January 27, 2012

The human urge to migrate seems as strong as ever. People have been trekking out of Africa to colonize the planet for at least 60,000 years. Before us, Homo erectus had been making the journey for a million or so years. Surely the impulse is justified by our genetic code, motives notwithstanding.

Whether one is for or against multiculturalism, it is an unavoidable reality. Distinctions can be an asset, at least for individuals, and everybody likes a little variety. But groups have to be homogenous on a certain level. This is where things get confusing. How different groups choose to coexist is the contentious issue.

Sometimes I wonder if governing people and controlling immigration would be easier if adults were more like children. Most children hate to stand out. They often come home from school upset because of some inconsequential difference between their classmates and themselves. They simply want to be like everybody else. Some people remain this way into adulthood, while others prefer being different. For children, different is scary and abnormal. For adults, being different can make you an “individual.”

Pluralism works in places such as Switzerland because different groups adapt to the overall culture. In England, where foreigners can impose their own rules on the host country, some say that infighting diminishes the nation’s overall strength. While London is one of the greatest cities on Earth, given the choice, most people would prefer the quality of life in Switzerland. The racial scene is rather more peaceful. Foreigners mostly respect the host culture. One might recall that Arabs were not calling for the death of the Swiss when the people voted against building mosques in Switzerland.

“Distinctions can be an asset, at least for individuals, and everybody likes a little variety. But groups have to be homogenous on a certain level.”

In contrast, Arab fundamentalists often express their distaste for England, the English, and English culture. As yet another foreigner living in England, I prefer to fit in as much as I can despite my more American accent and other cultural differences. I chose to live in a country whose customs I share in some way or want to adopt. Otherwise I would not live here.

I have always been a foreigner among foreigners in a foreign place. When one has a mixed background such as mine—my father is Greek, my mother is half-Austrian and half-Colombian, and I was born in New York—this is hard to avoid. America was a good place to grow up for someone like me. Being an immigrant among immigrants isn’t bad, though I imagine having a true homeland trumps all.

Colonizing a place has to be done with grace on the part of the arrivistes and acceptance by the hosts. I think we have done quite well in the Swiss village my parents call home, though some of the indigenous folks might disagree. Regardless, I am grateful to the Swiss because I feel very much at home when I am there. Living among the Swiss, Spanish, Italians, English, Belgians, Germans, Arabs, Greeks, and others is only a microcosm of a greater reality, however distasteful this might be for purists.

Processing current human migratory patterns isn’t easy. Many of us are still adjusting to our ancestors’ moves. With the exception of Africans living in Africa, we might all be considered migrants or children of migrants.

The trouble is, open immigration can be the end of a civilization. As a wise rabbi once said, if a people don’t protect themselves and remain a people, they will cease to exist.

Vive la Confederation Helvetique!




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