Wolves and immigrants: votes expose our fears

Reasonable fear is a prerequisite for survival. Analyst Daniel Warner asks how we determine what is a reasonable fear, looking at the example of upcoming Swiss votes on wolves and immigration. 

This content was published on September 14, 2020 - 11:00
Daniel Warner is a Swiss-American political scientist and former Deputy to the Director, Graduate Institute Geneva

I was once asked to give a talk on security in a town in the Swiss Alps. I began by telling how many locks I had on my door when I lived in New York.  

I told stories about how fearful it was for me to ride the subways late at night. My stories were met with quizzical looks. Most people in the town didn’t lock their houses or cars. They had no subways. Two different worlds.  

And then I mentioned their fear of wolves. What would their local newspaper – the Nouvelliste – do without a front page picture of a sighted wolf or the disemboweled carcass of a poor sheep? That they all understood. How many hours has Swiss television spent showing roaming wolf packs and viscerated livestock? 

Why were they so fascinated with wolves? Were they really afraid of them? Based on the village location, I didn’t see any possibility of a wolf straying into town. No, the wolf had become a symbol, something that was exotic and cause for fear. Something out of the ordinary had become a myth in this part of Switzerland, canton Valais, like the Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. Or even the wolf in Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonic fairy tale Peter and the Wolf where the end sounds like a duck quacking inside the wolf’s belly. 

There will be a vote in Switzerland on September 27 to accept or reject a revision of the hunting law which, in part, downgrades the wolf’s protected status.  

Also on the ballot is an item to limit immigration. According to this initiative, Swiss workers risk losing their jobs if the free movement of people treaty between the European Union (EU) and Switzerland isn’t abandoned. Is this reasonable?  

According to official statistics, the gap between the number of people who migrated to Switzerland compared to those who left the country has significantly narrowed since 2013. Last year, only 32,000 more people immigrated than emigrated. Currently, about 500,000 Swiss live in an EU country.  

As for jobs, approximately one in every five in key sectors such as health and public transport in Geneva - a very international city - is held by a foreigner. There’s an even higher percentage working at the local hospital. During the pandemic, does it make sense to handicap the facility by limiting the approximately 4,500 nurses who cross the border every day from France to come to work?  

Reasonable fear is a prerequisite for survival. But how to determine what is reasonable fear? At one point in history, Americans were afraid of a Soviet Union invasion. Much of my early New York childhood was spent listening to sirens warning of imminent attack and subsequent drills diving under our desks to prepare for that invasion. (I was later told that in Moscow schools the same exercises took place.)  

Today, President Trump plays on Americans’ fears of migrants invading from Latin America (“Build that Wall”). Trump calls protesters in the streets anarchists or, harking back to the Cold War, Communists. The Chinese Flu, according to him, brings back images from the Second World War fear of the Yellow Peril. Whether its anarchists, Communists, Blacks or Asians, Trump is playing on fear.  

We are all insecure in one way or another. We all have fears. The question is whether or not our fears are reasonable. Demagogues play on our fears. Swiss wolf stories sell newspapers and appeal to news broadcasters. Images of foreigners stealing Swiss jobs also play on fears of unemployment if not the loss of Swiss identity. And these fears can influence how we vote. 

I will try to be as reasonable as possible on September 27. I will try to control my irrational fears. I will try to ignore those who play on those fears. I will study the hunting issue with a smile, just as I did when I voted in 2018 whether farmers who leave horns on cattle should get an additional government subsidy. A smile certainly represents a more positive emotion than fear. 

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch.

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