Saturday, August 22, 2015


You may have noticed that the world right now looks not altogether different from how it does in the opening chapters of Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, full as it is of "stateless people," denied basic rights, persecuted by chauvinistic movements of various stripes at home, and welcomed nowhere else-- least of all in the countries that could actually afford to take them in (their impoverished adjacent neighbors are often of necessity more hospitable). At such a time, ugly predictions based on this similarity come easily to mind, and are no doubt being made already. I fear that pretty much any era of human history is bad enough, though, that it can look like 1938 if you squint at it—so let’s not bother with the dark prognostications and just say that things are quite sufficiently rotten as they are.

But let’s be more specific. We know that Donald Trump, for one, decided to reveal this week his plan for carrying out an ethnic cleansing of the 11 million undocumented people already living in this country. Of course: we shouldn’t all look so shocked—something like this plan, or at least, it’s essential kernel: the idea that it’s okay to deport someone simply because of the country of their birth—is implicit in most calls for “internal enforcement” and in many of Obama’s earlier programs that aimed at large-scale deportation as a way to prove to Republicans that he was “serious about enforcement." (Republicans were of course unmoved by Obama's gruesome overture -- the sort of gift a cat leaves on a doorstep -- and in the meantime thousands of individuals and families suffered exile and separation as a result). It is true that the requisite posturing now if you are a more ordinary sort of politician than Trump is to claim that you want to deport only “criminal aliens” -- "felons not families," etc.-- but these are question-begging categories, when “illegal reentry” after deportation is itself a felony under our law. Besides, you will recall that the Secure Communities program—finally retired thanks to the public outcry it caused – targeted all undocumented people who could be identified through encountering law enforcement, not just those who were convicted. Thus, while it too was billed as focusing on “criminals,” whose permanent exile we're all supposed to celebrate, in fact it was just a means of finding a particularly large set of bureaucratic jaws to close around any undocumented person who came in reach of them. This was a policy that I, like many Americans, could not have named while it was still being implemented, let alone have condemned. Perhaps Trump, then, is only putting an uglier face and hair-do onto policies that we otherwise might regard as mainstream, which may not ultimately prove such an unfortunate development. Less salutary of course has been Trump’s effect on the other Republicans, who are all shifting several degrees to the right on this issue, in terror of his poll numbers.

The justifications they use for doing so would not have struck Arendt as unfamiliar. There is the appeal to a factitious "national identity" that is ostensibly imperiled by an influx of newcomers -- in the recent GOP debates, Ted Cruz for one warned us that Obama is seeking to “fundamentally change America” by bringing in a host of “illegals.” (Cruz, of course, is of Cuban ancestry, which is the sort of irony whose unfailing appearance whenever such buffoons propound their theories is one of the redeeming features of their presence in the universe.) We have the eerie pseudo-populism of Trump’s immigration plan with its hazy imprecations against insidious cosmopolitans (“Real immigration reform puts the needs of working people first – not wealthy globetrotting donors,” it reads—and we are left to infer that “working people” here does not include the millions of people who work in our fields, warehouses, slaughterhouses, and office buildings who are undocumented, but it just might include Trump, who certainly for these purposes could not be mistaken for one of the wealthy globetrotters). We also have the portentous declamations about what it is that makes a true “nation”: “A nation without borders is not a nation. […] A nation that does not serve its own citizens is not a nation,” says the plan.

Trump’s agenda may stand at the crime-against-humanity extreme of the spectrum of opinion on immigration in this country, but the further he tries the reach of that pole, the more he will shift the center of the rest of the discussion to the right. So it becomes ever more the case that even that nebulous entity “immigration reform,” if it ever gets passed, will do very little to aid the people who will continue to arrive at our border from abroad, in flight from violence and insecurity back home—it might even turn away more of them than we do currently, as part of the “compromise” that it will likely have to involve.

In all of this we are displaying to the world the full ugliness of the ugly American, but our peer nations have no moral high-ground in this regard from which they can look down at us. We learn from Human Rights Watch that each of them is enacting its own version of this travesty at the moment -- Australia’s treatment of migrants for one is among the most horrific in the world. HRW cites its refusal this summer to do anything to help the Rohingya refugees from Burma, which is deplorable, but almost innocuous compared to what it has done to some of the migrants who do actually make it to its borders by boat: it sends most of them to its infamous Nauru detention center at the ends of the earth. The description of this forgotten gulag in Naomi Klein's most recent book is by far the most chilling and memorable passage.

Germany is similarly being racked at present by a wave of virulent Fremdenhass, manifesting itself in hate crimes against migrants and an unwillingness to shoulder a fair burden of responsibility for the refugee crisis pouring out of the Middle East. Chancellor Angela Merkel was recently asked on television by a Palestinian teenager why her family might be deported, and Merkel reminded her that there were "Tausends und Tausends" of Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon, and that Germany could not possibly help them all. When the girl later began to cry, Merkel’s ordinary decency was called into the open, and she tried to put an arm around her-- but one can’t help but wonder how many other tears must be shed at the EU borders that the Chancellor does not see.

Besides, Merkel's response to the girl’s question betrays its own hypocrisy. Evidently Lebanon, a country with far fewer resources and geopolitical might than Germany, was willing to take in Tausends und Tausends of asylum seekers, or at least did not turn them away or deport them when they came. Indeed, one can easily imagine Germany and the rest of the Western nations being first to line up to condemn the Lebanese government if it ever did undertake a forced removal of its refugee population. That would be a crime against humanity, rather than "border enforcement" or "border integrity" or whatever ours gets called. As HRW writes:
"Europe, let alone the world, is not being overwhelmed by refugees. Yes, the world is facing an unprecedented crisis of flight and displacement, caused by the conflicts the international community has failed to resolve, or in some cases had a direct role in creating. The number of asylum seekers arriving in Europe - 138,000 Syrians in all of Europe in 2014 - pales in comparison with the burden carried by neighboring countries: in Lebanon alone over 1.1 million Syrians have sought refuge."

Nativism happens to be a very convenient card to play, on the part of governments whose immigration policies themselves create an underclass of migrants who are shunted into the informal economy because of their lack of legal status. The argument that there is simply not enough Raum to contain any more such people, and that if any others come it will be the “working people” who suffer as a result, will therefore strike a perennial note of truthfulness in the host population-- since indeed, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when used as a basis for policy. As refusing to regularize the status of migrants ensures that any fresh influx of them will in fact drive down wages, by creating a pool of exploitable labor working outside the scope of legal protection and regulation, this creates a comfortable feedback loop for harsh immigration policies, which manage thus to provide themselves with their own justification. This is why such policies are always in truth the foe rather than friend of organized labor-- including the organized labor of the host population -- as most of the major U.S. unions have finally recognized, including the AFL-CIO and the United Farm Workers.

Nativism is thus simply one of the more tried and true methods of economic scapegoating (though it becomes uniquely insidious, it has to be said, when it is turned against people who are more properly seen as asylum seekers than voluntary migrants at all). Because so many of the immigration (and other) policies pursued by our governments do in fact displace all costs onto the poor and working class, to repeat, these governments are in an easy position to prove themselves right when they argue that their societies just can't afford to take care of all the migrants/refugees, etc. who need it. This is an out they create for themselves, however, and should not be seriously countenanced.

In reality, of course – and we all know it on a moment’s reflection – the United States, the EU, Australia and the rest have the resources to provide for all the refugees displaced by conflicts in Syria and Libya and Iraq many times over. One has only to think of the sacrifices so readily made each day, the mountainous sums of tax revenues obligingly handed over every year, the vast slice carved out of every discretionary budget the US Congress ever passes -- that go to pay for the bombs and tanks that create refugees – wait, let me be more specific—that have created these refugees. Remember our war in Libya that was so quickly forgotten? (Oh, but surely this wave of people arriving in Europe from Libya has nothing to do with that). How about our war in Iraq that never ended? Apparently such devastating escapades did not prove too prohibitive a demand upon our international idealism and financial wherewithal; neither, for that matter, has the tactical support we continue to provide to Saudi Arabia’s air war in Yemen, which has so far killed 2,000 civilians. If we can spare these billions of dollars that go toward pouring kerosene on the fires of global conflict, I say, we can afford beds and blankets for Syrian children.

Such hypocrisies may be galling, but they are not of course entirely surprising. It is no new riddle of human nature that it is so much easier to convince people to shell out money for shells than for polio vaccinations, and William James’ “moral equivalent of war” (by which he meant not something that is “morally equivalent to war” but something that would inspire the same kinds of energy and capacity for sacrifice as war, but on behalf of creative ends) has proved notoriously elusive. One notes that the United States’ longest period of stability and prosperity was brought on by the greatest public expenditure it made in its history -- the tragedy is just that that expenditure happened to be devoted to atomic weapons rather than to food aid.

The puzzle of human motivation remains -- the point here is simply that we know at any rate that our governments cannot be permitted to plead poverty with regard to the world’s refugee population. We have the money between us – the question is whether we spend it on bombing people or on sheltering them.

Quite typically, the variants belligerents in the GOP debate who were most opposed to sheltering the people who are presently dying in the Arizona desert after escaping from Guatemala or Honduras are also the ones most intent on flattening more villages in the Middle East and displacing more migrants. Of course, it is being too generous to suggest that any one of them articulated something we might describe as a “foreign policy position," but we did learn that they all apparently think it is very important to emphasize the word “Islamic” in denouncing the “Islamic State” or else we shall never defeat it. But don’t worry, one of them said (I can’t hope to tell them apart)-- this needn’t get in the way of our supporting the good kind of Muslim, like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Evidently, the good kind of Muslim is one who seizes power through a military coup, guns down hundreds of unarmed protesters, and seeks to execute the democratically-elected former head of state-- so long as the target of his persecutions is an Islamist party.

By the way, the U.S. resumed military aid to Egypt’s government earlier this year, signifying that it agrees with Representative whoever-it-was: another one of our generous – and expensive – displays of international goodwill that we make so readily to useful dictators, and so rarely to the victims of war.

Add to all this indictment the fact that so many of our government’s policies in the Middle East – our multiple wars in Iraq, our military aid to “the Syrian moderates,” our Libyan adventure – were sold to the public initially as “humanitarian intervention” on behalf of the civilians of these lands. It turns out that once these same civilians that we were so anxious to "help" actually turn up at our doorstep, we suddenly discover there’s no room at the inn. The same migrants whom David Cameron recently described as a “swarm” are mostly people who have been displaced from parts of the world that the UK has helped to bomb many times over in the last decade (the UK has even joined us in providing “tactical support” to the Saudis in Yemen—how much of Cameron’s “swarm” is arriving from that country, I wonder?) —and always, we were piously informed, because of the deep concern the UK government feels for the people of these countries. No one seems to ask how it is that our governments can claim to be so upset over the atrocities carried out by ISIS that they need to support the Iraqi military’s airstrikes and turn a blind eye to Assad’s escalating brutality against his own people, but not so upset we would actually welcome to our borders the refugees ISIS creates (or, for that matter, that Assad creates or that the Iraqi government creates or that Egypt’s military rulers create, and on and on).

(By the way—for those who want to lean so heavily on the “Islamic” in “Islamic State,” one of the largest refugee populations in the world right now is the Muslim Rohingyas, who are being denied recognition in Burma largely because of demagogic Buddhist politicians playing on sectarian hatreds. One never hears American politicians and pundits draw vague generalizations about “Buddhist culture” and its inherent tendency toward violence the way they do about Islam, despite the fact that that religion can evidently be pressed into the service of chauvinism just as well as any other markers of identity, viz. the evidence of Sri Lanka as well.)

I’ve been reading Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 this week, in an effort to rid my nostrils of the stink of this miniature epoch I have been describing of recrudescent chauvinism. In this moment of “enhanced border security,” of refugees being turned away at borders after arriving there half-dead, of “boat people” stranded on the open ocean and refused entry by the world’s most wealthy and powerful countries, Hobsbawm’s insistent cosmopolitanism, unmixed with any fear of offending the myths of identity politics and national prestige of any stripe, is one of the few things that can clear the miasma.

One of the more plangent themes of Hobsbawm’s brief book is the way in which nationalism has continually pressed liberal and universalistic sentiments into its service, at various moments in history, always to issue sooner or later into precisely the sort of illiberal chauvinism we’ve been examining here. Liberals have time and again become the willing dupes of nationalist myths when the latter materialize in romantic and idealistic dress. Hobsbawm cites with irony the liberal predictions of the nineteenth century, which -- with their characteristic blend of dewy-eyed naivety and deep historical callousness -- insisted that as larger and larger nation states went on breaking down small traditional communities, this process would eventually -- indeed, inevitably -- lead to the creation of the pacific world society we all know is coming.

Of all the failed social theories of the 19th century, that must be counted as one of the most thoroughly refuted by 20th century experience. It is clear now that if anything is a natural ally of cosmopolitanism, is is far more likely to be the smaller-scale loyalties that make up the actual affective ties in most people’s lives than the big, bullying abstraction that is the nation-state. By the same token, the kinds of myth on which nations depend can be defeated by local means more easily than by even grander abstractions. This is so because the one thing that emerges with absolute clarity from examining the tiny micro-communities that actually matter to each of us and make up our real lives, is that they are infinitely and hopelessly varied. As Nabokov described it in his case, the only real “community” he ever belonged to was a handful of people he had known and liked at different times in his life, who probably would not get along with one another if they ever met. Such an observation-- as true of most of our lives, if we're honest, as of Nabokov's -- instantly defeats any attempt we might make to stack people into religions and armies and ethnic groups that can be used to destroy one another. This is the essence of localism, of course-- but just as plainly, it is also the essence of cosmopolitanism.

In that case, I place my hopes for the defeat of chauvinism not in the belief that we will one day succeed in dissolving our small circles of friends and kindred within some totalizing myth even bigger and more encompassing than the nation (Hobsbawm's Marxism thus does little for me -- as, ultimately, it did little for him). Quite to the contrary, I place them in the certainty that all efforts mythicists and chauvinists make to totalize and generalize will and must continually stub their toes against the fact that the human animal is irreducibly various ("Or might I say contrarious?"), and so people will persistently disprove whatever rules the pundits and soi-disant social prophets try to formulate about them. Every reference to “working people” being harmed by “immigration” will bark its shin on the fact that working people often are immigrants and vice versa. Every effort to define the “American people” by ancestry, language, or “culture” will always collapse into the bad joke that it is, revealing that so many exceptions may be found in each case that at last, the “American people” signifies nothing grander than the set of human beings who happen to reside in the borders of the United States at the time. Muslims will continue to be found who care not a crumb for the demands of political Islam and who defy every effort that is made to ascertain the inherent "violent tendencies" of that religion, just as plenty will be found to refute the pious assertion on the other side that “the true Islam is a religion of peace.” (Evidently, the even more conventional platitude about the pacifist essence of Buddhism raises a similar difficulty.)

 As Nabokov writes in the voice of Van Veen, but speaking quite as much for himself:
“No accursed generalizer, with a half-penny mind and a dry-fig heart, would be able to explain (and this is my sweetest revenge for all the detractions my lifework has met with) the individual vagaries involved in those and similar matters. No art and no genius would exist without such vagaries, and this is a final pronouncement, damning all clowns and clods.”
So too, the sweetest revenge we can expect to gain against the present clowns and clods—the Cruzes, the Trumps, and the chumps who allow themselves to be frightened into submission by the Donald's howling supporters – is that humanity will consistently refuse to play the roles they assign it. The only absolute about human beings is their refusal to satisfy absolute generalizations. People may go on creating nations and from their loins birthing chauvinisms to match, but the inhabitants of such a world will always fail to be nationals.

1 comment:

  1. As usual, I largely agree but will comment on the parts that I disagree with:

    (1) I think you draw too sharp a distinction between local and national identities. It seems plausible to me that in the same way that interacting regularly over an extended period can lead a small group of people to feel a sense of identification with one another, participating in and benefiting from a set of national institutions can lead one to feel a sense of identification with others who sustain and benefit from those institutions. This is an organic sense of identification that's distinct from the artificial construction of nationalism which you rightly criticize. Obviously the feelings of identification will become more and more attenuated, and less morally and politically significant, the larger the groups of people involved are but I don't think they vanish completely.

    (2) Your point about Islam and Buddhism, while it obviously has a lot of merit, is too dismissive of what seem to me to be real differences in how religions with different teachings affect behavior differently. Without investigating the question in great detail, it does seem reasonable to me to claim that Islam has more problems with religiously sanctioned violence than Buddhism and to trace this to the fact that the major Islamic prophet was a general, Islam draws much tighter links between the religious and political communities than other religions do, there's an established theological concept of religiously based warfare, etc.

    I don't think taking this approach commits you to the idea that Muslims as people are uniquely and fundamentally evil. First, as you've emphasized in past conversations, any given person has many cultural identities so someone who's a Muslim may also be shaped by other cultural traditions which are more pacific (and vice versa for an individual Buddhist). Second, I think most major religions and similar worldviews have characteristic flaws of this sort (for Buddhism it would probably be indifference to suffering that can be alleviated by human action) so Islam isn't being singled out as uniquely malign.