cherished old form of literature, the art of formulting
maxims or epigrams seems to have fallen out of favour with XXth
and XXIth century authors. From the Chinese to King Solomon's
Proverbs [ Ecclesiastes 1:10,
from the Hebrew אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ (nihil
novi sub sole est)], to the Greeks Hippocrates, Pythagoras and Epictetus, to
the Romans Cicero and Horace, to the mediaeval scholastic writers, to the Renaissance,
to Michel de Montaigne, Erasmus, Blaise Pascal, William Shakespeare, Miguel
de Cervantes, Martin Luther, Baltasar Gracián, Jean de
Jean de La Fontaine, François de La Rochefoucauld, François-Marie
Arouet (Voltaire), Jean Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander Pushkin, Artur
Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rabindranath Tagore, Oscar
Wilde, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, and H.L. Mencken, a wealth
of aphorisms has come down to us: ethical, unethical, cynical,
humorous, enlightening, excruciatingly cruel, and frequently
worth more reflection than many books. Epigrams are tasty
nuggets of humour, wit, irony, melancholy and even wisdom! They have even been the subject of famous paintings, including Pieter Brueghel's Nederlandse Spreekwoorden(The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World)
Every year I publish about 100 epigrams or "impromptus"
for the UN literary journal Ex
Tempore. One of these days I intend to compile "One
thousand and one aphorisms"
and organize them by subject matter: human frailties, love, the
workplace, academia, nature, the animal world, paradoxes, war
and peace, etc..
But I'm not there yet.
International human rights treaty law mandates inter alia the protection of human life, the promotion of the family and respect for religious convictions. Notwithstanding these clear norms of hard law, some governments are busy curtailing pro-life, pro-family and pro-religion activities under the pretext of advancing (imposing) secularism and enforcing the catch-all goal of “non-discrimination”. This is done through arbitrary interpretations of the norms, sometimes in an unreasonably restrictive, other times in an unimaginably expansive manner, essentially corrupting the language of the norms so that the words lose their intended meaning. The result undermines the object and purpose of treaty provisions and erodes the State's duty to respect the sanctity of life. The proposed "newspeak" promotes abortion under the contradictory rubric "reproductive rights", same-sex unions as a form of "marriage" (which is specifically defined in article 23 ICCPR as the union of a man and a woman), and even penalizes the teaching the Bible (a grave violation of religious freedom, guaranteed in article 18 ICCPR). In a scenario of cognitive dissonance, pro-life, pro-family and pro-religion are even defamed in a bizarre way as contrary to human rights. But what human rights are here at issue? There is no human right to abortion (which in some instances is a euphemism for infanticide), nor any human right to adopt children (article 24 ICCPR and the convention on the rights of the child place the interests of the child -- not of the "parents" -- as paramount, including the right of the child to have a safe childhood with affective links to a mother and a father, and free of potentially traumatic stress).These are not only matters of morals, but of the sanctity of life and of the dignity of the human person. Hence each State must legislate in accordance with established human rights obligations laid down in the ICCPR and ICESCR. Although persecuting religious persons for their beliefs and traditional values undoubtedly contravenes human rights law, in some countries so-called “hate speech” laws are actually being instrumentalized to restrict the fundamental rights and freedoms of a significant part of the population. Such restrictions are incompatible with articles 17, 18, 19, 23 and 24 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Moreover, accusing practicing Christians of preaching “hate speech” constitutes in itself a form of “hate speech” against Christians, who are being discriminated in a manner that also violates their rights under article 26 ICCPR.
Multiculturalism must begin with knowledge of one’s own values, heritage, history and identity. Only thus can we understand and appreciate other cultures. The kind of enforced multiculturalism being promoted by some so-called “progressive” politicians and echoed by the mainstream media is something entirely different – it is the new culture of homologation through bullying and intimidation, a recipe for misanthropic negationism: the denial of one’s identity, discarding one’s own culture as somehow obsolete, and the suggestion to replace it by n’importe quoi, often some transient fashion, “flavor of the month”, or worse, by submission to a new “faith”, which upon analysis may be a cop-out. a sect or a cult of nihilism. Human dignity is identity, the right to be ourselves, the right to live out our culture, our religion, our transcendence. UNESCO defends this right of each and every one of us to be who we are and not to be subjected to cultural imperialism. The only kind of multiculturalism that works is the multiculturalism of free peoples, e.g. in Switzerland, where 26 cantons are populated by urban and rural peoples speaking German, French, Italian and rheto-romanche, living side by side, each canton cultivating its own traditions while respecting the customs and practices of its neighbours. This multicultural society has had no problem welcoming a limited number of Tamils, Serbs, Albanians, Kosovars, Êritreans — and helping them participate in Swiss traditions. The much praised American “melting pot” is not a success story of integration, but rather an enormous supermarket or consumer cooperative– a hybrid society of elite universities, widespread homelessness and trigger-happy cops. It has produced Rock and Roll and MacDo — but thus far no Beethoven in sight.
Music is often an expression
of love, passion, compassion, yearning, awe, rhythm.
It can also be a celebration of national identity and
a protest against foreign aggression, intervention, domination.
Tschaikovsky's 1812 Overture is a hymn of defiance
against the Napoleonic invasion, so too Prokofiev's Opera War
and Peace, based on Leo Tolstoy's epic. Sibelius' Finlandia is
a reaffirmation of Finnish identity to counteract Tsar
Nicholas' abolition of Finnish autonomy in 1899. Smetana's Vltava (the Moldau) from the suite Ma
Vlast was a pure product of the Czech 19th century cultural
Renaissance. Wagner's Meistersinger celebrates traditional German
culture and values, a positive patriotism that laughts
at human foibles and makes an earnest warning about losing
the values consecrated in art. "Spirituals" and "Soul"
are eloquent expressions of the self-determination and
vigour of the oppressed African-Americans. So
too indigenous songs of the Sioux, Cree and Mapuche.
"Fake news" and "post-truth" are
popular neologisms -- but they have actually been part of the political
landscape for long. What is far more worrisome is the phenomenon
that there are "real facts" that cry out for action,
e.g. massive tax evasion, corporate bribery, economic exploitation,
ecocide, extreme poverty, exorbitant military expenses, primitive
war-mongering, aggression, unilateral sanctions, social exclusion -- and yet these
facts are largely ignored or trivialized by politicians and media
alike, because they are somehow “inconvenient”. Sooner
or later, however, these “facts without consequences" will
engender an imbalance and a destabilizing sense of incoherence. When
important facts are deliberately kept out of the political narrative,
this quite naturally generates "populism", because,
as Spinoza wrote in his Ethics, “nature abhors a
vacuum”. No wonder that when the elites ignore facts,
the vacuum is filled by populists. The phenomenon of selective
indignation and application of the law à la carte predictably
subverts the system of governance and makes societies lose faith
in the rule of law, or at least in the "establishment".
The attempt to deal with "fake news" through censorship
and “hate speech” legislation is futile and will only
lead to totalitarianism. What is needed is easier access to all
pertinent information and pluralistic views, more open debate --
not less! The internet must remain free of political controls
- whether by government or the private sector. There must not be
"filters" to test the truth of digital exchanges. The
only legitimate controls are those to suppress pornography, racketeering
and other scams -- not to suppress the dissemination of factual
information that the mainstream media deliberately ignore, nor
to suppress an alternative interpretation of facts. What
we need is a “culture of civilized dissent” – where
everyone can express his/her opinions without the threat of career
death and social ostracism. We need to reaffirm the right
to be wrong -- because only by preserving the possibility
to err do we remain independent. Artistic, scientific, sociological
progress depends on the freedom to postulate hypothesis, different
models, different perspectives -- which sometimes will be correct
and sometimes not. But a failed hypothesis cannot be criminalized.
The alternative is stagntion in homologation, robotization, Orwellian
dystopia. The conformism of the current Zeitgeist is unworthy
of democratic societies. It is up to us to vindicate the
right to know and the right to dissent. That is
the freedom we want.
Facts without consequendes are that category of
reality -- known to politicians and media alike -- available in
the internet and acknowledged -- but only under the tacit condition
that no action may follow thereon. It is worse than a conspiracy of silence. It is a conspiracy of irresponsibility.
Electoral extravaganzas, “bandwagon” politics, “populist” competition, “amusement
park” catering, “bargain basement” deals, “change
for the sake of change”, “lobby democracy”, “team
loyalty”, and “the lesser of two evils” ballot-box
syndrome are not very likely to deliver democratic governance. A
pluralistic media and full access to information will allow citizens
to formulate their own opinions on all issues from taxation to
foreign adventures. Genuine democracy is not “manufactured
consent”, but the correlation between the will of the people
and the policies that affect them. The power of initiative and
the possibility to call referenda on various issues are the best
tools of democracy.
Government lawyers should not be "escapist
but facilitators of law enforcement domestically and internationally.
They should devote their efforts to translating international commitments
into concrete action and crafting the necessary measures to comply
with treaties and rules of international judicial bodies. Alas,
many government lawyers mistake their vocation for that of defense
lawyers paid to get their guilty clients off the hook, no matter
by what means... It is really not their function to look for ways
to dodge responsibility by concocting specious interpretations
of the law, making bogus distinctions or inventing loopholes. Would
it not be a lot more sensible if lawyers would endeavour to make
human rights law implementable -- and not constantly try to drill
holes into the vessel of human dignity?
Let us resolve to work together so that the year 2017 breathes
life into that elusive concept of human dignity -- and brings the
planet a measure of peace and reconciliation – instead of
continued terrorism, anxiety, mass surveillance, cheap consumerism
and more injustice. Let us address the root causes of our local
and global problems -- instead of trying to fix things temporarily
by applying band-aids here and there. Let us talk freely without
fear of saying something "policically incorrect". The
very essence of freedom is that freedom to think and say what we
believe, that temerity to be wrong rather than just silent – as
long as we are in good faith and as long as we are capable of learning
and changing for the better. Let us not just echo the media and "condemn" all
the bad things of the world -- let us instead work affirmatively
for the good things -- in international solidarity.
The New Year may perhaps continue the sterile debate over “hate
speech” and laws designed to ban it, without, however, endeavouring
to understand the sources of social phobias. Punishment is
an ineffective preventive strategy. The easy temptation to penalize
dissenting opinions as so-called codes for hate speech
ignores pertinent historical precedents. Back in the days
of the Inquisition, heresy was seen as a kind of “hate speech” against
God and the established order, and heretics were tried and burned
at the stake, like the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno in the
year 1600 at Rome’s Campo di Fiori. During
the French Revolution, the Comité de Salut Public imposed La
Terreur -- Robespiere's totalitarian rule that led to the
persecution and guillotining of dissenters, including poets like
André Chenier (immortalized in the opera by Umberto Giordano)
and the scientist Antone de Lavoisier in the name of liberté,
egalité, fraternité. The Comité also
ordered the devastation of the recalcitrant population of the Vendée,
which rebelled against the persecution and killing of their parish
priests. The infamous Vendée genocide of 1793-94 took no
less than 200,000 innocent lives. During the Spanish Civil
War 1936-39 some 8,000 priests, monks, seminarians, brothers, nuns
and other religious were murdered, including 13 bishops (immortalized
in Paul Claudel’s poem Aux martyrs espagnols). It
seems that their religious convictions and ministry constituted
a kind of “hate speech” against “progressive” republican
dogmas. It is just a small step from “hate speech” legislation
to censorship, self-censorship and Orwellian dystopia.
Similarly, the current hysteria about “fake news” and “post-truth” is
proving toxic to democracy and freedom of expression. Moreover,
who is going to determine what is “fake news”? Will
this entail the setting up of a special institution -- a kind of “Ministry
of Truth”? Indeed a slippery road to Stalinist totalitarianism.
Here the purported medicine would be decidedly worse than the disease.
Civilization does not mean expanding GDPs, ever-growing
consumption, aggressive exploitation of natural resources -- but
respect for human and animal life, sustainable management of the
environment, local, regional and international solidarity, social
justice and a culture of peace. Civilization does not entail building
ever-higher skyscrapers, producing more gadgets, accumulating material
goods, but affirming one's identity, uniqueness and history, while
celebrating diversity and the common heritage of mankind, demonstrating
a sense for proportions and creating beauty for future generations
-- in literature, art, music.
Modern art is like fast-food: you
consume it quickly and go on with your life – until the
whim again takes you, and you give in to the temptation of indulging
in fast-art sculpture, fast-art painting, throw-away abstractions
not meant to last but only to entertain hic et nunc.
I would call this kind of art epidermic, superficial, decerebrated,
opportunistic art. By contrast -- Velazquez Surrender of
Breda is slow-art, sustainable art, so too Vermeers Delft and
Michelangelo’s Pieta. Absent a world war or other
eschatological cataclysm, they will remain for millennia as Fedelino,
the Greco-Roman Hellenistic bronze sculpture of a boy removing
a thorn (now at the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome) or the
runners of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, now
in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.
Governments, Parliaments and Courts have a responsibility
to act in the public interest and in the interests of justice. Their
commitment to the “rule of law” is not coterminous
with legalism or blind positivism. It does not mean submission
to manifestly unjust or tyrannical law – ISIS legality, Taliban
legality, Hitler legality, Pinochet legality, Pol Pot legality
-- or the "laws of the market". The rule of law is the
normative framework that enables life in a civilized society and
protects human dignity; it means the rule of justice and ethics
based on natural law. Throughout history utilitarian positivism
has allowed the slave trade, slavery, colonialism, exploitation,
apartheid, segregation, and unequal remuneration for equal work
performance. Positivism has led to grave injustices, as Cicero
already noted in De Officis I, 10 33, summum
jus, summa injuria (excessive legalism is the
height of injustice). Indeed, the letter of the law is not
equivalent with justice, especially because the letter of the law
can and often is instrumentalized for other agendas and manipulated
to subvert the spirit of the law. It is
the spirit of the law (Montesquieu) and the general principle of
bona fides (good faith) that must permeate all human activity,
in particular the administration of justice, in order to advance
civilized existence and protect the common heritage of mankind.
There are many legal "doctrines" that undermine law itself
-- one of them being the notorious "caveat emptor" (let
the buyer beware) warning, which pretends to legitimize bad faith
in business dealings and puts an undue burden on the buyer rather
than imposing due diligence on the seller. It is, however, a pillar
of mercantilism -- which in the 21st century should be discarded
as incompatible with civilized values and human rights.
Instead of striving toward more direct democracy,
transparency and rule of law, European central governance has moved
from the ideal government of the people, by the people and for
the people, into corporate management for the elites only -- where
enterprises and lobbies dictate to compliant Brussels bureaucrats
how public policy should be and what human rights in the "brave
should mean. Like in Kafka's Metamorphosis, the EU has
morphed ever-so-slowly from a sensible free-trade and free-movement
of capital organization into a monstrous entity that strips democratic
governments of their sovereignty and citizens of their rights while
attempting to micromage them. No wonder that increasingly more
people find the EU undemocratic, unrepresentative, intrusive and
abusive. Brexit is only a symptom of the general malaise.
The United Nations Human Rights Council should
become the international arena where governments compete to show
how to implement human rights most effectively, how to strengthen
the rule of law, how to achieve social justice, where they display
their best practices to the world. Competition in human rights
performance is a noble goal. Hence the Council should become
the preeminent forum where governments elucidate what they themselves
have done and are doing to deliver on human rights, in good-faith
implementation of pledges, in adherence to a generous culture of
human rights characterized by expansive interpretation of human
rights treaties and a commitment to the inclusion of all stakeholders. In
short, the Council should be the ”catwalk of human rights
innovation”. What the Council must not be is a politicized
arena where gladiators use human rights as weapons to defeat their
political adversaries and where human rights are undermined through “side
shows”, the “flavor of the month” or “legal
black holes.” UN reform is possible. See my Youtube
The human right to beauty is a natural emanation
of human dignity – the source of all human rights. It is
an affirmation of the right to life, peace, truth. As John
Keats intimated in Ode to a Grecian Urn, “beauty
is truth, truth beauty”. Indeed, there is Beauty in mercy,
forgiveness, sharing, healing, and doing justice. Beauty means
living in harmony with ourselves and our environment, with
persons and landscapes, with animals and plants. It is
not static nirvana, fusion with an impersonal cosmos, no dead-end
of anonymity, but a dynamic work-in-progress, a continuing process
toward completion, happiness, identity – and light.
Disappointments free us from illusions, allowing
us to undertake new beginnings with clearer vision and concrete
experience. The lessons we draw from disappointment are more valuable
than those we think we learn from success.
good for all of us, but life is a provocation that does not correspond
to our dreams or our expectations of persons or events. It is better
to live in truth than in falsehood.
Governments should embrace a new Olympic discipline
and compete with other governments in human rights achievements
-- The Human Rights Council should cease being the preferred arena
where legal gladiators wield human rights as weapons against political
adversaries. Government lawyers should devote their juridical skills
to devising user-friendly means of enforcing human rights treaties
and the rulings of human rights bodies, e.g. by making international
human rights treaties part of directly enforceable domestic law,
by enacting "enabling laws" that would give domestic
legal status to international human rights rulings, or by accommodating
a "half-way house", whereby rulings of international
bodies would be received by the Foreign Ministry and immediately
referred to a standing committee of Ministers to determine which
Ministry should be entrusted with implementation. To claim that
international law is not "self-executing" is a poor cop-out.
It is precisely the responsibility of government -- and its lawyers
-- to set up the legal and social mechanisms so that human rights
and human dignity can be promoted, protected and fulfilled. Alas,
experience shows that government lawyers often understand their
role as finding ways to "justify the unjustifiable"
-- always looking for technical points, escape clauses, loopholes
or inventing abstruse interpretations of treaties and rulings
of international bodies so as to weasel out of their legal --
and ethical -- obligations. Law schools would do well to teach
prospective government lawyers that they have a sacred trust
to work for justice, and that justice cannot be de-coupled from
human rights. The "name of the game" is not how to
make plausible the indefensible, how to get their governments
"off the hook" or how to "beat the system".
The common goal is to devise simple and pragmatic methods of good
faith implementation. Chauvinistic and jingoistic lawyers do a
disservice to the world -- and to their own governments.
The so-called "fragmentation of international law"
is a red herring, a convenient excuse for the powerful to impose
the wrong priorities.
Too much self-awareness is a form of narcissism. Consciousness
of the self of others in their inter-relationship with us is what
makes life worth living. But we have no monopoly over self-awareness,
as ethological studies prove that apes, dolphins, Eurasian magpies
and dogs also have a level of self-consciousness. The whole
body language of a dog tells us that he/she knows who he/she is
and who we are.
Traditions like Advent, Christmas and Epiphany
are expressions of a continuum with past and future generations,
a spiritual communion with transcendental values of family, home,
heritage, identity, Heimat, reflected in symbols and sounds
such as nativity scenes, carol singing, midnight Mass. Reenacting
these rites has added value - touching base with ourselves, exercising
that most fundamental human right to our identity, to be just who
we are. This holiday season can and must be more than just gourmet
meals, gadgets, kitsch, consumerism (buy more stuff!)
and sterile materialism. Let's make it sacred and truly ours as
a celebration of our human nature and our sense of belonging to
a community, living in solidarity and Geborgenheit. It
may be permitted to propose a shift in thinking models to discard
the Zeitgeist-imposed "flavour of the month" and
the artificial division of human rights into categories of first,
second and third generation rights — with their skewed value
judgements. Rights should henceforth be redefined in functional
terms, recognizing human dignity as the source of all rights, whether
individual or collective. This functional paradigm reveals the
interrelatedness of all rights, the convergence of enabling rights
(such as the rights to peace, food, health, homeland and environment),
inherent/immanent rights (such as equality and non-discrimination),
procedural rights (such as access to information, freedom of expression
and due process) and what could be called outcome rights, that
is, the practical realization of human dignity in the form of the
right to identity with its corollaries: the rights to privacy,
home and family, to our personality, to achieve our potential and
to be just who we are, free to live our transcendence, practice
our faith, enjoy our own culture, preferences and opinions, without
intimidation, surveillance or pressures to behave in a prescribed “politically
correct” mode or endure self-censorship. The entire edifice
of human rights promotion and protection is there in order to ensure
the enjoyment of the right to our identity. The absence of this
right to our personality and self-respect is reflected in much
of the strife we see in the world today. Pax vobiscum! (see
A/68/284, para. 68).
Relaxation is hardly a waste of time, but rather
a wise investment. After all, creative ideas often emerge in
the silence of contemplation, in the quiet of leisure, in the
fertility of empty time. Satius est enim otiosum esse – quam
nihil agere. (Plinius Minor, Epistula 1 ,9,8). Hence
my new year's resolution: follow Cicero's advice in the ethical
pursuit of Otium cum dignitate.
Infatuation with superficial beauty often engenders
bitter-sweet expectations that wane in disillusionment. Beauty
is perception, but also memory and imagination that should be marshaled
with equanimity, enjoying it when we experience it, as when the
cherry blossoms charm us with their exquisite transient glory.
Let us be thankful for all beauty in its ephemeral transcendence.
Maturity liberates us from many
spiritual and virtual chains, including certain historical myths
we grow up with, those caricatures, illusions, legends and simplifications
we take for “certainties” and cling on to -- because
we ontologically need to believe. Indeed, who among us would
have the temerity to believe in nothing? Most mature persons
eventually dismantle mythologies, stone by stone, myth by myth,
before they can erect a personalized history, a pertinent history
based on empirical observation and logical analysis. This
personalized history never coagulates --isn't carved in stone – but
continues to evolve day by day as new experiences and new information
complete our ever-changing picture of reality. And yet, there
are wonders that escape us, miracles we cannot explain. Even
mature persons remain in awe of the vastness and beauty of creation,
retain an intimation of spirituality, a measure of optimism,
persevere in that ineffable hope that the world makes sense --
Trivia is a treasure that flavours life
and facilitates perspective while entertaining us.
Without trivia and some kitsch, life might be more focused and
sober, but we would lose the poetry of the ephemeral, the quaintness
of detail, the comical of the ridiculous. Pepper and salt are very
good in moderation.
When world politics go insane,
politicians persist in insulting our intelligence, comedians
are not funny but gross, meaningless bureaucracy engulfs
us, trifles are made into tragedies and genuine tragedies
and grave injustices are accepted as "part of the game",
it is time to turn to nature for recalibration – to
gaze upon the infinity of the sea, watch a windsurfer
glide, a kite surfer skim the waves, absorb sunrise and
sunset, explore the sky full of galaxies, the moon in
all its moods and shapes, the play of clouds, go for
a morning stroll in the forest, hike for hours
in the mountains, observe a butterfly, listen to merels
sing, take pleasure in small things, fly a kite – only
thus can we regain our equanimity, restore our sense
of proportions, reaffirm our values.
The brave new world of unregulated capitalism promises
endless progress and seduces many through virtual pleasures, a
festival of consumerism, digital gadgets galore, fast lanes and
fast tracks to everywhere and nowhere, the illusion of doing more
with less. One day we may wake up with a heavy spiritual
hang-over, realizing we have entered the dystopian age of mass
surveillance, of vital self-censorship, burdened by a sense of
not coping with those things that really matter, by a paralyzing
meaninglessness, unable to escape, condemned to the perpetual panem
et circensis of conformist society. We can check out
anytime and become social misfits and vagabonds, but we can no
longer leave the New World Hotel -- because there is nowhere else
Territorial integrity is an important principle
of international law – but it is not an absolute norm that
trumps all other norms, since throughout history frontiers have
always shifted in all regions of the world, often through unjust
wars, ethnic cleansing, gneocide and land-grab, resulting in artificial
lines that are not sacred -- and never were. At best the
principle of territorial integrity reflects a legitimate desire
for stability, an attempt to preserve the status quo,
and in this sense it serves the noble purpose of keeping the peace
among nations. At worst it entails a form of continuing
aggression by the insistence to keep what has been unjustly obtained,
and may even constitute a threat to international peace and security
if an occupier or neo-colonial State irresponsibly refuses to negotiate
as stipulated in article 2(3) of the UN Charter. Intransigence
is not a right recognized in international law. Territorial and
other disputes should always be settled peacefully in accordance
with the right of self-determination of peoples and in a manner
that serves human rights and international solidarity.
“Homicidal words” are tools or short-cuts
to dispense of discussion by defaming the adversary as fascist,
racist, terrorist, crypto-nazi, anti-semite, islamophobe, xenophobe,
homophobe, etc. – no need to prove anything. The accusation
suffices. Words do kill.
Notwithstanding the optimistic perspective of the slogan "the
truth shall set you free" (Gospel of St. John, 8:32), this promise
is not self-executing. Alas, truth will not come like a white knight
to rescue us from the bad dragon, no outside force will suddenly
solve our problems, no Deus in machina will ensure a happy
end. No. We ourselves must proactively seek truth, separate it
from the daily lies and misconceptions, disseminate truth, liberate
the word, use it as a sword to cut through pretense and manipulation.
Truth will reveal the degree of control to which we are all subjected
in modern society, the brainwashing, the robotization of our lives,
the self-censorship of political conrrectness. Truth can and should
enable us to develop a survival strategy to counter Big Brother
in his multiple manifestations, refute political canards and expose
opportunism. In any event, we must not give up faith. Even if we
will never succeed in knowing all the truth all the time, we must
make a decent effort to approach it, and thus vindicate truth as
more than just a placebo, a red herring, an empty promise, an illusion.
The Neingesang of intransigence does not stop the world
from continuing its course. The dogs may bark while the traffic
"Empty time" is anything but empty -- it is the window of
opportunity for free thinking, innovation, synthesis, poetry. If
we believe in progress, we must also believe in the utilitarianism
of "empty" time.
To understand evil it is useless to demonize it or exorcise it,
because evil then becomes artificial, trivial, a caricature. The
key to understanding lies in the particular context, nuances, personal
psychology. In our complex universe there is good in the
bad and bad in the good, a natural amalgam, which we must take
into account when looking at subjective perceptions and priorities. It
is not eccentric to infer that many “bad guys” never
see themselves as doing “evil”, but justify their actions
on the grounds of “necessity”, “force majeure”, “defence
of country”, “outside threats”, “civic
duty”, or the all-purpose Machiavellian cop-out -- the noble
end that justifies the evil means. Of course, with 20/20
hindsight we can say that Bolshevism and Nazism were evil and criminal.
But can we extrapolate and categorically say that all of their
aspects and ramifications were evil? Or that all the people
who lived through them necessarily understood what was going on
or condoned it? Assuming arguendo that most people do things
because they think they are doing something positive, it is not
outlandish to surmise that Lenin, Stalin, Mao and even Pol Pot
saw themselves as advancing some kind of "good", some
humanistic aspects of communism – notwithstanding the “regrettable
errors” committed in implementation. Some people consider
that Attila the Hun, Pope Innocent III, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane,
Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia, Richard III, Henry VIII, Cortes,
Pizarro, Jeffrey Amherst, Jan van Leiden, Gustavus Adolphus, Louis
XIV, Marquis de Sade, Robespierre, Napoleon, William Tecumseh Sherman,
Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, Georges Clemenceau, Hitler, Mussolini,
Pierre Laval, Josef Mengele, Churchill, Arthur Harris, Paul Tibbets,
Eduard Benes, Videla, Pinochet, Verwoerd, Milosevich, Tudjman,
Sharon, Bin Laden, Donald Rumsfeld, George Walker Bush, Tony Blair,
Joseph Kony, Abubakar Shekau did many evil things. But were
they subjectively conscious that some of their acts were profoundly “evil” and
not justifiable under any ethical or value-system? This consideration
is neither a “praise of folly” nor a capitulation to
relativism – it is a sober recognition that the human capacity
for self-deception is immense. It is better to reaffirm
ethical values, condemn evil acts and evil policies and dispense
with unhelpful labels upon the instruments of evil.
As youth needs to believe in role models, adults
also need to believe in the coming generations. The cycle of life
is fuelled by such faith – sometimes even faith in illusions – an
inner voice that keeps alive the vital fire, that optimistic light
of hope in the future. I always liked a quote (apocryphally) attributed
to Luther: even if I knew that the world would end tomorrow,
I would still plant an apple tree today.
In rich, developed countries individualism, consumerism and materialism
have gone so far that the sense of community and heritage have
been lost. No wonder that young people who have received no
values other than money-making and who have not been taught the
role of ethics and solidarity in human affairs -- are on the lookout
precisely for such values. Alas,
some of them think they have found them in sects,
fundamentalist religions or even djihads. Hence
it is up to us -- who are aware that the social fabric binding
people together has been torn -- to try
to mend it by propagating a sense of belonging and
working together for the common good. Each one of us can and should
take up the challenge.
Modern Realpolitik has learned how to instrumentalize
human rights rhetoric to pursue traditional geopolitics.
Life at its infancy is sprightly, funny, cuddly, cute,
spontaneous, surprising, delightful – whether puppy,
kitten or child. Eventually all this magic mutates into
What distinguishes human beings from animals is not just
that humans know how to make tools (some animals use tools also!)
or that they engage in sports (cats play too!) but that humans
know how to create art and how to transform ideas, emotions,
feelings into canvas, sculpture, music.
Music is neither a liturgy of sounds nor a litany
of notes -- not empty ritual, but epiphany, a sacrament capable
to redeem the soul. On angels' wings waft melodies of melancholy,
merriment, of yearning, reveries, elation, vivat crescat
floreat -- while human hearts beat to the rhythm of ethereal
The rule of law applies both the letter and the spirit
of the law, since it aims at achieving justice in its nuanced
complexity. The rule of positivism only knows the letter of
the law, which when applied bureaucratically often results
The rule of law is meant to progressively achieve
justice, which requires flexibility and fine-tuning. If law
were mathematics – one
would use computers and could dispense of judges! The rule
of positivism or dura lex sed lex is just blind bureaucracy.
Positivism should not be confused with the rule of
law – for it is only the rule of the elites.
Realpolitik in the 21st century has
learned how to instrumentalize human rights rhetoric to pursue
traditional geopolitical and hegemonial agendas -- hitherto
with remarkable success, since broad sectors of civil society
actually fall for the propaganda disseminated by a well orchestrated
corporate media and supported by an accommodating "human rights
industry", too often compliant and complicit with the business
enterprises that dish out donations and engender long-term
dependencies. Just watch them deploy their multiple campaigns
to join human rights bandwagons, fashions, "the flavour of
the month", while exercising self-censorship on weightier human
rights problems such as abject poverty, lack of clean water
and minimal health care!
This industry has a convenient fig-leaf
function and serves to advance those human rights that are
business-friendly and likely to generate profits -- notwithstanding
the misery of millions of human beings who lack everything,
those "unsung victims" of the irrelevant "third world". This
widespread approach builds on the "trickle-down" phantasy,
according to which if the rich become richer, then some excess
wealth eventually will make its way down to the poor. Alas,
this hypothesis is but a rip-off system that only aggravates
the situation and negates any and
all hope of human solidarity. But there is enough pious opium
for the masses, pathos for adolescents -- and panem et circensis
for the rest of us.
Manufactured consent corrupts democracies into populist entities
that easily mutate into predator democracies both domestically
A consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested
violations of human rights against a population negates the legitimacy
of the exercise of governmental power. In case of unrest, dialogue
must first be engaged in the hope of redressing grievances. States
may not first provoke the population through grave human rights
abuses and then pretend to invoke the right of self-defence in
justification of the use of force against them. That would violate
the principle of estoppel (ex injuria non oritur jus),
a general principle of law recognized by the ICJ. Although all
States have the right of self-defence from armed attack (Art. 51
UN Charter) they also have the responsibility to protect the life
and security of all persons under their jurisdiction. No doctrine,
neither that of territorial integrity nor that of self-determination,
justifies massacres. Neither doctrine can derogate from the right
to life. Norms are not mathematics and must be applied with flexibility
and a sense for proportionality in order to prevent and reduce
chaos and death.
The slogan "truth will make you free" is
nothing more than a placebo, a red herring, an empty promise, an
illusion. It contaIns multiple fallacies, including the assumption
of automatism, that truth will come like a white knight to rescue
us from the bad dragon, than an outside force will solve our problems,
that a Deus
in machina will
ensure a happy end, that truth alone will be self-executing. No.
We ourselves must proactively seek truth, separate it from the
daily lies and misconceptions, disseminate truth, liberate the
word, use truth as a sword to cut through pretense and manipulation.
Truth will reveal the degree of control to which we are all subjected
in modern society, the brainwashing, the robotization of our lives,
the self-censorship of political conrrectness. Truth will enable
us to develop a survival strategy and targeted tactics to counter
Big Brother in his multiple manifestations, refute political canards
and expose opportunism.
Time is a precious resource, and its
allocation deserves reflection. Since competitors for
our attention are many, priority-setting is of the essence.
To whom should we devote our limited time? The choice is ours,
but the seducers are clever. Subliminal propaganda is everywhere,
flashed on TV, on our PCs, etc. An electronic war over
our attention is also under way. The greater the number
of internet clicks, the broader the internet presence,
the higher the visibility attained. This eventually attracts
attention, even if it is trivia. Social
media enhances the illusion of self-importance and the associated
hope of gaining fame and fortune – or just the
narcissistic satisfaction of a moment in the limelight. Vanitas
vanitatum et omnia vanitas. (Ecclesiastes I,2) Of
course, electronic clicks can be artificially generated, as there
is no “quality
control” over clicks. Visibility in the virtual world
seems to offer an Ersatz for real meaning, especially
to those who rely on the internet for their impulses – instead
of drawing knowledge and understanding from the good advice of
friends, from critical dialogue, from books. Good judgment
is shown in the way we allocate our limited time and attention.
Human beings are peculiar animals with
an omnivorous appetite for discovering things, experimenting,
improvising, playing, dreaming.... They invent tools, organise,
collect things, build museums, create art, write philosophical
treatises, practise doxology, revel in philocaly, set up orchestras,
look endlessly into the sunset humming Beethoven’s Ninth
Symphony, play chess, watch football, paint graffiti on subway
Representative democracy deserves the predicate "democratic"
only if and when parliamentarians genuinely represent their constituents.
An elected Congressman(woman) or Senator administers a sacred
trust and must proactively inform the electorate of relevant
developments that impact on decision-making. He/she must
be committed to inquire into what the voters need and want. In
other words, a representative is accountable to the citizens,
must act transparently and regularly consult, since he/she
is not a plenipotentiary, or even a delegate with a blank check. A
representative represents, since he/she is a servant -- not
a master -- with a mandate limited in time and scope, which
he/she must administer in good faith and not in usurpation
Nil admirari (Cicero, Horace, Seneca). Roman
thinkers already knew the wisdom of keeping a certain distance,
the rewards of equanimity and the advantages of not being surprised
by people or events. However, young people do need role
models and should not be prematurely blasé. Youth should
feel the rush of adrenalin that accompanies enthusiasm, the excitement
of discovery, the euphoria of falling in love, the infatuation
with infatuation, the illusion of heroism that floods the heart
with joy. Youth has a right to be in awe of Olympic achievements
and individual achievers, should endeavour to imitate them, not
be afraid of asking questions, testing established customs, making
personal experiences -- both good and bad -- and most importantly,
they should believe in something! Of course, as we all mature,
we learn to temper our enthusiasm, to discern between semblance
and reality, to accept disappointment. The Roman maxim nil
admirari is for post-adolescents only.
Although we all live in the real world with all its beauty,
complexity, nuances, physical laws and objective facts, we operate
in artificially limited worlds, in contexts governed by teleological
rules, red lines, stop signs, taboos – and enforced certainties. These
separate epistemological systems are subject to man-made rules
with their own internal logic and mathematics, where 2 plus 2
does not necessarily result in 4, because the building blocks
are weighted according to extraneous factors of perceived political
or social necessity, where essential elements and crucial facts
that do not fit the equation can be negated if their logical
consequences and implications counter the socially imposed “truths” which
determine not only the outcome but also the process of deliberation. There
are many local, regional and larger contexts where the law is
not applied uniformly, but à la carte, because
what does not fit the paradigm must be ignored. What is
politically undesirable loses its objective character, mutates
into non-fact. Lapses in logic and obvious fallacies are tolerated
in respectful silence. Thus, for survival in our
post-modern societies, we must demonstrate intellectual and emotional
versatility, always bearing in mind that besides a real world
of universal logic and objectivity, there are other, restricted
worlds of directed behaviour – and it is only in these
truncated worlds that we are allowed to function, anxious about
not behaving in the socially desired way, hesitating under an
undefined threat of adverse consequences if we venture beyond,
numbed by a vague apprehension that engenders both censorship
and self-censorship. Wherefore – in this world of
subtle and not so subtle intimidation, cognitive dissonance,
capricious dialectics, false analogies, skewed empirical data, doublethink,
double standards and selective indignation – we have to
keep our eyes wide open and our moral compass operational so
as to navigate through the troubled waters. Overcoming
these challenges is a full-time job, but worth it -- if we want
to keep our identity and our sanity.
Human beings of all cultures and colours share
a common physiognomy, basic functions, needs and aspirations. Over
thousands of years they have built diverse civilizations in which
individual members have shown virtue and vice, generosity and greed,
astounding creativity, musicality, gastronomy .... Collectively,
however, no civilization was ever all good or all bad, all constructive
or all destructive, all innocent or all guilty – these are
unhistorical categories. From the perspective of the 21st
century, we can observe the progress and retrogression of peoples
and detect a growing consciousness of the need for human solidarity
and proactive bridge-building, in the name of survival of the species. Global
challenges demand global solutions -- ensuring global participation
in decision-making. Perhaps we will someday learn to build on our
99% commonalities, instead of fighting over the 1% that separates
us. Pax optima rerum!
Peace is not an eschatological phenomenon but continuous
Celebrating the myriad good things of life, dwelling on nature's
generous bounty, grasping those transcendental moments of genuine
elation is decidedly more fun than keeping book on the faults and
frailties of human beings, noticing the imperfections, counting
the wrinkles or worrying about what might go wrong. This Advent
season, let us enjoy the good things and sing them songs. Sursum
We are who we are and ought to be comfortable with our
identity, conscious of our heritage and serenely proud of the
achievements of our ancestors. Just happy to exist hic
et nunc. Each one of us has the faculty to extend
our horizons, learn, build, evolve, modify our opinions as often
as necessary -- as we gain experience and perhaps perspective
and a measure of wisdom. We should exercise the freedoms
we have to ask questions, seek to understand our dynamic surroundings,
continuously push the limits, but always in harmony with our
roots and our identity. An Aborigine need not desire to be European. A
Bolivian need not aspire to be Brazilian. A German need not wish
to be American. Let the Aborigine be proud of being Aborigine,
the African to be African, the American to be American – as
long as such pride is tempered by self-criticism and respect
for others. There is nothing wrong with patriotism – only
with egoism, exceptionalism, chauvinism. The key to personal
happiness is a sense of belonging, of harmony and familiarity
with one’s environment, a combination of enthusiasm and
melancholy, of love and equanimity, of being snug in one’s
skin. Love of oneself and respect for one’s heritage
must not to be confused with narcissism or xenophobia. On
the contrary: it is a prerequisite for creativity and a dependable
foundation to love and inter-relate with others. We all
have a pluralistic identity which is always in flux like a river
(Heraclitus) and manifests not only a collective dimension in
its dynamics of flow, in liturgies and rituals, but also an individualistic
dimension defined by our personal choices.
Profession of faith in the wisdom of the Nuremberg Trials
does not resolve certain inherent paradoxes and contradictions.
An excess of common virtues frustrates the higher virtues of moderation
Youth is sometimes wasted on the young (George Bernard Shaw),
as history can be wasted on historians, notably politically-correct
historians, and ideologies on ideologues-- who are notorious for
losing all sense for proportion.
Education should teach young people how to think
independently, how to put things into context, compare, imagine,
invent. Alas, only few teachers bother to instill curiosity
in their pupils or teach them how to think outside the box, how
to dare. What is mostly taught in high schools and colleges
is how to adjust oneself to the spirit of the times, how to be
a loyal fan of a given sports club, how to function within a system
of political correctness, and how to respect the many red lines
imposed by society to maintain the status quo.
Blithe spirits bringing a myriad colours to our
gardens, magic, ephemeral wings -- butterflies -- with short life-spans
of a week to a few months. But why such an unpoetic name for a
delicate daughter of nature? The Germans call them Schmetterlinge (even
less onomatopoetic), the Russians call them бабочка (not
to be confused with Бабушка,
which means grandmother), the Greek πεταλουδα (which
makes you think of petals), the French call them papillons (which
is closer to the Latin papilio). Perhaps the more congenial,
smoother descriptions are the Spanish mariposa and the
delicate Dutch vlinder.
The practice of naming and shaming has relatively little effect
because it rests on multiple fallacies: first, that the party
doing the naming has nothing to be ashamed of and possesses moral
authority to shame the other; second, that the impugned party is
generally open to criticism; third, that the target of the naming
and shaming acknowledges the legitimacy of the namer to act as
judge. Experience shows that the namer frequently has a closet
full of skeletons and that therefore the target of the naming and
shaming has no inclination to bow to the namer's pretense to moral
superiority or justification to hurl the first stone at the adulteress.
Instead of raising fingers and pointing at others, it would be
better if those States and ngo's who claim moral superiority would
instead consider offering advisory services and technical assistance
so as to enable impugned States to improve their human rights practices
What we urgently need is good faith, more mirrors of self-criticism,
more focus on root causes and prevention, greater readiness to
dialogue without preconditions, patience and perseverance -- and
much less eagerness to verbally condemn or judicially punish --
above all, we need more compassion toward the victims and a commitment
to redress the wrongs in international solidarity.
The all-too-frequent instrumentalization of human rights for
political purposes and the abuse of the concept of human rights
as a selective weapon against others demonstrates how little politicians
and media care for the essence of human dignity -- which entails
respect for the other person's identity, diversity and his/her
right to hold different opinions. We need neutral brokers,
not polemics nor rhetoric with the pervasive geopolitical after-taste.
We need intellectual honesty -- not international law à la
To become an apostate from the Zeitgeist, from the "consensus",
from the bandwagon is an act of intellectual liberation – and
maturity. It presupposes the capacity to think outside systems,
escape indoctrination and relentless media brainwashing, arrive
at new syntheses, remaining open to new inputs, patient with colleagues
and friends who lag behind, never abandoning hope in the power
of reason over force, of the λόγος over
chaos and nihilism.
War crimes and crimes against humanity are perpetrated by ordinary
people inspired by the philosophy “the end justifies the
means”, and indoctrinated into believing that the envisaged
end is noble, duty, divinely ordained, or inevitable. Deviation
from this conviction is perceived by the powerful as “unpatriotic” or
History writing and teaching have always been co-opted
by the elites in order to legitimize and consolidate their continued
exercise of power. Yet, whoever has the temerity to do independent
research into the past, visits the archives, analyzes documents,
compares primary and secondary sources, meets doers and diplomats,
interviews witnesses who may still be alive -- discovers crucial
facts, deliberately omitted by the court historians, new perspectives,
dimensions, nuances that fundamentally change our understanding
of events and differ substantially from media caricatures, popular
misconceptions and Zeitgeist. I do not pretend to think
that we can arrive at the "truth" in all of its manifestations,
but surely a better approximation is possible and necessary.
Living on the edge is a youthful ideal of glorified danger with
attendant adrenaline rushes. Living more toward the centre is
the preferred location for those who, like me, are no longer
youngsters and embrace the philosophy of Buen Vivir,
which entails being satisfied to have just enough, not too much,
and to practice the Delphian Γνώθι Σεαυτόν and Μηδὲν ἄγαν.
Blithe spirits bringing a myriad colours to our
gardens, magic, ephemeral wings -- butterflies -- with short life-spans
of a week to a few months. But why such an unpoetic name for a
delicate daughter of nature? The Germans call them Schmetterlinge (even
less onomatopoetic), the Russians call them бабочка (not
to be confused with Бабушка,
which means grandmother), the Greek πεταλουδα (which
makes you think of petals), the French call them papillons (which
is closer to the Latin papilio). Perhaps the more congenial,
smoother descriptions are the Spanish mariposa and the
delicate Dutch vlinder.
Rhetoric has little to do with truth or sincerity,
for it is a form of seduction through eloquence. Indeed, impressive
rhetoric all too often proves empty if not downright false, as
we know from some virtuosi of political debate. Similarly, beauty
is scarcely related to goodness or generosity, for it is essentially
a manifestation of aesthetics. Alas, a handsome face does not always
announce a merciful heart.
War is not a given in life, but rather a crime
willed by megalomaniacs, organized by bureaucrats, sold by media
propaganda and suffered by soldiers and civilians alike. There
are no "good wars", for all are bloody, dehumanizing,
nasty, unjust and eminently avoidable.
The rule of law is more than a platitude, and much more than mere
positivism. It entails predictability, uniformity of application,
absence of arbitrariness. Most importantly the rule of law
must be the rule of justice. Laws that perpetuate privilege
and injustice must be abrogated and replaced by laws that advance
human well-being and human dignity. Some countries pay lip
service to the rule of law while practicing the antediluvian might
is right paradigm.
Democracy is not an end in itself, but a means to achieve the
sacred promises of human dignity, justice and peace. Democracy
is not just the ballot box, nor is it mere majority rule. It is
a form of government based on respect and solidarity with other
members of society. It is a Covenant to listen to all members of
Civilization is the long journey from predator behavior to interdependence,
rule of law and caritas.
Neither can we ski like the pros, nor can we sing like Met soloists,
but we can sense the divine in their prowess and vicariously partake
in that transcendental humanness. They too, Olympic
champions and opera singers, are members of our species, have two
eyes, two ears, one mouth -- and though their achievements will
also pass, we prolong them by internalizing them.
Fantasies are invigorating for the spirit, but their magic escapes
if we try to concretize them. Living out our fantasies hic
et nunc is dangerous business.
Poetry resides in us all, but only the passionate few can reveal
Civilization is the gradual transformation of the
human predator into a social being endowed with a moral conscience
and an awareness of both rights and duties. Alas, there are still
too many antediluvian predators roaming Planet Earth. How can we
teach ethics, peace and solidarity to these slow learners? That's
a worthy challenge for 2013!
Human dignity has nothing to do with “justiciability” and
less with positivism. Dignity derives from the essence of
the human person, and justice reflects equilibrium and harmony
as an expression of the intrinsic nature of things. The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 certainly did not invent the
rights there proclaimed, nor for that matter la Déclaration
des droits de l'homme et du citoyen of 1789. These are
but incomplete compilations of some human entitlements, for surely
the rights predated their codification. It is a poor excuse
to say that a right does not exist (e.g. the right to the homeland,
the right to peace, the right to a sustainable environment) or
that it is not “justiciable”, just because it has not
been specifically codified. Lawyers have a responsibility to complete
the task of codification and politicians must establish enforcement
mechanisms that ensure real remedies.
Art evokes a transcendental meaning, transmits a vital spark. It
is not chaos, it is not n’importe quoi. So-called modern
opera productions delight in reversing aesthetic values and reject
-- quite deliberately -- the hitherto attainable synthesis of art
forms (music, libretto, singing, acting, staging, costumes), a
concept that Wagner termed Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art.
The current fashion of so-called “director’s theater” (Regietheater)
is to allow opera directors to supplant the composer and librettist
and experiment with a kind of surrealistic parallelism – on
the one side an unchanged musical score and libretto, on the other
a different plot, a dream, a time-machine transposition. Instead
of coordinating the staging to the music and libretto, a “spectacle” is
played-out, admittedly with some tenuous links to the original
message of the opera. The problem is that the effect is short-lived,
only to become artificial, forced, boring, even ludicrous. Thus,
for instance, the new, thoroughly unconvincing production of Lohengrin
at La Scala fails miserably, notwithstanding the superlative voices.
This production reminds me of what the Germans call a Schnappsidee – i.e.
a wet idea that may seem intelligible under the influence of alcohol
(Schnapps), but distinctly less so if you are in full use of your
mental faculties. The asymmetries of Regietheater thus condemn
it to be a temporary fad, a parody of culture, not a long-term
dismantlement of art. And yet, the fad is not without consequences.
Perhaps the greatest harm perpetrated by these art polluters (who
evidently enjoy spraying graffiti on genius (Elisabeth Schwartzkopf))
is endured by the young. My generation was privileged to experience
inspiring opera productions conducted by Karl Bohm, Herbert von
Karajan etc. with intelligent staging by Schneider-Siemssen and
others. Our younger generation of melomanes is being deprived of
the opportunity of being seduced by a true Eva in Meistersinger
or Marie-Thérèse in Rosenkavalier. What a shame,
since modern technology and light effects would render the staging
of opera much easier than in the past. "Modernity" does
not have to mean parody -- or demolition. Art is the perfection
of music, staging and dance -- for instance the 2007 Mariinsky
Ballet production of Swan Lake in St. Petersburg, with Uliana Lopatkina
(Odile) and Danila Korsuntsev (Prince Siegfried), conducted by
Valery Gergiev, in the Ross MacGibbon production.
Humour delights in paradox, irony, unexpected turns,
serendipity ... It entails that felicitous faculty of seeing a
funny side in all human endeavour, recognizing ourselves in other
peoples' foibles, sensing the ephemeral in vanity, jealousy, pettiness,
taking distance, putting things in perspective --always with a
sense for proportion-- laughing at awkward situations, including
laughing at our own idiosyncrasies. Humour is an attitude quite
unlike cynicism or hubris. It manifests an optimistic mindset,
an exultation of spirit, an affirmation of joie de vivre.
When contemplating history, it is best to put aside
labels, ideologies and nationalities, because they invariably cloud
our vision, and what we think are short-cuts frequently turn out
to be obstacles. What really matters is the personal integrity
and courage, the nobility and heroism of individuals. Generalizations
about peoples or even civilizations are artificial and all too
often dehumanizing. Surely there were good Neanderthals and good
Cro Magnons, good Israelis and Philistines, good Greeks and Persians,
good Athenians and Spartans, good Romans and Carthaginians, good
Crusaders and Fatimids, good Protestants and Papists, good French
revolutionaries and royalists, good Unionists and Confederates,
good Marxists and capitalists. There are heroes and scoundrels
in every human conflict, for reality is never black and white,
as in the good there is always an admixture of bad, and even in
the bad some good. We should therefore celebrate the human being
in all his complexity and contradictions, we shoud honour his good
deeds -- not the Zeitgeist-caricature of humanity, nor
the ideological "flavour of the month".
Belief is identity and raison d'être, as human
nature requires an emotional map, reference points, defined goals
-- no vacuum, no black hole ... For our own well-being we need
to believe in something –the actual belief being somewhat
less important. Crucial is the readiness to have faith
in ourselves and in humanity, in our culture, in human dignity,
in the values of our nation -- not chauvinistically, not blindly "my
country right or wrong", but consciously for the good of
our community -- to believe in a cause bigger than ourselves,
to serve a higher goal, even if we cannot reach it. And when
we die, we can say, we have believed, and our yearning and striving
has given meaning to our lives. Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,
den können wir erlösen (Goethe, Faust II,
11936–11937). The temerity to believe in nothing may
be a modern pseudo-philosophy, but it is neither heroic nor healthy,
not even funny, but instead a manifestation of misanthropy, an
insipid form of nihilism, a petulant mood devoid of fire, devoid
of cheer. Thus, let us celebrate the rite of spring and the music
of flowers -- and people -- around us. Fe y adelante!
Learning how to love ourselves, how to forgive ourselves is undoubtedly
an important lesson for a good and healthy life. While evil and
guilt do exist, they can and must be marshalled. A guilt fixation
or obsession is in itself a fault, a sin. Guilt must be tempered
by mercy and by a sense for proportion. How else can we love others,
if we do not respect oneselves first. It should be obvious to everyone
that if we are to love others as we love ourselves (golden rule),
we must also know and accept our own wrinkles, sins and imperfections.
Admittedly, we neither love nor condone sin, but we must exercise
the faculty to rise above sin and to continue testing our conduct
against universal ethical principles day by day. Only thus can
we develop a life strategy how to deal with the reality of evil,
evil which predated our birth, evil and injustice which existed
even before Adam and Eve. We must reject the paradigm of original
sin and embrace instead the paradigm of grace and forgiveness through
the Cross and Resurrection. Sursum corda!
Every one knows the Latin maxim:
si vis pacem, para bellum -- if you want peace, prepare
war (Livius VI, 18,7; Vegetius, 'Epitome rei militaris'
3, prologue)). Surely it would be better to propose: si
vis pacem, cole justitiam. If you want peace, cultivate
justice ! This enlightened maxim greets you at the Peace Palace
in The Hague and at the ILO headquarters in Geneva (ILO was awarded
the Nobel peace price 1969). Policy-makers and civil society take
Although, in principle, history-writing should observe the five
C's of chronology, context, causality, consequences and comparison,
many contemporary historians seem to delight in anachronisms,
ignoring the context and root causes of events, indulging in post
hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies and teleological conclusions,
making truly ludicrous comparisons -- frequently to satisfy
the capricious Zeitgeist.
Retirement is too big a word; what we
basically want is withdrawal from bureaucracy, so that
we are free to do what we feel is really important. Better
old outside and young inside, than young outside and hopelessly
Law is a tool to bring order into chaos. As such,
it is a means, not an end. As a normative manifestation of power,
law expresses the will, the priorites and sometimes the values
of the sovereign. Law is not coterminous with justice; in fact,
it may and is frequently used to maintain and legitimize an unjust
social order, a system of exploitation, an uequal distribution
of resources. The maxim "might is right" reflects the power equation,
not any moral or categorical imperative (Kant) dictated by reason
or deontology. It is for the philosophers -- and poets -- to
infuse ethics into power ! It is for civil society to demand
A shockingly new idea, a controversial new prespective, an uncomfortable
new paradigm first meets with fierce opposition, then with marginalization
and silence, finally it is accepted as self-evident.
The two-party system is, alas, only twice as
democratic as the one-party system.
The war on terror is a rhetorical war just like
the war on poverty, and, alas, poverty won.
Education entails the faculty to think independently, apply criteria
and arrive at individual judgment, even when different from consensus.
It should awaken curiosity, discard taboos, formulate new questions,
seek different perspectives, engage logic and coherence, strengthen
ethics and intellectual honesty vis á vis others - and
ourselves. This faculty of independent thinking, which is the
very core of education, remains true even when we forget factual
knowledge. Indoctrination, which thrives on uncritical repetition,
deference to authority and peer pressure, has nothing to do with
Our goal can be somewhat less than trying to
change the world. Helping a couple of people is fine too.
The legitimacy and credibility of law rests on its uniform application.
Thus, there must not be any favouritism, because in law "one
size fits all". The rule of law means the rule of non-arbitrariness,
which knows no service à la carte. More fundamentally,
although justice is not identical with law, justice requires that
law be consistent with ethical values. Law should not follow politics,
but it is politics that must follow law.
Societies can be animistic, pantheistic, atheistic, polytheistic,
monotheistic -- or, like ours -- moneytheistic.
Civilization, as we know it, developed when nomads settled down,
domesticated animals, invented the plow, grew wheat and vine,
started baking bread and fermentig grape juice into wine ... O
fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint, Agricolas! Quibus ipsa
procul discordibus armis fundit humo facilem victum iustissima
tellus.(Vergilius, Georgics, ii, 458).
A “failed State” is not just a State with a troubled
economy or with a dysfunctional administration. It is also a State
that cannot live in peace with its neighbours.
If we take more time to enjoy what we do have, we will have that
less time to belly-ache about what we still lack.
Serendipity goes beyond carpe diem, carpe noctem, beyond
grasping at fortuity.. It means winning the game and
holding on, remaining alert to fortune's many moods.
Tomorrow is one day more – and one less.
Good governance is more than mere alliteration -- it entails
applying Logos rather than legalism, practicing proportion
rather than perfection, preferring peace and pluralism over populism,
promoting justice instead of jealousy -- and in budget matters
employing more mathematics and less metaphors.
Politicians and generals go into history books. Musicians go
into the hearts of generations of grateful listeners. Wellington,
Blücher, Grant, Eisenhower, Motgommery, de Gaule, Zhukov
are long dead. Beethoven lives!
Fortunately for mankind, glory is ephemeral and fame fades fast.
Otherwise even more megalomaniacs would enter the fray and plague
the rest of us in the process.
Peace is not just the absence of war. It means abandoning the
aggressive animus and the will to exploit other nations
and peoples. It requires closing down the criminal arms industry
that fuels conflict throughout the world. More than that, peace
implies the presence of something positive -- not just an absence
of evil. It entails the presence of good will, a striving for
harmony, the exercise of solidarity, the quest for justice --
that possible dream we once read about in the Sermon on the Mount.
Good politicians are pessimists in analysis but optimists in action.
Progress depends on tempered enthusiasm rather than on
hot tempers. Met drift kom je nergens, met geestdrift
Collateral benefit is a form of serendipity – the joy of
finding something unexpected when one is busy looking for something
Human dignity transcends quantification and knows no
competition, for respect is due to rich and poor alike. The dignitas
humana has no room for privilege and exploitation; all victims
deserve solidarity, recognition and rehabilitation without discrimination.
Justice is not a beauty contest, but a conscious vindication of
There is no clash of civilizations, but rather the clash of
narrow-minded politicians who pretend that theirs is the only
Hero worship is for adolescents, convenient mythologies for
adults, caricatures for the elites, instrumentalized trivia
for the hoi
polloi -- quite a circus of institutionalized self-deception
for one and all.
The Manichaean world view lacks the poetry of nuances, of the
good within the bad, the bad within the good, the poetry of ambiguity.
Collateral benefit is a form of serendipity – the joy of
finding something unexpected when one was busy looking for something
Objectivity does not exclude poetry.
Creation is divine -- and very much human: from writing a love
poem, to composing a symphony, to inventing a flower arrangement,
to baking a cheese cake, to singing Panis
Truth is in the nuances.
Hero worship is for adolescents, convenient mythology for adults,
caricature for the elites, instrumentalized trivia for the hoi
polloi -- quite a circus of institutionalized self-deception for
one and all.
Doing always the right thing does not automatically yield the
Coping with great misfortune is sometimes easier than accepting
Failure is not per se punishment, nor does it entail guilt. Often
enough it is the guilty who are successful and the innocent who
Integrity entails living in the midst of lies and not falling
for them, facing adversity without losing one’s sense of
Self-respect often requires stoic perseverance -- even when there
are no followers.
Self-preservation takes precedence over revenge.
Some politicians indulge more in science fiction than in government.
A politician should be pessimistic in analysis but optimistic
Cognitive dissonance occurs not only in politics, but also in
human relations. How often does a lover pursue the shadow of his
own infatuation? There are many Don Quijotes still yearning for
their own imaginary Dulcineas.
War is the great destroyer – not only of human beings,
but also of values.
“Clash of civilizations” is an euphemism for the animus
to aggress others.
Human dignity transcends quantification and knows no competition.
Justice is not a beauty contest, but a conscious vindication
of human dignity
There were good guys on all sides of the Peloponnesian war, the
Punic wars, Julius Caesar’s campaigns, the “Reconquista”,
the French revolution, the American Civil War, the Bolshevist
revolution, the Spanish Civil War, at Verdun and at Stalingrad.
There is never a monopoly of good or evil in any human conflict.
The essential homo sapiens evolves slowly. I bet that Neanderthal
children threw snowballs at each other with as much gusto as 21st
The habits and expectations of modern man are scarcely conducive
to happiness. Whereas everything good that happens to us is perceived
as natural and we take it for granted, we are surprised and frustrated
over every stone in our path. We would be happier if we would
only learn to count our blessings.
When you take a nation’s past away, you also destroy its
God obviously prefers carnivores to vegetarians, otherwise he
would have given the same attention to Cain’s veggies as
to Abel’s lamb offerings.
Mankind is not peaceful by nature. Violence was with us from
the start – four human beings and already one murder!
God is not an advocate of an eye-for-an eye: Cain was banished,
not killed because of murdering his brother.
It is easier to endure long misfortune than to prolong a state
Good men do not always get what they deserve. Nor do the bad.
Commercial rivalries cause even more wars than religious differences.
Rulers can afford to be generous and enlightened after they have
suppressed or even exterminated the opposition.
Morality lessons are easy to impart after a position of force
has been secured, usually by immoral means.
Academic work is both drudgery and passion.
Not every philosopher has worthy disciples. Socrates lucked out
with Plato, Plato with Aristotle. But Socrates failed to instill
modesty and measure on his pupil Alcibiades, an egomaniac cheat,
who never understood the meaning of moderation (meden agan, metron
ariston), while Aristotle had the disappointment of tutoring Alexander
(for some “the Great”), who started as a megalomaniac
and grew into a genocidal killer – and drunkard.
Man is born into a culture and religion and has a limited number
of roles to play.
While perfectly coherent within a given epistemology, outside
this specific cultural or religions context, man’s actions
may appear illogical or even irrational. Thus, while St. Augustine
and St. Thomas Aquinas were doubtless brilliant thinkers, their
legacy is not accessible outside the Christian faith. For non-believers,
much of Aquinas’ reasoning may appear circular; to a traditional
Christian, Muhammad remains inaccessible.
True scholarship is free of loyalties.
The scholar does not root for a team but remains aloof of the
Insisting on justice often only prolongs the pain. Experience
teaches you to cut your losses and turn the page.
Dogs show immediate enthusiasm for other dogs and socialize with
them readily – size, race or colour notwithstanding. Why
don’t humans get more enthused over other humans ?
Imperialism, whether military or economic, was never benign.
Imperialism -- whether American, British, French, German, Ancient
Greek, Roman or Persian – never endeared the masters to
Realpolitik is more akin to opportunism than to patriotism.
Patriotism means very different things to different people. You
may call it a cocktail of self-deception and bravado, a form of
mental masturbation, rooting for a political party as you root
for a football team, a readiness to rape.
Heroism is a cocktail of brazenness and patriotism. For some,
a manifestation of stubbornness – fighting unto death for
a personal conviction or even for a caprice.
Genuine patriotism entails a striving for political and social
justice. It is not “my country right or wrong”, but
“let’s work to make this country just”.
The cult of heroism is a totalitarian tool.
Every totalitarian regime has its saints.
Christianity has done many bad things such as the Crusades, the
Inquisition, and Pope Alexander VI’s Bull Inter Cetera.
But it has also done glorious things -- immeasurably enriched
us by inventing musical notation (the monk Guido of Arezzo!),
inspired Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert, gave outlet to
all forms of artistic expression -- from the poetry of the Gothic
Cathedral to the humanity of Michelangelo’s Pieta. The Beatitudes
will always be an antidote to despair, consolation in mourning,
hope in hope.
Religion is awe of nature plus a moral code.
Religion is more than rituals and sacraments, but belief in cosmic
justice and commitment to truth -- helping other human beings
– or at least not hurting them!
Pseudo-religion is the instrumentalization of fear for purposes
The sun shines on the just and unjust alike. In its light, justice
can be seen by all who have eyes, but some would hide justice
in the shadow of their own agendas.
Competition does not exclude caritas.
Lessons learned are all too quickly unlearned.
Asymmetrical love lasts longer
Freedom of thought means freedom from mental models and the temerity
to think the unthinkable.
Cogito libere, ergo ego sum. (I think independently, therefore
I am myself).
Liber sum, ergo possum cogitare. (I am free, therefore I can think).
Axiom: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."
-- Aldous Huxley, Proper Studies, 1927
Corollary: “Popular myths are not necessarily facts”
Retributive justice is hardly justice when
it only reflects the top-dog/underdog syndrome. Restorative justice
offers greater credibility and sustainability if it is based on
the recognition of root causes, the mutual acknowledgment of errors,
and is future-oriented, inspired by a genuine reconciliation paradigm.
Even those who have no future do have a human
right to dream.
No one has the “right” to be a billionaire.
Great fortunes are made thanks to the existence of a market –
which is not an individual achievement, but rather the result
of collective action by society at large. Whoever benefits from
the marketplace owes it to the rest of society to share the profit
with the collectivity. This is done by philanthropy -- and progressive
taxation. Wealth is just and respectable as the merited reward
for incentive. Taking a greater share of the pie than one deserves
is but vulgar greed.
Property is a legal fiction to describe certain powers of disposition over material things
Property in rem is subject to taxation; property in personam is chattel slavery. "Ownership" is ephemeral, since we can exchange, dispose of or otherwise lose property, and after death we "can't take it with us!". Even in our lifetime, the idea that a human being “owns” a tree appears rather implausible. One may carve a sweetheart's name on a oak, one may chop down a conifer and make a chair out of it, but one never really owns the tree.
Freedom of expression is meaningful if one has an opinion to express. Opinion is based on factual knowledge and an appreciation of the various points of view. Freedom of expression would have little value if it only meant the right to echo what one receives from the media. More important is the right to think freely and to exchange views so as to develop one’s own conception of things. Thus, the manipulation of information is just as dangerous when it is done by the private sector (CNN, Fox) as when it is imposed by governmental authority. The crucial test is whether the people have the information needed to formulate opinions and take decisions thereon, or whether they are just victims of manipulation.
An art lover who internalizes a painting has more ownership of it than a person who buys it and hangs it in his living room.
Tolerance is good, but frequently patronizing.
Respect entails more: the acceptance of the other's right
to be, even his right to be wrong.
It is relatively easy to find confirmation
for a pet theory or hypothesis. What is crucial is to test
the logic of competing theories and conscientiously look for
Being is immesurably more than doing
Freedom is the choice to swim with or
against the current. Swimming only with the current misses
out on a world of other possibilities. Freedom means adventure,
even at the risk of drowning.
It is more important to deepen than to
lengthen life, more existential to pause than to rush by.
Millennia ago there was neither politics
nor law. Humans were hunters and gatherers and survived
from hand to mouth, from day to day. Primitive politics
manifested itself as brute force, but soon the chiefs themselves
recognized the necessity to legitimize their rule and secure
a degree of social stability by enacting commandments,
laws and ultimately constitutions that conferred primacy
to the ”rule of law” and were administered
by a higher caste of lawyers and judges. Gradually
a more sophisticated system of checks and balances emerged. Today
the clock cannot be turned back and no politician is legibus
solutus or above the law
Theft is not only robbing a bank or burglarizing a jewellery
shop. It is also looting enterprises through abusively
high salaries, unearned bonuses, luxury expense accounts,
overpaid consultancies and golden handshakes, plundering
stock markets through insider trading, playing casino at
commodity markets, pilfering a nation's natural wealth
"privatization", adamantly keeping the booty
of centuries of imperialism, pretending it is tabula
rasa for theft, exploiting the weak through new forms
of economic colonialism, keeping bonuses and tax breaks
given to TNCs as incentives to open businesses and then
relocating elsewhere where labour costs are lower, extorting
interest from poor nations once induced to take unnecessary
loans they could never repay.
In his Sonnets to Orpheus Rilke gave wings to
his feeling that: “Gesang ist Dasein” which
approximately translates as “singing is being”. Maybe
the converse is even truer: Being is serenade, symphony,
opera, rhythm, dance!