Those of you of a certain age will well recall being admonished to eat your vegetables, to clean your dinner plate, by being told of the starving children in Africa. The moral was simple: You should be thankful to live amid influence; think of those who only wish they had what you take for granted.
The logic of such reasoning always escaped me. Looking at a picture of a starving child on another continent did nothing to improve my appetite. Neither did it move me to action.
Candidly, the plight of distant strangers always seemed somewhat abstract. There were more pressing issues nearer and closer to home, involving people I knew and cared about, places I had been or could imagine going to.
I never became a poverty tourist, traveling to other regions to lend aid to the needy. There were needy here, across the street, across town. My moral horizon was, and remains, I suppose limited.
I thought of all this in the past week beholding the news about the immigration crisis in Europe.
Wave upon wave of migrants move from Africa and the Middle East into Europe, just as immigrants come tumbling into the United States from Mexico and Central America. There’s a sense of inevitability to it all: people seeking an opportunity to survive, and thrive, amid comparative peace and prosperity.
Republican presidential hopefuls want walls along our borders, South and North. Donald Trump promises a wall along the Mexican border. Scott Walker talks of a 5,200-mile wall along the Canadian border. Hungarians line their border with razor wire. States can’t stop tidal waves of humanity.
What obligations have we, as Americans, to those seeking a better life?
A friend of mine relayed the other day that she has a spare bedroom. She is prepared to house a displaced family from the Middle East, she said. I wonder why she has not already opened her door to a Honduran, a Guatemalan, or a Mexican. I suspect that answer has less to do with the equities of being a global citizen that it does with something akin of moral fashion: The mass migration from the Middle East is this week’s crisis.
That a cruel civil war decimates Syria is obvious. Millions of Syrians are displaced; as many as one-third of all people residing in Lebanon are displaced persons. The assault of the Islamic State on the region wreaks terror on fair-minded people. Drought ravages the region. Who in their right mind would not want out of the region?
I get all that. But I’m still prepared to open my doors. Next week, there will be another crisis somewhere in the world. The airwaves will be flooded with gruesome images and urgent appeals. Human rights activists will argue that our common humanity requires a response.
I listen regularly to the BBC, a habit I acquired in the maudlin post 9/11 days when our media seemed to have lost sight of the larger world.
Several weeks ago, I heard a woman on one of the Greek islands demand of recent migrants: “Why don’t you stay home and fight?”
I thought it an odd remark, mean-spirited.
But the remark stuck with me. An Associated Press photograph last week showed a line of angry men facing police in Europe. The men wanted to move from Southern Europe to Germany, where the government announced it was prepared to house 800,000 migrants.
The men looked healthy enough. They were prepared to square off with the police of another nation to get to their destination of choice. Why weren’t they fighting for their home? What possessed them to think they could demand the care of strangers?
Violence is the engine of history. It is now, always has been, and, I suspect, always will be. What’s changed is global communication and easy international travel.
The politics of dispossession is not new either, although it can be cynically misused. Think of the Palestinians and the creation of the State of Israel. When a new state was formed in 1948, many Arabs fled, or were driven, from their homes. They went to neighboring states seeking refuge. They were placed in camps, where many remain to this day, breeding fury and plots of revenge.
I suggest that the Palestinians were used as a form of demographic warfare. Failing to integrate them into the populations of their neighbors served the foreign policy goals of Israel’s neighbors — Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. You can’t very well drive Israel into the sea without suicide bombers. And where better to breed them but in perpetual refugee camps?
Is this new and massive movement of people a new form of demographic warfare? I don’t see any of the Arab states stopping this migration of millions. Instead, it looks like these folks are being encouraged to leave. Why?
It certainly eases social tensions to off-load those who can’t fully be integrated into a less than thriving economy. It also serves broader cultural goals. If there is a clash of civilizations, a proposition to which I am not altogether persuaded, then why not export millions of Moslems to ostensible Christian countries? A million here and a million there, and pretty soon the host nations begin to look and feel different.
Yes, I am a little xenophobic here, and I don’t like the sound of it one bit. But I wonder, really, whether it is such a crime to cherish a familiar way of life. Whence comes the moral imperative to reduce everything to a common denominator?
The dream of universal humanity is thin gruel, a collection of truisms. I heard a German woman on the BBC explain that she welcomed the Moslems flowing into Germany because “they are human, too.” Sorry, that is not much of an argument.
Is this the woolly-mindedness that inspires United States Senator Christopher Murphy to urge that the United States take some 50,000 of the immigrants to Europe? Why not 5,000,000? Why any limit at all?
The world is bursting at the seams, it appears. We’re a destination point for those seeking a better life. I suppose I ought to feel good about that. Somehow, I don’t. I feel drowned by a tidal wave of need.