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A book for our times

in Ark Review/Book reviews by

One dimension of these times in which we live, the times of post-truth, is that they are troubled by an epidemic of fake news. The “fake” infuses the public debate of which we are a part of, whether we like it or not. This very specific condition can be, and indeed is, met with a variety of responses: From a comical redigestion of the world by the late-night shows to serious academic conferences devoted to the analysis of the various facets of the problem. From grassroot activism and mass manifestations to art and popular culture that tries to highlight the underlying reality beneath the fakery. From a redefinition of the role and tasks of journalism and politics to a sense of being too fed up with all these absurdities that retreats into the comforting yet ultimately ineffectual position of I can’t be bothered.

There was something momentous, if for many mostly in a depressing sense, about the election of Donald Trump as the president of United States of America—it clearly marked the nadir in the development of our present condition. I remember how on the eve of the Presidential Election Day I mused—together with Macon Holt and Emilie Bang-Jensen—on which books would serve us well the coming days, should worst come to worst, which we can now pretty safely assume, it did. Not that we were especially surprised the day after: for many Europeans, America’s choice was just a logical if cruel confirmation of a trend we were already familiar with from our own backyards. My pick back then, in a vein perhaps naive and romantic, was Tony Judt’s case for social democracy and celebration of the idea of socially just politics, Ill Fares the Land.

Today, motivated by the same—arguably—unjustified hope, I still stand by that choice, though I have recently come across a book that adopts a position even better suited for our times. I am thinking here about Migranci, migracje. O czym warto wiedzieć, by wyrobić sobie własne zdanie 1—a book edited by Hélène Thiollet, originally published in France in 2016 and so far, to my knowledge, only translated into Polish, and so exhibiting a rather unusual situation in which English lags behind. This inaccessibility of the book for an English readership notwithstanding (though, hopefully only for the time being), I think it deserves some notice here.

It is a book intended as a remedy to this situation in which misinformation is readily believed. It is not, in itself, intended to solve the migrant ‘crisis’, but our own ignorance of it, which is clearly one of the the ‘crisis’’ most potent fuels.

Migrant, migrations is concerned with one of those subjects that is extremely fake news friendly—it attracts vehement opinions and, due to its complexity, repulses an informed discussion. In Europe, migration fills headlines, debates in the chambers of parliaments and media showrooms mainly with what is framed as the, so called, migrant crisis. In the U.S., migration is present through the subjects of The Wall, DACA and the Muslim Migrant Ban. One might say that, given the intricacy of the subject, some mythicalisation is inevitable, because how can one realistically hope to navigate such a complex set of issues? Not all of us can enroll in migration studies courses or afford the time to study reports and data. And, in the fake news times, there is a sense that both traditional media and their younger sibling social media can hardly be trusted—and when they can, the information is often cursory and partial, lacking the holistic outlook so necessary to comprehend the multifaceted matter at hand. How can we navigate? Can we, today and in our daily lives, navigate at all?

It is as a positive answer to this question that Migrants, migrations appears. It is a book intended as a remedy to this situation in which misinformation is readily believed. It is not, in itself, intended to solve the migrant ‘crisis’, but our own ignorance of it, which is clearly one of the the ‘crisis’’ most potent fuels. Migrants, migrations is the result of a collaborative effort on the part of the scholars of economics, sociology, demography, anthology, political sciences, history and geography, composed of 50 short but to-the-point chapters (plus additional Poland-specific 5), each presenting an answer to a question pertaining to the theme of migration. ‘Are there more migrants than ever in the world now?’ ‘Do people migrate from poor countries to the richer ones?’ ‘Do all migrants arrive to Europe and U.S.?’ The answers to these questions provide a fantastic, simple and accessible crash course in the architecture of the topic of migration. The intention here is clearly one of accessibility as the book has been formulated such that no prior knowledge of the subject is required for its comprehension.

Originally published only two years ago, the book is a relatively direct and up-to-date reaction to the developments in the migration processes. On some very basic and urgent level, the value of the text is that it does offer something that should not, under any normal circumstances, excite us, and yet against the current background, it still does: it offers facts. They are out there—scientists do have them—and the book serves as their transmitter. It is in this very capacity of being a handbook that Migrants, migrations strikes me as especially suited for our times. Not as the only kind of book we need, but indispensable nevertheless. A book for the majority of us. Us, who live in a society where migration is not only talked about, but is, and always has been, a fact of life. Because thanks to books like this we can become a bit wiser when it comes both to talking and living.

At the same time, at least ostensibly and in its expressed intention, the book is not conceived as means to convince anyone of any particular position: ‘the authors of the book propose trustworthy data and explain some controversies, so that everyone can make up their own minds.’ This declaration, echoing the book’s very title, is important, I think, if only symbolically, as it points to a certain humility. It is also interesting, as it simultaneously points to a defining belief animating it: that the most one can do is to put the information in the open. It extends an invitation to the readers to do the job by themselves, to think for themselves. Not only is it, via its content, food for thought, but signals, via its very existence, what type of nutrition is recommended in the first place. Ultimately, there seem to be something idealistic about it and the spirit animating it, even if this idealism remains concealed underneath its plain scientific tone.

If that approach may strike one as slightly naïve, it is because in some fundamental sense it is. Essentially, it hinges on the Enlightenment belief in human reason and our capacity to use it adequately once all the facts have been presented and are at the mind’s disposal. This is the positivist certainty that science can guide us and that we are, after all, rational animals. All those assumptions are obviously, and for good reasons, doubtful. The theoretical questions from the various hermeneutical, critical and postmodern perspectives on this issue are only too well known. And this is what I, personally, find very interesting: that while being aware of all the inherent shortcomings of such a stance I, nevertheless, feel compelled to subscribe to such a narrative. Because I am not sure what else can be done. And I can’t be bothered is not an option.

If I note all those reservations here, it is not to dismiss such a belief—and the book—as ineffective. I would only like to point towards a more general problem we have to take seriously if we wish to remedy the times in which we live: how can we convince each other to talk to one another rather than at each other. Because, ultimately, our problem is located not on the level of this or that ‘enlightened’ individual, but in the dialogical space between all of us. The space accessible when we abandon the cozy position of our own personal worlds and take a step out into the open, in between others and participate in the shared world. And this is a world we all share: those who migrate and those who don’t. We all have to meet as partners there. And this is a task infinitely greater than what this book can offer. Because it is not on this (or that) book to do so. It is on us.

Although in and of itself Migrants, migrations does not solve the problem of how to engage in such a meaningful and inclusive dialogue, it provides one of the many vantage points needed to start looking into this direction. Such a conversation only makes sense if we do some preliminary work as individuals—conversely, it becomes but an empty exercises as long as it lack this footing. And it is in its capacity of offering us this particular chance that I find the book valuable. But simply reading it, and those similar to it, is by no means the end of our task, it is rather one of many of the task’s sine qua nons.

 

Works cited

Migranci, migracje. O czym warto wiedzieć, by wyrobić sobie własne zdanie ed. by H. Thiollet

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

 

  1. Migrants, migrations. What’s good to know to get one’s own opinion

Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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