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Migration, Immigration and Intolerance According to Umberto Eco

"La Nave di Teseo" publishing house printed the texts of two immigration conferences presented in 1997 but still very current

di Luca Bufano

Umberto Eco at home (Ph. Aubrey)

The writer's reflections on the issue of immigration were presented twenty-two years ago during two conferences in Valencia and Paris where Eco distinguishes between Immigration, defined as the temporary and quantitively contained movement of an ethnic group toward another geographical area and that of Migration as a permanent and unstoppable mass exodus that changes the culture of the host country

As philosopher, writer, academic and translator, great scholar and bibliophile, Umberto Eco was one of Italy’s most important intellectuals of the 20th and 21st centuries. Starting from his famous 1961 article, “Fenomenologia di Mike Bongiorno”, [“Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno”, then the most popular quiz show host in Italy], through the over 1,500 “Bustine” di Minerva, published regularly in the weekly magazine L’espresso, and to his final book, Chronicles of a Liquid Society— published a few days after his death in February 2016– Eco was also one of the most attentive and lucid observers of the changes taking place in contemporary society.

In January 1997, at a symposium organized by the City of Valencia regarding prospects for the third millennium, the author of The Name of the Rose gave a lecture on “Third Millennium Migrations”. A few weeks later, invited to open the International Forum on intolerance organized in Paris by the Académie Universelle des Cultures, he delivered the keynote address. The text of these two lectures is now offered once again by La Nave di Teseo publishing house (of which Eco himself was a co-founder), together with two other essays from 2011 and 2012, under the title of Migrazioni e intolleranza (Migrations and Intolerance). Stefano Eco, the author’s son, describes them in an introductory note as, “texts that drive us to use the mind, not the gut”, therefore an effective remedy against the dangerous virus being spread by populist politicians that even in the middle of summer, when our attention wanders between beach parties and parliamentary debates, aims to achieve the opposite, to push our emotional buttons.

The first text, in particular, is strikingly topical: it reads as if written as a commentary on the crucial issue that Italy and Europe are facing in an increasingly troubling manner. Speaking twenty-two years ago, when the phenomenon of the south-to-north global migration had not yet taken on today’s epic proportions, Eco predicted that, in the new Millennium, Europe would be witnessing a great cultural métissage, similar to the one that had occurred in New York at the start of the 20th century or, even earlier in some Latin American countries– a movement that “no racist and no nostalgic reactionary” could have prevented.

The fundamental point of Eco’s public reflection was that of the distinction between the concepts of “immigration” and “migration”; the first, he argued, occurs when a group of individuals, “even many individuals, but in numbers that are statistically insignificant with respect to the indigenous stock,” move from one country to another. Such a movement – according to Eco – may be controlled politically, limited or encouraged, according to the needs of the receiving country. The process of migration, on the other hand, would be comparable to those found in nature: “They occur and no one can control them”.

“We have migration,” declared Eco, “when an entire people, little by little, moves from one territory to another, and what matters is not how many remain in the original territory, but to what extent migrants change the culture of the territory to which they migrate.” He then offered examples of some of the great migrations of the past: from east to west, “as a result of which the peoples of the Caucasus changed the culture and biological heritage of the natives”; those of the so-called “barbarian” peoples who invaded the Roman Empire, creating new kingdoms and new cultures; or the case of European migration to the American continent. This too was a migration, “because European whites did not adopt the customs and the culture of the natives, but rather founded a new civilization to which even the natives (those who survived) have adapted”. And he reiterated, “It is immigration only when immigrants (admitted according to political decisions) largely accept the customs of the country to which they immigrate, and it is migration when migrants (whom no one can stop at the borders) transform the culture of the territory to which they migrate”.

“As long as it is a matter of immigration”, Eco continued, “people can hope to contain the immigrants, so that they don’t mix with the native population. When it is migration, containment is no longer possible, and the métissage becomes uncontrollable”. In his view the movements that Europe has attempted to – and continues to – manage as immigration, are actually cases of migration.

“The Third World is knocking at the doors of Europe, and it will enter even if Europe does not consent. The problem is no longer to decide, as politicians pretend to believe, whether female students will be admitted to the universities of Paris if they wear the chador, or how many mosques may be erected in Rome. The problem is that in the next millennium – and since I am not a prophet, I cannot specify the exact date – Europe will be a multiracial continent or, if you prefer, a ‘brown’ continent. Whether you like it or not will not change the outcome”. Such a clash of cultures – according to Eco – could also lead to violent confrontations, but racists – he affirmed – “ought to be (in theory) a group on the way to extinction”. In theory, indeed.

The noted semiologist concluded reminding the audience of the Roman patrician who could not tolerate the idea that Gauls, or Sarmatians, or Jews like Saint Paul, could become Roman citizens. Yet this resistance did not prevent an African from ascending the imperial throne. How could this have happened? “We have forgotten the name of this patrician; he was defeated by history. Roman civilization was multiracial. Racists will claim that this is why it fell. But if this is so then it took five hundred years; and this seems to me a span of time that allows even us to make plans for the future.”

Thus, Eco declared in 1997. Walls and naval blockades – he seems to tell us today from beyond – can only postpone, at the cost of great efforts and a lot more suffering, a solution that cannot spring from brutal impulses, but from the founding values of our civilization born out of the Enlightenment: among these, tolerance and hospitality. “Universal hospitality” is the concept that Immanuel Kant illustrated in the following manner in his Project for a Perpetual Peace in 1795:

Francisco Goya’s etching “The slumber of reason generates monsters”

Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another. One may refuse to receive him when this can be done without causing his destruction, but so long as he peacefully occupies his place, one may not treat him with hostility. It is not the right to be a permanent resident that he may demand, for which a special benevolent agreement would be needed in order to give an outsider the right to become a fellow-inhabitant for a certain period of time. It is only the right of a temporary sojourn, a right to associate with others, which all humanity has. They have it by virtue of their common possession of the surface of the earth, where, because of its spherical nature, they cannot infinitely disperse– and hence must finally tolerate the presence of one another. Originally, no one had a greater right than another to a particular part of the earth.

Equally inspired by Kant – two years after the publication of this definitive text of the Age of Enlightenment – Francisco Goya created his famous etching, “The Slumber of Reason Generates Monsters”; that is, when humanity stops listening to the cry of reason, everything turns into vision. And even a peaceful migration may appear, to politicians eager to score electoral gains on the understandable hardship of segments of the population, a threat to national security.

Note: The first two essays included in the volume Migrazioni e intolleranza (La nave di Teseo, 2019) had appeared in Cinque scritti morali (Bompiani, 1997), published in English as Five Moral Pieces (Vintage, 2002), translated by Alastair McEwen.

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