Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Europe is Color Blind, right? Riiiiiiiight.

I can't tell you how many times I've had arguments with Europeans about racism in America. As my ex-French boyfriend would point out, "We have laws against hate speech. You don't."

Poor example on his part. And let it be on the record I am a rabid 1st Amendment supporter, and that includes protecting the right to make bigoted comments. This makes me unpopular even in my own country. But I don't see the correlation between curbing speech and protecting the rights of minorities. I would point out that we have much stronger administrative laws in the U.S. about discriminating against people applying to rent an apartment, or buy a mortgage. Does racism still occur? Of course. But we have the rule of law to bend the arc a little closer to justice.


I wrote earlier about why I thought Obama would face more difficulty getting elected in Germany. I'm not alone in this view. I saw Chris Wallace from Fox News Sunday on the Daily Show, and he compared it to an Algerian getting elected as president of France. I agree with him. When a German party appoints a Muslim, or a German with Turkish roots, or a Jewish-German (yes, there are Jews living in Germany, quite a lot actually, and politically active) as chancellor, I don't think the American press would make the comments prominent European journalists and papers have made, even before Barack Obama got elected. In fact, I think the American press provided a measure of meritocracy when Angela Merkel became #1 of the Christian Democrats in 2005. It saddened me greatly to hear young German women talk both sides of the sexist coin: Frau Merkel either rose to the top because she "acted, or looked like a man" or because she submissively manipulated the mostly male party. Cheap shots at a clever politician.

But now, Europe, is revealing the racism they are so good at concealing in a recent Washington Post article.


"Integration" as its known in Europe is an increasingly sticky problem. The problem is this: most of the immigrants who come to western Europe are pretty socially conservative. The countries they emigrate to are socially liberal. So when conservative Muslims want to arrange marriages for their 14 year old daughters, there's a clash. And because they are nice, social welfare states, countries, such as Germany and Holland notably, have adopted a "transfer-heavy, service-light" model. That means the state puts money on a regular basis into bank accounts...but offers very few services to integrate immigrants into mainstream society. (Transfer-heavy, service-light is a political science term. I'm not smart enough to come up with this stuff.) While this means no one goes to bed hungry, it also means they haven't quite figured out a roadmap for immigrants to be economically productive, as well as socially secure straddling mostly white, Christian Europe and their own identities.


So they're afraid. Do we want to live in a society where we ignore the rights of 14 year old girls not to get married because we embrace "multiculturalism"? To what point do we respect the right of communities to live by their own cultural rules? This is what western Europe is grappling with at the moment, and is perhaps at the root of the comments made by prominent European journalists and policymakers.


Here's a taste of one of comments from the Washington Post article defending Europe:

"One cannot take reference in the least democratic politicians remarks which represent 1% of the european politicians. Stop taking sensational news at first level, look deeper and read more international news... the majority of European were looking forward to this election and celebrated with CHAMPAIGN even though this election was not theirs... but this may have been ommitted in the news... read deeper then condemn Europe."

The reader is right...but I think misses the point about the influence of the press and the leaders. The reason these remarks are disturbing is because they're being made by people who set the agenda, who hold prominence. The politicians may feel political repercussions...but who holds the press accountable?


I watched the European Cup at a former high school classmate's house in Germany this summer. As he watched the German National Team, he shook his head, and said, "This is probably the last time we'll see German names on the national team." (He's German by the way.)

I didn't press him - I was a guest in his home, and I didn't want to get into something that could erupt into unpleasantness.

But maybe I should have. Maybe that's what needs to happen in Europe: people who stand up and say, what the hell is a "German" name anyway. These conversations are probably happening already. And they're going to occur more frequently. Because like it or not, Europe is becoming more diverse. History will judge how well they handle the issues that arise, as it has judged the United States in the last 200 years. Let's just hope we learn from it.

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