Friday, April 21, 2006

While Europe Slept

Some thoughts on reading Bruce Bawer's "While Europe Slept."

For a good summation of Bawer's experiences and his views, you can read this article (PDF alert); here is his take on the Muhammad cartoons controversy. In brief, he is an American ex-pat writer who, over the course of a decade, has discovered modern Europe to be a place "where cultural appeasement by political and media elites of the continent’s largely unintegrated and antidemocratic Muslim minority is standard practice," and he foresees dire consequences for Europe and the West.

The "Europe" in his title, and in this post, is really shorthand for "Western Europe except Great Britain."

I've been aware of Bawer's writings for a few years now, and I find them worthwhile. I used to get annoyed when his homosexuality featured prominently in descriptions of his writing in mainstream media outlets. It seemed as though they were merrily trying to drive a wedge between him and his audience, presuming any American who was critical of continental Western European passivity in the face of Islamist aggression must also be a social conservative who would be repelled by a gay man.

Perhaps there was an element of that at work in some cases, but in fact there is a strong connection between Bawer's sexuality and his authority to write as he does, though it has been poorly explained in the media articles I've seen. When he lived here, 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.

And I think one of the little blessings folded into the wretched business of finding ourselves at war with Islamist terrorists is that issues like women's rights, antislavery, and discrimination against homosexuals are easing their way into the rhetoric of the traditionally uptight American right. The longer people man the same barricades, the less estranged they'll be from one another.

The Book

His book is mainly anecdotal; The anecdotes are his meat, and they are strong. But the absence of source footnotes or a bibliography was extremely frustrating. His experience living in Amsterdam and Oslo makes his observations there most forceful and trenchant. He speaks the languages, he has walked the streets. He writes of what he's seen firsthand. But Norway and the Netherlands are not Europe, and to extend his observations into general statements that include France, Germany, Sweden, Britain, he draws on other sources.

I'm a devotee of footnotes and fact-checking. I want to know where he's getting the fact-matrix he builds up around his own experience. I want to judge how reliable they are and see them in full. I can, but only because Bawer and I seem to read many of the same sources, so I recognize many of the names in his text -- David Kaspar, Johann Hari, Melanie Philips, Julie Burchill.

Bawer's observations do ring true to my own experience of Europe and Europeans. They believe the most audacious things about the danger and violence and cruelty and racism of daily American life. They really think there is no difference between Nazi Berlin and modern D.C. They think we went to Iraq just to kill Iraqis. They mock us for our ignorance of the world, and certainly they can talk longer about America than we can talk about any one of their countries. But if 90 percent of what they know about us is twisted or just plain wrong, does that count as superior smarts?

At the same time, they know little and care less about each other's countries. Months after the Theo Van Gogh killing, I would be explaining it to Germans who lived not two hour's drive from where it happened, who had never heard about it.

Something Bawer never said and perhaps never meant to say, but which formed like a shadow in my mind as I read the accounts of the alienation and sense of fury of young Muslim men in Western Europe -- coddled and kept at arm's length at the same time, by a "soft" and secular welfare state culture they easily learn to despise. Out of that rot and failure stepped the leading hijackers on 9/11. Not the muscle hijackers. But muscle is universally available and by itself accomplishes nothing. I'm talking about the brains. Their root was in the Middle East. Their target was here in America. But they fermented in Europe.

Which is not to blame Europe for anything. Lord knows I don't want Western Europe to feel responsible for 9/11 in the least way. Because I don't want it to try to get involved in the solution. You don't want to go to war alongside allies whose principal goal in war is to "avoid demonizing the enemy."

'Weimar moment'

He writes of a Europe led by the left that has gone down a blind alley. But the warning he sounds is about the right. Hitler didn't come to power because the left was weak; he rose because the center had collapsed, and the Germans, in the waning days of the Weimar republic, found themselves forced to choose between the fascists and the communists.

In modern Europe, the political scale runs from moderate center to extreme left. Leftist fringe-dwellers in America, like Michael Moore and Ward Churchill and Noam Chomsky, would be major figures there, listened to raptly, featured prominently, heading government commissions, perhaps even serving as national leaders.

The "right" half of the political continuum in modern Europe doesn't go much farther right than our Joe Lieberman or Arlen Specter. Were they Europeans, these men would be warned against in the European media as dangerous extremists. Their supporters might be hounded on the job by socialist groups.

Beyond that "right," there is silence, dead air, till you get to the far end of the political dial, where you encounter nasty racist and xenophobic parties that have existed for years on the fringes of the far right, barely within the limits of the laws.

But a crisis has erupted, and the Chomsky/Churchill/Moore multicultural, pacifistic, social welfare bureaucracy clearly is not meeting it, and in fact is stupidly making it worse. The population cannot turn, as it can in America or Canada or Australia or even yet Britain, to a principled, mainstream right-side alternative. As a result, voting percentages for vicious fringe parties of the European right now have risen into double digits.

"In the end," Bawer writes, "Europe's enemy is not Islam, or even radical Islam. Europe's enemy is itself -- its self-destructive passivity, its softness towardtyranny, its reflexive inclination to appease, and its uncomprehending distaste for America's pride, courage, and resolve in the face of a deadly foe."

What can we do?

Damned little, but Bawer does have a few suggestions.

  • Revise U.S. immigration policy, which keeps out many Europeans who long to settle here. They are smart, educated, and they would be an asset to the country. They want to get out of their homelands before it is too late. As it is, they often end up in Canada or Australia or New Zealand. Our loss, their gain.

  • More support, moral and practical, for embattled Europeans who want to stay there and fight for the place, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Hege Storhaug.

  • Radically expanded secondary school exchange program. You can't fall into the European anti-American trap in its crudest form if you've actually seen the U.S. and spent some time here. Sure, some exchange students will grow up and hate America anyhow, or want to keep its influences out of their countries. That's fine; that's how the world works. At least if they've been here they'll have to do it honestly, by really thinking about things. And it will be that much more difficult for demagogue politicians to ride herd on Europeans if the people know a thing or two about the States. Their media sure aren't going to tell them.

Open your doors, take in an exchange student. Welcome them in. The cartoon America that is all most Europeans see is easily exposed by some time spent here among us.