Saturday, September 18, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Scholar Reviled

#102. American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein

"Believe me: sometimes I wonder whether it's worth it. ... Speaking as a devout atheist, thank God that in His almighty wisdom He made us mortal. We don't have to endure this for all eternity."
Free speech is one of the most difficult concepts to apply in a democratic society -- and also one of the most important. For Norman Finkelstein, son of Holocaust survivors and active critic of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinian people, free speech lies at the centre of his life's work. Critics think him a self-hating Jew, or no Jew at all, for condemning the actions of the Israeli government and also the use of the Holocaust as a "trump card" forever protecting the Israeli state from accusations of tyranny and oppression all its own. For the controversy stirred up by his books, he has lost his professorship twice and faces hate mail demanding eviction from his home. But is he entirely without fault? Do individual vendettas and rhetoric as high-handed as that which he rails against in the scholarly world make him in some ways personally responsible for the professional setbacks and criticisms he's incurred?

These are the questions asked by American Radical, which I watched after reviewing comments for and against the piece on IMDB. To create a documentary about any controversial figure is always to fail in the minds of certain viewers -- either by not criticizing the figure enough, criticizing him too much, or daring to create a film about the figure in question at all. But I was pleasantly surprised to find in Ridgen and Rossier's documentary an even-handed portrait of a human being, warts and all, whose works are gratefully received by some and reviled by others.

If the film can be said to have any failings, they would include those questions that the directors could do no more than note, including the matter of authority, and of responsibility. In the former case, as critics point out that Finkelstein's fame arises from the fact that he's a "Jew criticizing Israel," and insist that if he weren't Jewish he'd be called out for anti-Semitism in a heartbeat, I'm both inclined to concur and also to sympathize less with that counterargument for being made at all. One rabbi in the film says that it's all right to criticize Israeli (just not as Finkelstein does), but we're never given a sense of just what this "appropriate" criticism might look like. However, far from being a failing of this film, I'm given to suspect it's not a question that can be explored without the film becoming more than a simple biopic; indeed, without the film addressing Israel-Palestinian politics as a whole.

Then there's that second matter, of responsibility: According to critics among university students, as observed around his Canadian lecture tour, Finkelstein's words are dangerous because they give strength, however unintentionally, to explicit anti-Semites, including members of the KKK and Middle Eastern terrorists. The documentary never pushes the question of whether or not a person should self-censor to protect their words from being exploited by others, and again the question seems beyond the reach of a straightforward documentary.

On a personal note, I remember Finkelstein's famed visit to the University of Waterloo, depicted in this documentary at some length, and with it the heated community response that plagued his lecture in full. What I didn't know -- what I couldn't have known -- were Finkelstein's words to his driver after, when criticized for giving time to questions that would undoubtedly drown out Finkelstein's own message in the next day's newspaper articles. American Radical filled in that blank:
"I think it's a question of priorities. I spoke for two hours, and people showed an enormous amount of tolerance in letting me speak for two hours, and therefore I have an obligation to let people have their say. You know, I'm saying things which deeply upset many people in the audience; if they control themselves for two hours, and show me their respect, then I have an obligation to let them let out their feelings and thoughts."

This, I thought, was a beautiful observation, and one that deserves to exist above and beyond the particular politics of American Radical. To give time to an idea with which you do not agree; and which you in fact find deeply offensive, is one of the most difficult acts of civility any human being can manage. Yet even to strive for it is to see the best side of democracy in action. For this reason I think there's a little something for everyone in watching American Radical; and I know I at least came away from it only wanting to challenge my convictions even more.

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