Addicted to Racism: Why Populists Literally get off on Bigotry

Anne-Ruth Wertheim, Juan  Cole, 13 March 2017. 
recently did I realise that people with racist prejudices have something to
lose: their short-term delight, the balm for their soul. This is something they
have in common with addicts. When they kick their habit, they lose this balm.
In recent years, I have wondered why right-wing populists are always
complaining about losing something, about something being taken away from them.
Black Pete (Zwarte Piet – the Dutch Santa Claus’s blackface sidekick) to start
with or the Whit Monday holiday or the privilege of walking down shopping
streets surrounded only by other white fellow-man. I found it so unlikely that
such trivialities could mean so much to them. But now I realise it goes much
deeper than that.

cases of addiction, those affected live in denial and mainly blame others or
their circumstances. Addicts do not like to admit that they are addicted, they
prefer to maintain the self-image that of course they can do without their
drug, be it alcohol or tobacco or whatever it is. They have everything under
control and it is the people around them that have got it into their heads that
there is something wrong. Their opinions that they are dependent on something
and that they like doing things that are actually not allowed, are totally
same phenomenon can be seen in people with racist prejudices. There is nothing
wrong with them, they don’t look down on coloured people because they even have
a few in their circle of friends. They are being falsely accused by left-wing
Gutmenschen (German term for the politically correct as opposed to Wutmenschen
who support populism) who play the racism card at the slightest little thing.
Their disdain for Muslims has nothing to do with racism, because Islam is not a
race and you’re allowed to mock a religion or at most an ideology. And that
they like to follow leaders who say things which are actually not allowed, is
something dreamt up by those, as Godwin claims, who bring up the 1930s at every
comparison of people with racist ideas to addicts has to do with the sense of
loss both groups experience when they stop their habit. It does not cover all
the other aspects of addiction, be the form of addiction light or severe:
whether and in how far addiction should be considered an illness and whether
psychological factors play a role, be they inborn or acquired in life. What I
want to do is show that when people become clean they really do lose something:
their short-term delight. And that I hope and expect they will replace it with
something better in the long term.
It is
interesting to explore what this delight is like to people with racist
prejudices. Actually it is a dual delight, two kinds of wonderful feelings,
neither of which can be sneezed at. The first feeling is that they are better
than non-western immigrants. Raising yourself above a minority group creates an
illusion of enhanced self-value – thankfully you are not like them! Them with
their backward ideas and behaviour, no way, you’re better off as a
representative of the highly praised Western culture.
other wonderful feeling that people with racist ideas experience consists of
the sense of unity. The feeling of being one with all people who, just like
you, are convinced that Muslims are the cause of all the misery in the world.
Excluding a designated, well-defined scapegoat means that you belong to
something, are part of a group of like-minded people. With the additional
advantage that the scapegoats are physically recognisable in public. In a world
full of contradictions and confusion, it is at least comforting to know you do
not have to differ over the question who are responsible.
my years in education, I witnessed how classes enjoyed a sense of unity against
their scapegoats. All my discussions with bullies and the bullied was in vain
as long as I failed to reach the bystanders – after all it was these
accomplices who perpetuated the bullying through their grinning or even their
silence. But they would not let themselves be robbed easily from their common
feeling of despising the scapegoat, who, in their eyes, only had themselves to
thank for their faults. They realised perfectly well that all their mutual
annoyances, arguments and jealousy would immediately flare up again.
is a paradox at work when people moan about Muslims. When Muslims complain that
they are being made responsible for attacks which they have no part in
whatsoever, the Islamophobes imply that they should be able to take a bit of a
knocking. They shouldn’t be so oversensitive and above all shouldn’t play the
role of the victim. But it is the pot calling the kettle black, because it is
they who cannot get enough of complaining about the nuisance they experience
from Muslims: they have to listen to their calls to prayer, are not given a
handshake when they are supposed to, have to put up with seeing satellite
dishes in the streets and headscarves in public transport. And all this while
they are part of the majority and, in doing so, claim to have the right to a
society which never changes in their lifetime. You never hear people say that
Islamophobes are cry babies who play the role of the victim, but rather that
their self-pity should finally be listened to.
course it matters what someone is addicted to and how seriously. But even those
among us who only have difficulty keeping off the sweet stuff, realise that we
are looking for comfort. The same appears to be true for kicks in which you
enter a blissful trance in which you forget the graveness of your insecurities,
guilt and shortcomings. You raise yourself above earthly turmoil and experience
a feeling of invincibility. Another type of kick drives away feelings of
loneliness and abandonment. You become aware of a kind of feeling of at oneness
with the whole world or even the universe and a soothing sense of peace
descends upon you. All in all it is completely understandable that people
continually put off kicking the habit.
In the
former Dutch East Indies and in what at the time was called the Dutch West
Indies, Dutch people felt they were above the indigenous populations and they
would get into huge difficulties if they were to let go of their illusion of
superiority. For centuries they used this to justify paying people a pittance
for hard labour and did not hesitate to use violence against the few who revolted.
To suppress their guilt, they persuaded themselves and each other that these
people didn’t want and were not able to do better, because they were slow of
comprehension, lazy and undisciplined, childish and gullible and that they
could not do anything about it as they were born that way. The same applies of
course to slavery, only in this case it was not the indigenous people they
referred to but plantation workers who had been dragged there from Africa.
prejudices of this exploitive racism were still rife when people from Surinam
and the Antilles came to the Netherlands. And when Moroccan and Turkish guest
workers came here they got a share of it too. They were laughed about: that
they were too stupid to learn Dutch and were quite happy to do heavy and dirty
work, because that was what they were used to in the backward mountain regions
they came from. As long as they put up with the situation without complaining,
they could stay. In the Netherlands of today and also in the rest of Europe,
this disdain has decreased, as has the contempt. But it is still tempting to
hold up the illusion that you are worth more and are better than non-Western
immigrants recognisable by their appearance.
these groups of the populations and above all their children and grandchildren
started following higher education and getting better jobs in Europe, they
became formidable rivals to the established population. And as such they were
confronted by a second even more virulent form of racism on top of the
exploitive racism: competitive racism, in which the scapegoat mechanism plays a
central role. The people who are targeted by this form of racism are not
thought to be stupid or lazy at all. On the contrary, they are accused of being
sly, unreliable and frightening. This competitive racism takes place all over
the world where trading minorities have to compete against established
populations, such as the Chinese in the Dutch East Indies and the Indians in
Uganda. In the fierce competitive battle, they are allocated the role of
scapegoat and once in a while this leads to mass violence with the objective of
driving the group out. It goes without saying that the tell-tale signs of
competitive racism can easily be identified in pre-war anti-Semitism in Europe.
what about the idea that Islamophobia is not racism but is no more than
criticism of Islam? Anyone who has looked at all a little bit into the racist
prejudices which have haunted the globe for centuries knows that religious
elements are inextricably linked to all forms of racism. With exploitative
racism against colonised populations and against slaves, there was invariably a
prejudice that they were superstitious or else believed in one or other ‘lower’
form of religion. And with competitive racism, what are basically economic
motives are clouded by religious accusations, in which various holy books are
quoted at any opportunity. In the case of pre-war anti-Semitism in Europe, Jews
were said to have cheered at the crucifixion of Jesus and used children’s blood
to make matses. In addition majorities who try to drive out rival minorities,
be known as ethnic cleansing, often purport to have religious reasons for doing
so. So criticising Muslims by selectively citing texts from the Qur’an did not
appear out of the blue.
In the
Netherlands and the whole of Europe, with the rise of competitive racism with
regard to non-Western immigrants and their offspring, a strange mixture of both
kinds of prejudices have come to stand side-by-side. People with a non-white
skin colour are still looked down on. However, at the same time, there is
increasingly more resentment towards those immigrants and their offspring who
do well. Funnily enough in today’s debates on racism little attention is paid
to the meaning of competition and the envy that goes with it as a driving force
behind competitive racism. This may be due to the strong taboo that exists in
our society concerning envy.
I was
never particularly aware of the fact that giving up racist prejudices was
unpleasant. When someone gives up an addiction it hurts and means that that
person truly loses feelings. That is to say either feelings which massage one’s
ego or feelings which give them a wonderful sense of unity – or both. It is
striking that it is precisely these two emotions that also play a role in the
current situation with the two different kinds of racism. One in which people
look down on non-Western immigrants and their offspring and the other in which
people feel at one with others with the same opinions about the new scapegoats,
the Muslims.
like with addiction, you would of course like to get people to see that their
short-term delight, the balm for their soul, is disastrous in the long run,
both for themselves as for their surroundings. As violence can break out when racist
prejudices are repeated often enough to stick in the minds of enough people.
But mainly because the rewards, particularly for themselves, are a hundred
times greater. Being part of a peaceful society which strives for equality, in
which everyone living in it can be themselves and whose differences are
approached with curiosity and respect. And in which, as the Constitution
declares, no-one is discriminated against.
I am not optimistic that things are going that way fast, I do have an unwavering
belief in the human spirit which is capable of gaining new insights and
self-knowledge and analysing the active mechanisms and what they bring about.
And thankfully we still have some time to avoid disaster.
Wertheim is a journalist and the author of various books including De gans eet
het brood van de eenden op, mijn kindertijd in een Jappenkamp op Java (The
Goose Snatches the Bread from the Ducks, My Childhood in a Japanese Prison Camp
on Java, 1994). An Indonesian translation of the book was published in March
2008.She works with the concepts of exploitation/colonial racism (contempt or
condescension) and cultural/competition racism (envy and distrust).