Tag Archives: public intellectual

Reflections on a Political Memoir

25 May

[Prefatory note:  originally published May 7th, Counterpunch, later in Transcend media service (TMS); a review in the form of an interview, or more accurately, a conversation in which I do most of the talking}}

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

BY BUSRA CICEK – DANIEL FALCONE

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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 asked that I 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 Hiroshima devoted 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.

18 Feb

I post below images of the covers of my political memoir that was published this week, and is available from online booksellers in Kindle and paperback formats. I discovered that the interface between the person and the political can be as treacherous as visiting a combat zone, I welcome reactions and dialogue.

Evasions, Accidents, Engagements, and Fulfillment: An Autobiographical Fragment

2 Mar

[Prefatory Note: this post is something new for me, an autobiographical fragment written at the request of an online listserv as a suggestive model for academics at the start of their careers as diplomatic historians. I publish it here. It was found unsuitable for publication by the group that made the initial solicitation for unspecified reasons. Maybe because my work and career were not relevant to the scholarly life of a diplomatic historian, maybe because I seemed too flaky professionally to serve as a heuristic model, maybe because what I wrote risked an angry reaction from those who have weaponized anti-Semitism as (mis)defined by the IHRA definition, maybe because…a hundred other good reasons, including what was most plausible, least paranoid, that I was in a different lane when it came to a scholarly career, making my condensed narrative a waste of time for aspiring diplomatic historians. If the filter for assessing submissions, I might have rejected on this last basis, but maybe not. It might have depended on what I ate that day for breakfast! In any event, here it is in the spirit of ‘love it or leave it.’]

 

Evasions, Accidents, Engagements, and Fulfillment: An Autobiographical Fragment

 All through adolescence I was an unmotivated student who underperformed while nurturing the illusion that I was a good enough athlete to shape a life around my love of sports. Fortunately, when I was given my big and only chance, a major baseball league tryout with the then NY Giants, back in 1946 still playing in my home town, I failed miserably. Had I succeeded, even barely, I would have happily marched off into the sunset of minor league baseball for the rest of my physically active life, maybe if lucky playing with a Chattanooga farm club. Since sports were not to be, in characteristic middle-class style, I drifted, which in my case meant college after high school.

 

Because my father was a loyal alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania, I was admitted, but it didn’t take me long to make the gatekeepers nervous. Living away from home was more than I could then handle, and I soon found myself on academic probation at the end of my freshman year, the first of my many wakeup calls. I pulled myself together, helped by a couple of studious roommates, and ended up doing well enough to get into Yale Law School three years later, and this time without any privileged access, yet still not knowing what I wanted out of life except that I didn’t want to fail. I also was rather sure that I didn’t want to be a practicing lawyer in the manner of my father and could not hope to become a nationally high ranked tennis player as my mother was, and so I was still adrift, yet with at least this recently acquired resolve to work enough to be a respectable student.

 

For someone with my wayward inclinations, Yale’s law school curriculum lent me cover. I sought out the least vocational subjects being offered, finding such course as the ‘Mathematical Foundation of World Law,’ ‘Ideological Differences and World Law,’ and the pioneering international law offerings of two famous professors, Myres McDougal and Harold Lasswell. To make sure no Ivy law firms would show interest in me I focused my attention on the law of India, being rewarded with a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Lucknow upon graduation. Again, fortunately, I was rescued by an unlikely benefactor, the U.S. State Department, which cancelled the Fulbright program to India that year to punish the Indian government for not paying for some wheat it had earlier purchased some years ago. I was left with neither a job nor something worth doing, and then rescued from potential freefall and doldrums by a small miracle—the person teaching international law at Ohio State University became unexpectantly too ill to meet his scheduled classes, and the law school, having students already registered for these courses, was desperate enough to hire me for the year.

 

Arriving in Columbus with little sense of what it meant to teach, let alone teach a law course, I was immediately alarmed by being assigned several courses that I had never taken as a student, including one technically demanding course on the procedural complexities of the practice of law before federal courts. Almost the first day I was on the sprawling campus, a strange unexpected feeling of certitude took hold that took me by surprise. I realized that I had almost by accident landed where I really wanted to remain for the rest of my life. Given the chance to perform (my only position of excellence was as an actor in school theater productions), free to do what interested me, with summers without any fixed duties, no real boss and only a few hours a week of scheduled classroom appearances. From the start, I couldn’t believe I was actually being paid to live this kind of privileged, idyllic life. Of course, later on, this rose-tinted sense of academic life was strongly challenged from time to time, but never too seriously, and through my sixty plus years of teaching and writing the glow has never disappeared, and looking back I feel as blessed as I did that first day walking across the OSU campus.

 

And my luck didn’t run out. I was invited to stay on the law faculty after my visiting year expired, which I happily chose to do with the sense that I would be happily committed to this OSU world for as far ahead as I wanted to look. While learning slowly to live as an adult in Ohio, so different from my earlier life in the East, especially Manhattan, I began to discover and enjoy hinterland America, with its more casual sense of life, learning, and community. After a few years of teaching at OSU, I was given a Ford Foundation Fellowship for ‘young law teachers,’ a year of residence at a leading law school. I chose Harvard, partly because it was not Yale, and I wanted a different jurisprudential experience, and partly because I thought living in Cambridge would be enjoyable, and it was. Although the Harvard Law School Dean at the time, Erwin Griswold, a somewhat fearsome figure cut in a Calvinist mode, let me know in our one and only meeting, that he was not pleased having me hang around with no defined academic purpose, insisting that I work for a degree if I wanted his welcome at the law school, which I thought needed. Being perhaps too spineless, I submitted, although I realized that such a conventional degree-seeking mission was not what Ford intended with this program. So be it, I took courses and exams, eventually satisfied the thesis requirement, and finally received a doctoral degree that was never of use, or even a source of pride.

 

While at Harvard, I learned more from fellow graduate law students and non-law faculty than I did from the influential professors on the HLS faculty, especially those in my field who were feuding with my Yale international law mentors, and did not look approvingly at my jurisprudential outlook. I did benefit from fellowship and the progressive outlook of several others in more or less my position, and made lifelong friendships with Georges Abi-Saab, perhaps the most distinguished European/Arab international jurist of his generation, and Saul Mendlovitz, a stimulating academic entrepreneur and world order visionary, who put together a talent group of likeminded scholars from around the world in a project badly named the World Order Models Project, which for several decades met a couple of times a year in all parts of the world with a manifesto to promote peace, justice, and sustainability for all peoples inhabiting the planet. It hardly needs pointing out that after a period of raised hopes, history didn’t cooperate, and the post-colonial world has fallen on hard times with respect to human solidarity, rule of law, and ecological wisdom.

 

After Harvard, more than content to be back in Columbus, a few years later, I received an offer from Princeton that far exceeded my career expectations and was unjustified by my rather thin and unimpressive CV. The offer was packaged as a one-year visiting appointment with light teaching and ample time for research, and came tied to a long-term enticement. I was informed that there was a vacant chair in my field of specialization (international law) for which I qualified, and if I could gain passage through the recruitment process at Princeton the path to an appointment was clear. After some hesitation because I realized that my acceptance of the offer would be the death knell of a captivating romantic relationship, which was already complicated. I accepted the Princeton offer, and the relationship ended, but not only for that reason.

 

From the moment of my arrival at Princeton, I had a double sensation of not quite believing I had been invited to enter such hallowed academic ground and that I somehow didn’t quite belong in such a rarefied atmosphere. I felt that I was not exactly an imposter but could never altogether overcome my sense of being a permanent outsider, especially in relation to Princeton’s strong feelings for its traditions, which included some erasures, including its unforgiveable slowness to admit African Americans, Jews, and women. Such feelings of ambivalence lingered despite my forty years of engagement that were positive in almost every professional sense, and I never lost the sense of being privileged beyond any early expectation to teach talented students, enjoy the fellowship, and often the friendship, of eminent colleagues, and daily benefit from the generous resources of my endowed chair and the exceptional staff support that eased the routine burdens of my life over the four decades. I often felt inwardly embarrassed by not feeling more grateful to Princeton for its professional help, and faulted myself for not mustering more institutional loyalty and identification.

 

In some respects, my early years were from Princeton’s perspective a honeymoon period in which I was welcomed as a valued member of the academic community, appointed to important university committees and invited to take part as a speaker at a variety of campus occasions. This changed as soon as I was seen as more of an activist, and approached international law from the perspective of a disenchanted citizen. This turn coincided with the widespread student disenchantment with the Vietnam War, and the accompanying ‘culture wars’ of the 1960s. Angry alumni singled me out for blame because of my more visible opposition to the war, alleging that I was brainwashing their children by undermining not only Princeton traditions, but patriotism and religion, as well. For a few years, The Princeton Alumni Weekly rarely had an issue without at least one letter critical of my views and impacts on students. All the while, I was mostly amused, being quite aware that it was the students who were radicalizing me, not the other way around. In this period, especially as it became respectable to be opposed to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, my public image brightened.

I was rather frequently invited to be an expert witness both in the U.S. Congress, and in trials of anti-war activists who claimed that their acts of civil disobedience were justified as attempts to uphold international law that followed from the logic of the Nuremberg Principles and from ideas of citizen responsibility for implementing international criminal law. As was my nature, I did not let this identity as an engaged citizen distract from my scholarly and professional commitments. I chaired several committees on war, law, and intervention for the American Society of International Law, and managed to edit a four-volume series, International Law and the Vietnam War, that brought together the best scholarly work pro and con various legal aspects of the ongoing war. I gave many talks in this period at universities, including even at the main war colleges, and wrote opinion pieces for mainstream media.

 

Yet in this period I did begin to lose academic credibility in some circles. For some, my activism tarnished the image of the teacher/scholar being neutral, not an advocate, especially not for controversial causes, that is, critical of U.S. foreign policy or accompanying liberal internationalism. For others, it was my more visionary writings, challenging the grip on thought within the academy exerted by Machiavellian, Kennanist, and Morgenthauian realists. In contrast, my writing was ignored by the most influential academic members of the international community, and even more so by the Council on Foreign Relations, the grooming venue for both Kissinger and Brzezinski. My work, if not dismissed, as ‘utopian,’ or at minimum, ‘idealistic,’ was treated as relevant to policy debates within the beltway. Such an epistemological stance put me at the margins of both scholarly work and that of policy wonks, and did so even more definitively than did my forays onto the public square, which seemed regarded as manifestations of prolonged adolescence.

 

Once again, lady luck was my companion. I had gone to Stanford, to be a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1968-69 as the Vietnam War was winding down, although campus activism was still rather feverish. My proposed project at the Center had been to write up in book form this combination of academic and activist involvement with the Vietnam War, but then in my first week in residence I went to the communal water cooler for a drink, and got into a conversation with a Stanford physicist who changed, almost, my life, and certainly my intellectual agenda for the year. He was passionately convinced and convincing that a growing world population as yoked to industrial civilization was overrunning the carrying capacity of the earth. I dropped my Vietnam project, and tried to produce a study of the increasingly toxic interplay of population growth, resource depletion, environmental pollution, and the war system. As I was trying to devise a framework for such work, a NY Times correspondent came to the Center, interviewing me among several others. He devoted his feature story to my project, and for the first and last time I was showered with invitations from major publishers, ending with a contract to publish with Random House. The book published in 1971 under the title This Endangered Planet: Prospects and Proposals for Human Survival received a polite reception, but disappointed the publisher who wanted a more popular treatment of these themes, stressing especially the case against further increases in the world population. In retrospect I am mildly proud of the book. I feel it was mildly prophetic, and might be worth revising if I were a decade or so younger. In an updated version I would stick with the framework and basic argument, but would be more sensitive to the clashes, and potential harmonies, of technology, ethics, and spirituality.

 

Part of my Princeton experience, because it lacked a law school and I was never drawn to the technical sides of law and lawyering, was to move toward an embrace of the cognate fields of international relations, foreign policy, and what were being called ‘security studies.’ My stance, was counter-realist, progressive, and non-Marxist. An interest in the interplay of religion and politics gave rise to my interest in the Iranian Revolution and the struggle between Palestinians and Jews about the future of Palestine/Israel. These issues got me into much hot water, distancing me much further from the Western mainstream, and engendering harsh forms of pushback. No more invitations from Congressional committees or to deliver prestigious lectures under prominent auspices. I was largely undaunted, continued my writing and teaching, and felt sustained by those who supported my political and academic waywardness. As the years proceeded, Princeton in political science became more infatuated with quantitative methods and formal modeling, which left me cold. For personal reasons, reaching the age of 70, I retired from Princeton, and with my Turkish wife went West with part time appointments for both of us in the Global Studies Program at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California. It was a joy to be in the West where friendship counted and the blue skies were addictive, and most of all, where academic life was more communal, not just publishing and perishing. By the end of a couple of years in Santa Barbara we had more friends than I managed to gather in my forty years at Princeton.

 

Despite ‘retirement,’ I never retired in substance, style, and engagement. To my astonishment, I was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to be Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine in 2008, a position that carried some influence and prestige but no salary and lots of work and travel. I felt challenged, but hesitant to be in the line of fire. Throughout the next six years, I was smeared by militant Zionist NGOs, and their followers, regularly receiving death threats and hate mail along with more carefully orchestrated defamatory attacks. Yet I persisted, receiving more credit than I deserved from those sympathetic with my political viewpoints. I was highly critical of Israel from the perspective of international law and human rights, as well as my growing tendency to ‘see’ with the eyes of those being victimized. I came to value my experience as SR, learning what the UN could and couldn’t due, enjoying the pomp and circumstance of annual reports to the Human Rights Council in Geneva and to the General Assembly’s Third Committee in New York City. I prepared several reports each year, and was much in demand by many groups around the world that were devoted to the Palestinian struggle. I continued my academic connections with UCSB during this period, but being targeted by Zionist groups made the once welcoming university administrators wary of my presence, but we continued to find enough deep friendships at the university and in the community to make our life satisfying as divided annually between Santa Barbara and our Turkish seaside home in Yalikavak. In Turkey, also, I found opportunities to teach, and received more opportunities to lecture or take part in conferences than I was willing . In fact, in this period, my reputation seemed to rise elsewhere in the world in ways somewhat proportional to its fall in North America, and it doesn’t require a fully functioning brain to tell why.

 

My main work in this period of limited teaching has been to continue a blog on global justice issues that was a challenging birthday gift from my daughter ten years ago and to write up my life in the form of a memoir tentatively titled Being Progressive in America. The title may strike some as self-serving. The memoir mainly attempts to depict my slow coming of age politically and intellectually, seeking a place within the academic community, while taking an active part in several ongoing political struggles, often adopting controversial positions that enabled me to combine social activism with scholarly contributions. Whether I can find a publisher foolish enough to take on a 900 page plus text remans in limbo, but I will try, perhaps splitting the present manuscript into two separate books, a life fracture that I can live with.   Whatever becomes of this undertaking, it has allowed me to sum up my life to myself. Whether my trials and tribulations will interest to others remains unknown, and likely unknowable.

 

As I tried to suggest, I have been fortunate in pursuing an academic career, greatly enriched by taking full advantage of some lucky and accidental developments. I enjoyed teaching and writing throughout, and although sometimes chided for not trying to be more prudent in expressing my views or for engaging in too many controversial events, I am glad that I was throughout my professional life more responsive to my conscience than to my career ambition to be taken seriously in the corridors of wealth and power. I have no regrets about the path taken, and probably was empowered to do so, by a robust tradition of academic freedom at Princeton. I might not have fared as well at a less secure academic institution, and certainly not in an array of countries with autocratic leaders where academic critics are singled out for repression, or worse. In my 90th year, I have the hope that many others, taking account of variations of personality and training, will seek to make the world a better habitat as well as help their students become knowledgeable and engaged, finding their own ways to feel, think, and act as progressive public intellectuals.

 

The present near panic brought about by the spread of the COVID-19 is a lethal form of globalization that may help us realize that we cannot wall off the world outside the boundaries of our particular political communities, and never could, as the global epidemics of earlier centuries demonstrate. With climate change, nuclear weapons, extreme poverty, and ecological neglect menacing the future, we are challenged to awaken to the intermix of

risk and opportunity that will make or break humanity in the course of coming decades. The primary challenge of the moment is to throw off the autocrats and demagogues that have taken over so many countries in the world by charming the masses or through the persecution of women and men of conscience. It is a struggle worth waging.

      

 

 

Chomsky’s 90th Birthday

16 Dec

[Prefatory Note: What follows is an interview with Daniel Falcone, author and educator, that was published in CounterPunchon December 14, 2018. The text has been slightly modified.]

 

[Prefatory Note: What follows is an interview with Daniel Falcone, author and educator, that was published in CounterPunchon December 14, 2018. The text has been slightly modified.]

 

Celebrating Noam Chomsky’s 90th Birthday

 

 

Daniel Falcone: How were you first introduced to Chomsky? What initial work brought you into contact with Chomsky?

 

Richard Falk: Actually, my first awareness of Noam Chomsky was in the late 1950s while I was teaching at Ohio State University. I had a smart linguist friend who told me about the revolutionary work of a young scholar at MIT who was completely transforming his field by the work he had done while still a graduate student on ‘structural linguistics’ and ‘generative grammar.’ As I remember our conversation nothing was mentioned about Chomsky’s politics.

Later on in the early 1960s I continued to hear of Chomsky as the great linguist, but also about Chomsky as the militant anti-Vietnam Waractivist.

 

We met in the mid-1960s as a result of common interests. We were both deeply involved as opponents of the escalations of American involvement in Vietnam, and indeed we were opposed to any military involvement at all. At that point Chomsky was strongly supporting draft resistance in addition to speaking at anti-war events. I was mainly engaged during the 1960s in academic debates and teach-ins devoted to questions of the legality of the American role in Vietnam, and after 1965, discussions often focused on the decision by the Lyndon Johnson presidency to extend the war to North Vietnam.

We interacted quite frequently in this decade, and stayed at each other’s homes in Lexington and Princeton when we spoke in the other’s venue.

 

I recall Chomsky insisting in response to an invitation from the Princeton Philosophy Department that he would only agree to give a series of lectures on linguistics that was the nature of the invitation if his hosts would also arrange parallel formats for him to address his political concerns. He apparently frequently made this a condition of his acceptance, and because he was such a star attraction, it was almost always enthusiastically accepted, and even viewed as a bonus.

 

I found the Princeton lectureson theoretical tensions within the field of linguistics to be not only abstruse, but also quite memorable from a performance perspective. The first of Chomsky’s linguistic lectures was held in one of the largest auditoriums at Princeton. Before Noam was introduced the hall was filled to capacity in excited anticipation of being enlightened by whatever this already famous scholar had to say. Chomsky’s style and delivery were highly technical, presupposed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the complex issues of linguistic theory at stake, which meant that his presentation seemed way above the head of 90% of the audience, including myself.

 

By the end of the lecture there were less than 25 people left in the huge hall. What impressed me then and even now was Chomsky’s attitude of apparent indifference to this reaction, which was confirmed by his failure to alter his style in the next two lectures. It was hardly surprising that the second and third lecturewere given in a rather empty room, being attended by only a small coterie of graduate students and a few on the faculty who had strong linguistic interests.

 

When he gave his talk on political issues, Chomsky’s style was strikingly different. His presentation on political issues was meant to reach people with little prior knowledge. His interpretations were supported by abundant evidence – fact-based, carefully and clearly reasoned, and were even spiced by humorous asides, usually of a wry and satiric nature. Chomsky was personally engaged, clearly hoping to persuade the audience to adopt his viewpoint, and conveying an assured sense that there existed no other coherent and ethical to view the issues being discussed. As with his opening linguistics lecrure, his political talk was held in a large hall that was overflowing, but this time no one left.

 

The response was enthusiastic and responsive. I came away with the sense those attending felt that just by being there they had taken part in an historic experience. It was also an audience that drew heavily from the community as well as the university, and had far fewer faculty members than did the linguistic talks. I was struck by Chomsky’s confident, calm manner, his wide knowledge, and his utter insistence on speaking truth to power. These truths of Chomsky went far beyond mainstream ways of thinking and acting.

 

My only reservation from the perspective of frequently being a member of Chomsky’s audience was his reluctance to acknowledge even slight differences of opinion, much less admit error. I felt this to be a weakness. There was something disturbing about this unwillingness to concede small points to those who shared his views 95% of the time. This polemical style left even admirers sometimes feeling that his presentation could have been more effective if he had left a bit of space for doubt and divergent opinions. This style of unwavering assurance seemed to reflect a public sensibility more than deriving from a fixed ideology. Off camera, Noam was always gentle and non-dogmatic, but while performing I found his demeanor sometimes to be leonine.

 

 

DF: Scholar Henry Girouxonce told me that he thought Chomsky was “a national treasure.” How is Chomsky a national treasure in your view?

 

RF: I share this expression of exceptional mode of appreciating  Chomsky’s many contributions to enlightened and critical thought. Such contributions are essential if the vitality of a democratic society is to be sustained through dark times, such as at present. To quibble a bit, I would prefer to identify Noam even more grandly as ‘a global treasure.’ His following is global in ways that exceed that of any other

living public intellectual

 

Noam’s worldwide following has identified him as a beacon of truth and conscience who can be trusted, whatever the issue, to express his views with honesty, through the medium of reasoned analysis, and on the basis of a dazzling familiarity with a wide range of evidence supporting his conclusions. He conveys a sense of having read and remembering everything ever written on the topic he happens to be addressing on any particular occasion.

 

There are many other highly intelligent and progressive persons in the world, but few if any, who have the professional record of world class scholarship and the astonishingly wide range of knowledgeabout subjects that embrace concerns that cover the waterfront. Chomskyis always worth listening to whatever the topic, whether it happens to be the philosophical foundations of knowledge and existence or the specifics of atrocities taking place in some remote part of the world.

 

His presence and role is so precious because of this rare mix of qualities: a trustworthy character, comprehensive knowledge, mastery over the logic of argument and reasoned analysis, a speaking style that is measured and never relies on shouting to make a point. Chomsky has a special gravitas that I have never before encountered, and helps account for the attitudes of reverence and gratitude that so many persons from all corners of the globe feel in his presence.

 

DF: What ideas and activities of Chomsky have influenced you the most over the years?

RF: I have been particularly influenced by Noam’s extraordinary perseverance, his spectacular displays of intellectuality and moral engagement, his willingness to enter domains where angels fear to tread, and above all by his insistence on following the evidence wherever it might lead. Noam, in this sense, is one of the great moral voices of all time, guided by a sense of justice and decency, and possessed of a skilled deconstructive voice that dismisses much conventional wisdom with a flip of his rhetorical wrist.

 

On a more doctrinal level, I have found Chomsky’s thought particularly valuably deployed in his authoritative depiction of how ‘indoctrination in a free society’ works. This is not a simple matter.  I would express Chomsky’s line of critique by a more concrete phrase, ‘how the New York Timesmisleads, especially with regard to the Middle East.’ Chomsky can be devastating when showing how the liberal mainstream distorts reality by its selective interpretations of the facts and norms at stake, never more so than in relation to Israel/Palestine over the decades or by the liberal acceptance of the structures of militarism and predatory capitalism without a whimper while bemoaning the cruelty of extreme poverty. Like the monkeys who see and hear no evil, so it is with most liberals. They are willing to do good so long as it doesn’t interfere with their supreme interest in doing well!

 

I am aware that Chomsky’s views on Israel/Palestinehave given rise to some fierce criticism, and not just from Zionists. Chomsky has been steadfastly supportive of a two-state solution that he has, although perhaps not so clearly recently, insisted as only viable solution that would allow the two peoples to live in a sustainable peace. In my understanding of Chomsky’s recent reflections on these issues, he seems to be saying that an Israeli version of a one-state solution is coming into being, and that a series of internal and international developments now make it impractical to achieve any kind of acceptable form of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future. Despite disagreements with Said on such questions I never observed Noam or Edward expressing anything other than sentiments of respect and admiration for the work and commitment of the other.

 

Now that Chomsky is convinced that the political and physical conditions no longer exist to achieve a two-state peace, and the Israeli one-state solution is unacceptable, it would be of great value to know what Chomsky now proposes. Perhaps, he has already set forth his ideas in light of the present circumstances, but I am not familiar with any such statement.

 

Chomsky has also been criticized for failing to support BDSor coercive nonviolence as a tactic of the global solidarity movement to support the Palestinian national movement. I am not aware of the deep roots of this reluctance to exert pressure on Israel, although I do know that his family background was one of left Zionism, which he felt that Israel as a state and Zionism as a movement and project had seriously betrayed, and the Palestinian people have been paying the price.

 

I also found Noam’s critique of what he called ‘military humanism’ as a pushback to those who favored the Kosovo intervention to be challenging and almost persuasive as a refutation of the case for humanitarian intervention in the pre-war context of 1999. In the end, with strong feelings of ambivalence, my fear of a Kosovo repetition of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 led me to support the NATO intervention on behalf of Kosovo independence from Serbia.

 

Chomsky argued that the moral rhetoric of those calling for intervention in Kosovo was chosen to hide the real reasons for recourse to this admittedly non-defensive war, which were strategic and amoral. These true motivations for the proposed war, according to Chomsky, had to do with extending the life of NATO in the post-Cold War world and making sure that the Russians were not given a pretext for establishing a presence in the Balkans. He rested his argument on the moral inconsistencies and hypocrisy of American foreign policy, pointing to the sustained indifference of the West toward the comparable Kurdish plight in Turkey.

 

Noam opposed this mixing of humanitarianism with militarism while taking a lifelong interest in depicting severe abuses of human rights. There were numerous settings in which Noam stood up for the human rights of vulnerable and abused peoples, including individuals. Chomsky also made a series of fine scholarly contributions along these lines in several books written in collaboration with the late Edward S. Herman.

 

DF: How do the leading intellectual figures of the past one hundred years compare with Chomsky?’

RF: I have no real awareness of Chomsky’s own views beyond his sense that Bertrand Russellwas an admirable figure, perhaps a role model, and at least warranted a large picture in Noam’s MIT office. I think Russell is an appropriate antecedent figure to capture the core reality of Chomsky, despite the obvious fact that these two extraordinary men were so different in class and ethnic backgrounds. Such differences were superficial compared to their similarities: exceptional scholarly achievement, belief in Enlightenment ideals, values, and practices, and moral engagement in ways that challenged both conventional wisdom and the consensus affirmed by the governing political class and the official policies in each of their respective countries. Both were derided for swimming against strong national currents.

 

In my own intellectual and personal experience, the closest parallels to Chomsky are Jean-Paul Sartreand Edward Said. More than others, it was this threesome that made me understand the role and contributions of those who came to be known as ‘public intellectuals.’ Each took risks in their work and acted with courage and moral clarity within the political context within which they lived gave full attention to the historical moment. Each took sides that accorded with their view of moral engagement with the struggles of their time, and each stood unconditionally behind their beliefs even if it meant standing alone. In the context of the Cold War Chomsky published his inspirational essay, “The Responsibility of the Intellectual,” in the initial issue of the New York Review of Books, Feb. 23, 1967. No piece in my lifetime exerted a stronger positive influence on public debate in the United States than did this call to act in opposition to the Vietnam War at a crucial moment when doubts about the American war policies were beginning to challenge the government.

 

Sartre rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature and broke with Camusand official France over the Algerian War. Said rejected Arafat’s and the PLO’s willingness to trust Washington, resigned from the PNC, and refused from the outset to support the betrayal of Palestinian goals and rights as set forth in the 1993 Oslo Frameworkof Principles. Chomsky broke with the Zionist world, especially after the Israeli victory in the 1967 War, and lent support to the academic freedom of an embattled Holocaust denier in France, the British born historian Robert Faurisson. When questioned about this, Chomsky provocatively responded that Faurisson’s research was no worse than that of many of his MIT colleagues, although he did object when Chomsky’s statement of support was published as a foreword to a Faurisson book without his permission.

 

Each of these three confronted the world around them with undiminished passion, and never wasted their energy offering apologies or setting forth justifications for their dissenting views. In a last interview Sartrewas asked, what was his greatest regret? I found Sartre’s response suggestively provocative–that he had not gone far enough in the articulation of his radical views, a response that Chomsky might also have made, and Said as well. In effect, rather than backing down or retreating by acknowledging that he might have been more diplomatic, he opts for an even more strident clarity of belief and action.

 

If I look around at later generations, I take note of many passionate and articulate voices, but none that achieves the scale, scope, gravitas, and impact of these three. More than ever we need such exceptional voices for guidance and inspiration. We are living at a moment of unprecedented bioethical crisis that Chomsky has come to acknowledge and discuss in his recent interviews and writings. Even in these years when approaching the awesome age of 90,Noam’s voice remains as loud and clear as ever. It is always worthy of listening, and almost always of heeding. In recent years Chomsky has impressively broadened his interests to engage the more general challenges facing humanity, and given less attention to the various flaws of American foreign policy or to critiques of capitalism. At the same time, he has delivered scathing attacks on Trump and Trumpism as the climax of degenerative politics in America.

 

DF: How has the left changed over the course of Chomsky’s career in your view or have you noticed changes in his work over time?

 

RF: This is a difficult question for me as I am not sure that I am familiar enough with Chomsky’s engagement with the left at the various stages of his long life. He is certainly what one might call ‘a radical progressive,’ but he is also clearly uncomfortable with the organized left and never was an apologist for the Soviet Union. Although familiar with Marxist literature and socialist thought, his writing and commentary was not directed at theoretical issues that were so often debated in European leftist thinking. My impression is that Chomsky endorsed socialist values within a framework of philosophical anarchism— that is, characterized by deep suspicion directed toward all governmental embodiments of statist authority.

 

Chomsky’s writing and preoccupations have consistently been responsive to historical circumstances. There is no political issue that is outside his domain, although to my knowledge he has never commented extensively on cultural issues in the manner with which Said wrote about opera or Sartre contributed to literature. Two years ago Chomsky and I took part in a workshop on the dangers of nuclearism, along with Daniel Ellsberg, and I was struck by Noam’s unexpectedly hopeful contributions to the discussions. He argued that there were and are, many missed opportunities that might have addressed the dangers posed by nuclear weapons in a different manner than the paths chosen by policymakers and leaders. He wanted us to believe that the geopolitics of power is not the only game in town, and that civil society engagements on behalf of what we believe is worthwhile, necessary, and not foreclosed. I found this line of assessment a refreshing departure from my impression of Chomsky’s early posture of pessimistic critical realism. It may reflect the personal serenity that Noam seems to be experiencing in this stage of his life.

 

My sense of Chomsky’s leftism is that of someone who is incredibly attentive to the calls of conscience and freedom, and devotes extraordinary energy to the changing situational challenges, but thinks and acts by himself without taking part in organizational efforts, or any kind of collective process. At present, this tendency has led Chomsky both to decry Trump and Trumpism, and to worry about a fascist drift in world political behavior, but also to grasp the ecological and ethical menace of unregulated global capitalism. In my terminology, Chomsky has become an exemplary ‘citizen pilgrim,’ responding as an individual to the injustices of today with an abiding hope for a better tomorrow.

 

I did feel in the late 1960s that Chomsky was too ready to concede the future, at least in Vietnam, to those who dominated hard power capabilities. If my memory is correct, Noam was convinced that the U.S. would prevail in Vietnam because of the battlefield imbalances, and thus underestimated the depth of the Vietnamese national movement of resistance and the potentialities of anti-war activism. He also downplayed the reversibility of the intervention, not fully appreciating that if the costs became too high for enough Americans the leaders in Washington would bring the war to an end even if it produced an embarrassing defeat for a militarist foreign policy. In a sense, these assessments seemed to arise from a certain kind of realism that underlies Chomsky’s analysis, reflecting his fidelity to the facts as he comprehends them and his readiness to disregard his most ardent preferences when his reading of the facts of a complex political situation points to an outcome that is contrary to his wishes.

 

At the same time, Chomsky is ready to stand in solidarity with any dedicated person willing to act unlawfully so as to reveal the lies and distortions relied upon by governments, including in liberal societies, to befuddle and manipulate the citizenry. He stood by Dan Ellsberg after he released the Pentagon Papers, refusing to testify before the Boston Grand Jury, thereby risking a prison sentence. In retrospect, Ellsberg committed the perfect ‘crime’ from a Chomskyan worldview, defying the state so as to expose realities cynically hidden from the citizenry, heightened by the context of an unlawful war leading to the deaths of many innocent persons.

 

I should add that Chomsky’s positive attitude toward my work, which meant a great deal to me, was related to his respect for international law as legitimating dissent and nonviolent opposition to the militarist characteristics of American foreign policy. He favored a foreign policy that complied with international law and showed respect for the UN and its Charter as matters of elemental morality and geopolitical prudence.

 

DF: What is to account for Chomsky’s ability to reach such large amounts of people for so long? What do you find most interesting about him?

 

RF: You touch upon one of Chomsky’s most distinctive qualities, his influence and popularity throughout the world. I think that two features in his demeanor and approach help us understand this global reach.

 

First, Chomsky’s analysis is accessible to an audience of non-specialists, whether sophisticated or not. His grasp of the facts, and coherent and sensible interpretations of wrongdoings in high places, communicates an understanding of the world surrounding us that most of us have difficulty of formulating.

 

Secondly, Chomsky’s style, personal engagement, and life experience epitomizes authenticity. You may disagree with Chomsky, but it is impossible to doubt his sincerity and dedication to truth telling. Those who are dissatisfied with the status quo find in Chomsky a lucid accounting of what is wrong and why in a manner that generates trust and stimulates action, and even hopes for a better future.

 

My only reservation is a tendency by Chomsky sometimes to overlook ambiguity and uncertainty, and countervailing lines of thought. Perhaps, my discomfort reflects my own background, especially law school training that made me aware, perhaps overly aware, that there are always at least two sides to any contested position.

 

Without the ambiguity of the law, lawyers would have no role and no livelihood. For me as someone trained in law, the challenge has always been to acknowledge this epistemological fuzziness while making ethically driven choices that can produce one-sided political commitments whenever appropriate. More concretely, how I am able to acknowledge the existence of an Israeli narrative yet firmly side with the Palestinian struggle for their basic rights. My own answer to this seeming dilemma is to make such choices ‘by taking suffering seriously,’ which almost always means identifying with the vulnerable and exploited, but it also means understanding hierarchies of abuse and exploitation as the core reality of apartheid structures..

 

I seek the moral clarity associated with Chomsky, Sartre, and Said, but do so more circuitously because of this continuing subservience to the way lawyers are taught to think and act.

 

DF: Are there positions and perspectives that you are surprised that Chomsky holds?  Do you have many Chomsky books in your studyand which of those has influenced you’re foreign policy perspectives in particular?

 

RF: I have a shelf full of Chomsky books, and try to keep up with his synoptic capacity to encompass all that is worth thinking about. The range and persistence of his productivity is nothing short of astounding, and I might add, humbling. Few prophets in all of history have been as endowed with such mental resilience and blessed by physical longevity!

 

As far as direct influence is concerned I would mention two areas. I learned from Chomsky’s acute critique of the practices of liberalism, and the essential importance of grasping the sources of human suffering that cannot be understood without engaging in structural analysis. Among the most serious intellectual inadequacies of liberalism is to opt for incremental policy changes while taking the underlying hegemonic structures of power and economic forces for granted, even ignoring their relevance.

 

Chomsky has helped me understand why I am not a liberal. In this sense, it helps explain why I was outraged by the way the Democratic Party subverted the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sandersin 2016, while promoting that of Hillary Clinton. Sanders was treated as unacceptable to the Democratic National Committee, despite not even being consistently radical in his outlook. Yet he was radical enough to threaten the verities of Goldman Sachs and the ethos of neoliberalism, and that was enough to disqualify his candidacy although he emerged as the most popular and trusted political figure in America, greatly exceeding the approval ratings of the prevailing candidates, Trump and Clinton.

 

And secondly, I learned from Chomsky the importance of not compromising when it came to matters of principle even if it requires enduring defamation and marginalization. I found Chomsky’s strong early criticisms of how the Zionistproject was being enacted in Israel, and the American complicity, not only persuasive, but it also challenged me to stop hiding in the shadows. I think Chomsky’s moral posture has been as influential as his substantive views. Standing up for truth, rejecting the liberal consensus, and always being in solidarity with those struggling against injustice are the insignia of Noam Chomsky’s most illustrious career and life.

 

And it would be wrong not to reiterate Chomsky’s overwhelming sense of the responsibility of an intellectualto engage in dialogue. Over the years I have encountered many ‘ordinary’ persons who have written to Noam after hearing him speak or reading his books, and have been amazed by receiving detailed and respectful responses, and a readiness to continue the correspondence. It takes energy and time to be so available, but it also expresses a commitment to the seriousness of ideas and likeminded communication, and the value of what amounts to informal education. Again, I have tried to follow this path set by Noam, trailing behind, but grateful for the grandeur of his example.

 

 

 

Daniel Falcone: How were you first introduced to Chomsky? What initial work brought you into contact with Chomsky?

 

Richard Falk: Actually, my first awareness of Noam Chomsky was in the late 1950s while I was teaching at Ohio State University. I had a smart linguist friend who told me about the revolutionary work of a young scholar at MIT who was completely transforming his field by the work he had done while still a graduate student on ‘structural linguistics’ and ‘generative grammar.’ As I remember our conversation nothing was mentioned about Chomsky’s politics.

Later on in the early 1960s I continued to hear of Chomsky as the great linguist, but also about Chomsky as the militant anti-Vietnam Waractivist.

 

We met in the mid-1960s as a result of common interests. We were both deeply involved as opponents of the escalations of American involvement in Vietnam, and indeed we were opposed to any military involvement at all. At that point Chomsky was strongly supporting draft resistance in addition to speaking at anti-war events. I was mainly engaged during the 1960s in academic debates and teach-ins devoted to questions of the legality of the American role in Vietnam, and after 1965, discussions often focused on the decision by the Lyndon Johnson presidency to extend the war to North Vietnam.

We interacted quite frequently in this decade, and stayed at each other’s homes in Lexington and Princeton when we spoke in the other’s venue.

 

I recall Chomsky insisting in response to an invitation from the Princeton Philosophy Department that he would only agree to give a series of lectures on linguistics that was the nature of the invitation if his hosts would also arrange parallel formats for him to address his political concerns. He apparently frequently made this a condition of his acceptance, and because he was such a star attraction, it was almost always enthusiastically accepted, and even viewed as a bonus.

 

I found the Princeton lectureson theoretical tensions within the field of linguistics to be not only abstruse, but also quite memorable from a performance perspective. The first of Chomsky’s linguistic lectures was held in one of the largest auditoriums at Princeton. Before Noam was introduced the hall was filled to capacity in excited anticipation of being enlightened by whatever this already famous scholar had to say. Chomsky’s style and delivery were highly technical, presupposed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the complex issues of linguistic theory at stake, which meant that his presentation seemed way above the head of 90% of the audience, including myself.

 

By the end of the lecture there were less than 25 people left in the huge hall. What impressed me then and even now was Chomsky’s attitude of apparent indifference to this reaction, which was confirmed by his failure to alter his style in the next two lectures. It was hardly surprising that the second and third lecturewere given in a rather empty room, being attended by only a small coterie of graduate students and a few on the faculty who had strong linguistic interests.

 

When he gave his talk on political issues, Chomsky’s style was strikingly different. His presentation on political issues was meant to reach people with little prior knowledge. His interpretations were supported by abundant evidence – fact-based, carefully and clearly reasoned, and were even spiced by humorous asides, usually of a wry and satiric nature. Chomsky was personally engaged, clearly hoping to persuade the audience to adopt his viewpoint, and conveying an assured sense that there existed no other coherent and ethical to view the issues being discussed. As with his opening linguistics lecrure, his political talk was held in a large hall that was overflowing, but this time no one left.

 

The response was enthusiastic and responsive. I came away with the sense those attending felt that just by being there they had taken part in an historic experience. It was also an audience that drew heavily from the community as well as the university, and had far fewer faculty members than did the linguistic talks. I was struck by Chomsky’s confident, calm manner, his wide knowledge, and his utter insistence on speaking truth to power. These truths of Chomsky went far beyond mainstream ways of thinking and acting.

 

My only reservation from the perspective of frequently being a member of Chomsky’s audience was his reluctance to acknowledge even slight differences of opinion, much less admit error. I felt this to be a weakness. There was something disturbing about this unwillingness to concede small points to those who shared his views 95% of the time. This polemical style left even admirers sometimes feeling that his presentation could have been more effective if he had left a bit of space for doubt and divergent opinions. This style of unwavering assurance seemed to reflect a public sensibility more than deriving from a fixed ideology. Off camera, Noam was always gentle and non-dogmatic, but while performing I found his demeanor sometimes to be leonine.

 

 

DF: Scholar Henry Girouxonce told me that he thought Chomsky was “a national treasure.” How is Chomsky a national treasure in your view?

 

RF: I share this expression of exceptional mode of appreciating  Chomsky’s many contributions to enlightened and critical thought. Such contributions are essential if the vitality of a democratic society is to be sustained through dark times, such as at present. To quibble a bit, I would prefer to identify Noam even more grandly as ‘a global treasure.’ His following is global in ways that exceed that of any other

living public intellectual

 

Noam’s worldwide following has identified him as a beacon of truth and conscience who can be trusted, whatever the issue, to express his views with honesty, through the medium of reasoned analysis, and on the basis of a dazzling familiarity with a wide range of evidence supporting his conclusions. He conveys a sense of having read and remembering everything ever written on the topic he happens to be addressing on any particular occasion.

 

There are many other highly intelligent and progressive persons in the world, but few if any, who have the professional record of world class scholarship and the astonishingly wide range of knowledgeabout subjects that embrace concerns that cover the waterfront. Chomskyis always worth listening to whatever the topic, whether it happens to be the philosophical foundations of knowledge and existence or the specifics of atrocities taking place in some remote part of the world.

 

His presence and role is so precious because of this rare mix of qualities: a trustworthy character, comprehensive knowledge, mastery over the logic of argument and reasoned analysis, a speaking style that is measured and never relies on shouting to make a point. Chomsky has a special gravitas that I have never before encountered, and helps account for the attitudes of reverence and gratitude that so many persons from all corners of the globe feel in his presence.

 

DF: What ideas and activities of Chomsky have influenced you the most over the years?

 

RF: I have been particularly influenced by Noam’s extraordinary perseverance, his spectacular displays of intellectuality and moral engagement, his willingness to enter domains where angels fear to tread, and above all by his insistence on following the evidence wherever it might lead. Noam, in this sense, is one of the great moral voices of all time, guided by a sense of justice and decency, and possessed of a skilled deconstructive voice that dismisses much conventional wisdom with a flip of his rhetorical wrist.

 

On a more doctrinal level, I have found Chomsky’s thought particularly valuably deployed in his authoritative depiction of how ‘indoctrination in a free society’ works. This is not a simple matter.  I would express Chomsky’s line of critique by a more concrete phrase, ‘how the New York Timesmisleads, especially with regard to the Middle East.’ Chomsky can be devastating when showing how the liberal mainstream distorts reality by its selective interpretations of the facts and norms at stake, never more so than in relation to Israel/Palestine over the decades or by the liberal acceptance of the structures of militarism and predatory capitalism without a whimper while bemoaning the cruelty of extreme poverty. Like the monkeys who see and hear no evil, so it is with most liberals. They are willing to do good so long as it doesn’t interfere with their supreme interest in doing well!

 

I am aware that Chomsky’s views on Israel/Palestinehave given rise to some fierce criticism, and not just from Zionists. Chomsky has been steadfastly supportive of a two-state solution that he has, although perhaps not so clearly recently, insisted as only viable solution that would allow the two peoples to live in a sustainable peace. In my understanding of Chomsky’s recent reflections on these issues, he seems to be saying that an Israeli version of a one-state solution is coming into being, and that a series of internal and international developments now make it impractical to achieve any kind of acceptable form of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future. Despite disagreements with Said on such questions I never observed Noam or Edward expressing anything other than sentiments of respect and admiration for the work and commitment of the other.

 

Now that Chomsky is convinced that the political and physical conditions no longer exist to achieve a two-state peace, and the Israeli one-state solution is unacceptable, it would be of great value to know what Chomsky now proposes. Perhaps, he has already set forth his ideas in light of the present circumstances, but I am not familiar with any such statement.

 

Chomsky has also been criticized for failing to support BDSor coercive nonviolence as a tactic of the global solidarity movement to support the Palestinian national movement. I am not aware of the deep roots of this reluctance to exert pressure on Israel, although I do know that his family background was one of left Zionism, which he felt that Israel as a state and Zionism as a movement and project had seriously betrayed, and the Palestinian people have been paying the price.

 

I also found Noam’s critique of what he called ‘military humanism’ as a pushback to those who favored the Kosovo intervention to be challenging and almost persuasive as a refutation of the case for humanitarian intervention in the pre-war context of 1999. In the end, with strong feelings of ambivalence, my fear of a Kosovo repetition of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 led me to support the NATO intervention on behalf of Kosovo independence from Serbia.

 

Chomsky argued that the moral rhetoric of those calling for intervention in Kosovo was chosen to hide the real reasons for recourse to this admittedly non-defensive war, which were strategic and amoral. These true motivations for the proposed war, according to Chomsky, had to do with extending the life of NATO in the post-Cold War world and making sure that the Russians were not given a pretext for establishing a presence in the Balkans. He rested his argument on the moral inconsistencies and hypocrisy of American foreign policy, pointing to the sustained indifference of the West toward the comparable Kurdish plight in Turkey.

 

Noam opposed this mixing of humanitarianism with militarism while taking a lifelong interest in depicting severe abuses of human rights. There were numerous settings in which Noam stood up for the human rights of vulnerable and abused peoples, including individuals. Chomsky also made a series of fine scholarly contributions along these lines in several books written in collaboration with the late Edward S. Herman.

 

DF: How do the leading intellectual figures of the past one hundred years compare with Chomsky?’

RF: I have no real awareness of Chomsky’s own views beyond his sense that Bertrand Russellwas an admirable figure, perhaps a role model, and at least warranted a large picture in Noam’s MIT office. I think Russell is an appropriate antecedent figure to capture the core reality of Chomsky, despite the obvious fact that these two extraordinary men were so different in class and ethnic backgrounds. Such differences were superficial compared to their similarities: exceptional scholarly achievement, belief in Enlightenment ideals, values, and practices, and moral engagement in ways that challenged both conventional wisdom and the consensus affirmed by the governing political class and the official policies in each of their respective countries. Both were derided for swimming against strong national currents.

 

In my own intellectual and personal experience, the closest parallels to Chomsky are Jean-Paul Sartreand Edward Said. More than others, it was this threesome that made me understand the role and contributions of those who came to be known as ‘public intellectuals.’ Each took risks in their work and acted with courage and moral clarity within the political context within which they lived gave full attention to the historical moment. Each took sides that accorded with their view of moral engagement with the struggles of their time, and each stood unconditionally behind their beliefs even if it meant standing alone. In the context of the Cold War Chomsky published his inspirational essay, “The Responsibility of the Intellectual,” in the initial issue of the New York Review of Books, Feb. 23, 1967. No piece in my lifetime exerted a stronger positive influence on public debate in the United States than did this call to act in opposition to the Vietnam War at a crucial moment when doubts about the American war policies were beginning to challenge the government. 

 

Sartre rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature and broke with Camusand official France over the Algerian War. Said rejected Arafat’s and the PLO’s willingness to trust Washington, resigned from the PNC, and refused from the outset to support the betrayal of Palestinian goals and rights as set forth in the 1993 Oslo Frameworkof Principles. Chomsky broke with the Zionist world, especially after the Israeli victory in the 1967 War, and lent support to the academic freedom of an embattled Holocaust denier in France, the British born historian Robert Faurisson. When questioned about this, Chomsky provocatively responded that Faurisson’s research was no worse than that of many of his MIT colleagues, although he did object when Chomsky’s statement of support was published as a foreword to a Faurisson book without his permission.

 

Each of these three confronted the world around them with undiminished passion, and never wasted their energy offering apologies or setting forth justifications for their dissenting views. In a last interview Sartrewas asked, what was his greatest regret? I found Sartre’s response suggestively provocative–that he had not gone far enough in the articulation of his radical views, a response that Chomsky might also have made, and Said as well. In effect, rather than backing down or retreating by acknowledging that he might have been more diplomatic, he opts for an even more strident clarity of belief and action.

 

If I look around at later generations, I take note of many passionate and articulate voices, but none that achieves the scale, scope, gravitas, and impact of these three. More than ever we need such exceptional voices for guidance and inspiration. We are living at a moment of unprecedented bioethical crisis that Chomsky has come to acknowledge and discuss in his recent interviews and writings. Even in these years when approaching the awesome age of 90,Noam’s voice remains as loud and clear as ever. It is always worthy of listening, and almost always of heeding. In recent years Chomsky has impressively broadened his interests to engage the more general challenges facing humanity, and given less attention to the various flaws of American foreign policy or to critiques of capitalism. At the same time, he has delivered scathing attacks on Trump and Trumpism as the climax of degenerative politics in America.

 

DF: How has the left changed over the course of Chomsky’s career in your view or have you noticed changes in his work over time?

 

RF: This is a difficult question for me as I am not sure that I am familiar enough with Chomsky’s engagement with the left at the various stages of his long life. He is certainly what one might call ‘a radical progressive,’ but he is also clearly uncomfortable with the organized left and never was an apologist for the Soviet Union. Although familiar with Marxist literature and socialist thought, his writing and commentary was not directed at theoretical issues that were so often debated in European leftist thinking. My impression is that Chomsky endorsed socialist values within a framework of philosophical anarchism— that is, characterized by deep suspicion directed toward all governmental embodiments of statist authority.

 

Chomsky’s writing and preoccupations have consistently been responsive to historical circumstances. There is no political issue that is outside his domain, although to my knowledge he has never commented extensively on cultural issues in the manner with which Said wrote about opera or Sartre contributed to literature. Two years ago Chomsky and I took part in a workshop on the dangers of nuclearism, along with Daniel Ellsberg, and I was struck by Noam’s unexpectedly hopeful contributions to the discussions. He argued that there were and are, many missed opportunities that might have addressed the dangers posed by nuclear weapons in a different manner than the paths chosen by policymakers and leaders. He wanted us to believe that the geopolitics of power is not the only game in town, and that civil society engagements on behalf of what we believe is worthwhile, necessary, and not foreclosed. I found this line of assessment a refreshing departure from my impression of Chomsky’s early posture of pessimistic critical realism. It may reflect the personal serenity that Noam seems to be experiencing in this stage of his life.

 

My sense of Chomsky’s leftism is that of someone who is incredibly attentive to the calls of conscience and freedom, and devotes extraordinary energy to the changing situational challenges, but thinks and acts by himself without taking part in organizational efforts, or any kind of collective process. At present, this tendency has led Chomsky both to decry Trump and Trumpism, and to worry about a fascist drift in world political behavior, but also to grasp the ecological and ethical menace of unregulated global capitalism. In my terminology, Chomsky has become an exemplary ‘citizen pilgrim,’ responding as an individual to the injustices of today with an abiding hope for a better tomorrow.

 

I did feel in the late 1960s that Chomsky was too ready to concede the future, at least in Vietnam, to those who dominated hard power capabilities. If my memory is correct, Noam was convinced that the U.S. would prevail in Vietnam because of the battlefield imbalances, and thus underestimated the depth of the Vietnamese national movement of resistance and the potentialities of anti-war activism. He also downplayed the reversibility of the intervention, not fully appreciating that if the costs became too high for enough Americans the leaders in Washington would bring the war to an end even if it produced an embarrassing defeat for a militarist foreign policy. In a sense, these assessments seemed to arise from a certain kind of realism that underlies Chomsky’s analysis, reflecting his fidelity to the facts as he comprehends them and his readiness to disregard his most ardent preferences when his reading of the facts of a complex political situation points to an outcome that is contrary to his wishes.

 

At the same time, Chomsky is ready to stand in solidarity with any dedicated person willing to act unlawfully so as to reveal the lies and distortions relied upon by governments, including in liberal societies, to befuddle and manipulate the citizenry. He stood by Dan Ellsberg after he released the Pentagon Papers, refusing to testify before the Boston Grand Jury, thereby risking a prison sentence. In retrospect, Ellsberg committed the perfect ‘crime’ from a Chomskyan worldview, defying the state so as to expose realities cynically hidden from the citizenry, heightened by the context of an unlawful war leading to the deaths of many innocent persons.

 

I should add that Chomsky’s positive attitude toward my work, which meant a great deal to me, was related to his respect for international law as legitimating dissent and nonviolent opposition to the militarist characteristics of American foreign policy. He favored a foreign policy that complied with international law and showed respect for the UN and its Charter as matters of elemental morality and geopolitical prudence.

 

DF: What is to account for Chomsky’s ability to reach such large amounts of people for so long? What do you find most interesting about him?

 

RF: You touch upon one of Chomsky’s most distinctive qualities, his influence and popularity throughout the world. I think that two features in his demeanor and approach help us understand this global reach.

 

First, Chomsky’s analysis is accessible to an audience of non-specialists, whether sophisticated or not. His grasp of the facts, and coherent and sensible interpretations of wrongdoings in high places, communicates an understanding of the world surrounding us that most of us have difficulty of formulating.

 

Secondly, Chomsky’s style, personal engagement, and life experience epitomizes authenticity. You may disagree with Chomsky, but it is impossible to doubt his sincerity and dedication to truth telling. Those who are dissatisfied with the status quo find in Chomsky a lucid accounting of what is wrong and why in a manner that generates trust and stimulates action, and even hopes for a better future.

 

My only reservation is a tendency by Chomsky sometimes to overlook ambiguity and uncertainty, and countervailing lines of thought. Perhaps, my discomfort reflects my own background, especially law school training that made me aware, perhaps overly aware, that there are always at least two sides to any contested position.

 

Without the ambiguity of the law, lawyers would have no role and no livelihood. For me as someone trained in law, the challenge has always been to acknowledge this epistemological fuzziness while making ethically driven choices that can produce one-sided political commitments whenever appropriate. More concretely, how I am able to acknowledge the existence of an Israeli narrative yet firmly side with the Palestinian struggle for their basic rights. My own answer to this seeming dilemma is to make such choices ‘by taking suffering seriously,’ which almost always means identifying with the vulnerable and exploited, but it also means understanding hierarchies of abuse and exploitation as the core reality of apartheid structures..

 

I seek the moral clarity associated with Chomsky, Sartre, and Said, but do so more circuitously because of this continuing subservience to the way lawyers are taught to think and act.

 

DF: Are there positions and perspectives that you are surprised that Chomsky holds?  Do you have many Chomsky books in your study and which of those has influenced you’re foreign policy perspectives in particular?

 

RF: I have a shelf full of Chomsky books, and try to keep up with his synoptic capacity to encompass all that is worth thinking about. The range and persistence of his productivity is nothing short of astounding, and I might add, humbling. Few prophets in all of history have been as endowed with such mental resilience and blessed by physical longevity!

 

As far as direct influence is concerned I would mention two areas. I learned from Chomsky’s acute critique of the practices of liberalism, and the essential importance of grasping the sources of human suffering that cannot be understood without engaging in structural analysis. Among the most serious intellectual inadequacies of liberalism is to opt for incremental policy changes while taking the underlying hegemonic structures of power and economic forces for granted, even ignoring their relevance.

 

Chomsky has helped me understand why I am not a liberal. In this sense, it helps explain why I was outraged by the way the Democratic Party subverted the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016, while promoting that of Hillary Clinton. Sanders was treated as unacceptable to the Democratic National Committee, despite not even being consistently radical in his outlook. Yet he was radical enough to threaten the verities of Goldman Sachs and the ethos of neoliberalism, and that was enough to disqualify his candidacy although he emerged as the most popular and trusted political figure in America, greatly exceeding the approval ratings of the prevailing candidates, Trump and Clinton.

 

And secondly, I learned from Chomsky the importance of not compromising when it came to matters of principle even if it requires enduring defamation and marginalization. I found Chomsky’s strong early criticisms of how the Zionist project was being enacted in Israel, and the American complicity, not only persuasive, but it also challenged me to stop hiding in the shadows. I think Chomsky’s moral posture has been as influential as his substantive views. Standing up for truth, rejecting the liberal consensus, and always being in solidarity with those struggling against injustice are the insignia of Noam Chomsky’s most illustrious career and life.

 

And it would be wrong not to reiterate Chomsky’s overwhelming sense of the responsibility of an intellectualto engage in dialogue. Over the years I have encountered many ‘ordinary’ persons who have written to Noam after hearing him speak or reading his books, and have been amazed by receiving detailed and respectful responses, and a readiness to continue the correspondence. It takes energy and time to be so available, but it also expresses a commitment to the seriousness of ideas and likeminded communication, and the value of what amounts to informal education. Again, I have tried to follow this path set by Noam, trailing behind, but grateful for the grandeur of his example.

 

 

Edward Said’s Humanism versus the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism

9 Nov

[Prefatory Note: This post consists of my written text for a public presentation on the theme of “Edward Said’s Humanism and the Rejection of the State Department’s Definition of Anti-Semitism” at a conference at Fresno State University, Nov. 6, 2015 bearing the title “Universities at the Crossroads: The Assault on Academic Freedom,” which was the last event of the “Edward Said Lecture Series” organized by Professor Vida Samiian of the Department of Linguistics at FSU. My talk as given departed considerably from this text.]

 

Edward Said’s Humanism versus the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism 

In these remarks, I will present the following analysis: (1) the most ardent Zionist forces have longed tried to conflate criticism of Israel and Zionism with hatred of Jews, the traditional understanding of anti-Semitism, but this effort has intensified recently, and even has been endorsed by the US Government and is currently under consideration by the University of California and elsewhere; (2) examine the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the U.S. State Department, and discuss briefly why it has pernicious implications for academic freedom, and indeed even for an understanding of the genuine nature of anti-Semitism; (3) show why Edward Said despite his intense opposition to anti-Semitism would nevertheless be vulnerable to allegations of being an anti-Semite if the State Department definition were to be applied to his writings and activities; (4) and finally to point out that according to the imperatives most influentially expressed by Noam Chomsky and Said, the ‘responsibility of the intellectual’ would perversely require them to be ‘anti-Semitic’ according to this pernicious wider conception.

 

 

My personal experience with this theme of anti-Semitism and Israel can be summarized by recalling two different occasions: The first was in Greek Cyprus more than a decade ago at a meeting of the Inter-Action Council (composed of ex-heads of states) devoted to conflict resolution in the Middle East. I had been invited as a resource person. At a session devoted to Israel/Palestine the Israeli ambassador to Greece spoke at some length, insisting that it was anti-Semitic to express strong criticisms of Israel and Zionism. As the only other Jew at the table I felt it to be almost a duty to clarify what I believed to be a mischievous manipulation of ideas. In my intervention I explained that Zionism was a project or ideology, Israel was a state, and that Jews were a people or persons. I attempted to explain that to disagree with Zionism or to criticize Israeli policies and practices as a state was not at all anti-Semitic, but to exhibit hostility, hatred, and discrimination against Jews as a people or as individuals was indeed anti-Semitism. Recall that Hitler did not persecute Jews for being Zionists, but for being Jews, for partaking of a race or ethnicity. After the meeting recessed, several participants thanked me for my comments, indicating that only a Jew could offer this kind of clarification, which they found persuasive. In contrast, the Israeli ambassador and his NGO sidekick came to me to complain vigorously, insisting that Zionism had become synonymous with Jewish identity through the establishment of Israel as a state of the Jewish people, making the three ideas interchangeable. In effect, their separation was now deemed deeply hostile to the Jewish experience, and was properly viewed as ‘anti-Semitism’; I walked away unconvinced, yet disturbed by the encounter.

 

This trivial incident still seems relevant as it illustrates what I believe has been an effective effort by unconditional Israel supporters to stifle criticism of Israel by inappropriately playing such an anti-Semitic card. It is inappropriate as it merges what might be called genuine hate speech with an attempt to intimidate freedom of expression in a domain where it seems needed, that is, in justifiable questioning of Israel’s state behavior and the colonial nature of the Zionist project as it is playing out in the 21st century. It is a doubly unfortunate and dangerous tactic as it tends to weaken and confuse opposition to real anti-Semitism by this misleading linkage of a contentious political argument with a condemnation of racism.

 

My second experience was to receive an email a couple of years ago informing me that the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a non-governmental organization devoted to unconditional support of Israel, had issued its annual list of the ten most dangerous anti-Semites in the world, and that I was listed as third. I found it quite astounding, especially after discovering that #1 was the Supreme Guide of Iran and #2 was the then Prime Minister of Turkey. Others on the list included such notable authors as Alice Walker and Max Blumenthal. It was obvious that I was placed on the list as a consequence of my role as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine in the period between 2008 and 2014. In the fulfillment of this role, I had indeed written very critically from the perspective of human rights and international law about the manner in which Israel was administering the occupation, which involved elements of annexation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid. But nothing in my reports directly or indirectly exhibited hatred or hostility toward the Jewish people or toward Jews as Jews. My prominence on the Wiesenthal list at first troubled me deeply, fearing that it would damage my credibility as well as be a painful and unjustified attack on my identity that would be humiliating and probably ineffective to oppose. I never overcame these feelings, but they became somewhat balanced by my realization that highlighting my name in this way could only be explained by the degree to which my UN reports were exerting some influence on the way in which the Israel-Palestine conflict was being more generally perceived, especially within UN circles. I continue to feel a certain pride in bearing witness as best I could to the realities under law of Israel’s occupation policies, and the extent to which prolonged Palestinian suffering has been the result.

 

These personal experiences relate to the current debate nationally, internationally, and here in California. The essential argument is that Jews in Europe feel threatened by what they describe as a new wave of anti-Semitism, which is deliberately linked to the rise of anti-Israeli activism, and was dramatized by several recent terrorist incidents, especially the 2014 attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The European migration crisis is undoubtedly giving rise in Europe to a strengthening of the political right extreme, including its neo-Nazi fringe that does express real anti-Semitic hatred, but it is far less virulent in its racism toward Jews than toward Muslims. One problem with this focus on anti-Semitism is to treat Jews as accorded extra protection while at the same time immunizing hostility to Islam by reference to freedom of expression. There is no doubt that Charlie Hebdo, while victimized for its opinions, was disseminating toward Muslims the kind of hate images and messages that if directed at Jews would be regarded by almost everyone as anti-Semitism, including myself.

 

It is somewhat understandable that Europe would be sensitive to any return of anti-Semitism, given that it was both the scene of the Holocaust, the historic center of anti-Semitism, and in many ways provided the historic vindication of the Zionist movement. We should not forget that the international validation of the Zionist quest for a Jewish homeland received its first formal encouragement in the notoriously colonialist letter written by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, in 1917. As well, during the 1930s, prior to Hitler’s adoption of the Final Solution, the preferred solution of the so-called Jewish Problem in Europe was mounting widespread pressure on Jews to emigrate to Palestine or even to face forced expulsion, and this was not solely a consequence of Nazi policies. Timothy Snyder in his important recent book, Black Death, documents the extent to which Polish anti-Semitic political leaders collaborated with Zionist leaders, including even providing military training and weapons that developed the Zionist militias that laterchallenged the British mandatory presence in Palestine and then successfully waged a war of independence. In effect, many European anti-Semites, who were prominent throughout the continent, shared with the Zionist leadership the belief that the way to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ was to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and in keeping with the prevailing colonial mentality gave little thought to the impact of such a development on the indigenous Arab population of Palestine.

 

The contemporary American argument and debate has less historical baggage compared to Europe and is more subtle, mainly focused on campus activity and is a reflection to some extent of the U.S. government’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel. It is evident that Israeli officials definitely project the view that hostility to Israel or Zionism is indistinguishable from what the State Department calls ‘traditional anti-Semitism,’ that is, hatred or persecution of Jews because of their ethnicity. What is most troublesome in the State Department approach is its incorporation of what it calls ‘new anti-Semitism,’ which “manifests itself in the guise of opposition to Zionism and the existence and/or policies of the state of Israel.” [Contemporary Anti-Semitism: A Report Provided to the U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of State, n.d.; See also fact sheet of U.S. Dept of State, June 8, 2010, on defining anti-Semitism] This “..new anti-Semitism, characterized by anti-Zionist and anti-Israel criticism that is anti-Semitic in effect—whether or not in intent- [and] is more subtle and thus frequently escapes condemnation.” As many of you know the Board of Regents of the University of California is currently considering whether to adopt such a conception of anti-Semitism as official university policy. The principal arguments advanced in its favor are that pro-Palestinian student activism, especially around calls for boycotts and divestments, are making Jewish students feel uncomfortable, even under threat, with the further implication that such insecurity should not be present in any academic community. This rationale skirts the issue that the BDS campaign has been gaining significant traction in recent years, and this effort to brand the activist dimension of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle as anti-Semitic is motivated by a major multi-pronged Israeli effort to weaken BDS by having those who support such an unacceptable campaign as guilty of ‘anti-Semitism.’

 

Such developments go back to my experience in Cyprus, and reflect this determined effort to meet the rise of Palestinian solidarity efforts with its suppression being justified as opposition to the new anti-Semitism. [See also to the same effect, Michael Oren’s Ally that depict Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. making an effort to render unacceptable any public utterance of criticism of Israel] Note the features of this negative branding: only the sensitivities of Jews are singled out despite the far greater discomfort confronting Muslim minority students and others on campuses and throughout America; the initiative is overtly designed to weaken popular support for a just and sustainable peace in Palestine given the collapse of diplomatic efforts to produce the two-state solution; the BDS campaign is being challenged in ways that never occurred during earlier comparable campaigns, especially in the American civil rights movement and the BDS movement contra South African apartheid, both of which relied on boycott and divestment tactics. Part of the context that is rarely mentioned in debating the scope of anti-Semitism is the degree to which this surge of pro-Palestinian nonviolent militancy is in reaction to two developments: Israel’s reliance on excessive force, collective punishment, and persistence with such unlawful activities as settlement expansion and the completion of the separation wall.

 

It is in this atmosphere of endowing anti-Semitic smearing with respectability that outrages to academic freedom such as the revocation of a tenure contract issued to Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois was revoked because of some allegedly anti-Semitic tweets written during Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza that would make his students uncomfortable. In fact, Salaita possesses an outstanding performance record in the classroom, his teaching is greatly appreciated by his students, including those who were Jewish and pro-Israeli. Undoubtedly more serious than high profile cases are the invisible effects of this inflammatory and aggressive use of anti-Semitism, exhibited by the reluctance to hire or promote individuals who have engaged in Palestinian solidarity activity or even to invite speakers that would be attacked as bringing an anti-Semite onto campus. Again my experience is relevant. During the six years that I held the UN position, everywhere I went to speak, including at my former university, Princeton, or in foreign settings as remote as Beirut or Sydney, Australia concerted campaigns were conducted by Zionist groups to persuade university administration to cancel my lectures. The claim being made was that I should not be allowed to speak because I was a notorious anti-Semite. These efforts were backed up by threats to withhold contributions to the university if the event went ahead as scheduled. These efforts failed, and my talks went given without incident, but what the campaign did accomplish was to shift media and audience attention from the substance of my presentation to the utterly false issue of whether or not I was an anti-Semite, which of course, required me to deal with accusations that were hurtful as well as false.

 

II.

 

It is against this background that I wanted to mention Edward Said’s humanism, which in the context of this State Department approach, would clearly qualify as an unacceptable, if disguised, form of the ‘new anti-Semitism.’ As many of you know Edward Said was the most passionate and influential voice of the Palestinian people, and indeed of people worldwide seeking liberation. His books, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism continue to be read all over the world more than a decade after his death. I was privileged to have Edward Sasid as a close and cherished friend who over the years nurtured my interest in and engagement with the Israel/Palestine conflict, and whose remarkable life remains an inspiration to many of us. His views are peculiarly relevant to the theme chosen for my remarks as he was both a fierce opponent of the old anti-Semitism and an exemplary exponent of the new anti-Semitism, which as I am mainly arguing should not be considered anti-Semitism at all, and these attempts to discredit criticisms of Israel and Zionism should themselves be discredited, especially in view of recent behavior.

 

As his colleague and close friend at Columbia University, Akeel Bilgrami, an Indian professor of comparative literature observed, Said “..despised anti-Semitism as much anyone I know.” [Kilgrami, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2014) Humanism was the only –ism with which Said was comfortable. His circle of identification embraced the human species, although rooted in the particularity of his Palestinian background. His academic training, publications, and career were situated firmly in literature until awakened by the 1967 Six Day War to take up the Palestinian struggle in a dedicated manner for the rest of his life.

 

Said’s writing on Palestine was always informed by fact and shaped by his deep grasp of history and culture, initially in his important The Question of Palestine. What is striking about Said’s approach, despite his anger about the refusal of the world to appreciate and correct the terrible injustices done to the Palestinian people in the course of establishing the Israeli state, is his steadfast appreciation that Zionism did what it did beneath the shadow of Nazi persecution, especially culminating in the Holocaust. In other words, his sense of the conflict with Israel is conceived in inclusive terms as pertaining to Jews as well as Palestinians. In his words, “I have spent a great deal of my life during the past thirty-five years advocating the rights of the Palestinian people to national self-determination, but I have always tried to do that with full attention to the reality of the Jewish people, and what they suffered by way persecution and genocide.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) He never endorsed a solution to the struggle that was not sensitive to both Palestinians and Jews, and in a sense his approach embodied a principled rejection of the Israeli claim that the Palestinians were intent on pushing the Jews into the sea.

 

While insisting that Jews must never experience in Israel the sort of dispossession inflicted upon the Palestinian people by the Zionist project, Said was unrelenting in linking a sustainable peace to acknowledging the justices of the past. As he expressed it Ari Shavit in one of his last interviews, “[U]ntil the time comes when Israel assumes moral responsibility for what it has done to the Palestinian people, there can be no end to the conflict.” He goes on to add, “[W]hat is needed is a ‘bill of particulars’ of all our claims against Israel for the original dispossession and for the occupation that began in 1967[Power Politic, 446] In effect, the injustices of the past can be superseded but only if they are acknowledged in an appropriate format with due solemnity. On at least one occasion Said seems to suggest a truth and reconciliation process modeled on what was done in South Africa after the fall of apartheid.

 

Said central contribution of developing a critique of West-centric views of the Arab world are most influentially set forth in Orientalism, one of the most widely studied and seminal books of the past century. Among many other facets of the analysis in the book it led Said to offer this surprising convergence: “Not accidentally, I indicate that Orientalism and modern anti-Semitism have common roots.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) This convergence is explained by the dual effort to achieve “a better understanding of the way cultural domination have operated.” (Orientalism 27).

 

At the same time, Said felt that Zionist exclusivism sought to keep the issue as one of what Jews had endured in the Holocaust as a sufficient vindication of Zionism and the creation of Israel, with the adverse effects on the Palestinians as self-inflicted or irrelevant to this hegemonic Israeli narrative. Said writes that “..all liberals and even most ‘radicals’ have been unable to overcome the Zionist habit of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.” [Question, 59] Long before the present debate he believed that such an informal tactic prevented truthful conversation as non-Jews were inhibited by “..the fear of treading upon the highly sensitive terrain of what Jews did to their victims, in an age of genocidal extermination of Jews—all this contributes to the dulling, regulated enforcement of almost unanimous support for Israel.” [59] Writing in the late 1970s Said felt that criticism of Israel was often insensitive to the background of its establishment as a last bastion of defense for the Jewish people after the ordeal of the Holocaust.

 

Almost 40 years later the context has altered, but not the effect of treating anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. Because of the failure to establish some kind of solution, and given Israeli defiance of international law through the settlements, separation wall, reliance on excessive force and collective punishment, the issue has captured the imagination of many people around the world, especially students, to become the leading unresolved moral struggle of our time, a successor to the South African struggle against apartheid a generation earlier, as acknowledged by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Now the government itself intrudes its influence on American society to make sure that the extended definition of anti-Semitism as incorporating strong criticism of Israel and Zionism is treated as hate speech. This is not only threatening freedom of expression and academic freedom, it is undermining the capacity of American citizens to fight nonviolently for what they believe is right in the world. When the government adopts punitive measures to discourage the BDS campaign or even academic conferences addressing the conflict, it is behaving in a profoundly anti-democratic manner. Such behavior follows directly from the understanding given to the ‘special relationship’ binding Israel to the United States in a manner that often contradicts proclaimed national values and even national interests. Our Secretary of State, John Kerry, boasts of the hundreds of occasions where the U.S. has blocked votes critical of Israel within the UN without even bothering to consider whether any of such initiatives were justified or not.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

III.

 

Let me finally raise the questions as to why this debate about what is and what is not anti-Semitism relates to the responsibility of the intellectual as understood, especially by Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. In his 2003 Preface to Orientalism Said writes these telling words: “Above all, critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or anther approved enemy.” [XXII] Frequently, Said reinforces the role of the intellectual to remain on the margins, an outsider, whose only weapon is bearing witness and truth-telling, a role authenticated by the absence of any claim to have expert knowledge, more a standing in solidarity with those being victimized by oppression and injustice, a normative posture that rests on moral and legal foundations of respect for the value of all persons and peoples. Said’s succinct expression is memorable. He characterizes the public intellectual “as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak truth to power.” [Representations, XVI]

 

The irony of this orientation of the intellectual is that it collides directly with the State Department conception of the new anti-Semitism. In other words, to avoid the blanket charge of anti-Semitism as now officially defined Said would have to renounce his chosen identity as a public intellectual. This would weaken the quality of academic freedom as well as undermine public discourse. No resource of higher education is more precious, in my judgment, than the presence of those all to few public intellectuals who challenge the prevailing wisdom of the society on the basis of conscience and truthfulness. It is the foundation of vigilant citizenship, already recognized by Thomas Jefferson as indispensable for sustaining democracy, and it is also the basis for challenging vested interests and mistaken policies. This role of public intellectuals is threatened by this assault on freedom of expression wrapped up in a false effort to discourage anti-Semitism, and it relates to such broader concerns as the stifling of political discourse due to the corporatization of the media and higher education.

 

On no issue is this unfettered dialogue more needed in the United States than in relation to Israel/Palestine. As Michael Oren showed in his memoir Ally the special relationship bonding Israel and the United States implies the absence of any public acknowledgement of policy disagreements and a policy of unconditional support. Israel did its bit to uphold its end of this unseemly bargain recently by being the only country of 194 in the UN that supported the United States determination to maintain sanctions on Cuba despite the Obama renewal of diplomatic relations. After all American taxpayers have long sent annually billions of dollars to Israel, as well as a range of weapons and munitions. They are entitled to know if this money is being spent in a manner that accords with international law and American national interests. The overriding of Israel’s objections to the Iran Nuclear Agreement illustrated the extent to which Israel can challenge vital policy

initiatives undertaken by the elected leaders of the American government.

 

Never have we more needed to protect and celebrate our public intellectuals, and never more so than in the context of Israel/Palestine. For this reason we

should be celebrating the legacy of Edward Said, a world famous public intellectual, and the person, who more than anyone on the planet fulfilled the role of responsible public intellectual. Instead of defending him against these incendiary charges of anti-Semitism we should be honoring his memory by studying his ideas and enacting the values of resistance and struggle that he commends in the face of injustice.

 

IV

 

In concluding, there is an obvious tension that exists more vividly than when Edward Said was alive, and commenting on the Palestinian struggle. Israel has created on the ground a set of circumstances that seem irreversible and are institutionalizing a single apartheid Israeli state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine (minus Jordan). The Israeli leadership has made clear the inappropriateness of establishing a Palestinian state, and given the insistence on making even the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as ‘a Jewish state,’ the dye seems cast. At the same time, the international Palestinian solidarity movement has never been stronger, with the BDS campaign leading the way, moving from success to success. And so as ‘the battlefield’ has shifted to a legitimacy war that the Palestinians are winning, the Israeli tactics have retaliated with an all out effort to demonize as anti-Semitism these new forms of non-violent resistance. This is the essential objective of the new anti-Semitism, and it is scandalous the U.S. State Department has endorsed such demonization with its newly adopted formal definition of anti-Semitism. To defeat this effort is essential not only for the Palestinian struggle, but to keep America safe for democratic discourse and universities hospitable to the kind of critical thinking that Edward Said’s scholarship and activism exemplified.