Fermez la Porte: The Oversimplification of Europe

Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West
Christopher Caldwell (New York: Doubleday, 2009)

For Christopher Caldwell, an American columnist for the Financial Times and contributor to the New York Times Magazine and the Weekly Standard, the end of Europe as we have known it and as it has known itself is not just possible but inevitable. His new book is a grim explication of this thesis and an investigation—part reportage, part history, part analysis, part social theory—both of the deep roots within European culture and politics for this looming catastrophe, and of its proximate cause, which, for Caldwell, is obvious and undeniable: the mass migration of Muslim immigrants to Europe and the sinister prospect of their dominance. His book, he writes, asks “whether you can have the same Europe with different people. The answer is no.”

Caldwell is so utterly persuaded that post-1945 Europe is “a civilization in decline” that he barely sees the need to confront the argument of those who take a more optimistic view. In his telling, Europe’s prosperity, technological sophistication, and success in assuring the material well-being of more of its population than any society (including that of the United States) has ever been able to assure in human history, is largely irrelevant, at least when compared with Europe’s spiritual loss of faith in itself. For Caldwell, as for Schopenhauer, Dostoyevsky, Shestov, Spengler, and Cioran, whose worldview his book largely shares, Napoleon’s maxim, that in war “the moral is to the material as three to one,” would seem to apply to society as a whole.

What does puzzle Caldwell is why this decline has been so precipitous. And while he discusses a number of the elements at some length, including the decline of Christianity, above all in the sense that religion provided an anchor to European identity—a perspective that in his view has made Europeans particularly susceptible to a debilitating form of universalism—he seems to realize that, taken together, all of this explains very little. He is reduced to saying the continent is “missing some hard-to-define factor” that would allow its elites to stop conniving in their own disappearance. If he can’t say what exactly that factor is, Caldwell is persuaded that Europe can’t either. And that is his essential point: this incapacity to know and define European values explains why Muslim immigrants will transform Europe culturally and politically instead of the other way around, which would seem more likely, given the economic, educational, and political imbalance in Europe’s favor.


The obvious objection here is that Caldwell’s argument is far, far too Spenglerian. He does not allude to it in his book, but The Decline of the West looms like a tutelary idol over all of Caldwell’s pages. Oswald Spengler believed that cultures have four stages: a “springtime,” marked by a strong religious faith that gradually evolves into a more materialistic worldview; a “summer,” or cultural apogee; an “autumn,” in which rationality and materialism come to so dominate that cultures can no longer resolve their own internal tensions; and, finally, after late autumn, a “winter,” which is to say, a spiritual collapse. Put crudely, only through blood—meant not in the racist sense (it is the crudest of caricatures to describe Spengler, or, for that matter, Nietzsche, as racists) but rather a new order infused with a stronger life force—can money, as Spengler put it, be “overthrown and abolished.”

Caldwell’s account of Europe’s rise, crisis, and imminent transformation by Muslim immigrants is similarly (and eerily) cyclical. Echoing the assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who, before his murder, campaigned successfully on the theme of the incompatibility of Western and Islamic values, Caldwell argues that Europe’s contemporary culture of reason and individualism arose from an earlier religious Europe but that, paradoxically, the new culture of rights in postwar Europe had made the West “better but more vulnerable.” In its autumn, Europe cannot even define itself and, thus, is especially defenseless against confident religious cultures. The continent’s misfortune, as Caldwell sees it, is that its religious culture is not a homegrown one, but rather the historical “enemy religion” of Christian Europe. In this sense, Caldwell is even more pessimistic than Spengler was, for where the latter saw a new religious imperium arising from within the autumnal culture that had evolved—the phrase is Cioran’s, “from agriculture to paradox”—the former sees it arising from without and carrying with it not just transformation but cultural extinction.

The account Caldwell offers is, to be sure, a modified Spenglerianism. To this he adds two new elements, guilt and universal history, the latter concept in the sense that the great French political theorist Raymond Aron used it. Caldwell is right to see the two concepts as interrelated. In his essay “The Dawn of Universal History,” Aron argued that “with humanity on its way to unification, inequality between peoples takes on the significance that inequality between classes once had. . . . Consciousness of inequality spread, and resignation to poverty and fate disappears.” Caldwell takes this to mean that Islamic immigrants will not accept the subordination to which immigrants in the past resigned themselves. And a Europe whose moral order, as Caldwell describes it, is dominated still by “repentance” for colonialism and Nazism is not going to have the fortitude to demand that they do so.

To this deterministic conclusion, Caldwell adds a tendency toward binary thinking that is the great weakness of major conservative writing on foreign policy. The paradigmatic expression of this was Robert Kagan’s otherwise superb essay on the different interests of Europe and the United States in the post–Cold War world, “Of Paradise and Power.” But Caldwell is even more categorical. For him, Islam is like this, Christianity is like that.


Such simplifications make for provocative Op-Ed pieces, fat book contracts, and wide media attention for the writers who trade in them. They also make for good talking points. But given the seriousness with which writers like Caldwell take themselves, and want to be taken, it simply won’t do. To be sure, if you want to be heard broadly in the contemporary world, you pretty much have to simplify and dumb down. But this desire is not beyond reproach and there are intellectuals who choose not to try to gain access to the politically powerful. On the right, Russell Kirk springs to mind, as, indeed, does my own late father, of whom Richard John Neuhaus, who was himself passionately interested in influencing policymakers, is said to have remarked, “Perhaps Rieff was right not to care if he was heard.”

Caldwell seems to have had some sense that his sweeping generalizations might provoke such a negative reaction, for very early in the book he writes that to have hedged his arguments “with granted’s and notwithstanding’s would have made this book a pain to write and a chore to read.” Perhaps. But to have opened the huis clos of his argument to the fresh air of nuance would have saved Caldwell from the kinds of corner-cutting that makes this book—there is no kind way to put this and many less kind ones—intellectually and morally beneath him.

This is a great pity because Caldwell knows Europe as few Americans do. Even his bibliography offers an object lesson in quadrilingual cosmopolitanism. Caldwell is about as far away as it is possible to be from the “France is funny, or Communist, or both” school of American conservatism. Unlike previous, cruder versions of his argument about Islam’s coming victory in Europe, or (he oscillates between the two formulations) Europe’s inability to stand up for its values and its history, Caldwell for the most part resists cheap emoting and venting. But because of his inability to resist the temptation to try to fit virtually every trend, process, and event he considers, from the most lurid to the most mundane, into the tired category of a supine Europe doomed by its failure to breed in sufficient numbers, leached of its ethical strength by relativism and colonial and racial guilt, and complicit in its demise at the hands of an immigration both vigorously fertile and morally self-confident, Caldwell’s argument ends up not being a great deal more enlightening than books by his intellectual inferiors, above all because it so oversimplifies the reality of contemporary Europe.

One of the most egregious of these oversimplifications (as Perry Anderson pointed out in a respectful, if severe, review in the National) is the direct result of Caldwell’s decision not to consider the role played by what he himself calls “the difficulties faced by immigrants and ethnic minorities” in Europe. Every book needs a “principle of exclusion”—indeed, the reading public would be far better off were more authors to understand the pressing need for one before sitting down to write. The problem is that Caldwell chose precisely the wrong material to exclude, portraying the alienation and bitterness of immigrants to Europe without seriously asking whether their alienation and bitterness stems mostly from their allegiance to an Islam whose values are incompatible with those of modern Europe, or, instead, whether this rage derives at least as much from a history of marginalization and racial and ethnic discrimination.

In Caldwell’s account, counterintuitively, rich Europeans are the weaker party, and poor Islamic immigrants the stronger one. As he puts it in the concluding sentence of his book, “When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident, and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.” Unsurprisingly, then, Caldwell is drawn to language of invasion and conquest. The immigrants establish “beachheads”; the immigrants are “willful”; Islam has “the wind in its sails.”

Caldwell has been to the grim immigrant suburbs that ring Paris, and read the statistics about job discrimination; indeed, he lays them out in some detail in his book. But knowing them does not seem to have led him to question in any serious way his understanding of the relation of forces between the rich and the poor, in which it is the poor who are to be feared and the rich pitied and mourned. To be clear, it is not that Caldwell thinks that anti-immigrant job and housing discrimination in Europe are trivial matters. But because he is so utterly persuaded that immigrants will soon have the whip hand in European society (if, as he in fact suspects, they don’t already), this victimization is of no great historical consequence. It brings to mind the joke Herbert Marcuse liked to tell, toward the end of his life, about a certain kind of Marxist, for which, if the facts don’t fit the theory, so much the worse for the facts.


Nowhere is this clearer than in Caldwell’s descriptions of and conclusions about crime among immigrants. For him, every kind of criminality, whether it is petty street crime in Amsterdam beyond the canals or the huge riots that convulsed the major cities of France in 2005, plays neatly into his argument about the immigrant tide. This argument is deeply flawed both factually and analytically. In the case of the French riots, for example, while it is true that the wide majority of the participants were immigrants or children or grandchildren of immigrants, and that of these a majority were Muslim, it is also true that many poor whites participated—the petits blancs, as the French riot police I met while covering some of the rioting called them. And the places where there was no rioting were, precisely, the neighborhoods or towns where the radical Islamic clerics were most powerful. There is something of a “heads I win, tails you lose” quality to Caldwell’s argument here. If the French authorities need the help of imams in the suburbs to keep order, this is proof of Islam’s inexorable will to power. Yet if the rioters evince no religious feeling, but are of Muslim origin, that is evidence of the same.

As Ian Buruma—author of Murder in Amsterdam, an account of the ritual murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamist fanatic (and a book about Europe’s immigration dilemma in which the author actually keeps his head)—has pointed out, not every act of street crime by a Muslim youth anywhere in Europe is political, and to see it this way is fundamentally to distort the challenges with which European societies must contend. Caldwell never pauses in his breathless account of the decline of the West to ask himself whether things would really be so bad if youth unemployment rates in places like the Paris suburbs didn’t hover around 40 percent. Instead, he opts to focus on a famous incident in a so-called friendly soccer match between France and Algeria at which immigrant youths booed the playing of the “Marseillaise.”

It is not that this event wasn’t symbolically important, or that what it revealed doesn’t raise profound questions. But for Caldwell to assign such great importance to this incident and far less to prolonged and rampant economic deprivation is to get things exactly backwards. Moreover, even his accounts of the significance of street crime tend to obscure more than they clarify. For example, Caldwell tells a story of a youngish thug named Angelo Hoekelet, an immigrant from Congo, whose arrest in the Gare du Nord in Paris in early 2007 generated prolonged rioting. The events happened just as Caldwell described them. The problem is that the criminal in question was not a Muslim but rather a Christian, and there was nothing Islamic about the reaction of the feral youths who battled the police for hours, first trying to free Hoekelet and then simply venting their rage and nihilism, some of them shouting “Nique la France” (“Fuck France”).

Caldwell is mesmerized by disloyalty, and thus he transforms an incident that was far less violent (by coincidence, I was in Paris that day) than any run-of-the-mill episode of soccer hooliganism in the United Kingdom into a case study of the existential threat posed to the coherence of the French Republic by immigrant youths.

Caldwell has not misreported what took place at the Gare du Nord that day. But he has badly misinterpreted the event. The story occupies only a few paragraphs in his book, but the reason his use of this story matters is because he adduces it as evidence not just of immigrant alienation but of his stated theme—Europe’s imminent subjugation by Islamic immigrants and their (European) descendants. But in reality it is evidence of nothing of the sort. Not only is there nothing distinctively European about it, but it also has nothing whatsoever to do with Islamic immigrants, the clash of civilizations, or any of the other key concepts at the heart of Caldwell’s thesis. He speaks of “the distinction between sedition and protest” often being blurry. But the Gare du Nord riot was neither sedition nor protest. It was a criminal riot. The problem is that, where immigrants in Europe are concerned (as opposed to soccer hooligans in the United Kingdom, Latino street thugs in the States, or gangs in Rio), Caldwell simply will not accept that the criminal and the political are not inseparable. In this, his argument is oddly reminiscent of the one made by radical leftists like the writer Mike Davis about the Crips and Bloods street gangs in Los Angeles being proto-revolutionary formations. To restate facts that Caldwell scandalously omits, Hoekelet was not a Muslim, nor was the rage of the crowd that first tried to free him (and then ran amok) expressed with any Muslim content or character whatsoever.


The larger question, however, is a straightforward one: Has Europe really responded so ineptly and cravenly to the transformation that mass immigration has brought? The facts that Caldwell gathers to demonstrate this proposition support other, far less damning interpretations. It is true that at least some of the rioters have screamed anti-French slogans. But this is really not all that different from much Mexican nationalist sentiment one encounters routinely at street demonstrations in California demanding legalization of illegal immigrants. The people who make these demands—tens if not hundreds of thousands of them—make them while waving Mexican, not American, flags and shouting slogans in Spanish, not English (at least they did until organizers from the Catholic Church and from the labor movement got them to tone it down). A European Christopher Caldwell might have made rather heavy weather of these episodes. Indeed, at a debate in Washington after the U.S. publication of his book on the United States, Bernard-Henri Lévy was asked the Caldwell-ish question of whether France risked becoming a suburb of the Maghreb. Lévy replied, with a smile, “Only to the same extent that America risks becoming a suburb of Mexico.”

Ironically, Caldwell’s view of the cultural effects of nonwhite immigration to the United States is almost certainly far too sanguine. He makes an impassioned case for the northward migration of Mexicans and Central and South Americans en masse, saying it is fundamentally different because Latino immigrants are Catholic and have the mores of white ethnic immigrants of four or five decades ago. I rather doubt anyone who has direct experience of Central American youth gangs in California or Washington State, or lives in the southwest and has watched the drug violence spread across the border from Mexico, would take quite the sentimental line Caldwell does, and see these vicious thugs as modern-day recapitulations of the Sharks and the Jets.

Reading Caldwell, one sometimes gets the sense that he knows Western Europe far better than he does his own country. He pays a great deal of attention to the ways in which immigration drains societies of their cohesion, above all their psychic and cultural unity, describing at some length the challenge to long-established patterns of living, from what people eat to how they drive their cars. These dislocations are real, and Caldwell is absolutely correct to pay close attention. But these cultural dislocations that Caldwell finds so sinister and that he believes are harbingers of Europe’s cultural demise are not so very different from the ones white Americans (and many African Americans, too) have been experiencing from Los Angeles to Miami throughout the past thirty years. That Caldwell reads as political the lawlessness of the poor suburbs of the major European cities while taking an almost irenic stance toward the equal or greater lawlessness of U.S. cities today plainly smacks of disingenuousness.

Caldwell stands on far more solid ground when he points out that, despite what is often said, the alienation of Muslim immigrants to America from U.S. society is in many ways as profound as that of Muslim immigrants to Europe. Anyone with firsthand experience of Pakistanis in Brooklyn or Arabs in Michigan will know this to be true. There is a global crisis in Islam, and it is foolish and stupid of some European multiculturalists (whom Caldwell justifiably skewers) to deny that it exists. It is even more foolish to deny that, because of this crisis, not only does Europe face ongoing, serious, and likely long-lived threats from homegrown jihadist terrorists, but also that assimilating the overwhelming majority of Muslim immigrants has become more difficult than it was a generation ago—and such difficulties are unlikely to abate in the future. But to derive from these challenges the conviction that Europe is doomed seems to me quite unwarranted.


For one thing, although Caldwell anatomizes in some detail the changes in the immigration and assimilation policies of the major European governments of the past half-century, his pessimism about the very possibility of assimilation leads him to lose sight of the historical significance of these changes. He rightly argues that the effects of new, firmer policies on matters like women’s rights and homosexuality have not been as effective as had been hoped. But he implies that this means they are doomed to failure. Yet, a more plausible interpretation of these events—one that leads to guarded optimism rather than bottomless pessimism—is that while the latest wave of immigration is more than half a century old, European governments have not understood the need to rethink and strengthen assimilation until comparatively recently. As was the case with antiterrorism, we woke up late to the danger and have had to play catch-up for quite some time.

But just as we have now made extraordinary progress in antiterrorist tactics and strategies, so might these new European initiatives prove anything but an exercise in whistling past the graveyard. That these things take time does not mean that all is lost, and, most assuredly, does not mean the prospects are so hopeless that the only thing a European can do, as Caldwell puts it, is “hope that newcomers, especially Muslim newcomers, will assimilate peacefully” (emphasis added). And, in fact, many of the steps European countries have taken, from the municipal to the national level, are actually very promising. Caldwell himself is at pains to point out that “in sharp contrast to, say, urban rioting or anti-American or anti-Israeli demonstrations, Muslim violence against women elicits no call for ‘understanding’ of the circumstances.” He goes on to note that a number of European countries in recent years have become quite tough on arranged marriages. And he points to perhaps the clearest indication yet of a very different, less complacent, and, indeed, intransigent European position with regard to assimilation: the decision of the Sarkozy government in France to ban the wearing of headscarves in schools, which the French authorities had concluded was both an affront to women’s freedom and a manifestation of political Islam.

Does this mean that Caldwell is, in fact, willing to concede that core European values—as Europeans today prioritize them, if not as Caldwell, writing as a believing Christian, wishes they would prioritize them—are not necessarily malleable or bound to collapse in the face of immigrant demands? The answer is not at all. Instead, Caldwell presents each one of these events as at least as much of a defeat for European values. The ban on arranged marriages has created great resentment in immigrant communities; honor killings persist; and the French government had to ban the donning of other, in Caldwell’s view, innocuous religious symbols in order to ban the headscarf. He is not wrong to note these facts. But to do so in the way that he does is to turn European reality on its head.

“Luxury is more ruthless than war,” wrote the poet Juvenal almost two thousand years ago. In some sense, this is the real theme of Caldwell’s book. Had he been willing to tease out the real implications of that reality, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe would have been a deeper book, if also a less inflammatory and binary one. There are real problems in Europe. And for decades, Europeans were blind to them; indeed, as Caldwell explains—and his anatomization of European political naivete and political correctness is the strongest part of his book, just as his description of the realities of immigrant life and the varieties of immigrant experience in Europe is the weakest—their actions greatly contributed to the present assimilation crisis. But seeing it for the crisis that it is should not have led Caldwell to ascribe to it things that it is not—namely, the harbinger of the end of Europe as we know it today. Islam is in crisis, and that crisis permeates Islamic diasporas around the world as it does Islamic countries themselves. That crisis is not going to last forever. On the European side, guilt will fade. Meanwhile, the commitment of European governments to capitalism is as rock hard as ever. And capitalism has shown itself to be a pole of attraction as strong as any one of the great religions or empires at its apogee. Look at China and India today. Look, for God’s sake, at Europe itself. Spengler was wrong: in the fight between money and blood, history actually shows that money often emerges victorious. Caldwell is wrong too.

David Rieff is a journalist and author, most recently, of Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir.

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