The Issue with Public Opinion: How the Sarrazin Debate Encourages Socially Accepted Racism

The current debate in Germany about Berlin’s former finance minister and social democrat Thilo Sarrazin may not have lead to solutions regarding Germany’s integration problem, but it sure has once again pointed out the great divide between the public opinion and the political and cultural elite. While many politicians, authors and academics have spoken out against Sarrazin’s highly questionable theses, public opinion polls have shown that a large percentage of the population supports his ideas. Regardless of whether these people constitute a majority or not, it appears necessary at this stage to question the will of the people. Does living in a democracy mean people should be able to directly vote on subjects such as building mosques and wearing head scarves because of their gut feeling?

Let’s face it – the whole debate has generally been more about emotions than based on actual facts. The controversy already started before Sarrazin’s book was even released and many of his supporters and critics refer to his general ideas and interviews more than to his actual written theses. And that is what people respond to: not to all the numbers and statistics but to the public statements that confirm what they believe they already know.

When talking about political and media-related phenomena it usually pays off to take a look at what’s happening in the United States where one can often find similar examples taken to the extreme. The analytical comment by Jakob Jochmann does just that by relating the current debate to the satirist Stephen Colbert’s concept of ‘truthiness’, “a “truth” that a person claims to know intuitively “from the gut” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” Jochmann gives two examples: the current debate about the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’, which is neither a mosque nor located at Ground Zero, and the well-established, yet completely absurd belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

“Professional demagogues such as Thilo S. take advantage of this new media reality. The often quoted master of ‘truthiness’, also known as ‘inconvenient truth’, is a child of the zeitgeist rather than a prophet, because self-promoter Glenn Beck uses the same virtuosity on the claviature of this attention spiral to fire up the American culture of outrage.” [my translation]

Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin are all perfect examples of demagogues who appeal to the people’s gut feeling, which now equals the truth that needs to be vocalized by someone even if it ‘hurts’. However, these ‘truths’ are not inconvenient or difficult at all. They are simple solutions to complex problems. Instead of trying to find ways which encourage integration and a feeling of belonging among immigrants and to lessen the current fear of the Islamic take-over, which often is little more or less than the common fear of the unknown – instead of doing actual hard work, Sarrazin reduces all of these problems to the inferiority, be it cultural or biological, of a certain group of people.

Luise F. Pusch examines this way of thinking within a feminist framework. She sees parallels to the Eva Herman controversy from a few years ago by pointing out that both debates are about putting a certain group of people, be it women or foreigners, in ‘their proper place’: “In the past, an entire sex – mine, the female one – was considered “dumb” and genetically inferior. That is one reason why I am not keen on those theses that deny the intelligence of entire groups of people. […] Because women were dumb, had a smaller brain than men and studying would harm their uteri, they were not allowed to study, to vote – so as not to steal men’s place in the sun.”[my translation]

The parallels to the Sarrazin controversy are obvious and emphasize that his theses are not only not helpful for the immigration discourse, they are simply discriminatory and tainted with his belief in racial and class superiority. What complicates the whole issue is the fact that Sarrazin is a member of the social democratic party and not part of the spectrum of the far right and a potential Tea Party activist. However, he should seriously reconsider his political convictions. Being left does not necessarily mean being anti-racist and many voters of the left-wing parties wish for social benefits and welfare, but only for the ‘genuine German population’ (whatever that might mean) and not for immigrants. However, the left parties generally stand for equal chances for everyone, and that means equal support as well. Sarrazin believes that some people are more valuable than others and therefore more equal than others, and that disqualifies him as a social democrat. It is not surprising, then, that openly nationalistic far-right parties such as the NPD and the Pro Köln movement have announced their support for Sarrazin and welcome the current debate as a means to make racism (in their words: “critique of foreign infiltration”) socially acceptable. If Sarrazin continues to be stylized as the martyr for middle-class worries, they will be right. Far-right movements and xenophobic attitudes are on the rise all over the world, but at least Germany should know better than that.

“In the 19th century and during the 1st World War, poverty, hunger and a lack of working opportunities forced many Jews from the east of the austro-hungarian monarchy to relocate in Vienna. After 1918, the systematically fuelled fear of foreign infiltration made anti-semitism a popular element in almost all political parties.” [my translation]

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2 responses to “The Issue with Public Opinion: How the Sarrazin Debate Encourages Socially Accepted Racism

  1. Interesting post. There are some well thought out perspectives, but always I have things I would like to challenge.