Things Are Getting Scary Out There (but You Knew That)
by Neil H. Buchanan
Part of the surge in traveling this summer has involved professors attending academic conferences in person for the first time in almost three years. (But no, there are not enough of us to be anything but a tiny contributor to the larger problem.) I am currently in Lisbon for the Law & Society Association meetings, after having been in Amsterdam, London, and Cambridge over the past two weeks, and I might be the only person I know who has not yet had a flight canceled or ridiculously delayed.
Obviously, I have now jinxed myself. Will I ever return to the United States? Would I care? As I noted in a pair of Verdict columns earlier this year (January 12 and January 20), a reasonable person might well wish to leave the Greatest Country in the History of the World™in fear of the growing evidence of an autocratic (and violent) future there. The question remains, however, where would one go to escape the craziness.
I will have to be relatively brief today, due to professional responsibilities related to the conference. I will thus frame my comments around three anecdotes (possibly four, depending upon how one counts the two-part story that I will discuss at the end of this column). Having admitted that I am being descriptive and not data-driven, however, I must immediately assure my readers that I am not engaging in that stalest of Americans-abroad tropes: relating something deeply meaningful that my taxi driver said to me in Marrakesh.
That move was, of course, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's favored way to put his views into the mouths of supposedly "real" sources, locals who could clearly see what the blinkered insiders chose to ignore. (As if Friedman was not the ultimate insider.) In a way, it is a shame that he abused that storytelling method, because there is something valuable about noting what happens around us when we are in a new place. Friedman's sin was not so much hasty generalization or even colonial condescension as it was opportunism (and probably often simple fabrication). "Hey, this guy said something that supports my geopolitical theory that the world is flat!"
Having caveated my way to this point, let us begin. First, I was in a pub in Cambridge, England, on July 4th, when I heard the bartenders talking about how the pub down the lane was "the American bar" and would surely be overrun that day, which would spill over into every other pub in the area. I smiled and said something like: "Yeah, I'm American, but I'd rather be here than in that pub." It was intended as idle pandering, but the barman wanted to engage and asked where I am from.
Because I have lived in so many different places in the US, I tend to choose one at random when asked, so this time I said, "Washington, DC." To be clear, this was a pub in a very progressive university town, and the staff were all full-on hipsters (or whatever the term has become for twenty-somethings with tattoos and man-buns). I was thus not expecting this exchange:
Him - "Washington? So who won the 2020 election?"
Me (surprised, but assuming that he was being ironic) - "Oh, there's no doubt that Biden won."
Him (with his coworker nodding enthusiastically next to him) - "Yeah, well I wouldn't be so sure. Elections are stolen. The French elections last month were completely stolen. Everybody knows that."
Me - "Thanks for the pint."
I skipped over the part where he asked about the American socialists, but suffice to say that talking points have made their way across the Atlantic (even though, weirdly, the barman also said that "no working man would ever vote for the Tories"). Which brings me to the second incident, when an older guy in Amsterdam struck up a conversation as we walked down a sidewalk, commenting on a funny interaction between a mother and her young son as they left a store. Both of us were laughing, and he started to speak to me in Dutch. As soon as I said a word in English, he immediately shifted to accented but nearly perfect English.
Within seconds, he wanted to talk to me about politics, in particular whether I was a Republican or a Democrat. Not listening to my response, he told me that he was against the Democrats because he was against socialism, which he defined as "telling people what to do in their personal lives" and "giving people things by taxing me." He claimed to have been a successful French entrepreneur, which might have been true (assuming that such people exist at all), but his basic point was that he was willing to support neo-fascist movements that would be "traditional" and reduce his taxes.
So that was a bit more than creepy. The third story (which, as above, is either in two parts or is the third and fourth story in this sequence) has to do with intolerant nationalism. Three years ago, I was staying in a hotel in Amsterdam that is not only a Hilton but is labeled an "international hotel" -- as if there is anything else in Amsterdam. (The hotel's website also notes that it is "[k]nown as the site of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's famous 'bed-in' protest." Not that that is relevant, but being of a certain age, I loved it.)
At one point in the middle of a pleasant afternoon, I was in line at the front desk to ask some question or other of the staff. A very well-dressed man in his 70's was next in line, and the staff person smiled and said, "How can I help you?" He responded in a very loud and angry voice, in perfect English: "Well, you can start by addressing me in Dutch!" The flustered staff member apologized (in English) and said that the hotel caters to such an international clientele that the management does not feel the business need to hire employees who are Dutch speakers, and that she was sorry but she did not in fact speak Dutch. The man continued to harrumph, looked around in anger, and walked away with a smirk on his face.
Again, an anecdote and maybe nothing more. The vibe, in any case, was similar to when Democrats in the US fall into the trap of thinking that Trumpists are all "people who were left behind by the modern economy" but then are reminded that even the Capitol rioters included millionaires who flew in a private jet to get to Washington for January 6th. Right-wing extremism is well populated by people who are not in any way "economically desperate" or have some other supposed excuse for their bigotry, not only in the US but in other wealthy countries.
The second half of the story, however, is in some ways even more worrisome. I was speaking to someone from Sweden and someone from the Netherlands at a conference in the UK two week ago, and the conversation turned to the rising right-wing nationalist movements in even the wealthiest countries in northern Europe. The Swede talked about how she will not even return to her country, because things are now so scary there. When the other person nodded knowingly, I shared my story about the Hilton lobby confrontation, being very careful to describe all of the key details.
I expected him to say something similar to my Swedish friend's response, perhaps: "Yeah, we've been noticing that kind of intolerance recently, and it's not good. The Dutch far right is becoming a real problem." Or better: "I've seen that kind of thing, too, but happily that continues to be a small and rejected group of people in my country." He was very young (probably about 30 years old) and engaged in academic discourse, which is hardly devoid of conservatives but is not a place where one expects to hear sympathy for the rantings of a man who was clearly spoiling for a bigoted fight. To my surprise, however, he said: "Well, maybe the man just wanted to be spoken to in his language in his country."
Oy. Why not go to the US embassy and demand to know why everyone is so insistent on speaking English? Why not go to a Raffi concert and complain about all the screaming kids, asking why he can't be in his country with people his own age? To be clear, this young man's English was perfect, which means that there was not even a hint of possible "lost in translation" misunderstanding. This was, at best, casual acceptance of the types of intolerant attitudes that too often fester and metastasize into something socially dangerous.
As I noted above, however, I am not interested in over-interpreting these events or claiming that they prove anything. Each of the incidents did, however, make me wonder about the world. Non-US countries still have the advantage of not being nearly as dangerous as the United States (in very many ways, most obviously the guns), so even if one drew the worst possible rash conclusions from these arguably ambiguous data points, one would not think: "Well, I was thinking of moving to the Netherlands, but they're just as crazy as we are!"
Instead, these are reminders that there is a lot of disinformation and hatred floating around the world, and there are reasons to worry that it might be taking hold in unexpected places and among unexpected groups. No matter what any of this means, I will (fingers crossed) be arriving back in the US next week -- a little less confident that the world's tenuous hold on sanity, pluralism, and democracy can be maintained.