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Border Walls, Immigration Policy, and Hannah Arendt

This semester I am teaching a course I’m calling “Thinking with Arendt.”  The question of the course follows from Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: if failing to think enables us to do great evil, what is it about thinking that leads us to live well?  A corollary of this question is what are the ways that we think about other people that allow us to dehumanize them to the point where we can justify actively killing them or letting them go to their deaths?  I’ve been teaching Eichmann as discussions about US immigration policy and border security are underway ahead of a deadline today for funding the federal government and I’m finding that second question particularly pressing.

First, I should say that it continues to boggle my mind that people in the interior of the United States talk about the need for a border wall, when there IS A BORDER WALL at much of the parts of the border that can be walled.  Above is a photograph of part of the wall at the Hidalgo County Pumphouse that I took when I was living in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.  The wall purposefully does not cover the whole border because it is meant to funnel people crossing to places where the border patrol can focus.  The existence of the wall in the face of the discussions of it demonstrate the extent to which people in the interior are far removed from the reality of the border.  People who live at the border don’t want a wall and they have long been mad about the way the current wall has destroyed ecosystems and public spaces.

So there’s that.  Arendt describes the willingness and the unthinkingness with which people talk about how people should be categorized around some degree of merit to suggest that some people are more welcome in our community than others.  Arendt spends considerable time in Eichmann in Jerusalem talking about how a willingness to categorize Jews in terms of who was more prominent or famous set the stage for the thinking that some people had more of a right to live than others.

What was morally disastrous in the acceptance of these privileged categories was that everyone who demanded to have an “exception” made in his case implicitly recognized the rule, but this point, apparently, was never grasped by these “good men,” Jewish and Gentile, who busied themselves about all those “special cases” for which preferential treatment could be asked…. But if the Jewish and Gentile pleaders of “special cases” were unaware of their involuntary complicity, this implicit recognition of the rule, which spelled death for all non-special cases, must have been very obvious to those who were engaged in the business of murder.  They must have felt, at least, that by being asked to make exceptions, and by occasionally granting them, and thus earning gratitude, they had convinced their opponents of the lawfulness of what they were doing. 132-133.

What view of human life is entailed in the notion that merit equals more of a right to live?  It would seem that this is meritocracy taken to its logical conclusion.  I think specifically of the Trump Administration’s effort to keep Syrian refugees from coming to the United States and of recent reference to those people coming from Haiti and African countries as coming from sh*thole countries and really preferring immigrants from Norway, which the Administration maintains is only an argument about meritocracy and has nothing to do with race.

Even if it is only about meritocracy, it assumes that smarter people or people capable of producing more capital should have more of a right to live and to live a better life than others.  The thinking here shows that we don’t think about human beings as human beings to whom we have a responsibility to enable to live, but rather as potential tools for making us better.  The concern that Arendt raises is that the willingness to divide people into more or less worthy already concedes that some people are more worth allowing to live than others. Once we concede that we are willing to rank human beings, we have already become inhumane.  Once we concede this point, we have determined that human beings need not be treated as ends in themselves so that we might participate in passively allowing them to die or actively producing their deaths.  Because really, that is where American immigration policy is heading, if it hasn’t already got there.

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