Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless, once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth.” Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), ch. 9.
I’m still troubled by many (white and non-white) progressives’ diffidence over U.S. foreign policy. Besides some of the principled and humbling speeches of Dr. King this week, I reread selections from Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece, Origins of Totalitarianism (Origins), published in 1951. Arendt, a philosopher and a journalist, fled to France from Germany in 1933. In France, besides working to assist other Jewish refugees, she was imprisoned in a concentration camp. Eventually, with the help of friends, she escaped. She made her way to the United States, where she taught at the New School and the University of Chicago. You may have read her series of searing critical articles on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, published in the New Yorker in 1961 (eventually published as a collection under the title, Eichmann in Jerusalem).
Origins is a sobering analysis that tries to make sense of how hundreds of thousands of Jews and other minorities could have gone from being seemingly secure in their political status as members of a nation to being—first—homeless, then stateless, then rightless. As usual, I come back to Chapter 9, which is entitled, “The End of the Nation-State and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” Did I mention that Ch. 9 is brilliant? Please go read it.
“The soldier during the war is deprived of his right to life, the criminal of his right to freedom, all citizens during an emergency of their right to the pursuit of happiness, but nobody would ever claim that in any of these instances a loss of human rights has taken place.”
I disagree with Arendt about what citizens lose “during times of emergency.” I don’t think it’s simply the “pursuit of happiness,” a la Alexis de Tocqueville. I agree with Katha Pollitt that civil rights (24:10)—the right to sit at a lunch counter, to be waited on, to vote, to move about without fear of assault, without fear of violence or rape, the right to reproductive health–are unconditionally important.
But I want to make two points here:
1. The right to sit at a lunch counter, to vote, to move about without fear of violence can’t be enjoyed when one is under aerial bombardment or being shot by soldiers. Or dead.
2. Civil rights are national rights, but they are not exclusively national rights. They are not merely rights based on membership. Rather, they are human rights that should belong to every human being, regardless of nationality, that should be enforceable through the state.
These rights must be extended to migrants and residents living in the US, regardless of political status: the right to water, the right to schooling, the right to medical care, the right to walk down the street without fear of assault or racial profiling or being arrested. But the right to know why I am being arrested, being detained—the right to know the evidence against me, the right to a lawyer, the right to a trial based on Constitutional—aren’t these really human rights protections (Look at how similar these rights are to those listed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights)?
I think Arendt wanted to distinguish the loss of civil rights from the loss of those rights that get to the heart of what it means to be human. We see something of this in the epigraph above and in the quotation below:The first loss which the rightless suffered was the loss of their homes, and this meant the loss of the entire social texture into which they were born and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world…[t]he second loss…was the loss of government protection, and this did not imply just the loss of legal status in their own, but in all countries…By itself the loss of government protection is no more unprecedented than the loss of a home…The more the number of rightless people increased, the greater became the temptation to pay less attention to the deeds of the persecuting government than to the status of the persecuted.
Her words seem so urgent as I think about the indifference of US nationals to the continuation of war under the current Administration. This isn’t just jingoistic foreign policy, as anti-racist activist Tim Wise suggests. We can’t make a qualitative distinction between racism at home versus racist actions internationally. Wars—on terror, on Iraqi and Pakistani civilians, on the bodies of Muslim men (through torture, indefinite detention, solitary confinement), on MEMSA* families– is an assault, a violation of, the homes, the communities, the culture, the livelihood of millions of civilians. The loss of a physical home is mirrored by the existential loss of home.
Where is my refuge, my sanctuary, in this world? Many of us asked as we felt that existential loss of home on September 11, 2001. We were devastated by the complete rupture in our sense of safety, the deep rent in our communities’ sense of permanence.
The women and men and children on whom we are waging war are asking that same question. The men and women migrants–in detention centers around the US for the simple crime of wanting to sustain their lives and families—ask that same question: Where is my refuge in this world? MEMSA’s, who are beaten, tortured, in detention centers around the country, ask that same question: Where is my sanctuary in this world? Lakhmar Boumedienne, an Algerian relief worker detained in Guantanamo for 7 years before being released, wonders the same thing: where is my refuge in this world, where I did nothing wrong except commit the crime of being Muslim?
The right to live—for US citizens or nationals, for Pakistani, Iraqi, Afghan nationals is not—should not be–dispensable. Ditto Iran. The right to live a life free of terror, free of aerial bombardment, should be indispensable. The ability of children to grow up without fear of drone attacks, without fear of soldiers shooting: is this not a right?
Equally indispensable are the rights to one’s home, one’s culture, one’s social world, one’s status as a political being. Should it not be an indispensable right to be recognized as a human being with dignity? For Arendt, this could occur only when people were recognized in their political dimensions: as citizens of a nation. But without those political protections, human beings are seen, as Arendt says, as the scum of the earth.
It is not just US foreign policy that deprives human beings of these rights. Our domestic policies, including the NDAA, deprives us of these rights. Anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia deprive us of these rights even when NO crimes have been committed: right to live without fear of arrest. The right to live with privacy. The right to water and electricity. The right to hospital care. The right not to be detained. The right to live within our communities. If the world can recognize that these are human rights, why can’t we here in the US?
Why are we not outraged when our own President approves these violations of human dignity? A few years ago, Judith Butler, a philosopher who has been critical of US policies over the last decade, asked why certain lives are more grievable than others. She points out that we have very few images, frames, stories to associate with the deaths of Iraqi or Palestinian (and, I might add, Pakistani) children. Is it because, as she suggests, their lives are “unreal?” “If violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those whose lives are already negated.” (Precarious Life, ch. 2)
Are the lives of brown men, women, and children abroad unreal? Already negated? Can they be worth less than the lives of US nationals? I wonder if this is why the victims of the War on Terror seem so negligible that there is no urge to have our politicians, pundits, progressives, political organizations, race-advocacy organizations insist on bringing those lives to the forefront for discussion? Would Dr. King approve of our prioritizing the status quo of our privilege (and yes, I mean mine and yours)—black, white, brown—over the lives of children who don’t live here? Over the lives of men and women who don’t live here? Can we—as progressives and liberals and feminists and anti-racists—be that inhumane as we think about our political future as a society?
Where is their refuge in this world? Where is our refuge in this world?
*Muslim/Middle Eastern/South Asian