“Humanitarianism and the Public Intellectual in Times of Crisis” - Distinguished Lecture by President Michael D. Higgins
Fordham University, Monday, 30th September 2019
May I say, Excellencies and dear friends, that I feel almost inclined to say all protocols observed, given the significant number of dignitaries are gathered here. A very good friend of mine indeed, and someone whom I have known for over 40 years is Kevin Cahil, and can I just say Kevin, from the very beginning of my many adventures in Central and Latin America, is somebody that I am so pleased with and I thank him for being with me in this moment.
I want to say too as well, that the flag is at half-mast I think at your university and I think that that is a very fine gesture to NYPD officer Brian Mulkeen who has just had his life taken away. I think that’s important,
I should say also that this is not my first Jesuit University. I have been at other Jesuit Universities, one in particular that has always been very close to my own heart is el UCA. I visited this in the 1980s with my late friend Sally O’Neill Sanchez. We visited El Salvador and I think I was driven around on a first fact-gathering mission in derechos-humanos by Padre El Couria. And I knew the Jesuits who were murdered in El Salvador and their housekeeper, daughter. And when I visited again as President, I visited the point in fact of where they were shot. Also then in discussing that, I discussed with Óscar Romero the murder of his fellow priest in his neighbouring Parish Padre Rodio to his change of conscience. And I had the great pleasure in my last visit of meeting distinguished John Sobrino. So these are all connections that I have with the Jesuits and universities. But I think my first encounter with them was actually a very angry encounter with the then Ambassador from a very large country in North America in San Salvador City who pulled out a map and said to me and to Sally O’Neill that “this is “the problem, it starts with literacy and after that comes cooperatives and then you’ll get communism. And everywhere there are the Jesuits”. Now, that was actually when I think Padre El Couria was driving me in El Salvador. And I felt was a great personal loss and a great loss to all of us with what happened to those wonderful people who were giving their lives to emancipation.
To make a beginning to this lecture, what I’ve entitled “Humanitarianism and the Public Intellectual in Times of Crisis”. I very much always enjoy returning to an academic environment. And this is perhaps understandable, having been a university teacher for so much of my life. It was a world I found profoundly rewarding and enriching. But there is no place quite like a university for reflection, the hallowed seat of learning, yes, but more importantly a gathering place of the young and curious who believe that the world need not be as cruel as it is but indeed can be changed.
Universities can transform people’s lives through education and of course through the wider impact of their research. And universities can help too students to develop their skills and knowledge, and now, perhaps this is the most important of all, I think now given our interacting crises – ecological, economic, social and may I suggest ethical – we turn to universities in near desperation to provide a basis to help us for a broader understanding of the interconnectedness of our social-ecological system.
University research it is claimed, correctly, is potentially of benefit to everyone, with the capacity of intellectual space of enriching society and stimulating culture, and of course while also creating enterprise. However, now it must face its greatest challenge. A moment of truth has arrived for all institutions, including third-level institutions, that of facilitating an exit from a paradigm that has failed humanity and of outlining how we can make our way to a new paradigm that will lead to integrated, sustained eco-social policies of sufficiency and equity. It will no longer be sufficient to train people to run after the bus of disaster but to seek to understand why it is all happening. For what we teach after all is the foundation of policy, and subverting the taken for granted, the authoritarian and the socially dangerous must be the core values of a university.
Indeed I agree with Father McShane, John Hughes, Archbishop of New York, who established this very university St John’s College in 1841, understood instinctively that education is key to active and enriching citizenship for immigrants and to human flourishing. The story of John Hughes’s family is a quintessential Irish-American story: a family who departed Ireland’s shores two centuries ago, families some of whom were forced to leave as a result of hunger or persecution, while others earlier in the 19th century had sought to escape poverty and to build better lives for themselves and their families. Throughout its history, Fordham itself, as an educational institution, has had a commitment to the betterment of society and social justice, both at home and abroad.
In relation to those two waves of migration it is very important as well that the first migration from which, if you like, John Hughes came, they were from South Ulster, north Munster, the many cases, they paid their fare to come. After the revolution of 1798 and the active union of 1800, there was a rumour that the country was finished. Many people who had the means of anything just simply moved. Any they came early, they established themselves early, and so they would be completely different to the tsunami of the desperate who would come in the 1850s.
In America, and elsewhere across the globe, the Irish found refuge and opportunity. They did not escape either the marginalisation or the exploited fear of the Other that is the experience now of too many migrants today. They overcame this and went on to contribute to the economic, social, political and cultural development of their adoptive homes, as today’s migrants are doing all over the world. Here in the United States, we saw a new Irish-American culture emerged as a result of the mingling of these different strands, as it were, of two rich cultures interacting, creating something that is not reducible to either, but which in its transcendence combines the best of both heritages.
Today 17% of Irish citizens are currently living abroad, joining a continuous trend within the 70 million people of Irish descent worldwide. The Irish were not easily either to forget, and it is something indeed that Father McShane mentions, how we must never forget. We too in fact were editorialised in the 1840s, suggesting for example that the Irish Famine was an act of God, that the Irish in fact were being punished, as well as that other sometimes as well that they were backward, a hopeless case. And indeed a brilliant philosopher somewhere a hundred years earlier had said that they had never even been occupied by the Romans so how could they have the civilities that other people had.
But I think therefore they didn’t convert to these editorials of the 1840s. A mere 12 years later in 1860 you will find I think in The Times of London a different editorial appears, and it says:
“If this goes on as it is likely to go on … the United States will become very Irish… So an Ireland there will still be, but on a colossal scale, and in a new world. We shall only have pushed the Celt Westwards. Then, no longer cooped between the Liffey and the Shannon, he will spread from New York to San Francisco, and keep up the ancient feud at an unforeseen advantage (…). We must gird our loins to encounter the nemesis of seven centuries’ misgovernment. To the end of time a hundred million spread over the largest habitable area in the world, and, confronting us everywhere by sea and land, will remember that their forefathers paid tithe to the Protestant clergy, rent to the absentee landlords, and a forced obedience to the laws which these had made.”
And thus it was to be in a way, but there is of course a great challenge in that, one with which I have been engaged as President for the first period of my Presidency. That is, how do you make an ethical commemoration? How do you use memory ethically? Which is for a whole other day and anyway it is all on my website so there it is.
I think that this question of in fact actually putting narrative of the other into one’s consciousness, in such a way that one is able to read and how one knows, as I said in one my poems, who knows come to a point where forgiveness might be possible. Our nation history contains many tragic reminders of the desperate plight of those forced to flee their country. As I’ve been speaking of it, the most acute which of course is that Great Famine of the 1840s. 1 million people died from starvation, further 2.5 million emigrated, the majority to North America, resulting in the halving of the population of the island of Ireland between 1841 and the early 1900s.
It is important to remember that in the census of 1901, of all the people born within the Island of Ireland, a majority of people were living outside of Ireland. And I think that gives you an idea. So the collective memory of the Famine and of the people forced to flee their homes is something that I think must always resonates profoundly in Irish Society.
As a country we have known what it is to be hungry and to be forced to flee our homes. And it isn’t only that because new research is showing, particularly the excellent work at University College Cork on the famine that many people died on their way to the port. And to actually pay the fare of £3.10 to come to Canada or £5 to go to an American port required that you had something to sell, a cow perhaps or the last implements or whatever. But many died and it is the reason why there is a gap in the figures. Again in relation to others, we have details of where people die but not where they were baptised is because they died on the way and so forth.
I think that this memory of our past has shaped and has continued to shape our values and our sensibilities today, instilling in us a moral calling to help others in need.
I interject here to say that this is not easy, because there is often a contradiction between the ethical implementation of that identification with human need and another kind of individualistic, in parts, to want to be among the smartest very often and to be, if you like, the most successful in a highly individual version of economy and society, a point to which I’ll come. They are not necessarily contradictory but they post a moral dilemma and they impose choices at times.
I think today, millions of people around the world of course face the same fear, suffering and desperation as before in increasing numbers and worse circumstances.
And I want to suggest that the current status being accorded to asylum-seekers in administrative systems and in the media discourse urgently calls into question political philosophies, and tests the principles according to which our contemporary liberal democracies have been drawing the line between, for example, the rights of citizens and those of prospective citizens. After all, I’m in a university with a distinguished law school. This is an argument I remember which we’ve had in Ireland of course.
We have become accustomed to narratives of how men and women throughout our world, as refugees, find themselves living for extended periods of time in unsuitable accommodation, confined to forced idleness, without even control over their daily diet, so then – as Eugene Quinn, Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service Ireland, remarked – children grow up “without the memory of their parents cooking a family meal.” I know things are being attempted at improvement but I read Eugene Quinn’s remarks with familiarity at having seen it happen in too many places in the world.
The migratory experience is a journey of special vulnerability imposed on top of existing vulnerabilities. I am minded to recall the reflections of Hannah Arendt in her 1943 essay, “We Refugees”, and later expanded upon in her seminal book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. I think those reflections of Hannah Arendt have lost none of their accuracy or potency.
I think if I had a word that I wanted to see as a major and minor success out of the different papers that I’ve been giving recently I think is of suggesting the different that there is when people use words like internationalism, interdependency. The dominant time people will say to you as people meet Presidents including myself that are talking about trade. But really wouldn’t it be a different place if people opened the conversation with people about the whole question of interdependent vulnerabilities. We opened the conversation on vulnerability on, as indeed that fine work of Ian Gough and others, which in his book Heat, Greed and Human Need that opened on human need and then it went on to structures. But the notion about it is in fact that it nearly always begins with trade, and I will come later to suggest that, and I have no hesitation in saying it, this has devalued everything really in relation to intellectual life and it has devalued diplomacy very seriously.
Arendt described the fate of refugees as that of human beings who, unprotected by any specific political convention, suffer from the plight of being unrecognised by the state. In a couple of weeks’ time I will visit and see this in action in places like Lebanon.
She identifies that deadlock that arises from the entanglement between the rights of humans and those of the citizen: in the nation-state, the so-called ‘inalienable’ rights of man cease to be protected as soon as they are decoupled from the rights of the citizens of a state, leading to this tragic paradox that the refugee, as the one most empirically the most vulnerable, who should have embodied the rights of humans par excellence, represents instead the object that constitutes the radical crisis of this concept.
Arendt has intrigued me because I have used her work quite a lot in recent ears in relation to memory and forgiveness. But she herself a refugee from Germany who went through an internment camp in France before seeking asylum in the United States, Arendt had a profound understanding of how the loss of citizenship was akin to a loss of human status. For not only do refugees lose their homes – that is, “the entire social structure into which they were born and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world” – they also lose the political framework in which they had “the right to have rights”.
Indeed, refugees and asylum-seekers in some instances have been allowed or sustained in terms of both life and liberty, but yet they are deprived of the context in which their actions, their opinions, their ability to participate in speech (and, thus, in politics) have meaning. For Arendt, therefore, to be stripped of citizenship is to be stripped of words, to fall to a state of utter vulnerability with avenues of participation closed off, new futures disallowed.
It is for this reason, that I believe it is my responsibility, as President of Ireland, to encourage us Irish at home and abroad to be exemplary in reaching out to those who find themselves seeking shelter and succour on our shores. In June, Sabina and I had the opportunity of welcoming welcome refugees and asylum-seekers as well as those on the front line of working with them to Áras an Uachtaráin.
The group who came to be with us that day included families who had arrived in Ireland at different times over the past forty years from Iran, Sudan, Syria and Vietnam. Each of them had made enormous sacrifices, leaving family behind, taking risks to leave their homeland in order to create new and better lives that have undoubtedly resulted in making valuable contributions to our modern and inclusive society. They have brought to us a rich story and experience to add to ours that should never be forgotten.
I suppose to ask you as often you read and hear about it; why is that all these migratory activity in a migratory planet is always described as the problem of migration? The problem? What about the 10-12% of GDP globally produced by migrants. Why do you use language the problem of and so?
Many of the families to which I made reference that Sabina and I have had the opportunity to meet with and visit in recent times are refugees and asylum-seekers moving through Ireland’s refugee and asylum system, which is grounded, of course, in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. It is worth recalling the background to this international legal framework.
If we consider the aftermath of World War Two as having launched the first truly global refugee crisis in contemporary times, so too did this period and these events elicit an equally global response.
Recognising the urgent need to help millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in 1950 with a three-year mandate.
I think this it is very well borne in mind what stood behind that decision. Today, the organisation continues to work hard to protect and assist refugees around the world. Underpinning its work is the 1951 Refugee Convention which defines the term ‘refugee’ and outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of States to protect them. And Ireland is one of the 145 states to have ratified the Convention, and several regional responses have since yielded further Declarations regarding asylum.
Now seventy years after the mass displacement of what was the Second World War, forced displacement and migration are again at record levels. In June of this year, the UN Refugee Agency produced the shocking statistic that the number of people fleeing war, persecution and conflict had exceeded 70 million globally last year , as you have heard,– the highest number in the UNHCR’s history, with 2.3 million more than the previous year, highlighting the growing scale of the challenge. The vast majority are displaced within their own countries; however, almost 26 million people crossed international borders in search of international protection in 2018.
But isn’t it important to just question the scholarship that refuses to look at the structure of the sources of migratory movements. We can have the academic thing to a point of what is voluntary/ involuntary at most. Furthermore, looking at the current geopolitical landscape, it is hard to imagine a situation in which the number of people in need of international protection will decline in the short term. Conflict and instability is now the single biggest driver of refugee flows. And conflict zones have produced the largest proportion of deep endemic global poverty.
The war in Syria alone has resulted in over 6.7 million refugees in the region, while another 6.2 million people are displaced within Syria. Bangladesh continues to host almost one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Over 300,000 people have fled insecurity and violence in Central America, while 4 million people have fled Venezuela since 2014. And in the majority of cases, I say it slowly, neighbouring countries have opened their borders to those fleeing, demonstrating compassion and empathy to the new arrivals.
What is our obligation then to those who do that? It is a very serious one. There are, however, new challenges that are forcing people from their homes. Part of the growing challenge is linked to a changing climate. Dangerous shifts in climate are placing stress on communities, where ecosystems can no longer support populations, leading to a lack of resources and contributing to conflict and violence.
The anthropology of Africa will show you people moving, in many cases creating huge new conflict in relation to pastor and in relation to access to water. And unless we collectively take action to prevent catastrophic climate change, as well as assist communities to prepare for, and adapt to, changing climates, these population flows driven by climate shifts are only going to increase. They are increasing. A lack of development, failures of governance, and increasing inequality within and between countries are also fuelling instability and conflict. This is a deepening, if you like, of what I call the intersecting crisis of ecology, economy, and society. And these are points are being made so well made, inter alia, in Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Sí.
Worryingly, today, the welcome and support shown to European refugees following the Second World War, that was manifested in the 1951 Convention and its Protocol, is somewhat contradicted, to put it most politely, is under immense strain.
The international system of protection for refugees is coming under pressure on a number of fronts. As I mentioned, the numbers are shocking and challenging, in terms of human suffering of all, but they are not necessarily unmanageable. Indeed, 80% of refugees are hosted in countries neighbouring their countries of origin, often without much fanfare or acknowledgement. Refugees when asked actually always up near the top choices they would love to return home and therefore you have a whole series of strategy chosen in relation to make as to what is transitional: what is transitional for return, transitional for adaptation and transitional for movement.
However, what I believe is more worrying is the increasing lack of international solidarity both with refugees themselves and with those communities and countries that host them. This is most apparent by how in response to the relatively small numbers of refugees reaching our borders has brought forth a type of narrative about ‘the Other’ that we, in the humanitarian tradition, had hoped was assigned to the chronicles of the past.
Countries whose citizens have often benefitted from international asylum and migratory flows are reneging on their commitments with the aim of discouraging or inhibiting refugees from seeking the international protection to which they are entitled under the 1951 Convention and Protocol. Pope Francis’s injunction that to all this we must not remain mute in what he called “a culture of indifference” is one that I so strongly support.
In his briefing to the UN Security Council last April, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, spoke of the growing hostility towards people on the move. Reflecting on his over 35-year career he remarked,
“I have never seen such toxicity, such poison, in the language of politics, in the media, in social media and even in everyday discussions and conversations around this issue. This toxicity often focuses, sadly, tragically, on refugees, migrants and foreigners. That should be of concern to us all.”
And that is the great problem that we have, that we have sunk to this level, or that we have tolerated the sinking of those in authority to use language like this. I fully agree with Filippo Grandi’s comments. Regrettably, we are losing, be it through a consciousness rendered mute, broken, made weary, alienated, anomic, and at times perhaps obsessed with the very struggle for survival in a world that uses one’s life but does not respect it, that what is lost is one of the most fundamental tenets of our humanity: giving help to those in need.
It may be the case that refugees turn to their fellow global citizens for protection and shelter, with the hope of a better future and increased opportunities for themselves and their families. There is a bit of a gloss on this I feel, however. The truth is that many are seeking to escape from circumstances where hope has been lost. It isn’t an easy decision to leave that with which you have been intimate, the place which you have called home. And many, like our ancestors in their day, have undertaken arduous journeys and, on arrival, have to grapple with a foreign language, a different climate, and a new set of social and cultural customs. They desire nothing more than to contribute fully in their adopted homes. Yet, for many, after reaching safety, they are subjected to prejudice and, above all, stereotyping born of ignorance and fear with the new capacities for communication being used by carrying that ignorance and fear. When such prejudice is driven by political populism and lazy opportunism, it is all-the-more despicable and deplorable.
However, rising inequality is undoubtedly a factor in this increased hostility.
Europe, for example, for many decades a leader in championing the rights of refugees and, since 2008, it has processed over 6 million asylum applications. Now confronted by the rise of populist political ideologies, of what is not a nationalism but a Neo-nationalism, for it does not that speaks now of any emancipatory tendency towards freedom, it speaks of really what is a calling up and exploiting of fear, division and exclusion – with the excluded often being those who by their marginalisation have been abandoned to become the prey of xenophobes and racists.
And while this presents a major threat to European solidarity, it also is a challenge, an invitation, to all of us to stand our ground against such tendencies. As High Commissioner Grandi said recently, only if Europe is strong and united will Europeans be able to deal with refugee and migration issues in a principled, practical, ethical, and effective manner.
In Ireland, we may have, to date, been spared the worst of the populism and hatred seen elsewhere. But we are not immune from it. With that attitude which targets and scapegoats minorities, including refugees and migrants. Political leaders have, in general in Ireland, behaved in a responsible and ethical way. Nonetheless, I believe we must remain constantly vigilant to the threat of these menaces, and the ease with which such toxicity can lodge itself through social media, for example.
As President of Ireland, I have offered an apology on behalf of the people of Ireland when there have been incidents of callous and unacceptable behaviour directed at refugees. I believe that we cannot and must not remain silent in the face of such attacks on refugees and migrants. And thus, Ireland will continue to stand with refugees both at home and abroad. We are all on our shared vulnerable planet challenged to give authentic meaning too to what we mean by those concepts in all the religions of the world - hospitality and solidarity.
In 1998 Ireland was one of the first countries in Europe to establish a resettlement programme. Between 2000 and 2016, almost 2,000 refugees from 30 nationalities have resettled in Ireland. More recently, in response to the war in Syria, Ireland has agreed to welcome 4,000 refugees under its resettlement and relocation programmes. Ireland has developed a Community Sponsorship Programme, on which so much new work has to be done, a model which allows communities to come together and offer to host refugees arriving to be resettled in Ireland. And this is a model, as I said, which needs further work, that has to be resourced and developed to be the receiving, hospitable migrant and community adapting institution it is called upon to be. We need to continually review and improve on our process and our policies.
On the international level, Ireland was proud to co-facilitate, with Jordan, the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted unanimously by all UN member states. It represented an acknowledgement by the international community that there is a pressing need for a comprehensive approach to human mobility, and that protection of refugees is a shared international responsibility requiring enhanced global cooperation on migration.
The New York Declaration laid the groundwork for the development of the Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees subsequently adopted by the international community. Ireland also will continue to strongly support the work of UNHCR and will continue to offer €16.5 million to the organisation in 2019.
The United Nations has the potential to play a transformative role in tackling these issues. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognises, for the first time, the contribution of migration to sustainable development. Some 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals contain targets and indicators that are relevant to migration or mobility. The Agenda’s core principle is to “leave no one behind”, including migrants. And let me know say as a sociologist, and someone who writes occasionally about economics, that this phrase to “leave no one behind” needs very serious revision. I simply put it directly, does this mean inviting those who are not yet participants in the paradigm that is failing to become part of it? Or is an invitation to them to become part of the new paradigm, leaving no one behind in society that has made the planet to the edge of precipice with over consumption and irresponsibility. It is a phrase that I use because it is in the discourse, but to make it critical, leaving no one behind. I spoke with New York University about how you can extract and abuse metrics in relation to global poverty by saying that we are winning the war against global poverty. We are not, but we are abusing metrics to suggest that we are.
I now come, if you like, this is a good transition to maybe the toughest point of what I have to say. Public intellectuals and academics have a crucial role to play, I believe, in giving support and weight as we wrestle with humanitarian crises. They can play a critical role in altering the discourse on humanitarian crises, a discourse that has far too frequently become soured by a hateful, oppositional rhetoric. Public intellectuals are uniquely placed to reveal the structural resources that contribute to humanitarian crises. That, as we would say in the old literature on migration, create the push.
I have already stated that it is hard to overstate the importance of universities as communities of learning, disputation and personal and social development. However, the present day finds academics and other intellectuals in the public space highly challenged, their very raison d'être I suggest is contested.
Some public intellectuals have been seduced by the reliance on corporate power; other academics, I suggest, have drifted into a cosy consensus that accepts the failed paradigm of society and economy as the only model we have, or might have, of operating internationally. They continue working with curricula that fail to offer, or seek to recover, the possibility of alternative futures, alternatives in the social sciences, for example, culture and philosophy. Universities are challenged in an urgent way by the questions that are now posed, questions that are, after all, existential, that are of survival of the bio-sphere, of deepening inequality, of a resile to the language of hate, war, fear, and the very use of said science and technology yet again for warfare rather than serving humanity.
And one has to think about it as well. What is taught in economics 101 all over North America? How much of it is real political economy? Or how much moral content is in it? How much of it is game theory in relation to learning riddles that will prepare you for speculation in a further life? These moral questions are beyond ones that might be considered any narrow adjustment in the needs of a narrow hegemonic utility. There is a real concern now that the emphasis on funding from beyond the State has had a distorting effect on the career structure of young scholars in particular, so many of whom now constitute what is really a precariat in institutions struggling under the yoke of a Neo-utilitarianism that is bad for scholarship, bad for society, that has not merely failed, but has contradicted the principles of the UN Charter, and yet so many are drifting through indifference to a human disaster unparalleled in its consequences.
I believe public intellectuals have an ethical obligation as an educated elite to take a stand against the increasingly aggressive orthodoxies and discourse of the marketplace that have permeated all aspects of life, including within academia. Is it not as important to experience the development of the self with others and one’s connection and theirs to a shared citizenship and history as it is to become a useful, individualised consuming unit in a consuming culture? Universities, after all, function within a culture, and how they negotiate that relationship, these balances, defines their ethos and output, and it is how they should be judged.
The role of academics, and particularly those involved in the public sphere, it could be argued, is to seize moments and have the courage to provide reaction, to be subversive of received thought assumptions and fallacies. According to the late Edward Said, an intellectual’s mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge. This mission often means standing outside of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the status quo. And isn’t it interesting how the cultural sphere does this so well in ways that sometimes academia does not. Yet it also involves placing a strong emphasis on intellectual rigour and, if you like, and ideas, while ensuring that governing authorities and international intermediary organisations are well-resourced. As Immanuel Kant put it, “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”
As I say this, I realise again the precarity of those young (and not-so-young) scholars who, without security, tenure or protection, are struggling to live within a system that far from realising their intellectual and moral potential is a source of alienation, allowing a limited distorted resonance with the joy and agony of life as it is lived. Academics all over the world should weep for the destruction of the concept of the university that has occurred in so many places, which has led to little less than the degradation of learning.
Issues relating to the role of the public intellectual have an acute meaning in the context of the United Nations, where I have been last week, and particular for multilateralism which is so much under attack just now. The United Nations which faces ongoing questions regarding its representation, (who should hold power within the UN?), its mandate (what should be the UN’s responsibilities?), and its effectiveness (how should the UN be organised and run?) Multilateralism is at a crossroads.
There are, I believe, at least three critical elements to the role of public intellectualism both rational and intuitive: knowledge, ability and a moral courage. And that includes the willingness to awaken society for a noble cause or purpose. In the words of Albert Einstein: “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing”.
The fundamental purpose of the United Nations is, surely all must agree, to ensure that the world does not “look on and do nothing” in times of the threatening rhetoric of war, humanitarian crises, and human rights violations, and to ensure that peace, so hard won, is lasting and stable. And above all that our words on Climate Change are turned into action.
We are, however, I repeat, living in a time when the very purpose of the UN is being questioned. As an institution, it is being undermined overtly and covertly.
The wider context in which the UN has to function is one of a trade-driven globalisation that eschews any ethical responsibility, that has seriously narrowed the normative in diplomacy, and that sustains a hegemonic single model of connection of economy and society, with ‘development’ in turn being used as a conduit for the disseminated singularity of such connection, a notion that suggests that repeating the mistakes of the North will be sufficient for the future of the more populous South. Our need of a new ethically informed paradigm is acute. Our survival, any meaningful response to our interacting crises requires it.
I have been arguing for the exit from a failing paradigm, for a scholarship that facilitates a new paradigm for a connection of ecology, economy, and society and indeed ethics. It is not simply a matter of putting an ecological or social gloss on what we have. We have to strive for a new symmetry between ecology, economy, society, one that respects diversity in all its forms while sharing a consciousness of what we must do together, co-operatively.
I remember those conversations in Central America 40 years ago, and Heidi Agorastia and I speaking about civilisation of sufficiency, and of the distinction which you must all recognise in your own life, of when does one make the transition from self-sufficiency to insatiability. It is insatiability that has been the motorcar that has driven us to the point of the precipice.
I believe that quality of life cannot be measured simply in terms of consumption of resources, accumulation and consumption. Instead we must consider our relationship to, or ‘resonance’ with, the world, not as we would wish to use or indeed abuse it, but ask how we are taken into that world, how it takes us in and with what joy or pain. In the brilliant recent work Professor Rosa Hartmut puts it like this: “from the act of breathing to the adoption of culturally distinct worldviews. All the great crises of modern society – ecological, democratic, psychological – can be understood and analysed in terms of resonance and our broken relationship to the world around us”. Loss of harmony.
Rosa’s book, Resonance, is an impressive contribution to contemporary social theory, presenting as it does an alternative view of modernity as the history of a catastrophe of resonance. There is an increasing recognition too in cross-disciplinary work of the importance of resonance, and there is growing body of evidence that suggests its importance for deep human fulfilment. Professor Hartmut Rosa’s book is at once a reflection of loss and of efforts towards belonging, as I would put it, having a resonance for and with the world. One can also see how such an approach can reconcile cultural work and the better insights of economic and social studies.
I have elaborated briefly on this concept because I believe this has relevance to humanitarianism and particularly as to the quality of our collective response as peoples to migration. I believe this “catastrophe of resonance” is helpful in seeking to understand the growing narcissism, aggressive individualism, emphasis on insatiable consumption and wealth accumulation, and acceptance of yawning inequality. Reading the popular press, one can see, too, how migration and its consequences is perceived by some as an unwelcome interruption in the lives of some passive consumers, busy about at, the late Zygmunt Bauman put it, being “consumed on their consumption”.
As a young university teacher appointed at the end of the 1960s, I had myself hopes of the emancipatory power of humanistic social science. We all struggled against the colonisation of what was modernisation theory and we struggled against the Washington Consensus. What I could not have foreseen the influence of the second coming of the ideas of theorists such as Friedrich Von Hayek, or the influence they would have, not only on theory, but on public policies that would be privileged in the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere in the 80s and 90s. And I saw those views from the Graduate School of Chicago, moved from Chile to implement an agenda of imposed market theory and austerity. These were offered not as policies chosen among competing options, the outcome of any inclusive, contested, democratic public discourse, but as a single hegemonic version of the connection between markets, economy and society itself sold to a public as a kind of individualistic natural law as it were, and delivered with an authoritarianism to match as basic needs were adjusted to macro-fiscal abstraction and fiction.
Decades of Keynesianism have given way to decades influenced by the theories of those such as Friedrich Von Hayek and Milton Friedman, given way to unrestrained, unregulated market dominance and a communications order with a discourse that ‘privileges’ aggressive individualism.
All language too could be stolen. I think for example of that wonderful Canadian author who wrote man’s search for authenticity. And authenticity became distorted into being constructed like narcissism, when you care for nothing. When authenticity, when it was used by Taylor originally, was one which was achieving fulfilment through others of the self. A prevailing, largely uncontested paradigm has emerged and gained hegemony. That paradigm has had consequences for all institutions including universities and indeed the United Nations.
It is a paradigm that makes assumptions and demands regarding the connection between scholarship, politics, economy, and society – indeed the inter-relationship of societies. In the sense of Foucault, I see it as a kind of colonisation, imprisonment taken into oneself, mind and sensibility.
It has gained strength and encouraged an individualism without social responsibility, within and beyond borders. It not only asserts a rationality for markets but, in policy terms, has delivered laissez-faire markets without regulation. Its colonisation of language itself, distortion of concepts, even emancipatory ones, has assisted in the concept of ‘freedom’ for example being for re-defined in a reductionist manner to ‘market freedom’.
Consequently, the public world must now become, as it was before in human history, a space of contestation, a space that sets that which is democratic in tension with that which is unaccountable.
As we live through this period of seeking an exit from extreme individualism, a period where the concept of society itself has been questioned and redefined narrowly and pejoratively, when the public space in so many Western countries, the human body itself, has been commodified – and it is when as calculating rational choice maximisers, rather than as citizens, that we have been invited to view our neighbours – we must come together, merging consciousness of ecology, human need, dignity, respect for sources of truth and consolation, reasoned and revealed sources.
We must combine co-operation for that recovery of the public world, informed by the music of the heart as much as by the partial suggestions of ratio. That is what ancient systems from distant places are inviting us to do.
Our existence, in the paradigm from which we must seek exit, is assumed to be, is defined as, competing individual actors, at times neurotic in our insatiable anxieties for consumption. Bauman, whom I have spoken of already, puts it in his book, Consuming Life, “consumers become the promoters of the commodities they consume”. In essence, therefore, consumers become a commodified entity in their presentation of themselves. The value of humans is debased thus and reduced to their economic worth.
I make this point because behind these transitions lies an intellectual collusion that unfortunately masks a rationalisation. Standing in support of under-regulated markets, of unaccountable, often speculative capital flows, are scholars who frequently invoke the legitimation provided by a university which itself, at times, is put under pressure to demonstrate its utility as the seat of the single hegemonic model of political economy that prevails.
I make this point, because behind these transitions, lies an intellectual collusions, that unfortunately masks a rationalisation. Standing in support of under-regulated markets, of unaccounted, often speculated, capital flows, are scholars that frequently invoke the legitimation fuelled by university. Which itself at times is put under pressure to demonstrate its utility as the seat of the single hegemonic model of political economy that prevails. All of this, as I come to a conclusion, can change.
Universities can lead a new paradigm of engagement with the world, contribute meaningfully to the discourse on the pressing challenges of the day, be it the crisis of democracy, the ecological crisis or the humanitarian crisis.
This paradigm, to come to lodge as alternative in the different forms, necessitates a dialogue that can move out from specialist and esoteric jargon to a broad, vibrant public space that thus retains for the university a capacity to be different, to be relevant once more, to be the source of critical ideas, languages and tropes which can resist the diktats of the marketplace that demand a narrow utility.
And it requires too a process of healing, with creative, cultural expression being made possible in public places, and having access to the creativity of the self in interaction with others. All of these issues are about how we look at each other and either avert our gaze or celebrate our vulnerabilities, joy and anxieties in interdependency. We need a new vibrant economic-social, economic literacy, one that can carry merged consciousness from ecological, social, economic, gender activists.
Will universities be allowed to do this? Will they seek the space, the capacity, the community of scholarship necessary to challenge such paradigms of the connection between economy, ecology, society, ethics, democratic discourse and authoritarian imposition as have failed, Or alternatively, will they, drawing on their rich university tradition, at its best, recover moments of disputation and discourse, seek to offer alternatives that propose a democratic, liberating and sustainable future?
I believe that a university response, which is critically open to originality in theory and research, committed to humanistic values in teaching, has a great opportunity to make a global contribution of substance to the great challenges and crises we face; that such a university can be and will be celebrated by future generations as the hub of original, critical thought, and a promoter of its application through new models of interconnection between science, technology, administration and society.
And this will facilitate a better connection between the sciences, humanities and culture, representing a paradigm shift away from the strict divisions that have sometimes impeded academics to realise their best work, and which has perhaps fuelled the decline in interest in the public intellectual.
As subjects are re-cast, unities can be restored, and we should consider Edward Said’s suggestion that it is in the interstices between subjects that the most exciting ideas emerge. The change I advocate is about recovering the right to pose important questions such as Immanuel Kant did through the development of his form of transcendental realism in his time:
“What might we know? What should we do? What may we hope?”
I think these are so important. There is a moral basis to those who are protesting, to those who would like a communitarian new beginning, but I believe that while fully recognising the insufficient criticism historically by the left of the abuses of statism in relation to personal freedoms, to walk away from the state – which itself has already been deeply ravaged by neoliberalism – would be a tragic error on the part of those who seek an emancipatory transformation in our societies. Of course, to rely entirely on advocacy directed at the state, and to neglect the possibilities and promise of alternatives within civil society, would also be a disastrous choice. But neither is necessary.
As an academic and a writer, I believe in the ‘performative’ potential of language: words and yes ideas matter – for bonding, bridge-building, mapping out a common space of equal and democratic participation for both sides in conflict. Words are a great gift. They are all the power that some people, and often entire peoples and classes, have.
For some who live and struggle in an unequal world, in areas ravaged by war, natural disasters and political extremism, ideas and words are all they have at their disposal to express their common humanity, their aspirations for what is different, fair, equitable and above all emancipatory. They constitute what is for them the realm of hope, as discovered and celebrated in co-operative community.
In combining the tasks of conscientisation with a commitment to original thought and compassionate, emancipatory scholarship and teaching, good intellectual ideas can help bridge the space to that utopia and its praxis that we all, as vulnerable inhabitants of our fragile planet, need.
I think that certainly, may I suggest, that the performative, as historically represented in the march, the banners, the meetings, had a transformative capacity that is missing in isolated contexts of individuals, sharing information in front of screens but not collectively experiencing anything. Sharing is so important. I often think about this in one of my unfinished poems about it is “the night is long and I awake and struggling to recall, the beat of beats behind banners made unholy on Saturdays campaigning” and so on.
Edward Said, speaking to an audience at the University of Cape Town, involving the example of John Henry Newman, as an argument against specialisation, suggested that the model of academic freedom should be the migrant or the traveller and I’d like to finish with this. We should, Said feels, be free, “to discover and travel among other selves, other identities, other varieties of the human adventure. But, most essentially, in this joint discovery of self and Other, it is the role of the academy to transform what might be conflict, or contest, or assertion, into reconciliation, mutuality, recognition and creative interaction”.
This spirited defence of the idea of scholar as searcher in pursuit of knowledge and freedom allows for a contrasting of the sort of academic model of the professional who seeks to be “king and potentate”, as opposed to the traveller who is dependent not on power but motion. Willing to enter different worlds, to “use different idioms, and understand a variety of disguises, masks, and rhetorics.” Above all, the migrant embraces novelty, and eschews pre-determined paths, crossing over to the space of the ‘Other’. This paradigm is the cultural idiom of academic freedom, but it is also the truly liberationist spirit of a genuine republic.
And if, as democratic republics, our nations are truly interested in protecting the republican ideals on which their constitutions are founded, incorporating the founding principles which surely include solidarity, including solidarity beyond borders, then the ability to reach out to others in times of crisis is a key expression of a healthy, genuine republic that is abiding by its founding principles.
I finish by humanitarianism itself. Humanitarianism is an active belief in the intrinsic value of human life. Through the actions of humans undertaking acts of benevolence and providing assistance to other humans, we achieve a form of human welfare betterment.
It is, in its origins, a philosophical belief, but humanitarianism today is often used to describe the thinking and doctrines behind the emergency response to crises such as war, famine and natural disasters. A core tenet of humanitarianism is that people have equal dignity by virtue of their being human based solely on need, without discrimination among recipients.
How much better it would be if the essential elements of what constitutes humanitarianism formed the basis of the discourse that prevails on the streets of the world and within the highest political echelons, rather than those subjects of humanitarian crises being abandoned or indeed targeted as the prey of xenophobes and racists.
And words do matter. I suggest again that public intellectuals have a crucial role to play in their contribution to the humanitarian discourse broadly and, in particular, the language and commentary relating to migration. We have seen in recent times, the souring of language used by elected officials of governments often those with natives and populist tendencies with regard to the humanitarian crisis, using stereotypes that debase discourse, grounded as it is in irrational but contrived fear and ignorance provides fertile ground for political extremism and an ideological extremism of individualism at best. And I think it has to be opposed with courage.
I think that in the end, in many cases, we must realise, there is just one other last point I want to make, the necessary requirements of intellectuals I spoke of earlier would sometimes people suggest we are actually working on the problem. And I think frankly, this alleged suggestion of the exclusive demands of time and effort, of clarity, will in fact be used as a mask. You have in the end to go out to the public world and take on tasks and the challenge of communicating that which you have been in fact been the subject of your moral wrestling. I want to just thank you all, very, very much.
May I suggest that universities have a key role as institutional citizens in fostering a more enlightened and multi-faceted debate about migration. And I congratulate you in providing a ‘haven’ to international students in addition to persecuted scholars who have been forced to flee. And I do wish to say, I wish to conclude with a message of hope. It would be so easy to fall into the trap of pessimism and become disheartened when faced with the grand scale of what we face, especially in the current geopolitical trajectory.
The concept of utopia is being recovered in intellectual work in so many places. Work such as that of Ruth Levitas. But let me only say that which is very important. Ernst Bloch suggested that utopianism not only involves a rejection of what is and what isn’t useless, and a hope for an alternative, but also a strategy for its implementation, is central. And I think that is what we must all do in our combined consciousness. Take the power, and the transformative potential of that which is driving the response to ecological crises, deepening inequality, economic crises, loss of cohesion, and as well as that, the grave, grave need to remake the constitutions so that they are enabled to response to the heart of the world, rather than being trapped in producing what are, if you like, hopeless riddles of what is failing.
So I wish you all, what you imagined for the future, may it be blessed in its inclusivity.
Beir Beannacht agus go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
I thank you for having your patience in listening to this rather long lecture of mine. And I so wish you success in everything that you do. And I urge you to activism. No matter what you can do, there is nothing that cannot be understood, nothing that cannot be communicated, and there is nothing that cannot be replaced. And it is all there to be gained. And there is great joy in all of that in communal celebration.
Beir Beannacht, many thanks.