There has been a lot of posting on facebook this year about Trump’s immigration policy, and particularly the apparently new policy of separating illegal immigrant parents from their children. On that subject, I can think of no better analysis than Fr. James Martin’s article in America magazine. The injunctions throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament (notably in Matthew 25) are quite clear that Christians (and Jews) should welcome and support the foreigner in their country.
At the same time, there was a lot of discussion (in Europe, at least) a while ago about Italy’s refusal to allow a ship full of immigrants from Africa to dock in an Italian port, which followed on multiple occasions when ill-constructed vessels overloaded with such immigrants have sunk between North Africa and Italy and between Turkey and Greece. It was therefore with considerable interest that I watched this video about the border between Mellilla and Morocco.
I do find Spain’s attitude to its enclaves in North Africa at Ceuta and Mellilla ironic, considering that they have throughout my lifetime been making a fuss about the British enclave in Spain (Gibraltar), and periodically closing the border – not, in that case, to stem a flood of British immigrants into Spain, but to make life as difficult as possible for the Gibraltarians. All three of these enclaves date back to past wars in which the territories were captured or ceded; the Spanish ones are longer-standing than is Gibraltar, but all three are characterised by having long established populations which are not the same as the surrounding territory, but which strongly self-identify with their “mother country”. Gibraltarians, for instance, are absolutely adamant that they do not want to be part of Spain. (This is a topic of particular interest to me, as my wife was born in Gibraltar and so is technically Gibraltarian as well as English, courtesy of her father being stationed there at the time of her birth, and also because it was only about 20 years ago that I first visited Spain – previously I had been influenced by my mother’s ardent dislike of Spain because of their attitude to Gibraltar…)
I was particularly struck in the “borders” video by the tide of humanity trying to get over the border fence into Mellilla, and therefore into Europe. I will admit to being torn between two views on the kind of unlimited immigration. One side of me says that, in accordance with scripture, we should welcome the refugee, care for them and help them enter our society. On an individual basis, that is certainly how I view refugees (there are some refugees resident in my town in Yorkshire, and while I haven’t had significant contact with them, I have supported them to a modest extent).
On the other hand, I look at the pictures from Mellilla, and part of me is terrified by the flood of people who, I have to admit to feeling, are “not like us” (there have been similar videos of people trying to get into the Calais terminal to get through the Channel Tunnel which have had much the same effect on me, but I think the Mellilla clip is particularly powerful – or scary, depending on your view.) This part of me questions when a movement of refugees becomes an invasion – and my immediate thought is “Am I being racist here?”, particularly because President Trump has just characterised a caravan of a few thousand Honduran refugees as an invasion and mobilised many more than their numbers of troops to repulse them.
I don’t actually think I am being racist, as such – the colour of their skins is irrelevant, I would be just as concerned if they were as white as I am (or if they were blue-eyed blond haired Nordic types, so rather whiter than me). Their desperation is definitely a factor – I do not trust desperate people not to be violent, sometimes very violent. The sheer numbers are also a factor – I’m very conscious of crowd mentality, and its tendency towards violence and tendency to regard anyone who is not part of that crowd as an enemy to be eradicated. Both of those concerns are neutral as regards race. But I do worry, probably largely because of my upbringing, but perhaps also because despite a commitment in principle to the community of all of humanity, I still have some tribal leanings.
Growing up, I recall many of my parents’ generation being casually racist in their speech and attitudes, which I was brought up to avoid like the plague, despite living in what was effectively a white monoculture. Even so, my father, in particular, was often casually xenophobic, and he stereotyped other nations in a way which grated with me, including several European nationalities. The French, Italians and Germans were particular targets for him, though we often holidayed in France and Italy and he spoke both languages at at least tourist level (I could understand his generation being wary of Germans, given that they had lived through World War II). Is that, I ask myself, actually racism? He was pretty much unconcerned with skin colour (which is the most obvious basis of racism), but he was definitely sold on the idea that nationalities had general characteristics. He was very keen on jokes such as “Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics German, the lovers Italian and it’s all organised by the Swiss. Hell is where the chefs are British, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss, the police German and it’s all organised by the Italians.” But I think he also extended this to the point where, for instance, he would have probably been reluctant to employ a Frenchman as a mechanic… and that is, for me, a step too far (and Aerospatiale gives the lie to that stereotype anyhow). Was he being racist? I don’t know, but I’m pretty certain he was being “ethnicist” (if there’s such a word), and (although that might be the same thing), tribal.
Thinking of my reaction to the Mellilla video, I think I may also be somewhat ethnicist and tribal at a very deep rooted level. These people are not “my tribe”… they are different (if only because “my tribe” is generally not desperate, starving and/or afraid to return home). I grant that I worry about immigration generally, on the grounds that, firstly, I live on a fairly small island with a high population density compared with most countries (though less than, say, the Netherlands in Europe or Singapore elsewhere) and I worry about the capacity of the country to support a massively greater population – the UK is not, for instance, self-sufficient in food production as matters stand and our international balance of payments is not wonderful (issues which I would not worry about at all were I American), and if Brexit goes through, we are going to need to be very self-sucfficient, at least until (and if) we can negotiate a new set of trade treaties.
Secondly I worry on the basis that a really major flood of people immigrating would change the character of society more rapidly than it has actually been changing over my lifetime – and I think that pace of change has been excessive and has led to fractures in the fabric of our society which may well have catastrophic repercussions in the future. I worry, for instance, that immigrants may tilt the political balance in the direction of authoritarianism (immigration so far has already produced a substantial far right as a reaction to it, which is itself deeply authoritarian, but it is the ingrained attitudes of the immigrants themselves which I worry about there).
Yes, I will admit to a degree of nostalgia for what I could easily view as a “golden age” when a broad communitarianism informed all three major political parties (yes, including the “one nation” Conservatives who used to be dominant) and I could think that although we might be becoming far more secular, the “social gospel” was so rooted in society that we could only move in the direction of more communitarianism, when there was reasonable job security once you got a job in most areas, where education was state-funded up to and including degree level and when concerns which had strategic importance to the country or which formed natural monopolies (such as steel and power generation in the first case and railways and telecommunications in the second) were run on behalf of the people as a whole and not for the interests of a small group of shareholders (yes, I will concede that they were not necessarily all run very well, but considering the current state of the railways, for instance, I am wholly unconvinced that an artificial competition has produced a better result). I am, after all, an old guy now, and have always had a conservative streak (with a small “c”). Turning the clock back is, however, not possible – but we can look at the period from, say, 1950 to 1980 (to an approximation) and think “yes, we were doing some things better than, and some worse then” and actually learn from our history, and direct the future with that in mind.
In the case of national identity, which to me is a form of tribalism (about which I wrote several posts in 2017, of which this is the first), so long as we are going to organise ourselves in nation states (and I don’t think we’re remotely ready for something much beyond that – and Brexit is a movement in the other direction, profoundly reactionary, which illustrates the idea that we were not yet quite ready enough for a larger identity than the nation in the European dream), we are going to need to have some characteristics which bring us together as a nation. Otherwise, we will just be a collection of individuals living in a geographical area. We may, in fact, be just that already, but enough of us don’t think so to have won the Brexit vote. That is a dangerous position to be in…
But I pause for a moment, and wonder if the crowds at Calais are sufficient to put a significant further dent in what it is to be a British nation, if those in Mellilla are sufficient to put a dent in what it is to be a nascent European nation, or if a few thousand Hondurans are able to dent the concept of America. I conclude that they are nothing like enough to do this in each of those cases – so my reaction of fear is unwarranted. So is that of President Trump and his supporters.
Fear, unfortunately, breeds authoritarianism, and authoritarianism is deeply contrary to the essence of both what it is to be British and what it is to be American. We must, I think, examine that fear and reject it.