The Complexity of the Global Refugee Problem

Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved good science fiction. The thought processes that inform proper forward-looking science fiction is very much like the thinking that goes into long-term investing. Thematic, anticipation of the singular event, and thoughtful assessment of the look and feel of the probabilities is the name of both games. One of my favorite science fiction guys is Stanislaw Lem.

Stanislaw Lem in Solaris (1961) considers a planet almost entirely covered by a strange, viscous, and intelligent “ocean”. It turns out this ocean is sentient and capable of astonishing acts, including creating intelligent, interacting hallucinations of people important to the humans that come to the planet. These hallucinations even drive some mad. The ocean turns out to be a vast interconnected system of energy and information flows that defy explanation. It is a planetary brain whose motives cannot be understood. Researchers try to reduce this ocean to something familiar using scientific methods, but the ocean-planet is so unpredictable and unhuman it denies the human urge to translate all differences into versions of sameness. Mankind is forced to resign itself to ignorance over the ocean’s ultimate mechanisms and motives.

Here in the Park Avenue high-rise which is the Western world, it seems there is a section of people that thinks of the Muslims, or at least Muslim refugees in such a way. A vast interconnected, inscrutable, totally alien… Other. Like an alien ocean.

This notion is downright scary in its implications.

Whether in the high-rise or the slums, we do all live in a vast interconnected social world of energy, information, capital, and human flows. Truth is these human flows are little understood as of yet. There is no textbook explanation for them. The Santa Fe Institute has been trying to figure them out for decades and they still aren’t even close.

We do know is that these human flows don’t follow paths of least resistance. They do not diffuse from areas of high concentration to low concentration as convention physical laws would dictate. In contrast, they move from areas of lower energy, wealth, and civilization to areas of higher concentrations of wealth and energy. In spite of increasing obstacles and resistance, the drive of individual human initiative translates into these collective flows, making them defy predictability and result in astonishing phenomena.

While by no means as shocking as finding another inscrutable life-form, one current of these human flows surprised the European Union technocrats with another challenge for which they were yet again unprepared. To wit: the EU received around one million asylum applications in 2015 and possibly an even greater (but surely at least similar) number in 2016. Not since World War II have we seen anything like it—we may have never seen anything like it: 24% of these applicants are from Syria, 12% are from Afghanistan, 6% are from Iraq, and 5% are from Pakistan. The rest are from other various regions that represent not war-generated refugees, but rather economic refugees.

The drivers seem relatively simple. Individuals from these countries are trying to leave war-torn, devastated third world areas and find work and stability in the European Union, a completely understandable motivation. Complementing this motivation, authorities in the European Union have a massive demographic problem: an aging society that isn’t having enough children to support the pension guarantees for retirees. In effect, the demographic problem will destroy the pension systems of the constituent nations. These economic problems have been thus far intractable. No ECB financial easing has made a dent in this dismal demographic dynamic trend.

Increasingly frantic for a public policy response, the EU authorities arrived at a "solution": import a bunch of more fertile refugees to enter the workforce, alter the demographics, and ultimately take up the fiscal slack and uptick domestic demand. A side benefit is that the exercise looks humanitarian and can be sold to the EU masses as such.

What could go wrong? We are seeing what went wrong. Headlines are screaming about it.

The incoming refugees have their own deeply conservative culture. The environmental and political conditions of the Middle East made this culture hard as flint. In places where justice is conceived as an iron fist (the base template for middle-eastern authoritarian government), and the desert ultimately reclaims all the works of man into its sand and dust, culture is designed to reinforce the bonds of one’s in-group or tribe over individual rights and non-collective solutions to life. Such cultures have the advantage of being resistant to “black swans”—unpredictable and catastrophic events.

But they do not balance the flexible adaptation and rule-based protections of people, their private property and their promises arrangements within a legal framework nearly as well as competing cultures. Because the typical ruling regimes offers solutions that are as likely to end in exploitation as compromise in the Middle East, people there learned long ago to coordinate, organize, and regulate at the tribal, family through the use of interpersonal violence. One cannot deny that vendetta, rape, and honor killings are more common as a result. They are not likely to support the retirement needs of anonymous strangers at the expense of their in-group.

Neither the migrants nor the technocrats are guilty of deliberate, knowing attempts to destroy European society. Instead you have a plan that looks decent on paper, but unintended consequences dominate the outcome. Desperation, lack of accountability, and plain folly are more often than not what makes the world turn.

The lion’s share of the blame is assigned to Islam, and understandably so. But this is and isn’t about Islam. The core issue is far older than Islam. Islam is merely a deeply syncretic religion that took cultural currents of medieval Arabia and melded them with Syriac liturgical texts, some altered Hebrew scripture, and an intensely conservative Arab/Semitic culture that goes back millennia. The culture that informs the mindset is the substratum that matters.

The interplay between the intensely conservative, syncretic mindset thrust into the thoroughly secular, critical culture of the EU is decisive.

To oversimplify: “Critical cultures,” like that of the EU, are created by societies composed largely of doubters. Doubters that doubt even doubt itself: people that thought too much about Kant and Hegel and Sloterdijk and as such came to the conclusion that thinking is way overrated; people that drool over the Kardashian parade of celebrity and cheerlead for their dad’s sex change operation; people conditioned to avoid the tough questions entirely. These are societies that quickly point out contradiction and inconsistency found in syncretic belief systems. Critical culture holds all views as equally worthless in content and equally worth tolerating.

The EU is a uniquely secular critical culture that embodies this cognitive dissonance. It aspires to an egalitarian universalism of the French spirit of 1789. Individual empowerment, irrespective of his beliefs or defining qualities, is held up as the goal. This rings hollow amid the headlines of crime, terrorism and rape, attributed to the millions of third-world new-comers. The EU increasingly thinks of Kultur with a big German “K”, where individual egalitarianism is replaced by the unity of a community. A German Volk looking for a people is why continental Europe is afraid of itself.

Despite the internal ambivalent view Europeans have about themselves, this isn’t a case of Mark Twain’s famous “notion that the white man is less savages than the other savages”. The EU as an institution has to come to grips with the fact that their citizens need to be protected. There is a decent chunk of the incoming millions of refugees do not respect even the most basic rights of people. Civic values like liberty, equality, and fraternity are incompatible with the culture of the newcomers.

The igniting force is the cognitive dissonance within the secular EU meeting squarely the cognitive dissonance from without. This is the hinge of the story. Europe is coveted place and aspirants come to it because it provides welfare, housing, and safety—it is a paradise. They do not like the critical culture they find. Every passing day, fervent believers from the Muslim world realize that a lot of what they believe is a relic from thousands of years ago and unsuited for life in the societies in which they aspire to live. History makes this clear.

The culture of the Middle East had never shed its Sumerian roots. While Akkadian and other Semitic immigrants added to and subtly modified this base template, the dominant theme was a theology with the god of the nation-state or tribal group at the center. Man was meant to toil in order to provide food, clothing, and service for these god or gods and their priestly representatives. The center and meaning of existence is beyond man and his achievements. In the scheme of existence man was never an end, always just a means. Piety was abstention from all human initiative. Absolute faith and reliance on divine intervention characterizes this type of belief. Arabs in large to this day remain as conservative and dependent on this type of piety as those who lived in the Middle East 5,000 years ago.

Arabs have been unwilling to discard anything of the hallowed past without extreme coercion. This is the key to Mohammed’s success first in the Arabian Peninsula and the key for his followers as they conquered regions beyond. Any explicit reference points to pre-Islamic origins, origins which do not include Mohammed or his presumed forebears like Abraham and Ishmael as an essential component are classified as pagan, impure, and unworthy of consideration. In the same way, any explicit reference points in the present and future which do not include Mohammed as an essential component are classified as pagan, impure, and unworthy of consideration. Islam is in this way ahistorical, like a utopian state delivered by God that cannot be improved upon. There is a Allah-given sanction to deal with competing social alternatives with violence.

The physical nature of the Middle East reinforces this. More often than not, ancient constructions that connect the present to the past crumbled under the merciless sun, or buried into the sands, worn into dust by the elements, or utterly shattered by war or pillage. If it is shattered or destroyed by some act of God, then it is a past not worthy of survival.

Middle Eastern civilization grew up in the shadow of such devastations. Nature imposes upon and overrides man’s will, making clear how little he matters. Standing amid such powers, man sees how weak he is, realizes with dread that he is caught up in a cosmic drama written by giant forces. His mood is tense and his lack of power makes him acutely aware of the tragic. Middle Eastern civilization has grown to see how inadequate it is compared to other civilizations. Other powers, political in nature, easily destroy cities, manipulate factions and in turn crush them. The same rhythm and order prevails, an order neither safe nor enduring. Islamic culture is just like the ancient towns covered by the sands. Another layer superimposed upon the ruins of another: a failed way destroyed and its ruins are used so that life can begin again. Islam prevails merely because it hasn’t been destroyed by this cycle.

Further, Islam is decidedly more than a set of religious beliefs. It is an all-embracing mode of social and political organization. The more completely the Islamic culture is embraced, the more natural its tenets seem to the people involved. Culture is not conceived of consciously until it begins to lose its obvious and natural character.

Critical cultures love nothing better than chewing up naïve ideals held by simple folk with unshakable faith and spitting what is left on the ground. And then Islamic belief becomes unnatural. Culture faces existential crisis. This is exactly where Islamic culture finds itself. And it is freaking out.

Judging by Brexit, Trump, and the front-runners in European elections, the west has pretty much figured this out.

Don’t blame critical culture for rooting out inconsistency. Culture is not in the equalizing business. Culture creates divisions. Critical culture follows a dialectic process that identifies the crap in beliefs, confronts the opposition, and combines what is left standing into a new synthesis of culture. This is a prerequisite to resolving the refugee crisis before it explodes.

The issue isn't whether the human societies are going to stop integrating. The issue is the nature of the integration. You can’t practically ship two million refugees (and counting) back to a wasteland.

In Solaris, Lem states:

“We don’t want to conquer the universe. We simply want to extend the boundaries of the Earth to the Frontiers of the universe. For us, such and such a planet as is arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon Basin… We are only seeking man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.”

Even on our familiar planet earth one looks for commonalities across cultures that are not their own. In the end there is no doubt that Islam will be radically altered by critical reason the same way communism and every other “ism” has collapsed. But for now, there is the painful process of arriving at this point. Mankind is forced to resign itself to ignorance over the future contours of European culture given the millions of refugees it has to accommodate. But it will change down to its roots.

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