In the Shadow of Lampedusa

The migrants come and come. They come in their boatloads. They are smuggled in cars and lorries. They come on foot. Sometimes, when they can pass the gauntlet of document checkers, they arrive by air.   They come from near and far, from war zones that are unimaginably difficult, where they once led comfortable lives, and from places beyond the desert, which remain poor and where it has become hard for a young person to make a life.   They are, sometimes, willing to risk robbery, disease, tribulation and death.   Where they came from there are more, many more.

Where they come to there are people who may have their own, different, problems, although there is no one story.   In the southern periphery of Europe and elsewhere, many find it difficult to maintain the lives they have known, seeing only few and poorly paid jobs, especially for the young, or lessened support from government, triggered by debt and austerity. The industries that made some of their countries rich may be disappearing if they have not already disappeared, with little to replace them. They are told to do more with less, and to work harder. We were well disposed, but how can we do more and more for them, they ask? Do they not know of our difficulties here? It is true that “we” have more than “they” do but this is not the only point that matters. Two crises, seemingly disconnected, have collided. Even in some of the rich and successful countries there is much grumbling amidst the sense not only of limited resources, but that they are not like us. In only a few, despite growing economic insecurity and fraying welfare provisions, the commitment to the principle of asylum, on the part of the people as well as the state, is protected and sometimes even proudly embraced, even if attended by grumbling, legalism and inconsistencies.

Years ago, it was a mere distant idea, that they would arrive in their boatloads or on feet, but that moment has come, brought about by changes in institutions and in transport costs, the emergence of organized business interests surrounding the transfer of populations, the possibilities of succor and support provided by sizable existing migrant communities in the countries they wish to reach and by civil wars and stagnant economies in the poorer – although not always poor – lands which they leave. Countries recognized for their treatment of refugees and those that were not have had their proclaimed values tested and only some have passed the test [From Deutschland ist kein einwanderungsland to accepting 800,000 refugees in a year!]. The numbers are small from one point of view but gigantic from another, according to the eye of the beholder.

A moral dilemma is a situation in which there are distinct moral reasons, each carrying some force, to do opposing things. It may be difficult to determine what to do in the midst of these conflicting calls. It is often clear that one must make a decision nonetheless. There may be a higher-level formula for resolving these conflicting appeals in order to make a decision, integrating these different considerations on the basis of contextual or holistic judgments, but to say that this could be done portrays the decision-maker’s situation as being less troubled than it is: it resolves the problem without doing so. The real difficulty with a moral dilemma is not merely that it is difficult to find the right answer nor even that there may be no single right answer, but that all the answers may be in some measure wrong, especially when the reasons are seemingly different in kind but comparable in force. As a result, in some situations one may feel that one has dirty hands, at least to a degree, in either case.   If one is honest, the situation of a moral dilemma has features of an aporia, leaving one with insufficient resources for an unproblematic resolution, and rather with the feeling of being at an impasse. The blustering statements of “leaders” or indeed of “philosophers” in one direction or another obscures but does not change this.

It is a difficulty that extends to all who are part of a political community.   If they act to spurn the claims of the foreigner (not always exactly a stranger) then they must then do so not with self-righteousness nor with indignation but with reluctance. It is one thing to deny the petitioner, and it is another to slam the door.  The difficulty is that we are not the sort of beings who can easily live in the midst of such dissonance. Rather, we favour simplicity, even when its price is that we make ourselves crude and our vision false.  We cannot accept that all our choices are troubled. We must believe that we are right and even righteous.

The defenders of the claims of migrants refuse to recognize the moral dilemma because they do not recognize the claims on the other side, unwavering in their avowal of the moral case for open borders, or for unlimited acceptance of asylum claims – a stance appealing and powerful in its purity but distant from the everyday weighing of the political possible and not attuned to other sensibilities of fellow citizens. Those who would restrict or reject these claims often do not recognize the moral dilemma for another reason: they take the position of realists, hardening their hearts in order to protect the perceived moral, political, security and economic demands of nationhood or of community.

The “practical” proposals are to carry on with some version of the impossible situation in which migrants test the borders, some (or many) permanently admitted and some (or many) not, as a semi-permanent state, or to tighten the borders and change the laws significantly, sacrificing in the process the claims one may have to to abiding by higher principles, doing little for the hungry, poor, weak and fearful who have arrived at one’s door but to push them back to their fates. The observation that many were better off than their neighbours in the countries they left will do little to change the fact that this is what one will have done. In the first case, sea captains in the mare nostrum will ever reap their grim harvest, and some migrants will make it to their sanctuaries or their el dorados.

Among those who enter the citadel (or is it the promised land?) many will join a temporary or permanent demimonde, left with few choices that do not appear to justify the suspicion and contempt in which migrants are held, and who in turn often but wait to join their brethren in shared and ungrateful rebuke of the society that has admitted them — but some will become successes, a few among them joining a new multiethnic bourgeoisie and otherwise contributing to the dynamism of their new societies, especially in those that have been enlightened in their treatment of the arrivals. In the second case, the arrivals may be held at bay, or an ethnic stock retained, but only at the cost of to a degree brutalizing oneself and others and of discarding some civilizational (or so they are claimed) values or conceits.

There is no full solution to this dilemma. The person who is neither angel nor moral imbecile can only attempt, chastened by the impossibility of easy choice, to find a way to live that allows her to say both to the neighbor and to the no longer distant other, I face you and I recognize you, I listen and I respond — avoiding both that form of realism that discards the claims of humanity, and that form of idealism that pays no heed to what is. Such a person cannot rest content with splitting the difference, tightening or loosening the border or raising or lowering the number of those admitted, much as such choices must be made. This is both because to do so does not resolve the dilemma and because it means sanctifying inadequacy and injustice. What else is there to do? Only the hardest thing: to soften, revise and even overthrow the conditions that give rise to the dilemma. This requires not merely to offer a haven in a heartless world, but to create another world altogether, and to see this impossible task as a matter of practical urgency. The little sops of aid and peacekeeping do little, amid the capital flight and war-making which her fellow citizens promote. “If we want things to stay as they are, they will have to change” (as we are told in di Lampedusa’s The Leopard) and if we want things to change, they cannot stay as they are. So things must change, and who but we must change them? What choice have we, who dwell in our troubled unhappy conscience — while crowds are beaten back?


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