Why is Europe Falling Back Into Old, Hateful Habits?

Bert Archer is a Canadian author, journalist, travel writer, essayist and critic. He is the...

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Do you know what a quenelle is? It’s fucking ridiculous, is what it is: a new salute—a cutesy spin on the Sieg Heil!—that’s tearing across the European memeosphere as an expression of various sentiments, but mostly anti-Semitism.

Yes, a Nazi-style salute. In Europe. Again. And it’s not just a few dozen idiots. People are doing it, and supporting the forces behind it, in the tens of thousands.

It’s easy to look over at Europe and grimace and shake our heads the way we might at a great-aunt who has once again called the cab driver a darkie. But as I was doing just that, in the form of a little essay I was going to call “Europe, You’re Bloody Ridiculous,” I reached the inevitable point of self-reflection. While modestly acknowledging that we in North America are not perfect ourselves, I thought of our own home-style homophobia, and that, despite our laws being what they are, our homophobes can be pretty outspoken and enjoy a good deal of official and institutional support, especially in the U.S. And, of course, we have our racism and sexism, too, both systemic and individual, with which we are in continual struggle.

So why, then, does the quenelle feel more outrageous than Pat Robertson’s suggestion that disastrous weather is the result of social acceptance of homosexuality or those thousands (millions?) of anonymous online comments? Call it the shroud of righteousness.

Robertson and David Mainse and those other religious homophobes, hateful as they can be, do their public proclaiming under cover of a beneficent god. They don’t hate these people, they say: they pity them. They want them to change, for the good of their souls, so they can get into heaven. Fred Phelps may get a lot of press, but he has a congregation of a couple of dozen. Indeed, it’s his unabashed hatred, his dropping of any pretense of soul-saving, that has attracted so much attention. In North America, these days, we gawk at that sort of unreconstructed nastiness.

Not so in Europe. M’bala M’bala Dieudonné, the man who’s popularized the quenelle, not only puts on anti-Semitic plays, but sells them out in a theatre of his own in downtown Paris. He travels the country, and the continent, selling thousands of tickets to his shows, which feature things such as well-known Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson and speeches making fun of the Talmud. He made a video of himself in 2009 singing a nonsense song called “Shoananas,” which combines the Hebrew word for the Holocaust—Shoah—with the French word for pineapple, and throws in a man dancing around like an ape wearing a yellow star for good measure. His fans, the ones tweeting and otherwise posting pictures of themselves doing the quenelle, have been doing so at the Berlin Holocaust memorial, in front of Anne Frank’s house, and at Auschwitz. Keep this in mind next time you feel the urge to use the word “European” as a synonym for classy.

I believe Dieudonné makes some noises about this having something to do with freedom of expression, a theme some of his followers have taken up as well—especially since the French government cancelled a show earlier this month in Nantes, to which he’d sold more than 5,000 tickets, on the grounds that his performances had migrated from being artistic expression to hate speech. But the talk is vestigial, and roughly as credible as his complaints that he is not anti-Semitic, merely anti-Zionist. Plus, Dieudonné and his fellow travellers don’t seem to be testing freedom of expression in any way that does not also involve anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt: Perhaps Dieudonné’s a subtle anti-Zionist, using the tropes of anti-Semitism to highlight the contrast? Here’s a clip of his new movie, called Anti-Semitism, in which he says nothing about Israel, or West Bank settlements, but does ridicule evidence of the Holocaust. Here’s another one in which he highlights the wealth of French public intellectual (and Jewish man) Bernard-Henri Lévy, and makes familiar imprecations about Jewish ownership of the TV channels he appears on. And even if any such subtle distinctions did exist, they don’t seem to be getting through to his fans. Here’s an interview with a high school student expelled for making a quenelle in a class photo, in which he says he’s watched “Shoananas,” wanted to make a gesture in support, denies his principal can prove the quenelle is anti-Semitic, and ends by calling other, less supportive people who have written about his case “jewrnalistes.” (The sympathetic blogger who’s interviewing him has more than 15,000 likes on his Facebook page.)

Five thousand tickets. Can you imagine anything like that here? Five thousand people paying to see someone make fun of the deaths of millions of people? And he’s not nearly the only example. As Brian Phillips has pointed out at FreeDarko, speaking of football, “Ajax fans in Holland have appropriated Jewish iconography in recognition of the fact that their stadium used to be located near a Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam. Their opponents’ fans hiss in unison to simulate the sound of the gas coming down at Auschwitz.”

Not that we aren’t insensitive in this part of the world; hell, we still have a sports team called the Redskins. Those who defend that name don’t overtly make fun of the deaths of our continent’s aboriginal people, though—rather, they try to make the case that the two aren’t related, or, at the very least, that the name is a tribute.

But Dieudonné’s confident enough to present his hate unvarnished, and apparently with good reason (see: those 5,000 tickets and his theatre). He and his followers are perfectly happy to parade around without benefit of the shroud of righteousness, a communal sense of morality which in North America for the past century or so at least has included the notion that we shouldn’t hurt people for the sake of it, and that people have the right to go about their business as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. We’ve fallen from this path any number of times, and continue to do so, but we still more or less agree that the path exists. Dieudonné and his fans have no such pretenses; that’s the scary difference between incidents of gay bashing or mosque vandalism and the brazen groupthink behind Kristallnacht. Political correctness gets some ribbing round these parts, but when confronted with a continent where it’s so markedly absent, you can see it for what it is in its most basic form: a scrim between us and our darker selves.

I took a trip to Germany a couple of years ago with the intention of writing a story or two about it. Speaking with my editor beforehand, I said whatever the stories ended up being, I would be sure not to mention the war, as every story about Germany inevitably seemed to. Off I went through the Mosel Valley, touring towns and cities like Wurzburg and Stuttgart, Trier and Heidelberg, and everywhere I went, someone—a tour guide, someone in a tourism office, someone in a bar—would bring up the war. They’d tell me how much of the city had been destroyed, the date the Americans marched in, when they marched out; they’d note that Goebbels had graduated from this university or Hitler gave a speech from that balcony over there. In Trier, as we walked past some scaffolding erected around a nearly completed four-storey building in the middle of a row just off the town square, my guide told me it had been their last “war hole”—the last building in town destroyed in the war to be rebuilt. On the same trip, I dipped into eastern France and saw, in places like Strasbourg, streets and entire neighbourhoods that still bear names like La rue des Juifs, that had been cleared not in the 1940s, but the Middle Ages. Jews never came back. The same, of course, goes for Spain and its Muslims.

Any number of reasons could account for this fundamental difference between continents. Ours is a culture composed almost entirely of immigrants. In Europe, though, with its surfeit of history, the hatreds—of North Africans, Roma, Muslims—can be seen as displays of nationalism rather than straight racism, which could also double as a reason for their repeated anathematizing of the historically stateless Jews. Or maybe the miasma of millennia of victories, defeats, torture, rape, and slaughter just oozes up through the earth, making the ground slick with the grease of a hundred million corpses, and making Europeans more likely to slip and fall back into their ridiculous, deadly, hateful fuckery.

That theatre of Dieudonné’s is in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. On August 20, 1941, French police chose this same neighbourhood to wage their first raids, rounding up about 4,000 Jews for transportation to the new, French-run internment camp at Drancy, and thence to Auschwitz. I’m sure this had nothing to do with Dieudonné’s choice of venue, but it’s yet another a striking example of how you cannot go anywhere in Western Europe without stepping on this kind of history. That quenelling student implied in his interview that he was sick of all this talk in school of Europe’s dark history. You can see how heavy it could get, walking the streets of Paris or Berlin, being continually confronted with this or that memorial to this or that shot or deported person, especially when you know it was your grandfather or great-grandmother doing the shooting, deporting or informing. And yet, for people so eager to emerge from the shadows of their own history, they seem determined to relive it: once again, they’re taking their frustrations out on the Jews.