Almost a decade back, at a Liberty magazine conference in Las Vegas, a speaker asked the audience what they see from the windows of their planes slightly after takeoff. He was alluding to the vast empty spaces in the US. Why not be more inviting to outsiders?
I shuddered. It had been a painful process to leave India and the last thing I wanted was the prospect of having millions of Indians living around me, again. I was even trying to run away from one Indian I couldn’t run away from: me.
It was not turning out to be easy to wean myself from the indoctrination. I had decided not to return to India for a few years, to avoid falling back into the old patterns of thinking and living that I had earlier succumbed to. Muscles have memories. Old habits don’t go away easily, even if the bad one can be recognized — for those living the bad patterns don’t see them.
Only someone heartless would not feel empathy for the sufferings of these migrants. They have starved. They have been abused. They have lived under totalitarian systems.
Most Indians I know in the US earn top salaries. They pay massive taxes. But alas, virtually all vote for things that contribute to making the US the mirror image of India. They vote for big, nanny governments. They vote for an increase in regulations to control the lives of others.
Culture matters. Our public institutions are nothing but a reflection of the underlying culture.
Indeed there is tyranny in Syria, Afghanistan, northern parts of Africa, and many other places. Only someone heartless would not feel empathy for the sufferings of migrants from there. They know what tyranny is. They have starved. They have been abused. They have lived under totalitarian systems.
A rational mind might easily conclude that such immigrants would fight for their liberties, and ours, once they were in Europe or elsewhere in the West.
But I still recall with anger and frustration the fact that when anyone among my colleagues from my engineering college in India — people who were elite students, having gone through an extremely competitive examination to gain admission — was abused, he almost never retaliated. Instead he looked for someone weaker to abuse. That was his release. I never managed to make even those proficient in math and science see reason.
Worst of all, why should they fight among themselves — kick and beat one another — in exactly the way they seem to be forever fighting among themselves in Syria and northern Africa?
A man of faults projects his faults on others. A man of virtues projects his virtues on others. That second principle defines the erroneous zone of empathetic Europeans. The European thinks that any rational immigrant would feel grateful for new opportunities and would be a frontrunner in any effort to preserve the liberties that Europe offers. Such a European erroneously projects his rationality on others, assuming it to be a natural state of being. Alas, it is not.
A look at the videos of migrants offers a glimpse that very likely leaves a rational observer uneasy and confused. Why should these migrants, instead of feeling and showing gratitude, create an angry nuisance? Why should they destroy public property? Why should they steal from their kind hosts, and abuse them? Worst of all, why should they fight among themselves — kick and beat one another — in exactly the way they seem to be forever fighting among themselves in Syria and northern Africa? A rational observer thinks that once in Europe, these people will give up the ways they have apparently been trying to leave behind. But that isn’t happening.
It is from rationality that morality emerges. It is from rationality that a society knows what is truly right or wrong, what is a virtue and what is a vice. The irrational society is immoral and incapable of respecting virtues. Irrational people see no need of being grateful or being virtuous in a thoughtful way. Rationality must be learned. But the European, nurtured in a culture of basic reason, thinks that rationality is a natural state of being. Certainly, they don’t always live up to it — but the claims of impartial reason, reason that transcends and judges the claims of tribe and superstition, do not have to be explained to them.
Unfortunately, the concept of reason has hardly made itself popular outside the West. These, the Rest — in Africa, in the Middle East and most of Asia — still exist in superstitions and tribalism. In a nonrational operating system, a person responds very different from the way in which a rational person would respond. The nonrational behavior you see on your TV screens in foreign news reports therefore comes across as strange, unbelievable, and uncomfortable in many ways.
They fail to shake off a deeply ingrained meme that money is “created” through political connections and positioning themselves in a certain way socially, rather than through wealth-creation.
The gem of analytical and skeptical reason is mostly and predominantly a Western phenomenon. Despite almost 500 years of trade and interactions with the Rest, and over the past decade, with immediate, worldwide access to knowledge through the internet, one would have expected wisdom and rationality to have percolated through to the Rest rather quickly.
The truth is that the concept of reason needed 2,500 years and the vehicle of Christianity, and a lot more, to come to the visible changes that happened in Europe in the past 500 years: the Reformation, the age of reason, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution.
But shouldn’t the culture of migrants change over time? Indeed, there are people who left their homelands because they were desperately tired of their irrational societies. These people appreciate the freedoms they experience when living in the West. They feel grateful for their hosts, for they have or at least had the inkling of the concept of reason before they arrived. But these are a small minority. Most modern day immigrants stay irrational, and never gain respect for their hosts. Moreover, processing their experiences — the compassion, opportunities and liberties they face in the West — but still using the operating system of the society they left behind, many immigrants learn to disrespect their hosts. They came not for freedom but for the material prosperity they had seen on TV. They are incapable of understanding what made the West what it is. They gravitate toward areas — Germany, for example — that offer the most welfare payments, for they fail to shake off a deeply ingrained meme that money is “created” through political connections and positioning themselves in a certain way socially, rather than through wealth-creation. They fail to see that when people continue Syrian or African ways of interaction they will evolve institutions in Europe that mirror what they ran away from.
Today in Europe there are many urban areas that are barred for visitation by those from outside the ethnic or religious ghettoes. When I lived in England, I had to pass through a Muslim area and then a Hindu area. I had made up convenient names for myself, rehearsed in my mind to tell them if I were accosted. This is not life lived according to reason. A rational person — projecting his virtues on others — would be in his erroneous zone if he expected that this predicament can change with time or with increase in prosperity.
It was in my early teens that I finally realized the cultural milieu that I was growing up in was utterly corrupt and irrational. Thirty-five years later — a span that includes a couple of decades spent in the West — I still feel envy when I see Western kids not suffering from habits and patterns that I still cannot shake off, after huge amount of work. Even a passionate person who realized his problems early on has found it almost impossible to surmount the problem of releasing himself from the shackles of his culture and indoctrination. When it is so difficult for someone keenly interested in changing himself to change, how difficult it must be to change those who don’t feel the need to change themselves! How doubly difficult it must be to change those who exist in a society, or ghetto, that won’t let them change even if they want to. Moreover, my indoctrination was Indian. A Syrian or North African indoctrination is probably much worse.
But isn’t the US a good example for Europe? Isn’t the US a cultural melting pot? Can Europe not do the same?
It pays to remember that virtually all the early immigration to North America was from Europe. The migrants were people who had Europe, and reason, in their genes, memes, and cultures. It is not necessarily the same with the new immigrants, either to Europe or to North America.
As a corollary, imposing what are products of enlightenment in the West — democracy, the nation state, public education — on culturally alien countries won’t work. It is for this reason that the removal of Saddam Hussein, after a lot of pain, chaos, and crisis, will end in a situation in which Iraq, some day, has to restart with a tyrant similar to Hussein. The same is the case in Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere.
Syria and Iraq should be left to develop their own social capacities for change, and even before that they have to find an internal feeling of a need for change.
The US government, perhaps influenced by lobbies from the military-industrial complex, wants to be forever embroiled in conflicts abroad. In the meantime, the rational American, projecting his virtues on alien cultures, thinks that such institutional impositions can effect changes in such places as Syria and Iraq. Such a rational American very erroneously sees the individuals in Syria and Libya as isolated innocents — but they are, very unfortunately, part and parcel of the problem.
It is best not to destabilize other countries. Syria and Iraq should be left to develop their own social capacities for change, and even before that they have to find an internal feeling of a need for change. This is the only possible way for a change in their societies, and Europe’s only chance to avoid getting too many migrants. Should the migration continue, it will almost certainly make an end, in Europe at the least, to the biggest achievement of humanity: the culture of reason, and hence the future of liberty.