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Finding Your Whiteness in a Time of Crisis: The Reeducation of Norman Finkelstein

Finding Your Whiteness in a Time of Crisis: The Reeducation of Norman Finkelstein
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Norman Finkelstein was a highly respected academic, but his latest book is a racist “544-page temper tantrum.” 

Norman Finkelstein first crossed my radar nearly 20 years ago, if memory serves, when a Stanford University professor introduced me to his 2000 book, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, which contends that Elie Wiesel and his ilk have appropriated the murder of six million Jews to extort Western support for the Zionist project.

But if the book was a revelation, so too was the author. Despite possessing a voice that sounds approximately like two seals fornicating while dragging their claws against a chalkboard, Finkelstein, the Jewish son of Holocaust survivors, impressed me with his ferocious advocacy of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. My admiration only deepened in 2007 when the Harvard Law Professor (and uber Zionist) Alan Dershowitz pressured administrators at Depaul – a Jesuit University in Chicago with a middling reputation– to deny tenure to Finkelstein.

I recall watching a televised interview with Finkelstein after he had reached a settlement with the university, and although he was clearly still nursing deep wounds from the ordeal, invoked his “hero” Paul Robeson, who had endured far worse. I remember him taking a deep breath and concluding:

“So I’ll be okay.”

It was a statement of uncommon grace, and moved me visibly, so much in fact, that my girlfriend at the time would accuse me of having a “man-crush” on Finkelstein.

I pleaded the fifth.

Suffice it to say, however, that the bloom is off the rose after reading Finkelstein’s latest book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It! Heretical Thoughts on Identity Politics, Cancel Culture, and Academic Freedom, a 544-page temper tantrum that is so vulgar, vacuous,  inchoate, and graceless that it could just as easily have been written by Tucker Carlson, Bill Maher or Sean Hannity.

As the unimaginative title suggests, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It! takes aim at the peculiar institution of “wokeness” that in Finkelstein’s estimation undermines class solidarity in the U.S. by pitting the exaggerated grievances of people of color, women and the trans community against the divine rights of straight, white men who are mad as hell, by God, and not going to take it anymore!

As a work of scholarship, however, Finkelstein’s convening of this preening, patriarchal pity party is, to paraphrase the historian John Henrik Clarke, a confession of everything he hasn’t read.

For example, he writes in the first chapter:

I was once sitting in Edward Said’s office when he blurted out, “Chomsky’s a racist.” Why? I wondered aloud in more than slight embarrassment. “He doesn’t cite Arabs in his publications criticizing Israel.” But, apart from the obvious debating advantage of quoting Jews against Israel, it could have been that the Jewish scholarship was of higher quality. If the objective is to convince, and the stakes are literally life and death, shouldn’t one quote the most effective sources, even if Jews are disproportionately in the footnotes? Identity politics would undoubtedly say No. But wouldn’t Palestinians under the heel of Israel’s occupation themselves prefer that the most compelling case be made on their behalf, even at the expense of Palestinian representation in the scholarly apparatus?

The passage is extraordinary for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Said is known as the father of the theory of Orientalism, which posits that the West has historically sought to qualify its imperialism by assigning men of science and letters the task of shifting the blame for colonialism from the colonizer to the colonized.

In his groundbreaking 1978 book, Said named this brand of racist pseudo-science for the unfortunate term coined by the West, or Occidental world, to describe the Arab world to its East – Orientalism –and dated its practice as far back as France’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, when Napoleon encouraged artists, writers, and anthropologists to re-imagine the Nile’s inhabitants, or to Orientalize the Orient.

Their ensuing misrepresentations remain a cornerstone of racial oppression across the world, anticipating Rudyard Kipling’s portrayal of the typical Filipino as “half-devil, half-child” and a Hollywood filmography that encompasses everything from Birth of a Nation to John Wayne’s entire cinematic career to white savior films such as The Blind Side and The Green Book.

While I can’t speak to the totality of Chomsky’s work, I know as a journalist and foreign correspondent that the subaltern can indeed tell his own story, and that it is all but impossible for Israeli scholars–no matter how liberal or well-meaning– to tell the story of Al- Nakba and its afterlife better than the Palestinians.

Not only does Finkelstein defend the honor of his friend Chomsky but also Woody Allen, Bill Clinton (a modern day King Leopold) and Rachel Dolezal (a modern minstrel). What seems to color Finkelstein’s view of the world is the inversion of the white, male gaze, and the possibility that he and his white brethren might be implicated in the pyramid scheme known as racial capitalism. Finkelstein protests the widespread criticism of Dolezal for passing as Black and poaching opportunities from African American women, yet denounces as “racist trash” Toni Morrison’s now-famous description of Slick Willy as the nation’s first Black president. Never mind that Morrison was merely acknowledging that Clinton was not to the manor born, and therefore, an underdog, similar to Blacks. (And why is the categorization of a white person as Black deserving of such vitriol?)

Anyone who understands the white insecurity that finds its voice in times of grave political and economic crisis will recognize I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get To It! as the European settler’s cry for help, and an exercise in white respectability politics. While simultaneously denouncing the humorlessness and hypersensitivity of the woke crowd, Finkelstein signals his own brittleness by lamenting his cancellation by a prominent newscaster after “jokingly telling her female staff ‘You look so young you could be one of Michael Jackson’s playmates.’”

It is simply unfathomable to me how a man who is approaching 70 doesn’t understand that this is (1) unfunny, (2) creepy, (3) possibly triggering for a woman who may have suffered a sexual assault, and (4) more than likely untrue; the FBI surveilled Michael Jackson for five years and came up with nothing, suggesting that accusations against him were likely motivated by greed.

But hey, Michael Jackson was no Noam Chomsky.

And to complement its nativist tone, Finkelstein adopts a coarseness that I had heretofore not associated with him. Of transgenders, he wrote:

. . .the first day of a graduate seminar, students used to describe their intellectual interests.

Nowadays, it’s de rigueur to declare your sexual orientation. It’s only a matter of time before a student announces, ‘I’m she/her and I’m packing a thick, juicy nine-incher.’

Finkelstein reserves his sharpest invective, however, for the usual suspects whose public personas or arguments disrupts the settler’s self-adoration.

He describes MSNBC’s news anchor Joy Reid as “living proof that not all yentas are Jewish and not all bovines are cows.” Of Angela Davis, he writes: “Once upon a time she was on the F.B.I.’s Ten Most Wanted List. Now she’s on Martha’s Vineyard’s Five Most Coveted List.” Henry Louis Gates is described as  “a virtuoso at crawling on the ground while typing on his keyboard,” and Ibram X. Kendi is a “mallet-wielding grifter…preposterous poseur…[whose] ‘definitive history of racist ideas in America’ reduces to a compendium of prepubescent binary name-calling.” Kimberle Crenshaw is the “High Priestess of identity politics” and Robin DiAngelo is “the monomaniacal Captain Ahab in pursuit of the White Whale. She is little Jackie Paper out to slay Puff the Racist Dragon. Her palette comprises two colors—white and black… What an unremitting, remorseless, insufferable bore!”

The thing of it is that while Finkelstein’s language is shrill–no white man should ever refer to a Black woman as “bovine”– his reproach of a multiracial liberal elite, particularly the Obamas and Ta-Nehisi Coates, is partly correct. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that settler colonialism pioneered identity politics, welding all of Europe’s tribes into a tryptych known as “white” to serve as a kind of scab, or strikebreaker, in an effort to divide, and conquer, the working class.

The Black community historically produced politicians such as Marion Barry, Harold Washington, Coleman Young, and Mickey Leland, and writers such as Morrison, Amiri Baraka and James Baldwin; Obama, Coates, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris are all Frankenstein monsters of a sort, stitched together by white liberals to respond to a radical African American polity shaped by slavery and Jim Crow, the Black church, civil rights movement, communism and labor struggles.

To shore up Black support for an embattled white Left, Finkelstein references the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, which at the nadir of the Great Depression rebuked the American Federation of Labor’s tradition of segregated labor unions, and championed African American workers and their communities.

Finkelstein is correct that interracial collaboration fueled labor organizing, and the New Deal, and led ultimately to not only the civil rights movement, but a resurgence in feminism and activism around LGBT issues.

But what Finkelstein conveniently omits is that no sooner had World War II ended than the CIO turned, viciously, on its African American rank and file and actually collaborated with employers to discriminate against Black workers.

Using the Red Scare to weed out the most radical elements–that is to say African Americans and communists–United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther and National Maritime Union President Joseph Curran, headed a purge of 11 CIO unions– representing nearly a million workers– over a two-year period beginning in 1949.

Reuther, who would go on to be the only white to appear on the stage at the 1963 March on Washington, headed the local union that clashed violently with Flint’s General Motors plant, making the UAW a household name nationally. And very much like Finkelstein 20 years ago, Reuther talked a good game initially, helping to quell “hate” strikes of whites protesting integrated workplaces, and championing civil rights during the war. The UAW was, in fact, the only predominantly white institution to defend the black community and denounce police brutality following the 1943 Detroit race riot when police and marauding white mobs murdered 25 African Americans.

Yet, from the moment he defeated the African Americans’ preferred candidate, George Addes, for the UAW’s presidency in 1946, he seemed as obsessed with ridding the union of radicals as he was with negotiating contracts for rank-and-file auto workers. His antagonism of African Americans and their strongest allies within the UAW fulfilled Reuther’s short-term objectives of consolidating his support among second-generation Polish and Hungarian skilled tradesmen and assembly line workers who had no investment in colorblind shop floor policies that would eat away at their racial privileges.

At the 1943 UAW convention, Reuther and his supporters managed to defeat a resolution introduced by Addes’ supporters calling for a special Negro representative. Reuther’s response was that this was tantamount to “racism in reverse,” an argument he deployed again in defeating a 1949 proposal calling for a Black vice president to advocate for African American workers with as much energy as Reuther and his lieutenants advocated for white workers.

As head of the UAW, Reuther’s hand-picked choice to head Local 600 was Carl Stellato, who was elected to the top post in 1950. His first order of business was a  mandate requiring that all 550 elected and appointed representatives of Local 600 sign loyalty oaths to the government. Stellato’s efforts to remove five unit officers from their positions on the grounds that they were Communists failed, however, and the blowback nearly cost him his reelection in 1951.

If Reuther couldn’t purge a CIO union that was, in his estimation, too Red, he would challenge the local in a certification election, known in organizing circles as a “raid.” That was the case with the United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers Union. With more than 70,000 members spread among 22 union locals at its zenith in 1948, the FE, as it was widely known, was the dominant union in the farm equipment industry, but there was some overlap with the UAW.

While both unions belonged to the CIO, they had vastly different visions for industrial unionism. The FE’s radical leadership believed that capital and labor had nothing in common and as such, any agreement reached with management represented only a truce in the class struggle, not its end. Under Reuther, on the other hand, the UAW subscribed to a more conciliatory model of organized labor. “We make collective bargaining agreements,” Reuther was fond of boasting, “ not revolutions.” The differing viewpoints were reflected in the number of work stoppages undertaken by the rival unions. Between October 1, 1945 and October 31, 1952, the UAW held 185 strikes compared to 971 by the FE over the same period.

The FE and UAW first clashed in 1946 at the International Harvester plant in the Chicago suburb of Melrose Park. Constructed in 1941, the shop manufactured the Pratt-Whitney radial aircraft engines used in the B-24 bomber. International Harvester purchased the site from General Motors after the war and in 1946, the FE challenged UAW Local 6 in a certification election. The UAW won handily but the margin was split largely along racial lines, with whites – many of them returning servicemen – preferring the UAW and African Americans –representing only a fraction of the workforce and most relegated to janitorial positions –casting ballots for the more progressive FE, which had a reputation of coaxing employers to hire and promote Blacks to the assembly line, or machinist positions.

In the spring of 1949, an acrimonious jurisdictional dispute erupted between the UAW and the FE at International Harvester’s McCormick Works factory in Chicago. Leading up to the vote, the FE published a full-page ad in the Midwest edition of the Pittsburgh Courier asking:

“Why hasn’t the UAW ever elected a Negro to national office, to its international executive board or as a district director? At the recent national convention of the FE, CIO, William Smith of Chicago, a worker in the McCormick Works plant, was elected vice-president of the union . . . . WALTER REUTHER’S MACHINE IN THE UAW DOESN’T WANT NEGROES IN ITS LEADERSHIP. This union is currently trying to raid the FE-CIO at McCormick.”

With the Black vote playing a decisive role, the FE won the election. But Reuther and the UAW doubled down on their race-baiting, conspiring with the Big Three to promote only whites to the higher-paying skilled trades positions. By 1965, when I was born and my father caught on at Indianapolis Chrysler, African Americans represented 40 percent of the auto-manufacturer’s workforce, but less than 1 percent of all supervisory and skilled trade positions.

It is this kind of treachery that inspired Blacks to coin the phrase “stay woke” in the first place, intended as a warning to each other to be vigilant or risk being caught off-guard by white betrayal, such as that demonstrated by Finkelstein, and a whole slew of white Leftists to include Glen Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Chris Hedges, Jimmy Dore and others, who conflate wokeness with white liberalism, and believe, apparently, that white men losing their jobs for careless remarks is of far more importance than Black men losing their lives for (maybe) passing a counterfeit bill.

The assassinated Black revolutionary George Jackson asserted more than 50 years ago that “White racism is the biggest barrier to a unified Left,” in America. In prison letters to another Black inmate at California’s Soledad Prison, Jackson wrote of organizing inmates to protest abysmal prison conditions.

Of one white inmate, Jackson wrote that he had potential to be an effective activist and could be useful to the cause if “he stops talking honky.”

A former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People and the co-author of A Day Late and a Dollar Short: Dark Days and Bright Nights in Obama’s Postracial America. His work can be found on Patreon as well as Black Republic Media.



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