German Cultural Leadership: the Eternal Oxymoron (October 19, 2010)

Last Sunday while perusing the web, I stumbled across the following headline:

Merkel says German multi-cultural society has failed

Completely aghast, yet not quite sure I hadn’t accidentally clicked on a link to The Onion, the ribald, satiric publication disguised as news, I continued reading – then immediately wished I hadn’t.

Full disclosure: my genetic heritage is all Axis power – roughly half and half German and Italian. As a child learning for the first time about WWI and WWII, my Germanic self became increasingly uncomfortable with its identity. Over and again it seemed that Germany sought to place itself on the center of the world stage, not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that. I simply began to take issue with the rampant genocide that always seemed to accompany these operations. At the conclusion of every major war, Germany would be put in its place, paying reparations and performing social penance for its bad behavior, but somehow it seemed that the nation and its dark side always found a way to rebound. Somewhere not very deep within my psyche, I was never able to forgive my ancestors for the Holocaust, no matter how the nation progressed afterward.

But last Sunday, I suddenly found myself wondering if Germany has advanced at all in social understanding. For reasons I cannot fathom, it is perfectly acceptable for Chancellor Angela Merkel to stand up and public and share the following assessment of her nation’s residents:

“Multikulti”, the concept that “we are now living side by side and are happy about it,” does not work, Merkel told a meeting of younger members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party at Potsdam near Berlin.

“This approach has failed, totally,” she said, adding that immigrants should integrate and adopt Germany’s culture and values.

“We feel tied to Christian values. Those who don’t accept them don’t have a place here,” said the chancellor.

“Subsidising immigrants” isn’t sufficient, Germany has the right to “make demands” on them, she added, such as mastering the language of Goethe.

For a brief moment, I felt I had been sucker punched in the gut. What year is this again? I realize that the United States, with its racial divides and recent declarations of war upon the homosexual and Muslim communities, hardly seems like a beacon of tolerance, but the kind of rhetoric above is typically left to the fringe elements of the land. It’s just not cool to be a bigot, even less so to be one that represents an entire nation politically and militarily.

Take note non-German speaking Muslims, Hindu, Buddhists and Jews: you have been warned to read the Bible, speak Deutsch, and if you can manage it, look whitish, or else ye are unwelcome. As an English speaking Hindu convert with questions about religion as a whole, I wonder if I would be acceptable in the Motherland, my ethnicity notwithstanding. Probably not. I am too multi-cultural, and thus a failure, like more than half of the human population.

This is a slippery slope. Where does Chancellor Merkel draw the line? Unfortunately, that is a question that has been posed to German leaders on and off for centuries, and the response has often been devastating. In times of economic and social crisis, it is the human tendency to blame shift, to identify as “other” people and places less understood, in the quest to find meaning for the suffering we see around us. But our challenge as humans is too look beyond our most basic and fearful instincts, to transcend the local and embrace the universal as a basic method of propagating the species. We are six billion strong and show no signs of slowing our growth. At a certain point, if we’re going to live together, we have to learn to get along. Angela Merkel has no authority to declare the effort a failure.


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