Thursday, August 27, 2015

Making the Victim the Enemy: Composing the Migrant Narrative

They are coming. If we believe the fear mongers, they are dangerous, criminal, threatening, poor, hungry, desperate. And they are brown, black, yellow, and red. Demagogues like Donald Trump and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban make political hay by vilifying them. The stories create a terrifying "Other" that becomes the scapegoat for social problems, and the First World plays the privilege card of innocence, surprise. "It's not my problem," we say. We look for a story to make us blameless and comfortable, victims of forces beyond our control. 

But the refugees and migrants keep pouring into the First World from Syria, Mexico, the continents of Asia and Africa. They are everything those with privilege fear. They are not going away. the story fails to explain why they keep coming. Other narratives may provide better answers, lead to longer-term responses and solutions.

Heres is one: We, in some ways, have made them. The global economy, with its structures of distribution, strips the poor of wealth and deposits it in the pockets of the elite. Income distributions have grown from absurd to obscene. To maintain inequity takes force, martial control. Tolerance and support of dictators that help preserve the status quo creates heavily armed tyrants that eventually turn to bite the hand that feeds.

We trained and armed Bin Ladin and the seeds of Al Qaeda when they fought the Soviets. We propped up the Shah. We overthrew Allende.

Yup, what goes around, comes around. And now ISIL has grown out of the chaos we have helped shape. No one can condone what the so-called Islamic State does, but they come from somewhere, are the product of structures and systems that the powerful First World has but in place. If one follows the money, why things are the way they are begins to emerge. The bottom line sleeps with the most blood-thirsty of regimes.

The First World in its need to concentrate wealth at the top has pulled the life sustaining rug from beneath the refugees and migrants who now want in. Many are fleeing for their lives. Migrating was not a choice. It was either die or move. And there is more. We humans always want more. They want in for work, education, shelter, for productive, human lives. They have nothing to lose, everything to gain. 

The first world narrative that paints them as criminals, terrorists, job thieves, illegals, and moochers fails to situate migrants in history.  Narrative composing machinery that fans the flames of bigotry and racism by demonizing the migrants,  that plays innocent of any context or role in the causes of migration, will not result in effective action. It doesn't get at the root, the causes, the bigger, more complex (and less marketable) context. It doesn't connect the dots, or trace history back to the front door of Europe and America. 

In reality, the migrants are the products of structures that the colonizers and empires have put in place for the last three centuries. They are the results of subjugation, exploitation, systematic dis-empowerment of whole classes of people. Indigenous, native, subsistence cultures have been hit the hardest and continue to lose while urban, industrialized cultures benefit, disproportionately.

The migrant become enemy is coming home to roost. She now comes to us in our dreams and knocks at the door of our borders.  She needs help. She is the part of us we have pushed away, denied, and tried to forget. First World comfort is built on the misery of the dispossessed.

Several writers have advanced more complex narratives that counter the migrant as enemy narrative. Luis Urrea, for example, in both The Devil's Highway and Into the Beautiful North employs narrative non-fiction and fiction to humanize migrants. T.C. Boyle too, in Tortilla Curtain, dignifies the struggle migrants have once they get across the border.

Literary treatment humanizes and points to a larger understanding, but often limits coverage to individuals or particular cases. They fail to cast the net wide enough to see historical forces at work, to reveal some of the accountability in shaping the forces and structures that cause migration. They don't yet hold the First World's feet to the fire of complicity with terror, poverty, and repression. 

Who will tell the truer story?


  1. Very nicely put! And a timely piece right now as political pundits spew regressive narratives about migrants...

    1. Yup. Easy to paint the poor and dispossessed as the problem. Hard to take responsibility for history and privilege. Gotta get educated.