May 19, 2013
Battle at the extremes
Economic recession in Europe stirring up xenophobia
By Ivan Briscoe
For the Herald
Fisticuffs on a television show and thuggery on dark streets would not, in any normal circumstances, make up an attractive package for undecided voters. But in the gloomy hole of Greek economic life, where every route points further into the blackness, there is a limit to how much some people can blame themselves, their leaders or the system for the disaster that has unfolded since 2007. Especially when close to hand are some shifty looking poor people with funny coloured skins, who must be the real culprits.
Supporters of Golden Dawn, the Greek far-right party, made up 6.9 percent of the electorate in the June elections. Its rise, and its baleful influence on other parties, has moved in step with the withering of the Greek state and job market. And its message, short in content but loud in decibels, resonates across the population: keep jobs for the Greeks, expel all clandestine migrants, and (this not in jest) place landmines the length of the border with the Turkish infidel.
Though distancing itself from the proposals of a party with one foot in Parliament and the other in a bucket of anabolic steroids, the new centre-right Greek government has decided to empathize with some of its grievances. Thousands of police officers fanned out across central Athens this last week in a sweep for illegal migrants, arresting 6,000 of them and placing some in the first of 30 planned internment camps. It should be said that Greek cities have undoubtedly been corroded and degraded by crisis, their boarded-up zones recycled into squats and brothels where all-comers may live hand-to-mouth. Where the hard right of Golden Dawn and its government sympathisers grievously err, however, is in mistaking the effects of national decline for the cause.
Xenophobia of course is a term with Greek origins (literally, fear of strangers), and it may occasionally seem that the country has a unique claim on the sentiment. No prospective athlete in London showed such dumb-headed disregard for the Olympic spirit as the zealously peroxided triple-jumper Voula Papachristou, who welcomed the feasting of mosquitoes on the flesh of Africans in Athens. Her tweet saw her expelled from the Games, not before a profuse apology came to nothing.
But in no way should the Greeks be singled out. It doesn’t take much of a scan of modern Europe to find economic recession stirring up the more atavistic ethnic instincts. These may assume the shape of serial killers, or of quasi-vigilante movements, of the ilk of Golden Dawn or the English Defence League. They may seek to become conventional mass parties, as the Le Pens and the Freedom Party have attempted in France and the Netherlands respectively. They may even form a kind of atmospheric nimbus around serious official policy, not least in the Spanish government’s abrupt decision this week to deny all medical care to illegal immigrants unless they pay 710 euros by the end of August. Fortunately, it seems that the deeply humane Spanish medical profession will be having none of it.
Perhaps nothing is more illustrative of the chameleonic nature of xenophobia than the identity of the person who put words to Britain’s anti-immigrant crusade. Enoch Powell, in his upward surge through the ranks of British military intelligence in World War II, learnt how to translate Portuguese, Russian and Urdu, rounding off his already precocious command of the Classics — he was appointed a full university professor of Greek at the age of 25. After the war, he became one of the Conservative Party’s brightest lights.
Powell’s intellectual passion for foreign people’s tongues jars somewhat against the rather less intelligent feat of ethnic supremacy for which he is most widely known. True to form, it was the Latin poet Virgil that he turned to for validation, even if all he was doing was making the stock prediction that immigration would lead to violence and mayhem. “Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood,” he declared in 1968, thereby putting an epitaph on his political career even if he briefly bathed in mass popularity.
That such a brain should err like a bit of Grecian brawn is itself an interesting matter for biographical examination. Of course, debates about immigration, and how it should best be managed and regulated, are serious affairs. Excessive political correctness can also make such discussions hard, though it could be argued that foaming jeremiads like that of Powell bear much of the responsibility for any defensive liberal postures.
But from the vantage point of modern Europe, Powell’s interjection stands out primarily as a radical misreading of history. We do not need the Olympic Games to tell us that an assemblage of people from very different origins can perform exceptionally well. Nor is it clear, despite all the clamour of the far right in the midst of a deepening eurozone crisis, that xenophobia will outdo its rivals from the far left. It is the Robin Hood of Andalucian supermarkets, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, who seems best equipped to crystallize Spanish public sentiment. And in Holland, it is the hard-left Socialist Party which promises to challenge for power in elections in September, not the waning Freedom Party.
The thirst for vengeance is certainly acute in Europe. Yet as each country squabbles to impress its own national demands on the rest, hating the visible neighbours may increasingly seem a wasted enterprise compared to the merit of despising one’s neighbouring countries, or powers unseen.