Documentary Review: American Radical – the trials of Norman Finkelstein

There are many ways censorship works in Western liberal societies. Usually it’s very subtle – a kindly rejection from an editor, a journalistic or academic budget cutback, a media blackout of an issue or point of view etc. In the case of Norman Finkelstein, all of the above apply plus the added humiliation of being effectively fired after nine years in his job at Chicago’s DePaul University. Finkelstein’s colleagues voted 17-7 in favor of granting him tenure (giving an academic the right to not to have their position terminated without just cause). However, under immense pressure from a smear campaign largely lead by neo-conservative academic Alan Dershowitz, Finkelstein’s superiors denied him tenure and effectively forced his resignation.

His crime: criticizing Israeli aggression towards Palestians.

American Radical is a fascinating insight into the molding and work of one America’s finest dissidents. Finkelstein had both sides of his family exterminated in the Holocaust with only his mother and father surviving the Warsaw Ghetto. Finkelstein is therefore motivated by a deep sense of injustice and hypocrisy at what he sees as Jewish use of the Holocaust to detract attention away from the crimes they are committing against Palestinians.

Finkelstein’s understandable passion sometimes erupts in talks to students at universities, especially when some accuse him of being a “self-hating Jew” an anti-Semite or using the Holocaust to make money from the books he has written. To this latter point Finkelstein makes the point along the lines of, “It’s a strange kind of profiteering that I’m conducting when I’ve been fired from my job and made an exile from the city and university where my entire life is.”

Finkelstein speaks with amazing precision, clarity and passion. The documentary also provides an interesting insight into the non-academic side of him and the way he deals with criticism (largely laughing it off as much as possible). Sometimes however, you can’t help feeling that Finkelstein should argue a little more diplomatically. For instance, a girl bursts into tears during one of his lectures because of his use of the word “Nazi” to describe those Jewish people who use the Holocaust to deflect any responsibility away from the crimes of Israel. Finkelstein clearly has no sympathy with her and berates her for her “crocodile tears” (i.e. an insincere show of emotion) and says “If you had any heart at all, you would shed tears for the suffering of the Palestinian people.” While this received a great deal of cheering and support from the other students, I don’t think it does Finkelstein any favors in trying to win people over to his argument. Many people may interpret him as a heartless, arrogant academic who just drove a girl to tears and this detracts from his central message.

The same goes from his criticism of Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz is a very popular academic on the right who has led a smear campaign to destroy Finkelstein’s reputation. The main reason for this is that Finkelstein exposed him as a fraud in his book “The Case For Israel” in which Dersovitz defends Israeli aggression but as Finkelstein discovered, uses references and footnotes from another book that has been proved to fabricate the history of Israel and suggest that Palestinians suddenly appeared out of thin air and occupied Jewish land. Finkelstein’s insistence on labeling Dershowitz a fraud got him in very hot water, Dershowitz called some of his powerful friends, and Finkelstein soon lost his job. As Noam Chomsky says in the documentary, “I advised him to play down the plagiarism aspect – what was important was the content of Dershowitz book was false and that’s what he should focus on.”

Ultimately, the story of Norman Finkelstein tells us a lot about how censorship works in the “liberal” academic world. And when it comes to Israel, there are simply things that you are not allowed to say. Although it was released in late 2009, I’ve only just watched it now and it goes down as one of the most interesting and important documentaries I’ve seen this year. It should be essential viewing for anyone involved in academia or with an interest in Israel.

Many plaudits should go the way of makers David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier who let Finkelstein do the talking and the viewer be the judge.

Oliver Stone’s South of the Border…

…is released at cinemas in the UK tomorrow. Stone goes to Venezuela to see what Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela is really like.

Incidentally, another excellent documentary on Venezuela is The Revolution Will Not Be Televised made by two Irish journalists. They were actually in Venezuela when Chavez was overthrown in a US sponsored private coup in 2002 but later returned to power under popular pressure from the Venezuelan people. Conducting clandestine dirty coups just isn’t as easy as it used to be in South America.

It makes for some dramatic viewing and is worth viewing before the South of the Border to give a little historical context to the film.

Food Inc Review

Last night I saw the documentary film Food Inc. The film tells the story of how large parts of the American farming industry have become an industrial monster producing diseased, high calorie, unhealthy food and treating both animals and employers like dirt.

One of the biggest culprits of this is the corn industry which is now grown so widely and cheaply by American farmers that it has become a base of almost all the foods on supermarket shelves including even coca cola and batteries. Instead of grass, cows are fed corn in huge industrial farms but because their stomachs are not designed to process it, it has lead to several devastating e-coli breakouts in America from infected burgers which have resulted in the death of young children. The film also covers the way agribusiness giant Montsanto has “copyrighted” soy beans meaning that if farmers are found to be accidentally growing their genetically modified seeds (because of cross pollination in their fields by insects, birds, the wind etc), they are prosecuted. Montsanto have effectively made nature illegal.

The film ends on a positive note however highlighting the rapidly increasing organic farming sector and how consumers are demanding it. Even stores like Walmart have jumped on the bandwagon and have started selling organic food. However, I couldn’t help but feel that Food Inc acts as an advert for the organic food industry which is all very well, as long as the food being grown is genuinely organic. As I investigated in Spain a few years ago here and here, one of the problems with organic farming is that due to cross pollination from non-organic farms, an organic seal of approval on the label is no guarantee that a product is definitely organic.

I highly recommend Food Inc however. Although such industrial farming methods are not as widespread in Europe as they are in the USA (and Europe grows far more organic food than the USA) the film serves as a warning that consumers must constantly be aware of where their food is coming from and demand that both food workers and animals are treated humanely. It might even put you off meat and non-organic food for good – its certainly made me think twice.

Hollywood is full of Marxists

It’s not difficult to get accused of being a Marxist nowadays – especially if you’re in Hollywood. Just try to suggest that the perspective of the poor and oppressed is important and watch how they chase you down Hollywood Boulevard with burning copies of the Communist Manifesto.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the USA is one of the best selling history books in America. It attempts to do something that most history books don’t – report history from the point of view of common people involved in the fight for civil and working rights. Recently, it has been turned into a star-studded documentary that yesterday got its first showing on the History Channel.

I haven’t seen it yet and I’m not sure when it will be aired in Europe where there are even more Marxists sitting around enjoying their free health care, public transport, worker’s rights etc. What’s impressive however is the conservative backlash in the USA against the documentary. The History Channel’s official forum and right-wing entertainment websites are outraged that this work of Satan has been turned into a documentary. Some examples include:

Have you people lost your freaking minds – or just your objectivity. Enter Howard Zin: Zinn has spent a lifetime teaching college students about the evils of capitalism, the promise of Marxism, and his version of American history – a history that has, in his view, been kept from students.

Howard Zinn?? Howard Zinn?? The History Channel expects us to believe Howard Zinn and his hand-picked crew of Hollywood leftist are about to give us an accurate and unbiased account of American history..,. Shame on the History Channel… Shame, shame, shame……

This two hour special full of the spewings of a twisted Marxist like Howard Zinn is the last straw.

Shame, shame, indeed!! This is a vitriolically anti-American editorial and does not deserve to be shown on a channel whose business it is to present facts, not opinions. Leave it to a bunch of Hollywood types to spit in the face of a country that has given them everything!

This is an act of war, the clear intention here is to plant the seeds of revolutionary hatred into a whole generation of youth. Such brainwashed youth will regard the generations before them as vermin who are pure evil and in need of punishment. This is the beginning of training for future revolutionary soldiers who will happily make the streets run red while thinking of themselves as white nights.

(There was ONE happy viewer incidentally):

I guess it’s just a relief to see some “History” on a channel that still calls itself HISTORY, and not some fat guy doing some scripted ‘dangerous’ job.

And the bile just goes on and on. So basically, according to these guys, be very careful if you go to Hollywood because nowadays it’s full of liberals and communists that are trying to suggest that the plight of the poor and working population in history is worth hearing (even if it is from the mouths of a bunch of rich film stars). I mean, they might as well rename Hollywood Boulevard Karl Marx Strasse and give Fidel Castro the green light to invade from the Hollywood Hills!

Where have the good old days of Hollywood gone such as Showgirls and Basic Instinct 2?

5 of the best documentaries of 2009

The end of 2009 has seen some great documentary releases. Here are 5 of the best:

The Most Dangerous Man in America

That’s how Henry Kissinger described Daniel Ellsberg who bravely leaked the infamous Pentagon Papers which helped end the war in Vietnam. He’s also a brilliant speaker and analyst of military affairs and it’s worth checking out some interviews with him on YouTube.

American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein

The life of Norman Finkelstein illustrates the fate of academics in North America who dare to tell the truth. Chomsky warned Finkelstein that if he continued writing books exposing establishment myths on the Middle East, “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.” And that’s exactly what they did as this film shows.

PBS Frontline: The Warning

Another excellent film by PBS outlining the role of people like Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin in dismantling legislation that led to the escalation of the fictitious derivatives and hedge funds that have crippled America.

Capitalism: A Love Story

Haven’t seen this yet but already considered one of Moore’s best in trying to take a more fundamental look at the system that’s ruined America’s economy.

Broadcast Blues

A look at the dominance of right-wing media in the USA and its increase after the election of Obama. The director signed an agreement with Springsteen to use his “My Hometown” song in the film but at the last minute, Clearwater, who are the communications behemoth that own the airwaves in America, ordered her to remove it. She asked some musicians if they’d create a song for her film and they told her that if they did, Clearwater would ruin their careers by blocking them from the airwaves. So it’s clear who pull the strings in communication in America.

Capitalism: A Love Story review

The Guardian today reviewed Michael Moore’s latest film “Capitalism: A Love Story” premiered at the Venice film festival and gave it 4 stars. Sounds like a return to form for Moore although I think his last film “Sicko” was also pretty good, if a little sluggish in places. I’m glad to hear from the review that Moore points out that Goldman Sachs – one of the biggest culprits he identifies for the financial crisis – was Obama’s biggest private sponsor during the election.

It’s capitalism Mike but not as we know it

The trailer for Michael Moore’s latest film “Capitalism: A Love Story” is now out. The film is due for release in October and Moore says he made it as if it was “the last film I was ever going to make.” Looks like he’s aptly chosen M.I.A.’s Paper Planes as the soundtrack too.

Despite criticism that he cherry picks footage and data to suit his own ends, I’m looking forward to seeing this. However, I hope Moore looks at how capitalism doesn’t really exist in the real world. As the bailouts proved in its crudest form, what we actually have is closer to socialism – socialism for the rich that is. Markets are so distorted by governments and corporations working hand-in-hand that calling it “capitalism” is about as accurate as calling Stalinist Russia “communist”. Using the term capitalist only serves to maintain misunderstanding of the current system and give ammunition to those who support it to dismiss opponents as simply “anti-capitalists.” Don’t ask me what a better term would be but something along the lines of “state-sponsored-capitalism” rolls off the tongue, erm, badly.

You can read more on the film here.