New York Times (Opinion)
By James Traub
March 7, 2017
The Swedes have a word, “asikstkorridor,” which translates as “opinion corridor” and describes all those things considered incorrect not only to say but to think. One of those taboos, as I discovered when I visited Sweden at the height of the refugee crisis in the fall of 2015, is the idea that refugees from conservative Muslim countries, especially poorly educated young men, may not integrate into Swedish society as well as, say, relatively secular and prosperous Iranians or Bosnians.
President Trump’s offhand comment last month about how dreadful things are in Sweden provoked an outraged reaction from Swedes rightly proud of the country’s longstanding commitment to accepting refugees from all over the world. The incident of violence the president appeared to be describing hadn’t happened. But then it did, in the form of a riot in a suburb of Stockholm heavily populated by immigrants. That’s where the opinion corridor can make you look foolish.
It is too early to know whether the net effect of the 2015 wave of largely Middle Eastern refugees on Sweden, Germany and other European countries will be positive or negative. Certainly Mr. Trump’s habit of blaming refugees for terrorism, used to justify his signing a revised executive order banning travel from six predominantly Muslim countries on Monday, flies in the face of the evidence. But so does the reflexive claim that the refugees will fit easily into European society or expand the labor force. Our liberal opinion corridor thus offers the perfect pretext for cynics and xenophobes to parade their prejudice as truth-telling courage.
The truth about refugees is complicated. Sweden offers a kind of laboratory in that regard: Almost all the non-Europeans in the country arrived as refugees. The Chileans, Iranians, Kurds and Bosnians have done very well; Eritreans and Somalis, less so. Labor-force participation and educational attainment among non-European immigrants are far lower than among native Swedes. Yet Sweden has one of Europe’s strongest economies.
The question that cannot yet be answered is how well the 100,000 or so Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and other refugees who will be granted permanent residence in the country will integrate. Will they embrace Sweden’s extremely secular, extremely progressive culture? Probably not. Polls find that Muslim immigrants are vastly more conservative than native Europeans on matters of sex, family and the role of religion in public life.
We already know what the political effect has been: The right-wing politics that has convulsed virtually every northern European country, including Sweden, feeds upon public fear of refugees and immigrants. In the Netherlands, which will hold elections this month, mainstream parties have adopted a sharply anti-immigrant line to blunt the appeal of the nativist Geert Wilders; in France, Marine Le Pen, head of the anti-immigrant National Front, is expected to win the most votes in the first round of voting, in late April.
The answer to xenophobia cannot be xenophilia. For mobile, prosperous, worldly people, the cherishing of diversity is a cardinal virtue; we dote on difference. That’s simply not true for many people who can’t choose where to live, or who prefer the familiar coordinates of their life. That was the bitter lesson that British cosmopolites learned from Brexit. If the answer is to insist that the arrival of vast numbers of new people on our doorstep is an unmixed blessing, and that those who believe otherwise are Neanderthals, then we leave the field wide open to Donald J. Trump and Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen.
A year ago, when European leaders struck a deal with Turkey to stop refugees at the border in exchange for funding to help Turkey treat refugees decently, they were widely denounced for violating humanitarian obligations. But if they had honored those obligations they would have lost their publics. Now they need to devise the coordinated, long-term answers to both refugees and immigrants that they have been putting off for years.
The situation is different here. Since the United States has no real refugee problem, save one fabricated by Mr. Trump and conservative activists, and no immigrant crime wave, the chief answer has to be on the level of the opinion corridor: Liberal urbanites have to accept that many Americans react to multicultural pieties by finding something else — sometimes their own white identity — to embrace. If there’s a culture war, everyone loses; but history tells us that liberals lose worse.
I believe that liberalism can be preserved only if liberals learn to distinguish between what must be protected at all cost and what must be, not discarded, but reconsidered — the unquestioned virtue of cosmopolitanism, for example, or of free trade. If we are to honor the human rights of refugees, we must find a way to do so that commands political majorities. Otherwise we’ll keep electing leaders who couldn’t care less about those rights.
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