Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Arguments which count

A letter in today's Herald Sun opposes the use of the term "illegal immigrants" on the grounds that,

People who arrive on our shores seeking refugee status are not illegals, they are asylum seekers ... they have fled in haste from oppressive regimes.

This, of course, conjures up the image of a genuine refugee whose life is in danger and who flees for the nearest border.

The problem is that Australia has no border with other countries that refugees might flee from. In fact, most "asylum seekers" travel half way round the world, through a variety of countries, to get here.

The Herald Sun featured the case last week of Iraqi Ahmed Saad. He did not "flee in haste" from Iraq to Australia. In fact, he left Iraq as long ago as 1987 and lived in Iran for 14 years. He then spent four months in 2001 travelling through Malaysia and then Indonesia before paying people smugglers to take him to Australia.

Of course, pointing out that nobody arrives in Australia in haste from oppressive regimes won't convince liberals to rethink their attitudes to asylum seekers. That's because such arguments are really only conducted at a "secondary" level; they have persuasive force in terms of public debate, but they don't really explain the underlying reason why a person adopts the position in the first place.

It's more useful to understand the argument at a "primary" level. This means trying to understand liberal first principles. For a liberal, what matters is that we are "free" to be self-created through our individual will and reason. A traditional national identity is something that is not self-created. Therefore, it eventually loses its legitimacy within a liberal culture.

For liberals, therefore, the act of accepting "refugees", even when the case for the "refugees" is weak, is likely to be considered a positive and "politically correct" act as it shows a "freedom" from any bias toward a traditional, mainstream national identity.

The debate hinges, in other words, on first principles which liberals adopted many generations ago. Conservatives don't accept these first principles, and therefore still believe it to be legitimate to uphold a traditional identity. But unless conservatives begin to challenge liberal first principles, it's unlikely that the climate of opinion amongst intellectuals will change.

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