August 31, 2004

Might and right

Whenever there is a stupid fuss in the newspapers about immigration - that is to say, almost every single day for about the last ten years - I ponder the question of whether I should not set up a nice small single-issue organisation to be called something like The Campaign To Promote Immigration, or some more imaginative title that would produce a snappy and appropriate acronym. Its members would respond to the hysteria by writing to the newspapers, or appearing on the radio and television, to argue that immigration is an unequivocally good thing, that it benefits the host society and those whom it receives, that it produces neither unemployment nor a drain on the exchequer, that objections to it are ignorant in nature and malign in intention, that there is no more happy or enthusiastic citizen than the immigrant made welcome, and all the rest of it.

According to the temperament and outlook of the particular member, we might also argue that rather than merely tolerating or even celebrating immigration, we should promote it, should go looking for it, should actively seek to entice and encourage people from other countries to do us the favour of coming here. Or even that a fund should be established to do so and that this fund be created from a special tax on sale of the Mail, the Telegraph and the Express. Or indeed of any other paper which seeks to debase public debate in the way that they daily do.

Instead, what passes for public discussion on the subject is almost entirely constituted of wilful ignorance and culpable stupidity. (Seeing as we're debasing things here, I reckon that just using words like discussion or debate to describe this process debases those words to the core.) It is the principle of the saloon bar - the less that people know about the subject, the louder their opinions. Which is harmless enough when it comes to discussing the England football team, but when it comes to discussing immigration and asylum, it smells less of beer than of Zyklon B. And it's not so much the enthusiasm with which bigotry is propounded that makes me shudder, but the enthusiasm with which it is embraced. You can combat ignorance with books and argument. If I thought otherwise I wouldn't be a librarian. But you cannot combat ignorance that wants to be ignorant. Ignorance that loves it. Ignorance that isn't really ignorance, but something that has looked at the truth and prefers the lie instead, because only the lie enables them to give somebody else a kicking.

Sometimes in my imagination I see smashed windows, and burning mosques, and think of the beatings and the killings and the roundings up, what they would be like, what I would do when they happened, whether I would be afraid to say anything and what excuses I would make to myself in my shame. And rationally I know that this is not likely to happen any more than Trafalgar Square is likely to fill with banners and red flags and march on the House of Commons. But rationally, there is no reason to think that racial tension in this country is any less acute than national tensions were in Yugoslavia, even after the death of Tito. Rationally, I know that it has happened in the past in societies no less enlightened or more brutal than this one. Rationally, I have a sense that history continues and that history recurs. And rationally, I know that the utter irrationality of the permanent asylum scare is making irrational outcomes more likely all the time.

Well, rhetoric, rhetoric, it is what you do when you have plenty to say but no way of making yourself heard. Or no way of making yourself heard in which you have any confidence. Or when you think that what you fear may happen probably won't, but are afraid, nevertheless, that it might. Might, might not, probably won't. Even so. I really ought to think up that acronym.


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