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Birth of the Rebel Citizen in Germany


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In its 2010 Christmas Eve issue, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung had a special gift for its readers. The reputed conservative newspaper opened its cultural pages with an article penned by Thilo Sarrazin, a former German Federal Bank executive and member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) who seized the opportunity to muse on the incidents of the past months. His book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Does Away With Itself) had been published in late August 2010, and was benefitting from massive support by high-circulation media such as the tabloid Bild and Der Spiegel, which had printed excerpts from the book in advance. The book sold about 1.2 million copies and became the best-selling non-fiction book on the politics of the past decade.[footnote Thilo Sarrazin, “Ich hätte eine Staatskrise auslösen können,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, No. 300, December 24, 2010, 33.] In his article, Sarrazin boasts of having almost caused a crisis in the German state. Certainly, his 464 page diatribe against the failure of the welfare state, multiculturalism, and in particular against Muslim immigrants and their alleged reluctance to “integrate,” spiced up with demographic statistics and eugenicist speculations on “race” and “intelligence” had made the man the most loved and hated voice (and face) of a populist vibe running rampant throughout the country. And these feelings are shared by millions of (largely middle-class) Germans who not only indulge in increasingly unfettered resentment against immigrants, the unemployed, and the working poor, but also unite around the collective blaming of the political class and the media for having failed to sort out the “problems” of demographic change and economic crisis.

The deprecating responses his book prompted among leading politicians, from Chancellor Angela Merkel to President Christian Wulff, but also among his fellow Social Democrats and the majority of media commentators, amounts—according to Sarrazin’s Christmas Eve dispatch (full of self-congratulatory “contempt”)—to the perceptions of a threatening “cartel of political correctness” common among “citizens” who, thanks to the debate instigated by his blockbuster, are finally empowered to ask the very questions that “have been for a long time confined to political discourse.”

Sound familiar? Perhaps it does, because such a critique of “political discourse” is utterly familiar populist discourse. Accusing a putative leftist hegemony of ruling by means of undemocratically-imposed “politically correct” lawmaking has been populist stump speech for quite some time. However, things don’t stay the same even if they sound or look as if nothing has changed since the last time it seemed necessary to contest the right-wing idea of political correctness as the enemy of free speech. As odd as it may seem for Viennese art critics Matthias Dusini and Thomas Edlinger to have recently announced that they will work on a book on political correctness, this announcement seems to reflect a renewed desire to attack what is perceived as an overregulated and disempowering discourse backed by unquestioned consensus. Dusini, a regular contributor to Springerin and the art editor of the leftist Vienna city newspaper Falter, already made his stance on political correctness available in a commentary published in the Der Standard newspaper. Rhetorically, he asked why a former Bundesbank executive such as Sarrazin, or, for that matter, Kadri Tezcan, the Turkish ambassador in Vienna who publicly criticized Austrian immigration policy, have become the real taboo-breakers of our time, whereas contemporary artists and curators, afraid to violate the rules of politeness and political correctness, of “the language of anti-ziganism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-homophobia,” don’t dare “to call a spade a spade.”[footnote Matthias Dusini, “Neo-Avantgardisten der Höflichkeit?,” Der Standard, November 24, 2010. See .] Deploying the well-known discursive strategy of addressing contemporary art as some general and homogeneous whole that lacks the courage to act according some idea of “art” that requires no further explanation, Dusini willfully joins the ranks of those populist critics who yearn for an art that is wild and angry, non-conformist to the core, and therefore automatically immune to the temptations of a self-indulgent, presumably leftist blindness to the real challenges society is facing.

The reasons for this alleged blindness are well known among the ideologues of the old new right. Norbert Bolz, a German philosopher who came a long way from Walter Benjamin scholarship, postmodern media theory, and his “consumerist manifesto,” to current self-declared intellectual leadership (assisted by fellow thinkers such as Peter Sloterdijk, Robert Spaeman, or Udo DiFabio) over a tremor of allegations about leftist hegemony, provides valuable, if ultimately unsurprising, insight into the workings of the neoconservative mindset. As Bolz has it:

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