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The others

February 2, 2010

From The Economist:

For the first time in history, across much of the world, to be foreign is a perfectly normal condition. It is no more distinctive than being tall, fat or left-handed. Nobody raises an eyebrow at a Frenchman in Berlin, a Zimbabwean in London, a Russian in Paris, a Chinese in New York.

The desire of so many people, given the chance, to live in countries other than their own makes nonsense of a long-established consensus in politics and philosophy that the human animal is best off at home. Philosophers, it is true, have rarely flourished in foreign parts: Kant spent his whole life in the city of Königsberg; Descartes went to Sweden and died of cold. But that is no justification for generalising philosophers’ conservatism to the whole of humanity.

The error of philosophy has been to assume that man, because he is a social animal, should belong to some particular society. Herder, an 18th-century Prussian philosopher, launched modern conceptions of nationalism by arguing that a man could flourish only among his own people who shared his language and culture. “Each nationality contains its centre of happiness within itself,” Herder wrote.

Even an exemplary modern liberal philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, found this sort of emotional logic seductive. “Everyone has the right to live in some society in which they needn’t constantly worry about what they look like to others, and so be psychically distorted, conditioned to some degree of mauvaise foi”, Berlin said in 1992, near the end of his life, explaining his support for Zionism.

And yes, no doubt many people do feel most at ease with a home and a homeland. But what about the others, who find home oppressive and foreignness liberating? [More]

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