David Goodhart

Racism is a grey area

But how should racism be defined? It’s more of a grey area than Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s left-liberalism allows

This book is an exercise in crying wolf that utterly fails to prove its main thesis: that Europe is abandoning its core liberal values under threat from a resurgent populist right. It is a largely fact-free polemic that passes itself off as an open-minded work of interview reportage. Yet if you can ignore the author’s sly interventions on behalf of his left-liberal premises, he does introduce the reader to a fascinating cast of characters, mainly from the European populist right.

And, at least for someone (like me) who is predisposed to an interest in the subject, he also provides real insight into the internal debates about immigration and national identity, above all in France, the Netherlands and Denmark, that you could never glean from reading the newspapers in the English-speaking world.

There is also an original and unexpected chapter on a subject that seldom breaks cover: the violent hostility to mass immigration in South Africa, which in 2009 received 340,000 asylum claims, many from an imploding Zimbabwe. Rather as the white working class in east London felt dismayed when they unexpectedly had to share their hard-won welfare state with arriving waves of Bangladeshis in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the black working class of South Africa has been reluctant to share its new-won freedom with often better educated black incomers.

Interview-based reportage is not an effective form when the author knows what he wants you to think. The characters are rarely allowed to speak for themselves, but rather are shuffled around to make a point and, in this book, also tend to reappear several times, often rather confusingly, in chapters that are not clearly delineated by theme or country.

But one or two characters do break free. There is Eric Zemmour, an observant French Jew who defends the Vichy regime; or Thierry Baudet, the Dutch philosopher of self-hatred, who thinks Europe will end up looking like Israel; or Julien Rochedy, a former Front National youth leader, who complains about the party’s nostalgia and explains why it appeals more to the young than the old; or the CDU politician Philipp Lengsfeld discussing the German saviour complex.

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