Saturday, April 28, 2018

Make Love, Not War

What is it in us that makes some of us inclined to be conservative, others of us focused on the things that need to be fixed or changed? It’s a naïve question, of course. I know we are all subject to different experiences that form our opinions and that we are all conservative in some ways, progressive in others. We’re not born born one way or the other; it’s the whole of life’s experiences that goes into whether we incline toward the status quo or look forward to a new and better world, and debate the how and where.

It’s a never-ending fascination to watch conservatives and progressives argue with each other over their values and their world views, a constant reminder that, much as we’d like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, we are so much a product of our accidental histories.

I tuned in the other day to one of those many talking head programs I like to watch on German television. This one was Hart Aber Fair (Tough but Fair), and this particular program carried the title: Unter grauen Haaren der Muff von 50 Jahren – Streit ums Erbe der 68er, which I would translate something like “The musty smell of fifty years (now) with grey hair – debate over the legacy (of the protests) of ‘68. I take it that the reference is to the motto of the student movement of those days, “Unter den Talaren: Muff von 1000 Jahren” - "Under the university gowns, the musty smell of 1000 years," which in turn was a reference to Hitler’s 1000 Year Reich.

Before I get into the discussion, first a little background. It’s now an open question how many in the German audience are still familiar with the mass student movements that were part of what was quaintly called the APO (Ausserparlamentarische Opposition), the “Extraparliamentary Opposition”. The leading movement, most would agree, was the one led by Rudi Dutschke of the SDS, the  Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, the Socialist German Student Union. It was analogous to the American SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, active in the United States at the same time with different goals but similar values. In America the focus was voiced in the Port Huron Statement. It singled out the Arms Race and the Cold War, but also racial and economic inequity, advocating civil disobedience as the means for increasing participatory democracy. In Germany, students were united against the Grand Coalition of the day, the administration of Georg Kiesinger of the CDU and the SPD, not coincidentally the same coalition of socialists and conservatives running Germany today, fifty years later.

In Germany one of the major criticisms of the movement was the failure of the ruling class of the day in their parents’ generation adequately to address the crimes of National Socialism.  In doing this, they tied themselves to Americans protesting the Vietnam War, to Che Guevara and others seeking a revolutionary change in the world status quo. Each saw itself not merely as progressive, but in fact as revolutionary. Each sought to overturn the status quo. Conservatives, they maintained, were trying to paper over fundamental national character flaws to keep the power structures in place.

In America, the mentality of this group of young people was captured in a book by Charles Reich called The Greening of America. Reich posited that there were three distinct ideologies (the words “ideology” is for all practical purposes interchangeable with “mentality” and the third term, which Reich used, “consciousness.” Americans were either “frontiersmen” – cowboys, independent folk who hunted their own dinner and didn’t need no damn government to force them to pay taxes and take away their rights; or “systems men” (today we’d add “and women”) who believed you made a better world through education and the training of experts to run the world. A third group, the idealistic young folk, had come to realize that the answers lie within, that one doesn’t fix the world until one has first fixed him or herself.

At the heart of the German movement was the foundation of a commune – Kommune 1 – by Fritz Teufel, Rainer Langhans and Dieter Kunzelmann, set up on principles put forth by philosophers such as Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre.

And – back now to the German TV program - who’s that sitting on the panel on today’s Tough But Fair? – Rainer Langhans, fifty years older now, with wild grey hair flying out from his head in all directions. Langhans could be described as the hippie who never stopped being a hippie. Today he lives with five women, maintaining that he is modelling a way to break down the traditional couple-centered nuclear family, which, he still maintains, is the foundation for fascist authoritarianism. We don’t have time to explore how it is Langhans with his five female hangers-on is fighting the patriarchy, but trust me, he would have an answer.

The admirable thing about Langhans is that, unlike his partner in the foundation of his commune, Fritz Teufel, he put his focus on making love and not war. Teufel ended up going to jail for eight years. Langhans went into writing books and making movies, and into putting his belief that “the personal is political” into practice by forming a family unit with what is known as “The Harem,” a collective which is still going strong today.

On the surface, the conservatives may be seen to have won out. Langhans isn’t taken seriously by the majority of his countrymen and women, and the Grand Coalition they fought in the 60s is back stronger than ever. For a brief period after the 2016 election, it looked as if Merkel was going to be making a coalition with the Greens, i.e., the representatives of the old left now in the establishment, but that attempt fell through, and she had to go back to working with the Democratic Socialists.

That seems to be the way with progressives. Their fire burns hot for a time, but it eventually burns out. Embers may remain, but much of the energy is diverted. And that raises the question that this panel took up: is the 60s mentality still relevant today? Or was it just a flash in the pan?

Predictably, progressives will tell you the world has become a better place thanks to the energy of those student and other protesters of the 60s. All the major social changes, the Civil Rights laws and the battle for racial equality, the women’s movement, and ultimately the rights of LGBT people all owe their existence to the folks who took to the streets in the 60s for an expansion of democratic freedoms to more and more people.

And conservatives will tell you it all would have happened without their efforts, that all they did was create disorder and slow down the evolution of slow but certain change.

Alongside Langhans on the panel was a representative of Germany’s conservatives, Dorothee Bär, a member of the Christian Socialists, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats. It didn’t take long for Langhans and Bär to come to blows.

What got Ms. Bär’s blood boiling was Langhans’ attack on the family (as she defined it). “You need to show more respect for those who work to pay your pension in your old age,” she told Langhans. What set the whole battle off was a quotation by another member of her conservative CSU party, Alexander Dobrindt. As he stated it, “The majority of people in this country live a middle class life, but they are dominated everywhere by the leftist elite among us. It’s time we had a conservative citizen’s revolution.” Trump’s base couldn’t have said it better.

It’s sobering – not to say depressing – to watch this all play out, the same battle between conservatives and progressives that took place internationally in the 60s and today. The bigger picture is complex and is not adequately addressed by simple divisions into left and right, progressive and conservative, much less hippy and bourgeois. You can’t tell the story of the fight for equality in the 60s without recognizing that the women behind the men in the 60s student struggles were not included, and had to postpone the fight for women’s rights to another day. Gay rights were not even on the horizon, and even today, this same Alexander Dobrindt shows what he means to include and exclude in his conservative revolution: he is an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage in Germany. It’s less a fight between two fairly balanced sides and more a seething struggle over what to change and what to maintain.

And at the same time, to point out that the same Grand Coalition (between Democratic Socialists and Christian Democrats/Christian Socialists) the students of the 60s were fighting is the same coalition in power today would be to overlook just how radical the progress has been. Germany today is a land of immigrants. Women are represented on all political levels, right up to the chancellor’s seat. Dorothee Bär would have to admit that if her conservativism had had its way, she’d be out of a job. Until October of last year she was Germany’s state secretary for transport and digital infrastructure. Since then she has jumped to food and agriculture. The switch among ministries, one assumes, suggests she’s being groomed for even higher positions in time.  Without the efforts of those she dismisses on the left, she’d more likely be home with her three kids today.

Which brings me to my problem with conservatives generally. I’m talking about the fact that so many of them are brought kicking and screaming into the modern era. “You didn’t need a student movement to have a feminist revolution,” Bär says at one point. No, but how would it have come about without the same energy that drove that student revolution, is the question.

At every historical juncture you can find “conservatives,” as they are defined by the circumstances of the day, defending the status quo. Change always comes, and they are forced to update their stance, now settling for less but still dragging their heels and throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery to slow things down. Conservatives once defended raiding gay bars and throwing the denizens in jail. When they could no longer do that, they argued that gays should be allowed to do what they want, so long as they didn’t “rub our noses in it.” When that became understood as too restrictive, they found it in their hearts to defend the right of gays to live and work where they wanted, but there should be laws preventing any depiction of a “gay lifestyle” or discussion of the gay liberation movement in schoolbooks. When that became socially acceptable, they argued that gays should be allowed to live together but not to form partnerships. When society came to accept those partnerships, conservatives came to defend them but held out against gay marriage. When forced to recognize that gay marriage had become socially acceptable elsewhere in the world and in some places in the U.S., they argued that it should be a states’ rights issue and there should be no federal support for same-sex marriage. Today same-sex marriage is the law of the land, and there are still conservatives trying to take back those rights.  One can understand why, to the majority of gay people in this country who vote overwhelmingly for democrats, gay republican is an oxymoron for people with no sense of history.

*                                  *                                  *

One of my earlier memories of the 60s in regard to Germany was the 1961 film with Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster and a host of other famous stars – Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich… – Judgment at Nuremberg.  Getting rid of Nazis. Putting them on trial. What one often failed to notice was that to many – and that includes many on the left today – these were show trials. What was really going on was that many Nazis were being incorporated into the new Germany under Adenauer. The excuse was that these were the people who understood how to make the wheels go round – they were too useful to be discarded. The fight between left and right was what you’d predict: conservatives argued for “letting bygones be bygones – put these people to work and say no more”; progressives argued they needed to pay for their crimes against humanity.

And what the far left was doing – and this is Langhans point – was saying, “You’re all missing the point. What we need to root out is not just the bad guys among us; we need to root out the Nazi in the German DNA.”

The parallel to the American context is obvious. The far right is arguing we need to “make America Great” again – bring back the good old days, defend those who are being forgotten by this new push to bring all the blacks, Hispanics, other non-waspy types now taking over into power positions. The establishment left put Hillary Clinton up as their candidate to keep up the good fight to bring about greater equity, greater distribution of wealth. And somewhere in the back of the room are voices arguing that it’s time for white America to face its deep-rooted racism, for men to face its deep-rooted patriarchal sexism, for America to face up to its history of slavery and genocide and stop pretending that all that is needed is for more people to vote democratic. In the news today is the opening of the new Lynching Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, recognizing and honoring the more than 4000 black men who were lynched for the flimsiest of reasons – and sometimes simply for nothing more than being black. And what are the conservatives saying, “Let bygones be bygones. No sense in stirring up old animosities.”

We can cluck and say, “it was ever thus.” People wronged at some point in history want their wrongs put right. People who would have to concede guilt in wrongdoing insist we can’t fix the past. But what’s going on in Montgomery these days reveals the wrongheadedness – not to say hypocrisy – of the conservative cause. If it were in fact just about the past, “letting sleeping dogs lie” might be the best course of action. The problem is the mindset that existed in the past is still alive, and without focusing on the wrong, the rot in the system doesn’t get rooted out.

Langhans wants to root out the nazi in all of us. He sees fascism in the two-person family unit and puts his own life on the line by broadcasting his distain for such a unit. This “progressive” fails to connect with the overwhelming majority of people today who see him as pissing in the wind.

But is he? Is he just another example of a blind idealist who has failed to keep up with the times? You know the saying, “if you’re not a communist at 20, you haven’t got a heart; if you’re still a communist at 30, you haven’t got a brain.” Is this Langhans’ problem. What about the need for rooting out, for “deep cleaning”? While folks in Alabama protest the monument to the black men lynched by the thousands, in other parts of the state – including Montgomery itself, they are still holding on to monuments to the leaders of the Confederacy, the folks who fought to the death for the right to hold black men and women slaves. There is still a powerful lot of rooting out to do. And the fact that the neo-nazis are back in some strength in Germany suggests that Langhans is much more than a superannuated hippie.

Personally, I cannot deny I find Langhans with his harem and his white Afro an unpersuasive figure. The man who speaks to me from those days is Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the German SDS. I think it's one of the tragedies of history that Rudi Dutschke was put upon by a right-winger and died some years later as a result of that attack, having spent much of that time regaining his facilities and learning to talk again. Dutschke's goals, to rid the world of war and hunger, are not trivial goals. And I love the fact that his desire for world revolution was grounded in his Christianity. I wish he were around today. His youngest son, Marek, born after his death, is active in the Green Party. His American-born wife put out a documentary recently which I recommend if your German is up to it. For me the question of whether the legacy of the 60s lives on is an idle question. Most assuredly it lives on.

But that fact will probably never stop being contested. Nothing came of the 60s movement, says Dorothee Bär. Not feminism. Nothing. Her views are echoed by the other conservatives on the panel. A big lot of noise by the likes of such as Rainer Langhans, but then Germany came to its senses. 60s radical Joschka Fischer, once known for having joined the violent faction of the 60s and 70s and for having clubbed a policemen, later joined the establishment and even became Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor as well as one of the founders of the Green Party. A sell-out, as far as Langhans is concerned, proof of the ineffectiveness of the 60s radicals, as far as Bär and other conservatives are concerned, proof that the utopian "revolutions" of the 60s were never more than a flash in the pan.

What makes conservatives? I asked at the outset. What makes people want to hold on to the illusions of any given age? Is it the folly of overzealous progressives like Langhans, who would rid the world of loving family units with a sweep of his hand? Is it the blindness of unenlightened democrats who got behind Hillary Clinton and gave the conservatives a reason for throwing their weight behind a pied piper that is to blame?

I have the benefit of the internet. I can look back on these events of the 60s and fill in so many blanks. Learn so much about the what I missed as a figure living that history, all the events playing  out all round me in Germany and in the United States. I can wallow at will in my memories of the 60s and fight off the urge to cry like a baby. If I could go back in time with the mindset I hold today I'd be far more engaged, I'm sure. No doubt I'd be no more effective the second time around than I was as somebody on the periphery the first time. I'd be just another voice urging people to avoid deceit and violence, just another body in the crowd of demonstrators "marching through the institutions" as Dutschke phrased it - or trying to, so what would be the point of time travel? Anything I might have done then I can still do now.

I was present in the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. I'd shout louder and longer if I could go back and do it again. I'd join with progressives earlier on to fight for gay liberation, but I'd also join the conservatives among the gays who would hold out for the right to marry, despite the fact that the "progressives" of an earlier time considered marriage a heterosexual institution that only the unenlightened would aspire to. I'd try to avoid the dualisms of right-wing and left-wing, conservative or progressive, but would embrace, as I do now, the dualism of open and closed, and choose open.  Open to change, open to possibility, open to a redefinition of truth as new information comes in.

There’s a German saying from the 60s that is being remembered these days, “Wer zweimal mit derselben pennt, gehört zum Establishment.” – “Sleep with the same person twice and you’re a member of the establishment.” Has more of a punch in German, where it rhymes.

Hyperbole, to be sure. Not a piece of history that I feel the need to claim.

But that doesn’t take away from the good advice to

“Make Love, Not War.”

photo credit - the iconic Thomas Hesterberg photo of the German protests of the late 60s - folks lined up against the wall naked - shouldn't require explanation, but for details, check out the source linked here.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Go, Went, Gone - a book review

Jenny Erpenbeck

flâneur is somebody who strolls through life with no particular drive, no particular goal other than amusement. A boulevardier, a “gentleman of leisure” who lives off the wealth of the land and works hard at remaining detached. That image is contested by others who maintain a flâneur is a keen observer of the lives of those who cross his path, with talents not unlike those of a careful research scientist, but the term can also be used to characterize those we sometimes describe as “all hat and no cattle,” those who sit around and discuss a problem to death and never lift a finger to find a solution.

“Moral flaneur” is New Yorker staff writer James Wood’s way of describing himself when, in Italy on vacation, he becomes aware of the large number of Africans trying to cross the border into France and Germany. He remembers Edward VIII’s response when learning about massive unemployment in his country: “Something must be done.” Wood raises this issue in a review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s 2015 novel, Go, Went, Gone, which I’ll get to in a minute.

I include myself among the thousands of Americans looking for a way to join the “Resistance” to the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle health care, environmental protections, voting rights, all the while working with Congress to assure the rich get richer. Mostly I just sit and cluck at the state of things, the failure of democracy, the lack of will on the part of my countrymen to “do something.” Color me a moral flaneur.

At the heart of the political analogue in Europe, the populism and nationalism in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere is the question of what to do with the Africans and Middle Easterners pouring into Europe in search of relief from war and social chaos. In Germany, resistance to immigration has engendered a new right-wing party, the “Alternative for Germany” Party, whose members now comprise 12.6 percent of the seats in the Bundestag.

Angela Merkel, normally a remarkably efficient stay calm, let's wait-and-see kind of boss lady, was nearly toppled from her position as world leader because of her policy of allowing in a million refugees and immigrants, hoping in vain that her fellow Europeans would take some of the responsibility for that task off her shoulders. Instead they circled the wagons. Merkel saw no way out but to follow suit eventually and narrow the flow of migrants, despite earlier insistence that Europe had not only a moral duty but a legal one as well to take in refugees fleeing for their lives.

The political “solution” was to make a sharp distinction between “asylum seeker (refugee)” and “immigrant applicant” – to make space for the former – Syrians, mainly – and turn back illegal immigrants simply seeking relief from economic hardship in their homelands. Here the Germans were able to hide behind the bureaucratic solution – the Dublin Regulation (also known as “Dublin III” and before that “Dublin II”) – which determined that responsibility for these migrants would fall to the first country they landed in. The problem is that put an excessive and unfair burden on Italy and Greece. Things went from bad to worse to cruelly absurd when the numbers meant that opportunities for work in Italy and Greece are now minimal while ironically, Germany, France, Holland and other economically better off destination countries actually need workers. Germany has the same problem with illegals as the United States and blames them for the fact that they are being drawn in by what in legal terms might be called an “attractive nuisance,” the tort law that states that a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land if the injury is caused by an object on the land that is likely to attract children. Workers wanted, in this case.

Twisting the knife in the back of migrants who manage to make it all the way to Germany is the law preventing them from working while they wait to be processed, knowing all the while, that most will be deported. From the German perspective, why should they give them jobs when they are not going to give them permanent resident permits. Probably. It's the uncertainty that creates the injustice.

Jenny Erpenbeck, one of Germany’s most noted authors, took up this subject in her 2015 book, Gehen, Ging, Gegangen, (“Going, Went, Gone”). It is a fictionalized tale of a retired philology professor (here we’d say “language and literature”), who has lived the past five years alone since his wife died, and comes up with a project learning more about the refugees he sees protesting around Berlin, and how they came to be there in the first place.

He uses his status as professor emeritus to fake a research project when he discovers that a former nursing home near his house has been converted into a dormitory for migrants in limbo. The migrants, he finds, are surprisingly forthcoming with their stories, and as the novel progresses, Richard, his name is, gets increasingly involved in their lives. Their lives are lived with little hope of being admitted as legal immigrants. These are not Syrian refugees; they are men whom the state believes need to be deported precisely to make room for more “worthy” immigrants. What Erpenbeck eloquently conveys is that to know these men is to understand how cruel one is in suggesting they are any less worthy. And this makes the novel, like it or not, politically sensitive. Erpenbeck was suggested for the German Book Prize in 2015 but was passed by, allegedly because the prize givers did not want to be caught taking a political stand.

This brings us to the question of perspective. If you are a modern-day German politician, no matter of what stripe, you don’t want to be caught dead arguing for “open borders.” Not only would that be political suicide; it doesn’t work on a common sense level, either. One simply cannot move millions of people from the African continent into the cities and country towns of Europe. The only good long-term solution is to improve the conditions in the countries of origin so there will be no need for its citizens to flee – and you can see how much easier that is said than done. If you are a person with a heart, and you hear that a young man has made his way across North Africa to Libya, climbed in a boat with his mother and father and pushed out to sea only to have the boat capsize and his mother and father drown before his eyes, but by some superhuman stroke of luck has made it to Berlin, are you really going to say, “It’s not my fault that you have no home to go back to; you can’t stay here. We need to make room for the Syrians.”?

I started the book in German and read about a quarter of the way through, without a whole lot of enthusiasm, on the recommendation of a good friend who urged me to take it on. I had trouble with the style, with what I took to be the cluelessness of the protagonist as a character. Rather than give up on it, I got the book in the English translation and picked up from there. That enabled me to read at a faster speed and whether it was that, or the fact that the book finally picks up at about that point, I can’t be sure, but it was smooth sailing from then on.

I think the sluggishness at the beginning is due to Jenny Erpenbeck’s effort to keep the book from turning into a romantic story, a political pitch for bleeding hearts. She manages, in the end, to get you to climb into Richard, the professor’s shoes, and grow as he grows in understanding. And to begin to feel how he feels as he gradually develops the skill to experience what his research subjects are experiencing. Erpenbeck does this with her sparse writing style. There is no dialogue; there is only the story being related from a variety of perspectives in a variety of voices simultaneously. Pulling this off is no mean feat. Overlapping stories, overlapping perspectives, layers upon layers of meaning. Richard is himself a “displaced person,” as is the author, an outsider to modern Germany as an Easterner whose East German pension is less than his Western colleagues’ pensions, who went to sleep in a socialist cradle-to-grave welfare state and woke up in another country where he suddenly has to put aside money to pay his taxes and his rent has quadrupled.

Since the book came out in 2015 it has had more than enough time to elicit reviews worth noting.  One that speaks for me is this one from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

Obwohl diese Geschichten sehr bewegend sind, appelliert „Gehen, ging, gegangen“ nicht vordergründig an das Mitleid des Lesers. Vielmehr bringt dieser Roman sehr reflektiert und durchaus unterhaltsam die Literatur als Medium des Verstehens zur Geltung, indem sich das Fremde und das Eigene als zwei Seiten eines Zusammenhangs erweisen. Oder wie der Anwalt die alten Römer zu zitieren pflegt: „Wenn das Haus deines Nachbarn brennt, geht es auch dich an.“

Although these tales are very moving, Gehen, Ging, Gegangen calls not so much for the reader’s sympathy. Rather, this novel, in a very thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining way, reveals the power of literature to make one see what is strange and what is familiar as two parts of a single whole. Or as the lawyer who likes to cite the ancient Romans puts it, “When your neighbor’s house is on fire, it concerns you too.”

The review in Der Spiegel I take strong exception to. It’s common to label as “orientalism” anything Europeans have to say about the exotic other from a far-off land, very often with justification. But what is one to make of this?:

Das neue Buch der vielfach ausgezeichneten Erfolgsschriftstellerin ("Heimsuchung") zeigt, wie schlecht es um die politische Literatur in Deutschland bestellt ist. Statt die Geschichten der Geflüchteten in den Vordergrund zu stellen, wird "Gehen, ging, gegangen" von einem Wohlstandsbürger dominiert, der sich weltoffen und aufgeklärt fühlt und die eigene, von Ressentiments durchsetzte Ignoranz nicht bemerkt. Erpenbecks Roman ist ein klassischer Pressetitel, auf Feuilletons und Preisjurys zugeschrieben; anders gesagt: auf Leser zugeschrieben, die sich in Richard wiederfinden werden.

The new book by the much lauded and successful writer (Heimsuchung) shows us what bad shape political literature is in in Germany. Instead of putting the stories of the refugees in the foreground, Go, Went, Gone is dominated by a citizen secure in his middle class status who sees himself as sophisticated and enlightened and overlooks his own resentment-laden ignorance. Erpenbeck’s novel is made for the media, for book reviews and those who grant book prizes. In other words, it’s written for readers who will put themselves into Richard’s shoes.

That’s not only nasty, it’s wrong-headed. I remember when Cry, Freedom came out in 1987 and I first became familiar with the cinematic trope “White Savior,” where what is touted as a story about black Africans (or American Indians or any oppressed minority) turns out to be about some white man who comes to their rescue. That may be an appropriate criticism for Cry, Freedom, but there is a logical fallacy in the suggestion that one cannot write about a white man’s personal growth when dealing with cruelty and injustice. I keep remembering that wonderful response by Alice Walker to criticism for not portraying black men as heros in The Color Purple: “You tell your story and I’ll tell mine.” In this case, though, the charge that the stories of the refugees was not placed in the foreground doesn’t hold water. To my knowledge, a more sympathetic portrayal of the plight of economic refugees in Germany has not been told. The fact that they get to speak in their own voices is the very essence of what makes this book a quality read.

James Wood, whom I mentioned in the opening paragraph above, came back to the novel a second time, this time to call it "(o)ne of the best novels published this year [2017] (and) also one of the most scandalously neglected, at least in this country." He's talking Nobel Prize. And he confirms my view that Going, Went, Gone, "is an effort of inquiry, not a political statement or a liberal appropriation."

Elsewhere, in lectures and other writings, Erpenbeck speaks of wondering about how much of her socialist paradise dreams she had as a youth she should hang onto in this brave new world in which she finds herself. How, similarly, does a refugee handle the yearning for home combined with the terror of memory and the need to learn the language and the ways of a new home, all the while uncertain whether this home will take them in?

Having taken up one of Germany's central social problems and written a politically oriented novel, Erpenbeck has to contend with the question of whether she has suggested a solution. Two quick answers come to mind. One, it’s not the job of a writer to find political solutions, even when writing on political topics. A writer has the same job as any other artist, to entertain and to provoke thought. But OK, no. She only kicks the can further down the road.

And that, in turn, inspires two more quick responses. Maybe that’s the tragedy: there is no solution (other than the long-term solution I mentioned above of getting the countries of origin on their feet again). And maybe she has inspired her readers to look at their fellow beings with greater sympathy. Cash, food, a smile, a place to stay for a time. At the very minimum a recognition of the truth that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Which I’ve always considered the essence of the bullshit that is what many in our culture call religion. That it allows one to live with the illusion that God answers your prayers but not everybody else’s.

That’s why I urge us all to get involved in some form of democratic socialism, especially now that the Evangelicals of America have decided Christianity means America first and the rest of you can go drown in the Mediterranean Gulf of Mexico. And ditto for the leading German parties, the Christian (sic) Democratic Party and the Christian (sic) Social Union.

photo credit: A search for the origin of Jenny E's picture leads to a home improvement ad. Can't find another link. Sorry about that. Don't mean to break any copyright laws.