Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Obamas of Europe

I’ve spent my whole professional life in the field of language and culture, studying particularly languages and cultures in contact.  The best way I know to get a sense of what culture means is to see where it rubs up against other things.  What is the difference between culture and religion, for example, or how does the concept of culture overlap with the concept of civilization?  Or society?  Another thing I find inherently interesting is how many ways there are to define “us” and “them.”  Race, for example, is one of the most conspicuous ways we use to “other” people – to mark them as “not our kind,” often as a prelude to discrimination and rejection.  Nazis “othered” Jews to create a scapegoat as a mechanism for producing the fiction of a superrace.  In this new age of Trump, many (not all, of course, but entirely too many) people are misled by the notion that the white Christian male-centered America represented by Norman Rockwell, Ozzie and Harriet or Leave it to Beaver is threatened somehow by black people, gay people, Mexicans or Muslims.

I am struck with the symbolic effect that Barack Obama has had on the modern world.  Putting aside his political accomplishments and the ways he disappointed people who had hoped for much more from him, I became conscious of his impact on the world the other day when I read of a black African mayor in a small town in Slovenia being referred to as “our Obama.”  The reference was not to his views as an American, his rhetorical skills, his politics or any of his other features as a prominent figure in the news, but to his race.  It's a small thing, actually, but it is nonetheless clear that this new mass migration of folk from the troubled Middle East or from Africa into Europe now apparently beginning in earnest, is likely to change the world more dramatically than ever before.

The great destabilization of the Middle East began, in my view, when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their gang of neocons took a baseball bat to the hornet’s nest that was Iraq and Afghanistan, making Blackwater rich and collateral damage a household word and giving birth to the Taliban and to ISIS.  I know that’s an oversimplification, and that Assad’s ruthlessness against his own people and the many Arab uprisings in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere are also part of the story, but I’m not after political analysis here.  I’m just trying to make the point that we had better get used to the fact that we have unleashed a massive Völkerwanderung, to use the German word for mass migration.  Or, to translate by cognates, a bunch of folk wandering about, with the implication they’re searching for a new home.

German flag with Turkish
crescent superimposed
We used to call the economic migrants “guest workers.”  But that was until it became clear that once they found a job it made no sense for them to go back. Why would they give up a decent income and a better place to raise their kids than the place they came from?  Germany today has over four million citizens of Turkish origin, and many of these, now into the second and third generation, speak German natively and Turkish not at all.  And they are represented all across the spectrum of assimilation, from those who go out into the streets of Germany to campaign for Turkish president Erdogan at one extreme, to others at the other extreme like the cabaret artist, Serdar Somuncu. In America, we’d call him a stand-up comedian, but he’s much more.   He’s politically astute as well, and serves as all cabaret artists do as the conscious of the German nation.  Or Cem Özdemir, the head of Germany’s Green Party.  Son of a Turkish-Circassian guest worker, he’s married to an Argentinian woman and describes himself as a “secular Muslim.”  Also a good representative of the “new Germany,” in other words.

Germans are hypersensitive about racial identity because of their past, so they do not permit themselves to categorize people according to ethnic origin.  That means there is no way to count the actual number of first, second or third generation “Turkish Germans” with accuracy. The best guess is that it exceeds four million, or 5% of the German population.

Jani Toivola, Finland
Rotimi Adebari, Ireland
Now, with the EU, the people of Europe are free to travel and settle in each other’s countries more than ever before.  In some cases, as with Poles or Hungarians or Czechs in Germany, assimilation comes relatively quickly.  As the culture gaps increase, (Czechs usually adjust to Germany more readily than citizens of the former Yugoslavia do to Holland, for example and much more readily than Somalis to Sweden) it may take a bit longer, but generally once the kids have the language, blending occurs. This is not to make light of the efforts involved, the pain of loss of one’s home culture, the occasional bullying, and the insensitivity of the mainstream culture to what one is going through.  But what’s now at least on the radar is what might be called the “Obama effect,” the readiness of mainstream white people to shed the practice of racial “othering” once common to all European peoples. Hitler, if he had a grave, would be turning in it.  His country has become a full-fledged nation of immigrants.  As have virtually all economically successful European nations.

Karamba Diaby, Germany
I went looking for examples of Africans succeeding in the homeland of white people.  It didn’t take long before I found a goodly number.  Here’s a list of ten of these, and I’m including only politicians, since politicians are not merely “good neighbors” from other countries, but people one chooses as their leaders.  And please note this is but the surface, and I'm leaving out the several women who should also be acknowledged.  At least one source suggests that there is not a country in Europe now without at least one black person in the local parliament. 

1. Let’s start with my favorite.  A gay man from Finland named Jani Petteri Toivola.  An actor and dancer before going into politics, he’s Finnish born but has a Kenyan father.  He was elected to the Finnish parliament in 2011 as a candidate of the Green League.
Edmond Lukusa, Ireland
2. Then there is Karamba Diaby.  He’s a member of the SPD, the German Socialist Party, from Halle, in Saxony-Anhalt, and was elected to the German Bundestag in 2013.
3. Diaby is not the only black African in the Bundestag. Charles M. Huber, of the CDU, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, is from Hesse.  He was elected on September 23, 2013.
4. A third black German politician of note, John Ehret, is not a parliamentarian, but he’s been the mayor of Mauer, a small town in Baden-Württemberg, since 2012.  He’s the son of a black-American GI and a German mother who gave him up for adoption at age two, when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  He was adopted by Gertrud and Helmut Ehret at age six and took their name.
Peter Bossman, Slovenia
5. Poland, too, has black African politicians.  There is John Godson, a Polish member of Parliament, born Igbo, from Nigeria, and a member, of the Łódź City Council.
6. And Killion Munzele Munyama, delegate to Polish Parliament, Zambian born, member of the Polish Sejm (lower house of Polish parliament).
John Ehret, Germany
7. Meanwhile, over in Ireland, there is Edmond Lukusa, a member of the Fingal County Council and the Sinn Fein Party.  He is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
8. Also in Ireland is Rotimi Adebari, mayor of Port Laoise, County Laoise, Ireland. He was born in Nigeria and came to Ireland originally as an asylum seeker.
9. In the Tver Oblast, in Russia, is Jean Gregoire Sagbo, councilor of Novozavidovo in Konakovsky District..  He was born in Benin.
10. And finally, in the small coastal town of Piran, in Slovenia, married to a Croatian woman and working on improving Slovenian-Croatian relations is Peter Bossman, twice elected mayor of Piran, Slovenia, despite a somewhat limited knowledge of Slovenian. He was born in Ghana.  There is a very sympathetic video interview with Bossman here.  

Jean Gregoire Sagbo, Russia
Just a handful of people among millions, you may say.  True.  But evidence that the world can change and that immigrants and asylum seekers sometimes have considerable talents and strengths to offer.

Charles M. Huber, Germany
America once made some of the best cars in the world.  Today they are way behind Japan and Germany.  We rank first in number of prisoners as well as in the number of superrich and in the size of our military but we are now 14th in education, 44th in health care, 7th in wireless broadband subscriptions (Finland is first), and 33rd in terms of download speeds.  We rank 101st on the Peace Index out of 162 countries measured (Iceland is first).  That puts us between Benin and Angola.  We are 13th among countries that believe homosexuality should be accepted (Spain is first). And we’re 23rd in gender equality. Reporters Without Borders ranked us 46th in terms of freedom of the press (sandwiched between Romania and Haiti).  26th in terms of child well-being (Holland is first).  And 24th in terms of literacy.   [Source for above stats here]
Killion Munyama, Poland

John Godson, Poland
Until the Trump phenomenon, I might have been persuaded we’re still out front in terms of modern nations in our ability to stop othering people of color.  Now, with the white supremacists, a piece of shit homophobe for Vice President and thugs knocking over Jewish gravestones, you have to wonder what the hell happened.  Who let these guys lose?  We’re not alone.  Hungary and Poland are arguably worse.  Germany has the AfD, Holland has Geert Wilders, France has Marine LePen.

I really enjoyed coming across a sign referring to Peter Bossman which described him as “Our Obama.” Maybe it’s naïveté on my part.  I suspect Bossman is an exceptional qualified man, and one little birdie does not a springtime make.  In all likelihood, it's probably premature European crowing over what they see as racial integration.  I can imagine plenty of people will look at this phenomenon cynically.  Just a bunch of white liberals trying too hard to prove they are not racists. Like when my freshman class at college had one single black member so we elected him president. Embarrassing, actually.

On the other hand, I'm kind of proud that our racial trailblazer, Obama, has become an icon for black politicians making inroads into previously all white territory elsewhere.  There's no cause to be cynical about that.  That's real.  The Trump people would have you think that "progressives," like "liberals" are "bad hombres."

Not so.  In the real world progress is still a good thing.

And watching people break the color barrier in Europe is, to my way of thinking, more than a little bit of light during these dark times.

In that last picture John Godson in Poland is telephoning his friend Janusz Piechocinski. "Piechocinski?" he asks. "When did you plant your bananas?"

OK.  So Rome wasn't built in a day.

Photo credits:

1. German flag with Turkish symbol superimposed:
4. Diaby
5. Lukusa
7. Ehret
8. Sagbo
9. Huber
10. Munyama
11. Godson
Main source for politicians featured.


1 comment:

SJH said...

Loved this! Well, not all the statistics about how far behind we are on all the important measures of a civilization. But this is a great way to start a discussion of how the complexion of the northern world is changing. Thanks, Alan!