As an American writer living in Germany, I care deeply for both countries. It is a strange time to do so, as powers-that-be in Germany and would-be powers in the States do all they can to reverse traditional roles these two powerhouses have maintained in my half-century lifetime and beyond. There’s a sense of vertigo trying to recall which is the so-called old world and which is the new.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has thrown open her country’s sheltering arms and heart to welcome an influx of refugees fleeing fear, oppression, and war. Meanwhile across the Atlantic, a battalion of unwelcoming xenophobes – led for the moment by Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Ted Cruz – is committed to building walls, enforcing deportation, and taking other draconian steps to reduce immigration to the slowest trickle possible. The face in the mirror is the same as the one they hope to see in our airports, shopping malls, and harbors. No Muslims, no Mexicans … it’s a long list. And that’s only up to the M’s.
Instead of a nation of immigrants as we have always been, we would become a nation of armed-to-the-teeth, wall-building, us-vs.-them isolationists under their steerage. The rest of the world be damned. If successful, they would bring to an end the America I’ve always known, loved, and so happily pledged allegiance to hand over heart. That would not be conservative, it would be radical (see Orwell: doublespeak) since the United States was essentially founded on liberal principles: people arriving on boats from other shores to create “a more perfect union” guaranteeing, among other things, no establishment of any one preferred religion. If then as now, Mr. Trump had proposed registering all Muslims in a database, it’s not hard to imagine the Founding Fathers rising to their feet and crying, “Is the right honorable gentleman from New York out of his fucking mind? That, sir, is not what we are about!”
First they came for…
The Drumpf family came from Germany, the Cruz family from Cuba. Still, their lucky-to-be-born-free sons, with little eye toward their own family histories, advocate a new creed: My boat has landed, no more boats. Nice.
In my new book, In the Widdle Wat of Time, I have a poem called “America Lost.” It offers a painful rephrasing of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty:
Do not give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Do not send these the homeless tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the closed door
Across the same sea where Liberty stands, against odds and at extreme political peril to herself, Angela Merkel has looked to Germany’s long term interests in accepting so many refugees. Beyond the demographic imperative of redressing a fast-aging population and lowest-in-the-world birthrate, the chancellor is repositioning Germany not only as the economic powerhouse it has been, but also as a moral powerhouse to be. Many hope to stop her, and it is certainly an evolving policy not without its perils, but for the effort alone she has already dusted off some tired old stereotypes.
If not yet misty-eyed, the world at least looks upon this new Germany in a more benevolent way. Its export-driven economy that has benefitted so abundantly by globalization, selling the world its cars, electronics, pharmaceuticals and other goods, is now seen as understanding that the globe is made up of more than just consumers.
During World War II, Germany itself created so many refugees (including my own father, aunt and grandparents, who arrived from Europe on a boat to NY harbor in 1944). Events of 1933-45 long defined a country that today as much as any embraces the notion of “the other,” even as some loud voices in the U.S. reject it. It’s disorienting.
What’s an American ex-pat in Germany to think?