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Notes from the train station

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Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I have been to the New Brunswick train station in New Jersey State, where I live, hundreds of times in the past four years. For the past three years, I have boarded the train from here to work and school at least twice a week. During this time, it never occurred to me to sit and observe the place, people and their activities while waiting for the train, although I am generally curious about things around me.

Today I went there and sat on a bench at a distance from people in the waiting room. I wanted to observe the waiting behaviors of the people. As I sat down and began to observe, I thought about my behavior, as to why I sat where I did— aloof and distanced. But soon I shifted my attention towards the people and the big room, which had seven benches— one of which was very long. It had two huge round pendant lights hanging from a high ceiling, six ventilators and eight windows— one of the windows was of giant size. The room had two doors exiting towards the station’s platform. It had a stairway for exiting the station.

Six people were waiting for the train when I entered the waiting room. Four of them were sitting at quite a distance from each other. The remaining two were sitting relatively close. Within a minute or two, the train arrived and the room emptied. Then within the next two to three minutes after the train left, more people began to come into the room. Again, they sat at a distance from each other. This time a cop also came in. He stood close to one of the corners in front of the bathroom.

As I was observing the room, I felt being observed by the cop. As a brown man with a thick black beard and a mix of Afghan, Arab and Iranian facial features (although I am ethnically Afghan/Pashtun), I feel seen with suspicion every time I face a white cop. Then another train arrived and people left the room. Again, more people arrived. This time, two more cops showed up with the crowd into the room. Usually, these cops wait in Dunkin Donuts on the floor below the waiting room. While waiting there, they chat, drink coffee and eat donuts. As many New Jersyians would agree, Dunkin Donuts is a favorite spot for cops in the State. They seem to spend more time in coffee shops than on duty outside.

To my left, a man and a woman, most probably a couple, were leaning against one of the windows. They were quiet and expressionless for the most part except when the man spoke over the phone for a few minutes. In the corner to my left, a black woman seemed lost in her thoughts as her gaze was fixated on the plain wall and at the same time engaged in nose-picking for about a minute. The rest of the people, the young and the aged, were busy on their phones— listening to music or surfing the Internet. At one point, eight people including two cops, out of fourteen people, were busy on their phones. Others were quiet. The only people talking were the three cops and the two aged white women sitting side by side.

As the number of people changed with the trains arriving and leaving, at one point, there were 27 people in the waiting room. About ten of them were white and the rest were people of color. To my right, a man in about his forties sat and began to read the book, Consciousness and the Absolute, as I spotted the name on the front cover. Out of curiosity later, I searched the book and found that it is written by Nisargadatta Maharaj. Nisargadatta “was a Hindu guru of nondualism, belonging to the Inchagiri Sampradaya, a lineage of teachers from the Navnath Sampradaya and Lingayat Shaivism.” The man with the book was the only one in the room, who was reading. Then the next train came. The room emptied again. The bookman left. And I left too.

While exiting the station and strolling the streets of the city, I thought the most remarkable and strange thing about my observation was that people rarely sat close to others and rarely did they talk to each other. They hardly acknowledged the presence of others, let alone looking at them and saying ‘hi’ to them. Most people kept to themselves. There was an aura of coldness and lack of human warmth. I feel behavior such as this generates certain cultural expectations of “appropriateness.” This socially constructed appropriateness, in turn, dictates the interactions of people in public spaces like waiting rooms.


P.S. This observation is part of an assignment I completed for an online Qualitative Methods course with the University of Amsterdam. The assignment was to find and describe a place where people are waiting (e.g. in queues at stores, at public transport stations etc.). I thought it would be nice to share my observation with readers here. 

Against Pakistan’s fake, selective moral outrage  


Image by Amber Clay from Pixabay

The Modi government’s recent revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir caused a moral uproar in Pakistan. Both the government and the people felt outraged at the revocation and Indian government’s continued atrocities against Kashmiris.

No one with a sane mind and a little empathy in their heart would deny that condemning India’s atrocities in Kashmir is the right thing to do, morally.

However, when moral outrage becomes selective, such as outrage over atrocities in Kashmir and deafening silence over egregious crimes against minorities inside the country, it should also be condemned.

Why? What is wrong with selective moral outrage? Spencer Case, Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Colorado Boulder, says, “To be selectively outraged is to be guilty – of irrationality at least, and probably of moral hypocrisy as well.”

A counterargument to this claim, as Case explains, is that a moral human being, especially a psychologically normal human being, can not be evenly morally outraged in a world so full of outrages.

This is true, as our moral outrage and empathy have limitations, but there is also a counterargument to this view the support for which is found in theology and moral philosophy.

In Islam, your neighbor and your community have the utmost right over your solidarity and support. For example, Zakat (obligatory alms-giving) should be given to the deserving in the community first. Once this responsibility is fulfilled, then one can support the economically deserving elsewhere.

Similarly, if the members of your own community or nation are in some kind of suffering, they are the first deserving of your solidarity. The rest of the people come later. In moral philosophy too, you have the utmost responsibility and solidarity to show with those who are the closest to you geographically and in other ways.

Again, you can counterargue that moral outrage at the fate of others and your own are not morally competing interests. That is true. They are not and should not be, but only if you have your responsibility to those in need and close to you fulfilled first.

In Pakistan, the ethnic and religious minorities have suffered for decades, but the government and the majority of the people have been silent.

Religious minorities such as the Hindus, Christians, Ahmedis and Shia Muslims have been persecuted by Islamists for decades, but one sees from little to no moral outrage in the country.

Similarly, ethnic minorities such as the Baloch, Pashtuns and Mohajirs have been persecuted by the state, yet again the moral outrage at the atrocious acts from the successive elected governments and the people is from little to non-existent.

Moreover, elected parliamentarians are in jail. Thousands of activists are missing and as many killed extra-judicially. A large number of bodies of political activists have been found in mass graves.

There have been curfews in Waziristan. When people speak about their rights, they are silenced, detained and even killed. The state’s secret service harasses and surveils activists even outside the country.

The Baloch have been calling on the UN for help for decades. The Pashtuns after the emergence of the rights-based Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement and state repression, marched on UNO in Geneva for their constitutional rights last month.

Most people are silent on these atrocities against their own people but outraged against India’s atrocities in Kashmir. This is a fake and selective moral outrage. I am enraged at this selective outrage.







What Nietzsche thought about the State?


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What is the state? Why do we obey it? Should we obey even when it oppresses us? And what can we do for our freedom against its tyranny? These questions come to mind every time I see the appalling treatment of governments of their subjects. In quest for insights, I have read extensively, but nothing has struck me so profoundly as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883).

The book covers a multitude of themes but in one of the sections, “Of the New Idol” in Part I, Nietzsche talks about the state: “The state? What is that? Well then! Now open your ears, for now I shall speak to you of the death of peoples.” He says, “State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies too; and this lie crawls out of its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”

“Zarathustra as character in the treatise,” Richard Falk notes, “is presented as a prophetic voice of Nietzsche, the person who stands outside and in solitude so as to understand better what is taking place inside, a voice that is shrill with anger, impassioned by conviction, and dedicated to truth-telling, however heretical.” Falk contends that it is important to remember that “Nietzsche was experiencing a young German state that was seeking unity by promoting an intense cult of nationalism that would eventuate in self-destructive major wars twice in the 20th century.”

In Nietzsche and the State, David Gordon says that although Nietzsche was in politics far from an authoritarian, in his youth he supported the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, whose militaristic politics he then rejected in later years. Most probably, it was the political situation of the time that influenced Nietzsche to write one of his most famous and great works.

Nietzsche’s depiction fits the character of all modern states but of some more so than others. While reading “Of the New Idol”, I kept thinking about my country of origin, Pakistan, and what it has been doing to its people, particularly the oppressed groups. For far too long, innocent people have gotten killed in bomb blasts, target killing and numerous other mysterious ways. Many have gone and keep going missing for raising their voice against this cruelty.

However, rarely has the state caught these criminals and terrorists. The perpetrators turn out either suicide bombers found in shreds on blast sites or “unknown” assailants, who are so adept at escaping that the entire security machinery is “clueless” as to where they come from and where they go back in hiding. The state does not feel responsible at all for the safety of the people.

But, for the thinking man of this merciless polity, these are all cold lies, as Nietzsche would put. Where it serves its interest, the state would find law breakers out from the bowels of cities and the highs of mountains. But when upholding the law goes against the state’s interest, it would turn a blind eye and look the other way.

In Pakistan, the conscience-stricken citizens among all the many obedient subjects, who have challenged the state, are silenced, harassed, detained and even killed. These great souls have, in Falk’s words, risked “a life-threatening response by challenging the authority of the repressive regime in power.” No one listens to them because the monster roars, “On earth, there is nothing greater than I: the ordering finger of God am I.”

The cold monster whispers dark lies about its god-ness and greatness to all and sundry. The ways in which technology has facilitated the spread of the propaganda of the modern state would be unthinkable for Nietzsche, but the good news is that it has also almost equally empowered the people. The passage maintains that this cold monster would surround itself with “heroes and honorable men” and “bask in the sunshine of good consciences.”

These are usually normal men with normal roles as fathers, brothers and uncles in the family, but when it comes to the relation between the people and the state, they become uncontrollable and evil monsters. Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Bashar al-Assad and others have shown this cold monstrosity. I have wondered how are these men capable of such extraordinary coldness. Sometimes, the answer is nationalism. Sometimes power. Or greed, sociopathy, pleasure and wealth. Or a combination of all of the above.

Nietzsche maintains that this new idol will give you everything if you worship it. In this way, “It buys the splendor of your virtues and the look of your proud eyes. It would use you as a bait for the all-too-many.” But if you oppose it, even for the most righteous of reasons, you risk irking the monster, hence inviting its ire upon yourself. That is why most subjects choose complacent ignorance over conscientious dissidence. But if pushed too hard, the subjects, like in Tunisia and elsewhere, do rise to challenge the coldest of all cold monsters’ authority. In Pakistan, the 26-year old Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, challenged Pakistan’s mighty army at the beginning of last year.

Surprisingly, 139 years after publishing his book, Nietzsche’s words are relevant and invigorating even today. Most states, even liberal democracies like the United States, violate the rights of their citizens. African Americans are routinely killed by the police and incarceration rates are the highest in their community. Myanmar, India, Israel, Turkey, and on and one, most states violate the rights and dignity of their people.

What should be done when the state violates its citizens’ rights but demand compliance? This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions that some of the greatest thinkers/philosophers of all time have tried to explore. Anarchist philosophers reject unjust hierarchies of power in favor of ” self-managedself-governed societies based on voluntary, cooperative institutions.” Philosophical anarchism is the view that citizens don’t have obligation to obey the law, although they have good reasons to comply with it. Philosophical anarchists believe that the state lacks moral legitimacy: However, they don’t advocate violence to eliminate it.

Liberal philosophers believe “that government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others, but they also recognize that government itself can pose a threat to liberty.”  The English-born American political activist and philosopher Thomas Paine expressed in Common Sense (1776), “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one…”

According to liberals, the solution is to devise a rules-based system that not only gives government the power necessary to protect individual liberty, but also prevents those who govern from abusing that power. Libertarians, like liberals, strongly value the protections of individual freedoms. But unlike liberals, “Libertarians usually see the kind of large-scale, coercive wealth redistribution in which contemporary welfare states engage as involving unjustified coercion.” In other words, the libertarians advocate the minimalist state.

To conclude, one should listen carefully to Nietzsche for his depiction of the nature of the state helps us understand the gross violations of rights by almost all states in varying degrees. But one should also remember that without the state, the regulation of human behaviour and the protection of individual rights would remain a pressing challenge for society. Moreover, would a stateless society or societies, as some anarchists advocate, be ever realizable? It is especially difficult to imagine so, as the modern state has brought most tribal and indigenous communities in its fold.

In the end, in Falk’s words, “To remove the blindfold, and see the state as the coldest of monsters is a necessary wakeup call for which we should thank Nietzsche for, even now, 139 years after Zarathustra was published. And yet we also need to resist the temptation to fall into a deeper sleep by adopting a posture of unrealizable and unacceptable negation of this strange political creature called the state. In the end, the state is not a monster, but a work in progress.”



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