The Migrants and the Elites

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2015

What a crisis Europe is in, with waves of migrants reaching its shores as the Arab world implodes. It is the biggest migration into Europe since the end of World War II and is shaping up to be its first great and sustained challenge of the 21st century. It may in fact shape that continent’s nature and history as surely as did World War I.

It is a humanitarian crisis. As Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, it will not soon go away, for two reasons. First, the Mideast will not be peaceful anytime soon and may well become more turbulent. Second, “The more that Europe responds the more it will reinforce the supply of migrants. Europe is caught.” If it doesn’t respond with compassion and generosity it is wrong in humanitarian terms; if it does, more will come and the problem grows. “This is now part of the architecture,” says Mr. Haass.

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Damning “the elites” is often a mindless, phony and manipulative game. Malice and delusion combine to produce the refrains: “Those fancy people in their Georgetown cocktail parties,” “Those left-wing poseurs in their apartments in Brussels.” This is social resentment parading as insight, envy posing as authenticity.

But in this crisis talk of “the elites” is pertinent. The gap between those who run governments and those who are governed has now grown huge and portends nothing good.

Rules on immigration and refugees are made by safe people. These are the people who help run countries, who have nice homes in nice neighborhoods and are protected by their status. Those who live with the effects of immigration and asylum law are those who are less safe, who see a less beautiful face in it because they are daily confronted with a less beautiful reality–normal human roughness, human tensions. Decision-makers fear things like harsh words from the writers of editorials; normal human beings fear things like street crime. Decision-makers have the luxury of seeing life in the abstract. Normal people feel the implications of their decisions in the particular.

The decision-makers feel disdain for the anxieties of normal people, and ascribe them to small-minded bigotries, often religious and racial, and ignorant antagonisms. But normal people prize order because they can’t buy their way out of disorder.

People in gated communities of the mind, who glide by in Ubers, have bought their way out and are safe. Not to mention those in government-maintained mansions who glide by in SUVs followed by security details. Rulers can afford to see national-security threats as an abstraction–yes, yes, we must better integrate our new populations. But the unprotected, the vulnerable, have a right and a reason to worry.

Here is the challenge for people in politics: The better you do, the higher you go, the more detached you become from real life. You use words like “perception” a lot. But perception is not as important as reality.

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The biggest thing leaders don’t do now is listen. They no longer hear the voices of common people. Or they imitate what they think it is and it sounds backward and embarrassing. In this age we will see political leaders, and institutions, rock, shatter and fall due to that deafness.

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