Open Cities 26 Who Is The Other?
When openness issues are unravelling themselves in other countries they can concentrate the mind about openness at ‘home’. A snap shot across media debates during a journey through Europe may illustrate this mirror function.
Snapshots of ‘the other’ in Europe
While in the UK, the political coalition is trying to reconcile a perceived immigration surplus with a reputation of openness, France is in cahoots with the European Commission over its expulsion of Roma, including some who have lived in France for generations. Germany is up in arms over views on immigrants expressed by Thilo Sarrazin, a German central banker in his book Abolishing Germany (Deutschland schafft sich ab, wie wir unser Land aufs Spiel setzen. 2010. Deutsche VerlagsAnstalt ISBN-10: 3241044309). Sweden has for the first time voted into government a far right party whose aim is to curb what they consider excess foreigners, and Poland is offended by remarks by an international relations mediator.
Experiencing Wroclaw in Poland, a city selected by the British historian Norman Davies for a study of its microcosm (Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse. 2003. Microcosm, portrait of a central European city. Pimlico) adds to the complexity of openness, as diverse socio-ethnic and religious groups are living side by side in a city with a long history of displacement and segregation.
Sarrazin’s remarks about ‘Germans becoming strangers in their own country’ have resonance in all these places. Reactions may be more subdued owing to PC legislation, but is it realistic to legislate feelings, resentments, frustration? Many countries are bending over backwards to accommodate cultural differences in the name of multiculturalism, but what about the hardship this provokes and conflicts with human rights of individuals? Let’s take the example of female circumcision. Considered barbaric in Europe, legislation is prohibiting this practice in several countries, but why is implementation so weak?
Issues behind ‘the other’
Faith vs reason, belief vs truth, customs vs human rights, private views vs public manifestation: the list of contradictions inherent in multiculturalism is endless. Who is the other? What are the rights of others when they enter different societies? What openness is expected from the societies they join? On what grounds? Can – should expectations of openness be reciprocal?
Rules of law reflect the ethics and morals of their respective countries. Should they prevail over customs of immigrants? Assimilation, integration, acculturation, no matter the tag bring about emotive reactions and divide immigrant minorities among themselves, as well as native majorities. Set into a timeframe, the notion of migrant, in-migrant or immigrant becomes even more complicated. For example, third generation Turks and Arabs have often acquired citizenship of their country of adoption and may identify themselves with it. However, they also retain the identity of their country of origin, even when their command of their language of origin is poor and their ties with their country have become tenuous. Conversely, the natives who lack such duality may query their allegiance.
Culture or economy?
These are contradictions of a cultural nature. What if the covert issue behind xenophobic stirrings about immigrants is one of economy? Most countries welcome highly educated immigrants while shunning those who rely on the state, especially during a period of austerity.
Cities are the places where these contradictions are being played out, where they shape everyday reality. The sentiment of no longer being at home in one’s own city is not unknown in France, Poland or Britain and suppression of public debate feeds ambiguity. This puts the Open City debate centre stage. Is it about tolerating the difference of the other, or is it being in competition for livelihood with the other? Political debates tend to confuse these matters, even to substitute them for each other for political expediency and populist appeal.
The presence of different cultures in many European cities is a reality and is spreading. The Roma shipped to other countries even where they may no longer have ties will return to where they expect better living conditions. Excluding themselves or being excluded from opportunities to better their life chances may be mutually reinforcing and is bound to widen the gap between them and those who consider themselves as more legitimate. As long as the other remains the other, openness has a long way to go.