Srebrenica, Bosnia- and Herzegovina, July 1995. Bosniaks expelled by Serb nationalist forces. Source.

The Refugee as Cassandra in the Shining City

The refugee knows the post-war liberal order is held together through shared consensus — not divine or historical providence. And this consensus can fray, rapidly.


The first person I heard predict Donald J. Trump would win the race for the U.S. presidency was my father. “Just like [Slobodan] Milošević,” he said, dryly comparing the leading Republican candidate to the Serbian strongman, whose ultra-nationalist program for a “Greater Serbia” resulted in the deaths of nearly 150,000 people in the former Yugoslavia, including dozens of our friends, family and neighbors. He predicted this confidently from his current home in Vancouver, Canada, recalling how quickly Milošević’s television tirades were followed by our family’s escape from an incinerated Sarajevo.

Nearly a year later the acclaimed Bosnian-American novelist Aleksandar Hemon, writing for Rolling Stone, compared candidate Trump to Vojislav Šešelj, the Serb ultra-nationalist war criminal and Milošević surrogate. “In my irresponsible youth,” Hemon reflected, “I dismissed Šešelj’s murderous bluster as pathological, if entertaining, buffoonery.” Like my father, he saw Americans making the same mistake with Trump and was filled with dread over the fate of the republic. “What I’ve learned,” he continued, “is that people are addicted to the inertia of their common reality, to the desperate belief that everything shall continue as it is simply because it’s been going fine up to this point.”

Since his victory in November, millions of Americans have struggled to understand how a figure as divisive and reactionary as Mr. Trump could have been elected to the highest office in the land. No such confusion reigns among former refugees, however, in particular those from the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union. In a sense, the survivors of such episodes of disintegration cannot but perennially recall the words of the Serbian journalist Miloš Vasić in 1993. Asked to explain Yugoslavia’s spectacular breakup, Vasić quipped: “You must imagine a United States with every little TV station everywhere taking exactly the same editorial line — a line dictated by David Duke. You too would have war in five years.”

To us, the refugees, it is not “peace, order, and good government,” as the Canadian Constitution Act reads, which has most shaped our social experience but disorder, anomie, and entropy. The refugee knows that the norms and institutions upon which the post-war liberal order was founded are contingent and held together through shared consensus — not divine or historical providence. And this consensus can fray, rapidly, without many of us even realizing the full extent of the damage. In other words, at the true end of history is not a new world order, it is simply the end of human existence, crushed underneath the rubble of regime collapse.

Within the broad framework of liberal values, the moral and ethical imperative of sheltering and accommodating displaced peoples is widely embraced, even where concrete policy initiatives are lacking. Yet the political and historical experiences and reflections of refugees are dismissed as categorically irrelevant. It is why writing about and research on the refugee crisis and the broader phenomenon of displacement is almost entirely devoid of actual refugee voices, experiences, or accounts. We are quick to splash their lifeless bodies across our front pages but seemingly uninterested in anything more than pornographic accounts of their suffering.

In short, the refugee experience — the experience of being undocumented, displaced and stateless — is anomalous, we claim. But the refugee counters: it is the inevitable consequence of living in a period of human existence defined by a mode of collective organization — the state — that is rooted in violence. All such regimes eventually collapse and therefore it is citizenship and static “nativity” which are the true anomalies.

Indeed, recent events — from the Trump election to the Brexit referendum — have shown liberal democratic regimes and their citizens to be remarkably incapable of confronting extremist currents within their own midst. The consequences of normalizing reactionary movements are understandably hazy in societies where genuine chaos and strife are subjects for science fiction and historical drama. By comparison, the voice of the refugee may sound shrill but it is the voice of Cassandra, come to warn the citizens of the shining city.

If we recognize the genuine severity of the crises facing the liberal democratic world, then the integration of formerly displaced persons into the social fabric of our respective societies should mean not only the provision of economic opportunities or basic social rights to these groups. It should mean also learning and benefiting from their perspectives of how “things fall apart.” After all, it is not merely people that cross borders and boundaries, it is their experiences and ideas that migrate as well. While traditionally conceptualized as trauma, these experiences, and the accompanying community and familial narratives, ought also to be sources of tremendous socio-political inspiration for host countries.

For their part, refugees have tried to sound the alarm for some time. Along with Hemon, Masha Gessen implored Americans to “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.” It is a delusional tendency, however, as George Soros, the former refugee and preferred boogeyman of the new international far-right, has pointed out. Since his election Soros observed soberly, the president “has changed neither his behavior nor his advisers. His cabinet comprises incompetent extremists and retired generals.” Hemon also followed his initial piece with a still starker rejoinder in the Village Voice, focusing on the responsibilities of intellectuals, especially those with first-hand experience, in helping their peers and neighbors survive the coming darkness. “America, including its literature,” Hemon wrote, “is now in ruins, and the next four years will be far worse than anyone can imagine.”

It is a sign of the times that these claims, in a sense, bear repeating. Notwithstanding the short lived optimism in the West, at least, of the decade between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks, the 20th century was the century of the refugee. Tellingly, the period’s greatest thinkers and philosophers were all displaced and expelled persons: Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Ernest Gellner, Karl Popper, and Thomas Mann to name just a few. At the root of most of their expulsions is the Holocaust, modernity’s apex horror and summation of the inevitable moral catastrophe that results when the state and its executioners have final and arbitrary say in who is human, who may move and thus who may live.

It was Arendt who noted that “few individuals have the strength to conserve their own integrity if their social, political and legal status is completely confused. Lacking the courage to fight for a change of our social and legal status, we have decided instead, so many of us, to try a change of identity.” One cannot, however, escape the revelations that come with being a refugee; the experience indelibly shapes one’s personhood, regardless of whether we find asylum and acquire new citizenships. As an emotional and philosophical state, one is forever a refugee. It is for this reason that Holocaust Museum in D.C. likely felt the need to remind the American public, on the occasion of a celebratory post-election summit of the far-right in the capital, that the “the Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words,”

But the Holocaust Museum’s statement is also a pertinent reminder that for all the claims of America as a land of immigrants, it is here where the refugee struggles most to have their warnings heeded. Despite everything that has already occurred and been revealed about this president and this administration — from the collusion with a hostile foreign government to sabotage the election to threatening to jail his opponents and critics to the appointment of white nationalist extremists to the White House to using the presidency for personal enrichment — many still hold out that the “genius of the Founding Fathers” will prevail. That is, that uniquely in the history of human civilization, the U.S. tradition of constitutional government and its system of checks and balances will prove up to the task of curbing and containing the authoritarian threat. It is a belief that government in the U.S. exists outside of the individuals who occupy particular offices and that the constitution apparently has agency all of its own. In short, all is as it ever was and the republic will persist.

The trouble with such narratives is simple: those who have never experienced the rise of authoritarians and the strife they produce and depend on to survive are telling those who have that they are wrong. You do not understand your new homeland, the argument runs, its history, its institutions and its exceptional form of government. In reality, we have yet to see American exceptionalism rear its head since Trump announced his candidacy. From the fist fights at his rallies to the purges of disloyal public servants, it all seems rather familiar to the refugee.

Fittingly, it is the U.S. border that has become the true canvas upon which our collective tragedy is unfolding. It is at the border that Customs and Border Patrol agents have largely gone into business for themselves, where the letter and the spirit of the president’s executive order and his broader agenda, has essentially trumped the decisions of the courts. It is here where the vaunted constitution and the republic’s institutions allow for warrantless searches and indefinite detention, that the new administration is experimenting with making refugees of all of America’s citizens and residents.

That, to be clear, is where all of this ends if the situation proceeds on the present course. They will continue to experiment with barring refugees from the country until they find the right formula; the mass deportations have already begun and the White House intends to militarize the process further. The president’s allies in Congress have indicated that they intend to pursue legislation to limit the number of documented immigrants in the U.S. as their next move. Meanwhile, the rapid growth in hate crimes against Asian-Americans is another sign that the president’s supposed hard line against China is primarily a domestic policy, intended to revive well-worn “Yellow Peril” sentiments in a country that already once interned its citizens based on their race and origin. If he, his administration and their extremist fellow travelers succeed in these attacks on immigrants and refugees in the U.S. it is only a matter of time — and an open guess — as to which group of American citizens their league will target first.

Even when recognizing this possibility, a few hold out a final hope in American federalism. It is a true irony that “states’ rights,” so long the mantra of neo-Confederate sympathizers, now comforts liberal Americans who invest their hopes for a return to normalcy in California and Washington. But federalism during times of ascendant authoritarianism is less a guardian of norms than it is a recipe for dissolution. No polity can coherently survive the legislative and legal chasms that would be truly necessary for one part of the whole to weather such a regime. It is why the Slovenians, Croatians, Bosnians and Macedonians opted to leave the Yugoslav federation rather than to live in Milošević’s perversion of it.

Others have made impassioned pleas on the need for American citizens, lawmakers and the press to band together and resist and oust this administration. These are important sentiments and we should all heed them. In the meantime — and in the event that those efforts fail — there is the matter of preserving the broader project of liberal democracy outside and beyond the U.S. These conversations are already occurring in Berlin and Ottawa as certainly as their inverted versions fill the halls of power in Beijing and Moscow.

But the struggle to preserve liberal democracy while simultaneously keeping refugees out, as the Europeans have tried, is a futile one. The provincial fears which drive such trade-offs only ask the far-right to enter through the backdoor as America is discovering. “The comity of European peoples,” Arendt wrote, “went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.” The same is true today of the international community as a whole. In short, constitutional government is crumbling in the West and the nominal natives are at a loss. Our one opportunity at salvation is to bring in the refugees and allow their experiences to inform our coming struggle to keep their past from becoming our future.