If intelligent people are more selective, they are more sensitive

Leonidas Donskis

Photo: Sarunas Mazeika | © DELFI / S. Mazeika

What does the term refugee mean to you?

A displaced and dispossessed person who has been deprived of his or her home country and, in some cases, of his or her dignity due to misfortune, natural disaster, war, abuse of human rights or dire straits.

Do you find fleeing poverty less legitimate than fleeing war or political oppression?

I can't say that, nobody can. How are we entitled to decide that a mother and her starving, sick, neglected children are less legitimate as refugees than those refugees fleeing political oppression? Even political repression is not always the same and can vary from case to case: it can be an abuse of human rights, such as female genital mutilation, but it can also be a threat to life due to a negative attitude or active resistance to their own government.

And escape from ecological problems?

This is very understandable for me. What if hunger, a lack of drinking water, air pollution or earthquakes destroy people's lives? Their escape is as logical and legitimate as fleeing political oppression, murder or the abuse of human rights.

When do you stop being a refugee?

When the motive or reasoning underlying migration is purely economic. I do not deny economic migrants the right to seek a better and more dignified life elsewhere, but they are not refugees. If you do not save your own life or that of your family, if you are not politically persecuted or abused, if you are mainly driven to look for a better life or work, then you stop being a refugee. Let's call the child by name.

Do you have a right to asylum?

Yes, but it cannot be taken for granted, because we live in a world that is far from utopia, even if we are celebrating the 500th birthday of Thomas More's "Utopia" this year. It happened that Sir Thomas More expressed himself very clearly about the hospitality of the people of Utopia and their friendliness towards strangers. While every citizen has the right to leave their country, entering another country is more of a privilege than a natural right. But political asylum should be regarded as the norm and criterion of a democratic and decent state. But here I have to add, to my regret, that migration is currently becoming a sensitive issue in European societies. An anti-immigrant or refugee stance can ensure victory in regional and national elections. For this reason, the gap between European values ​​and so-called realpolitik is growing. Our time is a time of fear and worry, and so is politics driven by fear.

If so, is it unconditional or can it be forfeited?

Unfortunately, this right cannot be unconditional because if we say otherwise, we risk the collapse of governments. We have learned from the reaction of European countries that the cohesion of the European Union is at risk if a member threatens to leave because of their rejection of immigration or asylum policies. Far-right parties now in power - such as Fidesz in Hungary or the Law and Justice Party in Poland or the Freedom Party in the Netherlands (where it is a coalition partner) - continue to blackmail the EU, exposing our political ones and institutional weakness. No sooner had Germany offered a generous, deeply European and humane refugee policy than Angela Merkel's popularity and ratings dropped dramatically. This is our cruel political reality and we cannot escape it.

Do you believe that a society can accept a limited or unlimited number of refugees?

We must do our best not to become prisoners of this mindset - human beings are not statistics. I cannot say whether 5,000 or 200,000 refugees pose a threat to the cohesion or solidarity of any society. I would humbly suggest resettling the refugees in an even and balanced way, not only in the big cities but also in smaller towns and communities, as there are more opportunities for them to be accepted rather than marginalized. Much to my regret, I cannot suggest any figures - personally, I am not afraid to accept 100,000 refugees in my country. But for a Prime Minister or a Member of the European Parliament, such a determination would mean political suicide. Since we can hardly expect any miracles to happen in political circles, politically active and civically committed people, for example in PEN centers and non-governmental organizations, should make more announcements on this topic.
Unfortunately, immigration is becoming a determining factor in the western world. This is the case in France, the Netherlands, not to mention the countries of Central Europe such as Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. Even the stronghold of the EU, Germany, is not independent at this point, as the political class in Germany has to study and scrutinize public opinion very carefully. This type of reality takes precedence over our human concerns when it comes to political calculations.
According to its intention, Brexit was much more xenophobic than we had thought. I myself had believed that his main concern was how to blackmail and intimidate Brussels for the sake of political gain. On closer inspection, it appears that the Tories and UKIP have simply capitalized on local and national resentments against European immigration policies. Something similar is happening itself in the US and could play a crucial role there - just watch the horror story of Donald Trump's rise to political prominence and global visibility.

If limited, what are these limits?

Again, personally, I refuse to draw a line. I am convinced that we can take in far more refugees than in the past. We are all aging and declining societies in the EU, which leads me to ponder the reason for the vehement rejection of immigrants and refugees. I'm afraid this is not just about existential fear and worry or about racist, xenophobic reactions; things are much worse. I am afraid that we will be driven deep down by the neoliberal dogma that threatens to break the social welfare system as we knew it in the West.
This crisis equips us with neoliberal arguments to only accept those who are physically fit and beautiful. So the sad and cruel truth behind this apparently so polite debate in the countries of the EU is that we only want to deal with those who promise to be a success story and are the workers we need most.
All of our humanitarian concerns become irrelevant as soon as we begin to think about our immigration and asylum policies as a kind of global beauty contest among those fleeing war, misfortune, oppression and hardship. Where do you draw the line here? We have to make sure that our governments remain able to act. If there is a risk that they could be torn apart, we have to give in. To prevent this from happening in the first place, the EU and national politicians need to develop a long-term strategy, both at national and pan-European level, to deal with this problem, which will continue to exist. Because the refugees won't go away.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. those who your country is more willing to accept than others? If yes why?

Lithuania is a newcomer to this brave new world with all of its charms and challenges, so it will be a long way before we are truly hospitable to the refugees. I think that Ukrainians are more welcome than others as they are fleeing the war zone in our immediate vicinity. We cannot pretend that the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the war there have nothing to do with us - it is too close and too dangerous for us. For this reason, the Lithuanians can empathize with the Ukrainians and Georgians and treat them with sympathy. At the same time, however, the Lithuanians can also be very friendly with the Russian refugees.
The people of my generation can share the same culture and they speak Russian. But I am not entirely convinced that this is a general trend, as young people in Vilnius or Kaunas who no longer speak Russian and are closer to their friends from India or China than Eastern Europeans may think or feel differently.

In your opinion, are refugees treated fairly in your country?

Much remains to be done. A few years ago things were very bad, but now things are getting better and better. Lithuania has benefited immensely from the EU - not only in terms of investment and financial programs, but also and first of all in terms of higher standards of human rights and democratic sensitivities.

Would cuts in the social system in your country be acceptable to you if this would help to take in more refugees?

These cuts would not be acceptable as our social security system is already downright problematic. It causes public and personal dissatisfaction. Paradoxically, because of the insecurity at home, many Lithuanians choose to emigrate. Over half a million people have left Lithuania over the past 25 years. In terms of statistics, dynamics and intensity, Lithuania does not lag behind any of the European countries that have experienced a decline in their population. When Lithuania gained independence in 1990, the population was 3.5 million. Today less than 2 million people live here. There is a new Lithuanian diaspora in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Norway and Spain, not to mention the US. Who decides to emigrate? For the most part, it is our precariat - the most insecure and vulnerable people choose to build their future or the future of their children elsewhere. If there were cuts in the social security system, we as a country would be on the losing side. The opposite is urgently needed: we must become a home for Lithuanians and our fellow Europeans and also remain open to refugees.

What are the prerequisites for successful integration for you? There are minimum requirements

- to the newcomers?

The refugees are expected to embrace the culture of the receiving host country with open arms. At the same time, however, they must have the opportunity to practice their own culture. I don't believe in assimilation, which was the pattern of the 19th and 20th centuries. It just doesn't work in the 21st century. Instead, I believe in successful integration that would result in multiple identities for modern people, European citizens who would be able to sympathize with other identities based on their own cultural identity. A law abiding loyal citizen with his or her culture that would undoubtedly enrich the national culture of their new country - what more do we need?

- to the recipient?

The citizens of the host country cannot be choosy. It is easy to practice “boutique multiculturalism” as Stanley Fish described it, that is, to celebrate exotic cuisine, restaurants, grocery stores, markets or famous athletes recruited by European football and basketball teams; but it is far more difficult to treat normal people fairly, justly, warmly and attentively. We need to look at refugees in the same way as our classmates and neighbors, rather than addressing them like contestants or exotic strangers, who by definition are meant to be kind, quiet, or humble in every way. Of course, it is very difficult to meet refugees like our own, but we should not give up because of that - because I believe, with regard to our European horizon, that it is very possible to achieve such an attitude through education.

Do you know refugees personally?

Yes sure. Mainly Russian human rights activists and political opponents of the regime in Russia.

Do you actively support refugees?

I do.

How will the refugee situation develop in your country?

a) in the next two years?
b) in the next two decades?

I am optimistic. Lithuania will be a prosperous, prosperous and hospitable country. There will be little change in the next two years, but I expect a bigger change in two decades. We should be - and are - influenced by our Nordic neighbors, who are more open and hospitable to refugees than we are.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

No, that will remain a strong tendency, if not even become the new pattern of global existence. We can only reduce the number of refugees if we are successful in our joint efforts to develop some countries.

If so: what does it take?

Coordinated action and a consolidated policy are necessary to prevent war, violent politics and the resulting failure of states. We cannot avoid these things, I fear, but if we act together and have a strategy we can reduce the number of tragedies and deaths.

Have you or your family had any previous experience of escaping?

My father was a Holocaust survivor, as was his older brother and parents. They were among the eleven survivors of a Lithuanian shtetl in which 2,000 people were killed within two days by the Nazis and their local henchmen. Hence my sympathy for all minorities as well as for all people in the world who are underrepresented, mistreated and dispossessed. My grandfather's brother and sister went to the United States before World War II; they married and raised their families there, but they were more economic emigrants than refugees. As for myself, I've never been a refugee.

Do you think you will ever become a refugee in your life?

No, I don't think I'll ever be one. I am a public figure in Lithuania. Because of this, if my country got into trouble, God forbid, I would behave in a decent manner. In the event of a war, I would not flee. I would never abandon my country should a war break out or any other social disaster. If my country slipped into tyranny, then I would have to have the voice of a dissident.

How much home do you need? *

As a wandering scholar, I have spent much of my time abroad. I've lived and worked in the US, the UK, Sweden, Finland and Hungary. I teach in Italy every year and occasionally in Iceland. Because of this, I had enough life and work elsewhere, and now I want to enjoy my country to the full. I need a lot of home because this is an existential need for me. Lithuania is a small country and I would not be able to realize myself as a scientist without traveling, lecturing and publishing abroad. And yet I need a place where I can collect myself as a human being. Therefore, Lithuania is the land of my roots and an existential decision. I cannot live without my memories of my hometown Klaipėda, and at the same time I cannot exist without two other places in Lithuania - Kaunas, where I live and work today, and Šeteniai, the birthplace of Czesław Miłosz, where I spend my time reading and working Write. But I don't want to be misunderstood. I am a passionate European whose European obligations will never conflict with a close relationship with Lithuania. My sense of “home” will never satisfy my need to be a citizen of Europe.

* This question is taken from Max Frisch's questionnaire on “Heimat”.


Leonidas Donskis (1962-2016) from Lithuania was an important philosopher, historian of ideas, writer and a member of the European Parliament from 2009 to 2014. His extensive research interests were in various areas of philosophy, civilization theory, political theory and the history of ideas in Central and Eastern European thinking. He has published over 50 books, including Liquid Evil: Living with TINA (2016) and Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity (2013, together with Zygmunt Bauman). He was Professor of Political Science and at the Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, Lithuania as well as visiting professor at numerous renowned universities in Europe and the USA. Leonidas Donskis passed away unexpectedly on September 21, 2016 at the age of 54. His contribution to this project is one of his last texts.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V.
October 2016

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