Evasions, Accidents, Engagements, and Fulfillment: An Autobiographical Fragment
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 9 Mar 2020
2 Mar 2020 – 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.’
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 unforgivable 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 remains 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.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).
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