20 April 2019

On Thoughtcrimes In A Borderless World (The Matthias Corvinus College Budapest Summit on Migration, 22-24 March)

"Borderlessness has become – without its proponents realising it – an ideology, one that not only has its contradictions but also its very illiberal consequences, though those who adhere to it pride themselves on being the most liberal of the liberal. It is the ideology in which to an increasing extent (or so it seems to me, and no doubt to most other people at the Budapest conference) the young in the West..."

Sometimes you realise the obvious only in retrospect. Thus it dawned on me but slowly that there was something rather odd about the recent Budapest Summit on Migration, namely that there was so little security. People at the door accepted without question that I and my wife were who we said we were and that we had no gelignite in the soles of our shoes or nail-bombs in our inside pockets. Not even her bag was searched. I had known more security trying to get into the staff lavatory in the National Health Service hospital in England in which I used to work than in entering the hall in Budapest in which there were soon to be eminent but sometimes controversial people.

A realisation such as this causes you to reflect on something that you had previously taken for granted, in this case the degree to which our lives in the West are now governed or at least affected by security measures – codes, passwords, searches, and the like. One is threatened by (among many other things) what is called identity theft, as if a human being were but the sum of his bank accounts, his subscriptions, his insurance policies and all the other things to which it requires a code or password to gain access, either virtual or physical.

The precise degree to which such security checks are actually necessary or beneficial to us cannot be known, but it certainly affects our attitude to life. On the one hand we are the people who, in the whole history of humanity, have the least chance of suffering from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and on the other we are told (and therefore tend to believe) that we are surrounded by threat. In France you have to carry a gilet jaune with you whenever you drive anywhere – a regulation that the authorities may now somewhat regret having promulgated – but I imagine that it would be virtually impossible to work out how many people’s lives have actually been saved, or injuries prevented, by this regulation. It is probably easier to work out how many fortunes have been made, how many millionaires created or made richer, by the compulsory purchase of these light-reflecting jackets by a population of some tens of millions– made in China, of course.

One of the speakers at the conference, Professor Frank Furedi, has made the excessive, one might say neurotic, caution of modern society – which acts to the great benefit of politicians, regulators and bureaucrats, and to the great detriment of our personal liberty – his principal subject, almost indeed a cheval de bataille. Professor Furedi is one of only three sociologists whom I have ever known who seem always to have something interesting and illuminating to say on whatever subject he speaks of, and strangely enough two of the three of that select band have been of Hungarian origin (the other being Professor Paul Hollander). I have never heard Professor Furedi express a dull thought, and were it not for the fact that he is now only professor emeritus, I should have found his possession of a university chair despite his clarity of thought reassuring as to the state of our academic life. He has that great but by no means common ability to say things that are simultaneously obvious and revelatory: a combination that I find is one of the greatest pleasures of intellectual life.

It was not our obsession with safety and security of which he spoke on this occasion, however, but of the underlying reasons for the evident desire of a large part of the western intelligentsia to eliminate borders and other limits both from our minds and our laws, thus undermining the moral legitimacy of, among other things, the nation state, and therefore of its right of that nation state to exclude anyone from its borders. Those who think in this fashion assume for themselves the mantle of virtue; they are – or rather, consider themselves to be – open-minded and large-spirited, in contradistinction to all those who accept limits or borders, indeed believe them to be essential to a good life, and who by the definition of their opponents are bigoted and small-minded, proponents of war and conflict.

Professor Furedi illustrated the self-congratulatory nature of the world-outlook of those who cannot perceive a limit without wishing to destroy it by an amusing (and long) list of organisations, found by a simple search on the internet, that have imitated the French humanitarian association of doctors, Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders, such as Accountants or Engineers Without Borders, ending with Herbalists Without Borders. One hesitates to satirise these days, because what begins as satire so soon becomes policy, but one could easily imagine an organisation, Prostitutes Without Borders, to assist those nations or regions of the world in which there is a demographic imbalance between the sexes, thereby reducing the sexual tension that leads to crime, suicide, etc. Sociology does not have to be dull.

The desire to destroy boundaries is all around us, for example in sexual matters. Krafft-Ebing’s great catalogue or compendium of sexual peculiarities, Psychopathia Sexualis, whose very title implies a distinction between the normal and the abnormal, would now probably be read, if read at all, as a commercial catalogue of bathroom tiles, carpets or curtain fabrics is read, that is to say as a list of alternatives among which it is possible for the customer to choose. We live, or some say we ought to live, in an existential supermarket, in which lifestyles are stacked on the shelves waiting to be tried by the customers of life, with nobody having the right to tell us what or which to choose.

As to limits, we accept only those which can be justified by valid deduction from some indubitable first principle that we accept or choose by ourselves, which limits must therefore be very few if any exist at all; or alternatively those limits that we accept voluntarily, of our own free, untrammelled and good, will exist because it is we who have imposed them. All other limits, such as those we inherited, are arbitrary, dictatorial, unjustified and unjustifiable, and therefore not to be obeyed, indeed they are to be broken as the chains of slaves are to be broken. It is no cause for wonder that, in the criticism of art and architecture, the ascription of the word transgressive is now invariably one of approbation, no matter what taboo is actually being transgressed. The only taboo is against taboos themselves.

Borderlessness has become – without its proponents realising it – an ideology, one that not only has its contradictions but also its very illiberal consequences, though those who adhere to it pride themselves on being the most liberal of the liberal. It is the ideology in which to an increasing extent (or so it seems to me, and no doubt to most other people at the Budapest conference) the young in the West, particularly those who will be the future political and cultural leaders, are being indoctrinated, often from a very early age.

Only yesterday, for example, I had dinner with some young people in Paris. They were charming, intelligent, good company, highly educated in the best schools and universities, and of course bourgeois. At some point they started to discuss among themselves a man who had made it his charitable work to assist would-be illegal migrants into France, and to help them once they were there. In this, they saw only compassion in relieving the suffering of the migrants, good works opposed only by the forces of darkness and bigotry, etc.

I knew from experience that to present any contrary thought or opinion would only bring down upon me the accusation of being more or less a facho (fascist), the kind of person for example who, not rejoicing in the advance of transsexualism, would beat up a transsexual in the street if he saw one: for in a world without borders, there is no distinction between an opinion and the violence to which, if taken to illogical extremes, it might conduce.

This, of course, is why borders in a borderless world have to be re-imposed, this time not so much on space as on what can be thought or said, for what can be thought or said is now regarded as but the precursor of what will eventually be done. Thus new categories of crime have to be invented, for example islamophobia or hate-crime, which is not very different from Orwell’s thoughtcrime in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Everyone in polite society must henceforth censor himself, not merely in the way that is necessary for any civilised social intercourse to take place at all (we do not say to a woman at a party, “God, what an awful dress you’re wearing!”), but in opinion, fact and even nomenclature (woe betide him who calls a transgender person a transsexual, for that implies there is some biological rather than merely socially-imposed difference between the sexes or genders!). Borders are like nature: though you throw them out with a pitchfork, yet they return, though now they may attach themselves to something quite new.

My young Parisian friends at dinner would have agreed uncritically with the following passage in a little book that I read in my return from Budapest, Dans la tête de Viktor Orbán (“In Viktor Orbán’s Head”) by Amélie Poinssot (Actes Sud, 2019):

 

The Hungarian number one has moreover succeeded, de facto, in imposing an anti-immigration line at the European level: a position that aims at security, focussed on the closure of borders and hostile towards any manifestations of solidarity.

 

There is a great deal to say about this little passage, whose implicit or unspoken message is more significant than its explicit one, but which I am confident that my friends would miss altogether.

Let us take the word imposed: how has Mr Orbán imposed anything on Europe, and by what means? He is the leader of a country that is neither economically nor militarily strong by comparison with the other countries of Europe. One is inclined to repeat Stalin’s question in another context, “How many tanks has Mr Orbán?” The imposition of his views, if it had occurred (which I would deny), could only have been the result of moral suasion, that is to say could only have been the result of the decisions of others. But the words in question imply that he has had some Svengali-type influence on the leaders of the rest of Europe, which is ridiculous.

What this short passage also implies is that the closing of the borders of Europe had nothing whatever to do with reality, with lived experience, that it was Mr Orbán’s malign influence that closed the borders and not, for example, the arrival of more than 1,000,000 refugees in Germany and 160,000 in Sweden in 2015 (figures that might by now have swelled a further 3,000,000 and 480,000, or even more, if the same policy had been followed and borders not been closed). In such figures, the author of the passage clearly sees nothing to worry about; but this sets her apart from the populations and even the politicians of the receiving countries. Does she, could she, really believe that if Mr Orbán had not existed, the borders of Germany and Sweden would have remained as open to migrants as they were in 2015?

Finally, the author’s use of the word solidarity is very revealing. No one would deny that, as human beings, we have a duty of charity to others, but charity cannot possibly mean unlimited liability for the welfare of the whole of humanity, nor is government policy a matter of charity. Giving succour to a man on the street is not the same as making social security arrangements for a whole society. A certain kind of liberal constantly conflates the two.

Charity imposes costs on oneself, solidarity (in the author’s sense) imposes costs on others, indeed on everyone else. These costs, where they are merely financial, are paid by forced contribution, that is to say represent compulsory solidarity under threat of prosecution. Worse still, those who speak so airily of such solidarity in this context do not recognise any ironies, for example that since Mr Salvini took the decision to close Italian ports to migrant rescue-ships, the closure being a denial of solidarity in the author’s sense of the word and the ships being an expression of it, deaths of migrants trying to cross to the central Mediterranean have declined by 80 per cent (at the conference, the former Australian foreign minister recounted something similar with regard to migrants trying to reach Australia by boat). A strange kind of solidarity, then, that results in the death of those towards whom one is expressing it!

Nor do people such as the author see any irony in the fact that those with whom they are principally expressing their solidarity are the people-smugglers who traffic the would-be migrants at great profit. And this suggests another irony, pointed out by the writer Douglas Murray at the conference: that since the migrants are not the poorest of the poor, but are those who can pay, or whose family can pay, the cost of the journey, often several thousand dollars, to the people-smugglers, the economic development of Africa while in full demographic expansion is more likely (though one cannot say it for certain) to increase than decrease the number of migrants.

Contributors to the conference exposed the ironies implicit in the arguments of those who deny that large scale migration is, or ever could be, a serious problem for Europe. First, they say, such immigration is inevitable and unstoppable; second, that it is necessary, given Europe’s demographic decline; third, that it is an economic good in itself, irrespective of the provenance, nature or number of the immigrants; fourth, that it is an enormous cultural boost; and fifth, that the burden that immigrants impose on Europe should be shared proportionately between its countries.

All these arguments were examined in a rational way during the conference. If history suggests that it is inevitable that there will be people who seek to move from one part of the world to another, from fear of what they leave behind or in search of betterment, it is certainly not inevitable that any given country should receive them. Both Japan and Australia take only as many immigrants as they decide in advance to take, and no others; if Europe does not do likewise it is through lack of political will to do so.

The demographic argument, to the effect that Europe is short of labour and therefore needs to import it from outside the continent disregards the very high rates of youth employment in Greece, Spain, Italy and France: currently 39, 33, 30 and 20 per cent respectively, rates that were even higher at the time when Germany and Sweden were allowing entry to so many migrants. (In 2015, France alone had about 1.5 million young unemployed, considerably more than all the immigrants admitted by Germany and Sweden in that year put together.) The argument, then, is fallacious if applied to Europe as a whole.

Whether mass immigration is beneficial for the economy as a whole remains a matter of contention. Dogmatism is out of place, but for myself I have rarely heard claims stronger than that immigration increases aggregate output, and not that it increases output per head, which is far more important. Moreover, it is surely one thing to import a large amount of unskilled labour where there is a need for it or a capacity to absorb it into the economy, as there was in 19th-century America, but another entirely where the demand for unskilled labour is necessarily weak, and must therefore depress the wages of the local low-skilled. All this is without counting the non-economic or cultural costs of mass immigration, which cannot be summarised by the opening of a lot of different restaurants, to the great pleasure of the local diners-out.

The supposed cultural benefits of mass migration are likewise debatable. A hermetically-sealed country that accepted no foreigners and allowed no foreign influences would undoubtedly be both unpleasant and condemning itself to cultural and economic stagnation, but practically no one would argue for such a condition. Openness to others is not the same as welcoming the development of what amount to ghettoes on one’s soil, such that people can in effect leave their country without leaving it, all the easier in an age of satellite television, instant communication and easy travel. The argument is based on the pessimistic view that our European cultures are moribund and need fresh inspiration from, say, Somalia, Afghanistan and Eritrea.

It is obvious, finally, that if mass immigration were so unequivocal and self-evident a blessing, the burdens of refugees and immigrants (the two categories being extremely difficult to distinguish, as I know from personal experience) would not have to be shared, and countries would not be seeking to offload them on to other countries but doing everything they could to attract them, which they are not doing except by default and inadvertence. Once mass immigration has taken place, moreover, there is no undoing its effects. You cannot make eggs out of an omelette.

My main regret at the conference was that the speakers were all of the same or similar minds, when what was most urgently needed is proper face-to-face debate so that ideas may be tested in a public forum against their contraries, preferably without insult and rancour, and in which no one would be able to hide behind such vacuous generalities as solidarity. To preach to the choir is a pleasant and comforting activity, no doubt, and reinforces the psychologically rewarding tendency to believe that one is a member of a righteous but besieged minority; and the role of Cassandra is not without its pleasures. But it is not the way ultimately to avoid conflict or solve problems.

Who, though, is refusing to discuss with whom?

One of the distinguished speakers, whom I shall refrain from naming, told me in private that he felt a certain unease as he heard speaker after speaker utter the thoughts that he himself had had. In the mouths of others, he worried that they sounded harsh and inhumane, for after all the migrants, whatever their motives for moving, had usually had extremely difficult lives and individually were often good people; moreover, these thoughts could, in the absence of proper self-control and when expressed immoderately, result in the vilest political behaviour.






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