Kooky? Ahead of his time? The man who would be stateless

Garry Davis renounced his US citizenship 62 years ago and declared himself "World Citizen No. 1." Why would he do that?

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    A woman rests in a chair among a group of flags at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J.
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Only a secure citizen would do what Garry Davis did 62 years ago. A onetime Broadway actor (he understudied Danny Kaye) and B-17 pilot, Mr. Davis showed up in Paris in 1948, renounced his US citizenship, and declared himself “World Citizen No. 1.”

Those were heady times. Revulsion with war was widespread. Davis himself had been horrified to learn that his plane’s bombs fell on civilians in Brandenburg, Germany, during one run. Then there was the A-bomb. If ever there was a one-world moment, the late 1940s would have been it.

Sympathizers smuggled Davis into a United Nations session in Paris where the onetime actor broke up the proceedings by declaring: “I interrupt in the name of the people of Earth not represented here.”

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That night, he led a rally of 20,000 displaced persons in Paris. The UN Declaration on Human Rights was enacted the next day.

Whether Davis gets the credit for that or not, Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein, among others, saluted him. Press reviews were mixed, however. The New York Daily Mirror told him he belonged in Russia. Pravda called him “an agent of imperialist reaction.”

Six decades later, Davis remains a vigorous Don Quixote. He continues to speak at peace rallies and campaign for the abolition of national borders. His organization has issued 950,000 self-styled world citizen passports.

Being stateless is a serious problem for 12 million people around the world. They have few rights and no nation to protect them. Most would be grateful for citizenship, especially US citizenship, so they could get on with their lives.

Davis lives in South Burlington, Vt., and lacks little for giving up his citizenship. His campaign against the state is not meant to trivialize the stateless, he says.

“I know that stateless persons are at the bottom of the heap,” he said in a phone interview. “They are probably the most intelligent about what the state is and isn’t because they are victims of it. That is why we need a new system that recognizes that we are all – as humans – the same, with the same DNA code, and the same gun of nuclear annihilation pointing at us.”

He’s got a point. An arbitrary set of boundaries determines your rights and contributes enormously to your success or failure. To be born in Bar Harbor, Maine, as Davis was, leads to a vastly different life than to be born in Burkina Faso.

Like democracy, the nation-state is the worst system invented, except for all the others. Until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, assorted potentates and warlords were in charge. You pledged allegiance to them and lived with their quirks and manias and occasional benevolence.

After Westphalia, national sovereignty reigned. Much good came of that. Democracy took root in it. But the nation brought with it myriad problems, the worst being imperialism, fascism, racism, and the most brutal wars ever waged. For the past century, nations have fitfully been trying to overcome their worst tendencies.

The United Nations, the European Union, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization, and a stew of other leagues, associations, and causes have been trying to transcend national self-interest to cope with global issues such as war, environmental degradation, epidemics, and economics.

But not fast enough, says Davis. Nearly in his ninth decade, he is adamant that the nation itself get the hook. Sporting a white ponytail and a showman’s way with words, he is well-known enough that he crosses from Vermont into Canada with only short bureaucratic detentions because of his lack of a US passport.

The bombs he unleashed turned him against nationalism, he says. The acting led him to the role of a lifetime: World Citizen No. 1.

John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor.

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