruel. They were picking on someone to the point of torment – shame is torture, dehumanization is torture, they were parasites. But I do not think they deserved to die. You’re someone I assume feels sympathy for people who are killed who do not deserve to die, but your remarks here make me wonder if that’s always the case, or what your litmus test is for when someone deserves to die. There’s a way I can sparse this out, I think, more clearly: just email you. Pose to you two questions: do you have sympathy for those who are murdered and don’t deserve to die, and would these men on the subway deserve to die?

            In the lecture you were making an analogy to what happened to the writers and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. The press, academics, and numerous writing organizations eulogized those at Charlie Hebdo as heroes for making fun of Muslims, as martyrs for the quest of free speech. I agree with you here, too: I don’t think they were heroes. They didn’t do anything particularly heroic. But drawing this analogy, and the implicit conclusion that a moral person should not feel sympathy for the people who died is too much for me.

            But there’s also another very real part of me that’s bubbling up. I was going to say that maybe this is a sign of me getting old and less radical, less impassioned, but now I’m imagining the totality of that homeless man’s life. Every day he is dehumanized by society for his mere existence. That is, when he is abandoned by the state, ignored by strangers who pretend not to notice him as he asks for their help, left to smell and the object of ridicule, does he not deserve something back? Is there no justice for living a life like this? So if he were to see one of his more overt torturers, ones who jeer and submit pain past the one we inflict by ignoring him, are the three mens’ deaths really so tragic?

Should we cry for the torturers who rip a victim’s humanity to shreds, when the victim finally strikes back?

I don’t know. I’m not a fucking saint, I’m not a pacifist – Kissinger, Netanyahu, Cheney: if I saw any of them walk into a bathroom at a restaurant I’m sitting at, I would have to really push back the fantasy of following them, locking the door, and strangling them them to death with my belt. Some people deserve to die. But the Hebdo writers and the three men on the subway…

I’m going in circles now, I should’ve ended this earlier. Maybe that is a sign I’m getting old, that I’m saying the same thing multiple times, retelling a story you’ve heard before.

Fred, 28