Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Germany as a mirror to the West

On the website of the German magazine 'Der Spiegel' (The Mirror), a worried article appeared about cultural - and hence, political - identity. Since Germany is not only the 'heart' of Europe but also a mirror to developments which are happening elsewhere in the Western world, the text has implications wider than the country the article refers to. Also, the subject has implications for culture and thus, musical culture.

The problem is, that the universalist claims of Western-type society, based upon Enlightenment values, clashes with the emotional needs for community, the feeling of being 'at home' in an environment that safeguards and stimulates development, instead of the loneliness and alienation that often goes together with the individual freedoms characteristic of megacities. This mirrors the two basic needs of humans: the rational and the emotional needs. We may want to entirely accept the totally different lifestyle of our neighbours but may in the same time feel utterly disconnected from it, which prevents a comfortable feeling of being 'at the right place' and hinders communication in case a problem arises.

An overall, rational framework based upon Enlightenment values is a condition for different people living peacefully together. This framework is not negotiable, because without it, conflict and ultimately, war will erupt, drawing humans back to a pre-civilizational condition where no party can win. But within such framework, space has to be created for communities where people find each other on other values, based upon culture - with the caveat that they are not violating those of the framework. In practice, this could mean: not liking Jews or Muslems, but restraining from any negative expression to Jewish or Muslem people. Or: disapproving of arranged marriage, but accepting it if arranged in freedom and with the approval of the concerned parties. (This would create quite some difficulties with, for instance, circumcision: according to framework values, it should be prohibited since it is a violation of human rights; but prohibition would be a violation of freedom of religion and culture; in such cases, it seems obvious that the framework should prevail.)

There are thus two layers of awareness: first, of the universalist framework based upon Enlightenment values of human rights which are universal and thus not connected with, or defined by, local culture; second, of individual and cultural awareness as pockets of human expression and life style within the overall universalist framework. This requires a consciousness into two different directions: one (upwards), a universalist consciousness based upon civilizational values and two (downwards), a localized one consisting of cultural values. Translated in terms of identity this means that an individual living in the West feels both being a Westerner and embracing universalist values, and being culturally and emotionally related to a community within Western society.

For Germany this creates quite particular problems: what is 'German'? Its history shows that there have been many different Germanies, different identities. Obviously, such country has to choose the best from its catalogue. But what is 'the best'? It seems that Germany's humanism, as expressed in its Enlightenment explorations, and its classicism as espoused in its traditional educational system - the Bildung trajectory, including much culture -  is the most compatible with the overall Western civilizational framework, which has some of its most important roots in the German Enlightenment (Emmanuel Kant), next to the French philosophers of the 18th century. This means that the heart of German identity is in the same time at the heart of European, and thus Western, identity.

Something of this universalism has been felt by such people as Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Beethoven, the Humboldt brothers, and - in spite of his confusions - Richard Wagner who thought of a 'special mission' for German culture. This 'mission' can thus only be a universalist one and thus profoundly connected to a humanist framework which would include different people, different cultures, different ways of life. The picture of a hughe integration process thus unfolds before our eyes.... and the inevitable conclusion that the West has only travelled a certain distance on this trajectory and is by no means close to its goal. What currently happens in Germany is thus quite instructive for the rest of the West.

As the above-mentioned article concludes:

"What, then, belongs to Germany? What is it that keeps us together? The atheists and Jews, Christians and Muslims, lefties and right-wingers, western and eastern Germans, Bavarians and Saxons, urban dwellers and villagers. Who gets to decide who belongs and based on what criteria? Do German anti-Semites belong to Germany? What about AfD politicians? Or ghetto machos who rap about women only as "bitches" and who date women in headscarves? Or Muslim immigrants who insist on their right to have nothing to do with the Holocaust? Or Catholic fundamentalists who chant "Resistance! Resistance!" at anti-Merkel demonstrations? We likely have to put up with all of that. It is acceptable, after all, to have different opinions."

Certain of these questions can, probably, be answered thus:

Q: Who gets to decide who belongs and based on what criteria?
A: It should be consensus that the values of the universalist overall framework provide a standard according to which 'belonging' has to be decided (the rule of law, individual freedom, human rights etc.). Every individual who accepts these values as an overall umbrella belongs to society.

Q: Do German anti-Semites belong to Germany?
A: No, because antisemitism violates the overall framework.

Q: What about AfD politicians?
A: The expression of local dissatisfaction with different cultural expressions (muslem presence, asylum hostels, refugees) is legitimate since this belongs to the second layer of individual consciousness: the legitimate need to 'feel at home'. But where AfD politics cross the line of the overall framework, they violate the conditional structure of a peaceful society and thus have to strongly be countered. (On the basis of some of the AfD party program ideas, the party should simply be prohibited, and the mentioned dissatisfactions be channeled in another way; AfD politicians are obviously not suited for a constructive contribution to existing problems.)

Q:  Or ghetto machos who rap about women only as "bitches" and who date women in headscarves?
A: Wearing headscarves in itself says nothing about the women concerned. But these machos obviously do not belong to Germany, or to Europe, or to the West in general; their expressions violate the overall civilizational framework and thus they need to be re-educated or simply locked-up.

Q: Or Muslim immigrants who insist on their right to have nothing to do with the Holocaust?
A: They are absolutely right. Even, generations of local Germans who have not been engaged in WW II are in the same position. If my father were a murderer, I would suffer, but I would not be guilty of his crimes. Logically, I would not have to excuse myself for being the son of a murderer, however painful the connection. Holocaust commemorations are definitely useful, but not as some eternal guilt of the German nation but as a warning for all people in the world, since the mentalities and hatred which has set this crime in motion, are present everywhere and today we see their results in the news.

Q: Or Catholic fundamentalists who chant "Resistance! Resistance!" at anti-Merkel demonstrations?
A: They don't understand the society, the civilization, in which they live and need Bildung. They can exercise their religious variety in private within the limitations of the overall framework. Therefore the recent move of a Bavarian politician to require the presence of the Christian cross as an identity symbol, and in the same time as a political symbol, next to the Bavarian flag, and in all public state buildings, is totally wrong, and a violation of the overall framework. This man also needs a lot of Bildung.

"We likely have to put up with all of that. It is acceptable, after all, to have different opinions." This is only partly true: where 'different opinions' represent a violation of the overall universalist framework, they are definitely not acceptable. Such tolerance only fuels rightwing extremism and populist rallies. There should be laws prohibiting expression of such violations severely, to protect freedoms, human rights, and the great variety of how people want to live their private life.

The only way in which Germany can find its best form of identity, is through the definitions of the Enlightenment, universalist values like human rights, and its classical Bildungsideal as mentioned above. With this identity, it is part of the heart of Western civilization: partly local (German), partly universal (Western). Only in this way can Germany find its definite place in the world and be an important civilizational influence which is much needed in these days.

But what are the implications for culture, and specifically: for the classical music world in the West? A universalist framework within which different cultures can live peacefully together has, strictly speaking, no right to impose the centrality of one culture (classical music) over another (pop music, non-Western music). Culture belongs to the second layer of consciousness, the emotional one, which defines 'being at home' in the world. But, in general, different cultures are defined by different and often restrictive values, although some have a strong dosis of universalism. If we turn to European classical music, its long tradition (as exemplified in the works of, for instance, Bach and Beethoven) embodies profound universalist values, which are effective given their reception as such all over the world, but in their form of appearance - their realization - they are a cultural product and cannot claim universal imposition with the exclusion of other cultural products. However, the universalist element of such music is an organic part of the universal civilizational framework. A Beethoven symphony is thus a hybrid, partly cultural product, partly universal value. This hybrid nature extends over the entire repertoire of Western classical music (if we exclude for a moment the complications of 20C sonic art and modernism), and is the reason of the accusation of 'Western cultural imperialism' where Western classical music is accepted in cultural practice in, for instance, the Far East.

In questions of state subsidies for musical institutions in Europe, as increasingly debated in these days, it seems unfair to have a 'dominating, privileged' culture be financially supported via taxation by a multicultural society in the context of a universalist framework, as mentioned above: classical music has been a significant symbol of cultural identity connected to this framework through general taxation over a long time. This connection fuels the populist critique of 'elitism' of the art form and being given an 'unfair' treatment as something with 'priority' over pop music, jazz, hiphop, non-Western music and the like. Given the function of 'high culture', in spite of being contested in these days, which is to offer a symbol of cultural excellence and identity of a society, a universalist overall framework does not appear to support such claims since culture belongs to the second layer of consciousness and not to the overall universalist structure. On the other hand, letting go of all the support of classical music institutions would result in a desastrous loss of a precious culture - in the name of a truly just and universalist civilization, one of its greatest assets would thereby be practically destroyed.

Here, the hybrid nature of Western classical music comes to the rescue from this paradox: its being partly universalist, justifies state support in a society which strives after a universalist civilization. Within a multicultural context, giving Western classical music a central place - not necessarily a 'dominating place' - is legitimate, in spite of its appearance of a compromise. From this point of view, the answer to the question whether European traditional music should be central in Europe, can be countered with the question, whether Indian traditional music should be central in India, and thus also be answered with an affirmative 'yes' - on the condition that there should also be place for non-classical music and in Europe we see that this is, in general, overwhelmingly the case.

But what would happen - in a thought experiment - if European populations would gradually become more and more non-European? In other words, if - for instance - Muslem communities would extend so much that they democratically would feel justified to dislocate Western classical music from its privileged position in state subsidies and be replaced with non-European musical cultures? In theory, this would simply be a process of how societies change over time, like the Roman Empire changed much from a republic, through a centralized monarchy towards a theocracy, before it crumbled into chaos and destitution, changes which can be traced in its cultural products. If we want Europe to remain European, this would mean to safeguard its most important cultural symbols as a defining part of its constitution, whereby the mentioned compromise will have to strengthen those art forms - among which classical music - which have over such a long time articulated and defined the European spirit. The consequence of such initiative would be to have classical music embedded in the educational systems across the board, so that also young people from immigrant communities will have the chance to absorb its benefits and, if and when talents are present, would offer the opportunity to make a career in music life, thus preserving its perpetuation. If a symphony orchestra in today's China can consist exclusively of local Chinese, led by a Chinese conductor, performing Western classical repertoire for an all-Chinese audience - and brilliantly so - there is no reason to see a flowering European music life with its continued classical tradition equally practiced by decendants of non-European immigrants, they will have become entirely European.

Then the point of sonic art, and modernism as a cultural idea. Since modernism is based upon a fundamental break with the Western classical tradition (as demonstrated with its rejection of tonality and all its artistic potential), it has shown to be easily embraced by other cultures, since it did not require a 'cultural rooting' in past practice. Remarkably, European modernism has been embraced in those non-European countries which had equally suffered from war and drastic upheavels: Japan, South Korea, China, as pointed-out by German musicologist Wolfgang Andreas Schultz in his recent 'Die Heilung des verlorenen Ichs' (Europa Verlag 2018); just like Europe, these countries could identify with the need to break with a dark past and to start anew with a 'blank slate'. The rootlessness of modernism makes it seem to be much more compatible with the idea of a universalist overall framework than Western classical music which is a cultural product of many ages, and maybe to some extent this is true. However, its cultivation of pure sound, rationalism and (often) pure ugliness and artistic and psychological limitations relate it more directly to the alienation which results from a one-sided, rationalistic application of abstract Enlightenment values, exactly the cause of all those populist and rightwing protests which disfigure the face of the West in our days. So, modernism is unqualified to contribute to the preservation of classical music in general, first because it has rejected its traditions and second, because of its severe limitations.

All this means that a Western 'Leitkultur' (the overall universalist umbrella) has complex implications whereby both universalist values and particular cultural values must find a place. The worst that can happen, is that either the one or the other gets dominating and thus, would erode both territories of civilizational awareness.

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