[Editor’s note: Teju Cole will be reading in Ypsilanti in March.]
I’ve been reading the later work of Derrida, in which the intensity about language remains but there’s also a turn towards the thorniest questions of ethics. There’s a remarkable passage in “The Gift of Death” (1995) that gets at something the news isn’t touching on:
… because of the structure of the laws of the market that society has instituted and controls, because of the mechanisms of external debt and other comparable inequities, that same “society” puts to death or (but failing to help someone in distress accounts only for a minor difference) allows to die of hunger and disease tens of millions of children … without any moral or legal tribunal ever being considered competent to judge such a sacrifice, the sacrifice of the other to avoid being sacrificed oneself. Not only does such a society participate in this incalculable sacrifice, it actually organizes it.
I’m seeing a lot of writing about not calling refugees “migrants.” This is in reaction to those who say refugees are “only” migrants, that this “flood” of migrants flows to richer countries for economic benefit. And it’s true that there’s an urgency in the condition of refugees (no one growing up thinks this will be their fate: to be a refugee, at the crucial mercy of others), and what is specially awful about being a refugee must be recognized and acted on, and not simply reduced to money.
But here’s the thing: migrants should be welcome too. Migrants are welcome. Some of the refugees become migrants, once the immediate danger is past. Some migrants become refugees, caught in an unexpected vortex of malice. Don’t let yourself be spun into a language of hatred and exclusion, at this hot moment in which it’s deemed OK to support refugees but still condemn migrants.
I say refugee, I say migrant, I say neighbor, I say friend, because everyone is deserving of dignity. Because moving for economic benefit *is* itself a matter of life and death. Because money is the universal language, and to be deprived of it is to be deprived of a voice while everyone else is shouting. Sometimes the gun aimed at your head is grinding poverty, or endless shabby struggle, or soul crushing tedium.
And more than “refugee” or “migrant,” I say “people,” and say it with compassion because everyone I love, and everyone they love has at some point said tearful goodbyes and moved from place to place to seek new opportunities, and almost all of them have by their movement improved those new places. Because I reject the poverty of a narrowly defined “we” that robs me of human complexity. Because I don’t believe that radical inclusivity is going to destroy “our” way of living, when I generally don’t know what “our” you’re talking about, and when I think we can do much better than this malevolent way of living anyway.
Did all sixteen of your great great grandparents live, work, and die in the same town where you now live? If no, then you’re a child of migrants. If yes, then y’all seriously need to get out more.
“OK, but where do we draw the line?” is a question you create in your head to distract you from your human duty to the other. If the line had been drawn in front of you instead of behind, you wouldn’t even be here now, wherever here might be.
We have to begin finding ways of dismantling this form of society that actively and passively organizes mass death and then, at the faintest flash of humane behavior, throws itself into paroxysms of self-congratulation.