Perhaps the clearest evidence of the decline of Western civilization is the example of those who now shout it its defense.
In the name of protecting civilization, a movement promoting racial supremacism is infecting Western consciousness with the notion that a set of values and cultural constructions is now in jeopardy when in fact our civilization’s corruption is already well advanced.
If the progress of Western civilization came about through the unfettering of the power of the people in egalitarian societies, that trend was quietly reversed as citizens became consumers. In recent decades, that decline further deepened as economic “advance” turned out to be a mask concealing expanding inequality.
In the hollow culture which this has created, beyond employing a stock of well-worn platitudes about freedom and liberty, civilization’s self-appointed protectors find it easier to spotlight purported threats than describe exactly what they are defending.
In this context we should note that American culture remains influenced by European culture more than any other and to the extent that Europe provides a cultural compass, we should be alarmed at the direction this now points. An ocean will not protect us from its influence.
Christian Science Monitor reports:
A new survey in Germany shows that 13 percent of its citizens would welcome a “Führer” — a German word for leader that is explicitly associated with Adolf Hitler — to run the country “with a firm hand.”
The findings signal that Europe’s largest nation, freed from cold-war strictures, is not immune from the extreme and often right-wing politics on the rise around the Continent.
The study, released Oct. 13 by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, affiliated with the center-left Social Democratic Party, revealed among other things that more than a third of Germans feel the country is “overrun by foreigners,” some 60 percent would “restrict the practice of Islam,” and 17 percent think Jews have “too much influence.”
The study’s overall snapshot of German society shows new forms of extremism and hate are no longer the province of far-right cohorts who shave their heads or wear leather jackets adorned with silver skulls – but register in the tweedy political center, on the right and the left. Indeed, the study found, extremism in Germany isn’t a fringe phenomenon but is found in the political center, “in all social groups and in all age groups, regardless of employment status, educational level or gender.”
The year 2010 is marking a clear shift toward extremist politics across Europe, analysts say. An uncertain economy, a gap between elites and ordinary Europeans, and fraying of a traditional sense of national identity has just in the past month brought more hard-line politics and speech, often aimed at Islam or immigrants – into a political mainstream where it had been absent or considered taboo.
On Oct. 10, the city of Vienna, a cosmopolitan and socialist stronghold since World War II, voted the far-right Freedom Party into a ruling coalition. The party, which ran on an “anti-minaret” platform in a city with only one mosque, was formerly associated with nationalist Jorg Haider, but has been reinvented by an animated former dental hygienist, Heinz-Christian Strache.
On Sept. 19, Sweden, long a Scandinavian redoubt of social tolerance and openness, put the far-right Sweden Democrats into parliament for the first time.
Further, this week the Netherlands saw the rise to influence, if not power, of the anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders, a social liberal who argues for gay rights – but whose main platform is to ban the Quran and the practice of Islam in the Low Countries. Mr. Wilders’ party will formally participate in the Dutch ruling coalition without specifically joining it.
Ian Buruma writes:
All these countries may soon be following the Danish model, in which the illiberal populist parties pledge their support without actually governing, thereby gaining power without responsibility. Denmark’s Conservative government could not govern without the support of the People’s party. Sweden’s recently re-elected conservative Moderate party will have to rely on the Democrats to form a viable government. And Wilders has already received assurances from the conservative and Christian Democrat parties that, in exchange for his support, the burqa will be banned in the Netherlands and immigration curbed.
The influence of these slick new populists, waging their war on Islam, goes well beyond their countries’ borders. Nativism is on the rise all over the western world, and Wilders, in particular, is a popular speaker at rightwing anti-Muslim gatherings in the US, Britain and Germany.
European populism focuses on Islam and immigration, but it may be mobilising a wider rage against elites expressed by people who feel unrepresented, or fear being left behind economically. They share a feeling of being dispossessed by foreigners, of losing their sense of national, social, or religious belonging. Northern Europe’s political elites, largely Social or Christian Democrats, have often been dismissive of such fears, and their paternalism and condescension may be why the backlash in those liberal countries has been particularly fierce.
The question is what to do about it. One possible solution is to let populist parties join the government if they get a sufficient number of votes. The idea of a Tea Party candidate becoming US president is alarming, to be sure, but European populists could only be part of coalition governments.
True, Hitler’s Nazis took over Germany almost as soon as they were voted into power, but the new European right are not Nazis. They have not used violence, or broken any laws. Not yet. As long as this is so, why not give them real political responsibility? They would then not only have to prove their competence, but also moderate their attitudes.
Buruma’s assumption that governance inherently imposes a moderating effect, seems very dubious. Look at Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party in an Israel that prides itself on its Western identity. There’s little evidence that participation in government has forced them to turn away from extremism.
The underlying idea here is one that has guided the eviscerated Left for the last two decades: that the political challenges of the day can only be met by some form of reaction or accommodation through which the sacred political center can be reclaimed. The idea that the Left provides a genuine political alternative has — at least by mainstream politicians — been effectively abandoned.
This is the context in which an American underclass is expanding, ready to be corralled by rightwing, xenophobic opportunists.
The Guardian‘s Paul Mason went to Atlanta to see how economic decline is reshaping American society.
Unable to borrow or earn, a whole generation is being shut out of the American lifestyle.
Meanwhile, some states have begun a race to the bottom: slashing welfare, labour regulations and local taxes to attract investment. High-wage companies close and relocate to low-wage states, and foreign investment flows to the towns where labour costs are lowest. These states are being transformed by the arrival of low-waged Hispanic migrants even as the rightwing politicians who support the economics rail against the demographics.
As a result the so-called Sun Belt, identified by Republican strategist Kevin Phillips in the 1970s as the new political bedrock of conservatism, now feels like the unhappiest place in America. Median incomes in the south are, on average, $8,000 lower than in the northeast; poverty rates are higher than anywhere else in America — and so are the racial and religious tensions.
In the midterm elections politicians have promised to “do something” for the middle class. The kindest thing they could do is tell the truth: Americans have been living a middle-class lifestyle on working-class wages — and bridging the gap with credit. And it’s over.
Instead, the message is that the American way of life is as good as ever — just so long as it can be protected from foreign threats: the economic threat from undocumented Latino workers and the cultural threat from dangerous Muslims.
A real alternative, however, would go much further than pointing out that most Americans have for too long been living beyond their means — it would spell out that the American dream is built on a false promise and our concern should not be reduced to who has access to its fulfillment and who does not. That false promise is that the good life flows from the good stuff.
In one of the tales of Mullah Nasrudin, his friend finds him in misery with bleeding lips as he chews on red hot chillies. “Why do you keep on biting into those chillies?” his friend asks. “I’m looking for the sweet one,” the Mullah answers as he digs deeper into his basket. We too find it difficult to abandon that futile quest for a sweet chili.
America now suffers less from the consequences of easy access to credit than the fact that we have virtually no conception of material sufficiency. Our fascination with the future is driven by an experience of the present as defined by unmet needs. Ours is a condition of perpetual insufficiency. The land of opportunity is populated by people who can never have enough.
Only when we discover we have enough can we pause, take stock and consider what is of real value. The defense of civilization consists not in thwarting foreign threats but recognizing the ways in which we value or devalue civilization’s core assets.
We are now warned of a dreadful “Japanification” of America if consumers refuse to consume.
Is that all that Americans are: the earthworms of the global economy? Or might we find some hidden wealth through material loss?