While it almost certainly wasn’t Norman Finkelstein’s aspiration to become an old testament prophet, insofar as there was any doubt that he’s the closest we have, a recent interview with Mondoweiss removes it, offering an internet-age Book of Amos to whatever rubble of our civilization remains in the centuries to come.
What prophets do, of course, is tell us what we don’t want to hear. And Finkelstein doesn’t disappoint dispensing, among others, a harsh truth about the Democratic primary results. These show, according to Finkelstein, that the African-American vote has become one of main weapons in the hands of the establishment. Brandished mercilessly against Sanders, it “has been the bulwark of reaction in this election. . . sinking Bernie and buoying Hillary.”
Finkelstein understands better than most why this weapon has been so effective in undermining what he calls “one of the three great social movements in my lifetime.” The reason has to do with the “left’s tendency to “romantic(ize) ‘oppressed people,’” triggering Finkelstein’s recollection that “In my youth, black people were said to be the ‘Vanguard of The Revolution.'” Among them was “John Lewis, a genuine hero of the Civil Rights Movement, no question about it.” But, in this election cycle Lewis and others turned out to be the exact opposite joining in “the vanguard of reaction.” Exploiting his status as a moral and political icon, Lewis “grotesquely maligned Bernie’s record in the Civil Rights Movement and delivered up a clean bill of health for the Clintons.” His prior canonization immunized Lewis such that his attacks were taken seriously and acted on rather than being dismissed as predictable smears emerging from “a pathetic flunkey for the racist Clinton machine.”
Finkelstein likely finds something familiar in Lewis’s performance in that it reprises the subject of Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry which details how the state of Israel and shady operatives connected with it benefitted from the moral authority invested in survivors of the holocaust. Among those taken in would be the internationalist left much of which celebrated the founding of a socialist Jewish state, viewing it as equivalent to the self-determination struggles of newly independent former colonies. Their support of Israel continued through the 1967 war which it saw as pitting a progressive, democratic, modern David against a corrupt, backward, Egyptian Goliath.
As the crimes of the Israeli government became too obvious too ignore, much of the left would gradually unite in opposition to a rogue state, comparisons with South Africa, formerly rejected, taken as more or less uncontroversial.
But others would follow Daniel Pipes, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and William Kristol in their uncritical support of military force, the state of Israel leading them down a path through which they would eventually become acquainted with, and ultimately, entwined with the militarist right.
With that background in mind, the trajectory alluded to by Finkelstein becomes understandable. Just as the gateway drug to the right for Jews would be the state of Israel, for African Americans, it was unconditional loyalty to the presidency of Barack Obama. The difference is that whereas Jews did not suffer directly from Israeli repression, African Americans were among the central victims of Obama. Over the past seven years, African American wealth would plummet further than in any previous administration with increases in African American rates of poverty and homelessness. Obama also maintained the essential mechanisms of the war on drugs, a leading factor in the mass incarceration epidemic resulting in one out of every three African American males likely to be imprisoned in their lifetimes. Also kept in place were the core elements of the Clinton era Crime Bill including the militarization of local police forces whose routine murder of black youth is now widely recognized as a scandal.
The elites who promoted and enabled Obama’s rise recognized the potential of Obama to serve as an ideal delivery vehicle for the self-help, victim blaming ideology justifying the continuing exercise of neoliberal austerity. That it has since become dominant in African American communities, as Political Scientist Lester Spence has documented, shows that their strategy succeeded. And, with this foundation having been established, it is no surprise that a large majority of African American voters now support a candidate who referred to their children as “super-predators”, needing to be “brought to heel”, immiserated them through welfare “reform”, and imposed mass unemployment and wage stagnation through trade agreements.
One other similarity worth noting is that just as Israel could count on the uncritical support of media savvy operatives, so too would Obama’s most reactionary policies be justified by a new class of African American pundits and intellectuals such as Michael Eric Dyson, Al Sharpton, Joy Ann Reid and others. And just as criticism of the reckless militarism of the state of Israel would be routinely met with dark accusations of anti-semitism, so too would opposition to Obama be routinely depicted as racist.
The Clinton campaign, of course, has attempted to play the same card, brandishing the charge of misogyny against mostly invented “Bernie bros.” Her campaign strategists are relying on the left to do their work for them, forcing Sanders supporters to defer to the unchallengeable moral authority wielded by victims of patriarchal repression-in this case, a multimillionaire corporate lawyer, backed by the entire corporate establishment running from Charles Koch to the New York Times editorial board to Tom Hayden.
Fortunately, with Finkelstein’s help we are now beginning to see how the left has winked at and often enabled opportunistic moves by the right. We shouldn’t be paving the road for those who do.
We should be blowing it up.
(minor edits: 5/3/2019)