By Ignacio Ramonet (*)
PARIS, Feb (IPS) He is 93 years old. His name is Stephane Hessel, and the story of his life reads like a fantastical novel. In a way it was even before his birth. Some of you may remember Francois Truffaut’s film “Jules et Jim”. The non-conformist woman played by Jeanne Moreau and one of her two lovers , Jules, a German Jewish translator of Proust, were his parents. In the artistic environment of Paris of the 20s and 30s, Stephane Hessel grew up surrounded by the friends that filled his house, including philosopher Walter Benjamin, Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, and sculptor Alexander Calder.
At the outbreak of World War Two, he joined the resistance and became a part of General de Gaulle’s team in London. De Gaulle assigned him a dangerous mission in French territory, where he was captured by the Nazis, tortured, and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, from which he repeatedly tried to escape. On the verge of being executed, he managed to assume the identity of a dead man and finally succeeded in fleeing. He joined the fight for the liberation of France, inspired by the principles of the National Council for Resistance, which promised a social democracy, the nationalisation of the energy sector, insurance companies, and banks, and the creation of a social security system.
After the victory, de Gaulle sent him -then just 28 years old- to the United Nations in New York, which was putting the finishing touches on its theoretical foundations. In 1948 Hessel participated in the process of drafting and polishing one of the most supremely significant documents of the last 60 years: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He subsequently returned to Paris where he became a part of the socialist cabinet of Pierre Mendes-France, who began the decolonisation process, ended the war in Indochina, and prepared to grant independence to Tunisia and Morocco.
In recent years, this noble and staunch defender of just causes, a diplomat by profession, has called on all immigrants to protest tirelessly against the treatment of foreigners without papers,
gypsies, and all immigrants.
Hessel is in the news again today because he has just published a book, or, more correctly, a 30-page pamphlet that has become a runaway publishing success and social phenomenon in the France of the common people who have risen up against social repression. Thanks to word of mouth and especially to the new social networks, Hessel’s text, overlooked in the beginning by the major media, managed to get past the censors and spark hope in thousands of hearts. In just a few weeks this compendium of the most outrageous cases of injustice has sold (it costs 3 euros) more than 650,000 copies -an unprecedented phenomenon. The title: Get Outraged! [ii]
Balzac said that the pamphlet “is sarcasm converted into a cannon ball”. Stephane Hessel adds that indignation is the charge behind every social explosion. Addressing his readers, he exhorts them to “find a reason to be indignant. This is a priceless act, because when something makes us indignant, we become activists, we feel committed, and our force becomes irresistible.”
There is no shortage of reasons for indignation, Hessel writes: “In this world there are things that are absolutely intolerable.” For a start, there is the nature of the economic system that caused the current devastating crisis. “The international dictatorship of the international markets” constitutes “a threat to peace and democracy”, according to Hessel. Never was the power of money so great, so insolent, and so egotistical, and never have the loyal servants of Lord Money been seated so high up in the most powerful reaches of government.
In second place, Hessel denounces the growing inequality between those who have almost nothing and those who have everything: “The gap between the poorest and the richest has never been so great; and the hunger for money and the zeal to flatten your neighbour have never been so encouraged.” He presents two simple suggestions: “That the general interest be imposed on individual interests; and that a fair sharing of the wealth created by workers should be given priority over the egotism of the power of money.”
In terms of foreign policy, Hessel affirms that his main area of outrage is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He recommends that people read the September 2009 Richard Goldstone report on Gaza [iii] in which this South African judge, a Jew who even describes himself as a Zionist, makes an accusation against the Israeli army. He describes his recent visit to Gaza, “an open-air prison for a million and a half Palestinians”. It was an experience that startled him and roused him to revolt. Though that is not why he renounced non-violence. He argues that “terrorism is unacceptable” not only for ethical reasons but also because it is “an expression of desperation” and is not effective at advancing its cause because “it does not make it possible to obtain the results which hope could eventually guarantee”.
Hessel invokes the memory of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King who have showed us “the path that we should follow” because, to move forward, there is only one stance: “We must demand our rights, the violation of which, by anyone, should provoke our indignation. We will never compromise on our rights.”
Finally, Hessel states his support for a “peaceful insurrection”, particularly against the mass media owned by major financial interests which “do nothing but induce in people mass consumption, scorn for the poor and even for culture, widespread amnesia, and an all-against-all fight to the end”.
Stephane Hessel was able to put into words that which so many of the people battered by the crisis and regressive social measures are feeling: a sense that their rights are being taken away, a powerful urge to shout themselves hoarse, and the desire to protest without knowing exactly how.
Everyone is awaiting the second instalment. Its title, of course, can only be, “Rise up!” (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)
(*) Ignacio Ramonet is editor of “Le Monde diplomatique en espanol”.
[i] The other was Pierre-Henri Roche, author of the novel of the same name, which Truffaut adapted for film.
[ii] Stephane Hessel, Indignez-vous!, Indigne Editions, Montpellier, 2010.
[iii] NDLR: “Human Rights In Palestine And Other Occupied Arab Territories. Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict”, United Nations, New York, 15 September 2009.