Monthly Archives: November 2015

Comparisons

There is rhetoric in the United States that keeps insisting on making the comparison between Nazis and ISIS/Daesh. And as an American Germanist/Auslandsgermanist, I feel compelled to articulate why this comparison falls short.

One of the most disturbing instances I have seen comes from a meme circulating on Facebook. Vice News notes that this image was tweeted by a US State Department Account:

This image has turned into a meme on Facebook. The meme text labels the two images: NAZIS and ISIS. The bottom of the meme reads: UNDERSTAND YET? (This is not the only image – do a GoogleSearch and you’ll come up with hundreds of similar comparisons, some of them German).

Like most slick comparisons, this one falls short – although it has political weight. As VICE reports:

In American political oratory, a Nazi or Hitler comparison is the ultimate in establishing an enemy in need of fighting. After all, who could turn a blind eye to the Nazis?

Both groups are responsible for war and terror, yes. Both have committed acts of ethnic cleansing. But the historical precendents are different. The Nazis were a political party that morphed into fascist dictatorship and relied on a cult of personality. Daesh are religious terrorists who believe the end times are near and are willing to court the apocalypse. The motivating factors for each group are different, as are the structures within their organizations. And as Natasha Lennard points out in her VICE article, comparing Daesh to the Nazis misses the mark because it does not acknowledge the power of Daesh in their own right. Constantly comparing America’s enemies to Hitler prevents us from acknowledging that Daesh (and any other potential enemy) is ruthless on its own terms. No comparison is necessary to understand the level of brutality Daesh is capable of enacting.

In a bizarre twist on this comparison, Donald Trump told Yahoo News today that he would not stop short of targeting American Muslims in ways that resemble the political persecution of the Jews:

Yahoo News asked Trump whether his push for increased surveillance of American Muslims could include warrantless searches. He suggested he would consider a series of drastic measures.

“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.

“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said when presented with the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”

If you’re looking for a comparison to Nazi Germany – and I want to be very clear, I don’t think we should be looking for such a comparison – then there’s one group I can think of which really does bear some resemblance to fascists: the wonky cast of characters currently seeking the Republican Party nomination for president. As frontrunner, Donald Trump is the most obvious example. Trump, whose campaign the Huffington Post will only cover in the Entertainment Section, has spouted racist rhetoric, developed a cult following, and quite literally, has just been prodded by a Yahoo News reporter into proposing a system of religous persecution that has a historical precedent as part of a fascist regime. Trump’s bombastic rhetoric is insane, yes, but it is also populist to the core, elevating the “people” above all other groups. All political slogans carry with them a hint of nationalism, but “Make America Great Again” is not shy about its narrative. This narrative is also prototypically fascist, calling for a rebirth of the nation after a period of decline (such as World War I or – in more moderate terms – the Great Recession). Trump’s obvious megalomania and large following begs to be described as a “cult of personality,” and his unwillingness to answer any questions that require him to acknowledge his own weaknesses point to the desire to consolidate power.

Comparisons require some level of similarity in order to be apt. Obvious violent acts are not specific enough to prompt comparison. A lot of groups use violence, but their motivations for doing so are almost always different.

But violence almost always starts with rhetoric. By that logic, the prevention of violence can start from rhetorical analysis.

What now?

In the days after the Paris attacks, as France bombs the Syrian city of Raqqa, and American politicians use this tragedy to further their own political campaigns; as family members are called to account not only for the death of their family members, but also for their inability to discern radicalism developing in their brothers, whom they must now also grieve; and as refugees now reckon with growing hate and animosity towards them – if they have been lucky enough to make it to Europe; there is very little I find worthy of saying.

As Sabine Hark, a prominent German feminist, has written on the feministische studien blog, we have a duty to work together to develop a new moral order – one which does not privilege the victims of Paris over the victims of Beirut or Bagdad – in which everyone has the same right to participation; the same right to both share and make the world.

Laurent Dubois has written on the Soccer Politics and Africa is a Country blogs about the historical role of the Stade de France as a place of (literal and metaphorical) refuge.

Mohammed Abdeslam, a brother of two of the attackers in Paris, gave a moving press conference this morning, shown in video by the New York Times. His final words: “We are indeed thinking of the victims, the families of the victims. But you have to understand, we have family, we have a mom, and he remains her child. Thank you.”

PEGIDA marched through the streets of Dresden as usual.

Jilet Ayse / Idil Baydar / Gerda Grischke

About four years ago, the Berliner Werkstatt der Kulturen hosted a reading by the editors and contributors of the encyclopedia project Wie Rassismus aus Wörtern spricht (How Racism Speaks through Words). The bar area of the theater and gallery was packed – people were sitting on the floor, or uncomfortably close on some of the seats and couches, and a variety of contributors placed at microphones around the room read from their entries on words like “race” and “integration” and “foreigner.” The book was available for something like 40 or 50 Euros, and you got your money’s worth: this volume is truly encyclopedic, weighing in at several pounds and several hundred pages. The Werkstatt der Kulturen, the long-standing organizers of the Carneval of Cultures parade and contest in Berlin, had long been a location for topics of race, racism and difference. In light of the Sarrazin debates, the WdK had hosted three panel discussions about race hosted by Michel Friedmann in late 2010 with guests ranging from Shermin Langhoff, artistic director at that time of the Ballhaus Naunynstraße, Naika Foroutan and Kien Nghi Ha, social scientists working on these questions, and Nadja Afouatey-Alazard, the co-editor of this volume with Susan Arndt and a filmmaker and academic in her own right.

Glossar NdMM

An association of journalists called Neue Deutsche Medienmacher has now undertaken a similar project on a smaller scale and directed specifically at journalists. They define their project on their website as follows:

“As journalists we work every day with our tool: language. Our reports are supposed to present the facts correctly, without judgment, and with precision. Frequently, however, words like “immigrant” or “migrant” stand alongside each other in the same text with the assumption that these words mean the same thing. They don’t.”

The NDM has commissioned the comedian Jilet Ayse to perform satirical riffs on various entries in this glossary. In the most recent episode, Ayse defines “Armutszuwanderer” (loosely translated: poverty immigrants; those who are driven to emigrate due to poverty; “Wirtschaftsflüchtling” is another version of this term commonly translated as “economic migrant”).

Ayse’s character for these videos wears a poofed, bleached blong pompadour, with massive (and probably heavy!) hoop earrings, and her trademark t-shirt which says “WALLAH: Ich habe nix gemacht.” Each episode features her sitting on her couch, reading and getting irritated by the journalistic tropes transmitted by unconscious language use. Her performance hinges on the cliche, and subverts the critique of the media she enacts through dialect. Speaking fluent, but strongly accented German, her stereotype of a Berliner of Turkish descent sets her character up as the target of various debates in Germany about the integration of immigrants by encouraging them to master German. That Ayse uses this “imperfect” German to critique the language politics of the German mainstream is a beautiful subversion of the stereotype Ayse inhabits.

What I find really interesting about her performances is the way that they create discomfort through anger. The intensity of her performances fit well within the YouTube genre: this energy is unsustainable for long periods of time. The persona that she has created, because it is a parody of urban youth, plays with racist stereotypes – and that can be dangerous if one privileges appearances over content. This particular video focuses on the irony of calling refugees or immigrants “Armutszuwanderer.” In a moment at the beginning, Ayse calls out the racist undertones of this term and insists on recognizing a politics of self-identification: “They’re called Roma. You don’t need to make economic migrants out of them. They’re called Roma.”  Ayse’s character is designed to play with the grostesque; she exaggerates on purpose.  “Do you think they come here to be poor in Germany? Are you serious?” Ayse demands. Answering her own questions, she questions the motives of politicians who seek to exclude or devalue the potential contributions to society these immigrants could make: “You should call them work migrants, they come here to work!” Ayse ends by making fun of herself: although she has read the academic redefinition of the term from the glossary with no problem before flipping back into an exaggerated dialect, she makes fun of her character’s supposed Bildungsferne (distance from education) by tripping over the term “Bruttosozialprodukt” (Gross National Product).  “Du kannst froh sein, wenn sie kommen, und arbeiten, weil sie machen der sozi-prod-brutto-produkt- SIE MACHEN GUT, ok?”  (You can be happy when they come and work, because they make the g-g-g: THEY DO GOOD,OK?) She ends with a button, by reading once again from the glossary: turns out this migration is often profitable for Germany. She drops the booklet like an MC would drop a mike, opening up her arms and saying: “Live with it.”

Jörg Lau, a journalist on immigration and diversity for Die Zeit, already had “discovered” Jilet Ayse back in 2011 when she produced a YouTube video called “Ey, isch bin so sauer!” Lau called her a “Genius” in his blog posting. In that earlier video, Ayse does a similar character who hits much harder: this woman uses the stereotype of a loud, defiant woman who goes on and on about how perfect her life is while recounting obvious scenes of domestic abuse. The combination of toughness with obvious trauma is difficult to watch, and yet manages to illustrate both the costs of domestic abuse as well as the patronizing behaviors of social workers and possibly feminists intent on dialogue (represented in this video by an invisible sister who is dating a German man lacking the masculinity Ayse wants).

Language matters, but language is more than just words. The exaggerated emotion Ayse portrays here enacts an important element of debates about racism: those who hold dominant power within a society are the only ones who can talk about race as if it is an academic concern. Race matters; racism hurts. It’s visceral.

 

 

 

PEGIDA Builds its Own Border

As I write this, PEGIDA is posting updates to their Facebook feed after today’s march to the Border Crossing E48 near Schirnding in Bavaria. My feed is clogged with their posts of images of people carrying long banners that say things like “Hand in Hand für unser Land” (Hand in Hand for our Country) and “Wir helfen beim Grenzbau” (We’ll help build the border), which is also the name of a new Facebook Community.  According to the post about this event, Czechs will simultaneously demonstrate on the other side of the border. One of the hashtags they are using is #GrenzenRettenLeben – #BordersSaveLives.  According to the MDR, this highway corridor along E48 is not where the most refugees are crossing the border. I cannot find information as to whether this demonstration was registered or not – generally political protests must be registered, but recently people have been demonstrating in Saxony without properly informing the authorities.

Early last month, Wir helfen beim Grenzbau posted a video to YouTube about a similar action. An anti-fascist group in Munich described the protest as follows:

Over a thousand (Sächsische Zeitung), possibly even 2,500 (dpa) racists took part on October 4, 2015 on a demonstration against asylum-seekers called “We’ll help build the border” in the Saxon town of Sebnitz. Originally they announced a human chain at the border crossing that was supposed to form a “living border”, but that was not realized. Instead, the right-wingers marched through the city. The organizers then announced that they would repeat the demonstration […] in Bavaria.

The video of the original demonstration in Sebnitz consists solely of hazy footage of the march through Sebnitz, a town slightly southeast of Dresden on the Czech border.

This footage is highly aestheticized: filtered for light, hovering on children protesting with their families, capturing several residents standing on their balconies applauding the demonstrators. The soundtrack is the kind of urgent light piano accompaniment for a fictionalized drama designed to tug on our heartstrings. The PEGIDA-preferred German flag – a Nordic cross in German colors – features prominently.

I wrote here about the Center for Political Beauty and their push to develop a performative response to the crisis which is ironic, starkly aestheticized, and critical of traditional political approaches to problem solving. This video is the exact opposite: earnest, adamant, reductive.  By lingering on children and large numbers of people marching through the streets, the Sebnitz video calculatingly inverts the footage often seen of refugees crossing the border. The soundtrack and the images romanticize hate by making it seem harmless, just as this propaganda video by a Russian media outlet turns the horrors of war in Syria into romantic battle footage. This inversion represents the foundational twist of PEGIDA-Dresden: their rhetoric is hateful while their self-styling is bourgeois.