Tag Archives: reflections

A 2018 Message to Blog Readers

1 Feb

 

 Let me seize the opportunity to say to all who visit this space that I hope that 2018 started as you would wish, at least privately. To feel satisfied publicly these days will require a series of miracles!

 

I am grateful to the community of blog readers, and especially to those whoshare their responses and reflections by way of comments. I have welcomed constructive challenges, including corrections, criticisms, disagreements, and realize that some of the themes addressed by my posts touch raw nerves.

 

I have struggled over the life of the blog to satisfy my wish to have the comments section serve as an open forum for a constructive interactive exchange of views. My main concern, aside from accommodating this wish, is to avoid having argumentative and abusive comments that seem motivated by hostility and a confrontational approach that seems disinterested in the give and take of conversation and dialogue. To a lesser extent, I am reluctant to approve comments that seem to be irrelevant to the discussion or that I find incoherent.

 

As some faithful followers of the blog have made clear in their comments or by private communication, approving such angry and insulting comments, creates a tone for the blog that discourages rather than facilitates the underlying hope to create a space for genuine communication.

 

Caught between these contradictory impulses of openness and civility, I have wavered since the blog began, sometimes leaning toward allowing almost all comments to be posted even if containing personal attacks and insults directed at me and others, hatred toward ethnicities and religions, and over the course of weeks blocking many comments with the goal of enhancing the quality of the discussion. Of course, those whose comments are blocked become even angrier and abusive, resorting to character assault, obscenity, and prejudice. I have had difficulty in finding solid middle ground, and maybe I am seeking what does not exist!

 

Much, but not all, of these difficulties arise in the context of Israel/Palestine. I do not deny that my involvement with these issues occasions controversy, but to question my competence as a scholar or integrity as a commentator is beyond the boundaries of the blog code I wish to affirm. As I have indicated in the past, for those who strongly question my credentials or character have a variety of other venues that would welcome such attacks.

 

In the end, without making this message needlessly ambivalent and confusing,  I will continue my struggle to walk this tightrope between freedom of expression and civility. I invite help from blog readers. It is not a simple matter. I acknowledge that there are times when uncivil rage is the appropriate response. I suppose I am addressing the broader question of setting standards for netizenship, which may become one dimension of a more globally oriented democratic ethos that stresses participation from below rather than leadership from above and electoral rituals.

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Remembering Zsa Zsa Gabor

20 Dec

th zsa_zsa_gabor_-_1959zsa_zsa_gabor_-_1959

 

Remembering Zsa Zsa Gabor

 

As an early teenager I came to know Zsa-Zsa Gabor and her family rather well. Indeed, her sister, Eva, lived in our New York apartment for several months. Zsa Zsa became my father’s client, and later close friend, during her high profile divorce from the pre-Trump hotel magnate, Conrad Hilton. I retain a strong childhood memory of visiting Hilton in his office located on the ground floor of the famous Hotel Plaza, which of course he then owned, as one phase of seemingly friendly divorce negotiations. I recall Hilton as a patriarchal presence with a courtly manner that included an attentiveness to my presence, despite being an irrelevant child presence.

 

I mainly remember Zsa Zsa for her a radiant personality, her playful social style that was charmingly coquettish, reinforced by a sharp wit, personal warmth, and a total absence of malicious sentiments. In the summers to escape New York heat and humidity, I was sent off to a camp in Maine. Days prior to leaving the city, Zsa Zsa with comic verve gave me a cram course in Hungarian swear words, which I repeated to my friends on the train carrying a group of campers to their destination. To my embarrassment there was an elderly lady sitting nearby, who turned out to be Hungarian. She immediately confronted me, and complained about what she called ‘my obscenities’ after asking if I realized what I was saying. I explained that a Hungarian friend taught me these phrases the previous day as a kind of joke. She backed off, almost apologetically, and I never again spoke Hungarian in public!

 

Zsa-Zsa had one of those charismatic personalities that transcends the ordinary. She irrepressibly and unavoidably herself on all occasions, and was to simulate the behavior of others.. This may explain why she was such a mediocre actress, never able to escape from her own skin or persona. Eva was far more successful as an actress because she was able to put her personality to one side and credibly impersonate a character in a film or play. Magda, the third and oldest sister, was poised and low-key, almost withdrawn by comparison to Zsa Zsa, appearing comfortable with her lower profile, although she did later marry George Sanders, the debonair actor who had come to dinner in our NY apartment before he was divorced from Zsa Zsa. Eva who I knew best because we shared the same space for a fairly long period was lively, at times a lower energy reproduction of Zsa Zsa, and in this sense somewhat derivative, lacking Zsa Zsa’s charm, social creativity, and vivacious intelligence.

 

After my father’s death in 1956 I failed to make the effort to keep a connection except on two occasions. My first academic position was in Columbus, Ohio where I was teaching at the Ohio State University School of Law. For some reason, Zsa Zsa was in Columbus for a few days, if I recall correctly, because she was acting in a touring Broadway play. We had a quiet dinner together at a downtown restaurant talking as if old friends sharing thoughts on how best to live our lives. After all, Zsa Zsa was only 13 years older than I am, and so the generational gap was narrow enough to allow for a relaxed interaction and near fatal attraction. Zsa Zsa’s magnetism, treated superficially and dismissively in the media, rested as much on her enthusiastic embrace of life and others as much as it did on her looks and sensuality.

 

My last contact with Zsa Zsa oddly linked with my Turkish life of recent decades. I came to Turkey in 1991 as part of a small European fact finding delegation interested in understanding the Kurdish uprising and the Turkish response. We were hosted by a European NGO, Helsinki Citizens, during this trip, which included visiting the Kurdish regions in eastern Turkey, and our lead contact was Murat Belge, Zsa Zsa’s step son, one of Turkey’s most respected journalists and political commentators, as well as author of several highly praised historical travel books. It turns out that Murat’s father was the first husband of Zsa Zsa who spent some years in Ankara after leaving her Budapest home shortly after she had become ‘Miss Hungary’ at the age of sixteen. In Ankara, I recall going with Murat to the home of his aunt who had a series of pictures of Zsa Zsa as a young girl with his father as well as with Kemal Ataturk. I promised Murat on that evening to do my best to put him in touch with Zsa Zsa, and managed to do so, which I know was at the time important for Murat.

 

In remembering Zsa Zsa what stands out for me is that rare combination of decency, charm, love of life, and playful sensuality. The public appreciations of what her life meant treat her mainly as the John the Baptist of reality shows and such latter day wonders as the Kardashian Sisters. There is a truth in this, but such an appraisal misses the greater reality of her remarkable embodiment of a robust femininist spirit. Above all, Zsa Zsa managed to live and enjoy life on her own terms while bringing enduring pleasure to many others.

Anticipating the Trump Presidency

13 Nov

 

 

[Prefatory Note: The post below was commissioned by the global-e journal ( http://www.21global.ucsb.edu/global-e ) and appears there as Volume 9, No. 3, November 2016.]

 

 

In the weeks prior to the American presidential election I received a large number of independent messages from progressive friends abroad who were either expats or citizens of other countries. I was not too surprised that almost every message expressed hostility to Hillary Clinton, but I was shocked that so many were opting for Trump to win the election or advocating a stay-at-home boycott or third party vote believing that neither Trump nor Clinton deserved support, and there was no basis for making one preferable to the other. I shared some of these sentiments, but overcame my doubts about the better option as the campaign wore on, becoming increasingly definite about supporting Clinton, initially as the lesser of evils and later more affirmatively, as she had become a woman unduly victimized by the nasty virulence of Trump’s hurtful misogynist slurs. I increasingly felt that my overseas friends were out of touch with the internal dynamics of American society, specifically, not appreciating that Trump’s election, in view of his campaign, would be a dark day of foreboding, hurt, rejection, and despair for African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, women, and supporters of progressive causes.

 

The views of my pro-Trump foreign friends have over the years been consistently humane and congenial. Their various reasons for being anti-Clinton or pro-Trump resulted from adopting predominantly structural outlooks or reflect preoccupations with specific substantive concerns. The structural arguments were two-fold: first, that both political parties in the US were equally subservient to the logic of neoliberal globalization (‘the Washington consensus’) that they believed was the source of many of the worst evils in the world, making Trump seem almost like a third party candidate who was challenging the core elements of economic globalization. For them, the only moral response was either to boycott the election altogether, as it made no difference which side won; or alternatively, take a chance with Trump, as he at least seemed likely to repudiate NAFTA and kill the TPP.

 

A second structural argument, often overlapping with the first, was that the military industrial corporate complex was embraced by the mainstream of both parties, making American global militarism bipartisan. Such a view was reinforced by the degree to which the Washington national security establishment and neocon think tanks overwhelmingly stepped forward to support Clinton, including many prominent Republicans, fearing that Trump would choose a security path that was adventurously dangerous or, worse, might even pursue an anti-militarist neo-isolationist foreign policy. Trump so threatened the Republican national security establishment that Washington’s political elite generally agreed he would make an unreliable and irresponsible leader of the American ‘global state.’ Trump’s repeated calls to rebuild America’s allegedly broken military capabilities were almost irrelevant, given his disorienting comments about alliances, nonproliferation, and regime-changing interventions. Although Trump’s challenge to political correctness in the security domain was anathema to Washington’s political class, it was music to the ears of my foreign friends.

There is a third version of structural analysis, ignored by my friends abroad, that seems helpful in explaining what happened in the American election. It is the extent to which various forms of ultra-nationalist populism are succeeding in electing leaders throughout the world by large margins, including Russia, India, Japan, Turkey, Egypt, Philippines, and now the United States. The Brexit vote in Britain, along with the rise of right wing political parties in Europe, exhibit a similar backlash against globalizing tendencies and foreign interventions that have in turn engendered menacing transnational migrations of desperate people fleeing war torn zones and escaping from extreme poverty. These migrations fuel chauvinism in the West that toxically interacts with economic stagnation, high levels of unemployment, terrorist anxieties, and closely related threats to indigenous ethnic and racial identities. In effect, right wing populism is a response to the failures of Western political, economic, and cultural systems to protect the material and psycho-political wellbeing of their respective national populations.

 

Over all, my foreign friends were generally opposed to Clinton’s global security agenda, especially as it pertained to Russia and the Middle East, and preferred Trump’s vague generalities and even regarded his inexperience as an asset. The pro-Trump arguments here concentrated on Clinton’s past record of support for regime-changing military interventions in the Middle East and her support for a No Fly Zone in Syria whose establishment would almost certainly result in a confrontation with Russia that could escalate into yet another American-sponsored regime-changing intervention in a Muslim country. Such an intervention was particularly feared as it could easily lead to a new cold war, with hot war dangers. More than a couple of my correspondents quoted her chilling remark in Libya shortly after Qaddafi’s capture and grisly execution, “We came, we saw, he died,” feeling that it embodied the heartless geopolitics in the Middle East that had produced the current regional turmoil.

 

Although these perceptions are anecdotal, I find them revealing and disturbing. Because American elections, especially this one, seem so important to people in other countries, the results are watched closely, sometimes more closely than their own national elections. Early reactions to the Trump victory in Mexico and Russia reveal contradictory priorities in various parts of the world. The Mexican reaction has been reported to be one of uniform shock and sorrow, as well as feelings of deep concern for their relatives and friends living in the US or worries that remittances from America for very poor families would now be in jeopardy or heavily taxed. In the streets of Moscow, there was rejoicing, since Russians, whether they liked Putin or not, seemed convinced that Trump would act as a practical business man and work toward cooperative relations that would help both governments diminish the frightening tensions currently associated with NATO, Ukraine, and Syria, and avoid any further downward spiral in relations that they quite reasonably feared would be the trajectory of a more ideological Clinton presidency.

 

Outside the U.S., many people, whether American or not, tend to view the Trump victory and the Clinton defeat through a single-issue optic that mostly pertains to international economic and security policy. In contrast, those living here in the United States, if drawn to Trump, are likely to be attracted by his anti-establishment outsider outlook combined with their own internal preoccupations with national economic policy, especially jobs and trade, and cultural liberalism (e.g., gays, pro-choice, race, immigration, and recreational drugs). Trump supporters with a more self-consciously conservative bent believe he would keep the Supreme Court appointment process in Republican hands for the next four years. This prospect alone apparently led many wavering suburban Republicans to vote for Trump in the end, disregarding qualms that might otherwise have kept them home on election day.

 

In his victory speech, Trump sounded gentle and benign, promising to govern for all citizens as a unifying leader, stressing the need to rebuild the decaying American infrastructure and even offering gracious praise to Hilary Clinton for a hard fought campaign. Unfortunately, this cheerful aftermath is bound to be short lived. Major struggles loom, and will begin as soon as Trump announces his appointments of cabinet members and key staff. Not long after some doubtless provocative choices, bitter policy controversies will emerge a he seeks to implement his programmatic priorities: scrapping Obamacare, NAFTA, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the Iran nuclear deal. Altogether, this will sadly erase from the books the best parts of the Obama legacy. It is not a pretty picture without even considering whether Trump will follow through on his most notorious pledges: mass deportation of ‘illegal’ immigrants, imposition of an airtight anti-Muslim immigration ban, and the construction a police friendly ‘law and order’ regime to combat ‘black lives matter’ activism and inner city crime.

 

In this period, American resilience will certainly be tested, probably as much or more than at any time since the American Civil War. The haunting uncertainty is whether the likely incivility of the Trump presidency will decisively darken the political destiny of the country, or only be a transitory period of regression. Can the creative energies of resistance and reform build a transformative movement of sufficient strength to balance the Trump juggernaut? On this slim possibility, somewhat prefigured by the primary campaign of Bernie Sanders, our hopes rest for a resilient and resurrected America again dedicated to achieving peace abroad and justice at home.

 

There is a final observation that deserves commentary and reflection. It should not be overlooked that Clinton won the popular vote by a comfortable margin (thanks to California) despite her high unfavorability ratings. If not for that peculiar anachronistic American institution—the Electoral College—Clinton would be the winner, Trump the loser, and political gurus would be busy telling us why such an outcome was inevitable. With real world clarity, it is mere cocktail party phantasy to think that American democracy will sometime soon be democratized by counting every person’s vote equally. Entrenched Republican Party interests will never let the US Constitution be so modernized, but what this popular vote does confirm is that country is almost evenly divided, and that progressive values continue to enjoy a slight majority. It is therefore wildly premature to think that this election signals that the American people have descended into the swamps of racism and nativism, but it will still take a vigilant opposition movement to prevent Trump’s government from imposing its horrendous agenda on our collective future.

 

 

 

 

In the weeks prior to the American presidential election I received a large number of independent messages from progressive friends abroad who were either expats or citizens of other countries. I was not too surprised that almost every message expressed hostility to Hillary Clinton, but I was shocked that so many were opting for Trump to win the election or advocating a stay-at-home boycott or third party vote believing that neither Trump nor Clinton deserved support, and there was no basis for making one preferable to the other. I shared some of these sentiments, but overcame my doubts about the better option as the campaign wore on, becoming increasingly definite about supporting Clinton, initially as the lesser of evils and later more affirmatively, as she had become a woman unduly victimized by the nasty virulence of Trump’s hurtful misogynist slurs. I increasingly felt that my overseas friends were out of touch with the internal dynamics of American society, specifically, not appreciating that Trump’s election, in view of his campaign, would be a dark day of foreboding, hurt, rejection, and despair for African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, women, and supporters of progressive causes.

 

The views of my pro-Trump foreign friends have over the years been consistently humane and congenial. Their various reasons for being anti-Clinton or pro-Trump resulted from adopting predominantly structural outlooks or reflect preoccupations with specific substantive concerns. The structural arguments were two-fold: first, that both political parties in the US were equally subservient to the logic of neoliberal globalization (‘the Washington consensus’) that they believed was the source of many of the worst evils in the world, making Trump seem almost like a third party candidate who was challenging the core elements of economic globalization. For them, the only moral response was either to boycott the election altogether, as it made no difference which side won; or alternatively, take a chance with Trump, as he at least seemed likely to repudiate NAFTA and kill the TPP.

 

A second structural argument, often overlapping with the first, was that the military industrial corporate complex was embraced by the mainstream of both parties, making American global militarism bipartisan. Such a view was reinforced by the degree to which the Washington national security establishment and neocon think tanks overwhelmingly stepped forward to support Clinton, including many prominent Republicans, fearing that Trump would choose a security path that was adventurously dangerous or, worse, might even pursue an anti-militarist neo-isolationist foreign policy. Trump so threatened the Republican national security establishment that Washington’s political elite generally agreed he would make an unreliable and irresponsible leader of the American ‘global state.’ Trump’s repeated calls to rebuild America’s allegedly broken military capabilities were almost irrelevant, given his disorienting comments about alliances, nonproliferation, and regime-changing interventions. Although Trump’s challenge to political correctness in the security domain was anathema to Washington’s political class, it was music to the ears of my foreign friends.

There is a third version of structural analysis, ignored by my friends abroad, that seems helpful in explaining what happened in the American election. It is the extent to which various forms of ultra-nationalist populism are succeeding in electing leaders throughout the world by large margins, including Russia, India, Japan, Turkey, Egypt, Philippines, and now the United States. The Brexit vote in Britain, along with the rise of right wing political parties in Europe, exhibit a similar backlash against globalizing tendencies and foreign interventions that have in turn engendered menacing transnational migrations of desperate people fleeing war torn zones and escaping from extreme poverty. These migrations fuel chauvinism in the West that toxically interacts with economic stagnation, high levels of unemployment, terrorist anxieties, and closely related threats to indigenous ethnic and racial identities. In effect, right wing populism is a response to the failures of Western political, economic, and cultural systems to protect the material and psycho-political wellbeing of their respective national populations.

 

Over all, my foreign friends were generally opposed to Clinton’s global security agenda, especially as it pertained to Russia and the Middle East, and preferred Trump’s vague generalities and even regarded his inexperience as an asset. The pro-Trump arguments here concentrated on Clinton’s past record of support for regime-changing military interventions in the Middle East and her support for a No Fly Zone in Syria whose establishment would almost certainly result in a confrontation with Russia that could escalate into yet another American-sponsored regime-changing intervention in a Muslim country. Such an intervention was particularly feared as it could easily lead to a new cold war, with hot war dangers. More than a couple of my correspondents quoted her chilling remark in Libya shortly after Qaddafi’s capture and grisly execution, “We came, we saw, he died,” feeling that it embodied the heartless geopolitics in the Middle East that had produced the current regional turmoil.

 

Although these perceptions are anecdotal, I find them revealing and disturbing. Because American elections, especially this one, seem so important to people in other countries, the results are watched closely, sometimes more closely than their own national elections. Early reactions to the Trump victory in Mexico and Russia reveal contradictory priorities in various parts of the world. The Mexican reaction has been reported to be one of uniform shock and sorrow, as well as feelings of deep concern for their relatives and friends living in the US or worries that remittances from America for very poor families would now be in jeopardy or heavily taxed. In the streets of Moscow, there was rejoicing, since Russians, whether they liked Putin or not, seemed convinced that Trump would act as a practical business man and work toward cooperative relations that would help both governments diminish the frightening tensions currently associated with NATO, Ukraine, and Syria, and avoid any further downward spiral in relations that they quite reasonably feared would be the trajectory of a more ideological Clinton presidency.

 

Outside the U.S., many people, whether American or not, tend to view the Trump victory and the Clinton defeat through a single-issue optic that mostly pertains to international economic and security policy. In contrast, those living here in the United States, if drawn to Trump, are likely to be attracted by his anti-establishment outsider outlook combined with their own internal preoccupations with national economic policy, especially jobs and trade, and cultural liberalism (e.g., gays, pro-choice, race, immigration, and recreational drugs). Trump supporters with a more self-consciously conservative bent believe he would keep the Supreme Court appointment process in Republican hands for the next four years. This prospect alone apparently led many wavering suburban Republicans to vote for Trump in the end, disregarding qualms that might otherwise have kept them home on election day.

 

In his victory speech, Trump sounded gentle and benign, promising to govern for all citizens as a unifying leader, stressing the need to rebuild the decaying American infrastructure and even offering gracious praise to Hilary Clinton for a hard fought campaign. Unfortunately, this cheerful aftermath is bound to be short lived. Major struggles loom, and will begin as soon as Trump announces his appointments of cabinet members and key staff. Not long after some doubtless provocative choices, bitter policy controversies will emerge a he seeks to implement his programmatic priorities: scrapping Obamacare, NAFTA, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the Iran nuclear deal. Altogether, this will sadly erase from the books the best parts of the Obama legacy. It is not a pretty picture without even considering whether Trump will follow through on his most notorious pledges: mass deportation of ‘illegal’ immigrants, imposition of an airtight anti-Muslim immigration ban, and the construction a police friendly ‘law and order’ regime to combat ‘black lives matter’ activism and inner city crime.

 

In this period, American resilience will certainly be tested, probably as much or more than at any time since the American Civil War. The haunting uncertainty is whether the likely incivility of the Trump presidency will decisively darken the political destiny of the country, or only be a transitory period of regression. Can the creative energies of resistance and reform build a transformative movement of sufficient strength to balance the Trump juggernaut? On this slim possibility, somewhat prefigured by the primary campaign of Bernie Sanders, our hopes rest for a resilient and resurrected America again dedicated to achieving peace abroad and justice at home.

 

There is a final observation that deserves commentary and reflection. It should not be overlooked that Clinton won the popular vote by a comfortable margin (thanks to California) despite her high unfavorability ratings. If not for that peculiar anachronistic American institution—the Electoral College—Clinton would be the winner, Trump the loser, and political gurus would be busy telling us why such an outcome was inevitable. With real world clarity, it is mere cocktail party phantasy to think that American democracy will sometime soon be democratized by counting every person’s vote equally. Entrenched Republican Party interests will never let the US Constitution be so modernized, but what this popular vote does confirm is that country is almost evenly divided, and that progressive values continue to enjoy a slight majority. It is therefore wildly premature to think that this election signals that the American people have descended into the swamps of racism and nativism, but it will still take a vigilant opposition movement to prevent Trump’s government from imposing its horrendous agenda on our collective future.

 

 

 

Message to Blog Readers

13 Nov

Message to Blog Readers:

 

Despite the petulance of this stretch of world history, I will be silent in coming days, giving ground to knee replacement surgery.

 

I expect that these will be days of morbid apprehension in America as the realities ofthe forthcoming Trump presidency begin to assume tangible form through a combination of clarity about those who will be the responsible policymakers of Trump’s inner circle and the policies he and they begin proposing.

 

Two frontiers of hope: a crash program in infrastructure development that includes a large stimulus package and a broad geopolitical accommodation with Russia that includes a sustainable ceasefire in Syria. The first of these frontiers may involve a revival of Keynesian approaches to economic development, and the unacknowledged abandonment of neoliberal trust in the market dynamics associated with ‘capital first, people last.’ The second frontier could calm the region, and allow more constructive forces to exert an influence.

 

There are reasons also to be fearful, especially if Trump follows through on a variety of outlandish positions taken during the electoral campaign: prosecuting Hillary Clinton; repudiating the Iran Nuclear Agreement and the Paris Climate Agreement; reviving torture; instituting mass deportation; raising unconditional immigration bars, and many more.

 

Hope is not enough. It is a time for maximizing citizen engagement and the mobilization of progressive political energies. We look to Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others for leadership, and place trust and ground hopes in the activism of youth!

 

 

Memoir Sketch: Championing Lost Causes

27 Nov

 

 

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

                  I’ll die in Paris in the pouring rain

                  a day I have a memory of already.

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

                  a Thursday perhaps, in Autumn, like today.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

                  I see myself, as never before, alone

 

                  César Vallejo is dead. Everyone hit him,

                  though he is not doing them the slightest harm

 

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