This past Friday Norman Finkelstein-- a leading critic of the systematic U.S. and Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and a careful analyst of the way the Holocaust has been used by apologists to justify Israeli disregard for international law -- was denied tenure by DePaul University. This despite the fact that he enjoyed excellent teaching evaluations, is a prominent public intellectual with several books to his credit and had the full backing of his department. Yet his tenure bid was blocked first by his dean and then by his president. Why? As president Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider put it in his letter to Finkelstein:
reviewers at all levels, both for and against tenure, commented upon your ad hominem attacks on scholars with whom you disagree... In the opinion of those opposing tenure, your unprofessional personal attacks divert the conversation away from consideration of ideas, and polarize and simplify conversations that deserve layered and subtle consideration. As such, they believe your work not only shifts toward advocacy and away from scholarship, but also fails to meet the most basic standards governing scholarship discourse within the academic community.A little later in the letter Holtschneider says that he cannot "in good faith conclude that you honor your obligations to 'respect and defend the free inquiry of associates,' 'show due respect for the opinions of others,' and 'strive to be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues.'"
Having only read one of Finkelstein's older books (The Holocaust Industry) and some of his popular articles, I can't say for certain that this is a total misrepresentation of his work but the stuff of his I have read not only exceeds "basic standards governing scholarship" but is much more politically relevant, more insightful, and better written than most of the dreck cranked out by legions of other, perhaps more polite, professors in history and political science. True, Finkelstein has been engaged in an ongoing feud with the ever obstreperous Allen Dershowitz, Harvard law professor and well known apologist for Israeli militarism. But in this particular spat, it has been Dershowitz who has failed to respect the free inquiry of others and whose behavior has consistently failed to meet the standards of the academic community: instead of attempting to refute Finkelstein's criticisms of his views on Israel, he actually lobbied Governor of California Arnold Schwartzenegger in an effort to prevent the University of California Press from publishing them.
Yet even if the charges Holtschneider makes about Finkelstein are true, is that sufficient grounds for silencing a unique and courageous voice who even the president himself admits is "provocative, challenging and intellectually interesting?" One wonders whether or not any of the more famous conservative/reactionary intellectuals of past few years would be able to pass muster if the DePaul standard were uniformly enforced throughout academia. Former Secretary of Education William Bennett, cultural critic Allan Bloom, historian Paul Johnson -- to name only three such right-of-center authors -- have made entire careers out of spewing hateful polarizing rhetoric and launching vicious personal attacks; hell, Johnson's Intellectuals is nothing but one long, gossip-filled ad hominem assault on every left-wing intellectual from Rousseau to Brecht. How much did Leo Strauss-- advocate of using noble lies to manipulate the allegedly witless masses-- "respect the opinion of others"? And has Pepperdine University's Daniel Pipes-- founder of the neo-McCarthyite outfit Campus Watch-- ever once acted to "defend the free inquiry" of left-wing opponents of U.S. foreign policy?
The standard Holtschneider invokes in his letter is ultimately so malleable as to be virtually useless in practice. The truth is that people whose views are on the receiving end of even the most rigorously argued, clearly delineated and factually based criticisms will inevitably read them as "personal attacks" (even when they are framed explicitly as "considerations of ideas"); this is doubly true if the people in question happen to be right-wing ideological hotheads like the Neo-Con crowd.
But, of course, the real reason Finkelstein got the ax had absolutely nothing to do with the "tone" of his work or his ad hominem attacks on Dershowitz or anyone else; rather, it had to do with the subversive ideas that he advocated. Since 9/11, criticism of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East-- and in particular, criticism of U.S. support of Israel-- has become the third rail of academia in this country. Touch it and your life in higher education may come to a sudden end. That is the clear message implicit in the Finkelstein tenure decision, in the firing of Ward Churchill at Colorado, in the carefully orchestrated public fervor over allegations about anti-Israeli bias at Columbia, and in the countless efforts made by college administrators and reactionary pundits like David Horowitz to punish faculty for speaking out against the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is a very dark day for academic freedom.