Finkelstein in Toronto

I haven’t been getting out much. You might think the result should be more blogging and not less, but the opposite is the case. Anyway I got out a couple of times in the past two days.

I haven’t been getting out much. You might think the result should be more blogging and not less, but the opposite is the case. Anyway I got out a couple of times in the past two days.

Last night it was to see Norman Finkelstein speak at the University of Toronto. For those who know his work, his talk was a summary of his work, starting with his debunking of Joan Peters’s fraud, From Time Immemorial, and ending with his debunking of Alan Dershowitz’s Case for Israel. He emphasized that the debunking, doing the work of preparing the evidence that these books were frauds, was the easy part. The hard part was getting the facts out to the public. Finkelstein reported that Dershowitz is actively trying to prevent the publication of Finkelstein’s book on Dershowitz, employing one of the largest law firms in the United States to do so. The book is coming out of the University of California Press, and Finkelstein said that Dershowitz even called the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to get the book killed.

(In case you missed the opening shots in this battle, they are archived on Democracy Now for all to see.)

Finkelstein’s theme was the difference between legitimate and illegitimate differences of opinion on the Israel/Palestine conflict. The facts, Finkelstein said, are stark and clear. Israel has all the power. Israel systematically tortures Palestinians. Israel violates international law with impunity. Israel’s founding is based on ethnic cleansing and its ongoing policies are dedicated to the same goal. On all this, there is very little disagreement in the serious scholarship or in the human rights community – though folks like Benny Morris can agree with these facts and come to the conclusion that there should have been more ethnic cleansing and not less. So on these issues there can’t be disagreement, right? Wrong – because there is a whole industry dedicated to fabricating claims about the conflict, using mystification, denial, claims of ‘anti-semitism’, and just reams of fraudulent output, to obfuscate the facts. These disagreements are not honest, they are not in good faith, they are not based on political judgement. They are fraudulent, manufactured, designed to assist in the perpetuation of crimes (that last being my own interpretation, not his).

Finkelstein contrasted this with what he calls legitimate disagreements. One such disagreement: that between advocates of the right of return and the ‘one-state solution’ with the position he implicitly took, that neither such thing is feasible.

(I tried arguing with him on this: I don’t think a genuine two-state solution is feasible. His response: how could a solution with the whole world behind it be less feasible than one with no one behind it? To which I tried to reply – the world is convinced not by the two-state solution but by the justice of the cause of the Palestinians. The infeasibility comes not from the presence or absence of world opinion but from the balance of forces, which is totally unfavorable to the Palestinians, and isn’t much changed – in my view – by seeking a just solution. His reply – Palestinians suffered not so much from the balance of forces, which no one can control, but from corrupt and collaborationist leadership, which they can control, and which has failed to exploit such opportunities as exist, like the world court ruling on the apartheid wall.)

The other thing I tried to argue with him about is the tremendous value he places on what he called ‘top-tier’ schools, etc. He said when you are deciding whether a book is good you look at the mechanisms of quality control – look at the publisher, look at the school the author teaches at, look at the blurbs, look at the reviews in the NYRB and the NYT. The trouble, he said, is that on the Israel-Palestine conflict, these mechanisms fail. But of course Finkelstein well knows they aren’t just mechanisms of quality control, but of ideological filtering. Jeff Schmidt’s book ‘Disciplined Minds’ comes to mind, or Herman and Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing Consent’, or simply Michael Albert’s pithy phrase, ‘garbage rises’. I don’t know if I could have convinced him on this one, given more time. But I think he would have to agree that there are plenty of very smart, well-informed people outside the ‘top-tier’ schools and some dangerously stupid and ignorant people inside them. Another quote, my absolute favourite from biologist Stephen Jay Gould: “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

I really like that sentiment.

That was last night. Today I spent some time with Dru from The Dominion talking about the Canadian media landscape and dreaming about media institutions that could have wide enough reach to be able to change the terms of the debate, and about political organizations with a strategy. That’s about as far as we got, though.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.

7 thoughts on “Finkelstein in Toronto”

  1. Glad you’re back. Did you
    Glad you’re back. Did you and Dru discuss lutarture at all? Have you read any of Gary Engler’s hockey novel? It is publish in installments at I’m ejoying it a lot.

    Tony Cristini has argued that the Left has ignored the “importance of story”:

    I basically stopped reading novels years ago because I felt non-fiction (like Chomsky) is so much more important. But I find myself wondering if the Left hasn’t gone too serious/scholarly in attempts to reach people.

    Michael Moore’s success tends to support that.

  2. Well, I doubt you discussed
    Well, I doubt you discussed “lutarture”, but maybe you discussed literature.

  3. Justin: “The trouble, he
    Justin: “The trouble, he said, is that on the Israel-Palestine conflict, these mechanisms fail. But of course Finkelstein well knows they aren’t just mechanisms of quality control, but of ideological filtering.”

    I suspect you two are saying about the same thing. The “mechanisms” should lead to frauds not being published… So, if a fraud is published, then the “mechanisms” have failed.

    They could fail for various reasons. For instance, interfering with the proper operations of the “mechanisms” (such interference would be an “ideological filtering”). The interference could happen in various ways, such has loading the dices on who reviews the book. The more backing an ideological position has (in terms of power, not accuracy), the more likely that it will go through.

    I don’t really like talking about “ideological filtering” as one grand master plan by a given power system. That’s one thing I’m a bit uncomfortable with Chomsky. He does a superb job of demystifying what’s going on, but sometimes may be oversimplifying. There’s not one power system, but rather, it’s more like a pyramid where there are competing interests. In that sense, Chomsky, and you in talking about “ideological filter” are over simplifying what goes on.

    It’s just not true that there’s a few against the rest. Lower in the pyramid, power struggles are just as true. Anyone who’s had the chance to observe the political games in a high tech company know that there’ll be people screwing up others WITHIN THE SAME COMPANY to further their career.

    All in all, the zionists have so much traction, that there’s a whole lot of junk being published on the Israel-Palestine conflict. But here, also, it’s a matter of degree. There are some topics which do also produce junk. But the degree is related to the forces facing each others.

    Well, anyways, you decide if I’m making any sense 🙂

  4. Howdy. So, so much for being
    Howdy. So, so much for being ‘back’, huh? Three days later and I haven’t managed another post. Partly I got sick (maybe going out twice in a week after not doing so for weeks will do that to you?). But enough excuses. On to responses. Joe, we didn’t talk about literature but it’s an interest of mine. I’ll read Engler’s novel – it’s on my list. I’ve written one (a political mystery) and have the rejections from publishers to prove it. I am an addict. I have other friends who are active (and real, not phonies like me) fiction writers, artists, etc. I certainly think it’s a huge part of the climate (I’ve done a few film reviews here and thought about doing more) and would be an important part of creating cultural alternatives. Again, had some very interesting conversations about this in Venezuela. If mainstream culture really is as vapid as leftists think it is (and I happen to think it is and it isn’t) then if leftists can offer genuine alternatives that should lead to great success for movements. Unfortunately living in vapidity doesn’t lead inexorably to people who are capable of producing sublime art or literature (that’s what passes for an excuse for myself… though Ms. Roy seems to have done okay, and by what you’re saying it sounds like Engler has too).

    Steph: I don’t agree! Of course any statement is an oversimplification, and there are always nuances when you look into the details. The point is how does a system work overwhelmingly. In what direction do the pressures run. What are the predictable average outcomes of such a (hypothetical) system, and do they match with the average outcomes of the real system. Finkelstein is wrong when he says Israel-Palestine is an exception. I read about Venezuela. I read about Colombia. I read about Haiti. There is a great deal of garbage – and not so much garbage as material overwhelmingly biased towards the interests of wealth and power, as opposed to towards truth, ‘quality’, or standards of logic or evidence. Chomsky makes this point, and repeats it, because he is trying to demystify these things. When Finkelstein argues that these things are *good*, but they just don’t work *perfectly* on Israel-Palestine, he is contributing to *mystifying* them again. I’m sure he knows better than me, but my feeling is that acceptance into Harvard, Yale, etc. etc. correlates with *privilege* more than anything else. That’s certainly true of universities I’ve seen or had experience with… and the more ‘prestigious’, the more so.

  5. Justin: “Of course any
    Justin: “Of course any statement is an oversimplification, and there are always nuances when you look into the details.”

    I differentiate between simplification and oversimplification. When I talk of the latter, I’m refering to a situation which, IMO, crucial details are lost. Losing sight of the fact that power is pyramidal is not merely a “nuance” imo. This leaves people:
    a) thinking that as individuals they can’t tackle the top.
    b) They are not in any way responsible for the situation

    I’ll cut it short and skip other stuff, since this is a blog and not a discussion forum.

    Maybe we can exchange notes over a cup of fair trade cofee/hot chocolat if you’re ever in my area.

    PS. I’m not dissing Chomsky. He’s a giant.

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