© Ekabhishek / CC BY SA 3.0
The thing about the discourse is that it gives culture short shrift.
People are more than attached to their folkways and traditions. They derive their very selves from their folkways and traditions. I know that I do from mine.
We all take for granted that cultural differences can make friendships and relationships interesting and exciting, but also terribly fraught—and those who claim to be more enlightened understand that this is because we are rather attached to our ways of living and to being who we are; we don’t feel at all stable, right, or at home unless we can do this. If someone else has tremendously different ways—ways that conflict with our own, then we may try not to judge even as we admit to ourselves that the friendship or the relationship probably isn’t going to work.
But somehow, at the national level, this gets lost. It’s true that the plebes are probably easily led to things that look rather like “racism” or “xenophobia” when it comes to expressing attachment to their own ways of being, but it’s a fool’s game to expect a population to let go of its entire identity within a generation. We don’t expect it of immigrants; it is silly to expect it of the resident mass.
Walter Benjamin said it well. “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”
No one—neither the elites nor the most impoverished laborer—now expects a world of tradition to remain unchanged throughout an entire lifetime. But this leads people to continually search that much harder for something—anything—to which to anchor themselves. And it makes them that much more indignant when the places of their moorings are continually uprooted.
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The cosmopolitan class is the cosmopolitan class, in many ways, because it has never felt this attachment to folkways or traditions, having been born to other cosmopolitans—or because they want desperately to deny any identity at all. Get them across from you at a bar table with a drink in their hands, and they’ll say one or the other of these two things.
But if this globalization thing is to work without blowback of this kind, it will have to be done more slowly, and with more respect not just for the identities of immigrants, but for the identities of residents as well. The change must be regulated and slowed if it is to take; it can’t be announced by fiat by elites and expected to take hold without controversy or anger.
The mass isn’t really angry at the immigrants. They’re angry because they’re afraid to lose their sense of self—just as immigrant communities are, which is why they form civic institutions to preserve their cultural traditions and promote awareness.
I’ll say it again: It can’t be done by fiat, and the emergence of true cultural syncretism takes time and learning and above all gradual shifts in practice and socialization. It takes longer than just a generation or two. While it’s happening, space must be opened for stability and comfort, and that means respecting a population’s democratic desire for stability and deliberation over the courses of their individual lives. This is much more about Merkel’s fateful overreach than it is about racism and xenophobia.
People are generally happy to be open and generous and sharing, but give them the sense that they’re drowning and a good number of them will try instead to swim—every time.