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Affirming the Normative Imagination (up to a point!)

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While struggling with the challenges posed by writing a memoir during the endgame of life, conceptual cleansing seemed essential if I was ever to convey my identity with even a slight feeling of authenticity. The mystery at the core of my personal and public existence is how I came to trust my sense of moral purpose in life enough to act upon it despite shyness, a contemplative nature, and a strong dislike of self-promotion?

It would hardly be a mystery if social norms led most people to reflect their sense of moral purpose in their relationships, career, and sense of self. We would say it was an aspect of the human condition, moving on to search for some other defining feature of a lived life. As my form of engagement with moral purpose runs against the current of mainstream opinion I have paid the price of marginalization, although validated by inner convictions and affinities with those who are likeminded.

Of course, having a moral purpose should not be confused with claiming moral superiority. The latter depends on a range of qualities associated with dutifulness, integrity, honesty, generosity, kindness, empathy, warmth, and forgiveness among other qualities that relate to living-with-and-amid-others. Moral purpose relates to how we live-in-the-world, with what kind of primary identity, our relations with collective entities (state, family, church) as well as with individuals. There is some overlap, and some areas of tension. We never stop growing inwardly, while the body decays creating false outer impressions.

Although my early professional work often involved a focus on international law, I realized while still in law school that law was an instrument rather than an end in itself. It could be used to do good or to uphold evil, to promote or to obstruct justice. To praise international law as an achievement of the West without saying much more about its problematic historical role in the colonial era or its fundamental present alignments with geopolitical interests, is to succumb to the lure of power, wealth, and status.

Even before I understood my own political stand in the world I saw that the social domain of the international law profession, both for academics and practitioners, were by and large far too beholden to vested governmental and corporate interests and standard careers to question nationalist or capitalist values on principled grounds. Even as I was myself inducted into such privileged ranks while a young academic, I felt nervous and ambivalent, as if I had crashed a party to which I had been mistakenly invited. This self-doubt was partly due to my early struggles as a student. I experienced adolescence as a mediocre under achiever in the midst of talented over achievers, and even through my college years lacked a coherent sense of moral purpose or even a normal degree of self-confidence. Sports were then and even now remain my most reliable comfort zone.

When the Vietnam War came along, it quickly became evident to me that American policy rubbed against the grain of contemporary international law, and that a critical legal discourse was useful in the court of domestic public opinion, but more than this. In this instance, international law was finally on the right side of history throughout the bloody twilight of colonialism and if reasonably respected, international norms might inhibit Cold War warmongers from running wild, oblivious to the dangers of the nuclear age.

Yet I also realized that those who clung to arguments about the wrongfulness of the war and were appalled by the way the United States was behaving in Vietnam, held a rose-tinted view of international law as invariably on the side of the angels. Some of these liberals believed that if only governments, especially our government, could be persuaded to uphold the law in all its external facets, the world would be peaceful and grow prosperous. Questions of equity in global settings were pushed to one side, out of sight.

For elites the catchphrase was ‘the management of interdependence.’ For idealists, it was ‘world peace through law,’ an ethos that never attracted me and seemed mechanical and naïve because of its apolitical advocacy. I also felt that this legal utopianism had not the slightest prospect of being acted upon given the way the world was organized, and if due to unanticipated developments, it were to be acted upon it would likely end up as a globally centralized tyranny, almost a necessitated outcome, given the gross inequalities of circumstances between the developed and developing worlds, as reinforced by the refusal of the rich and powerful to make sacrifices to help the poor and vulnerable unless pushed to do so by credible revolutionary threats.

My early views after finishing law school and during my six teaching years at the Ohio State College of Law (1955-1961) did not depart from the political underpinnings of this legalist consensus as applied to Vietnam. I believed that refighting the war lost by the French, who had lots more at stake in Indochina than the United States ever did, was foolish from a realist interpretation of national interests. My views at that stage were similar to those of such eminent commentators on world events as George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau both of whom came to vigorously oppose the Vietnam War as a serious mistake of American foreign policy.  I knew personally and intellectually admired both of these important intellectual and political figures, and in the late 1960s teamed with Hans to run twice for lead positions in the American Political Science Association on an unabashed anti-war platform. Morgenthau ran the first time as presidential candidate, and the following year we reversed positions on the ballot, but with the same outcome, narrow losses to the official slate that opposed our effort that was claimed would ‘politicize’ the APSA.

I also held in these years what I would call ‘a world order’ view that the UN Charter should be respected with regard to peace and security issues as I was alarmed by the prospect of war between the Soviet Union and the United States, and believed that the UN deserved respect even if it was not strong enough, nor was it ever meant to be, to preserve the peace in the face of geopolitical conflict. Granting the veto to the Permanent Members of the Security Council was the clearest possible signal of true character of the UN as a modest undertaking, a perception confused, and somewhat contradicted, by the visionary language of the Preamble to the UN Charter. It was obvious even before the Cold War got going that it would be crazy for the Soviet Union to engage in even limited ways if the UN if the Western majority could control the decision process in the Security Council.

The League of Nations had taught the West that it was worthwhile having the Soviet Union participating as a Member of the UN even if it meant weakening the authority or capabilities of the organization with respect to the control of the behavior of its members. Idealists hoped that the wartime alliance would persist in peacetime, while the realists thought and acted as though postwar stability was as dependent as ever on balance of power geopolitics, containment, and deterrence. It was one thing to join forces to defeat Hitler’s Germany. It was quite another to overlook geopolitical rivalries as fueled by competing ambitions, ideas, and fears. Such rivalries quickly surfaced during the peace diplomacy of the victors in World War II, especially exhibiting sharp differences over the postwar future of Europe, particularly Germany.

It was in this Cold War period that I became more overtly aware that moral purpose was my transcendent guideline both as a university teacher and as an engaged citizen, which for me was a dual reality that were best realized when merged. In this context, it was also obvious that international law had very little to offer, although it was relevant as a means of opposing colonialist and post-colonialist moves in what was being called the Third World.  My moral purpose became more associated with avoiding war and siding with the vulnerable. I came to believe that the military dimensions of the Cold War were irresponsibly dangerous, caused massive suffering, diverting resources that could be far better spent at home and abroad making lives better. Again international law was morally illuminating and political useful in some contexts of conflict, including opposition to military intervention and support for a level international economic playing field.

I came to understand that these larger quests were associated with recognition that human interests deserved priority over national interests when they clashed. This also meant that the empowerment of people was a more emancipatory force than the consolidation of state power. In this regard, the anti-war movement in the United States, especially after 1965, provided the inspirational basis for my first trip to North Vietnam in 1968. Going to talk with ‘the enemy’ transformed my whole perception of why I opposed the war—it led me to identify with the nationalist struggle of the Vietnamese people against this post-colonial colonial futile and anguished effort that was confused with the imperatives of the Cold War by American leaders drunk with their own intoxicating ideology of freedom, which came to mean the promotion of markets more than the wellbeing of people.

Statelessness, undocumented immigrants are expressions of statist control over the security of the individual in the modern world. In this regard, there is as yet no practical way to affirm human identity because there are neither the institutional foundations nor existential reality of human community. We all remain crucially dependent on the questionable humanity and problem solving capacities of state structures even if we claim to be ‘world citizens.’
Meeting with Vietnamese leaders and witnessing the realities of the people of Vietnam and their struggle led me to view the American war effort as worse than a serious mistake of judgment, in the manner of Morgenthau and Kennan, and having the character of criminal enterprise. In retrospect, I appreciate the visionary underscoring of this shift of normative assessment from mistake to crime that was given its most comprehensive rendering in the Bertrand Russell Tribunal, chaired by Jean-Paul Sartre, during 1965-66.

After I returned from Vietnam in 1968 the media were rather interested in my views on whether Hanoi was ready to make peace, but when I declared my sympathy for the Vietnamese struggle and opposition to relying on modern warfare to devastate a peasant society there was a total absence of interest even on the part of several influential liberal journalists who made no secret of their own opposition to the Vietnam War.  At first, I could not fathom this indifference toward what had been transformative in my experience, but soon I realized that most people did not view issues of war and peace through such a humanistic prism of awareness. Their calculus was winning and losing, and if losing, then cutting losses.

This cosmopolitan understanding of what seemed so decisive for me did involve a refusal to pass judgment and reach conclusions on the basis of national patriotism or ethno/religious identity. I think this way of looking contributed to my response to Palestinian victimization. The mere fact of being Jewish seemed more important for most others I knew than for myself, either others praised me for looking beyond my tribal identity or damning me for doing so, the whole false consciousness bound up in the nasty and defamatory accusation of being a self-hating Jew.

 I have come to understand that I am neither self-hating, nor self-loving. Being a Jew is a hereditary fact of my being that has not been very relevant in my becoming, although I am not oblivious to the horrifying tragedy inflicted upon the Jewish people of Europe during the period of Nazi ascendancy, and what my fate, and many of those I loved, would have been had I been caught in that genocidal maelstrom. Yet I never believed that the Zionist escape from the genuine horrors of anti-Semitism should be or needed to be achieved at the expense of another people or that a Jewish homeland in a non-Jewish society was the proper response to the long history of Jewish persecution.

Human solidarity took precedence. I am well aware that most others whether consciously or not proceed from a communitarian outlook that privileges the part over the whole. The migration challenge and response exhibits both sides of this reality—the tragic migrant loss and protection of community and the communitarian rejection of asylum and hospitality via exclusions, deportations, walls. Statelessness, undocumented immigrants are also expressions of statist control over the security of the individual in the modern world. In this regard, there is as yet no practical way to affirm human identity because there are neither the institutional foundations nor existential reality of human community. We all remain crucially dependent on the questionable humanity and problem solving capacities of state structures even if we claim to be ‘world citizens.’

My own effort over the course of the last twenty years to delineate a new form of engaged citizenship is based on the possible future emergence of human community, and the commitment to seek that kind of desired reality as a goal without pretending it to be a present reality. I identify such a future-oriented engagement by the label ‘citizen pilgrim,’ the pilgrim being defined as someone on a journey to a desired future. My mature public sense of moral purpose is associated with thinking, feeling, and acting as a citizen pilgrim to the extent possible, not in a New Age spirit of self-contentment, but in concrete circumstances where the relevance of a shared humanity is given precedence. This helps explain my disposition toward solidarity with the poor, vulnerable, marginalized, and my suspicions toward the rich and powerful.

Such a way of acting in the public sphere is undoubtedly reflected in the intimacies of the private sphere, and vice versa, and so affirms the slogan ‘the personal is political,’ and its correlative ‘the political is personal.’ Love of partner, of children, and of friends strengthens the capacity of the citizen pilgrim to live happily in mostly alien worlds, although the separations of these spheres is more a matter of mental disposition than of experience. In this central respect my guiding moral purpose is to love and be loved, which means eroding the public dimensions of moral purpose, a choice I manifest each time I ignore a beggar on the street.

Of course, maybe I am making too much of my freedom to be and to choose. Perhaps what I am articulating is a thin gloss over genetic programming, as affected by social and cultural conditioning. If there is one distinctive feature of my deference to moral purpose it is a willingness not to fit in, yet also a prudential set of restraints that make me stop well short of being an outlaw or a revolutionary warrior.

This little essay is but a sketch drawn to help me address the often questionable enterprise of a memoir, presented as a sort of reflective selfie to invoke an idiom of our age. I would benefit from comments and criticisms, and promise on my part to listen attentively.


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