An uncontrollable natural phenomenon

There have been great migrations from East to West, in the course of which the peoples of the Caucasus changed the culture and biological heredity of the natives. What Europe is still trying to tackle as immigration is in fact migration. The Third World is knocking at our doors, and it will come in, even if we are not in agreement.

By Umberto Eco

Some years ago, upon the constitution of the Académie Universelle des Cultures in Paris, an organization made up of artists and scientists from all over the world, a statute or charter was drawn up. And one of the introductory declarations of this charter, which was also intended to define the scientific and moral duties of the academy, was that the coming millennium would witness a "great cross-breeding of cultures". If the course of events is not suddenly inverted (and everything is possible), we must prepare ourselves for the fact that in the next millennium Europe will be like New York or some Latin American countries. In New York we see the negation of the melting pot concept: different cultures coexist, from Puerto Ricans to Chinese, from Koreans to Pakistanis. Some groups have merged with one another (like Italians and Irish, Jews and Poles), others have kept themselves separate (living in different districts, speaking different languages and following different traditions), and all come together on the basis of some common laws and a common lingua franca, English, which each group speaks well enough to make themselves understood.I ask you to bear in mind that in New York, where the so-called white population is on the way to becoming a minority, 42 percent of the whites are Jews and the other 58 percent are of the most disparate origins, and of their number the Wasps, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, are the minority (there are Polish Catholics, Italians, Hispanic-Americans, Irish, etc.).In Latin America, depending on the country, different phenomena have occurred: sometimes the Spanish colonizers interbred with the Indians, sometimes (as in Brazil) with the Africans too, and sometimes languages and populations known as ‘Creole’ came into being. It is very difficult, even if we think in racial terms, to say whether a Mexican or a Peruvian is of European or Amerindian origin. And it’s even harder to decide about, let’s say, a Jamaican. So, the future of Europe holds a phenomenon of this kind, and no racist or backward-looking reactionary will be able to prevent it.I believe that a distinction must be drawn between the concept of ‘immigration’ and that of ‘migration’. Immigration occurs when some individuals (even many individuals, but in numbers that are statistically irrelevant with respect to the original stock) move from one country to another (like the Italians and the Irish in America, or the Turks today in Germany). The phenomenon of immigration may be controlled politically, restricted, encouraged, planned or accepted.This is not the case with migration. Violent or pacific as it may be, it is like a natural phenomenon: it happens, and no one can control it. Migration occurs when an entire people moves from one territory to another (the number remaining in the original territory is of no importance: what counts is the extent to which the migrants change the culture of the territory to which they have migrated). There have been great migrations from East to West, in the course of which the peoples of the Caucasus changed the culture and biological heredity of the natives. Then there were the migrations of the ‘barbarian’ peoples that invaded the Roman Empire and created new kingdoms and new cultures called ‘Romano-barbarian’ or ‘Romano-Germanic’. There was European migration toward the American continent, from the East Coast and gradually across to California, and also from the Caribbean islands and Mexico all the way to Tierra del Fuego.

Interrupted migrations

Even though this was in part politically planned, I use the term ‘migration’ because the European whites did not adopt the customs and culture of the natives, but rather founded a new civilization to which even the natives (those who survived) adapted. There have been interrupted migrations, like those of the Arab peoples who got as far as the Iberian Peninsula. There have been forms of migration that were planned and partial, but no less influential for this, like that of the Europeans to the east and south (hence the birth of the so-called postcolonial nations), where the migrants nonetheless changed the culture of the autochthonous peoples. I don’t think that anyone has so far described a phenomenology of the different types of migration, but migration is certainly different from immigration.

We only have immigration when the migrants (admitted according to political decisions) accept most of the customs of the country into which they have immigrated, while migration occurs when the migrants (whom no one can stop at the frontiers) radically transform the culture of the territory they have migrated to.

Today, after a nineteenth century full of immigrants, we find ourselves faced with unclear phenomena. In a climate marked by pronounced mobility, it is very difficult to say whether a certain movement of people is immigration or migration. There is certainly an unstoppable flow from the south to the north (as Africans and Middle Easterners head for Europe), the Indians have invaded Africa and the Pacific Islands, the Chinese are everywhere, and the Japanese are present with their industrial and economic organizations even though they have not moved physically in any significant numbers.

Is it possible to distinguish immigration from migration when the entire planet is becoming the territory of intersecting movements of people? I think it is possible: as I have said, immigration can be controlled politically, but like natural phenomena, migration cannot be. As long as there is immigration, peoples can hope to keep the immigrants in a ghetto, so that they do not mix with the natives. When migration occurs, there are no more ghettoes, and intermarriage is uncontrollable.

What Europe is still trying to tackle as immigration is in fact migration. The Third World is knocking at our doors, and it will come in even if we are not in agreement. The problem is no longer to decide (as politicians pretend) whether students at a Paris university can wear the chador or how many mosques should be built in Rome.

The problem is that in the third millennium (and since I am not a prophet, I cannot say exactly when) Europe will become a multiracial continent – or a ‘coloured’ one, if you prefer. That’s how it will be, whether you like it or not.

This meeting (or clash) or cultures could lead to bloodshed, and I believe to a certain extent that it will. Such a result cannot be avoided and will last a long time. However, racists ought to be (in theory) a race on the way to extinction.

Was there a patrician class in ancient Rome that could not tolerate the idea of Gauls, or Samaritans, or Jews like Saint Paul becoming Roman citizens, or of an African ascending the imperial throne, as indeed happened in the end? The patricians have been forgotten, defeated by history. Roman civilization was a hybrid culture. Racists will say that this is why it fell, but its fall took five hundred years – which strikes me as time enough for us too to make plans for the future.

Forms of intolerance

Fundamentalism and integralism are usually considered to be closely linked concepts and as the two most obvious forms of intolerance. If I consult two excellent references like the Petit Robert and the Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française, I find in the definition of ‘fundamentalism’ an immediate reference to integralism. Which prompts me to think that all forms of fundamentalism are forms of integralism and vice versa. But even if this were so, it would not mean that all intolerant people are fundamentalists or integralists. Even though at present we are faced with different forms of fundamentalism and examples of integralism are visible everywhere, the problem of intolerance is deeper and more dangerous.

In historical terms fundamentalism is a hermeneutic principle, linked to the interpretation of a holy book. Modern Western fundamentalism was born in Protestant circles in the nineteenth-century United States, and its characteristic feature is the decision to interpret the Scriptures literally, especially with regard to those notions of cosmology whose truth the science of the day seemed to doubt. Hence the frequently intolerant rejection of all allegorical interpretations and especially of all forms of education that attempted to undermine faith in the biblical text, as occurred with the triumph of Darwinism.

This form of fundamentalist literalism is ancient, and even in the days of the Fathers of the Church there were debates between partisans of the letter and supporters of a suppler hermeneutics, like that of Saint Augustine.

But in the modern world, strict fundamentalism could only be Protestant, given that in order to be a fundamentalist you have to assume that the truth is given by a certain interpretation of the Bible. In the Catholic world it is the authority of the Church that guarantees the validity of the interpretation, and so the Catholic equivalent of Protestant fundamentalism takes if anything the form of traditionalism. I shall omit any consideration of the natural of Muslim and Jewish fundamentalism, which I leave to the experts.

Is fundamentalism necessarily intolerant? On a hermeneutic level it is, but not necessarily on a political one. It is possible to imagine a fundamentalist sect that assumes its own elect to be the privileged possessors of the correct interpretation of the Scriptures, without however indulging in any form of proselytism and consequently without wishing to oblige others to share those beliefs or to fight for a society based on them.

‘Integralism’, on the other hand, refers to a religious and political position whereby religious principles must become at once the model of political life and the source of the laws of the state. While fundamentalism and integralism are in principle conservative, there are forms of integralism that claim to be progressive and revolutionary. There are Catholic integralist movements that are not fundamentalist, fighting for a society totally inspired by religious principles but without imposing a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, and maybe prepared to accept a theology like that of Teilhard de Chardin.

Political correctness

The nuances can be even subtler. Think of the phenomenon of political correctness in America. This sprang from the desire to encourage tolerance and the recognition of all differences, religious, racial, and sexual, and yet it is becoming a new form of fundamentalism that is affecting everyday language in practically ritual fashion, and that works on the letter at the expense of the spirit – and so you can discriminate against blind persons provided you have the delicacy to call them the ‘sightless’, and above all you can discriminate against those who do not follow the rules of political correctness.

And racism? Nazi racism was certainly totalitarian, it had pretensions to being scientific, but there was nothing fundamentalist about the doctrine of race. An unscientific racism like that of Italy’s Lega Nord does not have the same cultural roots of pseudoscientific racism (in reality it has no cultural roots), yet it is racism.

And intolerance? Can it be reduced to these differences and the kinship between fundamentalism, integralism and racism? There have been nonracist forms of intolerance (like the persecution of heretics or the intolerance of dissidents in dictatorships). Intolerance is something far deeper, lying at the roots of all the phenomena I am considering here. Fundamentalism, integralism, and pseudoscientific racism are theoretical positions that presuppose a doctrine. Intolerance comes before any doctrine. In this sense intolerance has biological roots, it manifests itself among animals as territoriality, it is based on emotional reactions that are often superficial – we cannot bear those that are different from us, because their skin is a different colour; because they speak a language we do not understand; because they eat frog, dogs, monkeys, pigs, or garlic; because they tattoo themselves, etc.

Intolerance for what is different or unknown is as natural in children as their instinct to possess all they desire. Children are educated gradually to tolerance, just as they are taught to respect the property of others and, even before that, to control their sphincters.

Unfortunately, while children learn to control their own bodies, tolerance is a permanent educational problem with adults, because in everyday life we are forever exposed to the trauma of difference. Academics often deal with the doctrines of difference, but devote insufficient attention to uncontrolled intolerance, because it eludes all definition and critical consideration. Yet the doctrines of difference do not produce uncontrolled intolerance: on the contrary, they exploit a pre-existing and diffuse reservoir of intolerance. Take the witch hunts. This phenomenon was a product not of the ‘Dark Ages’ but of the modern age.

The Malleus Maleficarum, commonly known as the Hammer of the Witches, was written six years before the discovery of America and was a contemporary of Florentine humanism; Jean Bodin’s Démonomanie des sorciers came from the pen of a Renaissance man who wrote after Copernicus. My intention here is not to explain why the modern world produces theoretical justifications for witch hunts; all I want to do is point out that this doctrine became successful because popular fear of witches was already a reality. That fear can be found in classical antiquity (Horace), in the edict of King Rotari, and in the Summa theological of Saint Thomas. It was considered a part of everyday life, just as the penal code provides for muggers. Without this popular belief a doctrine of witchcraft and the systematic persecution of witches could never have gained currency.

Pseudoscientific anti-Semitism arose in the course of the nineteenth century and became totalitarian anthropology and industrialized genocide only in the twentieth. But it could never have arisen had an anti-Jewish polemic not been under way for centuries, since the days of the Fathers of the Church, or if the common people had not translated anti-Semitism into practice, a situation that endured wherever there was a ghetto. The anti-Jacobin theories of Jewish conspiracy circulating at the beginning of the nineteenth century did not create popular anti-Semitism, but rather exploited a hatred for difference that already existed.

The most dangerous form of intolerance is precisely the kind that arises in the absence of any doctrine, fuelled by elemental drives. This is why it cannot be criticized or curbed by rational argument. The theoretical foundations of Hitler’s Mein Kampf can be confuted by a battery of fairly simple arguments, but if the ideas proposed in it have survived and continue to survive all objections, it is because they are founded on uncontrolled intolerance, which is immune to all criticism. I find the intolerance of Bossi’s Lega Nord more dangerous than that of Le Pen’s Front National. The historical background of Le Pen’s movement is characterized by the perfidy of right-wing intellectuals, while Bossi has nothing but uncontrolled drives.

Look at what happened in Italy a few years ago, when twelve thousand Albanians entered the country in little over a week. The public and official model was one of welcome. Most of those who want to stop this kind of exodus, which could become more than the country can handle, use economic and demographic arguments. But all theories are rendered superfluous by a creeping intolerance that gains new ground with every day that passes. Uncontrolled intolerance is based on a categorical short circuit that is then leased out to every future racist doctrine: if some of the Albanians who have come to Italy in recent years have become thieves and prostitutes (and this is true), then all Albanians are thieves and prostitutes.

This is a frightening short circuit, because it constitutes a constant temptation for all of us: all it takes is for someone to steal our baggage at an airport anywhere in the world, and we go back home saying that the people of that country cannot be trusted.

The most frightening form of intolerance is that of the poor, who are the first victims of difference. There is no racism among the rich. The rich have produced, if anything, the doctrines of racism. The poor, on the other hand, have produced its practice, which is far more dangerous.

Intellectuals cannot fight uncontrolled intolerance, because when faced with pure unthinking animality, thought finds itself defenceless. But it is too late when war is waged on doctrinal intolerance, for when intolerance is transformed into doctrine the war is already lost, and those who ought to fight it become the first victims. Yet it is here that the challenge lies. To inculcate tolerance in adults who shoot at one another for ethnic and religious reasons is a waste of time. Too late. Therefore uncontrolled intolerance has to be beaten at the roots, through constant education that starts from earliest infancy, before it is written down in a book, and before it becomes a behavioural ‘skin’ that is too thick and too tough.

Europe: Closed Doors or Open Arms? Culture and Migration / EUNIC, ... (Hg.). – Göttingen: Steidl , 2015. – 300 pp. – (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)

Europe: Close Doors or Open Arms? Cultural and Migration / EUNIC, ... (Hg.). – Göttingen: Steidl , 2015. – 300 pp. – (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)
Order of ifa Media

Umberto Eco was born in 1932. He is a novelist, columnist, philosopher and media scholar. His published works range from the History of Beauty to the novel The Name of the Rose, which brought him worldwide fame. This English version of this article is based on his book Five Moral Pieces published by Martin Warburg and Secker Ltd in 2001 and translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwan.