Wednesday, March 29, 2017

It's about time, Germany.

It's about time, Germany!

There is a line you can draw through the European continent neatly dividing the countries which now recognize full civil rights for lesbian and gay people, including the right to marry, from those which don't.  And another line neatly dividing the countries which give most rights, including civil unions, from those which give few or none. These lines suggest geography is a powerful indicator of how attitudes toward LGBT people have changed in recent years, and how much we form our attitudes on the basis of what our neighbors think. The map on the left suggests that the further West you go the more liberal the attitudes. That's no surprise, when you think about it, but it's interesting to see that fact so graphically displayed. There is a "Western-most" swath, which includes everybody north and west of Germany, with the exception of Northern Ireland, a "Mitteleuropa" swath, comprised of the countries historically outside the Iron Curtain plus Estonia, and an "Eastern-most" swath, where gay people still live as second (or third) class citizens.

"With marriage, it should not be about what your sex is, but
only about whether the partners are willing to join together
permanently and accept responsibility for one another."
There's an election coming up in Germany which could change the map dramatically and bring Germany into the western-most camp. It's already there in terms of the will of the people. 83% of the population polled just this January have come out in favor.  It's only the government that lags behind. And by government I mean the ruling coalition of the two parties with "Christian" in their name and, until now, the socialists. Again, no surprise. That that coalition is falling apart can be seen by the fact the socialists just announced they are going to support full rights, including adoption, for gays and lesbians, and the christian parties are still dragging their feet. (See the statement by SPD party chief Thomas Oppermann, to the right.)  I'd put "christian" in quotes, but that would seem like a sneer, somehow, and they deserve better than that. They are actually no more christian than the other parties, except historically, but that's a show for another day.

Germany has, from the perspective of someone used to our presidential system and unfamiliar with the parliamentary system, a curious ruling coalition of three parties.  The two so-called christian parties are Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Socialist Union (CSU). The two are known as "The Union" parties. They formed a government after the last election with the German Socialist Party (SPD).  When I say "curious" I mean it's hard to see how these two groups with fundamentally opposing political philosophies ever managed to make it work as long as they did.  A more dramatic indicator than the gay rights issue that they are now coming apart is the fact that Martin Schulz, who was recently chosen to head the Socialists by an astonishing and unprecedented vote by acclamation (100% of his colleagues), will now go from being coalition partner with Angela Merkel to being her chief opponent in the next election for chancellor. The "minor" coalition partner wants to bump off the "major" coalition partner and take over the wheel.

The socialists have an uphill climb.  Like the democrats in the U.S., who were once the party of the little guy but recently have become the party of the upper middle class, the socialists in Germany are roundly criticized for having been too keen to join with the super-haves, the folks on top, and forgotten their socialist principles.  Martin Schulz, a working class guy without the usual fancy academic credentials which Germans take so seriously, is hoping to bring back the good times.

It has always bothered me that so many Americans are so ill-informed about that word socialist, and have allowed the manipulators of the Christian right to persuade them to see the socialists of Europe as somehow associated with "godless communism."  That the socialists want a complete government takeover, and that means things will be run badly, by people with no vested interest or need to do things right.  People "sucking on the government's tit" as it was explained to me as a kid, people so mollycoddled that they lose any motivation for working hard and taking responsibility for their own welfare. The fact that most modern democracies of Europe function as well as they do is, in my view, due to the fact that they are "social democracies" - and "social democracy" is what it's actually all about, and not "socialism." Social democrats believe society should be governed with an eye to social equity, as opposed to the generation of profits for the few. Wealth generation, by all means. Unfettered capitalism, no. America has a chance to go for democratic socialism as well, in the person of Bernie Sanders. One of the things I'd most like to see is for Americans to get to the bottom of why so many Americans were willing to sell their souls to get behind Trump and why the democrats went for democratic capitalism instead of democratic socialism - for Hillary instead of Bernie.

I don't have political heroes. I think politics is by nature dirty and I have neither the talent nor the stomach for it much of the time. I depend on others to do that dirty work for me. But if I did have a political hero, it would probably be Willi Brandt. He left Germany for Norway and then Sweden, eventually taking Norwegian citizenship and changing his name to avoid detection by the Nazis. He returned to Germany in 1946 and in 1948 became a German again and joined the socialist party. In time he became mayor of Berlin and eventually chancellor, and his work in trying to bridge the gap between East and West won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. All large bodies have both retrograde and progressive forces under their umbrella. We in the United States have Mississippi, which still displays the Dixie flag in its state flag, plus a whole bunch of other states which have worked the symbols of the confederacy into their flag. And we have California, now trying to bring about a state single-payer health care program to counter the efforts of the Republican Party to throw America's poor under the bus. That's what politics is, a struggle over who gets to call the shots.

One reason Germany interests me so much, besides the fact that I have German roots, is that politically it puts the United States in sharp relief. We both have forces we label "right" and "left," conservative and progressive. But in Germany the whole game is played further to the left, and progressive German political actors we might find among the democrats if they were transposed to the United States, are still considered conservatives in the German context.

Take Angela Merkel, for example. A good German friend of mine took me by surprise when he told me, last time he was visiting here, that he was a supporter of hers.  Not because of her policies, necessarily, but because she was simply "the best manager around." She may have done herself in with her insistence that Germany had to step up and take in refugees even when other European countries failed to follow suit. In doing so, she may have lost the next election. But at the time, when I watched the images of trains pulling into the Munich main station, with which I have such positive associations, happy memories from the early 60s, and saw the refugees spilling out and being met by German volunteers carrying dolls for the kids and fresh fruit and clothing, the German parts of me were overwhelmed with pride. Go, Angela, I said.

Now she's up against my guy Martin Schulz and I kind of feel sorry for her. Not pity, obviously - she may well win the election, after all - but I've been in middle management situations where I was despised by people below me for being part of the power structure and despised by people over me for giving away the store to the rabble. Angela is caught between the (democratic, remember) socialists on her left and the quite conservative Bavarian Christian Socialists on her right for very similar reasons. She has been described as the kind of person who leads from behind. She reads the scene with great accuracy, is known for her pragmatic approach, and gently guides the ship of state in the way she thinks it should go. At least according to reputation. All I know is what I read in the papers.

I just listened to a discussion on Deutsche Welle - it's in English, so do check it out - in which a panel of folk take up the issue of extending full rights to gay people, including the right to adopt. As if to make my point about Germany's being more progressive than the United States, the four panelists are all in favor.  There is no effort made, as is so often the case in the States, to create the illusion of balance - as if a discussion on the holocaust requires a Nazi or a discussion on racism requires a member of the KKK for balance.  The program recognizes that 83% general approval figure and goes from there.  Especially interesting is that the only real conservative member is a gay Catholic, and he, too, argues for separation of church and state and speaks approvingly of secularism. And he's a theologian.

Not everybody wants this much detail on the long hard slog toward gay liberation, of course. But if you do happen to find this progress worth following, join me in a feel-good moment. As I've explained before, I'm working hard to find good news to offset the Trump shenanigans.

This one made my day.

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