Tag Archives: Germany

Learning from Others (about racism in German and the American South)

8 Dec

Learning from Others: Germans and White Supremacists

 

Susan Neiman has written a remarkable book, Learning from Others: Race and the Problem of Evil (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019). What makes it remarkable is the clarity, approach, and particular angles of interpretation taken toward racism, exploring with depth and originality the mystifying evil realities of prolonged lethal racist behavior, with a focus on its toxic longevity, and the importance of learning how its legacy in particular contexts might be best addressed. Neiman brings to bear her knowledge and craft as a professional philosopher, who at the same time philosophizes in an instructive manner that is far removed from the fixations on language and logic that is the mainstay of contemporary Western philosophy, whether Anglo-American or Continental. In this regard her stance toward philosophy is also a therapeutic undertaking that in its own way seems as vexing as is racism itself. In her own relevant words of lamentation, “(T)here was a time when American philosophers brought passion and clarity to the major social and political events of their day.” (261) She illustrates this observation by reference to Emerson and Thoreau, who in their time not only decried slavery, but supplemented their moral condemnation by engaging in acts of nonviolent and unlawful solidarity. Such is Neiman’s engagement with her challenging subject-matter.

 

Neiman insists that her preoccupation with evil is not so strange for a traditional philosopher. She is, as always, clear about her work being situated in what was once the philosophical mainstream: “How should we live in a world riven with evil? Is the question that has driven philosophy from its beginnings.” (18) Surely, this is one of the questions, but is it the question? I have my doubts. And certainly, the main philosophical work of the past century has dwelled on evil here and there. It is my impression that the most influential Anglo-American philosophers during my lifetime have made it almost dogma to avoid altogether the challenge of evil as a dimension of the human condition.  

 

A further feature of Nieman’s book, not often encountered in a self-consciously ‘philosophical’ book, is the insinuation of autobiographical details that express her personal connection with the argument being advanced. She informs readers at the very outset: “I began life as a white girl in the segregated South and I am likely to end it as a Jewish woman in Berlin.” (3) And she finishes her book by describing the failure of her attempt to live with her children in Israel. She was put off by what she experience of Israel’s tribalism, and this discomfort occurred despite the rather strong sense of Jewishness and its traditions that informs her worldview. That she feels more at home in Berlin than in Tel Aviv is both significant and intriguing, and goes along with her obvious tough love engagement with the deep South, especially the state of Mississippi. I suppose part of an explanation is an obsession with the occurrence of evil, how it happens, how it can be overcome, and above all how might the evil genie be returned to its bottle, although without minimizing the risks of a future escape as part of a justification for the preoccupation. In this sense, Learning from Others, can be read as citizen engagement on behalf of avoiding the recurrence of racism and other evils, or put crudely, as a way of taking seriously the rather flip slogan, ‘Never Again!.’ Her sense of citizenship, it strike me, centers on working to sustain freedom and a democratic spirit, in essence, a neo-Jeffersonian commitment to the ‘eternal vigilance’ Jefferson believed vital if democracy was remain true to its values in the course of time.

 

One other feature of the way Neiman proceeds arises from her sense that reality needs to be approached by listening with great care to how others with relevant experience articulate their engagement with this blight of collective racism, whether the voice is that of victim, resister, or even perpetrator. Her words: “I just became aware that you need to see events from many different angles before you can get as close as possible to the truth about them.”(83) What I found most impressive about this willingness to listen attentively and at length to all sides is that these conversations that appear throughout the book build toward moral clarity rather than encourage a suspension of judgment or the adoption of a posture of moral neutrality. Neiman avoid any pretense of detachment or professional distance, refusing to copy the supposed objectivity of a natural scientist or mathematician. Neiman leaves even the most casual reader with little doubt as to where she stands with respect to refusals by a social order and its members to purge the present of the past (that is never entirely past) by redressing evil, although she empathetically acknowledges that in the face of military and political defeat, such a redemptive healing process is more likely to occur, but takes time, patience, persistence, and maybe a bit of luck.

 

The thematic unity of the book is achieved by a focus on one of those incredibly inflected German words, vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, which Neiman renders in English as ‘working-off-the-past.’ (7). In effect, the taint of past evil, in this case the twelve years of Nazi rule or the stages of racist abuse, from slavery to Jim Crow to the resurgence of white supremacy in the American South, do not disappear on their own. It requires a deliberate often anguishing willingness to look the past in the eye, and to be sure in the present to rid the societal landscape of glorifying reminders of what needs to be rejected. In this regard she revisits in detail debates about the presence of monuments to Confederate heroes of the past and the ongoing attachment of most white southerners to the Confederate flag. She contrasts this American failure to get beyond its shameful racist past with the relative success of the German experience. It would be unthinkable, for instance, for a Nazi town or city to erect a statue of Hitler or fail to preserve the memory of a nearby death camp. The book acknowledges that maybe Germans were helped by not only losing the war, but by being occupied by foreign liberating forces for fifty years thereafter. The contrasting non-repentance of the American South is a major theme.

 

There are some surprising, well-reasoned, conclusions that give an interesting twist to German post-Nazi experience, living as a divided country from 1945 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I had never stopped to think why former Nazis seemed to have such an easy time in West Germany. Neiman sets forth two convincing explanations from her research and experience. Perhaps, most prominent, was the priority accorded in West Germany, especially by the United States, to anti-Communism, a credential that for a time virtually erased any blight from past Nazi affinities and activities so long as deactivated in the present. Of course, in East Germany under Soviet occupation and influence, the equation was somewhat reversed. Anti-Communism in any form was totally unacceptable, while anti-Fascism was the order of the day, infusing education and ideology. In effect, for this reason it took West Germans much longer to clear their body politic of the Nazi virus. Neiman is certainly not giving the East Germans a clean bill of health when it comes to addressing contextual evil, as she takes note of the failure of East Germany to acknowledge, much less repudiate, the crimes of Stalinism and the Soviet Union. At the same time, she believes that Nazism was a much more severe immersion in evil, and rejects the fashionable claim of their equivalence.

 

When it comes to American racism as still manifest in the South, Neiman convincingly notes the impact of conservative American presidents, including Nixon, Reagan, and most of all, Trump who has given racist dog whistles so loud as to be discernable by the most dimwitted. They signal that it is okay to revere the Confederate ethos and its heroes, that it is part of the American past, acceptable at the time, that need not be hidden or occasion shame. In her view, this tolerance of past racism unsurprisingly encourages extreme and pathological racists to translate their views into action in the present, and incidents such as the Charlottesville March and the Charleston massacre in a black denominational church are almost bound to occur.

 

A distinctive dimension of Neiman’s methodology is the presentation of extensive interview material from prominent historical figures, community leaders, and ordinary folk with stories to tell. Such an approach, according value to the voices of those with a relationship to memories and remnants draws on Neiman’s skill as an interviewer, or more accurately, a conversationalist. This includes the capacity to listen sympathetically, yet never foregoing her own unwavering and unconditional repudiation of racism whether in Germany or the Southland of America. I know of no philosopher of her distinction that dismounts from the elegant horses of philosophical abstraction to gather evidence from the trenches where the relevant realities of her inquiry are situated. The lucid prose style gives the book a clarity enlivened by a kind of storytelling quality. It is against this background of blending philosophical concerns with deep aspects of the human condition—in the spirit of Hannah Arendt—that a profound understanding of prolonged racism occurs. Neiman’s special type of empiricism blends philosophical inquire with social science. It makes this treatment of overcoming racism rather unique. Its special quality is also enriched by Nieman’s long personal experience in both Germany and the deep South. She does not write as an outsider, but in neither setting does she fully qualify an insider.

 

Perhaps, the most intriguing conclusion drawn from the comparative aspect of Learning from the Germans is that the Germans have done a better job of overcoming their past than have their American counterparts. Although Neiman discussed the rise of the far right AfD Party in considerable critical detail,  she seems to feel that although the AfD is a disturbing reminder that the Nazi virus is still present in the German body politic, it is a marginal phenomenon, drawing its strength not so much from the past as from the anti-migrant stance that has nudged the politics of all major European countries to the right. By way of disturbing contrast, the American people have elected as their president a person who actively encourages and embodies such a rightwards lurch, including a disparagement of the most basic institutions of constitutional democracy, as well as many signs of tolerance for if not sympathy with extreme racism as manifest in the majority racist politics of several southern states. I find Neiman’s insight here significant. In effect, Trump exhibits a pre-fascist potentiality in America, which is more fearsome than having a neo-fascist presence at the margins of mainstream politics as seems the case in Germany. Of course, if conditions change the margins can be erased or erode the mainstream in ways that should not be ignored as future possibilities. And in America, if Trump and Trumpism are repudiated in the 2020 elections, the country might again seem to resume the trajectory of creative democratic constitutionalism.   

 

With moral clarity Neiman supports the call for reparations to be paid to African-Americans. She considers the arguments opposed to reparations, but is unpersuaded, suggesting that it is an unpaid debt to the victims of slavery and Jim Crow that needs to be paid to survivors and descendants, if nothing else, . Neiman rejects the contention that those not victims are undeserving or those not perpetrators have no responsibility. She points to the wealth that slavery and racism brought to white society, and the impoverishment endured by African Americans, currently reflected in their differential wealth and income. In this instance, Neiman support a controversial argument, put forward most coherently Ta-Nehisi Coates, that even progressive political figures , such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren have not adopted, which would strike the American mainstream as unacceptably ‘radical.’  In effect, Neiman insists that working off the past of white racism requires something more tangible and ongoing than an apology, and that given the past enrichment achieved by society due to racist forms of exploitation, a monetary form of redress is quite appropriate.

 

This brings me, finally, to the question of Palestine as it plays out in Germany. Although Neiman does not embrace conventional Zionist arguments that are now insisting that criticisms of Israel are the ‘new anti-Semitism,’ she fails to take note of the unlearned lessons by Germans and Germany with regard to Israeli anti-Palestinian racism as practiced over the course of several decades. As a result of several recent actions Germany had taken strong official steps to discredit the BDS Campaign and its supporters. Beyond this the German Government has refrained from any criticism of the unlawful and abusive policies and practices relied upon by the Israeli state in dealing with the Palestinian people. Overcoming the Nazi past would seem to involve a repudiation of racist patterns of behavior, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. For Germany to be inhibited from criticizing Israel because it proclaims itself the nation-state of the Jewish people is to confuse the behavior of a state with hatred of its people. To criticize Israel is not to attack the Jewish people, provided of course that the criticism rests on evidence and is proportionate to the wrong perceived. I find this oversight on Neiman’s part to be the only serious shortcoming of her book, and as serious in its way as she finds the failure of the United States to pay reparations to African Americans.

 

As indicated at the outset, Susan Neiman has contributed to an indispensable addition to the scholarship addressing links between past and present with respect to racism. Although the objects of her concern are limited to Nazism and the American South, the methodology of her inquiry and the insights that result can be derived from comparable studies of past evil and its legacies. Unfortunately, the histories of genocide and racism remain incomplete, with new

circumstances of moral outrage emergent in many distinct civilizational settings. In the end we are challenged by Neiman not to consider racism or evil as matters of destiny, but fully subject to the vagaries of human responsibility, which includes the domain of a free society.     

Chained to its Past: A German Formula for Injustice toward the People of Palestine

20 Sep

[Re-posting Second Prefatory Note: To allow for prior German online publication I temporarily removed this post after two hours. The text below is identical to what was previously posted. We are eager to encourage debate, discussion, and democracy, and so encourage dissemination through social media, and whatever means you find effective. Hearing a few days ago of the Dortmund City Council’s rescinding of the Nelly Sachs Prize for Literature to the British-Pakistani writer Kamila Shamies because it discovered that was a supporter of BDS is a further confirmation of the decline of democracy in Germany, at least in relation to this subject-matter of Israel/Palestine.]

 

[Prefatory Note: The following article written jointly with my longtime cherished friend, Hans von Sponeck, who by family experience and moral disposition is acutely aware of the German policy dilemmas associated with its past. These issues have recently surfaced in the context of suppressing pro-Palestinian nonviolent activism, which we believe are being handled in ways that tend to reproduce rather than transcend the evils of the Nazi Era by taking a variety of steps to shield the criminality of the Israeli Government from pressures exerted by the Palestinian global solidarity movement, and the BDS Campaign in particular. We attempted to publish this opinion piece first in a series of leading German newspapers, but were turned down. Apparently, the media guardians of public opinion in Germany regard silence as preferable to discussion and debate on this crucial issue.

 

As a biographical aside, Hans served for 32 years in the United Nations. In his last posting with  a rank of UN Assistant Secretary General, he headed the Oil for Food Program in Iraq by virtue of his role as Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (1998-2000) that followed the First Gulf War (1991) He resigned on principle because of the UN Security Council’s imposition of punitive sanctions responsible for producing massive casualties in the Iraqi civilian population.]

 

Chained to its Past: A German Recipe for Injustice toward the People of Palestine

 

Richard Falk & Hans von Sponeck

 

The GermanBundestag resolution on May 15ththat condemned the BDS Campaign as contributing to a rising threat of anti-Semitism in Europe is a grave cause of concern. It brands the BDS, a nonviolent Palestinian initiative, anti-Semitic and urges  the German government to refuse support, not only to BDS itself, but to any organization that is supportive of BDS. It takes this stand, pointing out Germany’s special responsibility toward Jews, without any reference at all to  Israel’s prolonged abuse of the most fundamental of human rights, that of self-determination, of the Palestinian people. The German resolution also fails to refer to the important role that an earlier BDS Campaign against South African racism played in bringing about a nonviolent end to the apartheid regime, and that even those who opposed BDS

on strategic or pragmatic ground never sought to demonize its advocates.

 

What particularly disturbs us is the punitive approach to BDS taken by the German legislative branch. It should be remembered that despite lots of opposition to the South African campaign those who were BDS activists were never told that it was legally and morally unacceptable to take part. Objections based on feasibility and effects, as well as specious claims that Africans in South Africa were better off under apartheid than were their brothers and sisters throughout the continent.

 

In essence, we believe this resolution is the wrong way to learn from the German past. Instead of opting for justice, for law, and for human rights, the Bundestag never even mentions the Palestinian people, and the ordeal that they are experiencing, and BDS is challenging. To give a green light to Israeli oppressive and expansionist policies is to endorse implicitly policies of collective punishment and abuse of the weak that were, it should be recalled, the most reprehensible features of the Nazi era.

 

We write as two individuals with very different pasts, yet sharing a commitment to

a strong United Nations and the duty of countries large and small to respect international law and promote global justice

 

We also share a continuing awareness of the Holocaust as a terrible tragedy befalling the Jewish people and others, as well as a horrendous crime by Germany and other countries in the past. We share an overriding commitment to a global order in which such tragedy and criminality do not occur with respect to the Jewish people and to all others everywhere. We are also mindful that such tragedies and crimes have been perpetrated since 1945 against various ethnicities and targeted peoples, including in Cambodia, Rwanda, Serbia and more recently, the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

 

Our backgrounds are (also)quite different. One of us is German and Christian (von Sponeck) , the other (Falk) is American and Jewish. Von Sponeck is the son of a general executed by the Nazis in the latter stages of World War II and had gone to Israel in 1957 to work in a moshav and several kibbutzim. He served for 32 years as an international civil servant within the United Nations, rising to the rank of Assistant Secretary General. His UN career ended when he resigned as the UN Coordinator of the Oil-for-Food Programme (1998-2000) in protest over the Iraq sanctions policy of the UN Security Council leading to the death of many innocent Iraqi civilians. Since his resignation von Sponeck has been teaching and lecturing in various venues and publishing on UN topics including The Politics of Sanctions on Iraq and the UN Humanitarian Exception(2017).

 

Falk is American and was a member of the faculty of Princeton University for 40 years, holding the position of Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law. His family background includes paternal German ancestry with both grandparents born in Bavaria. not far from Munich, emigrating to the United States in the middle of the 19thCentury. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. He has published widely on international topics, including recently Power Shift:On the New Global Order (2016) and Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope(2017).

 

We have analyzed the failure of international diplomacy to find a solution for the conflict between Israel and Palestine. We believe that Israel bears the main responsibility for this failure, which has resulted in decades of acute suffering for the Palestinian people. We believe that the root of this failure is the Zionist project to impose a Jewish state on an essentially non-Jewish society. This has inevitably occasioned Palestinian resistance, and an increasingly racist based set of structures designed to keep the Palestinian people as a whole subjugated within their own country. We believe further that peace can only come for bothpeoples when these apartheid structures are dismantled as they were in South Africa over 25 years ago.

 

Against this background we find the reluctance of the German government and the German people to respond to this circumstance of injustice to be unacceptable and its tacit acquiescence in Germany particularly worrisome and extremely regrettable. Both of us and our families are in different senses victims of Nazism. This, however, does not prevent us from insisting that German hesitation to be critical of Israeli ethnocentrism exhibits a dangerous misunderstanding of the relevance of the Nazi past. The Holocaust should above all serve to warn the world against injustice, state crime, and the victimization of a people based on their racial and religious identity. It should not exempt Israel from legal and moral accountability just because its leadership is Jewish and many of its Jewish citizens are related to victims of the Holocaust.

 

Israel claims an identity through the 2018 adoption by the Knesset of a Basic Law as the Nation-State of the Jewish people as if this confers a mandate of impunity. The lesson of the Holocaust has to do with abuse, criminality, and victimization, and should not be perverted by any subversive implication that because Jews endured horrific crimes in the past they are exempt from accountability when they commit present crimes. We recall Albert Einstein’s letter to Chaim Weizmann in 1929 in which he wrote “If we do not succeed in finding the path of honest co-operation  and coming to terms with the Arabs, we will not have learnt anything from our two thousand year old ordeal and will deserve the fate which will beset us!” The Israeli Government must realize that much of the menacing rise in anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiments in Europe and elsewhere has its origin in the very policies it pursues.

 

We expect that our plea will be strongly attacked as anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic. Part of the function of such attacks is to freeze German responses by reminders of the Holocaust, and the false suggestion that criticizing Israel and Zionism is a renewal of an attack on Jews and Judaism. We insist that this is absolutely not the case. It is quite the opposite. It affirms that the core values of the Jewish religion and humanistic values generally are connected with justice, and that this use of anti-Semitic smears is a totally unacceptable tactic to shield Israel from justifiable criticism. This kind of intimidation should be opposed and overcome.

 

From this perspective it is our belief and hope that Germany and the German people have the strength to rid themselves of the moral numbness induced by the bad memories from the past, and can join in the struggle against injustice. Such a dynamic of moral empowerment would be clear if Germany were to show empathy for the Palestinian ordeal, and lend their support to nonviolent initiatives designed to express solidarity with and encouragement for the Palestinian national movement to uphold basic rights, including above all, the inalienable right of self-determination.

 

We are most encouraged that our actions are not occurring in a vacuum here in Germany. We take note of the dedicated efforts by the Humboldt Three to protest Israeli apartheid, and the popular support the action of these young people, two Israelis and one Palestinian, have received. Their inspirational message is similar to ours. It is time for the German government and its citizens to break their silence, recognize that the Nazi past is best overcome by active opposition to the unjust oppression of the Palestinian people. We also feel kinship with the Open Letter widely endorsed by intellectuals around the world, including many in Israel, calling on ‘Individuals and Institutions in Germany’ to end all efforts to conflate criticisms of Israel with Anti-Semitism.

 

We believe that peace between Jews and Arabs in Palestine depends on taking steps to restore equality of relations between these too long embattled peoples. This can only happen if the current apartheid structures are dismantled as a prelude to peace. The South African precedent shows us that this can happen, but only when international pressures combine with national resistance. It seemed impossible in South Africa until the very moment that it happened. It seems impossible at this time with respect to Israel, but the impossible happens when it is aligned with the demands of justice, and mobilizes the support of people of good will from around the world. The flow of history has favored the weaker side militarily in the great anti-colonial movements of the last half of the 20th century, and so we should not lose hope in a just outcome for Israeli and Palestinians despite the fact that the present balance of forces now favors Israeli dominance.

 

It is also important to keep in mind that as long as the Palestinian people are denied their basic rights, there can be no peace. Any agreement reached while apartheid remains will be nothing more than a ceasefire. A sustainable peace depends on recognizing and implementing the equality of the two peoples on the basis of mutual self-determination. Germany and Germans have a great opportunity to promote such a vision, and by doing so, liberating the country  from its past. In a profound sense, whether German, American, or other we each owe the Jewish and Palestinian peoples nothing less.

 

 

 

A Christmas Message in Dark Times

24 Dec

 

 

Here in the United States, I react against the avoidance of the word ‘Christmas’ during this holiday season. I would undoubtedly feel differently if I were living in Turkey or India. The legions of ‘the politically correct’ determined to avoid offending those, especially Jews, who are not Christians, will carefully express their good wishes with such phrases as ‘happy holidays!’ This is okay except it obliterates the vibrant symbolism of Christmas as a seminal occasion that has over the centuries transcended for most of us its specific religious roots and meanings. It has an ecumenical resonance that calls for bright lights, ornamented trees, celebration, and wishes for peace on earth and good will toward all, bringing together those of diverse faith or no faith at all. When I was growing up in New York City Christmas was ‘Christmas’ regardless of whether one was Christian or not, and implied no religious dedication whatsoever.

 

As time has passed, ethnic and religious sensitivities have grown as identities have become more tribal. I do partly associate this trend in my experience with the greater ethnic assertiveness of Jews over the years, especially in response to the ascent of Israel and the rise of Zionist loyalties. America’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel represents a governmental recognition that Israel can do no wrong in the eyes of Washington. This is another unfortunate manifestation of excessive deference, in this instance what might be called ‘geopolitical correctness,’ and has had many detrimental effects on American foreign policy in the region. Another kind of harm is associated with the inhibiting State Department formal adoption of a definition of anti-Semitism that conflates strong criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews.

 

Yet to decry such forms of political correctness as a posture is not to condone insensitivity to those among us who have suffered or are suffering from deep historical abuses. I do believe we need to do all we can avoid hurtful language and subtle slights when dealing with the situation of African Americans or Muslims. Donald Trump disgraces America because he embraces the kind of militant Islamophobia that is not only incendiary in the American political climate, but unwittingly is a tacit reinforcement of jihadist extremism. There is a vast difference between opportunistic deference to the ‘politically correct’ and moral sensitivity to those who have been or are being victimized in American society. Of course, Trump has achieved such prominence by his zealous willingness to be politically incorrect in all sorts of vulgar and hurtful ways, which sadly uncovers an angry and afraid constituency among the American citizenry, with its appetite for simplistic answers that shift the blame to the hateful other.

 

Do not such reflections also suggest the propriety of sensitivity to the long Jewish experience of persecution, climaxing with the Holocaust? To some extent, moral sensitivity is historical and geographical. It points to a difference in tone and content in Germany as compared to here in America. More concretely, it seems natural to exercise greater care in Germany not to offend, and not even to seem callous toward Jewish identity given the proximity of the Holocaust. I would affirm this kind of moral prudence and forebearance, but even this type of restraint can be carried too far. Germans and the German government obsessively avoid any semblance of criticism of Israel because of an apparent worry that such views would be treated as evidence that anti-Semitism continues to flourish in Germany. In this regard memories of the Holocaust are no longer a good reason, if it was ever the case, for suspending criticism of Zionism as a political project or Israel as a normal state as accountable to upholding international law, UN authority, and principles of morality as any other state.  

 

It is entirely inappropriate for anyone to ignore the brutal dispossession of the Palestinian people, the prolonged denial of the Palestinian right of self-determination, and the horrific daily ordeal of living, as millions of Palestinians do, under occupation, in refugee camps, and in involuntary exile decade after decade. Bad memories of victimization are never a sufficient reason to overlook crimes being committed in the present.

 

As a Jew in America I feel the tensions of conflicting identities. I believe, above all, that while exhibiting empathy to all those have been victimized by tribally imposed norms, we need to rise above such provincialism (whether ethnic or nationalistic) and interrogate our own tribal and ‘patriotic’ roots. In this time of deep ecological alienation, when the very fate of the species has become precarious, we need to think, act, and feel as humans and more than this, as empathetic humans responsible for the failed stewardship of the planet. It is here that God or ‘the force’ can provide a revolutionary comfort zone in which we reach out beyond ourselves to touch all that is ‘other,’ whether such otherness is religious, ethnic, or gendered, and learning from Buddhism, reach out beyond the human to exhibit protective compassion toward non-human animate dimensions of our wider experience and reality. It is this kind of radical reworking of identity and worldview that captures what ‘the Christmas spirit’ means to me beyond the enjoyment of holiday cheer.

 

From this vantage point, the birth of Jesus can be narrated with this universalizing voice. The star of Bethlehem as an ultimate source of guidance and the three wise kings, the Maji, who traveled far to pay homage to this sacred child can in our time bestow the wisdom of pilgrimage, renewal, and transformation that will alone enable the human future to grasp the radical wisdom of St. Augustine’s transformative: “Love one another and do what thou wilt.” Put presciently in a poem by W.H. Auden, “We must love one another or die.”

 

I suppose I am making a plea, or is it a dreamy affirmation? A utopian wish, to be sure, but nothing less has relevance in these dark times.

Rethinking Germany

13 Apr


Not only the unforgettable Nazi past, but also the hard power materialism and reactionary politics of the German success story, made Germany in many respects the least lovable country in the Western world.

Despite the rise of the European Union, and Germany’s dominant role as the economic engine pulling the European train, the culture and politics of the country remained unpleasantly nationalist, unwelcoming to foreign minorities even after several generations of residence, an assessment that the three million Turks will confirm. If anyone doubts this harsh depiction of German reality, I recommend watching the acclaimed Christian Petzold film, Jerichow, that depicts the tragic plight of a Turkish ‘success’ story in Germany, or for that matter, a reading of almost any novel by Gunter Grass, especially, The Tin Drum and The Rat.

Of course, national stereotypes should always be skeptically viewed, if not altogether avoided, but if invoked, at least balanced by an acknowledgement of contradictory evidence, which in this case would call attention to a litany of German achievements through the ages. Germany has given the world far more than its share of great music and literature, and its engineering skills produce a range of superior products. And philosophically, German thinkers have exerted a profound influence on modern thought, perhaps none more than the enigmatic Nietzsche whose metaphysical nihilism induced a still not fully acknowledged or understood courageous humanism.

Personally, I had the good fortune to have a friendship with two extraordinary Germans, Petra Kelly and Rudolph Barro, who represented the opposed factions of the Green Party during its early period of formation and prominence in the heartland of the Cold War. It was this green questioning of modern industrial society in Germany that raised the most serious post-Marxist challenge in the West. It was a challenge directed at what later became known as the ‘Washington Consensus,’ the label used to draw attention to the regressive neoliberal ideology that continues to generate market behavior that exploits the peoples of the world and destroys our natural habitat. In the last several years this ideology of contemporary capitalism proved itself resistant to correction despite a deep recession, and expectations of worse to come in the near future. These two German public intellectuals disagreed sharply as to the proper depth and breadth of the green vision. Kelly thought that a responsible reformation of capitalism was possible while Barro was convinced that nothing less than the rollback of industrialism could ensure ecological and spiritual survival for the human species. Especially in the aftermath of the Sendai/Fukushima ordeal these issues are again becoming integral to the political and moral imagination for all those of us who see the future through a glass darkly.

My emphasis here is on the recent bashing of Germany because of its stands on nuclear energy and the Libyan intervention. With respect to nuclear energy, German public opinion exhibited more of a reaction to the Fukushima problems than anywhere else on the planet, probably in part because of the strong Green political presence, memories of the devastation of World War II, fears generated by the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown and radioactivity carried to the West by wind currents, and because 25% of German power comes from nuclear reactors. With the Fukushima disaster intensifying day by day, Chancellor Angela Merkel found herself in an anxious political atmosphere relating to domestically crucial upcoming elections at the sub-federal or länder level. Merkel retreated from an earlier embrace of nuclear energy, imposing a moratorium on extending the life of existing reactors and temporarily shutting down seven reactors that were of the same design as those in trouble at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex. German voters were not persuaded by this switch, apparently regarding it as a tactical ploy, and in the key conservative länder of Baden-Württemberg the electorate gave the Green Party a stunning surprise victory. It was the first time that the Greens won political control of a German länder, one that was known to be the most conservative in all of Germany where the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had exercised uninterrupted dominance during the past six decades.

The mainstream media has both derided Merkel for her failed cheap political trick to assume an anti-nuclear pose and attacked the Greens as unfit to govern or to devise an economically responsible energy policy for the future. In effect, Green insistence on ending German dependence on nuclear power has been accompanied by the belief that the accelerated development of wind and solar can supply energy needs without hurting the economy. In their bid for greater political influence the Greens now accept capitalism as their policy framework, and believe that markets can be made to function humanely and in a manner that is environmentally sustainable. Whatever else, this Green upsurge in Germany brings to the fore some alternative thinking that is desperately needed throughout the world, and is currently absent in most major societies, perhaps most dramatically here in the United States. This Green thinking has great appeal for German youth, especially women, as a way of forging a brighter future.  Instead of considering the Green success in Germany as an anomaly in secular politics because it focuses less on jobs and Eurozone difficulties, it should be regarded as a challenge to the sterile and historically irrelevant political parties that continue to dominate the scene in Euro-American elections, and help explain the alienation of the young and the embitterment of the old, as well as the rise of the mean spirited and totally dysfunctional Tea Party in America. What strange plants manage to flourish in this political desert of American political life should make all Americans, and for that matter everyone everywhere, tremble.  We not only are damaging ourselves by this politics of evasion, but also due to our heavy global footprint, putting others throughout the world at severe risk.

The growing oppostion of the German public to nuclear energy is equally justifiable. Rather than being dismissed by the pundits as an over-reaction (Germany is not prone to earthquakes or tsunamis) or economically quixotic (renewable energy will not be able to supply sufficient energy to dispense with nuclear), it should be praised as taking weighing carefully risks that have been thoughtlessly assumed elsewhere. It is not only the events in Japan that should give us pause. The explosion of the oilrig engaged in deep sea drilling by British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico and the oil-driven interventions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are kindred events that should be introduced into the societal calculus of gains and losses. These various developments, including a variety of geo-engineering schemes under consideration to gain access to deep pockets of natural gas and oil shale deposits are suggestive of the overall pressure to rely on these economically seductive frontier technologies despite the massive environmental risks posed. In effect, the compulsion of modern civilization to grow beyond the carrying capacity of the earth is pushing human endeavor up against a series of limits, which if not respected enter domains of catastrophic risk that can and will only be appreciated fully in retrospect. It seems self-evident beyond discussion that now that the Fukushima reactor accidents have taken place, the future of nuclear energy will be scrutinized in a manner that was inconceivable only two months earlier.

Will it be enough to prevent future disasters? Just as Hiroshima was a warning ignored with respect to nuclear weaponry, there is every indication that Fukushima will become another unheeded warning. Reassurances from influential members of the governing elites are likely to take the form of promising higher safety and monitoring standards and more care when deciding in the future upon where to locate reactors. These gestures will be reinforced by a variety of arguments put forward by formidable private interests to the effect that soft coal is far more dangerous to human health and societal wellbeing than is nuclear energy even if full account is taken of the periodic occurrences that generate public fear of the sort now present in Japan. Conventional wisdom is claiming that such a catastrophic accident temporarily disrupts social reason, and that in due course there will be a return to rational decision that will restore confidence that nuclear energy is comparatively benign, and in any event, is necessary to prevent economic collapse. Germany, whatever its motivations, has reminded the world that these issues, however resolved, should engage both the leadership and citizenry of a robust democracy, and in this sense, represents a display of public reason at its best, rather than a foolish detour into the underbrush of romantic politics derisively associated with this unexpected Green upsurge. Of course, it is not clear that the rest of the world, or even the rest of Europe, will take any significant note of this German response to Fukushima and the threat of nuclear energy beyond cynical commentary.

Germany has also been widely criticized for its refusal to back the Security Council Resolution 1973 of March 17, 2011 authorizing the establishment of a No Fly Zone for the protection of civilians in Libya. The widely voiced opinion in Europe and the United States was that the German vote to abstain was a stab in the back from the perspective of European unity and loyalty to NATO, and some went so far as to call it as an inappropriate expression of ingratitude for the protection given to Germany by NATO throughout the Cold War. It was also suggested that the German abstention was an irresponsible refusal to stand up for the humanitarian values that the intervening governments were insisting to be at stake in Libya. No matter that the concerns that Germany expressed prior to the vote have all been proven correct: a No Fly Zone is a clumsy instrument of intervention, essentially incapable of either altering the outcome of the struggle for power that was underway in Libya or achieving regime change, and to the extent this political goal was being pursued it would involve ignoring the limits and purpose set forth by the UN resolution. As the military operation unfolded, it has decreasingly been devoted to protecting Libyan civilians in cities under attack by Qaddafi forces, and mostly dedicated to helping the rebels somehow prevail, despite their meager military capabilities and shadowy political identity. By refusing to endorse such a venture it would seem to me that Germany deserves the thanks of the world, not a lecture about alliance loyalty. Should not a democratic government be reluctant to commit its resources and risk the lives of its citizens in foreign military undertakings?

In the instance of Libya, Germany had urged that diplomacy and sanctions be tried prior to any serious consideration of military intervention. Is not this what the UN Charter mandates, seeking to make recourse to force the last option after all efforts at peaceful resolution have been tried and failed? Unfortunately this is not the first time that the UN has succumbed to American-led geopolitics in the aftermath of the Cold War. It authorized without any ongoing supervision the first Gulf War (1991) when a diplomatic solution could probably have avoided mass killing and the destruction of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, and now this new authorization in relation to Libya issued twenty years later. True, the Security Council did not endorse the Kosovo War (1999) (thanks to the prospect of a Russian veto) or the Iraq War (2003), but it did acquiesce afterwards in the results produced by the unlawful uses of forces in both instances, thereby making its refusal to mandate the attacks in the first place little more than a nominal obstacle that could be circumvented by ‘a coalition of the willing’ acting independently of UN blessings. For Germany to stand alone among its Western allies while being in solidarity with the BRIC countries should be a moment of national pride, not a time for solemn soul searching as the German mainstream media has been encouraging. It may even be, if the EU cannot manage its sequence of sovereign debt and banking crises that Germany in the future base its security and wellbeing by moving toward a closer alignment with an emergent global multipolarism and giving up altogether an outmoded adherence to an American led unipolarity that has existed in the aftermath of the Cold War era. Admittedly, this remains but a glint in the eye at present, although attractive from the perspective of constituting a genuine ‘new world order,’ which is long overdue. In the face of continuing American decline as a responsible global leader, Germany can seize the day by withdrawing from the anachronistic behavior of violent geopolitics, and put to rest once and for all its own disastrous heritage of failed militarism.

In concluding, where others raise eyebrows over these controversial recent German developments, I find them deserving of admiration and reflection. Just as Turkey has been recently chastised by American neoconservatives and Israeli warmongers for getting out of its lane, that is, seeking a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Iran in relation to its nuclear program, so Germany is being told to get back in its NATO lane, which is tantamount to doing what the United States wants done on the global stage. It is true that here in response to domestic pressures that it was France and Britain that were most ardent champions of intervention, seeming having most to gain (above all, oil and the avoidance of an influx of Libyan immigrants) by getting rid of the Qaddafi regime. But unfortunately, for these former senior partners of the colonial era, a major NATO undertaking cannot be made credible without American leadership. The Libyan operations seem to have demonstrated this, and may inhibit future European adventurism. In effect, in matters of war and peace, each country is ethically sovereign given the way the world is organized even if many countries often act as if they were politically subservient, that is, by being more deferential to the geopolitical hierarchy than respectful of international law or even of its own selfish calculus of values and interests. With this background in mind, let us hope that these German initiatives are not merely episodes soon to be forgotten, but rather represent the first steps along a new pathway to a global future that others should reflect upon rather than dismiss or ignore.