Recently, several Americans have been jumping off the 'anti-jihadist' bandwagon, as it veers into the reeking back-courtyards of the European nativist right. Here is Bruce Bawer, as quoted on Little Green Footballs:
Recently, Andrew Sullivan posted a link to an article about Charles Johnson, the celebrated blogger who has distanced himself from many other anti-jihadists and called them “a bunch of kooks.” Though it grieves me to say so, and though I’ve hoped that things would somehow turn around, Charles is, alas, not whistling Dixie: I can testify that in the last couple of years some significant, and lamentable, shifts have taken place on the anti-jihad front. Writers and bloggers whom, not very long ago, I would unhesitatingly have described as staunch defenders of liberal values against Islamofascist intolerance have more recently said and done things that have dismayed me, and that, in many cases, have compelled me to re-examine my view of them.
Once upon a time, these people made a point of distancing themselves from far-right European parties such as Belgium’s Vlaams Belang – whose most prominent Internet voice, Paul Belien, has declared himself to be fighting for “Judeo-Christian morality” not only against jihadist Islam but also against “secular humanism.” Belien has made no secret of his contempt for gay people and for the idea that they deserve human rights as much as anyone else. Now, however, many of the anti-jihadist writers who once firmly rejected Vlaams Belang have come to embrace it wholeheartedly. In fact, for reasons unknown to me, this regional party in one of Europe’s smallest countries appears to have become, for a number of anti-jihadist writers on both sides of the Atlantic, nothing short of a litmus test: in their eyes, it seems, if you’re not willing to genuflect to VB, you’re not a real anti-jihadist.
In a sense, this break-up was inevitable. European parties such as Vlaams Belang embody a style of politics that most Americans are likely to find foreign and distasteful.* Of course, European immigration policy leaves a lot to be desired. However, I personally would put it far from the top of the most pressing problems Europe faces. In my experience, Europeans who think poorly-integrated immigrant minorities are the most pressing issue facing Europe today and who put it at the center of their world-view (which would describe most Vlaams Belang members) often turn out to have unpleasant hidden agendas. Get a few beers into a Vlaams Belang supporter (and give them a little sympathetic feedback to convince them you're on their side), and you'll generally start hearing things that will have you saying 'check please'.
I'm not accusing everyone who's concerned about immigration of being racists or nativists — only the people whose world-view is dominated by this one concern. But in many European countries, that's 20-30% of the population, and those people have their own political parties. When Americans begin engaging with the sort of people who run Vlaams Belang and its sister parties, conflicting world-views come into play quickly. Here are a few particular points of conflict I've noticed. Note that I'm not necessarily always saying that the American world-view is the right one, just that it's likely to be very different from the nativist European's take:
- We rock because we're Flemish. Vlaams Belang, like all European nativist parties, draws most of its support from the working and lower-middle classes. Lots of these people are unemployed, or they may have boring, stressful, low-status jobs. That is, they don't have many sources from which to draw self-worth, so they tend to resort to bare ethnicity or cultural affiliation. "I'm proud to be Flemish," they'll say, and then list Flemish artists, sports heroes, or generals. The proud Flemish (or Austrian or Hungarian) nationalist may sit in some reeking bar most of the day, but by God, at least they're doing it while being Flemish. Their ancestors, after all, built this damn country, and their taxes (if they were paying any) now go to support these shiftless, lazy…you get the picture. Americans are acculturated to pride themselves on their own individual achievements. A claim for respect and recognition based on bare cultural affiliation seems cheap and lazy, and forming a political party (more or less explicitly) based on ethnic origin seems primitive and tribal.
- Ancient Historical Grudges. Talk to a European long enough, and you'll start hearing about things that happened long ago. They've got thousands of years of history, after all. The nativists tend to focus on ancient historical grudges that explain their current prejudices: 'They tried to take us over once, during the days of the Ottoman empire, and they got to the very gates of Vienna! Now they're trying to do it again!' The first instinct of most Americans is to ask who 'they' is supposed to be. All the people involved in the Battle of Vienna have been dead for 275 years. What on earth does some ancient conflict have to do with modern-day problems?
- Why are you so worked up? For every legitimate concern of the anti-immigrant crowd, there are many others which will seem overblown to a typical American.
- Islamic women may wear headscarves. So what? If that's their choice, based on their interpretation of their religion, then so be it. Perhaps some of them wear headscarves because of strong social expectation or even threats, but there's not much we can do about that without invading the family's private sphere or monitoring religious beliefs, which are two things the state should refrain from.
- They don't accept the values embodied in our Constitution or our 'social order.' First, who defines those values? There are ferocious debates on what defines 'Germany' or 'Europe' going on every single day among the majority population, and most European countries modify their Constitutions every few years. And even if you can actually agree on some consensus values, and prove that some immigrants don't share them, so what? It's not the State's business to police thoughts. As long as these misfits aren't committing any crimes, let them believe what they want. If they do commit crimes based on those beliefs, well, that's what we have a criminal justice system for. If the criminal justice system doesn't work, that's another problem.
- They commit crimes at disproportionate rates, and their children do worse in school. This is true and unfortunate, but visible minorities are outsiders in every society. And for that matter, discrimination against immigrants by the majority community is surely one cause of the social problems in immigrant communities — but parties such as Vlaams Belang are not interested in doing anything about that. To put it very mildly. And in any case, the situation is not catastrophic. The statistics for Turks in Germany or Arabs in France or Africans in Belgium don't look very different from the statistics for blacks in America. Individualistic Americans, for better or worse, have learned to live with large disparities in health and social achievement in their own society, and don't tend to think they represent a crisis.
- Honor killings! Yes, they're unsettling, and we should be trying to prevent them, where possible. And, in fact, there's alread a name for those who commit honor killings: murderers. It's not as if they're allowed to get away with it. Besides, it's likely that for every immigrant killed in an honor killing, there are probably ten German women killed by German husbands in a jealous rage. Europeans obsess over honor killings because they're driven by motives alien to mainstream European culture. But isn't drunken jealousy the more important problem, judging by sheer numbers?
Once again, the difference here is a matter of degree. It's not that the American doesn't think that these problems are problems — they clearly are. But the American is likely to see them as manageable. Americans come from a country that has integrated millions of immigrants without too much difficulty, so they tend to think any cultural misunderstandings will likely fade with time. The American is likely to find the obsessive focus on a minority of "poorly integrated" immigrants as overblown and perhaps suspicious. Once again, I'm not saying the American view is the right one. A European, for example, might claim with some justification that (1) Europe's immigrant problem is much tougher to solve than America's, and therefore worthy of all the attention it gets; and (2) Americans, ever the optimists, tend to avert their attention from the serious social problems in their own society.
* The conservative-on-conservative misunderstanding goes both ways, of course — a moderate American Republican politician would be seen as freakishly anti-government and slavishly pro-business by Tories, European Christian Democrats, and even European far-right parties, who appeal to their working-class clientele by stressing their 'social' credentials.
[Photo of Hungarian Guard members marching in Budapest in March 2009, from here (g)]