June 30, 2013

Defending Norman Finkelstein

As I have taken issue quite strongly with Norman Finkelstein before, for example here, and here, and here, I feel I need to also take issue with a recently publish article by Steven Salaita, published on Electronic Intifada, that equates Norman Finkelstein with Alan Dershowitz. The article, a textbook example of smear by association, is unbecoming and EI editors should have done the author the favor of refusing to publish it.

I disagree with both Finkelstein's analysis of the political moment and his notions about social movements strategies. On the first matter I think the "opportunity" allegedly presented by the wide international consensus over partitioning Palestine is a mirage. There is an international consensus that one must talk about partitioning Palestine and nothing else. There is no consensus about actual partition, and this isn't likely to change. Norman Finkelstein believes one can use moral persuasion to force the powers that be to act according to what they preach. I believe this is fantasy. Finkelstein believes that it is possible to build a successful mass social movement based on mainstream, generally depoliticized, middle-class Americans and Europeans driven by moral outrage that would compel governments to obey their own laws and follow they own principles. To achieve that, the most important thing activists should do is avoid saying anything that might offend or turn off the average New York Times reader. I think that is a losing and unworkable plan and there is no historical example of such a strategy ever working (but plenty of examples of real social movements pressured to adopt such self-defeating strategies, something Martin Luther King bitterly complained about while sitting in the Birmingham jail). Wide and effective social movements only coalesce on their own aspirations, and ruling classes yield to them only when their material interests are threatened in a significant way and then only when they have exhausted their other options. That is why, first of all, the primary public whose opinion matters is not New York Time readers but Palestinians. That is why also the second most important public is, again, not mainstream opinion, but Americans and Europeans and, even more so, people in the South, who are in various ways and for various reasons relating to their own conditions already more politicized than the mainstream.

I would wish those disagreements should be discussed openly and intelligently, because they are important, and there is a lot more to be said and having these discussions and debate is educational and strengthens the work of building movements for justice. Unfortunately, it is impossible for people in the Palestine solidarity movement to have an intelligent debate with Finkelstein. He drumbeats his talking points, studiously refuses to notice responses to them and resorts to smears and insults when challenged, coupled with an offensive certainty that nobody, and especially those who spend all their day doing it, has anything to teach him about how to organize politically. Finkelstein now thinks he has been "blacklisted" by some "guru" because of his controversial opinions. Apart from this being yet another example of his self-indulgence, it is twice wrong. First, because there is no "guru" with the capacity to blacklist him, the movement being extensively and even perhaps excessively decentralized, and second because--and I say this as someone who occasionally participates in making (local) decisions about inviting speakers--it is not his opinions it seems to me that make him unwelcome but his insufferable and condescending demeanor.

That's a shame, and there is an understandable desire by some to respond in kind. That is how we get to articles such as the one that prompted this post. But we shouldn't, for three reasons. First, because, it should be elementary, Finkelstein's way of responding to critics to his political left is a form of bullying, and there is no excuse for that. We don't need that kind of behavior in our our movements, and we shouldn't legitimize it on the principle that "he started it." Second, the purpose of bullying is to foreclose discussion. Finkelstein does it because he does not want to engage with anyone to his left. But having wide and open discussion about strategy is a good thing on its own and a benefit to activists. There have been thoughtful replies to Finkelstein's arguments (for example, here and here) and these replies sharpen our understanding and improve the work of advocacy on and solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Smearing Finkelstein by underhanded comparisons with Dershowitz is, beyond being unseemly, a way to avoid discussions that are necessary and useful.

But the most important reason why this is wrong is that it reflects a failure to understand Finkelstein's performance as a political act. As he himself says, "it's politics." Namely, the purpose of rhetoric is not to tell the truth but primarily to gain power by building majorities. Finkelstein's smears are reserved for people he perceives to be on his left, namely, in terms of the broad hegemonic order, more marginal than he is. Those activists he perceives (according to his own words), rightly or wrongly, as close enough to the mainstream, such as Anna Baltzer, get a much nicer treatment. Thus, Finkelstein's attacks on BDS are a variant of the tried and true strategy of centrist "progressive" forces to monopolize the space of "legitimate," "realistic," opposition (think the Democratic Party, Move-On, the British Labour party, etc.) by portraying everything to their left as starry-eyed idealists, detached pie-in-the-sky radicals, Guru-following cultists, frighten-the-children spoilers, and--the worse offense--unrealistic. There is however a grain of truth in every legend: there are certainly in any camp we find ourselves in those who are exactly like that. I'm sure you've met some. The beauty of this strategy for marginalizing BDS and foreclosing the building of real effective international challenges to Israeli apartheid is that it relies on empowering precisely those voices, for whom Finkelstein's "betrayal" just goes to show the dangers of building large movements and why one should segregate oneself in echo chambers of ideological purity. But whereas supporters of the status quo gains something from excluding more radical voices, the latter gain nothing from excluding themselves (those who make a living running tiny left sects have of course a different calculus, which might explain their enthusiasm for Finkelstein).

Every movement for justice that grows will constantly face attempts to tame it, to marginalize, to divert it, and to co-opt it. One solution is to find a strategy that is guaranteed to eschew growth. The other is to accept the challenge and the risk, and to build the education capacity and the resilience that would hopefully allows surviving and growing through these attacks. For that to happen, debates should we welcome and wrongheaded views that appeal to honest supporters and potential supporters should be heard and countered with reason and not by counter-bullying, and attacks from the center should not become opportunities for retreating into the righteousness of making every debate into a mudslinging or bullying contest.

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