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Faculty lecture addresses political asylum, new and old

On Thursday, Feb. 2, the Center of the Humanities sponsored a Faculty Fellows Lecture given by Presidential Professor of history and women’s studies Janet Polasky titled, “Political Asylum in a World of Nations.”

Professor Polasky is a recipient of the Center of the Humanities’ Faculty Research Fellowship. In her lecture, she presented the preliminary research of her sixth book, which covers how free republics of the late 18th to mid 19th centuries dealt with the contradiction of welcoming those who wanted liberty, and receiving politically charged fugitives. She examined how stories of political fugitives like Thomas Paine and Karl Marx, driven from their native countries by wars and revolutions, tested the claims to liberty of the respective countries that received them.

Polasky drew on how political refugees entered revolutionary Paris, hoping to, at one point, start revolutions in their native countries because of the environment of freedom and liberty that Paris had adopted by the mid 1780s. However, Polasky explained that the definition of nation was starting to change in France as the revolution continued. By the 1790s, the refugees had gone from representing the liberty-seeking cosmopolitan to instead representing “the foreign.” Subsequently, they were forced to flee Paris and go to Holland due to surveillance and imprisonment by French officials.

She then spoke of Marx and how his quest for refuge and political asylum was a telling one. Upon his arrival in the capital of Belgium, (Brussels), Prussia, a pre-1860s German nation-state, warned the Belgian government of Marx’s radical tendencies. However, the Belgians didn’t seem to be too worried about Marx’s radical rhetoric due to their culture of free speech and liberalism. Polasky explained how the pressure from Prussia was too great on Belgium to allow Marx to continue living in the country while writing his radical essays, so he was exiled. Polasky concluded by stating that by the end of the 1840s, Brussels was closed off to asylum-seeking refugees due to pressure from a nation state like Prussia.

At the post-lecture question and answer, Polasky was asked if she thought being an international political refugee possibly affected the person.

“I think there is something about crossing borders that makes you a different person,” Polasky said. “Those who travel do not ‘sleep’ [referencing Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Remaining Awake Through Great Revolution speech”] and are more awake, and awake to what is going on.”

Polasky was also asked to speak on how her narrative of political asylum in a world of nations might apply to current political events. She referenced how Belgium in the 1840s had its liberalism tested, similarly to how the United States is today.

“Here we are,” Polasky began, “with these seven countries [referring to the seven countries that President Donald Trump discontinued arrivals from] where we know no perpetrators are but instead refugees who now more than ever need their freedom…”

However, attendees of the event took more away from the lecture than just a new historical narrative. UNH graduate student Amanda Demmer  said it was “wonderful” to see professors going through the same process that her and many other graduate students are going through.

“I’m trying to write my first book, so it’s nice to see [Polasky] thinking through the process and being at the early stages of writing a book, even though she is accomplished and this is her sixth book,” Demmer said. “We often see the polished finished product, so it’s nice to see the messy beginning.”

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