Friday, November 16, 2012

Did the postmodern identity discussion skip Germany?

Persistent "Turks are Turks and not Germans" thinking

The following video (it's in German only) taken from a public TV broadcast in 2011, documents the discrimination of Turkish-German citizens in Bavarian clubs, whose owners get the bouncers to apply a "foreigner quota" to limit the number of foreigners (particularly Turkish-Germans) in the clubs due the the supposed higher security risk they represent. In particular Josef Zellmeier, conservative local politician, tries to justify the quota by claiming  how the foreigners' culture supposedly makes them more prone to violence, whereas German culture is further developed and therefore less violent. Just imagine the outrage this headline alone would cause for example in the British press. This guys political career would be over, save if he joined the BNP. In Germany he is a senior local politician for the establishment centre-right CSU party. He faced no repercussions due to the broadcast in the German press.

Actually it's a German problem

Besides the blatant racism towards Turkish-German citizens, displayed equally by young club-goers, the seasoned local politician as well as the broadcast's presenter, what is extremely striking is that at no point do the discussants considered that these supposed 'foreigners' are as German as can be. They have been born in Germany, went to school in Germany, work in Germany. Germany is their place of residence and belonging. Any violence some individuals might be prone to is a German problem, caused by factors in the German environment they grew up in.

The political use of the "us vs them" thinking

The discussion displayed in the video is not representative of the wider national discussion, but it serves as an extreme example of the lack of awareness of a diverse German cultural and ethnic identity. In the late 90s the discussion centred around the illfated term of German "Leitkultur" or 'guiding culture' which migrants were supposed to assimilate into. Even thought the term was quickly dropped because people realised that one could not seriously claim that eating Sauerkraut or listening to Humpa music were the linchpins of German culture, the idea that migrants were not part of the 'guiding culture' remained.

More recently Angela Merkel revived that idea by officially pronouncing German multiculturalism dead and ringing in a renewed push for cultural integration of migrants. Her move was intended to position her conservative party further to the right on integration issues because of the shooting star popularity of Thilo Sarazin's populist anti-immigrant book "Germany does itself away" was threatening to make her look soft on integration. Last year, the mayor of Berlin's district with the highest migrant-population, has revived the debate again by writing an angry book about all the anti-social, criminal Turks and Arabs making it impossible for his district to improve its image.

The fault of multiculturalism?

For Angela Merkel to pronounce multiculturalism dead was of course like flogging a dead horse as it had long been seen as a failed policy by many experts exactly because it propagated the view and experience of separate cultural identities living side-by-side, kept together only by a thin veil of tolerance - an argument put brilliantly here by Slavoj Zizek. So the multiculturalist agenda is at least in part responsible for the popular "us-and-them" perspective on Germany's ethnic minorities.

Looking at similar migration-waves in Britain, it is hard to comprehend that more than 50 years after the first Turkish guest workers were asked to come to Germany, they and their children are still not accepted as German as anybody else living in this country in the popular discourse and by a range of populist politicians. By implication it is still not generally accepted that historically Germany's citizens have always combined a hugely diverse array of cultures to make up the hybrid construction of what they considered German culture and identity.

A much more realistic assessment on the ground

The peculiar situation is that the daily lived reality in many German cities is for more advanced than the popular and political discourses would suggest. This documentary of the history of Turkish guestworkers in Germany showcases a number of Germans with Turkish background who could not imagine living anywhere else but in Germany, yet still embrace their Turkish heritage positively.

Speaking for many others in a similar situation, Michelin-star cook Ali Güngörmüs laments the fact that even though he grew up almost entirely in Germany, learned to cook in Bavaria and does not even know how to prepare Turkish food, he is still presented as the successfully integrated "Turk" or at max the "Turkish-German" cook even by the mainstream German media. See here for an example

When will the media and the politicians catch up with reality?

He expresses the hope that someday the journalists will be able to understand him just as the individual he is, who, despite his diversity of background, is firmly at home in Germany. He is in fact so much at home in Germany's (culinaric) culture that he is helping to shape it by his exquisite preparation of German dishes. How could anyone claim he was not German? Nevertheless, he would still have trouble getting in to some Bavarian clubs because some people still don't get that. 

Pondering the causes - a lack of "Empire experience"

When comparing the situation between Britain and Germany of course the Empire or Commonwealth factor also comes to mind - Germany has never had a long-term relationship with the populations of its colonies like Britain did and Turkey was, in any case, never a German colony. This deprives the relationship of even the faintest historical example of joint belonging or cultural reference points like language or the Queen. 

Pondering the causes II - guilt creates dangerous resentiments

Pondering the causes of this persistent symbolic exclusion or dissociation of Turkish-Germans from the German identity, I wonder whether it is a sign of German's insecurity around their national identity and to what extent that might have been caused by the post-WWII officially enforced guilt complex around national pride. This paper by psychoanalyst Arno Gruen supports this theory. He claims that our rejection of the other is based in our rejection 

However, historically, Germany's central-European position has always ensured a massive influx of non-German influences that contributed to German culture via trade or migrant-settlement. Additionally, at numerous points in history, large numbers of Germans who had lived outside of Germany for a long time came back and brought with them their experience of the "world out there" - be that the people who were forcefully resettled from Eastern Europe after WWII or more recently the many German students, graduates, scientists, artists, businesspeople etc. who spent significant amounts of time abroad before bringing those experiences back to Germany. So there should have been plenty of opportunities for Germans to experience and contemplate 'the stranger within us'/"Das Fremde in uns" and to adopt a more realistic and flexible view of their own culture and relativise their "us vs them" attitude towards ethnic minority Germans. However, for some reason that has not happened on a wide scale so far.

Pondering the causes III - a destructive political strategy

In the face of the reality of a multitude of cultural influences on German culture, any portrayal of German identity as anything else than hybrid, complex and ever-changing is a destructive political strategy. As in the video from the beginning, it is aimed to garner one group's support by blaming a common problem (young men drinking too much and having fights in clubs) on another group that is supposedly 'culturally less developed' or more prone to violence because of their culture. Such a strategy is misanthropic and destructive and it is time this dimension dawned on Germany's press and politicians before reality catches up with them. 

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