Norman Finkelstein is an influential political scientist, activist, and author.
In part one of this interview, Professor Finkelstein spoke about Palestine, China, the ICC, his influences, and writing. It is available here.
The interview was recorded on May 17th, 2023. Language has been edited for clarity.
Julian Izzo: Aside from all of your writing, you’ve also often spoken about your fondness for teaching. What is it about the act of teaching that you find so meaningful?
Norman Finkelstein: I think it’s exciting to awaken students to the excitement of the life of the mind. I like to see people who are written off as slow, unintellectual – I like to have students like that to not only show me, but more importantly show them that the life of the mind can be something exciting and they should relish it, and they should also give themselves a chance. They may think, “No, I’m not cut out for this, I’m not smart enough,” and I like to show them if they give themselves a chance they could see that, in fact, they are capable of thinking through problems of reasoning, of arguing.
A music teacher awakens an aesthetic sensibility in a student, and if a student discovers this gift for a musical instrument or for voice, of course the teacher is excited about it, just as a teacher would be excited for anybody discovering any aesthetic affinity. You don’t have to be Mozart, you don’t have to be Van Cliburn and you don’t have to be Jascha Heifetz, but you could still discover an aesthetic sensibility.
My job is to awaken the intellectual, the mental sensibility of the student, and that to me is a very gratifying experience. If I read student papers and I see really quality papers, as I did this past semester, I’m very happy. I’m happy for me, I did a good job, I’m happy for them, they did a good job. It’s a good feeling.
JI: And I’ve heard from academics that students now have difficulty writing. So are you not seeing that as much as is said generally?
NF: I happen to have a high-power class now, but in general the writing is a catastrophe. And it’s a real nightmare to have to grade papers which are completely incoherent, and where basic English is beyond the capacity of the students.
JI: It’s that bad, is it?
NF: It’s very depressing.
JI: And you’ve seen a gradual decline?
NF: You know, it’s hard for me to judge, first of all because I’ve not taught steadily. I was not teaching for 15 years, from 2007 until a couple of years ago, so I don’t even remember what the quality of the writing was. So it’s hard for me to say, but I think it’s clear that young people aren’t doing much reading and you can’t write unless you read.
JI: Of course. And it seems there has been a move towards the sciences to the detriment of the humanities.
NF: Well, the humanities are dying. I don’t really believe they’ll be around much longer in their current form. Judging from trends that you can see around you, the most likely result probably in about 15 years is going to be – except in the most elite universities where they’re training the elite ruling class – apart from those universities, what you’re going to see is the consolidation of all the humanities in one division called the social sciences. And so you won’t have anthropology departments, you won’t have sociology departments, you won’t have political science departments, you won’t have philosophy departments. What you’ll have is one social sciences department in which there will be a smattering of courses in each of these disciplines – current disciplines in what’s called the arts and humanities.
JI: And speaking to your point about it becoming a ruling class kind of subject –
NF: It will be the way it always was, you know, before the democratisation of higher education. There were a small number of colleges where future members of the ruling elite attended, and they got training in the highest and the best of the Western tradition. And that’s what it will effectively become, and you’ll have a smattering of courses if you want to choose them, but mostly it’s going to be vocational trade-like education, which in large part it is right now.
You talk to students and you’ll very, very, very seldom meet a student majoring in English, majoring in – well, back in my day people majored in French, majored in German, majored in Anthropology. That doesn’t exist at all anymore. People major in things like graphics. That’s considered an academic discipline. Or graphic design, anything to do with computers. That’s what majors are nowadays.
So, of course, departmental budgets depend on student demand. Students aren’t taking courses like that anymore because there’s no connection with a job. And because jobs are scarce, tuitions are high, obviously students are going to gravitate towards departments which have a practical application in terms of finding work.
JI: And just to give an example of that being enacted almost as a form of social engineering: I did my postgraduate studies in Australia, and there’s been a reform of the education system where more vocational subjects are being subsidised while others like English are full-fee, so they’re only functionally available to elite students.
NF: Yeah, that makes – because they don’t see any point in teaching these subjects to working-class kids. That was a victory of the struggle for democratising higher education. There’s no longer a belief in that, and students aren’t interested in it because they need a job.
JI: Which is understandable.
NF: Yeah. So it’s understandable, and the ruling elites don’t see any points in teaching Amazon workers Shakespeare, teaching Uber drivers Dickens. They don’t see any point in that. So there’s a confluence of factors, but the bottom line of the confluence is that the humanities just won’t survive. That’s very obvious.
JI: Not only do they not see a point in it, but it’s better if they don’t.
NF: Yeah, I agree with that. You can’t articulate an argument if you’re illiterate, you can’t reason through an argument. Currently there’s this weird notion that a tweet is an argument. A tweet is not an argument. An argument is very complex, it’s very hard to construct. It has major clauses, minor clauses, you have to sit down and it’s really painstaking, mentally anguishing to have to work through an entire argument. That’s not a tweet. A tweet’s a burp, it’s not an argument.
So if you keep these young people functionally illiterate they can’t make an argument, which means in the real world they can’t defend themselves. In order to defend yourself if you go in front of a court of law, even when you’re talking to a police officer, you have to know how to work through an argument. You have to know how to analyse an argument. But if you don’t have these basic tools like literacy, you can’t do it.
JI: It also makes it difficult to organise collectively and form an argument or a defence – you know, “educate and organise.”
NF: You can organise collectively, but at some level you need people who are able to articulate in coherent, compelling prose your convictions – not only to articulate, but to defend the reasonableness, the logic, the desirability of the demands you’re making.
That requires people who can think, and thinking requires learning how to work through an argument, and you can’t work through an argument unless you read, and you study, and you analyse. That’s just the name of the game.
JI: And this is more of a curiosity, but I saw an article in one of your footnotes: you wrote a biting article criticising Christopher Hitchens in the early 2000s for his support of the Iraq war. But you also seem to also have a slight admiration for his writing. What’s your opinion of him in retrospect?
NF: I have no admiration for his writing.
NF: Because it was witty, no doubt, but there’s no conviction behind the words. I knew his publisher quite well, and his publisher once said to me, “Christopher Hitchens has only one” – and he liked Hitchens, by the way, but he said, “His only concern in life is when he walks in the room he’s the centre of attention.” That’s all. That was his be all and end all, to be the centre of attention. Even when he was dying, his cancer had to be the centre of attention. So there was no conviction. Anyone who could leap overnight from the far left to the far right, to go from Lenin to Wolfowitz or Trotsky to Wolfowitz, that’s not a morally serious person. That’s just ridiculous.
Any change of heart, if it’s serious, is gradual, it’s incremental. You realise you were wrong about something and then you say, “Ok, I was wrong so I have to make an adjustment here, I have to make an accommodation there.” But you don’t leap across the spectrum. You don’t go from permanent revolution to Paul Wolfowitz. That’s not morally serious, it’s a person who wants attention.
Incremental change gets no attention: it’s quiet, it’s unobtrusive, it doesn’t catch the glitter and the limelight, but if you make a leap it gets attention. So for somebody who’s witty – yeah, witty is witty. There’s a gift there. Oscar Wilde was very witty, and many of his quotes are extremely funny, no question about it. But do I attach a great significance to it? Not really, because there’s no conviction, and I don’t believe words without conviction have much value. OK, they’re clever. I’m not going to deny somebody’s cleverness, and I’m not going to deny somebody’s wittiness. But do I attach any kind of weight to it? Not really. Very lightweight. Funny? Yes, it’s funny.
JI: Just briefly, because I don’t want to spend too much time on him – but you think Hitchens’ turn was completely opportunistic? He only went along with a Wolfowitz Doctrine kind of program for the opportunity to–
NF: First of all, I don’t think he had any interest in politics. Most of these people have no interest in politics. They take an interest in politics because they model themselves after Trotsky, and Trotsky was a great revolutionary figure and he was a great literary figure, so there’s this idea that if you have an affinity for literature and you want to be a public personality, then you also have to have an interest in politics like Trotsky. That was the model of that generation. But I don’t think he had any real interest in politics, Hitchens. He never said anything – so far as I remember, he never said anything insightful about politics. His great political work is that collection of articles on the war in Iraq, and I sat down at one point and analysed this work. It was just complete nonsense. I wrote at length on it. It was complete nonsense, complete idiocy.
I don’t think he had any political sense. He had no political-analytical sense. Did he have a literary sensibility? Yes. But a political-analytical sense? No, zero.
JI: Fair enough.
NF: I have no interest in what he had to say about politics. You know, some people – “Oh, now with the Ukraine War, oh, if Hitchens were alive, what would Hitchens have to say about it?” He’d have to say nothing, because he didn’t have a political bone in his body. And he’s like a lot of these folks – the Paul Bermans, the Christopher Hitchens’, they don’t know anything about politics and they don’t care about politics.
You’ve got Noam Chomsky. Yes, he’s a linguist by training, he’s a philosopher by training, but every bone in his body is political. You know, once he had a real problem with his teeth, that they were being grinded away, and nobody could figure out what was happening. And his wife was told to watch him at night when he’s asleep, “Is he grinding his teeth?” And then they discovered – where did the problem come from? The problem was every morning when he read The New York Times he would grind his teeth. Why is that? Because politics is in every bone in his body. It really, really got to him, the lies in The Times.
I don’t think Christopher Hitchens ever grinded his teeth when reading the The Times because there wasn’t – these are not political people. I don’t think they care much about politics. That turn of the century generation, the Lenins, the Trotskys, the Rosas and of course many, many, many others, they were real political beings. They were permeated by it. It wasn’t the only thing: they all loved literature, they all loved art, they all loved music. They were the highest and the best of European civilization. That was what the Socialist movement was back then at the turn of the 20th century. That being said, politics was at the core of their being. But not people like Hitchens. Hitchens was a dandy.
JI: So who is someone who is political, but is someone whose politics you would be almost diametrically be opposed to who can set–
NF: Oh, there are a lot of people. You know, take people like Bill Clinton. Totally political animal, very smart. Cheney, Rumsfeld, totally political animals. Very smart. There are a lot of folks like that.
JI: But more as a writer. Who’s someone you would say that you appreciate their writing although their politics is not at all aligned with yours?
NF: I can’t really say. You know, there are people who are devil’s advocates. They test your convictions, they test your belief, they play an important role in keeping you honest and enabling you to find truth. But I can’t really say I like the writer if I find his or her moral convictions appalling. If there’s a racial supremacist, somebody who believes in the genetic inferiority of black people when it comes to mental competence – in the search of truth for those questions, would I have to listen carefully to the arguments they make and be convinced that they are mistaken before I take a position? Answer: yes. Would I say I like to read them? Answer: no, answer: no. I’m not going to deny the important role they play in trying to approach truth, but do I like somebody who advocates that some people are genetically inferior to others? No, I don’t, I don’t.
JI: And luckily people who those tend to hold that view aren’t good thinkers or writers anyway. I’m thinking of The Bell Curve, Charles Murray. But speaking about someone who you do like, just to kind of close things off, could you talk a little bit about Paul Sweezy, the influence he had and just who he was?
NF: Paul Sweezy combined a brilliant mind with a genuine human warmth. He was welcoming to me when very few others were. He was encouraging to me at a point in my life when I needed to be encouraged. He was gracious, he was kind, he was warm, and on top of that, he was a brilliant. He had a brilliant mind and he was a very graceful writer. He was originally – not ‘originally’, but he was the editor of the Harvard Crimson. He loved journalism as a métier and he graced every page with his crystalline prose. It was a genuine pleasure always to read Sweezy. He was a terrible speaker, by the way.
JI: Oh, was he?
NF: Oh, yeah, absolutely horrible.
JI: Because from what I had read of him, he was apparently quite good looking, came from a well-to-do family and–
NF: Yeah. Joseph Shumpeter, the conservative Austrian economist who was Sweezy’s…
JI: Advisor at–
NF: Not advisor, but he was – Schumpeter liked Sweezy a lot. It was said that Sweezy had everything that Schumpeter wished he had: he had good looks, he came from a rich family, and women loved him. And Schumpeter had none of that. So, as a biographical datum, that’s an interesting fact about Sweezy: namely, he didn’t have to be a Marxist economist. He could’ve easily made it in life. He was top of his class in graduate school in economics. He was a brilliant guy, he was breathtakingly – physically, he was breathtakingly beautiful, and he had a lot of money. His father was the vice president of the First National City Bank, which was the precursor of Citibank.
So he had every reason to enjoy the pleasures of being a member of the ruling class, and he chose a different route. He was a really honourable person. ‘Honourable’ is too aloof. He was just really nice. He was so kind to me. I was a nobody, but he was always so welcoming to me. I just have the warmest memories of any contact I ever had with him. Never a harsh word, and always so gentle.
I had many good fortunes in life, and I count among my greatest good fortunes – I met the best people the world has to offer. I am eternally grateful for that, whether it was Professor Chomsky, whether it was Paul Sweezy, whether it was 10,000 other – quote unquote – “ordinary” people who in my eyes led extraordinary, exemplary lives which deeply inspire me and which goad me to be a better person.
JI: Well, I think that was just such a beautiful and positive note that I think it would be nice to end there. Let’s just end on that.