Richard Falk’s ‘Public Intellectual: The Life Of A Citizen Pilgrim’ – Book Review


Richard Falk is universally regarded as one of the top minds when it comes to international law. Yet his views are not only unwelcome in establishment circles, but even among many left-leaning liberals.

Falk was once the darling of liberals, someone whose left-of-center views were seen as important in “balancing” conservative and centrist views in debates, seminars, and TV programs. He was, in short, one of the establishment’s favorite critics of American foreign policy.

That is, until he crossed several red lines. The most consequential of these red lines was moving from abstract legal critiques of Israel’s policies in the Middle East to one of active sympathy with the Palestinian people’s struggle, and especially when he had the temerity to call Israel’s fundamental strategy of governance by its name: “apartheid.”

The Zionist Lobby’s Bete Noire

The Zionist lobby went after Falk with a vengeance, trying to systematically destroy his reputation by painting him as a “self-hating Jew” and as an ideological if not clinical outlier by twisting his stands on events like the Iranian revolution, which they maliciously sought to paint as support for Islamic theocracy.

When that did not work, they went on to wage a silent but effective campaign among both political and ideological powerbrokers to deprive him of opportunities to air his views in the liberal media. The vitriolic whispering campaign against Falk was a lesson in how power can derail challenges to its hegemony by reason in the service of a just cause.

And yet the very act of using political and ideological power to restrict access to the public has shown the attractiveness of Falk’s views. Like most efforts at censorship, the Zionist campaign ended up popularizing the ideas it sought to discredit.

Today, the characterization of Israel as an apartheid state is more widely accepted than ever, eroding further Israel’s legitimacy in the community of nations and making it more than ever dependent on the military support of its patron, the United States, on the deployment of indiscriminate brute force, even against children, and on the resort to assassination of foreign leaders and scientists as the principal arm of foreign policy. The effort to silence Falk and other pro-Palestinian voices, such as that of Phyllis Bennis, a brilliant colleague with whom he has worked closely, has merely given much wider credence to his characterization of Israel as a state gone rogue.

The balance of the struggle between brute power and reason in the service of justice is assessed by Falk in his summing up of his stint as the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Palestinian Occupied Territory:

“During these six years I often asked myself ‘was it worth it?’ and my answer was ‘yes, but…’ I was less interested in the personal costs associated with career and some friendships, than with whether I was actually making any sort of contribution to the Palestinian struggle for their rights under international law, and more existentially, to the empowerment and emancipation of Palestine from a long period of collective victimization. On this question my conclusion was mixed. I felt that over the course of my mandate, the Palestinian reality on the ground had worsened and the chances for a negotiated, fair, and sustainable peace had almost disappeared. In this regard, my efforts as special rapporteur seem to have done nothing to reverse these Israeli behavioral trends adverse to Palestinian prospects.

Yet on the level of public discourse, which helps shape world opinion, I think my efforts had some effect in clarifying the real nature of what was at stake in these highly contested sets of circumstances where geopolitics was cruelly thwarting elemental justice. Public discourse is a vital site of struggle in this kind of situation, with ideas, images, and language exerting influence, and often eventually altering the balance of forces in ways that are hard to measure and discern but often seem decisive in shaping political outcomes… I felt I must be doing a good job when the Weizmann Institute in Los Angeles listed me in 2012 as the third most dangerous anti-Semite in the world on their list of ten. I trailed only the Supreme Guide of Iran and the Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan.”

Falk’s struggle with the Zionist lobby is the centerpiece of this remarkable memoir of one of the most renowned civil society activists of our time, whose career spanned the Vietnam War, the rise of the environmental movement, the struggle against dictators like Ferdinand Marcos, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the massive U.S. intervention in the Middle East under George W. Bush, the rise of the far right in both the global North and the global South, and the climate crisis.

Like a moth drawn to light, Falk was involved in most of the burning issues of the last 60 years, as a much sought-after engaged academic and committed activist speaking truth to power. One can almost say that whenever injustice existed, it was difficult for Falk to resist fighting it.

Or as he puts it, controversy sought him out and he could not refuse its invitation:

“To some revealing extent I waited to be asked before immersing myself in these controversial issues of the day, especially Israel/Palestine. I did not go searching for controversy, and generally disliked public exposure. At the same time, I was afraid to be afraid, and so when asked or invited, I almost invariably responded affirmatively.”

Growing up Upper Middle Class

How did a Princeton academic destined for success within the liberal establishment end up being a pariah? Falk reaches back to his childhood to try to find psychological and sociological reasons that may have predisposed him to be receptive to the conditions of the oppressed and repressed.

The absence of a caring mother, he speculates may have been one factor, along with an adolescent disaffection with the conventional anti-communist prejudices that came with the affection bestowed on him by a caring father. Also important was his friendship with a talented gay black servant in the upper middle class household in the Upper West Side of Manhattan he grew up in, which enabled him to see the attitudes of upper and upper middle class whites for the prejudices that they were.

Exposure to a liberal arts education at the University of Pennsylvania gave him a liberal sensitivity that was reinforced by a values-driven approach to law that he absorbed as a student at Yale Law School in the early 1950’s under the famous Myres McDougall. Coming out of Yale, he seemed destined for confinement in the pleasant prison of mild left liberalism, which allowed for the private expression of more left-wing views but viewed public dissent from the reigning ideology unfavorably, when he went to teach at Ohio State University, then at Princeton.


It was at Princeton in the mid-1960s that the Vietnam War broke into his life, as it did in the case of many others, turning him first into an academic critic of the war specializing in providing international legal critiques of the U.S. aggression, then into an activist who went beyond the liberal position of seeing the war as principally a wrong war from the perspective of Washington’s “real” geopolitical interests to being an active sympathizer of the cause of national liberation that the Vietnamese were fighting for.

Wartime visits to Hanoi, where he saw both suffering and determination first hand, made him see the Vietnamese as people and see the war as wrong because of what it was doing to these human beings rather than simply a “mistake” from which the U.S. needed to be extricated at the pain of suffering more American deaths.

Mind, Heart, Soul, Friends, and Rivals

Falk portrays his journey from a left liberal critic of U.S. policy to a progressive identifying with the causes of its victims as a transformation taking place not through reason alone but through the heart and soul as well, as he took up cause after cause that he was invited to take up.

Then there was, of course, the influence of figures he worked with or met along the way.

One encounters in his memoirs a virtual who’s who of civil society activists who made their mark in the latter half of the 20th century, including Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmad, William Sloan Coffin, Yoshikazu Sakamoto, Daniel Ellsberg, Cora Weiss, Saul Mendlovitz, Noam Chomsky, and Ramsey Clark. Significant is the dearth of political leaders he developed good ties with, one of the exceptions being Ahmet Davutoglu, a controversial former prime minister of Turkey. Famous figures he truly admires are equally few, one of them being Nelson Mandela who exuded a “moral radiance” in Falk’s brief close encounter with him.

As an exponent of what were seen as ultra-progressive views, Falk tangled in talk shows with folks he disparagingly calls the “trapeze artists” of the right like Megyn Kelly, Alan Dershowitz, and Bill O’Reilly, experiences that he grew to regard as next to useless fencing matches with Neanderthals. Falk’s pages are also peopled with figures he had strong disagreements with, such as the former JFK and LBJ adviser William Bundy, who tried to buy off his opposition to Bundy’s appointment as editor of Foreign Affairs, the establishment’s foreign policy organ, by saying Falk’s pieces would continue to be welcome in the pages of that journal.

An instinctively fair and generous man, Falk is careful not to paint his opponents in black and white terms. Even Donald Trump, whom he otherwise excoriates, is acknowledged as having contributed to a slight lessening of Cold War tensions with moves such as his reaching out to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, though in these exceptional cases Falk wonders whether Trump really knew what he was doing.

There is one exception to his generosity of spirit: a “reactionary” Princeton academic who was prominent in sociological circles named Marion Levy. Falk could take political and personal attacks on himself with some equanimity, but not when his enemies took out their grudges against him on people close to him. Levy, who was Falk’s bete noire at Princeton, took special delight in giving an “F” to a brilliant paper by an outstanding student advisee for no other reason than to spite Falk, thus probably inflicting harm on that young person’s confidence in her abilities.

(Falk’s experience resonated with me, since the same Marion Levy did his best to try to get into my dissertation committee in order to destroy me academically for leading the seizure by Princeton’s anti-war movement of what was then known as the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, an elite institution of which Levy, as a professor there, was quite possessive. Fortunately for me, others in my committee blocked Levy’s design to exact vengeance.)

Love and Politics

One of the more appealing features of Falk’s storytelling is his effort to integrate his personal journey into his political journey. He tries, but this comes across as one of the less satisfying dimensions of the book.

While he is generous in retrospective evaluation of some of his partners—he was married four times and involved with a number of women—the picture is, perhaps not surprisingly, rather blurry when it comes to how his previous emotional engagements contributed to or blocked his personal and political transformation.

But with his last relationship, with Hilal Elver, a prominent Turkish academic and activist to whom he has been married for the last 25 years, the political and the personal finally came together in a creative fashion. Elver, who also served as a UN Special Rapporteur (on Food Security), has clearly emerged as the steadying force of Falk’s life, his anchor, despite their occasional differences of nuance in political matters and their experiencing times of personal strain owing to Falk’s self-acknowledged tendency to come across as flirtatious to women with whom he finds himself personally and politically in sync.

One gets a sense that the parts on his relationships with the women in his life were much more difficult for Falk to write than most of the sections on his political engagements. But one must give him a B+ for effort, unlike others who either limit the personal parts of their memoirs to a few paragraphs or subject it to a stony silence, leaving biographers to unearth, like archeologists, the gems of scandal and acrimony that make biographies sparkle and sell.

Some Lessons

As he enters his 90s, Falk draws some key lessons from his life.

One is that he was lucky to be part of a class that was relatively materially well off (though Dad was relatively deprived when it came to cash and Mom was rich but not the generous type) and socially privileged to be able to do what he wanted to do and take path he took in defiance of orthodox liberal beliefs and not pay in material terms for the stands that he promoted during his long political journey.

Falk is honest enough to acknowledge what many upper middle class and elite intellectual radicals are often not even aware of: that moral courage and political integrity are often made possible by that base of relative material comfort that comes with membership in a comfortable class.

Another key lesson is that a better world will not come about owing to designs for a more rational world order. Falk’s theory of change is that it is propelled principally by eruptions from below, by the dispossessed and the marginalized, with all the unpredictability that comes with such events.

What one must do is to deploy one’s profession, in his case being an expert in international law, to help midwife these events, and once they occur, to help channel the energies released in the right direction — in his case, helping in the forging of legal regimes that are a step forward in the evolution of domestic and international law in terms of promoting social justice, democracy, and trans-national cooperation.

A third lesson is that one must judge political regimes nor only by their ability to protect classical political rights but also by their record in advancing the economic and social conditions of their people, especially their provision of the material conditions that will allow people to fulfill themselves as human beings.

Here Falk departs from a long list of western liberals who have been imprisoned in Isaiah Berlin’s doctrinaire championing of “negative liberties” while casting suspicion on government’s role in promoting “positive liberties.” Falk accepts that this may involve him in seeming inconsistencies that cannot be tolerated by traditional liberals such as his extolling the record of the People’s Republic of China in spectacular poverty reduction as a beacon for the global South even as he criticizes the Chinese government for its policies toward the Uighur minority.

The Turkish Enigma

The case of China, however, pales before the contradictions in which Falk is impaled when it comes to Turkey. One suspects that aside from his assessment of his personal relationships, the section that Falk probably found most difficult to write is the one on the politics of his wife’s homeland and his second home, which is appropriately titled “The Turkish Enigma.”

In his adopted country, Falk finds himself straddling a lonely middle position between the militant French-like secularism of the Turkish urban middle classes and his appreciation of the social and economic benefits and cultural valorization that the Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan brought to the religiously oriented rural masses in his first decade of rule.

Falk’s initial openness to Erdogan and his allies, like the former Prime Minister Ahmet Davetoglu, owed itself to his democratic instincts. He seems not to have gotten over the shock of listening to patently politically incorrect statements from the urban middle class heirs of Kemal Ataturk’s militantly secular revolution, such as the one he heard from a neighbor who told him “rather proudly that his son’s vote should be counted as seven times more than that of those backward and uneducated persons living in Anatolia. Only thus, he argued, would it ever be possible to avoid the dumbing down of Turkey’s governing style that he believed resulted from allowing the vote of every Turk to be counted equally.”

At the same time, Falk is aware that democracy in Turkey, as in many other parts of the world, is becoming a double-edged sword, with democratic voting becoming the means by which charismatic authoritarian personalities have come to and stayed in power:

“Although I have been critical of Turkish pushback against the electoral majorities of the AKP [Erdogan’s political party] as creating doubts about the virtues of democracy, I now raise the same question in my mind as I witness in the United States Trump’s headlock on 40%+ of the American voting public. To me this does raise questions about enfranchising society as a whole under present historical circumstances. And looking around the world, I take note of free elections resulting in the leadership of such autocratic and dangerous leaders as Modi, Bolsonaro, Duterte, and others. Little wonder that the most admired thinkers in ancient Athens lost faith in democracy.”

Falk admits that Erdogan has become more arbitrary and authoritarian over the last decade and is worried about this trend, but he still finds it difficult to make an open break with the AKP government, apparently mainly because he still feels the pluses it has brought Turkey have outweighed its minuses.

Another reason is that he “truly didn’t identify with the hostility to Erdogan and the AKP that seemed to represent a shared consensus joining the odd pairings of displaced Kemalists, the old (Marxist) left, the new (pro-Kurdish, anti-authoritarian) Turkish left, and Hizmet/FETO followers and sympathizers.” What he fails to mention is a third, more mundane reason: many of his valued friends, such as Davetoglu, remain within the Islamist spectrum, though some have become critical of Erdogan. At 90, one is understandably less daring about risking breaking off friendships than when one is 40.

Regarding such concerns, one can only say three things. One is that in love and in politics, breaking up, as the old Neil Sedaka song puts it, is hard to do. Two, one seldom has the luxury of choosing one’s allies, and one must often endure old antagonists or strange bedfellows (as I have in my political life in the Philippines). And three, true friendships can endure even the worst bumps on the political road.

Falk is to be commended for his frankness about his dilemma. One can only hope that his trademark moral courage of coming down decisively on the right side of the equation will not fail him this time, as Erdogan’s rule becomes more and more authoritarian, intolerant, and repressive.

Making Sense of a Life of Commitment

In an attempt to give a name to the perspective or philosophy that has informed his lifetime of engagement, of “being-in-the-world,” as he puts it in existentialist terms, Falk invokes the concept of being a “citizen pilgrim” — that is, a citizen of both a particular society and the planet, a person with local, national roots that is at the same time cosmopolitan in orientation, that is on a pilgrimage where she encounters and seeks to overcome successive challenges to her project of expanding the realm of justice, social empowerment, and peace.

It is an attractive concept that is unfortunately given, in my view, a name that calls up the wrong connotations. My concerns may be unduly semantic, but “pilgrim” is a word that is much too religious for secular people like me; it connotes one headed for a fixed terminus whereas what Falk really wants to convey is an end that is shrouded in uncertainty, indeed, is open-ended; and it is a word that is indissolubly linked to the Mayflower, with all the tragic consequences that flowed from that religious expedition.

Breakthrough to Notoriety

Early on in the book, Falk provides us a candid assessment of what he feels is his place in the assemblage of 20th and 21st century people who have tried to change the world.

Speculating on what enables one to make an intellectual or social “breakthrough,” he writes:

“I have in mind breakthroughs of the sort achieved by such friends as Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Dan Ellsberg, Graciela Chichilnisky, Mary Kaldor, Robert Jay Lifton, and Howard Zinn, each possessing a distinctive variant of a contrarian temperament combined with a sense of certitude about the rightness of their chosen path. This difference between academic excellence and a breakthrough based on innovativeness of thought and action has long intrigued me.” 

Falk says his goal is to…

“situate myself in the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] separating intellectual excellence from societal salience, neither reaping the rewards of academic achievement within my reach nor gaining the plaudits of a positive public notoriety, yet managing a respectable academic, ethical, and activist presence among those who shared my progressive political and ethical agenda.” 

He could not be more wrong in suggesting he has not been a breakthrough kind of guy, for he scored a breathtaking moral breakthrough by treading in an area where most of his peers have feared to tread — in the most booby-trapped field of western politics, the “Israel question” — and doing what only one or two other western intellectuals of his stature have dared to do: publicly calling the Zionist project by its name, an apartheid regime, and stubbornly bearing witness to this truth as a public intellectual.

For this act of moral courage, the gatekeepers of the western academic, political, and cultural establishment collared him, threw him out, closed the gates, and had their attack dogs hound him over the years and all over the world. If that is not a case of a breakthrough to “positive public notoriety” that provides tremendous inspiration for this and later generations in the West, I don’t know what is.

*FPIF commentator Walden Bello is co-founder of the Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South and currently the Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. 

Walden Bello

FPIF commentator Walden Bello is Co-Chair of the Board of Focus on the Global South and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is a prominent voice pushing for the demilitarization and denuclearization of the South China Sea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *