Friday, February 09, 2007

"Like I Was a Flea"

[posted by Callimachus]

I read Bruce Bawer's book, "While Europe Slept," last year and posted thoughts about it here. I thought it was an interesting book, and a bracer if you already agreed with the premise. But it wasn't a strongly sourced book, or one you could use to build a convincing argument for the sake of someone who didn't agree with it.

What I didn't realize, till I was told by my betters, is that it was racist and Islamophobic.

The rage and the snide began when one Eliot Weinberger saw Bawer's book on a list of nominees for the National Book Critics Circle award. Weinberger was on the list last year for his collection of essays titled “What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles.” One can imagine he and Bawer don't share a common view of the world or the relative importance of the things going on in it.

The resulting stir within the usually well-mannered book world spiked this week when the president of the Circle’s board, John Freeman, wrote on the organization’s blog
( “I have never been more embarrassed by a choice than I have been with Bruce Bawer’s ‘While Europe Slept,’ " he wrote. “It’s hyperventilated rhetoric tips from actual critique into Islamophobia.”

Well, is it phobia if they're really out to get you? Bawer's book is mainly anecdotal. His experience living in Amsterdam and Oslo makes his observations there the most trenchant part of the book. He speaks the languages, he has walked the streets. He writes of what he's seen firsthand. I doubt either Weinberger or Freeman has had that experience.

When he lived here in the U.S., Bawer was a thoughtful New York liberal, eloquently critical of the shortcomings and excesses in American society and skeptical of the government, but without crossing the line into blind anti-Americanism. He was especially frustrated by the rising voices of the religious right and its focus on homosexuality.

In 1990s Amsterdam he found a society where he could live openly as who he was, establish a sanctioned relationship with a same-sex partner, walk down the street without fear of being hassled, and turn on a TV without seeing some politician or preacher railing against him -- this amid placid canals that ran out to rural villages full of warm people and inviting bike paths. Oh, I know how he felt. I was there years before, and even without the sexual angle, it seemed as close to paradise on earth as anything you'd hope to see.

So he settled in Amsterdam. Later he fell in love with a Norwegian and moved to Oslo. But Europe wasn't paradise on earth. Its media and elites reflexively rejected American ways and liberal democracy. The EU, and many of the countries in it, are run by an elite professional political class that he compares at one point to the old feudal aristocracy. What passes for media coverage of America is a brutal caricature, with anything that might reflect well on Americans or our culture or society scrubbed out and every negative quality pumped up.

People were kind and polite, but it was considered no rudeness for them to harrangue Americans to their faces about how wicked and evil they were. And while Europe thought America was its problem, it had a problem of its own that it refused to face.

[H]e encountered large, rapidly expanding Muslim enclaves in which women were oppressed and abused, homosexuals persecuted and killed, 'infidels' threatened and vilified, Jews demonized and attacked, barbaric traditions (such as honor killing and forced marriage) widely practiced, and freedom of speech and religion firmly repudiated.

The European political and media establishment turned a blind eye to all this, selling out women, Jews, gays, and democratic principles generally—even criminalizing free speech—in order to pacify the radical Islamists and preserve the illusion of multicultural harmony. The few heroic figures who dared to criticize Muslim extremists and speak up for true liberal values were systematically slandered as fascist bigots. Witnessing the disgraceful reaction of Europe’s elites to 9/11, to the terrorist attacks on Madrid, Beslan, and London, and to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bawer concluded that Europe was heading inexorably down a path to cultural suicide.

So if the freedom of living his identity was the lure that drew him to Europe, it was the first casualty in the local battles in the clash of civilizations. Bawer would be the first to tell you, Jerry Falwell didn't want him to get married, but that wasn't even in the same league as wanting to stone him to death. Bawer tells several incidents he can describe firsthand of gays beaten and molested by mobs of Muslim youths on the streets of European cities while onlookers do nothing and police are ineffective.

In retrospect, the surprise isn't that Bawer himself eventually was lumped in with the "fascist bigots." It's that it took this long.

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