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Lyndsey Stonebridge, historian: ‘What’s new about the migrant crisis is the brutality of our response’

EL PAÍS spoke with the British professor, an expert in human rights and refugee studies. In her latest book, she analyzes the lessons that philosopher Hannah Arendt left us

Lyndsey Stonebridge
British historian Lyndsey Stonebridge, pictured at the Brunswick Center, in London, on January 31, 2024Ione Saizar

It’s rewarding to speak with Lyndsey Stonebridge. The perspective that this 58-year-old humanities professor from the University of Birmingham has on various pressing issues — such as the tragedies faced by refugees, universal justice and human rights, or the effects of violence in the 20th and 21st centuries — offers much-needed closure.

Dr. Stonebridge is guided by the thought of the philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). An accomplished specialist in Arendt’s body of work, she is able to answer some of the questions that many of the most influential minds always tend to invoke: what would Arendt have thought about this? How would she have reacted?

The New Statesman writes that Stonebridge’s latest book — We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience — as one of the most relevant publications of 2024. She receives EL PAÍS in her small London apartment, in the Brunswick Center, a modernist hive of homes and businesses in Bloomsbury’s literary quarter. Much-criticized during its construction in 1972, today, it’s an admired historical building. Everything has its moment… if you allow enough time to pass.

Question. Looking back at recent history, is there anything new to be said about the current migrant crisis?

Answer. What’s new is the brutality of our response. In the last decade — in Europe and the US — there has been an attempt by the populist right to brutalize the entire process. They have deliberately prolonged the waiting times required to obtain asylum, or have used third countries to host people and [delay the process].

Q. This discourse has clearly resonated. It started out with populists, but now permeates the traditional parties.

A. What should concern us — regardless of the degree to which each person feels threatened by immigration — is the normalization of this policy and the aesthetics of cruelty. For example, the act of locking [migrant families] in detention centers. It’s true that Europe has had atrocious periods of cruelty, but for our generation, this is a new phenomenon. And it’s worrying; it corrupts us all. Populism is legitimizing it and using cruelty and violence as a way to sow fear and anxiety. [Populists are pushing] a pseudo-mysticism, a tribal nationalism. It’s not even genuine patriotism: it’s based on seeing “the other” as an enemy.

Q. Many societies appear to be receptive to this message.

A. It’s like the debate around Brexit. It seems that [many people have] the desire to be deceived. They’re aware that there’s a high level of cynicism [in the message of populism]. In the UK, people know that a thousand Afghan refugees aren’t the reason it’s difficult to be treated by a doctor in a public hospital. But still, they buy the message.

Q. Hannah Arendt wrote that wonderful essay, We Refugees. What can we learn from it?

A. Because of all that she lived through, she clearly glimpsed the essence of this tragedy: the [situation] of being someone without a state and without a home. Therein lies the problem. She pointed out that, if you take away a group of people’s citizenship — if you [attempt to] obliterate them — you leave them without visibility.

Q. And without rights…

A. Exactly. You only have rights within a political community. We’re the ones who grant rights to each other. You can’t base a nation on exclusion.

Q. It seems that each generation either censors writers such as Hannah Arendt, or discovers them…

A. There’s something about her that resists being categorized. At first, I wanted to title my book Thinking Like Hannah Arendt. I imagined her telling me: “You didn’t understand anything! I’m an anti-totalitarian thinker. You don’t have to think like anyone else... just think for yourself.” She insisted that each historical context must be understood as something unprecedented. [She wrote that there are] no grand narratives to explain what’s happening. You have to respond to reality at every moment.

Q. Would she have appreciated this hyperconnected world, with social media?

A. I think she would have hated it. What she feared most was social conservatism. And social media connects everyone with each other, but it generates a certain type of conservatism, because it causes people to repress and self-censor… or it makes it easier for some people to deliberately seek to get attention and cause scandals.

Q. Does social media exhaust our ability to think?

A. Our attention has become a commodity that’s monetized. Our ability to concentrate has been monetized, becoming something that’s more like a consumer good. The ability to take genuine [political] action can only happen in coordination with other people [in-person]. And the ability to reflect alone — by oneself — also disappears with social media. There’s no space for it. That’s why everyone in the West is so exhausted.

Q. Would Arendt have been comfortable with the current state of the political left?

A. With some things, yes. Arendt would have celebrated the Black Lives Matter Movement. She would have been someone who listens to her inner voice, makes decisions with courage and changes things. But, in the same way, she would have viewed all identity-based politics with suspicion. Partly because she thought that any attempt to existentially fulfill oneself based on an identity was fallacious. Humanity is too pluralistic, different and slippery. We never know exactly who we are. By framing emancipation in terms of identity, [we give too much power] to identity.

Q. Regarding the war between Israel and Hamas: it’s the eternal conflict of a state that Arendt defended… although she didn’t share the Zionist impulse.

A. Her heart would have been broken. And she would have said: “I warned you.” Arendt didn’t believe in a Jewish homeland, but she did believe in a binational state. She had accumulated previous experience of a Europe dominated by fascism, ethnocentrism and Nazism that led her to the conclusion that nation states based on a particular ethnicity don’t work. You cannot base a nation on exclusion, if only for the mere fact that you will end up surrounded by hostile nations.

In 1967, after the [Six-Day] War, she became very concerned about Israel. She believed in Israel, but she wasn’t a Zionist. Today, even that distinction cannot be stated without problems… which gives you an idea of how far we have traveled in a bad direction. When you try to erase a people — as is the case with [what they’re trying to do] to the Palestinians — you’re not only usurping their national identity: you’re attacking the plurality of the world. You’re attacking the very idea that different people can live in the same place. Thus, we all lose.

Q. Totalitarianism never completely disappears. Putin’s Russia and its invasion of Ukraine partly resurrected the 20th century.

A. When Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, she was criticized for putting communism and fascism on the same level. But the key is that she detected the common imperialist impulse. She understood what was behind that appeal to the Slavic conscience in favor of a “great” Russia. She wouldn’t have been surprised by Putin’s drift. And she would have fully supported Ukraine in its need to preserve its borders and its independence.

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