New World vs. Old World Flipped

By Michael Lederer

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?

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Michael Led­er­er is an Amer­i­can writer who lives in Berlin, Dubrovnik, and Cadaqués. His first nov­el, Cadaqués, was pub­lished in Feb­ru­ary 2014. He has just writ­ten his sec­ond nov­el, Don Quixote Sav­ing Amer­i­ca.