Norman Finkelstein is of course best known for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—his books
and media interviews
on the subject over the last three decades—and for the considerable controversy
it has generated.
Less known is that for many years he also taught political theory. It might come as something of a surprise that among his favorite works is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty
. This might come as a surprise since Finkelstein is well to the left of most admirers of the iconic nineteenth-century liberal thinker. Of course Mill was also a socialist
and a feminist
—indeed an early one (see Martha Nussbaum’s comments at the end of this interview
). But in postcolonial studies Mill is widely regarded as an imperialist
and a racist
. An ambiguous and contested legacy, to be sure—which is part of Mill’s enduring hold on us.
But Finkelstein did something a bit different. His students weren’t the usual liberal-minded suspects—who represent a significant swath of Iran’s educated classes, incidentally (a phenomenon that is underestimated and trivialized by many Western leftists, which I regard as a form of Left Orientalism). It would have been easy for him to teach the depredations of U.S. and Israeli policy in such a context—but it also would have been incredibly boring. He did something far more interesting. He taught Mill to largely conservative-oriented students in an institution that cranks out apparatchiks for the Islamic Republic.
That is just wickedly cool. Here’s our recent conversation about that experience.