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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Talk Talk Talk


Dr. Lester CN Simon

On my native island, where land and sea make beauty and people and people make ugly, nothing is what it appears to be; neither is it otherwise, according to a Zen master. An elder cousin, my first Zen master, said to me when I was little and pleaded with him for some of his pomegranate: “Who beg narn get and who na beg na warnt”. In these Zen circumstances, you have a trichotomy of choices. You can mope and do nothing, or you can walk away, call your favorite radio station and talk, talk, talk, or you create something new in place of the nothingness and plant your own pomegranate. It took me a long time to do a Columbus on that.

In a very incisive book called, Democracy and The Foreigner, Bonnie Honig invites us to change the topic from how to solve the problem of foreignness, to what problem foreignness can solve for us. Honig is a professor of political science. Grasping the meat of her insightful book is wonderfully aided by a review by Ellennita Muetze Hellmer of The University of Chicago.

At the heart of foreignness is the awakening of a familiarity of ourselves that can be illuminating or darkening, depending on the path we wish to follow. In fact, these two parallel paths must be pursued at all times for the good of society. The geometric fact that parallel lines do not have a definitional meeting place translates into the possibility that our love-hate relationship with foreignness may be a healthy one. It affords an essential and everlasting questioning and answering of the relationship between us natives and the state.

It is said that a foreigner is someone who makes us think we are at home. We are all familiar with the sudden intrusion of uninvited guests. Are we really upset with them or with ourselves? Can it be that they are simply showing up the tattered, open-sesame fence around our unkempt yard, the shaggy mongrel, or worse, the “licky-licky” pedigree dog that we cannot control, the garage full of junk and the absence of a clean, clear glass of “good water” even for ourselves? The fact that the place is dirty is not the glaring point. The burning shame is that they make it a little dirtier. The bed is unmade, chairs are all over the place, one of the toilets can’t flush properly, curtains are torn or absent and yet they come and “rample up” the place? Give me an aspirin; or the whole darn pharmacy.

Honig posits that debates about foreignness help to shore up our national and democratic identities. Anxieties, channeled appropriately, are one of the cornerstones of a good, democratic society. If we are anxious about foreignness and voice our concerns, it may help us to register other anxieties as well.
Societies must always be renewed in order to grow. The questioning of foreignness is actually a mirror-on-the-wall opportunity to compare our energies and attitudes and look at how we treat others and ourselves and how our government treats us.

But there is this local biliousness that makes us bitch against some foreignness (justifiably so in some cases), curse our government flat for not looking after us, and yet a simple community project in dire need of our almost effortless assistance goes a begging with a cold shoulder that will freeze a collar bone under a midday West Indian sun. The reason? It’s because we are disinterested. We just do not care and we cannot bother, until foreignness reminds us of what can be done with what we have. And even then we become more apathetic, if only to underscore the otherness of the foreigner.

Many types of relationships are empowered by foreignness (Be careful!) if we accept the ambivalence that foreignness brings. To this end, Honig urges an ongoing re-examination of the relationship between nationals and foreigners taking into account the natural and healthy suspicion and ambivalence that will lead to our re-examination of the relationship between all citizens and the state. Interestingly, overt attention to foreigners who look like the native majority and who are in great numbers may mask the possibility that a covert minority of others are eking out disproportionately more from the state.

In a remarkable touch of irony, Honig points out by way of an example that foreigners allow us to see a quintessentially democratic process at work. She contends that there are foreigners who give and foreigners who take. We natives love the ones that give. Ironically, the foreigners that take or wrestle away the rights of the state rather than wait for them to be granted are exercising a crucial democratic right that we the complacent natives allow to slip away or have long forgotten. And in our annoyance and defense of our rights, we abjectly refuse to claim and wrestle away these very same available rights. Why? Because politicians are supposed to deliver them to us gift-wrapped under a golden bow on a silver platter.

Foreigners and natives alike must come to accept that, like many good relationships, the contradictions and ambivalences, if earnestly exposed and espoused, can afford the growing and transforming of the relationship. This transformation should lead to incremental gains for all, even as new parallel lines with no obvious rendezvous emerge. So gird your loins and join the battle against fear, hate and poverty. The healthy debate must continue. The Zen master reminds us that it takes a wise man to learn from his mistakes, but an even wiser man to learn from others.

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