Finkelstein: A Parallel

I posted this comment in the thread on Finkelstein, below. I’m trying to explain why Finkelstein’s habit of invective contextualises his scholarship.

Imagine that there’s a black historian whose main thesis is that public discourse on slavery has been utterly hijacked by a powerful conspiracy of black politicians, which includes Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, Cynthia McKinney and Al Sharpton. The black historian might argue that this conspiracy had been using the legacy of slavery in order to make money for themselves, to grab political power, to push ‘black supremacism”, and to provide an alibi for (say) “many serious crimes committed by black people”. He might also point out that “powerful blacks” historically participated in and profited from slavery, and argue that their successors are – hypocritically – doing the same, today, by freeloading on the memory of the slave trade.

Let’s say he wrote his views up in a book called “The Slavery Industry”.

Such a thesis wouldn’t be an utterly outrageous one to write. There are certainly black public figures who have said things not a million miles away from this. It would be “controversial”, but certianly something which could sensibly be discussed.

One might say, in response, that slavery was pretty much the determinitive event of european black history, that it was impossible simply to ignore it, that it impacts on the lives and chances of black people both inside and outside Africa to this day in a fundamental manner. You might also say that, even if there are black politicians who have leveraged the legacy of slavery for personal or political gain, that this is not essentially what the commemoration of slavery is primarily and generally about. And so on.

You could, at least, have some sort of sensible discussion about this matter. You’d – perhaps – be a bit worried, if any public discussion about slavery turned into a discussion of “black-on-white crime” or the manner in which the “private grief” of the descendants of slaves had become “a huge industry designed to legitimise black power politics”. You might write off the black historian as a kook and publicity seeker after a bit: and find it surprising that every liberal voice you once respected proclaims the black historian as one of the greatest, and bravest voices, on the subject of slavery and politics in the black community.

Now, imagine that the black historian then went on to denounce, loudly and in aggressive tones, any public commemoration or discussion of the slave trade. He denounces exhibitions on slavery as part of the Slavery Industry. He calls for the abolition of Martin Luther King Day. He makes nasty slavery-related jokes, particularly about his opponents. He publicises on his website every news report he can find on slavery, or relating to an attack by a black person against a white person, usually prefixed with a sarcastic comment about slavery.

Then he goes a little further. He starts to align himself with White Supremacist groups. Of course, he says, he’s opposed to racism: but he argues that they’re only defending themselves against Black violence, and that they should be congratulated for doing so. He visits the Aryan Brotherhood and has his picture taken with them.

Now, you might thinks that Al Sharpton is a fatuous self publicist, who has done little for the interests of black people. You might think that slavery was a great wrong, but agrees with the black academic that there are some people who have deployed slavery politically, for illegitimate ends.

But at some point, surely, you must get a bit twitchy about this hypothetical black historian.

How is Finkelstein different from the example I’ve given?