Norman Finkelstein and J.S. Mill

In case you don’t see me in the photo, I’m second from the right in the back. This photo was taken at the end of a very illuminating week of studying John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty with the controversial professor from Brooklyn, Dr. Norman Finkelstein.

I realize that a lot of my friends out there might have never heard of him. I caution you in advance to not believe everything you hear, especially if it comes from Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz. The documentary film American Radical is a good introduction to the man and his work, but after spending a week with him, I would hesitate to lead with the word “radical” because although he identifies himself as a Marxist (who nonetheless appreciates classic liberal thought), he is not the raving firebrand that his critics would suggest. His major transgression against the status quo, if you can even call it that, is that he dares to speak out about Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians — and the complicity of the United States — as a Jew. It doesn’t help his popularity in mainstream circles that he also rebukes fellow Jews for politicizing the Holocaust as someone who has lost as much as anyone from that dark and depraved period of history. His heritage is important because he cannot so easily be dismissed as an anti-Semite (although he is called a self-hating Jew by the likes of Dershowitz), and many of his supporters in the Arab world find it more than refreshing to hear a Jew standing up for their rights.

This is his significance to society, but beyond that, I would not even call him eccentric (which he would find ironic given the amount of time we spent in class defining Mill’s use of the term and lionization of the concept). He is, without a doubt, an exceptional professor in that he can draw out even the most timid of students and perfectly summarize even the most convoluted of ideas. He also speaks in a deliberate and emphatic manner that forces you to pay attention to every word, even if the topic may be of only partial interest. Yet, he’s modest: claiming that his only real gift to the world is his uncanny ability to give ample time and attention to topics that most others find dull — like the footnotes of Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel. He also concedes that he is not easily flustered or offended in debates, which makes it easier to tear through the shaky logic and ad hominems that are often slung his way by less conscious scholars and commentators.

If there’s one main thing I will take away from his course, it’s the knowledge that there is no scientific formula or prescription that will solve all of society’s problems. Even the greatest philosophers were left with more questions than answers. This is not to say that we should accept the status quo — only that we should keep in mind that there is no consensus on even the most fundamental values. My liberty could be my neighbor’s oppression and so on. There may be some things that are clearly wrong, but there isn’t so much, if anything, that is clearly right.

If there’s a second thing I will take away, it is the idea that everything we think is true now could be not only proven false in a century or so but viewed as utterly ridiculous. There was a time, after all, where most people thought the world was flat (although not in 1492, this is a popular myth). I hope this will help me to relax just a little in my foolhardy attempt to solve all of the world’s problems. It’s a reason to be humble and to question anyone who claims absolute certainty.

If there is a third and final thing I will take away, it is Whitney Houston (inside joke).

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2 Comments

  1. Cay said,

    December 3, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    question — and i apologize if this comes off as offensive, but as a man from New York, i have extensive Jewish experience:

    * if Jews can be considered self-hating anyway — consider their contribution to humor, particularly stand-up, by way of self-deprecation — then what’s to be said of a self-hating person saying indignantly that someone else in their social group is self-hating?

    honestly, the whole thing reminds me of how Black Americans complain that if they argue about their internal societal issues — such as colorism or drug abuse or Black homosexuality — publicly in front of other races, then it’s putting private business in the street.

    btw, it’s still too soon for me joke about Whitney.

    i really like the sound of this Finkelstein, though.

  2. Patty Courtney said,

    December 11, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    So many of us have become too soft with privilege. Never say what I want to hear! Please say what I need to hear! I would love to experience Dr. Finkelstein’s brain.


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