How complex the culture of fear [immigration]

TheGlobeandMail.com – News/Opinions/Opinion
Published Friday, November 26, 2010.   Irshad Manji

It’s been a banner year for populist politicians. They’ve racked up staggering wins not just in Toronto and across the United States, but also throughout Europe.

Geert Wilders, the pro-freedom Dutchman who nonetheless wants to ban the Koran, became kingmaker in the Netherlands’ minority government. Angela Merkel, the usually staid German Chancellor, gave a nod to public opinion and admitted that multiculturalism “has failed, utterly failed.”

But perhaps the biggest surprise sprang from Sweden, a country renowned, politically speaking, for its liberalism. The Sweden Democrats, an avowedly anti-immigrant party, captured parliamentary seats for the first time. As goes Sweden, some say, so goes liberal democracy.

In The Geopolitics of Emotion, the French analyst Dominique Moïsi observes that Europe and America are devolving into “cultures of fear.” Having travelled widely, I’m convinced he’s right. But what I haven’t fathomed until recently is just how complex the fear can be – and, therefore, why it’s simple-minded to accuse the fearful of being simple-minded.

Let me illustrate through a YouTube clip that a fellow writer in Sweden sent me. The video features a small-town representative of the Sweden Democrats (SD). He’s being invited to name those elements of Swedish culture that need protecting. For several seconds, the man falls mute. Finally, he replies, “Christmas and, uh, ancient ruins.”

My writer friend, Hakan Lindgren, explains that “everybody who saw the clip was supposed to laugh at this SD buffoon. I didn’t.”

Mr. Lindgren believes that Swedes now suffer the “hidden, anaesthetized pain” of living in a country with little or no connection to its traditions. Their pain remains hidden because “we have learned not to complain.” Immigration didn’t precipitate this identity crisis, he emphasizes. Modernization and its various trappings did. As he puts it, “We were told – and we accepted – that our traditions were worthless compared to the benefits of modernity.” The upshot: A profound lack of confidence, individually and socially.

But it’s aggravated by our era of mass migration, Mr. Lindgren goes on, because you’re bound to bump into someone “who is full of self-confidence about his culture or religion. That confrontation brings out all the postponed feelings – you feel hurt, angry, inferior, ashamed, envious.”

What an eye-opener for me. When Muslim immigrants self-segregate and hang onto conservative cultural traditions, I see them acting out their insecurities. But for others, these are markers of too much security.

The YouTube clip gives rise to yet another twist. Despite his concern for Swedish culture, the man is wearing a baseball cap – and one that bears the Confederate flag, a searing symbol of 19th-century American slave-holding states. Did he know what the flag stands for? Is this his message, too? Or does he seek only to be a rebel in some vague sense?

(I would have promoted the image of Pippi Longstocking, the Swedish storybook heroine with braids that stuck out as much as her personality did. Living in the backwoods, the fiery Pippi made her own rules – a heroine for rebels everywhere. But then, I’m a feminist.)

Mr. Lindgren claims that he has no idea how to move his country forward. Yet in one of our exchanges, he offers a valuable clue. “Whenever someone says that we should discuss the problems with immigration,” he sighs, “the response comes instantly: Aha! So you want to help the SD bastards!”

Which brings me to conclude that a culture of fear isn’t merely one in which the natives fear the immigrants. It’s one in which people of all backgrounds fear being branded for their sincere worries about whether unity can be extracted from diversity. After all, if you don’t know who you are, to what are you asking newcomers to adapt?

When mainstream leaders flee that question out of their own fears, many voters will build rage and release it through acidic politics. “The worst thing that can happen to a country is not conflicts – they are unavoidable – but the failure to discuss those conflicts constructively and honestly,” Mr. Lindgren reflects. “Populist politicians discuss conflicts openly, but not in an honest or constructive way.”

As Americans prepare for a showdown over immigration reform, they would do well to learn from a thoughtful and empathetic young Swede.

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