My father, Manfred Stanley, passed away in 2004. By the normal methods of calculating such things, he was not a wealthy man. What he lacked in material resources he more than made up for in other ways. In addition to thousands of his books, I have many boxes of his family effects, including hundreds of letters.
In reading through these letters, I am struck by the wide discrepancy between what they reveal of his childhood and the stories of his childhood that he told his children. He had always told me, for example, that the shattered fingers on his hand were the result of a baseball injury that he was too embarrassed to reveal to his mother. The family letters tell the truth. They were rather the result of his raising his hand at the age of six to fend off truncheon blows, and his mother was too afraid to call a doctor. But it is not these inconsistencies that stand out. Rather, in the tale he told of his life, both his greatest wounds and his greatest comforts did not take such raw physical form. The narrative of his life, as he related it, had as its chapters not beatings but spaces....
My father told me that until he was in his early twenties, he would set out his clothing before he went to sleep and turn his alarm clock to two in the morning. When it rang, he would spring out of bed and dress quickly. For some reason, this made him less anxious. One day he decided to tell his mother about his strange habit. She said to him, “I taught you to do that when you were four, to dress quickly in case the knock comes.” What she meant was a knock of warning, to alert them to a visit by the Gestapo.
Between 1936 and Kristallnacht, the German government flooded public spaces with Gestapo agents. In my grandmother’s memoir, she describes the growing familiarity of the German people with seeing agents appear at doorways, in restaurants, asking for documents, looking for enemies of the people where they were rumored to be. It became typical, normal, ordinary, to see such sweeps. At a certain point, people stopped asking when they saw two agents knocking at the apartment next door. Having agents of the government drop by to remove a neighbor was an event that no longer required an explanation.--Jason Stanley February 02, 2017 "On Becoming the Enemy" The Boston Review [emphasis in original]
It would be a convenient mistake to read Stanley's essay as a slippery-slope-road-to-serfdom warning. Rather, it marks, matter of factually, how far we are already down the slope: deportation (in word and deed) has already been normalized. According to ABC news (not exactly a radical source) last fall, Between 2009 and 2015 [President Obama's] administration has removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders, which doesn’t include the number of people who "self-deported" or were turned away and/or returned to their home country at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
That's a lot of knocking.
Occasionally, after some media-savvy campaign by middle-class school-kids, some European government minister pardons -- what a grotesque word when we are referring to the mere-being-there-of-a-young-child* -- a child, a class-mate, who has lived her whole life in a familiar neighborhood, but such a pardon is a reminder of the legal violence exercised on others.
At some point, Mill writes (channeling Adam Smith, Sophie de Grouchy, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man), That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will is to prevent harm to others. Granting that there are open-ended debates over the nature of the will, one might have thought that the key (contestable) term is harm if one allows that 'civilized' here means something like 'law-governed' (and not 'culturally superior' as it may also sometimes mean, alas, in Mill); 'but' experience teaches a more sober truth that if you may be harmed by a civilized state, you must not be a member or uncivilized (or both--a non-member becomes treated as a savage). Evidently membership comes with privileges.
The previous paragraph may sound unduly cynical. But Mill's harm-principle is the unmovable foundation of a liberalism worth having, and re-discovering time and again. The rest of the trappings of liberal democracy are means, often noble and moral means, to securing this (marshy) ground.
The key concept in Stanley's piece is spaces which (as the quotes above from the essay's start and end reveal) frames it. He uses it primarily to refer to 'public spaces,' in particular the violent removal of particular individuals (including his father) from these spaces. But spaces also refer to the gaps, omissions, even inconsistencies in his father's narrative of his life. Stanley is explicit about the significance of the former: Public spaces are for the people. Stanley reminds the reader that any individual-would-be-even-once-member-of-the-people may well be confused or mistaken about one's membership of the people.
As an aside, I have considerable ambivalence about Jewish testimony about the Nazi era. As a kid I grew allergic to the slogan Never Again, which often, all-too-often just means, Never Again the Jews. It is to his credit that Stanley's essay artfully avoids the moral excesses and cringe-inducing nature of such testimony. Perhaps my ambivalence is really disillusionment: as a young adult, co-existing with Rwanda and Srebrenica, I witnessed the hollowness of the liberal global order when the means to prevent known genocide where available.
So, and to use the previous sentence as a means to return to the main narrative, I wonder if removal from "public spaces" is still a means to removing from "public view," whereby the fate of the removed is "masked" (as it is in Stanley's historical account). My reservation here is not that I am less convinced (which I am) than Stanley that the fate of the Jews was really masked (sie haben es gewusst!). But my point here is not historical. We live in an age of sincerity and shameless public cruelty (e.g., reality TV, talk-show programs, disaster tourism, music videos, etc.). Not to put a delicate point on it, the removal from public spaces today is the opening act of a cruel, public spectacle. (I return to this below.)
The other key concept in Stanley's essay is sign. This is most manifest in Stanley's presentation of the unsentimental education of his father, Manfred Stanley:** His first memories were of his struggle to read the numerous signs on the grand avenues, his initial excitement about his growing mastery of reading tempered by the realization that so many of them were about him. He learned from these signs that he was the enemy, though at that time he could not quite understand what that meant. Signs point to and even define a reality outside themselves. This reality need not be understood for it to be effectual.
To be sure, Stanley is no skeptic; he confidently (the historian in me suggests gently, a bit too confidently) announces that "the family letters tell the truth." And, in fact, to read Stanley's essay is to be reminded how much we still, despite knowing better, take a rule-following Weberian bureaucracy, which accepts the power of and gives power to authenticated documents and paper-records, for granted even in savage circumstances. For, Manfred Stanley's "signed" and numbered "(No. 13888)" Quota Immigration Visa operates as a right-of-exit from Germany and entry-right Stateside for him.**
Weberian bureaucracies can harm even harm grievously (cf. Kafka); but the way they harm is fairly predictable. In reflecting on Stanley's essay, I see our present unease with greater clarity. A few weeks ago green-card holders were detained at airports Stateside in front of cameras and protesting U.S. Senators, even discouraged/prevented from flying back to their homes and communities at foreign airports. I signed up for the ACLU that week-end. But I did so in order to register my dissent. For, the signs may well mark the transformation of Weberian bureaucracy into a different kind of entity.
*One can say this without falling victim of treating children as pure innocence.
+I ordinarily resist the temptation to rewrite Mill, but here goes: That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a political community, against his will is to prevent harm to others.
**Speaking of spaces and signs: I note, without passing judgment, that there is a missing father in the presentation of Manfred Stanley's education. A quick look at Ilse Stanley's fascinating Wikipedia page suggests that almost certainly the name on that document was Manfred Intrator.