(Originally posted in August 2014. I think the current situation in Europe makes it appropriate for a rerun)
Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too by Claire Berlinski
I read this book shortly after it came out in 2006, and just re-read it in the light of the anti-Semitic ranting and violence which is now ranging across Europe. It is an important book, deserving of a wide readership.
The author’s preferred title was “Blackmailed by History,” but the publisher insisted on “Menace.” Whatever the title, the book is informative, thought-provoking, and disturbing. Berlinski is good at melding philosophical thinking with direct observation. She holds a doctorate in international relations from Oxford, and has lived and worked in Britain, France, and Turkey, among other countries. (Dr Berlinski, may I call you Claire?)
The book’s dark tour of Europe begins in the Netherlands, where the murder of film director Theo van Gogh by a radical Muslim upset at the content of a film was quickly followed by the cancellation of that movie’s planned appearance at a film festival–and where an artist’s street mural with the legend “Thou Shalt Not Kill” was destroyed by order of the mayor of Rotterdam, eager to avoid giving offense to Muslims. (“Self-Extinguishing Tolerance” is the title of the chapter on Holland.) Claire moves on to Britain and analyzes the reasons why Muslim immigrants there have much higher unemployment and lower levels of assimilation than do Muslim immigrants to the US, and also discusses the unhinged levels of anti-Americanism that she finds among British elites. (Novelist Margaret Drabble: “My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease. It rises up in my throat like acid reflux…”) While there has always been a certain amount of anti-Americanism in Britain, the author notes that “traditionally, Britain’s anti-American elites have been vocal, but they have generally been marginalized as chattering donkeys” but that now, with 1.6 million Muslim immigrants in Britain (more worshippers at mosques than at the Church of England), the impact of these anti-Americans can be greatly amplified. (Today, there are apparently more British Muslims fighting for ISIS than serving in the British armed forces.)
One of the book’s most interesting chapters is centered around the French farmer and anti-globalization leader Jose Bove, whose philosophy Berlinski summarizes as “crop worship”….”European men and women still confront the same existential questions, the same suffering as everyone who has ever been born. They are suspicious now of the Church and of grand political ideologies, but they nonetheless yearn for the transcendent. And so they worship other things–crops, for example, which certain Europeans, like certain tribal animists, have come to regard with superstitious awe.”
The title of this chapter is “Black-Market Religion: The Nine Lives of Jose Bove,” and Berlinski sees the current Jose Bove as merely one in a long line of historical figures who hawked similar ideologies. They range from a man of unknown name born in Bourges circa AD 560, to Talchem of Antwerp in 1112, through Hans the Piper of Niklashausen in the late 1400s, and on to the “dreamy, gentle, and lunatic Cathars” of Languedoc and finally to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Berlinski sees all these people as being basically Christian heretics, with multiple factors in common. They tend appeal to those whose status or economic position is threatened, and to link the economic anxieties of their followers with spiritual ones. Quite a few of them have been hermits at some stage in their lives. Most of them have been strongly anti-Semitic. And many of the “Boves” have been concerned deeply with purity…Bove coined the neologism malbouffe, which according to Google Translate means “junk food,” but Berlinski says that translation “does not capture the full horror of bad bouffe, with its intimation of contamination, pollution, poison.” She observes that “the passionate terror of malbouffe–well founded or not–is also no accident; it recalls the fanatic religious and ritualistic search for purity of the Middle Ages, ethnic purity included. The fear of poisoning was widespread among the millenarians…” (See also this interesting piece on environmentalist ritualism as a means of coping with anxiety and perceived disorder.)
Moving on to Italy, Claire focuses on the extremely low birthrate in that country–1.4 births per woman, far below replacement rate, slightly lower than the European average of 1.5, much lower than the 2.1 number for France. (The number for the United States is 2.0) Though various economic explanations have been advanced for this situation, Claire notes that “if a woman badly wants to have a baby, she will go to great lengths to do so, whatever the economic obstacles and inconvenience…One need only spend a day at a fertility clinic to see that this is so.” She connects the low fertility level with the declining aesthetic quality of the places where most Italians live. In the suburbs of Perugia, for example: “The buildings are tall and unornamental. They are not made of local stone and they do not use local colors…If historically the Italian city was contrived to draw city dwellers into the streets in a kind of daily communal celebration, these suburbs seem designed to foster anomie and indifference to civic life…Italy’s coastlines, too, have been desecrateed from end to end with urban sprawl, industrial parks, landfills, and unremittingly ugly tourist resorts…This is not the inevitable consequence of economic development: The California coastlines are by comparison pristine, and California’s economy is roughly the size of Italy’s.”
Referencing the emphasis on beauty in the traditional Italian city (Stendhal, visiting Florence: “the tide of emotion was as intense as a religious feeling”), Claire asks, “How is it that the inheritors of Italian culture have lost the genius for creating this kind of beauty? And what does it mean that they have?”…and connects the aesthetic issue to the low fertility rate. She cites a letter she received from an Israeli (immigrant from the United States) who is father of eight children:
People who live in civilizations with a strong sense of history are more likely to want to have more kids. If you are encouraged to think of your culture as something important within the flow of human history, something that is handed from one generation to the next, then you will feel a debt to the past and an obligation to the future…Conversely, societies that discourage reverence for the past, that discourage loyalty in general, will almost automatically undermine any kind of vision for the future…The result: People are more likely to have fewer kids.
(And perhaps also, Claire suggests, more likely to create ugly architecture.) She also notes that the former Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Spain) have birthrates showing especially rapid declines, and wonders whether this is partly a reaction to the pro-large-family propaganda of the Nazi and Fascist governments, and even whether, in some way, “the experiences of the Second World War convinced people in these countries, at a deep, inarticulate level, that they do not deserve to exist.”
Speaking of former Axis powers, the book’s chapter on Germany focuses on the rock group Rammstein. “Their music is extremely sophisticated and superbly orchestrated”…and, in combination with the lyrics and their on-stage act, more than a little disturbing. Concerning their song Reise, Reise (listen here), Claire says:
“Reise, Reise” begins with the sound of lonely waves and gulls, an ominous warlike pounding, and the primitive chanting of sailors in a galley. Suddenly the listener is steamrollered by smashing drums, violent bass, and a full choir, amplified to unspeakable levels. A written account is a pale simulacrum. The song is powerful, stirring, and unbelievably effective–the effect, the intended effect, being to engorge the listener with thrilling aggression.
Rammstein is apparently quite popular among nationalists and people who want to see a restoration of German pride; however, the band insists that they are politically on the Left rather than the Right, and indeed that their orientation is pacifist. (They were very opposed to the war in Iraq.) Claire notes that Rammstein vocalist Lindemann urges audiences to “Mit dem Herzen denken!” (“Think with your heart!”), and that the National Socialist Speaker’s Corps was instructed to use those words exactly when addressing its audiences.
(It may be relevant to note that all Rammstein’s six members were born and raised behind the Berlin Wall. In fairness, it should also be noted that one of them, Richard Kruspe, married a Jew and adopted his new wife’s name–which fact has been “seized upon with great relief by fans eager to believe that the band’s music has nothing to do with what it seems to be about.”)
The book identifies several factors as causative for the current state of the European polity and the European soul:
First, there is the decline of Christianity, which has been much sharper in Europe than in the United States. “From the time of Constantine’s conversion, Europe was above all a Christian continent, with every aspect of its political, social, and family life reflected through the prism of Christian faith…Almost a third of the Dutch no longer know why Christmas is celebrated. When asked by pollsters to name an inspirational figure, British respondents placed Christ well below Britney Spears.” Claire continues: “My point in making these observations could easily be misunderstood: I am not an apologist for the Church, an enemy of secularism, or an advocate of religious revivalism; I am in fact a secular Jew who is delighted never to have faced the Inquisition. I am simply reporting what I see.”
Second, there was the catastrophe of the two World Wars and the resulting destructive effect on every form of idealism. “All secular substitutes for faith, and particularly those based in a notion of the supremacy of European culture. What Frenchman can stand before the graveyards of Ypres or Verdun and without choking on the words profess his allegiance to the mission civalatrice? The nation-state, the arts, music, science, fascism, communism, and even rationality—all of these were substitutes for Christianity, and all failed.”
French philosopher Chantal Desol, the book notes, asserted that utopian ideologies were in their capacity to awe and inspire like cathedrals, and Europe has watched the collapse of one cathedral after another. “Desol likens experiments in utopianism, particularly in its communist and fascist expressions, to Icaraus’s attempts to soar to the sun, and remarks that the failure of these experiments has left modern man as she imagines the fallen Icarus, humbled and paralyzed by self-doubt. (Claire: “Modern European man, I should interject: Americans neither conducted these experiments not do they live with their consequences.”)
The decline of both religion and ideology has left the door open for black-market belief systems. “Bizarre pseudoreligious substitutes” include anti-Americanism, antiglobalism, “undifferentiated antimodernism and anti-Semitism,” and the kind of Crop Worship represented by the ideas of Jose Bove.
Neither the declining Christian churches nor the various black-market pseudoreligions hold much attraction for Europe’s large numbers of Muslim immigrants, who hold to their own belief system and in many cases expect the larger society to make major adjustments to their ways of doing things to accommodate that belief system.
Finally, there is the attempt at European consolidation represented by the EU, and the limitations and outright failures of that attempt. “The fantasy of Europe has adopted so prominent a role in the consciousness of French intellectuals that no one will speak plainly of it. No one is prepared to express what the majority of French voters really feel. But ask a French taxi driver. You’ll hear it. To hell with Europe.” (Regarding the rock group Rammstein, Claire notes that its music is German. “Not European, German. A sensibility has been passed, from generation to generation to generation. The Danes don’t make music like this, and neither do the Portuguese. Nor do the Irish, the Macedonians, or the Belgians.” As a kind of reductio ad absurdum, Claire says: “Imagine Rammstein’s lyrics sung in French. For particular hilarity, imagine them sung by Maurice Chevalier”…”It has often been remarked that people reveal their souls in the music they create, and that a nation’s music bears a relationship to its social, moral, and political life.”
Menace in Europe is a dark book–so well-written and frequently witty, though, as to make reading it not as depressing as it otherwise might be. Is it too dark–too one-sidedly negative about Europe’s current condition and likely future? Read it, ponder, and form your own opinion.
Here’s a video interview with Claire about the book, done shortly after its publication.
Also see Sleeping with the Enemy, my review/essay about Arthur Koestler’s 1950 novel The Age of Longing, a work which deals in fictional form with European loss of religious and ideological faith.