Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Alien's Guide to Xenophobia

Are you looking for a trusty handbook to steer you through the thorny ethical and political dilemmas raised by the immigration crises raging across the Western world? Look no further.  The appropriately titled 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien tells you everything you need to know.

The demographics and attitudes of the ill-fated Nostromo crew are not unlike the West prior to the immigration explosion of the post-boomer era:  a pair of working-class guys, one white and one black, in the engine room, a middle class of WASPy American officers and a snobby semi-aristocratic Brit on the periphery. Though they share a camaraderie born of long isolation in each other’s company, this sense of kinship does not extend beyond their own hull and certainly not to newcomer Ash, the cold, aloof Science Officer. When the ship’s computer interrupts their blissful hypersleep with a command to respond to an alien distress signal, they grumble and whine at the imposition. Only a begrudging respect for company policy and the threat of withheld money forestalls a mutiny. While this curmudgeonly behavior might strike some as selfish and unenlightened, the events that follow vindicate it as common sense.
Unfortunately such stubborn independence and self-interested caution is in short supply when the Nostromo advance team embarks for a derelict alien vessel. Dismissing the sensible fears of navigator Lambert as she pleads with them to cut the mission short, cowboy Captain Dallas and his adventure-hungry officer Kane plunge ever deeper into the ship’s heart of darkness, mirroring the eagerness of the West’s neoconservative lobby to extend a Middle Eastern anti-terrorism mission into an exercise in kingmaking and nation building. (Ironically, Kane’s recklessness brings him face-to-face-hugger with just the type of WMD stockpile that we went into Iraq to find).

The results of these misadventures are horrifying. The domino-style toppling of stable, if evil, dictatorships in Iraq, Libya and most of Syria have unleashed the denizens of hell on the region. Demonic ISIS and their fellow jihadists now cover the face of the Levant like the creature face-hugging the terminally curious officer Kane. Meanwhile in Mexico, where many blame the drug wars on the US outsourcing of its narcotics industry, drug cartels pioneer gruesome tactics for future use by ISIS. Still, to quote the ultimate hero-coward Don Knotts, while the horribleness and the awfulness of it will never actually be forgotten, the hellish contagion is mercifully remote. At the onset of the crisis, the stateside Westerners and the more cautious Nostromo crew enjoy a healthy distance from the alien menace, and, in the latter case, a secure border monitored by a careful watchman.

This brings us to the thorniest moral quandary posed by the crisis. While the outbreak of horror is initially remote, it doesn’t take long for its victims (and its perpetrators) to close the gap. The sympathy and empathy that rise so naturally in response to the news of distant tragedy lose much of their potency when the fallout suddenly arrives on our doorstep, angrily clamouring to be allowed inside. Instincts for self-preservation and skepticism battle with humanitarian impulses, as the West and the Nostromo crew grapple over the agonizing question: let them in and risk the sacred home turf or leave them weeping and gnashing their teeth in the outer darkness?

The responses of the members of the Nostromo crew to this quandary, and the motives and philosophies behind those responses, provide the greatest of Alien’s insights on the immigration debate. The crewmembers’ responses divide them into three basic categories (with one intriguing spin-off) which I consider to neatly match the various camps staking out positions on the present immigration and refugee questions.

The first of these groups is the Hardliners, derided as selfish and heartless by their detractors, their positions closely parallel the strict immigration restrictionists like Trump in the US and Viktor Orban in the EU. On the Nostromo, the grimly practical Ripley is the standard-bearer for this position, with sympathizers in Brett and Parker from the engine room. Ripley adheres firmly to the rule of law and her conviction that letting them in would endanger the rest of the ship. So resolute is she that she denies even the demands of her commanding officer to open the hatch and let them in. It is a tough stance to take - a potential death sentence for three shipmates, even though two aren’t even infected - but it is firmly rooted in the conservative notion that the safety of the crew already on the ship takes precedence over the demands of any outsiders.

The second group are the Bleeding Hearts. Their stance is less ideological than moral and emotional. Commander Dallas and Lambert embody this perspective. Though Dallas is normally a respecter of laws and protocols, and Lambert a cautious and sensible person in other contexts, they are so moved by the horror that has befallen Kane that they are willing to dismiss any theoretical risk to get him the immediate help he so clearly needs. In the context of the current debate, these are the sincere humanitarians who fear that a strictly conservative response to human suffering will cost us our humanity, even if it shields us from risk.

The third and final group would claim membership with the bleeding hearts, but their chest-beating appeals to emotion ring strangely hollow. These are the Company Men. They cloak their company-uber-alles agenda under a veil of arch morality. The Nostromo’s science officer Ash is the ultimate company man. It is he who makes the fateful decision to circumvent Ripley and let the Alien onboard. He claims to have acted on compassion, even allowing a charge of recklessness, but the cold rationality of his personality, the evenness of his demeanor, and the intensity of his interest in the Alien suggest entirely different motives. As it turns out, he is quite literally a company man, an android engineered to do the company’s bidding whatever the human cost. In this case, the company views the Alien as an asset and the crew as expendable.

Such synthetic bleeding hearts abound in positions of power across the Western landscape. Facing a demographic winter that could simultaneously put substantial upward pressure on future wages and reduce consumption, as well as an ornery middle class seeking more political power, the chamber of commerce class and the political class it bankrolls views mass immigration as an unmitigated good. If a few hundred suburbs have to be transformed into third world hellholes, to borrow Ann Coulter’s phrase, that’s just the cost of doing global business.  Thus, bright-eyed automatons like Angela Merkel and Barack Obama crank up the wattage on their humanitarian rhetoric as they cheerfully implant Alien embryos into the heartlands of their paralyzed constituencies.

A final variation on the Company Man type is found in increasing numbers in the West and hinted at in the character of Ash. Cognizant of his synthetic form, Ash has none of his shipmates’ instincts for self-preservation. From this standpoint he can logically view their xenophobia as close-minded and irrational, even as the Alien rips them into pieces. The real-life equivalent to this extreme detachment is seen in the example of several prominent Christian leaders, including Pope Francis and Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore. These men are not only enthusiastically pro-immigration, they seem incapable of entertaining or comprehending the fears of their followers. No amount of material or cultural devastation can sway them. From reading Russell Moore in particular, you almost get the sense that he views the potential for negative temporal consequences as a spiritual perk... A means of mortifying the flesh (at least the flesh of the unenlightened). Such men make useful allies of Company Men.

And there you have it: the complete Alien’s Guide to Xenophobia, pieced together from the scattered entrails (including a few literal bleeding hearts) of the Nostromo crew.