The Immigration Crisis Demands That We Rebalance the Scales: The Rat Who Withdrew From The World

The United States has always had an isolationist streak, an illusion of fierce independence from the rest of the world. Now, when Americans’ wealth and privilege and their level of consumption are at all-time highs, the real cost of this delusion of separate entitlement is skyrocketing.

The Turks tell of a rat who, weary of the world’s cares, retreated into a wheel of Dutch cheese, far from society’s worries. The solitude was profound, extending everywhere equally in the round. Our new hermit subsisted inside. He worked hard with his feet and teeth, so that in only a few days he had secured food and shelter in the depths of his hermitage. What more does a person need?

He got big and fat. God is generous with his favors for those who pledge their lives to serve heaven.

One day, some deputies of the rat people came to visit the devout personage, to ask for a few meager alms. They were headed to foreign lands, to get help against the cat people. Ratopolis was surrounded. They had been forced to leave without money, given the bankrupt condition of their republic under attack. They were asking for very little, certain that their rescue was at hand, four or five days at most.

My friends, the solitary said, the concerns of the world do not touch me anymore. How could a poor recluse help you? What could he do, except pray to heaven that God helps you in this? I hope God will have some care for you.

Having spoken thus, the new saint closed his door.

Who am I talking about, in your opinion, with this story of the unpleasant rat? A monk? —No, perhaps a Sufi dervish (the most reclusive and holy). I assume that monks are always charitable.  

The United States is getting big and fat inside it’s wheel of cheese, and wants to pretend the cheese making wasn’t a collaborative global effort. So a large proportion of the country feels righteously entitled to close the door to refugees, as they polish their nationalist halos and nibble Gouda, or maybe Kraft cheese slices.

Globalization should have helped us better understand the imperatives of our shared humanity. Instead, we use it as a tool for the accumulation of capital, which, in turn, produces increasing inequality, not less.

We conveniently forget that a pure accident of birth decided whether we were Canadian, Brazilian or Syrian. To see our privileges as “accidental” is so very vulnerable that we prefer to fool ourselves into thinking we are entitled to all we have. Otherwise, we would have to face the fact that we could be homeless or stateless.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt proposes the principle of equal liberty—isonomia, as it was called in ancient times—as a way to structure our thinking. We are all entitled to equal liberty, by virtue of our humanity. The principle requires that we ask ourselves (over and over again) why do we have benefits that others don’t. Why, for example, do we have access to clean, running water all time, when someone else does not? Under the principle of equal liberty, no answer is good enough, except this—how can everyone have access to clean, running water?

Closing the borders is the polar opposite of equal liberty. We cannot retreat from the cares of the rest of the world, as if they are not our concern, too. Don’t tell me we don’t have enough resources, as our consumption of material goods goes up and up.

We are responsible for the people who come knocking for some cheese. Not because we are powerful and they are weak; but because the principle of equal liberty demands that we recognize our own vulnerability, as we extend our hand.

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