Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015, The Globe and Mail
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/… And what rough beast, its hour come at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? – Yeats, The Second Coming
As Christmas approaches, these words, written in 1919 by W.B. Yeats occupy my mind. Within a few years, the first incarnation of the prescient “rough beast” came to power as Adolf Hitler, to be followed by Josef Stalin, then by the purveyors of hatred in Rwanda and Bosnia, whose racist bile culminated in genocide. The early 21st-century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have spawned their own beast: Islamic State.
But it is the poem’s first line that focuses my attention, for if the centre is to hold, the beast must be kept at bay. In well-functioning, ethnically diverse societies, this centre contains a tacit agreement to tolerate otherness. We who live in immigrant-based cultures depend upon this for our well-being.
But the saving centre of multicultural societies is a fragile place, and perennially vulnerable to opportunistic leaders who know that dividing a population on ethnic grounds is a fast route to power. One possible reason may be that humans are hard-wired to cleave to their own, and the open acceptance of others is something we must consciously agree to. Whatever the cause, the exclusion of a minority by means of derogatory racist language has had a discouraging record of success. And it has usually led to violence.
What’s remarkable is that the designated minority seems not to matter, whether they are Jews in Germany, Ukrainians in the Soviet Union, Muslims in Bosnia, Tutsis in Rwanda or Muslims in today’s Europe and the United States. Equally remarkable is that the content of the denigrating attacks is recognizably the same. I once compared a screed by the U.S. Moral Majority attacking humanists to a dehumanizing Nazi attack on Jews. In both cases the enemy was depicted as intent on destroying society from within.
According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, 2015 has been a record year for violence against Muslims in the U.S. Since 9/11, hostility has ebbed and flowed, often exacerbated by world and local events, but as Donald Trump has continued to shatter the taboos on racist discourse that have been in place since the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, his followers have been psychologically liberated to respond. Women wearing hijab are attacked, a deli owner in New York is beaten by a man screaming “I kill Muslims!” The violence spreads. A black protester at a Trump rally is pushed to the ground, surrounded by a crowd of shouting white men.
Lest we Canadians feel superior, we recently had our own brush with the transformative effects of disruptive top-down rhetoric. Desperate for re-election, Stephen Harper opportunistically opened a rift in the collective centre by targeting the Muslim minority, in particular women wearing niqab.
Physical attacks followed in Toronto and Montreal. When the prime minister subsequently promised a snitch line for citizens to report “barbaric cultural practices,” he knew better than most that Canada has well-defined laws to counter criminal acts as well as laws to protect religious freedoms. He still pledged a snitch line – because delation works. According to one poll, 80 per cent of Canadians supported the idea.
Donald Trump aside, the next incarnation of Mr. Yeat’s rough beast is perhaps more likely to occur in Europe than elsewhere. Can the inclusive values of the European Union that sustain the intangible centre hold against widespread unemployment and the massive influx of unfamiliar peoples? Sensing weakness, extremist race-talking parties are increasingly on the rise. Germany’s leader Angela Merkel cleaves robustly to the saving centre, but she’s under pressure.
True danger lies in the fantasy that European states can remain culturally homogenous in the years ahead. Migrations resulting from war and climate change mean that Europe’s 21st-century future is inevitably multiethnic.
Given our seemingly native vulnerability to unscrupulous politicians who exploit fear of difference as an easy path to power, leadership has never come with greater responsibility.