The return of intolerance

The success of the United Kingdom Independence Party in the recent European parliamentary elections confirms a trend towards intolerant populism in a surprising number of developed democracies. (The French National Front has won support from a quarter of the electorate and the Danish People’s Party, whose platform is explicitly anti-Muslim, is currently the country’s third largest national party.) The resurgence of intolerance in Europe has also come at a time when casual racism has become a recurrent feature in the daily news: the police commissioner of a small town in New Hampshire refusing to apologize for racist epithets directed at President Obama; Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy opining that African Americans were “better off as slaves”; and Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers asking his girlfriend not to bring black friends to basketball games.

At a glance, it seems hard to reconcile the simultaneous rise of nationalist politics with the wrath visited on public figures who utter racially insensitive remarks, but the evidence suggests that most of the outrage is pure theatre. Shortly after the British television presenter Jeremy Clarkson was embarrassed by widely broadcast footage of him reciting a racist version of a nursery rhyme, the BBC renewed his 3-year $20 million contract. Likewise, much of the condemnation of Donald Sterling skirted around the fact that the NAACP had given him two awards in the recent past, even though he’d been fined by the Department of Justice for discriminatory practices as a landlord. In both cases the media preferred to stick to the narrative that racism mainly consists of inflammatory utterances made by elderly white men rather than the insidious and often unintentional marginalization of minorities by institutions like schools, housing authorities, and the police.

The reform of intolerant institutions is a much larger and nuanced task that the condemnation of insensitive speech and Europe and America’s repeated failures to achieve such reform has contributed to the rise of populist anger. A great deal of this anger has centred on immigration policies. Progressive governments have argued that open borders facilitate diversity and allow for the cheap importation of skilled labour. Conservatives, particularly those in Europe, counter that most of the skilled labour has gone elsewhere (one EU-financed think tank found that Canada and the US get 54 per cent of the world’s academically qualified immigrants). Western Europe’s exploitation of cheap immigrant labour during its postwar recovery was problematic from the start, not least because so much of it was undertaken in bad faith. Germany wanted Turkish guest workers to perform menial tasks then leave; Britain imported West Indians to fill jobs that English workers found tedious and demeaning. When both groups stayed on and began to make larger claims on their host societies it became increasingly clear how little thought had been given to the consequences of either arrangement.

In Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, a sceptical analysis of EU multiculturalism, Christopher Caldwell argues that “The economic benefits immigration brought were marginal and temporary. They now belong to the past. The social changes immigration brought, however, were massive and enduring.” For European conservatives the most provocative of these changes has usually been the rise of Islam and the argument against further immigration has often been conflated with the xenophobia associated with the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ironically, the reluctance to revisit past mistakes is also evident within the US, particularly within groups that most benefited from the exploitation of African-American labour. In a compelling argument for reparations in the US, Ta-Nehisi Coates notes that long after the formal end of slavery “a second slavery ruled” in the Deep South. Meanwhile, in the North, “legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society.” Contrasting the avoidance of these memories with the general pride derived from America’s military history, Coates writes: “To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte.”

The resurgence of intolerance in Europe and the ongoing difficulty of discussing the legacy of racial injustice in the US vividly illustrate the struggle that any country faces when it tries to come to terms with its recent history – especially when the truth about its treatment of minorities may have far-reaching political consequences. Even mature democracies struggle to contain their ethnic, religious tensions and often prefer to settle for self-serving nationalist narratives. Europe’s shifting attitudes should also remind us that multicultural societies, like our own, can easily succumb to similar mistakes if we fail to acknowledge earlier errors, and to undertake the political accommodations and reforms necessary to correct them.

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