Time’s Angel, or A Birthday Letter to Myself

13 Nov


            We live our public holidays by the Gregorian calendar, but what of our private holidays? I decided to create my own, happening to coincide with a birthday, but also an occasion to push the pause and reset buttons on this blog of mine that commenced about a year ago as a ‘gift’ from our daughter and her high-tech husband. I am grateful to them for sending me off on this new voyage of discovery and self-discovery, although at times of controversy I become aware that silence might have served me better, as I am grateful to my other wonderful children for teaching me so much about love and live. It has brought me into contact with tender, wise, and joyful persons from around the world.


            For those loyal folks who have followed my posts even periodically, they realized that the blog has sometimes also provoked anger and even venomous hostility, especially on the part of those who disapprove of my UN role as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, a role that has led me to be harshly critical of Israel’s policies and supportive of Palestinian struggles for their rights under international law. As someone reluctantly present in public spaces, this atmosphere of insult and injury has made me nostalgic for the serenity of the ivory tower life widely thought attainable in the groves of academe. I would like to retreat at this stage of my life, but it is unseemly to do so as a result of pressures mounted from without, while the Palestinian ordeal persists. Although tempted, I will not use this occasion for the dreary work of responding to my critics beyond saying that I have tried throughout my work at the UN and elsewhere to be truthful without hiding my affinities and identifications with those who are struggling to survive in dignity in the face of oppressive circumstances. In this regard, my debt to the Palestinians is far greater than theirs to me as I have so often been inspired by their courage and steadfastness, and benefitted by their warmth and good spirits.


            Overall, doing a blog reminds us of the art of amateurship (affirming the French root meaning of ‘lover of’), almost lost in our age caught between the mind of the specialist and the nihilistic effects of various cynical brands of postmodernism. The specialist impact on language exhibited by its impoverishment of the word ‘amateur’ to mean dabbler, or superficial idler who should never be taken seriously, and of the nihilist postmodern success in discrediting all forms of belief in a better tomorrow. I find great pleasure in exploring unfamiliar terrain, and feel an exhilarating permission to be foolish on occasion, something that is woefully lacking in universities where it is almost always prudent to be silent and sullen (except when endorsing the views of administrators or right-wing alumni) than to appear engaged and enthusiastic. So for me, when not commenting on the injustices that persist before my eyes, I feel that the blogosphere is basically an arena of exploration and community, especially when a flourishing friendship is bestowed as a form of cyber-grace, the digitized religiosity of this new century. Doing a blog regularly is somewhat akin to keeping a public journal of observations, opinions, and ideas, although for me not a substitute for a private and uninhibited enclave of recollected wrongs and satisfactions, attractions and repulsions, confessions and indictments.  


            Lifting my gaze from these essentially personal concerns, I find a vivid resonances at this moment of reflection in the great opening lines of Yeats’ poem The Second Coming:


                        Turning and turning in the widening gyre

                        The falcon cannot hear the falconer,

                        Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

                        Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

                        The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

                        The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

                        The best lack all conviction, while the worst

                        Are full of passionate intensity.


I meant ‘resonance’ not ‘agreement,’ at least not altogether. I find that during this past year it has been ‘the best’ that have been ‘full of passionate intensity’ as in the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. These have been remarkable unanticipated challenges directed at overcoming the injustices and abuses of a variety of established orders, whether or not their still unsettled outcomes are successful in the worldly sense of bringing enduring gains for those involved. What matters now is this mass demonstration of a will to dignity exhibited in so courageously and admirably at Tahrir Square and in many, many other sites of struggle, a magnificent display of the resilient human spirit, which I view as partly expressed by its organic attachment to nonviolent struggle as being in Yeats’ sense the essence of an uplifting ‘ceremony of innocence.’ Yes, ‘the center cannot hold,’ but that might, if true, be welcomed rather than lamented as it is the center that is mainly responsible for ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ that has been ‘loosed upon the world.’ Instead of (re)constructing centers, especially governmental centers, more responsive to our needs and desires, maybe we should think more about revitalizing peripheries or finding ways to dispense with or at least all centers of hard power for a while.


            Dumbing down for a few self-indulgent lines, I never imagined that I could keep my blog afloat in the over-populated blogosphere, and maybe I can’t, and maybe I didn’t, but there was a steady enough stream of positive feedback to keep me going, to make me feel that sharing my reflections on the passing global scene was something more than a narcissistic diversion for an ageing academic who decided to keep working because unfit for the comforts of a rocking chair on the final porch of life. I was also too much of a logistical coward to explore national parks in a systematic way or book tedious ocean cruises to nowhere in particular. I did manage to initiate two satisfying diversions during the past twelve months: solitary I-Pad chess, especially on long overseas trips and nurturing neighborhood birds with good food and attentive adoration, and I continue my search for beautiful glass crystal balls, always seeking better ways to divine the future, always falling short. Of course, these trappings of ‘the good life’ are only satisfying if blessed by love and partnership. And I am so blessed! 


            Since I am claiming the right to ignore the normal cycle of the year’s end, it is an occasion for my ‘New Year’s’ resolutions, or at least pondering how I might challenge myself during the year ahead, beginning with this damnable blog! Should I lighten the burden of my life by its abandonment, or should I relax a bit, and confine its role to registering intemperate outbursts from time to time, hopefully for your sake not too often? Or should I soldier on, both pleasing Hilal and possibly accommodating my declining powers by aiming in the year ahead to produce no more than 50 instead of the insufferable 100 of 2010-11? Or should I just shut up, and let the muse decide on when and whether? I know that ‘resolutions’ are supposed to be commitments not questions, but this is the best that I can do for now as my muse is mute, perhaps in deference to my birthday. At least, it is this repeated sense of failure to live up to the resolve of resolutions that haunts most resolution-makers, but seems to exempt from self-criticism those that hide their weak will behind a façade of unanswered questions!


            My most abiding lifelong political commitment is to side emotionally and actively with the underdog in conflict situations without attention to ethnic, religious, and class differences. This has been so since childhood. I have no idea why. My loving father was inclined toward elites,

respecting and trusting them, and worrying about, distrusting, and opposing those who would make things better, somewhat in the manner of being a principled Burkean conservative. He was deeply opposed to Communism in all forms, including if diluted to become ‘social democracy,’ and disliked even the New Deal response to the Great Depression. I suppose I would have to admit to forming a contrarian streak while still a boy as on the particulars of politics I found myself on opposite side of the political fence from the person who I then loved and respected most in the world. Although he died in 1956 I still feel his stern views as a judgment passed on my own, although softened by his loving tenderness that was always the dominant color of our relationship. It is strange how we never manage to move much beyond the shadows cast by our parents, nor do we wish to end this dialogue that is not ever interrupted even by untimely death.


            More prosaically, living in Montreal for a few months without friends, a car, sports life, and books has made me appreciate the daily good fortune of living in Santa Barbara! Although there are some new discoveries that have accompanied this ‘deprived’ condition, the prospect of returning to the known of the Pacific West is satisfying. And one more observation on being a blogger: you never feel isolated or lonely, there are always present some feelings of connectedness although depending on their character, they may sometimes disturb more than they please, but such challenges do not age the soul!


            The truth is that I am not sure what to do in this rapidly unfolding future. I am most thankful for love, friendship, and health as gifts from heaven, and I will probably keep doing what I have been doing. It becomes harder at this age to contemplate serious alternatives, although little detours into the unknown are still possible and often bring fresh delight, as well as restorative energy. As with other stages of life, even this late one is only satisfying so long as it remains a learning experience that is receptive to surprise and novelty!


            I do wish that a year from now the lines from the Yeats poem will seem quaint and obsolescent so far as the surrounding world situation is concerned, and will be replaced in 2012 by a more life-affirming lyric that thanks time’s angel for spreading its joy to the world. Maybe by then we will think about people as much as we now dwell on the perils of the Euro! Of course, happily, life didn’t begin or end for me at 80, and so I can only become 81 in a state of expectant bemusement!





27 Responses to “Time’s Angel, or A Birthday Letter to Myself”

  1. Paul Wapner November 13, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    How beautiful, Richard. You should know that most of your readers, like me, enjoy your blog without sending comments. However, we are not completely passive recipients of your gifts. We appreciate you sharing your world with us, and hope somehow that you can feel us in our voiceless absence. Rumi wrote, “Friend, our closeness is this/ Anywhere you put your foot/ feel me in the firmness under you.” We’re with you.

    Your mention of the periphery reminds me of the line: “If you’re not on the margins, get out of the way.” Yes, the center cannot and should not hold. You’ve always provided breathing space at the margins, and have made it the human place to be.

    Blog on!

  2. John Walsh November 13, 2011 at 10:32 am #


    Happy New Year! And thank you for letting us (me) read this beautiful ‘letter to (yourself)’! PLEASE…do not be silent. I do not care if it’s 1 or 101 blogs. I will look forward to each and all. I learned, those many years ago, while precepting for you at Princeton to gloriously anticipate every class. You consistently and constantly wowed us all with your insights and observations. What a model for those of us coming right behind you to be reminded that our voices can remain strong and powerful, even as we enter that final stage. Peace to you!

    • Richard Falk November 14, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

      John, you have always been so importantly encouraging to me because your own integrity and commitment are so true
      and strong. I hope your life is fine in all respects, and that our paths cross soon. We are here in Montreal until the end of
      the year. And thanks for reminding me of our shared pleasures of Princeton teaching. I recall that you had the highest possible
      evaluation scores! Warmly, Richard

  3. Nancy Rowe November 13, 2011 at 11:01 am #

    Ahh, those groves of academe, not safe either. Alexander Meiklejohn wrote in “Political Freedom” of the 1949 Loyalty Oath struggle, which silenced a generation of teachers, & dulled a generation or two of students during the cautious, fearful 20 years that followed…

    “What were these faculty men saying about academic freedom, the signers with compromise, the non-signers without compromise? They were, I think, expressing the conviction that an institution which limits intellectual freedom is not a university. They knew that a man who assumes the social responsibilities of a scholar, a teacher, a preacher, must first of all establish in the minds of the people whom he serves, the assurance, the certainty that his beliefs, his utterances are, independently, his own. They must be sure that he is a man whom no one, not even themselves, can compel to believe this or to say that, can forbid to believe that or to say this. Anyone who submits, under pressure, to coercive control over his thought or his speech, ceases to be a scholar searching for the truth, ceases to be a teacher leading his pupils toward honest and fearless inquiry and belief. He becomes a hired man, thinking what he is paid to think, saying what he is hired to say.”

    My own father was blacklisted from teaching for 20 years, but the measure of ‘serenity’ he had at the end of his life was knowing that conviction, integrity & truth were the ideals he served, & the Bill of Rights was stronger for the fight those non-signers waged until the oaths were overturned as unconstitutional. Who wants to shuffle along in their old comfortable slippers of conformity & complicity when there is Justice to fight for! Wonderful 100 blogging, Professor, but mostly, your honorable living inspires. Kudos!

    • Richard Falk November 14, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

      Thanks, Nancy, for such an affirming message, and for sharing this experience of your father whose inner
      light outshone the star chamber lights that used to discredit the best and finest!

      warm wishes, Richard

  4. Loren Franklin November 13, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    You compare most admirably to Yeats. Happy birthday, and thank you.

    • Richard Falk November 14, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

      I wish, but lovely of you to entertain such a lofty thought! My thanks to you!!

  5. kester2 November 13, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Here’s wishing you the best of birthdays and a year filled with reflections and deliberations that you will continue to share with us, Professor Falk. Who else will monitor the world and not let it slink in shadows and sloth but us old contrarians? Keep observing and keep speaking the truth, until the liars and cheats are scattered in confusion.

    • Richard Falk November 14, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

      Thanks for these words of encouragement, and I will keep trying as long as my voice holds out!
      But I will not live long enough to outdo the ‘liars and cheats’ who now threaten the destiny of our

  6. monalisa November 13, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    Dear Richard,

    Happy Birthday and hopefully many many returns and with it many years your extraordinary personality behind your blog which inspires, reminds me (us) of truth to be searched for and from time ot time some deep sourced sensitivity shown in your poems

    Here is a small poem:

    The Pen

    Take a pen in your uncertain fingers,
    Trust, and be assured
    That the whole world is a sky-blue butterfly,
    and that words are the nets to capture it.

    written by Muhammad al-Ghuzzi (born 1949), Tunisian,
    translated by Mary Jayyusi and John Heath-Stubbs


    • Richard Falk November 14, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

      Thanks for this lovely remembrance of my birthday, dear Monalisa!


  7. derhaber November 13, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

    Mr.Falk I have translated the article in Al Jazeera Opinion, to Turkish. http://derhaber.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/davutoglunun-parlak-devlet-idaresi-richard-falk-al-jazeera-opinion/


    It is one of the best analyses that i have read about Mr. Davutoğlu. Congr. Best Regards.. Mustafa

  8. Fawzia Ammoura November 13, 2011 at 3:48 pm #

    How wonderful you are Mr. Richard!!!
    You are our gift from heaven……. 🙂

    Maybe Israel occupied my land… but it gave me, and all Palestinians, the great chance to meet you.

    Thank you for the smile you bring to my heart, and the strength and courage you bring to my soul when I think of Palestine and the world.
    Thank you for your support…. and thank you for being you! 🙂

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU…… and May all your days be blessed and full of love & peace.


    your facebook friend,
    “Fufu Peace Messenger”

    • Richard Falk November 14, 2011 at 7:42 am #

      Thanks, Fawzia, for such warm and generous words. Your spirit so far exceeds your situation
      that I am moved toward tears. I wish that a political miracle would emancipate the entrapped
      people of Gaza! I believe it will happen, but when? I hope we will meet, and I can greet this
      wonderful ‘Fufu, Peace Messenger’! Nothing would give me greater pleasure!!

      with fb gratitude,


  9. Barbara "Bo" Nicholson November 13, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    Dear Richard, please keep blogging in spite of my not responding to you I DO enoy and appreciate what you have to say. HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I too am recently 80 and altho I’m unsure of what this decade will bring….Bring it on! My husband and I attended OCCUY TAMPA’S General Assembly for the secodn time last night and it is a truly remarkable and insiring event to be involved in and we look forward to attending again. WE are much appreciated there. Altho we hope you do continue blogging …at 80 just do whatever you want. PEACE! Barbara Nicholson of Sun City Center, FL. (early 50’s I was a clerk in the OSU Law Library)

    • Richard Falk November 14, 2011 at 7:45 am #

      Dear Barbara: Thanks for this encouragement, as well as the news of Occupy Tampa. It is exciting
      the way this grassroots initiative has spread around the world. Did we know each other when we
      were both at the OSU College of Law in the 1950s? Warm greetings of solidarity in age and


  10. Julie Webb-Pullman November 13, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    Keep blogging!!! Please!!!

  11. deepaktripathi November 14, 2011 at 2:02 am #

    In times of solitude, adversity, pressures and spiteful hostility for its own sake, at the age of mere 60 (but when all is not well with my health), I go through similar debates with myself. I feel that while such conversations with self are necessary, they are perhaps premature in determining the finality of our actions with regard to thinking, expressing and sharing thoughts. Every time (so far), I have ended up telling myself to go on translating thoughts into words, as long as mind can think. In our recent conversation in London, when I mentioned my own age I recall your response, “You will never catch me!.” This is true in all sorts of ways. In this rare case, I can say with satisfaction that I am happy with this state of affairs. I hope, and wish, to continue reading your postings.

  12. fsdf November 14, 2011 at 4:07 am #

    happy birthday.. keep up the good work Richard

  13. Pamela Olson November 14, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    I’ve been following your career and actions for quite a while with a great deal of respect and admiration. But I didn’t realize you were such a gentle and kindred spirit as well. Thank you for this post. It was something I needed to read at this moment.

    I left a possible future in academia and also in government because of the trends you talk about — how you have to act unimpressed with everything and defer to whoever is presumed most “tough-minded” (usually right-wingers, as you say), because everything else is naive and frivolous. The reality, of course, is that “everything else” is a life of reason, humility, empathy, and delight — the very things that make life worth living.

    I lived for two and a half years in Palestine, and I have to say that I also owe them a greater debt than I can ever repay. I wrote a book called Fast Times in Palestine that tries to explain why. I’ll be happy to send you a copy if you would be so kind as to send me an address where it can reach you. (I can also send an electronic copy optimized for iPad.)

    Thanks for everything you do, and for the simple courage of staying true to your own humanity. I know it’s not easy. But I also know it’s what makes life worth living while the Machiavellians go around stomping on beauty in a futile search for control in a universe of splendid chaos. I aspire one day to turn 81 in a state of expectant bemusement. Your much-admired record of truth-telling (even when it’s very difficult) must be the icing on the cake.

    Yours in gratitude,
    Pamela Olson

    • Richard Falk November 14, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

      Dear Pamela:

      Indeed, a kindred spirit. Thanks for your message that spoke from the depths of
      experience. With your soul in tact your life will unfold to exceed even your fondest wishes. This is what I hope for you!


  14. Middle West November 14, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    We need people like you, Chomsky, and Krugman. You are the rare piblic intellectuals serving the larger society instead of just their careers or our leaders’ need for propaganda.

    Write less if you must, but remember that you stand as a thinking man’s alternative to the Gingriches, the Dershowitzes, and all the vulgar little mouthpieces of the powerful.

    Personally, I really look forward to each post–typos and all!

    • Richard Falk November 15, 2011 at 4:13 am #

      Thanks for this comment, although tell me about any future typos so that I do not embarrass myself too publicly!

      Chomsky and Krugman stand far taller than I, but I appreciate your willingness to put me in their company. The larger point is that progressive public intellectuals are an endangered species!

  15. Björn Lindgren November 14, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    Dear Richard,

    We´ve never met, I know you through this blog mainly; you never met me. But getting to know you on your pilgrimage where you generously share your viewpoints and refreshing thoughts and visions warms my heart.

    You wonder what to do with days to come. You already have a strong direction which have benefitted many, indeed. This is a grace and a blessing. So, please, just go on be yourself.

    Thank you for your compassionate presence!

    Warm birthday greetings,
    Björn Lindgren

    • Richard Falk November 15, 2011 at 4:10 am #

      Thanks Bjorn for your affirming words, and maybe this digital terrain is a place of virtual meeting that has provides some minimal satisfactions. In any event, I know that support and encouragement enable me to feel it worthwhile to write these posts, which otherwise would always be letters to myself, like a journal transparent to the world.

  16. Mansour Farhang November 15, 2011 at 6:16 am #

    Dear Richard,

    Thank you for your joyful 80th birthday gift to your friends and admirers. Your voice on the ‘margin’ of world affairs is a source of inspiration for those of us who are active and feel at home on the margin. It also exposes, steadily and eloquently, the hypocrisy and cruelty of the ‘center.’ I look forward to the gift of your 90th birthday and hope that before we get there, I will have one more chance to challenge you in a pig pong match.

    Happy birthday, again and again,

    Mansour Farhang

    • Richard Falk November 15, 2011 at 7:24 am #

      Thanks, Mansour, your words of encouragement are especially appreciated! We who choose the margins need as many companions as possible!

      It has been less of an ordeal to reach this octogenarian plateau than I anticipated. We are living
      in Montreal for a few months as Hilal has a Fulbright Chair at McGill Law School for the semester. We are ‘surviving’ here but miss our California life. Here we have no friends, car, tennis, books, and the only offset is an excellent subway system!

      Yes, we must have that defining ping-pong matchup, but I would bet on you at this point!!

      Hope your life is fine. Your daughter by now must be almost a teenager!

      warm wishes,


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