Last week at Gatwick airport, after asking me several apparently random questions presumably intended to trip me up, the official wagged my passport at me frustratedly. I knew what he wanted to ask but couldn’t: Damn it, who are you? These poor foot-soldiers in the war of the borders are required, whilst maintaining a calm and polite facade, to bully border-crossers in the hope of finding someone with nefarious purposes. I’m so accustomed to it that I scarcely notice, at the same time I’m aware that, if they want, they can keep me out, so it is always a moment of heightened attention lived in a zone of border thinking.
My Purpose was given as visiting friends, so he’d asked What nationality are your friends? Lots of different nationalities, I said. Oh, so you’re visiting more than one friend? You see why I call these questions random, and they also border on ethnic profiling, but never mind. They are probably sent lists of Annoying Questions of the Week. They hadn’t gotten him anywhere in his quest, anyway, which is why he flapped the passport at me and asked What do you do, anyway? I write, I replied. Now we were back on a more well-trodden track but still with stumbling-points. Have I read anything you’ve written? he challenged. I said I had no idea and and doubted it, but of course while he is having a hard go of figuring out who I am I haven’t a clue about him. Maybe he’s a No-Borders activist in his time off. Finally he gave up and waved me through.
Yesterday I was interviewed by a London politician on my views and proposals relating to trafficking. At one point I was explaining how underground economies mostly tootle along without disturbing anyone, replete with opportunism and abuse but flexible and tending to solve problems internally. To illustrate, I mentioned an incident during my own five years of illegal status (not in the UK). Who are you? I could almost hear him think. At another point I referred to my own experience of being oppressed by the work-permit system, where leaving a job one has a permit for means instant expiration of one’s legal status in the country. He has been told about the live-in maids who cannot leave because their passports are stamped for that single specific employment, even if they are being abused. To find out that supposedly ‘highly-skilled’ permits are just the same and that a researcher might feel abused and want to quit the job but stay and find another had never occurred to him. These are the nuts-and-bolts workings of a dysfunctional migration system, and they are rarely addressed in the abstract debating that goes on about migrants.
At one point, attempting to pin me down, he said, Philosophically you could be called a libertarian -and I cut him off right there. No, I said, I am not a libertarian, I rarely talk about rights and freedoms. I also am not a neoliberal proponent of the happiness of making money in a free marketplace. What I am is a believer in human agency. I believe that disadvantaged persons with limited options of how to proceed in life have, until they are actually put in chains, some space to move, negotiate, prefer one option to another. This position hardly seems philosophical to me, and I am not going to get credit for inventing a new theory with it. Yet time and again it turns conversations upside down.
Similarly, I handle the endlessly tedious conversation about whether selling sex can ever ‘be work’ like this: If one person tells me they experience it as rape and exploitation, I believe them. If another person tells me they experience it as a profession, I believe them. The other day sex workers in Santo Domingo, faced with a government proposing to criminalise their clients, reminded the state attorney that muchas de ellas mantienen a sus familias de este trabajo – many of them maintain their families with this work. (You’d think that would be punto final, wouldn’t you, especially in a poor country where any jobs at all are scarce – but it never is). Why this difference of perception and emotion should lead to such a hullaballoo is really beyond explanation.
Maybe these views make me a philosopher of the cracker barrel, doling out obvious common sense. But the politician explained his grimaces of embarrassed delight: You say things that occur to me in the back of my mind but I tell myself I must not allow them. Because they are taboo? I replied. Or, what do you think, because they are outside the box, revolutionary or downright criminal? Which lines are being crossed, exactly, with this naked talk?
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist