Those Neighbors

DeWitt Clinton —

Most people I see I don’t know.

I can sit down on a public bench and not say a word to the guy sitting next to me, as he’s busy scrolling or texting. I wouldn’t think of even mentioning how the weather has changed slightly. Yes, of course, I have neighbors, but I’ll also admit I don’t know their first or last names, except for the guy who calls late at night sometimes to tell me our back porch security light is still on, as he can read from the light in his upstairs apartment. I know the name of the laborer down the block who used to walk his Lab, but the Lab is dead now, and so is his wife. I don’t know who lives just north of us, or across from us, but I always wave. I’m not unneighborly, but some may want to question that. I sure as heck don’t know who’s living a block up, or a block down, or a block across or behind us. That’s the way it’s been for quite some time. It takes a lot for me to even say hello, but I find that when I do, surprisingly, the other person says a word or two, and then we have a brief conversation, instead of usually ignoring the other.

It’s always about the “other,” isn’t it? It isn’t quite why we sometimes call “them” aliens, but if not from outer space, then certainly they are alien to who we are, and certainly not aligned to anything we believe, or is that just something we’ve all just made up? The Syrians have landed. All we need to do is exchange the word “Syrian” for any other cultural/national group, and those who are not aliens are somehow immediately threatened. Though it sounds simple, and I’ll agree, that’s pretty much our fear of the “other” that seems to permeate the madness going on in Europe today as hundreds of thousands of threatened individuals are seeking a safer neighborhood in the old neighborhoods of France and England and Germany and The Netherlands, and Spain, and all that we might call Western Europe. The flight of immigrants fleeing horrors and war and torture and starvation is usually headed West, and not toward the Middle East, or even Southeast Asia, or Asia. Western Europe seems to draw all those in search of safety.  Of course not all those who are knocking on the doors of Western Europe are hoping for a new life. Some have arrived in hopes of blowing up the place, in retribution for the horrors Western European diplomats and generals brought to Africa and the Middle East.

indexThis problem of the “other” or the new neighbors of Europe is the question that Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek examines in his new short study, Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors (2016). I have a scholarly interest in his comments as I remember presenting short lectures to a university World of Ideas class about Islam in Europe, beginning with the Battle of Tours (France) in 732 and concluding a few weeks later with European Islamophobia. But his book is absolutely necessary for all of us as we try to understand how and why anyone, especially Europeans, can resolve their conflicts with each other.

Zizek begins with a very helpful construct, of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s study On Death and Dying (1969). While the first four stages certainly describe, in part, the European crisis/dilemma of immigration and integration, her last stage, acceptance, is the one that is most striking, most provocative, and probably the only option for European governments to accept. Zizek argues that Europe has tried to respond to the crisis with denial, anger, bargaining and depression, yet none of those strategies have seemed to be at all helpful in resolving the problem of the new neighbors Europe wants and doesn’t want. What Zizek acknowledges is not a conservative right-wing reactionary punitive response. Instead he writes, “our proper aim should be to try to reconstruct global society on such a basis that desperate refugees will no longer be forced to wander around.”

A reader might be expecting to learn about a 10 point program for the success of immigrants fleeing war zones, political repression,  genocidal regimes, poverty and near starvation, and expecting European cities to provide solace and comfort to all those who are desperate. Instead, Zizek takes considerable time to develop why these conditions have evolved in the first place, helping readers to understand that global capitalism has in part, destabilized most of the countries the émigrés are fleeing from. While European Colonialism is an old chapter that most Americans might have either forgotten, or perhaps never learned about, Zizek provides ample evidence, in country after country throughout Africa and the Middle East, how that old destabilization has led to governments which exploit their own citizens, with those in power failing to consider the needs of what might be called “the other” population within each impoverished country. One country he examines is how the African nation the Congo exemplifies the problem of citizens fleeing countries for a “promised land” in Europe.

Here he writes about how mineral resources so needed in the West have contributed to the de-evolution of an African nation: “[The Congo] is mainly about access to, control of, and trade in five key mineral resources: coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt and gold. Beneath the façade of ethnic warfare, we thus discern the workings of global capitalism. Congo no longer exists as a united state; it is a multiplicity of territories ruled by local warlords controlling their patch of land with armies that, as a rule, include drugged children. Each of these warlords has business links to a foreign company or corporation exploiting the mostly mining wealth in the region. The irony is that many of these minerals are used in high-tech products such as laptops and cell phones.”

Zizek then clarifies this global situation by addressing how “most refugees come from ‘failed states’ where public authority is more or less inoperative.” Though his reference to the Congo is only one of many examples of failed states, his analysis does help a reader to understand how and why this global crisis has evolved out of the old European, and American,  global colonialism.

In his closing chapter the philosopher presents a possible solution, one that may take a generation or two to formulate, within each country, and from the European Union as well. He calls for “a radical economic change that abolishes the conditions that create refugees. The ultimate cause of refugees is today’s global capitalism itself and its geopolitical games.” If I understand Zizek correctly, all of us will need to participate in this effort, the effort of “global solidarity of the exploited and oppressed.” Yes, I imagine the struggle will be hard to imagine, especially as we rely far too much on technologies that exploit millions of our earth citizens. He does suggest this might be a utopian dream, but if it is not accepted as a utopian dream, we are all in need of help. Perhaps we need to start seeing everyone as a neighbor, instead of those just in our neighborhood.

One thought on “Those Neighbors

  1. I was raised in the reform Jewish tradition, though I am more of a universalist and Buddhist at heart. But in this Christmas season this essay brings to mind the parable of the Good Samaritan, and this seems as good a place as any to remind us of this story.

    In the Gospel of Luke, the parable is introduced by a question, known as the Great Commandment:

    Behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

    He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

    He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind, [Deuteronomy 6:5]; and your neighbour as yourself [Leviticus 19:18].”

    He said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”

    But he, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”
    — Luke 10:25–29

    Jesus replies with a story:

    Jesus answered, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he travelled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?”

    He said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

    Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
    — Luke 10:30–37

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