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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Things Americans don't understand about Europe

My family has now lived in London for about thirteen years and one of the things that is useful about being an expatriate is that it gives you a different perspective on both your home and adopted countries. Having read through quite a bit of the commentary about the murder of Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim extremist in Amsterdam two weeks, one thing that struck me was how it can often be difficult for Americans to understand European attitudes to immigration and immigrants. This is something I've often talked about with my father.

This particular post started off as a comment of mine on this post at Michael J. Totten's site, but I felt like it was something I wanted to flesh out a little bit further. One thing that I, and the rest of my family, feel like is that European societies are still, beneath the veneer of modernity, essentially tribal societies. The borders between the European nation-states as they stood in the aftermath of World War II were essentially boundaries between highly homogenous ethno-lingual societies. With the great rise in immigration in the long economic boom that followed the war in Western Europe this began to break down a bit, but it's hardly gone.

In most parts of Europe, at least in my experience, the indigenous populations tend to see themselves as having national identities that are intertwined with their ethnic/tribal identities, in a way that is completely different from American nationality, which is an ideological concept detached from 'blood-and-soil' legacies. For example, I doubt that by this point in history anywhere near a majority of white Americans can trace their ancestry to a single European ethnic group (my father's roots go to Germany and Northern Ireland and my mother's ancestors, who all arrived before the American Revolution, are from Britain, Holland, and possibly other places that we don't know about because it was so long ago), whereas in Europe you will have far far far more people who can say "all my ancestors back as far as I know have been German/French/Polish/whatever".

There are outliers, sure, like Switzerland (although the Swiss are pretty careful about separating 'foreigners' from the existing German, French, and Italian groups), and in a sense the United Kingdom falls into that category too, but mostly there is a broad connection between ethnic and national identities. Consider that in Germany, the grandchildren of Turkish immigrants are still unequivocally 'Turks' while freshly-arrived volksdeutsch (ethnic Germans) from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are pretty much immediately granted citizenship and seen as fundamentally German. Or the recent referendum in Ireland where 79.17% of voters voted to end the automatic right to citizenship of all babies born in Ireland. Americans have generally remained placid about levels of immigration (illegal and legal) that far outsrip in percentage terms what the various European nations receive*.

While the indigenous people might admit to non-whites (or people from other parts of Europe, for that matter) their status as citizens, many would say that they can never be part of 'the tribe'. Britain, where I lived for many years, is somewhat exceptional in that, since it is not one country but four, because there is this side identity category of 'British' that ethnic minorities can claim a part of (ie British Indian or Black British) when few of them would claim to be Caribbean-English or Indian-English. Britain seems to have negotiated the transformation to a less homogenous society pretty well, but even there the matter is hardly resolved. One of the things our family always found amusing was when journalists, Whitehall mandarins, social worker types and so on would make pronouncements on 'multicultural Britain' as if it was some reality that all the people were living in. London is multicultural, sure, and so are Birmingham, Manchester, and a few other big cities, but the country as a whole is still more than 92% white! Outside of a few cities you will hardly see any non-white faces.

The single major topic of public conversation pre-Iraq War in Britain was immigration and asylum (levels of which as a percentage of population are but a fraction of what America gets every year). Sure, there were liberals taking the usual liberal line ('diversity is strength' 'newcomers refresh our society' etc.) but they were drowned out by hysterical ranting about foreigners coming to Britain to live off the welfare state and steal jobs from the natives. I'd see it everyday in the headlines in the right-wing papers, hear it in radio call-ins, hear people in pubs and buses saying it, read people ranting about it on the internet. The Guardian, which is probably the British newspaper that Americans know best, is one of the worst-selling, and certainly reflects no more than a minority view on issues of migration. The Times and The Telegraphy far outstrip it in broad-sheet readership, and they've never been shy about calling on the alarmists at Migration Watch for op-eds and talking points. And for all that Britain is undoubtedly one of the more tolerant countries in Europe. The attitudes are much harsher elsewhere.

In the continental states the matter is simpler, they just don't want immigrants. One of the new cornerstones of the American Right is that France, with its 10% Muslim minority, will be seized for Sharia within decades. Randy McDonald wrote an excellent article a while back debunking this, which is worth reading, but it is worth noting that all sectors of the French government have been pursuing minimal immigration policies since the 1970's, and the Extreme Right still routinely takes 15-20% of the vote. In a lot of parts of continental Europe, you may speak the language, you may dress the same way as the locals, you may have been born there, but to many (the majority?) of the locals, you are fundamentally an outsider. You are always going to be a Turk, or an Arab, or an African, and that is that. The multiculturalism that is officially encouraged doesn't help matters because it legitimizes ethnic separation and encourages the local population to see the newcomers as a permanent foreign presence.

If you speak to the average man on the street, the bigotry towards neighbors is still quite strong (Americans may joke about Canadians, but it is nothing compared to the visceral reaction you'll get if you ask many Englishmen their opinion about the French). If they still hold attitudes like this about people they've been dealing with for thousands of years, is it a shock that many people have still not accepted people from radically different cultures who have only been there for a couple decades? Much of the officially socially liberal ideology of Europe is papering over the cracks of much older, much more deeply held views of who you are; something that Americans don't really seem to consider.

* Hard data on the difference in attitudes towards the contribution of immigrants can be seen between this poll and this poll.

|| RPH || 9:46 PM || |