I feel must address the devastation, disappointment and the profound elation (for a significant number of people) spreading in shock waves throughout Germany at this time, the country that I call home. The results of the election were announced a few days ago and they were relatively grim: Chancellor Angela Merkel held on to her power but nearly all the established political parties, including her own CDU, lost support across the board. And unbelievable gains, once believed to be virtually improbable, were won by the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) a right-wing party that has never entered the Bundestag (the German parliament) in more than 60 years (the last ones were…well, you know). For good reason, they are a populist party that is rigidly anti-EU, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, and pretty much anti-everything that Chancellor Merkel stands for. There is a hint of the nasty things to come as their party leader, Mr. Gauland, victoriously proclaimed on Sunday night that he will “Hunt them down!” what he means by them is likely a great deal more than just the political opposition. If the AfD’s rhetoric bears any weight, they will try to bring about the end of the EU and a “cleansing” of foreigners, especially Muslim ones, in order to preserve and “protect” a simpler, “purer” national identity. This is the general assumption at this point, because much of what they actually believe in is shady and unclear, even to them and there is chaos within the party itself. (Sound familiar to anyone?) Now they will enter the parliament as the third strongest political party in the country with approximately 13% of the popular vote. You can read more about the German election from my sources here and here.
Being a two-time immigrant and a person of color, I am deeply saddened by this outcome. My pain at being cast as the unwitting face of globalization as I wrote about in the Mirror of Hate bears repeating here. I feel as though I’ve been punched in the stomach repeatedly, I go about my daily tasks, hoping to forget about it or to focus on something positive, only to be reminded of it everywhere. Last year, when all of this was just a morbid possibility swirling in the darkness, I wrote these lines down privately before I began sharing any of my writing with the public:
I consider myself lucky to be living in Germany, a nation, that many now consider to be the last stronghold of liberal Democracy. Yes, a country I had once been too afraid to venture out to, may now be one of the last standing pillars of the free world! But even here, the forces of hate and populism are swirling at our feet and threaten to knock it down at any moment. This is what compels me to share my cumulative experience as a two-time immigrant, the knowledge that now screams under my skin, that no longer allows me to be silent, in this time of new challenges and tumultuous change.
Which brings me to the reasons why the AfD and other right-wing, anti-immigrant parties have been gaining in power throughout the modern world at this time. Yes, the modern world: The same world where science and technology have brought us to incredible new heights; where knowledge is literally at our fingertips; where we can communicate with everyone everywhere instantly; where all the companies we work for have bases, branches or suppliers all over the world; where everyone and everything is plainly linked, interdependent and interconnected. In this same world there still exists, simultaneously, beliefs, cultures and mindsets that do not accept science or popular wisdom, that are based on “alternative facts”; people unwilling to let go of obsolete hierarchies cultivated in a glorified past where blood, skin color and family name determined one’s identity and future—as fixed and stagnant as nothing else—as nothing else in Nature ever was, is, and ever will be. Yes, this is the modern world, the one world we’re all living in right now.
The Tagesschau, a respected German news outlet, released several graphics showing the main reasons why people voted for the far right, you can see them here. The first two bars with 95% and 94%, respectively, are the first two reasons:
- I am very worried about the loss of my culture.
- I am very worried that the changes in our lives will be too drastic.
- The next three reasons were concerns about the growing influence of Islam, the widening of divisions in society, and the rise in crime.
As an immigrant nearly all my life, I am acutely aware of these concerns and many like them. My identity has, in fact, been shaped by them. They are the main reasons why I tried so hard to integrate here and in the US. This may come as a surprise, but English is not my first language, I learned English by reading everything I could, often learning the hard way by mispronouncing difficult new words in public. When I moved to Germany, I attended language schools for two years, not only because I wanted to learn a new language, but to show respect for the culture of my new home and truly try to become a part of it. I wanted to avoid the quagmire of perpetually observing it from an impenetrable distance as if I was a permanent tourist. I often feel responsible for dissuading other people’s fears and negative assumptions about foreigners; responsible for making other people feel comfortable around me. And I often get the impression that I must be perpetually grateful for the tolerance and generosity of the natives who are much more valuable than I am. It is as if an immigrant has to outperform everyone else if he or she wants to be seen or accepted at all, this is reinforced by such back-handed compliments as, “Wow! You can actually speak the language very well for being a foreigner!”
Many people may be quick to shrug off my views as self-serving, since someone who is anti-immigrant is clearly going against my best interests. But I doubt people who consider immigrants to be a burden or a threat are acting objectively either, or going outside of their own best interests. That is the main problem with these views, where do you draw the line between a new challenge that can enrich you, possibly help you in the long run, and something that is drain on your resources—an unnecessary burden? If that thing is a person, that line is even more difficult to draw, at the very least, it should be.
For me and for most immigrants and refugees trying to integrate in their new homes, the rise in anti-immigrant, isolationist sentiments has direct, even violent ramifications. When I was eight months pregnant, I was forcefully shoved on the street by a skinhead hitting me from behind, the force of the blow almost knocked me to the ground. Since I was alone when it happened, I had been too fearful for my child’s life to do so much as yell at the man. When I paid a notary for his services, he took my passport and proceeded to scan every page of it without my permission, commanding me to renew my residency permit (he mistakenly thought it had expired) treating me like a criminal he should turn in. Even when I simply attended a yoga class, I was disrespected by a woman who stared at me with disdain, refused to touch me and literally tried to pull my yoga mat out from under me. For us, any implication, whether clear or vague, that immigrants are inferior, a burden, or a threat has direct, painful and even dangerous consequences to our safety and well-being. We cannot take the rise of populism lightly.
People are quick to justify their actions as “protecting” themselves and their homes from foreign invaders. Right-wing, populist parties like the AfD, France’s National Front, and Trump’s administration have successfully tapped into this inexhaustible fountain of justification for their supporter’s exclusivity, hatefulness and arrogant behavior. Even if they claim that they are not racists or xenophobic, that they just love “their people” and “their country”, the rigid definition of what constitutes “theirs” begs, it begs for an explanation. One of their most common justifications, by far, that I have heard throughout my life has been, “Immigrants should go back to their home country and fix things there. We should focus on our own people.” If I had a coin every time I’ve heard this one, I would be able to immigrate to the moon or Mars.
First of all, if conditions weren’t so dangerous or irreparable in their home countries, all refugees and most immigrants wouldn’t have a reason to leave in the first place. And who in their right mind would pass up the opportunity for a better life—a brighter future for themselves and their children? Forced to decide between staying and likely dying in war, poverty or starvation or going somewhere else where they have the chance, or even just the faintest possibility of flourishing, most people would decide to go. Humans have always gone out, explored and wandered since the dawn of our existence. If we had all stayed where we were born, we would still all be in Africa.
Yet moving is not without great pain and sacrifice: immigrants must leave everything they know behind. They are usually financially depleted, they must leave family, loved ones behind and make extremely difficult decisions. My own parents, when applying to immigrate to the US, were asked to leave three of their children behind: me and two siblings. Luckily for us, my parents insisted that we should stay together and the officials changed their minds. Once immigrants do enter their new country, they must quickly learn not to take anything for granted. They are confronted with all sorts of daily challenges, the very least of which is the prejudice and hate simmering below the surface of the place they strive to call home.
Even if you have no compassion for immigrants at all. The idea that immigrants should go back to their home country and fix things there, should be recognized as stifling and self-defeating when applied to everyone and to oneself. I would expect, as it would only be fair, that people who hate foreigners so much, would never ever travel, never ever venture out into the world and become a foreigner themselves someday. A travel ban against a hated country or “axis of evil” is also a restriction on one’s own freedoms and those of future generations. What if your son or daughter falls in love with someone from another country? Shouldn’t they or their partner have a right to move anywhere they want to be with their loved one? But maybe that is the point, these are possibilities—complications that people don’t want in their lives. They don’t want to have to reckon with them, they are simply not prepared to deal with such complexity.
But when has something worth fighting for, something worth believing in, ever been easy? Most people don’t want to exercise, not even for their own benefit or to save their own lives. They must make the hard decision every single day to force themselves to do it, until it becomes part of their routine, until it becomes a healthy habit. The people complaining about how terrible it is to listen to someone with a foreign accent, or how difficult it is to understand someone from a different culture—they need to realize it is the same for the immigrants too, only much more intense. There have been years in my life when I never heard my own name pronounced correctly, when I hardly had any friends to talk to. A language barrier is enough of a challenge on its own without the addition of snobbery, shame and prejudice. We can learn from each other and adapt. The world doesn’t have to fit itself around us, it doesn’t have to stay within the narrow confines of our expectations and entitlements. The world doesn’t and shouldn’t stay within our self-restricting boundaries, and so much the better for us, for our personal growth.
I am not, however, diminishing the necessity of laws and regulations. Anyone criticizing the so-called “open” borders of democratic institutions, should really talk to an immigrant or refugee. They will find that that person has stood in lines for many hours, was forced to fill-out mountains of paperwork, was photographed and finger-printed, was interviewed extensively by cold bureaucrats, had to pay for all their applications and had to show all of their identification and provide evidence of their education, employment and funds, all that under administrations they admonish for being lax on security.
The idea that immigrants and refugees are the source of terrorism is even more misplaced because terrorism comes from people of all backgrounds and hate crimes are also terrorist acts. Terrorists operate in underground organizations beneath the quantifiable guise of a single nation or religion, beyond the striking distance of missiles or nuclear warheads. Fighting something as insidious and deep-rooted as modern terrorism requires everyone’s help, everyone’s vigilance and everyone’s cooperation. Let’s not forget, terrorists don’t care what anyone is, where they’re from, what religion they practice or what language they speak, they don’t bother to ask for identification papers before they stab, shoot or detonate a bomb. Terrorism threatens everyone, not just nationalists.
My words may come across as arrogant and condescending to some, but my views have been cultivated by a lifetime of listening to and accepting anti-immigrant concerns, justified or not, and they have oppressed me a great deal. I cannot stay quiet anymore. The real danger to a culture and language disappearing is rigidity and isolation. Culture and language is alive, and like all living things it needs a fresh supply of nutrients to stay that way. Blood needs more than soil—it needs air, it needs oxygen if it means to live and not go back into the ground. We need to breath in and out, together, helping each other, in the face of all this tumultuous change. The “my people first” mentality must end. There may have been a time when it gave us an advantage, but that time is gone. Long gone. Most of us no longer live on lands owned by kings, tribes, or warlords. Most of us work in companies that are globally interconnected and interdependent. We work and live with people from all over the world. Today, we don’t have to be defined by our blood, our heritage, our family name anymore, we can create new identities, new homes for ourselves and our children. These are the incredible new freedoms modernity and democracy has afforded us. We can create better opportunities, better lives for ourselves. And now, we will have to fight to retain these astounding new possibilities and keep them growing for future generations. If the last ten years is any indication, the challenges we face will only continue to grow in complexity, whether we can accept them or not. Will we adapt?
Text and images by M.P. Baecker. Photos are all of the exterior, interior and glass cupola of the Bundestag, Berlin