Olympic Hate: A Tale of Fine Lines

This post originally appeared on Hate 2.0

The Olympics Games are in full swing, and we at the Hate 2.0 project are watching. We are not only interested in the stellar performances by Gabby Douglas, Michael Phelps and others, but also in the forms of inclusion and exclusion that the Olympics practice.

The good news: This is the first time that all participating countries sent female athletes. To be sure, Saudi Arabia was less than supportive of its two female competitors, runner Sarah Attar and judoka Wojdan Shaherkani. While these two women are challenging norms of femininity in Saudi Arabia and conservative Muslim communities, other athletes have breached racialized codes of who belongs where: Gabby Douglas has become the first African American and the first woman of colour to win a gymnastics all-around gold medal, and Cullen Jones made clear (to whoever needed proof) that black men can not only jump but also swim.

While this blog loves good news, we’re more interested in the mixed, messy and downright alarming news. Let’s focus on the share of the Olympics news that intersects with our work on hate and social media. So far, three Olympic athletes have either been sent home or left the Olympic village for reasons of racist behavior or associations. In two cases, the offences were committed on twitter, and in one case the long-standing association to neo-Nazi groups was exposed in a blog post.

The first athletes to leave the Olympics was Paraskevi Papachristou, the Greek triple jumper who tweeted (according to available translations) “With so many Africans in Greece… the West Nile mosquitoes will at least eat homemade food!!!” The Greek Olympic mission withdrew her from the competition and sent her home. Papachristou apologized on facebook, writing “I am very sorry and ashamed for the negative responses I triggered, since I never wanted to offend anyone, or to encroach human rights.”

The next athlete to pack up was Michel Morganella, a Swiss soccer player. After his team lost to South Korea, he wrote a racist message about South Koreans on twitter, was cut from the team, and apologized on twitter.

Finally (hopefully finally, that is), German rower Nadja Drygalla packed her bags and left the Olympic village. A blog based in her hometown Rostock revealed that her long-time partner Michael Fischer was a local Neo-Nazi leader. Fischer had been sighted at Neo-Nazi demonstrations, yelling, and taking photos of anti-fascist counter-protestors. He ran for parliament on the ticket of the rightwing NPD, he published and edited websites associated with the Neo-Nazi community.
Over the next few days, a few things happened: The German Rowing Federation and the Olympics Committee stood behind Drygalla, citing her departure from the Games as voluntary. Meanwhile a debate erupted in blogs and newspapers: are we blaming a woman for the views of her partner? Was she ever part of the Neo-Nazi network? Who knew what, and when? Who should have alerted whom, when, and why?
The facts are complicated. One newspaper published a blurry photo of a Nazi demonstration claiming that a woman in a white sweater was Nadja Drygalla. This is most likely not the case. More interestingly, it turns out that her partner Michael Fischer had been an elite rower who was at the same time known as a hooligan. He straddled the worlds of competitive sports and organized hate and violence for a few years. Nadja Drygalla has since claimed that she has never adhered to Neo-Nazi ideologies and that her partner has left the organization in May 2012. The latter statement seems patently untrue.

Why have these tweets, associations, and behaviours attracted so much attention? The initial reactions to all three events have emphasized that racism is contrary to the Olympic principles, to the oath that all Olympic athletes have sworn in the opening ceremony. According to the Olympic Charter, Olympians “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Moreover, “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” Racism is contrary to the official ethos of the Olympics.

A closer, more critical glance at the organization and practical ethos of the Olympics reveals something else. The Olympics organize athletes, events, and medal counts by country. They ask viewers not only to appreciate athletic achievements in general, but to take pride in the triumphs of athletes from their own country. The athlete stands in for the country, the flag, for the nation. True, there is the idea of the Olympic Peace: the cessation of armed conflict during the Games. But clearly, this is not happening in Syria right now. The Olympics, let’s put it this way, are replete with structural nationalism. They are the arena for competition between athletes and teams standing in for nations, dressed in uniforms with their national colours. Taking pride in one’s country during sports events might seem harmless, but it coincides with the devaluation of outsiders, as studies have shown. There is no such thing as harmless nationalism. The Olympics thrive on nationalism, and they fuel it. They want to be associated with pride in one’s country, but not with the devaluation of outsiders that tends to accompany such pride.

Viewed in this light, the reactions to the tweets and associations of the three athletes show that the Olympics are trying hard to draw a thin line between a “good” nationalism of pride and a “bad” nationalism of devaluating others that is to be expelled from the games. The triple jumper made horrific jokes about immigrants and the outbreak of a disease transmitted by insects. The soccer player did not contain his disappointment at losing in match, and expressed it in demeaning racial terms. We learn that losing is part of the Olympics, but it is to be done gracefully. The row about the rower also suggests, uncomfortably, that there is nothing inherent about sports that makes racists incapable of succeeding. Insofar as the rower had to deal with ethnic, religious, or racial diversity, it was not within her team of eight ‘vanilla’ rowers. The ‘others’ were competitors, not teammates. To be sure, this team make-up is a result of German immigration policies and sports recruitment, but the under-representation of migrants in many sports is a consistent problem. More generally, the virtues of elite sports are not incompatible with the world of hate: To be a good rower, one needs to have determination to succeed in competition, focus, and the ability to deal with pain and disappointments. These qualities have no necessary connection with democratic politics; they can also be the make-up of an extremist, of a warrior of a different kind.

The Olympics mirror a larger world in which the celebration of diversity and equality is at odds with the focus on achievements defined in a particular way:

First, athletes are sorted by countries; and they have to settle on one country they can represent. This is bad news for stateless people, and makes for hard decisions for those with multiple nationalities. Wouldn’t it be great if someone could win the Olympics representing two countries, or no country at all?

Second, the competition is intensely skewed. Countries with many (young) people, a good sports infrastructure, a high GDP and strategic investments in sections of the sports “market” do well at the Olympics. Winning Olympic medals is a function of economic prowess and priorities as much as of individual physical achievement.
Third, the Olympic circuit itself does not promote an equitable or sustainable growth in infrastructure. Olympic hosts tend to go into debt, hyper-police the cities during the events, make housing unaffordable and then harass homeless people, and are later stuck with bizarre-looking reminders of the big party in the form of velodroms or ski jumps.

A sports event that sorts athletes by nationality and counts medals by country does not promote hate, but it fosters nationalism. The Olympic Oath, after all, asks athletes to compete “for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.” While competitiveness and striving for glory are ingrained in the social organization of elite sports, human rights and equality are merely add-ons: they are not structurally necessary to succeed, but they are socially desired in order to foster the Olympic spirit. The Olympics would like to show nationalism without hate. The three athletes that were made to leave the village because their actions crossed the line that the Olympic organizers anxiously seek to draw.

What can we do about it? First of all, let’s take note of the fact that the Olympics are structured to promote nationalism, that it could be otherwise, and that nationalism has side effects in the form of hate and devaluation of outsiders. Second, let’s draw lines and censor the athletes and coaches who cross them, but let’s recognize that there is indeed only a thin line between legitimate disappointment and racist suspicions about opponents, or between competitive zeal and the exclusions of others who are perceived to be lazy. Finally, let’s find ways of organizing sports and the world at large that are less conducive to hate, exclusion and devaluation.

Talking about East and West: Causes and Responses

This post originally appeared on Hate 2.0

I really welcome Andrei Rejsin’s response to my thoughts on the geographies of racism and blame in Europe. I’m in the early stages of the project, so I really want thoughts, arguments, and challenges.

There are lots of Neo-Nazis in East Germany, and there are lots of people who support them. The dangers are not trivial, and the statistics, as Andrei Rejsin points out, are alarming. The more interesting question is, however, how we all, in discussions about the problem we agree on, talk about causes and responses. What accounts for the rise of Neo-Nazis in specific regions? Who can do anything about them?

The discussions about the causes of high levels of support for right-wing parties and violent Neo-Nazism in East Germany veers between two poles: between suggesting that there is no difference between the regions, and between locating the causes all in the East, the East German population. Both options seem insufficient. East Germans are not genetically predisposed to be Neo-Nazis. Just ask the many East Germans who are not at all right-wingers, and please also ask them about how it feels to be from the East and always having to talk about why there are so many Nazis in the East.

Not all explanations for the rise of Neo-Nazis are self-serving: There are those who talk about social conditions and processes that account for the rise of right-wingers in East Germany: high unemployment, out-migration of educated young people, especially women, and the lack of civil society infrastructure that offers alternatives to Neo-Nazis. Alienated, unemployed white men engage in “compensatory subordination” (Nancy Ehrenreich): they insist that their whiteness and masculinity should get them privileges they are not able to claim, and take out their frustration on those who are even more marginal than they are. As a friend of mine working with youth in Vorpommern observed succinctly, happy people with a good sense of humour and empathy don’t become Neo-Nazis.

Identifying the causes is one thing, talking about responses, it turns out, quite another. If we agree that there are social processes that create conditions under which it is easier for young people to think that their whiteness entitles them to something they don’t get, and that they have the right to decide who can live in their community and who can’t, we also need to talk about reasonable responses to these social conditions.

Current newspaper and blog reporting about Neo-Nazis in small cities and rural areas stresses two actors that could confront Neo-Nazis but often fail: civil society and the police. Yes, there are many people who could do more, who could be more sensitive and perceptive, and who could be more courageous. But many are courageous, or would be courageous if they could only find a job that would enable them to live in the places where their presence would make a difference. And yes, the police would do well to transfer some of their insistence that currently goes into pursuing those who bike in the dark without lighting to investigating Neo-Nazis and protecting those who are under attack from right-wingers. But we know from other context that simply increasing police presence might not make a community safer.

Yet the blame on civil society and the police obscures something: if we agree that certain social conditions enable the rise of Neo-Nazis, shouldn’t we do something about these conditions? Now that’s harder. It’s easy to tell East German villagers to step up against armed thugs, and to roll our eyes at the incompetent police in some provincial backwater. But what enabled the rise of Neo-Nazis was not police incompetence but the fall of an entire society into massive unemployment and precarious employment. It wasn’t just indifferent neighbours but a state that disappeared — replaced by one that promised riches and blooming landscapes and occasionally sent welfare cheques — that bred cynicism and hate of “others” in the East. Neo-Nazis are surely more present, more accepted, and more feared in the East. Yet the conditions that produced them are not only of the East. If we just keep telling local civil society to stand up to Nazis, nothing much will happen. To stand up to anyone, you first need a job and a reason to stay.

If we understand the rise of Neo-Nazis as a product of processes of marginalization and alienation that were the by-product of the unification process, we can start to understand that responsibility for the rise of Neo-Nazis cannot only be placed where the Neo-Nazis in fact appear.

These are my initial thoughts on what’s at stake here: it shouldn’t be about denying violence and exclusionary attitudes, but about suggesting responses that match with the causes we have identified. Blaming those who live in the East for the Neo-Nazis is easy but not sufficient.

Response to: These Racists in the East …

This post/response originally appeared on Hate 2.0


Dear Professor Wilke,
as one of the Editors of “publikative.org“, which is (among other topics) a watch blog concerned with monitoring Neo-Nazis in Germany, I read your article with great interest. However, I would like to dispute your central argument:

There are also Neo-Nazis and other violent racists in the West for sure, but neither as widespread nor as influential as in the East. In my opinion, this East German “phenomenon” indeed differs profoundly from the rest of the country. It demands a special explanation and cannot easily be mixed with other forms of discrimination or racial slurs uttered during the UEFA European Football Championship (which, by the way is a story on it’s own). Just three starting points open for debate.

The success of the Neo-Nazi-party NPD in regional elections in the East is not even remotely echoed anywhere in the West. Never in their long history since 1964 in Western Germany did they manage to re-enter a state parliament in consecutive elections. But they did exactly that in Saxonia in 2009 and then again in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in 2011. This was not only unprecedented, but nowhere in the West is the their share of the vote higher than 1,6% (Bremen) in regional elections and 1,3% (Saarland) in general elections. While election results are not the only thing that matters, in my opinion the difference is far too striking to simply dismiss it.

In some (or some might say in many) of the rural areas of Eastern Germany, Neo-Nazis or “right-wingers” represent more or less the dominant youth culture (the German Term “rechte Jugendkultur” is a bit hard to translate). This too, is not the case in Western Germany. We acknowledge that some Neo-Nazi groups (for example in Dortmund) have managed to establish themselves in one area in the West or another. But the aggressive dominance of music, haircuts, fashion outfits and brands closely associated with Neo-Nazis in youth culture is almost unique to East Germany.

Sadly, this is also reflected in hate crimes crime and other statistical data: The risk of becoming a victim of a hate crime is significantly higher in the East. The numbers are even more stunning in relation to the significantly lower numbers of immigrants living there. Just one example (see the provided sources): While only 1,8% of the population in Saxony-Anhalt is of “foreign” descent (the lowest of all German states) the state still tops the list for violent hate crimes (2,84) committed per 100.000 inhabitants.

You say:

“To me, the danger in the rush to declare the NSU an East German product is to miss the broader social connections that enable these terror networks to operate. This is not only dangerous for those whose security is endangered by Neonazis. It also does something else: those who affirm that Neonazis are an East German problem and blame it on specifically East German causes (the GDR education system, legacies of authoritarian ideologies) affirm the immunity of their own West German communities from the “virus” of Neonazi ideologies and violence.”

To me, quite on the contrary:

For “those whose security is endangered by Neonazis”, it is very dangerous to downplay the specific risks for their health (and indeed life) in the East. These are by any means far graver than in the West. For example, it would generally be ill-advised for a dark-skinned person to travel rural areas of Saxony at night on their own, while the same behaviour would pose almost no risk at almost any given time in Northrine-Westfalia.

Even if I agree, that the above mentioned “specifically East German causes (the GDR education system, legacies of authoritarian ideologies)” do not sufficiently explain the reasons for the big difference between East and West, it is up to the social and political sciences to identify and explain the real reasons, so that we as a society might tackle them correctly. To me, “the search for the realistic causes of hate and violence” cannot possibly start by obscuring how grave compared to the West the East German problem really is.

In the light of the murders committed by the NSU terrorists I would therefore strongly suggest to put first things first: First explain why the phenomenon is so much more widespread and dangerous in the East, then find similarities between East and West in terms of forming and enacting identity, inclusion and the construction of the other.

Best regards

Andrej Reisin, Editor, publikative.org

Hamburg, Germany

PS: I am sorry that all the sources I mentioned above are in German but maybe they can provide information anyhow (google or other translating tools online offer at least some insight).

These Racists in the East…

This post originally appeared on Hate 2.0

My work for Hate2.0 will focus on representations of Neonazis and otherness in Germany. The revelations about the NSU terror cell that killed ten people over a number of years has shown that migrants are seen as others, strangers, and suspect by the German police. The police long suspected that the migrants among the victims had been killed by someone from “organized crime” circles from their respective ethnic communities. At the official memorial ceremony to the victims, relatives spoke very powerfully of their alienation that was caused by not only losing a family member, but also becoming suspect in the eyes of the police. This is one side of the story.

The other side of the story is that the NSU, a core of three people from East Germany, is often described as an East German phenomenon. Well , is it? Or are there factors that make it easier for Neonazis to work, to find followers, and to find acceptance that are present in East Germany but also elsewhere? To me, the danger in the rush to declare the NSU an East German product is to miss the broader social connections that enable these terror networks to operate. This is not only dangerous for those whose security is endangered by Neonazis. It also does something else: those who affirm that Neonazis are an East German problem and blame it on specifically East German causes (the GDR education system, legacies of authoritarian ideologies) affirm the immunity of their own West German communities from the “virus” of Neonazi ideologies and violence. So there is a lot at stake: identity, inclusion, and the search for the realistic causes of hate and violence.

The problem of finding the racism elsewhere, in Europe typically east of wherever one is located, is fairly widespread. The recent soccer/football Eurocup is a good case in point. Ahead of the tournament, the British press was abhorred by racism and anti-Semitism in Ukraine, contrasting it nicely with the UK’s much improved record of diversity. The cup did in fact bring out the racism in the fans of several European countries. The Russian and Spanish teams were formally fined for the racist chants and monkey noises of their fans. Italian star striker Mario Balotelli drew the ire of Croatian, German as well as Spanish fans. German fans carried racist banners, glorified or belittled the Holocaust in Poland, wore jerseys that combined the German team’s colours with Nazi insignia, and insulted Polish and Ukrainian service workers. The journalists covering the fans did nothing (in German). After Mario Balotelli scored the two Italian goals against Germany in the semifinal, German fans took their frustration to twitter and other social networks, complaining that they did not lose to the Italian side but to an African player (well, they used slightly different terms). In Spain, some fans celebrated the Eurocup victory using fascist symbols. Between Spain, Croatia, Germany, Russia, and Poland, the racism accusations span pretty much the entire continent. True, there might be degrees and nuances, and the ideologies and expressions differ. Yet the picture is not as East/West as the pre-tournament media frenzy would have predicted.

What does this all add up to? First, it is popular to locate racism elsewhere and thereby appear to be better, more enlightened, more civilized. Second, the Eurocup showed that soccer/football fans from many of the participating teams use racist language and signs towards players of other teams. Successful and confident black players like Balotelli are especially popular targets. Third, the process of locating racism elsewhere also works to hide or minimize the racism ‘at home.’ In Europe, racism is officially unacceptable, and thus it is popular to disown it by placing it elsewhere. Look there, in the East, these racists! It’s not that there aren’t any, but not only there, but also here, wherever that may be.

There is work ahead, and now that the Berlin Wall around the blog is gone, let’s go ahead and do it!