GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy
By Sasha Polakow-Suransky. Nation Books. 358 pp. $28.
It was either a penis or a middle finger. Either way, it was meant to offend.
The crude drawing scrawled on the garage door greeted my family when we returned home from a dinner night out. Toilet paper was strewn across the outside of the house. My parents rushed us inside, trying to keep us from looking. But of course we did, and today my sister and I still can’t agree on the image. It was 1980, the nation was tense and riveted by the U.S. hostage crisis in Tehran, and apparently someone in our quaint Northern California town didn’t want this Peruvian immigrant family feeling too welcome.
I think about that moment, invariably as glimpsed from the back seat of a car — it’s funny how certain vantage points stay with you — whenever immigrants become targets in national politics. That night always reminds me that animus against outsiders long predates the Trump presidency and that, as frightening and disorienting as it felt to a child, things can always get far worse.
In “Go Back to Where You Came From,” Sasha Polakow-Suransky describes the turn toward anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and anti-Islam fervor in Europe, dwelling on Holland, Denmark and France, though he always seems to be glancing across the Atlantic. He compares Marine Le Pen voters in northern France to Donald Trump voters in southeastern Michigan; he suggests that Trump and right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders are both faux economic populists; and he worries that, in Europe and the United States, democracies are threatened by popular fear of immigrants.
“What if, in reaction to the challenges of mass migration, liberal democracies abandon their constitutional principles and adopt exclusionary policies that erode their long-standing commitment to human rights?” he asks. “There could come a day when, even in wealthy Western nations, liberal democracy ceases to be the only game in town.”
Polakow-Suransky, a fellow with the Open Society Foundations and a former opinion editor at the New York Times, has reported from across the globe for this book, providing dispatches from refugee camps and interviewing politicians, activists and immigrants on all sides of this debate. He captures social and political transformations in simple, memorable lines. “Holland is famed as a tolerant society . . . but in recent years, the overwhelming force in society has been fear,” he explains. “Public debate has branded all Muslim immigrants as guilty.”
He chronicles anti-immigration sentiment in unexpected places (South Africa) and explains how immigration policy in Australia (yes, Australia) has been “a beacon for Europe’s new right,” thanks to its intercepting of incoming refugees before they reach Australian shores, sending them back or offshoring them to centers on obscure Pacific islands — a practice the author calls “a form of moral and judicial outsourcing.”
At its heart, however, this is a book less about migrants and policies than about thinkers and politics. Polakow-Suransky is intrigued by the “intellectual enablers” of Europe’s anti-immigrant passions. He dwells on the influence of Michel Houellebecq, the author of “Submission,” a novel that imagines an Islamist takeover of France; Eric Zemmour (“The French Suicide”); Thilo Sarrazin (“Germany Abolishes Itself”); and Alain Finkielkraut (“The Unhappy Identity”), stressing that “all these writers presented the idea of a relentless Islamic tsunami engulfing Europe culturally and demographically.” Lurking in the background is Jean Raspail, whose 1973 novel “The Camp of the Saints” depicted, in racist and apocalyptic terms, the arrival of boatloads of Hindus on French shores. Former White House political strategist Stephen K. Bannon has praised the work, and Polakow-Suransky’s final chapter concludes with an interview in Raspail’s Paris apartment.
“We are a country, a civilization, a language, a way of life,” Raspail, now in his 90s, tells him. “If we blend it with something that does not correspond at all to who we are, it won’t work, and we’ll be lost.”
There are many reasons such views have gained renewed currency in Europe. Polakow-Suransky spends time at the “Jungle” in Calais, France, a onetime camp for thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and witnesses local residents and activists mobilizing against the encroachment. “They want to replace us,” one organizer complains to Polakow-Suransky. “If defending one’s country makes you a fascist, then I’m a fascist.”
The author recalls how the reaction to a Danish newspaper’s 2005 publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad boosted support for the right-wing DPP party. “The Danish cartoon controversy matters because it accelerated the political shift toward the right,” he writes. “Danes who may never have contemplated voting for the DPP now saw their embassies on fire . . . and death threats against some of their best-known journalists. Suddenly, the DPP’s platform was making sense.”
And high-profile mass terrorist attacks, such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France in 2015 or the killings at a Berlin Christmas market last year, galvanize hatreds and suspicions.
“The combination of fear and xenophobia can be a dangerous and destructive force,” Polakow-Suransky writes. “Fear of fundamentalist Islam (which poses a genuine security threat) and animosity toward refugees (who generally do not), have been conflated in a way that allows populist far-right leaders across the world to seize upon ISIS attacks as a pretext to shut their doors to desperate refugees who are themselves fleeing ISIS.”
The author also lays plenty of blame on the European left, which he says allowed an opening for resurgent right-wing populism. Even in the midst of economic turmoil and heightened security fears, “the focus of activism on the left shifted dramatically from economic equality to identity,” he writes, weakening leftist appeal among some longtime supporters. It is a similar argument to that of Columbia University historian Mark Lilla, whose recent book “The Once and Future Liberal” has generated significant pushback on the American left. Pokalow-Suransky criticizes Europe’s leftist and center-left parties for abandoning their “commitment to universal values and embracing multiculturalism by focusing on people as members of communities rather than as fellow citizens.”
The European right, he essentially argues, has been smarter. Far-right parties “have deftly co-opted the causes, policies, and rhetoric of their opponents, seeking to outflank the left by blending a nativist economic policy — more welfare, but only for us — and tough anti-immigration and border security measures,” Polakow-Suransky explains. “By painting themselves as the protectors of social benefits that are threatened by an influx of freeloading migrants, they appeal to both economic anxiety and fear of terrorism.”
In France, even the political tradition of laïcité, or state secularism, long a cause of the left, has been taken up by the right, which deploys it as a weapon to claim high ground on matters from Muslim attire to halal meat. “The populist right did not come out of nowhere,” Polakow-Suransky writes. “It recognized an underserved niche in the political market . . . and has never let go.”
Books like these often feature a dutiful list of recommendations, but Polakow-Suransky largely resists this temptation. It’s good, because his strengths fall more in reporting and analysis than in policy specifics. When he posits how leftist politicians can reach out to erstwhile supporters who have veered away, he sounds correct but unhelpful. “The challenge for today’s left is to acknowledge these voters’ fears and offer policies that help address their grievances without making the sort of moral concessions that lead toward reactionary illiberal policies. . . . Only by listening to and understanding marginalized voters’ rage can activists and mainstream politicians hope to win them back.”
“Mainstream” — it’s a comforting but dangerously elastic notion. Whoever vandalized my childhood home was certainly not in the mainstream of my neighborhood or my town. The occasional incident aside, we lived happily there for a few more years. But vantage points shift quickly, and what one day seems fringe soon appears commonplace. Today, disdain for outsiders is growing more overt, and Polakow-Suransky worries that liberal democracies may prove especially susceptible. “If they fail to deal with these challenges and allow xenophobic populists to hijack the public debate,” he warns, “then the votes of frustrated and disaffected citizens will increasingly go to the anti-immigrant right, societies will become less open, nativist parties will grow more powerful, and racist rhetoric that promotes a narrow and exclusionary sense of national identity will be legitimized.”
It will be mainstream.