Dignity for the exploited, the hounded, the paperless, the Other

Tag: dignity

The judgment of Paris

Moi, j’ai mon propre Paris.

Yes, I have my own Paris. It is the Paris of Hector Berlioz, where he surmounted penury, risked everything, and won the coveted Prix de Rome scholarship, where he impossibly captured the affections of a famous actress without even speaking her language, where, as an old man, he bore the grief of being told of the death of his only son, and where I stood at his own grave, one spring morning.

It is the Paris of Arthur Rubenstein, the other Polish pianist who came to the city of lights, and complained that it is a pity that many first-time visitors arrived at the Gare du Nord, the shabbiness of which must make a rather poor impression. I too stepped out of that very same train station, fifteen years ago.

The Paris where a South African family of tourists adopted me for a day, and the five of us climbed the Eiffel Tower together. We kept repeating the same joke, that we men kept stopping to allow the ladies to catch up, although it was us who needed to catch our own breath. I have no particular affection for the tower, but I have happy memories of it, over the years – lying on the grass and reading a book, posing for pictures with my parents, walking with dear friends, fireworks on Bastille Day, and picnicking with cheese, bread and wine.

The van Goghs lived here, its streets were walked by Eugène Delacroix, Édouard Manet and Aristide Maillol. The Spaniards came, not just Miró and Picasso, but also Antoni Tàpies, who once followed an unknown woman halfway across Paris because she wore the same perfume as his mother, and who created works for the university I later attended.

In 2013, the Zurich stage saw an excellent take on the romantic stereotype of the struggling artist in Paris, “Das Leben der Bohème” – a photograph from which has ever since adorned my living room, and my “title picture” on the Internet. The play was based on the 1992 movie by Aki Kaurismäki, itself inspired by the 1851 Henri Murger novel, “Scènes de la vie de bohème”. Amedeo Modigliani’s life, from when he was in his mother’s womb, to his death in Paris at 36, could be said to be quite Bohemian. He lent his name to an establishment in Düsseldorf, where I remember savoring glasses of cheap wine with someone who came close to my ideal of Carmen.

Carmen! She who once claimed to be from the Kingdom of Navarre, who worked at the cigarette factory in Seville, and proudly declared herself to be a Bohemian – for all that, she was, like Prosper Mérimée who created her, and Georges Bizet who made her famous, a Parisian. That music, to which I wake up every morning, entranced even that knower of taste, Nietzsche. Nietzsche dreamt of coming to Paris. Two of those he once esteemed were here: Heinrich Heine and Richard Wagner; and many of his own admirers lived here – Albert Camus, for instance, whose contemporary, Jean Paul Sartre penned the novel “L’Âge de raison”, in which the protagonist moves in a Paris of cafés, prostitutes and communists – how I envied him – and whose elder brother castigates him for not being in “control” of his life even at 36, the “age of reason”, by which time the follies of youth ought to be behind us. I was in my early twenties when I described its plot to a lady I met at a soirée at the river. She appeared taken by my charms, and told me she was 29, which sounded so old – how I pitied her.

George Orwell wrote about Paris, Hemmingway called it a moveable feast, and Karl Marx changed the history of the world, meeting his collaborator Engels in a café in the 1st arrondissement. Of far less significance to history is a summer evening in the same arrondissement, when a friend and I tried to cheer up a Brazilian co-worker who was missing her boyfriend. We had taken in the sights, but nothing seemed to do the trick, and we too were a little fatigued, perhaps also because I could only speak with her using my few words of pidgin Portuguese. At the Arc de Triomphe, it started to drizzle, and we paused under an awning, the diminutive mademoiselle between the two of us. All of a sudden, she linked her arms in ours, and dragged us into the night. We walked through the pouring rain down the well-lit Champs-Élysées and all tiredness was washed away, replaced by a sense of joy.

Paris is where Alfred Dreyfus, the artillery officer, did not lose hope, when falsely accused of treason and asked to kill himself. The affair would be linked to the birth of an entire religious-political movement and, later, a country. Even his defense lawyer has a plaza in Paris named after him, where once he was publically dishonored. There are more trivial things too, like the recent movie “Un peu, beaucoup, aveuglément”, about two reticent neighbors who fall in love, without having ever seen each other. It is kitsch, non? Of course, it would be – everywhere but in Paris, and watching the movie on a late night flight over the Atlantic made me grin with sheer delight.

Paris has many more stories, and has given me some of mine – long hours spent in art galleries and cafés, of vegetarian restaurants, brief conversations in massage parlors and chic boutiques, of missed trains and disappointing musical concerts, and of having the closing doors of the metro snatch away my jacket and shirt freshly pressed for a wedding. The delectable memoirs of Stefan Zweig and Pablo Neruda, the diaries of Anaïs Nin, the education of Benoît Mandelbrot – that too is my Paris. As every great agglomeration, Paris knows also finance, industry, science and politics, and the problems of effectively managing limited resources. The œuvres of the customs officer who became a painter, and Jean Valjean, of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, who fought on the barricades, which skirmishes, in my head, look like the Delacroix depiction of liberty leading the people, quite worth braving the hordes at the Louvre – that too is my Paris. During the Nazi occupation, a ten-year-old girl fled the city, later going on to sing my favorite chanson, “Ma plus belle histoire d’amour, c’est vous”. Even the prisons of Paris have boasted of an Arthur Rimbaud and an Evariste Galois, and perhaps also a Molière, whose “Le misanthrope” and “Le bourgeois gentilhomme” have made me laugh out loud, even in translation. All that is my Paris, and also the bookstalls along the Seine, the jardin des Tuileries, and the bar of the Folies Bergère which I have yet to visit, but which I know from often gazing at the Manet masterpiece in London.

It was in London, on a winter’s day some years ago, that a friend from Calcutta and I decided to spend a day exploring the city. We had known each other as children, and she had recently moved to the metropolis. In an antique bookstore, I stumbled upon the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I requested the bookseller to hold them for me while we went for a stroll, she told him that he had a pleasant accent, which complement made me jealous, for could not I modulate my speech to make it sound upper class? I learnt about Jean-Jacques, who lived in Paris, and whose thought changed the course of European culture, and contributed to the French revolution.

Yes, the French revolution, the one with the ideals of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the one with the rights of man, the “Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen”, passed in Paris in 1789. Now, in 2015, the barbarians have struck again. Will we respond by standing true to our ideals of individual freedom and social justice, or by abandoning them? Another foreigner in Paris was Arthur Koestler. Unlike Jean-Jacques, Koestler barely spoke French when he turned up. Two of his insights are relevant to this discourse: firstly, that Parisians know only their own quartier, and are ignorant of the city as a whole, whereas to the outsider belongs all Paris, because the individual quartiers are closed to him. Secondly, that the European value par excellence is – tolerance. Will we remember this? To abandon tolerance, or to relinquish individual freedoms, or to forgo solidarity with the weak, is to hand victory to the brutes who murdered so many on Friday, the thirteenth of November.

We know what the alternative looks like. A state with a secret police, with deportation centers, with suspects tortured in cellars, with benches in parks labeled “Only for Irish”, advertisements with signs stating “No Germans need apply”, where adherence to a certain religion or a political party means banishment or execution, with footpaths not accessible to all, conversations being spied upon, wives denouncing sisters-in-law, a chance remark against the regime leading to, at the very best, being ostracized; curfews, censorship, travel restrictions, arbitrary arrests, and all the rest we know all too well – it ends with “re-education” camps. Freedom, earned at so bloody a price over centuries – will we give it up on account of fear?

We mentioned Victor Hugo earlier, and he was in Paris during the siege of 1870, when the populace was reduced to hunting and eating rats. He wrote of his resolve to not capitulate to the invaders: “I am become Paris, I am become wall”, or words to such effect. A century and a half later, we are become Paris, under the onslaught of the faceless enemy. Not just because of the individuals who were massacred, but also because of the manner in which they were killed – in places of relaxation, in our boulevards and cafés, indiscriminately, cruelly – and because Paris is, in a sense, Europe, and because Europe is, in a sense, the torchbearer of the modern idea that all human beings are free, that all are entitled to dignity.

Where does that leave us? Shall we take to arms, and fight? Shall we hunt down and attack the bearded, balaclava-wearing mercenaries responsible for these atrocities? Not all of us are in a position to do so. What all of us can do is this: raise our voice against intolerance, against that which threatens the dignity of man, against legislation which encroaches on freedom, against corporations and regimes which exploit or oppress. If we are Paris, then we must, no matter whether on the Place de la Concorde, or far away from it, demonstrate that we stand for tolerance, critical thinking, social justice, the appreciation of beauty, the celebration of life, human dignity, and individual freedom – in the best traditions of Paris.

Moi, je suis Paris.

The cost of silence is murder

They murdered a man in Dadri, a small town in India I had never heard of, and it made me think of Greifswald, another town of sixty thousand, host to one of the world’s oldest universities. The university’s name was changed in 1933 to Ernst Moritz Arndt on the instructions of Hermann Göring, a decorated soldier of the First World War, whose nationalist credentials can scarcely be disputed. Arndt too was a bit of a nationalist, and adolescent boys may be forgiven for admiring one of his ideas, “Da ist Freiheit, wo du in den Sitten und Gesetzen deiner Väter leben darfst; wo dich beglücket, was schon deinen Ureltervater beglückte”. (Freedom is where you can live according to the customs of your fathers; where you are made happy by that which made your most distant ancestors happy)

That is the connection to Dadri – for the man they murdered was Mr. Mohammad Akhlaq, 50 years old, a blacksmith and a Muslim. While he was resting at home with his family, so the accounts go, an accusation was made in a nearby Hindu temple that he had killed a calf and consumed its flesh. The cow being holy to Hindus, this outraged the faithful, and they found their way to his home, dragged him out of bed, and beat him to death with bricks and sticks. They also attacked his son, and the female members of his family. The men who murdered him were probably not scholars of Arndt, but they would have agreed with his ideas on freedom, for is India not their land, and are not the Muslims outsiders, with foreign ways? In their romantic view of ancient India, cows were treasured, and slaughtering them quite unthinkable. When they heard of Mr. Akhlaq’s alleged transgression, they decided that mercilessly beating him and his family would pave the way to a return to a nobler age. They dispensed with contemptible innovations such as due process, tolerance, privacy, and respect for human dignity. The rumor of a basic value of the community being outraged is reminiscent of Göring’s goons who spread tales of the ritual killing of (Christian) children by Jews as part of a vilification campaign that resulted in loot and murder.

A man was torn from his home and viciously torn apart by a mob – but that is not the saddest and scariest bit. That questionable honor belongs to the reaction that ensued. At least one journalist titled his piece, “No beef consumed in Dadri murder”, and the local authorities confirmed that the meat found in Mr. Akhlaq’s home was “simply mutton and not beef”. A man was murdered, but the “local authorities” thought they would best serve by running tests to identify foodstuffs, and the press considered it a vital enough angle for the headline. A common refrain on Internet comments was along the lines of “Yes, well, but what about that other incident where a Hindu person was attacked?” Another appears to complain about “liberals” letting down the side by tarnishing the national image. The word “liberal”, standing for “person daring to put individual freedom and human dignity ahead of national or racial interests” appears to have the same connotation in some circles as did the appellation “intellectual” back in the Soviet Union. The police showed up, arrested some suspects, which lead to more violence, and shocking statements made by politicians. All that notwithstanding, the most detestable reaction was silence. Bertolt Brecht’s verse, inspired by the era of Göring, comes to mind: “Was sind das für Zeiten, wo ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist, weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!” (What terrible times are these, when an ordinary conversation about trees is almost a crime, because it tacitly implies an acceptance of the injustice around us!)

Mr. Akhlaq is beyond our help. His death is yet another warning that we may not stay silent, not just when the mob is gathering in an unknown provincial town, but when we hear the intolerant remarks at the breakfast table in our own homes. Quite harmless remarks, and everyone is entitled to an opinion, surely, and it is tiresome to have a political debate over a casual utterance. Yet every unchallenged remark disparaging a certain group of humans confirms a certain antagonistic weltanschauung, and someone will pay with blood. Surely, this we have learnt.



The flag is a pernicious distraction

Indien bild

August 15, 1947 — called the Day of Independence for a thousand million people, although it is a bit of a misnomer, for India was created on that day, in a sense, and so could not be made ‘independent’ of anything. Of course, Indies is ancient — and even if we take the recent historical view of India, ‘independence’ was accompanied by two massive chunks of land, almost a million square kilometers, breaking away.

One of them, Pakistan, went on to fight, and be fought by, India in multiple wars and additional decades-long, systematic conflict, with the concomitant death and suffering of multitudes. Even before the wars, at the moment of ‘independence’, millions were uprooted from their homes, with mass-murder and rape. There’s an additional angle to it: Hyderabad State, a piece of land larger than England, did not become part of the new India on 15 August 1947, or even in the later months of that year. There also remained a Portuguese enclave for years afterwards, but a relatively small one. Much larger in territory were the Princely States, which, de jure, had been independent — if anything, independence was lost, presumably for millions. Considering the significant geographies of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Hyderabad State, and, more importantly, their millions of denizens, we must ask whether a brutal amputation and a partial agglomeration is to be celebrated?

However, perhaps we may ignore considerations of what are the de jure borders of which nations, as these notions are arbitrary, in any case — surely, what matters is the reality on the ground?

Instead of ‘independence’, then, let us celebrate freedom — the freedom to express an opinion without having goons come to our doorsteps, the freedom to be a woman or casteless person without adverse consequence, the freedom to speak one’s language without being disadvantaged in the job market, the freedom to participate in government, the freedom to access education and cultural resources, the freedom to question exploitative and unjust practices without fear of reprisal, the freedom to either worship certain Gods or refuse to join in communal adoration without being subject to genocide, and the freedom to use a toilet.

Unfortunately, these we cannot celebrate.

Indies has endured since millennia, in spite of a stream of invaders from a plethora of cultures — or perhaps they contributed to the story of India. India will survive. Far more precarious are individual freedom, human dignity, and social justice for many millions of her living residents. Till we succeed to establish them as norms, ‘independence’ is a hollow, pernicious celebration.

“Where are you from?”

An attempt on the problem of the linking of identity, and thus also past experience and current behavior, of the individual human to that human’s supposed origin

Abstract: The question, “Where are you from?”, when put around the inception of an acquaintance, arises from a primitive need to test and establish relative Otherness. It is potentially dangerous, certainly pointless, and always in questionable taste – except when asked by a police commissar. There is a multitude of conversational devices that can better serve intercourse more pleasant and interesting. Confronted with the impudence of the insistent ones, one might use the opportunity to hone suppleness of intellect.

FWN collage

Nietzsche’s postulate, that early humans scrutinized each unfamiliar person in terms of the existential threat they presented, may not be restricted to past ages alone, when one considers how often the question “Where are you from?” is heard when strangers interact, occasionally being one of the first demands made. As with all human exchanges, the manner in which the query is posed, as also the context, makes a significant difference. In the general case, however, the question is potentially dangerous, certainly pointless, and always in questionable taste.

A most lethal question: Consider that the person being interrogated may not have appropriate papers that confer the right to exist in the current jurisdiction. To cause such a person to reveal details of origin could result in that person’s deportation and torture. This might be set in motion immediately, because there happens to be present a secret policeman, an eager informant, or an off-duty public servant, or at a subsequent date, as the unfortunate one tires of deception or silence, and gives in at inopportune moment. Now, it is scarcely accurate to suggest that the expulsion and abuse of “illegal” foreigners is a matter of universal concern – indeed, will not our glorious Fatherland profit by the removal of such scum? Be that as it may, the potential danger is not just to the paperless person, but also to the poser of the question, for a cornered animal might lash out violently in desperation. In this case, prudence and solidarity converge.

moscow map

All that is less than 6308 kilometers removed from Moscow

(Map drawn using Radius Around Point function on based on Google Maps, with the balloon centered at Moscow, and radius calculated using a haversine formula on

When geography is irrelevant: Lavrentiya is a village in Chukotsky District in eastern Russia. For Muscovites, the inhabitants of Lavrentiya are compatriots, but there are literally hundreds of millions of foreigners – Ukrainians, Germans, Frenchmen, Swiss, Belgians, Poles, Spaniards, Algerians, Egyptians, Arabs, Persians, Afghans, Indians and Chinese – who live and die closer to Moscow than do the fine men and women of Lavrentiya. We may see this by drawing a circle on the world’s map, with Moscow as the center, and a radius of 6308 kilometers, which is the approximate distance between Lavrentiya and the Russian capital. The circle shall cover large swathes of Asia, Africa, America and Europe. Similarly, for millions of Indians, dwellings in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka or China appear closer than many centers of human population within their own country. It is far from unusual for a group of people to have a group of foreigners closer to them, in terms of distance, than some of their own compatriots. This phenomenon might mean that one resembles foreigners rather than compatriots in terms of language, manner at meat, and external appearance. To add to this is the complication that nation states are arbitrary and given to change. The influential philosopher Adolf Hitler was aware of this: „Staatsgrenzen werden durch Menschen geschaffen und durch Menschen geändert.“ (The borders of nation states are created and changed through human agency; Mein Kampf) Therefore, just knowing which country the Other is from might not be adequate. Even if we delve further and ascertain the name of the city, we will not necessarily have a fair idea of the stranger in front of us, because of the differences typically related to religion, education, socio-economic class, and language. Geography is just not enough.

The use of the answer: Racism is, of course, a perfectly legitimate way of examining the world. It is, however, not compatible with the idea that every single individual is entitled to personal freedoms, human dignity and nominal equality, and, occasionally, leads to Jim Crow style lynching or mass murder, but more often to unfair treatment. Given that the notion of “race” has changed over the past century or so, let us define the term.

Racism is the assigning of a certain characteristic to a group of humans that does not by definition belong to that group, and the potential discrimination against or preferential treatment of group members because of that certain characteristic.

To illustrate, the statements, “Danes are sticklers for punctuality”, “Vietnamese are lazy”, and “Bulgarians make their money by selling illegal drugs” are racist. They also happen to be inane, but that is not germane to the current discourse. We have reminded ourselves that countries often cover large stretches of land, and that even denizens of a given city might differ greatly from each other. Furthermore, each human experience is unique. We must now examine what possible use the answer to a “Where are you from” query can have for the interrogator. The answer is simple: “none”; or rather, “none, unless the interrogator has a series of attributes associated with each country, city, canton or county” – leading us to the conclusion that the question well might have racist motives.

Solidarity with the Other: As far as the question under discussion is concerned, one might want to stand with the less fortunate – either because one believes in the universal right to human dignity, or because one wishes to amuse oneself through a social experiment. Suppose you live in a society where it is considered prestigious to have two cows. It is then a lot easier to deal with the question “How many cows do you have?”, if one has one or two cows, than if one has zero cows. If the bovine analogy is ill-suited, consider the case that you live in a city where the benches in the public park are marked with “Nur für Deutsche” (Only for Germans). In such a case, the question “Where are you from?” is a lot easier to deal with if you are from Germany, than if you happen not to be from Germany, regardless of whether or not you happen to be in the vicinity of a park bench at the time the question is being asked. Out of solidarity with the weaker side, what if we were to respond along the lines of, “I am from North Korea, but one-eighth Swedish, one-eighth Muslim, one-eighth Jewish, one-eighth Maldivian, one-eighth Russian, one-eighth African, one-eighth Hindu, and one-eighth from a country that doesn’t exist anymore.”? For all that, one would be a human being – and, compared to any other human being with a different answer, exactly as capable of love, pettiness, pilferage, charming conversation, and self-sacrifice. There are other responses too: “Do you mean the country of birth, city of birth, or where I grew up for the majority of the first fifteen years of my life, or my nationality? And, of course, I should probably ask you first whether you have any intense feeling of antagonism against a certain country. Let’s start with Afghanistan, and tick them off in alphabetical order, shall we?” More direct: “I am from a country where one typically shows secret-police identification before asking that question.” A trifle provocative: “It depends on whether or not you think Heinrich Heine was German. You see, we might bump into each other at a re-education camp, and the answer can be a matter of life and death.” Alternatively, one may take the opportunity to train one’s wit, to utter no lie, to continually converse, to steadfastly refuse answer on that point, and to subtly reveal to the interrogator his or her boorishness, all with a faint smile. Our response can also include more neutral conversational gambits. It might be dry for a while longer, I think. I overheard someone mentioning sugar prices are on the rise again and that apparently affects, curiously enough, the price of furniture. I wonder whether this part of the wall might be labeled a light fuchsia? Given the richness of the human experience and the world we live in, there must always be a plethora of neutral conversational gambits for any but the most unimaginative and dull of interlocutors.

Summary: The question, “Where are you from?”, when put around the inception of an acquaintance, arises from a primitive need to test and establish relative Otherness. It is potentially dangerous, certainly pointless, and always in questionable taste – except when asked by a police commissar. There is a multitude of conversational devices that can better serve intercourse more pleasant and interesting. Confronted with the impudence of the insistent ones, one might use the opportunity to hone suppleness of intellect.

The shadow of the Buddha: a perspective on the Israel-Gaza conflict

Much has been written and said, both heatedly and dispassionately, about the war between Israel and Gaza. Much of the discourse can be applied to both past and, should they occur, future wars; and the wars themselves may be regarded as flash points of a persistent, longer-term conflict. Indeed, in its essential aspects, this conflict may have analogies across the world, and in history. The Israel-Gaza conflict is not a middle-eastern problem – it is representative, with consequences for all humanity.

Conflicts within and between human societies tend to be intricate, and their causes not particularly easy to articulate, especially with the passage of time and the participation of large numbers of people. The origins of organized conflict probably lie in greed, fear, love, the survival instinct, solidarity, wariness, the desire for revenge, the need for glory and the many other integral aspects of the human condition. The start of the conflict may have been inevitable, but its extended continuation is not. This terrible conflict is perpetuated thanks to two sophisticated philosophies: religion systems and nation states.

Religion systems (with their symbols, prescribed behaviors, specific jargon, links to specific geographies, military and economic influence, membership rites et cetera) and nation states (with their symbols, prescribed behaviors, specific jargon, links to specific geographies, military and economic influence, membership rites et cetera) are both extraordinary products of human creativity, and are similar in many ways. Both are potent, both have shaped history, and both continue to dictate the destiny of billions. Religion systems and nation states have increased knowledge, spread liberties, reduced exploitation, created beautiful things and defended the weak – but they have also done the opposite, and are not strangers to duplicity and realpolitik.

Wherefore this dichotomy? For religions as well as nations, the cause of much of their negative acts is a simple one: the delineation of and intolerance of the Other. Religions discriminate against non-believers, make up derogatory names for them, and often apply special taxes. Nations do the same to foreigners. If all humans were Aryans, or all the Chosen People of the Biblical God, then the idea would have scarce value. The idea is valuable only when we have the barbarians or the Gentiles as the Other. Similarly, if we were all citizens of Burkina Faso, what would be the distinction of that citizenship? When needed, the Other can also be found within the religion (the heretic, the excommunicated, the outcaste) and within the nation (the rebel, the non-conformist, the terrorist). Not all social ills may be laid at the doors of religions and nations, of course. There will also be the themes of individual megalomania, cruelty and rapaciousness that make human affairs interesting. However, if we can do away with the intolerance fuelled by religion systems and nation states, we might make the conflict untenable, to quite an extent. Fighter jets of the Ushdier Nation would rarely bomb buildings with Ushdier citizens in them. The priests of the Almans Religion would not continually exhort the faithful to kill fellow-adherents who too honor the Goddess of the Almans. Sometimes, the bombings and the call to murder do take place, justified in both cases as the means to an end, called collateral damage or necessary evil – but there would be a drastic reduction in the severity of the conflict, and in the body count. Perhaps the worst parts are not the bombings or the call to murder, but the physically-enforced restrictions on trade, expression and movement, and the call to discriminate and ostracize. How do we bring about this drastic reduction in organized violence? If the notion of the Other, and intolerance towards said Other, is central to both religion systems and nation states, what is the way forward? Must religion systems and nation states be done away with? Perhaps there is a middle way, as the Buddha might have it.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882

Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882

Our European professor, writing in the 1880s, suggests here:

“For centuries after Buddha was dead, his shadow was displayed in a cave – a monstrous, gruesome shadow. God is dead: but given the ways of man, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which His shadow will be shown. – And we – we still also have to vanquish His shadow!”

Nietzsche’s point is that (the western European) belief in (the western European Christian) God had come to an end, evidenced by the fact that societies at large no longer appeared to conduct their affairs in a way that acknowledged the existence of (that omnipotent, vengeful) God. However, he goes on to observe, these societies were not yet prepared to completely reject God – leading to the phenomenon of the “Buddha’s shadow”, in his analogy. The belief in Gods, demons, holy men, magical objects, sacred lands and beyond-worlds remains strong – but it is certainly not as strong as it once was. It is no longer deadly, or even scandalous, in some societies, to openly declare oneself to be an atheist. It would be a half-dozen decades after Nietzsche before a similar waning of fanaticism could be seen in (European) nation states – not too often now do we hear, “My country, right or wrong”, “The Fatherland above all else” or “Who dies, if the Motherland lives?”.  Perhaps we will need religion systems and nation states for a while longer, but let us insist on a diluted version of both, securing for us the good, and leaving out the exploitation and murder. That is the case, for instance, in the Europe of today, to quite an extent. Foreigners do get deported and are forbidden to work, but some are allowed to stay and participate in the labor market. Adherents of religions other than that of the Church of Rome or that of England may find some positions barred to them in Rome or England, but are by no means second class citizens. Someday, we shall vanquish the shadow of the Buddha, or perhaps it shall be some Nietzschean generation of the future which shall succeed. In the meantime, let us fight against the rabid delineation of and intolerance towards the Other that religion systems and nation states naturally engender.

Every time we allow a young woman to choose freely her own religion, or indeed lack of it, or not compel her to disclose it, or let her mix and match, or marry outside of it, or put on the symbols of another, or criticize the premises of some or all religions, or cherish them most fervently;

Each border with fewer controls and barricades, each land with fewer, or indeed no, compulsory police-issued papers to be carried about;

Through these increased personal liberties and enhanced human dignity we can build a peace.


Papers for everyone! (print, cut, fold)

“Your papers, please!”

Dramatic music plays, the camera position shifts to a close-up, and we the viewers are captivated by the suspense. This evening scene from a movie set perhaps in the days leading up to the last great European war could well be a decisive one. The questioner, perhaps a suspicious secret policeman, or just a regular policeman doing his duty, has demanded to see identification papers. There is the sound of rain falling in the background, but this natural pitter-patter does not comfort us, for we know that the hatted man and necklaced woman who have been accosted possess forged identification papers. Will the forgery stand scrutiny? Or will the alarm be raised, and the precarious existence of the youthful lovers extinguished?

Let us leave this rain-scented image for a while. Till around a century ago, in many parts of the world, one could travel without personal identification papers, even crossing national borders. A former army officer, Franz von Papen, who made it to the highest political offices of the Weimar Republic has testified to that. That state of affairs has changed. Today, there are a great many countries where one needs to carry a personal identification card constantly, and countries where one may get stopped by the police and asked to produce such a card, at any time.

Back to our imperilled duo. Our man is not afraid, in the best traditions of male heroes. In the same vein, his only worry is that his weak female companion with the gentle curls will not be able to survive the terrible ordeals they might have to shortly endure. Not having papers can mean imprisonment, execution or transportation to a labor camp; torture, starvation and dysentery are in the offing.

krakow police control

Picture source: USHM, Washington

That is bad, but that is not the entirety of it. Two articulate intellectuals of the previous century, Stefan Zweig and Arthur Koestler, have written about the degradation of having to wait in the foyers of petty bureaucrats in order get a stamp on a piece of paper, to fill out forms in triplicate, to answer absurd questions, being sent away, being recalled, having to produce letters of reference from barely accessible sources, being compelled to reveal intimate details to strangers, being shouted at only because one is a foreigner, being given only temporary reprieves, always being on probation, being always threatened with expulsion, with imprisonment, and always being humiliated. That was their account; coincidentally both were Jews, both loved Vienna, both were exiles and both were potential targets of a secret police. That particular secret police has been disbanded and Vienna is now safe for Jews. For many millions of people, however, the debasement chronicled by Zweig and Koestler remains a fact of life today, from partly-secured visa interview rooms, to soulless offices where residence papers are extended, to cavity searches, to endless forms with exasperating questions, to being mocked in languages one barely understands – and not everyone has the luxury of a university education and the ability to express themselves well in multiple tongues –  to processes that are far from logical, to having to risk much for a chance at a future life with dignity, to airports where suspicious eyes compare passport-size photographs to what is claimed to be a man.

Paperlessness: When the best-case scenario is Kafkaesque

Paperlessness: When the best-case scenario is Kafkaesque

And even more – depending upon which part of the world one is sent away to, one could be blown up by a marketplace bomb, executed by the police, catch malaria, die from excruciating indigence or be enslaved. One can be torn away from family, from friends, from a lover, from a language – all because one does not have the right papers.

There are benefits for governments and police forces to make the citizenry carry compulsory papers. Josephs Goebbels and Stalin probably list them out neatly in one of their notebooks. But perhaps one day, electronic surveillance tools will obviate the need to make people carry pieces of paper. (Of course, it would still be useful to maintain the fiction, to give people the illusion of privacy if they throw away or change their papers.) Perhaps that day has already arrived, or is not too far away, given what Edward Snowden, a benefactor of the race, has indicated to us. Curiously, the so-called universal declaration of human rights too calls for the right to a nationality, as if human dignity and personal liberties were intricately bound to the existence of citizenship papers.

Whatever might be the advantages of compulsory personal identification papers, we must not let them be a pre-condition to human dignity and personal liberties. As a reminder, here is a simple card that can be printed, folded, laminated and carried about upon one’s person.

humanhuman back

Of coure, you probably want to have this done in other, relevant languages. In Dutch, you might want to try, “De houder van deze kaart is een mens”. The German and Hindi versions of the papers follow.

human DEhuman DE backhuman hindi fronthindi human back


These cards are transferable. They are valid without photographs and biometric chips. They are to be issued free of charge. Copying is permitted. Such conditions are an abomination to secret policemen and bureaucrats everywhere. But what do we lovers of freedom and dignity care about the tastes of slaves!

These are simple pieces of paper, not backed by fleets of aircraft carriers, camel-loads of capital, or mindless hordes with automatic weapons. But perhaps they do not need to be. The values of human dignity, personal liberty and tolerance have a legitimacy that does not need brute force to back it up.