Last week the Supreme Court heard testimony in the case of Hawaii v. Trump, better known as the “travel ban” or “Muslim ban” case (for those interested, here's a synopsis from SCOTUSblog.) Commentary on this case has rightly ranged from freedom of religion to the boundaries of executive power to states’ rights, but there is an underlying and persistent issue raised by this case that has not gotten the headline attention it deserves: the way that changes in our interconnected world accentuate the tensions between the rights of citizens and the obligations of neighbors. The fact that neighborly obligations don’t sound like headline material is, let me suggest, proof of the problem.

It’s easy to assume that deep down, we all know what citizenship requires. But is that true? Is there a simple answer to whether citizens of one country have obligations to citizens of another? What are reasonable limitations on the freedom of movement of non-citizens? When is it just—as opposed to legal, which is the work of this case—to restrict movement for the sake of national self-interest? It’s tempting to imagine that we can leave it to the legal system to work out the nature of citizenship in the contemporary world. Unfortunately, while the courts will issue some legal clarity, they are unlikely to shed much light on the most foundational challenges of citizenship in the twenty-first century. This week we highlight two such challenges, which ask us to reconsider what it means to care for others, to be good neighbors, and to build a common good—and a common life—that is both rooted in thick moral sources, and shareable across disparate moral communities.

One trend likely to alter our understanding of citizenship is the dramatic rise in the global movements of people groups. Given the effects of global capitalism and geopolitical instability (not to mention the problem of rising tides and the displacement of coastal populations), any notion that the problems of migration will go away is mistaken. A powerful campaign to highlight the humanity of migrants, which can be lost in sound bites like “eleven million Syrians displaced by civil war,” debuted this week around the country. The project, by Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, is a documentary film called Human Flow, and was filmed over the course of one year across twenty-three countries. As the filmmaker describes, he felt compelled to undertake this project by the experience of going to the refugee boats on the Mediterranean, and watching women, children, and the elderly board in peril, with fear on their faces, heading to an unknown place where they were unknown. The vulnerability on display in those voyages, arising from threats at the most basic levels of human security, compel us to reflect on the obligations of neighborliness that transcend our privileges as citizens.

Another trend, at the other end of the spectrum from the disempowerment of refugees, is that the power of the citizen is being measured and manipulated in new and uncomfortable ways. As reported in Wired late last year, the Chinese government has begun a program to track “social credit,” potentially in partnership with Chinese social media and finance corporations. According to the piece, “The aim is for every Chinese citizen to be trailed by a file compiling data from public and private sources by 2020, and for those files to be searchable by fingerprints and other biometric characteristics.” This system quantifies and reinforces the privileges of being “well-known”—increased borrowing potential, for example, or better job prospects—while demonstrating just how removed certain populations are from the “right to be forgotten” (codified recently in the European Union’s sweeping GDPR regulation). And, in case we are tempted to see China’s project as a foreign or undemocratic activity, we should remember that the (ab)use and (mis)interpretation of citizens’ data is precisely what is at stake in the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica scandal. What was Cambridge Analytica’s purpose if not to aggregate, interpret, and sell the value of a citizen’s (manipulable) opinion? If you have a social media account of any kind, this issue should hit very close to home (see Vol. 104).


What cases like Hawaii v. Trump remind us is that the local and the global are often deeply entwined: we are increasingly forced to “think globally,” but it is as we “act locally” that our ideals are put to the test. Questions of citizenship bring up fundamental human concerns about the relationship between “us” and “them”. Last year, after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, I wrote about the “daily rituals of dignity” required to fortify us when we encounter extreme acts of dehumanization, like a white supremacist rally in one’s hometown. It’s precisely these daily rituals of dignity that help us imagine correctly the obligations of neighborliness, and how widely those obligations apply. One book that has helped me think through the basic structure of American civic life is Nancy Rosenblum’s Good Neighbors. In that book, Rosenblum gives a picture of “the democracy of everyday life in America,” and, as the title suggests, it begins with flesh and blood encounters with those people with whom we share a street address. Another source of careful thought on this topic comes from another Harvard professor, Danielle Allen, who engages abiding questions about encountering “the other” in her book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. Through both of these works, we are reminded that the building blocks of citizenship require legal constraint, but they cannot be forged in our courts. Civic life is a set of daily practices, lived in the context of deep and growing diversity, through which we build and share a just and loving community with our neighbors.

However, before getting to the deep questions of the good civic life, we have to acknowledge that security of body and mind is a basic prerequisite for human thriving. Without security, the goods of neighborliness and citizenship cannot be meaningfully enjoyed. In an age of large-scale and increasing migration, often caused by geopolitical and geological crises far beyond the control of the individuals affected, we will have to wrestle with an old question—who is my neighbor?—in new ways. And even for those of us in more stable political communities, the quantification and manipulation of our very identities, whether through social credit or social media, will force us to bring new creativity to the central challenge of civic life, which is not only to exist with but to care for one’s neighbor. Hawaii v. Trump is a flashpoint in which certain legalities will be clarified and certain precedents set, but the challenges of maintaining a just—and dare we hope for it, loving—civic climate will remain long after the case is settled.