Context — May 16, 2017, 10:03 am

Everything in Moderation

The success of Germany’s AfD party has in good part been owed to its ability to put a friendly face on a nasty message.

In 2011, the Pirate Party stormed into Berlin’s state parliament, taking 8.9 percent of the vote. Its legislators proudly demonstrated how different they were from establishment politicians, donning dungarees, hoodies, and man buns. The lunatics had taken over the asylum—and they had every intention of rewriting its rules.

Sebastian Nerz, the Pirates’ leader, declared this victory a sign that they were capable of “serious, long-term politics in parliament.” The media seemed to agree. The BBC called the Pirates’ victory a “spectacular . . . success.” The Guardian asserted that “U.K. politicians could learn a lot from the Pirate Party.” The New York Times went so far as to suggest that Barack Obama should emulate the Pirates’ campaign techniques.

But within three years, a party that had looked on the verge of transforming German politics began to collapse. Their platform, which had originally been centered around data privacy, consumer rights, and transparency, was co-opted by radicals of all stripes. “Our biggest problem was that we let everyone in who wanted to join,” Stephan Urbach, a former Pirate activist who eventually left the party, told the New Republic. “I’d go to a Party convention and there would be, like, Holocaust deniers there.”

Five years after entering Berlin’s state parliament, the Pirate Party lost every one of its seats. Today, it is a spent force, barely remembered as a bygone curiosity.

The history of the Pirate Party illustrates the challenges faced by upstart political parties: even when their message resonates, they need to build a professional operation, rein in extremists, and avoid destructive spats to survive. Most fail to do so. After celebrating brief successes, they fight over the spoils or fail to moderate, and eventually return to obscurity.

This helps to explain why Germany has not sent a single far-right party in its national parliament since the creation of the Federal Republic in 1949. Die Republikaner, the Deutsche Volksunion (DVU), and the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD) each made inroads in a series of regional elections, only to fall prey to uncompromising extremism or organizational ineptitude.

Then came the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Founded in 2012 partly by Bernd Lucke, an economics professor, the party started as a one-issue movement with a libertarian streak. At first, the AfD managed to be seen as radical but not overly unsavory. It started by advocating for the reintroduction of the deutsche mark, a policy with broad support in a country where pride in the postwar economic miracle had long functioned as a substitute for more overt patriotism. But soon enough, its genteel Euroscepticism success attracted the less genteel elements of Germany’s far right. Once Angela Merkel opened the country’s borders to refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, everything else became secondary: the party increasingly gravitated towards fear-mongering and race-baiting. In 2015, Frauke Petry, a charismatic chemist in her thirties, toppled Lucke from the leadership.

Under Petry’s leadership, the AfD turned into a far-right populist party on the model of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Within months, its agenda had become less about Germany leaving the European Union and more about Islam leaving Germany. AfD members proposed a ban on headscarves in schools and universities. A party pamphlet declared that “Islam does not belong in Germany.” In January, Björn Höcke, one of its most senior leaders, called on Germans to stop atoning for World War II, pledging to “rewrite the history books” if the AfD gained power. These comments have led to Höcke’s near expulsion from the party, with party leaders, including Petry, voting to start the legal process required for his removal.

And yet, the AfD retained many of the advantages of its origins. Better organized and less tainted than previous far-right parties, it turned into the “most successful nationalist phenomenon since the Second World War.” And with refugees entering Germany in record numbers, the AfD’s anti-immigrant message seemed destined to grow in popularity. As one party leader put it, Europe’s refugee crisis was a “gift from heaven” for the AfD. Until a few months ago, polls predicted that the party would take over 10 percent of the vote in national elections scheduled for this coming fall.

Petry took power by allying herself with the party’s extremist wing. Now, that same wing has grown impatient with her moderation. At the party’s annual conference last weekend, Petry was, for all intents and purposes, dethroned.

Her defeat had many roots: A husband implicated in dodgy dealings. An attempt to promote what she touted as a “realist” program over her opponents’ vision for the party, which she rightly branded as “fundamentalist.” And her attempt to throw Höcke out of the party for his remarks about the Holocaust.

The AfD’s success so far has in good part been owed to Petry’s ability to put a friendly face on a nasty message. When Yascha saw her speak at a party rally while reporting “Echt Deutsch,” she straddled a thin line between firing up her base with attacks on the government’s refugee policy and disavowing openly racist rhetoric. When Yascha asked whether she worried about the fact that some of the party’s supporters had advocated setting refugees’ homes on fire, for instance, she shrewdly deflected. “People should protest against the government’s refugee policy in front of town halls and ministries,” she said, “not in front of the homes of asylum seekers.”

The new leadership team, composed of Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, will attempt to pass as moderate, too. It’s not impossible that they might succeed: Gauland was a long-time functionary for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Weidel is young, well spoken, and openly gay. In theory, they might be as successful in “detoxifying” the party as Petry had been.

But the damage they’ve done to their mainstream appeal is, in practice, likely too high. To take control of the party, they had to pander to its extremes. While Weidel claims to have considerable political disagreements with Höcke, for example, she still vowed to campaign alongside him in the coming months.

And so the most recent turn in the AfD’s evolution is a decidedly mixed blessing: On the one hand, it looks as though the party might do less well than it seemed a few short weeks ago. While polls still predict that it will comfortably clear the 5-percent hurdle to enter the Bundestag, its chances of taking 15 or 20 percent of the vote have markedly declined. “I’m hopeful that the AfD is finally showing its true face,” Lamya Kaddor, the Muslim writer and teacher profiled in “Echt Deutsch,” wrote in a Facebook message in the wake of Petry’s ouster. “Now, even the last voter will perhaps understand where that particular train is headed.”

On the other hand, the party will continue to have a very loud voice—and its new leaders are even more likely to engage in unambiguously racist discourse. Refugees like Mousa, Ranim, Ali, Maya, and Amr, whose fate Yascha has been following since he met them while reporting for “Echt Deutsch” in March of 2016, will face even more hatred in the coming months. And so, for now, the promise of a truly multiethnic democracy remains unrealized.

Read “Echt Deutsch” here.

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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