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eyes black and white

When the masks fall

Seared in my memory is no secret mission to Cambodia, but instead one early winter morning in Paris where I oh so briefly witnessed a crack in the thin veneer that separates man from animal.

Back then I was preparing for the "Concours" (competitive examinations) that might allow me to study in a French "Grande École" (elite school), and had realized my nazional ID card had expired when I was 18, and without it, I would not be able to partake until the next year. And so, warned that you had to arrive early, I was one of the first arrived shortly after 7 in the morning in front of the Paris XIXth arrondissement town hall. However the offices would only open at 8, and by the time 8 arrived, literally hundreds of other people were waiting in the cold. Inside, the employees, arriving slowly starting at around 7:30, were warm and cozy, and looked without compassion at the shapeless mass of men and women accumulating outside the entrance. They could have let us in and let us wait in line peacefully inside in the big heated hallways. But no, citizens exist to serve and obey the bureaucratic order, and not the other way around. We were better freezing our asses off outside.

Meanwhile, we in the winter cold were realizing that even if only half of us were waiting for the service that processed our cattle identification certificates, the last person in line would have to come back another day, for the office could probably not handle everyone. That would mean one more morning waiting in the cold, with just as little odds of getting in. One more day lost to work (and its pay), school, care for the kids, or whichever activity we had joy (or redeemable value) in doing. For some of us, one more day without papers was also risking to miss a deadline and lose money, fail an exam, be arrested, be denied some important benefit of government robbery, etc. The poorer amongst us could probably not easily afford such loss.

And so when the time came, and the janitor with no haste whatsoever eventually opened the door, there was this huge rush amongst the people waiting, to get to the front of the line for the identity card office, or at least to be amongst those who would be processed that same day. I was young, not too badly placed (having arrived early), and ran the fastest I could. But still by the time I arrived, people were battling for those dispensers of numbered tickets that would determine the processing order; in a few seconds, the dispensers were broken off their stand, grabbed, and their victors, after serving themselves, had started serving others.

Myself, I was a bit pissed that having arrived amongst the first ten, I had a much later ticket and would have to wait there all morning. But more than that, I was fascinated by the people around me, the animal hate in their gaze, the readiness to fight, the jealousy of not having a better place, the universal enmity of all against all. Life in the zero sum game. I was wondering how low in the animal reign I would have dived myself had I arrived a bit later and had gotten no good ticket at all, had the line been for life-critical food and medicine instead of a piece of bureaucratic paper. In such a case, there would no doubt have been injuries and maybe even deaths. Instead there were only minor injuries from people falling during the initial rush, or being a bit violent while vying for the dispensers, and bruised dignities at the insults proffered.

After everyone had his number, you could see each of their eyes changing. One by one, they would switch back from animal to human, from enemy to friend. Shame would appear on our faces as we would realize what had happened. Shame for ourselves. Shame for each other. So that is what it is to be human.

Yet looking deeper in the eyes of the culprit, you could see them begging not so much for forgiveness, but for complicity in keeping our degradation secret. "Sure, I was swine, but so were you to some extent. Don't tell anyone about me, I won't tell anyone about you." And they were prospectively hating you for being their better if you were (but how could they know, since they were paying no attention to you while fighting for a ticket). Whatever separated Parisians from the wretched creatures I sometimes saw on TV or read about from books, wasn't a progress in human nature.

A few minutes later, some sanctimonious townhall employees came with policemen, and sent everyone back home. They closed the office, that only reopened it a day or two later with policemen guarding the line. All that for nothing. What a waste. What a lesson.

These employees are such wonderful civil masters. Just like SS guards in concentration camps, they would cause the degradation of other people then feel superior in their contempt for those people. What a delicious feeling that must be, to be so high above masses of people you would otherwise have to individually consider your equal or your better. Delicious too for them to have an extra vacation day. Life in the public administration is sweet for the power hungry and the sanctimoniously lazy, which is probably why that's the kind of people you find working there.

My dad went to that office there for me the next week. After only five months of bureaucratic battles, thanks to special treatment from the bureaurats when they realized that despite his being born in Tunisia from a father born in Tonkin, my dad wasn't a wog but an honest-to-Godvernment good white Gallic citizen, he would eventually obtain papers that prove my French Nazionality, and with them got me the prized Nazional ID card, just one or two weeks before the written examinations started. Glory be to the French Bureaucracy!

When a few years later I went to that same office and inquired about how I could revoke my French Nazionality, the disbelieving employees told me they wouldn't do it unless I had another equally recognized Nazionality. But the whole point was to not be the subject of any government, and instead to be free. And so I realized that I don't need paper marks here and there to be destroyed or created to be free. The French Government denies that I am a sovereign individual, I deny that it has any sovereignty either. That makes us even. French Bureaucrats claim that they control me for my own good. I deny that they have any actual control or legitimacy; but since they back their claims with guns (whether visible in plain sight or carried for them by a goon in uniform hidden until they call him), I show them some paper that has little meaning to me and a lot to them, and they don't hurt me or bother me more than any of their other victims.

Comments

What a lesson, indeed.

(Anonymous)

Confused...

I'm confused by your tone and message. You share that surely those at a disadvantage in the line have a lot to lose, but, then you compare them to animals?

Those sound like the words of someone who had nothing to lose in the whole affair.

Re: Confused...

Certainly these people were animals. So was I. And so are we all. That's exactly my message.

I'm a peaceful and well-bred enough person that didn't partake in the violence, physical or verbal, that doesn't mean I didn't fall below my civilized self, or that I wouldn't have in direr circumstances. I was acutely conscious that indeed, I would probably have. And that I would probably have lost to the more physically violent in that group, or the more charismatic who would have organized mob violence after the first wave of thugs were satisfied. If it had been a life-or-death line for some antidote to whatever poisoning and there weren't enough doses for everyone, I would have tried my bestial best to obtain a dose, and would probably have lost and died. My best chance would again have been to be amongst the very first in line through superior foresight.

Animals

So are YOU an animal, by the way.

And no, I didn't have (or know I had) much to lose (except maybe hours of boring class). I would not have guessed that getting my cattle badge was to take five months instead of five days and almost prevented me from going to a Grande Ecole, and so had no sense of a pressing deadline.

On the other hand, a few months later, I did have my degrading "do it to Julia" moment, the details of which are not very interesting. Not that I loved Farouk remotely as much as 6079 Smith W had loved Julia. In any case, I am not claiming to be of a nature superior to the previously-mentioned animals, though I'm certainly glad of the vantage point that I am lucky to have reached and hold forth.
I've been there.

(Anonymous)

Glory be to the French Bureaucracy!

To my knowledge, the situation you describe is also related to the fact that, over the years, French politics evolved towards a more and more xenophobic attitude. Thus, underinvestment in bureaucratic resources in this domain can be considered as built on purpose: don't serve them, then they'll die.

But what you say is no evidence for proving that state-based organization is always inefficient. For example, in the domain of public health, the French system seems to work much better than more liberal systems like the american one, along with being also better that more socialized systems, e.g. UK's.

Some food for thought:

"France's model healthcare system", Boston Globe, August 11, 2007:
http://boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2007/08/11/frances_model_healthcare_system/

Rodwin V.G., "The Health Care System Under French National Health Insurance: Lessons for Health Reform in the United States", American Journal of Public Health, vol.93, n.1, 2003:
http://www.ajph.org/cgi/reprint/93/1/31.pdf

More lies

What makes you think that either the US or UK system is particularly liberal? Or that it is their liberal rather than statist features that make them suck?

Oh yeah, statist propaganda. If a socialist says so, it must be true!

(Anonymous)

Re: More lies

>What makes you think that either the US or UK system is particularly
>liberal? Or that it is their liberal rather than statist features that
>make them suck?
>
The health care industry is a well-known case where uncertainty is built-in in the system, in such a way that free markets have been proven suboptimal, the conditions for a genuine competition being unreacheable in practice:

The failure of one or more of the competitive preconditions has as its most immediate and obvious consequence a reduction in welfare below that obtainable from existing resources and technology, in the sense of failing to reach an optimal state in the sense of Pareto.
  Arrow KJ. Uncertainty and the welfare economics of medical care

See:
http://stevereads.com/papers_to_read/uncertainty_and_the_welfare_economics_of_medical_care.pdf

Yeah, right

Sure. Bureaucrats are a race of superior people than those who compose "the market". Uncertainty doesn't exist for them. They know what's optimal by definition. Why don't we just surrender everything to their superior powers?

And all that is done through the magic of unaccountable violence, that transforms the merest man into this new kind of aristocrat, which magic attracts the best possible candidates to this kind of job.

If the State pays and celebrates a professor who says the State is legitimate, we must believe it.

Sarkozy, my savior, I will not doubt thee anymore!

Health care

All health care systems that I have seen so far sucked badly for one fundamental mis-aligned incentive: those tasked with keeping people healthy (doctors, drug producers, etc.) were financially rewarded if the people they were supposed to keep healthy were, in fact, sick.

You don't pay a system administrator for fixing incidents (otherwise, he will have zero incentive to fix stuff once and for all); you pay him a fixed monthly fee. His job is to make sure that he has as little work to do as he can. Now, the same applies to lawyers, doctors and medicine-manufacturers.

on swearing off your nationality

Not that it will make you feel better, but France & other nations are parties to the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. It's a multilateral treaty in which countries together agree to minimise the risk that someone will be stateless, and on how to treat stateless people. One thing every party must do is not allow people to swear off citizenship without the person having another valid one (so my children, for instance, could swear off their Canadian or American citizenship, but not both).

More practically, while I sympathise with your desire, I think that French nationality is not a very onerous nationality to have. You can live & work in France and other areas with relatively little bureaucratic interference. Better yet, it has almost no obligations attached to it. French taxes, etc... attach to your residency in France.

So by living outside of France, I'd say you're getting every benefit of your citizenship, and none of the obligations (which really attach only to residents).

Also: you have eaten pizza at my home using a knife and fork. Until you can laugh at that, you must remain French.

Being French

I certainly agree that French nationality is one of the sweeter one to be possessed by. I used to desire recognition for my individual sovereignty. These days, I don't care so much what other people think or say, only what they do.

And I don't need any paper from the French Government to be French indeed, and unashamedly so. Yes, civilized people eat with knife and fork! (But civilizeder people eat with chopsticks, my maternal side will add.)
eyes black and white

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