Refugees and illusions

Some reflections on the refugee crisis.  I will write a few posts on this.

Standing in 38 degrees heat at the Deli station in Budapest surrounded by 20 Pakistani migrants can get you thinking about stuff.  You put two and two together and note that drought in Nigeria played into the hands of Boko Harem, and the 2006-2011drought in Syria caused 1.5 million farmers to move to the cities, which led to the civil war and the displacement of something like 7 million people.  So if you are interested in climate change, you inevitably have to think about refugees and migration and then practically everything comes to mind: home, culture, identity, defence, religion, technology, food, agriculture, environment, wildlife and so forth.  It’s one big thing the Earth.

I am pretty conservative in that I like my little spot, my place.  Although I am not religious I still like religion.  I have my favourite football team and feel anxiety when they lose and joy when they win.  I like traditions for their own sake as long as they are not cruel or wasteful.  I like the old and ancient, and I am wary of change.  I like some concept of “England” and “Englishness”, although I like it less and less over time.  But I am still conservative enough to understand where conservative people are coming from when they bristle about immigrants and multi-culturalism.

I had dinner with a very enlightened, young American friend.  He grew up in a small rural, mining village in the States and then discovered Europe and environmentalism.  So he has a broad view of things.  He asked me:

“What is it about your culture that is so special to you?”

I had to think about this.  Some of the things seemed superficial: Football at 3pm on Saturdays, the pubs and beers. Some were physical or visual things: the lovely countryside, the many beautiful buildings, the harmony of rural architecture. Some were deeper: the way people in the village where I grew up rally round when someone is ill or needs help; the still strong sense of civic duty and the amount of charitable activity; the kindness of our neighbours in Shrewsbury; the fact that you can generally feel you can trust someone; the way people smile more readily than, say, in grumpy Hungary.

Then he asked: “So is that culture more important to you than the even more fundamental question of being kind to fellow humans?”  A conservative might want to protect his culture, but is the culture really worth more than humanity?

This argument only goes so far.  Yes, a shared culture is, at one level, an aesthetic construct, and a nice-to-have.  But it also has a vital functional role: it facilitates co-operation between people; unspoken rules allow us to short-cut the stifling bureaucracy of law and regulation.  I think a well-working society needs a strong shared culture.

Then it dawned on me: I perceived the first few decades of my life to be a time of relative peace and prosperity.  Somehow it made me think that a well-working society was within reach; a few tweaks away: a couple of TED talks, a few correcting laws or a couple of advances in technology.

Now I no longer think that.  If there was a chance, it has slipped away, and it was probably an illusion anyway.  Why would things happen to click just now?  Ecological crisis, war and extremism, the doubling of the world population since 1970 mean to me that a well-working society is now just a dream.  There are still little islands of peace and prosperity like Scandinavia – less than 20 million people -, but the general rule is that there are too many people, too little education, too much upheaval, too much ego and conflicting aspirations and too few resources for many to have a well-working society at the moment.  Technology or population collapse might change that, but at the moment it is a vain dream.

It is good to recognise this.  If I realise that the Country Living idyll is no longer within reach, then I can reset my expectations.  And then, when setting those expectations, I can assume that flux and jumbled-up-ness will be the norm for some time.  The Country Living dream is dead.  Reality is hot railway stations in Budapest with beggars, commuters, refugees, angry toilet attendants, bored policemen, tired volunteers, more weary refugees, homeless men, hot and sticky, desperate for a shower, a kind grocer, officious ticket inspectors, and still more refugees in an inexorable stream.  Mistakes were made and we pay the price.

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