Legible States and moral community

I found the article The Grim Worldview Behind Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Push, the Hong Kong Protests, and the Kashmir Crisis by Joshua Keating on Slate.com today. To summarize, the article is about the current worldwide political frenzy against ambiguity, which the author defines as “a condition where political sovereignty and citizenship status are ill-defined or even contradictory.” The author uses China’s current issues in Hong Kong and the “one country, two systems” status of Hong Kong, India’s recent moves with Jammu and Kashmir, and trump’s immigration policies, among others, as examples of these countries working to build “legible states.”

Keating points to the work of anthropologist James Scott, whose book Seeing Like a State, described the phenomenon of modern governments striving to ‘arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion.’ As a consequence of this desire for legibility, groups that do not fit squarely within the confines of that legible society “pose a threat to the legibility of a state’s population.” As we are currently witnessing, the actions chosen by governments to improve the legibility of their societies can profoundly affect the people whose existence muddies those visions of legibility.

As I read this article I thought about the idea of moral community. Morton Deutsch wrote in his article Justice and Conflict (in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution, 3rd Ed.) about the moral community being made up of those groups and individuals entitled to justice and fair treatment in a society. Conversely, those outside of the specific groups and individuals making up the moral community are not entitled to justice or fair treatment. As a consequence, those outside the moral community are subject to violence and mistreatment from the members of the moral community. These distinctions are not always official; that is, formally sanctioned by government. Government entities, however, often turn a blind eye to mistreatment and violence against those outside the moral community.

Keating underscored the idea of moral community when he quoted Hannah Arendt’s idea about the ‘right to have rights.’ In the context of my thinking, the right to have rights is tantamount to existing within the moral community. Having never read Arendt myself, I did some quick research that led me to an essay by Stephanie Degooyer and Alastair Hunt. Their essay describes Arendt’s years as a stateless refugee from Germany. Arendt fled from Germany to Paris in 1933. The Nuremburg Laws of 1935 officially rescinded her German citizenship.

After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Arendt applied in desperation for asylum at the US embassy in Marseilles. But the US State Department discouraged the issuance of visas to any of the thousands of people fleeing the Nazis, even directly targeted Jews such as Arendt. If it were not for an American diplomat who defied his government’s directives and helped Arendt secure illegal travel documents to the US, Arendt might not have survived the war.

Degooyer and Hunt write about The Origins of Totalitarianism wherein Arendt wrote about the weakness of her inherent human rights. They write, “far from finding any relief in their human rights, the minorities and stateless people in Europe who lacked citizenship, and thus appeared to others to be purely human, were exposed to extreme forms of violence.” Quoting Arendt, “The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.” Degooyer and Hunt write, “In order to have rights, Arendt reasoned, individuals must be more than mere human beings. They must be members of a political community.”

Existing within a group that has the right to have rights is tantamount to being a member of the moral community. Though we may possess rights intrinsic to our existence as a human, history and current events remind us that without the support of the state we have no rights that any citizen is bound to respect. The allusion to Dred Scott v. Sanford is intended. Today citizens are forced to consider who is worthy to reside in our country with any assurance of justice. We are being asked whether we want to expand the moral community to include the tired and poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” or if we want to allow racism and resentment to rule the day.

 

 

 

Sandra Bland and Arbitrary Tyranny

As you are probably aware, Sandra Bland is a young woman who was found dead in her cell in Waller County, Texas on July 13. I have been giving no small amount of thought to this senseless series of events. I have watched as people in both mainstream and social media take sides to assign culpability in this sad, sad death.  I know I am coming late to the argument, but as details have arisen I have been reminded of the idea of arbitrary tyranny.

Whether or not the police officers who arrested and detained Sandra Bland actively participated in her death or merely stood by helplessly as she suicidally hung herself in her cell is really beside the point. She was in a cell to begin with because she was pulled over by Texas state trooper Brian Encinia for failing to signal while changing lanes. This woman is dead as a result of a minor traffic infraction.

Perhaps there have been several major tragedies happen as a result of improper lane changes by motorists in Waller County, Texas. I am willing to give the police officer the benefit of the doubt on that count. I will concede that he had a legal reason to pull Sandra Bland over; however minor this particular traffic violation may have been, it was still an illegal act. Therefore, trooper Encinia was well within his rights and obligations in pulling her over.

What concerns me most is that Sandra Bland went to jail for a minor traffic violation. Her behavior, however poorly it might be judged by the police officer involved, and secondary observers after the fact, did not provide the grounds for this woman to be denied her freedom and agency. People have a right not to be happy about being pulled over by the police. People have a right to record their treatment by the police. Whatever legal justification was given for her arrest, Sandra Bland’s real crime was contempt of cop.

Ben Mathis-Lilley of Slate writes about the concept of contempt of cop here. On the matter of Sandra Bland he writes:

…it seems clear from the video that Encinia’s actions, not to mention his initial verbal escalation of the situation, happened in large part because he took offense at what he perceived as Bland’s disrespectful attitude—what is known in legal circles as “contempt of cop”—rather than any belief that she presented an imminent threat to anyone’s safety.

Contempt of cop is important because it complements the idea of arbitrary tyranny. Arbitrary tyranny is the idea that there are things most people do on a daily basis that are illegal. Most of the time these technically illegal but common activities are ignored. However, because these things are illegal they consequently provide authorities with a rationale to detain or arrest people at will. The point being that, under a system of arbitrary tyranny, the only thing the state, usually in the form of a police officer, needs to arrest you is the desire to do so.