Sunday, October 22, 2006

Aliens Among Us

It is a rare occasion when I find myself in accord with Red Ken, the flaming socialist mayor of London.

Yet when I opened up this morning's Washington Times, I read an article in which Ken Livingstone's views are presented as fully in line with mine.

In a Bloomberg News article (which does not, strangely, appear on the Washington Times web site) about the influx of Polish immigrants to Britain since 2004, Livingstone is paraphrased as saying he thinks immigrants are good for London's economy:

Attracted by jobs and higher pay, immigrants are transforming neighborhoods as shops stock Polish goods, jobseekers post notices in their native language and attendance at Catholic churches booms. The new residents are weakening "community cohesion," lobbying group Migration Watch says.

"Londoners are being displaced by the arrival of immigrants, which is changing the makeup of the city," said Andrew Green, the organization's chairman "It simply isn't sustainable."

Mayor Ken Livingstone disagrees, saying immigrants help the economy grow. The city is investing in transportation, housing and police services to keep pace with the inflow, he said.
It is hard to see how Polish immigrants might be taking jobs from British natives: The unemployment rate in the UK is now about 3 percent, compared to 11 percent or more in Central Europe.

The article goes on to note the long history of Polish settlers in London, including novelist Joseph Conrad and refugees from Nazi- and Communist-occupied Poland in the middle of the 20th century. I remember having lunch at a Polish restaurant in Chelsea as long ago as 1987, when one of the habitu├ęs asked me if I was Polish. (I had to pause to think about my answer, finally settling on, "No, I'm American. But my ancestors were Polish." He seemed satisfied by that.)

Around that same time, I saw a terrific play at the National Theatre called Coming in to Land, written by Stephen Poliakoff and starring the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith as a Polish refugee -- or not -- trying to gain asylum in Britain. Smith's character's name was Halina Sonya Rodziewizowna. (The play, directed by Sir Peter Hall, also included Anthony Andrews and Tim Pigott-Smith in the cast.)

Althought the political situation was far different then than now -- this was the height of the Cold War, remember -- some of the themes echo from the play today. Here's a speech from Act I; you'll notice the parallels as the speaker catalogues the reasons Halina may not be able to stay in Britain:
Firstly, Halina has waited, which is usually fatal. There is a detestation of casual applications -- unless you arrive screaming at the airport, I can't stand it back home and I'm not safe there, demanding immediate asylum, they are intensely suspicious, they are paranoid about all sorts of odds and sods being dumped on them from Eastern Europe...

Secondly, every attempt to land is made in context -- the context of world events, and that isn't too good at the moment is it. The recent sudden squall of East West tension, the expulsion of five Polish students in the US for industrial and military espionage, and three Russians from here...

Moreover Halina does not wishto get involved in ritual 'hate' propaganda about her homeland, understandably.

(Sharply.) Lastly -- Halina is not unfortunately a famous dissident, or even a member of Solidarity, no fashionable reason here, nor obviously is she something nationally desirable, like a ballerina, olympic athlete, boxer, squash player, or even a film director!
What the critics of Polish (and other East European) immigration to London fail to recognize is that London is the premier cosmopolitan city. It was, in fact, the first truly cosmopolitan metropole to emerge since the fall of Rome, and it did so during the Renaissance. London attracted more and different peoples earlier, and in greater numbers, than any other town or city in Western Europe.

That London was a crossroads is a significant -- if not the most important -- factor in Britain's true claim to be the leader in the Industrial Revolution. London attracted thinkers from both the French and Scottish Enlightenments. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, the dining clubs in London of the 18th century had the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge gathered in one place -- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

London was the destination for many different types of Britons -- Welsh, Scots, Irish, Geordies -- for centuries. French Huguenots and Jews expelled from continental Europe settled there because it was a safe haven. And it had a Chinatown long before New York or San Francisco did. Recent decades have seen many other lands represented among London's population. As the Bloomberg story explains:
Poles are just the latest wave of newcomers to try their luck in London. Migrants from India, Pakistan and Africa boosted the population in the 1990s. Twenty-eight percent of Londoners were born outside the U.K., according to the 2001 census.
The article includes this astonishing tidbit:
London businesses are adapting to their new customers. Nil Kanth Patel said he learned Polish to serve customers better at his newsstand in Hammersmith.

"The neighborhood has gone through lots of change, especially since 2004," said Patel, who is from Uganda and has run the shop for 17 years. "It's been great for my business, as half of my customers are now Polish."
What could be more emblematic of London's cosmopolitanism -- and indeed of the global economy itself -- than an African immigrant with an Indian surname learning Polish in order to build a better business?

A few weeks ago, I read University of Chicago historian William H. McNeill's memoir, The Pursuit of Truth. The book -- which is worth a review all of its own -- describes McNeill's intellectual struggle to create a coherent "world history" and to make that sub-discipline respectable within the community of professional historians.

One insight that McNeill had is so simple that its profundity might be missed: namely, that progress depends on the interactions of strangers, or, as McNeill puts it,
the continual innovative effect of contacts and and exchanges between civilizations and peoples round about, with special attention to technological transfers....
London has for centuries been a nexus of exchange among strangers. It is, and has been, for that reason, a great city -- if not the greatest. In the 21st century, the contributions of Polish immigrants and others from the new member states of the EU will make London even greater.

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