Monday, January 26, 2009

nowhere to go

My father, John DeWitt, was a Foreign Service Officer. His first overseas posting was to Monterrey, Mexico, where he worked 8 hours a day issuing (or not, as the case might be) visas. He was the American Consul in Cali; Consul General in Guayaquil; in Rio de Janeiro; in Paris. For much of his career, in other words, he dealt directly with the question of who could and who could not be given a document permitting travel to the United States.

In the early years he was one of the very young people who are given a set of procedures to follow and then face an endless stream of human beings whose circumstances may or may not fit the procedures - at the risk of stating the obvious, this work generally is given to the very young, people on their first or second tour of duty who want to be perceived as doing a good job by their superiors so they can graduate from the crap job to something more intellectually challenging. In later years he was the head of mission, the person all those very young people needed to impress; if they were only following orders, they were not, of course, following his orders (the procedures come from a very long way away), but he was the one to whom difficult cases might ultimately be referred. Or not, as the case might be. Because the obvious way to look good if you are processing visa applications is to be efficient, to keep the number of cases perceived as difficult to the absolute minimum - not create work, cause problems, for your immediate supervisor, and definitely not create problems by, say, challenging or bypassing your immediate supervisor and going straight to the top. To put it another way, if you're head of mission, the obvious way to keep your workload down to a manageable 12 hours a day plus weekends plus diplomatic schmoozing, is to make subsubsubordinates think twice before bothering you with visa queries that are comprehensively covered in the procedures.

So let's say you're a consular officer in Germany in the 1930s. You are living under a profoundly anti-Semitic regime; Jews are being progressively stripped of civil rights, there are pogroms which go unchallenged by the police, you get more and more visa applications from people who, at the risk of stating the obvious, don't see a tourist visa as the answer to their regrettable deficiency with respect to Aryan descent. Maybe they apply for the visa they actually need, and don't qualify; or maybe they cunningly apply for a tourist visa when they have every intention of remaining in the country if they possibly can - in which case it is your job, as a consular officer, to get to the bottom of this and determine that this is not a genuine application for a tourist visa, and reject it.

My father, like most Americans who lived through the Second World War, had an absolute abhorrence of Hitler. The thing he took personally, however - the thing that sent him into paroxyms of fury - was the practice of American consular officers, who followed the rules for visa applications during the 30s and 40s and so condemned many Hitler-designated Jews to death. You must imagine the American Consul General in Rio de Janeiro stalking up and down his palatial residence in 1981. Decades have passed since the unsuccessful visa applicants went to the gas chambers. The Consul General is SCREAMING. He thinks of the young consular officers turning down one application after another; he SCREAMS: 'Get 'em OUTTA there, get 'em OUTTA there, get 'em OUTTA there. For Christ's SAKE. Just give 'em the fucking VISA, application approved, approved, approved, get 'em OUTTA there.'

Zygmunt Bauman (Life in Fragments) says:

Two closely related features more than any other marked the modern spirit: the urge to transcend - to make things different from what they are - and the concern with the ability to act - the ability to make things different...

It was not so much that transcendence makes things better; it was, rather, that things as they are are not good enough. ... Fortunately for someone blessed with a tankful of fuel, 'things as they are' can be moved away from: they do not have enough pulling power. They are devoid of authority, of good enough reason to be what they are, unless shaped and reshaped on purpose, to the measure of the current human capacity to shape. The easier we move away from things, the less authority we are inclined to allow them; our ability to move away is the measure of their arbitrariness, and so - in a world governed by reason - of their unbearability. The need to change and the ability to change prompt and define each other.

One reason a Jewish state, with the right of return for ALL Jews, looked so desperately important, was precisely that even the most deadly forms of anti-Semitism were not enough to get a Jew past consular officers who were just doing their job. We may note that many would-be emigrants wanted go to an America that was in the grip of the Great Depression; it was not a good time. Now is not a good time.

Something the US government might helpfully do at this very bad time would be to issue a visa and green card to all inhabitants of Gaza who wanted them. If they really wanted to be obnoxious, they could extend this handsome offer to every Israeli between the ages of 18 and 25. (An Israeli soldier once told me if the US did this no one would fight. I have no opinion on the likelihood of this, but I note that the West's victim-oriented asylum laws don't make it particularly easy for reluctant members of a militaristic society to get out.)

Hillary Clinton is now Secretary of State. I'm sorry to think she never had the chance to meet America's Angriest Consul.


Cecilieaux said...

Not sure how you connect the dots here. There is the story of Varian Fry and the Vice Consul in Marseilles. But they were few.

Helen DeWitt said...

There's a Varian Fry Strasse in Berlin. I don't see that it's so hard to connect the dots, though. There are a lot of people in unbearable situations who, given a choice, would go somewhere else. Generally speaking, this is not facilitated by a Raoul Wallenberg or a Varian Fry; on the contrary, they run up against someone very junior with a set of rules to follow. So yes, of course, that very junior person could throw his or her career away by ignoring the rulebook - but another thing that could happen is that someone very high up in the hierarchy could ensure that getting Jews out of Nazi Germany, frinstans, was not career suicide. In which case timely visas would be issued not only by the occasional brave few, but by all the those who, happily or unhappily, just followed the rules.

Daniel said...

Thank you. The connection between the call for visas for the Palestinians and the imperative for a Jewish state never been better linked.

And the poetics of bureaucracy Reminds me of this anecdote: "Facing all sorts of difficulties in the country he is living in, a Jewish man plans to move away, and visits a rabbi to get his blessings before the trip. When the rabbi learns where the man wants to travel to, he asks: ‘Why so far?’. ‘Far from where?’‘, replies the man, touching on the errant condition of the Jewish people."

I would offer one addition: the predicament of the Palestinians in Gaza is more akin to Jews in Soviet Russia than in the early days of Nazi Germany, because the state of Israel denies their right to leave Gaza. Gaza is under siege, no one comes in and no one gets out without Israel's consent. Without a permission to leave, a foreign visa is useless.

Mithridates said...

Great post. Any other Bauman texts you can recommend?

Levi Stahl said...

This post is very convincing in a very short space. And I echo Mithridates's question: any other Bauman to recommend, given how strong the quote you've selected is?

Asaf Bartov said...

You write: "I note that the West's victim-oriented asylum laws don't make it particularly easy for reluctant members of a militaristic society to get out."

You're right, and it is, I think, quite telling that the West does not make it so. When I refused to serve in the Occupied Territories as an IDF reservist (not a career choice in Israel, but rather mandatory for all who were [mandatorily] conscripted for regular 3-year duty in the first place), it did not occur to me to seek political asylum, chiefly because the punishment for refusal is relatively short incarceration. But should refuseniks become a real concern for the IDF (as they surely still aren't), it is not inconceivable that the state would set the price of refusal to be so high (e.g. many months of incarceration) that I and others like me would begin to think of just such an option. Should that day come, I can't say I'm counting on the West to recognize us as refugees.