Possibility and Despair

migrant crisis

(This posting is a reprint from my original blog entry on the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College’s web site, published on September 20, 2015)

“The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion, but that they no longer belonged to any community whatsoever.”

— Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

For the past few weeks, I have been in Birmingham UK, home to one of the most diverse communities in England, including many Muslims from India, Pakistan, and the Middle East who constitute more than 20% of the population of this city. The area where I reside has a decidedly “live and let live” attitude. In the morning, groups of women and men in various forms of hijab or niqab take their children to school, some heading for one of the Islamic schools, others to the nearby Catholic primary or another Church-affiliated school, and still others to the state-run local primary, where they mix together with “white British,” Caribbeans, and a range of other ethnicities. A nearby Italian restaurant assures its customers who inquire that its meat is halal. The stores are filled with sales personnel of all ethnicities, genders, and types. A colorfully tattooed man collects his morning coffee from a woman in an equally colorful headscarf. A young Muslim woman selling electronics in a large department store becomes positively giddy when she learns I am from California. “I so want to go there; I love America!” she tells me. And yet, as the 2011 census reported, nearly 90% of the population, regardless of their ethnicity, consider themselves British.

birmingham ukEast meets West: A pair of women walk down the high street in Birmingham, UK in full Muslim dress (Source: The Daily Mail UK)

It’s from this standpoint, observing a very fluid plurality of people mixing and mingling with one another, enjoying each other’s company, being unmoved by the visible differences on display, that I view with alarm the violent tear gas and water cannon crackdown by Hungary against desperate refugees selling everything they have in a last ditch effort to make it out of Syria. After the Hungarian border was closed, more than 6000 refugees entered Croatia in the last 24 hours alone. And, as I write, The Guardian reports that the Croatian Minister of the Interior has just declared Croatia “absolutely full,” telling the UNHRC that the problem belongs to the UN.

Equally troubling is the report today on the Cameron government’s effort to pass a “counter-extremism bill,” including measures more restrictive of speech and other political activities than current anti-terrorism measures. An independent reviewer of anti-terrorism laws, David Anderson QC, contended the legislation, if adopted, is likely to “provok[e] a backlash in affected communities, harden perceptions of an illiberal or Islamophobic approach, alienating those whose integration into British society is already fragile, and playing into the hands of those who, by peddling a grievance agenda, seek to drive people further towards extremism and terrorism.”

david cameronUK’s Cameron Offers Plan to Counter Attraction of Extremism (Source: VoA News)

The bill defines extremism as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values.” But what are fundamental British values? Who defines those? And what border protections will be erected around them to prevent their being affected by the multiplicity of peoples who now constitute Britain?

Discussing the “many perplexities” inherent in the concept of human rights, Arendt noted that “no one seems able to define with any assurance what these general human rights, as distinguished from the rights of citizens, really are.” Yet, the situation of superfluous people who had been driven out of their homes and made stateless demonstrated to Arendt that “[t]he calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion, but that they no longer belonged to any community whatsoever.” The situation of the superfluous made evident “the existence of a right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community.”

We are now faced with a problem whose enormity should have been anticipated. More than 55 million people in the world are now refugees and displaced persons, and their numbers grow by the thousands every day. The nations of the world have shown a remarkable lack of imagination in the face of this growing crisis. That is perhaps because as long as we think in terms of nation-states, we will be stuck in the logic of exclusion and border-policing maneuvers that claim to protect so-called “national values,” whatever those may be.

As Arendt warned: “This new situation, in which ‘humanity’ has in effect assumed the role formerly ascribed to nature or history, would mean in this context that the right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity, should be guaranteed by humanity itself. It is by no means certain whether this is possible.” As I walk the streets of Birmingham, I feel a sense of possibility, a possibility soon trumped by despair in the face of renewed efforts to erect ever stronger fences and more impenetrable boundaries, disaggregating the very plurality that is the human condition.

Featured image: Hungarian riot police have fired tear gas and water cannon to force migrants back from the Serbia-Hungary border. (Source: BBC News)

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