A Conversation With Richard Falk, Part 2
On Israel, Palestine, and his work as a UN special rapporteur.
When I met Richard Falk shortly before the turn of 2017 into 2018, I found the scholar, lawyer, activist, advocate, adviser, and writer as kinetically thoughtful and plugged-in as his many books and blogs suggested. In the first half of our lengthy exchange, we ranged over a variety of topics having to do mostly with policy, politics, and—this very prominently—the Middle East and the genealogy of its various crises. Part 2 follows.
Our talk took a different turn as we continued, as if a movie camera we operated dollied out. After discussing his views on Israel and Palestine—he has been intimately involved in the conflict for many years—we took up Falk’s concept of “legitimacy struggle” and the drift of history away from “hard power” to the power conferred by legal and moral superiority. Falk surprised me with his examples. Vietnam, South Africa: Not since the colonial era has military force decisively prevailed over fundamentally just fights for rights and liberation. We also found our way into anti-Semitism (real and conjured), cosmopolitanism, the UN’s chronic deficiencies, and the fate of the nation-state.
I wanted to hear something of Falk’s personal story, too, and he readily obliged. He spoke of his two moments of transformation—his experiences in Vietnam and more recently among Palestinians—and the influence of his long friendship with the late Edward Said. What was it in his early life, I asked in the end, that led him into so varied, active, and committed a career? This kind of question nearly always yields interesting answers. I will leave Falk’s where it is, at the conclusion of our rewarding exchange.
Patrick Lawrence: Let’s turn to Israel and Palestine, given your long engagement and expertise. Where do you think the conflict now stands? I was quite struck by the clarity of your thinking on this in various blogs and publications. You trace a progression of stages, for example, from armed struggle to diplomacy and now to civil-society action, nonviolence, and international support. Please talk about where the conflict is now in your assessment, maybe in the context of those stages.
Richard Falk: Well, I think from the Israeli point of view, they are trying to sell the world on the proposition that they’ve won and the Palestinians have lost, and the world should move on. People like Daniel Pipes [the conservative scholar], and the Middle East Forum, which is his vehicle, they have what they call now a “victory caucus,” and they’re trying to organize Congress and the Knesset in Israel behind this idea that Palestinians themselves would be better off if they surrender and admit their defeat. So that’s one side of the effort. Netanyahu has encouraged this kind of initiative.
On the other side is a more robust civil-society movement that’s growing in several parts of the world. It has had important successes with large corporate projects, and I think will continue to grow. Because it’s growing, there’s pushback that is trying to say that if you’re favorable to BDS [the boycott, disinvestment, sanctions campaign] or to any kind of civil-society, nonviolent activism, you’re anti-Semitic. I’ve been victimized and targeted in this.
PL: Two terms I would like to ask you to elaborate on in this context: “legitimacy struggles” and “legitimacy wars.” They’re quite important in your writings. I gather “lawfare” is an Israeli coinage that is a corollary.
RF: Well, it’s used both positively and negatively, but the Israelis have been using it. It came from the American neocons, who said law is a weapon of the weak. Douglas Feith, one of the neocons, he was, I think, the first person to articulate that position—that those who complained about the post–9/11 tactics that were used and relying on law were trying to hamper the efforts of the strong. So that’s one dimension of this.
Legitimacy wars really go back to the anti-colonial period, when the political outcome was controlled not by the militarily superior side but by those on the right side of history, if one wants to put it that way. It’s a lesson unlearned for the US: Hard power has lost its historical agency. It had that in the 18th and 19th centuries, when colonial powers could impose their will in a relatively efficient way. We should have learned this lesson during the Vietnam War, when we had complete military dominance and yet lost.
There was a famous conversation after the war ended between a Vietnamese colonel and an American counterinsurgency colonel, in which the counterinsurgency colonel said, “You know, you never conquered us on the battlefield.” And the Vietnamese response was, “You’re right, but it’s irrelevant.” Failure to understand that irrelevance is what costs the US over and over again, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, in all these places. The US can’t think outside the military box, and so it keeps trying to reinvent a successful strategy for counterinsurgency warfare. But it won’t work.
Another of my notorious students was David Petraeus.
PL: My, you have quite a roster.
RF: I always tell people it shows I don’t indoctrinate my students. And hopefully they don’t indoctrinate me.
Petraeus gained his reputation and rose rapidly through the ranks because he provided a rationale for conducting Vietnam-style warfare and winning. And he tried to apply it in Iraq and Afghanistan. It made his career. It was a very clever career move.
PL: The strategies you talk about, legitimacy struggles, and moral and legal superiority…
RF: Which is one way of talking about being on the right side of history.
PL: It takes patience, you observe. I want you to reconcile this with another observation you make in the Israel–Palestine context: Time is not on the side of the weaker party, you argue. But you also say it requires patience—indeed, one can understand that.
RF: I think I made that observation mainly in the context of a critique of the Oslo diplomacy, where the failure of diplomacy hurt the Palestinians and helped the Israelis, because they could expand the settlements.
It was paradoxical—the very objective of the Oslo diplomacy was supposedly the two-state outcome. But the tactics and strategy of Israel, which were successful, were to use the Oslo diplomacy to make the two-state solution nonviable by creating so many settlers, making the settlement phenomenon irreversible, changing the character of Jerusalem in such a way that it would be difficult to create an East Jerusalem capital. If you put it in that limited way, it’s not inconsistent with saying that a legitimacy-war strategy requires a long game, so to speak.
PL: In another passage, you mention the proper conditions necessary for diplomacy to work. These “preconditions,” as you call them, are essential to a sustainable result. There has to be some equality in the frame; one side cannot possess the power to dictate the desired outcome. You start to wonder whether Netanyahu is very close to foreclosing on any such conditions at all with the settlements. Is he tipping diplomacy over into an impossibility? Reading you most recent work [Palestine’s Horizon, Pluto, 2017], toward the end when you’re writing about Edward Said, you seem to suggest that diplomacy is decisively dead.
RF: It’s reached a dead end. Because you at least have to have a balanced diplomatic framework and you have to have two parties that think they have something to gain in the diplomatic interaction. Here, Israel feels it has nothing to gain, and therefore it participates only to make the process fail and to protect its public image as a country that is seeking peace.
PL: Should we look at Netanyahu as a break, or radical swerve in the history of Israel? Or is he just another Donald Trump act—simply saying what was meant all along but hidden?
RF: I think he’s more opportunistic and more cynical than some of the earlier Israeli leaders. But it’s the mainstream of what I would say was the conservative Zionist line of continuity from the beginning, because the Zionist movement had to expel the Palestinians to be Jewish and democratic. Once you expel the Palestinians and don’t let them back in, you’ve created an apartheid structure, because you’ve subjugated the people whose country it was. Whether you subjugate them directly or put them in refugee camps in Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere, it’s still a pattern where one race is dominating and oppressing another race so as to maintain its claim to be Jewish and democratic.
That was the puzzle that the South African leadership never had to face. They didn’t pretend to be democratic. That’s why I think it’s very important to think about the present. If you want peace for the two peoples, you’ve got to get rid of apartheid, not end the occupation. Ending the occupation is just once piece of a bigger puzzle.
PL: Defenders of Israel: For my money they’ve made a complete hash of accepted thinking about anti-Semitism. Criticism of Israel is supposedly equated. With this definition, as you point out, Edward Said was a confirmed anti-Semite. You mention “the new anti-Semitism” and “the old anti-Semitism.” This landed rather hard with you to be so classified. Can you talk about this?
RF: Well, in one way it doesn’t land very hard, because it’s so irrelevant to my belief system. I’ve never had any kind of hostility toward the Jews—myself being a Jew, not a very observant one, but still that’s the identity I was born with and have. Also, the history of Zionism is one where they’re constantly collaborating with anti-Semites to promote the project of establishing a Jewish homeland.
There’s some very good archival research that has been done. For instance, Poland’s anti-Semitic government helped train the Israeli militias that fought in the 1948 war because they wanted to get rid of Jews. And the same with Christian Zionists—the plot of the Book of Revelations is that the Second Coming of Jesus will occur when all of the Jews go back to Israel and Israel is established as a Jewish state. So you have this kind of combination of real anti-Semitism and Zionism. It’s not only political anti-Semitism, it’s a real dislike of Jews. It is “anti-Semitic” at its core. Even Eichmann, when they [the Nazi regime] entered into this deal with the Zionists who were trying to encourage emigration to Palestine to overcome the demographic balance.
There were only 3 percent to 5 percent Jews in Palestine at the time of the Balfour Declaration [issued in 1917, wherein Britain recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish homeland]. That was the puzzle: How do you get control of a society where you’re 3 to 5 percent of the population? They had to figure out a way to get Jews in and Arabs out, and that’s the fundamental moral dilemma from the beginning. And how do you hide that? You had to do that, but you couldn’t let the world know that you were doing it.
PL: Has the State Department actually adopted the definition? I read it’s about to, or it’s under consideration.
RF: I’m not precisely sure. They’ve endorsed some kind of text, but I’m not sure.
PL: I don’t know if you saw this, but in one town in Texas, no flood relief for BDS supporters.
RF: The absurdity of it.
PL: I’m eager to ask: Do you see a special role for Jews of conscience on this question? A Norman Finkelstein or a Richard Falk, for instance. I think I must, because I have a half-conscious tendency—it doesn’t even come fully into my mind—to be pleased enough, if I’m writing about Israel, to quote a Jew in my criticism, as if that’s a kind of shelter. You talk about the invisible effects of the new anti-Semitism. Maybe this is one. I’m a Christian and I have to be careful.
RF: I think you’re right. I think that that is certainly true. And of course, that’s what drives the Zionists crazy, and they call people like Norman Finkelstein and myself “self-hating Jews.”
PL: This is a great coinage. They have to take care of you somehow.
RF: Norman Finkelstein, incidentally, was another one of my former students. He got his Ph.D at Princeton…
PL: Your work with the Palestinians during your years as special rapporteur were a personal transformation for you, I take it, and so was your long friendship with Edward Said.
RF: Well, I really had two personal transformations. One was Vietnam and the other was Palestine. I really didn’t understand the Vietnam War until I went to North Vietnam twice during the war, once to bring back three pilots and the other time to meet…
PL: As an international law scholar?
RF: Yes. I was invited the first time as an international law expert to view the bomb damage at a time when [Robert[ McNamara [defense secretary under Kennedy and Johnson] was saying this was the most surgical bombing in human history or something, which was a complete lie.
With the Palestinians, too, it was the transforming effect of an existential contact with a courageous people who are being victimized in numerous ways and yet maintain a spirit of love and forgiveness. I met many wonderful people.
PL: How did your experience with Palestinians influence your long engagement with the cause of global justice? Did your experience in Palestine bring you to larger questions of global justice?
RF: I had always, since I was a student, been interested in big global issues and worried about nuclear weapons. So I’ve always had that, two levels: the very theoretical and general view of what’s going on in the world and how to change it, and then the specific concrete enactment of this larger structure. I’ve mediated between those two and been deeply involved with Vietnam and Iran and then Palestine and to some extent Turkey, and then at the same time been a student of the state system and American foreign policy in relation to that.
PL: Please talk about what you’ve called “the old and new geopolitics.”
RF: Trying to put it in the simplest terms, the old geopolitics unfolded in a world where hard power shaped history. In the new geopolitics, hard power is of course still a relevant dimension, but history has been shaped to a much greater degree by soft power or by legitimacy war.
If you look back on the last century, the most significant transformation was the collapse of the European colonial empires. That occurred not because of military power; it occurred because of the mobilization of people and having history on their side.
PL: And moral and legal superiority.
RF: Yes. And gaining that high ground, which didn’t always exist. For instance, after World War I, there was no illegitimacy attached to colonialism. There were some arguments from Woodrow Wilson and Lenin and so on, but still, even when the UN was formed, there was no condemnation of colonialism. That normative process occurred during the anti-colonial struggles, where national mobilizations overwhelmed these superior colonial armies. The French had the experience in Algeria and in Indochina. The English and the great British Empire were beaten by Gandhi in a nonviolent movement.
PL: “Emerging and not-yet-emergent” is your phrase for this transformation. “This transition will not go forward very far unless reinforced by a dramatic enlarging of the political imagination of leaders and of citizens.” Perfectly true, I think, but how is that to be achieved?
RF: I wish I knew. [Laughs] As I tried to say at the very beginning of our conversation, we just don’t know much about how these political leaps forward or backward come about. As I say, we can think back after they occur and explain why they occurred, but to anticipate what it is that will alter the political landscape in a dramatic way is beyond our mental capacity, in my view. I didn’t anticipate this right-wing surge of populism around the world, and I don’t know anybody who was really on to that before it began to unfold.
I did see it coming just prior to Trump and prior to Brexit. By then it was emergent in Western Europe in these right-wing parties that were getting stronger and India having populists, what they call “our Trump,” and Japan having a kind of militarist leader. There was definitely a structural tendency toward repudiating liberal democratic politics.
PL: The case of Israeli intentions and the Israeli military, and the military- industrial complex here—this is on a lot of people’s minds. When you talk about new geopolitics, you’re bound to be open to a charge of what the French call angélisme—excessive idealism. People who read my column and comment on it ask this. We all know people who ask, “How are we going to dismantle these extraordinarily solidified institutions?” I don’t have an answer. How do you put your notion of a new geopolitics next to these specific institutions?
RF: It’s a very fair and important question, and I don’t have a real answer for it, except to say that the new geopolitics doesn’t purport to explain state-society relations. It tries to understand a shift in the way in which change occurs globally. It’s a theory of global change. How you dismantle these structures that have become so embedded does, I think, require a revolutionary challenge. In other words, normal politics cannot address the military-industrial complex.
PL: It’s locked.
RF: Yeah. And it was, I think, from the time Eisenhower made the original assertion in his farewell address.
PL: A friend went into the [Eisenhower] papers—I think they’re at Yale—and into the drafts, and concluded that he was not warning about anything to come: He was telling us what was already in place.
RF: Yes. Significantly, he told it when he was leaving.
PL: They all say things when they’re leaving.
RF: Yes. And that is part of my assertion that normal politics and normal politicians are not going to get this job done. It has to be a radical challenge.
PL: I loved your discussion of the modern, and I’ve written about this question in relation to the West and non-West. You write about it as an essentially Western-centric concept, and you say it’s the source of the problem but also the source of the solution. Can you talk about that?
RF: I haven’t written about it recently. I’m not a good reader of my own work, so I have only a loose sense that I have appreciated the contributions that science and rationality have made to improve the conditions of life in many respects. But I have also seen that the instrumental quality of this trust of science and rationality and technology marginalizes the normative, whether it’s spirituality or legality or morality. In that sense, there’s a lot to learn from the non-Western cultures that emphasize compassion and empathy.
PL: Your work seems to have brought you to a very interesting, consistent critique of instrumental reasoning. Could you talk about that a little?
RF: I was a law student who was trying to avoid being a lawyer, which was a challenge of its own, so I studied Indian law very thoroughly and studied Sanskrit while I was a law student, much to the derision of my classmates and others. And I was attracted to Buddhism for a time, prior to the Myanmar version of Buddhism.
PL: The Myanmar situation is a variation of what Modi [Narenda Modi, India’s Hindu-nationalist mrime Minister] has got the Hindus doing in India—constructing an artificial notion of “nation” as identified with one religion and one tradition to the exclusion of others.
RF: Yeah, and it can happen in any religious cultural frame…
PL: Anyway, back to instrumental reasoning.
RF: Instrumental reasoning is very much connected with problem solving and the pursuit of selfish ends and individualism and capitalism.
PL: A second half of the 19th-century phenomenon. It came along with progress and industrialization.
RF: Yes, the theory of progress resting on this kind of materialist understanding—material applications of science and technological innovations—and what that does is to, in the end, marginalize virtue.
PL: Vast segments of human knowledge and cognition.
RF: Yes. I’ve argued in intellectual settings that what contemporary civilization needs to get beyond this sort of modernism is a moral epistemology—a way of combining knowledge with values. We lack that. We have an empirical epistemology.
PL: But empiricism is essentially an Anglo-American phenomenon.
PL: I’ve often argued that parity between West and non-West is the essential 21st-century task. It will get done. I think it’s inevitable. It’s the turning of history’s wheel. The question is whether it gets done peaceably or with a very great deal of violence. Do you subscribe to that notion?
RF: I haven’t thought enough about it, but I think that certainly in the short run the relationship of China and the world is…
PL: China’s a clear example of what I mean.
RF: Yes. And you’re probably familiar with this book that Graham Allison has written, The Thucydides Trap [Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap, Houghton Mifflin, 2017]. He argues that it almost always produces a war when an emerging global power is overtaking the existing dominant power. He argues that it will take a lot of ingenuity to avoid that.
PL: The nation-state, in this frame of West and non-West: For the Chinese, the Japanese, and other people in the East it was a Western technology imported just the way railroads and everything else was imported. It’s proving problematic now even in the West. I’d like you to talk about that. You seem to suggest the nation-state’s time is coming to an end.
RF: That may be an overstatement. I’ve said inconsistent things and felt inconsistent things. Sometimes I’ve emphasized the resilience of the nation-state as a political form, but what I am conscious of—and it relates to what you’ve been saying about the non–West—is that there’s a much less clear notion that political community can be defined by reference to these territorial enclosures.
Again, referring to my conversation with Khomeini, he felt the political community that counted was the community of believers and that the European nation-state was imposed on the Islamic world.
PL: It is just my point.
RF: You may remember, the first slogan of ISIS when it established its so-called failed caliphate was “the End of Sykes-Picot.” [Britain and France signed the Sykes–Picot Agreement in 1916, dividing much of the Middle East into nation-states.] What they meant was: We’re establishing a real political community; we’re not establishing these artificial communities that were imposed upon us by the West.
PL: You’re anticipating again my next question. I’ll pose it as briefly as I can.
You may know [Ernest] Renan’s famous essay “What is a Nation?” What was going on in 1882, when he addressed the Sorbonne? France was inventing its tradition. It was figuring out what modern France looked like and what it meant to be French. The context is important. Renan argued that a modern nation can have nothing to do with language, tradition, religion, and other such things. We must have laïcité or secularism or whatever. That is a good argument. Netanyahu insists Israel must be a Jewish state. Wrong—the fatal error. I’m with Said on this: One state, secular and respectful of all. Renan’s argument was important to me when Said made the case for a single state.
But Renan made an instrumental argument: This is a technology our industrial era needs, he was saying. But in essence he argued for the erasure of the past. So there is another side to the question.
You may say Catalonia is a good cause, for instance: A long past must be honored. But in Eastern Europe, right-wing populists are making the same argument: We have our community, we want it to remain as it has been. That’s a bad cause, but it’s not that different. I arrive at the question: How do we want to live? What is the right way to look at this problem?
RF: It’s a question of particular interest to me, because I’m involved with the Catalonian issue. I’m one of a three-person commission that is advising the Catalonians on their rights under international law.
I really think it depends on how we want to think about political community and the relationship it has to democratic choices. In the Catalonian situation… they really don’t want to be independent. They want a better autonomy deal. Madrid, for its own reasons, radicalized them. So they’re both now on this road of no return, both sides. I primarily would fault Madrid, because the Catalans said again and again, let’s talk, let’s have dialogue and negotiate, and Madrid was taking more and more of the revenue.
I think that Catalonia represents a false escalation. The more you know about it, of course, the more complicated it is. There’s an important Spanish minority in Catalonia that came as labor migrants from Andalucía because the Catalans were doing so much better than the rest of Spain. They’re very anti-separatist. It’s an interesting moment. You feel that there is this sort of live tissue of history unfolding.
PL: Timothy Brennan, who was a student and friend of Said’s, has written some interesting criticisms of cosmopolitanism. The nation-state is an invented community, OK, but it’s also a manageable community, he argues. It provides people with an actual environment in which to present challenges to power, assert rights, and so forth. The nation-state should not be so easily discarded or surrendered to notions of global governance or some globalist cosmopolitanism. How do we fit this in with autonomy questions like Catalonia?
RF: I think the limitation of “cosmopolitanism or the nation-state” is that one really needs these limited political communities and a cosmopolitan dimension. It’s not either/or.
PL: Brennan is, or was at the time he wrote these things, for a “new internationalism.”
RF: I would say you need a new globalism, because the UN is too weak to uphold the global interest. It’s really a collection of national interests. As the climate-change agenda demonstrates, if the human species is to do well in the future, you need mechanisms for protecting the global interest and the human interest, as distinct from the national interest. So you have both things. You want both the limited political community and you need a cosmopolitan dimension.
That didn’t exist before—nuclear weapons and other things have created this need for the protection of global interests. It was fine in the 19th century to not be protecting it—there was no global interest. But since Hiroshima and Nagasaki there is a global interest, and we need some way of protecting that. We need some cosmopolitan values to energize that protection.
PL: I think Brennan’s protest is against a kind of spongy, unified, polychromatic culture, as he puts it. He calls cosmopolitanism an “idealist detour.” The place of neoliberalism in this is hardly to be missed…
RF: Oh, I know, and I’m sympathetic to that.
PL: …and so he advances the principle he calls a new internationalism.
RF: Well, I think it’s a very interesting observation. I would say he is wrong to reduce cosmopolitanism to single perspective. I prefer the plural: cosmopolitanisms. There are different forms of cosmopolitanism, and not all of them are necessarily idealistic. In fact, you can make a strong case for saying that, given the global challenges associated with climate change, nuclear weapons, world poverty, migrations, and disease, one needs some sense that the human species itself is at risk and that the structure of a world order based on the nation-state does not have a functional capacity to solve problems of global scope. It can aggregate national interests, but it does not have the capacity to promote the human interest or the global interest.
That wasn’t so important until the advent of nuclear weapons and the climate-change crisis, but it’s evident now that the mechanisms available are not adequate to solve these kinds of problems, because nation-states have the commitment only to their own political community. They don’t have a commitment to the species.
We’ve relied on the notion that leading states are surrogates for the promotion of the global public good, but that clearly doesn’t work when either geopolitical security interests are at stake, as they are with nuclear weapons, or large economic interests are at stake, as is the case with climate change. So in some sense, the survival of the species and the survival of civilizational decency presuppose some form of cosmopolitanism. You can call it by other names, but it isn’t intrinsically idealistic in the 21st century, in my view.
PL: You make excellent distinctions there, and your points are well taken. Does this concept of cosmopolitanism that you’ve just explained provide for the expression of democratic aspiration?
RF: It doesn’t preclude democratic consciousness and democratic mechanisms for participation and decision-making. We haven’t got, at the present time, a structure that facilitates these. It would require reform of the United Nations, which operates in a very anti-democratic way, especially the Security Council, which often meets secretly. It’s not a transparent organization, and there’s very little opportunity for civil-society participation, and it doesn’t have the capabilities needed to address problems of global scope. So it’s really an agency for national interests, not an agency for pursuing international cooperation that’s in the common interest. It isn’t in any way a suitable mechanism for solving global problems.
What I’m really getting at is that one of the deficiencies of the current world order system is not so much the nation-state but the fact that the UN is too weak and too derivative of the nation-state system to have the capability of protecting the global public good.
PL: For many years, I’ve taken the UN to be thoroughly corrupted by Washington’s overbearing influence. There are plenty of examples of this.
RF: I think if you look from the top down that’s definitely true. In other words, it’s a geopolitically manipulated institution, especially on war, peace, and security issues. But on some other things it’s done a great deal, particularly for non-Western countries. For instance, the compilation of health statistics or the proper treatment of children or the preservation of cultural-heritage sites—all of those things are really big contributions, but not to the big picture.
PL: Let’s conclude with a little autobiography. Can you talk about the tidal wave of opposition you encountered after you were appointed special rapporteur?
RF: There is this very noticeable shift among strong Israeli forces and Israel itself, not only in relation to myself but in relation to other kinds of opposition and criticism of Israel, that wants to focus on the messenger, not the message. And therefore, it has to undermine the credibility of the messenger and either imply or assert that the messenger is an anti-Semite or in my case a self-loathing Jew or whatever it takes to perform this quite dysfunctional dirty work of discrediting people that are trying to address serious issues. And it confuses the nature of anti-Semitism as a hate crime, which has done such human damage in the past century. The Jews and Israelis, least of all, should be using it in this opportunistic way of fending off criticism.
PL: I know. The victims become victimizers, and so become victims a second time—there’s a certain subgenre in the literature.
RF: And as I say, the former victims use their own victimization as a way of victimizing new people. It’s damaging to them because anti-Semitism is still a real concern in such situations, in more global situations. It’s the furthest thing from my reality. I have many faults, but that’s not one of them.
PL: In equating principled opposition to Israeli policy to anti-Semitism, they’re creating a lot of anti-Semites, a point we touched on earlier.
RF: That also. And they’re confusing what anti-Semitism really is. The Wiesenthal Institute, which is supposedly a kind of human-rights institute in Los Angeles, listed me as the third-most-dangerous anti-Semite in the world a couple of years ago, and the first two were the supreme guide of Iran and the prime minister of Turkey. It made me feel I must be doing a good job at the UN. [Laughs]
PL: You’ve lived a quite rare life of commitment and engagement. You mention in your books that something in your background produced a givenness to underdogs and causes of justice. I’m always interested in how people’s very personal pasts manifest in public ways later on. I’d love to hear you talk about that.
RF: I’ve thought about that myself quite a bit, and I trace it back to two kinds of issues in my family. My father, who was basically my single parent for most of my life from the age of 6 or 7, was quite conservative. He was an opponent of the New Deal and he was a lawyer, but his real passion was the US Navy. He had been on an admiral’s staff in World War I and he wrote some rather influential books on the rise of Japanese sea power. And so I had this kind of militarist, anti-communist home life. He was a lawyer for Kerensky [Alexander Kerensky led the provisional Russian government the Bolsheviks deposed in October 1917] and a lot of well-known anti-communist figures.
On my mother’s side, her family was a very economically successful family, but very cold and unemotional and very much of a materialist, winner’s psychology. That led me very early to identify with underdogs, starting with sports. They were all New York Yankee fans; I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. And that sounds silly.
PL: [Laughs] It doesn’t sound silly at all, actually.
RF: We lived on the West Side [of Manhattan] with my father, on Central Park, and we would go to Sunday dinner with my grandmother at her Fifth Avenue apartment—so, in other words, cross the park. That always felt like crossing the tracks. It wasn’t really true, but it felt like going from the proletarian side to where the rich people lived. My father was always worried about money, and so it created this disparity. But despite his politics, he was a very warm and loving person, as distinct from my mother’s family.
So I think those kinds of family dynamics played an early role, but I was confused politically until I graduated from law school and started teaching at Ohio State. There, the overall atmosphere was so reactionary, and the graduate students and the young faculty were quite progressive.
PL: What years were these?
RF: 1955 to 1961. It was then that I developed an admiration for the Cuban Revolution and an opposition at that early stage to the Vietnam War. I saw the US trying to do what the French had just failed to do. I started with a pragmatic opposition, feeling that it was an imprudent and politically dysfunctional war to engage in—that we were living in the anti-colonial era and the flow of history was against the colonial powers. But then, when I went to Vietnam for the first time in 1968, I saw the whole situation not from my head so much as from my heart, and I felt what it meant to be a completely vulnerable people in relation to high-technology warfare. The Vietnamese had so much dignity, and this very unusually talented leadership that completely changed my way of thinking about foreign policy and these kinds of issues from that moment forward.
PL: I greatly appreciate reading your thoughts on Said and his notion of the public intellectual—marginal, an amateur not a scholar, not an expert figuratively or in fact, an outsider. What makes these things necessary? What, finally, is the responsibility of the intellectual today?
RF: I think what Edward had in mind—and Hannah Arendt is another person who wrote insightfully about this issue—is that you need to not have true high stakes in the existing structures and the existing system. It gives you a kind of perspective that is very hard to maintain if you have strong ambitions and opportunities within the system. For people like Edward and to some extent myself, who were in some ways in privileged relationships to the system, it was always a struggle to maintain that kind of detachment of so-called “speaking truth to power.” Because there were always the temptations that if you didn’t speak truth to power, you would enjoy the advantages of power, so there was that kind of seductive possibility.
This was probably more so in my case than in his because he was a literature person, but I always had the seeming opportunity of an important position in the government or something or that sort. So it was important for me to keep my integrity, and Vietnam was very instrumental in making me feel that’s who I am and who I want to be.
PL: May I boil it down to maintaining a certain measure of, let’s say, livable marginality?
RF: Yes, and to some extent that aspect is exaggerated, because the margin is thick enough so there’s a political community.
PL: Yes, I find that myself.
RF: Yes. Even at Princeton I never felt alienated, although I was objectively marginalized, so that you have both things operating at the same time. I preferred my community of people, who were willing to give up their ambitions to power and wealth in order to be more aligned with causes of social justice.
PL: I don’t think it’s giving up ambition. I think it’s substituting an ambition of integrity.
RF: Yes, that may be a language issue. But I remember several times when I was younger at Princeton people who were very well connected with the government telling me: You know, you’d be much more effective if you went down and spent the weekend with Nick Katzenbach [attorney general in the Johnson administration] than by giving these talks at teach-ins. The idea was that to influence policy and to become influential is to play the insider game rather than to be a public intellectual.
PL: As LBJ would put it, it’s a question of being inside the tent urinating out or outside the tent urinating in. In journalism there seems to be nothing more to be done inside the tent. My very unpopular argument is that journalists should be paid less and live more modestly and not have pretensions to play tennis with secretaries of state and so forth.
RF: It’s funny you mention that, because I was the designated tennis and squash player for these high officials. Not because I particularly wanted to do it. It was amusing. I played with [Donald] Rumsfeld and Alexander Hague [chief of staff under Nixon and Ford, secretary of state under Reagan] and several others. Fortunately, I was never defeated by any of these guys.