Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What it takes to count yourself a world citizen.

World Civics

By John Taylor; 2009 Nov 11, Qudrat 08, 166 BE

The goad that got me going on the book I am writing -- people without borders -- is rage at what I regard as one of if not _the_ greatest humanitarian disaster in history, the banishment of over a billion people in endless slums and favelas without benefit of sanitation, roads or other infrastructure. Yet there are those who see good even in this. Two of them who had their say at the TED fora are Robert Neuwirth and Steward Brand. Here are the blurbs for their talks.

"Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities, finds the worlds squatter sites -- where a billion people now make their homes -- to be thriving centers of ingenuity and innovation. He takes us on a tour. Robert Neuwirth spent two years living in squatter cities on four continents to research his amazing book...

I listened to this talk in a moment of relaxation and for the next three days I did one of my longest double takes I recall ever having. After the third day, at about the time I normally would have forgotten about the experience completely, I was suddenly filled with indignation. Surely this fellow has to be joking! Or maybe he is being ironic. I listened again to the talk, and I swear he is serious.

One memorable anecdote that this apparatchik for capitalist anti-planning fundamentalism tells of his years in the favela is about when a young boy who climbed a mountain of trash near his home. Will he start playing "king of the castle" with his friends, the apparatchik asks? No, instead he defecates on the peak. There are, you see, no toilets at his home. This disgusting act becomes a sort of conversion experience for him. He realizes that there must be great creativity and innovation going on in these places... He shows some pictures of shacks that have been turned into sub-standard houses. The fact that there is some slight improvement in some hovels is proof that there must be something great in the works here.

The great act of creativity here is the idea that you can openly justify the atrocities of an ideology at the same time that they dwarf the evils of Nazism and Communism combined. You can almost understand a neo-Nazi denying that the holocaust never took place. He has an investment in the nobility of his cause, and at least denial is mute recognition of the horror of killing millions in death camps. Besides, the Nazi camps and Soviet Gulags were shut down decades ago. They are part of the past.

But defending these hell holes even as they still continue, a billion souls left without property or citizen rights living under grossly unsanitary conditions that make a concentration camp look orderly and even enviable -- why would anybody ever want to defend such an atrocity? They have the temerity to go around saying openly that third world slums are the cities of the future ... surely there is something evil and perverse here that I am missing. Then I recalled listening to another talk on the TED site with a similar theme. After a search sure enough there it was,

Stewart Brand's 3-minute TEDTalk on cities

"Rural villages worldwide are being deserted, as billions of people flock to cities, to live in teeming squatter camps and slums. And Stewart Brand says this is a good thing. Why? It'll take you 3 minutes to find out."

Clearly, the organizer of these TED talks is moved, as I am, at this humanitarian quagmire, but as I say he goes even further than a holocaust denier, he puts on speakers who are willing to defend the thesis that favelas and slums are a good thing. They have 100 percent employment. There are some inspiring activists there trying to get rights that the other six billion already have and take for granted. A billion destitute are a sign of a bright future! I cannot believe what people will say when their ideology is being refuted by reality. Then I remembered what my 15 year old daughter does when she sees something that impresses her: she reads the comments. Here is one comment on this presentation by one Rahul Dewan.

"People migrate to cities to live in near-inhuman living conditions in slums (squatter cities!) to get out of abject poverty - absolutely correct. But the answer to get them out of this poverty is not in getting them to cities and claiming that it is a "good thing". On the contrary, the model of our "skewed economics" [is] city-centric, solely-profit-oriented (without values of maximizing human creativity, spreading love, compassion) needs to change."

Yes, it is an ideology at work here, an openly acknowledged policy of the World Bank. Allow corporations to bribe governments into driving country folk out of the village into the favela, and then forbid them from investing in infrastructure, as every normal city does. This is not the work of a magnet, as these speakers would have us believe, it is a pincer attack. It is highly inconvenient for corporations to have people living on land that they could be "developing." So get them out of there. Better and easier to drive them off and let free market forces have at them. The same commenter continues,

"Got the point about `diffusing the population time bomb'. Wealth creators? ahem! There is increasing discussion going on in the Planning Commission to have 85% of India's population in cities. Villages are so inefficient they say. To my mind, this sounds obnoxious. Villages are inefficient if you have to drag nuclear or thermal power over distances of 10,000 kms, but if you could allow and invest in villages investing in their own local power - through solar, wind, bio-gas, biofuels - that would change the demographics of the village."

It is Baha'u'llah's birthday tomorrow, and I must calm down for that. But I was thinking about the plight of the poor in the favelas so much last night that I woke with a thought. Baha'u'llah says: "This earth is but one country and mankind its citizens." He calls us citizens. He does not call us consumers or customers or clients or investors or workers, he calls the human race citizens. That, it seems to me is unique in religious history. A Manifestation of God talks about citizenship. And not ordinary citizenship but world citizenship.

What upsets me about the systematic exclusion of this bottom billion is that they have been disenfranchised. A large proportion of the human race does not have the basic rights of citizens. Ownership, for example. A squatter cannot own anything, and what they rent is not owned, it is extorted by criminals. In other words, the government does not depend upon their tax revenues for its own survival, it depends upon other revenue, such as corporate bribes. Why should governments respond to the needs of the dispossessed? They do not vote because they are not even documented. They are non-persons, non-citizens. Their very existence is under the radar.

The source of the problem then, is a lack of citizen's rights. Or to speak more exactly, in terms defined by Baha'u'llah, a lack of universal citizen's rights. A world election would have to start the process going to re-enfranchise the bottom billion. Baha'u'llah asserted a spiritual reality when He said we are citizens of one country, but this inner truth has yet to become official. It is undocumented. Not until all count and are counted as citizens of the world will it mean anything to call yourself a world citizen. Such universality is what Baha'u'llah emphasized in one of His most often cited statements, which comes from the Tablet of Maqsud,

"That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race. The Great Being saith: Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. In another passage He hath proclaimed: It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens." (Tablets, 167)

Abdu'l-Baha, in His Secret of Divine Civilization, pointed out that after the Manifestation and those closely associated with Him, the highest station in the world is that of a just king, one who whose prime concern is not his own profit but that of his subjects.

"Then comes the station of those just kings whose fame as protectors of the people and dispensers of Divine justice has filled the world, whose name as powerful champions of the people's rights has echoed through creation. These give no thought to amassing enormous fortunes for themselves; they believe, rather, that their own wealth lies in enriching their subjects. To them, if every individual citizen has affluence and ease, the royal coffers are full. They take no pride in gold and silver, but rather in their enlightenment and their determination to achieve the universal good." (Abdu'l-Baha, Secret, 20)

Shoghi Effendi made another point that reinforces this, that the realization of world citizenship will mark the ultimate stage of human evolution. Once an organism has reached maturity, it has no higher stages to traverse.

"The emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and culture -- all of which must synchronize with the initial stages in the unfoldment of the Golden Age of the Baha'i Era -- should, by their very nature, be regarded, as far as this planetary life is concerned, as the furthermost limits in the organization of human society, though man, as an individual, will, nay must indeed as a result of such a consummation, continue indefinitely to progress and develop." (Shoghi Effendi, World Order, p. 163)


1 comment:

Ned said...

Hello John, I read your post late last night after the celebration of the birth of Baha'u'llah in our community. Your essay is very fine; thanks. It heralds the quality of your forthcoming book. We had 50 people attend our celebration here in mid Michigan, from all sorts of backgrounds, races and ethnic groups, reflecting the global citizenry you wrote about. The children sang to us.

Your theme reminded me of a text from Rumi, paraphrased here, that man's existence is like a coin with two faces, one pharaoh and the other Moses. This dark and light dualism seems to apply to the globalization process we see around us; it can either be darksome as you observed in the two irksome talks you wrote about, full of denial and false promise. Or, it can be full of light as world citizenship with justice and purity of motive becomes realized. As we celebrate the birth of Baha'u'llah and all it portends, let's aim our sights high toward the latter vision.