• Looking for Trouble (and Answers) in Berlin

    September 16, 2019 // 11 Comments »


     

    I went looking for trouble in Berlin.

    Traveling in Germany as an American I was left with one thought: why can’t we live this way? Of course modern Germans have their problems, but it seems wherever you go it is clean, safe, organized. They pay taxes, sure, but receive nearly free healthcare, college, and federally-mandated vacation time. The trains run on time. They have trains everywhere.
     

    But there had to be more to it. So I went looking for trouble, asking Berliners where I shouldn’t go, where the off-limits parts of town are, you know, the places I wouldn’t be safe. It turned out to be a difficult question. OK, there were some areas where I might be pickpocketed at night, and a few parks where if I went in search of someone to sell me drugs I might find him. Prostitution is legal and sin is orderly. The closest I saw to a fight was four drunk non-German tourists hassling passers by. I went to an immigrant area which was statistically Berlin’s highest crime zone, and saw lots of graffiti and received some close looks but nothing more threatening than that. I couldn’t find a really bad part of town, and I tried.

    A similar quest in nearly any major American city would be a lot easier. We run our lives, never mind plan a tourist’s itinerary, around the bad parts of town. I live in New York City, where we play a kind of parlor game about which areas are not as bad as they used to be. In Alphabet City where they filmed Taxi Driver in the 1970s the former crack houses now rent out tiny apartments for over $3,000 a month. There is a moderate push-pull between the border of the Upper East Side and Harlem as gentrification drives up housing prices.

    The police presence around the areas in Harlem where tourists venture — the legendary Apollo Theater, the soul food restaurants — is effective even as the area still retains its snap. I was savagely beaten not far away, near the White Castle which serves as a kind of Checkpoint Charlie between zones. I wandering into five black teenagers pounding the life out of a much smaller Hispanic kid and yelled for them to stop or I’d call the cops. They quit, but circled around the block and attacked me, all at 4pm in the afternoon, you know, just after school.

    So at age 60 I threw my first punch in anger since maybe 8th grade. After the cops came and the attackers scattered (and nobody nearby saw nothing) I was told I was likely part of an initiation, as no one made any attempt to rob me or the Hispanic kid. The cops said almost certainly a gang member was taping it all, so I should check online. It made me remember how the insurgents in Iraq would also have a video guy nearby when they set off an IED.
     

    Pray for the tourist who alights at Hunts Point in the Bronx. The neighborhood has the highest reported crime rate in New York City, including the most violent crime. And given the poor relations between residents and the police, you can be assured reported crimes represent only some sliver of what really happens. Over 50 percent of the area lives in high or extreme poverty. Unemployment is among the highest in the state. It’s all just eight subway stops from Jeffrey Epstein’s old mansion.

    Hunts Point is split between blacks and people from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but race is less the criteria for victims than familiarity. Very, very few people on those streets don’t already live there, and as a stranger of any hue you are unwelcome except as prey. Daytime, in and out of a roast chicken joint, okay, but stay off the side streets, keep your eyes down, avoid displays of gang colors (and you better know what they are) and, well, just don’t go there.

    A good friend spent a couple of years in a Hunts Point high school under Teach for America, our national service program designed to destroy the souls of liberal arts graduates, and was told her most dangerous days would be her first, until the beast that is the neighborhood adjusted to her presence. Luckily she he was quickly subsumed as a neutral element, and by the end of her tenure probie gang members in her classes would even graciously suggest she not hang around after school certain days when trouble was expected.
     

    New York is also awash in hate crime, centered in parts of Queens and Brooklyn formerly considered “safe.” Hate crimes reported this year show an 83 percent rise over the corresponding period last year, what the governor calls a “growing cancer.” In one recent incident, Heil Hitler, a swastika, and the words “gas chamber” were spray painted on a predominantly Jewish club which counts many Holocaust survivors among its members. The hate crime wave is under-reported, however, in that the majority of the incidents are anti-Semitic, and the perpetrators often black, as once-separated neighborhoods grow together, all counter-narrative to the national white supremacy meme.
     

    On the S-Bahn train trip back into Berlin center from another not-so-bad bad neighborhood I was preoccupied with the people around me. None of them were really poor, or even could become poor. Under Germany’s social system, there is only what they call “relative poverty,” with the lowest levels of households receiving about 60 percent of the average German income. So everybody eats.

    And everybody gets medical care; the healthcare system in Germany is funded by statutory contributions ensuring healthcare for all. You can also choose private insurance. The system can be complicated, but basically takes about 7 percent out of everyone’s paycheck, matched by their employer. Absent yearly copays of maybe $50, that’s it. If you make below a minimum wage, you pay nothing and still get the same healthcare as others. The system also covers long-term nursing care.

    College is free. At work, there are maternity benefits, a cash child allowance, and laws ensuring expectant mothers stay home for six weeks before birth and eight weeks after. Child mortality rates are almost twice as good as in the U.S. overall, and staggering compared to forgotten places like Hunts Point. The United States is the only advanced industrial nation that doesn’t have national laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave.

    For every German there is a national pension plan, work-related accident insurance, and welfare for extreme situations. No one lives homeless except by choice. The U.S. is also the only advanced economy not guaranteeing workers any vacation, paid or unpaid, and the only highly developed country (other than South Korea) that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days. In contrast, European Union nations guarantee workers at least four weeks paid vacation. Among the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. has the lowest minimum wage as a percentage of the median wage.

    In Germany there are plenty of rights. Free speech and freedom of religion all you want, elections at all levels. Even with restrictions Germany has one of the highest global rates of gun ownership. And none of that gets mixed up in questions of whether to provide everyone healthcare, because it has nothing to do with providing everyone healthcare, or a college education, or maternity leave.
     

    I’m sure there are downsides beyond what a short term visitor can see. But look around Germany: whatever the tax rates, it works for a very broad range of people. Not perfectly, but it works and it’s better than what we have in what we unironically and constantly otherwise remind ourselves is the Greatest Country in the World. You can’t get past that. I don’t know how to twist every detail to make it work in America, and I’m not sure Bernie or Elizabeth or whomever we could elect can try hard enough (Trump and Biden are campaigning on not trying), but there it is, in Germany. And in the UK, Japan, China, Canada, etc. To an American, it all sounds too good to be true.

    I write with a certain desperation, not wonderment. I’m not an undergrad who just took his first trip overseas, amazed at the great big world. I lived abroad for 24 years, used national health care in three nations, and traveled to many others. I’ve been a Democrat, voted Republican and third party, been called a fascist and a liberal, had long hair and short, lived in my car and paid off a mortgage.

     

    In Germany I had some sense of what life would be like freed from the burdens which define American life: no worries about healthcare, or old age care. Money enough to really live on if I lose my job or become disabled. No decades-long burdens to get my education, followed by more to help pay the rising costs of my kids’. No worries about outliving my savings, or having a carefully crafted retirement plan blown to shreds by a recession, or being struck down illness my insurance won’t pay for. To never have to wonder how to pay for their spouse’s life-saving medications or watch them whither. What would life be like absolved of those fears?

     

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Is America’s Answer to Its Immigration Assimilation Problem in Germany’s Mistakes?

    August 28, 2019 // 5 Comments »

     

    Too many Americans think immigration is about arguing over head scarfs. Many simplistically demand or oppose the diversity migrants bring. But they’re all using the wrong words, maybe because the right word – heimat — is in German.
     

    The Marzahn neighborhood is way out of town, near the end of the S-Bahn train line, in what used to be East Berlin. There aren’t many obvious signs of the heady Cold War days except the most obvious ones, endless rows of Stalinist apartment blocks. They’re plattenbau, housing constructed of prefabricated concrete slabs. From a distance they look like the greatest set of Legos ever made, and are much more colorful than the brown-gray public housing people in New York live in. The Marzahn area was historically farmland, but in the 1970s and 80s these housing estates were the largest in East Germany, mass scale showcase socialist living.

    The fall of the Berlin Wall sent the sharper residents west and the Marzahn area was populated for many years by Germans who could not or would not leave, East Germans left behind by the new demands of capitalism. The population fell from 170,000 about 12,000. In 2015 the near-empty neighborhood was called on to house a large number of Muslims flooding out of the Middle East and North Africa. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to bypass the orderliness of the Dublin Convention and expeditiously take in more than one million migrants (with more to come; the backlog of asylum applications is still well over 400,000) brought the challenges of assimilation to the fore in German politics. With the new additions, today every fifth person in Germany comes from an immigration background.

    Initial enthusiasm gave way to fear amid rising numbers of new immigrants. Violent protests hit the eastern city of Chemnitz, leading Merkel’s interior minister to call immigration “the mother of all political problems.” Populist politician Thilo Sarrazin published Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself) about the end of a majority race in the nation as more and more Muslims arrived, apparently with the sole goal of reproducing. One conservative Christian Social Union politician announced “Islam doesn’t belong in Germany.”

    The Germans in places like Marzahn who awoke one day to find themselves living among immigrants became known as some Euro version of the characters in Hillbilly Elegy. They reacted by registering some of the strongest support for the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD), helping AfD finish third in the 2017 elections. Marzhan’s reputation for crime, especially what we might call hate crime and what the Germans label “politically motivated crime,” rose.

     

    Things are quieter now, but the area today has one of Germany’s highest unemployment rates at 20 percent. About 45 percent of families with kids use government benefits. Like in Marzahn, in 43 percent of Berlin’s elementary schools the majority of children speak little or no German at home. More than 80 percent of Muslim migrants see themselves as “very religious” or “true believers.”

    Walking around Marzahn, I never found trouble. Some graffiti. A lot of suspicious looks. But stores were open with the cashiers not hidden behind protective glass, women in hijab pushed baby strollers while chatting on cellphones, and men smoking shisha in mid-afternoon returned the least of an obligatory nod. None wanted to talk, but none objected to me asking. They weren’t going anywhere, but they also weren’t going anywhere.

     

    The other 88 percent of the people in the area are German.

    “No, no, nobody is going to burn down the mosque,” sighed one German. “But none of us are friends with them.” Another interrupted to point out Muslims don’t wait in line, and don’t try to speak German. They don’t work hard, he said. He had been a bricklayer. His generation had its first Christmases in the ruins of WWII. They’d seen the massive 1960’s and onward diaspora of Turkish guest workers, gastarbeiters, frustratingly still not fully assimilated. Someone who might have been second? third? generation Turk swept the floor around us and another who looked like a sibling tended bar. Every German has a favorite late night doner kebab joint run by a faux-friendly Turkish guy with a funny accent. Fewer have a Turkish best friend.

    “There are always those who will take advantage of this problem, for politics,” said one German. “But no one seems to understand what we feel.” It didn’t take long for the word heimat to come up. It is often mistranslated as “homeland” or even “fatherland” by American progressives desperate to connect everything to some creeping Nazi resurgence, but a definition truer to this conversation would be a place allowing someone to experience safety in the form of predictability, a place of reliability of existence. A place where you know where you are and what is around you, and what is around you supports your sense of heimat. It tells you you are in the right place. Rooted. The opposite is feeling rootless in your supposed home, a foreigner in what once was your country.

     

    Heimat was what this was about, creating it somehow or suffering when you don’t, something evolutionary, not revolutionary, progress or lack of, not to be judged by one election or two. It was about the longer term, politics vs. assimilation vs. stubbornness vs. time cheating away anyone who remembered it differently. Historical-time scale change, the kind that took from WWII through the Cold War through Reunification in these German lives here.

    Maybe that only can happen once a generation. But time alone doesn’t seem to be an answer either. The Turks, Germany’s largest minority group today at four million, remain largely segregated from mainstream culture. They earn lower wages than Germans, and their children are less likely to attend university. Generations in, mostly citizens now, many still work the “immigrant jobs.” As one writer put it, “We asked for workers, and human beings came instead.” Nobody had a plan for that.

    But somebody somewhere tried to raise awareness, told everyone to change, or refuse to change, or that the other side should change, or they are racist not to change, or that change is antithetical to who they are. Anti-racism morphed into anti-whiteness. You are a lesser person because of the way you vote. Every group’s goal should be to create their own Wakanda. Expecting migrants to blend in to a homogeneous society nullifies the benefit of multiculturalism. Expecting a homogeneous society to simply accept the changes and challenges of multiculturalism as a “value” ignores millennia of human nature. Anger and fear are always exploitable. The dinosaurs didn’t live forever but unmanaged they stomped a lot of mammals on the way out.

     

    It would have been easy to move the discussion from Marzahn, Berlin to Akron, Ohio. There are always people who see it as Brown and White. Their answers are simple and will fail as simplistic. More/less immigration. Progressive/racist. Build the wall/abolish ICE. Asylum for almost none/asylum for almost all and let the ones denied stay anyway. #Families/#None without skills.

    The better of the Germans eschew hashtags to ask themselves what their heimat will look like in five and 50 years, and likely so on the Muslim side as well. As on both sides of the Atlantic, it is easy to guess everyone would agree the government will continue to not bother to solve the problems arising out from the lack of integration. In search of a modern answer, one person introduced a term, societal diversity management, currently missing from the polarized conversation.

    Politicians decide how many and how fast for their own short-term election goals. Whoever was already there and whoever just arrived are left to work it out. People stand across the street from one another, one side despairing their rootlessness because they won’t change to assimilate the newcomers, the other facing multi-generational marginalization because they won’t adapt. They think they’re arguing over head scarfs when in fact they are arguing about the need to create a livable version of heimat.
      

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in 2020, Economy, Trump