A rift is tearing through politics in the global North, fuelled by racism and fear of the other. Anxiety over the decline of white majorities is being deployed as a device for political gain by numerous politicians in Europe and North America. This development is puzzling and alarming, yet it is often expressed in contradictory terms.
This is illustrated in a recent edition of the Washington Post by a striking disparity between a headline on the front-page and another on page three. Page one includes a gripping image of Hondurans attempting to climb a barrier at the Guatemala-Mexico border. The photograph captures the desperation of migrants participating in the human caravan, trying to escape the violence and poverty of Central America. This movement has been met with ferocious rhetoric and threats by the Trump administration, which is seeking to ensure that these asylum seekers never get anywhere near the American border. Just two pages later, however, the headline reads: “Finger-pointing begins as U.S. fertility rates fall.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is quoted as suggesting that, for America to remain great, it is “going to need more people.”
This contradiction between a fear of migrants and anxiety over inadequate domestic population growth needs to be unpacked. Unfortunately, the tone of public discussion often adds fuel to the fire rather than encouraging considered reflection. Eric Kaufman’s new book Whiteshift is a case in point. He addresses the rise of white nationalism while essentially normalising it. Arguing on the basis of demographic data, Kaufmann defends a version of white identify politics, criticises some anti-racism taboos and supports notions of ethnic selection in immigration.
As the Honduran caravan situation clearly illustrates, there is no shortage of human beings available to fill the gaps in the economies of the rich nations of the world and replenish their declining populations. Yet, for the Republic Party, along with many Americans, the participants in the caravan are clearly not considered the “right kind of people.”
In the nations of the global North, there are numerous jobs that the local population is either unable or unwilling to do. To highlight but two examples, in Scotland, these include lack of sufficient local crews for the fishing industry and nurses for the health care system. In southern Ontario (as in many other agricultural regions), migrant workers are required to pick fruit and vegetable crops. At the same time, the birth rate in Western nations has been steadily declining, as higher levels of wealth and education result in fewer children. In the United States, fertility rates fell by 18% between 2007 and 2017. In Australia, the birth rate dropped below the replacement level as early as 1976, and decreased by 54% between 1961 and 2012. In 2017, the rate in England reached a twelve year low. In Canada, the birth rate is lower still.
If the argument of Kaufman’s book is correct, pointing to these demographic shifts is all that is necessary to explain the rising anxiety over migrants and the emergence of white ethnocentrism. Yet there is good reason to question his assumptions. Why should we take his assertion that “migration-led ethnic change” disrupts some primal ethnic “instinct” at face value?
Absent from such a position is reference to economic, social and political developments within the “interior world” of the global North. This neglects the ongoing erosion of social institutions that once supported working class identity and security. With the decline of trade unions, of a stable social safety net, the collapse of large manufacturing industries and other neoliberal economic shifts, many lower and middle-class citizens now describe their interests in ethnic rather than class terms ― because that is the only tangible category left readily available to them. In a society operating almost exclusively according to individualism and instrumentalism, some experience ethnicity as the only remaining value that feels tangible.
Peter Sloterdijk highlights such issues when he observes that the classic “welfare state” model that came to prominence after the Great Depression and the Second World War supported the presumption that the nation served as a “fortified container” that offered protection to all its citizens. Sloterdijk suggests that this encouraged people to emotionally associate the borders of their country with something resembling a “personal immune system.” This recognition helps explain, Sloterdijk continues, how despite the fact that “the primary fact of the Modern Age … is that money goes around the earth,” human beings are not permitted the same free movement around the globe. Indeed, contemporary global capitalism has constructed an “expanded interior, a domestically and artificially climatized inner space.” Those deemed not to belong must be kept outside this interior realm, to preserve the existing structures of power and privilege
What has emerged in the wake of globalisation is the national equivalent of the gated community ― our own collective version of The Truman Show. This 1998 film (directed by Peter Weir) starred Jim Carrey as a man raised unaware inside an artificial community that is broadcast as a reality television show. The contemporary globalising economy increasingly resembles this surreal movie. The world exterior to the wealthy global North must aggressively be shut out, no matter how unrealistically artificial that fantasy remains.
The story in the Washington Post about declining fertility rates in the United States adds another dimension to this analysis of the rise of white ethnic populism. In her book Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion, Beverley Harrison criticised the sacralisation of procreation in American culture. She observed that Christianity often endorses the belief that divine blessing is understood to be paradigmatically expressed through the issue of progeny. This inclination is parodied in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In this dystopian narrative, a Christian theocracy has subjugated women and their reproductive capacity in response to a drastic decline in the birth rate. The name of the main character, Offred, is derived from the name of her patriarchal master ― of Fred.
In this light, one might suggest that current anti-migrant polemics can be described in similar terms: those external to our artificial “interior world” exist only for our benefit. For white nationalists, other peoples of the globe are “Of-white” ― required to provide some essential services, but by no means equal partners or fellow human beings.
Here the link between the two articles in the Washington Post ― connecting white nationalism to declining birthrates ― comes into sharper view. For if childbearing is portrayed as the primary sign of sacred blessing and of God’s love and care, how much less will we be inclined to welcome into our communities human beings with whom we share no biological link?
Continue reading this article at ABC Religion & Ethics.
Excerpt reprinted in collaboration with the author and ABC Australia.
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Rev. Dr. Christopher Brittain holds a PhD in Theology from St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. He is Dean of Divinity at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, former Professor of Social and Political Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada. In November 2017 he presented a paper entitled “Rowan Williams on Icons” at the Icons and Mission Conference hosted by Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania. His The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads: The Crises of a Global Church (co-authored with Andrew McKinnon) appeared earlier this year.