Saturday, 19 September 2015

Moral Confusion

Most of my friends are convinced that the people moving across Europe's borders in unprecedented numbers should be welcomed and taken care of by our various governments.  As a female, having spent a bit of time among some of them at Keleti Railway Station recently, I was a bit disturbed by what might at best be described as the "unenlightened" behaviour I observed among the males seeking asylum rather aggressively there.

Of course, as a Christian I know I should go with the whole "bring me your poor huddled masses" vibe (not that that is from the Bible; it's a poem by Emma Lazarus). The problem is that, as a pragmatist, I wonder whether, if all the poor huddled masses do come over here, we won't just end up recreating the conditions they have run away from in their own country.

In response to that concern, some people I've met have wanted to know what is so worth preserving about our own society, where American presidents can't be elected without amounts equivalent to the debts of various smaller countries being spent to win them votes and where big corporations buy influence and the young get so drunk they are sick in the streets of country towns on Saturday nights.

These are all flaws, I agree, but, as well as establishing well-run nations, with good health systems, roads et cetera (which some argue is something we've only managed as a result of our exploitation of other less advantaged countries - this whole field of argument is one that involves so many 'what-ifs' that I don't think either side can ever definitively prove that it is right), our culture has also produced wonderful things that are worth preserving. Yet these achievements of ours, in the last few decades, seem to have been increasingly ignored - or even denigrated. The argument that has been put to me often is that we should stop being so stuffy and embrace other cultures, opening ourselves to the vibrancy brought to us by foreigners.

I wonder whether the fact that a lot of our greatest cultural achievements are either associated with Christianity or the upper classes - both of which since, I suppose, the 1960s have been portrayed as pretty much entirely bad - has anything to do with their current undervaluation. European cathedrals, the Ghent altarpiece and the Book of Common Prayer are all marvellous but they were only created because of one or other branch of the Christian church. Mozart operas, Holbein paintings, the stately homes of England are equally reprehensible, having all been funded by Royalty or aristocracy. Literature gets away a little less scathed (if it is possible to use such a word), but even it is a bourgeois preoccupation generally, as is that other immensely important, rapidly disappearing element of Western civilisation: good manners.

I should point out that I do understand that embracing other cultures doesn't necessarily mean one's own culture needs to be extinguished. My recent impression though is that, in our eagerness to show a willingness to take in migrants, we do seem inclined to politely allow behaviours that offend our own principles, thus eroding our own way of life. The widespread acceptance of Halal butchery -for example, as far as I can tell all meat exported from Australia is now Halal, presumably because the main market for it is the Middle East - and the apparent acceptance that in predominantly Muslim areas of European cities it is virtually impossible to buy an alcoholic drink - go into any of the food shops within a half mile radius of Munich station and see if you can find a bottle of wine for sale if you don't believe me - may be seen as very minor things, but neither of them improve our society, in my opinion

To confuse matters further, in the midst of my muddled groping about for an intelligent and humane point of view about the migrant crisis, I took the Eurostar from Brussels to Britain last week. It was one of the ones that stops not just at Lille but also at Calais. Everyone in the carriage peered out, slightly furtively, at all the new enclosures and at the soldiers on the platform with alarming looking weaponry. It felt uncomfortably as if we were part of the elite moving through the countryside on the train in the film of The Hunger Games. That terrible question, posed by David Mitchell, formed itself in my head: "What if we are the baddies?":

Maybe we are. Maybe it is unfair to turn anyone back - if they've made the journey, they must be desperate, and if they are desperate, who are we to say that they shouldn't come in? As someone born with the privilege of both an EU passport and an Australian one, I am more aware than most of the extreme good fortune handed out to me by the accident of birth. The people all that barbed wire topped reinforced fencing at Calais is designed to keep out drew the short straw in the lottery of life, so who can blame them for wanting to make up for their initial disadvantage? Is it right to deny them what we have chanced to have been born into? Should we all commit ourselves to living equally, even if it means we all live miserably, or should those of us who unarguably live a more comfortable way of life than those in some other countries fight to protect that privilege? It's tricky, isn't it? Or is it just me?


  1. There's a demonstration in Lewes next week, calling for the local authorities to accept Syrian refugees. My wife will be going. I've joked that I'll be joining the counter-demonstration (there isn't one), but I think that giviing the green light to a huge influx of people with very different values is irresponsible. There are already more than enough Muslims in Europe.

    People have made specious comparisons with the 1930s, but an influx of German Jews, who had integrated and lived successfully in Europe for centuries, can't be compared to today's Syrians.

    That doesn't mean we should do nothing. It's imperative that we do everything we can to find settlement in Syria and in the meantime, provide as much humanitarian assistance as possible.

    On a personal level, I'm moved by people's plight. I've donated money to Calais-based charities and sent clothing, but if we emptied that camp and allowed its inhabitants to move the the UK, it would be full again with a very short space of time. As the saying goes, the poor will always be with us and too many people have a well-meaning but thoughtless instinct that we should welcome everyone who wants to come here, unaware of the demographics or social problems that would ensue.

    It isn't practicable to commit ourselves to living equally, but the current iniquitous system in which a Western retailer can make more money from selling one packet of tea leaves than a tea picker would in two days has to change. If that means our living standards drop a little, so be it.

    To return to the subject of the march, I've no doubt that there will be many bien pensants there who have moved to Lewes from parts of London that they would describe as "vibrant" and "multicultural". And if I asked them why they left Hackney the moment they had children and moved to a town that was almost entirely white and middle class, I would get a disingenuous answer.

    1. So many things to say. In Australia, under the last government, people kept drowning, trying to get to Australia. There was one especially harrowing incident, when a boat in terrible seas fell to pieces right off Christmas Island and the islanders could not reach the passengers but could only watch them drowning and being dashed against the rocks. It was absolutely appalling. I've never seen anything so awful - to see people in such straits and no-one able to get to them, because of the high seas. The government before that and the current government have been extraordinarily tough about saying they won't accept any asylum seekers who come by boat & people do not drown any more, and did not for a long while, before Kevin Rudd came in and misguidedly dismantled the earlier set of measures. Unfortunately, in the process of political infighting (ie normal Australian politics) and trying to prove each side is the toughest, the government has now resorted not only to offshore processing - paying small countries in the region to keep those who do reach Australian territories by sea in detention (lots of claims are made that the conditions are dreadful, and the detention centres are run by private companies, which doesn't strike me as a good idea) - but also to a commitment to not take any of those in the offshore detention centres, even if they are established as genuine asylum seekers. For me, this is going too far. However, the Senate of the parliament refuses to reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas, which were the visas given to successful asylum seekers under the Howard government. These were visas that you held until it was safe to return to your own country - in other words you weren't granted the right to stay forever, only so long as things remained unsafe in your country of origin. They didn't seem to be tremendously attractive and, combined with offshore processing, (but not leaving successful applicants offshore, as we are doing now), the strategy seemed to stop people trying to cross the sea to Australia. What Angela Merkel did, by saying Germany would take hundreds of thousands of migrants, is referred to in the Australian (extremely polarised and hate-filled) debate, by those who advocate tough measures, as 'putting sugar on the table', by which they mean it is a lure to people smugglers and their clients. I think the answer is making the countries people are escaping from better but I don't know how that is done, especially as most developing nations won't accept tied aid. The West has poured aid into so many places where there has been no discernible change for the poor. How do you build a civil society, how do you eradicate corruption? Many of the countries of Africa should be marvellously wealthy, but they aren't. And the Middle East may somehow be our fault, if it is true that some of the tensions stem from borderlines drawn nonchalantly after the First World War by people who knew little and cared less about the people of the region. Of course, after 9/11 and all the Islamist atrocities since, it is hard to get too enthusiastic about increasing the population of people of that faith, particularly if you are female and look at some of the things that have gone on in Britain. Never have I seen such a "I wouldn't start from here" problem.

    2. I should of course also point out that Australia takes a high number of refugees who have been processed in camps near their own countries. The objection Australia has is a) to people smugglers endangering people and b) to country shopping - ie not merely escaping danger but moving along to the country you'd most like to live in, which is something only those with the means are able to do; meanwhile in some parts of inland Africa there are refugee camps where people don't get out for decades and have no means to do so, particularly if places in programmes like the Australian one are filled by those with the means and opportunity to pay smugglers. Sorry, this is so long. I just find the issue so difficult and complex.

  2. Zmkc, I'm slightly worried by some of the comments here..." Already too many Muslims" ( well, okay, perhaps another final solution?).

    And to make the connection between " islamist atrocities" and " people of that faith" is quite insidious.

    Of course, you fail to mention that most of the horrific violence of the last century was committed by state powers ( western and non western)..think gulags, camps, the trenches, the bomb, and the great leap forward. Tricky, isn't it?

  3. "processed in camps". Hmm, I suspect quite a lot of people would take to that idea.

  4. Billoo - The final solution comment is rather offensive. My view is based on the reality that Muslim communities already have to contend with discrimination and high unemployment and I'm concerned that continuing immigration will only exacerbate the existing problem, leading to less integration and a growth of the right.

  5. discrimination and high unemployment! Rofl :-) Hmm, not quite what you said earlier, was it?

    "huge influx of people with very different values" and "unaware of the demographics or social problems that would ensue".

    There might be a bit more "integration" if we stopped talking in terms of 'Muslim' communities.

    As to being offensive I'm afraid you can't have it both ways. You can't be offensive yourself and then complain if someone calls you out.

  6. billoo - I think we'll have to agree to differ. I hope that you're right and I'm wrong. What I've witnessed so far doesn't fill me with hope.

    1. Blimey, billoo, I'm with Steerforth - throwing in accusations about advocating the final solution is a very effective way of stifling anyone who wants to say something a great deal more nuanced.

  7. Well, its your blog zmkc, but nuanced? Seriously? I wonder how it would have read if one wrote: there are already too many back people...

    How would you feel if someone said: there are too many women in this country.

    Its all a bit nasty but, no, let's keep up the pretence of being liberal!

    And the way you've tried to associate Muslims with islamist atrocities is pretty shoddy thinking. I wonder if it would be acceptable to tarnish all Catholics by associating them with the IRA?

    1. But the point is that Islam is not a gender or race, it is a religion. I might equally say that there are too many Evangelical Christians in the USA. I am a secularist and my objection to the growing influence of Islam in Europe is part of a general antipathy towards the unattractive certainties of certain belief systems.

  8. I think you're conflating things here: just because one is called a Muslim or chooses to call oneself a Muslim says nothing about that person's actual beliefs or attitudes ( Islam). I think it is perfectly acceptable and reasonable to say one doesn't want religion/ Islam to play any role in public or political life; it is quite another to talk about there being too many of one specific group of people.

    I don't see the distinction, or the merit of the distinction, you are alluding to. Would it be acceptable in your opinion to say there are too many Jews? Too many disabled people?

    I, too, am a secularist and look on with horror at the growth of radicalism. But what you are doing is generalizing by talking about " Muslims".

    Your analogy isn't quite right either. What you should be saying is that you think there are too many Christians in America. Why qualify the group by using the word ' evangelical' in this case ?

    But just step back for a moment and say those words out loud, as if you were speaking to another human being ( for a second imagine I am a human being). Would you say that I and my family are part of the " too many"? What do you suggest? That we be shipped back?

  9. No, of course not. I don't want to ship anyone anywhere. To do that would be to betray the very values I want to defend.

    I used the word 'evangelical' was a crude device to identify those Christians who are unable to accept laws about abortion, gay marriage etc.

    When I talked about "too many Muslims", I was thinking of those people whose allegiance is to their religion rather than their society. Can a person be a true Muslim if they're a secularist?

  10. Re processing in camps, if large numbers of people arrive on your shores you can either detain them while processing them, which means establishing whether they have a right to asylum via a process of checking plus checking their credentials more generally, or you can forget all about any kinds of border checks. This last seems to be more or less what is happening in Europe right now. Not knowing who has entered your country is not good - a girl was murdered last year by a Pole in London; due to inadequate checking, he was allowed into the UK without anyone knowing he had murdered in Poland, served a possibly inadequate sentence, been released & taken the opportunity in the UK to murder again. As to talking about Muslim communities, by which I think you mean that that identity is being forced on people by outside pressures, which mean they cannot define themselves in another way, that may occasionally be true but regularly it is the "community" itself that chooses to give non- Muslims the cold shoulder. I've spent plenty of time in Whitechapel in London & have come away with a miserable sense of hostility to non-Muslims in the community there.

  11. Well, of course, there are lots of bigoted and narrow minded people out there who express very unsavoury views when it comes to women, gays , Jewish people and son and so forth. That is hardly the question here, zmkc. Its about you and steer forth addressing your xenophobic and borderline racist views in an honest fashion.

    Once you start to talk about there being " too many Muslims," start to equate ordinary Muslims with islamist atrocities you' re not too far away from sounding like the EDL!

    Can someone be a true Muslim and a secularist? Such a question leads to the slippery road of fascism. Does one have to identify oneself as a " true" Muslim, does one have to express certain values before you are considered a, I dunno, " two legs good,.."

    Whitechapel. Next time go to Tayaabs or Lahore kebab house!

  12. Er..that should have been down a slippery road to fascism. Kinda loses its force now that I have to amend it like this.

    1. Once you started suggesting that protecting borders by processing people in camps is akin to setting up concentration camps I should have realised it was pointless responding to you;. accusations of fascism are a way of shutting down argument, without addressing it, as well as extremely insulting.

  13. I'm not sure if English is your first language but "processed in camps" has a sinister feel to it. I'm not saying it is "akin" to what was a unique event-and to do so is to tarnish the suffering and the memory of those people.

    I've gotta say: I'm finding it difficult talking with someone who holds such extreme views. I think it is quite reasonable to suggest that as soon as someone starts talking about being a "true" Muslim or a "true" Frenchman/American or whatever that is indeed a slippery slope, one that invariably leads to fascism.

    Liberalism isn't about a "true" nature but,as Iris Murdoch once said, about "political fictions".."as if" clauses.

  14. They're hardly extreme views. I know many people on all sides of the political spectrum who would agree. You may bat away the observation about Whitechapel with a glib reference to a kebab house, but the reality of ghettoised Muslim communities - and I heard some chilling things from some young men in Slough, long before 9/11 - doesn't fill me with optimism.

    You shouldn't conflate reservations about Islam with xenophobia and racism. If a million Hindus or Sikhs wanted to settle in this country, I wouldn't bat an eyelid.

  15. I'm sure you can try and convince yourself that you're not being xenophobic -but I don't think you're taking this seriously. I know it must be difficult (I do not say that out of malice but only sadness).

    Of course, one is perfectly entitled to have serious reservations about Islam, intolerance, the role of religion in public and political life and so on. 'Reservations' is putting it mildly. But it is one thing to express such views and quite another to say "there are already too many Muslims" or to equate Islamist atrocities with the faith of ordinary Muslims in such a, let us say, glib way? You are tarnishing a whole people with your hatred.

    I don't think I've passed over the comment in a glib way. In fact, the following was a reply to the Whitechapel comment (though, admittedly, the link wasn't clearly stated):

    "Well, of course, there are lots of bigoted and narrow minded people out there who express very unsavoury views when it comes to women, gays , Jewish people..."

    I live in a country where people are routinely killed for being in the "wrong" religion or sect. My sister worked for a Christian organization defending their rights in some truly horrific cases. I've had friends who've had to run for their lives and leave the country because of persecution so please save the lectures on "batting away" criticism. If you'd actually read my earlier comment I said to you that I looked on this growth of radicalism with horror.

    I'm not filled with optimism either-given the trajectory to barbarism in so many places in the so-called Muslim world. But I have to add, I'm not filled with a great sense of hope when I listen to narrow-minded people like yourself.

  16. I think the problem with discussions like this is they force all of us to cite extremes and exceptions to justify our views - you allude to fascism, I pick an example of failed integration, rather than a success story.

    I don't hate Islam or Muslims - if you knew anything about me, you'd know how far from the truth that was. But I do dislike aspects of the religion and fear the unknown consequences of a growing Muslim population in Europe. In that sense, I am narrow minded. But I'm always open to being convinced otherwise.

  17. Steelforth, you are quite right, I do not know you and such online forums often lose out on the personal, face-to-face interactions that are such a necessary ingredient of reasonable discussion.

    I have no desire to convince you or zmkc of anything (there are already too many people out there pedaling their wares). In fact, like Walser, I think I just want to be left alone.

    One of the most distressing things for me in this 'conversation' is how someone who, like me, loves Penelope Fitzgerald could write in such a harsh and uncompromising way.

    As I've already said, political liberalism is in my understanding not based on a substantive notion of the self or a determinate view of 'the good'; any talk, therefore, of "true" Muslims or "true" citizens is, in my opinion, a slippery slippery to fascism.

    Surely that's the whole point of freedom: not to be tied down to some authoritative notion of the person? Of course it's more complicated than that. Here I'm with Levinas in his wonderful thoughts on 'Jewish Revelation'.

  18. I regret ever doubting Theory - it turns out a "text" really does mean anything the reader thinks it means. I write a post expressing a range of uncertainty. You read a post that is written in "a harsh & uncompromising way". People who are Muslims aren't "a people" either, so Steerforth is not tarnishing a whole people, which is just an attempt to turn the argument into one about race.

  19. Well, you can adopt that relativistic stance if it helps you feel better but once again, zmkc, I don't think you're being honest with yourself. To say,

    "Of course, after 9/11 and all the Islamist atrocities since, it is hard to get too enthusiastic about increasing the population of people of that faith"

    is to tarnish a whole people..guilt by association. Not very nice, I'm 'fraid.

    You keep on saying it is "the community" that chooses-and no doubt, there is some truth to that, but it is to ignore aspects of what is a lot more complex issue. Namely, the whole history of racism that some of these people faced (I can vouch for that from my own personal experience) and the fact that lots of these people (in the UK) came from villages or small towns where the culture (not necessarily the same thing as religion) is quite backward.

    So, yes, they've been insular but it works both ways. I'm not sure if you can understand what it feels like when someone says "there are too many of you here" .

    Admittedly, it is not easy to face up to one's blind spots (in a similar fashion it isn't easy for men to face their misogynistic attitudes, or religious people to overcome their superiority complex) but you have shown no signs of any reflection here, whence the "uncompromising" bit.

  20. "Surely that's the whole point of freedom: not to be tied down to some authoritative notion of the person?" I quite agree and that's why I fear the growth of an ideology that rejects that view - zmkc was simply expressing the liberal dilemma, not advocating a pogrom.

    I will stop now, as I can see that nothing I say will make any difference.

  21. Well, perhaps steerforth we can all agree to that-the bleedin' obvious, I mean: that this is a pernicious ideology and that it is morally, spiritually and ethically bankrupt (I'd love to say politically as well but since Saudi and the Gulf States-Britain's "friends"-keep on pushing it that isn't quite true).

    And as long as both of you keep on equating this general term, "Muslims" or "muslim community" or "people of that faith" with the ideology very little progress can be made.

    I feel slightly embarrassed now by using up so much of someone's blogspace and so I apologize for that.

    But there's no dilemma. If you see people, warts and all, in the right way, a 'loving way' (to cite Iris M again) I think you'll see through all these sham divisions and generalities.

    Until then, nanu, nanu.