EMBRACING THE STRANGER

27 September 2019 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Boris and Donald, where would we in the media be without them? Open a newspaper or tune in to a broadcast or social media news platform this week and there the two lads were again, deflecting the very worst of headlines with astounding savoir faire.

There once was a time when a British Prime Minister found by the highest court in the land to have acted outside the law would have been facing not merely the extinguishment of his political career but processes that would have at their end the severest sanctions that the civil and likely the criminal law too could throw at them. While the fate of Boris Johnson has yet to be determined, it is more likely to be the slow fade into obscurity assigned to the court buffoon who suddenly isn’t so funny anymore than the one which befalls the more common or garden lawbreaker when their wrongdoing is brought to light.

Similarly, an American President facing the possibility of impeachment was something that, when the Watergate scandal began to see light during the tenure of Richard Nixon in the 1970s, convulsed the United States political and social establishment, completing the painful loss of idealism and innocence commenced with the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963 and the subsequent murders of civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King and JFK’s brother Robert. Even if the allegations that he asked the Ukrainian president to conduct a corruption probe into his political rival Joe Biden lead to Mr Trump’s Teflon armour being pierced by Democrat lances, the reaction of the average observing American is more likely to be an ambivalent shrug than it is a gasp of shock or disbelief.

The questionable conduct of high office which earned Mr Trump and Mr Johnson the lion’s share of this week’s headlines is being replicated on a lower scale of visibility by leaders here and there across the globe. It can be seen in the right-wing populist nationalism of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and a number of other European leaders, and surfaces frequently in democratic systems in South America and Africa. People made uncomfortable by the behaviour of national leaders sometimes ask whether something has gone amiss with the fail-safes inherent in the processes of democracy. It is perhaps a more comforting question to ponder than the more obvious one of whether this is really how the majority of people in the countries in question prefer to be ruled.

But perhaps the most uncomfortable question of all relates to what extent Mr Trump, Mr Johnson et al got to be where they are today because of their stance on immigration. Because the answer is, a very significant extent indeed.

Mr Johnson did not become Prime Minister through the will of the British people but as the chosen one of a riven and desperate Conservative Party. But he put himself in a position to accept the laurel leaf of leadership primarily through the aggressively pro- leave stance he promulgated in the Brexit debate, when he constantly reinforced the damage that could be done to the economic, social and employment fabric of Britain by waves of immigrants pouring in through the open borders of the EU.

From the get-go of his grandstanding election campaign, Mr Trump make it clear that his vision of a brave new America was one where those of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity would have exclusivity over the places at the head of the queue. His subsequent actions and pronouncements have at least been consistent with his effective repudiation of the largesse for diversity upon which his country was founded, his withdrawal of the hand America once proudly extended to the poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Mr Trump, Mr Johnson et al got to where they are today because of the fear many people have about immigration. No, let’s be honest, the fear we all have: the fear of the alien, the other, the stranger.

It’s an old thing, maybe, a tribal inheritance. It comes from the time when humans gathered in tribes to compete for scarce resources with other tribes, each tribe distinguishing themselves from the other so they would know friend from foe and enhance their chances of survival. Such was the way of things until the processes of civilisation and the evolution of trade saw tribes begin to gather into larger social units, and those units began to interact to their mutual benefit. But that powerful fear of the stranger carries on in us all, buried deep but awaiting the conspiracy of adverse circumstances and the silver tongue of the demagogue to set its nerve pulsing once more.

Left to our own devices, human beings usually deal with this pulsing nerve well. Our companionable instincts and our natural curiosity often mean that strangers do not stay strangers for very long. The discomfort that difference in appearance, accent, language, colour or creed can light up is quelled when we start talking and soon come to discover that the stranger is in fact no more or less strange than we ourselves are.

But when this natural process is interrupted, or corrupted, or not allowed to begin, when persuasive people tell us that we are still in the days of tribes and scare resources and have to fight to preserve our way of life, the civilising centuries in between won’t be long fading away and we are suddenly back in the Stone Age again in the way we see the world and those we share it with.

When other people remain strangers, or even worse are presented to us as less than ourselves, it is very easy to treat them badly, to take away their rights and their dignity and even more fundamental entitlements. The road to the Nazi gas chambers of World War II was carefully paved over the preceding decades with orchestrated conditioning of anti-Semitic sentiment that was easily extended to include other groups in society who were alien or other to the Aryan ideal.

When we fear the stranger, we can do terrible things to them. But when we get to know the stranger, we nearly always embrace them.
That is why a fundamental error of judgment is being made at the present time in this country with how an aspect of the direct provision system that applies to asylum seekers is being handled.

We should be concentrating on making profound changes to this system to make it more efficient, more humane and more responsive to the complex needs of its users. Or, even better, dismantling the system entirely.

Instead we are creating very unfortunate situations such as the one that occurred recently in Oughterard, Co Galway, when many good and decent local people were branded with the racist brush when they organised to express concerns about the prospect of a local hotel being used to house what was rumoured to be a large number of asylum seekers. We could soon have a similar situation in the south of our own county if straws currently in the wind have substance.

Such situations come about because of the approach taken by officialdom to the admittedly touchy subject of where people who come to seek asylum in this country should be accommodated. It is an approach polluted by “fear of the stranger” attitudes itself: a rather clumsily constructed cloak of secrecy is thrown over locations that might (or indeed might not) ultimately be chosen to serve as direct provision locations, rumours get out, people do not have the right information, fears and concerns arise and opportunist voices for intolerance see the chance to stoke the flickering flames into something which could soon gather furnace heat.

The fundamental distrust of the public that this approach is eloquent of is bad enough. But worse than that is the fact that through all such processes, and many others connected with the deeply flawed direct provision system, no one ever things it is important to bring together the people who need asylum and the people who are being asked to give it to them in their local communities.

The two tribes never get a chance to meet before such decisions are made. And they get very little chance to meet after the decisions are taken, either. How many of the 198 asylum seekers currently being housed in the St Patrick’s Accommodation Centre in Monaghan have ever met or been introduced to the people living in nearby Milltown, for example, or in the streets of Monaghan Town to which they are occasionally bused?

Let’s cut out all this lily-livered secrecy and corner-of-the-mouth talk that goes on when locations for direct provision centres are being chosen. Until we can get rid of direct provision for good, let’s start this process by bringing the asylum seekers and the people they will be living among together. Let them get to know each other and see what each can do for the other. All the fears and rumours would very quickly go away.

We would have far less controversy over immigration, and far less low conduct in high places, if we trusted the basic decency and altruism of local people, and the human capacity to overcome fears and prejudice through the simple act of embracing the stranger.

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