Three letters on AMERICAN RADICAL

February 16, 2010

In News

Invective. I recently heard the word hurled at you with vilifying intentions, Professor.

By chance and historical circumstances, I was born in a United States semi-ghetto to Mexican parents drifting up and down California’s agricultural seasons; thus, I speak two of the three native languages (Spanish, English and Spanglish) half as well as I would like and use the third more than I should. Because of this, I pay too much attention to words—one, because more often than not I do not know them, and two, I find their histories interesting.

Invective. From what I found, the word refers to language that is insulting, abusive. But the word is also attributed to using “highly critical language.” It reminds me of an admission Thomas Hobbes writes regarding people’s conceptions of governing. In his Leviathan, Hobbes wrote as follows:

“For they that are discontented under monarchy, call it tyranny; and they that are displeased with aristocracy, call it oligarchy: so also, they which find themselves grieved under a democracy, call it anarchy…”

The words, then, have varying connotations. Invective, from the Latin, invectus, or invehos, which means to “carry in/bring in” or can also refer to “attack,” can mean different things depending where one stands. To bring something “in” (say for debate) can be seen by someone as an attack and by another as responsible inquiry. It is not
difficult to see which one has something to hide. Additionally, I see no problem in attacking, or bringing up something for legitimate judgment. Much talk about “tone” or “style” has surrounded your discourse and scholarship. I see this as a divergence, a
quintessential sleight-of-the-hand (or in this case, of the mouth) trick, in order to disappear the issues in question—mainly, the facts.

Is it wrong to feel angry? Is it wrong to feel? Is it wrong to speak up against the imprisonment, torture and murder of an entire population? Are we to be tamed, composed, in other words, insensitive? I find it offensive that, “we”, the civilized, are required to refrain from emotion in the face of suffering. I am not a missionary. In fact,
I do not believe in any God/s. A human heart needs no god for it to pump with rage at injustice. The ancient Mesoamerican scripts place knowledge in the heart, the yollotl. I take my cues similarly. I prefer to have a heart.

Morality is not something I have been able to define. Yet, it is so easily identified. I do not feel the need to reference a text in order to know a right from wrong. I know that when my father tells me that he had to jump the border-fence and flee the armed enforcement police, in order to visit his first-born child and her recovering mother (my
sister and mother) at the hospital where she gave birth–I know and feel that–something is not right. Something is wrong. But in no way can this be compared to the daily suffering the Palestinian people endure at the hands of the IDF and Israeli state policy. The daily disruption of life and dignity cannot be looked upon favorably by any moral judgment without a considerable propaganda effort on the part of the perpetrators.

How can we be asked to remain phlegmatic? Who, besides the actual victims, has the right to ask for my, your, or anyone else’s tranquility?

I try not to think of, let alone speak or write about, my two dead older brothers. I am not able to, nor do I try to, keep my composure when thinking about my older brother, who, at 15 years old, was murdered by a gunshot wound to the head. I bring this up now because I am finding it harder and harder to distinguish the feelings I get when
I think of my loss and see and hear about the losses and continual murders of the Palestinian people. It is not because I am forgetting what it feels like but precisely because I am remembering the details.

In solidarity with my sisters and brothers in Palestine,
Abraham Ramirez


I owe much to your work and words, Professor. Armed with analytical clarity and a great sense of reality, I have learned much from your integrity and your work as a public intellectual. You are among the intellectuals who have influenced my political awakening. I do not write this to put you on a pedestal but to situate you as a major
influence on me. I do not expect you to remember, but when I first met you a few years back, I apologized for asking you for your signature in my notebook, as I felt foolish amidst the line of USC students prepared, book in hand. Before I could apologize, you said to me, “I respect that.” Respect is not easy to come by and neither is integrity. Back then I was an undergraduate at a CSU and now I am starting my 2nd year of graduate school at UC Berkeley. My wife will graduate with a BA this year and is adamant about graduate school (a Masters of Social Work) because, according to her, since I intend to
teach after my Ph.D. and if I manage to maintain my integrity through graduate school, I may find myself constantly struggling for a teaching position.

I do want to thank you for your “invective” (bringing to the table) responsible scholarship as a professor and for your passion as a human being. As much as you may not want to recognize it, you are a role model for me as I continue in my endeavor for both.

“…El revolucionario verdadero está guiado por grandes sentimientos
de amor…” Che.


Dear Dr. Finkelstein,

I just wanted to write you to express how much i admire your work and courage. You are a MAN of PRINCIPLE and CAUSE, its very rare that you encounter a person who would sacrifice his academic proffession, source of income, and general livelihood for a cause he deems worthy and it is, no doubt about that. You speak the truth and unfortunately MANY people can’t handle it and it says alot about the state of academic freedom of expression in this country. Ive been living and working in NYC for many years, im originally from Saudi Arabia, and i thought to myself yesterday after having viewed your screening of American Radical “Wow, if they can do all of this to him and get away with it and hes a citizen in the land where the 1st Ammendment is highly valued and implemented (supposedly) than can you imagine what would happen to proffessors and intellectuals in Saudi Arabia and the Arab World if they spoke out and criticized their Governments factually?! believe me its not a pretty picture unforutnately. I wish our so- called “Leaders and Politicians” could possess only a fraction of the guts and self respect you possess and then maybe… just maybe we’d be in a much better state. In my opinion, whats sets you apart from the rest in the Academic world (other than the obvious fact that you are a walking fact machine and brilliant debater 🙂 ) is you calm demeanour, even amongst heated criticism you still manage to keep cool under pressure and that is an admirable trait. In terms of change and progress in the Arab World, it may very well be underway (hopefully) but calmness is not a trait Arabs are known for, and im sure youve seen and interacted with many Arabs and i think its safe to say that we are a passionate and rowdy bunch LOL, one thing remains certain, becoming a calm and collective peoples aint happenin anytime soon LOL. Please keep on doing what you do. I hope to see you in the future in one of youre speaking engagements. Have a great day.

Sincerely, Fatima Ageel


Dr. Finkelstein–

I met you briefly on friday night at the showing of American Radical; I had the pleasure of asking you a question and then engaging you in conversation. My name is Matthew Phillips, I am a twenty-four year old MA student at the CUNY Graduate Center.

I have read all of your books (minus the personal account of the first intifada) and have followed the trajectory of your career since I first heard you debate Alan Dershowitz in 2003 in that now infamous episode. While the documentary necessarily cannot convey your
scholarship, what does come across are your integrity and moral seriousness, as well as one other quality you have in abundance, a quality that I was previously unaware of: that is your penchant for self-criticism.

My brother, on Friday night, asked you a question about your self-doubt, and you replied that you are not given to false modesty, and that you doubt yourself almost constantly. Your answer, in full, impressed him a great deal. You seem to be devoted to introspection, admirable for someone who has been so maligned, and you seem to have fully internalized Professor Chomsky’s insistence that we look ourselves in the mirror, and that we hold ourselves to the same standards that we hold others. At the end of the day, you are not a
polemicist, or even an exceptional historian or scholar–which you are, in my mind. You are a moralist, just as Professor Chomsky is. Both you and Professor Chomsky use logic and reason, buttressed by scholarship, to expose double standards and hypocrisy in our world.
That both of you do it so relentlessly, and without deference to any ideology or “ism”–this seems to have driven your critics to the brink of madness.

But it has also gained the admiration and respect of those like myself, who recognize that the issues you raise are the pressing moral issues of our age, and should not be the fodder of academic charlatans (“political scientists”) who view the “Israeli Palestinian Conflict”
as some incredibly complex historical dilemma, which has to be endlessly dissected and dramatized, when it is in fact a present-day military occupation, with all the horrors occupation engenders, that could end if we had the requisite will to end it. We also resent those who use the Holocaust, and approach it cynically chiefly in order to mystify it shroud it or shroud it in enigma, if not to blatantly profiteer from it.

These are your singular achievements: you have made these issues knowable to us, and thus given them very deep resonance to people who otherwise would see them as too obscure to even approach. Your self-criticism is admirable. But Noam Chomsky cannot humanly do what he does forever, and people will look to you as his “heir” in some sense, for there is one else in our intellectual life who has the right blend of intellectual rigor and moral seriousness. I hope you know this, and will not let that admirable trait of self-doubt and
introspection ever spiral out of control and have a paralyzing effect. Your other qualities are vitally needed now. Hope to meet you again soon.