Life & Culture

Reading the writing on the wall

In his latest Jewniversity column David Edmonds looks at the work of Ruth Wodak


I always ask the person featured in this column —how, if at all, has your Jewish identity shaped your academic interests? But posing the question this time around seemed a bit redundant.
Ruth Wodak was born in 1950. Her father, Walter Wodak, was the son of a religious Jewish manual worker in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt, and an ardent Socialist.  Following the Austro-Fascist coup of 1934, he secretly joined the Communist Party.  Ruth’s mother, Erna, a chemist, was the daughter of one of Vienna’s best-known rabbis.
Walter and Erna met as refugees in London, following the Anschluss. After he was released from internment as an enemy alien, Walter joined the British army and also helped run a socialist propaganda radio station, Red Vienna.  Erna was a cleaner, like many young Jewish women who were able to flee from Austria, and was later able to complete her PhD in chemistry at Manchester University, due to a grant for refugees from the British government. Post-war, Walter and Erna returned to Austria, Erna reluctantly.  Walter went on to become a prominent diplomat (ambassador to the USSR, among other postings).
So Ruth was first raised in Belgrade (where her father was ambassador) and then in Austria, and counts Vienna as home, but she spent a dozen years at Lancaster University (2004-2016).  Now emeritus, she held a personal chair in discourse studies, with a particular focus on how language is used by the far right, and these days what she calls the populist far right.
The populist far right is on the rise across Europe, she says — in Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany and elsewhere.  The US and Britain are not immune. The populist far right is marked by four aspects. First, strong ethnic nationalism (with a stress on a usually mythical homogenous population and a romantic attachment to a history and place). Second, anti-elitism (whether the elite be intellectuals, journalists or civil servants). Third, a focus on law and order and the promise to protect the true, genuine nationals from the interlopers and from external threats. And fourth, the endorsement of conservative values, such as support for tradition, hierarchy and policies that are “pro-family” and anti-abortion.
The populist far right has been on the rise since the end of the Cold War.  For many reasons (including wars and EU enlargement) migration has been rising too.  That’s one factor in the upsurge of far-right populism. Another is growing insecurity in work, and a growing income gap between the very rich and everyone else.  
Nowadays, discourse analyses require looking at not just books and speeches, but blogs, tweets, You-Tube videos, Facebook and discussion forums.  Increasingly, politicians can now reach the populace directly, unmediated by journalists.  
Professor Wodak has spent a lifetime investigating far right conspiracy theories, everything from climate change denial to Islamophobia and good-old-fashioned antisemitic conspiracies, familiar to JC readers.  Constructing the image of the threatening, powerful outsider, with the leader as saviour, are basic ingredients to far-right populist success.  It’s usually linked to a nostalgia for a glorious, or at least simple, past — what Ruth Wodak calls “Retrotopia”.   The message is a variation of Let’s Make Our Country Great Again.  Or, Take Back Control. 
It’s a powerful and often vote-winning formula; it tends to work most effectively in rural areas and often in places where the Church has a firmer grip. 
Wodak points out that because of the pandemic, many measures long-proposed by the far-right have been implemented by mainstream governments, such as surveillance and closing borders.  Ironically, she says, the far-right is now emphasising a different trope —fighting against the measures because “they encroach on our freedom”.  An economic crisis is already upon us and Ruth Wodak’s fear is that the far right will be of growing appeal “to people who have lost everything or fear losing everything”. 

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