Teaching John Stuart Mill in Iran: A Conversation with Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein is of course best known for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—his bookslectures 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.
 
Finkelstein recently taught a short course on Mill’s On Liberty in Iran. There’s a whole literature devoted to this phenomenon. Norma Moruzzi has written about reading Hannah Arendt in Iran. Ali Paya and Mohammad Amin Ghaneirad have mapped the multiple spheres of influence that Jürgen Habermas enjoys in Iran. The Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo has published a book of conversations with Isaiah Berlin. (I myself have written a short book on Iran’s engagement with liberal thinkers.) When leading political thinkers (of varying persuasions) from Europe or North America—from Habermas and Antonio Negri to Richard Rorty and Immanuel Wallerstein—visit Iran, their lectures are major events and occasion considerable buzz. (For more on this, see Mehran Kamrava’s book Iran’s Intellectual Revolution, Farzin Vahdat’s God and Juggernaut: Iran’s Intellectual Encounter with Modernity, and Mehrzad Boroujerdi’s Iranian Intellectuals and the West.)
 
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.
 
 
The interview was filmed on April 24, 2014, as part the series of conversations with our guest lecturers that our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver produces. 

Jewish American Relationship with Israel at the Crossroads

My friend Adam Shatz moderated this debate between Norman Finkelstein and Anna Baltzer at The New School in New York. For the record, I’m with Baltzer.

The New School for Public Engagement is a division of The New School, a university in New York City offering distinguished degree, certificate, and continuing education programs in art and design, liberal arts, management and policy, and the performing arts. | http://www.newschool.edu/public-engagement

Continue reading “Jewish American Relationship with Israel at the Crossroads”

United States of Israel

Sarah Palin is just the latest GOP politician to visit to Israel after a string of possible Presidential hopefuls to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the past few months. Why is establishing your credentials in Tel Aviv before running for US president as vital as stumping in New Hampshire?

Norman Finkelstein v. Benny Morris

To readers I would highly recommend Norman Finkelstein’s new book, ‘This time we went too far’. It is the most systematic and thorough dismantling of the hasbara edifice erected by Israel and its apologists (including Morris). On paper, Morris is a fine historian, but in his media appearances he always dons the hat of the propagandist. In this debate from Russia Today’s CrossTalk, Benny Morris comes across as defensive and boorish. He uses the familar tools of the propagandist, derision and ridicule, to evade serious questions. Every one of his claims about Gaza — that Hamas used human shields, and that its leadership took sanctuary in basements of hospitals — is rebutted by extensive research carried out by the Goldstone Commission, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. (via MondoWeiss)

On this edition of Peter Lavelle’s CrossTalk, he asks his guests whether the current “indirect talks” between the Israelis and Palestinians are a waste of time.

Impact of the Gaza war on Israel

Norman Finkelstein on Al Jazeera’s Riz Khan Show.

Has there been a shift in Israel’s ties with its allies since the Gaza war and how will that affect the peace process with the Palestinians? Is international support for Israel dwindling since the Gaza war and is it losing the battle for global public opinion?