I came of age in shades of gray. As a liberal girl from a liberal suburb of Washington DC, moral relativism was my native tongue. In my formative years, discussion, discourse and debate was not just a means, but an end. The ultimate end. Everyone had a right to be heard and all opinions were equally legitimate.
And then I got my first high school history paper back with a note on the top that said "Nice rhetoric but facts aren't the enemy of truth."
It is this same naiveté that the DP Opinion Board showed in today's editorial which praised the Political Science department for co-sponsoring a lecture by the controversial Norman Finkelstein last night. Earnestly, they wrote that the debate his appearance on campus catalyzed "alone makes Finkelstein a worthy speaker."
Put aside for a second the fact that it is unclear what productive debate could possibly arise from Finkelstein's appearance (Do American Jews use the Holocaust to line their pockets?). I take issue with the support of the Political Science department because any debate that the department's sponsorship spurs is the thin silver lining to a much bigger dark cloud: the legitimacy given to Finkelstein's scholarship by lending their name to the event.
This legitimacy is undeserved.
Finkelstein brags that he teaches at a "third-rate university" in Chicago because he was "kicked out of every job" in New York. He has written at least two books directly about Israel without ever visiting the country. A judge in Chicago wouldn't certify him as an expert witness in a criminal trial about Hamas -- a classification often given to real academics.
The Political Science department is right and justified in seeking to bring controversial and enlightening speakers with unorthodox views to campus. The problem is that when an academic department brings a speaker the assumption is that while the speaker's views may be contentious his evidence is sound – the guest is a scholar. While not endorsing Finkelstein's views per say, the department is attesting to the rigor and factual accuracy of his research.
This faith isn't justified. Benny Morris, a left-wing Israeli historian Finkelstein quoted in his most recent book, wrote that Finkelstein "selectively quotes from [my books] what suits his purposes while ignoring, and in Finkelstein's case, ridiculing what doesn't. " In other words, Finkelstein's writings employ my favorite 9th grade rhetorical tool which also happens to be the cardinal sin of academic writing -- he twists and fabricates evidence in an intellectually dishonest way.
It may be true, as Professor Goldstein asserts in his column in today's paper that some small minority of scholars back Finkelstein's work and that he has been published in an academic journal. This article on Finkelstein's website seems to dispute that claim. Regardless, even if Finkelstein does have a sprinkling of supporters, that's not enough. There are also many Creationist professors. That doesn't mean that the Biology department should spend money and invite them to present the evidence behind their Creationist research. There are groups elsewhere on campus to serve that role. The same is the case here.
The Political Science department has no business deputizing any schmuck with a PhD as a scholar. Co-sponsoring this event does so in the minds of students and, given the prestige of Penn, in the minds of the world as well.
There was another speaker on campus last night. Nonie Darwish, daughter of a shahid grew up in Cairo and Gaza. When she spoke about the power of education in combating anti-semitism, she said "[Education] doesn't meanthat all ideas are right and no ideas are wrong. There is truth and there is fabrication"
Norman Finkelstein's writings are clearly the latter. The Political Science department has no business indicating otherwise.