Monday, October 25, 2010

My 'date' with Angela Merkel: let's see how multiculturalism hasn't failed

Far-right politicians may soon need to padlock their wardrobes. Should present trends continue they could find that all their clothes have been stolen by “mainstream” parties.

The xenophobic tone of recent rhetoric from two of Europe’s most powerful leaders is frightening to anyone with a rudimentary grasp of this continent’s history. First, Nicolas Sarkozy engaged in the worst kind of populism when he announced an onslaught on the Roma. Sarkozy’s efforts to criminalise an entire ethnic group proved that he is not averse to stoking the flames of racism in order to appear tougher than the Front National (at a time when a successor to Jean-Marie Le Pen is being chosen).

Unlike Sarkozy, Angela Merkel does not appear to face a significant electoral challenge from Nazi admirers. But this hasn’t stopped her from directing insults against Muslims that would be considered taboo if aimed at followers of any other religion. During the first week of October, the chancellor told Muslims they must accept that “our culture is based on Christian and Jewish values”. Later in the month, she went further by declaring multiculturalism to have “utterly failed”.

Whether intentionally or not, Merkel has thrown down the gauntlet to the left. There is an onus on everyone who regards himself or herself as egalitarian to counter her bigotry. I’m not advocating that we respond with a misty-eyed “United Colours of Benetton” view of diversity but that we shatter the myths she is so busy propagating.

Myth number one: multiculturalism has failed. Yes, it is easy to find districts in many cities and towns where there is tension between different ethnic groups. But there are even more cases where a minority has enriched a city by creating an ambience that is vibrant and exciting. If Merkel doesn’t believe me, I’ll gladly take her for a drink in MatongĂ©, the African quarter of Brussels, when she jets in for this week’s EU summit.

Myth number two: migration is “illegal”. In a just world, it would be unnecessary to travel outside one’s own home country to make a decent living. The world we have today is far from just – not least because European governments are committed to defending an economic system that widens global inequalities. As long as this system remains, the poor will have little choice than to migrate. There is nothing criminal about this.

Myth number three: Europe is “overrun” by asylum-seekers. Data compiled by the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, indicate that there were 377,000 applications for asylum filed in industrialised countries last year, around the same number as 2008. It is telling that the top countries of origin for asylum-seekers were Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries occupied by the US and its European allies. If we want fewer asylum-seekers, let’s have fewer wars.

Myth number four: Europe is based on Christian and Jewish values. As Muslims have lived in Western Europe since the eighth century, those who try to airbrush Islam out of our history have concocted an intellectual fraud. Europe equally has long had millions of atheists and agnostics. So how can its values be the property of just one or two religions?

I began by noting that the far-right is setting an agenda that more “moderate” parties feel obliged to follow. This does not mean that I predict the far-right will vanish once its repugnant policies are implemented. The strong performance of extremists in recent parliamentary elections in Sweden and the Netherlands shows how adept they are at tapping into the disillusionment that is widespread in these dangerous times.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has linked the rising popularity of far-right firebrands to what he calls “the withdrawal of leftist politics”. Speaking on the excellent American TV programme Democracy Now! last week, he said: “It is as if the left, being obsessed by the idea that we shouldn’t appear as reactionary in the economic sense, that is to say that ‘No, we are not the old trade union representatives of the working class, we are for postmodern digital capitalism’, they don’t want to touch the working class or so-called lower ordinary people. And here right-wingers enter. The horrible paradox is that, apart from some small leftist fringe parties, the only serious political force in Europe today which still is ready to appeal to the ordinary working people are the right-wing anti-immigrants?”

Separately, Zizek has warned that the future of European politics is likely to be dominated by figures like Silvio Berlusconi, a man who has thought nothing about forming a grubby alliance with largely unreconstructed fascists. This warning should rouse all of us on the left from our slumber. Running Europe is too important a business to be left to charlatans such as Berlusconi.

There is no magic formula for how the left can reclaim the ground lost to the far-right. Doing so will take organisation, determination and perspiration. Clearly, we should address the grievances that often lead otherwise decent people to vote for fascist scumbags. But we should never pander to the far-right. Our dedication to justice is not something to feel embarrassed about.

Another important message is that the alternative to multiculturalism isn’t much fun. I should know – the part of Ireland where I grew up was almost exclusively white. My country is an economic disaster zone but immigration has made it a far sexier place than it used to be. Thank God.

·First published by New Europe (, 24-30 October 2010

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