GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Is it xenophobia, or is it nationalism?

Friday, September 3, 2010 | 1:47 p.m. CDT

Charles Davis, associate professor, Missouri School of Journalism: In recent days, the French government has rounded up hundreds of Roma people and deported them to Romania. In Russia, skinheads attacked people at a rock concert. In the United States, thousands of people converged at Washington, D.C. to take back the Civil Rights movement for a pro-Christian, anti-tax picnic of sorts. But what is really going on here? Glenn Beck represents a simmering nativism popping up in countries across the globe. Is nationalism veiled as xenophobia in the U.S. and abroad? To discuss this, we have Pastor Howard Bess, retired Baptist minister and columnist of The Frontiersman and Consortium News, in Palmer, Alaska; Michael Schwirtz, reporter of the Moscow Bureau, New York Times, Moscow; and Leigh Phillips, reporter of the EU Observer, Brussels. I’ll start with Leigh in Brussels. The removal of the Roma in France has been dominating headlines across the EU. It is certainly not the only instance of a nativist response in the EU to the “other.” Could you lead us through the state of xenophobia in the EU and underscore the removal of the Roma in France?

Leigh Phillips, reporter, EU Observer: There have been condemnations by Amnesty International, the European Network Against Racism, the European Roma Rights Center, and so on. Germany, Denmark and Sweden have also been engaging in similar activities. Germany is currently engaged in the expulsion of 12,000 Roma, 6,000 of which are children. Germany doesn’t get the headlines because the Romas they are expelling are from Kosovo, so they don’t have the same rights because they’re not EU citizens. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy has been climbing the polls precipitously the last few years. And he made his name through a mixture of strong law and order rhetoric, stealing this rhetoric from the far right, which unfortunately is very fallible in certain parts. He has been declining in the polls for a while, and he looked back at the recipe that seemed to work and thought, "I’ll try this again." And pretty much everyone is in the same outside of the people in his party, but even there, there is division. There has been an avalanche of criticism of this policy from the Catholic Church, the Federation of Protestant Churches, the Prince Chief Rabbi, human rights groups and the left; having said that, it is quite popular. He has gone up two points in the polls since the policy was announced in late July.


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Davis: Michael Schwirtz, you have written from your post in Moscow about the nature of this subject. Can you lay the context of where we are now? I was reading something the other day that said there is this view among Americans that Russian skinheads are at fault for all xenophobic reaction in that country. It is much more complex than that, isn’t it?

Michael Schwirtz, reporter, Moscow bureau, The New York Times: Yes, it is a bit more complex. There are certainly the fringe groups that are responsible for most of the violence. These are largely youth-based groups, and nationalist movements do have their roots in the waning days of the Soviet Union when many different nationalist movements throughout the Soviet Union began to appear, not just in Russia. These organizations and less organized groups do have some support within the government, but that is difficult to identify. Certain government figures will use the nationalist card at periods when they think they can get some political benefit out of it. At other times, there will be crackdowns on various nationalist groups. In fact, human rights groups in the past few months have been saying there is a noticeable decrease in the the number of xenophobic attacks in the past year, likely due to a police crackdown both in Moscow and St. Petersburg, two cities where the violence is most noticeable.

Davis: It must be doubly difficult in Russia where you have the Caucasus and you have areas that are part of the Russian nation, but they are perceived by many Russians as foreign lands.

Schwirtz: Indeed, and most of the xenophobic attacks do occur against Central Asians and people from the North Caucasus. The North Caucasus are a part of Russia. Russian forces fought two separatist wars in Chechnya in the 1990s and then over the last decade, and there is violence in the region frequently. Many of the Russians consider it an alien or foreign territory. There are different languages. It is a predominantly Muslim region. And so there is a lot of antipathy between both groups, and that isn’t to say there isn’t violence perpetrated by people from the Caucasus against ethnic Russians. We frequently see large-scale brawls breaking out, particularly in the south where the North Caucasus are located between groups from people from the Caucasus and ethnic Russians mostly belonging to these ultra-nationalist groups.

Davis: Pastor Bess, you wrote on in which you identify Christian nationalism in America. Certainly, we have a couple of giant news stories on our shores between the so-called Ground Zero Mosque debate and the giant Glenn Beck rally last weekend. I think both of those touch on exactly what you were writing about in that column in which you identify this emergence of Christian nationalism in America, which represent as many as 20 percent of the country, people who embrace “in which there is a vision of the world in which every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord.” Can you explain the nature of that movement and why you think it is a threat?

Howard Bess, retired Baptist minister and columnist for The Frontiersman and Consortium News: In America, we have always cherished separation of church and state. That attitude does not square with the Bible. Particularly in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament, the idea is to join nation and religion. This is what Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are all about. You cannot understand Sarah Palin and her popularity apart from her religion. When you join nationalism with religion, you end up with a certain kind of fundamentalist attitude that always must have enemies, and anything that threatens their ideal becomes an enemy. This has recurred again and again in the history of our nation. We have always had the protection of our courts to maintain separation of church and state. You notice that at the rally, Glenn Beck made it very plain that this was about God and yet he was symbolically right there in front of Abraham Lincoln. That is what these folks are about, and they are a genuine threat to the country. It is particularly difficult right now because they have started to identify their new devil as being Muslim.

Davis: Why do you think this has taken on such momentum in recent months? After 9/11, the sitting president of the United States took great pains to talk about the fact that we were a pluralistic society and that we needed to tolerate people of other faiths and visions. And yet this far removed from Sept. 11, we seem to be entering a new and much more heated phase of rhetoric. Why do you think that’s the case?

Bess: This dynamic has been there, largely out of sight all along. Christian dominionists, Christian nationalism — whatever you want to call it — has been there and operating. Two of the books about this are "The Family" by Jeff Sharlet and "Kingdom Coming" by Michelle Goldberg. Both of these are books describing the below-the-radar operation of Christian fundamentalism and nationalism in the country. It is a very broad-based movement. You can identify schools and graduate schools where these attitudes are perpetuated.

Davis: Leigh in the EU, certainly the xenophobia is not as closely tied to any one religion. However, much of it targets certain religions and has religious overtones. How would you distinguish the xenophobia or nativism in the EU from what you’re seeing in the United States?

Phillips: The root causes of this dynamic in the United States, EU, and Russia are fairly identical, but the flavor of the extreme nationalism hasn’t come down to that. Each time, it is very specific to whatever country you’re talking about. Western Europe is largely secular, so you’re not going to have the same sort of religious element to it. Having said that, it is very clear that we have three identifiable groups targeted by not just the far right but, to varying degrees, across the political spectrum. Of course we have the Roma but also Muslims and immigrants. So the far right is variations on the far right. The École Nationale in France and the BMP in the U.K. are very traditional neo-fascist outfits, and I’m not quite as scared about them as I am about some of the far right monitoring groups called the Far Right Light. The big Jewish monster is not a salable enemy anymore. Blacks are not a salable enemy anymore. However, Muslims, the Roma and immigrants are a salable “other” for the new kind of fascism. If it comes back, it’s not going to be wearing jack boots and brown shirts; it’s going to be wearing a smart tie, maybe an open-necked shirt, and the leadership is going to be very charismatic like these characters. There has been a huge increase in the last couple of years since the economic crisis. It was sort of bubbling away for years. We haven’t seen growth overall in real salaries for about 20 years in most countries, social programs have been under attack, large-scale privatization and traditional defense of that class of people has exited the stage. There isn’t really a lot of difference between the center left and the center right anymore in European countries. I think you see the same thing in the United States. The people who are really hurting are going to be at the rally.

Davis: Michael, following up on Leigh’s point about economic stagnation as a driver of this, how big of a role is the economic situation in Moscow with the growth of xenophobic movements?

Schwirtz: The dynamic in Russia is a bit different in that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have a very strong monopoly on power. While they can tap into the power of nationalist sentiment at times, ultra-nationalists and far right groups are fairly marginal and don’t have very large following in that they are largely outside of political discourse within the country. Unlike in Europe and in the United States, these groups have very limited ability to engage in direct politicking. You could make the argument that it is one of the reasons they have become so radical. We have seen some very vicious violence in Russia in the last decade directed against dark-skinned people, particularly against the North Caucasus and central Asian migrants. I haven’t seen that the economic situation has had much of an impact on the level of violence. And there was certainly some concern after the Moscow metro attacks, the suicide bombings from the Moscow subway in March this year, that there would be a spike in xenophobic violence in response. There had been similar spikes in violence as a result of other attacks in the past, so those fears seem not to have been borne out. For now, many people are saying that the police in Moscow and St. Petersburg have been very vigilant in the past year and a half. This week even, we see two men accused of committing at least 15 murders classified as hate crimes. Their trial began in Moscow this week, and there has been heavy criticism of the government for not cracking down harshly enough on these groups. Many people who were accused of, even convicted of horrendous crimes, were getting very light sentences, and we have seen a reversal of that in recent years.

Davis: Clearly, one has to be careful in typifying xenophobia as nativism. For example, the far right in Russia was far more violent than the far right in the United States. However, we have noticed this week a wave of violence, threats and intimidation, directed at particularly Muslim places of worship in the United States. And I would hesitate to characterize any of these movements as the same thing, but all of them seem to have an organization and a structure. Michael, how do you cover a sort of inchoate movement like nationalism and xenophobia in a way that is not just purely reactive? Oh, there was a beating in a park, we’ll go cover that. How do you do it in a structural way?

Schwirtz: There are certainly people we keep our eyes on and groups that have attempted to make themselves more mainstream and appeal more to the society at large. A poll taken frequently asks Russians whether or not they agree with the statement “Russia for Russians,” which is a popular slogan among nationalist groups. The majority frequently agrees with such statements, and so it is difficult to pin these groups down. However, we keep our eyes on the more mainstream of these, which gives us a window into the deeper, more sinister elements.

Davis: It feels as if in the U.S. we do a very poor job of covering these sorts of inchoate movements. Pastor Bess, I once ironically wrote a column arguing that we ought to cover these things almost like a beat, the Christian nationalist beat, and cover it like a living organism. I drowned in a wave of very angry hate mail from that column. But I wonder if I could run that idea by you. Do you feel that this merits systemic coverage, and how would one go about doing that?

Bess: Absolutely. It should be covered. Religion plays a different role in the United States than in Europe. Religious forces in this country are so powerful, and if the media is not covering religion very thoroughly in this country, they are missing a big piece of the story. Right now, this is not driven by economics. This tension is longstanding, and most people aren’t even aware of it. I believe the media has a responsibility to cover it more thoroughly than they are doing.

Davis: Is it difficult when you’re attacking topics like this to do it in a way that doesn’t seek that justification? For example, oh, the economy is down in Europe. There is 10 percent unemployment; therefore we’re going to deport the Romas. How do you go at that story in a way that doesn’t excuse it on economic grounds?

Phillips: As a journalist? I don’t think that is an excuse. It was interesting how you talked about it with the pastor, because one of my beats is specifically the far right in Europe, and one of the frustrations that I have had covering this is that whenever there is an election in one country in Europe, the next day you see some shock headlines that a particular party in Hungary, for example, got 17 percent in the polls and then a very superficial analysis of what this organization is like. And there is a tendency that the economy is going down, so the far right goes up. But it is so much more complex than that. The danger in the way that journalists treat the far right is that you get these shock headlines and not a sense of the deep multicultural reasons for the development of these organizations. When nothing is happening with the far right, they’re dismissed because they’re a bunch of cranks. But when they burst on the scene at elections or a big demonstration, suddenly it is very sensationalist coverage. What we need is something between these two poles, not sympathize with them obviously, but treat them as a serious phenomenon.

Davis: How much of this has to do with the fact that you’ve got freedom of movement in the European Union, thus setting up a very highly mobile European continent that is going to usher in pluralism?

Phillips: There has been some nativism toward people from Eastern Europe. That is certainly true, but you don’t really see it between, say, France and Spain. You do see it a little between Germany and Greece. It is more that the walls have gone up around the edges of Europe.

Davis: Throughout history, moments of extreme nationalism have led to global instability. Although Glenn Beck’s rally has consistently been described as vague in purpose and with no clear mission, it may be emblematic of something bigger. The implications of that and other nationalistic movements that seem to be developing across the globe remain to be seen.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse, Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Rebecca Wolfson and Kuba Wuls. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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Ray Shapiro September 4, 2010 | 12:05 a.m.

1. Christianity and Judiasm have seen their reformation.
Until fundamentalist Islamic clerics begin to preach against Jihad, Americans will be vigilant. We obviously let our guard down on September 11, 2001.
2.("However, we have noticed this week a wave of violence, threats and intimidation, directed at particularly Muslim places of worship in the United States.")
Except for these fanatics in Florida,
I can't find specific accounts of anything close to "this week's" acts of violence at Muslim places of worship across America.
If such is happenning, I'm certain that even Glenn Beck would frown on this, let alone the ADL.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith September 4, 2010 | 5:37 a.m.

Does xenophobia exist in venues other than Russia, Western Europe and the United States? (Is the pope Catholic? Does a bear sleep in the woods?*)

Radical Christians and Jews in the United States are certainly a danger and need to be very closely watched. Some of them might decide to hijack one or more Emirates (the airline) passenger jets and crash the jets into Muslim religious sites. Stealing jets and crashing them into structures, killing people and destroying the structures, would be an absolute first, wouldn't it?

*- I prefer the version spoken by the confused nun in "Nunsense." "Is a bear Catholic? Does the pope sleep in the woods?" Most of the bears I know are Lutherans.

(Report Comment)
Tina Fey September 4, 2010 | 6:14 a.m.

The greatest threat spreading the world today is that of "syntirophobia" by the left-wing ideological media. From "syntiritikos" - conservative, and "phobia" - fear, looped-out pundits like Charles Davis promote misconception and misunderstanding through ill-informed statements in the medium of journalism.

The majority of syntirophobes like Dr. Davis develop their unnatural fear of conservative perspectives at an early age, often as a result of parental upbringing and cultural associations. Much like a child that is abused at a young age, so too will the syntirophobe begin to act out against the young and turn his victimization against other, younger and impressionable members. In the case of Dr. Davis, this would be spreading bias and anger regarding the success of Glenn Beck and inflaming young and impressionable college students with syntirophobic seeds of discontent.

Often the syntirophobe seeks the safety of the pen, writing and espousing rage and disgust against a perceived enemy of thought and mind. The process of writing and espousing stirs fervor as much as it soothes. The writer is often caught in an endless loop of wrathful summary concluding in momentary peacefulness before the cycle begins all over again.

To understand syntirophobia we must begin to understand the context. Early characteristics must be identified. In the case of Dr. Davis it is jealousy. Jealousy of outward and aggressive success. Unlike his own inward and passive "success", Glenn Beck displays his intellect and passion to a living, breathing audience. In contrast, Dr. Davis is delegated to promoting himself in solitary through the instrument of a pen. To free the victim from this condition, one must use intervention with the syntirophobe and counsel them into more active and outward acts of promotion.

A syntirophobe is likely to whip himself into a frenzy if left unattended and without counsel. Here, we begin with this column and I encourage my readers to help me in the classroom when Dr. Davis begins to self-flagellate.

(Report Comment)
Brian Johnson September 4, 2010 | 2:14 p.m.

Within three sentences, Associate Professor Davis manages to betray the latent hostility, paranoia and ignorance of the ensuing discussion: Apparently, there is some sort of equivalence between Americans engaged in a democratic exercise of free speech at the capitol and Russian skinheads engaged in violent assault at rock concerts.

It seems to be a given among these discussion participants that citizens who might not share their viewpoints are obviously "extreme nationalists" motivated only by irrational fear, delusion, hatred or simple lack of intelligence. So much taken for granted, in fact, that even that which might be the cause of concern or curiosity for some Americans, does not even merit consideration.

Davis and his discussion cohorts - certainly at least in their discussion of the American aspect of all this - suffer from the same limitation as much of the rest of the left: the "correct" emotional disposition towards a person or people people becomes more important than actual knowledge of the group or the issue at hand. Towards many perceived victims, the correct disposition is blind sympathy.

Of course, the correct attitude towards Glenn Beck or his viewers seems to be one of intellectual condescension and moral superiority. It's really all so unfortunate. There are some legitimate topics of discussion here, but those opportunities are dashed by pious and formulaic thinking. Would that I be someday be surprised by the wise ones of Global Journalist and other founts of establishment journalism enlightenment.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith September 4, 2010 | 2:28 p.m.

Goldblatt's Theory of Fluid Dynamics:

"The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity but tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. NEITHER ITS PIPES NOR ITS THEORIES WILL HOLD WATER."

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