FEBRUARY 9 2010 18:10h
The problem with modern immigration is that it often includes welcoming strangers into your own home community, city, or country.
It seems the more things change, the more they remain the same. Centuries ago, the role of foreigners within an established society – those we refer to today as “immigrants” - was already an issue of hot dispute.
Although foreigners were highly respected and honored as guests in ancient Greece, they were discouraged from staying and introducing their “songs” and “poems”, that is, traditions, culture, myths, and legends, into the community. “Don’t suppose we’ll ever easily, at any rate, let you come among us, set up your stage in the marketplace, and introduce actors whose beautiful voices speak louder than ours”, warns the Athenian in Plato’s “Laws”. Don’t suppose we’ll easily let you make public speeches to the children and the women and the whole mob, speaking of the same pursuits that we speak of, but saying things that are in great part the most opposite to what we say. We would almost certainly be mad to do so!”
Now, over two millennia later, in spite of the highly touted new, “open frontiers”, and the countless laws, conventions, statutes, and judicial proclamations mandated to protect individual rights, there seems to be a growing sentiment, just as in ancient times, that allowing immigrants unlimited access into one’s community is still “mad”.
A recent survey conducted by Britain’s second largest women’s organization, The Townswomen’s Guild, established in 1928 when women got the vote, attests to this growing trend. When asked their opinion of the current immigration levels to the country, 95% of the members agreed that if the levels did not change, the country would lose its identity. Another 94% said the present levels put a strain on community relations, and 24% opposed immigration totally.
Questioned about these surprising results from a group traditionally supportive of minority, civil, and all other rights, having themselves been subjected to diverse forms of discrimination which continue to this day, the Guild’s national chairman, Sue Smith, said that the issue “was not race, it’s numbers, and the members clearly feel immigration policy needs to protect our way of life and environment and recognize the increasing pressure on overstretched public services.”
The same day, in response to customer complaints that many taxi drivers could not speak English, British drivers in Southampton began displaying signs on their cabs: “I speak English!” After being threatened with suspension if the signs remained on display, the chairman of the Taxi company responded that “the signs are not racial. We just want to make sure new drivers have command of the English language.”
The expression of opposition to the foreign “songs” and “poems” was seen in a much deadlier manner not long ago off the coast of Italy. Boats carrying hundreds of African migrants seeking refuge and asylum in Italy were not allowed to disembark on Italian territory. Abandoned to their own resources, and ignored by at least seven passing boats, the entire Italian political elite, as well as the international community, all but a few of the hundreds of occupants died horrible deaths as a result of starvation, dehydration, or drowning.
So much for the multicultural, egalitarian principles espoused by today’s Western world. At least on paper. As Jerry Muller points out in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, (“Clash of Peoples: Why Ethnic Nationalism will Drive Global Politics for Generations”), unchecked immigration not only endangers the Right’s, but also the Left’s political agenda, especially when its “cultural propensities clash with the cultural illiberalism of some of the new immigrant communities”; for example, genital mutilation, arranged marriages, or murders in defense of “family honor”; when, as the Athenian put it, “actors whose voices speak louder than ours” are allowed full expression.
And here’s where things get complicated. Speaking out in protection of civil rights for all the endangered groups of the world is more than an abstract expression of solidarity with the oppressed minorities of the world. It often means welcoming them into your own home, community, city, or country. There’s an expression for it in the United States: NIMBY: Not in my backyard! That’s what happened recently in democratic Britain and Italy. The Athenian had the last laugh after all.