Category Archives: Refugees

Eating Refugees: Center for Political Beauty

One of the first posts I made to this blog was about the Center for Political Beauty, back then a fledgling performance art/activist organization which had undertaken several short-lived, performative events to raise awareness about refugee politics. In that post, I wondered about both the role of performance in political struggle and how long such a group would persist.

The Center for Political Beauty has developed a new piece that is both sweeping in its ambition and extremely complicated. “Eating Refugees”/Flüchtlinge Fressen has generated a massive amount of media attention and political ire, and focuses on an arcane piece of EU legislation which fines airlines for bringing refugees who have no visa to Europe by plane. Germany has a national law which adopts this EU document. Since the German Embassy in Syria has long since been closed, it is impossible for Syrians to get a visa to Germany before they board a plane. If airlines won’t transport refugees, because the fines for doing so would be bad for business, refugees are driven to rely on human traffickers who charge much more money and follow a route which entails certain risk and possible death.

Modeled on Roman gladiator games, the CPB has erected a stage and two cages with four Libyan tigers next to the Gorki Theater in Berlin.  If the government doesn’t relent, and allow the plane to land, the CPB declares it has 9 refugees who are willing to be fed to the tigers and “be eaten by Europe.”

The CPB has chartered a plane, the Joachim 1, that hopes to bring 100 people from Syria to land at Berlin-Tegel on June 28 (tomorrow). Doing so is in violation of German law. The video below explains the project (kind of), and includes subtitles in English.

On another website, called “Flugbereitschaft” / “Ready to Fly,” the CPB breaks down the legal precedents which created this policy, listing each document in PDF form as the archive which informs the project. They use another animated video to explain the process by which refugees are driven to leave by foot, many of them drowning in the Mediterranean as a matter of course.

The cages and stage set up outside near the Gorki Theater have had their permit revoked, but are still standing. In fact, the CPB has set up live feeds on YouTube where you can look at each tiger cage or look at the stage. The stage, sits underneath a sign naming the space “Center’s Salon of the Last Beauty.” Huge mirrors reflect the audience back at themselves, a common technique to symbol self-reflection.

Since June 16, a variety of guests have come to discuss European refugee politics. These discussions have been archived as podcasts you can find here.

Christiane Kühl, writing for Die Zeit, describes the CPB as a group which

time and again has tried to make the discrepancy between our values and our political actions visible through extremely provocative and publicly visible events.

Kühl points out that the Federal Ministry of the Interior tweeted that this “event is cynical and is being carried out on the backs of those in need of protection.” Ironically, this is exactly the critique the CPB has hurled at the German government: that a European policy which finds need to defend itself against refugees is using the refugee crisis to maintain (CDU/CSU/SPD) or approach (AfD) domestic political power.

Kühl comes to the conclusion in her article that the CPB has been successful about educating the public about refugee policy through their free outdoor “salons” and their agitprop campaigns. Although I suspect that cynicism – if the tweet of the BMI is any indication – simply breeds more cynicism, there’s a depth to this campaign which illuminates global processes, domestic politics and articulates how complex transnational bargains affect lives. The tactics of the CPB are very much up for debate. But, after the shock of Brexit, the impulses feeding this campaign counter those of the far right, who argue that everything can be reduced to its simplest parts and that there is valor in reductionism.  And yet, the CPB is not arguing against the European Union (although they do satirically call it the European Empire), but rather points out that there are actions politicians could take to ameliorate pain and thwart human trafficking.

That politicians choose not to do so is cynical enough. The tigers are just for show.

 

UPDATES: 6/28/2016 12:20 pm EST

Today was the day that the Joachim 1 was supposed to fly from to Germany. The CPB posted on their FB site and their project website today in German that AirBerlin, the flight company with whom they had entered into a contractual agreement to charter the plane, has broken the terms of the contract. This post from 8 hours ago signals that the CPB believes the Turkish Embassy became involved in the case, although I suspect that must be considered rumor until further notice.

The Federal Ministry of the Interior posted a very defensive tweet against the action, calling it a “tasteless performance.” You can see the tweeted statement here. The defensiveness of the statement requires future analysis – the tone certainly does not sound confident about the government’s attempts to aid human beings fleeing insecurity.

The police have also expressed concern that an actual suicide could take place in part of the court proceedings about the event. Desperate people have often used suicide as a method of protest. The CPB posted quotes from this document on their FB site as well – although there was no accompanying PDF.

The live YouTube feeds show a crowd gathered outside the stage, and one person in a cage. The tigers pace in a separate enclosure in the background.

 

 

WDRForYou

The WDR channel has broadcasts in Arabic and English that are answering questions about residency live on FB:

https://www.facebook.com/WDRforyou/

The English video is currently live.

 

Cuteness against PEGIDA

There was a brilliant moment in one of the presidential debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama where Mr. Romney was trying to lambast President Obama for being out of touch with the needs of the American military. Mitt Romney had made an impressive showing in the first debate, and Obama seemed to need a touch-up lesson in debating if he was going to secure reelection. Obama, in response to Romney’s critique that Obama would cut military spending and reduce the military’s size, pounced. Our military is smaller than it was in 1960 because “we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” Obama also patronizes Romney and starts describing military equipment to him as if Romney were 7 years old. You can watch it here.

I’ve long thought that the only way to win, rhetorically, against the radical and extreme rights (although, let’s be clear, Romney is not – compared to Trump – that radical or extreme) is to be funny. Funny, silly, ridiculous, alberndoof – whatever you want to call it. Trying to debate irrational and empty claims with reason is absurd.

Whether Frauke Petry or Donald Trump, the only thing they have on offer are patronizing, authoritarian commentary and a hot temper.

Last Friday, the Kinder (Children) chocolate brand unveiled a new series of packaging that was a masterful marketing ploy to advertise for the European Soccer Championship. The standard packaging shows a blond child as the face of the brand. But somehow, Kinder managed to get childhood pictures of members of the national German soccer team and issued a special edition of the chocolate bars with players like Götze, Schürrle, Kramer – and Gündogan (who has Turkish roots) and Boateng (who has Ghanian roots, and whose brother plays for the Ghanian national team). You can see the video here.

PEGIDA adherents hated it. They posted disparaging comments on Facebook which were taken down by Ferrero, the Italian owner of Kinder.

But PEGIDA, whose leader Lutz Bachmann, was recently convicted on charges of inciting the people, now just looks a little bit “silly,” as the Washington Post and Stern have reported. Not only were Facebook users not having all this disparaging talk, but hundreds of Twitter followers have posted pictures of themselves as children under the hashtag #cutesolidarity, started by Zeit reporter Mohamed Amjahid:

Translated: #cutesolidarity is an antiracist mini-campaign against Pegida and AfD, who spread hate. In constrast, we don’t just win soccer tournaments [by playing] together.

The pictures posted under the hashtag normalize childhood, which is one of the most effective antiracist visual strategies I’ve seen in a long time. Humor helps. The childlike playfulness of this campaign is a strong antidote to the constant temper tantrums of the far-right.

 

 

 

 

Yesterday’s Protest in Idomeni

Yesterday, in response to a flyer circulated in Arabic amongst the 12,000 people stranded in the Idomeni camp on the Greek/Macedonian border, hundreds of refugees attempted to storm the border fence erected on the Macedonian border. They were pushed back by tear gas and rubber bullets. According to Doctors without Borders, more than 260 were injured in the action, including children (tagesschau.de). RUPTLY is an online alternative to press agencies like the AP or DPA and provides raw footage through social media in real time. They’ve posted this link to footage of the protest on Twitter and have a 3 minute video up on YouTube including an interview with refugees in English. The man interviewed states: “But the problem is, that we cannot control 10,000 people. We are the same, we are refugees like them. We hope there is a solution for that.”

What is the solution to being a refugee? Effective and efficient resettlement. But Europe’s border closures have made the movement towards resettlement increasingly difficult.

The New York Times also covered the story and has video footage posted. Their article, however, provides a different slant than in the German articles on tagesschau.de or Spiegel Online. The NYTimes emphasizes the role of the Golden Dawn, a Greek nationalist party, in the protests:

“The clashes in Idomeni, which follow several confrontations there in the last month, came as members of the Greek far-right party Golden Dawn have begun marching in several areas around Greece where migrants are camped or massed at informal gathering points.

The group, whose main leaders were arrested in 2013 on charges of leading a criminal organization, had been largely silent since the migrant crisis took hold. Yet in recent days its leaders, who had since been released from custody, said the party was planning numerous protests around the country against what they warn is the “Islamization of Greece” by Muslim asylum seekers coming mainly from Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.”

 

I don’t know enough about Greece to know if this refugee protest is the direct result of nationalist organizing or if that connection is merely a false correlation. The NYTimes article doesn’t make that connection clear. The real issue is that people are being denied the right to claim asylum in the place they desire, whether or not Dublin Regulations are the law of the land.

The push to the right is also the focus of German commentator Oliver Trenkamp,  who published an article late last night on SpiegelOnline which criticized statements by Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere and Alexander Gauland (AfD) made about the protest:

“Desperate parents, crying children, tear gas cartridges fired by soldiers in the middle of Europe near the border fence of Idomeni: politicians like Thomas de Maiziere and Alexander Gauland have tried to harden us against the impulse to scream and cry in fury at such pictures. ‘We have to tolerate hard images,’ the Interior Minister says. ‘We can’t let ourselves be extorted by [pictures of] puppydog eyes,’ the Vice-Chairman of the AfD.

They want to turn off our empathy or at least temper it. Bernd Ulrich from Die Zeit calls (the politics Puppydog-Eyes-Gauland and Order-to-Shoot Petry have been waging for months) a ‘campaign of political coarsening.’ And after almost a year of debates about refugees, after the closure of the Balkan Route and the EU-Turkey deal taking effect, you have to agree: they have at least partially succeeded in sharpening the tone of the refugee debates, and pushing the discourse to the right.”

The consequences of this coarsening are not just numbing our capacity for empathy or the success of right-wing parties. The aftermath of the EU/Turkey Deal and the closure of the border between Greece and Macedonia presents multiple opportunities for radicalization. The right-wing nationalist parties of Europe have been successful, as we saw in the recent German provincial elections, at gathering popular support and political power. According to the NYTimes, this is also happening in Greece partly due to the release of Golden Dawn organizers from custody. But what isn’t quite being formulated so bluntly in the media is that a different kind of radicalism has great potential to develop among those refugees being prevented from reaching the locations from which they hope to claim asylum.

The real consequence of a lack of empathy? Potentially more terrorism on European soil. Violence is a product of hopelessness. What we’re observing is the systematic dismantling of hope in places like Idomeni and Piraeus, where thousands of people are trapped and suffering. Trenkamp ends his article with a call to empathy, and the hope that Germany will take on more refugees from Idomeni. What gives him hope, he says, is that many portions of German society have not yet heeded the call to coarsen their politics:

“Doctors and nurses are still working voluntarily in reception centers; teachers, instructors, and students are collecting donations; lawyers are helping with asylum applications; church groups, roommates, and families are taking Syrians in;  students are bringing refugees in car trunks into the country [Germany]; activists are marrying foreigners to make permanent residency possible. Many Germans are further along in their minds and their hearts than elected officials and those who fill newspaper columns.”

It is heartening that there are so many individual acts of resistance. But there are limits to the effects individual acts of resistance can have. Intelligent policy choices can reach many more people and do so much faster than uncoordinated individuals. Yet, the response from the top seems to be to turn a deaf ear to the ways politicians’ own policies threaten their eventual undoing. The hopelessness that policies like detention and deportation have caused can lead directly to the radicalization of refugees, especially those held in detention or deported to large-scale camps without a path towards citizenship and work. A hopeless generation will merely add to the political destabilization of Europe and the Middle East – hardening refugees and producing images even harder for the EU to tolerate.

 

 

 

Refugees defy limits at Greek/Macedonian Border

There are three events that are of massive importance right now in the interaction between right-wing populism, irregular migration and refugee rights.

First, the EU and Turkey are proposing a “one-in-one-out” deal that will involve a bizarre rearrangement of refugees being returned to Turkey as those in Turkish camps then get passage to Europe. The UN has called this deal illegal and in violation of European refugee law and rights.

Second, the state (provincial) elections in Germany on Super Sunday led the AfD to a huge win in three states: Baden-Württemburg, Sachsen-Anhalt and Rheinland-Pfalz. Sachsen-Anhalt saw the AfD win almost 25% of the vote. The AfD is quickly on its way to becoming a party of hate, with party positions formally against Muslims and LGBT people. The AfD and Donald Trump share rhetorical strategies.

Third, a thousand refugees – among many thousands trapped for days in Greece at the Macedonian border – have defied the border crossing and begun to reach Macedonia. There is amazing footage posted on YouTube from the town of Chamilo as people attempt to cross the river. It’s cold; three people have died trying to cross the river. It’s being called the #marchofhope. Macedonia is not a member of the EU. I am not sure of the legal ramifications for crossing from the EU (i.e., Greece) into a non-member state. *UPDATE 3/16/2016: It seems as if this crossing was primarily motivated by activists distributing leaflets in Arabic trying to convince people to risk their lives for a political statement. The Macedonian police simply held and then deported those who crossed.

Chaos breeds chaos; anxiety produces more anxiety. Where is the leadership whose values are rooted in common sense and a sense of humanitarian urgency?

Clausnitz

There’s a German idiom that may also be similar in British English, but it’s one I’ve never heard Americanized:

“Ich glaub’, ich bin im falschen Film.” Literally this means: I think I’m in the wrong movie. Figuratively, it means that something is out of place. Something went wrong, and you ended up on someone else’s movie set. You’re thinking to yourself, this can’t be happening. This is surreal.

Refugees arrived in the Saxon town of Clausnitz last Thursday, February 18th, late at night. Saxony is the province where PEGIDA was founded, and Clausnitz is right near the border to the Czech Republic. PEGIDA and their Czech counterparts (right-wing populists) have marched together during events held in Sebnitz, about an hour and a half away.

On Thursday, this video was posted to YouTube, which shows terrified refugees sobbing as they exit the bus to chants of “Wir sind das Volk! We are the people!” As Stefan Kuzmany wrote in Der Spiegel on Friday: these demonstrators are not das Volk:

You’re not the people. […]

You’re grown men who make children cry.

I post this video with reservation: the camera is focused on the refugees, but I really wish it were aimed at the demonstrators. They should not be allowed to remain anonymous; a faceless mob. That imbues them with power, and objectifies the refugees who are already nameless and faceless and invisible as individuals. According to the BBC, the state Interior Minister, Markus Ulbig, described [the situation] as “deeply shameful.” All the more reason to shame the perpetrators through identification – rather than the victims.

As this story has developed, some troubling events have come to light. As the SZ reported, the manager of the asylum home is a man aptly named Thomas Hetze, a member of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party. He holds what they call “a questionable worldview.” I’ll say. Hetze has publicly hetzte (incited) citizens at events where he’s spoken out against “asylchaos” or “refugee chaos.” Despite his political attitudes, the government office responsible for staffing his position says he can stay:

“As long as he doesn’t break the law, there’s no problem,” says Diester Steiner from the government office of the county (Asylstab). That Hetze applied for this job despite his political convictions shows that he has a good attitude.” (SZ)

This comment itself is surreal. Hetze, with his political ties, seems to have informed others about the arrival and created this PR and humanitarian disaster. According to the MDR, Hetze’s brother was part of the group organizing the mob. I’ve seen tweets implying that Hetze himself was one of only a few people who knew the refugees would be coming. Nighttime arrivals seem to be common practice, perhaps to avoid precisely this kind of politicization. With right-wing violence high in this area, and asylum homes being burned down with impunity as a method of protest, political orientations matter because some of them in this day and age are violent. Humans are social creatures. Our networks may not predict, but they surely influence, our actions.

Even more embarrassing are the comments of the President of the Chemnitz Police, Uwe Reißmann, who defended the actions of the police on that evening and declared at a press conference that refugees would be charged with provocation for filming. One ten year old boy  gave protestors the middle finger as he was dragged crying off the bus, and through the mob into the building designated for housing. That, apparently, was a provocation. Being verbally assaulted by an angry mob? That was a situation that was “unpredictable” and “impossible to contain.” The federal minister of the interior, Thomas de Maziere, defended Reißmann’s actions on Sunday evening on the ARD network:  “I can’t think of any criticism of this police engagement.”

I think I’m in the wrong movie.

 

Update: 2/22/2016 8:45am EST: According to this article in Stern, Hetze has been removed from his post – for his own protection.

 

 

Cologne – The Facts We Have

A number of Americans have asked me about the events in Cologne this past week. A number of Germans who live in America are reporting that their communities are increasingly divided and agitated about what is happening. The events on News Year’s Eve at the Cologne central train station are a global event, and #koelnhbf is the next hashtag to follow #staddefrance – although the events are quite different in magnitude.

What is difficult about explaining the events in Cologne to a foreign audience is how murky the facts remain. As protests take place in front of the station today, including one by Pegida recently broken up by police, what is clear is that the events of New Year’s Eve have stoked resentments and exacerbated political tensions that have long been present. Reports of sexual violence are being instrumentalized to racialize Muslim populations and stoke xenophobic fears of “invasion.” At the same time, it has become clear that the police response to such a disturbance were ineffective – partly because of the style of criminal behavior. The Cologne Chief of Police has voluntarily entered early retirement – which means he effectively lost his job over his mishandling of the situation. Police initially reported a peaceful New Year’s Eve celebration – until tens of claims of theft and assault were filed, at which point the police created their own commission to handle the investigation.

The basic facts seem to be that a large number of drunk men were shooting off firecrackers in the crowded station, and were groping and encircling young women as a tactic to distract them from noticing that they were also being robbed. According to this article in Spiegel Online, this tactic is not new: they report that more than 11,000 people have been robbed using this tactic in the past three years. This kind of sexual harrassment is – I can well imagine – a successful diversionary tactic precisely because it is physically and emotionally violent.

A wide variety of sensationalist right-wing press attention has exaggerated these reports and attempted to create hysterical panic. Pegida leader Lutz Bachmann has posed in pictures wearing an offensive “rape-fugees not welcome” t-shirt. These stories often portray a violent mob of 1,000 migrants wantonly raping and attacking young women, like the narrative on the website Right Wing News. These reports are exaggerated, if not false. Numbers vary, but the number of rapes reported vacillates between 1 and 2; the number of men at the train station between 500 and 1,000. The state-run news media tagesschau emphasizes that we are not talking about 1,000 perpetrators; rather, the number represents the general size of the entire crowd.

The Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, a local Cologne paper, reported today that the number of reported crimes has risen from 170 to 379. About 40% of these offenses constitute sexualized crimes, like groping. The ethnicity of the perpetrators has been partially identified; an early police report erroneously called all of them “refugees.” According to the NYTimes:

The Interior Ministry identified the 31 suspects as nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, four Syrians, five Iranians, an Iraqi, a Serb, an American and two Germans. Most of the crimes they were accused of involved theft and violence, said a ministry spokesman, Tobias Plate, but at least three acts were considered sexual assaults.

According to WDR, a German state news station, the police had identified 32 suspects, with 29 “foreigners” in the group (the numbers are the same as the NYTimes, with the exception of having 3 Germans rather than 2). 22 of the suspects are supposely seeking asylum. Given the long duration of asylum proceedings, however, we have no information about how long any of these suspects have been in Germany.

According to criminologist Rita Steffens, the use of sexually-based tactics to commit theft is an emerging trend in criminal behavior that is not restricted to Cologne. The intensity and quantity of assaults are new.

In contrast to the attention being paid to determining what happened on New Year’s Eve, most of the press attention has started furiously circulating around questions of race, class, gender and integration. These debates are self-multiplying and prohibit the emergence of a reasoned response to the complex issues at hand. This press attention will be the subject of the next post.

 

 

Digital Narratives

North German Radio (NDR – a subsidiary of ARD) has started a new long-form narrative storytelling series they are promoting with the hashtag #EinMomentDerBleibt  (A Moment Which Remains). In twenty to thirty minute videos, refugees to Germany – all shot standing or sitting next to a wooden chair against a white photostudio paper background – tell their stories about how they came to Germany.

Here is the story of Aeda and Bassam, from Syria. They tell their story in Arabic, and are dubbed in German in a way where viewers can still hear their own voices. They are from Damascus, and Bassam came along the sea route to Germany, where he watched another boat perish before his eyes. He himself developed heart problems from the journey. His wife often defers to him, and walks out of the frame at the beginning of the video as the story becomes too painful. The family patriarch standing on the sterile, white background looks lonely. The mood, in this story as well as some of the other videos available, bears a testament to the strengths of the traumatized. His wife walks off the stage, but he remains standing. She rejoins him and finds her voice. Bassam was the first to make it to Greece. After a long time, Aeda decided to take the children and join him, without his knowing, and with the help of a trafficker. There’s a steeliness to both of them. Aeda and the children were imprisoned twice, once on the Turkish coast and once in Greece. They travelled as a family from Greece to Macedonia by train, where they witnessed the death of a forty-year old man on the train. The man’s 15 year old son, who has some kind of mental disability, was taken along by his father on the trip, and was left alone after his death.

The family travelled by foot through Serbia and Hungary. Bassam reports that the Hungarian police were by far the most brutal, and had no empathy for the differences between children and adults making the journey, especially very small children.

According to the NDR schedule from last week, these short narrative films are airing late at night – after 11pm. There are ten portraits listed on the NDR website with refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, and other countries.

Given the escalating violence against homes for asylum seekers, refugee children in schools, and even the violence incurred by the policing of left-wing demonstrations to occupy buildings with the hopes of finding refugees housing, this kind of storytelling is imminently political and a laudable intervention to allow refugees to speak for themselves over a long period of time (rather than in soundbytes) or to merely be spoken about by politicians and journalists. I don’t know if these videos always air at night, but rather than filling airtime after most people have gone to bed, this series should be playing at prime time. Air them in the late afternoon, cut out a rereun of the odious Two and a Half Men, and then show another one after parents and adults get home from work. Cut the piano music that introduces the trailer and story; make the entry into the storytelling as steely as the narrative that follows. Find a way to market not to the volunteers who are already sympathetic, but to the tough brutes who think that the AfD and Pegida offer viable alternatives.

The lines between agitprop, propaganda and publicity are so porous. And in this age of populist Hetze – whether it’s Donald Trump, Horst Seehofer or Marine LePen – the only thing we might have going for the rest of us is spin. So spin this. Spin people’s stories and give them as much agency as possible (at least 30 minutes worth) for them to wind up and come back down.

 

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.

The Naivete of Evil

Bernd Ulrich, the main editor for Die Zeit‘s political pages, has written a beautiful essay in the October 7th edition of the paper. Despite my frequent blog posts and twitter and facebook accounts, I am an open Luddite who makes her students hand-write assignments and who has a paper subscription to Die Zeit. I also have an erratic mail carrier, which means that the arrival of my paper can arrive anywhere from three days to three weeks late. Despite seeing the click bait for this essay on twitter, I’m glad to have read this one on paper. The graphic design is quite strong, featuring a long length of barbed wire which ropes its way through the article, dividing the manifesto-like text from other columns and advertisements:

Zeit image

The essay by Ulrich is titled “The Naivete of Evil,” which is a play on Hannah Arendt’s famous subtitle for her book detailing the Eichmann trials in Jerusalem in the 1960s. Written in numbered, thematic sections, Ulrich’s article lays out a comprehensive understanding of the global forces which have led to the refugee crisis in Europe. The conditions of depravity in the Middle East, he asserts, are twenty years in the making – they did not happen overnight. (Americans might also do well to remember that the War on Terror is now almost fifteen years old).   Furthermore, Ulrich identifies a transition amongst Germans on what Demetrios G. Papademetriou, President Emeritus of the Migration Policy Institute, called “the day after” on WEBZ earlier this week. Suddenly, Germans are feeling overwhelmed – and for good reason, given that there are simply not enough doctors, lawyers, teachers and social workers to reach the refugees who need them. Not just traumatized refugees, but also their caregivers, are in shock that events far, far away from them have led to “physical, mental and financial” realities on German soil. The inability to foresee the problem – even though it has been obvious that something like this was brewing – has created a political vacuum. And a vacuum must be filled: in this case, by Horst Seehofer scapegoating the Chancellor and clinging to the dream that a change in course will stop the tide.

Like the Chancellor, Ulrich asserts that this is a fantasy – one among many. Fantasies of fences (which can only function if aggressively enforced); fantasies of military might (Europe, America and now Russia will only inflict damage); and fantasies of being overrun (hold up, says Ulrich, you can’t declare a state of emergency with these numbers) are ever present in the national imagination.  Ulrich even engages with the rich propaganda found at PEGIDA rallies and in Lachmann’s article I analyzed yesterday. “Of course the West is in Danger” reads the title of section 8 – but not because of the refugees. Because of Europeans:

“This, the aggressive nationalism, the exclusion and internal de-liberalization are the tangible threats against the West. Because all of that, unfortunately, is actually present in European genes.”

Ulrich is not actually advancing a genetic argument – that last bit is a metaphor which reads better in German than in my poor translation here. What he’s saying is that nationalism has a European precedent – and it is this nationalism that threatens to undo us.

As for the Middle East, Ulrich says, it would probably be better for all of us if we admitted that our imperial and militaristic strategies have failed. Knowing our limits is the first step towards moving beyond them (Ulrich citing here a quote by Baruch de Spinoza he freely adapted).

Admitting that there are limits seems like a particularly difficult pill for politics to swallow. Fortification is not a way to acknowledge limits – it is rather a desire to construct those limits on terms that are self-directed and seen as politically beneficial. If we follow Ulrich’s line of reasoning, however, limits are given to us by the situation itself rather than by our own imagination, which is why attempts to defend the Vaterland through nationalistic means or to stop the flow of refugees simply because we feel overwhelmed misses the mark.