In my world history class, one of the most important skills that I try to cultivate in my students is the skill of “historical consciousness.” I define historical consciousness as being able to see the present through the lenses of the past, to see today as a creation of yesterday. Current events, I tell them, do not fall from the sky. They are culminations and continuations of historical narratives. To understand those events currently happening, you need to know their stories. You need to use your historical consciousness.
Unfortunately, if you watch the news, I don’t think this is a skill that is modeled very well by the lame-stream media. News is framed in nothing but the now, and while the now is the most pertinent component of any news story, you cannot fully understand that now–where it came from or what to do with it–without some historical contextualization. To try and do otherwise leads to false conclusions about the problem at hand, and worse, flawed solutions proposed to fix it. Exhibit A: Immigration.
Immigration is the “A” news topic in the world right now. The horrendous stories coming out of Europe are rightfully receiving the majority of the media’s attention, but immigration on our own southern border has been a hot topic at both of the Republican presidential debates, and our own border crisis ain’t over either.
Voices on the issues vary widely on both sides of the Atlantic. There are those who are sympathetic to the plight of the refugees and those who see them as unwanted intruders. There are those who want to build the refugees a pathway to citizenship and those who want to build walls. But within this chorus of voices, one voice that I personally have had difficulty hearing is the voice of history. What are the historic roots of the sectarian wars in Syria in Iraq? Of the political and economic disaster that is large parts of Africa? Of the violence and corruption that defines so much of Latin American governance? If you read the history books, a large part of the answer is us.
You cannot talk about the immigration crises around the world today without talking about the imperial and colonial legacy from which these crises stem. The dramatic differences that define quality of life between the world of white Europeans and the world of black and brown Latinos, Africans, and Middle Easterners did not come to be by accident–they came to be under a relationship of dominance, the former dominating the latter. It is this relationship that helped to create the political and economic instability the latter group is currently suffering, and the poverty, oppression, and war that they are currently fleeing.
What is more, the relative wealth and comfort experienced by so many living in Europe and the U.S. today is not just the result of living in a country that has never been colonized–it is the direct result of that country’s historic role as colonizer.
Europe and the States were built on the backs of slave labor, both at home and abroad. They were built with the resources of the “third world”–their gold, their silver, their rubber, their copper. Sometimes these resources were funneled through corrupt dictatorships that the colonizers helped to install. Sometimes they were just stolen outright. And while colonization has come to an end, colonizer countries continue to benefit from the exploitation of their old empires today. Look no further than the “Made in ________” marking on your sneakers and electronic goods for proof of this discomforting reality. The comfort and luxury in what has come to be known as the “developed” world has always and still continues to depend on the “developing” world’s exploitation and misery.
When talking about immigration, I like the way that one writer puts it: “The empires are striking back.” They are fleeing what colonialism and imperialism created, and seeking to take back that which was taken from them generations ago. But increased compassion and understanding of the refugee plight does not reduce the complexity of the problem.
I was listening to NPR a few days ago when a French official said something to the tune of, “To close our doors is to watch migrants literally die on our doorstep, but to leave our doors wide open is to ignore reality.” And reality is real. To open the gates to everyone is not a solution that will help anyone. The settling of said refugees needs to be organized and evenly distributed so that both the refugees and those taking them not only simply survive, but prosper. That said, I have no idea how the fuck to make that happen.
This is a mess, and there are no easy solutions. All the refugees can’t and won’t be saved. The 2,500+ whom have already perished trying to cross the Mediterranean will surely be joined by more of their Afghani, Syrian, Somali and Nigerian brethren before the calendar year expires. The death count at the world’s second deadliest border will continue to pile up as well, along with the countless others who will die from the very conditions that drive people northwards in the first place.
There are commendations to be made. European countries like Germany and Sweden should be commended for the numbers they are taking in. Those in the United States pushing for amnesty and easier pathways to citizenship should be commended for the battles they are fighting. Perhaps most importantly of all, any genuine form of humanitarian and/or economic aid that is delivered to these countries in crisis in hopes of helping to make them not such horrible places to live should be commended, as this is perhaps the one true action that addresses the root of the problem. However, what need not be forgotten is that, while these actions are often framed as altruistic deeds of the benevolent, they could just as easily be framed as the fulfillment of a moral duty–a responsibility to rectify the inequality that exists between those who benefit from a colonial legacy and those who suffer from it.
And I think that is the most important thing to keep in mind. When talking about the conundrum that is the global immigration crisis, we need to think about where this crisis comes from–the historical factors that helped to create the dreadful situations experienced by those seeking refuge. Using our historical consciousness to think about immigration may not necessarily generate solutions to some of those toughest questions, but it can help us to avoid some of the horrible solutions proposed by the people who aren’t using theirs.
“Go back home,” doesn’t solve anything. The huge-concentration of Mexican-Americans living in states like Arizona and New Mexico actually are living in what historically was the home of Mexican people up until 150 years ago when the States took it from them in the dubious Mexican-American war. I’m sure Iraqis and Libyans would love to go back home. Maybe if it wasn’t for the non-stop cycle of violence and political chaos, largely perpetrated by foreign invaders, they would have never left.
At the end of the day, this is just a sad, sad situation. I don’t think that even the staunchest conservative blowhard lacks sympathy for the situation of these international refugees. When they say things like, “We’d love to help everybody. We just can’t,” I really think that they are right. We can’t help everybody. That’s just true. However, in light of history, I don’t think that that reality absolves us of our responsibility to try.
Recommend reading and viewing on the topic:
- Discourse on Colonialism by Aimé Césaire
- Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano
- You Tube: Harvest of Empire by Juan Gonzalez