Posted on November 17, 2008

Prejudice in Europe Is More Than Skin Deep

Mark Mazower, Financial Times (London), November 16, 2008

A collective sigh of relief could be heard from Europe last week after Barack Obama emerged victorious; there is no doubting the fervent European desire to relegate the Bush doctrine to history and to return to a more collegial relationship with the White House. Yet Mr Obama’s welcome has been accompanied by unhappier undercurrents.

It is not so long ago that Austria’s rightwingers used to campaign on the slogan: “Vienna must not become Chicago”. They were not the only Europeans to become more xenophobic with the end of the cold war. But they were perhaps the only ones to link their detestation of the new immigrants from the Middle East and eastern Europe to hoary images of race riots and organised crime drawn from America’s bad old days.

Now that an African-American from Chicago is set to become president in Washington, not everyone in Vienna is happy. In an extraordinary on-air outburst, Klaus Emmerich, the veteran Austrian television pundit, declared: “I would not want the western world to be directed by a black man.” When invited to retract, Mr Emmerich stood by what he had said, adding that “blacks aren’t as politically civilised” and pouring fuel on to the fire by hinting that Mr Obama’s “rhetorical brilliance” and ability in organising a movement made him comparable to infamous demagogues from the past. America’s choice, Mr Emmerich concluded, was as misplaced as a Turk becoming the next chancellor of Austria.

His comments were greeted by a storm of criticism, just as Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi’s “joke” about Mr Obama’s “sun tan” had been: two elderly men betraying their generational prejudices, one might think. Yet the underlying problem goes deeper. A comment such as Mr Emmerich’s would be political suicide in the US; in Austria it earned little more than a slap on the wrist. How is it that while both places have their fair share of racism, one finds such contrasting public and political responses?

One difference is that in Europe today truly to belong still means being white. “Do you feel yourself to be British?” BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman asked a young black London rapper after Mr Obama’s victory. Europeans find it hard adjusting to a colour-blind world. Indeed their hesitancy is growing. In Austria, the extreme right carved out big gains in September’s general elections. Pope Benedict weighed in over the summer to warn against a possible resurgence of fascist values in Italy. Europe as a whole, according to recent polls, has become significantly more xenophobic over the past few years. Fears of Islamic terrorism and anxiety about globalisation have fed this trend. So has fervent anti-European Union sentiment, strongly correlated to populist anti-immigrant rhetoric. By contrast, Mr Obama’s story is that of the immigrant dream, a tale of upwardly-mobile success that cut decisively across race lines. Immigrant voters played a decisive electoral role in Mr Obama’s win, yet immigration—for all the prior public debate—figured little as a campaign issue.

Culturally, globalisation is pushing many Europeans—whether pro- or anti-Europe—into a kind of conservatism. As the continent struggles with the task of turning itself into a political force capable of acting on the world stage alongside former colonies such as the US and India, or rising powers such as China, its elites fall back on memories of a time when Europe taught the world its values. “Blacks aren’t as politically civilised,” claimed Mr Emmerich. Not long ago, such frank racism was unremarkable—on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, it is much rarer. Yet too many Europeans still talk and act as though their task is to shore up western civilisation against the barbarians whether by defending some vision of the Enlightenment against religious fanatics, or by defending Christendom against its historical enemies. An immigrant of Turkish descent as leader of Austria? Why, that would signify that Vienna’s long struggle against the Ottomans had all been in vain.

History can be cruel. Generations of Europeans grew up with the goal of ethnic homogeneity as one nation after another across the continent tried to purify itself. The huge population transfers, expulsions and killings of the 1940s reflected the fact that both the Nazis and their opponents believed that minorities were a source of political instability. By 1950, they had all but disappeared across much of central and eastern Europe. Yet almost at once, postwar growth brought new minorities in—first into western Europe and now further east. The result is a kind of cognitive dissonance. Europeans inhabit increasingly globalised multi-ethnic societies; yet their attitudes remain shaped by a 19th-century mindset. Vienna is not yet Chicago. But it cannot get there a moment too soon.