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GoetheInstitute

12/09/2005

What now, white man?

Global competition is about to push Western culture into the abyss. An eleventh-hour obituary by Matthias Politycki

The waiting and grumbling has suddenly come to an end. The general despondency in Germany is visibly giving way to an unexpectedly bustling sense of awakening. Lead articles and manifestos are being eagerly written, and above all eagerly awaited, demanded, even obtained by force, as if this were a way of at least foisting on others the determination one still lacks oneself. The creeping decline of multi-party democracy, as we have been experiencing it for years in the form of "rule by television", the oppressive simulation of the opinion polls and talk-shows with their stock moral cudgels that render authentic speech near impossible, has brought about a dangerous power vacuum which not only "frustrated people" (as CSU leader Edmund Stoiber recently called the inhabitants of Germany's eastern states- ed) but above all the intellectual centre of our society now wants filled.

But even if they were to succeed in this (incidentally accomplishing the feat of turning a deeply indebted country in need of serious restructuring into a flourishing, relaunched Federal Republic), a far greater European problem would remain: the impending decline of the former "West", already explicitly doomed as "Old Europe", a culture and way of life that has been cultivated for generations. The postmodern age with its corrosive "anything goes" marks the end of the Enlightenment: sceptical free-thinking has gone so far that today, instead of serious visions, all it develops is a jaded blanket irony, a shoulder-shrugging laissez-faire, disguised by the concept of "tolerance", towards everything and everyone. The corresponding strengthening of domestic and international "margins" will bring us countless subcultures and parallel worlds, ultimately resulting in a radical compartmentalisation of society – not least on account of passive elites who have no means of countering the breakdown of the whole into the mere sum of its parts and who have also long since given up wanting to.

This far-from-euphoric opening notwithstanding, the author is not a resigned former supporter of the SPD/Green Party coalition, and certainly not a closet right-winger hoping that his theory of the "decline of the white man" will terminally alienate all those responsible for women's and multicultural issues and then usher in a straight-laced neoconservative revolution. On the contrary, this is already part of the problem: most of the people I have spoken to recently – all of them committed democrats – belong to a majority that has been silent for too long, people who discern among their political representatives almost no one by whom they feel adequately represented. Which is why, now that this politically rootless, dangerously vacillating centre must find a new language, a discussion is at last getting underway that channels an intensified expression of dissatisfaction on the part of free-floating intellectuals, and which amounts to the return of something like an extra-parliamentary opposition. This emerging movement, which is trying to break out of traditional left/right thought patterns and reconcile its traditional socialist/liberal impetus with conservative values, is the only one I would allow myself to be considered part of.

Those who have journeyed a little outside of Europe, less as a tourist than as a traveller, and who, like me, have been lucky to come through certain situations shaken but unscathed, may already guess what I am trying to get at with the following examples when I speak of the "decline of the white man". I want to emphasize that I am using this term for purely polemical reasons – as an abbreviation for what I understand by the core-European version of Western culture, a culture still committed to the Enlightenment. The link to actual skin colour is purely metaphorical. The fact that this choice of metaphor may lead to some Wild West associations should not prevent it from being used for more complex trains of thought. After all, the best way to unmask reality is to begin by reducing it to a cliché.

While researching my new novel, I spent several months living in Cuba, in the predominantly Black south of the island, avoiding dollar tourism and operating with pesos wherever possible. It was an unforgettable time, in the course of which I had to rethink all the positions I had previously stood by unquestioningly. And a time that was so hard, both physically and spiritually, that I was often reduced almost to tears. The brutality of life, taking no notice of the moral (or aesthetic) standards of an Old European, this unfettered wildness of the will that not infrequently burst out in sheer violence – was it permissible for me to despise it as a lack of culture? Or was I supposed to admire it as a superabundance of vitality for which I was never going to be any match? Punching one's way into a bakery after waiting in line for bread for one or two hours I could understand; but fisticuffs over a seat on a bus seemed to me to point to more than just the struggle for survival, at the very least an energy surplus that we here in sated Europe simply have no idea of.

At times I was so totally embarrassed by these eruptions of physical force that I tried to convince myself that I felt the epochal exhaustion of the entire Old World in my white skin. Faced with the facts, such attempts to camouflage sheer weakness as the superiority of refined powers of reason were no help whatsoever. On the contrary, I could soon feel the power of these people even when they observed me from the roadside. At times there was such a sense of being watched in the air that as a European, you had to really pull yourself together in order to keep your head held high as you went on your way.

The biggest mass brawl I saw was, admittedly, in the Black southern tip of India, here too in the role of the (only) white man who tried to conceal his physical inferiority behind the superiority of discreet reserve. In Trivandrum, a sad village with a population of millions whose sights could not fill more than half a day at best. That left the zoo. Surprisingly, I was not the only person waiting at the entrance, and when the ticket booth finally opened, a serious fight broke out in no time at all, not over bread, just over places. The police had to intervene, striking at random with their batons in a bid to re-establish order, as least temporarily. The would-be zoo-goers took the blows without complaint, cowering towards the ticket booth, since they were not about to abandon their objective – and not long after they were seen strolling leisurely about.

What was that all about, you ask yourself as you look at the infected knee of a llama. What is this mighty will in every single one of these emaciated fellows that had them all get into the zoo before the stolidly waiting European? And why, in such scenarios, am I always the only person who takes refuge in the blanket irony of the one who supposedly knows better?

And the most threatening case of being watched? I still get a bad feeling when I think of a situation in Burundi which only looked like a peaceful street scene at first glance. During a hiatus in the civil war between Tutsis and Hutus that had already led to nocturnal killing sprees of unimaginable proportions, we drove into the country's capital Bujumbura in a converted truck, and to this day I can feel the intense watchfulness that met us from the roadside, from every doorway. There was a physical sense, palpable even to the enfeebled instincts of whites, that the deceptive calm could be over at any moment, that something could break out and probably sweep us and our truck away.

In this situation, did we at least wish we had weapons? We didn't even dare, conscientious objectors and committed humanists that we were. And besides, we had enough on our hands trying to conceal our own worst fears from one another: For God's sake, they wouldn't, would they? They uphold the same ethical values as we do, surely they couldn't just, all of a sudden? But oh, they would indeed, they didn't in the slightest, and they certainly could.

At this juncture, I am reminded of the words of a farmer from Zimbabwe that were reported in the press: at a time when mobs of agricultural workers were on the rampage, resulting increasingly in the execution of white landowners – crimes silently tolerated by the state – the worried farmer asked his own workers whether they were thinking of doing something similar to him, after all, he had been a good employer to them for decades. "God forbid!", they said: "Each of us will go to neighbouring farms, however long the journey".

How comforting! And that is why I am describing these experiences. They pay tribute not to a secret desire for violence, but to a form of unadulterated fear that people in the heart of Europe no longer know – most clearly in sub-Saharan Africa, still very strong in Caribbean slum areas, and in homoeopathic doses even in a country like India as soon as you leave the main tourist centres and find yourself confronted with a way of life whose archaic harshness initially leaves one utterly stumped for a response.

For of course there can be no question of undoing the cultural development that has made us into a relatively peace-loving species capable of well-mannered communication – that would be to declare ourselves spiritually bankrupt. Moreover, the problem is not a purely a physical one. In the Far East, we experience our feebleness on a more intellectual level, as the fear of failure in the face of an economic expansion drive whose unfettered energy fills us less with specific ethical worries than with a fundamental feeling of impotence, particularly in everyday situations. Anyone who has had to make their way through such monster capital cities as Seoul, Tokyo or, more recently, Shanghai knows the slight feeling of terror when the pedestrian signal turns green and hundreds of people start moving towards one another in tight ranks, quite obviously more determined and sure of where they are headed than you are. Or the major shock when the Shinkansen high speed train zooms past the platform at 300 km/h like a long-range missile. Seconds later, everything is smoothed over again by a deceptive politeness, and soon you no longer know what movie you're in.

The aggressiveness which makes turbo-capitalism in the Far East so successful, and so threatening to us, only lowers its mask fleetingly under the influence of alcohol. "Of course we want to rule the world!", one hears from drunken Japanese managers, whose economic megalomania draws on an alarmingly unbroken sense of their nation's mission, an undiminished pride in their own "superior" culture. The European markets, you are told on such memorable evenings, are actually easier to conquer than the newly awakened China. And indeed, Mao's heirs, too, are working with alarming verve to build the future. The unscrupulous demolitions, resettlements and flooding of heritage, with entire new cities planned from scratch, are only the blatantly obvious signs of a far more profound development that goes as far as new restrictions on individual freedom to the greater glory of the flourishing overall system. Back in the days of the Cold War, did Capitalism not use to be something like freedom's younger brother?

This is not a pretty picture. But in a confusingly fascinating way, it is a very real and solid presence. And it is efficient. With the stamina of an unwaveringly strong will – in this part of the world, force expresses itself less in impulsive eruptions than in tenacious persistence – the key industries of the West are being conquered. It is said that the USA can now only maintain its economic leadership because 40 percent of its hi-tech sector is being run by Asian immigrants. In all but name, the production of PCs at IBM had already been taken over by the Chinese Lenovo group, the television divisions of the companies Schneider and Thomson by TCL. Just a few years ago, news like this would have been hailed as an April Fool's joke.

The global economic order is out of joint; the global cultural order will be next. For the Far Eastern enthusiasm for innovation cannot be disconnected from a sense of cultural mission: in the globalised economic race, this tremendous success is due to the fact that giant steps towards the future are taken with an intact historical sense of identity. After all, living heritage is not least a store of potential thoughts, structures and behavioural patterns, a source of inspiration for all kinds of current tasks. Meanwhile, we in Central Europe are on the verge of willingly abandoning the last vestiges of our own thousand-year heritage – the diversity of languages and the associated identities – in favour of a rife pseudo-Americanisation. And, in the process, exchanging what could, in its networking of highly distinctive cultural achievements, be understood as our economic base, our version of an Old European position, for a weak drifting along in the current of the globalised culture industry. After the shocking realization of one's own physical and economic weakness, the final humiliation for Europe is coming in the form of cultural orientation towards a new world power that is already beginning to involve itself actively as a global player in the general current of world culture.

Significantly, our deficit is seen most clearly not from China, but from the Arab world – a region of the world which is primarily known for the remains of former civilizations, but which presents them with the conviction of someone who is nonetheless sure of his superiority. I have no wish to deny the undeniable cultural achievements of Islam – but the current everyday reality in North Africa, for example, has precious little to do with the image of the enlightened Muslim. Where else in the world is one eyed with such contempt, as a representative of a godless society of clowns and whores (as encountered in "shameless" films and video clips), as in Morocco?

Few cultures manifest themselves in so phallically, and as a European it is only natural that one has no desire to keep up when uninhibited young men put on courtship displays in an effort to get their testosterone levels under control. Natural? Of course! Faced with the machismo of the Maghrib, anyone whose chief commitment is to a dignity in keeping with their years, taking refuge in the superiority of "having no need of all that", is sure to lose in the game of evolution.

Rather than the embarrassment in the face of such unfettered displays of virility, however, the most disturbing thing about such travel experiences is the cultural – or, to be more precise, ideological – weakness that we are made to feel too acutely. After all, even an enlightened Muslim acts on the basis of a coherent world view, is always in possession of the truth, while we as individualists have to search it out each time on a case-to-case basis: a hare and tortoise constellation in which we tend to have a losing hand from the start. And whereas in the past, one could expect to be met in such conversations with didacticism and pity, since bin Laden's highly emotional declaration of war, the tone has become significantly rougher, irreconcilable even. Tolerance? But ours is the one and only truth and path to bliss! Enlightened scepticism? A world view for weaklings! Compared with the unbroken pathos of a faith that is 600 years younger than Christianity, meaning that in terms of its unfolding in time, it is currently at the stage of the Inquisition. In this light, it could actually be seen as a sign of Islamic humanism that free-thinking tourists are punished not with beatings but merely with scorn.

The decline of the white man, as it emerges clearly from the "clash of cultures", is categorically linked with the religious vacuum that we have managed, since Feuerbach and Heine, to fill with a succession of ersatz religions (e.g. "culture", "nation", "reconstruction"), the last of which, however (the "freedom of the West") has, since the collapse of the East Bloc, left a gap that could only temporarily be filled by a culture of fun and games. Never before has our ethical horizon been swept so clean as it is today. Never before have we, as representatives of a late-decadent civilization (something which in the USA is barely understood, let alone named), been so helpless in the face of challenges beyond Europe. Does the Islamic world urgently need an injection of critical reason (as friendly, green-leaning utopians seem to believe), or is it us who need to reduce our doses of this drug, to simplify an all-too-complex world view as a way of returning to its vital roots?

Maybe the many humiliations currently experienced by Old Europeans on many levels, all the challenges in physical, economic, cultural and above all religious terms, maybe they can teach us one thing: to accept this challenge and develop a self-image that enjoys consensus across society, one that turns consumers back into human beings, people who seek happiness beyond profit forecasts and tax incentives. And to express this in terms that are comprehensible, if need be, even to fundamentalists: maybe what we need (and I can only express this in the form of a paradox) is to become, in an anti-fundamentalist way, not fundamentalist, but fundamental. But where might a European fundamentalism lead, if not to a more robust mandate for freedom, tolerance and dealing politely with all the impolite people of this world? It sounds perverse, positively perverse, to want give the decrepit fundamental tolerance of the West an injection of intolerance to allow it to survive in the global conflict of juvenile worldviews, and it certainly should not be done after the fashion of American imperators. Tolerance does not have to be based on weakness, spinelessly nodding through everything that is the case. There is also a tolerance based on strength, one that emerges from a consciously adopted position and which has the courage to cultivate a certain distance until mutual respect is established.

What value does a completely enlightened – i.e. godless – society have with which to counter a (partially) unenlightened one? This is the fundamental problem that has sealed the downfall of many great civilizations. Now, then, the mission of the white man – as pursued since the dawn of the Modern Age – is the next to come to an end, not least on account of its increasing focus on earthly things. Outside the Western world, few are prepared to forego the roof of a protective and meaningful transcendence if the dubious fruits of nihilism are all that is offered in return. Now, as it appears to degenerate into a purely consumerist doctrine, the enlightenment of the unenlightened, as it has been practised for centuries, is itself the object of a form of counter-mission.

Even in the cradle of this enlightenment, we who have established our lives so comfortably in an all-encompassing critical distance to positions of any kind are now unable to oversee the ubiquitous signs of a longing for fixed positions, amounting to a gentle counter-enlightenment – a new, eclectic religiosity consisting of esoteric fragments patched together according to individual tastes, as a provisional reaction to the intensity of religious sentiment we have been confronted with from outside for some years now. And what if we ourselves, as the last advocates of the Enlightenment, were actually fed up with our free-floating lack of ties, what if we were longing for a new sense of rootedness and were ready to risk a crossover between all-corroding reason and irrational vision?

During my months in the Caribbean, I often asked myself why, when I was exhausted by the vitality of others, it was in the Afro-Cuban cults, of all places, that I regained my strength. Why, of all things, the sect-like rituals of the Santería and Palo Monte gave me a sense of security whose effect even lasted a while on my return to everyday life. And the answer I reluctantly gave myself again and again was that besides giving us a great deal, Enlightenment finally takes away that which makes life easier and brings happiness closer – certainty beyond knowledge, steadfastness in spite of all trials and tribulations – and precisely this was rendered palpable by every practising Santero or Palero. It was only during these hours of ritual that I felt once again the cathartic trembling before the superhuman which in Christian churches has vanished in the programme of "love thy neighbour as thyself". Who wants bread and wine when they can have blood and (sacrificed) meat? Who wants a benevolent god in some abstract realm who has withdrawn from his creation (with a shepherd-in-chief who always appears uncertain, in spite of the hype surrounding the Pope), when they can have priests who give clear instructions and certainty in life, when they can have communication with the dead, when they can have gods who violently possess their followers to dance, smoke and drink with them? Anyone who has experienced the undiminished, African intensity of religious belief in the Caribbean – with all its fear and horror, dread and terror, to the point of barbarity – knows that in the long term, our godless society cannot defend itself against this with a private brand of individualist esotericism.

Because what use to us is all the "freedom from", when we are no longer able to use it as "freedom for"? Even the project of the Enlightenment, that supreme philosophical achievement of Old Europe that has made its triumphant progress around the world, obviously by no means marks the end of the evolution of worldviews, except for the "happy few" of a free-thinking elite that is required by any society. Enlightenment or counter-Enlightenment, that is the alternative that most certainly will not be resolved on September 18. Faced with the fundamental problem at hand, which party is entrusted with the destiny of the "responsible citizens" is totally irrelevant. Economic growth, homeland security, zero unemployment? No! The things we seem not to be able to do without in the long term are Faith, Hope and Love. And this is what we must now comprehend, without malice, even the committed atheists among us who continue undeterred in their quest to prevent (or even promote) the grinding down of our familiar word in the mill of globalization by purely political means. Otherwise, we are history.

*

The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on September 1, 2005

Matthias Politycki (born 1955) lives in Hamburg and Munich. The books that established his reputation are "Weiberroman" (vixen novel) and "Ein Mann von vierzig Jahren" (a man of 40). His new novel "Herr der Hörner" (Herr of the horns) is about to be published by Hoffmann und Campe.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell.

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