In the week during which the Syrian ceasefire started to fail, attacks were allegedly carried out by American Muslims in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota and the United Nations tried — and failed — to get the world to take a more kindly view of refugees, it is worth turning to Slovenian rock-star philosopher Slavoj Zizek.
Zizek is always original, generally thought-provoking and mostly correct in his clear diagnoses of the human condition. A Marxist with an impressive grasp of heavy-duty intellectual concepts, he is also known for his propensity for dirty jokes and provocative cultural references to explain abstruse ideas.
Only Zizek could have diagnosed some of the United States’ recent problems as the result of an unfortunate desire to binge without guilt or consequences. America’s wars, Zizek once wrote, were meant to reconcile opposites. “The Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course)” was warfare without warfare, similar to such American products as chocolate laxatives, coffee without caffeine and cream without fat. Even multicultural tolerance was sanitised, allowing for “an experience of Other deprived of its Otherness”.
In other words, there was an “idealised Other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating remain out of sight”.
Now Zizek has done it again. He has voiced an uncomfortable truth about the refugee issue. Namely, that there is an enormous gulf between Western values and those of the thousands arriving in Europe from Africa and the Middle East and liberal politicians are dangerously refusing to acknowledge the fact.
In his new book Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours, Zizek urges Europe to conduct a truthful, if difficult, dialogue with itself about refugees. If not, the far right will set the terms of the debate, more heat than light will be produced and intolerance will rise to socially unsustainable levels.
How does acknowledging that it is hard to share your space with strangers — even those deserving of help — marginalise the Le Pens, the Orbans, the Wilders and the Farages? Does a frank and open admission of security concerns diffuse fear or fan it?
Recent regional elections in Germany provide worthwhile clues. On September 18th, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union lost support in Berlin, while the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) gained from people’s anger at her government’s generous refugee policy. The same thing happened in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on September 4th, the first of five regional elections before a general election that is expected in September 2017.
Merkel has since admitted she should have prepared better and worked harder to explain her policies, which enabled a record million migrants to reach Germany last year.
So what does working harder to explain mean in the context of the refugee influx? It seems to be a euphemism for confronting the reality of cultural differences between refugees and Europeans, openly acknowledging this to the German people and admitting the inherent difficulties of accommodating thousands of newcomers.
This may not have been enough to prevent an enervating sense of grievance from taking hold of Germans. The task of resettling a million new people is large and complex and the effects will be felt for years. Had Merkel discussed the problems, perhaps her people may have been less inclined to believe that right-wingers are the only ones who understand their anguish.
There may never have been greater need for European candour on the refugee issue. The mostly-off, rarely-on ceasefire in Syria and the continuing turmoil in Libya mean that people will continue to haemorrhage out of both countries in desperate search of sanctuary.
The displacement of millions and their passage to Europe have triggered centrifugal forces. In June, Britons voted to leave the European Union with the aim of closing their borders. Since then, newly emboldened xenophobic movements are campaigning across the continent in national elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany, the October 2nd Hungarian referendum on EU refugee policy and the presidential election rerun in Austria on December 4th.
Candour alone cannot reverse these political currents but it could provide a safety valve while politicians struggle with one of the great challenges of our time, what Zizek calls the “higher ethical standard” of accepting refugees even though the majority of the people are against the idea.