Leiden Law Blog

The Ongoing Search for the Promised Land

The Ongoing Search for the Promised Land

With regard to the European migrant and refugee crisis a distinction is made between real refugees and economic migrants. In this blog I want to invalidate some negative thinking about the economic migrants. Before we fall into the trap of degrading them to mere ‘fortune seekers’ (gelukszoekers, as the Dutch politician Geert Wilders has called them) and even possibly criminalising them in this way, we should realise that Western culture itself has been responsible for spreading the idea of fortune seeking across the globe.

Searching for a better world

Myth has played a central role in inspiring this fortune seeking. Within Western culture there has always been a restless element, a quite widespread sense that there was something essential missing in life – a vague awareness of a lost Golden Age which according to myth once existed or of a Paradise Lost, perhaps containing ancestral memories of our distant past as relatively egalitarian and affluent hunter-gatherers. Yet there has also been the conviction that this Earthly Paradise was not fully lost at all and still continued to exist somewhere on the planet, in the west, beyond the horizon.

Celtic and Christian tales

In the Middle Ages many variations of tales about adventurous and magical sea journeys circulated in all Western European countries. Famous in this respect is the story of the voyage of Saint Brendan , who on a journey across the Atlantic (with his fellow monks) discovered all kinds of wonderful islands, representatives of the Land of Youth or the Land of Promise. In this medieval Irish tale a tradition of pre-Christian Celtic origin, of the so-called immrama, was continued. Of course the Biblical story of Moses’ journey to the Promised Land was also well-known at the time.

Discoverers and dreamers

These tales about wonderful sea journeys have been a big inspiration to European adventurers like Columbus and subsequent ‘discoverers’. Of course they and the colonists who came after them didn’t find their Promised Land in the ‘New World’ among the Native American tribes – because, after all, it was an imaginary place – and had to travel further west on a ‘manifest destiny’. Later still, when the ultimate west of America had been reached, the search was gradually transformed vertically into the American Dream – the dream of a life of unlimited opportunities open to everyone, which could be realised by climbing a ladder and joining the financial rich at the top.  

The urge to leave everything behind

The search for the Promised Land has never stopped holding Western people in its spell, and even lives on today. On Dutch television, for instance, there is a series called Ik vertrek (‘I’m  Leaving’), that has been popular for many years. It focuses on people who are dissatisfied with their life in the Netherlands, and want to start a new life abroad. Usually they are quite well off, with good secure jobs, living in a nice house and nice area. Yet they still feel they are missing something and are dreaming of a better, happier existence elsewhere.  

Welcome back to the real world

This ‘elsewhere’ is usually a place they have spent one or more successful holidays. Like Saint Brendan centuries earlier, on these holidays they have seen glimpses of a more meaningful and connected life, and understandably want to enjoy it permanently by settling there. But their dream of a peaceful, enjoyable time without the burden of stress usually fades quickly when it turns out that the long working hours to build their new business, learning the foreign language and adapting to the foreign ways give them even more stress. Often it becomes a rather disappointing experience.

Journeys towards disappointment

I am aware that the Dutch searching for a better life elsewhere in one important aspect is very different from the economic migrants fleeing to Europe: the restless Dutch are financially well off and the migrants who make the often dangerous journey across the Mediterranean have next to nothing. Yet, there is also an important similarity. Even with all the information they have received – through the Internet, social media, etc. – about the country they want to settle in, both are still searching for an imaginary land, a place that does not really exist anywhere on this planet. So it is not so strange that the confrontation with the real world can easily turn into a big disappointment, with all kinds of consequences that cannot be foreseen.  

We are all in the same boat

I am not saying that people should not travel to other countries to start a new life. But I think we should not forget there is always a powerful imaginary dimension behind our longing for a better, more fortunate life elsewhere. The fact that both Western people and the economic migrants share this longing is an important message. It tells us that we are, as they say, all in the same boat – which makes the us-versus-them thinking quite pointless. But it also tells us that the Promised Land will remain forever hidden beyond the horizon. Perhaps we have all been fooling ourselves by searching in the wrong place…

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