*This text was originally published on academycologne.org. It is republished here with permission from the author.
After the events on New Year’s Eve, Cologne’s big names and VIPs worry about their city: In a joint appeal, they published a “Letter from Cologne”. Ekaterina Degot, Artistic Director of the Academy of the Arts of the World, comments on the text.
It is difficult not to be enthusiastic about tolerance, openness, safety, and liberal values. Who would not subscribe to that? However, the “Kölner Botschaft”, or “Letter from Cologne”, is unsettling and makes me uncomfortable—as a “privileged migrant” in Germany, as a woman (who happens to live next door to the main train station), and as artistic director of the Academy of the Arts of the World.
The text is fixated on the exclusively ethnocentric description of what was and must be seen as a criminal act, first and foremost in its non-essentialist functionality. It also presents the ethnic and racial frame as what fundamentally defines the Other, strongly supporting the racially based division between “us” and “them” that dominates public opinion. It offers proof of the same fear of the Other that has been ever-present in the private sphere, repressed until very recently, but now has erupted massively in the media. Being a foreigner who moved to Germany relatively recently, and a foreigner from a country (Russia) to which Germany has an ambivalent (and partly Orientalist) love-distrust-disgust relation, I know only too well how this mechanism of “othering” and “exoticization” (positive or negative, dependent on circumstances) works. Being a woman, I am also extremely disturbed not only by the sexual violence itself, but by the near-voyeuristic eroticization of its reporting and discussion, which adds insult to injury by further objectifying the women involved. This oversexualization of the event in the media represents the age-old white man’s fantasy of an “Oriental raping white women” that is told and retold with horror and hidden delectation. It does not at all reveal any real concern for women’s safety, as it fails to see the bigger picture and to recognize that the Domplatz in Cologne is still, despite what happened on New Year’s Eve, a great deal safer for women than the places where refugees are coming from, not to mention the camps where they have to stay.
Thus it should be no surprise (as shocking as it may be) that it is assumed those Others—savagely collectivist and not individualistic enough as the West would require them to be—must necessarily build some sort of an affiliation with one another and therefore be responsible for each other’s criminal acts [quote] (while nobody would expect the same of Germans).
It is also unsettling to see in this Letter to what extent civil society identifies with the state and its efficiency, and the attitude this reveals. It is not the civil courage and critical thinking and acting on one’s own belief that is encouraged here, it is obedience and an unquestioning attitude in exchange for “security,” and this I find truly dangerous. Another thing that strikes me is the uncritical and unconditional pride in the purported “hospitality” of the people of Cologne; while this same term implies the (unreflected) misbalance of power—the fact is that the Other has no rights and is not really welcome.
Upon reading this text, one has a clear impression that the local patriotism so proudly presented here is not at all (as is implied) a solution—it is exactly the core of the problem. It is not just provincial and self-contained, not just offensively self-celebratory, not just blind in belief in its own “openness,” it is politically problematic. It is something that divides “us” from “them,” which speaks from the position of power of the “autochthonous” vs. the “guest” and defines an unfriendly and hypocritical framework screaming that “you are welcome” but implying that you are not, while the last thing “we” here want is to change. It also chooses to ignore the broader picture of power relations in the wider world.
As someone coming from Russia, one of the darkest places in the world today, I feel the need to distance myself very strongly from the tide of violent, uncontrollable racism that recently took over Russian state TV and newspapers, and even liberal social media. And which is now spreading to Europe in what might seem like poor and mean parody: An obscure but almost pornographic TV story about an allegedly raped 13-year-old Marzahn virgin (by migrants obviously), racist hate speech, social-Darwinist hatred of the poor and underprivileged, belief in one’s own exclusive entitlement to European consumer goods (including culture), and white supremacist hatred of the Other whether coming from a migrant himself or a “migrant-friendly” German.
We have to reject outright this reactionary fundamentalist “war of civilizations” scheme, no matter where it comes from, and insist on internationalism. Despite what recent writers say, it is not a dangerous utopia and not even a utopia at all. The neocapitalist backlash that started in the 1990s found this internationalism the most difficult to destroy on postcommunist territory, and there is still hope that it can be revived and represent a common ground. The West has to assume its responsibilities and not just enjoy its privileges. The idealist discourse of “hospitality” is empty and dangerous without addressing and fighting colonial violence and the implied privilege of the “autochthones” over migrants (a European version of the local-settler divide). Europe cannot be allowed to privatize its “European values.” We should not be discussing the integration of migrants into a society with static and normative values, but vice versa, the integration of values of others—immigrants’ ethics of hard work and community among them—into the existing European society. It is not safety we should be concerned with, but equal chances in society. It is not tolerance (and indifference?) that we should preach, but solidarity towards the realization of common goals—a better life for everybody on this planet, and in Cologne as well, in that order.
This text appeared in the local newspapers Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger on January 27th, 2016, and in a shorter version in Kölnische Rundschau on January 28th, 2016.
*Image of Cologne train station via BBC