Humanism’s Limit: The Refugee in our Times

One of the unfortunate tendencies of textbooks is to treat the past as if it is finished. Growing up we learned about Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo as historical villains that had been vanquished by “us”- the free, open, and democratic West. The Nazis were the epitome of evil in the world- invaders of other nations, mass murderers of the Jewish people, burner of books to shut out the light of critical thought. The fascist regimes in Japan and Italy were not far behind in their inhumanity.

But such forces of darkness were definitively banished. We saw that they were- in Robert Capa’s famous D-Day pictures, in the throngs of Dutch citizens who welcomed their liberators, in the bomb that brought Japan to its knees. Hollywood played these scenes of liberation for us over and over on our movie screens. We dreamed of being Indiana Jones beating up Nazi thugs, setting the historical record straight as we winked charmingly at the camera. Masculine wit and freedom fighting went hand in hand.

D-day photo 2
The West Liberating Europe from Fascism (Robert Capa/Magnum)

Fascism, whatever that term meant, was a historical phenomenon that was definitively over. Nobody wore swatstikas on their arms any more. Germany was now open, liberal, free- the beating humanist heart at the center of Europe. The Japanese were now our friends in global culture, a land of holy temples, nighttime ramen stalls, neon-lit shopping streets, and advanced robotics. It represented some kind of chimerical blending of tradition and modernity, woven into one island nation. In our own country, we saw people from different ethnicities live together in large urban centers: a cosmopolitan mosaic to be proud of.

We have been nurtured on these liberal dreams of multi-cultural peace, which still dance in our minds as so many points of pride. As such, it can be forgiven that most young Canadians have yet to realize that we are in the throes of a full-blown fascist moment around the world. The signs of fascist revival are everywhere, borne out of a global economic crisis that has provided ample kindling for the rise of nativist-aggression in many different regions.

We see it in the blind ferocity of Donald Trump’s supporters; the anti-immigrant resentment that is pushing a majority of Briton’s to favor an exit from the European Union; a surge in anti-refugee sentiment in Germany and Sweden, countries which once claimed open borders for all; and a general return to ethnic nationalism as the bedrock of community in countries such as France, Russia, China, and Turkey.

What was once thought of as a dead and buried historical force is manifestly present. No longer the antagonist of Hollywood morality plays, or the object of idle academic theorization, fascism now plays out every night on our television screens, represented by the names Trump, Farage, La Pen, and Pegida.

Pegida
A Rally Called “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West” (PEGIDA) in Dresden (AP)

Even more unsettling is that fact that these far-right movements are not being driven by the elite. They are populist and organic, intricately connected to the economic frustrations and cultural fears of white working people throughout Euro-America. Marxists have long waited for the proletarian in the West to come to consciousness of their own interests and organize against a system that exploits them. They are now doing just that, only in a hideously askew fashion. The populism of the right has two basic demands: keep the immigrants out, save the dwindling jobs for us. The proletarian have been left to their own devices, and what they’ve come up with is not an emancipatory politics of social justice for all, but a narrow politics of ethnic self-interest.

Faced with this overwhelming ethnic-nationalist tide, elected governments in Europe fear for their own survival. As such, they play down to the crowd in hopes of maintaining popular support. If last summer Germany, Sweden, and Denmark were going to be “humanitarian superpowers,” with open borders for all refugees, a scant six months later an entirely different attitude has emerged: we can only take in so many, fortress Europe must be protected.

Such exclusionary policies have been cemented by Europe with their recent deal to pay Turkey to take the suffering peoples of the Middle East off their hands. Exclusion is justified, ironically enough, in the name of social democracy. We are told that Western European countries have a high standard of living, with accessible health care, education, and housing, precisely because their populations are small and their resources plentiful. Take too many impoverished refugees and the entire system will collapse. There are throngs of poor brown and black bodies waiting just across the water, and if one lets them all in, Europe will simply no longer be Europe.

Hungary Border Fence AFP

Refugees Encounter a Fence along the Hungarian Border (AFP)

We here in Canada have, thankfully, been spared the worst of this populist xenophobia, yet we have also been sparred the worst of the refugee crisis. Before we get on our moral high horses, we should remember that nobody has clean hands in our postcolonial world. Yes, Canada took in 25,000 refugees by February of this year, but they were carefully screened families living in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon who already had official refugee status granted to them by the UN. If hundreds of thousands of helpless bodies were streaming directly over our borders, we too would see the specter of fascism rise among us: the building of camps, the concern over roving bands of young men in our public spaces, the need to mark and survey the foreign bodies in our midst, the need to discipline their spiritual and social lives into reflecting our own “values.”

We are not so gracious as our Liberal government likes to pretend we are. 25,000 is an infinitesimal fraction of the millions who have been displaced in Iraq and Syria, conflicts which began with Western military interventions in the region. Simply put, Canada could take far more. As the Canadian Council for Refugees has pointed out, Canada offered a permanent home to less than 1% of the refugees fleeing their countries in 2014. But at a time of massive deficits and negative growth, with low oil offering no respite for years to come, we too have built fortress Canada as best as we can. Our migrants are the wealthy, educated classes of China and South Asia, in full possession of enough cultural and economic capital to thrive in our society from day one.

Thus the fascistic impulse also undergirds Canadian politics, which is based on the unspoken imperative to take only our kind, to not take too much of the Other, the truly Other, the poor, the sick, the non-native speaker, the uneducated, the useless body. Our geography spares us from the worst of the crisis, ensuring we get to pretend to be open to the rest of the world while carefully screening those whom we let in to this bountiful land.

So how should we counter the fascistic tide we face? And how, here in Canada, do we break through the false cosmopolitanism that so many back-patting Canadians indulge in?

Is now not precisely the moment when we need to affirm our humanist ideals unreservedly: nobody is illegal. All are welcome. Sanctuary- bread, water, a warm bed, safety from violence- will be found here for all who come. It is easy to be humanist in times of comfort. It is difficult to do so in the face of global rupture. But if humane ideals are to mean anything at all, then they must stand at the most trying of times, rather than the most idle.

Of course, the first objection the practical reader will have to my claims that nobody is illegal would be an economic one. Such a reader may say: “Certainly you’re not suggesting that Western countries simply accept all who come, regardless of our capacity to integrate and support them?” The skeptic will tell me that society is a fragile thing. If you add in millions of linguistically and culturally alien human beings you are going to not simply impoverish the country economically, but you will rend its social fabric. The newcomers will not integrate, they will be stuck in low-level, poorly paid jobs. Social isolation will emerge and radicalization will follow. At that point, common people will protect themselves and anti-immigrant sentiment will rise.

Lesbos migrants EPA_Stratist Blaskas
Migrants at Lesbos, Greece (EPA/Stratis Balaskas)

Certainly, practical considerations must undergird our offers of sanctuary. Governments must have a plan to integrate migrants into the social whole. Newcomers must be provided linguistic training, educational opportunities, and residence amongst established communities. They cannot be trapped in isolated ghettos away from social centers. And certainly, migrants should be encouraged to learn about the social norms encoded within a country’s most important laws, particularly those concerning gender equality, LGTB rights, family structures, and aboriginal responsibilities. And of course refugees who do not abide by the law of land, who turn to assault and vandalism as a means of expelling their own anger, should face a revocation of their right to sanctuary.


Yet amidst these challenges of social integration, one should not forsake a basic commitment to providing human dignity for all people, especially ones fleeing the horrors of war. Even if a country cannot, without bankrupting its social services, take all these people in, and on those grounds must turn some away, one should still provide them with a level of human dignity while they endure their negotiations with the bureaucratic machine of the nation-state. Space is plentiful in Canada, as it is in many countries in Europe. There is no reason that the most basic of social services cannot be offered- warm shelter and a space to learn- while these refugees negotiate the bureaucratic rigors that await them.

You take as many as you can, and you make the process for those you cannot take in as bearable as possible. You do not take in a minority of refugees and then prance around the world pretending you are the scion of humanitarian justice.

But even as I type these phrases, I am reminded by how easy humanitarian words flow from our keyboards, and how difficult humanitarian action remains for all of us. As of this moment, hundreds of thousands of migrants remain stranded in camps in Greece, Turkey, and elsewhere. Nothing but primal survival and bureaucratic negotiation awaits them.

We could do more, as citizens, as communities, as a nation. But we won’t. The logic of self-interest- we must take care of our own, first and foremost- still dominates. You will not find a mass political movement erupt in Canada in favor of taking more refugees in. Pressure, if it comes, will be to restrict rather than embrace the other.

So how do we live with this fundamental disassociation that defines our lives? For do we not speak humane words but live in fundamentally inhumane ways? Suffering happens everyday around the world, but we remain cloistered and cared for in the First World, basking in our own self-interested career goals and life plans. When we do get angry, it is because the social services we have come to expect- health care, education, pensions- are being eroded. It is still a politics about our needs, not those of the worlds truly impoverished.

In this sense, we are all hypocrites. Nobody can say that they have done all they could.

Is this not the primal trauma of the bourgeois subject? The shame that we all hold within us. And yet even to invoke this shame is a self-indulgent act: for if we truly felt any shame we wouldn’t be writing about it, we would be acting to help those who need our support.

This is a vanity that traffics as shame, a patronizing concern for the other that consolidates our own benign self-image.

We remain trapped in our bourgeois cycles, committed to our own happiness until the end, where hopefully the jangling hypocrisy inside us will cease.

Certainly, it is a tiresome exercise to blame the dead for not being progressive enough. We can blame the living for not being humane enough. Thus, I say to all who read and listen: no one is illegal. We must do all we can, beyond our selves, to stop this crisis.

For outside of self-sacrifice, what possible form of ethics can there be?

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.

One thought on “Humanism’s Limit: The Refugee in our Times

  1. A frank, thoughtful essay on being humanitarian, multicultural, as well as on Canadian complacency. I think about Syrian migrants a lot and I struggle with all three things. It’s odd how I’ve changed with age. There was a time – when I was much younger – that I would have unhesitatingly said, “Bring all the refugees here.”

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