Travel Ban


When is a ban not a ban?

Executive Order 13780  (“Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”) and the White House’s stumbling pronouncements on the nature of travel restrictions leave many questions, none of which are clearly answered by the Supreme Court’s temporizing decision.

The word ban is related to banns, those public announcements of the intent to marry.

Banns date back to at least the 12th century, and offered the community an opportunity to object to the impending nuptials. One could imagine something similar concerning impending legislation, which might be made public so that it could be studied and debated before being signed into law. That would be, I suspect,  a ban(n) the country could get behind.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that in the medieval period, a ban was a pronouncement, then became “the gathering of the king’s vassals for war.”

In 19th-century France, ban became a term describing the younger of those eligible to serve in the military. The earliest cited use of banal in English (1753) means “of or belonging to compulsory military service,” which doesn’t sound banal  in the modern sense at all.

Alongside the sense of announcement or proclamation, ban has a long history as meaning to punish or harm, either religiously via excommunication or magically by means of a spell.

We get closer to the current sense of ban (meaning something prohibited) in the work of that most serious of English writers, John Milton: Adam is dazed by Eve’s tasting the forbidden fruit that was “under banne to touch.”

The notion of ban as related to travel seems to be most evident in the reverse direction — not banning someone from coming into a place but forcibly sending someone out. To banish is to do exactly that. The OED clarifies that in its earliest form, to banish meant “to put to the ban,” that is, to subject to a proclamation. By the 19th century a person could be banned  from a city, and one could even ban oneself from doing something.

On the night of the last presidential election, I was at the theater, watching a performance of what is now for me Shakespeare’s toughest political play, Coriolanus. The hero-warrior, done dirty by those who know how to work crowds, is about to be banished from his beloved Rome. He leaves, but not before reversing the curse — “I banish you,” he exclaims; “thus I turn my back / There is a world elsewhere.”

Theater seems to tell us that banishments and bans don’t work (or rather, great plays like Antigone or Measure for Measure work out before us the not-working of bans, proscriptions, and laws).

The concept of a travel ban is implicated in the history of immigration control. (I wrote about the origins of the terms migrant and refugee  in an earlier Lingua Franca post.) Immigration quotas, rejection of asylum-seekers, and limitations on entering the country based on one’s point of origin: whatever the motivation for them may be, these gestures say a lot about the uncertainty with which this country understands its own identity.

The travel ban (when can I stop hearing it rhyming with Taliban?) is an anxious nation’s response to the randomness of interacting with others.

Which also happens to be the selling point of a familiar medicine-cabinet product.

As well-groomed readers of Lingua Franca know, Ban is the name of a popular antiperspirant and deodorant. But wait — these terms appear on the deodorant’s front panel:  “24-hour invisible protection,”  “solid,”  “sweet simplicity.” (I’m not sure what sweet simplicity is, exactly, but it’s got to have been in the imaginary back-then.)

Like a stealth weapon, your deodorant does its work without you or anyone else knowing you’re being kept safe.

But until recently I’d never noticed that Ban’s manufacturer describes the product in terms seemingly not unrelated to the current travel restriction and the dream of a unified and homogeneous America.

It’s like one of Roland Barthes’s “mythologies,” unfolding to show us Foucault’s panopticon, the firm reliability of a hegemonic order,  and the nostalgia for another time and place.

Not that those concepts are likely to show up in a White House tweet anytime soon.

Just now, though, it’s hard to remember when a travel Ban was just a thing you’d put in your suitcase, next to the miniature shampoo.







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