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Subject: Norman Finkelstein on Christopher Hitchens

Below is an excerpt from the memoir on the subject of political apostasy.
Norman Finkelstein says:
Writing before the invasion, Hitchens argued that the U.S. must attack even
if Saddam offers self-exile in order to capture and punish this heinous
criminal. Shouldn't he urge an attack on the U.S. to capture and punish Kissinger?
And, it must attack because Saddam started colluding with al-Qaida after the
horrific crimes of September 11. Should the U.S. have been attacked for
colluding with Saddam's horrific crimes, not after but while they unfolded, before
September 11? France is the one "truly `unilateralist' government on the
Security Council," according to Hitchens, a proof being that 20 years ago it sank a
Greenpeace vessel - next to which the U.S. wars in Central America apparently
pale by comparison. He assails French President Jacques Chirac, in a
masterful turn of phrase, as a "balding Joan of Arc in drag," and blasts France with
the full arsenal of Berlitz's "most commonly used French expressions." For
bowing to popular anti-war sentiment in Germany, German Chancellor Gerhard
Schroeder stands accused of "cheaply" playing "this card," while in the
near-unanimous opposition of the Turkish people to war Hitchens detects evidence of "ugly
egotism and selfishness." He says that that Wolfowitz wants "democracy and
emancipation" - which must be why Wolfowitz rebuked the Turkish military for not
stepping in after the Turkish people vetoed participation in the war. A
"principled policy cannot be measured," Hitchens sniffs, "by the number of people
who endorse it." But for a principled democrat the number of people endorsing
a policy does decide whether to implement it.
The title refers to how ex-leftist Christopher Hitchens used to sign off his

"Fraternally yours, Chris"

I'm occasionally asked whether I still consider myself a Marxist. Even if my
"faith" had lapsed, I wouldn't advertise it, not from shame at having been
wrong (although admittedly this would be a factor) but rather from fear of
arousing even a faint suspicion of opportunism. To borrow from the lingo of a
former academic fad, if, in public life, the "signifier" is "I'm no longer a
Marxist," then the "signified" usually is, "I'm selling out." No doubt one can, in
light of further study and life experience, come to repudiate past
convictions. One might also decide that youthful ideals, especially when the
responsibilities of family kick in and the prospects for radical change dim while the
certainty of one's finitude sharpens, are too heavy a burden to bear; although
it might be hoped that this accommodation, however understandable (if
disappointing), were accomplished with candor and an appropriate degree of humility
rather than, what's usually the case, scorn for those who keep plugging away. It
is when the phenomenon of political apostasy is accompanied by fanfare and
fireworks that it becomes truly repellent.

Depending on where along the political spectrum power is situated, apostates
almost always make their corrective leap in that direction, discovering the
virtues of the status quo. "The last thing you can be accused of is having
turned your coat," Thomas Mann wrote a convert to National Socialism right after
Hitler's seizure of power. "You always wore it the `right' way around." If
apostasy weren't conditioned by power considerations, one would anticipate
roughly equal movements in both directions. But that's never been the case. The
would-be apostate almost always pulls towards power's magnetic field, rarely
away. However elaborate the testimonials on how one came to "see the light,"
the impetus behind political apostasy is - pardon my cynicism - a fairly
straightforward, uncomplicated affair: to cash in, or keep cashing in, on earthly
pleasures. Indeed, an apostate can even capitalize on the past to increase his
or her current exchange value. Professional ex-radical Todd Gitlin never
fails to mention, when denouncing those to his left, that he was a former head of
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Never mind that this was four
decades ago; although president of my sixth-grade class 40 years ago, I don't keep
bringing it up. Shouldn't there be a statute of limitations on the
exploitation of one's political past? In any event, it's hard to figure why an
acknowledgment of former errors should enhance one's current credibility. If, by a
person's own admission, he or she had got it all wrong, why should anyone pay
heed to his or her new opinions? Doesn't it make more sense attending to those
who got there sooner rather than later? A member of the Flat-Earth Society who
suddenly discovers the world is round doesn't get to keynote an astronomers'
convention. Indeed, the prudent inference would seem to be, once an idiot,
always an idiot. It's child's play to assemble a lengthy list - Roger Garaudy,
Boris Yeltsin, David Horowitz, Bernard Henri-LevyÖ - bearing out this
commonsensical wisdom.

Yet, an apostate is usually astute enough to understand that, in order to
catch the public eye and reap the attendant benefits, merely registering this or
that doubt about one's prior convictions, or nuanced disagreements with former
comrades (which, after all, is how a reasoned change of heart would normally
evolve), won't suffice. For, incremental change, or fundamental change by
accretion, doesn't get the buzz going: there must be a dramatic rupture with
one's past. Conversion and zealotry, just like revelation and apostasy, are flip
sides of the same coin, the currency of a political culture having more in
common with religion than rational discourse. A rite of passage for apostates
peculiar to U.S. political culture is bashing Noam Chomsky. It's the political
equivalent of a bar mitzvah, a ritual signaling that one has "grown up" -
i.e., grown out of one's "childish" past. It's hard to pick up an article or book
by ex-radicals - Gitlin's Letters to a Young Activist, Paul Berman's Terror
and LiberalismÖ - that doesn't include a hysterical attack on him. Behind this
venom there's also a transparent psychological factor at play. Chomsky
mirrors their idealistic past as well as sordid present, an obstinate reminder that
they once had principles but no longer do, that they sold out but he didn't.
Hating to be reminded, they keep trying to shatter the glass. He's the demon
from the past that, after recantation, no amount of incantation can exorcise.

Two altogether opposed political stances can each draw an audience's
attention. One is to be politically consistent, but nonetheless original in one's
insights; the other, an inchoate form of apostasy, is to bank on the shock value
of an occasional, wildly inconsistent outburst. The former approach, which
Chomsky exemplifies, requires hard work, whereas the latter is a lazy substitute
for it. Thus Nat Hentoff, the hip (he loves jazz) left-liberal writer, would
jazz up his interminably dull Village Voice columns by suddenly coming out
against abortion or endorsing Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination. The
master at this pose of maverick unpredictability used to be Christopher
Hitchens. Amidst a fairly typical leftist politics, he would suddenly ambush
unsuspecting readers with his opposition to abortion, admiration of the misogynist
and juvenile lyrics of Two Live Crew ("I think that's very funny"), or support
for Columbus's extermination of Native Americans ("deserving to be celebrated
with great vim and gusto"). Immediately the talk of the town became, "Did you
read Hitchens this week?"

Although a tacit assumption equates unpredictability with independence of
mind, it might just as well signal lack of principle. As if to bear out this
point, Hitchens has now repackaged himself a full-fledged apostate. For maximum
pyrotechnical effect, he knew that the "awakening" had to be as abrupt as it
was extreme: if yesterday he counted himself a Trotskyist and Chomsky a
comrade, better now to announce that he supports Bush and counts Paul Wolfowitz a
comrade. Their fates crossed when Wolfowitz and Hitchens both immediately
glimpsed in September 11 the long-awaited opportunity: for Wolfowitz, to get into
Iraq, for Hitchens, to get out of the left. While public display of angst
doesn't itself prove authenticity of feeling (sometimes it might prove the
reverse), a sharp political break must, for one living a political life, be a
wrenching emotional experience. The rejection of one's core political beliefs can't
but entail a rejection of the person holding them: if the beliefs were wrong,
then one's whole being was wrong. Repudiating one's comrades must also be a
sorrowful burden. It is not by chance that "fraternity" is a prized value of
the left: in the course of political struggle, one forges, if not always
literally, then, at any rate, spiritually, blood bonds. Yet, the ťlan with which
Hitchens has shed his past and, spewing venom, the brio with which he savages
former comrades is a genuine wonder to behold. No doubt he imagines it is
testament to the mettle of his conviction that past loyalties don't in the slightest
constrain him; in fact, it's testament to the absence of any conviction at

Hitchens collects his essays during the months preceding the U.S. attack on
Iraq in The Long Short War. He sneers that former comrades organizing the
global anti-war demonstrations "do not think that Saddam Hussein is a bad guy at
all" (emphasis in original), and the many millions marching in them consist
of the "blithering ex-flower child or ranting neo-Stalinist." Similarly, he
ridicules activists pooling their meager resources for refreshments at a
fundraiser - they are not among the chosen at a Vanity Fair soiree - as "potluck
peaceniks" and "potluckistas." Yet, he is at pains to inform readers that all his
newly acquired friends are "friends for life." As with the solicitude he
keeps expressing for the rights of Arab women, it seems that Hitchens protests too
much. The famous aphorism quoted by him that nations have no permanent
allies, only permanent interests, might be said to apply, mutatis mutandis, to
himself as well. Indeed, his description of a psychopath - "incapable of
conceiving an interest other than his own and perhaps genuinely indifferent to the
well-being of others" - comes perilously close to a self-portrait. To discover
our true human nature, Freud once wrote, just reverse society's moral
exhortations: if the Commandment says not to commit adultery, it's because we all want
to. This simple game can be played with Hitchens as well: when he avows, "I
attempt to write as if I did not care what reviewers said, what peers thought,
or what prevailing opinion might be," one should read, "My every word is
calculated for its public effect."

Hitchens has riotous fun heaping contempt on several of the volunteer "human
shields" who left Iraq before the bombing began. They "obviously didn't have
the guts," he jeers, hunkered down in his Washington foxhole. Bearing witness
to his own bravery, Hitchens reports in March 2003 that, although even the
wife of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is having doubts about going to
war, "I am fighting to keep my nerve" - truly a profile in courage, as he exiles
himself in the political wilderness, alongside the Bush administration,
Congress, a majority of U.S. public opinion, and his employers in the major media.
Outraged at the taunt that he who preaches war should perhaps consider
fighting it, Hitchens impatiently recalls that, since September 11, "civilians at
home are no safer than soldiers abroad," and that, in fact, he's not just a but
the main target: "The whole point of the present phase of conflict is that we
are faced with tactics that are directed primarily at civiliansÖ.It is amazing
that this essential element of the crisis should have taken so long to sink
into certain skulls" (emphasis in original). No doubt modesty and tact forbid
Hitchens from drawing the obvious comparison: while cowardly American soldiers
frantically covered themselves in protective gear and held their weapons at
the ready, he patrolled his combat zone in Washington, D.C. unencumbered.
Lest we forget, Hitchens recalls that ours is "an all-volunteer army" where
soldiers willingly exchange "fairly good pay" for "obedience" to authority: "Who
would have this any other way?" For sure, not those who will never have to

It's a standing question as to whether the power of words ultimately derives
from their truth value or if a sufficiently nimble mind can endow words with
comparable force regardless of whether they are bearers of truth or falsity.
For those who want to believe that the truth content of words does matter,
reading the new Hitchens comes as a signal relief. Although redoubtable as a
left-wing polemicist, as a right-wing one he only produces doubt, not least about
his own mental poise. Deriding Chomsky's "very vulgar" harnessing of facts,
Hitchens wants to go beyond this "empiricism of the crudest kind." His own
preferred epistemology is on full display, for all to judge, in Long Short War.
To prove that, after supporting dictatorial regimes in the Middle East for 70
years, the U.S. has abruptly reversed itself and now wants to bring democracy
there, he cites "conversations I have had on this subject in Washington." To
demonstrate the "glaringly apparent" fact that Saddam "infiltrated, or
suborned, or both" the U.N. inspection teams in Iraq, he adduces the "incontrovertible
case" of an inspector offered a bribe by an Iraqi official: "The man in
question refused the money, but perhaps not everybody did." Citing "the brilliant
film called Nada," Hitchens proposes this radical redefinition of terrorism:
"the tactic of demanding the impossible, and demanding it at gunpoint."
Al-Qaida is accordingly terrorist because it posits an impossible world of "clerical
absolutism" but, judging by this definition, the Nazi party wasn't terrorist
because it posited a possible world without Jews. Claiming that every country
will resort to preemptive war, and that preemptive is indistinguishable from
preventive war, Hitchens infers that all countries "will invariably decide that
violence and first use are justified" and none can be faulted on this account
- which makes you wonder why he's so hot under the collar about Saddam's
invasion of Kuwait.

Hitchens maintains that that "there is a closeÖfit between the democratically
minded and the pro-American" in the Middle East - like "President for Life"
Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan...; that Washington finally grasped that
"there were `root causes' behind the murder-attacks" (emphasis in original) -
but didn't Hitchens ridicule any allusion to "root causes" as totalitarian
apologetics?; that "racism" is "anti-American as nearly as possible by
definition"; that "evil" can be defined as "the surplus value of the psychopath" - is
there a Bartlett's for worst quotations?; that the U.S.'s rejoining of
U.N.E.S.C.O. during the Iraq debate proved its commitment to the U.N.; that
"empirical proofs have been unearthed" showing that Iraq didn't comply with U.N.
resolutions to disarm; that since the U.N. solicits U.S. support for multilateral
missions, it's "idle chatter" to accuse the U.S. of acting unilaterally in Iraq;
that the likely killing of innocent civilians in "hospitals, schools, mosques
and private homes" shouldn't deter the U.S. from attacking Iraq because it is
proof of Saddam's iniquity that he put civilians in harm's way; that those
questioning billions of dollars in postwar contracts going to Bush
administration cronies must prefer them going to "some windmill-power concern run by Naomi
Klein" - is this dry or desiccated wit?

On one page Hitchens states that the world fundamentally changed after
September 11 because "civilians are in the front line as never before," but on
another page he states that during the 1970s, "I was more than once within blast or
shot range of the IRA and came to understand that the word `indiscriminate'
meant that I was as likely to be killed as any other bystander." On one page
he states that, even if the U.S. doesn't attack or threaten to attack, "Saddam
Hussein is not going to survive. His regime is on the verge of implosion"
(emphasis in original), but on another page he states that "only the force of
American arms, or the extremely credible threat of that force, can bring a fresh
face to power." On one page he states that the U.S. seems committed to
completely overhauling Iraq's political system, but on another page he states that
replacing Saddam with "another friendly generalÖmight be ideal from Washington's
point of view." On one page he states that "Of course it's about oil,
stupid" (emphasis in original), but on another page he states that "it was not for
the sake of oil" that the U.S. went to war. In one paragraph he states that
the U.S. must attack Iraq even if it swells the ranks of al-Qaida, but in the
next paragraph he states that "the task of statecraft" is not to swell its
ranks. In one sentence he claims to be persuaded by the "materialist conception of
history," but in the next sentence he states that "a theory that seems to
explain everything is just as good at explaining nothing." In the first half of
one sentence he argues that, since "one cannot know the future," policy can't
be based on likely consequences, but in the second half he concludes that
policy should be based on "a reasoned judgment about the evident danger."

Writing before the invasion, Hitchens argued that the U.S. must attack even
if Saddam offers self-exile in order to capture and punish this heinous
criminal. Shouldn't he urge an attack on the U.S. to capture and punish Kissinger?
And, it must attack because Saddam started colluding with al-Qaida after the
horrific crimes of September 11. Should the U.S. have been attacked for
colluding with Saddam's horrific crimes, not after but while they unfolded, before
September 11? France is the one "truly `unilateralist' government on the
Security Council," according to Hitchens, a proof being that 20 years ago it sank a
Greenpeace vessel - next to which the U.S. wars in Central America apparently
pale by comparison. He assails French President Jacques Chirac, in a
masterful turn of phrase, as a "balding Joan of Arc in drag," and blasts France with
the full arsenal of Berlitz's "most commonly used French expressions." For
bowing to popular anti-war sentiment in Germany, German Chancellor Gerhard
Schroeder stands accused of "cheaply" playing "this card," while in the
near-unanimous opposition of the Turkish people to war Hitchens detects evidence of "ugly
egotism and selfishness." He says that that Wolfowitz wants "democracy and
emancipation" - which must be why Wolfowitz rebuked the Turkish military for
not stepping in after the Turkish people vetoed participation in the war. A
"principled policy cannot be measured," Hitchens sniffs, "by the number of people
who endorse it." But for a principled democrat the number of people
endorsing a policy does decide whether to implement it. Hitchens's notion of
democracy is his "comrade," ex-Trotskyist but ever-opportunist Kanan Makiya, conjuring
up a "complex and ambitious plan" to totally remake Iraq in Boston and
presenting it for ratification at an ťmigrť conference in London. The invective he
hurls at French, German and Turkish leaders for heeding the popular will shows
that Hitchens hasn't, at any rate, completely broken faith with his past:
contemptuous of "transient polls of opinion," he's still a Trotskyist at heart,
guiding the benighted masses to the Promised Land, if through endless wars and
safely from the rear.

Most of Long Short War is given over to parsing words. According to
Hitchens, all the key terms of the debate on Iraq were meaningless. In his hands this
is probably true.
For many years Hitchens awed readers with his formidable control over the
English language. Now his ego delights in testing whether, through sheer
manipulation of words, he can pass off flatulent emissions as bouquets. It perhaps
would be funny watching fatuous readers fawn over gibberish - were not human
life at stake. Hitchens can't believe a word he's saying. In contrast to
bursting windbags like Vaclav Havel, Hitchens is too smart to take his vaporizings
seriously. It's almost an inside joke as he signals each ridiculous point
with the assertion that it's "obvious." Hitchens resembles no one so much as the
Polish ťmigrť hoaxer, Jerzy Kosinski, who, shrewdly sizing up intellectual
culture in America, used to give, before genuflecting Yale undergraduates,
lectures on such topics as "The Art of the Self: the theory of `Le Moi Poetique'
(Binswanger)." Translation: for this wanger it's all about moi. Kosinski no
doubt had a good time of it until, outed as a fraud, he had enough good grace,
which Hitchens plainly lacks, to commit suicide. And for Hitchens it's also
lucrative nonsense that he's peddling. It's not exactly a martyr's fate
defecting from The Nation, a frills-free liberal magazine, to Atlantic Monthly, the
well-heeled house organ of Zionist crazies. Although Kissinger affected to be a
"solitary, gaunt hero," Hitchens says, in reality he was just a "corpulent
opportunist." It sounds familiar.


A few words of fraternal admonition to "Norm" Finkelstein
Christopher Hitchens

In his delightful memoir of his father, Alexander Cockburn recalls Claudís
method of dealing with unwelcome bills, and with the ominous red-tinted
follow-up letters that often succeeded them. The old man composed a fantasy-response,
informing his creditors that every six months he would throw all his unpaid
bills into a basket, stir them with a stick, and then take out or two or three
and pay them at random. "One more nasty letter from you and youíre out of the

I could spend a lot of my time replying to attacks on my person, but I now
play a version of the Cockburn roulette. (I donít respond to assaults from the
"Counterpunch"source at all: this is because I like Alexander and his family,
and because I think thereís something satisfying in having him much more
fascinated by my writing than I can any longer be by any of his.) Every now and
then, though, kind friends hasten to send me a collectorís item of abuse and the
recent one from the Norman Finkelstein website is a keeper. Out of the basket
it comes.

It is headed "Fraternally yours, Chris", which is supposedly the way that I
"used to sign off" my correspondence. I very often still do end my letters with
the old salutation of the British Labor movement, but itís usually without
the "yours" and I have never signed a letter "Chris" in my life - chiefly
because it isnít my name. I tried everything I knew to stop Norman calling me
"Chris" but I couldnít get him to desist. This is a detail, but it does indicate a
man who - even his friends would agree on this - was a slightly more ardent
talker than listener.

The essay is a study in apostasy and will apparently form part of a new
introduction to Finkelsteinís book "The Rise and Fall of Palestine." Since thatís
a serious subject, Iím hoping that its publisher sees this in time and avoids
the embarrassment of conflating Finkelsteinís ill-argued personal grudges with
the fate of a struggling people.

My book "A Long Short War", about the liberation of Iraq, is a fairly terse
and modest pamphlet, made up of handy bite-sized polemics, each of them dated
to see how well or badly it holds up in retrospect. Itís not a work in which
one can easily get bogged down. But Finkelstein manages to get himself entangled
in the text to a wince-making degree. Thus he says that I describe the
followers of the anti-war demonstrations as "ex-flower children" or "neo
Stalinists", while that was my description only of the organisers. His appreciation of
irony and contradiction, very keen in his own mind, is klutzy in the extreme
when laboriously downloaded from that mind onto the page. Thus, he reminds me
that I witnessed "indiscriminate" bombings by the Provisional IRA in the 1970s,
which I certainly did. He then triumphantly counterposes this to a statement on
another page, where I say that after 11 September 2001 "civilians are in the
front line as never before". This dull attempt at a "gotcha" collapses
instantly upon itself - unless you are ready to believe that the Al Quaeda movement
hasnít promoted anti-civilian warfare to a newer and higher degree. (I donít
actually know Finkelsteinís answer to this question: in December 2001 he gave
an exhaustive interview, reprinted in Counterpunch, in which he stated:
"Frankly, part of me says - even though everything since September 11th has been a
nightmare - Ďyou know what, we deserve the problem on our hands because some
things bin Laden says are true." Which part of you, Norman, was that? And which
part am I arguing with? And wasnít September 11th also "a nightmare": not just
"everything since"?

Some of the things the Nazis said were "true", too (about Stalinism, say,
before they made a pact with it, and about the Treaty of Versailles). This is a
subject on which Finkelstein rightly claims some expertise, but he seems
willing to make a fool of himself on his own turf in a crass attempt to insult me. I
define terrorism as "the tactic of demanding the impossible, and demanding it
at gunpoint." Judging by this, says Finkelstein, "the Nazi Party wasnít
terrorist because it posited a world without Jews." He really must be more careful.
First, we do not lack words of condemnation for the Third Reich, and "Nazi"
is the least of these, because it is the most literal. Second, the other
definitions we possess - of which "genocidal" would be one - are terms that donít
exhibit the same ambiguity as "terrorist" does. "Terrorist", indeed, is almost a
euphemistic word when compared to "totalitarian". Third, I am presuming that
Norman Finkelstein will agree with me that Nazism did manifest a high degree o
f irrationality, not only in its attempt at Judaeocide but also in its
declaration of war on three fronts against three great powers, aimed at the
preposterous fantasy of Aryan world domination. I do think that Al Quaeda is doomed
because of similar jihadist and millenial delusions. In my essay, I was
attempting to distinguish it from, say, Hezbollah, which is a local
politico-clerical-military faction with (relatively) limited and defined aims. Iím not sure,
though, that this distinction would lead me to emulate Finkelstein, who called in
public and in print for "solidarity with Hezbollah" on his notorious visit to
Lebanon. The reason that he gave for this wild piece of promiscuity was that
Hezbollah was being targeted for elimination by the United States and Israel.
Tempting though it might be - and though his own logic might seem to
necessitate it - I shall not accuse Norman Finkelstein of demanding solidarity with Al
Quaeda on what would be the precisely identical grounds. But from someone who
identifies with Hezbollah and half-sympathises with Al Quaeda, I am not sure I
am ready to hear that it is I who have capitulated to the forces of reaction.

In other words - and to return to my book for a moment - I was attempting to
enforce distinctions rather than blur them. I think that any fair-minded
reader, who had my little book to hand while reading Finkelsteinís screed, would
agree that he fails to bring off any of the rhetorical or logical coups on which
he rushes to congratulate himself. Itís true that I am sometimes rude -
always on purpose, I trust - but not as crude as Finkelsteinís own use of
references to flatulence, psychopathy or the "bursting windbag" Vaclav Havel. Anyway,
do please purchase a copy of my reasonably-priced pamphlet and let me know if
you disagree.

Much more absorbing than all this is the question of motive - which seems to
fairly obsess Finkelstein - and also of authenticity. Throughout his essay, he
seems to argue that nobody could criticise the Left except for the most
mercenary and opportunist reason. There are and have been such defectors of course,
but the idea of treason and pelf being at the root of it all is a flat
negation of a long history of honorable and courageous re-thinking, from Kautsky to
Koestler. I wouldnít claim to be on this chart at all, but it must at least be
thinkable, to anyone except Finkelstein, that I could have succeeded as a
mere journalist while writing nothing at all about Noam Chomsky. In fact I wrote
a long and much-circulated defense of him in the 1980s, and have never
repudiated it. (As Finkelstein knows, though he falsely states the contrary, I have
never disowned, in the auto da fe sense, any of my past on the Left.) I had
some kind words for Chomsky in a book of mine that was in proof when 11 September
hit, and didnít remove them as I could have done. Unlike many on the Left,
who circulate Stalinist defamations of Orwell, Chomsky for example has always
taken an "Orwellian" position as regards objective and historical truth. I had
begun to disagree with him very seriously over his lenience towards Milosevic
and his opposition to the military rescue of Bosnia and Kosovo from attempted
ethnocide, and if Finkelstein thinks that this position of mine was inspired by
the lust for gold from major magazines he is welcome to the thought.

I looked up some earlier Chomsky a while ago, to see how it held up in
retrospect, and I was pleased to find that some of the classic essays - on B.F.
Skinner and behaviorism, on the press and East Timor, and on the Kahan Commission
into Sabra and Shatila - are still imperishable. This will not be said, I
think, of the 2001 talk in which Chomsky described the American intervention in
Afghanistan as "a silent genocide". Finkelstein appears to think that any
criticism of that stupidity would only indicate severe moral decrepitude in the
person making it. Heís thus put in the position of one to whom Chomsky is above
all criticism: not exactly a compliment to the once-great skeptic and inquirer.

Finkelstein himself has not achieved guru status and may not desire it
(though I insist that anyone reading this far should pay a visit to his website and
scan the cartoon which he thinks makes him look good. Itís a real eye-opener
for students of repressed narcissism). I have profited very much from his work
on Palestine, and on Germany. His demolitions of Joan Peters and Daniel
Goldhagen will be in any future anthology of the best investigative scholarship, and
Edward Said and I, when we put together the collection "Blaming the Victims",
essentially structured it around the Peters essay.

Obviously therefore I canít be the best judge when this great cold and clear
eye is trained upon myself. But what is all this gunk about "armchairs"? He
canít seem to stay off the subject. As it happens, I have been in Iraq three
times, very cautiously and prudently, during time of war. This doesnít
necessarily give me any edge in any argument. If the "armchair" point has any value,
though, it must apply to those who argue against the war as well, and who can
view the struggle against Saddam Hussein with a neutral spectatorís eye. (I may
be optimistic when I describe this stance as neutral: I do sometimes lapse into
generosity.) I would perhaps do better in making this point if I made it on
behalf of Kanan Makiya, who did not conduct his battle only in Boston and in
London, as Finkelstein spitefully and sneeringly says, but who exposed himself
to considerable danger in embattled Iraqi Kurdistan and has returned to his
volatile country to live and to take part in the very arduous conflict over its
future. Incidentally, I donít know by what grandly-assumed right Finkelstein
refers to the Iraqi and Kurdish dedicatees of my book as my "newly acquired
friends". I have known them all for quite some time, and my solidarity with them
is indeed in part a solidarity with people who have taken more risks than I

As you will see if you look up my chapter on the "armchair", I point out that
if soldiering were to be a qualification for comment in wartime, we would
have to discount the views of most women, and of all men over military age, all
well as all those whose disabilities prevented them from fighting. This would
also obviously entail disqualifying all pacifists and anti-warriors, almost by
definition. Such an outcome would I hope be detestable to Finkelstein, who has
spent some useful time as a civilian observer on the West Bank. So why does
he embrace an argument that would so clearly tell against him? Or is he willing
to leave all the fighting to Hezbollah?

A sure sign of ineptitude and malice is manifested when oneís attacker is
willing to cover himself with mud in order to try and make some of it adhere to
his target. Finkelsteinís essay begins with a lugubrious self-interrogation
about his own "Marxism", and his staunch unwillingness to repudiate it lest he be
suspected, even by himself, of "selling out". But mark the sequel. In another
attempted "gotcha" he trips over the rug by writing: "In one sentence
[Hitchens] claims to be persuaded by the Ďmaterialist conception of history,í but in
the next sentence he states that Ďa theory that seems to explain everything
is just as good at explaining nothing.í" Now, anyone who knows anything at all
about the materialist conception of history knows that it is not a theory that
seems, or even claims, to explain everything. It is a method of examining the
dynamics of the economy and society, now adopted because of its relative
rigor by a number of non-Marxist historians. [For a good explication of the ABC,
see Professor Gerry Cohenís "Karl Marxís Theory of History: A Defense."] Only
the philistine and the ignorant continue to maintain that it is a
"determinist" or "predictive" procedure. But in order, or so he imagines, to score a point
at my expense, Finkelstein happily joins with this reactionary crowd. Donít
fret, Norman - nobody will notice if you cease proclaiming your adherence to an
ideology you do not understand. Marx understood contradiction: you canít even
rise to the level of paradox.

This cheap turn to anti-intellectualism does not, it seems to me, reach the
standard of Finkelsteinís previous work. So we both seem to be lamenting each
otherís degeneration. He says itís axiomatically reactionary to change: I
would warn him that it can be very conservative to remain the same. I however
donít know him well enough to make the ad-hominem insinuation that his alteration
of tone is due to some impulse of corruption or to secret and shameful worship
of violence. And he certainly doesnít know me well enough (even to call me by
my right name). Not all changes of mind, I would urge on him softly, are
symptoms of decay. There is the equal and opposite danger of ossification,
dogmatism, party-mindedness and sclerosis. And yes, it does and will show in the

PS: I donít want to be accused of avoiding Finkelsteinís unbelievably facile
challenge about moral equivalence. Should the United States, he asks with the
triumphant cackle of a hen laying an outsize egg, have been liable to
invasion for sheltering Kissinger or cossetting Saddam? Iíd actually like to know
Finkelsteinís answer to his own question. I imagine he would have to reluctantly
say no, unless Messrs Putin and Chirac and the Arab League gave their
permission for the strike, or unless Kofi Annan was in vindictive mood. However, the
kernel of the question isnít necessarily diminished by the shallowness or
hypocrisy of the person asking it.

Let me give an example of how this matter may nonetheless be taken seriously.
In a recent debate with Turkish spokesmen on Capitol Hill, I found myself for
the hundredth time involved with the issue of the Armenian genocide.
(Finkelsteinís willingness to take Turkish opinion at its face value is incidentally
one of the many deformities of his piece: Turkey disliked regime change in Iraq
because it feared the growing power of Iraqi Kurdish autonomy: a topic which
Finkelstein continues to airbrush from the entire discussion.) As usual when
the Armenian question comes up, Turkeyís apologists at first deny that the
massacres ever took place. But as the argument persists, they invariably say that
the Armenians took the Russian side in the First World War and were thus
asking for trouble. In other words, the Armenians deserved the massacre that never
took place. At this point I ask the Turks to invert the argument and apply it
to themselves. Turkey took the side of Germany; many Armenians the side of
Russia. Had Armenians been stronger, would they have been justified in putting
all the Turks to the sword? Iíve never heard a coherent reply to this challenge
but, when speaking with Armenian comrades, I do not encourage them to apply
Turkish logic in reverse.

Moral equivalence needs careful handling. In the two slipshod examples given
by Finkelstein, I think that the answer would be no but that the US ought to
be putting its own war-criminals on trial. Indeed, that would been a far better
cause for the American left than its sterile campaign of neutralism in
respect of men like Milosevic and Saddam. In the case of the rocket attack on Sudan
in August 1998, conducted by Clinton without any demand for inspection, any
recourse to the United Nations, any discussion with allies or any consultation
with Congress, I canít see any reason in law or morality why the Sudanese
government, repellent though it is, wouldnít have been entitled to conduct a
retaliatory strike, provided that it was against a military target. I wrote about
this war-crime extensively at the time, and received exactly zero support from
the Finkelstein-Chomsky faction, who avoided all mention of the atrocity until
it could be flung into the scales after September 11, in order to cancel or ba
lance out the Al Quaeda aggression against civilians of all nationalities
living and working in New York. One can only have contempt for casuistry on this
scale, and for those who think it clever to ask serious questions in an
unserious way, and who then run away from the answer.

PPS. Finkelsteinís words about me have been freely available on this website
for some time. I hope that my response will also be available on his. (And,
when you surf in to the Finkelstein world, donít forget to check out that

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