“What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.”
This is the opening verse of Constantine P. Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians.” It has been more than a century since Cavafy wrote his poem; however, his witty criticism still holds important lessons for understanding our own contemporary societies. In the light of the recent terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, with Europe in midst of a refugee crisis, with abundance of populist leaders exploiting the fear within their societies and opulence of otherizing political discourse; I believe re-interpreting Cavafy’s poem is essential. We must strive to understand our fear of the ‘barbarians.’
By Zeynep Aksoy
“Because the barbarians will come today:” The line is repeated throughout the poem, a poem filled with the ennui of anticipation, describing the paralysis of the civilized as they wait for an invasion that never materializes. However, Cavafy illustrates the need of empires and nations for a sense of peril to justify their rule and how the very notion of “politics of fear” stems from this realization.
Otherization of those perceived as strangers, sometimes on the basis of religious differences or ethnicity, has been the subject of scholarly research since Cold War politics were succeeded by identity politics. Much has been said, understandably, about pathological and innate fears affecting modern European societies. Many politicians have utilized their subject’s fear of the other with ‘foreign’ threats of ‘barbarians’ on their way.
But analysis of fear’s place in contemporary politics is vital and there is much to be said about it, much to be written, and much to be analyzed.
I merely wanted to contribute to the subject and reiterate the dangers our societies face with the ever-growing trend of otherization, politics of fear, and populism in the light of recent events. It is in my opinion that the political trends I have mentioned are historically unsustainable. Identifying ourselves by not being ‘barbarians’ by separating ourselves from many ‘others’ is not how we can achieve a peaceful, prosperous global community. A delicate balance between protecting and imposing cultural values must be found, we must both acknowledge the primacy of the law, and yet we must also strenuously protect minority views and beliefs.
We must ask ourselves: Why are we so afraid? Who are the barbarians?
The fear of other stems from nationalism, which entails extreme demarcation of self and other, where the other, the barbarian, is less human; where it is accepted when the other is abused, stigmatized, ostracized, deported, enslaved, and is a victim of a hate crime.
Nationalism is a powerful, and a fairly new, idea; it is a political concept that links rights to membership of a particular community. I don’t mean to argue that nationalism or the love of one’s own community is inherently dangerous, nor do I want to offend those who take pride in belonging to a particular nation or community.
Nationalism does not have to be toxic, racist or violent; nevertheless, it always demands separation.
To say ‘our country’ and ‘our land’ encompasses a claim as to whom the country belongs, and just as explicitly, to whom it does not. A big part of Turkish identity is not being Greek, not being Kurdish, and vice versa for many Greek and Kurdish nationals. This ‘difference’ is strengthened by a state education system with a nationalistic view of history and by populist and divisive language of politicians, and it is engraved deep in our minds.
Within the community, nationalism emphasizes solidarity and common cause around the collective of the nation. Nationalism has proved to be a successful political trend in our modern era, unifying groups of people and creating prosperous nations. However, the resurgence of a right to be racist or xenophobic, the ‘fear’ of the other, the terror of the coming barbarians, and the violence that emerges when we follow an idea systematically despoils some individuals of their social, political and human rights.
We must not forget how difficult it is to walk back from such extremisms.
We must remember our very recent past, that Francisco Franco ruled Spain until 1975. We must remember that these ideas are powerful, that they rally support, that they are very difficult to dissolve or moderate. In the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the founders of Romanticism movement: “In politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly.’’
The fear of the ‘other’ is not an European phenomenon: Donald Trump just recently announced his plan to create a Muslim surveillance database, requiring Muslims to register and carry a special form of identification. “We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said of the situation. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”
The same fear of the ‘other’ and the barbarian rhetoric was used during the Canadian election in the previous months. On October 19, the Canadian Conservative Party, which had governed since 2006, lost power to the centrist Liberal Party, led by Justin Trudeau. During the campaign that lasted for 11 weeks, the Conservative Party’s proposal to establish a hotline for citizens to report “barbaric cultural practices” gathered international attention. The Minister of Immigration, rather than the Attorney General, defended the proposed legislation, and this prompted concerns that the Conservatives were attempting to mobilize certain constituencies by playing on distrust toward immigrants. The rhetoric of barbarians was deemed perilous for the society, and in a widely circulated open letter, Canadian academics condemned the strategy. However, the fact that the discourse of the ‘barbarian’ became a central focus of an election in Canada, and Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric in stable, prosperous, and established democracies, is an indication of how widespread the politics of fear and otherization are.
The citizens of the dying empire Cavafy describes are constantly waiting for the arrival of the barbarians; however, the barbarians never come. The poem ends with the following lines:
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
Cavafy grasped the manipulation of the fear within the society more than a century ago, and his verses remain well founded and relevant in our day. How every empire, society, and nation needs enemies to justify and legitimize its existence. How when one enemy is defeated, it is necessary to create new ‘barbarians’ with which to threaten the population.
Panic sweeps through the city at the end of the poem, which suggests that there is no sense of relief that the barbarians are not coming. The ‘civilized’ citizens are terrified to find themselves suddenly alone, with no enemy to embody. Like Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the poem explains that the ways we comfort ourselves depend upon self-deception in order to avoid responsibility and hard questions faced by our societies.
It is time that we understand: Barbarians are not coming.