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Friday, 21 December 2018

The Tourist From Hamburg

by Tim Murray

Hamburg
Should Africans and Moslems become the "caretakers" of Hamburg?


I had a very long conversation with a German tourist from Hamburg today about the Syria refugees in Germany. The timing of the encounter could not have been better. Almost as if it was fated to be.

Just 10 minutes before meeting her, I stopped in at the post office and found the latest copy of The Social Contract in my mail box, and with that in hand I walked toward my car, but before reaching it, curiosity got the be better of me. I sat down in front of the medical office and began thumbing through it, until I came to the article I wrote about illegal border crossers and bogus asylum seekers. Suddenly "Marion" — the German tourist — came up to me to say hello. We hadn't seen each other for a year and we were both surprised and happy to see each other so unexpectedly.

Well-liked, polite and personable, Marion has come to be regarded as almost a full-fledged member of the community, at least among those who have met her. She comes to her island of dreams each summer to spend a month in the cabin by the ocean just below my house, where she has a ring side seat to watch the eagles that perch on the tree limbs above, and the whales that pop up a couple of hundred feet away. It is a privilege that most Europeans could only imagine. She said that she was thrilled to hear three humpbacks blowing through the late evening, and was awed by how high one of them jumped.

Before she continued, her facial expression quickly changed. "Oh, I am so sorry to hear about your dog, he was such a good dog, I will miss him." I was touched by her outpouring of sympathy. Aside from whales and Mother Nature, she really loved dogs. She was German after all.

Our relationship has always been warm and cordial over the years. But I suppose that all good things must come to an end.

After she asked after my health, I asked her how she had been in the past year, and if everything is going well for her back home. Her answer did not auger well. "Oh, things have been good, but I am really worried about the far right".

Upon hearing this, my friend Tom, who was sitting beside me eating a snack, interjected immediately. Born an Afrikaner, Tom left South Africa with his parents after Mandela was released, and then took up residence in Germany, where he went to school and learned the language. But that was decades ago, and things have changed rather dramatically since then. Bursting with intense interest, his questions came out like machine gun bullets. "How do ordinary Germans feel about Syrian refugees now?" "Are they fitting in?" "Do they commit a lot of crimes"... She responded, "Well, some Germans are not happy with them, but most are. They are fitting in OK. I know this because I teach many of their children."

By that time my blood pressure had risen to the point that I was on the brink of an eruption. Tom repeated his last question, "Are they committing a lot of crimes?" "No, not really", Marion answered. "The right wing press talk about this, but in fact the crime rates are going down according to the statistics."

Hamburg Elbe Port
Is it really true that Africans were the "original builders" of Hamburg?

That did it. I couldn't contain myself. "You trust German government statistics?", I asked provocatively. Then the conversation became somewhat heated. Words were spoken on both sides that were less than tactful, though I was responsible for the lion's share. I am not proud of my temperament, but it is what is. There is a lot of Irish in me, and no course in anger management will root it out.

The highlight of the exchange came when, after explaining how difficult Merkel's challenge was, she asked me about how well the Canadian government was dealing with our refugee problem, how Canadians felt about these refugees and how much strain they were putting on our system. Imagine her surprise when I opened up The Social Contract magazine I had been clutching and began quoting myself, listing in point form the scope of our problem and what it was costing us. I was only able to get through less than half of it when she began firing back. She reminded me about our obligations under the 1948 Geneva Convention, how wretched the lives of asylum-seekers were, how rich countries like ours could afford to take them in, and how morally reprehensible the Hungarians were in refusing to take in any. Arguments that I had heard ten times before. Arguments that test my patience and provoke my fury.

I could recount the rest of the debate, but the point I want to make here was that the BBC reporter who interviewed a cross-section of Swedes in a recent documentary about Muslim immigrants was right in his fundamental contention: In hearing accounts about the dire situation of Sweden or Germany or Russia or any other country, you are going to get at least two conflicting narratives. And in forming a narrative and presenting it, many things come into play. The storyteller's world view, his experiences, his social network, his information sources, his vocation, his location — a host of influences. The narrative I heard today was told by an empathetic, well-educated bilingual German school teacher living in a particular quarter in Hamburg, a city with a long history of trade unionism and social democratic politics that continues to permeate its political culture. The narrative of other Germans or relatives of Germans in my circle is quite different, and conditioned by the same set of factors as shaped Marion's views.

It was if I was watching two contradictory travelogues. Two different Germanys. Marion talked about the 'good' Germany, the one that has made strides in successfully integrating the newcomers, the one that can look at itself in the mirror with pride for doing the right thing, the moral thing.

The Germans with whom I am acquainted, however, tell a different story. They talk about the 'bad' Germany. The one burdened by the consequences of a rash, unilateral and criminally irresponsible decision made by a political chameleon to open the floodgates to nearly a million asylum-seekers, most of whom are young unskilled men who remain unemployed. People who have inflicted more than 37 billion Euros in settlement costs on German taxpayers, stressing the country's much vaunted welfare state. Refugees who, for the most part are possessed by the values of a 7th century religion that never underwent the modernization and secularization that Christianity was compelled to embrace. Respect for women and acceptance of the separation of church and state — or mosque and state — remain key sticking points. Can oil and water ever mix?

There is some overlap between the two depictions, but they are over-shadowed by their sharp contrasts.

Which narrative is closer to reality? How does one determine what is real? We can't have a rational conversation unless we start from a baseline of facts that we both acknowledge and agree upon.

Marion's answer was a good one. "We have to take time to listen to one another, and honestly try find out why the other person came to believe what he believes." That was not the kind of answer that I am accustomed to hearing from someone on the Left. Not these days, anyway.

I concurred. "We are more polarized than we have ever been, at least in my lifetime, and I think the Internet has had something to do with it. It has allowed us to dwell in silos of information, in comfortable bubbles, surrounded by people who will re-enforce our beliefs. And when we are suddenly confronted by a person with opposite opinions, we are shocked and outraged. It is like taking an ideological sauna. Like leaving a steam bath and abruptly jumping into the snow outside. Or being in a hot house on a cold winter day and suddenly feeling a shaft of frigid air when someone opens the door. That is the way I reacted to you when you started talking about the far right."

She shook her head in agreement. "Yes, this is what has happened in Germany too. We all live in different bubbles. We are all biased. We see what we want to see, or see the same thing but interpret it differently. Our opinions become religious convictions. We become enemies. That is why I am afraid," she replied. Then she looked at her watch and said that she had to go, and said that she hoped we could talk again before she left for Germany on September 11th.

It's too bad all political debates can't end this way. If they could, then perhaps we could have a civil war instead of the Civil War we seem to be heading toward. But maybe it is too late for that. God help us all if it is.

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