East Forum 2016: Foreigners become European citizens

The so-called second modernity calls for a more developed cosmopolitan awareness than the one holding sway today, and democracy is not just about voting regularly.

A neighbourhood filled by strangers is a visible, tangible sign of certainties evaporating and life prospects, as well as the fate of their pursuits, drifting out of control. Strangers stand for everything evasive, feeble, unstable and unforeseeable in life that poisons the daily bustle with premonitions of one’s own impotence and sleepless nights. It is against the strangers – for the sake of getting rid of strangers – that the residents of infested neighbourhood (to recall philosopher Michael Walzer) “will organize to defend their local politics and culture” and would try to recast it into a “little state”. Seeing as conjuring up a future state cleansed of strangers is not on the cards and in all likelihood beyond the realm of the possible, the image chosen to guide the effort of this recasting is all too often one of the past as it was – or more as it could and tends to be imagined: unambiguously ‘ours’, unspoiled by ‘their’ obtrusive proximity.

In the recent summary of the present mindset by former EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Javier Solana, globalization has its positives: “Opening up societies and economies to the world obviously entails significant uncertainty; but it also provides abundant opportunities. Not long ago, Europe was the world leader in openness. In fact, the European project is, at its core, a mirror of the opening that is an inextricable consequence of living in today’s globalized world. The political leaders channelling these demands do not just want to reassert national control in all areas; they are also spreading a message of indifference to ‒ and even outright rejection of ‒ foreigners, reflected in their response to Europe’s influx of refugees. According to them, each country should defend its own by any means, even if the rule of law is tested along the way”.

Our world is cleft by an everwidening chasm between the freefloating global elite and glebae adscripti locals who are understandably angry and horrified by the prospect of exclusion. The “back to tribes” policies to which Solana refers, with its calls to build walls, lock borders and extradite the aliens, as journalist Vadim Nikitin suggested, offers “shelter and compassion, not hatred and division”. What they in fact hope for is shelter for some (for ‘us’), twinned with hatred for others (for ‘them’): pugnacity and cohesion, together with bleak and bitter, the rough and ready practices of tribes, wearing the mask of ‘communities’.

Communities – like the security they temptingly even if deceptively promise – are double-faced “frames”: freedom from trouble displayed on smiling faces, wth the threat of demotion and exclusion smeared on others. The security metaphor (“security as containment – keeping the evildoers out”), as George Lakoff (in Don’t Think of an Elephant, 2004) proposes, brings to mind the idea of securing ‘our’ borders, keeping ‘them’ and ‘their’ weapons out of our airports and marshals on our planes. Most experts are of the opinion that such measures to be ineffective; a terrorist organization can penetrate any security system. As far as the popular – native as distinct from alien – impressions and beliefs go, such opinions matter little. What does matter is the influence the frame has on our mental activities. “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As the result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions.” And what the ‘community’ frame shapes is a vision of the world and of our way of being which link integration and separation – a cosy home versus an uncosy exterior; friendliness inside matched by estrangement, suspicion, and watchfulness outside. What we nowadays refer to as nationalism. 

In the 14 January issue of The New York Times, Roger Cohen recalls that between the 1880s and 1924 the US welcomed four million Italian immigrants. He quotes Leon Wieseltier of the Brookings Institution: “We got Enrico Fermi, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Antonin Scalia – and Al Capone. Who in their right mind would suggest that the Italian immigration was not a great blessing for our country?”. Cohen goes on: “President Obama showcased a Syrian immigrant, Refaai Hamo, during the State of the Union address as evidence of our diversity and our openness ... But given the degree of openness America has offered Syrian refugees over close to five years of war in which a quarter of a million people have been killed, this political choreography qualified as a serious chutzpah”.

So far America has accepted about 2,500 Syrian refugees (“roughly 0.06 percent of the 4.4 million Syrians who fled the country”). Hamo, therefore, “might better have been offered as a symbol of the closing of the American mind”.

From all the manifold historical departures, the propensity to divide humans into ‘us’ and ‘them’ has emerged unscathed – even if the behavioural patterns they presuppose and promote may alter. So long as ‘humanity’ remains a phantom, an un-intelligible entity, mentally and pragmatically un-assimilable (recall Ulrich Beck’s harsh assessment of the state of our cosmopolitan consciousness lagging far behind the cosmopolitan realities of our present-day life), the search for identity, meaning the tackling of internal and external pressures to trace and fix one’s own position in the world, as well as the need to have one’s choices recognised and approved by others, still requires a reference point. ‘Like’ vs ‘unlike’, ‘belonging’ vs ‘alienness’ etc. – in short, Us vs Them – are (and threaten to remain) indispensable tools in our efforts towards self-identification.

For ‘us’ to exist, ‘they’, the ‘not-us’ must also exist or be conjured up (whether invented and/or appointed), in each and every variety or stage of its manifestation. The growing size of the groups with which, and in opposition to which, people tend to identify, as well as the mellowing (‘civilizing’) action of the insiders’ interactions, are changes in quantity, not quality; in form, not in function. 

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