An Interview With Norman Finkelstein
On August 25, 2012 Occupy Brooklyn TV sat down with Norman Finkelstein – political dissident and world renowned scholar on the Israeli-Palestine conflict – to talk about Gandhi, the Occupy movement, Julian Assange, the economic crisis, and a possible Israeli attack on Iran. Below is a transcript of that conversation.
JAMES GREEN: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with Occupy Brooklyn TV. I’m most interested in talking to you about this new book that you wrote about Gandhi that you dedicated to the Occupy movement. Can you tell us about the book and why you decided to dedicate it to Occupy?
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: The book began several years ago, probably about 3 or 4 years ago now, when I was trying to think through the most prudent strategy for trying to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories – the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem. And I thought that the wise place to turn would be to see what Gandhi had to say on the subject. The Indians were facing an occupation, in their case the occupation of India. Both the Indians and the Palestinians are confronting major regional and international powers – again, in the case of India the British. In the case of the Palestinians, the Israelis and right behind the Israelis the Americans. And also it was pretty obvious, or it should be obvious at this point, that Palestinians don’t have an armed option. Their only real option if they hope to achieve their goal is some sort of non-violent civil resistance or civil-disobedience. And so for all of those reasons it seemed the obvious place to look would be Gandhi. One assumes that non-violence is pretty straight forward – you just don’t use violence – and Gandhi seems, on the surface at any rate, a pretty simple person. So you see simple person, simple ideology, so you don’t have to read very much to figure it out. But in fact on a moments reflection it’s not so simple. And I wanted to see how Gandhi reasoned through a lot of the obvious objections and arguments to his doctrine. And so I started to wade my way though his collected works.
It was a more formidable undertaking than I initially expected. His collected works come to something like 98 volumes. Each volume is about 500 hundred pages. It’s a lot of reading.
GREEN: Did you find anything that you didn’t know before that you think is useful to applying to the Palestinian issue?
FINKELSTEIN: Well there are two separate questions. One, did I find anything I didn’t know before. And in fact I found a lot I didn’t know before. Gandhi is anything but transparent in terms of his doctrine. It’s pretty complicated what he has to say though he never really spells it out. There is no sort of guide to Satyagraha, what he calls non-violent Satyagraha. There is no guide to it. He thought the best guide was his actual experience. So it’s very contradictory what he has to say. A lot of it can’t be reconciled, but there are parts of it that you can reconcile. And you can piece together a more or less coherent picture of what he has to say, bearing in mind that every statement he makes can be elsewhere contradicted. But if you make an effort, a good faith effort, you can piece together a pretty coherent doctrine. A lot of it, I would say probably eighty percent of what he had to say came as a surprise to me. Then there was a second aspect to your question, namely that’s useful to the Palestinians. Yeah, I found things there that were useful for trying to understand the Palestinian situation. Also more broadly, movements like the Occupy movement. He has interesting insights I thought.
GREEN: What are those things that you found, or what are those insights?
FINKELSTEIN: I would say the most important insight for me in reading Gandhi was – I come from a political tradition, I go back to the 1970’s – and I consider myself part of that much longer political tradition going back to Marx, then the second international, then the communist international, the third international. So that whole Marxist tradition. And the basic Marxist tradition, and I know it’s going to\ sound very crude. Whenever you say the basic and you try to reduce a vast amount of written thought and a huge historical experience. But I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the Marxist tradition consisted significantly of there’s this vanguard of people who as it were know the truth. Their truth is, as we used to say, is scientific. It’s as predictable and susceptible to reasonable and rational analysis as the laws of physics. And this truth, we called it Marxist, some of us called it Marxist-Leninism, some of us who are even more cultish in our political opinions called it Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung thought. I happen to belong to that third category. And we had the science in our possession. And we were supposed to go out and enlighten the benighted masses suffering from all sorts of afflictions. We used to call it things like false consciousness, commodity fetishism, suffering from all these afflictions. And we were supposed to bring them the truth. And bring lightness where there was darkness. Enlightenment where there was confusion. And so on and so forth. And that was our political raison d’etre. Gandhi had a very different understanding of politics. For Gandhi, politics was not trying to enlighten the masses per se, but to get them to act on what they already know was wrong. That a typical person, yourself, myself, from the moment you get up in the morning to the end of the day you are turning a critical eye to everything around you. You’re saying that’s wrong, that’s unfair, that’s unjust, that shouldn’t be. We have a whole litany of injustices that we observe and we express some sort of internal outrage or indignation over in the course of each day. And most of those outrages are real, the’re legitimate. The’re not conjured in our heads. But for Gandhi the challenge was not to bring enlightenment about injustice in the world. People already know the injustices. The problem is getting them to act on what they already know is wrong. And the purpose of politics, in particular non-violent civil disobedience for Gandhi was that it was supposed to act as a stimulant to goad people, goad the indignant but still passive bystanders, to goad them into action. To get them to do something about what they already know is wrong.
And in that respect the Occupy movement was in my ways almost the quintessence of what Gandhi had in mind. First of all the slogan that captured the imagination of masses of people, “We are the 99%.” Well you didn’t have to enlighten people about the injustices of the capital system – even though they didn’t call it the capital system. You didn’t have to enlighten them about the injustices of the the system. There was a very wide spread pervasive opinion, especially in the last 10 years, that there is something profoundly wrong with this system. That there is a handful of people who are raking in lots and lots of money. And then there are masses of people who are not only not doing well but doing worse than ever before. So we all knew there was something inequitable, unfair, unjust in the system. We didn’t have to be enlightened to that fact by a vanguard. We already knew it. And that was the slogan. That’s why I think the slogan was so successful. It synthesized in a few words a pervasive sentiment cutting to the heart, the core, of the injustice of the system.
The late Alexander Cockburn said it was probably the greatest political slogan since Lenin’s 1917 slogan, “bread, peace and land.” There’s never been a slogan in the history of politics that’s so galvanized a population. And there’s probably some truth to that.
The second thing about the Occupy movement was that its tactics were initially designed, successfully so, to get people to act. In the case for example of the civil rights movement a pivotal moment, especially for young black people around the country, was the scenes in the Woolworth stores where people were sitting at the lunch counters and they’re getting beaten by the white racists. A lot of young black people saw those scenes and they said you know I’ve been saying the same thing as these people, now it’s time to go beyond talk the talk, and walk the walk. I belong there with them. And so that was a typical Gandhian tactic. The purpose of which was not really – and here Gandhi is a bit misleading, I would even say confusing – the purpose of the tactic was not really to break the hearts of the racist ruffians. No, I don’t think so. I don’t think Gandhi was naïve enough to believe that was going to happen though sometimes he said it. Like he would say things like, “we want to melt Hitler’s heart.” Well I don’t really believe that he really believed that. But that’s a separate issue.
The main purpose of the tactic was to galvanize, to goad into action, everybody who thought the same thing as those folks sitting in on the lunch counters, but weren’t doing anything. And if you listen to the testimonies from the civil rights era a lot of them were galvanized into action by things like that.
And the same thing with the 99%. Well I’m one of those people who didn’t need anybody to enlighten me that the system is unfair. I’ve been saying that since I was about 13 years old, maybe a little younger. But let’s say 13 years old. So we’re talking about 45 years. I didn’t need to be enlightened about that fact. What I needed was to be goaded into action. And I’m living in Brooklyn, New York, and I hear about Occupy Wall Street and these young folks are sitting in at this place called Zuccini Park or something, I didn’t know what they hell they were talking about. So I’m thinking to myself that’s terrific but you know I’m heading towards 60, my Woodstock days are behind me. I’m not going to go camping out anywhere at this point in my life. It’s unseemly for me at my age. It will be embarrassing for the young people on their side. But then I hear this thing about this mass arrest of 800 people at the Brooklyn Bridge. I’m thinking to myself now wait a minute Norm, this is the Brooklyn Bridge, 800 people are getting arrested and you’re doing nothing. No, it’s time to walk the walk. Enough talk the talk. I being sort of typical of the person that was finally goaded into action, it was that non-violent civil disobedience. But the important point as I said in Gandhi, it’s not a question of bringing enlightenment to people. The real goal of politics has to be getting people to act on what they already know was wrong. Or what’s incipient in their consciousness. They’re not yet there but just a little bit more and you can get them there. That’s what politics is about, and that seemed to make sense to me.
GREEN: Certainly at the beginning of the Occupy movement it was those images of violence by the NYPD and other police departments that did move people and brought them in to participate. But then the crackdown on the occupations became so fierce. The camps were destroyed. It almost seemed that violence reached a saturation point in terms of bringing people in, or at least visibly so, for bringing people into these public squares. Moving forward for the occupy movement is it a matter of continued confrontation with the police? Or can that somehow be avoided? You’ve been involved in activism in New York City for many decades. Does this seem like a worsening of aggression?
FINKELSTEIN: No. Like any good movement, the Occupy movement has to conduct a serious self criticism and look at what it did right and what it did wrong. At this point it’s pretty much disappeared. And that’s just a fact. I pass Union Square nearly every day and it’s a very sad sight now. When I go to Union Square the main occupants of the square now are the Hare Krishnas again. Well with all due respect to Hare Krishnas it was much more inspiring when the center stage was occupied by the Occupy movement. And that’s no longer the case. Last night when I passed it was the Hare Krishnas on one side and it was the young fellows doing their gymnastics to music on the other side surrounded by crowds of people. Well the Occupy movement is gone. And there has to be some serious reflection on what went wrong. Serious self criticism.
I think that people like Bloomberg, they’re complete thugs. No question about it. But on the other hand it must be said that they are politically savvy. They don’t get into those positions of power, in the case of Bloomberg both economic and political power, by being anybody’s fool. And they recognized that they Occupy movement had reached a point of extreme fragility. And that you can go in with the bulldozers, knock out the whole thing, and effectively eliminate it. They recognized, which I have to say I did not, that the fruit was ripe for the picking. They could get away with it at that point. And then the question is why. What happened? What went wrong? And I think there are two things, speaking as a strict outsider – and I always have to enter that caveat, two things which seemed to be wrong.
Number one, Gandhi’s great skill was as an organizer. He dug very deep roots in the Indian masses. He was not speaking from the outside. He was among them. He lived like them. He dug deep roots and he was careful, methodical, to the point of tedium, organizer of every detail of his movement. Most of his collected works consist overwhelmingly of letters. And he’s watching where every nickel and dime goes. This is the people’s money. Nothing is going to be= wasted. Nothing is going to be squandered, let alone no one is going to be cheated. No one is going to get away with thievery. So the first rule is you have to dig very deep roots in your constituency. I’m not sure how successful the Occupy movement even initially was at that. I got the impression – it’s a superficial impression but nonetheless even surfaces tell something about reality – let’s say when you were in the Boston Occupy. There seemed to be a sense of “We the encampment.” Us versus them. Namely the world outside. We were the enlightened ones and surrounded by the corrupt society. That’s not how you build a movement. It has to be among the people. The moment it becomes us versus them you then become an easy target for the bulldozers because nobody cares.
The second thing which everybody said, Cockburn put it as the – I don’t remember the exact adjective he used – something like the incessant speechifying. That the Occupy movement never got beyond the speechifying to Where’s the Beef? The ability to not just synthesize a slogan, which was brilliantly done. But then we have to move from synthesizing a slogan to synthesizing a demand or a series of demands with the same criteria. Where is the consciousness of people? What’s the furthest you can reach them with, or their incipient consciousness? What are their demands. Obviously a demand like, nationalize the banks, no – people were no where near there. But demands like, if you had four demands. One, a moratorium on student loans. Two, a public works program. Three, a major increase in taxes for the rich. And four, something on the mortgage crisis which is hitting so many people badly.
If they had synthesized four simple demands and worked from there I think there were prospects. But they never made the transition from the slogan, which was excellent, to the demands. OK, what do you want? And it felt like we were stalling there. Exactly why it didn’t happen I don’t know. I’m not on the inside. Exactly why it didn’t happen, I can’t say. But I think personally the least significant factor by a wide margin was the police repression. The police repression was relatively minimal. And it didn’t require more than minimal. Because they wisely assessed that now was the moment to strike. It would work, and it did. The movement vanished. It is a source of wonder how it so quickly disappeared from sight.
GREEN: As the people who were involved were looking for a path forward or solutions for a better society I think a lot of people had things like socialism on the mind. And there were a lot of conversations about socialist like alternatives. And it’s interesting you mention before the cultism of Marx, Marxism and some of those groups. And it’s interesting to read how Gandhi disagreed with Marx. What is the way for people involved in a movement for real change to prevent themselves from getting caught up in a kind of cultism, and really be engaged with the real discussions about what is happening and what is the significance of Gandhi rejecting Marxism or socialism?
FINKELSTEIN: Well first there’s a general statement. A good political activist – yes, he or she has to be well read. I don’t think there’s any getting around it. You have to have some sense of history. The world isn’t an easy place, it’s not a transparent place. Trying to make sense of the economics is not an easy task. So you have to be well read. But no matter how well read you are you are never going to be successful in politics unless two things are obtained.
Number one, you have to have deep roots in people. You have to be among the people. Politics is about moving people to act. That’s our politics. When you’re in positions of power or you’re at the levers of power – and there are many levers you have that don’t involve people – you have repressive forces, you have economic forces, you have lots of levers. When you are a people’s movement you have one thing. Your only asset is people. And you have to deal with real people. Not the people of your imagination. Not the people you wish people would be. But people as they exist actually out there in the real world. So you have to be among the people. Hear what they’re saying, know what they’re thinking, and then you’ll be able to figure out what is a realistic demand and what is not.
Having said that I also think politics is a knack. It’s not something you learn in books and not necessarily something you are going to acquire by being among people. There is something to be said for this completely impalpable thing called good political instincts, good political judgement. I think Gandhi had very good political judgement. He knew the people, which he had to. But he also had good judgement. I think professor Chomsky has very good political judgement.
GREEN: But with Gandhi, as you say, a lot of his arguments are inconsistent.
FINKELSTEIN: He didn’t care about consistency. He said judge me by my actions, don’t judge me by whether I’m consistent with what I said yesterday. Sometimes Gandhi wasn’t even consistent on the question of consistency. Sometimes he would say that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, quoting Emerson. Meaning only small mind people care whether this statement is consistent with that statement. So sometimes he said I don’t even care about consistency. But other times he would say well if you look closely, everything I say is consistent. Well it’s not. It’s just not. I looked carefully at what he said and no it’s not consistent.
GREEN: It’s even difficult to reconcile that idea with, like you said before, he was almost tedious in being careful about his movements and actions.
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, he was tedious in administrative things. You would call him a very dull bureaucrat and book keeper. In the big picture he relied on what he called his inner voice. I remember a few years ago I was in South Africa and I spent some time with his grand daughter Ella and she mentioned in the course of conversation, she said that Gandhi had great faith in his inner voice. Now that sounds very mystical, inner voice, you know Hare Krishna. No, inner voice is just what we call good political judgement. I have a very close friend, Allan Nairn, the most brilliant political mind in the world today in my opinion. And whenever I’m in a jam, whenever I have a problem I say Allan what should I do. Because I know the guy has very good political judgement. Now it’s true, a lot of it comes from experience. He was one of Nader’s disciples from age 16. So he’s got lots of rich experience, lived everywhere in the world and so on and so forth, and then he just has got good judgement – he just does. So Gandhi had good judgement. It was what he called his inner voice. A lot of it of course comes from rich experience. Rich experience gives you good judgement. But also he just had it. He had a good knack for politics.
So everything I have to say has to be prefaced by those three statements. You have to be well read, you have to have deep roots among the people, and you have to be fortunate enough to have good political instincts, of which only a few people do have in my opinion. And then having said that, Gandhi lived in the 1930’s. In the 1930’s there was to use that German word, a weltanschauung, a world view. And the world view for those who were on the left, the world view was of socialism. The largest tendency was some version of Marxian socialism. Of course there were other tendencies; anarchist tendencies and so forth. But it was predominantly Marxian socialism. And so it was impossible to function in a political environment there without using, or to some extent deferring to, or using the vocabulary of Marxian socialism. That was the world view of that epoch. The weltanschauung of that epoch. It’s not any longer. I mean we just have to be honest about that.
Right now if you use that kind of language, dictatorship of the proletariat, class struggle, it just doesn’t resonate with people. And there is no you can succeed in politics unless you can find a language that resonates with people. Because as I said earlier politics is about people. And it’s not people as you wish them to be, and it’s not people as you cut them out in a book. It’s real people in the real world. And that language doesn’t resonate for them.
Does that mean we have to all start talking in text language? I hope not. Does it mean we have to all start talking in rap language? I hope not. But we have to find a language that reaches people. And the language of Marxism – number one in won’t reach people now, and number two it doesn’t seem to work anymore. Why it doesn’t work, I don’t have an answer to that. But in most situations if you look in the past and read the writings of Lenin and Trotsky and so forth, they had a set of categories. It was the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, the proletariat – of course there are refinements – but there are a set of categories. And there were terms of analysis. There’s the class struggle, the economic conjuncture and so on and so forth. There was a framework within which thoughts operated. That framework just doesn’t work now.
Why it doesn’t work, I don’t know. I’m not going to try to give an explanation because I don’t want to pretend to it. But if you start talking about a class analysis and your talking about the petty bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie, the proletariat. Have you read a single analysis of the economic crisis – a single one – using those categories that actually is illuminating? I have not. Most people, even on the left, they defer to people like Paul Krugman. And Allan Nairn, whom I’m in regular touch with, he says I agree with pretty much everything Krugman has to say. Now Krugman is just, as we used to call it, a good bourgeois economist. So the categories don’t work. The language doesn’t work. I don’t see the point in holding on to something as a kind of piety to the past.
GREEN: As you say, people now because of the economic crisis seem to be scrambling to try to understand what happened, or what our economic system is. When before it was either invisible or people just didn’t care. And even myself I feel overwhelmed in trying to make sense of it. I mean, the general ideas – the fact that there is increasing social inequality – seem more and more obvious. But it seems that at least the basic ideas of socialism explain what is happening economically even if we don’t know the jargon of the Wall Street Journal and derivatives or the specifics.
I mean people understand that there’s this group of people who are in control, who own the society, whether you are saying it’s the banks as a metaphor or a group of people. And yet it’s difficult to understand what happened. I’m wondering how important is it anyway to understand that jargon of Wall Street and the techniques that they use to extort money from everyone else? Is it necessary to understand that? Or is it possible to simply say the banks committed criminal acts, that they’re engaging in this class warfare. Maybe there is a term that speaks to people better. But they are using their money and influence to completely control the political system and the country. And there doesn’t seem to be anything that is going to stop them.
FINKELSTEIN: Well there are several aspects to that. Number one, to the extent that politics is an intellectual debate, a debate over real ideas and the so called market place of free ideas, you have to be able to defend your position against other people out there. Otherwise in a course of public debate, public so called discourse, you are going to be trounced. You’re going to look the fool. That’s why we like a person like Ralph Nader out there who can tell you everything about regulation, everything about the tricks and the thievery and so forth, the cheating of the banks and the corporations, because we recognize that politics is in part about that public debate – discourse and being able to make rational arguments that carry the day. So in that respect, no we do need to know the facts. We have to have a full and complete control over the facts. Otherwise we’re simply going to be easily dismissed in the course of a public debate.
Secondly, you have to put forth demands which can work. And it’s not enough to say I don’t like banks. Therefore “B.” Well you have to explain “B.” Does it work. Does it have a real possibility of working. Because you don’t want to mobilize people around a demand which then just blows up in their face. Then you lose all credibility. So A, you have to make a convincing case. And B, the case you make has to be rooted in reality. Otherwise a very short way down the road you are going to be made to look very foolish. As in we told you that wouldn’t work.
So no, I don’t think there’s a shortcut. We need people who are competent, who understand these things. And also we have to make ourselves reasonably competent. I’m not too good at that.
I have a friend now that has a very serious cancer. And he and all my mutual friends, they sit down and they master every detail of the cancer so they can ask intelligent questions to the doctor. Now obviously that doesn’t mean they have the competence whereby they can actually perform the surgery. But they want to be able to make “informed decisions” as we proceed along the way. And it’s the same thing with our movement. Yes, there will be a hand full of people who are the equivalent of the doctors who have the professional competence to actually perform the surgery. Then you want most of the movement to be able to ask intelligent questions as you go along the way so you feel you have some control over what’s happening to you. And just as the way most people who carry on who have an illness or disease, that’s the way that a political movement has to carry on as it tries to extricate itself from an economic illness or disease. You rely on the expertise of those who are most competent. But you gain as much of a grasp over the phenomenon such that you can make intelligent decisions as you go along the way, because after all you are the one being operated on. And we are the ones who are going to be the beneficiaries or the victims of the decisions we make with economics.
But what I don’t think is possible is to simply to everything blindly. There’s no simple answers to these things. We should never downgrade the importance of having a firm grasp on the facts. For two reasons as I said, and each is as important as the other. One, you have very competent people out there that are called pundits, and their job is to confuse you, divert you, create illusions, clouds of confusion, and you need to be able to answer them. Otherwise you are made to look the fool. And then the second reason is you want to point people in a direction that has reasonable prospects of success.
There’s a line by Marx, “if appearances corresponded to reality there would be no need for science.” The whole purpose is we need to intellectually understand something because the surface can be very deceptive. And in order to get to the reality, that’s what study requires. And Marx’s view was that capitalism created this thing called commodity culture and commodity fetishism which completely distorts the appearances as compared to the reality. But as a general principle we do need to study in order to make sense, to guide ourselves.
GREEN: So we need to understand what’s really going on and be able to speak about it intelligently, articulately. Yet we see what happens to people who tell the truth, who speak against the official narrative. And I’m speaking specifically of Wikileaks and Julian Assange, and the persecution that’s taking place to essentially not just silence Wikileaks, but also to send a message to other journalists – that if you try to inform people about what’s really going on we’re going to come after you in all sorts of ways. What do we do against that kind of repression?
FINKELSTEIN: We’re no way near that yet. Assange was extremely successful. That’s why he achieved such a high level of persecution. But the movement to bring about change here is at such an embryonic stage that to have to worry now about police repression and things like that – I just think it’s very premature. Our job now is to get our act together. To wonder why with a few bulldozers you were able to not just displace the physical fact of the movement, but to displace it as a movement. What went wrong? And I do think we shouldn’t be tempted by conspiratorial or such kinds of explanations. There was a problem in the movement, the Occupy movement. And it wasn’t the police infiltration. And it wasn’t the last burst of repression. There was a problem there and that’s what we have to focus on.
Assange – I’m sure he was successful beyond his wildest imagination. He really did something tremendous, a real positive thing. There’s nothing more beneficial for human kind than revealing government secrets. You know the first thing the Bolsheviks did when they came to power in Russia, the first act was to publish all the secret treaties that Russia had signed. It exposed the British, it exposed the French. No, this is not really about democracy this WWI, it’s about we want some of those territories that they have, and all the secret deals they cut. And Assange committed the ultimate Bolshevik act, but on a scale that was so much more vast. Although it wasn’t the highest secrets, but still revealing all of these government secrets, that was just tremendous.
GREEN: The timeline was that Wikileaks came to prominence, and then you had the Arab Spring, and then you had the Occupy Wall Street movement – of course inspired by both of those two previous events. As a scholar on the Israel-Palestine conflict can you talk a little bit about how Wikileaks might have affected the Arab world, Egypt, and particularly Palestine.
FINKELSTEIN: If you remember, there were relatively few leaks on Israeli-Palestine. At some point you had to say that Assange was an Israeli agent because he hadn’t leaked much on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. There were some things that were useful that I came across.
One of the problems with the Wikileaks – I told him, I met Assange a few months ago and liked him very much, a very smart guy – because everything was just sort of burst on the scene and it was so much, millions of these cables, it was impossible to make sense of it. And then once you pass the moment all of it is forgotten except by the scholars who will eventually write some doctoral thesis on this or that aspect of the Wikileaks. And I thought to him a much better approach would have been if he has, ok there are the underground people, but if he had a stable of competent scholars above ground who he had first given the stuff to. Let them make sense of it, what’s important and what’s not, and then distribute it. Because eventually it ended up being the Guardian newspaper or the New York Times with them deciding what’s important. Well their concept of what’s important is very different than what a person on the left might think is important.
And so they essentially decided what was going to be leaked and what was going to be highlighted, what was going to be pounced upon. Whereas it would have been much more effective let’s say if you had given me the stuff on Israel-Palestine, there was some and there were some useful things there, I would have assembled it in such a fashion, say this is important and that is important and that’s a real revelation and then leak that. I felt he missed the intermediary level of, if we can use the expression the leftist scholars, who could have made sense of the material and shown what was really valuable in it. He missed that level and consequently what happens is what’s useful there that I discovered belatedly, it’s no longer news. No one’s interested.
It was the same thing with the Palestine papers when Al Jazeera leaked the hidden diplomatic, internal record from 1999 to 2009. It was about 15,000 pages. It’s quite huge. I have only a small part of it here, and this is the part that I read. So what happens. My dear friend who I love, Amy Goodman, she calls you up, “ok can you come on and speak about the Palestine papers.” It’s news. Well I say, how can you speak about the Palestine papers, it’s 15,000 pages. It takes time to read. And then by the time you’ve read it it’s no longer news. Who’s interested in it? And then it becomes the subject of doctoral dissertations. And that’s regrettable. It’s hard because you want to be in the news cycle. So what do you do. I think in the case of Wikileaks they had the option. Instead of giving it to the Times, the Guardian and so forth, give it to competent scholars, and let them arrange what’s going to be leaked.
GREEN: A question about Israel. In the winter of 2008 Israel attacked Gaza as George W. Bush was leaving office. And now I see a bunch of articles talking about an Israeli attack on Iran in that period of time of the US election. What does Israel have to gain from an attack on Iran?
FINKELSTEIN: There are so many dimensions to that. Israel obviously wants to be the big bully on the block and so wants to knock out anyone who is challenging its regional hegemony. Just like the US wants to be the big bully on the block in the middle east and so there is a confluence of interest between the US and Israel in keeping Iran in place. At this point there is a disagreement about whether to use force. Well you never know with the Israelis. If there were an Oscar for best theatrical performance by a country, Israel would win every year. It’s a country based on theater. It’s a lunatic state – completely insane. There is no other country in the world where all they talk about is war. That’s all they talk about. It’s just who should we attack today. Should we incinerate Lebanon? Should we attack Syria? Should we attack Iran? Mentally, it’s a completely off the map country.
On the other hand, you never know with their theatrics how serious they are about actually wanting to attack Iran, or whether they are just trying to saber rattle enough that the world gets scared. Ok we have this lunatic state on our hands, better try to pacify them by increasing the sanctions on Iran. So part of it just might be about to increase the sanctions. The thing is that as happened with President Nasser of Egypt in 1967, sometimes you climb so high up the tree you don’t know how to get down. So Nasser climbs very high saying we’re going to attack Israel, blah blah blah blah blah, whereas he had no intention of attacking. We know that. But the rhetoric got so overblown, he climbed so far up he didn’t know how to climb down. And now it’s the same thing with Mr. Netanyahu who has climbed so high up with the rhetoric. The man is just clinically insane. He walks around with a picture of Auschwitz on his iPhone. Some people show home movies of Florida, he shows home movies of Auschwitz. His Facebook page is just pictures of Auschwitz. The man is a maniac. But now they’ve climbed so high up with their talk about attacking Iran. How do you climb down and still preserve your credibility. That’s a problem for them.
GREEN: Before the economic crisis it seemed like the American left, the part that exists, was at least more focused on wars of aggression, a possible war with Iran. And yet now with the economic crisis it seems like a lot of the focus has gone into the deteriorating state of the still relatively privileged people who live in the United States. Why is it important for people who are suffering economically here to be concerned with the Israel-Palestine conflict?
FINKELSTEIN: First of all, again we have to take people as they are, not as we wish them to be. And a lot of people are hurting from the economic crisis. There is no question about that. There is a whole generation that’s basically been lost. I know a lot of people, young people your age, age 20-30 – they never had a job. I know a lot of people like that. The consequences are a lot of them are on these pharmaceuticals you know Zoloft this and that for depression. A lot of them are forced to live at home. Which is not the worst thing in the world.
But it can be an infantalizing experience if you don’t have your own income. There’s nothing wrong with it. It many countries of the world many people stay at home even after they get married. They just add a wing to the house. It’s the infantalizing that comes with the fact that you are not on your own, which is different than living on your own. You don’t have your own paycheck, your own job, your own sense of personal dignity. These kids are living at home because they have no work. They can’t afford to live by themselves. So there is a whole generation to which significant damage has been done. And so I don’t fault them for not worrying about Israel-Palestine and wondering why they aren’t growing up. That’s a real problem. When you’re 30 years old you don’t want to be acting like you’re 16. And you don’t want to be living in a situation like you are 16 years old.
On a broader scale obviously there is a connection between spending stupendous amounts of money on these wars rather than spending it on infrastructure at home. That to me is pretty common sense. That the money that is being squandered on Mr. Obama’s endless wars and endless attacks on people could be usefully spend on basic jobs programs and infrastructure. And also, these people are crazy. If Israel in it’s complete lunacy, all the screws come loose and they attack Iran, you can’t predict where that’s going to go. You cannot predict where that’s going to go. That can go in places frankly none of us want to even think about. An attack on Iran would almost certainly mean retaliatory attacks on Israeli cities which would almost certainly trigger a large temptation on the part of the Israelis to use its nuclear arsenal. We don’t even want to go there. So there are good reasons of self preservation why you would want to concern yourself with those issues. And the same thing of course is true with the environment. The problems of global warming and so forth.
I don’t know how people can not be concerned with that. It requires a level of selfishness of which that you don’t even care about your grand children. I can’t understand that. In the United States the greed is so out of control. You have so much money and you want to elect this guy because he’s going to give you more tax breaks? For christ’s sake how much money do you need. Are there any limits? No there are no limits. That’s a rhetorical question. To the point that you’ll destroy the whole environment.
JAMES GREEN is a community producer for Occupy Brooklyn TV. He can be reached at email@example.com. Occupy Brooklyn TV, part of Occupy Public Access TV, is a weekly show of news and analysis produced by a group of citizens active in the Occupy movement. We make use of BCAT, the Brooklyn Free Speech TV studios, to produce and broadcast on local public access television and online.