Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Voice of the Swiss People's Party

This seems to be a day in which the past is haunting the present. Having just searched my archives to get the skinny on Taro Aso, Secretary General of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party, I now find myself doing the same on the subject of discrimination in Switzerland. This was prompted by a story by Imogen Foulkes for the BBC on a report from the Swiss Federal Commission of Racial Discrimination that found the current system for acquiring naturalized citizenship in Switzerland "discriminatory and in many respect racist." This triggered a memory of a campaign that had been initiated by the Swiss People's Party to ban the building of minarets in Switzerland. The Al Jazeera story that reported this campaign did not give the percentage of parliamentary seats held by this Party; but Ms. Foulkes claims they are "currently leading in the opinion polls;" so it would appear that the news from last May was a bit of a harbinger.

When I taught at the University of Pennsylvania, I had an American student who had spent a fair amount of her time in Switzerland. It was from her that I learned that the Swiss take a highly decentralized approach to governance, to a point where the almost insignificant status of the Federal government is a matter of national pride. This decentralization is strongly evident in Ms. Foulkes' account of what it takes to acquire Swiss citizenship:

Switzerland has Europe's toughest naturalisation laws. Foreigners must live for 12 years in a Swiss community before they can apply, and being born in Switzerland brings no right to citizenship.

Under the current system, foreigners apply through their local town or village.

They appear before a citizenship committee and answer questions about their desire to be Swiss. After that, they must often be approved by the entire voting community, in a secret ballot, or a show of hands.

It is this process that is now being criticized by the Federal Commission of Racial Discrimination. Ms. Foulkes cites an example from their report:

It cites the case of a disabled man originally from Kosovo. Although fulfilling all the legal criteria, his application for citizenship was rejected by his community on the grounds that his disability made him a burden on taxpayers, and that he was Muslim.

Needless to say, the Swiss People's Party is staunchly defending this status quo and rejecting any proposals of reform to the process.

This should makes us all reflect on the extent to which we tend to romanticize that ideal vision of "town meetings," usually while expostulating all sorts of verbal claptrap that demonstrates little more than an thoroughly impoverished comprehension of the underlying concept of "community." On the surface the Swiss system has an interesting enough perspective: One can only become a "member" of the country if one becomes a "member" of one of the country's communities. However, joining a community is not, as a rule, a matter of going through the steps of some objective process. Rather, it involves achieving some level of agreement between the individual applicant and the existing members of the community. The community makes the decision, and the applicant carriers the primary responsibility for achieving that agreement.

However, this is where we have to start getting careful about just what a community is. The position I have previously endorsed is that community is the expression of "self" across a group. This, of course, is the old rabbinical trick of answering one question ("What is community?") with another question ("What is self?"); but, even if we hold any detailed account of that second question in abeyance, we must still recognize that one cannot had a sense of "self" without a sense of "other." Thus, when a community is deciding on whether or not a "new applicant" should be a member, they are basically ruling on the "otherness" of that applicant. If that "otherness" is recognized by the community as a whole as being too "alien," then membership is denied; and, by the very criteria that constitute the nature of community, this is probably as it should be.

Nevertheless, all this academic scare-quoting of everyday nouns like "community," "self," and "other" does not refute the assertion that this approach to determining community membership is, by its very nature, discriminatory. If you cannot have self without other, you cannot have community without exclusion; and exclusion is just a synonym for discrimination. So, having raked this Swiss model over the coals of social theory, let us return to questions of practice.

Consider the case of the disabled Kosovar. Here is a man who is a refugee in the spirit, if not the strict literal sense, of that noun. He had the good fortune to get out of a powder-keg, even if not entirely intact. Mr. Foulkes' account did not give the circumstances that brought him to this particular community in Switzerland. However, the Federal report cited that the community decided that "his disability made him a burden on taxpayers" and that his religion was deemed too alien by a presumably Christian population. The second criterion is as old as history itself. We continue to live with it in the United States, even in the current context of the recent news about the leader of a fundamentalist commune in Utah and Arizona that still practices polygamy. The former criterion is the more practical one, and it reminds us that the responsibilities of government are not always as simple as we would like them to be. If every community ultimately has to take responsibility for its own health care budget (which could well be the case in some of those romanticized visions of "town meetings"), then the decision of this Swiss community is no different from the sort of decision than an American insurance company might make.

When I worked in Singapore, my health insurance did not cover any problems ensuing from a heart murmur that had been detected decades previously by an echocardiogram. After a full physical examination, my primary care physician sent me off to have another echocardiogram. The cardiologist detected no heart murmur. He explained that the technique of interpreting the results had improved significantly since my first echocardiogram. I got him to write a letter to the insurance people, who then dutifully removed at exceptional clause from my policy.

Am I arguing that this is all a question of money? Perhaps, but, if so, it is more a question of who pays the money. If health insurance is national, then this should not be a decision criterion at the community level. My guess, however, is that the health care question was only a rationalization; and the real criterion was the religious one. This really bothers me, because this Kosovar is not different from all those Jews who desperately tried to get beyond the reach of the genocidal policy of the Nazis; and he serves as a reminder that no one is really there to assume protective responsibility for people in such a state of desperation. Thus, it is not a question of whether or not we know what we are talking about whenever we use the noun "community" but of whether we are just as ignorant (if not more so) whenever we invoke the noun "humanity."

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