Saturday, May 05, 2007

Dershowitz on Parade

Alan Dershowitz wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal yesterday denouncing Norman Finkelstein.

In the piece, Dershowitz quotes Peter Novick at length to denounce Finkelstein. But Novick has written a letter criticizing Dershowitz's crusade against academic freedom. Jon Wiener discusses this in the Nation.

Finkelstein is a polarizing figure; he has lots of people who love him (such as Noam Chomsky and this thoughtful article in Counterpunch), and lots of people who hate him. I’m not a Finkelstein fan, but I think his writings are no more inaccurate than any other typical writer (including Dershowitz) on a controversial subject; he has a propensity for hyperbole and insult, but that’s about it (and I think we need more of that instead of boringwriting). He’s produced several books (including from a university press), and would normally have no trouble getting tenure. He’s a popular teacher (interestingly, I’m told that the DePaul College Republicans, who are certainly not shrinking violets considering their fights against censorship by the DePaul administration, have decided not to take any stand on Finkelstein’s tenure case).

There are several problems with Dershowitz’s essay. One is his claim that Finkelstein “encouraged radical goons to email threatening messages; ‘Look forward to a visit from me,’ reads one. ‘Nazis like [you] need to be confronted directly.’" I have zero tolerance for threats, but that email simply isn’t one. A promise to “be confronted directly” is not a death threat. By contrast, Finkelstein’s letters page includes many threatening letters, but no one imagines that Dershowitz should be held responsible for these idiots. If Dershowitz has any evidence that Finkelstein is encouraging threatening messages, he should produce it.

Here’s what I wrote to the Wall Street Journal:

Alan Dershowitz’s May 4 attack on Norman Finkelstein includes numerous deceptions and omissions. Dershowitz falsely claims that he only became involved in Finkelstein’s tenure process at the request of a DePaul professor; in reality, a year before this invitation, Dershowitz was promising to challenge Finkelstein’s tenure case. And it is absurd for Dershowitz to claim that Finkelstein adopted his leftist views solely as a lifelong plot to claim political bias in case of his firing. Dershowitz also omits his efforts to have Finkelstein’s book banned by contacting the University of California Regents and even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is true that Finkelstein makes some dubious claims and ad hominem attacks. However, if this were sufficient grounds for denying tenure, then Dershowitz’s op-ed would justify his own tenure denial. The American system of academic freedom should be broad enough to include the vicious attacks between Dershowitz and Finkelstein.

John K. Wilson
Chicago, IL
The writer is founder of and author of “Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies” (Paradigm Publishers, August 2007)

UPDATE: In the comment to this article I've posted Peter Novick's letter about Finkelstein.


John K. Wilson said...

I'm posting below Peter Novick's letter to DePaul in response to a request by the then-chair of the DePaul's political science department for negative information about Finkelstein. This was printed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but shortened for space. Here is the original letter, minus some small changes that Novick requested:

16 June 2006

Professor Dershowitz has intervened in Finkelstein's case not--God forbid!--as a partisan, but "in defense of scholarly standards," the same slogan Finkelstein invokes in his attacks on Dershowitz. Can anyone doubt that all of this high-minded talk of scholarly standards is a charade? Each charges the other with poor or dishonest scholarship not as part of any desire to uphold scholarly standards, but in order to discredit the (political) substance of the other's arguments.

At this point it might be responded that the political origin of the charges against Finkelstein are irrelevant--the sole question before De Paul is whether his work in fact contains scholarly flaws. To this, I would make three replies.

The first reply is that of course Finkelstein's work--like that of all of us--is "flawed." ("Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.") The question is not whether the work is flawed, but whether, on balance, the positive contribution of the totality of his scholarly work outweighs its faults. As you well know, the differential weights which each of us assigns to various sorts of merits and demerits makes this an enormously complex and controversial calculus. What I call tendentiousness, another scholar (not obviously stupider than myself) will call moral commitment; what I might call dishonesty, another will call an "excess of zeal." I say this as one who has been highly critical of Finkelstein's book, The Holocaust Industry, and I don't withdraw any of those criticisms. My criticisms reflect my values, my sensibility, who I am--and were those I judged appropriate in a particular (German and political) context. But I don't confuse those criticisms with holy writ. To some this will seem pernicious "relativism." To me, it is acknowledgment that works exist in multiple contexts, and that we live in a pluralistic academic community.

My second reply also involves an appeal to pluralism. There are those who relish the adversarial role, who delight in combat, whose greatest joy is in advancing a cause--and vanquishing an opponent of that cause. Such people are often inclined to stretch evidence to the breaking point (and occasionally beyond) in the service of their arguments. Professor Finkelstein seems to be of that number, as does Professor Dershowitz. (They are, in this respect true soulmates.) This is, to understate the matter, not my style, which is much more tentative and cautious. It would be disastrous, I believe, to have a university composed exclusively of people like Finkelstein and Dershowitz . . . and equally undesirable to have a university composed exclusively of people like me.

My third reply is, in a sense, a positive response to your request that I advise De Paul in its adjudication of Finkelstein's case. Dershowitz's highly-publicized intervention has, it seems to me, made it impossible for De Paul to reject Finkelstein's bid for tenure without everyone concluding that De Paul had capitulated to Dershowitz's bullying. For example, I anticipate that press coverage would contrast such a decision by De Paul with the refusal of Governer Schwarzenegger of California and the University of California Press to yield to Dershowitz's attempt to block publication of Finkelstein's most recent book. It may be, of course, that your examination of Finkelstein's written work, his teaching, and his other contributions to the university will lead you to conclude--on grounds having nothing to do with Dershowitz's intervention--that he is unworthy of tenure at De Paul. If that's the case, you'll have to live with the opprobrium which the denial will bring to the institution. . . .

Peter Novick

Anonymous said...

One small correction - Novick's letter was sent to Patrick Callahan, who was at the time a former chair of the political science department. The chair of political science in 2006 (and now), is Michael Budde, a supporter of Norman's bid for tenure and promotion.