‘Did I cause the Norway massacre? That’s just silly’
Thilo Sarrazin, controversial author of Germany Abolishes Itself, tells spiked that those blaming him for Norway are ‘insane’.
Apparently, Thilo Sarrazin, the Bundesbank bad boy whose 2010 book on Germany and immigration caused a Euro-storm, has blood on his hands. According to the UK Independent, he helped to create the ‘poisonous mindset’ that gave rise to the Norway massacre. The bomber and shooter, Anders Behring Breivik, was intoxicated by ‘the propaganda of the racist far right’, says the Independent, including Sarrazin’s ‘ostensibly respectable’ ramblings on the dangers of Islamo-immigration. A left-wing writer says Sarrazin’s ‘racist poison’ helped to ‘encourage the climate of xenophobic hatred which provided the background to Breivik’s attack’. A Guardian columnist says writers like Sarrazin stirred the ‘toxic swamp’ from which Breivik emerged, guns blazing.
So, Mr Sarrazin, how do you plead to the charge of being an intellectual accessory to one of the worst crimes in peacetime Europe? ‘It is a really silly accusation’, he says, matter-of-factly, stiffly. ‘It is completely mindless. It is insane, for reasons that one should not even have to explain.’ But if you had to explain it, if you had to articulate why your right-wing, concerned-about-immigration book published in Germany in 2010 is not responsible for the murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011, how would you do it? ‘The people saying this certainly have not read my book’, he says, which he describes as ‘moderate’. He says the notion that he and other right-wing writers energised Breivik, filled his brain with murderously nationalistic ideas, is ‘a way of delegitimising our arguments. That is the strategy.’
Sarrazin, a former German finance minister and board member of the Bundesbank, has been the No.1 bête noire of Europe’s liberal political sets and chattering classes since his book Germany Abolishes Itself was published last year. An assault on Germany’s welfare state and on the ideology of multiculturalism, with more than a few harsh words for those immigrants from outside Europe who allegedly refuse to integrate into Western culture, the book won him few friends. Angela Merkel said it was ‘not helpful’ (she is ‘an informed and intelligent person’, he says, diplomatically, when I ask what he made of her intervention against the book). Others have been a lot more barbed, branding the book a ‘bigoted tract’. And now Sarrazin stands accused of provoking violence, with his ideas labelled not merely wrong or weird, but literally lethal, with the power to cause mayhem.
The speed with which sections of the cultural elite embraced ‘media effects’ theory in the wake of the Norway killings was extraordinary. As soon as it was revealed that the killer was not an al-Qaeda type but rather a blond-haired, blue-eyed native Norwegian with a farm and a penchant for shoot-’em-up video games, respectable thinkers started positing that perhaps he was the bastard offspring of right-wing ranting, of what one writer referred to as today’s ‘increasingly toxic political culture plagued by incivility and extremist rhetoric’. Then, when it was revealed that Breivik had produced a so-called manifesto that quoted the likes of Melanie Phillips, Mark Steyn and Jeremy Clarkson, that was cited as irrefutable proof that ugly ideas nurture murderous fantasies. ‘The continuum between the poisonous nonsense commonplace in the mainstream media… and Breivik’s outpourings is unmistakable’, said one writer.
Sarrazin says this post-Norway demonisation of right-wing thinkers is a ‘power play by people who don’t only want to set the agenda, but who insist that their agenda is the only one which is morally right. Parts of the political class and the so-called intellectual class are trying to make us into pariahs.’ He thinks there’s a far greater danger in not allowing open and frank discussion of issues such as immigration than there is in the publication of anti-multicultural tracts such as his. He reckons it is the suppression of un-PC ideas, of scepticism about the politics of multiculturalism, which is most likely to raise another Breivik, since it forces people like Breivik underground, into the unhinged bits of the right-wing blogosphere where their nuttiness can run riot. ‘In an open society, it must be possible to discuss matters of immigration and cultural diversity, and to discuss their critical aspects. Otherwise it is not an open society’, he tells me.
Now, as it happens, I disagree with pretty much everything Sarrazin says about the problems afflicting modern Europe. The key problem with the arguments made by him, Steyn, Phillips and others, all of whom say in a roundabout way that once Enlightened Europe is now capitulating to the demands of seriously separatist Muslim immigrants and their representatives, is that it presents an internal crisis of European culture as an external assault on the European citadel by the beard-and-burqa lobby. Their narrow critique of multiculturalism fails to understand that the origins of Europe’s profound crisis of identity lie in an inner moral malaise, in a loss of faith in Enlightenment values in London, Paris and Berlin, rather than in the antics of any external army of foreigners. Indeed, to the extent that some immigrants from outside Europe are ‘refusing to integrate’ these days, that, too, is a spin-off of moral and institutional disarray at home. The loss of faith in the ‘Western way of life’ in Western capitals themselves both makes elites incapable of confidently integrating outsiders (integrate them into what, exactly?) and also sends a powerful signal to immigrant communities that their cultural habits are the equal of, if not better than, what we used to call Western culture.
Sarrazin tries to agree with me. ‘People of a foreign culture who come to our countries have the right to be told what is right and what is wrong within the limits of our culture. And if we don’t have a clear position on these matters, we should not wonder that some of them have more difficulty with integration than others’, he says. But he can’t resist returning to his key thesis: that too much immigration, particularly from very foreign cultures, necessarily degrades the intellectual standing and cultural standards of European host societies, so perhaps those immigrants should think about going somewhere else instead. ‘One should expect a willingness to integrate amongst those who come to us – otherwise they should have decided to stay at home or go to another country where the attitudes are more familiar to them’, he says.
But it doesn’t matter how much I disagree with Sarrazin: he should still be at perfect liberty to publish his books and promote his ideas as widely and loudly as he likes. And the problem with the post-Norway rush to blame writers like him for bringing about mass murder is that it is implicitly and deeply censorious. In effect, liberal commentators and left-leaning politicians have ideologically hijacked the Norway massacre, turning it into a tool with which they might harry and hector and possibly even silence their opponents. It represents a liberal aping of the approach normally taken by fusty, purple-rinsed conservatives to words and images they don’t like. Where they argue that video nasties or porno films have the power to make men into tongue-lolling psychos, now the commentariat claims that a shrill article in the Daily Mail or a book by a Bundesbank man who isn’t the biggest fan of mass immigration can turn people into mass murderers.
So one writer describes right-wing writers ‘sowing fear and indignation’, giving succour to the weirdos out there who ‘cower in the corners of their lounge rooms, afraid of the coming of Sharia law and headscarves’. This is a radical-sounding rehabilitation of the idea that speech can be lethal if left unregulated. Hilariously, some of the ideologues milking the massacre in Norway claim that they are not in favour of censorship – they simply want to tackle what they refer to as the ‘incivility’ and ‘extremist rhetoric’ of modern-day debate. The doublespeak in such claims was perfectly encapsulated in a comment by the Australian writer Charles Richardson. Responding to a piece I wrote for an Australian online magazine about the post-Breivik rush to criminalise certain forms of heated speech, Richardson said: ‘[I am not] actually calling for the censorship of Steyn, Phillips et al. What I do advocate is that they take some responsibility for their actions and tone down some of the rhetoric, or failing that, that decent people and respectable media outlets stop giving them a platform.’
In short, we don’t want to censor right-wing writers, we just want to deny them a platform. Richardson’s use of the term ‘decent people’ is striking, because what we are witnessing post-Norway is the spread of what John Stuart Mill described as the ‘tyranny of custom’. In his classic nineteenth-century text On Liberty, Mill argued that powerful cultural pressure to think and say the right thing, as defined by ‘decent people’ of course, could be just as stifling of free thought and free speech as brute state censorship was. This ‘tyranny of custom’ is a ‘hindrance to human advancement’ and the ‘spirit of liberty’, he said, since it discourages inquisitiveness until ‘peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes’. That is what we’re faced with post-Norway: the informal construction of taboos, where all those who are judged to be ‘peculiar’ or ‘eccentric’ in how they think or write are shunned equally with criminals, their words treated as instruments of murder. Subtly, imperceptibly, through cultural pressure rather than state diktat, the parameters of public debate are being scrunched, so that soon there might only be one ‘decent’ way to think and write about immigration, society, multiculturalism. It doesn’t matter what you think of Sarrazin, Steyn, Phillips and the rest, society never ever benefits from any diminution whatsoever of the space in which ideas and ideologies meet to do battle.
But where I disagree (again) with Sarrazin is in his claim that it’s the suppression of frank debate about immigration which nurtured Breivik. Sarrazin tells me that ‘when a society doesn’t discuss the problems implied by immigration, then within that society there grows a sense of suppression. And this sense of suppression can promote insane minds.’ What Sarrazin and his critics share in common is the view that non-mainstream thinkers nurtured Breivik’s warped outlook, whether it was those suppressed-feeling people in the cranky right-wing blogosphere or hot-headed right-wing commentators in newspapers. In truth, if any cultural force contributed to Breivik’s outlook, it is more likely to have been today’s very mainstream politics of misanthropy and angst about mass, everyday society. Taking up those problems will require first that we grow up, and stop bleating about dangerous writers ruining our lives, and second that we have an absolutely unfettered space for public debate, involving heretics as well as ‘decent people’.
Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked. He is debating political correctness with Thilo Sarrazin at the Big Ideas Forum in Sydney, Australia this evening. More information here.
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