Lori Allen – A History of False Hope

Describe your book

 A History of False Hope is a study of how liberalism and international law has taken hold of the political imagination of so many people working from Palestine and for Palestinian liberation, and how it has done so in shifting ways across a century. Through an analysis of six investigative commissions to Palestine, from 1919 until today, I provide a kind of subaltern studies view of international law, to understand why so many people become committed to a system of politics that never lives up to its promises of justice. Commissions of inquiry come in many shapes and sizes. But they all involve some kind of officially appointed group of people tasked with investigating some situation, problem, or event.  They are, essentially, a tool of governance and, often, a tool of state or international PR. But they are and do so much more than that, too.  Commissions articulate and put on display certain values—and in the cases that I’m looking at, the values of liberalism and international law. And when you look at commissions with an anthropological lens as I have, we see how politics happens in very personal, often emotional ways. The book offers a historical-anthropological understanding of liberalism as a lived ideology.

Why did you decide to publish it with a university press?

A History of False Hope is engaged with a range of scholarly and political conversations, from the history of international law and political theory, to contemporary political debates about liberalism and colonialism’s legacies, to the history and present of Palestinian liberation struggles. Stanford University Press is increasingly known as the go-to place for top notch Middle East Studies work, an interdisciplinary field that can accommodate such a wide-ranging book. So I knew I would be in good company publishing with them (including my own, as I published my first book with them, too🙂) 

Do you enjoy the writing process?

I really enjoyed writing this book!  Delving into the archives, learning in detail a long history of transnational Palestinian political engagement, and learning something about critical legal scholarship and the history of international law was 

all new and experimental for me. I dabbled and explored and worried about my lack of expertise until I was confident that I had something I was intellectually and emotionally convinced of, and until I knew that I had something politically relevant to say. All this novelty and deep interdisciplinarity allowed me to consider new forms of writing that forefronted narrative and description as a way of conveying my analysis—hopefully making it an enjoyable read, too. The writing process is always challenging, and I used up a lot of white-board and eraser to figure out how to structure things, but it was great. I loved trying to bring to life some of these often quirky, sometimes inspiring—and sometimes infuriating—historical characters. 

What are you currently reading, outside of work and research?

I am in the midst of reading Middlemarch, by George Eliot; The Kingdom, by Emmanuel Carrère; Hope against Hope by Nedezhda Mandelstam, a memoir about resisting authoritarianism and maintaining human connections and creativity in the face of powers bent on atomization; and Twice a Stranger, by Bruce Clark, about the forced expulsions between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s. Each has a distinct and distinctly wonderful and ingenious style suited to (what I understand of) the author’s messages and intent. The multiple plots and hilariously snarky descriptions of people and their relations in Middlemarch along with the huge range of intertextual references that Eliot provides to comment critically on such a range of social issues is all together kind of overwhelming. So I’ve decided I can only read this on days when I have a long lazy stretch for reading and soaking in the details. The back cover of The Kingdom, which I’ve only just started, defines the book as genre-defying. I’m amazed when an author can make their personal experience and voice so broadly fascinating, as Carrère seems able to do. Nedezhda Mandelstam, wife of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, has such a clear-eyed view of human nature and the ways people can lose and find themselves in the midst of crushing repression, which she relays with a steady, calm voice. Her book should offer lessons for what we are all facing in this world of mushrooming Orbans, Trumps, Netanyahus, and Bolsonaros.  And Bruce Clark manages to interweave historical detail at the level of high politics with accounts of the “regular” people who lived through these devastating population exchanges, making this history accessible and engaging and sadly so relevant for today. 

What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?

Write for yourself.

What piece of advice would you give you young academics looking to follow in your footsteps?

Know who you’re writing for and why.  I am constantly amazed and kind of angry at the way education systems (at least the Euro-American ones I’m familiar with) teach–and don’t teach–people to write. Rarely in the social sciences do we forefront communication as the purpose of our work. Not showing off. Not proving how much one knows or how much one has read. Not sycophantic or identitarian point-scoring. We’re doing this to share what we’ve learned about the world, and the argument(s) that we want someone to take away and do something with. To offer our readers insights that might help them organize better, or be more sympathetic, or more energized and enraged to confront the powers that be.  My other piece of advice is, prioritize your research and writing and get disciplined so that you keep the time to do it. Young academics—indeed, most academics these days—are faced with mountains of institutional constraints that can be soul-crushing and darken the mental spaces needed for creative, sustained, critical thought. Carve out your spaces of light and protect them.

Who inspires you?

Anyone who is brave and energetic enough to think independently, who can avoid the scripts that institutions and history have laid down for them. Anyone who is able to jump the tracks and forge new paths where people can come together in new ways to fight setter-colonialism, sexism, racism, xenophobia, and the power structures that hinder our human flourishing—because that requires a lot of coming together. Anyone who is inspired by Gramsci enough to keep their optimism of the will flowing alongside a mind and spirit bolstered with knowledge of the worst that can happen.

What’s next?

I’m exploring non-academic forms of writing right now, including fiction, literary non-fiction, script writing, and memoir. There are so many amazing stories to tell and to learn from—stories to be found in history and archival records, personal experience, and past research. I’m excited to be experimenting with new ways of motivating critical thought about the world by thinking and writing against the standard paradigms of academia, and of Palestinian and US politics. 

Lori Allen is Reader in Anthropology at SOAS University of London. She is the author of The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine (2013, Stanford University Press) and A History of False Hope (2020), also by Stanford University Press.