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From the wealthy, utopian space station Elysium in Elysium to Hugo Drax’s space station occupied by a “perfect” human race in the classic 007 film Moonraker, science fiction has imagined a “city upon a hill,” closed off from a more chaotic world below. Elysium is the archetype of this idea—a completely closed off utopian society in space—with no refugees seeking an asylum from the disease and death below allowed on board. Parallels can be drawn between today’s America. With the current political climate, America’s admission of refugees into this city upon a hill is causing controversy once again, and America’s place as a refuge for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” once again is questioned. Today, the refugees of the Syrian crisis are the tired, poor, huddled masses, and America’s acceptance of them is a debate. To contribute to this great political debate, I will focus on the issue of Syrian refugees and the concerns surrounding cultural preservation voiced by many Americans. Thus, the broader question of immigration and other concerns—such as economic impact, national security, and political self-determination—will be ignored to accommodate the specific question of Syrian refugees and culture. I will also be ignoring the question of how many refugees that should be accepted, but the number should be non-negligible. Thus, I will argue that the United States should take in a non-negligible number of Syrian refugees and those refugees will not erode American culture as claimed in certain political circles.
To support this stance, I will divide my argument into two sub arguments, with the first answering why the United States should take in a non-negligible number of Syrian refugees and the second answering why those refugees will not threaten existing culture. I will first argue that the United States deserves to take in a non-negligible number of Syrian refugees because of its involvement in escalating the Syrian conflict—a fact that will be established in the premises—by applying the concept of desert. The concept of desert will be established using Joel Feinberg’s “Justice and Personal Desert” in the paragraph after the one establishing the premises. Once the above argument is established, I will then argue that the influx of this non-negligible number of Syrian refugees will not harm existing American culture as claimed by a vocal, and popular, part of the American right. To do so, I will refute the arguments for cultural preservation pertaining to general culture—defined as the customs, ideas, and traditions of a culture—and societal culture—defined as the shared language of a geographical territory’s societal institutions in public and private life (Kymlicka, 1989).
With my arguments established, I will now address concerns about my paper’s unconventional division of my main argument into two sub arguments. I am doing so, and dedicating the bulk of this paper to the second sub argument because even when my first sub argument—that the United States has an obligation to take in Syrian refugees—is accepted, many politicians and ordinary Americans will still believe the need to preserve “American culture” is greater than the need to fulfill the obligations justified in my first sub argument. The argument for cultural preservation is powerful because it is still a valid objection to accepting Syrian refugees even when my first sub argument is accepted. Thus, the second sub argument will be addressing the objections stemming from cultural preservation to the stance of the first sub argument. To clarify why I will be examining both general culture and societal culture when many, but not all, political philosophers choose to ignore the former, I am doing so because the calls to protect “American,” “Judeo-Christian,” “Anglo-Protestant,” (Sager, 2007)—or whatever other term those who argue for preservation of general culture use—by prominent politicians and political commentators are as loud as, if not louder than the voices calling to protect American societal culture. Essentially, I am addressing what is the most relevant in today’s America, instead of shunning one aspect of cultural preservation for the sake of adhering to philosophical norms and avoiding potentially treading on culturally sensitive topics. Finally, to advance my discussion on preserving societal cultures—which focuses specifically on language—I will be applying the concepts and arguments pertaining to immigration in general found in Alex Asger’s “Culture and Immigration: A Case for Exclusion?” to the specific question of Syrian refugees.
To better frame this question, the following premises will be established. Firstly, the Syrian refugees in question will have a different culture from what is commonly perceived as “American culture.” Secondly, American involvement—direct and indirect—in Syria has at least escalated the conflict in a manner that has produced more refugees, mainly by providing logistical support to “moderate” rebel groups (Browne, 2016). This should be accepted because any involvement, on any side, escalates a conflict, and because it is agreed upon across the political spectrum.
With the premises established, I will now move on to my first subargument in support of accepting a non-negligible number of Syrian refugees into the United States. To do so in accordance to the concept of desert, I will establish the three components of desert presented in Joel Feinberg’s “Justice and Personal Desert.” The three components are the desert, the deserver, and the desert base. The desert is something the deserver is said to deserve. It can be positive, like a bonus for excellent work, or negative, such as going to jail for a crime. The deserver is the entity that deserves the desert. It can be a person or a non-person entity. Finally, the desert base is the reason why the deserver deserves the desert. Feinberg also states that the concept of desert is a justified because “reasonable men” naturally are prone to believe that merit—which desert relies on—is more convincing than a straight application of morals and entitlement alone. An application of desert can simplify this concept and its justification. For example, a student, who is the deserver, deserves a good grade, the desert, because of his hard work—the desert base. However, a student who holds his classmates hostage for a good grade is entitled to a good grade because of utilitarian purposes—saving the lives of his classmates—but does not deserve, or have merit to, a good grade. Most “reasonable men” are likely to find the former scenario more justified because of merit and true deserve compared to the latter (Feinberg, 1970).
With the components of desert defined and the concept of desert justified, I will now apply desert to my first sub argument of why the United States should accept a non-negligible number of Syrian refugees. The deserver and desert in this situation can be established with ease, so I will focus the bulk of this sub argument on arguing for the desert base. To begin, I will establish that the United States is the deserver in this scenario. In this case, the United States is a non-person deserver that will be held to the desert in compliance with the desert base. Secondly, the desert will be established to be negative, at least in a technical sense—that the United States should accept a non-negligible number of Syrian refugees. With the deserver and the desert established, I will now argue why the United States deserves to accept its desert, thus establishing the desert base. This is where the second premise comes into play. Because the United States escalated the Syrian conflict, it deserves to accept the refugees that were the result of the escalation in conflict. The Syrians who were not refugees before the escalation of the conflict are refugees now because they have lost homes, families, and viable means of earning a living because of the conflict escalation caused by the United States’ involvement. Because the United States is responsible for a non-negligible escalation in the Syrian conflict, and along with it, a non-negligible increase in the number of Syrian refugees, the United States should allow a non-negligible number of Syrian refugees to seek asylum in the United States.
With the first sub argument establishing why the United States should accept a non-negligible number of Syrian refugees, I will now focus on my second sub argument concerning the preservation of culture advocated by many politicians and political commentators. My second sub argument will be more complicated, given that the preservation of culture is still a valid objection to the stance of my first sub argument even if the general logical of my first sub argument is accepted. The preservation of culture can be divided into two categories: the preservation of general culture, and the preservation of societal culture. Proponents of the preservation of general culture argue that the Anglo-Protestant work ethic, Western values of democracy and tolerance, and certain traditions—even if they have no utilitarian use—which Americans value can be eroded through an influx of Syrian refugees. There are undoubtedly many more arguments for preserving general culture, but I will focus on the three mentioned above because they offer a concise, representative cross-section of the argument for cultural preservation. I will first present and refute each of the arguments for preserving general culture, starting with the next paragraph. When refuting the counterarguments against refugees, I will accept the premises on which those arguments are based on, because while those premises may appear to be based on fringe right-wing fears, it is better to argue how the influx of Syrian refugees will not validate those fears rather than arguing against those fears directly.
The first argument for preserving general culture is that Syrian refugees will erode the existing Anglo-Protestant work-ethic (Sager, 2007). This argument is based on the following premises: that the Anglo-Protestant work ethic exists, is responsible for the success of the United States and other Anglosphere countries, and that Syrian refugees will not come to America with an equivalent or better work ethic. Though this argument and its premises may sound like it belongs in the right-wing fringe, many Americans are starting to embrace this sentiment given the current political environment, which is why it deserves to be in this discussion. An opponent to my stance can argue that the United States was built on Anglo-Protestant work ethic that may be eroded by the presence of groups who do not adhere to Anglo-Protestant customs. Although the influx of refugees may not be responsible for a total erosion of Anglo-Protestant work ethic, proponents cite America’s empirical decline in competitiveness and power relative to other nations as results of non-Anglo-Protestant groups moving into the United States. In this case, a change in Anglo-Protestant work-ethic results in a loss in utility. The analogy of a homeless man seeking refuge in a family’s home—presented in the next paragraph—is often pushed by proponents.
A homeless man—named Joe for conciseness—who is taken in by a family would inevitably contribute to a change in the family’s culture. Joe, who makes little effort to work, becomes a bad influence on the children in the family, lowering their motivation to maintain a strong work ethic, as they see how Joe is able to survive and live a comfortable life without working much. The family’s work ethic is eroded. This analogy does not hinge on whether the family deserves to take in Joe, and focuses on why Joe is harmful to the family, implying that the family’s interests should be prioritized. This realistically portrays the “Americans first” sentiment that cultural preservationists suggest. Joe is analogous to the Syrian refugees, and the family, to the United States
To respond, I will first assume accept the premises of the argument presented above. Although those premises can be debated, I will accept it because successfully arguing on the opponent’s’ terms makes a more effective argument. However, while the homeless man comparison is very effective, there are flaws which I will now present. Primarily, the homeless man analogy ignores Joe’s personal interests. Joe seeks refuge in the family’s home because he believes that the conditions in the family’s home are better than the conditions he was living in. Likewise, Syrian refugees will not move to a country with worse conditions. When Joe is accepted by the family, he is happy with the conditions he is living in, and does not want them to deteriorate. He adopts the family’s customs and values and contributes work to maintain those living standards. It is in his personal interest that the family home’s conditions be maintained, as those conditions are the reason why he wants to stay in the family’s home in the first place. Therefore, Joe will naturally begin to adopt the family’s customs and values, and the fear of an erosion of those customs and values is unwarranted. Using this modified homeless man analogy that accounts for Joe’s personal interests, I can refute the argument for preserving Anglo-Protestant work ethic. The Syrian refugees, who based on the premises arrive without an equivalent or better work-ethic, are prone to adopt the Anglo-Protestant work ethic in order to maintain the current standards of living and better their circumstances. Therefore, an adoption of the Anglo-Protestant work ethic is to the refugees’ advantage. Of course, a link in this argument that can be challenged is whether the refugees will realize that adopting the host population’s predominant culture maintains living conditions and hospitality, but history has given empirical evidence of how Irish Catholic, Eastern European, and Jewish immigrants, among others—even when they have been derided as having poor work ethic when first arriving—have after a generation or two, successfully navigated American society through adopting the Anglo-Protestant work ethic. There were admittedly bumps along the way, with many immigrant communities living in poverty, but after a few generations, the success of those immigrant communities—who came to America in far greater numbers than the entire Syrian population–shows that there is no reason why the Syrian refugees cannot do the same, and that the fears of Syrian refugees eroding Anglo-Protestant work ethic are unwarranted. Refugees will not refuse to adopt an Anglo-Protestant custom that makes them better off. Therefore, the argument that Syrian refugees will erode the Anglo-Protestant work ethic is invalid.
The second argument for the preservation of general culture is that Syrian refugees—who come from a mostly undemocratic Muslim country—will not respect America’s values of democracy and tolerance. This argument is based on the premises that Syrians will not embrace the democratic process because they are not used to one in their country of origin, that Syrians come from a country where LGBTQ rights are looked down on, and that the relatively homogenous country Syrian refugees come from will make it harder for them to accept different faiths and ideologies. This is a popular, and favorite, argument of the anti-refugee movement, because it both makes a case against Syrian refugees and distances themselves from intolerance and bigotry. Its popularity and difficulty to refute by just calling it a bigoted argument merits its place in this discussion. Proponents commonly cite statistics of how a majority of Syrian refugees believe homosexuality should be illegal, or how a majority of Syrian refugees harbor prejudice towards Jews. Syrian refugees who will not embrace democracy and are intolerant will fuel tensions between different communities among other problems in the United States, and interests in preventing a degradation of inter-community relations should come first.
To respond, I will again assume that the premises and statistics of the argument in the previous paragraph are correct. Instead of trying to explain why Syrian refugees will come to the shores of America tolerant and respectful of democracy, I will argue that Syrian refugees will become tolerant and respectful of different communities once they realize American tolerance and democracy are strengths of America. To do so, I will use the thought experiment of dorm bathroom politics. Imagine two men’s bathrooms in a dorm hall. One is always clean, virtually odorless, and spacious, because its users agree to remove all personal belongings after use, among other actions to preserve cleanliness. The other bathroom is filled with towels and personal toiletries that accumulate mildew and is in general very unclean. Users of the latter bathroom seek refuge in the cleaner bathroom because of the conditions in their own bathroom, but when they do, the condition of the cleaner bathroom deteriorates because of the unhygienic practices the bathroom migrants bring with them. The bathroom migrants are left wondering why their new bathroom has become less clean. What would the new bathroom migrants do? This argument follows a similar logic to that of refuting the first argument for preservation of general culture. The Syrian refugees, though initially clinging to their attitudes towards democracy and tolerance, will change their outlook once they realize that those two tenets of America are what makes America such a great place to live in. After all, without tolerance, the Syrian refugees would not have been accepted in the first place, and without democracy, America’s government would not be too different from the one they escaped from. Once again, the Syrian refugees will adopt democracy and tolerance after an initial refusal because they realize those values are for the best interest of the metaphorical boat they have sought refuge in, and no one wants the boat they are on to sink (or rather, no one wants the bathroom they are using to become unhygienic). Thus, the argument that Syrians will not respect American democracy and tolerance is unwarranted because the Syrian refugees will adopt those two tenets of American society in their best interests.
The final argument a proponent of preserving general culture has is one that does not rely on the utility of a culture, based on the premise that people like to preserve culture for sentimental, or other non-utilitarian, value. Proponents argue that Syrian refugees will change or even eliminate some traditions that should be kept for the sake of being preserved, similar to how non-pharmaceutical charities protect endangered species of fauna even though they have almost no utility outside the pharmaceutical industry, or how the United States government protects the indigenous cultures of the Native Americans even if there is no apparent utility to the protectors. This argument is an integral piece of preserving general culture, and certain political circles have already used this argument specifically against Syrian refugees by spreading fears of how the influx of refugees in Europe is destroying “Western” culture, and the how the same may happen in the United States with the arrival of Syrian refugees.
Once again, I will accept the premise of this final argument for preserving general culture, and to respond I will draw parallels to China in the late imperial era. In this case, the Americans who want to preserve “Western” culture from the influx of Syrian refugees are analogous to the Qing Chinese trying to preserve traditional Chinese culture from Western colonial powers. The Syrian refugees are analogous to the Western colonial powers with the important distinction of the Western colonial powers being dominant powers actively trying to change another country’s culture in the imperialist quest and the Syrian refugees being victims of a crisis trying to find a new country. This distinction will be key. History tells us that China successfully staved off Western influence of mainstream Chinese culture up until the Xinhai Revolution when internal—not external—factors broke down traditional Chinese society. While it is true that those internal factors stemmed from external powers weakening Qing China, those same external powers are not present in the case of Syrian refugees fleeing to the United States. The power of the Syrian refugees weakening the United States is dwarfed by the power of Western colonial powers weakening Qing China. If traditional Chinese culture can avert change by a dominant culture—Western colonial powers seeking spheres of influence—then a dominant American culture can surely deter the threat of culture change by Syrian refugees who neither have the resources nor the will to change American culture and seek spheres of influence. The Syrian refugees do not have the power to change American culture, unlike the real threats against endangered species or the indigenous cultures of the Native Americans. Therefore, the argument that Syrian refugees will change or eliminate certain traditions is not true based on the power difference between the host population and the refugee population.
I have concluded my responses against the arguments for preserving general culture with two themes: the Syrian refugees will integrate into American culture because they have an interest in preserving and adopting American culture and that the Syrian refugees really do not have the power to change American culture—a very dominant one—in a non-negligible way. Now, I will address an aspect of cultural preservation—preserving societal culture—that is more common among political philosophers, because while there are many cases relating to large-scale immigration, there are few relating specifically to the Syrian refugee crisis. I will apply Sager’s analogy of immigration to Klingon speakers immigrating to an Esperanto-speaking territory in “Culture and Immigration: A Case for Exclusion?” to the current refugee crisis in order to refute the argument that Syrian refugees eroding American societal culture through subversion of the English language.
Sager invents a hypothetical world where there is an Esperanto-speaking region within a larger Klingon state. The Esperanto-speaking region has its own societal institutions where Esperanto is the official language. When the Klingons start migrating to the Esperanto-speaking region, they start forming Klingonese enclaves, and (some very brave) Esperanto-speaking right-wing populists start complaining about how the Klingons are undermining societal culture with their different language and advocate for their removal. However, assuming that the Klingons never migrate in large-enough numbers to outnumber the native Esperanto population, societal culture is never under threat because societal institutions—government, schools, marketplaces, etc.—will still use Esperanto as the medium of communication because the Esperanto-speaking population will not adopt Klingonese. Even if those institutions become bilingual, according to Sager, the Esperanto societal culture is not eroded because its shared language—the definition of societal culture according to Kymlicka—still exists, but just with an added share language, Klingonese. This argument holds even more true for the Syrian refugees, as their immigration to the United States will never make the medium of communication in America’s societal institutions bilingual, let alone Arabic, given that they will never outnumber the English-speaking population (the entire Syrian population, even if they all became refugees in America, will never account for more than about 7 percent of the US population). Therefore, the argument that Syrian refugees will undermine American societal culture is unwarranted.
The sub argument for letting a non-negligible number of Syrian refugees into the United States based on the concept of desert and the sub argument refuting the arguments for preserving both general and societal culture should together convince you that based on desert and the preservation of culture alone, we should act on the rhetoric of a previous President and “tear down this wall” blocking Syrian refugees instead of the “build a wall” rhetoric of our President-elect.
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