Stephanie DeGooyer

The Right to Have Rights

Air Date: August 4, 2018

Stephanie DeGooyer, Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, discusses the legacy of Hannah Arendt and modern-day authoritarianism


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. “The right to have rights” is a phrase refugee and activist Hannah Arendt first used in a 1949 article, and again in the 1951 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Our guest today, Stephanie DeGooyer is co-author of “The Right to Have Rights.” She told the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, “The refugee crisis after World War II revealed to Arendt that humans can exist in a place called nowhere. They can be displaced from political community, they can be turned into abstractions.” DeGooyer is professor of English at Willamette University, where she focuses on the intersection of law, politics, and aesthetics, and just recently was appointed Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. Stephanie, welcome, thanks for being here today.

DEGOOYER: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: Congratulations on this book, which is timely, you were saying to me that you actually conceived of it prior to the rise of Trump and Trump-ism, although the machinations of Brexit and the contemporary politics were certainly in the development. How do you apply this idea of a right to have rights in this contemporary moment, how do you conceive of it today?

DEGOOYER: Well when Arendt, Hannah Arendt, wrote the phrase, “the right to have rights” it was in the context of a chapter where she was diagnosing the problem of statelessness in the interwar and post-war period. And until our own refugee crisis currently, that was the biggest refugee crisis the world had faced. And so in some senses there’s a parallel that we could draw between our own moment of severe crisis, millions upon millions of refugees seeking for some sort of sanctuary or refuge, to her own time when she was seeing this happen in Europe. So I think that would be the immediate context.

HEFFNER: And what was her aspiration in her writings that you and Masha Gessen and others have brought back to contemporary relevance today, what was the aspiration in terms of establishing for humanity that idea that human beings, whether they are of a state, born with citizenship, or born without stated explicit citizenship, they as human beings have certain, to quote Jefferson, inalienable rights.

DEGOOYER: Arendt was critiquing this idea of the inalienable rights at a time when human rights were just becoming an idea, beginning of the United Nation post-war period. She was doing so at a time when it wasn’t popular to suggest that there wasn’t such a thing as human rights or natural rights, or what she would’ve called the rights of man, which Jefferson would’ve been referring to. Her critique has to do with the idea that when you’re at your most human is when you’re at your most vulnerable. So if you’re a stateless refugee who’s been cast out of your only country of origin and nobody will receive you, what good is being human, she asked. If being human marks you as your most vulnerable, what kind of right is a human right? And I think that was the kind of critique that she was bringing to the surface at a time when people still tended to think that there was something inalienable about rights.

HEFFNER: And did she have a prescription in terms of how we oughtta see immigrants or migrants or those who were denied their basic humanity? Did she have any solutions that we could think beyond the critique?

DEGOOYER: That’s the great question, and I think that question energizes our entire project. We have different, there’s four authors, we have different opinions. I would say that myself and Samuel Moyn have been spoken of as the most cynical, I think Masha Gessen refers to us as less hopeful if only because Arendt seems to suggest that if you have lost this right, you cannot regain it anywhere, unless you are made a citizen of a country. And so she doesn’t propose a solution beyond the idea of giving somebody refuge as a citizen.

HEFFNER: You, in these essays, develop through that phrase, the right to have rights. Can you tell our viewers who are interested in this subject, how you try to dissect word by word this expression?

DEGOOYER: Yes, it was, it’s probably the most exciting project I’ve been involved in as an intellectual professor. We took the phrase, “the right to have rights,” which has been read by so many people, philosophers, activists, historians, and we wanted to really get at the heart of its paradox, which is that in order to have the right to have rights, you have to be a citizen. So what we decided to do was to divide it up. I took the first right of the phrase: “The right” which is often seen as a moral or universal foundation. Lida Maxwell took the verb “to have.” What does it mean to have rights? She ran with that. Samuel Moyn took the pluralized idea of rights and asked: what are these rights given that we know that Arendt was so critical of social and economic rights? Or at least she ignored them. And then Alastair Hunt took the implied subject, which is there is none. Right, is it an animal, is it a human and he spoke of that. So it was by dividing up the phrase into chapters that I think we kind of emerged with a really rigorous analysis of it, that we couldn’t have done alone.

HEFFNER: And was there ultimately amongst yourselves a consensus in terms of the preservation of rights based democracy at this moment in our history?

DEGOOYER: I don’t know that, we didn’t have disagreements. I would say that we had different shades of hope. I think that Lida Maxwell thinks that “the right to have rights” is a phrase that summons this idea that we can demand rights, that we can have them, by concerted political action which I tend to agree with outside of Arendt’s view. But my chapter really proposed that Arendt in her time, 1951, she was looking to America to be the hope. And given what we know of where America is going right now with its use of the refugee crisis as a kind of weapon of domestic politics, I’m not so sure that I have the same kind of hope that emerges elsewhere in the book.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s why I wanted to have you here, because in our politics today, whether it’s an issue like healthcare or domestic tranquility, the idea of securing rights is really the origin story of our democracy and the literature that accompanies it. And so, what can you share with us in terms of the efficacy of that argument that healthcare is a right, peace in your community is a right. That is a kind of language in political messaging that is being employed. How can it be better employed through the literature whether it’s the Parkland students who are saying we have a right to not be murdered in our school, or it’s the people, the beneficiaries of the patients in the SNAP program, who are seeing their medical care challenged and most likely revoked, their right to healthcare. How do you think about Arendt informing our politics today?

DEGOOYER: I think Arendt, there’s many possible answers to this question. The right to have rights, she is thinking singularly of citizenship rights and she sort of argues that citizenship is the right you need and once you have that, you can have rights. But she doesn’t really go into social economic rights, that right to healthcare. And in the book I talk about this example in Detroit where residents of the city filed a lawsuit against the city who had turned off their water, saying they had a right to have water. And the judge in the case responded well, water is necessary for life. It’s not enforceable. It’s not a right you can have. And so these residents applied to the United Nations. And the United Nations can come in to America and shame the city, but unless the state decides to turn on the water, and hear that argument, the utility of that right. So rights do depend on shaming, making a public display. But there’s no guarantee they’ll work. And I think that that’s the message I would say is that rights are more important than ever, but they’re not guaranteed. You can’t rest on them. You have to fight for them.

HEFFNER: Right, and that citizenship, you’re a native of Canada, so healthcare is a part, a vital part of your citizenship, whereas in the United States, even in the aftermath of the Affordable Care act, we haven’t really reconceived, intellectually, or live now, differently than we did pre-Affordable Care. So is that argument of fully materializing your citizenship through rights, one that you see playing out differently in Canada than you see in the United States or elsewhere? I do want to embellish on this in the context of the refugee crisis but I really think there’s an element of your book that is important to our domestic politics right now.

DEGOOYER: I think you’re right, and I think I would sound at this particular juncture, this is one of the problems with Arendt’s thinking, is that she wasn’t thinking about domestic politics or social economic rights. She thought those were the rights of private citizens and they didn’t interest her. But they interest us, especially more than ever. And I think we could talk about Black Lives Matter, for example, talk about citizens not having the equality of the rights of other citizens. Or so-called, a second class citizenship. I think we could talk about that, I don’t know that Arendt can help us figure out a domestic right to healthcare, as a private citizen or a person, a Canadian, I know the lived reality, the differences of some countries. But could you imagine a world in which an American moves to Canada and declares a right to healthcare? Not really, although maybe rhetorically you could.

HEFFNER: What would you say in the current American environment are those rights within citizenship?

DEGOOYER: I think 2016 American election, origins of totalitarianism, Arendt’s 1951 three-volume epic work becomes important to everybody again. But where we really push its significance is in this crucial chapter about citizenship. Because Arendt was witnessing, in America, in the 60s, efforts to denationalize citizens and efforts to denaturalize naturalized citizens. Now that stopped around 1967, but there was recently a Supreme Court case that luckily shot down lower court’s ruling that an ethnic Serb woman could be denationalized because she lied on her application about her husband’s involvement in the Bosnian Army. That would trouble Arendt. That was the kind of thing she worried about: the loss of citizenship. Can you imagine a world where you can lose your own place in it? And I think we should be really worrying about that.

HEFFNER: When we think of how to grapple with the rights of those who are homeless, stateless, today, compared to during the holocaust and World War II era, what’s the difference today that you wanted to kind of most starkly point out to readers?

DEGOOYER: The difference is a scale. There is, I think, many more refugees today. The access points are no longer Europe specifically. We have other countries that are receiving them. America though, since 1980, has a Refugee Act that allows it to have a certain quota to receive refugees. It can receive more in a time of crisis. Obama lifted the cap to 100 thousand, and now we’re back down to 45 thousand. So I think America’s role in the refugee crisis is interesting in that it seems posed to be taking in far fewer refugees right now than other countries like Sweden and Canada.

HEFFNER: How do you see rights and citizenship in the context of the recent North Korea hostage situation where as we speak there are efforts to bring home Americans. And it struck me that your book and Arendt’s idea of citizenship might be useful to think about and why today we’re thinking about the American hostages in North Korea differently from the American hostages in Iran, and the valuation of citizenship from one country to the other. It might be totally haphazard and it might be the President’s allegiance to this new kind of tribal alliance between Russia, Israel… Saudi influence, versus Iran, but I just wondered, you know, is there a reason that we’re in effect, or at least this government, is saying that hostages in Iran are not as important as hostages in North Korea?

DEGOOYER: I think the answer to that is that it’s the politicization of citizenship. Arendt has this phrase in origins of totalitarianism that a refugee with a name is better than one with none. More or less that, to be a famous cause, that’s one of the only ways of kind of receiving refuge, is to sort of make yourself famous. Not that these hostages are making themselves famous like celebrities, but this is a situation which we’re politicizing their case. And so it’s unequal for others.

HEFFNER: It’s stunning to me the degree that Donald Trump and company, Secretary of State Pompeo now, have normalized the North Korea regime relative to Iran where there actually is internet, although it’s suppressed and under government surveillance. There’s no internet, and there has been no internet in North Korea. There’s news and literacy and actually the beginnings, the origins of citizenship in Iran, whereas there are not even remnants in North Korea. How does Arendt see the stages evolving of freedom, citizenship, how do you assess where those two countries are and how the American involvement in those two countries influences the state of citizenship internationally?

DEGOOYER: I don’t know that, well, I don’t think I can answer it through her thinking personally if only because it’s the political whims of some leaders. Arendt wanted us to realize this, that we don’t have universal rights. Universal rights would mean that everybody receives them equally. But we know for example that refugees, when they seek asylum in America, there’s gross disparities between when they’re received with a yes, and when they’re received with a no. It depends on what country they’re from. There’s, Syrians right now are looked upon as unwelcome refugees by the Administration. So it’s really about arbitrary political interest that determines the so-called right to have a right. I mean…

HEFFNER: Well that’s what I wanted to revive in the minutes we have remaining. This question of solutions and how Arendt’s literature and the contemporary environment can illuminate where we are, where we might be able to go.

DEGOOYER: So in terms of solution, that’s a big question, and it’s not an easy one. I think pragmatically we need to raise the quotas on how many newcomers we allow into our country. I think we also need to reassess this idea of nativism, that birth determines your citizenship. That’s what my next book’s about. This idea of being naturally born is such a fraught concept. And so I think if we can rethink the relationship of birth to place, to country, we can extend that analysis to look at undocumented persons in this country. People who have been here, who are a part of this country, who give to it, and who make it a community. And so I think being able to see the borders of our community differently, are going to be vital for answering this.

HEFFNER: Those are somewhat short-term solutions insofar as what you get at in terms of the cultural acceptance and tolerance. That’s a longer-term effort.

DEGOOYER: Exactly.

HEFFNER: But I want to just poke at this a little bit more. Because without, as you say in your second chapter, “To Have,” “This political conception of rights offers less moral security and solace than a conception of rights as natural possessions.” And it’s a consequence of political achievements that either realize or don’t realize those objectives. And so we’re in this discourse of Trump, where immigrants and refugees are maligned if not explicitly, indirectly. So I’m wondering if there’s a place to renew a call as Yascha Monk has in his new book for an inclusive nationalism against a bigoted nativism? There have been these moments, whether it was the Declaration of Independence or the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Universal Rights, that have aspired to really accelerate the pace of rights based citizenship. And now we’re at a place where the discourse in Russia and Turkey and here have all collapsed, even the ambitions to achieve a point at which people have those universal rights.

DEGOOYER: Domestic politics since the 18th century, we could go back to England, which is the period I study, always likes the scapegoat of the foreigner to achieve its own power. And I think the real blindness here is a failure to act in the interest of the world, in the interest of the country for short-term receipt of power. I think I’d like to see leadership that recognizes that there will be some people in America uncomfortable receiving newcomers, but understands all that they bring to the country in terms of economics, sure, but also just in terms of making our country great to re-adapt a phrase from somewhere else. But I come out pretty cynical in the book, in that, I don’t think there’s a quick fix. I just don’t. But I do know that people like Donald Trump, and there have been many more like him in history, will continually use the foreigner to advance their own power. And that’s something we need to pay attention to.

HEFFNER: And is that the source of your cynicism, most that the historical records suggest that this is not an anomaly. This is a…

DEGOOYER: How do you get somebody to care about someone they don’t know? Adam Smith talks about this in the “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” How do you create a welcoming posture for people that seem to threaten you? I mean that’s the challenge. And I think leadership can be one way of addressing it. I think the United Nations, I think shaming, I think…

HEFFNER: You mention shaming and guilting.

DEGOOYER: I mean that’s what norms do, international norms. You can’t take them to court all the time.

HEFFNER: Right. Can you be desensitized to the point of a complacency that has you unable to be guilted or be shamed? I mean is that what we’ve reached?

DEGOOYER: I think that’s the fear. I mean, history will judge this moment the way that we judge the way America turned around that boat full of nine hundred Jewish refugees.


DEGOOYER: History will judge us.

HEFFNER: And one of the reasons that I gather Democrats are, at least this generation of Democrats, do not invoke Roosevelt is because of Roosevelt’s historically reported role in not acting soon enough.

DEGOOYER: Exactly.

HEFFNER: Not acting until we were attacked. Are there examples of that kind of moral leadership that you would like to inspire our audience with at the conclusion of this?

DEGOOYER: An example of moral leadership.

HEFFNER: That flummoxes your cynicism. That gives us hope that…

DEGOOYER: I think some of the protests at the airport that we saw last year. I think all of the activism being put together and by undocumented persons in this country is incredibly inspiring. If there is a right to have rights being enacted, it’s there, by people that have no power, and are enacting it anyways, that’s where I would find it.

HEFFNER: Stephanie, thank you so much for joining me today.

DEGOOYER: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.