By Scott Dalby Europe is changing. Political debate and policy initiatives have become fixated on issues like immigration and Islam in particular and more generally on excluding outsiders, whether they are Black youth in Paris suburbs, Roma immigrants, or Eastern European workers. There has been a clear shift towards the political Right, and the popularization of conservative discourses and “solutions.”
This seems to have exposed a crisis within Left politics, its authenticity and potential for offering an alternative argument to the growing Right-wing discourses currently running amok in Europe. I write this blog as an anthropologist and as a person who knows that these ongoing changes affect us all. And it seems to me that these are bad times for Europe; for minorities especially but also the rest. But why has this happened and what are the consequences?
The U.S “War on Terror” in the aftermath of 9/11 has had a dramatic impact upon European politics and identity. The power and reach of the U.S. campaign; the discourses it employed, the European governments it assimilated and the wars it instigated, has seemingly tapped into European concerns over security but also a crisis in national identity and rights. I am referring here to those identities which have been compressed, packaged and invested with divine authenticity by our respective national governments concerning what it means to be ‘Dutch’, ‘French’ or ‘German’. These are national identities firmly rooted in territory, constructed and circulated through new media and addressed to an emerging mass number of valued voters being molded into a nation. Perhaps inescapably, we were also invited to practice these identities and seduced by the comfort they provided or promised. We came to believe them.
The discourses and projects of national identity and nation-building have relied on and indoctrinated in us a widespread fear of the external and internal Other. This can be traced back to the cold war and the forms of inter-European stereotypes and conflicts that both preceded and followed it. Europeans have long held fears and hatred against an external Other; whether it was the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians, whoever. There were internal enemies also, the Jews for example, the campaigns against whom lead to some of Europe’s worst acts of atrocity.
In post-cold war Europe we have now found new enemies both outside (North Korea, Iran, Iraq) but increasingly inside, bleeding the boundary of nation and threatening our identities. I am referring to the immigrants, Muslim women, the Roma, etc. and how the political elites of European countries like France and Holland have labeled and used them. As philosophers like Slavoj Žižek have suggested they have become the ‘Barbaric Other’, the deviants who are blamed for all that is wrong with society and therefore should be denied the rights that ‘we’ deserve more than ‘them’.
Such forms of discursive politics are now running amok in the political sphere. They exclude the ‘Barbarians’ and simultaneously include and form a valued public of voters who are summoned to express opinion as if they were self-evident and the only authentic ways of being in the world. Where are those Habermasian and utopian spaces for the equal expression of opinions and for dialogue? Where all people express, share and are challenged on views without falling back on essentialist discourses and identities treated as natural and indisputable truths. Often current discourses of political expressions are not being challenged and, worse still, they are being framed and legitimized as “freedom” of expression. This freedom of expression comes at a cost of other people’s freedoms. Is this really what we want “freedom” to be used for in Europe?
What are the consequences? Whether unconsciously or consciously to appeal for more votes, there has been a re-establishment of essentialist conceptions of national identity and belonging through racism and prejudice against minorities. European societies are also politically divided and this distracts attention away from national and international issues that matter and affect all of us. What about widespread cut-backs in spending on education, health care and pensions? What about a response to genocide in Sudan, the persecution of Falun Gong, global warming, etc.? They will be passed as necessary or ignored and therefore continue, with little hope for widespread change.
What is the answer then? More restrictions and integration policies cloaked in essentialist and civilizing discourses? Ban the burqa across the whole of Europe? Round up more of the Roma and send them back to where they ‘originally’ came from? How about a new left political movement which can address and re-balance these right-wing discourses that run amok and divide our societies? Or more protests by more people against our governments who use racist campaigns against minority groups as a means of competing for voters? Setting up and joining more facebook groups? It’s hard to say what should happen and what could be done. There are many people trying, one way or another, I know, and what I have to say here isn’t anything new.
Perhaps freely and honestly expressing our opinions and fears is actually a good starting point. But this would need to be met with recognition that, right or wrong, such opinions and fears are not ‘natural’ and do not define who we are to the core. We must acknowledge that what we often think, say and express is in actual fact a result of national projects and discourses which do not always match the changing world we are subjected to. Its time to be realistic, modest and accept we often simply reproduce the discourses of others without knowing for sure. I also don’t know. I have no idea what it’s like to be an aging Dutch national and to have witnessed social and cultural change in Holland. Nor have I ever experienced being a Muslim or covering my body with a burqa as an act of piety to Allah.
Instead I write as an anthropologist who cannot help but be suspicious of the political elites and the forms of media and discourse they utilize. My point is that media, and I mean media in a broad sense as including meta-discourses like ‘integration’ or even the words we utter, as well as their mediation through TV, newspapers and the like, are now everywhere and we are dependent on and even imprisoned by them. Although they enable communication, they are not neutral and they have tainted histories which continue to work in the formation of our identities and opinions. They often work to distance us from, and numb us to, ‘people’.
If only the emerging Right-wing mass of voters could meet those minority groups face to face and try harder to understand them not as images and discourses, and as everything that is said to be wrong with society, but with respect and modesty. If this utopian fantasy could happen (it won’t, but let me imagine for a minute longer) then maybe we would all read newspapers and watch TV more critically and listen to and engage with one another in a more reflexive way. We might also develop new media, new discourses, to create new possibilities which aim for a higher egalitarian standard. We might understand difference better or realize the common things we desire for our societies and then take these to our governments and ask them also to change.
Scott Dalby is a PhD student at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of VU University Amsterdam. His research focus is on Falun Gong practitioners.