Thursday, July 28, 2011

Buchanan Defends Breivik

Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise, but right-wing anti-Islamic voices in Europe and the United States have been coming to the defense of Anders Breivik, the perpetrator of last week’s brutal terrorist attacks in Norway.

Admittedly, they haven’t defended his violent actions. What they’ve defended is his cause. Breivik conceived his terrorist acts as part of a crusade against the intrusion of Islam into European culture, and against the “multiculturalists” and “cultural Marxists” he took to be abetting this invasion. Breivik’s defenders are denouncing what he did—denouncing it as the wrong way to pursue the cause. But they want to say that the cause itself is just.

It is tempting to respond with nothing but indignation—but such a response is insufficient. Let’s be clear about something: An idea may be sound even if it is espoused by a violent fanatic. If Hitler declared that 2 plus 2 equaled 4, he’d be right. Right-wing defender’s of Breivik’s cause (such as Pat Buchanan, whom I'll get to in a minute) want to say something along these lines: Yes, he’s mad and his means are horrific, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Let’s not discard the anti-Islamic, anti-multiculturalist worldview just because one man systematically slaughtered summer campers in its name.

The problem with this thinking, however, is that there is real reason to believe that Breivik’s ideas here lend themselves to violence. It’s no accident that those who see the world in terms of an intractable conflict between “us” and “them” are also those who are most likely to resort to terrorist violence. And even those who don’t resort to violence themselves nevertheless contribute to the polarization of social groups, the animosity and distrust across ethnic and religious lines that in the long run breeds violence.

Consider Pat Buchanan, whose recent essay, “A fire bell in the night for Norway,” reflects on Friday’s terrorist atrocity. He rightly anticipates that Breivik’s acts will inspire some thinkers to dig through Breivik’s manifesto to uncover the ideological seeds of violence—and he anticipates that those on the left will call attention to the lurking dangers in at least some of the right-wing notions Breivik espouses.

But rather than acknowledge the power of ideas to shape behavior—and the responsibility for caution that therefore falls on those with a public platform—Buchanan instead frames an international tragedy and the efforts to understand its etiology as a left-wing smear campaign against the American right:

[Breivik’s] writings are now being mined for references to U.S. conservative critics of multiculturalism and open borders. Purpose: Demonize the American right, just as the berserker's attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson was used to smear Sarah Palin and Timothy McVeigh's Oklahoma City bombing was used to savage Rush Limbaugh and conservative critics of Big Government.
One can’t deny that some on the left will be opportunists in this way—although hardly everyone on the left was being merely opportunistic in calling out Sarah Palin and others for using militant “lock and load” rhetoric after a madman’s assassination-attempt against one of the politicians Palin had put in the crosshairs. Some (like me) were motivated by a sincere concern that such rhetoric contributes to a cultural climate in which violence is more likely.

Likewise, the existence of political opportunists on the left doesn’t mean that those who draw connections between certain right-wing ideas and Breivik’s violent mindset are necessarily wrong to do so. The question is whether a sound case can be made for this connection. It certainly cannot be made with respect to conservative political ideas taken as a whole. And I'm not inclined the think the right is alone in harboring dangerous ideas.

But I think a case can be made that certain pugnacious ideas enjoying popularity among right-wing pundits today played a role in shaping the horror in Norway. More specifically, I think it can be made with respect to the core idea from Breivik’s manifesto that Buchanan endorses—namely, the inescapability (and justifiability?) of a “Crusader's war between the real Europe and the ‘cultural Marxists’ and Muslims they invited in to alter the ethnic character and swamp the culture of the Old Continent.”

Here is what Buchanan says:

But, awful as this atrocity was, native-born and homegrown terrorism is not the macro-threat to the continent.

That threat comes from a burgeoning Muslim presence in a Europe that has never known mass immigration, its failure to assimilate, its growing alienation, and its sometime sympathy for Islamic militants and terrorists.

Europe faces today an authentic and historic crisis.

With her native-born populations aging, shrinking and dying, Europe's nations have not discovered how to maintain their prosperity without immigrants. Yet the immigrants who have come – from the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia – have been slow to learn the language and have failed to attain the educational and occupational levels of Europeans…
Buchanan is right that Europe confronts important challenges brought on by the introduction of diverse cultures into its previously homogenious populations. What is deeply troubling is the lesson that Buchanan reaches from this, expressed in his concluding flourish:

As for a climactic conflict between a once-Christian West and an Islamic world that is growing in numbers and advancing inexorably into Europe for the third time in 14 centuries, on this one, Breivik may be right.
With these closing words, Buchanan seeks to evoke the specter of armed invasion, of Muslim armies coming to conquer. But immigration is not invasion. And while there are legitimate issues pertaining to regulating immigration and promoting the healthy integration of an immigrant community into the society into which it settles, it is easy to confuse the desire to preserve one’s cultural identity in a new land with a resistance to healthy integration. Likewise, it is easy to confuse conflict with violence, and so to see the inevitability of cultural conflict as the inevitability of violence.

These confusions are ones that pundits like Buchanan routinely exploit. The result is that previously homogeneous societies, rather than looking for ways to transition peacefully and painlessly into the greater multiculturalism that demographic realities and globalization make inevitable, find themselves resisting even the small-scale diversity one finds in places like Norway.

The result is as predictable as it is paradoxical. The accusation that immigrants refuse to integrate is used as a justification for practices that further isolate and marginalize the immigrant communities. Rather than looking for ways to promote integration, communities are encouraged to resent the immigrant communities. On a deep cultural level, a wall is built up around the immigrants. And their further isolation and failure to integrate is used to vindicate the resentment.

In other words, Buchanan’s species of rhetoric contributes to a feedback loop that deepens the divide between immigrant communities and the societies they have come to inhabit. The difficult challenge of building bridges of community across ethnic and cultural divides—a challenge that must be met if healthy coexistence is to happen—is not just made harder. The cultural resources needed to meet that challenge are instead redirected to building higher walls.

And behind those walls, resentments fester. Without sustained positive interactions with the broader population, there is little to neutralize or mute the resentments. Extremist elements become more potent and are more likely to be quietly supported—or at least not actively opposed.

In short, the accusation that immigrant communities are a “problem” that pose a “threat” becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The polarization, the in-group/out-group ideologies, becomes increasingly entrenched—and parties on both sides view the other with growing paranoia and hostility. Until, finally, someone strikes out with shattering violence.

While we cannot deny that there are extremists who wear the mantle of Islam—any more than we can deny that there are extremists who wear the mantle of Christianity—the kind of mistrustful anti-Muslim sentiments expressed by Pat Buchanan and those like him can only fuel the fires that generate extremists of both sorts. If terrorism has a cause—a root cause in the human psyche—it is the pattern of us-them thinking encouraged by Buchanan and others like him. Although Buchanan’s rhetoric is more cautious than extremist manifestos of people like Breivik, this may not be a virtue. It may only serve to make a pernicious ideology more palatable, and hence more likely to be swallowed.

Polarizing us-them thinking needs to end. Breivik’s crimes show us why. Buchanan, astonishingly, reaches instead the conclusion that when it comes to his vision of a Crusaders’ war between Europeans and Muslims, “Breivik may be right.” I can hardly think of a more inverted lesson to draw from last week’s terror.


  1. The concern that I have, despite my general 'live and let live' attitude towards those coming from different cultures, is that (some) Muslim immigrants seem to want to cling to aspects of their culture that simply cannot and should not be tolerated in a liberal democratic society. I don't think we can write off honor killings, domestic abuse toward women who are not properly subjugated to their husbands, and beatings of those who criticize Islam as an innocent clinging to one's culture and heritage. There should be no room for or attempt to compromise here: either immigrants agree to abide by Western laws and accept the individualism and protection of basic rights that form its conceptual foundations, or they should not be allowed in Western countries.

  2. J.D.-- I don't disagree with this. There are real challenges that emerge when immigrants from one cultural group settle in a host society with very different values, and there are some differences which cannot be resolved by "live and let live" accomodation.

    The question is whether we are better served, when addressing such conflicts, by building bridges or by building walls. Seeking to build community at the point of conflict does not mean compromising fundamental values; but it does mean seeking to find common ground and create relationships which reduce radicalization and hostility when the host society does say, "On THIS we cannot accommodate."

  3. J.D.

    Is it worth considering, I wonder, the role access to power and opportunity plays in the shaping of cultural values? So, for example, in my country some thirty years ago we went through a period of dramatic economic rationalisation that in effect created a new class of dispossessed. Three decades later, as the children of the children of the poor enter our school system, we bemoan the loss of our traditional values.

    A reverse sort process seems to sometimes happen with immigrant groups. The extent to which a group adapts to new environments can perhaps be closely linked to the extent to which that group has access to social and economic opportunities.

    Essentially, if you want middle class values, you need to provide access to the middle class lifestyle. At this point, the bridge building project Eric refers to becomes viable.