The contemporary culture war over the role of racism, patriarchy, and other questions of oppression and identity in American society and history has given rise to a political outlook some critics describe as “woke culture” or “identity politics.” But can the new identity politics succeed in achieving a vision of a more just world without class politics, or a radical redistributive agenda? Norm Finkelstein joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss his new book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It! Heretical Thoughts on Identity Politics, Cancel Culture, and Academic Freedom.
Studio Production: David Hebden, Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Adam Coley
Opening sequence created by: Cameron Granadino
Chris Hedges: There are very few intellectuals who have been as attacked, censored, and blacklisted as long and as ruthlessly as the Middle Eastern scholar, Norman Finkelstein. He has been hounded out of universities, denied speaking engagements, and had his books and scholarship either ignored or dismissed. It is surprising, perhaps, that Professor Finkelstein’s latest book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It! Heretical Thoughts on Identity Politics, Cancel Culture, and Academic Freedom is a savage attack on identity politics. He likens the current woke culture of the left to red-baiting when his heroes, Paul Robeson, Pete Seager, Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Sweezy, and Annette Rubinstein were marginalized, and in the case of Luxembourg, assassinated.
“The cancel culture of my childhood, targeted,” he writes,” in the name of anti-communism, popular leftist movements rooted primarily in class politics. The new cancel culture still targets class politics but this time around, in the pseudo-radical name of identity politics. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Whereas class politics has historically focused on a massive redistribution of wealth from the haves to the have-nots, identity politics (racial, sexual, etc.) in the uppermost tier of a social structure left largely intact in all its steep gradations. The primary vehicle of this politics is the Democratic Party, the mass base of which was once the white working class, but which is now in transition to becoming an identity-based party, in which identity displaces class as its organizing principle and base constituency.”
Joining me to discuss woke culture is Professor Finkelstein. Woke culture, he calls a civic form of McCarthyism, and we will discuss how it buttresses the ruling capitalist class. So you ask the question, very early in the book, whether one’s ethnoracial identity possesses a vital essence to be protected and preserved, or, you ask, “is it a fluke of nature that was instrumentalized to oppress, and in an ideal world could potentially be eradicated as a social marker?” You quote Frederick Douglass, who you note was canceled by Afrocentrics, in his day, for lacking Black pride. Can you talk about that?
Norman Finkelstein: I should begin by saying, it’s not a simple question. As I point out in the book, many of those who came to identify with the left, many African Americans who came to identify with the left, also strongly identified with being African American. And there was a question of how you navigate these, so to speak, two identities. In the case of Paul Robeson, he at one point commented in his little autobiography, people have often asked me, how do I navigate these two identities of being number one, a champion in the rights of African Americans. But number two, being closely aligned with the Communist Party, and becoming a genuine hero, a folk hero of the international working class.
And that’s not in some rhetorical sense. If you look at, for example, the Welsh miners totally revered Paul Robeson. There’s a wonderful film in which he stars, as a miner, called Proud Valley. And you could see wherever he traveled, he made special dispensations to be certain that working people had access to his art and access to his music. If he would speak at Prince Albert Hall in the UK, he would also have a separate concert for working people. You can see it on YouTube. When he goes down to Australia to perform, he goes to a building site to perform for the Australian working class. So he asked himself, how do I navigate these two identities? And his response always struck me as of some interest. He said, the more conscious I became of myself being a Negro – The term of the time – The more I felt in solidarity with the working classes of the world. He says it may sound on the surface like a contradiction, but in real life, it wasn’t a contradiction. He was able to find some sort of balance between the two identities.
And I found it particularly poignant in the case of W.E.B. Du Bois because as you know, Du Bois devoted his whole life in a very serious way, not in a showy way. In a very serious way, he had resolved the purpose of his life was to erase, what was called back then, the color line. And he engaged in very serious, scholarly pursuits to that end. Now, at a certain point, he had become radicalized and came close to the Communist Party. He joined the Communist Party, at the very end. But I thought that was mostly thumbing his nose at US imperialism before he went off to Ghana. But he certainly came close to the Communist, Marxist if you want, position. And at the end of his life, Du Bois, who was a very proud person, you couldn’t call him W.E.B. Du Bois, you had to call him Dr. Du Bois. He did not accept anyone referring to him without that title, Dr. Du Bois. He’s around 80 years old and Du Bois finds himself brought before the government legal system for being loyal, being a foreign agent of the Soviet Union, because he was a strong member, a prominent member opposing war between the Soviet Union and the US.
And he found himself handcuffed, at 80 years old, and brought before a judge. Well, you can imagine a person of his pride and a person of his stature, who had all the claims to being a respected person, suddenly at age 80 being handcuffed. He says at the very end – He wrote several autobiographies, mostly because he didn’t expect to live so long. He died at a very ripe old age, he actually died the night before the March on Washington, in 1963. Literally, the night before, which causes you to believe that maybe there is some order in this universe. And at the end of his life, in the last chapter of that last autobiography, it’s a very poignant scene because he goes through everybody who deserted him. He said, when it comes to his 80th birthday, none of the leading Black figures, none of the Black college presidents of the HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities, none of them would send greetings in support of him.
And then he says at the very end, I found a new friendship, a new world, and that was the world of people on the left; Not necessarily Black people of the left, internationally. And he said that was my new community and that to me was a revelatory end, that he discovered all of the – He said his name had become unmentionable among young people. Nobody had heard of Du Bois, anymore. His name was literally whited out. There was only one college, by the way, only one college – It was Berkeley in the very early ’60s and maybe the late ’50s – Put one of his books… Some professor put one of his books on their curriculum and he said he was astonished that he was actually on a college curriculum. And he said he found a new world, a new universe, and that was the universe of people who have shared ideas and ideals. And the identity thing, which he had devoted his whole life to trying to eradicate, from an intellectual point of view but also from an activist point of view. He was the editor of The Crisis, which was the magazine of the NAACP.
He, too, discovered that there was a world beyond color. I don’t want to be dismissive of the challenges. Trying to reconcile these various identities, you have to always be careful of crossing the line to something that comes across as self-hating, or… I’ll call it self-hating. So how do you claim this universalist identity, without coming across as trying to escape your, so to speak, local identity? I don’t think those things are very easy to navigate. Frankly, to speak candidly, since we’re having a serious conversation here, I wasn’t altogether happy with how Frederick Douglass turned out at the end. He became a Democratic Party hack, an apologist for Ulysses Grant’s corrupt government. Then he was looking for all of these high honors: He went over as a representative of the US to Haiti and then he had some position in Washington DC, I can’t recall quite what. I wasn’t too happy. And there was a little bit… I felt like yes, the arguments he made for a universal identity were very eloquent.
Actually, the passage excerpt in the book that you’ve read comes from a much longer passage. And I gave it to a friend of mine, Deborah Maccoby. I asked her, can you cut it down because I can’t print the whole speech. And she said she found it very hard to do because it was so eloquent and compelling. Douglass was a very impressive figure when you consider that he couldn’t even read, legally, until he was 18. He digested, apparently, Robert Burns, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Dickens, and you could see it. And I thought he was a little too, in my opinion, it was very elegant but it was also a little bit too glib, for a complicated question. Which anybody who comes from a “non-majoritarian group” has to wrestle with. Not because I’m oppressed as a Jew, in the US – It’s completely ridiculous. I’m not oppressed as a Jew – But on the other hand, I have to always be careful about over, so to speak, bending the stick too much in the other direction. And it comes across as self-hating and you don’t want to go there.
So it’s a complicated question, personally, but where I have differences with the current focus in identity politics is, the arguments they put forth, they have no content. It’s not like the arguments are wrong, there’s no argument at all. It’s completely vacuous. It’s completely empty. It’s filled with internal, blatant contradictions. Now we all know that life is a complicated place and it cannot always be reduced to clear, lucid formulas. The problem is that the stuff you read is so blatantly, flagrantly, contradictory, and devoid of any… There’s what you might call a rich contradiction, that is to say, a person contradicts themself but it reflects a reality, which is, you have to wrestle with that contradiction. These aren’t rich contradictions. This is completely vacuous, intellectually.
Chris Hedges: I want to read a little quote from your book that is about that point. You write, “Affirmative action relies on generic racial categories, but unless each generic category intrinsically correlates with distinct experiences, outlooks, etc., those admitted under it don’t necessarily bring anything beyond themselves to the mix.” You quote Gore Vidal, who was gay, talking about the gay community. And Vidal says, “What in God’s name do Eleanor Roosevelt and Roy Cohen have in common?” Which we could add, what in God’s name do Clarence Thomas and Martin Luther King have in common? And I wanted you to speak about that fallacy of a Black, Brown, woman, Asian, Jewish, a gay perspective, the idea of proportional representation.
Norman Finkelstein: Again, I admit and I want to be clear about it, these are complicated questions and I have no problem with acknowledging that. So I’m sure you’ll agree with me if I say the choice is between no affirmative action and teaching an all white class, and affirmative action, and teaching a “diverse class,” you’d prefer to teach in the diverse class. You don’t want to walk into a classroom that looks like the junior version of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s not nearly as exhilarating an experience as when you have a “diverse” class. When you have a diverse class, it’s a sense of your, so to speak, cultivating the humanity of the future. People get along, people communicate with each other, they argue, they disagree, but they’re respectful. Also, before class and after class, there’s real camaraderie and warmth. It’s a special feeling. I’ll give you an example, and then I’ll return to the question.
I currently, or this past semester, I was teaching at Hunter College. Hunter College is the City University of New York. And it’s all first-generation college students, sons and daughters of immigrants, overwhelmingly. But also working-class kids, in addition, all of them keeping down one or two jobs. So it’s the rainbow, every imaginable type of person is in the class. One of the things that strikes me, I try to help students gain some self-confidence by learning to stand up in front of the class and to speak. Sometimes students do wonderfully and sometimes students bomb. But even when they bomb, everybody in the class breaks out in spontaneous applause when they’re over, when they’re finished. A warmth, generosity, and also there but for the grace of God go I. I could be up in front of that class and bombing.
And for me, that’s a wonderful human experience, to see the solidarity among students who, as I say by any reckoning, represent every possibility, every combination and permutation of humanity. So that having been said, the problem with affirmative action – At least as the court, the US Supreme Court sanctioned affirmative action, approved of it – It approved of it only under one condition: Our Supreme Court says you can’t use affirmative action for rectifying historical wrongs. You can’t use affirmative action to be compensatory for currently existing racism. You can’t use affirmative action because you think if you have more Black doctors, they’ll necessarily be willing to serve in Black communities. The court discounted all of that.
What the court said is we’ll accept affirmative action on one ground and one ground alone. And that is, different life experiences will enhance the educational experience of everybody, at say, a university. And the problem is that, let’s say you admit two African Americans into a medical school class. So let’s say you admit six on the basis of affirmative action. Who exactly are they representing? Are they representing African American people? Well, not really because there’s no consensus among African American people on virtually anything. You could say African American people broadly support police reform. Okay, that’s fair enough. But then when it comes down to a policy question, how do you support police reform? Do you want to support defunding the police? Well, that’s very unpopular in the Black community. Do you want to support increased police presence in the Black community? Well, that’s actually quite popular among segments of the Black community. So when it comes down to policy questions, when an African American is in class, say in a law school class, when he or she speaks up, theoretically, according to the Supreme Court, he or she is representing African Americans.
But of course, that’s not true because there’s no consensus among African Americans on these particular questions. If a gay African American speaks up in a Harvard Law School class in favor of gay rights, is that representing the African American community? Is that representing Baptist African Americans? Is that representing evangelical African Americans? No, it’s representing this particular person. So the premise of affirmative action, at least as the Supreme Court laid it out, the premise is simply wrong. An individual does not represent the group. The individual, at the end of the day, represents the individual. That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less. Race is refracted through a particular individual with a particular life experience, and therefore, with a particular position on any of these questions.
Even though I will emphatically stand by, I would prefer not to teach in an all white class, that’s not the world I want to envisage in the future; It’s not a world I want to help bring about. I want to help bring about a world that is genuinely, at all of its levels, representative of humankind. I prefer to be at Coney Island on a Sunday than at Martha’s Vineyard. At Coney Island, Coney Island the beach, on a Sunday you have every imaginable shape and color of humanity. Everybody getting along, as Rodney King famously said, can’t we all get along? Well, Coney Island, the Sunday, are Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Russians, Muslims, practicing Muslims. Everybody gets along. I’d rather be a participant in that, so to speak experiment, than an all white class. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think you can make a rational argument for it. I think the Supreme Court tried, I think the Supreme Court failed.
Chris Hedges: So woke culture comes with very clear delineations and rules and guidelines, for those who perpetuate it. And I want you to talk about how it was used effectively to elect Barack Obama and how it was used to discredit the candidacy of Bernie Sanders.
Norman Finkelstein: The Barack Obama presidency – And I know I’m going to use the word, but many people may take offense – It was basically, in my opinion, it was a scam. The US was in a crisis in 2008 both internationally with the disaster of the Iraq War and domestically with the Great Recession, as it came to be called. And Americans were hungry for a change. They were actually hungry for a radical change. They wanted a rupture with the past. Along came Barack Obama. Barack Obama was basically marketed by David Axelrod and David Booth. He was marketed as a morality tale, that is to say, it was a litmus test for the electorate, a litmus test for the electorate. Are you a good person, or are you a bad person?
Obama himself admitted he stood for nothing. It was one of the most amusing parts of his memoir, The Promised Land. He called it a neat trick, the neat trick. That’s his words, not mine. The neat trick was, he said, I stood for nothing. And of course, he only stood for one thing. He was Black. And so it became a morality tale. Normally, elections are referendums on the candidates but this election was reversed; It was a referendum on the electorate. If you’re a good person, you’ll vote for Barack Obama. If you’re a bad person, you’ll not vote for Barack Obama. And the Americans, about half of the whites, first of all, wanted the change. And it seemed as if electing the Black president wouldn’t be the end of the change, it would be the first step towards a real change that would break with the past. And so Americans, both for self-interest – Our country was in very bad shape – But also, there was a letting; They let their better angels control their worse angels. And they took the gamble, gamble in the sense that their worst angels were racist. That’s okay. And took the gamble with Barack Obama.
But that was what everybody who voted for him thought would be the first step towards a rupture with the past, turned out to be the last step. In fact, Obama, if you read his memoir, if you read his campaign managers, Booth and Axelrod, if you look at who he chose for his cabinet – Right from the beginning, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, Timothy Geithner, a critical role for Larry Summers–- It was clear that there wasn’t going to be any change beyond his identity, beyond the fact that he was Black. And that’s awfully thin gruel when you’re suffering in the economic system and you’re hoping for real radical change.
Chris Hedges: Let’s jump to Sanders because I only have a few minutes left. Because as that woke culture anointed Obama, it was used to destroy Sanders.
Norman Finkelstein: Yeah. What happened was Sanders represented what you might call the paradigm of a non-Obama campaign. Obama was a totally me-centered, identity politics platform. Bernie Sanders was an us, it wasn’t a me, it was an us, we campaign. And was completely based on a class, I don’t know, a class struggle. But a class-based platform. It was very straightforward, with no ambiguity. Medicare for all, Green New Deal, abolish student tuition, abolish student debt. Very clear cut. It wasn’t the neat trick, or as Obama elsewhere called it, he called his campaign the ultimate Rorschach test. Everybody saw what they wanted to see in it. No, in Bernie Sanders’ campaign, what you saw is what you got. It was very clear what he was running on. It was a very interesting phenomenon. Which, for me, was one of the most striking things as I was writing the book, was to notice that both in 2016 and 2020, the high priests and high priestesses of identity politics, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Miss Intersectionality, a Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Whoopi Goldberg, a Joy Reed. They all coalesced to denounce Bernie Sanders.
And that was most visible, by the way. It was most visible, not just in these individuals, but in the New York Times, which became, during the Trump years when the resistance was declared by Nancy Pelosi, the Times became this hyper-woke organ and it was hyper-woke, exactly, simultaneously, with being hyper anti-Bernie. And that to me was a very revealing fact. The sectors, the individuals who were most woke, were also vehemently, viciously, virulently, anti-Bernie Sanders. And that, to me, I quote at some point in the book, Leon Trotsky, who describes all of these sects, which are very radical, radical, radical, hyper-radical, super radical, and cutting edge. But he says at the moment of truth, they reveal their true colors. And the two campaigns in 2016 and 2020, the Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Angela Davises, the New York Times, the MSNBC, all revealed their true colors.
I’ll give you one example that struck me today. So you know Jeffrey Goldberg, this editor of the Atlantic Magazine. He was for a large part of his life a stenographer for Benjamin Netanyahu and he called that news: Interviewing Netanyahu, or interviewing Netanyahu’s generals, and repeating what they have to say. And of course, he had some cachet. He got all of these interviews. He then became the go-to person for Barack Obama. Barack Obama invited him quite often to the White House, he was Jeff. Jeff. He would have David Remnick there and others and he would tell them if you have any questions, go ask Jeff. So, Jeffrey Goldberg, was an Israeli prison guard in Gaza and an accessory to torture, in Gaza. Then he became a stenographer for Netanyahu. Then he became a stenographer for Obama. And now, in the latest issue of Atlantic Magazine, he’s become the stenographer for Zelensky, and the Ukrainian so-called leadership – I’ll use the word, you can disagree – The puppet leadership in the Ukraine.
And it was very striking to me. So now, he’s calling for an all-out war against Russia, Russia has to conquer Crimea. He says, along with Applebaum who’s a lunatic, he has to conquer Crimea. And here’s the thing, here’s this super hook, with this long pedigree of apologists for murderers, himself an accessory to torture, and at the same time, and here’s the point, at the same time, his magazine is the main venue for woke people. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Goldberg promoted him to national correspondent. A month ago he published this absolutely wretched article by Ibram X. Kendi on the martyrdom of an intellectual. First of all, the idea that Kendi is an intellectual is laughable, itself. But then his martyrdom, martyrdom? He got $10 billion from Jack Dorsey, the ex-CEO of Twitter. Martyrdom? He probably earns about $1 million a year between being the director of the anti-racism center at Boston University and being the Andrew Mellon Scholar in the Humanities, charity humanities. And he gets $30,000 for speaking an hour and a half when he goes to universities to speak.
In any event, the same person who’s this madman, stenographer for war, former prison guard, he’s also, his magazine is a vehicle for all these woke people. When Ta-Nehisi Coates and he speak, as they did at one conference, Goldberg refers to him as T. T, T. He’s so cool. He’s so chill. He’s so down with the hood and he also happens to be a warmonger and an accessory to torture. It’s such a perfect fit. It’s such a perfect fit between these folks who won to sabotage the Bernie Sanders campaign and these folks who are wading in lots and lots of money. A friend of mine at Harvard wanted to invite Angela Davis to speak because he’s active in Palestine solidarity. And he wanted to have an event for Black Palestinian solidarity and he invited Angela Davis. And she wanted $35,000.
Chris Hedges: We’re going to stop there, Norman. That was Norman Finkelstein on his new book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It! Heretical Thoughts on Identity Politics, Cancel Culture, and Academic Freedom. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.