notes in perplexing times




As a combative melancholic  I am always looking for positive stories to make up for my congenital pessimism. Nothing as invigorating as the ‘audacity of hope’.   

So for me, one of the rare hopeful events in 2015 had been Germany’s voluntarism in the face of the refugee crisis.
Not merely because it was a rare display of humanity in times of crisis.  But even more because it looked like they could pull it off, with their Deutsche grundlichkeit:  not just temporarily hosting war refugees in segregated camps, but integrating them as members of German society & economy (1).  In spite of all the difficulties, hope sprang it was possible to live up to an essentially moral decision (2) of welcoming refugees without sacrificing social cohesion.

In a human species driven by selfish genes - is goodness a naïve strategy, bound to be abused? (3) 

Many good people in Germany must now be asking themselves that question. Their disillusionment is but one of the woeful effects of the criminal events on New Year’s eve in Cologne. That unthinking, drunken mob serially attacking women, the mocking cruelty of those gangs … it taps into the worst fears of any woman.  It was indeed an assault on the most basic of human rights : the right to move freely about without fear of being  molested. (4)

Two weeks on, we’ve had the predictably repulsive populist reactions. And we have a debate raging (with varying degrees of quality & objectivity) about the feasibility (and even the desirability as such) of integrating huge numbers of people (with a majority of young men) coming from war-torn countries with a very different socio-economic and cultural background.  (5)
It’s not an easy debate (6), but we must have it, as “people may legitimately differ on the correct policies”.  (7)



the greater the perplexity, the lengthier the notes

(1)    After all, though not brilliant, up till now the German integration record of migrants was better than many others in Europe. A  lot better than Belgium’s integration record at any rate –

(2)    The German welcoming stance was in essence a moral one (hoping to redeem nazi-history?). Some point to the economic/demographic rationale for welcoming refugees in an ageing society with a declining population. 

This economic rationale clearly holds in the case of selective migration policies (eg as in Canada), when only well trained immigrants are accepted, only those with a background that can easily fit in.  There is little or no selectiveness in the current European refugee policies. As to the stories of highly educated Syrian refugees – yes, they are certainly there, but they are a minority. Recent Flemish statistics showed that max 30% of 2015 asylum seekers describe themselves as ‘higher educated’.  

The demographic rationale is certainly relevant – 80% of 2015 refugees were younger than 35.   But this demographic “boon” comes with its own challenges: 75% of current asylum applicants are male. (latest figures in Belgium) .  Throughout the ages and across cultures there’s one common recipe for trouble:  having an excess of unattached, unemployed young men. So better bring in the migrants’ families? And thus multiply again the number of newcomers? That’s exactly the policy followed with previous waves of immigrants, not with huge success alas, because of the continuous starting all over again of the integration efforts.  

(3)    As a misanthrope, one might expect me to say yes. But, in fact, experience has proven me wrong. At work I have learned how a positive, trusting attitude (even faked!) combined with empathy can do wonders to motivate a team.  Feeing trusted makes most people both loyal and driven to surpass themselves (and vice versa). Most people, not all. There’s the rub: there are always free-riders. There are always those who see empathy as a weakness to be exploited. And based on the limited sample of my experience, it’s more often men than women who will abuse goodness. Vigilance is always needed to identify the free-riders, the selfish egos. Just like pure self-interest must be tempered by “enlightened” regard for the rights of others, so altruism needs to be “enlightened” by cautiousness.     

(4)    Subsequent condemnations and shocked reactions by innocent refugees were accompanied by assurances to the “dear women of Germany” that all women should be respected as if they were “one’s sister, daughter or mother”.  I’m sure they meant well, but it’s the kind of reaction that only adds to my dismay: can’t a woman be respected just because she is an individual human being? Is respect only due to women in function of their being some man’s sister, daughter, or mother?   

(5)    It’s interesting to look at some  statistics to understand where countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (top 3 countries of origin of asylum applicants in Belgium)  stand in terms of male and female literacy rates,  female participation in the labour force, women’s rights .

In Syria, for instance, according to World Bank figures there is still a 12% literacy gap between men and women (the gap is 31% in Afghanistan, 15% in Iraq). http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.FE.ZS 
Female labour participation rates are very low, around 15%,  in all three countries.  http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.CACT.FE.ZS  ; versus 60% overall female labour participation rate in Flanders/Belgium,(80% in age bracket 25-49) and coming from 40% in the 70s(http://www.rosadoc.be/joomla/index.php/kwesties/arbeidsparticipatie/in-vlaanderen )

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, in Iraq 92% of Muslims mostly agree that a woman should always obey her husband (94% in Afghanistan, no figures available for Syria)
I’ve no survey results for Belgium - I’m quite naturally & happily assuming that a wife is no longer expected to “obey her husband”. But I was surprised to find how recent this  (legal) equality really is.
Only in April 1958 (!) a law was approved to end the legal incapacity of married women. The Belgian Civil Code was adapted in order to change an article 214 previously stipulating that “de vrouw moet de man gehoorzamen” (“ a wife should obey her husband”) into “het huwelijk wijzigt de burgerlijke bekwaamheid van de echtgenoten niet” (“ marriage does not change the legal/civic competence of the spouses”). (source: "En de vrouwen? - Denise De Weerdt, 1980"). 
This date is a sobering reminder, which I also take as a call for vigilance. (History knows too many phases of regression).

(6)    One can and should invoke moral imperatives, but countries do have a right to consider whether there are limits to their absorptive capacity and whether refugees can also be helped in ways other than definitively integrating them in the host countries. Can a European consensus be found in so existential a  debate? 

(7)    from Martin Wolf’s  (economic) opinion column in the FT (September 2015).
“Yet migration  is not just about economics. Immigrants are people. They bring in families, for example. Over time, large-scale immigration will transform the cultures of recipient countries in complex ways.

Immigrants bring diversity and cultural dynamism. At the same time, as Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling notes, substantial segregation might naturally emerge. People might then live quite separately, without many shared loyalties.

Immigration has economic effects. But it also affects the current and future values of a country, including its concern for foreigners. People may legitimately differ on the correct policies”. 

(8)    A final, unattached note: Mass immigration is a social experiment – in fact no one can predict what the consequences are.  And the way "we" behave now, will itself influence the course that future events will take.  "We" will need the right balance of realism and goodwill. And "we" will need goodwill and voluntarism coming from all involved parties. Otherwise there is not and never will be a “we”.  At this point  I am quite apprehensive. How much turmoil still lays ahead? And how much of what I value in European culture will survive?  But then again, I do continue to take comfort from the day to day “multi-cultural” living together  as  I experience it at work or in my neighbourhood. Not all is lost yet.     




2 comments:

billoo said...

Great post, fff.

There *are* lots of serious problems and I don't think much is gained by ignoring them or assuming that a half-baked policy of "multi-culturalism" will resolve them. On the other hand, though, I think some of the problems are hyped up or are not representative of other changes (i.e. its a mixed bag). For example, as a result of schooling, work, the media, language and sport there is probably a lot more integration (at least in the UK) than some of the right wing press would have us believe. Housing, I think, remains a problem.

Also, I think you're talking about a deeper question, one about (European) culture that may actually have little to do with immigrants. Arendt: Crisis of culture?

But, no, perplexing times indeed.

Swann Ffflaneur said...

Hi b.

indeed - mass culture, globalisation, migration, digitalisation, .... The pace of change is overwhelming. And what traditions are left to help us cope with this "crisis in culture"?


Meanwhile, I do hope you keep safe. (quite alarming, that attack on a university.)

best,
fff