How true academic freedom creates intellectual conflict | Interview with Dr. Norman Finkelstein

We met with influential activist, author and political scientist, Dr. Norman G. Finkelstein to talk about the tension of revolutionary thinking and academia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so much more. Enjoy!

How true academic freedom creates intellectual conflict | Interview with Dr. Norman Finkelstein
"So if you ask me why my academic career went up in flames, I would say it was a combination of a reputation that no administrator wanted to bear the... They didn't want the Finkelstein albatross…And number two, I couldn't... I couldn't play the academic game."” – Dr. Norman Finkelstein
So if you asked me why my academic career went up in flames, I would say it was a combination of a reputation that no administrator wanted to bear the... They didn’t want the Finkelstein albatross.

Influential political science expert Dr. Norman G. Finkelstein discusses the tension of revolutionary thinking and academia, how intellectuals wrongly tolerated Jeffrey Epstein, the 99% perspiration of rigorous study, his clashes with prominent academics, and the crushing loss of his extended family in Auschwitz. Activist, author, and professor specializing in the study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Holocaust, Dr. Finkelstein dialogues with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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Interview with Dr. Norman Finkelstein, Political Scientist

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:34Back to the beginning

Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University, and it is my privilege to introduce Dr. Norman Finkelstein. And he’s going to tell us a little bit about his career and how he has become influential.

So can you take us back to the very beginning, Dr. Finkelstein, and tell us about as a high school student, what interested you and how did that lead you to the career that you’re in then?

Norm Finkelstein: I always feel a little bit reluctant to bring up the Nazi Holocaust because it feels as... It appears as if I might be using it as part of an identity which is lucrative. But then on the other hand it’s impossible for me not to begin there.

Both my parents were from Poland. They were both in the Warsaw Ghetto, and then when the Ghetto Uprising was put down in 1943, they were both deported to Majdanek concentration camp. My father ended up in Auschwitz and then the Auschwitz Death March. My mother was in two slave labor camps.

Every single member of their family on both sides was exterminated, which for practical purposes, and we can use that expression, meant that I had no grandparents, I had no aunts, no uncles, no cousins, nothing. As my late mother used to say, we’re five people in the world, meaning my two parents, my two siblings and myself. And neither of my parents was ever able to let go of what happened to them, but my father was absolutely silent, he never uttered a single word.

If you were to would ask me any question about what happened to him, I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t even tell you how many sisters and brothers he had, nothing. And my mother never stopped talking about it, but never in a personal manner. She didn’t talk about her family. That was an area which was roped off and we all knew not to ask.

So exactly how my parents’ families all perished, I couldn’t tell you, but my mother was always trying to understand what happened to her. She had a capacious mind, she’s very, very smart, and it was for her a kind of a life’s mission to understand what happened. And so it permeated in my home growing up. My parents were, I wouldn’t call them left-wing, I would call them fanatically pro-Stalin and pro-Soviet.

Now you might wonder, how can you make a distinction between the two. It’s because my parents looked at the world with the lens of the Nazi Holocaust. So far as they were concerned and factually they are correct, it was the Soviet Red Army that defeated fascism, that defeated the Nazis, and so they felt throughout their lives an eternal debt to Stalin, to the Soviet Union for defeating fascism, defeating Nazism.

So I was in a kinda strange left-wing home for two reasons. Number one, they weren’t really politically left-wing, you wouldn’t call them communists. And number two, they loved Stalin long after even the Communist Party had dissociated itself from Stalin. So it was a very peculiar home growing up. Totally, not just permeated, it was saturated with politics...

Jed: What state did you grow up in...

Norm: I grew up in...

Jed: And what age were you compared to your siblings or were you the...

Norm: Yeah, I grew up in New York City.

Jed: And were you the youngest of the three or the...

Norm: Yeah I was the youngest and, for better or for worse, if you know anything about Jewish mothers. [chuckle] I’ve got the best and the worst.

05:14Schooling

Jed: Okay, well great.

Now, what brought you into your PhD program and the college that you went to? And what did you major in? Tell us about some of that stuff.

Norm: Okay, I went to a state university as an undergraduate. I went to Binghamton University. I can’t say it was a serious education. You’re much too young to remember, but I went to college in the aftermath of all the education reforms that were being tested, experimented with. They hadn’t yet found that higher happier equilibrium, they were still in a state of flux. Concretely, that meant we had no requirements. There were no requirements. So I did not get a well-rounded liberal education. I was a Maoist, a follower of Chairman Mao in China, I was a Marxist, and all I wanted was to read more and more and more about Marxism and Maoism in China. Actually, I was the first undergraduate at my college to teach a course on modern China, because I knew more than any professor there. I’ve always been a voracious reader.

But I can’t say I got a well-rounded education. I graduated, I would say probably... I didn’t go to graduation. I was very much a rebel at that point in my life. I still am. But I didn’t attend graduation, but people told me I was in every page in the graduation program. I probably graduated second or third in my class. And then, again, I have to always preface these things by saying you’re way too young to remember, so you’ll forgive me, and I’ll try not to keep saying it, but back then graduate school was very different than what it became. That’s to say when it came to professional schools, like law school or medical school, it was very difficult to get in, but almost certain that if you got in, you were going to graduate and get out with a degree.

Graduate school was very different. It was relatively easy to get in, but it had a huge attrition rate. After the first year about 50% dropped out, and by the end, I don’t think more than 25%, maybe not even 20% of the entering class got their PhD. And so it was relatively easy to get in. I got into Princeton. I only chose Princeton because it was near home and there were family issues and I felt I had to be near home during that period. So I got into Princeton. It was a genuine... It was a real struggle for me. I was not prepared. Many people in my first year class... I remember when I met them, it was, "Oh, I’m fluent already in Russian, French, German." I’d go into their dorm rooms and the first shelf... The first shelf of their bookshelf was their parents’ books.

[laughter]

And you can imagine how intimidating that was for me. So it was a real struggle for me, and I had a chip on my shoulder, no question about it. And I’ll only say in my defense, I’ll admit all the errors and blunders, but I was also very afraid that I would end up being seduced by the system and selling out my beliefs. And so I was probably overly on guard that I would remain faithful to my convictions, faithful to my beliefs, and that the Princeton pedigree would not corrupt me.

Jed: Interesting. That is fascinating. And your beliefs, of course were Maoism and Marxism, and you were worried you might lose faith in those core beliefs.

Norm: Oh, I’ll tell you the truth. Your name is Jed?

Jed: J-E-D, yes, Jed.

Norm: Yes. I’ll tell you the truth, Jed. It wasn’t that I was afraid I would lose faith. I was afraid that I would be... I would succumb to the temptations, to the allurements.

You know, a Princeton degree can get you places, maybe not the highest places, but let’s call it second and third tier places. And I was committed in that era, at that age, I was a committed revolutionary, and the only thing I wanted to do with those places was to tear them down, not get to them.

So there was a certain amount of... No, not a certain amount... There was a lot of conflict inside me about quite what I was doing there. And so it was, to put it simply, it was a royal flaming disaster, that experience. I honestly... You’re a physicist. Yours is a serious academic discipline. The humanities really are not... I don’t want to... I don’t want to be unnecessarily critical, but there’s nothing in the humanities that you really can’t learn on your own.

"There are no secret formulas, there are no complex theorems and there's no laboratory experiments. It's a pretty practical nuts and bolts discipline in general, the humanities."” – Dr. Norman Finkelstein

There are no secret formulas, there are no complex theorems and there’s no laboratory experiments. It’s a pretty practical nuts and bolts discipline in general, the humanities. And honestly, and I’m not saying this again to be truculent or pugnacious or cantankerous, I didn’t learn anything in graduate school.

The whole experience was, and I admit my chip on this shoulder, but the whole experience was so, so disillusioning, when you discover that you’re assigned books for seminar. You were assigned eight... Eight. Thick volumes a week for seminar.

Then you had to do additional reading if you had to deliver a seminar report that week, which was about once every three or four weeks. Then everybody is supposed to be working on their seminar paper, which at the end of the day is on which your whole grade is based, that seminar paper, ’cause all they want to do is prepare you to publish. The long and the short of it was, nobody did the reading for seminars.

[laughter]

You discovered that... It took me a long time, I didn’t know what was going on. I’m not exaggerating, I still see it in my mind’s eye. I remember sitting in the library... I have one of these 300-page tomes in front of me, and I keep glancing to my side... Glancing, seeing this pile of other tomes, seven others that I have to read. And I didn’t get it. I went to a modest college.

I didn’t know the ropes. Nobody read the books. They read the introduction and conclusion, or the end or they read the last paragraph in each chapter. Nobody did the reading. Everything was performance. You would go to seminars. The seminars were so deathly boring. And you know why they were boring?

Jed: No.

Norm: Because nobody had done the reading.

[chuckle]

They were all working on their seminar papers, which is what their grade was based on.

Jed: Makes sense.

Norm: And then when you went to wine and cheese parties, which are de rigueur in places like Princeton, even though I hated the wine and I hated the cheese. Everybody talked as if they read the book.

[laughter]

"I’ve read that book. I read this book." But they hadn’t read anything.

Jed: Oh my gosh.

Norm: They had just read the introduction and conclusion, or the last paragraph in each chapter, or the review in the New York Review of Books. But they all carried on like they had read it.

Jed: Wow!

Norm: Now I’m sure, I’m 100% certain that did not go on in your physics graduate school.

Jed: No.

Norm: No. It’s serious.

14:42How are you influential?

Jed: Yeah. Well, I appreciate that you think that my discipline is serious, but what I really wanna know, is what has made you so influential? Our algorithm says that you’re influential. And part of that is, I think you are the revolutionary guy with the chip on the shoulder that you said you were in grad school, and you take on people like Steve Pinker, like the late Jeffrey Epstein. What about you, do you think has caused you to rise in the influence in this... In these areas of political science?

Norm: Well, let’s be clear. I’ve never met Steve Pinker, I’ve never read anything he’s written, and Jeffrey Epstein obviously never wrote anything. Though I do think Epstein gives you a deep insight to a side of academia. And I’m not being facetious here. He does.

Before I get to, before I answer your question, just allow me briefly to elaborate, since it’s timely. If you read the accounts of Jeffrey Epstein, he would invite world-class thinkers, Nobel Laureates, three or four of them to his home in New York. He would sit with them in a the room, four of them would be sitting opposite him, and they would be talking about their subject area. And then every hour, every hour, a young woman would come in scantily clad and give Jeffrey Epstein a massage in front of the four professors.

And I ask you a question, and seriously. It totally perplexes me. Or it doesn’t perplex me. If I were invited to speak on a subject that’s important to you, for you, say it’s physics, for me, maybe I’m invited to speak on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

"That's called having respect for the life of the mind, respect for your profession, respect for your words."” – Dr. Norman Finkelstein

And my interlocutor, every hour, he rings for his masseuse, a scantily clad, nubile young thing walks in and gives him a massage in front of me. Knowing myself as I do, at some moment quite early in the proceedings, I would get up and say, "This isn’t serious. I’m leaving." That’s called having respect for the life of the mind, respect for your profession, respect for your words.

The fact that all these people, the top people in the world, Larry Summers from the Barack Obama administration, president of Harvard, Steve Pinker from Harvard. And it’s a very long list. I’m not gonna go through the whole list now, but it’s a very long list.

The fact that these people not just hung hang out with him, it’s not... And you can hang out with anybody in a park. But to carry on as if you’re having an intellectual exchange of ideas? That’s not what was going on. But it tells you a lot, I think, about academics and academia.

In any event, I’m always... I don’t believe in false modesty. I also don’t believe in idle boasting. At least I try not to practice it. You asked ask me a serious question, what makes me influential? So I’m gonna answer you in perhaps a slightly long-winded way, and I hope you you’ll allow me.

Jed: Go for it.

Norm: Now, I did get my degree, my graduate degree from Princeton in Political Science. I’ve never delivered a paper at a political science convention. I’ve never attended a political science convention. I’ve never read a political science journal. I’ve never even read an article in a political science journal.

Apart from $1500 in 1979 that I received from Princeton to study in Paris, it was a travel grant, apart from that $1500... And I want you to hear this ’cause you know academia, I’ve never received one single cent in academic support or institutional support. Not one penny. Now, I’m sure if I looked at your resume, there would be several pages of grants, not listings, several pages of grants that you have received. I never received one nickel, one dime, one nickel, one penny, except for that $1500 in 1979.

"I am committed to truth, not as if I possess it, but as I understand it."” – Dr. Norman Finkelstein

My books are never reviewed. They are never cited, never cited. And yet, and I’ll say this with a certain amount of pride, I still managed to have an impact and influence. Why? Because people know two things. Number one, I’m not for sale. I am not for sale.

You can give me all the money in the world, and I won’t change a period or a comma in anything I’ve written, unless the editor convinces me, and my editor, Maren Hackmann-Mahajan, often does convince me, "That sentence is clunky," "That sentence doesn’t have good rhyme," "You’re repeating a word." Yes, to improve the quality of what I’m writing, of course, I’m going to make amendments or emendations. But to make it more palatable, to make it more digestible, no. I am committed to truth, not as if I possess it, but as I understand it.

Of course, there’s often... There can be and often is a big gap between what I understand to be the truth, and what the truth actually is. However, there’s no gap between what I understand to be the truth, and how much of it I will barter in order to acquire position or wealth. That’s the first thing.

And the second thing is I work hard. I’m a very hard worker. I was not endowed by our Creator with you might call first or ever even second tier smarts. I was not. I grew up with very smart people. People... I’ll just say three years ahead of me was Charles Schumer, the current senator, Senate Minority Leader, and in my class, I should say in my school, James Madison High School, if I listed the names, you’d be quite, quite shocked.

Bernie Sanders went to my high school. Charles Schumer went to my high school. The senator, Norm Coleman, went to my high school. We were the only high school in the country where there were three sitting senators. Ruth Bader Ginsburg went to my high school. Even Judge Judy went to my high school.

[laughter]

Five, five, five, five Nobel Laureates. One in physics but I can’t remember the name, went to my high school. So I know smart. I know smart. I did not fall into that category. I didn’t have first-tier smarts, I didn’t have second-tier smarts. But, as you know, Edison’s famous line, "Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration." I didn’t get the 1%, but I came pretty close to the 99%.

I work pretty hard. People avoid me. Someone like Alan Dershowitz, he avoids me like the plague when it comes to a public forum, because he knows I’ve done the reading. I have the goods on him. Once when I debated him, he didn’t come out looking very well, and it was clear he hadn’t written the book with his name on it.

I think it was very doubtful that he even read it. And afterwards, he was incensed and he went around saying that he was ambushed on the program. He was ambushed. And when I was asked about that, I said, "Well, he does have a point. Was it fair that only one of us had read his book?"

[laughter]

"Virtually, the whole of my life was on my bookshelves."” – Dr. Norman Finkelstein

I work hard. I would say my entire... Virtually, the whole of my life was on my bookshelves. Now recently, I gave away 2/3 of my books to the Brooklyn Public Library, because I felt I just had them on my shelves as vanity, I really wasn’t looking at them anymore, and why not give the inquisitive young mind an opportunity to read them if they’re interested.

But I’ll tell you, it was kind of painful for me because each book I gave, I was giving away three days of my life. My life is on the bookshelves. So that I think accounts to my "influence." People know I’m incorruptible and I’m very conscientious.

26:27A blessing in disguise

Jed: So, when it comes to the Israel-Palestine relations, what do you like to talk about? Is that what you teach when you are teaching as an adjunct professor?

Norm: No. No. Let me be clear about that. Even though it’s the area where I’ve written the most, and where I’ve devoted most of my adult life to mastering, I was never allowed to teach the subject because of the cloud that hangs over me.

Now, the truth of the matter is, it was absolutely a blessing because it forced me... Remember, I never had a job in academia. I never had a job. I was always an adjunct. And adjuncts, they teach about six or seven courses a year. Six or seven courses a year just to survive because you’re only paid, in New York you get paid between $1500 and $2500 per adjuncting position. So, just to survive.

Now, that means that I had to do seven preps a year, prepare for seven different classes. None of them were Israel-Palestine which was the area on which I was writing, so I was pretty familiar with.

The good thing was though I... If I can use the word, I bitched about it at the time, it forced me to read outside my field. And so I actually had a much broader knowledge than your typical professor, because I was constantly having to read outside my area of expertise in order to teach.

You know, when you’re an adjunct in my field, physics is obviously very different, it’s a serious field. In my field, they’ll throw anything at you. It’s the end... It’s the beginning of a new academic year, somebody suddenly gets an illness or a position somewhere else or whatever, a grant, and they have an opening. So, they’ll say, "Okay, Finkelstein, do you wanna teach African politics?"

[laughter]

Do I have a choice? You know. So, I started reading books in African politics. And as I said, I bitched about it at the time, but in retrospect, I kinda think I was lucky, ’cause I’d easily have sunk in to the easy mode, just recycling the same lecture notes every year for 30 years and not doing any serious work.

So I’m glad about that. Though the biggest expenditure of time and energy was Israel-Palestine. But right now I’m writing a book, a little book, on academic freedom to basically reflect on what happened to me in my life.

Jed: So, what happened to you? I was gonna ask you about Israel-Palestine, but I think it would be more interesting to the people watching this interview, what happened to you? Can you sum up what happened?

Norm: Can I sum it up? I think, two things. I think my reputation, the fact that I had clashed with so many prominent people made me clearly a liability for any administration. I said to you. I don’t say it from false humility. I say it to you because I think it’s objectively a fact.

I’m not in the first or second-tier in terms of my mental endowments. And so, even though I have a respectable publishing record, and even though I think it’s fair to say I was a highly competent and dedicated teacher, from the point of view of an administration there are 100 people behind me on the queue who more or less have the same qualifications. More or less.

So who are you going to choose if you’re an administrator? Somebody who’s gonna stir up trouble, bring undesired light on your university, or somebody who’s gonna perform more or less as competently but makes no waves? Well, I think you’ve been in the academia long enough, I did apply once for a job at Wake Forest.

Jed: Absolutely.

Norm: But did... Yes, yes. I remember it because the Chair of the department was a Palestinian woman.

Jed: Oh, wow.

Norm: And she didn’t give me the time of day.

Jed: How long ago was that that you applied for?

Norm: Oh, I would say 30. 30 years ago.

Jed: Okay. We’re sad that you’re not here. [chuckle]

Norm: Well, thank you.

Jed: But is that where you’re gonna...

Norm: And the second reason, if you’ll allow me just to finish the thought.

Jed: Go ahead.

Norm: Complete the thought. The second reason was, I just didn’t have the temperament to academia. I couldn’t do what’s expected of you. If somebody betrays you, betrays you in a really profound way, for the sake of what’s called academic civility, you’re supposed to still smile at them.

You’re supposed to ask, "How are you doing?" And all of this pretense, and falsity, and fraud, personal fraud, I couldn’t do it. Now you know as, Henry Kissinger, and probably the only true thing he ever said, and probably he heard it from somewhere else, he said, "In academia the bevels are so bitter because the stakes are so puny."

And you know, even in physics, the puniness of the stakes that can create an academic feud. But the protocol of the academia is, even if you’re frauding, excuse me, even if you’re feuding, you have to maintain the pretense of civility. I could not do that. I could not. It’s just... It was too much fakery, too much fraud, and I couldn’t... To use the cliche, "I couldn’t play the game." I was incapable of it. I don’t think I’ve suffered worse with a lot of academics.

But I did, along the way, encounter an awful lot of duplicity, which I was constitutionally incapable of looking past. So if you asked me why my academic career went up in flames, I would say it was a combination of a reputation that no administrator wanted to bear the... They didn’t want the Finkelstein albatross.

Jed: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Norm: And number two, I couldn’t... I couldn’t play the academic game. It was like I’ll just tell you... It was just like in seminar class at Princeton. The seminars were so lethally dull. And once I raised my hand in seminar, the professor’s name was Gerald Segal, and I said to him, "You know Professor Segal, if you assigned less reading each week, then more students would complete the assignment and seminar class would be more lively." And I’ll never forget his response, he said, "Mr. Finkelstein, maybe graduate school is not for you."

[laughter]

Jed: Oh my gosh.

Norm: Which was true. Because everybody else went along with the fraud and pretended to have read the readings, that they had never set eyes on. And I couldn’t do it. I was so idealistic when I went to graduate school. I thought, "Okay, I’m entering the ivory tower, the life of the mind, pure, distilled, pristine, gray matter." And, boy, was I ever shocked.

[laughter]

36:32Sign off

Jed: Well, Dr. Finkelstein, this has truly been a pleasure. I can’t wait for you to be done with the book on academic freedom. It sounds like it’s right up my alley, I like hearing somebody like you talking about these issues. I’m going to just thank you for spending some time with us.