A Final Round with Rod Dreher
Why we should resist playing Orbán's dangerous game
There are some similarities between a subscription newsletter and a blog—lack of independent editing, permission to write somewhat informally, and the freedom to focus and even fixate on just about anything, including a dispute with an old friend. I’m grateful for that flexibility, but I’m also on guard against abusing it.
If this were a blog, I might spend the entire week going another half-dozen rounds with my friend Rod Dreher, following up on my post from last Friday. Instead, I’m permitting myself just one more round to offer a rejoinder to Rod’s response and to answer some pointed questions he directs at me (and other Western liberals) in its conclusion. But that will be it. Any further cycles of disputation will be relegated, on my end at least, to Twitter. (That doesn’t include a related post I may write at the end of this week about Viktor Orbán’s speech at CPAC coming up on Thursday.)
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I urge readers to look at Rod’s response to my post. It is characteristically thoughtful, generous, meandering, and recursive. But before I get to the substance of what he’s written there, I can’t resist pointing to the tweet Rod used to promote it:
In this tweet, though not in the response itself, Rod says Orbán committed a “gaffe” in his speech decrying the mixing of races in Europe. That’s amusing to me, especially if we assume Rod is using the term in the sense employed by journalist Michael Kinsley to mean a statement in which a politician accidentally declares a truth he isn’t supposed to admit. I’m quite happy to consider the seemingly racist statements in Orbán’s speech, including a strong plug for Jean Raspail’s appalling 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, to be gaffes in which he inadvertently let slip the truth about what lies behind his attitude toward Muslim immigration to Europe. But given Rod’s strenuous efforts to defend Orbán against the charge of racism, I fear reading his tweet this way would turn the tweet itself into a Kinsley gaffe in which Rod unintentionally let on that he knows Orbán’s motives are indeed racist.
That’s an amusing thought, but probably too clever by half. Taking it seriously would plunge us into a debate about Orbán’s true beliefs, which would be a waste of everyone’s time. I couldn’t care less if the president of Hungary is personally a racist. What I do care about is whether he’s legitimizing and positively encouraging the racism of voters in Hungary and across Europe for political gain. And I’m quite sure that’s exactly what he’s doing.
A Distinctly Muslim Threat?
Before trying to defend that assertion, I want to quote the three questions Rod poses to me at the end of his response, since the remainder of my rejoinder serves as my answer to them.
Do you think that Europeans have a right to be concerned about mass Islamic migration to Europe?
And if so, how should they respond, both in terms of rhetoric and policy to avoid being guilty of racism?
If you believe that there is no morally acceptable response that involves halting mass migration, why should people who want to keep things the way they are not turn to illiberal politicians who promise to defend the nation from mass migration?
In my view, Europeans have a “right” to be concerned about anything they want—though I have a lot of questions about the arguments Orbán and Rod deploy in order to justify and politically mobilize their concerns about Muslims. Why, for example, would Orbán invoke The Camp of the Saints in a speech about the dangers of Islamic immigration? Rod is quite right to note that I made a mistake in my original post in claiming that the dark-skinned, filthy, sexually profligate immigrants in Raspail’s novel are Muslims. There’s no reason to presume they are. Their armada departs from Calcutta, India, most likely making them Hindus, though, if memory serves, that religious difference doesn’t play a significant role in the book. The invading hordes that bring Europe to its knees are a threat not because they adhere to any particular religion but because they are from the Third World and, as Raspail describes them, they are viscerally disgusting in their difference.
Yet Orbán nonetheless thinks the book is “outstanding” and urges people to read it—because he sees it as providing an accurate depiction of the spiritual state of European elites. Both in the book and in present-day European capitals, he implies, these elites are so afraid of being called racists that they would rather see the continent overrun by foreigners who dissolve its cultural distinctiveness than fight to defend that distinctiveness. The longing for expiation of past sins (especially imperialism) has led the European ruling class to exhibit a self-loathing that will ultimately culminate in civilizational suicide.
For Rod, civilizational suicide means the extinction of Christianity in the West, and he often projects those concerns onto Orbán—as he did in another recent tweet in which he shared a map showing the percentage of Europeans in each country who say they “believe in God with absolute certainty,” the implication being that countries like France and Germany, where only about a tenth of the population is strongly pious, are teetering on the brink.
But what does this map really show? First of all, that the spiritual condition of Hungary, at just 26 percent, is much closer to heavily secular France and Germany than it is to its neighbor Romania, where Orbán delivered his controversial “race mixing” speech, and where nearly two thirds of the country affirms strong religious beliefs.
The map also shows pretty clearly that the size of a country’s Muslim population has nothing much to do with the robustness of its overall religious convictions. Bosnia and Herzegovina is 52 percent Muslim and 66 percent of the population says it never doubts the existence of God. But Romania hits a nearly identical 64 percent level of undoubting piety with a Muslim population of just 0.3 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, just 13 percent of people in the Czech Republic say they believe in God with absolute certainty when Muslims make up just 0.2 percent of the population, while a number of other countries on the low end of the piety scale (including France, Germany, Sweden, and Austria) have Muslim populations higher than 5 percent of the total.
All of which leaves me wondering exactly what Muslim immigration is supposed to do with the fate of Christianity in the West—and what Orbán’s hostility to “race mixing” really has to do with Islam. Recall, once again, that The Camp of the Saints is a book about the existential threat posed by non-Muslims from India. And keep in mind that Trump voters in the United States have similar fears about immigrants from Mexico and other “shithole” counties, nearly all of which are majority Christian.
Then there is Update 2 of Rod’s original post about Orbán’s speech, which I mentioned in my last post. As part of that update, Rod shared a chart comparing Africa’s rapidly rising population to Europe’s demographic stagnation and spoke ominously about how bad it will be when those Africans begin flooding into Europe. Note that Rod said nothing to distinguish the largely Muslim population of Northern Africa from the predominantly Christian population of sub-Saharan Africa. Even if the preservation of Christianity in Europe necessitates closing its doors to Islam, why not throw them open to Christian immigrants from Africa? Wouldn’t doing so bolster Christianity’s strength in the EU?
Grassroots Revulsion to Difference
Somehow I doubt Orbán and Rod would consider this a good idea—and that must be because all this talk about the distinctive threat Islam poses to Europe is being deployed to cover over a different, and far broader, concern. Among many ordinary Caucasian Europeans voters, that more fundamental thing is a visceral revulsion at the prospect of having to live side-by-side and share a country with (often poor) people who look different, smell different, speak different languages and dialects, worship God differently, eat different food, view gender roles differently, dress differently, and so forth. I have a hard time believing that racism and xenophobia aren’t a significant part of this widespread visceral revulsion.
This doesn’t mean people who feel this way don’t have a “right” to those feelings. They do, and democratically elected politicians from mainstream parties need to respond to such feelings by representing them. If they don’t, more extreme parties of the far right will rise up to do so instead, and they will benefit politically from their willingness to advocate for policies the mainstream rules out of bounds. On that Rod and I are in complete agreement.
Where we diverge, I think, is in our views of precisely how mainstream parties and politicians—and conscientious intellectuals and journalists—should respond to grassroots revulsion to difference.
In my view, politicians should combine responsiveness to anti-immigrant sentiments with rhetorical efforts to moderate it. What they should not do is cultivate, encourage, and legitimize such feelings by constructing elaborate theories to stoke them, let alone talk about them in sloppy, demagogic ways that intensify the popular propensity toward outright bigotry, let alone violence, against immigrants already living in country.
Donald Trump, as always, defines the outer limits of rhetorical sloppiness and demagoguery. That’s one reason why he is, if not (yet) an outright fascist, at least pretty fasc-ish in all kinds of ways, very much including the way he talks about immigrants. Orbán has, until recently, been cagier and more cautious in his deployment of such rhetoric, while enacting a number of hardline policies against admitting migrants from Muslim countries to Hungary. One reason why his speech in Romania caught my critical attention, along with that of many others throughout the liberal-democratic world, is that it demonstrated a greater degree of recklessness than we’ve heard from Orbán before—as if it was designed to throw racist and xenophobic fuel on the fire of anti-immigrant sentiment across the continent for the sake of political gain.
Playing Orban’s Dangerous Game
In case I’ve failed to answer Rod’s three questions straightforwardly enough, I’m going to close by trying to state my position as clearly as I can: Immigration policy (like nearly all policy) should be devised with an eye to a country’s national interests. It is not in any Western nation’s interest to enhance the power of the far right. It may well sometimes be necessary, therefore, to restrict immigration in order to prevent a surge of support for far-right parties. Those on the left who say this effectively gives racists and xenophobes a veto over immigration policy and the human rights of migrants are correct. It does. But the alternative—a massive boost for far-right politicians and parties—would be much worse.
It follows from this position that the role for responsible parties, politicians, and writers is to combine an acceptance of the need to enact restrictions with efforts to temper and dissipate the feelings motivating the demand for such restrictions. The last thing responsible parties, politicians, and writers should do is speak and act in a way that will whip such feelings into a frenzy of angry intolerance that could well prove incompatible with maintaining a liberal society.
The latter is what I heard in Orbán’s deeply illiberal speech. I only wish my old friend Rod were able to recognize the dangerous game the president of Hungary is playing, and the (admittedly modest) contribution his own writing makes to advancing that indefensible cause.
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I find it hard to believe that thinking people don't recognize Orbon's speech for what it is - a racist call to arms. He is Europe's DJT, only more articulate and cautious. In our limited history, Americans have shown how immigrants integrate into society and become like everyone else in one or two generations.
I'm not a theologian. Actually, I'm an atheist, but I don't see the Muslim world sending missionaries into other countries to convert people. Yes, there have been extremist exceptions, but in the main, the Christians telling people their God is false and the only true good is Jesus - or some such message.
According to Dr. Google, there are approximately 1.5 billion people who identify as Muslim, and a large number are secular; many others practice in only a limited way, but it is the extremists who capture the headlines.
Europeans have a right to their fear that a large number of immigrants will change their culture. I also understand that change is fearful for many, but no culture is stagnant - all things change with time and adapt or cease to exist. Is Christianity so weak that it can't withstand an influx of Muslims? Or do the Christians see Saladin coming over the next hill, sword raised high, to decapitate all Christians unless they covert? It sounds like what the Christians did to the Jews in Spain during the Inquisition. All in the name of a religion that preaches - love your neighbor.
In America, many people are afraid of people of color, who are mainly of the same religion. This fear of change takes many forms, but in the end, if not checked by well-meaning people, it will lead to disaster. How many centuries has Europe endured wars based on religion, mainly between competing forms of the same religion - Protestant vs. Catholic?
Those who make excuses for DJT or Victor Orban are no better than the racist pigs they are covering for. A turd is a turd - even when covered by a chocolate sauce or fine words.