The Bathos of Academe

Throwing Rocks from a Glass House

Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz writes that DePaul University English professor “Matthew Abraham’s account of the denial of tenure to [DePaul University political science professor] Norman Finkelstein is filled with errors.”1 But Dershowitz doesn’t name one error.

Dershowitz has it all figured out, though. According to the law professor, Finkelstein’s charges of plagiarism and attacks on his scholarship were a ruse to cover for Finkelstein’s own “lack of scholarship” and give an excuse for future tenure denial. It sounds like what could be described as a “conspiracy theory” to me. To back up his theory Dershowitz refers to a tangentially related 1951 fiction bestseller, The Groves of Academe.

Like a lawyer, he has provided a motive, risible as it may be. But Dershowitz must back up his claim of a “lack of scholarship.”

How to do this? First Dershowitz notes that Finkelstein’s articles have never been published in a “scientific magazine.” First, why would a professor of political science publish in a “scientific magazine”? A publication in a humanities journal would be more apt. Second, if Dershowitz means that Finkelstein has shunned academic presses, then Finkelstein is not alone. Perhaps Dershowitz ought to consider his own publications and scholarship before criticizing others. James C. Strouse, Ph.D. is a practicing lawyer who teaches evening college courses in telecommunications at the Johns Hopkins University wrote:

Alan Dershowitz is another example of the woeful state of legal scholarships as well. His total “scholarly” production consists of articles he has written for newspapers and elaborate blow-by-blow accounts of trials in which he has been a legal and highly paid consultant. He has a Simpson book, a Von Bulow book (Reversal of Fortune), and a book on the Supreme Court’s decision in the Gore-Bush election, and several collections of his newspaper articles (Contrary to Public Opinion) conveniently organized by topic.2

Scientific magazines, even highly reputed ones, do not guarantee the integrity of scholarship.3 It is the process of openness to scientific inquiry, to scrutiny and, where applicable, replication that are the backbone of academia.4 Thus, Dershowitz’ book, The Case for Israel, based as it is on a thoroughly discredited book, Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial, must be open to the light of academic inquiry. Dershowitz unwittingly accuses himself of being non-scientific and closed to academic inquiry when he tried to stop publication, by the academic press of University of California, of Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. As for the scholarship, among other scholars, Dershowitz’ fellow scholar at Harvard University, Sara Roy, called it, “A vigorous, intelligent, succinct and powerfully argued analysis that is difficult if not impossible to reproach.”

Dershowitz states that Finkelstein has been fired by “every school in New York” and that a chairman at one college said Finkelstein’s firing was for “‘incompetence’, ‘mental instability’, and ‘abuse’ of students with politics different from his own.” Next, he states that Finkelstein was helped by a “radical Islamist Aminah McCloud — a follower of Louis Farrakhan” to get the job at DePaul University.

Aside from the truth or non-truth of the statements cited by Dershowitz, there can be no doubt that the statements were made to discredit Finkelstein; hence, they constitute ad hominem. The ad hominem is directed at Aminah McCloud as well, as the term “radical” can be understood as pejorative.5

The irrelevant mention of Louis Farrakhan is obviously an attempt at “guilt by association” with the controversial Muslim leader. Such slimy tactics speak ill of the tactician.

Next Dershowitz railed against Finkelstein’s “screed against Holocaust survivors called The Holocaust Industry.” One can only assume that Dershowitz has not read the book he criticizes since it is does not target Holocaust survivors; it is rather a work deploring the manipulation of the Holocaust and its survivors to redirect reparations to the crimes of Zionism.6

Dershowitz then turns to Chicago professor Peter Novick who is quoted: “No facts alleged by Finkelstein should be assumed to be really facts, no quotation in his book should be assumed to be accurate, without taking the time to carefully compare his claims with the sources he cites … Such an examination reveals that many of those assertions are pure invention.” It is simple logic that one should always greet new facts and suspicious rationale with requisite skepticism. Unquestioning acceptance of information is a faith. Dershowitz gives no examples from Novick as to what is “pure invention”; thus, we are left with what Novick accused Finkelstein of: assertion. What about Dershowitz’ facts? Some may object that this is tu quoque, but the source of slander must be considered. When the source has demonstrated himself too oftentimes to be unreliable, his verisimilitude must be heavily doubted.

Dershowitz writes, “Mr Finkelstein is supported by hard-leftists like Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn. They regard him as a scholar in a class with Ward Churchill (the Colorado professor who called the 9/11 victims ‘little Eichmanns’).”

I was very skeptical of the comparison claimed by Dershowitz. My online search turned up nil. When I wrote Dershowitz and said I could find no such comparison and asked for attribution, his reply was: “You haven’t look hard enough.”

Neither Cockburn nor Chomsky has made such a comparison. Chomsky called it another fabrication from Dershowitz.7

Clearly, Dershowitz has being attacking the character of Finkelstein and his associates. Yet, with chutzpah, he paints Finkelstein for use of “a tactic that fitted the times”: “views so ad hominem, unscholarly and extreme.” In this way, theorizes Dershowitz, Finkelstein could have a ready excuse for his tenure denial: it was politics and not his scholarship that was at fault.
By mere statement, Dershowitz attempts to undermine: “Mr Finkelstein does not do ‘scholarship’ in any meaningful sense.” This is along the lines of what Finkelstein writes about the scholarship of Dershowitz, but Finkelstein points to the work and cites the mistakes. Scathingly, Finkelstein accuses Dershowitz of plagiarism. Readers of Finkelstein’s and Dershowitz’ books can draw their own conclusions.

Dershowitz complains, “Although his writings centre on Israel (which he compares to Nazi Germany) and the Holocaust, he has never visited Israel and cannot read or speak German — precluding the possibility of original scholarship.” This is absurd. He might not be able to study documentation and manuscripts in the original language, but it does not preclude original scholarship on a subject. Besides, being a fluent tourist is hardly qualification in itself to be a scholar. Of course, it would be an advantage for a person to be able to read the documentation in its original language and to interview people directly in their own language, but there are linguists who specialize in such work. If Dershowitz wishes to constrict scholarship then, by his own logic, he might be precluded from commenting on Palestine by virtue of not speaking Arabic. He might be precluded by not holding a PhD in Middle Eastern history. But this is just academic snobbery. Taken to its extreme, it would mean that people must rely on certified experts for knowledge. It is a puerile argument. One might imagine a schoolyard argument where one child says to the other: “Oh yeah! I got an A in social studies, and you only got a B, so I’m right!”

Again: “[Finkelstein] has blamed September 11 on the US, claiming that we ‘deserve the problem on our hands because some things Bin Laden says are true.’” Dershowitz is repeating a quotation out-of-context from Finkelstein.

Dershowitz charges that Finkelstein blamed the U.S. for the Sept. 11 attacks. “[W]e [the U.S.] deserve the problem on our hands because some things Bin Laden says are true,” Dershowitz quotes Finkelstein as having said. Dershowitz says the quote comes from website counterpunch.org, which is heavily critical of Israel and which posted an interview with Finkelstein in December 2001.

In a phone interview yesterday, Finkelstein pointed to the full quotation provided at counterpunch.org.

On the website, Finkelstein says he agrees with Bin Laden’s assertion that Americans cannot be secure until the non-Western world is as well — not that the he agrees with Bin Laden’s overall agenda or terrorist tactics.

According to the website, Finkelstein told counterpunch.org: “Frankly, part of me says — even though everything since September 11 has been a nightmare, ‘you know what, we deserve the problem on our hands because some things Bin Laden says are true’. One of the things he said on that last tape was that ‘until we live in security, you’re not going to live in security’, and there is a certain amount of rightness in that.”8

This repetition of a quotation out-of-context takes on greater weight when one notes that in the same article Dershowitz complained about the same: “Dershowitz charged that scholars ‘Mearsheimer and Walt rely heavily on discredited allegations and out of context quotations found on extremist, disreputable sources, including well-known hate websites.’”9

Says Dershowitz, “Like other anti-semites, Mr Finkelstein generalises about ‘the Jews’; for example: ‘Just as Israelis … courageously put unruly Palestinians in their place, so American Jews courageously put unruly blacks in their place.’” Although I prefer accuracy in language, it is a part of normal human discourse to generalize about a group. The generalization can be negative, and it can be positive. People often speak about groups as though they were homogeneous without implying anything of the sort. This is revealed to be true in Finkelstein’s case when one recognizes that he himself is a member of the group that Dershowitz accuses him of generalizing about. In other words, Dershowitz’s criticism is unfounded.

Dershowitz continues, “He says ‘the main fomenters of anti-semitism’ are ‘American Jewish elites’ who need to be stopped.” Normally, no one would take such claims seriously, but he boasts that he ‘can get away with things which nobody else can’ because his parents were Holocaust survivors.”

Again Dershowitz repeats Finkelstein’s statements and his best argumentation is assertion. He merely states “no one would take such claims seriously,” and offers zero evidence or reasoning that this is, in fact, true.

Then Dershowitz slurs people associated with Finkelstein. Matthew Abraham, a English professor at DePaul University is derided as Finkelstein’s “surrogate.”10

Those who voted for Finkelstein’s tenure are dismissed as “radical colleagues” who “cooked the books” by having “two of his ideological soulmates” act as evaluators from outside.

Referring to the old bestseller, Dershowitz accuses Finkelstein of being a ringleader for protests by “radical goons” who send threatening emails. He offered no evidence.

“Even without tenure, Mr Finkelstein will persist in his unscholarly, ad hominems against supporters of Israel, Holocaust survivors and the US,” laments Dershowitz.

After dissing people around Finkelstein as “surrogates,” “radical Islamists,” “radical colleagues,” book cookers, “hard leftists,” “ideological soulmates,” and “radical goons,” Dershowitz’ complaint about ad hominem rings rather pathetic. Dershowitz’ tactics are clearly ad hominem while accusing others of the same, iteration of the statements of others as refutation, attacking the scholarship of others without credible evidence while his own scholarship wilts in the face of the same charges.

Dershowitz has achieved high academic standing, a high public profile, and a reputation as a staunch civil libertarian. Yet he advocates on behalf of torturers and oppressors. Dershowitz could play a major and history-making role in the fight for civil and human rights, and in the wider struggle for social justice.

  1. Alan Dershowitz, “Norman Finkelstein: the case against,” Guardian: comment is free, 14 June 2007. []
  2. James C. Strouse, Excerpt from Legal Education Malpractice: The Law School Scam (Trafford Publishing, 2003): 122. Limited preview available. []
  3. S Korea cloning research was fake,” BBC News, 23 December 2005. The “world-renowned” Hwang Woo-suk at southern Korea’s elite Seoul National University published data in the leading journal Science in 2005 on stem cell research. The work was found to have been “intentionally fabricated.” []
  4. New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman conducted a study of Samoan society and wrote Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth which debunked the work that had made Mead a world famous anthropologist. []
  5. Far left,” Wikipedia. []
  6. Norman Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry (Verso, 2000). []
  7. Previously, a law student checked into some statements by Dershowitz and revealed the distorted, fabricated nature of his statements. See Regan Boychuk, “The Case Against Alan Dershowitz,” The Dominion Weblog, 15 April 2005. []
  8. Paras D. Bhayani, “Harvard Crimson on Dershowitz, Walt, Mearsheimer & Finkelstein: Footnotes Under Fire in ‘Lobby’ Furor,” Harvard Crimson, 7 April 2006. []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Abraham explains, “The reason Dershowitz has labeled me as a ‘surrogate’ of Finkelstein is because I wrote an positive review of Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah in October 2005. Dershowitz wrote a letter of complaint to the editors in response. I was allowed to respond to him. Beyond these exchanges, Dershowitz and I have had many email contacts over the last few months, which usually end with him either evading direct questions or telling me not to contact him again. As Howard Friel recently pointed out in his ZNet piece, one has to keep track of Dershowitz’s trail of lies before exposing him in his web of deceit.” Matthew said Dershowitz’s labeling him “Finkelstein’s ‘surrogate’ is yet another deliberate attempt by Dershowitz to change the terms of the debate and to shift attentions away from the fact that he simply can’t respond to Finkelstein’s air-tight critique of Dershowitz’s” book. []

Kim Petersen is a former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: kimohp@gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Sam Livingston said on June 20th, 2007 at 2:19pm #

    Wow, now I ‘ve seen everything, when Kim Petersen, a supposed leftist, excuses outright racism by Finkelstein

    “Just as Israelis … courageously put unruly Palestinians in their place, so American Jews courageously put unruly blacks in their place”

    with unreal sophistry such as:

    “Although I prefer accuracy in language, it is a part of normal human discourse to generalize about a group. The generalization can be negative, and it can be positive. People often speak about groups as though they were homogeneous without implying anything of the sort”

    Talk about cognetive dissonance, which kicked in and make a “liberal” person find excuses for otherwise obvious bigotry.

  2. elias aboud said on June 20th, 2007 at 4:51pm #

    Finkelstein is a racist anti-Semite who openly sneers at the survivors of the Holocaust, stating in the Holocaust Industry book that they invented their stories about the war and cannot be believed. A more insensitive human being than Finkelstein is hard to imagine. Why is this reactionary being defended by Petersen? As a Lebanese Christian, I well remember people of Petersen’s ilk who refused to believe that the Palestinians mutilated the corpses of Christian villagers at Damour in 1976. When I showed them the ripped up body parts, including testicles, they vomited and apologized profusely. I suggest Petersen go before the annual meeting of the Association of Survivors of Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka , look at their tatooed Nazi numbers on their arms, count their tears and make suitable penance.

  3. Joel Campbell said on June 20th, 2007 at 9:05pm #

    Sam, Elias,

    I think you two should first read his book before making such pronouncements of racism. I don’t recall him ever denying there was a holocaust or saying anything against holocaust survivors. The fact of the matter is he is a Jew himself whose parents were holocaust survivors. Are you unaware of this?

  4. Hue Longer said on June 21st, 2007 at 2:19am #

    Where were you keeping these body parts, elias and how did you convince your ignorant guests that they were from Christians? Did you consider that the apologies they puked were perhaps because they feared you?

  5. Charles Johnson said on June 21st, 2007 at 11:19am #

    Kim Peterson’s credibility is utterly destroyed by her relying on James C. Strousse conclusion that Alan Dershowitz “total ‘scholarly’ production consists of articles he has written for newspapers and elaborate blow-by-blow accounts of trials in which he has been a legal and highly paid consultant.”

    If she had bothered to check available sources, she would see that he has written scholarly articles in virtually every major law review, plus twenty-six books, including several that have won prizes for scholarship. The law reviews of Yale, Harvard, University of Texas, University of Cincinnati, Penn, Cardozo, among others, have all published articles by Professor Dershowitz. Rights from Wrongs, Preemption, America Declares Independence are but a few of the scholarly books he has written. In fact, Prof. Dershowitz is regarded as an important scholar on issues totally aside from the Middle East, which anyone would notice if they bothered to check.

    All of this Ms. Peterson would know if she bothered to perform even the most basic search. But Ms. Peterson won’t check the authenticity of her sources. Instead, she selectively excuses Finkelstein’s downright anti-Semitism and ignores even the most blatant examples of shoddy scholarship. We could expect such excuses for she cites Wikipedia, a website she knows can be – and is – heavily edited by the users sympathetic to Finkelstein. If this weren’t enough for her, she alleges that Dershowitz is writing ad hominem screeds, while ignoring some of Finkelstein’s most blatant attacks on students and academics. He called Eli Wiesel, a clown, and offered to sign a petition in favor of assassinating Irshad Manji, a Muslim refusenik, and commissioned a cartoon by a Holocaust denier showing Dershowitz masturbating to dead Lebanese civilians.

    — Charles Johnson

  6. Deborah said on June 21st, 2007 at 2:27pm #

    It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of Finkelstein; his tenure denial was an abomination and did not follow any kind of standard academic procedure. I don’t give a damn about whether his work is “hurtful” (the reason put in writing–whoever did that was stupid from a legal viewpoint–for the denial of Finkelstein’s tenure). Neither does any scholar. When Dershowitz has a book published by a university press as competitive as University of California, then I’ll consider reading him.

    The fact that Finkelstein’s books have been published by prestigious presses, including the University of California, which is highly competitive for individual authors, and that his file was reviewed externally and praised on top of solid teaching evaluations, makes him a shoe-in for tenure. Except that in this case, where the tenure process at De Paul has been politicized in the most overt way it makes me laugh. I am certain that the AAUP will investigate this case, as it is the clearest case of a violation of academic freedom of any

  7. Hue Longer said on June 21st, 2007 at 3:25pm #

    Charles, Kim is a man.

    This charge of “anti-Semitism” has been thrown into the Orwellian word proccessor to join other words which used to have literal non-emotional trigger meanings such as communist or terrorist. Some users of it could give you a definition of it, but never an accurate description of what they mean when they use it. It’s become hateful slur used by angry screamers.

  8. Kim Petersen said on June 21st, 2007 at 5:56pm #

    Other readers have responded so articulately but I will just say this:
    Charles Johnson, you apparently completely missed my point. The article was subtitled “Throwing Rocks from a Glass House.” The tactics that Mr Dershowitz uses are tactics that he stands vulnerable to. If you read closely, my argument was that source of publication does not support or refute the scholarship. In other words, I used the citation from Mr Strouse as a partial tactical foil for Mr Dershowitz’s argument; there was transparently no reliance on it.

    To buttress your incomprehension of the article, you then resort to ad hominem – the same self-laid trap that Mr Dershowitz fell for. As for Wikipedia, it should be, as any source, be regarded with requisite skepticism.

    Finally, I never alleged anything about any ad hominem screed from Mr Dershowitz. I pointed directly to what he wrote with footnotes so that readers could draw their own conclusions. I also pointed readers to books by both Mr Dershowitz and Mr Finkelstein so that they could draw their own conclusion. Progressivist writers are not about indoctrination.

    Sam Livingston, you also fall for the Dershowitzian mistake of proffering iteration as argumentation. You offered no facts to counter the thesis of the article. Consequently, there is nothing for me to refute.