Good Riddance to Academic Bathos

A Modest Proposal for an Academic Revolution

Finkelstein, when he published this book [The Holocaust Industry], was alone. It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth when no one else is out there to support him. And so, I think that given this acuity of vision and analytical power, I would say that his place in the whole history of writing history is assured, and that those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed, albeit, it so seems, at great cost.

— Raul Hilberg, foremost WW2 Holocaust scholar

It’s amazing that he [Finkelstein] hasn’t had full professorship a long time ago.

— Noam Chomsky, “arguably the most important intellectual alive,” according to the New York Times Book Review

The courageous, free-speaking DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein has been denied tenure even though his teaching and scholarship are indisputably of high standard. The risible pretext for dismissal is a lack of collegiality, which is contradicted by the DePaul U administration’s own acknowledgement of his popularity among students. Conclusively, DePaul U has been abjectly bent by certain interests that any half-witted observer could quickly deduce. As acclaimed intellectual Noam Chomsky made clear in an interview:

What’s behind it? It’s very simple and straightforward. Norman Finkelstein wrote a book, which is in fact the best compendium that now exists of human rights violations in Israel and the blocking of diplomacy by Israel and the United States, which I mentioned — very careful scholarly book, as all of his work is, impeccable — also about the uses of anti-Semitism to try to silence a critical discussion.

And the framework of his book was a critique of a book of apologetics for atrocities and violence by Alan Dershowitz. That was the framework. So he went through Dershowitz’s shark claims, showed in great detail that they are completely false and outrageous, that he’s lying about the facts, that he’s an apologist for violence, that he’s a passionate opponent of civil liberties — which he is — and he documented it in detail.

Dershowitz is intelligent enough to know that he can’t respond, so he does what any tenth-rate lawyer does when you have a rotten case: you try to change the subject, maybe by vilifying opposing counsel. That changes the subject. Now we talk about whether, you know, opposing counsel did or did not commit this iniquity. And the tactic is a very good one, because you win, even if you lose. Suppose your charges against are all refuted. You’ve still won. You’ve changed the subject. The subject is no longer the real topic: the crucial facts about Israel, Dershowitz’s vulgar apologetics for them, which sort of are reminiscent of the worst days of Stalinism. We’ve forgotten all of that. We’re now talking about whether Finkelstein did this, that and the other thing. And even if the charges are false, the topic’s been changed. That’s the basis of it.1

Further revelations of the bathos at DePaul U have become known to me. I had intended to further deconstruct the nonsense underlying the tenure denial, but, really, what’s the point? Finkelstein is being railroaded out.2 Further deconstruction and exposure of the obvious would have been futile and, likeliest, nugatory.

Does that mean academic freedom is at the whim of certain power centers? Probably. Education in the capitalist system will be predisposed to the caprice of capitalists.

Is there nothing that can be done to achieve academic freedom? Yes, there are options. But the struggle will not be easy, and there will probably be costs involved.

Professors and students could stage a strike/walkout until the matter of academic freedom is satisfactorily settled, but this would achieve only a partial or Pyrrhic victory in the end because the present academic system would, for the most part, be preserved. Also, power would continue to reside in the hands of a few individuals, maintaining the skewed hierarchical structure.

Whether enough professors or students would be willing to partake in a strike/walkout is questionable. Only approximately one-third of the faculty have signed a petition (that has been available for endorsement since 27 June) calling for an investigation into the suspicious tenure denials of DePaul U professors this year. So what about the other two-thirds of faculty? If they are aware of the petition and its circumstances, then either they agree with the administration’s decision that unpleasant personalities — such as an allegedly uncollegial Finkelstein — should be denied tenure, they do not care, or they are afraid.

It is hoped that, at the very least, academics care about academic freedom. Quite likely, however, there are those people who will agree, without much fuss, to conduct their research and teach within circumscribed bounds of acceptability to power centers and satisfy themselves with a paycheck and other perks of academia. These academics delineate a point where they relinquish pretense to being intellectuals. This essay is not directed at them.

For the professors who are concerned about academic freedom and speaking the truth, working within capitalist academia is a fearsome prospect, tenured or not.

The obvious solution is to abandon a system that is anathema to academic freedom and truth speaking and start one’s own system.

Do intellectuals really believe in a system predicated upon — albeit not solely — producing workers with skills necessary for the capitalist system? Do intellectuals support the titular and professional hierarchy within academia? Do professors love learning for the sake of learning and helping others gain knowledge and develop their critical thinking skills?

Do professors want to put up with the witch hunts of David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, and his Campus Watch? Do professors regard their colleagues as equals? Do professors realize that their knowledge and furtherance of the frontiers of knowledge is made possible because of the intellectual work of contemporaries and many others who came before them?

Remove the professors and the students from DePaul U and what is left is a campus with a few buildings and facilities. Is it still a university? Maybe in name, but it can no longer function as a university.

Can the students and professors constitute a university? Of course. A classroom is wherever the professors and students get together to discourse. It can be outside, in a library, in a cafeteria, or in a basement.3 The point is that a university functions through the people who populate it — the professors, students, and staff. The campus and its buildings are merely tools of the people at the university.

If intellectual professors want academic freedom, they just have to take it. If students want unhindered exposure to knowledge, then they just have to go to the sources of this knowledge.

The opportunities for academic enhancement extend beyond the matter of academic freedom. For instance, do professors want to work in an elitist institute, or do they believe that a university education should be open to all? Should a university environment be a competitive environment? Should tests and grading be scraped in favor of each person determining their own improvement? Should the distinctions between professors — and students — melt away to provide an environment devoid of elitism and snobbery? These are matters that professors and students can decide among themselves.

The Anarchist Free University Model

Establishing an independent university wholly supportive of academic freedom is easier said than done, but it is already being done on some level at the Anarchist Free University in Toronto. AFU has been a truly radical experiment in university education.

AFU grew out of a series of radical info-shops and the Anarchist Free School that functioned in Toronto in the late 1990s. In remaining true to the guiding ideas of anarchism, the anarchist label was maintained despite any negative connotations it may have for some people. It was established early that the AFU was to be a non-hierarchical organization built on consensus-decision-making. Begun in September 2003, this unique university is non-hierarchic and is run by a volunteer collective; it is run without admission or tuition fees and is open to everyone. While free-of-charge, “free university” refers to “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.”

Traditional teacher-student roles are non-existent at AFU. Teachers are resources of knowledge rather than authoritarian figures. In fact, even the terminology is different. AFU member Christopher Smith said, “[W]ithin the AFU, we’ve consciously tried to avoid using the term ‘teacher’ or ‘prof,’ instead encouraging folks to think about leading a course as an act of ‘facilitation.’”

In solidarity with non-hierarchical principles, Smith said, “A PhD holds very little weight in terms of facilitators.” Tenured professors have facilitated at AFU, but Smith adds that AFU has also had 18-year-old high-school dropouts and adolescents from alternative (high) schools acting as facilitators.

At AFU, education is not coercive. Learning is for its own sake. The courses have ranged from Japanese cinema, economics, climate change, the politics of addiction to yoga, first aid, queer history, Latin American politics, lucid dreaming, indigenous resistance movements, chaos theory, and so on.

The university is without campus. The various classes, in arts and sciences, take place in different community centers and homes throughout Toronto.

Academic Self-Empowerment

I could have bashed my head against the wall and written another expose on the DePaul U administration’s chicanery underlying the tenure denial to Finkelstein, but every rational thinking person knows he was targeted. There is no use exposing this scandal more. The question remaining was what to do about academic freedom besides weighing in more futile words.

There is a choice: professors can serve in capitalistic university institutions and keep a sufficiently low profile on topics considered taboo by the power centers, or those professors who advocate progressivist principles can act on them and become a part of an academic revolution.

A university that could count Norman Finkelstein, and perhaps a Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, and numerous other progressives, on its faculty should have no problem attracting students. AFU stands as a leading and admirable example of what is possible on a small scale. By keeping away from the corporate university structure — for example, renting halls and using one’s own press to keep book costs low — the faculty can create a university that is, perhaps, within the financial reach of more people in society. Facilitators/professors could also consider invoking a sliding-scale tuition rate based upon ability to pay.

There is no need for faculty and students to be disempowered in academia. Using pareconist type principles,4 professors and students can take charge of their own education system.

When academic freedom is lacking, then the integrity of a university education is threatened. This is just a bare bones proposal to support academic freedom. It seems a project worth contemplating deeper and, perhaps, struggling for.

  1. Amy Goodman, “Noam Chomsky Accuses Alan Dershowitz of Launching a ‘Jihad’ to Block Norman Finkelstein From Getting Tenure at Depaul University,” Democracy Now! 17 April 2007. []
  2. The anti-academic freedom contagion needs to be eradicated. The same forces that have railroaded Zionist critic Finkelstein are at work elsewhere. While speaking at McGill University in Montreal, Finkelstein lauded Canada, saying it “ought to be the envy of other nations” for its “open tolerant society.” Nonetheless, after 15 years teaching, the popular Dr. Norman Cornett was rudely dismissed by McGill U without reason. “L’université McGill pratique-t-elle la censure?Le Devoir, 11 July 2007. []
  3. Problems will crop up initially in certain disciplines, for example, pure sciences. There are situations in which research by professors and students require access to expensive special facilities and equipment, especially for science. But the universities which have such facilities and equipment also require trained personnel for smooth operation. Nevertheless, were such a revolutionary university to become established, then these problems should fade, as the university should receive its share of government funding and outside support. []
  4. Read Michael Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2003). See review. []

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.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on July 23rd, 2007 at 9:13am #

    Always bear in mind that if Dershowitz had attacked a Catholic professor who’s writings reflected the Church’s teachings, DePaul, or any other Catholic university for that matter, would have defended that professor to the hilt. Dershowitz would have flung himself against the brick wall of the largest international organisation on earth, more than a billion people, with all the political clout and economic muscle that that entails. Mr D is too clever to have even tried that!

    Nobody can defend everything. Catholic institutions exist to carry on the work of the Church and thus, to defend those to do that. To be credible as a defender of Catholics, Catholic universities need to accept that it is not their role to intervene in disputes between persons of other religions which in no way touch on the Church’s interests. If any particular strand of Jewish opinion wishes to have a “safe” platform from which to propound their ideas, they should set up a university themselves, not try to hijack somebody else’s university.

    It would be nice if Professor Finkelstein found a university in which to carry on his work, but I can’t see that being a Catholic university. To each his own!

  2. Peter LaVenia said on July 23rd, 2007 at 10:26am #

    As a graduate student and potential future prof, but also as a Marxist, I agree with your analysis of what to do with our entire system of learning. No amount of tinkering will correct what higher education essentially is – a conglomeration of money-making bureaucrats and capitalists looking for skilled workers. Creating a new structure is absolutely necessary to move forward to truly decentralized and human learning processes.

  3. Bob Paredez said on July 23rd, 2007 at 10:45am #

    I think the natural answer is for Finkelstein to join the AFU, or may be organize his own in US. God knows there are plenty of anarchists here.

    … but weight a second – how will “facilitators” survive – they need to get paid! and if tuition is charged by what “students” can pay then how is the balance to be achieved between what “facilitators” need and “students” can pay?

    Another interesting point is that since there is not difference in designation between PhD and a high school dropout – I am sure that plenty of smart well educated PhDs will flock to this kind of equality. And why not, they could be debating issues with high school dropouts and not be recognized as authorities on a subject.

    Won’t, in a free job market, PhDs and other smart people be lured away by attractive jobs where they are respected for their knowledge and paid well too, instead of spending their time in a place where they are equated to high school dropouts?
    I think they would be, and what’s left are self indulgent ideologists who will spread hearsay as knowledge to bunch of ignorant individuals who like to hear that they are equal to PhDs even if they dropped out of high school.

  4. Daniel said on July 24th, 2007 at 12:27am #

    It’s no wonder that universities are no longer important institutions, ones that provides impartial comment upon society. They have become the plaything not only of corporations but religious fundamentalists.

    Once, as in the French Revolution, students led in the overthrow of a corrupt system. Now students and many faculty member are led by, or a prisoners of, corrupt others.

  5. Hue Longer said on July 24th, 2007 at 3:31am #

    lol…nice one Kim, is Michael Kenny your red headed alter ego you throw out to roleplay how stupid you believe Catholic Zionists can be? Not only do I love the name you chose for the self abuse it would suggest, but how you make him completely miss irony. No catholic pretending to not be kissing Zionist feet would carry on with his absurd responses to quotes from articles quoting Chomsky such as, “Dershowitz is intelligent enough to know that he can’t respond, so he does what any tenth-rate lawyer does when you have a rotten case: you try to change the subject, maybe by vilifying opposing counsel. That changes the subject. Now we talk about whether, you know, opposing counsel did or did not commit this iniquity. And the tactic is a very good one, because you win, even if you lose. Suppose your charges against are all refuted. You’ve still won. You’ve changed the subject. The subject is no longer the real topic: the crucial facts about Israel, Dershowitz’s vulgar apologetics for them, which sort of are reminiscent of the worst days of Stalinism. We’ve forgotten all of that. We’re now talking about whether Finkelstein did this, that and the other thing. And even if the charges are false, the topic’s been changed. That’s the basis of it.1″….

    Come on man, there is no Father Michael Kenny…good stuff though!

  6. Matt Holbert said on July 25th, 2007 at 6:16pm #

    I agree that the answer is to abandon the system. However, unless the world outside the university changes also, “graduates” will be all dressed up with no where to go. ParadigmClub.org or something similar may provide some answers.