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Refugees and xenophobia: When pragmatism trumps compassion Open in fullscreen

Steven Salaita

Refugees and xenophobia: When pragmatism trumps compassion

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage at the final public meeting before the EU referendum [Getty]

Date of publication: 16 December, 2016

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Comment: The narrative of preserving 'our way of life' was built on reinventing an insecure past, but these days it empowers CEOs and heads of state, writes Steven Salaita.

It is the era of migrants and refugees. 

We exist in a world of scarcity, corruption, disquiet and inequality. People move by choice or circumstance, or they are moved by force or misfortune. Movement will happen in greater numbers as the resources essential to human survival continue to be privatised and apportioned to plutocrats. 

Politicians and pundits in Europe and North America stir up anxiety about new arrivals with strange religions and skin tones. It is an apocryphal lament. The Orient has been in the West for centuries. The only way one could possibly consider blackness, multilingualism, spicy food, or Islam unusual is by ignoring the very same Europe and North America the speaker endeavors to save.  

But neither accuracy nor salvation is the point. Lucrative industries are attached to chauvinism. 

Fretting about Syrian refugees, for instance, is a terrific career move in Europe these days. Demonising Latinos can get you elected president of the United States. The guardians of pure western culture prattle on with grim sanctimony about their "way of life" and how it is threatened by people apparently incapable of adaptation. 

Their lament purports to secure the future but actually reinvents an insecure past. 

It is no longer controversial to observe that worrying over immigrants from the southern hemisphere is xenophobic.  Today's purveyor of xenophobia might not accept the nomenclature, but he happily performs its definition and justifies its pretenses.

There is no attention to the complex demands of globalisation, the aftershock of colonisation, the surplus economies of capitalism

He is proud to be xenophobic even if he recoils at being called a xenophobe. He adores chauvinism even if he is unable to name the term. His prejudice is a form of redemption. He loudly proclaims the superiority of his own imagination. 

Here is UK Conservative Party luminary Norman Tebbit, worried that "the British way of life is under threat from Muslims," in London's Telegraph: "All societies are defined by their dominant culture. While a political entity can govern a state in which there is more than one society, as in India, no society within such a small state as the United Kingdom can accommodate more than one dominant culture." 

Tebbit at least has the decency to use the term "dominant". His usage is meant to connote majoritarianism as a natural social order, but the key terms in the article go undefined.  That doesn't mean they are without definition, however. It is impossible to miss the impulse toward domination in his notion of British culture. 

Xenophobes inevitably return to the safety of nostalgia. They revere the stagnant logic of capitalist individualism

Commentators such as Tebbit pretend that Syrians, like the South Asians and Nigerians of prior decades, arrived at their doorstep by some incomprehensible act of history. There is no attention to the complex demands of globalisation, the aftershock of colonisation, the surplus economies of capitalism, the labor drain of deindustrialisation, the western-sponsored wars that produce insecurity, or the systematic plundering of Third World resources by rapacious corporations in league with their handpicked potentates. 

Refugees merely arrive and cause trouble. Migrants set out on errands of upheaval. Their minds portend doom. Their bodies are a destructive force. 

Xenophobes inevitably return to the safety of nostalgia.  They revere the stagnant logic of capitalist individualism.  In their reckoning, deprivation is inevitable. Sustenance is competition. The culture protected by state power is destined to survive. Everything they say is eminently reasonable according to frugal dialectics of greed adored by the dominant culture. 

Those of us interested in empathy can do better. We should be wary of pragmatism whenever it is at odds with compassion

Those of us interested in empathy can do better. We should be wary of pragmatism whenever it is at odds with compassion. I have no simple solution and believe it foolish to pretend that one exists, but I insist on thoughtfulness and humanity whenever confronting serious problems in this world. 

We get the opposite from sites of civilized punditry. Because of their unjustified self-satisfaction, xenophobes cannot recognise the violence inherent to modernity. The ways of life they want to preserve were forged in the brutalities of conquest, slavery, persecution, displacement and genocide. 

Only through repetition of that violence can they be sustained. Western values aren't the antidote to foreign threats; those values are the reason anything foreign must be perceived as threatening. 

The narrative about preserving "our way of life" was always troublesome - simpleminded, really - but these days it empowers CEOs and heads of state. It transforms nostalgia into material consequence. It precludes analysis and introspection. Its main function is to accelerate massive dispossession, even when that isn't its purpose. Let's instead produce conversations up to the task of strange and spontaneous encounters.  

We should aspire to something greater than banal retrenchment. After all, who wants to preserve a "way of life" that is so inhospitable, so ungenerous, so inflexible, so afraid? 

Steven Salaita is an American scholar, author and public speaker. His latest book is Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom.  Follow him on Twitter: @stevesalaita 


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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