Cynicism & Salvation: A Response to Suketu Mehta on Immigration

“You owe us and you need us” is the message of Suketu Mehta’s Foreign Policy article on immigration. While I think his piece is vindictive, condescending, illogical and often uninformed it is refreshingly blunt.

Let us step back for a moment. In these arguments it is tempting to bracket people as “pro” and “anti” immigration. I am not anti-immigration. I think some measure of movement makes cultural, economic and humanitarian sense. (I am an immigrant as well, though I would have argued the same before leaving England.) What I do oppose – and have opposed, and will continue to oppose – is mass immigration on a reckless, utopian scale that ignores tradition, prudence and the popular will. Mr Mehta disregards them, and does so with some contempt.

The headline and the illustration are, well, illustrative. “This Land is Their Land”, booms the former. Not even our land. Theirs. The illustration depicts migrants in a rowing boat, clutching The Stars and the Stripes. (Are they crossing the Atlantic?) A man holds a child while a woman wearing a hijab looks across the sea with a determined expression. I do not think I am being cynical if I suggest that this is an unrealistic portrayal of a Middle Eastern family.

Mehta has no time for distinctions between immigrants, even saying the difference between refugees and economic migrants is a mere “choice of words” as “whether you’re running from something or running toward something, you’re on the run”. An atheist fleeing Afghanistan might disagree with him. There is in fact a clear difference between running from death and running towards wealth. But for Mehta migrants are more or less a monolithic bloc: “us”, with “our communities”, arranged against the West.

Mehta scorns the idea that Westerners have the right to choose which migrants to accept. To him, immigrants are “creditors” taking what they are owed. “All hail Western civilization,” he sneers, “Which gave the world the genocide of the Native Americans, slavery, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and global warming.” Westerners have done – and do – a lot of dreadful things but Mehta’s denunciation veers into agitated overstatement. As grotesque as the Atlantic slave trade was, slavery had existed for millenia. The Arabic slave trade began hundreds of years before Europeans disgraced themselves with this oppressive system, and ended long after the success of abolitionism. Great as our contribution to climate change appears to be, the world’s leading contributors to fossil fuel emissions include China, India, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Mehta attributes all or at least most of the troubles of underdeveloped countries to Western misdeeds. British wealth and Indian poverty, he claims, citing Shashi Tharoor, was built on the depredations of the British Empire. Alex Tabarrok refuted these ideas in his review of Tharoor’s book – while, I should add, granting that the British did appalling things.

Europeans “corrupted our governments”, Mehta continues, neatly absolving African and Asian officials of blame. They did this “so their corporations could continue stealing our resources”. If the West is cunningly bent on plundering the Third World why is it so often Chinese businesses that do crooked deals in Africa? Or is that somehow our fault as well?

Syrian migrants are moving, Mehta claims, “Because the West…invaded Iraq…and set in motion the process that destroyed the entire region.” Iraq was a disgraceful catastrophe, true, but does Mehta think the Middle East – with its ethnic divisions, Islamic extremism and authoritarian rulers – would have been harmonic if the war had never taken place? The argument that Iraq caused the Arab Spring was rubbish when neocons made it in its first triumphant weeks, and remains rubbish now. We do owe Iraqis for our miserable recklessness, and are assisting them in the destruction of ISIS, but the idea that the West bears all responsibility for the troubles of the Middle East is childish nonsense.

Mehta’s condemnation because vengeful when he claims:

It is every migrant’s dream to see the tables turned, to see long lines of Americans and Britons in front of the Bangladeshi or Mexican or Nigerian Embassy, begging for a residence visa.

I think well enough of migrants to believe that Mr Mehta is putting these strange, vindictive words into their mouths. (Our editor, Sumantra Maitra, also has an Indian background and criticised the piece on Twitter. Mehta blocked him.)

Having claimed that immigrants are bitter people, bearing fantasies of Western suffering, Mehta insists they are actually going to save us. If I thought so poorly of a people, I might not be warm, generous or cooperative – but, again, I do not think most migrants share his view.

Some do. Some hold it to far greater pathological extremes. Mehta has a lot of fun with Enoch Powell’s nightmares of the River Tiber foaming with much blood, but it would have been nice to have some recognition of the hundreds of people who have died in New York, Madrid, London, Paris, Brussels, Nice and Manchester. The jihadists who perpretrated the crimes in those great cities thought of themselves as “creditors” as well.

To Mehta, it seems, immigrants are just better than natives. “They will bring energy with them, for no one has more enterprise than someone who has left their distant home to make the difficult journey here.” Immigrants are different. Some are enterprising and some are not. Some immigrant groups are less reliant on state welfare than native Britons, for example, and some are more. “Given basic opportunities,” he continues, “They will be better behaved than the youth in the lands they move to, because immigrants in most countries have lower crime rates than the native-born.” Again, it depends on which immigrants and which natives – and how creative Mehta could be with “basic opportunities”.

Once Mehta reaches his grand climactic claim that the “immigrant armada that is coming to your shores is actually a rescue fleet” this reader could feel his arteries throb. As an immigrant – in Poland, which Mehta reveals his ignorance of when he suggests President Andrzej Duda leads the ruling party – I hope I am doing well for my host nation. I work hard to make a difference in my community. I cannot imagine having the brass balls to claim it needs me, though; that I am its “salvation”; that I am “rescuing” it. I would not be very popular if I did.


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4 Comments

  1. Art Mooney

    Intelligent response to an emotional and illogical tirade by Mehta. I think the source of his internal struggle is revealed by this statement:

    “It is every migrant’s dream to see the tables turned, to see long lines of Americans and Britons in front of the Bangladeshi or Mexican or Nigerian Embassy, begging for a residence visa.”

    The reality, for whatever its worth is this: It is highly unlikely that Japanese migrants will ever crowd outside a Nigerian Embassy or Czechs mob outside a Bangladeshi Embassy. The reasons are complex and deeply rooted in the evolution of culture and social organization. It is highly likely, however, that many parts of the dysfunctional world will supply never ending streams of migrants.

    • Numinous

      The reality, for whatever its worth is this: It is highly unlikely that Japanese migrants will ever crowd outside a Nigerian Embassy or Czechs mob outside a Bangladeshi Embassy. The reasons are complex and deeply rooted in the evolution of culture and social organization. It is highly likely, however, that many parts of the dysfunctional world will supply never ending streams of migrants.

      It’s a reality all right, but at a very specific point in history. When white Europeans wanted to “migrate” out from their countries when they were dysfunctional, they didn’t ask for permission. They made more babies and more firearms, and used them to pummel other countries into submission. For a full 500 years, I should add, from the 1400s to the early 1900s. Which exactly coincides with the period when so-called “white people” became more “advanced” than the rest. Happy coincidence?

      Unlike Mehta, I harbor no resentment towards Westerners, who today are indeed the most liberal people in the world with the most “functional” societies that the rest of us must strive to emulate. But proclaiming the everlasting superiority of white people and their cultures is unhelpful, to say the least. It brings out polemics like Tharoor’s, a deeply flawed work built around a solid kernel of truth (that the British looted India before they attempted to set it right, with mixed results.)

  2. Art Mooney

    Part 2 :
    Obviously he believes that certain people ‘Westerners’ are boogie men. He never asks himself about the internal deficiencies of these societies. The extreme nepotism of a Mexican electricity company or Bangladeshi government workers. The embrace of leftist economic policies by Latin American governments. The non-existence of a natively-evolved civil society in Afghanistan, which could very aptly be described almost a pre-metal age.

    Ironically, the treatment of women, minorities and migrants by mean Vanilla Westerners is far better than his home country or any noble country he cites. That fact alone must terrorize his dreams, there, in New York, where he has a job, safety, and the freedom to write stupid, freaking shit.

  3. Trent Denton

    I take you don’t understand the concepts of white supremacy and white privilege….

    I suggest you read Leonard Pitts

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