Tuesday, February 27, 2018

You tell'em, Cem!

Try as I may, I can’t help letting the outrages coming out of the White House get to me. I make every effort to listen to music, keep conversations going with friends far and wide and to limit the amount of time I spend listening to the satirists like Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher shooting fish in a barrel with this kindness and compassion-challenged thug at the head of government. It’s no longer any fun listening to him being ridiculed. It’s just painful.

I'm not diminishing the importance of laughing at the Clown. It's an appropriate response. But I'm looking for more active resistance, as well. Not just against the man Trump, but against the disregard for truth,  the destruction of the environment, the manipulation of religious innocents for political gain, the return of open racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. 

The recent move toward the political right around the world puts us all in the same boat. The mass migration going on in Europe has brought out all the fear and loathing of "the other," and made the insecure want to circle the wagons. Trump has found he can rally his troops by promising he will build them a wall on the Mexican border. In Europe, it's all about closing the door to refugees fleeing war in Syria and recognizing - just as the American rightwing now wants to redefine us as "no longer a nation of immigrants" - that Germany and France and Britain, and virtually all modern nations now are "nations of immigrants." And that means we continue to embrace our diversity, not surrender to notions of racial purity.

When I lived in Japan, where I taught a seminar on culture theory, I spent a great deal of time analyzing the impact of cultures in contact, what happens when value systems collide. Japan has a singular history as an island nation, once shut off for some 250 years, long enough to leave Japanese marked with a sense of themselves as a unique people different from the rest of the world. One lasting effect is the tendency of Japanese to think in we/they terms. The world consists of insiders and outsiders. That’s common to most nations and people, of course, but when threatened, Japanese are easily manipulated into xenophobia. Because the birth rate is so low, they cannot keep the population level high enough to keep the economy running at the current level, and they really need a steady influx of immigrants. But immigration means an embrace of the “other,” and the backlash is as strong as it is certain. I remember long debates in Japan over how to deal with “Chinese criminals.” The rumor went around that the many guest workers from China were forming gangs of criminals. There was a grain of truth – outsider groups invariably stick together and poverty breeds criminality. But people were not looking at the statistics – far more crime was committed by Japanese than by these Chinese gangs.

Now in Germany that same problem has been generated in spades, thanks to the wars in the Middle East and the availability of the internet and the need for Germans, also suffering (if that’s the word – it’s not my word!) from a low birthrate, to keep the economy going with guest workers. You all know the recent history. Once popular Angela Merkel is being blamed for overdoing it with her open door policy, letting in far too many refugees and immigrants at one time to be absorbed easily. Her motives were Christian, she tells us, as well as based on EU law – a refugee must be given shelter. Not interested, says the political right. And not just the political right – people normally classed as centrists or moderates joined in and began crying that an open door policy was madness.

Trump supporters consist in large part of people easily manipulated by their fears. It has always been this way. The Germans under Hitler made scapegoats of the Jewish “other.” Trump, early on, told Americans that Mexicans were flooding across the border and they were rapists. The base ate it up. Just what they needed. Somebody to fear, to focus their discontents on. Never mind the facts, that Mexicans were actually returning to Mexico in greater numbers than they were coming in, or that drugs and criminality couldn’t possibly be curtailed by a physical wall, which would actually keep out more desirable workers (yes, desirable) than “bad guys” and be an ineffective means of stopping the flow of drugs anyway. The important thing was the appearance of things – it would look like Trump was taking positive action. For people who don’t dig deeper to verify his claims – which have been demonstrated to be false 80% of the time – it was sufficient to keep up their support.

Xenophobia in Germany and the rest of Western Europe is not all that different from xenophobia in America, in other words. It’s more intense, in many ways, more overtly racist, and supported by the conviction that Islam is inherently threatening to Western Civilization. But these are differences in degree, not in kind.

The news the other day that the U.S. will stop officially describing itself as a nation of immigrants hit me like a kick in the stomach. First because it is such a radical turnaround from what we have told ourselves for as long as I can remember, as a means of regarding out diversity as a positive thing. Second, because I see it as another bone thrown by the neo-fascist administration to the mob of xenophobic white supporters who make up the Trump cheering section. Truth doesn’t matter. Talk is cheap these days.

Deniz Yücel
A friend in Berlin called my attention to a speech given in the German parliament, the Bundestag, the other day. The Bundestag was debating a proposal by the AfD over how to approach the writings of Deniz Yucel.

For the first time since the war, Germany has had to contend with a far-right political party, the AfD, whose platform is based largely on hostility to immigrants and foreigners. That party now sits in parliament and has a powerful forum for its xenophobic agenda.  They have to be listened to and dealt with.

Before I go into the resistance to this wretchedness, a little background:

·      Deniz Yücel is a German-born journalist of Turkish heritage. He holds dual citizenship, Turkish and German. Until ten days ago, February 16, for a year and two days, he was being held in a Turkish prison charged with espionage against Turkey’s leader, Recep Erdoğan. One of hundreds of journalists similarly charged. 
·      In 2010, the right wing politician and writer Thilo Sarrazin, published a book titled, Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany is doing away with itself),  in which he launched a full-force frontal attack on Germany’s pluralist (now sneered at as "Multikulti") social and immigration policies, particularly in regard to Muslims. It became a best-seller, the best-selling hardcover in the history of the Bundesrepublik. And the book most checked out of the Parliament library between 2009 and 2013.
·      Some of the points Sarrazin raises are reminiscent of the issue raised in The Bell Curve. It should come as no surprise that the culture of Anatolia, where for centuries women have not been allowed to become literate, could not possibly have produced the level of critical thinking necessary to run a democracy, the argument goes. No wonder the Turks have limited intelligence. Common sense to some; racist nonsense to others.
·      Deniz Yücel took on Sarrazin in a satirical work in 2011. In 2012, he went over the line, suggesting it might be a good idea if Sarrazin had a heart attack. For this personal affront, Yücel’s newspaper, taz, was hit with €20,000 ($24,600) in damages.
·      The AfD succeeded in getting the whole question of Yücel’s remarks debated in the Bundestag, a move decried by the German Federation of Journalists as an attempt at censorship. To the right, he's an affront to German integrity. To everybody else, he's a German journalist who spent a year in jail for annoying the Turkish dictator.

Among the many speakers that got up to comment on the move by the AfD to censor Yücel was Cem (pronounced like the English word “gem”) Özdemir, former head (for ten years) of Germany’s Green Party.  Özdemir, like Yücel, is German-born to Turkish parents. He is a model of the modern German multicultural citizen. Of Circassian background , he describes himself as a “secular Muslim,” is married to an Argentine journalist and has two children. He calls Bad Urach home, a small town in the Schwaben (Swabian) region, just south of Stuttgart.

Cem Özdemir

I am hoping somehow the Bundestag or YouTube will post a video of this debate on its website with English subtitles. Here's one in German only; the German original text is available here.  I’d love for people in the English-speaking world to see this man go. The passion of his outrage fills the room.

And until you can get a professional one, here’s my translation of Özdemir’s speech. I have left out the catcalls and other interruptions:
Madame President, Honorable colleagues:  
We need to bring ourselves up to date on what it is that we are actually talking about here today. We’re talking about the work and the article of a German journalist. Normally we associate things of this sort with authoritarian countries. In contrast, the German Bundestag is not here to judge the work of journalists. We have no high-ranking censorship authority here in the Bundestag. That belongs in the countries you look up to. Germany is not among them. In Germany there is no “enforced conformity” [a term associated with the Nazi era], of the kind you dream of. What we have is freedom of the press, a term which, quite obviously, is not in your vocabulary, ladies and gentlemen.  
And we would extend this freedom of the press just as readily to your comrades in Turkey who robbed Deniz Yücel of a year of his life. 
We’re glad Deniz Yücel is free, and let me say here, so there is no misunderstanding, we would be just as happy if it were a Gustav Müller or whatever his name might be, because every citizen of this country is entitled to have his country behind him. That should be obvious. Everybody knows that, besides you.  And all of us, the democratic members of this house, are committed to the idea that the other journalists, the ones without a German passport also under arrest have the right to be released. Because journalism is not a crime, ladies and gentlemen.   
But something else that is true is the fact that things have changed dramatically in the year that Yücel was in prison, and that has prompted this debate. In the meantime there are now representatives in this house that must be described as racists – must be charged with racism, ladies and gentlemen. 
And I mean these ladies and gentlemen over here on the right – I have the microphone, and, thank God, you can’t shut me up. I know that in the regimes you dream of, you can shut off somebody’s mike, but here, thank God, you can’t. And you’re also not going to be able to change that, believe me.   
You want to determine who is German and who is not. How can someone who despises Germany, our common homeland, as you do, decide who is German? How can somebody who shows so little respect for Germany, our common homeland, as you do, determine who is German and who is not?  I’ll tell you one thing. If you were to be the ones to determine that, it would be like putting racists in charge of deciding who is a Neo-nazi and who isn’t. And by the way, if you want the number for the Neo-Nazis, I can provide you with it.  
[VP of Bundestag Petra Pau: Colleague Özdemir, will you allow a question? CÖ: No, I will permit no questions.] 
If you were honest, all of you sitting here, then you would admit that you despise this country. 
You despise everything that this country is looked up to for and respected for throughout the world: and that includes our culture of remembrance, for which I am extremely proud. It includes the diversity of the country, of which I am also proud. It includes Bavarians, Swabians, but also people with ancestors from Russia and people with ancestors from Anatolia, who are now equally proud to be citizens of this country. That includes – and I have to say this – that I feel personally offended as a football (soccer) fan – our great national team. If you are honest, you're crossing your fingers for the Russian team and not our national team. 
Admit it! You show disrespect also for this worthy house as well as for the Enlightenment. You are carved from the same rotten wood as those who had Deniz Yücel arrested. You are carved from the same rotten wood as those who had Deniz Yücel sit in prison for a year of his life. Let me put it into a single sentence. The AKP (Turkish president Erdogan’s ruling party) has a branch in this country. It’s called the AfD, and it is sitting here. 
Finally, let me say in conclusion, you had a political Ash Wednesday a little while ago. What it reminded me of was a speech in the Sportpalast [a clear reference to a major Hitler speech.] 
I want you to know: this Germany, our Germany, is stronger than your hatred will ever be.  You, the raging mob, wanted to deport me on Ash Wednesday. Well, that’s easier done than you might imagine.  This coming Saturday I’m going home. I’m flying to Stuttgart and from there I’ll take an S-Bahn and get off at the final station in Bad Urach. That is my Swabian home. And I will not let you ruin it.

We can't fight City Hall, they say. We can't take down the Trump administration, so long as the 1% find him useful to their purposes, they say. We can't hold back the tide of right wing neo-fascism on the rise around the world, they say.

Maybe not. But some of us can stand up and talk back.

When you find somebody talking back, I think you should share with others ways it can be done.

That's what I'm doing here. 

Doubt it will reach many people. 

But one does what one can.

photo credits: Cem Özdemir

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