“I don’t have roots, I have feet.”
— Ruth Klüger
What’s known as the refugee crisis continues to dominate public discourse in Germany. Is Germany faced with the humanitarian challenge of formulating and implementing appropriate public policy to manage the large numbers of refugees trecking through the Balkans? Or is there an urgent need to defend Germany’s borders against the tired, unwashed masses of losers yearning for a free ride from a mentally handicapped nation of naive suckers? Some seem to be looking for a final solution. Let us hope they don’t find it.
Recently, the editors of a German daily, the Süddeutsche Zeitung (October 10, 2015, No 233, entitled Zwischen den Zäunen), invited authors (novelists/poets) from various East European countries to contribute short pieces about attitudes and public policies in their respective countries regarding increased immigration.i They are all worth reading for the simple reason that they provide the political and social backdrop necessary to understand current populist tirades in their respective countries. However, no one needs to read these pieces to understand that immigration, even on a large scale, need not be viewed as a misfortune for Europe, much less a catastrophe.
During last Thursday’s edition (October 22, 2015) of Bavarian television’s “Quer” (political cabaret) the moderator Christoph Süß noted, in an aside, that we can be grateful for rightwing demagogues, because indirectly they make us feel good about ourselves, at least we are nowhere near as bad as that. In any case, the threat to the countries of Europe is not posed by refugees but by the right-wing parties and groups claiming to rise to their defense (UKIP, Front National, Pegida, AfD, Jobbick and the Finns Party, among others). The extent to which these parties can successfully present themselves as independently critical friends of the average man is a measure of the failure of mainstream politicians to understand and address the resentments lurking just under the surface of daily economic life “Listen, Little Man!” (W. Reich).
Hate language and xenophobia are the topics of a call-in program on the radio today (Deutschlandfunk). In the news: Another building accomodating refugees, this time in Lampertheim, has been torched (Lampertheim report on fire in accomodation for refugees). Occasionally you can get the feeling that there is still a yearning in the air for heroism and poetry. But poetry and politics are a poisonous mixture and heroism is merely a cause of death. Modern reality (at least since the Enlightenment) is prosaic and what is needed are plainly worded, well-founded answers to such questions as: Can Germany benefit from this immigration demographically? How can Germany (Europe, etc.) successfully integrate immigrants? Are the costs of integration greater than the benefits? The presence of refugees merely underscores a long-standing need for low-cost housing, day care, education and public health. Perhaps this is just what is needed to kick-start more spending in these areas. Finally, in concrete terms, how important is it to rule out any new public debt? Given low interest rates, isn’t this principle absurd?
Personally, I would like to think that helping newcomers to learn German may help volunteers to appreciate their own language. And perhaps the notion will gain favor that representative democracy is in need of further democratization. Many have no difficulty imagining some form of apocalypse or “all the people living for today” but they are incapable of imagining a change in how public education in the USA is funded so that property values cease to determine the amount of money available for schools. They can imagine that there is no heaven, but they cannot imagine a reliable municipal public transportation system. They can imagine there are no countries, but they cannot imagine an international trade agreement that fosters economic growth without triggering massive unemployment or contributing to environmental disaster. And so on.
Having taken the time to read this commentary to the end, you might reward yourself by watching “Go West”, a 1925 silent movie on YouTube by Buster Keaton. I saw it at home recently, munching on cookies and drinking coffee with guests, refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.