Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Word of the month: Leitkultur

I selected the present word of the month after reading, in translation, Jürgen Habermas's essay Leadership and Leitkultur, which recently appeared in the NYT. The term Leitkultur is formed from the verb leiten (to guide, lead) and Kultur (culture). It denotes the "guiding culture" of a people or country or, more accurately, the set of values and beliefs, and the rules of behavior based on them, that govern the way the members of the group view themselves and interact with each other.

The concept of a Leitkultur represents one of the flash points in the discussion currently raging in Germany about the best way to deal with immigrants who seemingly refuse integration into the surrounding society and culture. Habermas has argued—in the past and again in the essay—that it is sufficient for immigrants who want to become permanent residents or citizens that they (a) learn German and (b) accept the constitution. Others believe that this is not enough—they demand, in addition, that immigrants embrace a German Leitkultur. In my first comment, I'll talk about Leitkultur as a useful term to focus this discussion, even if it becomes problematic when it's turned into a cry for political action. In a second comment, I will try to indicate connections with trends I observe in the US.

Note on pronunciation: Again, watch your vowels! The "ei" is a diphthong pronounced like English "eye"; the first "u" in Kultur is a short "oo" as in "good"; and the second "u" is a long "oo" as in "boot". The main stress is on the first and a secondary one on the third syllable.


Marlene said...

Wow, I just read the article you reference by Habermas--I thought he was dead by the way--and are you ever right about this term shedding light on current discussions raging, with emphasis on rage, in the U.S. I look forward to more on this topic.

Ulrich said...

Here’s the problem with Leitkultur when it’s viewed as a condition for citizenship: It’s a purely functional term. It provides a yardstick for measuring if someone is ready to be accepted into an existing community, but it is content-free—it does not identify what the Leitkultur actually consists of. As Habermas mentions, some conservative politicians include the “Judeo-Christian Tradition” into their concept of a German Leitkultur. He balks, and rightfully so, at the apparent cynicism of this proposal, given Germany’s history in the 20th century. More generally, though, it points to the problems that arise with the concept itself: In order to work, it needs content, and whenever this content goes beyond what is set down in the constitution, controversies arise.

So, why do we not just abandon it? With this, I think, we are getting at the heart of the matter. Habermas requires that immigrants learn German because they must be able to understand and participate in the political discourse of the country. He requires that they accept the constitution because it sets down the principles and rules under which the “commonwealth” of Germans functions. Any immigrant who satisfies these two conditions can become a German citizen, with all the rights and obligations this status entails. Conversely, those who insist that immigrants embrace, in addition, a German Leitkultur, however it is defined, insist on more, namely, that they become Germans, i.e. assume a new identity.

In the German debate, these two positions crystallize around two concepts. Those who share Habermas’s beliefs (I’m among them) aim at the integration of immigrants. Those who insist on Leitkultur as a deciding factor aim at the assimilation of immigrants.

The stance of the Leitkultur defenders may have multiple causes, ranging from good old chauvinism to the fear that everything that makes German culture identifiable and unique may get watered down, if not lost. There is evidence that such fears are unfounded. I am particularly impressed by the contribution 2nd- and 3rd-generation children of Turkish immigrants are beginning to make to culture and life in present-day Germany. Examples are Fatih Akin, a prominent, internationally acclaimed movie director, or Cem Özdemir, a prominent member of the Green Party (not to mention the many German-Turkish soccer players without whom German soccer would not have the quality it has).

Disclaimer: I wrote all of this from my remote perch in the USA. I may have missed important aspects of the debate and would be interested in comments from observers who are closer to the action.

Ulrich said...

A few remarks about the connections I see between my previous comment and what I see happening in the United States. Forces on the right are fighting, in my view, for the establishment of a Leitkultur based on what they call the “Judeo-Christian tradition”. The so-called “War on Christmas” identified by Bill O’Reilly; the claim that the Founding Fathers were not followers of the Enlightenment, but had a nation based on the self-same tradition in mind; claims that the separation of church and state is not anchored in the constitution; the rewriting of history texts to suppress evidence against the above claims mandated by some states…to me, all of these efforts point in this direction.

In the past, the culture of the white majority was the de-facto Leitkultur, albeit, and admittedly, a rich one. It had absorbed and assimilated all kinds of influences through waves of immigration and was tolerant of outliers as long as they were localized and therefore non-threatening. But the changes that are occurring now challenge this de-facto state. In the foreseeable future, whites will make up less than 50% of the total population, and for many of them, the economic prospects are worsening. I also believe that the election of a non-white president was a momentous event that brought home to people already scared how much the world around them is changing. When people are scared of the future, they look for ways to preserve the past (even if this past is a fabrication that never was).

Esther said...

I just wrote a comment on the Nov. post, replying to your last comment to me, but I'm intrigued by the little I have read of this one. Tonight, after I have finished my Daily Portion (on the book), I'll return to it.

Esther said...

I just read the essay in the Times and your comments. What surprised me most were the two examples of protest that he gave: the turning to non-political figures (that's what's happening here) and the protest against demolishing the train station in Stuttgart. Your distinguishing between integration and assimilation defines, at least until lately, the respective attitudes in Canada and the U.S., which Canada usually describes as the difference between their preferred form of the "mosaic," compared to the U.S.'s "melting pot." Immigrants (educated ones) are still welcomed in Canada, which has more room than the U.S., but I don't think that's the main reason. The great American tradition of immigration began to go sour when the immigrants were predominantly non-white. (I realize that, as in Germany, hostility to immigrants increases when the economy is bad.) Although Turks, like Jews, are Caucasian, both ethnic groups are regarded as not-quite-white by racists. Last year I met a delightful young woman of Turkish descent who was born and lives in Stuttgart, and she told me how exhilarating it was to be in New York where she felt so accepted, unlike in Stuttgart. (She was here on an editorial internship at the German Book Office, a nonprofit organization that was an offshoot of the Frankfurt Book Fair in the late 90s and that distributes German books in English translation.) She talked a lot to me about the discomfort of being "Turkish" in Germany, and she is undoubtedly far more accepted than the descendants of Turkish workers. I think that your closing sentences about Obama and the reaction to him are wise: sad, but wise.

Ulrich said...

As much as I have been in agreement with Habermas in the past when he wrote about political topics, I am not entirely happy with the article—too much hand-wringing and not enough analysis! I almost dropped the reference, but then left it in my post because it provided indeed the motivation for this month’s WOM.

As I said already in my post on the German Funk, there is a reason why career politicians are currently in low esteem in Germany: The current crop is simply not as good, i.e. as competent and inspiring, as previous ones were. There must be reasons for this, but Habermas does not go into these.

His description of the immigration debate suffers, to me, from a similar incompleteness. It’s not all “xenophobia” on the part of the Germans. They see that Habermas’s two condition (learning the language and accepting the constitution) are not being systematically applied. There are immigrants and Muslim functionaries who resist integration in his sense (or how else should one interpret a statement like “The constitution is acceptable only in those parts that are compatible with Sharia.”?).

But it is also true, if I see this correctly from my remote perch, that many Germans have problems with seeing Germany become an “immigration country”—the success of the descendants of Turks, which I mentioned in my first comment, notwithstanding (I was really saddened by what you wrote about the Turkish visitor to New York—I was under the impressions that things were starting to look up for her generation).

What does not help, though, is calling anyone who criticizes immigrants or their representatives immediately a “Nazi” or a “racist”, as the multi-culturalists and some on the left are wont to do. Which gets us back to the current crop of politicians: If no one is taking the initiative to address the issues reasonable people can see in the current immigrant situation, an anti-immigration party will arise in Germany, as it did in Switzerland and the Netherlands.

I can't say anything about the protests in Stuttgart—I just do not know enough about the situation.