Ross Douthat on the Brink

Courtesy of Flickr user Rasande Tyskar via Creative Commons

Before I tell you why Ross Douthat’s latest New York Times column, “Germany on the Brink,” is so very disturbing, let me make clear that he and I see eye-to-eye on some of the issues he discusses. That we share common concerns over the place of Syrian and other refugees in Europe, however, only makes his conclusions that much more alarming.

Though I often appreciate Douthat’s work (including his book, Bad Religion), this most recent column leaves me shaken. I am wondering just how deeply anti-Muslim animus extends among America’s elite. To avoid a return to fascism, Douthat suggests Europe pursue proposals fascists themselves would encourage.

It is, if you will, a Munich moment. His own. Welcome to Donald Trump’s America, where what was barely mentionable a few years ago can now be passed off as reasonable.

Cologne Under Attack

Over the New Year’s holiday, hundreds of women were abused, harassed, molested, and even raped, by roving bands of vicious young men, including Arab, North African, and even Syrian refugees among them. The attacks were outrageous, and terrifying, and alarming.

“Though Douthat’s column is about Germany on the brink, at least Europe’s most powerful country hovers at the edge. We, I fear, have crossed the Rubicon…”

To understand what happened, read Buzzfeed’s Rossalyn Warren, who has covered the story as it’s unfolded, and managed to not only draw out what happened the night of the assaults and rapes, but the inexcusable delays and denials by German police, and their consequences for German and European politics.

If however you want to know how what happened might be used to advance another agenda, consider Douthat’s column. Douthat describes the terrible assaults in Cologne as not the fault of several dozen youth, but Arab and Muslim culture entirely, the kind of conclusion we’d expect from a Pamela Geller, or a Tommy Robinson.

Not a New York Times columnist.

Speaking of the large numbers of mostly male refugees entering Germany and Western Europe, Douthat writes that “many of these men carry assumptions about women’s roles that are diametrically opposed to the values of contemporary Europe.” How, exactly? He coyly cites a Norwegian curriculum for migrants which notes that “in Europe, ‘to force someone into sex is not permitted.’”

Where, I wonder, is it permitted?

Does Douthat mean to say that huge numbers of these men carry beliefs, or represent cultures, where rape is considered acceptable? If so, what cultures would those be? Douthat likely means Muslim and Arab cultures are “rape cultures,” while Christians—pardon me, “Judeo-Christians,” which is the catchphrase for a more polite bigotry—honor women.

Many of the refugees entering Germany are however from Eastern Europe, and not the Middle East, the same Eastern Europe where very recently tens of thousands of Muslim women were systematically raped by radical Serb nationalists. These rape camps went in one direction: against Muslims. There were no Bosniak camps for the rape of Serb or Croat women.

I do not mean to argue by this that Christian culture is less respectful of the sexual dignity of the individual than Muslim culture, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as “Christian culture” or “Muslim culture.” I also mean to point out that any such division that Douthat pretends to is fantastical.

Europe did not need large numbers of Muslim migrants to suffer catastrophic sexual crime, because sexual violence crosses all boundaries. Harassment, molestation, rape and other violence and abuse of women is tragically far more common than we care to admit, and not the province of any one country, culture, class or community. This is, of course, not to excuse the misogynistic and patriarchal language that emerges from many Muslim spaces and institutions.

It is rather to put that into its unfortunate context. Just this week, a young woman was gang-raped in Brooklyn in a public park. The men alleged to be responsible are hardly even men; the suspects are young teens. It took decades for Bill Cosby’s accusers to even be noticed, let alone taken seriously.

In Germany, meanwhile, the very country we are discussing, in Regensburg—the very same place where Pope Benedict gave his now infamous address on the supposed difference between Islam and Christendom—some two hundred boys may have been sexually violated (the allegations go from “fondling” to “rape”) over several decades. Perhaps, just to be safe, we should kick out all Catholic clergy from Germany, or eject the Catholic Church entirely from any place where it functions. To do otherwise would be “reckless.”RDinboxIf you think that language is offensive, consider that at least I am targeting a religious institution, which can bear responsibility for the actions of its employees.

Douthat proposes not just “closing Germany’s borders to new arrivals for the time being,” which of course means that no refugees can be accepted (a much more reasonable proposal would be to reduce numbers, or stress family reunification, or dramatically slow down the pace of admittance). I agree that simply letting in huge waves of individuals without checks, constraints, or knowledge of how they will be accommodated, given work and responsibilities, or made to understand an entirely new and unfamiliar society—not to mention coming to terms with the immense trauma they’ve experienced—is, as Douthat says, “reckless.”

But hear his solution.

“An orderly deportation process,” he writes, “for able-bodied young men.” The key word here is “orderly.” That kind word functions to veil the violence, ugliness and nastiness of what he proposes, which is that rounding up tens of thousands of people and ejecting them—to where?—is possible. Preferable. Even defensible. This is, mind you, what Donald Trump proposes to do in America to huge numbers of people, including, apparently, American citizens. Remember how he feels about “anchor babies.”

If this is where it starts, where does it end?

The Douthat Doctrine

From a geographic point of view, this proposal of mass deportation is impossible to understand. To where would these huge numbers of young men be sent? Would it depend (arbitrarily) on when they arrived? For what crime would they be pushed out? If they are being deported en masse because of an assumed criminality, which country would want them? It reminds me of the predicament of the innocent wrongly detained at Guantanamo, who were held for so long that one reasonably fears they have now at last become the radicals we once feared they were. Operation Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.

“…to say that because one is a young healthy man, one should suffer for another’s misdeeds—on the grounds of one’s shared race and religion and age—is the very definition of bigotry.”

The key word here would be Kafkaeseque. Guilty until proven innocent or, to use a word which performs the same function in right-wing discourse, “Muslim.” Since we don’t know if we can trust them, let’s assume we can’t.

From a security point of view, this proposal is dubious at best. Forcing out huge numbers of Muslim men would probably mean sending them back to, say, Syria, although, of course, many are not Syrian, they are from other parts of Europe, and come from countries which are applying to join the EU or planning to. So much, I suppose, for the trustworthiness and fellowship upon which a common European Union, so critical to American security, would be built.

From a strategic point of view, this proposal would be a major fail.

The deportation would be of all kinds of Muslims, after all, from Albanian to Iranian to Pakistani to Syrian, from Sunni to Shia, from religious to secular. All that matters is that they are Muslim. I predict “We Told You So” might be the title of the next ISIS recruitment video. Spurned, rejected, and maligned, where do you think they would go? No, not ideologically, but existentially—they would have nowhere else to go. For those who are Syrian, their lives would be at great risk by having tried to flee Assad’s military or ISIS’ brutality. They would now only be able to keep their loved ones safe by proving their loyalty to a cause from which they had just fled.

From a moral point of view, this proposal is odious at least.

Donald Trump’s logic was that because some Muslims committed a crime, all Muslims should be denied entry to the country; because Syed Farouk and Tashfeen Malik are murderers, the family members of Syed Farouk and Tashfeen Malik should be murdered. Douthat’s proposal—and I do not mean this lightly—operates on the exact same logic. Because some men of Arab and Muslim descent committed a crime, all should be penalized.

By all means, the perpetrators of the crimes in Cologne should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. What they have done is abominable and disgusting. But to say that because one is a young healthy man, one should suffer for another’s misdeeds—on the grounds of one’s shared race and religion and age—is the very definition of bigotry. And it is, in the instance of Douthat’s column, evidence of how far this sentiment has worked its way into our public conversations.

Though Douthat’s column is about Germany on the brink, at least Europe’s most powerful country hovers at the edge. We, I fear, have crossed the Rubicon, and not only because a columnist like Ross Douthat is mooting “orderly” deportations, which, I gather, is how a more mannered version of Donald Trump might describe his intentions for Mexicans . Recall that they too were all framed as “rapists” and “murderers,” all of them so described based on the actions of a small number.

The Maligned of the West

Like Douthat, I too am worried about how an “aging, secularized, heretofore-mostly-homogenous society is likely to peacefully absorb a migration of that size and scale of cultural difference.” He means Germany specifically, but his words could apply to most of Europe, facing a similar challenge from large numbers of refugees, many of them Syrian, but many from the Balkans, Iran, Afghanistan, or Pakistan.

The key word here is “peacefully,” as in the likelihood of “peacefully absorbing a migration of that size and scale of cultural difference.” (I will overlook the use of the word “migration,” although Syrians, at least, are fleeing a war zone, not simply making a radical life choice.) Because Douthat is, on this, not wrong.

As Douthat notes, the arrival of large numbers of Muslims into parts of Europe alien to them “promises increasing polarization among natives and new arrivals alike.”

He suggests what I too fear might come next: That their presence “threatens not just a spike in terrorism but a rebirth of 1930s-style political violence.” Fascism, he means.

Even as I am angered by the anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe that denies compassion to victims of war and violence, I do remain discomfited by the prospect of many Europeans, many with no prior experience of religious diversity, all but forced to accept huge numbers of refugees by governments already seen as aloof and unconcerned. No person of color can sit by and watch the circulation of memes like #WhiteGenocide, or the rise of groups like PEGIDA, and remain entirely unmoved. Would the arrival of great numbers of refugees, mostly but not wholly Muslim, without any authority having any reliable indicator of who they are, or how they would be cared for, make things better or worse?

Seeking asylum in countries plagued by escalating Islamophobia seems like jumping from the fire into the frying pan. It may not feel hot yet, but give it some time. And, as the example of prior instances of white supremacist violence indicate, there is no guarantee that animosity towards Muslims will remain directed towards Muslims. So how can we stop that fascism?

Contra Douthat, here are my suggestions.

A better, smarter, safer European response to the refugee crisis would involve multiple approaches, respectful of the fears and anxieties of Europeans, and of course the great needs of suffering refugees. This would mean dumping a failed austerity policy which has only caused increased misery in the very countries that are entry points, and who are made to bear the burden of processing refugees; developing a common security policy; real shared borders (which means shared entry points); and a mechanism for distributing refugees. All who sought to enter would be vetted at point of entry, not simply pushed from one country to the next, in the hope that someone else would solve the problem.

We could also debate other forms of assistance, from investing more energy into ending Syria’s war, or supporting those countries that have accepted so many refugees already. (A graceful acknowledgement, meanwhile, of Canada, whose election was in part decided over Islamophobia—namely, Canadians rejected anti-Muslim animus and voted in a more progressive politician.) That means there is no single direction in which Western anxieties might travel, not to mention the commonplace that not all nations are alike. But Douthat’s suggestion, his preferred outcome—in addition to seeing Angela Merkel go—is itself a polite variant of the very fascism he warns about. That doesn’t mean he is himself a fascist.

It just means he is very close to the edge.

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