Politics & Policy

Is It Possible to Speak about Culture?

Swiss Peoples Party election poster in Yverdon. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty)
Trump-ism wins big in Switzerland.

Another populist anti-immigration party in Europe has made a very strong showing in a national election — the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) just won a third of the seats in parliament — and polite society is as always scandalized.

You’d think they’d be getting used to it. It may have happened while Senator Sanders wasn’t looking, but in Denmark, the country that currently serves as a beloved mascot of American progressives, the Danish People’s party took 21 percent of the vote in the 2015 general election, just behind the first-place Social Democrats with 26 percent; in reality, though, that wasn’t a second-place finish for the DPP, which picked up 15 seats while the Social Democrats picked up only three. The big issue for the DPP? Border controls, restrictions on immigration and asylum, and Euroskepticism.

In a pattern that will not be unfamiliar to those following the politics of “welfare chauvinism” — which is traditional welfare-statism fortified with nativism — the DPP’s win came largely at the expense of the free-market Venstre party, which seeks to reduce welfare spending while the DPP promises to increase it.

And so it goes: The anti-immigration, pro-welfare Sweden Democrats won 49 seats in parliament in the 2014 election. The UK Independence party, which was founded to oppose British submission to the European Union, has made immigration its centerpiece domestic concern, with party leader Nigel Farage calling it “the biggest single issue facing this party.” Its electoral clout continues to grow. In France, the National Front had a big year in the 2014 municipal and European elections, taking 25 percent of the vote. A 2015 poll commissioned by the left-leaning magazine Marianne found that National Front leader Marine Le Pen was the favorite to win the first round of the 2017 presidential elections. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Freedom party, which has called for a ban on immigration from Muslim countries, has gone in a few short years from non-existence to third-largest party. In 1993, there was a schism in Jörg Haider’s Austrian Freedom party (FPÖ), with a faction objecting to the party’s obsessive and sometimes extreme focus on immigration and nationalism breaking off to form a more conventional free-market party, which was never heard from again, while the FPÖ, now under new leadership, thrives as the third-largest party, lagging its two larger competitors by only a few percentage points in the elections.

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These movements are not interchangeable. Pim Fortuyn, the godfather of Dutch anti-multiculturalism, was a hedonistic gay libertarian who was keenly concerned about Islamic culture because of the quaint folk practice of torturing and murdering hedonistic gay libertarians. Jörg Haider was a bad apple from a family of Nazis, and, as they say, der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Stamm.

Donald Trump is a toothache of a man, but he is not alone.

#share#It is (relatively) easy to have a discussion about immigration as an economic issue or as a law-enforcement issue. But one despairs when wondering whether it is possible even to speak about immigration as a cultural issue. Trump cannot do it, but, given that he can rarely assemble a complete English sentence, this is no surprise. His epigones and his salesmen are even worse, a loose coalition of star-struck know-nothings, white nationalists on Twitter with Charles Martel avatars proudly proclaiming themselves the last true Christian knights in Mom’s basement, and media entrepreneurs whose main interest is in peddling gold coins and freeze-dried apocalypse lasagnas — a movement off its meds.

But . . . 

If you were to visit Tokyo and go looking for some Roppongi-style adventure and maybe one of those weirdly delicious curried cutlet things or a visit to a Shinto shrine, but arrived to find nothing but sallow men in black turtlenecks sipping espresso in smoky cafes and reading Baudelaire, nothing but pate and baguettes and Gothic cathedrals and everybody speaking French, you’d surely be feeling that something had been lost, and that that something was Japaneseness. It doesn’t mean that you hate France, only that we’ve already got one of those, and we like having a Japan, too. If you were a Japanese person alienated by the above scenario, that wouldn’t make you a racist. All of us, Japanese and gaijin alike, are likely to find something of value in Japaneseness.

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We Americans can be pretty funny about that: We find things to love about French culture, Japanese culture, Indian culture, Korean culture, German culture, Swiss culture, Mexican culture, Swedish culture — everything but American culture, which we aren’t quite sure exists. Coming from West Texas, I’ve seen billboards and newspaper ads in Spanish my whole life, gone to quinceañeras, looked forward to tamales at Christmas, and it’s no big deal: That’s just how West Texas is, always has been, and always will be. (The real-world prevalence of Spanish in Texas is wildly exaggerated. Julian Castro? No habla.) But if someone in Aroostook County, Maine, doesn’t feel the same way, I don’t think that makes him a bigot. Wallagrass isn’t El Paso.

The great irony of the cult of multiculturalism is that it rejects the actual diversity of the real world in aspiring for a relentless, pitiless sameness.

I’m not sure how I feel about the Swiss People’s Party. Some of their advertising and rhetoric makes me think that they don’t seem like an entirely splendid bunch of guys: Their most famous poster depicts a bunch of white sheep literally kicking a black sheep over the border. One detects some nasty undertones. But are they wrong for liking the Swissness of Switzerland? I like it a great deal, and it seems strange to begrudge them the same feeling about what is, after all, their country. French-hating was popular for about five minutes among conservatives a few years back, but one of the great and admirable things about the French is that they never apologize for being French, even if that sometimes means inventing absurd French phrases to avoid borrowing from foreign languages. (“Textopornographie”? “Mot-dièse”?) The great irony of the cult of multiculturalism is that it rejects the actual diversity of the real world in aspiring for a relentless, pitiless sameness.

#related#Like Donald Trump’s “Eek-a-Mexican!” school of social analysis, the rise of Europe’s sundry populist anti-immigration movements — which run the gamut from decent clear-eyed patriotism to skinhead hooliganism — are a testimony to the fact that when responsible people cede the field on an issue of deep and abiding national concern, it isn’t the issue that goes away but the responsibility. Democrats won’t talk about this for obvious reasons; most Republicans generally won’t talk much about it, either, because they are terrified of being called racists. (As I will be called, by somebody whose job it is to call people racists, for having written this column.) Economics should be an important consideration in making immigration policy — probably the most important consideration — but it isn’t the only consideration, because people aren’t widgets, and culture, as opposed to multiculturalism, has value. Thus the perennial popularity of propositions such as making English the official national language of the United States. (Pakistan, where the government uses English and very few people speak Urdu as their mother tongue, is moving in the opposite direction.) Americans watching the wave of so-called refugees rolling across Europe are worried about it for the same reason that the Swiss are; there may be some malice in it, some racism or xenophobia — but that is not all there is in it.

One wishes that Senator Rubio would at least in some small part take up the case. His immigrant roots and personal charm would do a great deal to insulate him from cynical charges of bigotry, and the discussion desperately needs a second voice, one not issuing from the uncrowded skull of Donald J. Trump or any of the supplementary fools and charlatans in his orbit. It is a different discussion in the United States than it is in Switzerland (with its population well less than that of metropolitan Los Angeles), but the underlying concerns are the same, and they are legitimate.

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