Racism is a grey area

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

This book is an exercise in crying wolf that utterly fails to prove its main thesis: that Europe is abandoning its core liberal values under threat from a resurgent populist right. It is a largely fact-free polemic that passes itself off as an open-minded work of interview reportage. Yet if you can ignore the author’s sly interventions on behalf of his left-liberal premises, he does introduce the reader to a fascinating cast of characters, mainly from the European populist right.

And, at least for someone (like me) who is predisposed to an interest in the subject, he also provides real insight into the internal debates about immigration and national identity, above all in France, the Netherlands and Denmark, that you could never glean from reading the newspapers in the English-speaking world.

There is also an original and unexpected chapter on a subject that seldom breaks cover: the violent hostility to mass immigration in South Africa, which in 2009 received 340,000 asylum claims, many from an imploding Zimbabwe. Rather as the white working class in east London felt dismayed when they unexpectedly had to share their hard-won welfare state with arriving waves of Bangladeshis in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the black working class of South Africa has been reluctant to share its new-won freedom with often better educated black incomers.

Interview-based reportage is not an effective form when the author knows what he wants you to think. The characters are rarely allowed to speak for themselves, but rather are shuffled around to make a point and, in this book, also tend to reappear several times, often rather confusingly, in chapters that are not clearly delineated by theme or country.

But one or two characters do break free. There is Eric Zemmour, an observant French Jew who defends the Vichy regime; or Thierry Baudet, the Dutch philosopher of self-hatred, who thinks Europe will end up looking like Israel; or Julien Rochedy, a former Front National youth leader, who complains about the party’s nostalgia and explains why it appeals more to the young than the old; or the CDU politician Philipp Lengsfeld discussing the German saviour complex.

With some commendable foot-in-the-door journalism, the author also tracks down the 92-year-old Jean Raspail, author of the cult racist fantasy The Camp of the Saints, about the invasion of Europe by impoverished Indians, who declares Michel Houellebecq to be his literary heir.

Sasha Polakaw-Suransky never spells out his own views clearly but argues that liberal democracy is dropping the liberal and becoming a form of mob rule, thanks to new populists who, once their ‘progressive garb’ is stripped away, are not really very different from the old 1930s variety.

I was waiting for the chapter in which he might provide some evidence, but it never arrived. Rather, he comes up with just two examples: the Dutch law stripping dual nationals of their citizenship if they are deemed a security risk; and the ridiculous banning of burkinis in some French cities (a decision later overturned by the courts).

What is actually remarkable is how little the populist surge has changed politics in Europe. In the past 20 years, during which many countries have had populists in governing coalitions, there has been no erosion of minority rights, no reversal of mass immigration or European integration. The two countries that have been flirting with authoritarianism, Poland and Hungary, do not get a mention.

The author probes the issue of minority acceptance in France, the Netherlands and Denmark and details plenty of raw nativism. But we are left with little sense of the scale of rejection, and he has scant interest in opinion surveys. In this country only a little more than 10 per cent of the population say you have to be white to be truly British. Is that figure much higher in France?

There is a missed opportunity here to delineate legitimate from illegitimate populism. The most obvious dividing line is racism. But how is that defined? Those who do not accept the non-indigenous as citizens are obviously on the wrong side of the line. But what about those who prefer to live and mix among people like themselves but feel no supremacism or racism towards others? Such people will generally oppose mass immigration and will feel discomforted by rapid ethnic change. Is that discomfort legitimate or not? Can there be cultural rather than purely economic reasons for opposing mass immigration?

The author never tells us, and instead triangulates between the racists and the extreme liberals who want open immigration. But his own often hectoring tone excludes the grey areas in which most people live. Muslims are always hated. Public debate in the Netherlands has branded all Muslims a threat. All FN voters want racial purity. Denmark rejects anything foreign.

In his attempt to unmask the new European populists he has instead revealed why left liberalism has been in such headlong retreat on these issues.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments