Josef Joffe Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
|Photo by Jane Scherr|
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Joe, welcome back to Berkeley. Where were you born and educated?
I was born in what is today Lithuania, but I was raised and educated in Cold War Berlin, on the western side, thank God, where I went to elementary school and I went to gymnasium. And then my education took a very dramatic turn. I came to the United States as an exchange student, ending up in a place I'd never heard of before called Grand Rapids, Michigan. And I was acquainted with the challenges and the pleasures of the suburban American high school.
So you were an exchange high school student.
Yes. I even have an American high school diploma.
Let's go back a little before we get you to America. How did your parents influence your character, in retrospect?
I have no other choice but to say that my parents instilled in me a love of learning. This was, after all, the postwar period. There were millions of people floating around Europe having lost everything, having just barely saved their lives, having lost their houses, their families, their property. So I remember two things. One thing was: eat, eat, eat! Because those American doctors told us if you don't eat you get tuberculosis. We had this postwar ideal of beauty which was a bit chubbier than it is today. The second thing of course I heard about relentlessly was what you have in your head they can't take away from you. So education is everything. So in that respect, my love for food and my love for education, these two are probably the most important influences left by my parents who, by the way, never went beyond eighth grade in their own education.
Do you remember any of the books that you read as a young person?
You mean in terms of scholarly books?
Having an influence, any kind, before you went to college.
When you are a kid you read voraciously and without a purpose. And so you read Robert Louis Stevenson and you read Herman Hesse. You read Greek mythology and Jules Verne. You read a lot of science fiction as a kid, by the way. And you read books which are kind of typical for a teenage life. I would think Herman Hesse is typical for a certain phase in your life, you gobble them up because they have to do with youth and the confrontation with adulthood, and so on. They're highly idealistic and highly romantic. And, if you live in Europe or Germany, you read Erich Maria Remarque, who may be known in this country for the famous movie All Quiet on the Western Front. Erich Maria Remarque was the ... this book I just mentioned has to do with World War I, but his main work was about the troubles and toils and travails of World War II. People being uprooted, people trying to escape, people trying to live underground, people living in Paris, refugees trying to escape the next dragnet of the French police, and so on. So I think these were the books that one would read. And a third author I remember is also not too well known, though his American exile was the Villa Aurora down in L.A., and that's Lion Feuchtwanger, who has written a great deal of historical books, historic romance, which is also something for those teenage years.
You come to high school in America on a year exchange. Tell us a little about that experience.
You asked me about books. My first book that I was confronted with was Moby Dick, which was a grueling but most efficient way of learning English because you sat there and you had to read what was a complicated, complex language to begin with, plus it was replete with nautical terms. I had to start reading it, and every page I read I had about twenty little notations in the margin where I had to look up the word in a dictionary. So if you go through page 300, you know English. You understand English. That was a very powerful educational experience.
But then you come to America as a high school student and you can apply it. Tell me about that experience.
Your knowledge of English.
Moby Dick was American Lit.
Once you were here?
Right. I was thrust into an American high school by being thrust into an American Lit. course, and the first book is Moby Dick, which forced me to learn English, at least to develop an English vocabulary, very quickly. It was grueling but it was very effective.
What about interacting with American young people; was that quite a different experience for you?
Obviously. Remember, I came at the end of the fifties, as it were, the beginning of the sixties. The fifties were gone and the sixties weren't quite there yet. The sixties would come with a vengeance, I would say, by the mid-sixties, especially these famous Berkeley events like the Free Speech Movement, Sproul Plaza, and all that. So I came to high school just before that; the fifties were over, the sixties in terms of the calendar had begun, had not really begun. And then it was western Michigan. It was Calvinist, Dutch Reform country. Hard-working, God-fearing people. It was lily white, it was middle class to upper-middle class. And it had a lot of wondrous things for a kid coming out of Europe where the postwar period had just ended. For me they were extraordinary, for Americans they were standard fare, I mean like eating eggs for breakfast every day or having meat every day. Or taking even a shower every day. When you come out of a system where central heating and hot water were just slowly being rebuilt after the ravages of the war, you had to heat your own bath water. These were the wondrous things of American civilization.
Culturally it was not easy, because when you're a big city kid coming from Berlin, as I did, and you come to the western Michigan suburbs, you can imagine how many culture shocks and clashes there are. I mean it's the difference between coming from a very large city and going to a fairly small town.
Then you stayed on and did your undergraduate work in the United States?
Then something more miraculous happened to me. For reasons too complicated to go into, but as usual, always a woman involved, I applied to Swarthmore College. Now, she didn't get in, I did. She had to go to Oberlin and I got into Swarthmore, no doubt on my regional German quota. And I must say that I probably went to that place -- and substitute for Swarthmore, Amherst, Williams, or Wellesley -- in what must have been the glory days of American liberal education. It was very rigorous, very hard work. Out of class culture, we could study Marxism in our groups, we could go demonstrating, we could go to the next town and take over city hall for some civil rights issue and spend a night in jail; [but] we had to be back. Jail was one thing but we had to be back the next day to be there in our seminar which ran for five hours and which was structured around my paper that week. So I had to get out of jail, I had to finish that paper.
We were at that point studying -- I was studying political science, philosophy, and economics -- at graduate school level. I have never been worked so hard in my life, I've never learned so much. And the nice thing compared to today is that while we were by any standard raging lefties, we had conservative professors who kept us intellectually honest, and that is something which the postmodern multicultural university of today may no longer do. We did our identity politics outside of college, but in the classroom it was Leibniz, Descartes, and Kant, and you couldn't handle that with identity politics and facile slogans.
And there you became interested in international politics, or did you bring that to it?
Well, obviously, somebody who crosses cultural, geographic and political borders is almost destined to develop an interest in things international. But I ran into an extraordinary teacher at Swarthmore which, by the way, as a footnote, also highlights that great moment of American liberal arts education. In those days we had all kinds of nationally renowned professors who stayed in places like Swarthmore. And a decade or two later they had all been siphoned off to the great national research universities, and thus it happened with my IR teacher, Kenneth Waltz, who in due time was siphoned off to Berkeley, with a stint in Brandeis. Now Ken Waltz is by any account probably the most influential teacher of international relations in this era, in the postwar era, sixties, seventies and eighties. And I was lucky to have him as a teacher, and I would assume that that encounter shaped, or further intensified my interest in the subject.
What is it that you got from Waltz, do you think? Rigor?
Yes. First of all what I got from him was an appreciation of classical political theory as it relates to the study of something as new-fangled, if you wish, as international relations. Remember, this is a discipline that didn't exist before; as an academic discipline it was a postwar phenomenon. So first of all here's a man who tells me, yes, Thucydides and Hobbes and Kant are a very important approach to, and tool for understanding, what we are talking about today, which was nuclear weapons, bipolarity, the Soviet-American struggle, the Cold War, and so on.
Point two was the enormous intellectual rigor that man instilled in us. You could not bullshit your way through with him. You had to cast your arguments in a logical structure that would really hold water and would hold water under high pressure.
The third thing I liked about him was his relentless contrarianism. For him, a cliché was just something to be exploded, meaning whatever received notions and truths that were out there in the academy were an incentive to explode, an incentive to think even harder and say, is this a cliché? Is this the most interesting idea we can have? Don't we need new ideas? But they were an invitation to get your brain in motion. That's what I mean by the contrarian spirit. It's an intellectually contrarian spirit. It's the true academic spirit, I would say, to question whatever received wisdom there is.
You were suggesting a moment ago that your guess would be that things have changed on the American campuses because the contrarian idea may have become an ideology.
No. I'm not quite sure ... look, there are 3,000 institutions of higher learning or more in America. And they range from Saddleback College in Los Angeles, from the two-year community college, to Harvard and Berkeley and Stanford. It's very difficult to generalize. I would assume that the American university is now going through lots of phases of change, but one of them I think would be the multiculturalism/postmodernism/deconstructionism phase, which I do not believe is very friendly to rigorous thought, because identity politics have very little to do with rigorous thought, and the kind of relentless, almost simple-minded relativism that goes hand in hand with deconstructionism/postmodernism is also not conducive to rigorous thought, because, after all, if everything is a constructed social reality and there's no truths and there's no falsehoods, then your text is just as good as my literature, just to throw out some of the counter-clichés. It cannot be. It cannot be conducive to rigorous thought, because identity politics serve different functions than the search for truth. And the neo-relativism, which is what postmodernism is all about, even denies that there is such a thing as the truth. I've painted a caricature there, but to the extent to which these ways of thinking about knowledge have filtered into the academy, they have driven down the quality and the standards of thinking and achieving.
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