By Matthew Petersen
In response to somewhat shrill claims by some Christian intellectuals that Christians ought to support mass migration, and oppose Brexit, Stephen Wolfe recently published an article at Mere Orthodoxy arguing that Christians can (and perhaps should) oppose immigration. Stephen draws from an impressive array of natural law sources to argue that the differentiation between foreigner and citizen is good, and a natural part of human life. This differentiation is integral in protecting the particularities in and through which communities are formed and given their deep particular character.
This position regarding the deep particularity of places is also argued, persuasively, in a piece by Alastair Roberts published by Mere Orthodoxy on Brexit, and the necessity of making peace between the cosmopolitans who tended to oppose Brexit and the locals who favored it. Alastair lays out the competing anthropologies on which hopes for mass immigration, and opposition to it, are based. According to a liberal anthropology, we are all interchangeable individuals, whose connection to our land, our parents, and our people, is merely accidental; on the other hand, according to a more Biblical anthropology, our person is always deeply embedded in the particularities of a people and a land.
Stephen draws out the consequences of this line of thinking: We need to be careful what societies we allow immigrants from, and how many. Allowing too many immigrants in, or immigrants from lands whose customs are not compatible with our lands and customs, destroys the local particularity of our lives, and the force these particularities have to resist the ravages of a market society (e.g. ugly, dishonest, advertisements everywhere), and makes us more immediately subject to the direct control of a centralized state. We ought therefore to have limits on the number of immigrants from particular cultures and nations, and in setting those limits, we ought to pay attention to the compatibility of their way of life, and ours, and the ease they have of assimilating.
I agree with their emphasis on protecting particular places, at home, and abroad. And I agree that the real deep division facing us today is between cosmopolitans characterized as universal, and tolerant of diversity; and yokels, particularly religious yokels, characterized as intolerant and fanatical; and that this constructed division disguises the particularity and intolerance of the cosmopolitans, and their habitual failure to silence themselves, and so create spaces in which they can listen to their “fanatical” neighbors. These are helpful articles that raise very important concerns.
Globalization complicates the question of immigration in multiple significant ways.
Strikingly absent from either analysis, however, are several critical questions:
- What sorts of claims are made about foreign yokels, living at here and abroad, by the claim that their way of life is incompatible with English or American ways of life? Is this merely a statement of difference, or, given the way yokels and cosmopolitan world citizens are related, does it implicitly contain a value judgment on these foreigners, claiming that they are inferior, and not only inferior, but inescapably so?
- Second, focusing on the flow of human bodies, but not materials, into Britain, Europe, or America, do we maintain a system in which Euro-American Capital is used to destroy places abroad, while arbitrarily protecting the forms of life in one geographic area, of a now unified and scientifically measured globe? (And is a strong protectionism that not only protects Europe and America from the destruction caused by the flow of foreign bodies into our lands, but that also protects foreign land from the destruction caused by the flow of Euro-American Capital into their lands, a feasible option?)
- Third, to what degree are the Euro-American forms of life dependent on carbon technologies? If we are completely dependent on carbon to sustain our way of life that means that, even when local in execution, our lifestyle is global in effect, and destructive of other forms of life, particular life abroad.
- Fourth, in the US, though perhaps not in Britain, how do current strong restrictions on immigration work to procure cheap labor that is incapable of protesting civil rights abuses—both because the illegal immigrants lack standing to protest, and because they are kept in fear of deportation, and the extreme dangers of crossing into the US—while guaranteeing some flow of bodies into the US, whose labor can be used to undercut the labor of American citizens?
- Finally, how is the current migrant crisis related to recent international decisions by the US and England—notably, the Iraq war, and the responses to the Arab Spring—so that in refusing migrants entry, we fail to take responsibility for our own actions, and so claim the right to disrupt forms of life, without consequence?
These are particularly important questions to ask, not only because they affect the form of life of our neighbors abroad, but for reasons striking closer to home. First, if, as Stephen claims, somewhat hyperbolically, “the world is on the brink of a long war between the nationalist and the cosmopolitan”, then there is a pressing need for people from the various particular ways of life to form strategic alliances, across difference, with each other.
As Mere O contributor Steven Wedgworth notes, “[we] would do well to seek alliances with truly non-privileged voices”, which, in the context of a “war” between the “nationalist” and the cosmopolitan, means we would do well to seek alliances with the “fanatic” abroad. If, in articulating a defense of our forms of life, we work to destroy forms of life abroad, or rhetorically position ourselves as opposed to other forms of life, we damage our ability to form alliances abroad, and so we, ironically, undercut our own forms of life, isolating it to be destroyed alone.
Second, and related, if the answers to some or all these questions is that we harm foreign forms of life, then not only do we fail to form necessary alliances, we actually ally ourselves with the cosmopolitans, in extending their power abroad. This would result is a situation in which calls for the protection of forms of life at home make the elite even more incapable of silencing themselves, and of opening themselves up to hearing the voices of their neighbors—us.
The Role of Cultural Differences
The best line of approach I’ve found to the first question comes from this post by Scott Alexander. He writes:
“If universal culture and Western culture are the same thing, then Western culture doesn’t need protection – as Caplan points out, it’s the giant unstoppable wave of progress sweeping over everything else. Or maybe it doesn’t deserve protection – after all, it’s the colonialist ideology that tried to destroy local cultures and set itself up as supreme. If Western culture is already super-strong and has a history of trying to take over everywhere else, then surely advocating “protecting Western culture” must be a code phrase for something more sinister. We can sympathize with foreign cultures like the Tibetans who are actually under threat, but sympathizing with any Western culture in any way would just be legitimizing aggression.”
He’s attempting to conceptually tease apart universal culture (coca cola, McDonalds, English(?), antibiotics, progressive gender norms, etc.) and western culture (Shakespeare, Chaucer, Voltaire, Galen, etc.). Universal culture, he argues, is a demon that (a part of) western culture summoned which then ate western culture, dressed up in western culture’s skin, and is now eating all the other local cultures. If we correctly distinguish between the demon universal culture, and western culture, then we can see that consistency demands that: We defend the remaining parts of western culture along with all the other local cultures from the demon’s voracious appetite; we celebrate the devouring of what’s left of western culture along with the devouring of all other cultures, or we find a principled way to distinguish between cultures or parts of cultures that should be devoured. Which is, so far as it goes, a useful, though trite and somewhat banal, observation, vividly put. The point about consistency is critical, and I will return to it.
The problem is this sort of argument obscures some extremely important questions. Yes, the earth is round, and does not have east and west poles. The US is west of Europe, China is west of the US, and Europe is west of China. What we call Western culture is really just a part of the diversity of western cultures, and all these various western cultures have numerous roots in various non-western cultures. But this “giant unstoppable wave of progress sweeping over everything else” is still typically called “Western culture.” We have no more power to change the meaning and usage of these words than Humpty-Dumpty does to make “glory” mean “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!” Universal culture is Western culture.
Additionally, since English is the language of this “Western culture”, the English speaking nations are prototypical Western nations. The fact that the US is east and Australia south of China changes the language, not at all. Talal Asad says “The important question, therefore, is not to determine why the idea of “modernity” (or “the West”) is a misdescription, but why it has become hegemonic as a political goal” (emphasis in the original). And, I should add, in this context, what consequences does the fact that modernity (or “the West”) has become hegemonic as as a political goal bear for our actions?
What does it mean to defend “English” ways of life?
Returning, in that light, to the original question: What are we saying then, when we attempt to defend English or American ways of life? What are we saying when we say that some forms of life are not compatible with English or American forms of life?
Because the US and England are prototypical Western nations, unless we are very canny in our defense—and part of my goal is to sketch out how I think we could defend English and US ways of life, cannily—we are defending Western culture, that is, again, universal culture, and so seem to be using “a code phrase for something more sinister” and “legitimizing aggression.” And because Western culture—that is, universal culture—is “an unstoppable wave of progress sweeping over everything else” (emphasis added), when we claim that some ways of life are incompatible with English or American ways of life—that is Western “universal” ways of life—we say these ways of life are stuck in the past (that is, often, particularly when the cultures are Islamic, a past of irrational religion), incapable of progressing to the better, more awesome, more secular, more modern, world the important peoples and nations live in.
That we intend to defend a part of Western culture that is also being devoured and relegated to an irrational past, and that it is devoured, in part, by the importation of foreign bodies to our lands, is also a valid concern. Both sets of facts help us shape our actions in response to universal, that is, “western” culture, but they are not contradictory.
Is America “secular” or “Christian”?
It may also be helpful to attend to the different ways this claim to superiority resounds in Euro-Atlantic nations and in Islamic countries. In Europe and the USA, Muslim countries are often, falsely, treated as not sufficiently secular. On the other hand many Muslims describe Europe (and the USA) not as secular, but as Christian. Three points of evidence support this. First, in his attempt at clearing up recent innovations in Arabic, and so explicating a truly Quranic grammar of education, Al Attas repeatedly begins by noting that the innovations entered Arabic through Christian Arabic. Though he notes secularism, he continually ties that secularism specifically to Christianity. Second, Wayne Christaudo relates, “in one of my classes in Hong Kong, the Turkish Consul claimed, – without batting an eye or seeing any need to elaborate – ‘The European Union is a Christian club.’” Finally, and decisively, in his extremely influential Milestones, Qutb claims “we see an example of this [attempt to keep Muslims from resisting imperialism as Muslims] today in the attempts of Christendom to try to deceive us by distorting history and saying that the Crusades were a form of imperialism. The truth of the matter is that the latter-day imperialism is but a mask for the crusading spirit” (p. 133).
I do not claim that all Muslims relate to secular Europe as (perhaps secular) Christendom. Indeed, Qutb’s quote shows that not all do. However, some do. Because “The West” can have a ring of “Christendom” we need to be extra careful: When we are critical of Islam—and describing Muslims as not a good fit for Europe or America performs this criticism—we ally ourselves with secularists against “backwards” religious fanatics (a category to which, in much of the discourse we face, we belong), and so increase their power over “backwards” religions (Christianity included). We simultaneously stir up strife against Christendom, and further alienate a potential ally—an ally, since, as Mahmood argues, both Christians and Muslims of a certain, similar, sensibility, are united in opposing a dominant secularism, and progressive versions of religion, in which God’s word is a symbol of man’s “capacity to create truth and meaning”, and attempt to substitute an anthropology and politics in which God and His Word makes a radical, formative, call on our embodied being and our politics.
The Flow of Bodies and Materials
Turning to the second and third questions: Another point that arguments for the perseverance of English or American ways of life can miss is the deep material interconnection between our ways of life, and the ways of life of our neighbors abroad—of other peoples, and their deeply particular forms of life. How much, for instance, of the food we eat is grown abroad, or grown domestically by people from abroad, and how is this foreign production of our food and of the people who produce it related to the preservation or destruction of their forms of life? Is this production merely accidentally carried out abroad, or is the construction of economic inequities—e.g. shanty-towns, poor educational conditions, crop monocultures, destruction of native farming techniques, etc.—a necessary condition for the material basis of the form of economics practiced in developed countries?
Though his primary focus was the Russian Revolution, and there have been significant changes since the nineteenth century, and even from the late thirties when it was written, the following quote from Rosenstock-Huessy’s critique of Marxism in Out of Revolution is a helpful starting point for finding answers to these questions:
“Liberalism puts to death the old orders of society which cannot compete with its low prices. But the paradox is that its prices are low only so long as capitalism can find pre-capitalistic markets. In these pre-capitalist regions the social order of reproduction, the whole framework of society, church, and art, and holiday, is still included in the price of goods. The naked production of the acquisitive society can sell cheaper because it is without this responsibility for the rest of the natural day…
The modern employer comes into a settled community like a bull into a china shop. He lives by murdering the pre-capitalistic orders. But he and his own labor-forces still receive all the moral order they have, from the values of this same pre-capitalistic world which capitalism underbids…We cannot decipher the riddles of economic unrest by staring at the factories in the industrial countries. France or England are not the field of an industrial exploitation. “Capitalism,” as a market-seeking society is impossible in the world in which there is but capital and labour. There would be no profit!
Capitalism can make profits only so long as it can escape the cost of reproducing the political and social order. That is why it is imperialistic. Unlike the feudal lord, the owner of a factory is allowed to pay hands by the hour, instead of men by the year. The government is responsible for the police, the relief of the poor, and all social policies. Naturally, the capitalist prefers to sell in markets for whose political order he bears no responsibility. As long as he sells in foreign markets he need not pay for the destruction of the old “cadres.” Capitalists earn a dividend as long as there are markets for which foreign political organizations are responsible. Capital and labour are never alone. There is a third man in the game. The exploited are the natives of every pre-capitalistic group, class, country. ‘Capitalism is the first form of economy with the power of propaganda, a form with the tendency to expand over the earth and to eliminate all other forms of production. At the same time, it is the first economy which cannot exist without using the other forms of economy as its alimentary soil and milieu’ (Rosa Luxemburg)” p. 88-9.
This quote points to a deep interconnection that existed prior to the World Wars between our now dominant way of keeping house and the destruction of homes abroad. In the nineteenth century, our now dominant way of life was only “profitable” in and through a geographic differentiation between lands (in this case, he means specifically between England and Russia) in which goods were produced, and in which they were sold. But the quote also raises an important question: These pre-capitalist markets have disappeared, and instead, the largest markets for goods are in the developed world. Is his analysis still valid, or does the continuation of Capitalism after the end of imperialism refute his analysis?
The answer, as geographers, like David Harvey and Don Mitchell, argue is that, since the seventies, there has been a shift in the nature of the geographic differentiation. Though prior to the Second World War, our economic system was based on the geographic differentiation between markets; it is now based on the geographic differentiation of labor. In the nineteenth century, to again quote Rosenstock-Huessy, “Capitalism [could] make profits only so long as it [could] escape the cost of reproducing the political and social order. Capitalists earn[ed] a dividend as long as there [were] markets for which foreign political organizations [were] responsible.” The first sentence is still valid today; but now we earn a dividend so long as there are labor markets whose reproduction can be cheaply secured by foreign political organizations.
This dependence of our forms of housekeeping on the production of foreign labor can be seen, for instance, when the different results obtained by different methods of counting the material consumption of nations is analyzed. Under the older form of accounting, if a product is produced abroad, and then shipped for sale to a different nation, only the materials in the product itself, not those used to produce it, are counted as part of the material consumption of the country in which it is sold. Under the newer form of accounting, the materials in the product, and the materials necessary to produce the product, are counted as part of the material consumption of the country in which the product is sold.
So for instance, under the old system, if an iPhone is produced in China, but sold in the UK, the iPhone itself is counted as part of the UK’s material consumption, but the material cost of mining the materials for the iPhone and of producing the iPhone counts against China’s budget; under the newer system of accounting, all those costs are counted as part of the UK’s consumption. Based on the older method of accounting, it seems that, for instance, the UK is relatively clean, consuming approximately 10 tons per person per year, whereas China is a heavy polluter, consuming approximately 17 tons per person per year, and Chile is an extremely heavy polluter, consuming just shy of 60 tons per person per year.
But this failure to include the costs involved in producing goods in the budget of the country they are consumed in hides the labor required to make the goods. When the consumption included in the labor is included in the destination country’s budget, consumption in the UK is 84% higher, whereas it is 18% lower in China, and 75% lower in Chile, compared to the traditional earlier accounting—that is, on the newer system of accounting, the UK consumes more material per capita than either China or Chile. (Source.) When the cost of producing the goods consumed in Europe is counted in the cost of imports, Europe imports 4.289 billion tons per year, and when the same calculation is made for the US, the US imports about half that, 2.188 billion tons, because of high domestic production in the US—we source more of our production domestically (more on that later). (Source.) Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania are all net exporters, though, the developed countries in these regions, like Japan seem to be net importers, with Australia as the exception.
The much higher material consumption totals when the materials used abroad in production of goods consumed domestically are counted as part of the domestic consumption, rather than part of foreign consumption, and the large imports into the US and the UK (and similar nations), demonstrate the dependency of the forms of keeping house in the developed world, particularly in Europe, but also in the US, on foreign labor. As is well known (argued, for instance, in Laudato Si’), this foreign labor is extremely cheap—in its reproduction, housing, feeding, and pay—compared to labor in the developed world. Which demonstrates my claim regarding the shift from the nineteenth century system described by Rosenstock-Huessy, in which foreign markets were the source of profit, to a modern system, in which foreign labor is the source of profit. Moreover, were the production shifted back to the developed world, either the labor would be considerably more expensive to employ and reproduce, and that cost would be reflected in a sharp increase in the cost of goods; or Dickensian inequalities would have to return to the developed world. These two considerations establish the necessity of foreign labor in maintaining the forms of life practiced in the developed world in sustaining our forms of life.
It is also well-known that the production of this labor is often, if not usually, destructive of foreign ways of life—for instance, through the introduction of proprietary seeds, crop monoculture, and rationalized policies. Which means that the protection of the forms of life practiced in the developed countries are dependent on the destruction of foreign ways of life.
Yes, these destructions are often carried out by elites from developed nations; not by the locals whose forms of life Alastair and Stephen (and I) want to defend. However, our current form of life, in its entirety, is deeply dependent on the domestic consumption of the fruits of cheap foreign labor, and breaking that dependency would cause deep harm to our own ways of life. As such, though we are not to blame for that dependency, and are powerless to break it, talk of defending our form of life while “leav[ing] others’ to have their own” (quoting Stephen), is meaningless at best. We cannot pick and choose aspects of our form of life to defend, as from a salad bar, or meaningfully abstract from the material conditions on which our form of life depends.
Similar dependence of the forms of life practiced in the developed world on the destruction of forms of life abroad can be seen in many places: extermination of species, enacted in large part in the developing world, but driven by consumption in the developed world; in the total land area required to support, through extremely unsustainable practices, the forms of life practiced in the developed world—land that is located in the developing world, but whose fruit is consumed in the developed world; and notably, in carbon consumption. This extensive use of resources (again in large part, resources produced abroad), is driven by affluence. The point is not to blame persons in the developed world, and so absolve people in the developing world. In numerous ways, persons in both regions are agents, and are powerless. Nor is the point that what we really need to do is modify our own consumption. The problems are not addressed by an individual shift to greener technologies, and indeed, such shifts can make things worse. The point is only to show the deep entanglement of forms of life, and the deep dependence of our ways of life on the destruction of ways of life abroad. Because of the close correlation between affluence and high consumption, what would be needed to disentangle our forms of life from those abroad is a drastic, Revolutionary, pulling down of the rich, and decrease in affluence (at least as usually defined), across the board.
True, this consumption of foreign land is largely (though not wholly) carried out by the wealthy; and we should take up a prophetic voice calling them to abandon their destruction of their neighbors. But again, the destruction of, and reliance upon, foreign lands and labor, is on such a scale that, to truly undo it in any significant way, we would need a Revolution; and a universal acceptance of a far less affluent life-style. That Revolution is not going to happen, and no one here is calling for it. Nevertheless, as Wendell Berry says:
What can cause people to destroy the places where they live, the humans and other creatures who are their neighbors, and ultimately themselves? How can humans willingly turn against the earth, of which they are made, from which they live?…The question immediately and at least is economic: What is wrong with the way we are keeping house, the way we make our living, the way we live? (What is wrong with our minds?) And to take the economic question seriously enough is right away to ask another that is also but not only economic: What is happening to our souls?”
There are many questions that can be asked of our nations’ uses of foreign lands and labor. The one relevant to this discussion is: What do we, as a nation, claim, when we claim the right to destructively appropriate the fruit of foreign labor and land, while also claiming the right to keep those same bodies, on whose labor we depend, from entering our lands?
At the least, we claim, once again, the superiority of the Western ways of life.
It is true that it is elite consumption that is largely (though not entirely) responsible for this consumption and destruction, and that Stephen and Alastair would likely call for borders less open to penetration by all sorts of material, human or otherwise. However, in addition to my points above regarding huge price increases and Revolutionary levelling, there are two important considerations.
First, as I showed above, European and American ways of life are heavily dependent on the consumption of carbon. This consumption of carbon is poisoning our air and water, and leading to destructive changes in the weather. Even were carbon consumption to suddenly stop, there is a high chance we have already locked ourselves into 1.5 degrees of warming over land. But carbon consumption is not decreasing, but accelerating. Even were we to magically disentangle our forms of life from immediate material destruction of foreign forms of life, our forms of life are not isolated from our neighbors. We, in Europe and America destroy foreign ways of life, even when we act within our domestic territorial borders. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and respecteth not our national borders.
Conservatives often resist this line of argument, but, I think, wrongly. The forms of agency we are trained in, and naturally act out, are deeply formed by our dependence on the high energy per volume in coal and oil, and the ability to, as a society, dissociate ourselves from the natural rhythms this concentrated energy allows. Scott Alexander describes “western society” as “universal society”. But in many respects, universal society could be more accurately described as carbon society. We should be active in drawing these connections between Baconian, carbon fueled, conquest over nature, and universal “western” culture; calling for repentance, lest Zeus and Poseidon turn and strike our land with a curse. Our current line of protest, in which sins are condemned, but any coming judgment is purely moral, or is unconnected to our carbon consumption, is deeply complicit with the modern project itself.
Second, as policies are enacted, forming of coalitions of diverse interests, and compromise will be necessary. What different sorts of policies will be enacted if we emphasize protecting domestic forms of life—and so make that our central interest—and believe in, but do not emphasize, disentangling our consumption from foreign ways of life, and their destruction? My conclusion is somewhat tentative here, but it seems that we will be most likely to compromise on questions of disentangling the material base of our economy from the destruction of foreign ways of life, and far less likely to compromise on questions regarding the permeability of our borders to specifically human bodies.
This brings us to the fourth question:
“How do strong restrictions on immigration work to procure cheap labor that is incapable of protesting civil rights abuses while guaranteeing some flow of bodies into the US, whose labor can be used to undercut, and unemploy, the labor of American citizens?
Earlier I noted that the United States is not as dependent on foreign labor in foreign lands as Europe is. We are somewhat dependent on it, and we consume more carbon per capita than Europe does, so we are not free from blame in the destruction of foreign ways of life. But we also have more domestic production. How is that domestic production connected to strict border policies with Mexico?
In a series of penetrating analyses (and these two books, which I have not read) of the California agricultural landscape, Don Mitchell argues that California agriculture has always been dependent on the importation of cheap labor deprived of legal protection. Currently, according to his analysis, that cheap labor has been procured not in spite of, but because of the difficulty of illegally entering the United States from Mexico, and the strict border laws are not a manifestation of a different logic than what gave rise to NAFTA, but are a necessary part of the same neoliberal regime.
According to his analyses, the border functions not so much to healthily differentiate between different nations, but given the economic and disparity between the countries, and particularly the effects of free trade on Mexican farming, as a means of differentiating costs of reproducing in the spaces where laborers whose toil sustains California’s, and the United States’ are born, raised, and work; and the place where those who consume the fruits of their labor are born and work. Because of economic pressures, particularly those introduced by job-loss associated with neoliberal farm reforms, people will cross into the United States. However, the difficulty of the crossing, and their likelihood of being deported if they speak out against human rights abuses (often they are paid below survival wages) deprives the workers of the protection of the law, and so makes them available for low-pay farm work.
Additionally, since they are “illegal”, they do not require public funding (or as much public funding) for the medical or educational costs. And because they are immigrants, the cost of educating them as children is shifted to Mexico. All these factors—low current pay, low societal costs for their health and education, and no societal costs for their reproduction—cause their labor to be extremely cheap for California, and so facilitate the low prices of California agriculture. Mitchell calls for open borders as a challenge to neoliberalism—were borders open, the immigrants would no longer live outside the protection of the law, subject to legal killing as they cross the border, and legal exploitation when in the US. It seems to me, however, that the disfunction of the borders itself points to their potential health and importance; and so any conclusion about borders needs much consideration. However, he does seem to demonstrate the disease of our current borders—in their enforcement.
It is difficult to see how or if his analysis can be transferred to Europe. Part of the reason migrant labor is necessary for California agriculture is that it facilitates the seasonal employment of the workforce, hiring work, and firing work, as the natural rhythms of the agricultural cycle require it. Immigrants to Italy are similarly subject to death, but it is not clear to me that they are put to work on farms.
English undocumented immigration is more difficult still. There seem to be about five hundred thousand undocumented immigrants in England, mostly in London. Because the population is urban, Mitchell’s analyses do not lift directly into the English context. However, they do raise important questions: What role does the Calais migrant camp play in the production and reproduction of labor in England and in Europe? What role does the difficult Mediterranean crossing play in the procurement of cheap labor in England and Europe? How are these exceptional ways of entering into Europe partially constitutive of the European economy and political landscape?
Though Stephen does not raise the question of illegal immigrants, in our current political environment I have a hard time seeing how national discussions of immigration wouldn’t become discussions about illegal immigration. (That is, I can understand how someone could be in favor of changing immigration policy, but not have the focus be on illegal immigration; but I don’t see how someone could advocate for the one, without the advocacy becoming advocacy for the other.)
Recent International Policy
I’ve spent too much time dwelling on the first questions, and have left myself little time to address the last question. In brief: US and English policy both in Iraq, and in Libya and Syria, contributed significantly to the destabilization of the region. It is not clear to me exactly how extensive our culpability is, but neither have I seen any discussion debating our policy, and the implications for our treatment of Syrian refugees. If we are culpable, but refuse to take in the refugees, we are claiming a right to interfere in other countries, but also to shelter ourselves from the consequences of our interference. And if we do not even consider the question worthy of debate, the very fact that we do not raise the question seems to make the claim of our own right to interfere, without consequence.
A point that both Stephen’s analysis, and Scott Alexander’s analysis can miss is that the nature of the boundaries of our political communities, in something more or less like Aristotle’s sense, seems to have shifted. If by a political community, we mean “a life together in particularities rooted in local heritage, tradition, and custom” (Politics 7.8, quoted in Stephen’s post) then, facilitated by the possibilities for rapid travel and communication, our political communities today seem less to be geographically defined (or at least the “community” formed by the cultural elites), but by certain sensibilities and embodied practices of reading and relating to the world (though, admittedly, that is not all there is to Aristotle’s definition of a polis, so the result is analogical, not exact).
This point, in slightly different terms, is argued by Michael Allan in his recent book on the provinciality of world literature, and the world republic of letters. His argument is that when attention is shifted from the subject of world literature to the embodied disciplinary practices which world literature inscribes on the soul of the literate, we see that world-literature is in fact provincial, cultivating a particular form of life, rooted in a particular heritage, tradition, and embodied custom, and that renders religious people who attempt to practice a different form reading, in which the text is the Word of God and makes formative demands on the readers, outside the literate community. Its borders are not drawn (and they are not “natural” borders, but drawn) geographically on the face of the earth, but rather between different communities of disciplinary practice, the “religious” and the literate, living intermingled in space.
This literate community is not merely a matter of literature (as Allan knows), but is, as Saba Mahmood argues in Religious Difference in a Secular Age, deeply reinforced not only by objections to “religious” textual practices (reactions to: the cartoons of Muhammed, the piss christ, the novel Azazeel, The Da Vincci Code, etc.) but by the structures of international law, and indeed, even, as Talal Asad argues, by our habitual conceptions of action and passion, and our approach to time. Furthermore, these legal, literary, and agential, structures tend to push religious communities to state their concerns in terms of identity and respectability politics, and to accentuate, internally, their differences from other religions, and to, at times, breed religious strife.
On the other hand, it is not impossible to pose group-based political challenges to forms secular government that facilitate and drive these distinctions, and the power-relations inherent in them; while maintaining peace with the world republic of letters. But it seems that to do so, we need to aim not at raising a political challenge—because to raise the challenge, we have to assume a particular language and kind of group identity and subjectivity that sort of language presumes—but rather by cultivating forms of community and subjectivity based not on individual expression, but on adherence to, and submission to, the authoritative Word of God, while living as an active member of society. (I am over-simplifying here for the sake of space.) Advocacy for this sort of activity is not a call for retreat from public political engagement to ethical commitment because, the “self is” still “formed discursively”, though by a different discourse than the dominant one; and as Mahmood notes, not only do political orders assume a certain normative conception of the self, different practices of the self require different political commitments, so by cultivating a different sort of subjectivity, we are, in that act, laying the groundwork for a different sort of political community. As Confucious claims, “‘Only cultivate filial piety and be kind to your brothers, and you will be contributing to the body politic.’ This is also a form of political action; one need not necessarily join the government” (Analects, 2.21, Simon Leys, trans.). It is, however, a slow, long-term strategy for political change.
It is also the case that there are real problems if our communities become insular, and not only because of the formation of echo chambers, not only because it is important to practice the intellectual virtues in dispute with our neighbors, not only because we need to cultivate healthy, peaceful, respectful, relationships with our “literate” neighbors, but because of the pressures that cause us to turn to the state and play identity politics, together with Girardian rivalry between “sibling” religions, tends to breed hostility between Christianity and Islam, which itself reinforces secularity and the secular perception of “the religious” as violent and backward.
Perhaps then, rather than lifting our voices in defense of our own forms of life—protests that are largely ineffective in achieving their aims—we could consider an eloquent silence on immigration, together with quiet, and largely under-the-radar attempts to form alliances of friendship and mutual respect with immigrant “fanatics”, particularly Muslims (but others also), seeking to learn how to struggle to live in submission to God from them, and from the wisdom embodied in the Hadith (and there is wisdom in the Hadith, even if we are not bound by the Hadith); and public advocacy for the opening of spaces in which we, cosmopolitan and “fanatic”, can hear the concerns of foreign “fanatics”, whether they are immigrants, or dwell at home; and for spaces, on our lands, in which they (or at least the ones who are already here—they aren’t leaving) can live their form of life, as our neighbors; and by listening, in “private” not only to Christian and secular thinkers, but also, to Muslim thinkers of a certain persuasion—I, for instance, have found Al-Attas particularly helpful in thinking through how to live in submission to God.
In our interactions with the elites, perhaps we should strategically call attention to ways elites are failing in their (or rather our, since we are, somewhat, elites) aspirations—for instance, the elite consumption that is driving climate change, the destruction of ecosystems, and, in part, the destruction of foreign ways of life—and whose emphasis would also help us break habitual, intergenerational idolatries that we need to repent of. We could then articulate a defense of our people as a corollary of that (as in Scott Alexander’s article), which would have the effect, I believe, of slowly doing the dual work of turning the hearts of other similar peoples toward us, and turning our own hearts toward them; and would simultaneously challenge the deep association between progressivism, the West and Christianity that exist in our discourse.
The difficulty, I believe, would be three-fold.
- First, there is a long history and tradition of conflict between Christians and Muslims. It will be extremely difficult to begin to work to overcome those hostilities.
- Second, it will be important that we not fall into a third worldism that valorizes Islam, or attempts to turn it into a literate, liberal religion, akin to progressive Christianity.
- Finally, and most seriously, we will need to work hard to form alliances across difference, and so resist the gravity to treat all religions as equal. If we listen to Muslim scholars who highlight the differences between Islam and Christianity, as many of the more conservative Muslims do, we will go some distance to accomplishing that task. It is probably also important to listen to people who, firmly but respectfully, emphasize the differences between religions.
Nevertheless, as Wedgeworth writes “[our] interests and values are actually shared by people otherwise very different and remote from [us]” and we would do well to begin to do the slow work of building up alliances with peoples, like certain sorts of Muslims, with whom we are not accustomed to identify, but who, in many ways, share similar values and interests to us.
Matthew Petersen is a graduate student living in Portland, OR.