Alienation and Xenophobia in Europe: Where Do We Go From Here?

Many of the arguments that are dominating politics today seem to be discussed as extremes – a middle ground is almost never considered or is sometimes even dismissed as being unobtainable.  I believe that this is the common theme among the readings assigned for this week and could quite possibly be a solution to many of the issues being discussed around the world today. The readings make you wonder: it is that a middle ground is truly impossible, or is it our own limited thinking that is preventing us from obtaining it? Furthermore, it could be argued that it is from this tendency to look at issues as black-or-white that we are seeing a political shift and an influx of populist movements which, some argue, are threatening democracy as we know it today. I think that the driving force behind these polarizing issues, when really boiled down, is a lack of empathy and a willingness to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – regardless if you like or agree with the other person or culture.

For example, think of the refugee crisis and rise of anti-immigration protests. When this is being discussed, many people fail to remember and visualize that these are real people who are being bombed and driven from their homes. In the instance of Black Pete, many people who expressed outrage over anti-Black Pete protests failed to think for a moment how a person of color might feel and instead were hyper focused on what they perceived as an attack on their culture as a whole. In the instance of homelessness, someone may see a person on the side of the road and easily reduce them down to a good-for-nothing bum and walk by, instead of thinking of the culmination of instances and experiences that may have pushed that person to be in this situation (childhood abuse, lack of resources for mental health and substance abuse issues, etc).

The Black Pete reading resonated with me as I am biracial with a predominately black family, and I found myself offended and extremely saddened by the responses from the Dutch in regards to the anti-Black Pete protests (the author describes it as like taking a dose of undiluted poison and I have to agree). But, I made myself imagine the viewpoint of the Dutch and how Black Pete and has been embedded in their culture – thus their national identity – even though I don’t agree with what they are saying. It saddened me as well that so many people claimed it was an attack by immigrants on Dutch culture, while almost forgetting that not everyone born and raised in the Netherlands is white. There are some Dutch people who might be offended and feel rejected by their own culture! This made me question if there could be a middle ground that would appease both sides of the debate. Could it be possible to keep Black Pete, but instead of having him portrayed offensively as a white person in black face with exaggerated lips and idiotic mannerisms, maybe he could be portrayed, in the media and in-person during parades and other celebrations, as a person with soot on his cheeks? Black Pete wouldn’t have to be erased from the culture but would be portrayed in a way that is less offensive and objectifying and also more true to the original story (for he is apparently only black because he is covered in soot).

Finding a common middle ground is so important if we want to be able to co-exist peacefully. I know that there are some who do not want to co-exist (racists, xenophobes – but that is another problem altogether, unfortunately). The argument over Black Pete could be compared to virtually any other majority versus minority struggle as the underlying psychology remains the same. Empathy and the ability to truly listen and compromise (instead of alienating ourselves and sticking our heads in the sand) is the key to many of the issues we are facing today and might be the solution to some of the troubling populist movements we have seen. I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but approaching disagreements from a common ground and attempting to see the common humanity among all groups of people from all walks of life seems to be a good start.

First Responder: Multicultural Europe?

This weeks readings provide an interesting picture of Europe as a place that has an undercurrent of xenophobia and racism. Zack Beauchamp discusses the anti-immigrant policies of Europe’s far-right groups. Gloria Wekker addresses the pervasiveness of the image of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in Dutch Culture. Nilüfer Göle examines how the presence of Islam in Europe destabilizes its postcolonial identity. These readings bring into question whether or not Europe can be as multicultural as it may seem, because it cannot handle the challenging of norms.

Göle’s discussion of European hegemony makes the actions regarding the issues addressed in the articles make more sense because it highlights a sort of inherent desire to hold on to that power. For instance, in the case of the Dutch and Black Pete, those in favour of the figure often argue that it is an important part of their culture, but fail to recognize that this attitude is unintentionally racist because it seeks to continue caricaturizing non-white people. There seems to be no understanding of the postcolonial power dynamic in these assertions.

In Beauchamp’s article, there is the explanation that anti-immigrant sentiment and far right parties began to rise as a result of increased immigration and multiculturalism. To me, this signals a desire of these groups to hold on to the past and an imagined way of life where nations are full of only the “right” kind of people. These views are inherently problematic, as we have seen, because they lead to violence and oppression against minorities. Europe is home to many liberal democracies, so it is important to recognize these issues in order to prevent this type of democracy, that is supposed to protect all citizens, from being undermined.

Representing the Past Should Reflect the Understanding of the Present

Symbols have powerful meanings and associations. As history changes, symbols can come to have new meanings, and the acceptance of the symbol can change.

Lately, the statues of leaders in both Canada and the United States have come into question. The issue is: whether or not keeping these statues up is important in preserving history, or whether it would be better to take them down.

Recently, a statue of Edward Cornwallis was taken down in Halifax. Though this statue depicted the founder of the city, it was taken down because of his having placed a bounty on indigenous people. Jonathan Fowler reflects on this in his opinion piece in The Globe and Mail, “Advances in historical understanding have made the continued public celebration of Cornwallis problematic.” In response to those who defend these statues as history, he says that they need to accept the evolution of history and the fact that taking down a statue does not diminish history.

I agree with Fowler’s point of view. Taking down statues or symbols does not imply that they never existed and that they had no impact. Rather, it is showing respect to those that were victimised in history. This does not mean that they will be erased, but rather re-contextualised into a historical narrative.

To frame this historically, I will do so by examining a well-known symbol: the Nazi’s swastika. James Skidmore, a university of Waterloo professor, discusses the history of this symbol in an article in The Conversation. He discusses the fact that it was a benign symbol before the Nazis appropriated it. However, he also acknowledges the fact that what this symbol has become means that it cannot now be used in any context. The history behind this symbol is important.

The history of a symbol is important, because it informs its meaning. When symbols are associated with genocide, racist movements, or fascism, these symbols become problematic.

We all know that the swastika is associated with the Nazi regime and the genocide of the Holocaust. We now accept that this is not a symbol that should be worn or displayed now. However, we have in the recent past seen the problematic appropriation of these symbols by alt-right groups in the south.

How can this use of offensive symbols by hate groups be considered connected to problematized statues? By looking at the history of these statues, and who erected them. For instance, if we turn to the United States, and specifically the south, we can examine the way that the statues reflect history and a challenging past. These statues have also been in the news lately, regarding a movement to take them down. Those that do not want the statues removed defend them by saying that they represent history.

Historians in an NPR article discuss the true nature of these statues: that they were erected many decades after the civil war, during the time of the Jim Crow laws. These monuments were put up in order to glorify ideals of white supremacy.

I think that by defending problematic statues, people are either purposely or inadvertently supporting the ideals of groups. For example, the KKK is related to the creation of these monuments in the south. Though these monuments seem less questionable than a symbol like the swastika, upon further analysis it is clear that they too are based on a tradition of violence and hate.

The messages portrayed by individual symbols are important, as is their current context. By defending them as part of history, that individual fails to see the history of that symbol and why that symbol is now out-dated and offensive. The context for the creation of these symbols is important as well. Defending these symbols is clearly not a harmless defence of a nation’s history.

In relation to the monument of Edward Cornwallis, though he was not a populist leader or fascist dictator, his racism is still problematic. With the advanced understanding of our current society, it is easy to see why his statue was taken down. To return to Fowler’s comments, these statues clearly have important connotations and them being taken down does not diminish their value for historical education.

In the same way that Nazi symbols are not condoned in our society, we too should not allow the use of symbols of oppression. Symbols have power, so it’s important that we remove and contextualize the negative ones, while being educated about them.

Op-Ed: “Greek and Polish nationalism is playing with fire”

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Places like Greece and Poland are on a slippery slope. By ignoring or not feeling concerned with these issues going on in the world, we turn a blind eye to history and what this has led to before.

Earlier this month in Athens, far-right demonstrators marched and shouted with torches, holding flags of the Golden Dawn – Greece’s right wing nationalist party. They were protesting the Greek government and its negotiations with the Republic of Macedonia, as they and many Greeks believe the name “Macedonia” should only belong in Greece.

By the end of it thousands of anti-fascists and police were present, an anarchist squat was burned down and a Holocaust monument vandalized.

You might ask yourself, why should I care? Perhaps you feel the nationalist rhetoric being thrown around more and more frequently and confidently in places like Greece or Poland is far away and unimportant.

You should be worried, and here’s why. History shows us that fascism (and far-right populism) takes hold by normalizing its behavior using national and political myths to replace history. This comes from Federico Finchelstein’s book, “From Fascism to Populism in History.”

I was told once by an old mentor that it is not history that repeats itself, but the patterns of history. It’s not Germany or Italy this time, and that should not reassure us.

The “Polish death camps” law

The new law that was declared just last month in Poland punishes anyone who argues that there was Polish collaboration with the Nazi’s in WWII. At first, this does not appear problematic. Poland’s suffering during the years of Nazi occupation was enormous and remains impossible to reconcile.

The reason this law is alarming has to do with what it means for Polish nationalism and its thriving far-right movement.

Poland is currently dealing with a surge of ethnocentric nationalism that is on the rise. This is most easily recognized with the anti-immigration protest that occurred in Warsaw last November. 60,000 people attended, many espousing racist views. The mayor, a member of the ruling nationalistic Law and Justice Party (PiS) even paid for some of the activists travel.

The law represents an attempt to cleanse a nationalistic heritage and take the moral high ground moving forward. In spite of this, historians warn of the dangers of simplifying history. Events such as the murdering of Jews by the villagers of Jedwabne in 1941 or the expulsion of thousands more during the 1968 “anti-Zionist campaign” are at risk of being ignored.

Finchelstein’s book makes this danger clear, that fascism and modern populism will bend history and normalize nationalistic ideas in order to eventually overthrow the democratic system. Timothy Snyder’s book (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century) similarly shows that fascism constructs creative myths over history in order to further agendas.

For far-right nationalists in Poland, this law may very well serve as a lightning rod to endorse and promote Polish nationalism to a higher degree.

Greece’s “Macedonia” issue

A similar situation is unfolding here. The Golden Dawn party currently holds 16 seats in the Hellenic parliament. The far-right protestors at the demonstration rallied against the leftist government and used a nationalistic agenda to advocate the historical Greek claim to the name “Macedonia.”

Greek nationalism runs deep on this issue and has been a problem for decades. The far-right nature of this demonstration reveals how Greek nationalists are utilising historic grievances and normalizing aggression to get their views across with success.

Maybe that’s why so many of us don’t seem to bat an eye at issues like these.

The patterns of history repeat themselves

What all of this means is that we are not safe from fascism in the 21st century.

Finchelstein’s book clearly states that modern populism is in many ways a direct reincarnation of traditional fascism, only this time working more closely with democratic institutions.

What’s going on in Greece or Poland may be far away, but that doesn’t mean the possible repercussions will be distant either. Populist movements at home are taking notes.

If southern and eastern European nationalism is playing with fire, who’s to say we won’t be susceptible either?

Works Cited

Davies, Christian. “Poland’s Jews Fear for future Under New Holocaust Law.” The Guardian, February 10, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/10/polands-jews-fear-future-under-new-holocaust-law-nazi-atrocities.

Eglash, Ruth and Avi Selk. “Israel and Poland Try to Tamp Down Tensions after Poland’s ‘Death Camp’ Law Sparks Israeli Outrage.” The Washington Post, January 28, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/01/27/it-could-soon-be-a-crime-to-blame-poland-for-nazi-atrocities-and-israel-is-appalled/?utm_term=.18fe02d470e5.

Finchelstein, Federico. From Fascism to Populism in History. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017.

Kelly, Lidia and Justyna Pawlak. “Poland’s Far Right: Opportunity and Threat for Ruling PiS.” Reuters, January 3, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-poland-politics-farright/polands-far-right-opportunity-and-threat-for-ruling-pis-idUSKBN1ES0BK.

Noack, Rick. “How Poland Became a Breeding Ground for Europe’s Far Right.” The Washington Post, November 14, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/11/13/how-poland-became-a-breeding-ground-for-europes-far-right/?utm_term=.a57f74c3bb12.

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

Strickland, Patrick. “Tens of Thousands of Greeks Protest Macedonia’s Name.” Al Jazeera, February 5, 2018. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/02/tens-thousands-greeks-protest-macedonia-180204141039260.html.

Strickland, Patrick. “Tensions High in Athens Ahead of Nationalist Rally.” Al Jazeera, February 3, 2018. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/02/tensions-high-athens-nationalist-rally-180203221505840.html.