a common reader

A pilgrimage to La Paz

· 4 June 2014 |  by Janantoon
· Published in: English texts · mensenrechten · politiek
· Tagged with: · ·

“We look like a bunch of pilgrims gathering to start a pilgrimage to Canterbury.”
“You may be right about being pilgrims, but you can’t compare this sweltering place to a fourteenth century English tavern.”
We all laughed. In a way the young man was right: four unconnected people had flocked together. First we were sitting scattered in the same airplane from Brussels to Frankfurt and later in the nightlong flight from Frankfurt to São Paulo.

Philip Snow, Stranger and BrotherOn this flight my neighbour was C.P. Snow1, the well-known British author and scientist. Well, of course he wasn’t: Snow died in 1980. But the likeness was extraordinary: a bulky figure, bald, very thick glasses, left eye somewhat blurred. When he saw my face as I approached my seat, he laughed out loud.

“So you are one of my fans, eh? It does not happen very often nowadays that someone recognises me. The resemblance is striking, isn’t it? It took me some time to know what people were looking at. Actually I’d rather have been the splitting image of Michael Douglas or Brad Pitt, but there it is. Once I knew, I started reading all his books. But let me introduce myself: I am John — , professor of philosophy at — university.”
It was going to be an agreeable flight. We started chatting about literature and politics and philosophy.

Later, in São Paulo we met the other two as, apparently, we were all looking for the connection to La Paz, Bolivia. At first I thought they formed a couple, but she was a young woman (journalist?) travelling alone and he was a young, curly, convivial man (a teacher of mathematics) who obviously was rather interested in her good looks.

People at airports are mostly rather withdrawn, but here something special happened. As we had a five-hour wait before us, we agreed to have a light lunch together. Someone remarked laughing that we had survived a long flight without being hijacked or smashed against a skyscraper.
Drinking coffee, Snow (as I will continue calling him) was meditating on this remark.
“Of course, none of us will easily forget what happened on nine eleven, will we? I have been wondering ever since: how much freedom should we trade for our security?”

Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on LibertyThis silenced us for a few moments, the time to digest the question. Then the discussion became very lively; well-known arguments were being ping-ponged over the table.
“Freedom, but what kind of freedom? We should read Isaiah Berlin first; to make sure we are using the same definitions.”
“To trade? Do you think it is this easy: you buy some security and I sell some freedom. Do you think you can diminish the one to enlarge the other? Like in communicating vessels?”

Richard Rorty, Philosophy and social hope“Wrong image,” the mathematician intervened, “because communicating vessels always return to equilibrium. This can’t be said about freedom and security. Freedom is something we hope for, and hope is by definition the political aim of the Left. I am quoting Richard Rorty, I think. Security is typically an idea of the Right. And for rightist politicians, insecurity will always be a welcome topic. But aren’t they exaggerating? We can invest in a very expensive anti-ballistic missile system, but we won’t be able to stop all possible leaks.”

Again, Snow was meditating: “In the biblical story about David fighting the giant Goliath, we automatically identify with David, but actually we western people (and the US in the first place) are more like Goliath: fat, strong, powerful and… vulnerable.
Or think of the story of the Greek hero Achilles. His mother held him in the river Styx. Everything the sacred waters touched became invulnerable, but she had to hold him by the heel. So the heel remained dry and therefore unprotected. We will never be able to make our society completely safe.”

So far, the young woman had been silent. Then she interrupted in an urgent voice:
“Could we look at the question again? We all focus on the words freedom and security, and that’s very understandable. But for me, two little words escape attention: we and our.”
Snow responded immediately: “This looks promising, please go on.”
“Well, I think we don’t ask questions about the we and our of the question, because they are implied. The we, that’s us, isn’t it? We: presumably intelligent, presumably well off. Presumably living in a civilised and developed western country. Now, assume for one moment that a black South-African mine-worker asks this question. Or a Chinese peasant. Or an Indian fisherman. Like a chameleon, the colour of the words changes every time.”

Liao Yiwu, Die Kugel und das Opium“Indeed,” the young man agreed, “or a Nigerian woman waiting to be lapidated.”
“For me this is the heart of the matter: to define the we in the question. And to see how this affects even the words freedom and security.
Now, let us not pretend that we can feel committed to the entire world population all the time. That’s not human. But it is very human to care for your nearest family and friends. So, as I am living in the heart of Europe, I care a lot for my family and neighbours and, by extension, for all Europeans. I do want Europe to be a free and secure place to live for all its inhabitants. I want this for the most egoistical of reasons: so that I can live free and secure myself.”

At this point I was happy to talk about the purpose of my journey. “My eldest daughter is living and working in La Paz. She has three beautiful daughters. And you are right, young lady, I too am very concerned about the living conditions in Bolivia. Very egoistically, I want freedom and security for my grandchildren. And by extension also for the poor indigenous peasant of the Altiplano or the even more miserable mineworker in Potosí.”

Martha C. Nussbaum, Frontiers of JusticeSnow had been listening very intensely. “Basically, you are saying that a social condition of poverty is an unfree condition, and a social condition of hunger is insecure. The fact that we consider the trade-off between freedom and security means that we live in the illusion that we can be free and secure, despite the obvious insecurity of the majority of the world population. We might be safer by adopting an opener look upon the world and our so-called enemies. But, accepting these premises, how do you go on? What can be done?”

“Indeed, what can be done? It is my continuing frustration that one’s impact on the world is so small. I have one vote, which helps to shape the political environment in my own country, but only to a very very limited degree. And in many cases the influence of the president of the USA on my living conditions is greater than the influence of my locally chosen politicians. But I cannot vote for or against the American president.”

Again it was the young woman who seemed to have the clearest vision.
“You have only one electoral vote. But don’t forget that you have a voice. I’d like to put it to you all that this voice can be very strong.”
“What can I do with my voice? Do you want me to sing?”
“Why not? Look at the power of Bob Dylan’s protest songs during the Vietnam War. Or if you’ve got a good pen, then write a gripping novel.”

“Do not forget that you can use your voice in very different ways and as often as you want (in contrast with your electoral vote which you can use only every four or five years). You can write letters to help Amnesty International in its fight against intolerance, you can become an active member of pressure groups, and you can join street manifestations and really use your voice to shout. You can use your voices to put pressure on governments through public opinion or through pressure groups. So, although you’ve only got one vote, you have ample opportunity to make yourself heard, and to coerce your politicians to speak.”

“But nobody listens to a nobody.”

Stéphane Hessel Indignez-vous“You are not a nobody. Look for kindred spirits and unite your voices. Try to make people with a name or a position that matters to speak up. Convince them that not speaking is also speaking. Like for instance some years ago when the previous Pope condemned the use of preservatives in South Africa: while he raises his voice about such a point (where he is utterly wrong) it becomes clear that he does not raise his voice about a lot of more pressing questions.”

“But how will we ever convince governments or powerful institutions to give up even a small part of their power?”

Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi“Gandhi found a way!”

“My friends,” Snow intervened, “if we want to reach La Paz at all, we’ll have to stop this discussion.
But, let me do the summing up. You all think that security is an illusion as long as the majority of the world population lives in poverty, hunger, illiteracy, &c. But there is a freedom to act, however small our acts may be. It warms me that you believe in the power of words. It warms me too to find that you believe that your freedom is not complete when so many people live in humiliating conditions.
So, this really seems to be the start of a pilgrimage.”


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  1. Bringing C.P. Snow to life in a fictitious conversation is not my original idea. It was done before in a fine novel of ideas by John L. Casti in The Cambridge Quintet.