A little bit of democracy: Election Season

A few weeks ago, I participated in the Berlin elections. Because Berlin is a city-state, this election was the equivalent of a US state election. I had received my voters invitation in the mail back in August. In the meantime, I watched how the city became smothered in campaign posters, each more eye-catching than the last. Every few days, volunteers for the parties would hand out fliers and pens or free cloth shopping bags to lure people into considering their party. Perhaps, because one does a lot more moving around the city in Berlin, one sees a lot more people and posters. It also helps that Germany has a thriving multi-party system. Unlike the US, with its winner-gets-it-all system, Germany’s national and state parliaments  are made up proportionally by the number of votes a party gets. There are certain rules, like you have to get more than 5% of the vote to get in- a rule put in place since WWII that may have prevented the Nazis from getting into parliament in 1932. However, the system means that even if you don’t vote for the popular party, your vote isn’t wasted. Unfortunately, that’s how many voters in the US feel, which is why we can’t get out of our stupid Republican/Democrat binary.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns in Germany either. Interestingly, German campaign posters almost always include a representative’s profile picture, as if how the person looks will affect if they are voted for (unfortunately, it kind of does work that way). There’s also a rising right-wing party that can actually get power in this country and white supremacists and nationalists get a voice again in a country where it shouldn’t happen again. In the name of democracy, we are supposed to let them have a voice too… so that’s also an issue.

However, the voting process itself was a neat process. Despite all the parties, it’s not as complicated as one imagines. In fact, the ballots are about just as long as in the US. The difference is that one doesn’t ignore everyone beyond the first two lines. Libertarians get considered, conservative nature lovers get considered, socialists exist and get considered… it’s a very diverse ballot for which citizens actually have to prepare themselves and inform themselves. That’s not to say that many people still don’t vote the two largest parties- Christian Democratic and Social Democratic, but these parties rarely get the majority of the vote at the state or national level, and that’s a good thing!

So, when I went to vote (and voting happens on Sunday in Germany, giving everyone- even people with 10-hour jobs- the chance to vote!), I parked my bike outside a historic music school, got in line with the other voters of my district, and pulled out a book. I had a bit of a wait, but soon enough I got to hand over y ID and voting invite for inspection, and then I was in a voting booth with my papers and a pen. I guess I was surprised that the ballots were not electronic, and I didn’t expect that I would be voting for my district representative as well. I was also amused that when voting for the representative, a little note of advice happens below the representative’s name saying: suggested vote: (insert representative’s party name here). I won’t say who or what part(ies) I voted for, but I will say that I was able to vote two different parties at the state and district level and feel good about it. I think that the German systems allows for more representation of all the different values a person can have… and I’m a happy voter in Germany. I can’t really say the same about the upcoming presidential election in the US.

Now starts a part of my post where I’m going to add my two cents to the discussion about those up for election in November. For those who have had enough of this, I understand if you don’t want to continue reading. For those mildly curious for what a 25 year old with degrees in literature has to say, I promise I’ve put thought into this post and I’m reasonable, someone who looks for compromise rather than antagonism.

Let me start off with a fun fact. I grew up in a bipartisan household. One parent carries a Republican voting card, the other a Democratic one. How does this work, you wonder? How can they have been married for more than 25 years? A lot of it has to do with the ability to find compromise, and that the basic values upheld by both my parents are the same.

One of my favorite philosophers is Kwame Anthony Appiah. I’ve written about him before in this blog, but his famous book Cosmopolitanism outlines what he believes should be a global philosophy: that we respect other people’s values and beliefs enough to listen to them and consider them. While the ability to communicate is inherent to this philosophy to work, I believe it is a good philosophy. Often, though, as I see in my own home, this communication often goes astray. One party has a harder time expressing why they do things or value things a certain way. There will always be one group who is louder, more articulate, or more logical. Still, as Appiah outlines in his chapter “The Primacy of Practice,”

Conversation doesn’t have to lead to consensus about anything, especially not values; it is enough that it helps people get used to one another.

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ve been engaging in conversation with me about Germans and US Americans. I try to share my observations about both countries, often working hard to keep my personal bias and upbringing out of it. I’ve never suggested that one country is the better of the two – such a vast generalization would be absurd, and I can only emphasize how Germans live and love living in the US and vice versa, without having to give up the cultural beliefs or habits they brought with them.

So, if the daily life of a person can be satisfactory, despite constant exposure to difference, why can’t we listen more to each other talking about politics? What happened to constructive debate?

Yes… of course I set up a segue to last night’s presidential debate, which I found less than satisfactory. Spectators are saying that Clinton won that debate, but only because she as able to keep her cool while Trump was revealed for being the incoherent, ill-prepared, narcissist he’s been for most of the campaign. Maybe this means Trump should not be head of state. Even if he supports the values of most Republicans, he’s not ready for the position. Can you imagine the state dinners with Trump at the head of the table? Do people really think the man knows how to be a diplomat? Money is power, and Trump has money. But he has none of the tact, intelligence, or basic human sympathy that we need in our political leaders.

So, that puts the US in an awful position, because while many Republicans of the US can’t vote Hillary Clinton out of principle inspired by their belief in honesty, good character, and following rules, they can’t vote Trump either. Many of these Republicans would also rather see the Republican Party in power, because even if it’s headed by Trump, at least their values will be represented. I understand their wishes for freedom, financial security, and less interference from government in their personal lives.

The funny thing is, I also understand the Democrat’s wish for security and less interference from government in their lives. After all, anti-abortion laws are government interference. Health-care and other “socialist” endeavors are endeavors for financial security for citizens of the US- that’s just addressing the obvious. There are many subtle ways in which the goals of all US Americans are the same- upholding basic human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s how we practice these rights that changes.

In the end, democrats have to compromise with republicans and republicans with democrats, lobbyists put their hand in the pot, and we end up with pretty much the same measures, regardless of who is the main man or woman in charge. What we can choose, however, is the first representative of our country.

Now, I return to the beautiful multiparty system, and ask, why can’t the US get out of its stupid binary? Why is the presidential debate only held between two people? Let’s not forget, there’s the Libertarian Gary Johnson. There will be more than three names on the presidential ballot in November. There’s always the write-in possibility (but, that’s a bit of a misnomer, since the possibility is so small).

My final note will maybe satisfy what those of you who did continue reading were waiting to see: where do I stand? Well, out of my upbringing, education, and beliefs, I think it is my responsibility to help all groups in society have equal access to opportunity and resources. The US party I believe comes closest to supporting this endeavor is the democratic one. However, I struggle with voting Clinton. It is hard to deny that there is something wrong about using personal email servers for state business. Every employee is able to separate the private and professional email. Why couldn’t she? There must be something wrong in her character to do this, and then not want to open up her personal correspondences as well as state correspondence for scrutiny. Right? Well, maybe. Maybe not. Retired army officer M. Thomas Davis (former Republican voter, I’ll bet) wrote a column I personally find convincing, but know has received its share of backlash: “Don’t let Clinton emails dominate debates.”

From here on out, until the election, I’m going to try and leave previous bias against either runner behind, and consider what each of the candidates have to say in response to direct questions about policies, how they will handle national and international security, education and health care reforms, and climate change. I encourage you to do the same with the issues you find important.

Just saying. Those were my two cents.




Asylum Seekers in Germany

I can’t believe that within a few months of leaving my year-long stay in Germany, two things happened that are drastically reshaping the image of Germany.

The first is, unfortunately, the huge Volkswagen scandal that the company will probably overcome (though hopefully not to soon before I have the money to buy a VW Beetle). However, it may change the way people look at the German auto industry and the lable “made in Germany” loses some of its integrity.

The second shift in German/world relations is occurring with the mass migration of refugees from the Middle East, fleeing from the IS, war in Syria, or other life-threatening situations. This is causing the international spotlight to come on Germany in regards to social relations (outside of directly economic discussion) for the first time since the country was reunited in 1989.

If I could be there now, I would want to help the refugees learn German and get to know the German language and culture while learning from them. There’s a lot to learn on either side, but we should also remember to think about the things that make us similar before we dwell on those that make us different.

Since I was first introduced to the reader the writing program at my university uses, I was drawn to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s excerpts. Taken from the 2006 published Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, these excerpts make up the introduction and a chapter and explain Appiah’s concept and  envisioned practice of “cosmopolitanism.”

The word, as Appiah tells us, comes from the Greek words  πολίτης/polités and κόσμος/cosmos signifying “citizen” and “world.” Thus, a cosmopolitan is someone who is a citizen of the world. However, in a world that is perhaps even more globalized than it was in 2006, where people from all over the world travel to the middle east within months of the announcement of the so called Islamic State to join them with a speed that movements across borders has never been crossed before, the ideas behind this concept need to be broken down further. As Appiah writes:

“Only in the past couple of centuries, as every human community has gradually been drawn into a single web of trade and a global network of information, have we come to a point where each of us can realistically imagine contacting any other of our six billion conspecifics and send[…] that person something worth having: a radio, an antibiotic, a good idea. Unfortunately, we could also send through negligence as easily as malice, things that will cause harm a virus, an airborne pollutant, a bad idea” ( 68).

Appiah envisions cosmopolitanism as a state of being in which one recognizes that one has “obligations to others […] that stretch beyond” ties of blood and citizenship (69). However, it is also that “we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance” (69).

Taken at face value, this looks very typical for movements for world peace. If only we could all just get along…

Beyond the obvious difficulty with “getting along” that needs both parties to step back (otherwise one is still on the offensive and a threat to the other), there’s a difficulty with what Appiah describes in particular. Perhaps that is why he calls it the “name not of the solution, but of the problem” (69).

“The challenge, then, is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennial of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become” (68). Some will ask what the UN is supposed to do, if not be the institution that allows us to live together. That’s a good question.

I think the U.N., and similar organizations like the E.U. try to bring together many different groups with different relations to the timeline of humans and arrange the laws that will allow them to live and prosper (economically and intellectually) together. However, something Appiah opens my eyes to is the inherent difficulty in having an obligation to all human life, and trying to honor particular life. That is, while there is the idea of morality that all people share, supposedly, how can one pass laws that ask people to respect each other’s ethical codes?

In asking this question in particular, I am thinking of the current situation in Europe, particularly in Germany where asylum seekers are “welcomed” in a higher number than any other European country. Refugees bypass countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary to get to Germany.

Beyond the logistic problems with finding subsistence, medical care, and housing for 10,000 people in a day, there are also the social issues. I don’t want to talk about the massive wave of xenophobia that this influx of foreigners in a country incites, as it would in every country (see US), because in the German context this topic is always complicated by its well-documented history. However, I think it is important to note how Appiah’s idea of cosmopolitanism may help the Germans and the asylum seekers alike in handing the situation.

If groups of refugees are already persecuting other groups on religious or political grounds in the camps, how will they handle the differences they will find in the German public? If it is their goal to seek asylum in Germany and live there for two years or more, do they plan to live with blinkers on the entire time and ignore everything around them? Or do they plan to antagonize the people within the new community that they come in contact with? Do they plan to be allowed to follow their own code of law while ignoring the laws and institutions in the country that is providing them a refuge from the war and terrorism they are (often) literally walking away from?

German laws are designed for the citizens of Germany to allow them to live together based on their shared idea of what is moral. These ideas are, most definitely, based on the same ideas of equal human rights among people of any culture, race, religion, political views, and (they’re working on this) gender/sexuality. Much to the chagrin of many, they even try to uphold the rights of political groups that support the infamous ideas of the National Socialist party of the 1930s-1945. They DON’T uphold the principles, but they uphold the right in a democracy of freedom of expression (to a certain extent) and having all voices represented in a political situation. What I’m trying to say here, is that the Germans are going to try and respect and tolerate the beliefs and practices of the people within Germany, as long as each person respects the beliefs and practices of the other person/people. This needs to be exhibited by everyone.

There should not be instances in the temporary housing of a refugee persecuting another refugee because of his or her religion, ethnicity, or decision to travel alone (as a woman). If it happens in the camps, what can we expect when permanent more housing is found?

As in most situations, it is the single person, or few people who attract negative attention. The majority of the Germans still welcome refugees. The majority of the refugees are seeking to integrate peacefully and willing to make the necessary paradigm shift of what is accepted, while they plan (and have the right) to retain their values. This is what I think Appiah means in his idea of the practice of cosmopolitanism.

I’m curiously following international and German news to see how this continues.

Now would be a great time to write a PhD dissertation on contemporary Middle-Eastern writers in Germany (a suggestion for myself as I continue to bridge the gap in my education).

Source referred to: Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Making Conversation” and “Primacy of Practice.” from Emerging: Contemporary Readings for Writers. Barclay Barrios, ed. 2nd. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 67-83. Print.