The anti-immigrant rhetoric we’re seeing in Europe and from President Trump is not only dehumanizing, it has a dangerous resonance in history.
In April this year, Christian Schilcher, a local government leader for the radical right Austrian Freedom party, was forced to step down after publishing a poem titled ‘Die Stadtratte’ (‘The City Rat’). The poem compared immigrants to rats, and contains a line that argues that: if ‘you mix two cultures … it’s as if you destroy them’. Accompanied by a drawing that depicted a rat in a hat and long beard, the racist implications of the poem were obvious.
The poem’s publication in a local newspaper drew media attention because the Freedom party sits in a coalition government with the conservative Austrian People’s Party, who themselves have taken a notably hostile position on immigration. It also did not escape the notice of the world’s press that Schilcher was Deputy Mayor of Braunau Am Inn, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.
Yet depictions of immigrants and refugees alongside images of rats are not exclusively found within the forums of the radical right. Currents of hostility to migration exist amongst the conservative or ‘traditional’ right, which can – sometimes unconsciously – reproduce dehumanizing tropes equating the ‘unwanted’ migrant with animal pests. In 2015, the Daily Mail’s cartoonist Stan McMurtry (who goes by the pen name ‘Mac’), published a drawing in the newspaper commenting on the growth of radical Islamism, in particular, the phenomenon of Daesh or so-called Islamic State fighters arriving in European countries.
The cartoon, published in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, played on an interlinked series of fears. It depicted groups of Muslims, men with beards and hats and women veiled, moving across the border into the European Union. Silhouetted amongst this group of people is an armed man carrying a rifle. One man carries what seems to be a prayer mat. A sign in the middle of the cartoon reads ‘Our Open Borders and Free Movement of People’. But, crucially, the viewer’s attention is carried to the creatures that scurry and scamper between the feet of the migrants in the picture: rats.
Some defended Mac. Nick Newman, a cartoonist for Private Eye, said “I think it’s been completely misinterpreted. I don’t think for a minute that Mac is saying that refugees are rats; he’s saying that terrorists are rats”. Dave Brown, The Independent’s cartoonist, agreed: “I would argue that he doesn’t appear to be saying that all migrants are rats, simply that some rats are slipping through among the migrants”.
Yet intentionality and interpretation are tricky when the subject is so incendiary. There is a long history of radical or far right movements equating minorities with unwanted animals. Most famous are National Socialist propaganda images and films that overlaid images of Jews with rats. ‘Die Ewige Jude’ (‘The Eternal Jew’) (1940), notoriously overlaid images of Jewish migration with rats, whilst the narration made a parallel between the Asiatic origins of the rat, and the supposedly non-European essence of Jewish populations.
Bridget Anderson, an expert in migration studies, has noted the growth in the last few years of metaphors of invasive pests when referring to migration, even in relatively mainstream discourse. In her article ‘The Politics of Pests’ (2017), Anderson identifies the year 2015 as a moment when public consciousness of migration from the Middle East into Europe reached a high point. “One metaphoric trope that has emerged as particularly powerful in the coverage of the 2015 events,” writes Anderson, “is the migrant as invasive insect, a metaphor that has been deployed by politicians as well as press commentators and reporters”.
Anderson notes the example of Katie Hopkins, now a figure explicitly linked to the radical right, but in 2015 a columnist for The Sun newspaper. Hopkins had described some towns in the United Kingdom as being like “festering sores” where “swarms of migrants and asylum seekers” had descended: “these migrants,” Hopkins had written, “are like cockroaches”. Such metaphors, Anderson points out, were echoed in the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s description of a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean”. The language and imagery, then, operates on a spectrum; emerging on the one hand with most clarity in the context of radical right racist politics, these tropes also surface in more “mainstream” contexts.
Such rhetoric has notably played a part in the Trump administration’s attitude to immigration from Central America. The Trump White House have made much of the supposed threat from the MS-13 gang, a criminal organization founded in Los Angeles by Salvadoran immigrants. The White House website refers repeatedly to the gang as ‘animals’, providing a litany of horrific violence to ensure readers are suitably repulsed. Again, the use of the word ‘infested’ by the administration and its supporters locates this threat in the realm of a non-human “other”. As Rantt Editor Greg Fish has shown, MS-13 gang activity makes up a tiny portion of criminality in the United States. But MS-13, and the visceral fears of the non-human they evoke, are being used by the Trump administration to justify ever more aggressive and authoritarian immigration policies.
Anderson points out that the association of outsiders and minorities with “vermin” – “non-vital” and “not productive” – also makes clear the association of these animals with the “waste” of modern life. Anderson writes: “In the same way that vermin serve as a reminder of eco-systems of dirt and waste that are thrown up by and live on the by-products of production, so the people at the borders of Europe and those whose bodies wash up on Mediterranean beaches are part of the eco-systems of global economic, social and political relations, and the living histories of colonialism and patriarchy’” And such depictions are not confined to the West. In September 2018, Amit Shah, President of India’s ruling BJP party (the Hindu nationalist grouping to which India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs), described Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants as “infiltrators” who “are eating the country like termites”. Shah is now Home Affairs minister.
Behind these discourses, then, lie a series of anxieties around the individual and the collective. The presence of “pests” or “vermin” deconstructs boundaries between shared and individual space. Infestations have often been associated with poor and marginalized communities. For example, in late nineteenth century and early twentieth-century Britain, associations with Eastern European Jewish immigration and contagious infestations were routinely made. In 1919, the Anglican priest William Inge, giving that year’s Galton lecture on eugenics, proclaimed that ‘the Jews and Chinese, who have survived in Ghettos and pestiferous towns, can live anywhere’. Pests and feral animals are liminal figures, standing between wild and domestic, city and country.
In these discourses, a paradigm emerges, familiar to anyone who has spent much time with fascist or radical right rhetoric: that of the nation as a “healthy” home or body besieged by pests, infestations or invasive aliens. For Bridget Anderson, in the racist imagination, the nation becomes like a household and the immigrant a “pest” – rat, ant, fly or cockroach – that troubles this home. This steady process of dehumanization increasingly allows refugees and minorities to be treated as individual persons but as “swarms” or ‘infestations’ to be managed. We must be alert to this false language in the discourses of the radical right as well as that of mainstream politics.
Dr David Barnes is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Oxford. See his profile here.
© David Barnes. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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