Oval Office handshake, January 27, 2017. Stefan Rousseau/ Press Association. All rights reserved.There’s a small but telling irony behind an important lecture at Cambridge tomorrow evening (Monday, 13 February) on migrants, refugees, and “the right to have rights.” The lecturer, the Yale political philosopher Seyla Benhabib, a visiting professor this term at the university’s Centre for Gender Studies, has lectured in England several times before. In 2002 she delivered Cambridge’s Seeley Lectures on the theme, “Citizens, Residents, and Aliens.” Yet, this year, the British consulate in New York, operating under rules instituted by former Home Secretary Theresa May, made Benhabib’s visa-application process so Kafkaesque and expensive that the process succeeded in making the United Kingdom look like a failed state fronting for a band of mercenaries. It was bad enough that Benhabib was told to choose among “Gold Service” ($1650.00), “Silver Service,” and lesser options to process her visa application through contractors. Still more confounding was the bureaucracy’s new provision that although she had been a US citizen for three decades, the fact that she’d once held another citizenship – in Turkey, where her Sephardic (Spanish origin) family of rabbis and scholars had lived since its expulsion from Spain in 1492 – meant that, 47 years after leaving Turkey, and 30 years after becoming a US citizen, she had to identify herself on the visa application as a Turkish national. In Istanbul Benhabib had graduated the English High School for Girls and the American College for Girls before completing her B.A. in America at Brandeis University and her PhD at Yale; she had then studied critical theory in Germany for 11 years with her mentor Jurgen Habermas before returning to the US to raise her family and teach at Harvard and Yale.
Seyla Benhabib.Never mind that she’d never before had trouble gaining entry to Britain (or that I, a lifelong US citizen, have been her partner for nearly 20 years.) And never mind that her lecture on Monday will apply to our current circumstances Hannah Arendt’s observations of 50 years ago about fraught interactions among state sovereignty, economic and technological upheavals, and the precariousness of “the right to have rights” by individuals swept up in such interactions. And never mind that Benhabib’s own ancestors were swept up in them, too, as she was even before the British consulate got in on the act. Two weeks and a few thousand dollars later, she got her visa. If only someone mindful of Britain's national interest as well as global interests had spent 30 seconds Googling the applicant, this wouldn't have happened. But of course the government and the contractor would have forfeited the money. With today’s unprecedented velocities of global capital, technological change, and consequent human statelessness and migration wreaking havoc on nations’ borders, identities, and public spheres, it’s hardly surprising that May, as Home Secretary, seemed a lot less eager to achieve a “Global Britain” at home than she would later want to do abroad. She’s not the only one trying to have it both ways. Even before Trump’s election, the United States, that long-heralded (and self-celebrating) “nation of immigrants,” was lowering the lamp beside its golden door. That both nations now use private contractors to implement retrenchment on immigration and tourism only reinforces the irony that global capital's riptides are making nations' sovereignty as fragile as migrants', refugees', and asylum-seekers' right to have rights. Small wonder that May's and Trump's almost-desperate hand-holding was enabled by the processing of at least one visa as rapidly and efficiently as the processing that many applicants such as Seyla Benhabib surely deserve.