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Archive for March, 2010

I dreamt of you last night

I know you visit this space sometimes. You might be amused to know I dreamt of you last night.

It was a funny dream. Some math conference: you were there and so was I. I saw you and didn’t take my eyes off. A couple of minutes later, you looked in my direction.

We said hi, we sat down on a couch. We talked for ten minutes without rancor or awkwardness before it was time to go.

I was happy because I felt we were actually going to be friends again.

Then I woke up and it took me ridiculously long to realize it truly was just a dream.

I spent the rest of the morning reading your diaries which I still have, skimming though a million old emails not necessarily related to you and generally engaging in activities which stir memories and tend to fill me with pain and wonder and nostalgia.

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Dear Amit Varma,

A year ago, in a post on your blog, you vigorously opposed French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s position that the burqa should be banned. You wrote:

But not all women who wear burkhas, especially in the West, do so because they are being forced into it. Many women wear them out of choice, and we should respect that choice. We may disagree with their reasons for it—but really, once that choice is established, those reasons are none of our business. They have as much of a right to wear a burkha as to not wear a burkha, and to outlaw that option amounts to the same kind of coercion that Sarkozy is trying to position himself against.

In his speech, Sarkozy said, “The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity.” I agree—and that is why we should respect their freedom and dignity by not trying to regulate what they wear. Sarkozy condescends to women who choose to wear a burkha by implying that the government is better placed to make those choices for them. If I was a burqa-wearing women, I’d be rather pissed off.

That is my view too, and I was glad to see it seconded on one of India’s most popular blogs. If freedom means anything, it means the right to make choices both good and bad, the right to pursue actions that liberate or enslave. Anyone who truly believes in liberty will oppose government attempts to ban the burqa as strongly as they would an attempt to ban the skirt. In the absence of explicit coercion, it’s not the state’s business to protect people by regulating their “bad” choices.

Yet, last week, in a tweet, you approved of a Muslim group’s campaign in Canada to get the burqa banned.

I wonder if your position has changed or if you just weren’t thinking it through when you wrote that tweet? If it is the former, I lament your fall from the libertarian you once were.

Sincerely,
Abhishek

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The Atlantic has a fascinating — though not wholly sympathetic — article on Dignitas and its founder Ludwig Minelli.

I have written on Dignitas before. They believe that people have an absolute right to die on their own terms and they help some of those people (those suffering from a terminal disease) achieve it. There are all kinds of horror stories associated with botched suicide attempts — people who have been paralyzed for life, or those who suffered a extended painful death weeks later. Dignitas helps those who have decided to take their life do so with dignity.

Switzerland’s libertarian law on the issue certainly helps:

Assisted suicide is also legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, as well as in the American states of Oregon, Washington, and Montana. But in all those places, the practice is restricted to people with incurable diseases, involves extensive medical testing and consultation with physicians, and requires that applicants be permanent residents. By contrast, Switzerland’s penal code was designed such that, without fear of prosecution, you can hand someone a loaded pistol and watch as he blows his brains out in your living room. And there is no residency requirement. There are only two conditions: that you have no self-interest in the victim’s death, and that he be of sound mind when he pulls the trigger.

Minelli is passionate about the cause. He views himself as fighting for a fundamental human right, and he does not care who he offends in the process. His employees mostly agree.

“Minelli always tries to motivate people to make more of their lives,” he continued. “That’s why I work for him, his human approach.”

But Dignitas is concerned with not life but death—a fact Luley not only accepts, but promotes with enthusiasm. “Suicide is not bad,” he explained. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to end your life. Sometimes life is great, sometimes life is shit. I have the right to say that I’m pissed off with my life, and I want to end it.” Fine, I said, but why involve others in your self-destruction? Why not just sit in the garage with the engine running?

Luley smiled. Late-model cars won’t do the trick, he said. In the early 1970s, auto manufacturers began installing catalytic convertors that filter out as much as 99 percent of the carbon monoxide from exhaust fumes. You might cough, but you’re not likely to die. Other do-it-yourself methods can be even more problematic. Luley described some of the people who, having failed in their own suicide attempts, had contacted Dignitas to finish the job. “One lady jumped eight stories down to a paved parking lot. Now she is in a wheelchair. Then there was a man who shot himself in the face, but survived. Another leapt in front of a train and lost both his legs.” Dignitas exists to prevent these outcomes, to see to it that those wishing to kill themselves may do so without fear of pain or failure. The fact that most people lack legal access to a death like this is the group’s organizing principle. “Our goal is to make ourselves obsolete,” Luley said. “It should no longer be that one has to travel from his home country to Switzerland to end his life.”

Assisted suicide — suicide in general — carries a stigma today. (It didn’t two thousand years ago when it was normal for Athenians to drink hemlock when they viewed their life had not sufficient meaning left.) Minelli and his organization are fighting for the right to do with one’s life as one wishes, and end it when one wants. He is a brave man, and while not many share his ethical beliefs, I happen to do so completely.  To me, Dignitas represents freedom as few other things do.

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