(My column for May 2017)
I have “gone to ground” for the time being in Krefeld, a city of about 225,000, near Düsseldorf in western Germany. I am staying with my cousin and his wife while I figure out what’s supposed to happen next.
Cities like Krefeld throughout Germany have become the endpoints for the journeys of many conflict-displaced refugees (“Flüchtlinge” in German) – around 3500, I am told. There is also a much larger number of economic migrants who have come looking for work, some of whom have set up businesses. Turkish barbershops, convenience stores (“Kiosks”), and pizzerias are everywhere; the latter frequently also serve “Döner,” a halal variation of the Greek gyros.
Döner has become so popular in Germany – as has, say, Mexican food in the US – that one could almost say it’s become part of the culture.
And as you might guess, that kind of development bothers some people.
The German Interior Minister, Thomas de Maiziere, set off a bit of a stir here recently with an op-ed in which he attempted to articulate some basic values of what Germans call “Leitkultur.” This word means “leading culture” or “guiding culture” – though sometimes it gets translated as “dominant culture.”
Minister de Maiziere’s essay generally makes unsurprising and not-particularly controversial points about the important roles played by history, philosophy, and the arts in the shaping of modern German society, and the value of hard work and education. (He gives special shoutouts to Bach and Goethe, for example, though not Nietzche or Wagner.) But a couple of his suggested principles seem specifically intended to be direct swipes at certain aspects of Muslim culture. “We are an open society. We show our face. We are not Burka,” he writes.
To this last point, the Gruenen Jugend, the youth wing of the Green Party, responded curtly: “We are not Lederhosen, either.” De Maizere’s piece has drawn similar scoffs and critiques from other politicians and organizations. (If you’d like to explore further, I suggest the English-language website Deutsche Welle, which has many articles on this topic.)
My cousin thinks that the whole kerfuffle is a pre-electoral stunt – there are state elections coming soon, and Federal ones in the fall – and the discussion will wither away thereafter. He’s probably right. Issues of culture and identity are hot buttons, after all, guaranteed to touch a nerve and bring out the voters. But it’s a critical discussion that should not just be kept alive, but expanded.
Part of de Maizere’s problem, I think, is that in stopping at the national level he fails to take the next logical step. He writes, “We remain, non-negotiably, part of the West, proud Europeans, and enlightened patriots,” but it doesn’t occur to him that there might be another layer, a global “Leitweltkultur” if you will, a set of common human values that can guide the relationships between nations, cultures, and individuals alike. This would include not just the already largely acknowledged values of human rights and mutual respect, but a clearer articulation of the rights – and responsibilities – of both “hosts” and “guests.” In the unsettled times to come, as more people are uprooted by cultural and climactic unrest, this will become increasingly important.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’re about to go grocery shopping. We’ll pick up some currywurst, maybe… perhaps some hummus and falafel… After all, it’s all good.