Cosmopolitanism, Trump and ignorance as a weapon: Buruma

Good piece on the historical antisemitism behind the word “cosmopolitan” and “cosmopolitanism:”

President Donald Trump’s administration has announced that it wants to cut legal immigration to the United States by half and favour well-educated immigrants who speak good English. When CNN correspondent Jim Acosta, the son of a Cuban immigrant, challenged Mr. Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller by stating that the United States traditionally welcomed the world’s poor, most of whom did not speak any English, Mr. Miller accused Mr. Acosta of “cosmopolitan bias.”

One wonders whether Mr. Miller had any idea of the historical use of cosmopolitan as a derogatory term. As the descendant of poor Jews fleeing Belarus more than a century ago, he should have.

“Rootless cosmopolitan” was the code phrase used by Joseph Stalin for Jews. In the early years after the Second World War, the Soviet dictator launched a campaign against Jewish intellectuals, scientists and writers who were accused of disloyalty to the Soviet Union and bias toward the West. Not considered to be part of the native Russian people, Jews were assumed to belong to an international cabal, and hence to be inherently treacherous.

But Stalin didn’t invent this idea. In the 1930s, Fascists and Nazis also denounced Jews, as well as Marxists and Freemasons, as “cosmopolitans” or “internationalists” – people whose loyalty was suspect. It is the kind of vocabulary that emerges from nativist movements that are hostile to ethnic or religious minorities, or to financial or intellectual elites who supposedly conspire to undermine the true sons and daughters of the nation.

To pre-war fascists, the United States was often regarded as the symbol of cosmopolitan decadence. The offensive use of cosmopolitanism, then, has a profoundly anti-American provenance.

One of the oddities of the Trump administration is that several of its main representatives have revived traditionally anti-Semitic rhetoric, even though some of them, like Mr. Miller, are Jewish. The chief ideologue of ethnic nationalism in the Trump Age, Steve Bannon, is a reactionary Catholic. He has a penchant for early-20th-century French and Italian fascist thinkers, such as Charles Maurras (of the Action Française) and Julius Evola, a sinister figure who admired Heinrich Himmler and worked for the German police during the Second World War.

But to see anti-cosmopolitanism as an especially Catholic pathology would be a mistake. The first offensive use of cosmopolitanism came as part of the Protestant rebellion against the Catholic Church. Rome, to Protestant rebels at the time of the Reformation, was regarded as the centre of a global “cosmopolitan” network which oppressed national aspirations. Traces of this prejudice can still be found in some opponents of the European Union, who see the EU’s Brussels headquarters as the new Rome.

It is unlikely that Mr. Miller, who grew up in a liberal family in California, is an anti-Semite. Perhaps his early attraction to right-wing extremism was a form of rebellion, too, albeit a rebellion that soon put him in the company of toxic allies. As a student at Duke University, he became friends with Richard Spencer, who would later become a promoter of “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to preserve white civilization, whatever that may be.

One thing that unites many of Mr. Trump’s followers – as well as right-wing populists in other countries, including Israel – is a shared grievance against Muslims and the liberal urban elites who are often accused of coddling them. When Mr. Miller speaks of cosmopolitan bias, that is probably what he means.

But distrust of Muslims is only part of the story. Social elites, liberal intellectuals, and critical journalists are the enemy of those who crave power but feel looked down upon by people who appear to be more sophisticated. This is not always a matter of social class. President George W. Bush, for example, despised American reporters who spoke French.

This, too, is not a new phenomenon. The upper classes in many societies often like to distinguish themselves from the common herd by adopting the language and manners of foreigners whose cultures were thought to be superior. European aristocrats in the 18th century spoke French. Modern English nationalism started as a revolt against this kind of foppery in the name of John Bull, roast beef, and Old England.

Not all populist rebellions are inherently racist or fascist. Democracy, too, was a product of resistance to aristocratic rule. But it is hard to believe that Mr. Trump, or his ideologues, like Mr. Miller or Mr. Bannon, are interested in expanding democratic rights, even though they pretend to speak for the common – or as they like to say – “real” people. Mr. Bannon, for one, is proudly anti-liberal. He is said to have described himself as a Leninist who seeks to destroy the state.

Still, let us give Mr. Miller the benefit of the doubt. When he uses cosmopolitanism as a curse, he has no idea of the term’s antecedents. The history of fascist, Nazi, and Stalinist anti-Semitism is unknown to him. The past does not really exist. He is simply an ignorant critic of what he sees as the liberal establishment. But ignorance can be as dangerous as malice, especially when it is backed by great power.

Source: Cosmopolitanism, Trump and ignorance as a weapon – The Globe and Mail

The threat of the demagogues: Ian Buruma

Good piece on the threat to democracy and society:

It is clear that today’s demagogues don’t much care about what they derisively call “political correctness.” It is less clear whether they have enough historical sense to know that they are poking a monster that post-Second World War generations hoped was dead but that we now know only lay dormant, until obliviousness to the past could enable it to be reawakened.

This is not to say that everything the populists say is untrue. Hitler, too, was right to grasp that mass unemployment was a problem in Germany. Many of the agitators’ bugbears are indeed worthy of criticism: the European Union’s opacity, the duplicitousness and greed of Wall Street bankers, the reluctance to tackle problems caused by mass immigration, the lack of concern for those hurt by economic globalization.

These are all problems that mainstream political parties have been unwilling or unable to solve. But when today’s populists start blaming “the elites” (whoever they may be) and unpopular ethnic or religious minorities for these difficulties, they sound uncomfortably close to the enemies of liberal democracy in the 1930s.

The true mark of the illiberal demagogue is talk of “betrayal” – the cosmopolitan elites have stabbed “us” in the back; we are facing an abyss; our culture is being undermined by aliens; our country can become great again once we eliminate the traitors, shut down their voices in the media, and unite the “silent majority” to revive the healthy national organism. Politicians, and their boosters, who express themselves in this manner may not be fascists, but they certainly talk like them.

The fascists and Nazis of the 1930s did not come from nowhere. Their ideas were hardly original. For many years, intellectuals, activists, journalists and clerics had articulated hateful ideas that laid the groundwork for Mussolini, Hitler and their imitators in other countries. Some were Catholic reactionaries who detested secularism and individual rights. Some were obsessed with the supposed global domination of Jews. Some were romantics in search of an essential racial or national spirit.

Most modern demagogues may be only vaguely aware of these precedents, if they know of them at all. In Central European countries such as Hungary, or indeed in France, they may actually understand the links quite well, and some of today’s far-right politicians are not shy about being openly anti-Semitic. In most West European countries, however, such agitators use their professed admiration for Israel as a kind of alibi and direct their racism at Muslims.

Words and ideas have consequences. Today’s populist leaders should not yet be compared to murderous dictators of the fairly recent past. But by exploiting the same popular sentiments, they are contributing to a poisonous climate, which could bring political violence into the mainstream once again.

Source: The threat of the demagogues – The Globe and Mail

The taint of anti-Semitism from Europe’s left: Ian Buruma

Good piece by Buruma:

When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the Soviet Union and leftists in general were sympathetic. For several decades, socialists of Russian and Polish extraction dominated Israeli politics. Zionism was not yet regarded as a noxious form of racism, along with apartheid in South Africa. Things began to change in the early 1970s, after the occupation of the West Bank and other Arab territories. Two intifadas later, the Israeli left finally lost its grip, and the right took over.

Israel became increasingly associated with the very things leftists had always opposed: colonialism, oppression of a minority, militarism and chauvinism. For some people, it was perhaps a relief that they could hate Jews again, this time under the guise of high-minded principles.

At the same time, and for much the same reasons, Israel became popular on the right. People who might have been fervent anti-Semites not so long ago are now great champions of Israel. They applaud the Israeli government’s tough line with the Palestinians. Israel, in a common right-wing view, is a bastion of “Judeo-

Christian civilization” in the “war against Islam.”

It is remarkable how often the old anti-Semitic tropes turn up in the rhetoric of these cheerleaders for Israel. But this time it is Muslims, not Jews, who are the target. Muslims in the West, we are repeatedly told, can never be loyal citizens. They always stick to their own kind. They will lie to people outside their faith. They are naturally treacherous, bent on world domination. Their religion is incompatible with Western values. And so forth.

The genuine threats coming from a violent revolutionary movement within the Islamic world can make such assertions seem plausible. But, in most cases, they should be recognized for what they are: tired old prejudices meant to exclude an unpopular minority from mainstream society. Islamist violence only helps to boost the politics of hatred and fear. Many Western warriors in the so-called war against Islam are nothing but modern-day anti-Dreyfusards.

None of this excuses the vile language of Mr. Livingstone and others like him. Left-wing anti-Semitism is as toxic as the right-wing variety. But the role of Israel in Western political debate shows how prejudices can shift from one group to another, while the underlying sentiments remain exactly the same.

Source: The taint of anti-Semitism from Europe’s left – The Globe and Mail

Are we watching the death throes of American (and in other countries) liberal democracy? – Ian Buruma

Buruma on the disturbing trends in the US and elsewhere:

What is steadily falling away is not democracy, but the restraints that de Tocqueville thought were essential to make liberal politics work. More and more, populist leaders regard their election by the majority of voters as a licence to crush all political and cultural dissent.

De Tocqueville’s nightmare is not yet the reality in the United States, but it is close to what we see in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, and perhaps Poland. Even Israel, which, despite its many obvious problems, has always had a robust democracy, is moving in this direction, with government ministers demanding proof of “state loyalty” from writers, artists and journalists.

It is hard to see how traditional elites are going to regain any authority. And yet I think de Tocqueville was right. Without editors, there can be no serious journalism. Without parties led by experienced politicians, the borders between show business and politics will disappear. Without limits placed on the appetites and prejudices of the majority, intolerance will rule.

This is not a question of nostalgia or snobbery. Nor is it a plea to trust anyone with a plausible air of authority. Anger at the elites is not always unjust. Globalization, immigration and cosmopolitanism have served the interests of a highly educated minority, but sometimes at the expense of less privileged people.

And yet, the problem identified by de Tocqueville in the 1830s is more relevant now than ever. Liberal democracy cannot be reduced to a popularity contest. Constraints on majority rule are necessary to protect the rights of minorities, be they ethnic, religious or intellectual. When that protection disappears, we will all end up losing the freedoms that democracy was supposed to defend.

Source: Are we watching the death throes of American liberal democracy? – The Globe and Mail

How fear became the politician’s weapon of choice

Ian Buruma on the politics of fear:

As long as France’s state of emergency lasts, police may arrest people without warrants, break down the doors of private residences in the middle of the night, take over restaurants and other public places with armed force, and generally behave like agents in a police state. Most French citizens are now so frightened of Islamist attacks that such measures are widely supported. But they are almost certainly counterproductive.

A national leader can declare war on a state, not on a network of revolutionaries. Islamic State, despite its claims, is not a state, and Mr. Hollande should not treat it as one. Besides, even if bombing IS strongholds in Iraq or Syria makes military sense, it won’t break the spell of Islamist revolution for frustrated, bored and marginalized young people in French slums.

On the contrary: The canny leaders of IS also rely on an apocalyptic “us or them” view of the world. Most Muslims are not violent revolutionaries who condone, let alone admire, mass violence. IS seeks to broaden its support, especially among young Muslims, by convincing them that true Muslims are in an existential war with the West – that the infidels are their mortal enemies. For them no less than for Mr. Trump, fear is the most powerful weapon.

So the more a Western government allows its policemen to humiliate and bully Muslims in the name of security, the more IS is likely to win European recruits. The only way to combat revolutionary Islamist violence is to gain the trust of law-abiding Muslims in the West. This will not be easy, but arbitrary arrests are surely the wrong way to go about it.

Likewise, when it comes to civil wars in the Middle East, Western restraint is usually a better strategy than hasty military intervention driven by domestic fear. Republican candidates in the United States are already using the recent murder spree in Paris to blame President Barack Obama, and by extension any future Democratic candidate, for being weak. Mr. Trump has promised to “bomb the shit out of ISIS.”

This bellicosity has had the effect of pushing Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, into distancing herself from Mr. Obama. As with Mr. Hollande, she has to assuage public fear by talking tough and promising more military action.

Mr. Obama has consistently resisted the temptation to unleash more wars. His policies have sometimes been inconsistent and irresolute. But in his refusal to give in to panic and act rashly, he has been far braver than all the big talkers who accuse him of being a wimp.

Source: How fear became the politician’s weapon of choice – The Globe and Mail

What drives anti-immigrant sentiment? – Ian Buruma

Ian Buruma on the drivers on anti-immigrant sentiment and the increased divide between educated metropolitan elites and the “less sophisticated, less flexible and, in every sense, less connected provincials.”

Canada does not figure in his commentary, perhaps because we have managed these tensions – which we have – better than most:

Populist rabble-rousers like to stir up such resentments by ranting about foreigners who work for a pittance or not at all. But it is the relative success of ethnic minorities and immigrants that is more upsetting to indigenous populations.

This explains the popular hostility toward Mr. Obama. Americans know that, before too long, whites will be just another minority, and people of colour will increasingly be in positions of power. At this point, all that Tea Partiers and others like them can do is declare, “We want our country back!”

Of course, this is an impossible demand. Short of unleashing massive and bloody ethnic cleansing – Bosnia, on a continental scale – Americans and others have no choice but to get used to living in increasingly diverse societies.

Likewise, economic globalization cannot be undone. But regulation can and should be improved. After all, some things are still worth protecting. There are good reasons not to leave culture, education, lifestyles or jobs completely exposed to the creative destruction of market forces.

What drives anti-immigrant sentiment? – The Globe and Mail.