By Jim Miles
(Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim. Richard Falk. Clarity Press, Atlanta, GA. 2021)
Writing an autobiography after living the better part of a century as a public intellectual has resulted in Richard Falk’s superbly written story spanning many major events of the 20th and nascent 21st centuries. Public Intellectual is densely written with interlocking ideas and actions, presenting a life lived with integrity, while illuminating both the personal and public life of a citizen pilgrim.
Falk writes with an honesty and humility that reinforces his varied thoughts; he displays a sense of humor, mostly in his personal life; and above all, he writes with passion about the many people and events he has met and about the ideas and thoughts sparked by his keen interest in human rights.
Human rights are at the center of his ideas, and part of the germination of his ideas stems from his academic career during which he became disillusioned with the main motivating factor for many of his academic colleagues. The “great universities” – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn – “could be interpreted as privileged centers of learning and socialization of the elites where the resources of knowledge are placed directly and even more indirectly, at the service of power, of wealth and privileges. .”
In discussing academic activism in the Vietnam War, he realized “how disconnected I was… from an American political culture… endorsing nationalist, militarist and capitalist priorities, while being slow to overcome injustices associated with race, gender and class.
Throughout his career, Falk visited many trouble spots around the world, mostly at the invitation of interests who knew of his background in international law and human rights. His travels took him several times to Vietnam, during and after the war; he visited Iran during its era of turmoil at the end of the Shah’s regime and the beginning of the religious ayatollahs; and he has strong personal and academic ties to Turkey and provides solid insight into its recent events.
Israel and Palestine
Above all, “on no issue have the personal and the political been more intertwined in my life experience, particularly since the turn of the 21st century, than with regard to the long struggle involving Palestine and Israel.
Falk is Jewish even though his identity with “being Jewish was weak”. He remembers “uncritically accepting the early glamorization of Israel…heroically prevailing against much larger neighboring Arab countries…making the desert bloom…and mostly populated by happy young people…creating an emerging utopia…that would bring modernity to the region…”. This narrative, supported by Western media, politicians and academics, gradually dissipated as Falk’s experiences increasingly exposed him to the true plight of the Palestinians.
From his academic/legal perspective, he examines the role of “insidious settlements” violating “the letter of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention”, making “Israeli’s abuse of its occupation role particularly blatant…. the Palestinians, but sufficient political will… is absent, being effectively neutralized by Israel and the United States. He began his mission as UN Special Rapporteur for Palestine with the country already identified by the previous rapporteur as “characteristic of European colonial structures and dependent on apartheid structures for control of Palestinian territory”.
Falk sums up his experiences in Palestine/Israel very succinctly: “I am in favor of a bi-national coexistence based on equality, mutual respect and human rights. He considers that “attention to the Palestinian people as a whole remains essential for genuine peace efforts”, because “the families of Palestinian refugees are the unjust consequence of the ethnic cleansing of the 1948 war and the years that followed”. .
He ends on a personal note after discussing the many ramifications of his experiences in Palestine: “I am neither as alienated and treacherous as my detractors claim, nor as brave and fearsome as my admirers claim.
Towards the end of Public Intellectual, Falk demonstrates that his intellect has kept pace with the changing times.
At odds – as usual – with most mainstream media and academia, he is reasonably positive about the rise of China juxtaposed with the decline of the United States. It begins with a comment on American exceptionalism, to which he “instinctively recoils” and “unless the underlying structures of predatory neoliberal capitalism and global militarism are challenged from below by a movement that is not beholden to controlling established bipartisan hegemony of political life…there will be no hope of arresting the decline and fall of the United States at home and abroad.”
On the purely economic front, “China confirms the remarkable materialistic potential of a modified capitalist framework intelligently adopted by state policies to seize market opportunities”. He then goes on to say, “China, among the great states, is the only country to orient its development strategies towards the ascendancy of soft power… and for this reason alone, it threatens its geopolitical rivals, above all the United States. In context, the phrase is also used in the context of an ecologically ‘secure’ life for ‘people in their country of origin’. The argument continues later, in which “militarist approaches to foreign policy [are] increasing their destructive and human costs. The fact that China and Asia understand this…helps explain the rise of China and the decline of the West.
This is perhaps an impasse he has yet to resolve: how market opportunities, even within an altered capitalist framework, align with his concern that “the human future depends on the realization of a sustainable, globalized and equitable future, including radically reformed relationships between human activity and the natural environment sensitive to the earth’s carrying capacity.
As a “pilgrim citizen,” it is incumbent upon us to continue to understand, to alter our thinking and actions, and to choose revolutionary paths to a peaceful and sustainable future.
Richard Falk has lived an incredible life, not content with accepting the status quo, let alone accepting the contempt and blame that comes with positions that challenge the comfort of elites – politicians, academics, militarists and businessmen. Public Intellectual is a dense reading of a lifetime of academic and human rights issues lived to the full, and is essential reading for a unique view and understanding of many events of the past century.
This is an incredible, well-written and thought-provoking book, well worth the intense reading.
– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for Palestine Chronicles. His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification through corporate governance and the US government.