It Is a Crisis for the Refugees, Not the West

Western Civilization and its Discontents

There is a refugee crisis in Europe going on right now. It is, above all, a humanitarian crisis. The issue at stake should be how to take in the refugees. We should be working out the details of the political response from the European Union and the United States. Instead, we’re talking about if we should take in the refugees, and indeed, if the refugees are a threat to Western Civilization. My view is that at the heart of this inaction is a worldview about the place of the so-called West that fundamentally misconstrues the nature of the world we live in. I claim that this misconstrual rests on an understanding of Western Civilization that is a fable—I call it the myth of the West—and, as other myths, it serves a particular purpose. And this particular purpose is pernicious.

Some of these issues hit quite close to home. My family have been immigrants wherever we have lived. My father’s family was expelled from Uganda in 1972. What were a South Asian family doing in Uganda in the first place? Many were brought there by the British Empire, for clerical work, to work on the construction of the Uganda Railway, and the like. In many cases, South Asians were brought to Uganda (and other parts of the Empire) under indentured labour contracts to provide cheap labour after the British Empire outlawed slavery. This forms one part of my (and my family’s) experience with Western Civilization.

And I’m not alone. Some people hear Western Civilization and think, amongst other things: colonialism, oppression, exploitation, slavery, and genocide. I like to think of us as the realist camp, or more informally, the discontents. Note that these are not the only things we think of. But it’s in the overall connotative package. So the thought is something like: with all this talk of Western Civilization and its ostensibly desirable features, we shouldn’t forget the embarrassing truths that lie at its heart (some of which I’ve just mentioned).

But there are people – usually right wing conservatives – who (consciously or otherwise) tend to forget these embarrassing truths, or at least conceal them. These people hear Western Civilization and think: freedom, equality, property, science, and liberalism. The Whiggish history these people like to push is that Western Civilization is dominant because it favoured these sorts of ideas and political arrangements, and that other ideas and political arrangements should now be considered dead. I like to think of these people as being in the fantasist camp, for they trade heavily in what I can only conceivably think of as the myth of Western Civilization. Note that these are the only things in the connotative package for these people, or at least they give a strong impression that this is the case. And it is for this reason I think of them as fantasists, peddling in myths and yearning usually for a return to some (former) glory of the past or to provide a robust defence of the status quo.

And it is precisely this myth which is invoked when we hear, as we are hearing now, the chorus of calls claiming that the flood of refugees and other migrants seeking asylum from the bloodshed or economic depravity in other parts of the world are now a legitimate threat to Western Civilization. These foreigners are opposed to our values, parasitic on our welfare states, indeed, they represent an actual menace to our way of life. So it follows that, if we are to preserve Western Civilization and its liberal mythology, then we must keep out those we consider a threat to it. In other words, the myth serves to create a divide between us and them. In that sense, it’s necessary for the view that there is an enemy, that indeed, that enemy is coming to ruin (or is ruining, with the case of migrants in general) our free and equal paradise. This kind of ugly sentiment takes on a kind of religious zeal, where people are thought of as a contagion to our pure paradise.

Another function of this myth is that it skews judgments about oppression at home in our cosy liberal democracies into comparative judgments about oppression at home versus oppression abroad. We hear expressions of this sort all the time, particularly when it comes to thinking about things like gender, class and race justice: ‘oh, you think America or Europe has a rape culture? Haven’t you heard about all the rapes in India? Now that’s rape culture!’ or ‘oh you think you have it bad here? Try being poor in Africa! Now that’s poverty!’. This type of response refuses to take the interests of those who lodge legitimate complaints about the way they are treated in our comfy liberal democracies seriously. This is accomplished by interpreting claims of oppression within a system of comparative judgments against the status quo, where the status quo is by definition better than whatever its alternative is.

The deep irony here is that whatever this phrase Western Civilization means—our way of life, our political arrangements, our material wealth, and so on, is sustained by the cheap labour of the poor at home and the poor abroad. Many of these very same people are now knocking at our door, and the fantasists like to think of them as the parasites. But these people aren’t parasitic on us; it is us who are parasitic on them. They’re not a threat to our way of life: they are integral to it. And indeed, it is the belief in the myth of the West that seems to have turned this basic fact on its head. In a nutshell: the myth of the West has people believing that the world is upside down.

Raj Patel is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He has an MPhil from the University of Cambridge. His research interests are in the history and philosophy of science, and political philosophy. Read other articles by Raj, or visit Raj's website.