Stranger Danger: To Resolve the Migrant Crisis We Must Recognize the Stranger Within Ourselves

It is such silence that really helps our racist enemies in that it feeds the distrust of ordinary people—(“You see, they are not telling us the truth!”)—boosting the credibility of racist rumors and lies.

Slavoj Žižek

A woman smiles as she holds a flag with an inscription reading ‘I love Calais’ during a demonstration in Paris on March 7 by residents of the French port town of Calais, calling for the dismantlement of the migrant encampment known as the ‘Jungle’ which they insist is harming their livelihoods. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

The big news of the last week was the deal between Turkey and European Union on how to contain and regulate the flow of refugees. It brought a sigh of relief: The crisis is over. Europe succeeded in stemming the Muslim invasion without betraying humanitarian compassion. But did it? To see clearly what is wrong with this deal, let us reach back to one of our great classics. In Canto VI of Inferno (lines 77-89), Dante speaks to the glutton Ciacco and asks of the fate of the men of good reason, men who dedicated their life to the good of the city:

If we in the West really want to overcome racism, the first thing to do is to leave behind this politically correct process of endless self-culpabilization.

And I continued thus: “Still would I learn

More from thee, further parley still entreat.

Of Farinata and Tegghiaio say,

They who so well deserved; of Giacopo,

Arrigo, Mosca, and the rest, who bent

Their minds on working good. Oh! tell me where

They bide, and to their knowledge let me come.

For I am prest with keen desire to hear

If Heaven’s sweet cup, or poisonous drug of Hell,

Be to their lip assign’d.” He answer’d straight:

“These are yet blacker spirits. Various crimes

Have sunk them deeper in the dark abyss.

If thou so far descendest, thou mayst see them.”

Imagine we were to visit the Hell now and find there in the Third Circle today's Ciacco, a gluttonous Western European who ignores the plight of migrants, focused as he is on continuing undisturbed his consumption. If we were to ask him “But tell me, where are all those humanitarians who bent their minds on working good?”, would he not snap back: “You will have to descend much deeper, their souls are much blacker than mine!” Why? Is this reaction not too cruel?

The point is that, self-critical as it may appear to be, the humanitarian reaction almost imperceptibly transforms a political-economic problem into a moral one of “refugee crisis” and of “helping the victims.” Further, rather than attacking the silent, low-class majority as racist and ignorant of the immigrants’ plight, or, at best, as stupid victims of racist big media propaganda, would not the truly humanitarian reaction be to address their actual concerns that express themselves in a racist way?

Lesson from Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan wrote that, even if what a jealous husband claims about his wife (that she sleeps around with other men) is all true, his jealousy is still pathological. Why is this? The more pertinent question is not “Is his jealousy well-grounded?” but “Why does he need jealousy to maintain his self-identity?”. Along the same lines, one could say that, even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews were true (they exploit Germans, they seduce German girls …)—which they are not, of course—their anti-Semitism would still be (and was) pathological since it represses the true reason why the Nazis needed anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position.

And is it not exactly the same with the growing fear of refugees and immigrants? To extrapolate it to the extreme: even if most of our prejudices about immigrants were proven to be true (they are hidden fundamentalist terrorists, they rape and they steal), the paranoiac talk about the immigrant threat is still an ideological pathology, it tells more about us, Europeans, than about immigrants. The true question is not “Are immigrants a real threat to Europe?” but “What does this obsession with the immigrant threat tell us about the weakness of Europe?”

So there are two dimensions here which should be kept apart. One is the atmosphere of fear—fear of an upcoming struggle against the Islamization of Europe—with its own absurdities: refugees who flee terror are equated with the terrorists they are escaping from. Obviously, among the refugees are also terrorists, rapists, criminals, etc., but the vast majority are desperate people looking for a better life (in the same way that during the Cold War, among the refugees from the German Democratic Republic were hidden STASI agents). Among Europe's xenophobes, however, this is given a paranoiac twist—immigrants appear (or pretend) to be desperate refugees, while in reality they are the spearheads of a new Islamic invasion of Europe. By way of this twist, the cause of problems that are immanent to today’s global capitalism is projected onto an external intruder: instead of refugees who are ultimately the victims of global capitalism, we get fundamentalist terrorists who threaten our way of life from outside.

Paranoid Europe

A suspicious gaze always funds what it is looking for, “proofs” are everywhere, even if half of them are soon proven to be fakes. One should especially emphasize this point today when, all around Europe, the fear of refugees’s invasion is reaching truly paranoiac proportions: people who haven’t seen not one actual refugee react aggresively to the very proposal of establishing a refugee center in their proximity; stories about incidents catch imagination, spread like wildfire and persist even after they are clearly proven false. This is why the worst reaction to the racist anti-immigrant paranoia is to ignore eventual incidents and problems with immigrants, arguing that every critical mention of immigrants only feeds the racist enemies. Against this reasoning, one should point out, that it is such silence that really helps our racist enemies in that it feeds the distrust of ordinary people—(“You see, they are not telling us the truth!”)—boosting the credibility of racist rumors and lies.

The other dimension is the tragi-comic spectacle of endless self-culpabilization of a Europe that allegedly betrayed its humanity, of a murderous Europe leaving thousands of drowned bodies at its borders. This is a self-serving exercise with no emancipatory potential whatsoever. Furthermore, the accent on humanitarian catastrophe deftly de-politicizes the situation. No wonder Angela Merkel recently said: “Do you seriously believe that all the Euro states that last year fought all the way to keep Greece in the Eurozone—and we were the strictest —can one year later allow Greece to, in a way, plunge into chaos?” This statement clearly renders the basic lie of her humanitarian position: it is part of a stick-and-carrot approach, with humanitarian help as a bonus for politico-economic surrender.

We should apply to the humanitarians who bemoan “the end of Europe” the great Hegelian lesson: when someone is painting a picture of Europe’s overall and utmost moral degeneration, the question to be raised is in what way such a stance is complicit in what it criticizes. No wonder that, with the exception of humanitarian appeals to compassion and solidarity, the effects of such compassionate self-flagellation are null. A couple of years ago, Danish Leftists ironically talked about “white woman’s burden”—their duty to have sex with immigrant men who suffer sexual deprivation. One should not be surprised to see some “radicals” proposing the same solution for Germany and all of Western Europe?

Politically correct self-flagellation

If we in the West really want to overcome racism, the first thing to do is to leave behind this politically correct process of endless self-culpabilization. Alhough French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s critique of today’s Left often approaches ridicule, this doesn’t prevent him from occasionally generating pertinent insights. One cannot but agree with him when he detects in the European politically correct self-flagellation the inverted clinging to one’s superiority. Whenever the West is attacked, its first reaction is not aggressive defence but self-probing: what did we do to deserve it? We are ultimately to be blamed for the evils of the world, the Third World catastrophes and terrorist violence are merely reactions to our crimes… the positive form of the White Man’s Burden (responsibility for civilizing the colonized barbarians) is thus merely replaced by its negative form (the burden of white man’s guilt): if we can no longer be the benevolent masters of the Third World, we can at least be the privileged source of evil, patronizingly depriving them of their responsibility for their fate (if a Third World country engages in terrible crimes, it is never their full responsibility, but always an after-effect of colonization: They merely imitate what the colonial masters were doing, etc.):

We need our miserabilist clichés about Africa, Asia, Latin America, in order to confirm the cliché of a predatory, deadly West. Our noisy stigmatizations only serve to mask the wounded self-love: We no longer make the law. Other cultures know it, and they continue to culpabilize us only to escape our judgments on them.

The West is thus caught in the typical superego predicament best rendered by Dostoyevsky’s famous phrase from his The Brothers Karamazov: “Each of us is guilty before everyone for everyone, and I more than the others.” So the more the West confesses its crimes, the more it is made to feel culpable. This insight allows us also to detect a symmetric duplicity in the way the Third World countries criticize the West: If the West’s continuous self-flagellation for the Third World evils functions as a desperate attempt to re-assert our superiority, the true reason why the Third World hates and rejects the West is not the colonizing past and its continuing effects but the self-critical spirit which the West displayed in renouncing this past, with the implicit call to others to practice the same self-critical approach. Bruckner writes, “The West is not detested for its real faults, but for its attempt to amend them, because it was one of the first to try to tear itself out of its own bestiality, inviting the rest of the world to follow it.”

Western standards, the good and the bad

The Western legacy is effectively not just that of (post)colonial imperialist domination, but also that of the self-critical examination of the violence and exploitation that the West brought to the Third World. The French colonized Haiti, but the French Revolution also provided the ideological foundation to the rebellion that liberated the slaves and established the independent Haiti; the process of decolonization was set in motion when the colonized nations demanded for themselves the same rights that the West took for itself. In short, one should never forget that the West provided the very standards by means of which it (as well as its critics) measures its criminal past. We are dealing here with the dialectic of form and content: When colonial countries demand independence and enact the “return to roots,” the very form of this return (that of an independent Nation-State) is Western. In its very defeat (losing the colonies), the West thus wins, imposing its social form onto the other.

When Leftist liberals endlessly vary the motif of how the rise of terrorism is the result of Western colonial and military interventions in the Middle East, so that we are ultimately responsible for it, their analysis, although pretending to be respectful towards others, stands out as a blatant case of patronizing chauvinism that reduces the Other to a passive victim and deprives it of any agenda. What such a view fails to see is how Arabs are in no way just passive victims of European and American neocolonial machinations. Their different courses of action are not just reactions, they are different forms of active engagement in their predicament: expansive and aggressive push towards Islamization (financing mosques in foreign countries, etc.), open warfare against the West, etc., all these are ways of actively engaging in a situation with a well-defined goal.

What the European emancipatory legacy should be defended from is thus primarily Europeans themselves, namely the anti-immigrant populists who see Europe threatened by the over-tolerant multicultural Left. It is easy to say that Muslim immigrants who violate our rules should be thrown out and sent back from where they come from—but what about those among ourselves who violate our emancipatory legacy? Where should they be thrown? One should be more attentive to the hidden proximity between them and fundamentalist Islamists, especially in view of the sudden, convenient discovery of women’s and gay rights by anti-immigrant populists. The obscenity of the situation is breath-taking: The very people who, in our countries, continuously mock and attack abortion rights and gay marriages are now reborn as defenders of Western freedoms! Suffice it to recall Europe’s staunchest defender against the Muslim threat, Viktor Orbán, the rightist prime minister of Hungary. In autumn 2015, he justified closing the border with Serbia as an act of the defense of Christian Europe against invading Muslims. Is this the same Orbán who, back in the Summer of 2012, said that in Central Europe a new economic system must be built:

[A]nd let us hope that God will help us and we will not have to invent a new type of political system instead of democracy that would need to be introduced for the sake of economic survival. … Cooperation is a question of force, not of intention. Perhaps there are countries where things don’t work that way, for example in the Scandinavian countries, but such a half-Asiatic rag-tag people as we are can unite only if there is force.

The irony of these lines was not lost on some old Hungarian dissidents. When in 1956 the Soviet army moved into Budapest to crush the anti-Communist uprising, the message repeatedly sent by the beleaguered Hungarian leaders to the West was: “We are defending Europe here.” (Against the Asiatic Communists, of course.) Now, after the collapse of Communism, Hungary’s Christian-conservative government paints as its main enemy Western multi-cultural consumerist liberal democracy, for which today’s Western Europe stands, and calls for a new more organic communitarian order to replace the “turbulent” liberal democracy of the last two decades. Orbán has already expressed his sympathies with the »capitalism with Asian values,« so if the European pressure on Orbán continues, we can easily imagine him sending a message to the East along these lines: “We are defending Asia here!” (And—to add an ironic twist—from the West European racist perspective, are not today’s Hungarians descendants of the early medieval Huns? Attila is even today a popular Hungarian name.)

Is there a contradiction between these two Orbáns: Orbán the friend of Putin who resents liberal-democratic West and Orbán the defender of Christian Europe? There is none. The two faces of Orbán provide the proof (if it were needed) that the principal threat to Europe comes not in the shape of Muslim immigrants but its anti-immigrant populist defenders. (The same goes for the Polish government elected last October that wants to protect Polish traditions from the EU multicultural pressure: it is more and more obvious that its true enemy is Europe itself, its emancipatory core.)

Two faces of the same threat

So it’s not a question of maintaining a “proper balance” between Muslim fundamentalists and Christian anti-immigrant populists—they are the two faces of the same threat. Multicultural identity politics with its respect for the Other’s way of life essentially stigmatizes others in their identity—this is the feature shared by the two opposing stances, the one that perceives Islam as a threat to our way of life and the one that perceives Muslims as a friendly other and the difference that separates us as an enriching difference. Our very predominant reaction to the Muslim Otherness, keeping them at a distance (of hatred or respect), thereby helps the “threat” to become reality.

This is why there is no place for a negotiated compromise here, no point at which the two sides may agree (“Okay, anti-immigrant paranoiacs exaggerate, but there are some fundamentalists among the refugees.”). Even the minimal accuracy of the anti-immigrant racist’s claims does not serve as a true argument for his paranoia, and, on the opposite side, the humanitarian self-culpabilization is thoroughly narcissistic: liberal humanitarians ultimately talk only about themselves, they are totally closed to the immigrant Neighbor. Everything “bad” about the other is dismissed either as our (Western racist) projection onto the other or as the result of our (Western imperialist) mistreatment (colonial violence) of the other. What lies beyond this closed circle of ourselves and our projections (or, rather, the projections of our “repressed” evil side onto the other)—in other words what we encounter as the “authentic” other when we truly open ourselves up to this good innocent other—is also an ideological fantasy, what Hegel called a Gedankending, a creature of our mind.

So the task is to talk openly about all unpleasant issues without a compromise with racism, i.e., to reject the humanitarian idealization of refugees which dismisses every attempt to confront openly the difficult issues of the cohabitation of different ways of life as a concession to the neo-Fascist Right. What disappears in this way is the true encounter with a real Neighbor in his/her specific way of life. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, noted that, when he was young, foreign people’s manners anc beliefs appeared to him ridiculous and eccentric; but then he asked himself what if our own manners also appear to them ridiculous and eccentric. The outcome of this reversal is not a generalized cultural relativism, but something much more radical and interesting: we should learn to experience ourselves as eccentric, to see our customs in all their weirdness and arbitrariness. In his Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton imagines the monster that man might have seemed to the merely natural animals around him:

The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts. He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture. His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations. Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. Alone among the animals he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame. Whether we praise these things as natural to man or abuse them as artificial in nature, they remain in the same sense unique.

Is a “way of life” not precisely such a way of being a stranger on the earth? A specific “way of life” is not just composed of a set of abstract (Christian, Muslim, Hindu …) “values,” it is something embodied in a thick network of everyday practices: how we eat and drink, sing, make love, how we relate to authorities.

Religion as a way of life

Islam (as is true for any other substantial religion) is a name for an entire way of life—in its Middle East version, it relies on a large family with strong authority of parents and brothers (which is not specifically Muslim but more Mediterranean), and when young members, especially girls, from such families get involved with their peers from more individualist Western families, this almost inevitably gives rise to tensions. We “are” our way of life, it is our second nature, which is why direct “education” is not able to change it. Something much more radical is needed, a kind of Brechtian “extraneation,” a deep existential experience by means of which it all of a sudden strikes us how stupidly meaningless and arbitrary our customs and rituals are—there is nothing natural in the way we embrace and kiss, in the way we wash ourselves, in the way we behave while eating.

The point is thus not to recognize ourselves in strangers, not to gloat in the comforting falsity that “they are like us,” but to recognize a stranger in ourselves—therein resides innermost dimension of European modernity. Communitarianism is not enough: a recognition that we are all, each in its own way, weird lunatics provides the only hope for a tolerable co-existence of different ways of life. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein’s sci-fi classic from 1961, tells the story a young human man born and raised on Mars who comes to Earth and finds that human culture is totally alien. Maybe, this is the situation of all of us.

Does this mean that we should resign ourselves to a co-existence of isolated groups of lunatics, leaving it to the public law to maintain some kind of minimal order by way of imposing rules of interaction? Of course not, but the paradox is that we should go through this zero-point of “de-naturalization” if we want to engage in a long and difficult process of universal solidarity, of constructing a Cause which is strong enough to traverse different communities. If we want universal solidarity, we have to become universal in ourselves, relate to ourselves as universal by way of acquiring a distance towards our life-world. Hard and painful work is needed to achieve, not just sentimental ruminations about migrants as a new form of “nomadic proletariat.”

What is to be done, then? To begin with, what about a couple of totally feasible pragmatic measures? Short-term: the EU should establish receiving centers in the nearest-possible safe locations (northern Syria, Turkey, the Greek islands), and then organize a direct transport of accepted refugees to their European destination (via ferries and air bridges), thereby putting out of business smugglers turning around billions of dollars, as well as ending the humiliating misery of thousands wandering on foot through Europe. Mid-term: apply all means, public and secret, from Wikileaks style information war to ruthless pressure on countries like Saudi Arabia, to stop the war or at least to expand conflict-free zones. As for the long-term solution that would attack the causes of the crisis, a much more radical transformation is needed.

In short, what is to be done is more or less the exact opposite of the recent deal on refugees between the European Union and Turkey, a shamelessly disgusting act, a proper ethico-political catastrophe. Is this how the “war on terror” is to be conducted, by succumbing to the Turkish blackmail and rewarding one of the main culprits of the rise of ISIS and in the war in Syria? The opportunistic-pragmatic justification of this deal is clear (bribing Turkey is the most obvious way to limit the flow of refugees), but the long-term consequences will be catastrophic.

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Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.
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