I’ve written this short piece about countering the dominant of insularity and nationalism. Our Brexit Testimonies is mentioned as an example for how we can do that.
I was born in that generation squeezed between generation X and millennials, the late 1970s-early 1980s. In our childhood and adolescence, we witnessed the rise of computers, mobile phones, the Internet, and frequent flying (air travel doubled between the 1980s and 2000). We thought we were entering an era of an interconnected world. But now we are witnessing how the drawbridges are pulled up everywhere. The 2010s are more and more resembling the 1930s, with disaffected voters choosing for nationalism as the answer to a wide variety of problems affecting them, including failing public services, soaring house prices, and stagnating wages.
Just a few recent examples:
- On 23 June 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU, after a divisive, bitter campaign where immigration took centre stage. At this moment, the UK is still intent on limiting free movement from Europe, even though this will almost certainly result in tariffs and other trade barriers that will hurt its economy.
- Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Australia recently proposed a host of measures to make it harder to become Australian, including a longer waiting time, an Australian values test, and a tougher language test, and they have tightened their skilled visa programme.
- New Zealand is rolling out a “Kiwis-first approach to immigration”, which will include tightened access to skilled worker visas.
- Trump recently signed off a “Buy American, Hire American” executive order to review the H1-B visa scheme, again making it harder for migrants to come to the US legally (and he’s still on course to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants)
- As I am writing, Marine Le Pen is highly likely to go to round 2 of the French presidential elections, on a strongly anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim programme.
In this narrative, migrants are painted as a burden. The British media seem to consider the mere fact that migrants work in the UK “a scandal” — as they cannot continue the fable that migrants are on benefits, they’re now resorted to the other tack, calling them job stealers. The politically correct thing is to be against migration, against Muslims, against the “other”.
Psychologically, these nationalist reactions are understandable. People are intuitively less trustful of and less empathizing of people they perceive as outgroup-members. But if we want to address problems facing our planet today, such as fighting diseases, increasing wealth inequality, wars and resulting large numbers of refugees, fighting terrorism and climate change, nationalism does not suffice to address these problems.
If you look at the grand scale of life, as Martin Nowak has argued, the story of cooperation is a success story. Our bodies are beautiful examples of cooperation: genes and cells working together to help each other. Very few species are capable of large-scale cooperations that extend beyond small groups. Social insects and humans, that’s about it.
So it is time for cosmopolitans to fight back against the rising insularity and to celebrate cosmopolitanism as a way of life. One way to do this is to go radically against the narrative that sees migrants as a burden on the countries they come to. Embracing migration as a source not only of economic, but also of cultural richness is key (you can keep on saying migrants are a net economic benefit, but purely economic arguments don’t hold much sway these days). As Kwame Appiah writes in his Cosmopolitan patriots (where he defends the view that a cosmopolitan can be a patriot):
The cosmopolitan patriot can entertain the possibility of a world in which everyone is a rooted cosmopolitan, attached to a home of one’s own, with its own cultural particularities, but taking pleasure from the presence of other, different places that are home to other, different people. The cosmopolitan also imagines that in such a world not everyone will find it best to stay in their natal patria, so that the circulation of people among different localities will involve not only cultural tourism (which the cosmopolitan admits to enjoying) but migration, nomadism, diaspora. In the past, these processes have too often been the result of forces we should deplore; the old migrants were often refugees,and older diasporas often began in an involuntary exile. But what can be hateful, if coerced, can be celebrated when it flows from the free decisions of individuals or of groups.
This response could be used against such criticisms as UK prime minister Theresa May’s calling people who call themselves citizens of the world “citizens of nowhere”. You can be a citizen of somewhere and also a citizen of the world. A citizen of the world is unafraid of migration and cultural differences. She does not ask “Why didn’t you stay in your own country?”, or “Why have you still got an accent after living here for so long?” (things migrants in the UK have to hear on a daily basis), but “I’m glad you like it here”, or “I love your accent”.
We need counter-narratives to the dominant political correctness of insularity. The celebration of migration is one such counter-narrative.
I’ve been involved in the book project “In Limbo: Brexit testimonies from EU citizens in the UK”. The book tells the stories of EU citizens who came to the UK under the free movement of people, and the uncertainty they face since the Referendum. Reduced to bargaining chips or negotiating cards, they are still waiting to hear whether we can stay here. The book’s publication is being crowdfunded, and we will send it to politicians in the EU and in the UK, as well as selling it across Europe. You can help the crowdfunding necessary for its publication through this link.
The authors of these stories also tell about why they came here: opportunities for work, sometimes lacking in their native countries, falling in love with a British person, and, for many, a love for British culture, such as books, pubs and the English countryside.
At this moment, seeing how well nationalists are doing everywhere, embracing diversity of migration seems like a losing strategy. But we cannot affect change without challenging the dominant narrative of insularity, of British/Australians/New Zealanders/US/French citizens first. We must challenge it, because ultimately this narrative will damage our global world, and will impede much-needed cooperation between nation states to tackle wars, diseases, terrorism, and climate change. As the politically correct narrative is insularity, this different narrative cannot come from the establishment. Projects like Our Brexit Testimonies, which are small, entirely driven by volunteers on shoe-string budgets, can help to affect this change.