|Carolin Emcke at her acceptance speech in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt|
Not long after Johannes Gutenberg came up with the notion of moveable type and invented the modern printing press in Mainz, the ancient German city on the Rhine, some folks in nearby Frankfurt came up with the idea of a book fair. The idea caught on. Enabled in no small part by the fact that Luther’s translation of the bible into the vernacular played a major role in bringing about widespread literacy, they have been holding the Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse) every year now for more than five hundred years. When it was revived after the war in 1949, it was still largely a German phenomenon. But not for long. Today, there are more international exhibitors than German ones. One of the highlights of the fair is the granting of prizes to winning authors. Some of these, like the Diagram Prize for the most curious English language title, or the strangest title of the year all told, sound capricious and silly. At the other extreme, though, is the much revered Peace Prize, where an individual is honored for their “extraordinary contributions to literature, science and art which further the cause of peace.” Hence the name.
Past recipients of the award included Albert Schweizer, Martin Buber, Thornton Wilder, Paul Tillich, Yehudi Menuhin, Jürgen Habermas, Susan Sontag, Chinua Achebe, Orhan Pamuk, just to select a few whose names I know well. I mentioned last year’s recipient Navid Kermani in passing in an earlier blog. Iran-born Cultural Muslim Kermani was not only a Peace Prize recipient; he was invited to address the German Bundestag on the 65th anniversary last year of the German Constitution.
This year the award went to philosopher and journalist, Carolin Emcke. She is known for her reporting from war zones and for her reflections on the nature of war and bigotry. She is also a lesbian activist known for her outspoken views on the rights of minorities. Her acceptance speech took up the meaning of belonging, and the way some seek to define themselves as insiders and others as outsiders.
My friend Barbara in Berlin sent me a link to her speech. I went to it right away and was blown away.
For years I’ve heard people speak of the German language as unappealing to the ear. I never understood that, probably since I came to know it from, among others, my maternal grandmother and a favorite great aunt, two of the most loving people I have ever known. Nothing that came out of their mouths could sound ugly to me. Over the years I learned, one language at a time, that no language sounds ugly if spoken by a beautiful person or even by an ordinary person expressing beautiful thoughts. I have had the experience of sitting back and swimming in the beauty of French, Spanish, Russian, and Japanese, as well as German and English. I wish I could extend that to even more modern spoken languages.
Carolin Emcke delivered her acceptance speech in Frankfurt’s St. Paul’s Church (Paulskirche), the site of the birth of German democracy in 1848. It was badly bombed in 1944, but rebuilt after the war. Today it is a national monument and site of important events of national consequence.
I was so moved that I set about finding a copy of the speech and translated it for a few friends, since I wasn’t able at first to find an English translation. The gods were playing with me. No sooner had I finished than I did find an official professional translation, but that’s another story.
Now this will not come as a surprise to any rhetorician, but as I became intimately familiar with the text, as one is forced to when attempting a translation, I realized I wasn’t finding the speech all that inspirational after all. Nice words, to be sure. But special? Not really. The written version clearly did not pack the wallop her spoken delivery did. I concluded that much of what had grabbed me lay in her delivery, in the fact that she spoke so articulately and beautifully, had such marvelous diction, and in her choice of words. Her commanding style, her ability to put beautiful thoughts into beautiful language and deliver them flawlessly meant she was about as eloquent as one can be.
I would, if I could, because I’d like to understand this phenomenon, pick apart how much power lies in language, how much in delivery, how much in the content of speeches, or in ordinary conversation, for that matter. There’s no doubt some speakers can carry you away, even seduce you into doing things against your own better judgment. No one who has ever heard King Henry’s speech to his troops on the Eve of St. Crispin’s Day – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” can mistake the reason the theater holds such power over us. Theater is language. And delivery. And style.
The next question is how much of the power comes from content. Carolin Emcke speaks to me and for me when, writing of her homosexuality, she says,
It is a very strange experience that something so personal should be so important to people that they claim for themselves the right to interfere in our lives and deny us our rights and our dignity. As if the way we love is more meaningful to others than to ourselves, as if our love and our bodies did not belong to us but to those who reject or pathologize them. This has a certain irony: as if our sexuality defined our belonging less than it did theirs.
The text of her speech is a philosophical reflection on belonging. On how we belong, and how in being rejected we come to belong to those who don’t belong.
Emcke writes about the challenges facing modern Europeans, challenges which resonate here in the U.S., where a large number of people, now feeling disenfranchised and neglected, are following a Pied Piper, a populist who would unite his followers through fear, scapegoating others (Muslims, Mexicans) as Jews and other outliers were once scapegoated:
There is currently a climate of fanaticism and violence in Europe. Pseudo-religious and nationalist dogmatists are spreading the doctrine of a "homogeneous people", a "true" religion, an "original" tradition, a "natural" family, and an "authentic" nation. They are drawing up terms with which some should be included and others excluded. They are arbitrarily dividing us up, and deciding who among us may belong and who may not.
Everything that is dynamic, everything varied in its own cultural references and contexts is negated. Everything unique about individuals, everything that makes us human beings, but also people who belong, our struggles, our vulnerabilities, but also our fantasies of happiness, is denied. We are sorted according to identity and difference, are packed into collectives, all living, delicate, contradictory affiliations are scraped off and dulled down.
They may not be ones to stand in the street and spread fear and terror themselves, these populists and purity fanatics. They may not be among those who torch refugee shelters, rip the hijabs off of Muslim women or yarmulkes off the heads of Jewish men. They may not harass Polish or Romanian women (in our midst), may not attack dark-skinned Germans. They may not necessarily be haters themselves. But they are enablers of hatred.
Freedom is not something you possess, but something you do.
Secularization is not a finished product but an ongoing project.
Democracy is not a static certainty but a dynamic exercise in dealing with uncertainties and criticism.
A free, secular, democratic society is something we must learn. Again and again. By listening to each other. Thinking about each other. In common words and actions. In the mutual respect for the diversity of affiliations and individual uniqueness. And not least, in the mutual acceptance of weaknesses and through forgiveness.
That's it. That's the whole story. It's like the guy who asked, "Why can't we all get along?" The message is both utterly simple and utterly important for all its plain speech repetitions. Nobody can claim originality anymore, since these thoughts have been expressed thousands of times in our hearing in our lifetimes. One can only hope that the way one says it grabs new people each time, as this message did me.
So no biggie. No transformative new thing. Just a smart lady saying shame on you world for your bigotry and lack of imagination and good will. Get with the drill!