About two weeks ago in Dresden, a speaker at a rally for the new far right movement PEGIDA lamented, with regard to Germany’s growing Muslim population, that “the concentration camps are unfortunately out of action at the moment.” I would love to say I was shocked to find that this was met with applause by an audience of 20,000 Germans in the year 2015, but I wasn’t.
I toured Germany last month with my band Azar Swan, the lead singer of which is a female Afghan Muslim, and in Dresden I caught a glimpse of Europe’s new xenophobic awakening, what I sometimes call the “Not A Nazi, But…” movement. At the same time I was reading headlines from the U.S., where Donald Trump was describing supporters who had attacked a homeless Mexican man as “passionate.” After several weeks of seeing firsthand how the refugee crisis was being handled by some in Germany and seeing how Republicans in the U.S. were stoking anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments, a picture emerged of a new kind of bigotry that I think is worth trying to sketch out. It’s a uniquely postmodern form of prejudice, one which lacks self-awareness, which plays fast and loose with language, and which thrives in a climate of cherry-picked history and facts.
On the day I left for Germany, the Ahmed Mohamed clock incident was in full viral bloom. I had spent a large part of that afternoon arguing with someone on Facebook who was explaining to me that “they” want to destroy secularism and turn everyone in Europe into a sharia-abiding Muslim. I am a strident secularist, one who has criticized the term “Islamophobia” and who stood in solidarity with the slaughtered cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo while many in the West were calling them “racists,” but nevertheless I found this kind of talk troubling. I believe that Islamism is a real threat, but what lurked beneath that appeal to my secular values was a recurrent “they” which referenced all Muslims, not specifically Islamists or jihadists. A reference to a people, not an ideology; one which was designed to associate any Muslims with violent terrorism.
That conversation served as the perfect preface to what I was to encounter in Dresden days later, not just because of the “Fear Of A Muslim Nation” ranting, but because of how eager this person was to window-dress these “arguments” in adamant claims that they were in no way prejudiced or racist. This is the first and perhaps most important and common feature of the new bigotry. It either does not believe it is what it is, or it purposefully obfuscates its true intentions.
There’s no need to decide which it actually is because it is both. Some of these people are genuine old-school hate-mongers, but many more are deluded about the implications of the policies they’re supporting—whether the thousands who demonstrated in Dresden or the Americans who find it unproblematic that the leading Republican candidate is open to shutting down mosques. Like an alcoholic who doesn’t believe he’s an alcoholic because he doesn’t wake up and brush his teeth with vodka, a great many on the new right downplay the shades of bigotry which infect their politics by referencing a more overt, more demonic iteration from the past with which we’re familiar.
PEGIDA members are not openly advocating for a Final Solution, therefore they are not Nazis, merely citizens concerned with the preservation of German culture. The American far right is not hanging blacks from trees, therefore its activists are not racists, merely defenders of the Constitution. There is truth in these claims that these are not like the organized hate movements of the 20th century, but it is truth which is used to perpetuate self-deceit and misrepresentation. Twenty-first-century bigotry is still bigotry. A prejudiced claim can be objectively prejudiced while the person making it remains unaware of its prejudice.
It would take a separate article to explore the reasons this kind of delusional lack of self-awareness has taken hold on a global scale. It was a popular on the left in the ’80s and ’90s to decry the manufacture of consent by the corporate media, and the Internet has definitely played a role in making it harder to control the boundaries of conversation. But nobody should have expected only progressive forces to find new life in online space. Reactionary ideas have benefited both from the new platforms for information but also from the way people now treat information.
Plenty of books have been written about the filtering out of conflicting viewpoints (Democracy 2.0 by Cass Sustein) and the disappearance of intellectual and factual rigor in the bloggified world of Internet politicking (Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen, True Enough by Farhad Manjoo). Even David Frum’s short book Why Romney Lost had much to say about a conservative media bubble which had created its own reality and its own facts. This is the fertile soil from which the new far right has sprung. PEGIDA has revived the Nazi-era term Leugenpresse (German for “liar press”) which is barely distinguishable from the distrust that radical American conservatives harbor towards “the mainstream media.”
In the ’80s and ’90s, postmodern and poststructuralist philosophers chiseled away at the notion that objective truth was possible or desirable. In the 2000s, technology picked up where academia left off. There is a long list of issues which have grown popular despite facts to the contrary; from vaccine skepticism to the denial of human-caused climate change. Each of these are now presented in the language of counterculture. People who believe vaccines cause autism believe they are “thinking outside the box” and “aren’t fooled by scientists who are all in the pockets of corporations.” Replace “vaccines cause autism” with “humans don’t cause climate change” and you’ve got yet another.
Something similar is true of the PEGIDAs and American Freedom Defense Initiatives of the world. In Germany, where the new right claims that refugees will be a drain on the welfare system and that Muslims are “taking over,” statistics are available regarding the amount of money that immigrants pump into the German welfare system yearly, as well as what percentage of Germans are Muslim. Muslims account for roughly 5 percent of the German population, and about 4.7 million foreigners pay into the German pension fund yearly as they contribute $20 billion to the German GDP.
A worthwhile analogy is what has been rather brilliantly illustrated by Peter Pomerantsev as Russia’s “postmodern dictatorship.” The appearances of Russia submitting to a democratic process are highly stage-managed. The Kremlin runs propaganda targeted to the West via media sites like Russia Today (RT), which believes any story will do so long as it undermines the case for the legitimacy of the West and especially the United States. Putinism doesn’t look like Stalinism, and there are no 21st century Gulags. But these are precisely the “improvements” which uphold the new authoritarian system.
Likewise, with the rising far right in America and Europe, the fact that it’s not as bad as it used to be allows it to be as bad as it is.
The rise of identity politics into the mainstream has also served these new movements well. The increasing tendency to judge the legitimacy of a statement according to the racial, sexual, gender, or cultural identity of the person making it has provided the new right with an unexpected weapon. For instance, the person who made the remark about concentration camps in Dresden was Turkish-born writer Akif Pirincci. In neighboring Leipzig, at a demonstration for LEGIDA (the Leipzig offshoot of PEGIDA), a black African man from Cameroon named Ferdinand gave a speech explaining that he’s fine with immigration, just not the immigration of murderers, the criminals, the stupid, and the lazy.
One is reminded of Bobby Jindal’s comments about how immigrants to America should be “high-skilled” and “embrace American values.” Ben Carson’s comments also come to mind about Jews not fighting back, and about how abortion is like slavery. Certainly Carson and Jindal have both met with criticism for those remarks, but they made them in an atmosphere where broad portions of the population now believe that the perspective of a person from a minority or historically oppressed background grants that perspective an automatic weight. Put bluntly, you can get away with more public bigotry if you are yourself a minority or an immigrant, and this fact is being exploited to its fullest by those who are fomenting hostility towards immigrants and minorities.
Justifying the fear of Muslims within one's borders by alluding to ISIS is to prove one's lack of sophistication about the problem radical Islam poses to secular, liberal Western society. Islamism does not now, nor has it ever, required an influx of people into a national territory. ISIS recruits white skinned British youth in the UK over the internet. A combination of violent attacks, from the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh to the Danish embassy bombings to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, have effectively created a global de facto blasphemy law. In fact, many of Islamism's successes are notable for their transnational and borderless character. There is nothing wrong with being outraged by this.
But the quarantine or rejection of desperate people fleeing a war they didn't choose is not going to change anything on this front. It is, and has been since 9/11, an ideological war, a challenge to the West to prove its commitment to liberalism and liberal principles. PEGIDA in Germany and Pamela Geller and Donald Trump in the U.S. are not promoting liberalism, secularism or human rights. They are promoting a retreat from liberalism to a form of cowardice even more revolting than the fear of cartooning Muhammad. It may not look exactly like the xenophobia of the 20th century, but that is its perverse power.
And, in a move just as perverse, PEGIDA and Donald Trump have done us all a favor with their remarks about concentration camps and closing mosques. They have shown that the postmodern far right doesn't need to look just the same as the old far right to be hateful. Some of them may lack self-awareness, others may be purposefully dishonest about their beliefs, but no matter how sanitized, this is the face of the far right in the 21st century.
This past weekend, Syrian refugees in Germany encountered multiple violent attacks from black-clad mobs some of whom were armed with baseball bats in Saxony. Perhaps not coincidentally, Dresden is the capital of Saxony, and Leipzig is the largest city; homes to PEGIDA and LEGIDA, respectively. It's not Munich, granted. And the great majority of Germans stridently oppose PEGIDA. Things are different. But it's time that not only Europe, but everyone from Mississippi to Moscow take a lesson: the bar has been lowered to a critical point.
It is certainly true that not everyone who attends a PEGIDA rally will descend upon refugees with weapons, but the people who assault refugees attend PEGIDA rallies. Not everyone who shows up to a campaign event for Donald Trump will brutalize a homeless man, but those who do will come to a Trump campaign event. But far too many people who oppose the new xenophobic right and value tolerance believe that they should extend their empathy to these deluded-yet-decent folks. To an extent this is understandable -- after all it's not uncommon for friends and family to find themselves split along these divides. "Why argue," they wonder, "won't that just increase the tension, division and hostility? And besides, do people ever really learn from those arguments?"
They should keep in mind that the absence of argument also sends a message. Keeping quiet is rarely the best means of keeping the peace. The truly hateful have always benefitted from the cover given to them by those they deceive and those who say nothing, and history offers too many instances of people who wished they had spoken up sooner.