Monday, 1 December 2014

Immigration: aiming at the wrong target

We never seem to stop talking about immigration these days. And yet the real problem we face isn’t immigration – it’s precisely all that talk about it. Or more generally, the someone-else-to-blame mentality that lies behind all the hot air and bad temper.

Anti-Immigration: it's all the rage
Even among people descended from immigrants
One of the more remarkable women I know of was Emilie du Châtelet. She became a champion, in the eighteenth century, of what the best recent student of her life, calls “feminine ambition”: she forced the scientific world to take her seriously, publishing extensively on physics, including a translation of Newton’s Principia which she raced to complete before her premonition of death was verified.

She had a servant called Sébastien Longchamp, who would ultimately be dismissed from the household she shared at the time with Voltaire. Decades later, after his own death and even that of the man who published them, Longchamp’s Memoirs of his time with the illustrious couple appeared. One has to question the reliability of such a source; even so, there are some stories he tells in his ‘what the Bulter saw’ document, that ring true.

He tells, for example, of a summons to her bathroom, to fetch more hot water from the fireplace and pour it into the bath. As he came to edge, he realised that she was entirely naked, and the water completely transparent. To avoid being scalded, she parted her legs so that he could pour the water safely away from them. When he tried to do so with his eyes averted, she admonished him for getting the hot water too close to her body, so he was obliged to watch what he was doing and therefore view her naked.

Mme du Châtelet was by no means promiscuous. She would certainly not have appeared naked before a man. But that precisely is the point: Longchamp was not a man. He was a servant, and to a noble such as Emilie, that is less than a man. There was no need for modesty before him.

An outspoken champion of rights – hers at least – against the stubborn conservatism of her time could harbour such views. That may make it less surprising that men who took their commitment to freedom and equality so far as to engage in armed rebellion against British rule in North America, could nonetheless condone slavery. There’s no doubt that men like Thomas Jefferson were made uneasy about keeping slaves, but not enough to free them, at least in their own lifetimes.

Surely the answer is that they didn’t see their slaves as truly men or women (they certainly saw them as women in some measure: Jefferson fathered several children on one). Like Longchamp, the slaves were lesser humans, different enough from the masters to warrant denying them their liberty.

Now fast forward two and a half centuries.

We live in a world that is more unequal than at any time since the end of the Second World War. In England, 1.4 million people have an annual income of under £6000 a year; 6000 have an income over £1 million. On their own, the income of each of those super-rich is worth over 150 times that of the people at the bottom. And there many hundreds of people who take many more times still that lowest level.

With that excess money, they can fund politicians and buy them. They can threaten to move their wealth elsewhere to get their way. They have in particular bought the British Tory Party, and are now buying UKIP; it is no accident that while their earnings have grown over the last four years, those of the poorest have fallen still further.

The people who take that money and exercise that power know they deserve it. They know they are exceptional. They excel those who have, and receive, less. In other words they know themselves to be superior. The rest of us may be human, but we are a lesser kind of human. 

 There are 6000 of them which, funnily enough, was the size of the French aristocracy in the eighteenth century too. Like them, their position is based entirely on wealth. It’s no surprise that they preserve and maintain the same attitudes.

There are so many more of us. And we have votes. Why don’t we put an end to their domination?

Because instead of opposing them, we aspire to be like them. We protect the rights of the wealthy in the hope that some day we’ll join their ranks, and enjoy that protection.

However, since we certainly don’t want to blame ourselves for our troubles, we have to find someone else to blame. How about immigrants? There are relatively small numbers, they’re relatively easy to spot, and it’s easy to come up with some kind of justification based on our being the true possessors of this land while they are interlopers in it. Though the English took the country from the Celts, as did the French, and the Americans took it from the Natives who were there before them.

That’s the trap that UKIP or the Tea Party or the Front National in France lure us into. Blame the other, the foreigner, the alien. The lesser human.

The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and above all the fact that his killer has avoided any kind of justice, shows how those ideas are as strong today as they ever were. American Blacks may not be slaves, but who can say that Whites regard their lives as equally valuable?

Here one in six of our voters rally to the xenophobes of UKIP, and a higher still proportion of French voters flock to the Islamophobic Marine Le Pen. So we talk endlessly about the perils of immigration and do nothing about those who steal the bread from our mouths.

What of those people, the ones who really run the show and cause our problems? 

They’re laughing at the lot of us. All the way to the bank.


Faith A. Colburn said...

You are exactly right, David. The irony of the cartoon illustration just saddens me.

David Beeson said...

Sadly true, Faith