Europe and the Fate of the Earth – Part 2 of 7

October 29, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[This is an extended version of my keynote address for the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ event, which was held in Amsterdam between October 4 and 7 this year. The address was delivered on October 4 at the opening event. It will be posted here without footnotes, as a 7 part series. A fully annotated version will be posted later in the ‘Essays’ section of this site.]



In the latter half of the 20th century European governments, often with the best intentions, responded to immigrants by providing support for what they saw as the most ‘authentic’ elements of their cultures. These policies – let us admit it – frequently had retrograde and damaging effects: the state’s money and support went to the most ‘traditional’ – which were also often the most hidebound – sections of migrant communities. The secularists and progressives were ignored and seen as irrelevant. I have known many migrant feminists, secularists and activists of different kinds, who have been confounded by this approach – embattled within their own communities, they also found themselves marginalized as ‘inauthentic’ by the wider society; sometimes they were even derided with variants of that peculiarly offensive French term deraciné.

The problem lies perhaps in squeezing the lived reality of life into rigid frames like ‘culture’, ‘tradition’, ‘religion’ and so on. These frames set artificial limits on what people actually think and do; worse still, people come to believe in them and they even sometimes reinvent their lives to fit the frame.

Instead of thinking of ‘culture’ why don’t we think about everyday practices – what people actually do? Why don’t we think about the ways they spend their time; what they like to eat; what sort of music they listen to? When we think about questions like these, an odd thing happens. We find that migrants and their hosts are not so different after all; neither of them are stuck within their own ‘cultures’. Both have evolved, unwittingly or not, towards each other. We find that Holland is a country of soccer-playing rijstaeffel eaters who are famous for growing a Turkish flower – the tulip; we find that Britain is a land of cricket-playing, korma-eating reggae singers; Germany becomes a land of doner kabab and Eurovision and skateboarders. Why then should states support mosques and temples rather than football clubs and dance troupes and art exhibitions?

And why, in any case, should that support come from departments of welfare and social services? For many hard-working immigrants, who pride themselves on their self-sufficiency, the whiff of charity is a taint. Why shouldn’t the support come from those arms of government that serve the wider community – that is, ministries of sports, culture and so on? Why shouldn’t state-supported operas or museums or theatres throw their weight behind such projects? For let us make no mistake: the temples of Western ‘high culture’ are among the most rigid and exclusionary institutions on this planet. The lines they draw between ‘ethnic’ and ‘classical’ music, and ‘folk’ and ‘modern’ art are among the most important barriers to dialogue and assimilation. They too need to be muddied in the confluence of modern Europe.

But the issue of cultural assimilation, as it arises in Western and Northern Europe, is not the most pressing problem in regard to immigration in the continent today. The issue takes on a completely different aspect at the edges of the confluence – that is to say in southern Spain, and especially in Greece.

As I see it, the violence that is being visited on immigrants in Greece today is just as critical a test for Europe as is the collapse of that country’s economy. There are many in Greece who are strongly opposed to the right-wing groups that are leading the attacks on immigrants: they need the support of other Europeans no less urgently than the country’s bankers.

Greece is sometimes looked upon as an exception. But in my view Greece is not a laggard but an outlier – it is a country that sometimes provides glimpses of things to come. When riots broke out in Greece in 2008 they seemed inexplicable. But in retrospect it is clear that they were the first signs of a wave of unrest that the currents of the Mediterranean would soon carry to Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Spain, and even beyond to England and the United States.

This is why Greece is so important: if the ascendancy of the fascist, anti-immigrant right continues its rise in that country, it will have profound consequences for all of Europe. These developments will spread beyond Greece, and the violence that is now being inflicted upon Africans and Asians will soon be turned against other Europeans – the problems that the Roma are facing across Europe is evidence of this. Soon the tide of prejudice will turn also against internal immigrants – southerners in northern cities, East Europeans in the West, and so on.

One thing we can be sure of is that the pressures of migration are only going to intensify in the years ahead, not just in Europe but around the world. This is because the numbers of people displaced by climate change is going to grow very fast.  It is essential for Europe to take the lead in creating a template that can be used everywhere for dealing with the mounting crises of displacement that will arise from accelerating disruptions of our planetary environment.



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