The Fate of an Honest Intellectual
Excerpted from Understanding Power, The New Press, 2002, pp. 244-248
I'll tell you another, last case—and there are many others like this. Here's a story which is really tragic. How many of you know about Joan Peters, the book by Joan Peters? There was this best-seller a few years ago [in 1984], it went through about ten printings, by a woman named Joan Peters—or at least, signed by Joan Peters—called From Time Immemorial. It was a big scholarly-looking book with lots of footnotes, which purported to show that the Palestinians were all recent immigrants [i.e. to the Jewish-settled areas of the former Palestine, during the British mandate years of 1920 to 1948]. And it was very popular—it got literally hundreds of rave reviews, and no negative reviews: the Washington Post, the New York Times, everybody was just raving about it. Here was this book which proved that there were really no Palestinians! Of course, the implicit message was, if Israel kicks them all out there's no moral issue, because they're just recent immigrants who came in because the Jews had built up the country. And there was all kinds of demographic analysis in it, and a big professor of demography at the University of Chicago [Philip M. Hauser] authenticated it. That was the big intellectual hit for that year: Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, everybody was talking about it as the greatest thing since chocolate cake.Well, one graduate student at Princeton, a guy named Norman Finkelstein, started reading through the book. He was interested in the history of Zionism, and as he read the book he was kind of surprised by some of the things it said. He's a very careful student, and he started checking the references—and it turned out that the whole thing was a hoax, it was completely faked: probably it had been put together by some intelligence agency or something like that. Well, Finkelstein wrote up a short paper of just preliminary findings, it was about twenty-five pages or so, and he sent it around to I think thirty people who were interested in the topic, scholars in the field and so on, saying: "Here's what I've found in this book, do you think it's worth pursuing?"
Well, he got back one answer, from me. I told him, yeah, I think it's an interesting topic, but I warned him, if you follow this, you're going to get in trouble—because you're going to expose the American intellectual community as a gang of frauds, and they are not going to like it, and they're going to destroy you. So I said: if you want to do it, go ahead, but be aware of what you're getting into. It's an important issue, it makes a big difference whether you eliminate the moral basis for driving out a population—it's preparing the basis for some real horrors—so a lot of people's lives could be at stake. But your life is at stake too, I told him, because if you pursue this, your career is going to be ruined.
Well, he didn't believe me. We became very close friends after this, I didn't know him before. He went ahead and wrote up an article, and he started submitting it to journals. Nothing: they didn't even bother responding. I finally managed to place a piece of it in In These Times, a tiny left-wing journal published in Illinois, where some of you may have seen it. Otherwise nothing, no response. Meanwhile his professors—this is Princeton University, supposed to be a serious place—stopped talking to him: they wouldn't make appointments with him, they wouldn't read his papers, he basically had to quit the program.
By this time, he was getting kind of desperate, and he asked me what to do. I gave him what I thought was good advice, but what turned out to be bad advice: I suggested that he shift over to a different department, where I knew some people and figured he'd at least be treated decently. That turned out to be wrong. He switched over, and when he got to the point of writing his thesis he literally could not get the faculty to read it, he couldn't get them to come to his thesis defense. Finally, out of embarrassment, they granted him a Ph.D.—he's very smart, incidentally—but they will not even write a letter for him saying that he was a student at Princeton University. I mean, sometimes you have students for whom it's hard to write good letters of recommendation, because you really didn't think they were very good—but you can write something, there are ways of doing these things. This guy was good, but he literally cannot get a letter.
He's now living in a little apartment somewhere in New York City, and he's a part-time social worker working with teenage drop-outs. Very promising scholar—if he'd done what he was told, he would have gone on and right now he'd be a professor somewhere at some big university. Instead he's working part-time with disturbed teenaged kids for a couple thousand dollars a year. That's a lot better than a death squad, it's true—it's a whole lot better than a death squad. But those are the techniques of control that are around.
But let me just go on with the Joan Peters story. Finkelstein's very persistent: he took a summer off and sat in the New York Public Library, where he went through every single reference in the book—and he found a record of fraud that you cannot believe. Well, the New York intellectual community is a pretty small place, and pretty soon everybody knew about this, everybody knew the book was a fraud and it was going to be exposed sooner or later. The one journal that was smart enough to react intelligently was the New York Review of Books—they knew that the thing was a sham, but the editor didn't want to offend his friends, so he just didn't run a review at all. That was the one journal that didn't run a review.
Meanwhile, Finkelstein was being called in by big professors in the field who were telling him, "Look, call off your crusade; you drop this and we'll take care of you, we'll make sure you get a job," all this kind of stuff. But he kept doing it—he kept on and on. Every time there was a favorable review, he'd write a letter to the editor which wouldn't get printed; he was doing whatever he could do. We approached the publishers and asked them if they were going to respond to any of this, and they said no—and they were right. Why should they respond? They had the whole system buttoned up, there was never going to be a critical word about this in the United States. But then they made a technical error: they allowed the book to appear in England, where you can't control the intellectual community quite as easily.
Well, as soon as I heard that the book was going to come out in England, I immediately sent copies of Finkelstein's work to a number of British scholars and journalists who are interested in the Middle East—and they were ready. As soon as the book appeared, it was just demolished, it was blown out of the water. Every major journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review, the Observer, everybody had a review saying, this doesn't even reach the level of nonsense, of idiocy. A lot of the criticism used Finkelstein's work without any acknowledgment, I should say—but about the kindest word anybody said about the book was "ludicrous," or "preposterous."
Well, people here read British reviews—if you're in the American intellectual community, you read the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review, so it began to get a little embarrassing. You started getting back-tracking: people started saying, "Well, look, I didn't really say the book was good, I just said it's an interesting topic," things like that. At that point, the New York Review swung into action, and they did what they always do in these circumstances. See, there's like a routine that you go through—if a book gets blown out of the water in England in places people here will see, or if a book gets praised in England, you have to react. And if it's a book on Israel, there's a standard way of doing it: you get an Israeli scholar to review it. That's called covering your ass—because whatever an Israeli scholar says, you're pretty safe: no one can accuse the journal of anti-Semitism, none of the usual stuff works.
So after the Peters book got blown out of the water in England, the New York Review assigned it to a good person actually, in fact Israel's leading specialist on Palestinian nationalism [Yehoshua Porath], someone who knows a lot about the subject. And he wrote a review, which they then didn't publish—it went on for almost a year without the thing being published; nobody knows exactly what was going on, but you can guess that there must have been a lot of pressure not to publish it. Eventually it was even written up in the New York Times that this review wasn't getting published, so finally some version of it did appear. It was critical, it said the book is nonsense and so on, but it cut corners, the guy didn't say what he knew.
Actually, the Israeli reviews in general were extremely critical: the reaction of the Israeli press was that they hoped the book would not be widely read, because ultimately it would be harmful to the Jews—sooner or later it would get exposed, and then it would just look like a fraud and a hoax, and it would reflect badly on Israel. They underestimated the American intellectual community, I should say.
Anyhow, by that point the American intellectual community realized that the Peters book was an embarrassment, and it sort of disappeared—nobody talks about it anymore. I mean, you still find it at newsstands in the airport and so on, but the best and the brightest know that they are not supposed to talk about it anymore: because it was exposed and they were exposed.
Well, the point is, what happened to Finkelstein is the kind of thing that can happen when you're an honest critic—and we could go on and on with other cases like that. [Editors' Note: Finkelstein has since published several books with independent presses.]
Still, in the universities or in any other institution, you can often find some dissidents hanging around in the woodwork—and they can survive in one fashion or another, particularly if they get community support. But if they become too disruptive or too obstreperous—or you know, too effective—they're likely to be kicked out. The standard thing, though, is that they won't make it within the institutions in the first place, particularly if they were that way when they were young—they'll simply be weeded out somewhere along the line. So in most cases, the people who make it through the institutions and are able to remain in them have already internalized the right kinds of beliefs: it's not a problem for them to be obedient, they already are obedient, that's how they got there. And that's pretty much how the ideological control system perpetuates itself in the schools—that's the basic story of how it operates, I think.