Monday, August 27, 2007

L'Affaire Finkelstein

I too have suffered from being an homonymous author. There is a Mark Scroggins out there who is the author of a biography of Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln's first running mate. For a while the Library of Congress was convinced we were the same person, & apparently the other MS's publisher has no better idea of where he is than I do, since they've been sending me correspondence relating to Hannibal: The Life of Abraham Lincoln's First Vice President. & this is not to mention the Mark Scrogginses out there who are lawyers, professional bowlers, Baptist ministers, & deer hunters.

My discomfort is nothing compared to that of my old friend Norman Finkelstein, poet, literary scholar, and professor of English at Xavier University in Cinncinnati. Norman's sorrow is that he is always in danger of being mistaken for Norman G. Finkelstein, the ragingly controversial political scientist who until recently has taught at DePaul University in Chicago. My Norman Finkelstein – henceforward "the uncontroversial NF" – and I have been friends & co-conspirators for many years now, & in the days to come I will blog his newest book of poems, the limpid Passing Over. (Please go buy it, nu?)

[On the left: the poet Norman Finkelstein]

I don't want to cause my NF – the "uncontroversial NF" – any further discomfort (he's gone so far as to post a "disambiguation page" on A Big Jewish Blog, the wonderful conversation on matters Jewish & poetic that Eric Selinger started some time ago). But the latest turn in Norman G.'s tenure battle at DePaul has gotten me so riled up this morning that I'm unable to concentrate on my syllabi, to answer my e-mails, to do anything but splenetically blog.

The story is long and complex – Wikipedia has a not unfair summary of its earlier twists & turns on its NF page, & here, & a comprehensive collection of documents from both sides can be bound on Norman G's own website. Suffice it to say that Norman G. has written forcefully & at length about Palestinean/Israeli relations, about what he sees as the "exploitation" of the Holocaust for self-serving reasons by various groups, & about the Israel lobby in Washington. His work is controversial in its arguments & premises, & even moreso in its modes of argument, which combine withering sarcasm, angry invective, & even occasional ad hominem attacks.

His first four books drew accusations of Holocaust denial & anti-Semitism (both rather silly, I think); his critics were more accurate in finding Finkelstein a fair representative of a kind of left-leaning anti-Zionism. The fat truly hit the flame, however, when Norman G. tangled with Alan Dershowitz, who, when he's not defending celebrity clients like OJ Simpson & Claus von Bulow or figuring out circumstances under which torture is actually okay ("get a warrant"), is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Norman G. attacked Dershowitz's 2003 book The Case for Israel, calling it "a collection of fraud, falsification, plagiarism and nonsense." Dershowitz responded by attempting to stop the publication of Finkelstein's next book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (Dershowitz went so far as to send a letter to Arnold "the Governator" Schwartzenegger asking him to intervene & get the University of California Press to kill the book).

This past academic year Norman G. went up for tenure in the Poly Sci department at DePaul. In September 2006, Dershowitz sent a weighty "dossier" of anti-Finkelstein material to DePaul poly sci & law faculty members & DePaul administrators (and, by some accounts, to DePaul boosters), urging them to deny Finkelstein tenure. The case bounced back & forth; his department voted 9-3 in favor of tenuring NGF; the college personnel committee voted 5-0 in favor of tenuring him; this past June, by a 4-3 vote, a university committee voted to deny him tenure. The University's president, the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, affirmed the decision, & held out no possibility of appeal.

In one of the more spectacular displays of disingenuousness I've encountered, Holtschneider & others in the DePaul administration have repeatedly denied that Dershowitz's campaign against Finkelstein had anything to do with his denial of tenure. (The stated reason was that Finkelstein's scholarly work, while largely unimpeachable in terms of content and scholarly methodology, was just plain not very nice to those who disagreed with him – a violation of "Vincentian ethics," whatever those may be.) Let's be serious: Finkelstein is right on the money when he notes wearily that the validity of his work has nothing to do with the tenure decision: since he's become a target of one of the most prominent "centrist" talking heads in the country, he's become a liability to DePaul, someone who's unfortunately apt to get in the way of the University President's primary job – fundraising.

The final indignity has just come down the pike: After one is denied tenure, one usually has what's known as a "terminal year," a final academic year in which to teach, to wind up one's affairs, & to look for work. DePaul is paying Norman G. for a terminal year – but they've cancelled his classes & locked him out of his office. Shame on DePaul; shame on Fr. Holtschneider. Of all of the shabby tenure tales I've heard over the years, this is the shabbiest.

[On the right, Norman G. Finkelstein, man without an office]


Amy said...

That is the shabbiest. I'd kept up with his story via Democracy Now! -- Amy Goodman interviewed both Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn re: this controversy and in support of NGF -- but I had no idea they would take it that far, to the level basically of blackballing. There really is no more sacred cow than Israel: it is the ultimate convergence of the interests of all powerful parties, and it has clearly become an "if you don't support everything about Israel and it's relations with the US and the rest o' the Mid-East you are de facto a commie-Islamo-fascist-bin-laden." And, uh, I'm not going to say what I think of that. :-D (You never know...)

Archambeau said...

There's a strange irony at work here. On the one hand tenure is meant (among other things) to protect unpopular thinking, on the assumption that some of it may turn out to be very important. On the other hand, the tenure process tends to weed out controversial figures like Norman G. The political nature of the allegedly disinterested, professional tenure assessment process doesn't often come to light, but Dershowitz's campaign against Norman G. has certainly made it plain, hasn't it?

Has the other Norman (the non-controversial one) compiled a dossier of all the hate-mail he's received by accident from those who think he's Norman G.? Maybe it would make a good book, "Letters to the Other Norman"...

Still recovering from all the wine I drank at Josh Corey's "welcome to Lake Forest" dinner,


Anonymous said...

Bravo for the rage Mark!
I am turning away grad students and prospective jobseekers from DePaul as of this morning when I read with disbelief the latest turn in this massacre of academic freedom.


Brian S said...

I don't understand, Tyrone--why take out your rage at the university on their grad students? I doubt they had anything to do with the way Finkelstein was treated. I'd hate to think I wasn't considered for a job just because someone disapproved of the decisions made by the President of the University of Arkansas--I disapproved of a lot of his decisions as well.

Mark Scroggins said...

Brian, I think Tyrone means that he's warning off people considering DePaul for graduate study, or considering applying for jobs there.

kfd313 said...

Thanks for mentioning this. I had never heard of *this* Norman Finkelstein and this whole thing sent me into a tailspin of thinking.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for correcting my grammatical/syntactical incoherence, Mark.


Brian said...

Ah--that makes a lot more sense.

Norman Finkelstein said...

Hi everybody, it's the "uncontroversial" NF here. Mark, haven't been checking in lately, and see what I've missed! Computer complications, beginning of the term, looming deadlines [does anyone want to make a third on a Louisville Mackey panel with me and Robert Zamsky?], etc. Bob Archambeau, I can tell you tales of mistaken identity that would make Philip Roth's hair stand on end, but let's save it all for a round of drinks, eh? But let me mention that Norman G. and I go back a long way--we were at Binghamton as undergrads together. I've always thought there was a lot to be said for his analysis, though I find his endless appetite for controversy pretty annoying sometimes. As for the current mess, I feel it's outrageous that Dershowitz should meddle with the internal affairs of another academic institution, and even more outrageous that DePaul caved. But having spent my whole adult life in academia, I can't say I'm surprised.

As for the content of NGF's critique, I'd like to call attention to Tova Reich's amazing new novel, My Holocaust. It draws on what he's been saying in all sorts of brilliant, scathing ways--and it's a lot more funny than my namesake's style of moral outrage.

Anonymous said...

Oh my God! My husband is homonymous??? I can't believe I have to learn this on the Internet. (The wife is always the last to know.)

- af