Virulent anti-Semites flourished in Austria-Hungary, Germany and France as the 19th century ended, while lynchings of blacks by white mobs in the United States became more common. The United States in the 1880s had pioneered racialized immigration policy, passing laws aimed at keeping Asians out. The Jim Crow laws that institutionalized segregation in the 1890s were accompanied by a mass hysteria in the United States against immigrants. Fears of degeneration haunted even powerful white men like Theodore Roosevelt. In 1905, amid widespread paranoia about the Yellow Peril, he warned of “race suicide,” exhorting white people to strengthen themselves against their rising nonwhite rivals.
History repeats itself as unfunny farce when, a century after Roosevelt, another macho president amplifies white fears of losing out in the struggle for existence. “The fundamental question of our time,” Donald J. Trump asserted in Warsaw in July, “is whether the West has the will to survive.” Indeed, the fear of decline has intensified as globalization appears to enfeeble once mighty Western nation-states while empowering those previously stigmatized as the Yellow Peril. As in the late 19th century, demagogues displace the anxieties of powerless people onto a clearly identifiable social group: immigrants or refugees. The mechanism of scapegoating — catalyzing mass disaffection and providing it with a simple culprit — has gone into overdrive in Europe and America as crisis besets the second phase of globalization.
In his surprisingly literate screed, the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik called his country the “most suicidal” in Europe for accommodating nonwhite minorities. The first sentence of Douglas Murray’s book, a handy digest of far-right clichés, claims that all of Europe “is committing suicide.” Like his numerous precursors, ranging from Max Nordau, the author of the popular “Degeneration” (1892), to Breivik, Murray goes on to depict Europeans as culturally and spiritually debauched. Evidently, they are not only helpless before the hordes of virile foreigners rampaging through their continent, but also keenly complicit in their own destruction.
“Only modern Europeans,” Murray writes, “are happy to be self-loathing in an international marketplace of sadists.” It is never quite clear which European masochists Murray, an associate editor of The Spectator in Britain, is talking about. A majority of his own countrymen, as a recent poll revealed, are proud of their former empire, and one might even argue that a xenophobic fantasy to regain imperial glory and power fueled Britain’s decision to leave the European Union last year. What is more, Murray does not seem wholly relieved, like most of us, that the vast majority of Germans regret their country’s Nazi past, and are determined not to repeat it. He offers a stalwart defense of the thuggish outfit Pegida (People Against the Islamization of the Occident/West) against criticism by German politicians and journalists; he claims that the English Defence League (a gang of hooligans shunned by its own founders for its “far-right extremism”) “had a point.” More disturbingly, he rates Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, a self-declared fan of authoritarian democracy, as a better sentinel of “European values” than George Soros.
Needless to say, Murray’s threnody for Europe is as fundamentally incoherent as its late-19th-century originals. It never strikes him, or other secondhand vendors of fixed and singular identities, that nowhere in the world have individuals been the exclusive heirs of a single culture or civilization. Europe as well as America has been a melting pot of diverse influences: Persian, Arab and Chinese, in addition to Greek, Roman, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon. As the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore, a horrified witness to Europe’s suicidal nationalism in the early 20th century, once wrote: “In human beings differences are not like the physical barriers of mountains, fixed forever — they are fluid with life’s flow, they are changing their courses and their shapes and their volumes,” in what is a “world-game of infinite permutations and combinations.”
Murray’s retro claims of ethnic-religious community, and fears of contamination, call for close analysis. Their toxic effects, which have been amply verified by history, make it imperative to explore the deeper sources of contemporary anxieties: political, social and economic upheavals. And this is what Rita Chin’s book does, synthesizing the endless debates over multiculturalism into a vivid picture of postwar Europe. Lucidly written and resourcefully argued, it is a superb example of a scholarly intervention in a public debate dominated by unexamined prejudice.
Chin’s parents were ethnic Chinese forced to leave Malaysia after the end of British rule and to move through many “different cultural worlds as students, employees, colleagues, neighbors, friends and in-laws.” She wishes her reader to understand the multiple and perennially shifting identities of immigrants “in a world where much of the political discourse is quick to demonize them as groups.” Accordingly, she declines to accept identities — British, German or European — as unalterable essences. Rather, she explores the specific ideas that many in post-1945 British, French, Dutch and German societies have used to clarify their identity; and she never ceases to historicize what to a tub-thumper like Murray seems self-evident.
The very notion of Europe, for instance, began to emerge out of European encounters with Muslim populations during the Crusades. European self-consciousness was then sharply demarcated in remote trading posts and colonies vis-à-vis subjugated and supposedly racially inferior peoples. But, as Chin writes, the “reversal of migratory patterns” after World War II “shifted the process of European self-definition in a dramatic way”: “Instead of Europeans moving outward into the world as they had done for hundreds of years, people from around the world began to settle in Europe, filling the demand for labor created by wartime destruction.”
For Chin, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, this is the crux of the problem: “In the past, groups perceived as incompatible with European identity were usually located beyond European borders. But now they are firmly established within Europe itself.” In the 19th century, nation-states premised on homogeneous populations needed foreign lands and resources in order to expand; and they had the brute power necessary to enforce hierarchies of race, class and education that kept the “natives” in their place. This supremacy has been progressively weakened, first by the urgencies of postwar reconstruction, then by the accelerated flows of technologies, goods and capital in recent decades of globalization.
Chin pays little attention to the socioeconomic traumas that have led to an acute obsession with immigration: deindustrialization, the shrinking of the welfare state, the fragmentation of working classes and the rise of extreme inequality. Nor does she go into a pre-1945 history of immigration in Europe, and the projection of internal problems on to various “outsiders” — Jewish, Italian, Portuguese, Irish, Polish. But she is consistently acute on how European elites since 1945 have reacted to the darker-skinned strangers in their midst, ignoring, misrepresenting and marginalizing them at first, and then turning them into a problem, often broadly identified as “multiculturalism.”
Multiculturalism, in Chin’s account, appears largely to be a problem for people who have long been accustomed to an identity built on domination and exclusion, and are panicked by its slow crumbling. Certainly, immigration was not a problem foisted on Europe from the outside; the fates of Europeans and non-Europeans were inextricably connected in the 19th century by conquest, colonization and trade. Yet historical amnesia played an outsize role in dealing with nonwhite workers who were never expected to stay in Europe, let alone integrate or assimilate. Chin describes how people from the Caribbean who began to arrive in Britain after 1948, for instance, were seen as “colored immigrants” when in fact they were British citizens. An unreconstructed racism (exemplified by the commonplace sign “no dogs, no blacks, no Irish”) remained for many years the appalling fate of people who had shaped, like millions of toiling workers and peasants in the imperial provinces, the privileged destiny of the rich in the metropolitan center.
A backlash against multiculturalism began to gather force after the economic crises of the 1970s. The controversy over Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” accelerated it. Black people had long been seen as culturally predisposed to crime and hooliganism. But after the Ayatollah Khomeini, wrongly identified by the uninformed as the sole representative of more than one billion Muslims, issued his fatwa against Rushdie, Islam began to seem incompatible with “Western values” too. Diversity has come to seem unworkable to many as the unequal world made by imperialism unravels, and Europe suffers terrorist attacks, economic crises and huge influxes of refugees from the countries it once brusquely made and remade in Asia and Africa. Chin vigorously tackles the “shared presumption,” recklessly echoed by even mainstream politicians in Britain, France and Germany, that multiculturalism is a failure. “Declaring multiculturalism ‘dead,’” Chin argues, “is a way of white Britons, Germans and French telling immigrants, ‘We don’t recognize you; you aren’t a part of our society.’”
Surely, the many populations that now exist in every part of Europe cannot be homogenized, except through the savage ethnic cleansing practiced in almost every European country in the first half of the 20th century. In any case, as Chin asks, “what exactly do Europeans imagine as a replacement for multiculturalism? How will they come to terms with multiethnic diversity moving forward?” Chin offers no simple answers, but her questions have never seemed more urgent as Europeans (and Americans) seem to move forward to their grim past.