Tag Archives: memoir

On Being a Citizen Pilgrim

7 May

[Prefatory Note: The following interview was published  on May 7, 2021, https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/05/07/the-fascinating-memoir-of-a-citizen-pilgrim-qa-with-richard-falk/

I apologize for the self-promotion but I suppose that is what a blog of this sort is inevitably partially about.]

The Fascinating Memoir of a “Citizen Pilgrim”: Q&A with Richard Falk

BY BUSRA CICEK – DANIEL FALCONE

Image Source: Cover art for the book Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim

Richard Falk, the well-known international relations scholar, taught at Princeton University for four decades. Starting in 2002 he has taught Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Falk is also a chair for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. This lengthy interview is about his latest book, a memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim, that explores his career as an academic, activist, rapporteur, political theorist, and professor.

Daniel Falcone: Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim is considered both an autobiography and a book about international relations. I like how you provide the reader, with a narrative-analysis. In other words, it seems that you are interested in explaining a great deal of your (and others) analytical frameworks by unpacking your own life in the pursuits of these intellectual developments. Can you comment on this?

Richard Falk: From the beginning I was seeking to understand the interfaces connecting the personal, professional, and political that seemed to have dominated the adult portions of my life journey. In doing this, I realized that it was an exercise in self-scrutiny that is comparable with self-administered post-Freudian therapy. I was, in part, motivated by the goal of understanding why I had chosen several less traveled paths in shaping life experience, as well as narrating my journey guided in its last stages by a progressive imaginary. I decided, also, to risk recalling my past totally on the basis of memory, without recourse to such materials as journals and books in my possession. Of course, this was hazardous at any age, but particularly on a project that did not get fully underway until my late 80s. I doubt that it would have been more selective in distorting ways than if I had checked my recollections against the records I kept over the years.

I also had a strong sense that my problematic childhood and adolescence was relevant to what came later. I am quite sure that my interpretative gaze would have been quite different if I had started this project five or ten years earlier, which suggests that there is a degree of contingency embedded in attempting a memoir. The personal and historical context would have been different, and hence the lens by which I reconstructed my life.  I felt strongly that I should be as honest as possible, while taking on responsibilities of not without being hurtful to persons who were alive and with whom I had once been intimate. I found it difficult to decide whether explaining why a romantic relationship did not endure was worse than overlooking the relationship altogether, which was the course chosen in several instances. 

Early on as I reflected upon my childhood, why it was so humdrum, exhibiting little by way of achievement or even sense of direction. Aside from my own failings, I attribute the snail pace of my development, perhaps overly, to the impact of my divorced parents, my mother detached and uncaring, my father too protective and deeply disappointed by the downward trajectory of his own life. In some ways, I think my insecurity of those years helped me avoid the worst sorts of failures. In a real sense, I lacked the courage to fail altogether, hanging on to the edge of the cliff with my fingernails because of my fear of falling. I began to gain a certain composure, probably nothing more than a fragile veneer of self-confidence as a college undergraduate, then a law school student, and later as a young faculty member at a large mid-western university. Each of these experiences in an academic institution by stages helped me find a political identity of my own. I had long lounged under the umbrella of my father’s ultra-conservative stance, which was both anti-New Deal and unconditionally anti-Communist. I was not at ease with such a political outlook, but I lacked an alternative.

The publisher of my memoir, supportive and empathetic from start to finish, rightly instructed me cut 100,000 words that I had struggled to find during the ordeal of composition. As it said, sometimes the best of a film is left on the floor of the cutting room, I am not sure whether my editorial surgery was properly selective in its arbitrary decisions about what could go and what should stay. In retrospect, the subjectivity of constructing one’s own life by staring for several years at oneself in a rear view mirror made me aware that there is a much finer line separating fiction from non-fiction than I had assumed for the prior 90 years.

Maybe a better book, certainly a different one, would have emerged if I had allowed myself the freedom to embellish my life rather than to try to render it. Is it important, in other words, to keep the faith? Or would most readers prefer to wander with me down phantasy lane? Is there really such a thing as a ‘fake life’ any more than there is a ‘true life.’ Of course, appalled by Trump’s dodges of truth and truthfulness, I felt it a political obligation to be as truthful as possible. And maybe this worked to skew the narrative toward an unimaginative literalness, and is the sort of historical contextual circumstance that tilts the tone and substance in a different way than I had embarked the memoir writing experience during the Obama presidency.

Daniel Falcone: I particularly enjoyed reading about the impacts that students from Puerto Rico had on your educational leadership, your politics in general, and how they helped you gain an appreciation for the politics of the islandspecifically. Can you inform readers of this experience and what these mentorships and friendships cultivated and produced?

Richard Falk: You pose an interesting series of questions about friendship with a particular stress on friendship with students. It may be had I responded to these questions prior to writing this memoir I would have approached these issues in more perceptive ways. Pondering now why friendship has always loomed large in my enjoyment of life at every stage, I would have to acknowledge that it probably reflects the shortcomings of the family dimensions of my life, leading me to search elsewhere for meaning and affection. As well, the absence of the kind of community affiliations that bestows a sense of both identity and belonging that most frequently arise from religious practices and cultural traditions was entirely absent, leading to feelings of envy for apparent ‘normalcy’ of my school classmates who almost all seemed more attached to their families and ethnic backgrounds than I.

As so much of my early pleasure and later of wellbeing involved competitive sports. I found many early friends on these playing fields, and this kind of satisfying bonding continued to be a sustaining feature of my social life throughout my life. Especially at Princeton where so many students were talented and ambitious, I found many young persons who interested me, especially among those who came from less privileged backgrounds at graduate levels. At the same time, because my research interests and political activities situated me at the professional margins, I found students by and large less judgmental than my faculty colleagues and often more congenial and interesting. It embarrasses me, yet only slightly, that after 40 years at Princeton, with a few notable exceptions, my only close faculty friends on campus, with a few exceptions, were those with whom I played tennis and squash with on a weekly basis over many years. Others with strong shared interests and views were not to be found on campus, but were either former students or those with whom I bonded through shared political commitments or other forms of sympathetic intimacy.

What I discovered early on in my faculty experience was that teaching provided a great arena for learning provided I had the self-confidence to listen carefully even to objections and also to approach my lectures without excessive preparation, which I realize may sound strange. This latter characteristic might seem odd, and it can be taken too far, or prove disastrous if not familiar with the overall subject-matter, particularly its framework. The advantage of being creatively underprepared is that it leaves space for spontaneous free associations and opens more space for dialogue with students. If relying on old notes or even transcripts of old lectures there is a fixation on text, a corresponding reluctance to explore uncharted territory, and at atmosphere not receptive to dialogue.

In my memoir I describe lingering impressions of students who made a career with a public resonance, often having the opportunity to relate to them in small-class atmospheres or as thesis advisees. Among the most notable were Robert Muller, David Petraeus, Richard Perle, Saud Faisal, Moulay Hicham Abdullah, and Anne-Marie Slaughter. They were a diverse group, which sometimes anticipated what they became later on in ‘the real world’ and other times surprised me. Except for Moulay Hicham these celebrity students never became friends, and we lost contact after they left Princeton, but they left imprint with their strong personalities. I take note of the fact, with regret, that were male with a single exception.

I think your question is primarily concerned with the interplay between the pedagogy of university education and arenas of political activism. By pointing to the exertion of influence by a Puerto Rican student, you hit upon a good example, although it relates more to my being influenced by students than befriending them. In this particular instance, a graduate student in history at Princeton who came from a political independentista background educated me about the tawdry nature of what I came to regard as the ‘internal colonialism’ in his homeland within my homeland.

Through this student I came into contact with several leading Puerto Rican political figures and intellectuals, and visited the country, not in the normal tourist modalities but to understand more experientially the detrimental impacts associated with making PR serve U.S. military priorities, and caught between the emotions of nationalism and the practical advantages of tax advantages that derived from their intermediate status as a commonwealth within the frame of U.S, sovereignty. This squeezed identity is expressed by singing songs of liberations in barrooms and voting to remain tied to the commonwealth reality.

I was especially struck by visiting the small island of Vieques (part of the PR island group), two-thirds of which was appropriated as a naval artillery range for U.S. warships greatly harming the traditional island’s economy and traditional way of life based on small-scale fishing and farming. Above all, I learned a valuable lesson from this involvement. It taught me that supplementing academic learning with the experience of being there in some caring (not for a research project) capacity contributed a dimension to understanding that could not be derived from tourism or even prolonged academic field trips. As it happened, I soon became preoccupied with the Vietnam War, and lost contact with my Puerto Rican student mentor, but the effects of his pedagogy lingered.

More associated with the interplay between classroom and being there was my contact with the somewhat analogous role played by the United States in the Philippines. The Marcos dictatorship was providing hospitality for large U.S. military bases that compromised political independence and provided a cover for elite corruption that kept the country poor, and its citizenry repressed and antagonized. In this instance, two Filipino students with deep and abiding ties to the national struggle for human rights, democracy, and true political independence, kindled my interest and arranged for me to make several trips to the country, either related to the nationalist movement of opposition to the bases that included several politicians who were leading members of the Senate, and who also became my friends in the course of these visits.

The students back in Princeton, Walden Bello and Lester Ruiz, went on to have important careers of their own, and they remain among my cherished friends to this day. Walden became a leading anti-imperial voice through his books and activism, while Lester became a colleague in my more future-oriented work in the World Order Models Project that devoted itself to envisaging a humane world order, its structure and how to bring into being. What I want to stress is that the original interaction in the classroom led to a learning experience in a distant country, which deepened my understanding and motivation when I returned to the classroom.

It was not just a matter of being there, but being engaged while in the Philippines, leaving a lasting imprint, and making me, I believe, a more effective lecturer. The experiential factor was thus not observational in the spirit of anthropology but enlivened by active solidarity with ongoing struggles for justice that provided insight into a range of analogous issues in an array of countries throughout the global south. The friendship dimension was integral to the existential context, enabling me to be received in communities of solidarity in an atmosphere of trust, friendship, and disclosure.

Daniel Falcone: Although you are a widely read international relations scholar, with experience in research schools and global institutions, I learned in the book that you often navigated a common humbling experience of everyday life within the humanities and education. Your teaching at Ohio State and Princeton at times brought you into contact with people interested in athletics and activities that were prioritized over your subject matter. Can you talk about this more, as I think teachers and professors would find your insights helpful.

Richard Falk: Over the years in academic life, I came under various sorts of pressure, which were more-subtle during my time at Princeton than during the five years spent at Ohio State University at the end of the 1950s. OSU was a nationally ranked team in the two major college sports of football and basketball, and it was the source of institutional pride for its alumni and administrators. I was approached on one occasion by an adjunct member of the faculty who made his name and his fortune as a lawyer in private practice in Columbus with an angry request that I change the grade of a student in my first year class in criminal law because, and solely because he was the son of a prominent figure in Ohio state politics. This lawyer, used to getting his way confronted me as a young untenured member of the law faculty with what amounted to a diktat, and when I declined, he stormed out of my office never to speak to me again. After the incident I was rather sure he would approach the dean of our faculty who was known to have ambitions to become president of OSU, and I feared that this would be my last year at the university. Actually, nothing came of my refusal to adjust this student’s grade, perhaps because it was such a crass attempt to encroach upon faculty grading autonomy. He could have at least pleaded the case for a grade change by some sort of story that the boy was under unusual pressure because his parents were going through an ugly divorce, and a low grade would have devastated him further.

At Princeton, pressures from the alumni were frequent and more sophisticated. For one thing, the Princeton alums felt as an entitlement to interfere as many were major annual donors, accounting for the wealth of the university, and university administrators wanted them to feel a stake in the institution. Some conservative alumni were upset with my political activism, and visibility in the national public sphere. I was told by a sympathetic administrator in the aftermath of the Vietnam War that it was estimated that my anti-war stands cost Princeton $1,000,000 per year as a result of donors flexing their philanthropic muscles.

After my visit in 1979 to Iran to view the unfolding of the Iranian Revolution, which was widely reported including a NY Times opinion piece that I had been solicited to write, members of the Board of Trustees in conjunction with enraged members of the alumni informally established a ‘Committee to Investigate Richard Falk.’ I am not sure whether this committee ever did any investigating, but the pushback against my activism came to nothing.

Another time, I was asked by NBC to comment on the appointment of Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State, and they listed my Princeton title under my name on the TV screen—‘Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice, Princeton University.’ I received a message from the Princeton President reporting that the Milbank family requested that I not be identified in public by reference to the Chair that they had endowed. I responded that I was not even aware that my title had been shown, and that I never mention it in media appearances. Again, nothing came of it, beyond giving me a reputation as ‘controversial,’ which had the undisclosed blessing of keeping me from being appointed to university-wide committees that would call attention to my presence in the campus community.

For some years in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW), a glossy magazine designed to keep the alumni connected with the university after graduation, and hopefully financially supportive, I was for years a habitual target of disgruntled alums who blamed me (falsely) for broader changes at Princeton that they believed tarnished their fondest memories of the place. I was blamed for the admission of women as students, political activism on campus, and disappointment that their children developed with what the U.S. was doing in the world. Week after week these hostile letters appeared in the PAW blaming me for a range of developments that they disapproved, many of which I had no connection. If the truth was told in those activist years on the campus between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s I was much more influenced by the students than the other way around.

I think over time has led me to become what I would call ‘a patriot of humanity,’ a term more expressive of this ethos of solidarity for me than proclaiming myself ‘a world citizen,’ which lacks real substance given the non-existence of a ‘world community.’ Citizenship is only meaningful to the extent that allows participation in what can be legitimately called a community that coheres because of shared perceptions of security, justice, identity bound together by effective procedures of governance, respect for diversity of belief and practice reflected in some form of effective legal order. These elements of political community are lacking at the global level although the UN and some elements of international law express aspirations and strivings for such a world community, yet it remains largely unrealized.

In retrospect, I believe that if my overall profile as someone who advocated controversial positions through journalism, media appearances, publicized visits to countries at odds with the U.S. had been clearer during my years at OSU, the Princeton gatekeepers would have barred my entry. However, once through the gates, academic criteria sufficiently prevailed with respect to career assessments, and I published enough scholarly work and enjoyed a decent reputation among colleagues in my field. I felt no pushback in terms of salary and leaves of absence, and was glad about my status as someone who was never invited to speak at alumni events when Princetonians returned to the campus for a weekend of drinking and exposure to faculty talks on current events and research at frontiers of specialized knowledge in the natural and social sciences.

Only once when I was invited to accompany a Princeton alumni cruise in Asia as a faculty lecturer, which was an expensive, secure, and luxurious way to visit foreign countries, a public relations service of the university presumably reinforcing alumni loyalty. I enjoyed the experience of lecturing to these conservatives as we traveling the Mekong River visiting Vietnam and Cambodia. I was amused when one of passengers told me that several of those who had signed up for the cruise were on the verge of canceling because I was one of the two lecturers. In his words, “we thought you had horns, but happily our experience was good.” I found this reaction amusing and instructive because I developed friendly and appreciative relations with these Princeton ultra-privileged alums, another instance of how experiencing the other can be enlightening, avoiding stereotyping dismissals of those with whom we have both real and imagined disagreements.

Busra Cicek: I admired your personal, academic, and activist story while discussing encounters with authoritarian regimes re: Philippines and South Korea, apartheid South Africa, wartime Vietnam, revolutionary Iran, repressed Palestine, polarized Turkey, and the United States. In your work, you stated your awareness of your “Ivy-league educated, white, and American, privileged way of living that was free from oppression or acute pressures of deprivation.” Could you talk about how you managed to intellectually escape the United States’ political imagination?

Richard Falk: I have wondered about this myself. Part of the explanation is that I did not find my father’s strong anti-Communist ideology combined with enthusiasm for the armed forces congenial. It took me a long time to work out my own way of engaging politically with the world. All along I was helped by encounters with progressive friends. My educational experience, particularly at Yale Law School, I came under the influence of several gifted lecturers who endorsed the prevailing Cold War worldview, and rather than persuading me, stimulated strong contrarian tendencies, which by then I was capable confident enough to rely upon as providing independent rationalizations of my alternative worldview. I felt as though I was finally walking on my own path. As described in an earlier response, at every stage there were people, often students, who encouraged me to take an interest in particular problems involving injustices of a systemic nature. Additionally, later on my public visibility as an anti-war critic of the Vietnam War opened other my eyes to many other ongoing struggles of resistance against U.S. intervention and to human rights abuses in distant countries, as well as here at home.

I did not altogether escape from the influence of U.S. dominant forms as I inhabited, although more and more of a dissenter from within than participant, including such influential platforms as Princeton, the Council of Foreign Relations, and the American Society of International Law. This gave me an insider/outsider identity that was rather unusual and came about as a result of unplanned circumstances, resulting from a combination of good credentials, late political maturity, and a curiosity as to what elites were really thinking. I was more a witness than a participant. I learned to stand my ground when important issues of principle came to the surface. It was not always easy. There were costs as I never belonged anywhere, producing a degree of loneliness.

I think that the decisive influences came from experience and likeminded friends, not ideology, and moral intuition. I was influenced both by experience taking the form of direct contact with the realities of injustice, or through artistic renderings that combined screams of rage and plaintive calls for help. I felt that I began to understand the structures of racism upon reading James Baldwin, Fire Next Time and Toni Morrison, Beloved and listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cornel West speak. I was not clear about Vietnam and South African racism until I visited Hanoi in 1968 during the war, and in the same year, Pretoria and Johannesburg during the height of the apartheid regime. I was influenced forever by what I saw and heard, and the feelings of empathy for those who suffered and admiration for those who resisted.

The same pattern holds true with respect to the Palestinian struggle. Friendship with Edward Said and Raji Sourani, followed by visits to Israel and Occupied Palestine shifted my perspective from an opinionated observer to a dedicated advocate of Palestinian basic rights. I began telling my students that knowledge without experience tends to be barren, and there is only so much you can learn from reading and lectures. I guess I am expressing a truism: that emotional underpinnings are integral to political engagement. This helps explain why feelings/values arise from experience and background, and it also accounts for why novels and poems often proved to be my favorite teachers when it came to understanding how the world works.

Most of my faculty colleagues seemed more comfortable being compliant ‘children of the enlightenment,’ trusting in the sufficiency of the rational mind, scientific method, and the implicit biases of middle class social positioning, liberal in disposition, risk averse. Inevitably, I still partake of this mentality, more than I realized until Donald Trump came on the scene with his post-truth politics. It allowed me to rediscover the virtues of the Enlightenment at least as a shield against bigotry and lies and made me think that I had blamed the failures of modernity too much on its reliance upon instrumental rationality. I still think the marginalization of conscience is the curse haunting modernity, accounting for its insensitive exploitation of nature and imperial forms of domination over variously victimized peoples.

There are a few exceptional events that can be understood sufficiently without direct experience or artistic renderings—images of Nazi death camps and the atomic bombings of Japanese cities need no commentary to be felt. When visiting Hiroshima thirty years after the fact, it struck me that the city of Hiroshima was the one place where the memory of that horrendous event was erased or minimized because the residents did not want to go through life with their identities tied to that horrifying and traumatizing past. The past was not altogether ignored in Hiroshima. There was a peace museum in Hiroshimadevoted to the radioactive birth of the nuclear age, but it was visited when I was there mainly by foreigners. And annual anniversaries of remembrance, acknowledging and bemoaning the tragedy. The images of ‘the mushroom cloud’ and the burning victims or the Nazi death camps and the starving and pathetic victims are so vivid as to provoke our silent screams.

Busra Cicek:  In your work, you shared your academic and diplomatic experiences as “a critic of Israel and Zionism in the context of the Palestinian struggle for basic rights and an activist to opposing the Vietnam War from the perspective of international law” that situated you on “the far left,” meanwhile you positioned yourself as a “visionary humanist.” Could you please talk about what this position means in the context of the American political spectrum? What does it tell us about current American academics and students engaged in critical scholarship? How can your notions of “humane realism,” “progressive internationalism,” and “visionary humanism” shape progressive academia?

Richard Falk: To some extent, my prior response addresses this question. I guess for liberals and right-wing people I am perceived as being on the left, but among those dogmatically or organizationally on the left I am not one of them. I do not explain myself or my politics by reference to any variant of Marxist thought or even the leftism of Antonio Gramsci, and besides my receptivity to religion and spirituality is not rooted in an institutionalized canon of thought as was the case with ‘liberation theology.’ I find kinship with those traditions of systematic thought but I tend to learn on the job. Your question makes me realize that I have never been recruited by formalized leftist such as political parties or NGOs.

I suppose I felt closer to the progressive variants of existentialist thinking that prevailed after World War II as it stripped away the metaphysics of fixed belief and seemed to align with those that were struggling for emancipation in one form or another without demonstrating ‘scientifically’ that it was materially conditioned or preordained by the contradictions of class conflict. Existentialism took its shape in reflections on and resistance to the Nazi experience.

I suppose that my language of ‘visionary humanism’ makes clear that I don’t belong to any of the familiar political categories. My anti-militarist, anti-interventionist, anti-business and socialist approaches to health, education, and welfare to alienate and antagonize the right. Liberals, or so-called independents, favor making incremental changes that are ‘realistic’ and tend to avoid what they deem as extremes on either side of the political spectrum, generally refraining from dwelling on divisive structural explanations of social policy that focus on predatory capitalism, systematic racism, and entrenched militarism. The liberal/independent orientation aims to improve the quality of democracy one step at a time, doing what is feasible in the political domain, while I advocate what I believe to be necessary and desirable even though not feasible from the perspective of politics as the art of the possible.

This has pushed me in the direction of what is deemed by the mainstream as ‘utopia,’ which I call a ‘necessary utopia’ or ‘a politics of impossibility.’ On some immediate agenda issues such as restoring the nuclear agreement with Iran or avoiding a cold war with China I feel almost comfortable making common cause with liberals/independents. On other issues I gladly take a left position such as support for self-determination in Venezuela and Palestine, demilitarization, and opposition to imposing sanctions on adversaries of the United States that makes those who are centrists, drawing support from ‘both sides of aisle’ uncomfortable. Their politics of feasibility is based on what for me is delusional, that the only way to get things done in America is by building a broad coalition that stretches beyond independents to incorporate moderate Republicans, pointing to issues such as immigration, tax reform, climate change, and minimum wage to prove their point. This may be a description of the workings of top down American politics in the last half century, but it does not meaningfully respond to the crucial challenges that require transformative initiatives based on pressures from the street.

My efforts over the years have been divided between resistance to existing policies by solidarity with ongoing struggles or structural longer term critiques of global governance that aim at sustainability, justice, and nonviolence, hoping for the emergence of ‘patriots of humanity’ and ‘guardians of nature’ who seek equitable management of the planetary agenda and minimum governmentality in societal arrangements.

Busra Cicek:  You describe the current national and international order as neither “ethically acceptable, politically legitimate, nor ecologically sustainable, [thus] creating an unprecedented challenge to the political, moral, and cultural imaginations and practices of all.” Can you share your thoughts on the future of disadvantaged people and all citizens more broadly, and especially the prospects for those who do not belong to the “minority near the top of the social and economic pyramid?” How can we talk about “social and ecological revitalization, and of the [hope for] progressive versions of democracy” better?

Richard Falk: On the level of critique, the grossest ethical deficiencies of the current form of global governance is expressed by reliance on ‘ethically unacceptable’ practices and policies including systemic  denials of fundamental human rights, dependence on warfare and coercive diplomacy for the resolution on conflict, multiple forms of inequality, and imposition of destructive forms of dominion over nature. There are failures of ‘political legitimacy’ associated above all with the inability to address adequately challenges of global scope including nuclear weaponry, climate change, hunger and malnutrition, migration and asylum, and the extension of legal accountability to geopolitical actors. Finally, there are disastrous shortcomings when it comes to ‘ecological sustainability’ the most prominent of which are insufficient regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, failures to protect the viability of the global commons, especially air, soil, water (rivers, oceans), and jeopardizing the quality of life of future generations. These conditions affect even the most privileged elites whose imaginary increasingly veers toward escapist scenarios that borrow from science fiction. At their extreme are plans for migrating to the moon, building underground habitable structures in New Zealand, or being content with denialism. In these circumstances, the poor and disadvantaged feel the heaviest blows from a world order system that endangers humanity as a whole. This pattern of vulnerability has been evident in various studies of infection and death rates resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a template for illustrating the inequitable distribution of benefits and burdens embedded in current arrangement of global governance.

A more emancipatory perspective presupposes thinking beyond the horizons of what seems politically feasible given global constraints, and imagining what is necessary if we are to overcome the dire deficiencies of existing world order. Essentially, this means a transformative shift in energies from the priorities of modernity—basically, national interests as measured by the efficiency and profitability of capital and the security, autonomy, and status of the territorial sovereign state. To close the gap between the feasible and the necessary depends upon enough people becoming guardians of nature and patriots of humanity rather than patriots of the state and promoters of corporate capitalism. More concretely this means creating mechanism that recognize that the whole is greater than the parts in the reorganization of life on the planet, establishing effective mechanisms for realizing global and human interests, respecting the carrying capacity of the earth. Admittedly such a vision of the future has a utopian quality, what I have earlier called to ‘a necessary utopia’ that can be attained by ‘a politics of impossibility.’ For this to happens, requires a massive movement from below, possibly nurtured by elite defectors, that appears to come from nowhere, a carrier of an ecological ethos of renouncing harmful and reckless policies and practices.

Will this happen? We should know from experience that the future unfolds in unpredictable ways. There are hints that there are active cultural tremors seeking transition to an ecologically oriented civilization. There are also contradictory signs that the human species has no collective will to survive beyond its own mortality. My response is that since the future is unknowable and has given rise throughout history to major unpredicted changes for better and worse, we have no excuse but to struggle as best we can for the future we prefer. We are living in an unprecedented time in human history signaled by geologists and others identifying this epoch as the Anthropocene in recognition of the fact that human activity has the capability to impact on the basic ecological balances of the earth. In this sense, the necessary utopia as seen from the perspective of the dysfunctional present is nothing other than ‘responsible anthropocentrism,’ entailing renegotiating our relations with nature, the future, and learning to live together on the planet in a spirit of coexistence and dialogue.

Daniel Falcone is a writer, activist, and teacher in New York City and studies in the PhD program in World History at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Busra Cicek is a Doctoral Fellow in the World History Department at St. John’s University in Queens, New York and researches the development of nationalist discourses and its relationship with statecraft in Turkey.

Memoir Sketch: Championing Lost Causes

27 Nov

 

 

By chance I was reading César Vallejo’s poem, “Black Stone on a White Stone,” in a translation by Geoffrey Brock, and was struck by the opening stanza:

                  I’ll die in Paris in the pouring rain

                  a day I have a memory of already.

                  I’ll die in Paris—I won’t try to run—

                  a Thursday perhaps, in Autumn, like today.

Without being literal, I was reminded that I could appraise my death while alive, and not leave a final reckoning to some solemn memorial event in which speakers are challenged to find humorous anecdotes to lighten the occasion, otherwise uttering honorific platitudes quite unrelated to the experiential core of my being.

 

I had been thinking quite a bit recently about ‘lost causes.’ Recently I gave a lecture at Columbia University on this theme, inspired by Edward Said’s seminal late essay “On Lost Causes” (1997) in which he ties together the ‘nobility of failure’ as portrayed in literature with his own unswerving dedication to the Palestinian struggle for a just peace. On that occasion, I was also stimulated by the approach taken, perverse in some ways, to this theme by Slavoj Žižek (In Defense of Lost Causes, 2009), especially his insistence that the best we humans can hope for is to choose the right kind of failure, and not be discouraged by apparent defeat or the distortions in practice of worthy goals. His paraphrase of Samuel Beckett’s electrifying guidelines seems relevant to my own wildly utopian dreams for a just world: “..after one fails, one can go on and fail better, while indifference drowns us deeper and deeper in the morass of imbecilic Being.” (p.7) Finally, Camus’ notorious imagining of Sisyphus as “happy” strikes a different note, that acceptance of futility is a kind of illumination as to the nature of life’s ceaseless struggle for a redemptive meaning that can only end in frustration. The final words of The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) tell us something about Camus’ understanding of life well lived as being nothing more or less than a process that continues, punctuated by the rhythm of defeat: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Whether a life has, or should have, meaning beyond this purely behavioral matter of continuation and persistence, seems a personal matter for Camus, but not for me or for most religions.

 

Camus seems to be making a less ambitious claim than either Said or Žižek who are talking not just about futility as the generic character of human experience, but about engagement in the pursuit of what might be called the public spiritual good, a purposive journey or pilgrimage that imagines as realizable a just peace on earth. This understanding has led me to propose a political identity that I label ‘citizen pilgrim,’ the quest for a desired end as defining our public life experience as an active participant in the ‘not yet’ character of an unknown future. Of course, the thirst for immortality or life after death is the ultimate lost cause.

 

Although stimulated by these kinds of reflections on the human condition, I make no claim to situate myself on such grand pedestals of celebrity. It is rather an exercise in self-perception from the perspective of a whole life that cannot be definitively apprehended until after death: A sort of embrace of the impossible. Because not yet being dead, there may yet be redefining moments that would call for reassessment. In this respect, we remain inherently mysterious to ourselves, as well as to others. Yet if we wait for the drama of life to end we have clearly waited too long. Our only impossible possibility is to contemplate our death as if it has happened already, a futuristic memoir, although if written at an advanced age, is only trivially futuristic as most of what stirs the heart and soul has already happened or, if fortunate as in my case, is happening.

 

If I try to capture some sort of provisional essence in relation to public life I am struck by the early prosaic attraction of lost causes. I could say, self-critically, that only lost causes have ever held my interest and attracted me deeply. As a child living in New York City, I chose mindlessly to give allegiance to the Brooklyn Dodgers (before they became a success story, and long before they took their show to the lush confines of Hollywood) and spurned the New York Yankees, perpetual winners and even the rather boring New York Giants, geographically more natural as I was living in Manhattan. Yet even while still a wavering and sullen adolescent neither pinstripes nor golf had any allure for me. At the same time, I was instructed by the misfortunes of my father. After divorced by my mother he pursued unattainable movie stars and others achieving warm friendships but never the enduring intimacy that he was seeking. Living through his disappointments as a child helped me avoid a private life of lost causes, although not entirely.

 

Later, when some sort of deferred adulthood arrived, I finally began to think, feel, and act politically. First, I had to shake off the influence of my father’s confusing blend of a loving nature with hardhearted conservative politics: empathy and tenderness at home combined with an abstract love of country and state that affirmed militarism and belligerence internationally and cruelty and reactionary politics domestically, truly, an ethos of winners accompanied by his mild forms of racism and patriarchy, even homophobia, but fortunately contradicted by a non-judgmental acceptance of the other in concrete circumstances. Then Cold War liberalism came into my life. It was ‘the group think’ of academic life during my maturing years in the 1950s and 1960s, believing in the moral superiority of our capitalist and individualist side while favoring a more cooperative world order provided the United States did the things it needed to do to hold onto its advantages of wealth and power. While realizing the limits and shortcomings of the liberal mentality I never felt comfortable with radical alternatives, especially if institutionally and ideologically defined. Hence, political loneliness.

 

My first political encounter with a lost cause was Vietnam. I became opposed to the war on a prudential basis that drew upon the kind of consensus realism that was the required 101 thinking that prevails among university faculties, especially on elite campuses. Later, by way of friends and afraid to seem afraid, I went to North Vietnam, and saw the war differently, that is, from the perspective of the victims and the relative purity of a peasant society. I saw my country, the United States, as the main global bully, killing and devastating at a distance remote from its own society (although subjecting young American combatants willingly and unwillingly to service in an immoral and strategically perplexing war). Yet underneath this transformed outlook, I remained enough of a realist toady to presuppose that the side with hard power superiority would win in the end, that in effect I was sadly championing a lost cause. (I remember Lyndon Johnson bombastic dismissal of North Vietnam as ‘a tenth-rate Asian power’ as hubris, yet not inaccurate according to battlefield metrics). I was unabashed in declaring my commitment to Vietnamese self-determination, but I expected that eventually the suffering and destruction would be too much to bear for the Vietnamese, and they would submit to Washington’s will. Instead, I overlooked the historically positive side of American impatience, the unwillingness to stay the dumb course, and so it turned out that it was America that was unwilling to endure further suffering and loss, although statistically it was losing far less than the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese advantage was their perseverance and a recognition that what was at stake for them was almost an absolute as compared with the United States for whom it was always a matter of calculating the balance between gains and losses.

 

When the Vietnamese finally gained victory, I was pleased by the outcome of the war, and even briefly believed that the anti-colonial tidal waves sweeping across the world were going to reshape the future in desirable ways. At the same time, with a less active engagement I was committed to the anti-apartheid struggle, having visited South Africa in 1968 as an official observer at a major political trial of the leading resistance figures in the de facto colonized country, then called South West Africa, renamed Namibia after political independence. I had earlier worked at the International Court of Justice in The Hague for most of a year on behalf of Ethiopia and Liberia in a case that was brought to establish that South Africa’s administrative role in South West Africa was incompatible with the extension of apartheid racism. South Africa’s racist claims were astonishingly supported by the decision, and this made me convinced that law and lawyers could not be trusted, and that there would be no liberation from apartheid without the torments of a long and bloody struggle. It never dawned on me or those in South Africa with whom I discussed these issues endlessly that there might emerge a relatively peaceful path to majoritarian democracy and multi-racial constitutionalism. As with Vietnam, the relatively benign outcome seemed a kind of political miracle, and as such, did not shake my belief that I was hopelessly destined to be a lifelong champion of lost causes. Yet it also made me realize that victorious outcomes may somehow control the end game of lost causes. In this respect, the lostness of lost causes is always in doubt, not rationally so much as existentially, and that makes all the difference between psychology and history. It also vindicates devoting energy to just causes, whether they seem lost or not.

 

In recent years my main public involvement has been with the Palestinian struggle for rights under international law, for peace and justice. This struggle increasingly has the aspect of being a classic lost cause, given the power disparities, Israeli land grabbing, and the Zionist ambition as embodied in Israel’s current leadership to control all or most of historic Palestine. And yet, a brief review of the outcome of international conflicts in the period since the end of World War II suggests that the side that usually wins in the end takes control of commanding heights of law, morality, and historical destiny, not the side that dominates the battlefield or is more adept at deploying the instruments of violence. Like Vietnam, from the perspective of ‘war’ the Israel-Palestine encounter has all the ugly elements of one-sidedness. The violent encounters are more accurately grasped as ‘massacres,’ ‘horror shows,’ or ‘atrocities’ than as warfare. From my after death vantage point, I will not waver in support for the Palestinian struggle, yet I lack the present capacity to depict a plausible victory scenario, hence it is an engagement with a lost cause coupled with the proviso that we never know for sure.

 

Recently, after a talk on Palestine in Dunedin, New Zealand a person in the audience posed a challenging question: “shouldn’t you distinguish between ‘a really lost cause’ and ‘a lost cause.’ At the time I agreed that such a distinction would be useful as hope is an essential element in political engagement for most people, and to give finality to lostness would annihilate hope. Yet later I wondered about whether I made this concession thoughtlessly, which amounted to the admission that really lost causes should be denigrated, and probably abandoned, as pure Chekhovian nostalgia. I thought about PIranadello’s plays celebrating fantasy at the expense of reality (e.g. ‘So It Is (If You Think So),’ 1917), and recalled my spirited friends devoted to the empowerment of indigenous peoples as in the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement. Such an engagement seems clearly to qualify as a really lost cause, and yet, the expression of the vision is itself an intrinsic good, ennobling, and liberating in precisely Pirandello’s sense, and humanly preferable to the denial of injustice as in the uncritical celebration of Columbus Day or Thanksgiving. Victories of the moral and spiritual imagination may be more valuable and redemptive in our lives even if their political embodiment seems forever beyond reclaiming.

 

For much of my professional life I have been devoted to the lost cause of eliminating nuclear weapons. At times, this lost cause has seemed as though it might not be lost, at other times it seems truly lost. Since we cannot know the future, our present assessments are unavoidably provisional, and it remains a moral imperative for me to remain engaged in the struggle for their elimination.

 

This dialogue with myself continues. Edward Said makes clear that when shifting gears from culture to politics, it is important to act responsibly in the latter settings of actual struggle where lives are at stake and suffering is real. He indicated that he was thinking of his own identification with the Palestinian struggle, which was radically different for this reason in his mind from a deep appreciation of the ethos that guided Cervantes to craft his great vision of the lost cause of medieval gallantry. I feel the same way, although less centered, embracing anti-nuclearism at the same time as affirming solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

 

Toward the end of the Vallejo poem these lines complete this arc of thought:

                  I see myself, as never before, alone

 

                  César Vallejo is dead. Everyone hit him,

                  though he is not doing them the slightest harm

 

I identify with such a self-image, but only politically, not personally where I am the fulfilled recipient of various forms of sustaining love. And I am not yet brave enough to say (and mean) ‘Richard Falk is dead.’ Yet to contemplate death without the metaphysical painkillers of an imagined afterlife is to be finally alone. In a sense learning to die is equivalent to learning to live alone, and takes courage and fortitude.