On Suffering, Migration and the White Rose

sophie scholl

I am a Jew.
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?
(Merchant of Venice Act 3 Scene 1)

Mass migration has already happened. It constitutes an established fact. It has a future, which is imponderable, and a present, which is the subject of intense debate, but it is the legacy of the recent past which provides us with the best available data to make decisions about the present and the future. In the West particularly the experience has been one where societies which were largely culturally homogenous and, in many cases, also  racially homogenous have become heterogeneous entities over the course of a single lifetime. This may be a good thing or a bad thing but a thing it certainly is, and a big thing at that, which undoubtedly merits deep consideration, removed from immediate emotional appeals.

One of the many strands we could pick out for consideration are the negative consequences of diversity. Where there is mutual incomprehension there is likely to be distrust and enmity. Where there is mutual comprehension there is unlikely to be diversity. Why? Because a necessary precondition for mutual comprehension is a shared way of understanding how it is that we understand and if we share that then in what significant sense are we more diverse than the societies which preceded us? Or, to put it another way, a multicultural society is likely to be riven with conflict because there is no shared basis for mutual understanding whereas a multiracial society could be perfectly at ease with itself where such a basis exists.

It has been suggested that the best method of achieving such a level of shared understanding is through the path of assimilation. Immigrants are invited to forget their native language, the history of their people, the religion they brought with them and the cultural practices which bring them happiness and stability and adopt in every instance their equivalents from the society to which they have migrated. This is not only not how humans behave it is also the contrary to how humans will behave once migration has crossed the threshold of a critical mass such that communities of sufficient size and number can thrive and provide networks of safety and comfort precisely because they reflect the values and meet the needs of the migrant in a time of stress and challenge.

Another approach is to let different communities exist side-by-side but separate. Each identifiable ethnic community does its own cultural and religious thing only coming together when they share a workplace or to troop off to the polling stations on election day. In due course, it is supposed, the children or children’s children of today’s generation will create a single fused, shared culture in which a thousand flowers will bloom in what everyone acknowledges to be a single garden. There is no real reason to suppose that such a strategy will work because it misses out the ‘mass’ part of mass migration. Communities which are sufficiently large to resist fusion now will likely be larger tomorrow and larger still the day after because immigrant groups are, for good reasons, more fecund than non-immigrant groups. Thus, although there will be numerous exceptions, on the whole these communities will stick together and do their own thing as far into the future as we can see. Moreover even if such an approach were to work in the long term there may be no long term for it to work in. That is, no reasonable person can pretend not to see that such an approach stokes resentment between communities in the short term and that these resentments have political consequences which might easily approach the level of catastrophe long before the desired fusion is achieved, if it is achieved.

The most productive approach, it seems to me, is the one which argues that to move from the ‘us‘ of the identity-community to the ‘we‘ of the community-of-the-nation it is not enough to share a physical space we also have to share a mental and emotional space as well. This is sometimes presented as having a common culture or a common story but that I think is an insufficiently strong way of expressing it. We need a common feeling for the place we inhabit and the people we inhabit it with. For most of us most of the time Reason does not dictate how we feel, rather feeling dictates how we reason and what we reason about. So we need an anchor that all can share and that sinks itself deeply into all our psyche’s. However much we finesse it History cannot be such an anchor, because it isn’t a shared history, neither can it be Religion, unless or until we all convert to the One True Faith (which happens to be the one I believe in.) No, we need something which can be universal and national and individual.

Which brings us to suffering. There are three things which are true of all humans (if we leave aside the question of abortion.) We are born. We experience suffering. We die. Of these three only one can be added to or subtracted from, that is, suffering can be exacerbated or alleviated. This allows for suffering to be the basis of the most concentrated examples of selfishness or the most awe inspiring examples of selflessness. In the first case we can be so concerned to avoid or minimise our own personal experience of the condition that we do everything possible to escape from it totally regardless of the amount of affliction we may visit on others in the process. In the second case our understanding of suffering, deduced from our own experience of it, leads us through the power of sympathy for our fellow humans to sacrifice everything we have to prevent other experiencing similar or worse things to that which we have suffered.

So, when we are promoting a shared national story strong enough to invoke the feeling that this is a place worth loving, worth, if necessary, shedding our blood for then it makes sense to position this story into the second category. That is, our nation, whatever nation it may happen to be, has value because its primary purpose is to lessen human suffering and because it has produced and still produces heroes and saints who have demonstrated precisely that virtue. And twinned with this national story there has to be a national culture which promotes selflessness and self sacrifice in the cause of alleviating suffering as the highest virtue.

Which brings us to the White Rose movement. In the early 1940’s in Germany a small group of mostly students became so outraged by the actions of the Nazi government that they produced and distributed leaflets in protest. Inevitably they were arrested and executed but what they did and what they wrote stands as an incredible testament to all humanity for all time. Their motivation was clear. In part they were appalled at the loss of freedom and justice in their own land but more than that “we want to cite the fact that since the conquest of Poland three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history. For Jews, too, are human beings – no matter what position we take with respect to the Jewish question – and a crime of this dimension has been perpetrated against human beings(Leaflet 2)

In the most evil regime committing the most horrific crime the human spirit of solidarity with suffering, the desire to alleviate or end the suffering of others, could not be entirely suppressed. Total fear deployed by the Total State can never enjoy total success because for every million people that will be cowed by fear there is one person who will not be so cowed. The thing, human sympathy, is too deeply imbued in the human spirit ever to be wholly vanquished. And where, as in the West at the beginning of the 21st century, there is no such State and no such fear then there is nothing to prevent that spirit flourishing and becoming a national norm if only the will exists to cultivate it.

The White Rose identified another key truth “we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means; but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: The struggle against the demon” (Leaflet 4.) The forging of a national story goes beyond the rational because humans and human actions go beyond the rational. The imagination must be fired and the heart touched, then the mind will follow in their wake. So, to succeed, the story will be one told not just by politicians or by school teachers, that is, by the State. No, it must be told by everyone. By novelists, poets, artists, pastors, Rabbi’s, Imams, parents, siblings, magazines, newspapers, celebrities, athletes, astrologers, SUV drivers, liberal arts graduates and by you yourself.

A demonic story could succeed, the White Rose struggled against just such a success. But other stories could succeed too, and faced with the evident fact that mass migration has happened and that we all live side by side with difference such stories must succeed unless we want the demons to re-enter the stage of history. Virtually every nation has its heroes and saints who walk in the same path as the White Rose; its Maximilian Kolbe’s or its Damien’s of Molokai or its Dorothy Day’s or its Oscar Romero’s. Those who sacrificed and suffered and sometimes died because of their intense unstoppable desire to alleviate the sufferings of others. What is important about them is not what they were, male or female, black or white, gay or straight, but what they did. We as adults and especially as children can identify with deeds that we can picture ourselves doing, regardless of what the person with whom we identify, who did them, looks like.

To create a national feeling that encompasses those who trace their roots back a hundred generations and those who trace them back a dozen years and those who arrived last week we need national heroes and saints, national stories, that embody victories over selfishness and against suffering, not victories over enemies and against foreigners. It is history of a kind, but it is a history of the triumph of the spirit of selflessness and of love for the Other. And every nation has such a history because every human has such a spirit, and if it shines out the more brightly in some than in others it is sufficiently present in all of us to touch each of us and make us more inclined to say ”we‘ when we talk of the community-of-the-nation when we think that our nation embodies just such values.

While this approach may help us to build a new society uniting the recent arrivals and their children with the more established families and their children it does not, ultimately, tell us how we should deal with current and future mass migration. Except insofar as it inspires us to ask the question ‘how would our White Rose heroes have responded?’ And they, for their part, might have heeded the words of the transgressive, cross-dressing Advocate Portia when she said:
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy
(Merchant of Venice, Act 4 Scene 1)

thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page.

My *other* blog is thoughtfully catholic

The picture is of Sophie Scholl, the first of the White Rose to be executed, and was taken while she was in Gestapo custody.


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