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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Long Distance Mom: Heartbreak and Radicalism
September 23, 2009 - 9:17pm

There’s no denying it. The school year is in full gear now. Labor Day has passed. October is coming. My heart breaks every year in September at the reality of resuming my twice a month commute to see my kids in Florida. Since my teenagers are starting to think about colleges soon, I recognize how precious the remaining days are for us to share dinner together, or for me to challenge my son about not mowing the grass or my daughter for emptying her closet onto her floor. I already miss these complaints!

My kids are busy now with their own friends and events--my son plays in a heavy metal band, my daughter plays poker and volleyball. Their Dad and I are event facilitators, chauffeurs, and, occasionally, therapists.

In my time away from my kids as a filmmaker and media studies professor in Chicago, I have a lot of my evenings free to see the latest films, which are vital to refresh me, inspire me, keep me thinking.... Last week I watched the premiere of American Radical: the Trials of Norman Finkelstein at Chicago’s Underground Film Festival. I went last Sunday on opening night when the film directors, David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier, were supposed to appear, but did not. As festival director Bryan Wendorf explained, the next Monday was when Rossier’s daughter was attending her first day of school, so the audience certainly could not expect him to miss that event, and the directors would return to Chicago later in the week to make up for their absence.

American Radical documents the story of former DePaul University professor of Political Science, Norman Finkelstein — his family history, his research on the 'Holocaust Industry', his continued critiques of Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people, his conflicts with Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz, and finally the denial of Finkelstein’s application for tenure at DePaul and the protest that followed. (See IHE's stories.)

The most powerful part of the film for me was the portrayal of Finkelstein’s relationship with his mother, Mary, now deceased and a survivor of the Majdanek concentration camp and the Warsaw ghetto. (His father survived Auschwitz’s death march.) FInkelstein states in the film how much his mother influenced him—her courage, her determination, her refusal to accept any further loss of human life after her experience in the camps. This determination, Finkelstein acknowledges, drives him to put himself literally on the front lines defending the Palestinian people, and, as his mother also worried, “destroying himself” in other ways. The film suggests that Finkelstein's absorption with his mother's values is both responsible for his courageous research and also for his inability to negotiate on certain issues when, perhaps, he should…— e.g. accusations about Dershowitz.

American Radical is a well-done, intimate documentary that covers Finkelstein’s personal biography, his global, experiential research, and the character flaw that led, in part, to his tenure downfall (and his own subtle acknowledgement of this flaw). The directors of the film objectively portray a story that is loaded with the ideological landmines of the Israeli/Palestinian story, including the legal vulnerabilities of the academic tenure process and how it can be affected by world politics.

Several of Finkelstein’s former students and organizers of the DePaul protest over his tenure denial were at the screening, and it was obvious that their disillusionment and experience with a high profile academic and political case had changed their lives. The students’ interpersonal relations with Finkelstein -- a popular teacher and advisor at DePaul -- were clearly powerful moments that would guide these students’ life decisions in the near future, as much as Finkelstein’s mother guided and inspired his own research.

Finding significance in these film screenings helps me to explain to myself why I missed out on my own daughter’s first day of high school in Florida a few weeks ago. (I was teaching class in Chicago.) It’s important for me to believe that a mother’s values are communicated to her children (and not simply her flaws), just as a teacher’s values are communicated to their students (and not just their egos).

I’m starting to understand how personal histories circulate around these kinds of moments and matter in lots of different ways…


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