“Nothing is more dangerous for human beings than to be forgotten”: Seyla Benhabib on Donald Trump, Hannah Arendt, and the refugee crisis

by Kerry Mackereth

Professor Seyla Benhabib of Yale University is one of the world’s leading political theorists of cosmopolitanism and human rights, and is currently visiting Cambridge as the Diane Middlebrook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professor at the Centre for Gender Studies. Kerry Mackereth sat down with her in February to discuss what Hannah Arendt might have made of Donald Trump’s refugee ban.

Kerry Mackereth: What do you think the lessons from the past, particularly those offered by political theory, can tell us in this tense political climate, where we are facing the current refugee crisis and the resurgence of populist movements?

Seyla Benhabib: The situation we are presently confronting is in some ways unprecedented, but in other ways it unfortunately recalls the interwar years in Europe, a time where both the refugee question and nationalist, populist ethnic movements emerged. I have been a scholar dealing with Arendt’s work for twenty years, so I didn’t start working on her because of the refugee question, or even because of totalitarianism, but she is definitely among the political thinkers of the past century who has a great deal to say to us.

What is astonishing is the fact that the problem of statelessness, which she herself addressed as a German Jew who was denaturalized and basically rendered stateless by Hitler’s regime, and the reflections she formulated under those conditions are still so incredibly relevant. The international state system built after the Second World War still embodies on the one hand the commitment to universal human rights, and on the other hand to state sovereignty. Both in theory and in practice, these two commitments clash. There are many instances where this can be the case, but the fate of refugees is the most obvious one.

Populist movements that are anti-globalist because of justified concerns about the loss of jobs see in the refugee problem a concrete instance of losing control. The movements of finance, the movements of global markets, are invisible for ordinary citizens. This is not the case for the human body. The refugee is a concrete and vulnerable example onto which to project one’s hatred, and this fundamental perception of the stranger as the Other comes back in all the rhetoric of all the right-wing movements, including our President Donald Trump. So in a strange way these two movements – the rise of right wing movements and the plight of the refugee – have gone hand in hand, as in the 1930s.

In a recent lecture on Hannah Arendt and her experience as a German-Jewish refugee in the 1930s, [you] suggested that Arendt’s ‘right to have rights’ encapsulates both the experience of being a refugee but also an institutional critique. What directions might this give us for political action in response to the current crisis?

One thing I emphasized is that acts of transnational solidarity have been amazing. I wanted to end the lecture on a note of hope, saying that some things have changed in our world compared to Hannah Arendt’s time. Not only do we have legal treaties and institutions, we also have a tremendous amount of ordinary people engaged in this cause. Nothing is more dangerous for vulnerable human beings than to be forgotten, and to be left in darkness. What I mean by being left in darkness is not just that they do not know their fate, but that also the light of the public does not shine on their condition. Arendt had a beautiful phrase for this, she calls them ‘holes of oblivion’. Our task in civil society in general is to make sure that these holes of oblivion are not created, and that’s what I am doing as a political theorist.

Do you think there is also the risk of creating legal holes of oblivion?

Yes, the more states themselves have entered into transnational treaties, the more they are tempted to escape them by creating zones of alegality, which then become zones of illegality. The prime example of this is Guantanamo. The territory still belongs to Cuba, and in some ways this has aided claims that it is a territory onto which US law does not extend. Yet even a conservative Supreme Court under George W. Bush in the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision ruled that sovereignty is functional, not just territorial. If you have a camp run with US taxpayers’ money, with US personnel, under US regulations, de facto you are exercising sovereignty. If you’re exercising sovereignty, then the constitution follows.

We see the temptation to create these kinds of spaces, for example in Libya, to detain refugees. These camps are holes of oblivion. They are not UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) camps; they are simply camps there to detain those who are trying to make their way into Europe for whatever reason.

On the topic of American sovereignty, what does President Trump’s current suspension of immigration from certain countries say about the limits, or the lack of limits, on American sovereignty?

US sovereign obligations under international law are extremely complicated, but one thing we can say is that the US, because it considers itself (and is, in effect) a hegemon, has had a certain kind of laxity towards its own obligations. It is as if these somewhat contradictory behaviours have now exploded upon us with Donald Trump. I think this has been part of the reason why the US has also lost a great deal of prestige in the world, what political scientists like Joseph Nye call ‘soft power’.

What is happening right now is that we are really in a situation where we have a president who doesn’t seem to understand what it means to be the president of a constitutional republic. There are statements by Donald Trump where it’s clear that he wants to rule the country via executive action. It’s obvious that he had absolutely no legal basis in outlawing classes of individuals based on origin – origin also meaning religion. One cannot even appeal to security concerns because security concerns must be demonstrated with respect to certain individuals. You cannot say that all individuals from country X represent security concerns.

What would you say to the ordinary person who might see the events unfolding and feel horrified but also powerless?


First of all, to educate oneself about one’s obligations and opportunities as well as to understand very clearly the kind of possibilities for action. I heard that some Cambridge students went to Calais, to the so-called Jungle, and I think that moments of bearing witness are incredibly important, not only for others, but for oneself. There are so many ways to be engaged right now.

About the author

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Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science & Philosophy at Yale University and has been widely recognized for her work in critical theory, feminist theory, cosmopolitanism and international human rights. She is the Diane Middlebrook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies for Lent Term 2017. Kerry Mackereth is studying for an MPhil in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge, and is a commissioning editor for In The Long Run.
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