- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006


By Bruce Bawer

Doubleday, $23.95, 247 pages


By Claire Berlinski

Crown Forum. $25.95, 272 pages


Sometimes nuance is the last thing the publishing world wants. As Bruce Bawer and Claire Berlinski both point out, there is never any problem finding incendiary titles about America in the bookshops of London, Berlin or Paris. No idea seems too far-fetched for the gullible Euro-public.

Want to write a book claiming the September 11 attacks were orchestrated by shadowy figures in the industrial-military complex? Go ahead, only you’ll find that the author Thierry Meyssan has already cornered the market in that particular conspiracy theory, making his bank manager a very happy man in the process.

Barely a day goes by without some op-ed columnist in the Guardian or Le Monde proclaiming that America is on the verge of becoming a police state. The intellectual firepower that used to be reserved for making documentaries about the role of flying saucers in the assassination of John F. Kennedy is now lavished on films, plays and polemics depicting Washington as the capital of the Fourth Reich, with Deputy Fuehrer Rumsfeld organising torchlight parades opposite the Lincoln Memorial.

There is only so much of this nonsense that a normal person can take, and Americans wouldn’t be human if they didn’t long to see the smug Europeans get their comeuppance. Bruce Bawer and Claire Berlinski both have thoughtful points to make about the way the old continent is heading, but much of their analysis is couched in bleakly apocalyptic rhetoric more suited to one of John Gibson’s Frog-bashing pep talks on Fox News.

“While Europe Slept” is easily the better of the two books. Having lived in the Netherlands and Norway, he has seen how two small, vulnerable — and complacent — societies have struggled to come to terms with the rise of Islamic extremism.

Mr Bawer, whose previous work includes a study of America’s Christian fundamentalists, also happens to be homosexual, which means he was more attuned to changes in the atmosphere than the typical expatriate. Day by day, he grew more aware of the incompatibility of Islamist beliefs and liberal democracy. At the same time he noted how well-meaning, relentlesly non-judgemental members of the Dutch and Norwegian elite insisted on turning a blind eye to the problem developing in their midst. Long before the murders of the anti-Islamist Dutch politician Pym Fortuyn and the avant-garde film-maker Theo van Gogh, Mr Bawer realized that the local version of multiculturalism had grown dysfunctional.

He has an acute eye for how such fragile societies fall prey to unscrupulous extremists and opportunistic, welfare-addicted outsiders. He also provides a fine overview of the way elite opinion across the continent has lapsed into a default mode of blaming the evils of American-style capitalism for almost every social ill on the planet.

Much of what now passes for commentary on the United States is almost laughably ill-informed, providing pro-American journalists like myself with no end of entertaining copy. Mr. Bawer’s interest in the social function of religion also helps him to pinpoint a reason why many Europeans seem so blase about the threat posed by Islamism:

“Americans have one big advantage: we’re surrounded by religion. In the United States, even if one isn’t religious oneself, one is likely to have friends, relatives, neighbors or coworkers for whom religious identity is not merely a matter of vestigial, nominal affiliation but of profound conviction; it’s something that guides their major life decisions and shapes their conception of the universe. Since we know such people, we know how powerful (for better or worse) religion can be. Few Western Europeans who aren’t Muslims have this kind of firsthand knowledge.”

Elsewhere, Mr Bawer is less persuasive. The Norwegian and Dutch experiences have a lot to teach us, yet neither country could really be described as lying at the heart of Old Europe. (New Europe barely registers in either of these books.) Bawer does cast an eye at France and Germany and the UK, but not in enough detail to justify his sweeping statements about the prospects for an entire continent.

To suggest, for instance, that the passive reaction of bystanders to the fatal stabbing of the Swedish foreign Anna Lindh is a consequence of the welfare state mentality is to read an awful lot into one tragic incident. And to say that “nearly the whole of Western Europe is practically within their [Islamists] grasp” is equally over-the-top. If you accept Bat Ye’or’s thesis (as Bawer does) that Europe is consciously allowing itself to be subsumed into “Eurabia” then such a claim makes sense. If not, then not.

That said, Mr. Bawer’s argument is much more subtle than Claire Berlinski’s promising but incoherent tour of the European front line. It comes as a surprise to learn that Miss Berlinski has a doctorate in international relations from Oxford and divides her time between Paris and Istanbul, because her work has the breathless quality of a four-week journey, cities glimpsed from a window rather than visited. One exception is her chapter about Marseilles which, curiously enough, draws some fairly positive conclusions about how multiculturalism and sensible urban planning helped the city avoid the worst of last autumn’s riots.

The section on Britain is pretty much a write-off, thanks to Miss Berlinski’s fruitless obsession with Zadie Smith’s novel, “White Teeth” which, she claims, offers a falsely optimistic vision of the country’s melting-pot. The fact that Miss Berlinski used to be on intimate terms with one of the young Muslim men who inspired Zadie Smith’s fiction doesn’t really take us very far. Accusing the precocious novelist of not portraying reality is a little like complaining that “Lucky Jim” doesn’t read like Kafka. The charge may be true, but it remains somewhat irrelevant.

Miss Berlinski has more valid observations on the role of class in the failure of British Muslims to match the social mobility of other immigrants. And there is a faintly entertaining, if overlong chapter on the weird, blood-and-iron imagery of the top-selling German heavy metal band, Rammstein. But by page 227, which is devoted solely to an eye-numbing list of conflicts that have taken place on European soil (take your pick from the First Iconoclastic War and the War of the Sicilian Vespers) the travelogue has run out of steam and ideas.

What worries me about books like this is that they risk reducing Europe to a caricature in much the same way as Stupid White Men turns America into one big Wal-Mart with drive-by shootings. There is an appetite for this kind of thing, as we saw last year when so many U.S. commentators who should have known better rushed to describe the French riots as a Muslim “intifada.”

Never mind that the evidence was scanty; the idea made a neat fit with the idea of continental Europe being irredeemably decadent to the core. Conservatives are supposed to be too pragmatic and sensible to believe that life can really be so simple.

Clive Davis writes The Washington Times’ Letter From London. He also writes for the London Times, and keeps a weblog at www.clivedavis-online.com.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide