Addicted to Racism: Why Populists Literally get off on Bigotry

By Anne-Ruth Wertheim  
Only 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.

In 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 mistaken.

This 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 opportunity.

My 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.
The 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.

During 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.

There 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.

Of 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, realize 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.

The 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 recognizable by their appearance.

When 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.

But 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 unleaven bread. 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.
Just 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.

Although 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.

Anne-Ruth 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).

(This article was published by Juan Cole on his website Informed Comment, March the 13th 2017: Addicted to Racism: Why Populists Literally get off on Bigotry: