Living Without a Country

The philosopher Ernest Gellner once wrote that in modern society, "A man must have a nationality as he must have a nose and two years; a deficiency in any of these particulars is not inconceivable and does from time to time occur, but only as a result of some disaster, and it is itself a disaster of some kind. " 

Earlier this week, the New York Times carried the fascinating obituary of Garry Davis, a man who tried to defy that rule, cutting off his own legal nose:

On May 25, 1948, a former United States Army flier entered the American Embassy in Paris, renounced his American citizenship and, as astonished officials looked on, declared himself a citizen of the world.

In the decades that followed, until the end of his long life last week, he remained by choice a stateless man — entering, leaving, being regularly expelled from and frequently arrested in a spate of countries, carrying a passport of his own devising, as the international news media chronicled his every move.

His rationale was simple, his aim immense: if there were no nation-states, he believed, there would be no wars.

There was a bit of hucksterism to Davis' crusade -- he sold more than half a million "world passports, unrecognized by all but a small motley handful of countries -- but he also practiced what he preached, traveling the world without formal documentation for nearly 65 years, being arrested and expelled numerous times in the process. "Davis spent decades spreading his message, slipping across borders, stowing away on ships, sweet-talking officials, or wearing them down, until they let him in," the obituary reads.

According to the Times, David had recently had World Passports sent to Julian Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy in London and Edward Snowden at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. Neither of these two men are actually stateless -- Snowden's passport has been revoked but he's still a U.S. citizen -- but they're certainly locked in a similar kind of geopolitical limbo. 

Davis' wanderings highlighted just how tricky it is to be stateless in a world of nation-states. The U.N. may have declared that "Everyone has the right to a nationality," but almost no one -- certainly not the estimated 12 million stateless people in the world today, chooses not to have one.