Thursday, May 29, 2014

The old south and the new Europe

With growing popularity and recent gains at the ballot box, there is good reason for people everywhere to worry about the rising influence of the far-right in Europe.

Over the past few months I have been making my way slowly but surely through Robert Caro's epic series on the life and times of Lyndon Johnson. One of the valuable  things about this book is that not only does the author offer a close-up view of Johnson, but he takes a careful look at the social landscape Johnson inhabited, offering a rich  contextual tapestry. At the moment I'm about 3/4 of the way through the third book, Master of The Senate , in which Caro examines Johnson's attitudes on race and reaction to the civil rights movement.

Reading Caro's description of the south in the 1950s and 60s, I was particularly struck by the degree to which both institutionalized and social racism fostered an environment in which racially motivated violence became acceptable, even expected. All of this got me thinking about recent antisemitic acts and violence in Europe. Acts of racist violence against African- Americans in the US are rooted in the legacy of slavery and different in many important ways from what immigrants and Jews face today in Europe, but where I see a parallel between the two is that in both the American south of an earlier era and in Europe today, there seems to be a certain level of tolerance for intolerance that is emboldening  extremists. 

In the old south the electorate was happy to elect openly racist candidates to positions of power at the local, state and federal level; in Europe far right Neo Nazi candidates recently saw success at the ballot box. To be sure, Athens and Paris in 2014 are not the same as Alabama in 1960, but when NeoNazi groups openly espousing racist and antisemitic ideas can win elections, it is a sign that something has gone deeply, and dangerously, wrong with the post WW II European "experiment."

America is a country which is still grappling with the ghosts of slavery and a deeply rooted legacy of racism, but we have also made important, often painful strides forward as a result of the civil rights movement.  Europe, and the countries which comprise it, have also struggled, with the memory and guilt of nationalism run amok in World War II,  including the Holocaust which killed 6 million Jews and millions of others.

Historians such as Caro provide us with a lens to look back and evaluate, with the advantage of hindsight, trends and ideas which have influenced society over time. It is through this lens that we can see the mistake the majority of Americans made in thinking that in putting an end to slavery that the Civil War also eradicated the racism that was its ideological engine.  Perhaps Europeans also believe that with efforts to repair relations with Jews and other minorities these last 60 years that they have successfully exorcised the demon of racism and Antisemitism on the continent.  Important and laudable as such efforts have been, the latest evidence would suggest that this an assumption worth questioning.  

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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