By Moritz Borchardt
We are, by default, living in historic times. Be it in the midst of the recently increased influx of immigrants and refugees into Europe, the fight of the Kurds in Syria, Turkey and Iraq, or the financial implications and echoes of crises past and present, the times we are living in are predominantly one thing: hectic.
In such times, the idea of ‘making sense of it all’ and ‘getting one’s head above the clouds’ is bound to falter and fall short from the start. In the end, no-one has an answer, let alone the answer.
Hardly any of the problems we are facing today is bereft of the label ‘man made’. From climate change to the age-old causes of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ by way of mercantilist colonialism and creative border-making, to the not-so nice side-effects of the ubiquitous technology we use to manage it, it seems that many a-ghost has come to haunt us in this first half of the 21st century.
In 1899, British poet Rudyard Kipling formulated the ‘white man’s burden’ as the responsibility of the white man to rule the world for the betterment of all. From colonialism and self-interested development aid to the arbitrary creation of nation states that are the countries of origin of many of today’s refugees, ‘the white man’ has indeed made quite a show of it. Following this, we arrive at the question of inevitability: Was history bound to play out the way it did? Did the invention of money, through time and technology, by default lead to the banking crisis of 2008 and 09? Is the human race destined to fail and fall upon itself due to its ignorance of its natural anvironment and its violence against itself? Should we start stacking canned goods and await the end times with loaded guns?
Maybe not just yet.
Flows of migration have changed the outlook of the world and its population for as long as history has been recorded, and social and political tensions have a tendency to relieve themselves in outbursts of more or less violent conflicts only to settle down again over the course of decades and centuries. We are in one of those centuries, we may not know what kind of century it will be, but from what we know it won’t be the last one. What we see today, taken at face value, are the first steps of the historic 21st century as it comes into its own. The 20th century had the technological and political heritage of the industrial revolution, had mass communication and destruction on a massive scale; so what’s next? From history we know that processes of change are impossible to prevent in the long run; no wall is long enough or strong enough, no injustice vile enough – and no culture powerful enough to withstand them.
When change is the only constant, the only question is how we accommodate ourselves and the world around us to that change. Do we open the gates of our shiny, happy world of abundance to those who would prefer to risk drowning in the sea than to live in a conflict that was not theirs, and share with them what we have? Or do we close our borders and create a fortress of our own, for our own, and pretend that life is easy still?
Without any hint of a doubt, we will hardly recognize the world we have the chance to create today and the road we need to take to get there will be a long and arduous one. That being said, the young generations today are the first ones yet to have the chance to reach beyond the limitations of location and culture and identify themselves, ourselves, as humans first and national citizens second. It is this eventual overcoming of artificially imposed separations by means of culture and politics through the visibility and accessibility of those who are far away, the normalization of intercultural contacts in everyday life through technology and common languages that can give us pause for optimism.
Only when significant parts of society understand strangers that seek help as a part of a shared ‘us’, when there is a mutual sense of responsibility for one-another that is indiscriminate of origin, colour of skin, or the details of ones’ lifestyle, can we call ourselves truly open. Perhaps even human?
What we are seeing these days in Europe, and especially in Germany, is the establishment and discussion of coping mechanisms of societies to deal with a new and fundamental challenge to their very definition of self. Refugees are arriving in Europe by the tens of thousands at a time when the public in the receiving countries is still shocked by images that only show what we already knew, or rather, should have known. The reaction and question of character then is surprisingly black-or-white: “Not our problem!” versus “Come in, have food, we have plenty!”.
However, even wealthy nations like Germany have limited resources, problems of their own and a responsibility to keep themselves functional in order to continuously be able to support those that are in need of help. The practical implementation of ‘save the world, save the people’ here is a tightrope act if ever there was one. Questions of who is eligible to our help and why, the mistakes in a newly set-up system that is straining from beginning to end from regulation and rule implementation to operability and hands-on organization are sadly, and frustratingly, unavoidable.
Right now, no-one in Europe and Germany has a fully-fledged design on reacting to the whole scale of the current situation. At this point, any system that actually works will do, we can get rid of the bugs once we are, finally, ahead of the curve. As people and communities in the comparatively wealthy nations of the globe, we got lucky in the pre-birth lottery that decided where we would be born and to whom. There is no achievement nor justification that determines why some of us are sitting behind a fancy desk thinking idly while others exchange their last for the mere chance for themselves and their children to find a better life. None.
And it is in this where we, the lucky ones, have to realize that there is a utopian idea, the idea of the equality of man, that needs to be upheld by those who can. We must – and we can.
The obstacles we face these days are vast and seemingly insurmountable: migration, climate change, and rising political tensions across the globe to name but a few. But maybe, just maybe, remembering that one utopian idea, the idea that everyone has the same rights as the next and that no one has the default position of being ‘right’, might just get us through.
At the end of the day, what is left if not the vain, sometimes desperate, hope to make it through a crisis alive and the hope that we did more good than harm along the way?
Moritz Borchardt is a Director of GPPW.
Picture Credit: Rasande Tyskar under a 2.0 Generic (CC-BY-NC) Creative Commons license