The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Before Immigration Reform hits Gucci Gulch, it's High Noon in Euroland

Update: March 27. Now with some photos. Please check the Swamp later for some fresh reporting on the U.S. immigration debate.

Next week, it’s immigration showdown at Gucci Gulch. The Senate’s Judiciary Committee will try to hammer out a compromise out of the competing bills put forward by Senators, both serious and those less so. Over on the House side, the rhetoric is harsher and thus the final conference may yet see an even flatter deal.

While, the Swamp intends to offer some commentary on the bills and debates from Monday on, I thought I’d link to three stories setting the scene: one from the liberal paper in town and the other from the conservative one. Here’s the Washington Post’s take on things, and here’s the Washington Times. And here’s Marc Cooper of the Nation summarizing the mood in some greater detail, click here. For up-to-date blogging on immigration, I can highly recommend Migra Matters.

But if you think the debate in the U.S. is wacky, out of touch, redundant, overdue…this post’s purpose to highlight some immigration surrealities over in Europe. Immigration issues there tend to lie dormant until some cultural/identity issues crops up. Then the indifference – the true word behind the concept of ‘tolerance’ – is magically turned into concern and sham debates. As for discussions of actual immigration policy – who to admit to Fortress Europe – they never get anywhere since the 25 member states have 50 different opinions, if they have a coherent one at all.

Anyway, the ruckus in Germany and Holland that I’m going to touch on (rest assured, there are kindred spirits in every other country save Iceland) revolves around the same ol’, same ol’: language, assimilation and citizenship. I don’t know if all folks on this side of the Atlantic will find the goings-on in Euroland as silly as I do. Nor do all Euros object to this label. But when we talk about how immigration is a hot-button issue everywhere, it’s not a bad idea to know in what way.

The shenanigans all act to show how a supposedly post-modern and enlightened continent remains stuck in a homogenous past that never was, preach one thing and yearn for another and keeps trying to eat the cake it simply never bothered to bake in the first place. Diversity is lauded but feared – Chinatown in New York is cool, but Turktown Kreuzberg in Berlin is not – Swedish, German, Dutch identities are simply static and live on a zero-sum path to nowhere. To make things worse (or better) no one knows how to deal with the European Union project. And so identities are challenged from above, below, here, there and everywhere.

For great background information on Europe, and elsewhere, as well as data and monthly commentary, I strongly suggest checking out (and subscribing to) the Migration Policy Institute's awesome "Migration Information Source".

OK, after that intro-rant, here are the three specific cases.

Dutch (Un)delights

As of March 15, the Dutch Ministry of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (this is must click!) now requires, among other things, that prospective immigrants endure a Welcome to Holland video. Given that there had been no such thing during the previous decades of immigration; the idea was a little late in coming. And given that the thrust appears to be to dissuade rather than attract immigrants, its stated intent is a worthy follow-up to decades of indifference masked as tolerance.

This Evert Elzinga photo (c) Associated Press shows what the Holland film portends to depict. I wonder: who's tolerant and of what?

In addition, EU nationals will be exempt (it’s EU law) and more interestingly, so will Canadian, American, Australian, New Zealander and Japanese wannabe Dutchies. This is a tad strange since these cosmopolitans are just as unaware of some of the realities depicted in the film. Then again, if they saw it, they would probably think twice about moving to the Netherlands.

The film, which is part of a broader civic education package (the link is to the bizarro-world official “Coming to Netherlands” site ) – from which all rich immigrants and Westerners are also exempt – shows some “raunchy” scenes with e.g. a topless sunbather and a gay couple kissing. (In the Iran edition, these parts are omitted since such depictions are against the ‘law.’) This is patronizing and silly – e.g. Canada and the U.S. either assume that immigrants are aware of such things or will soon be informed thereof. And anyway, there are plenty of nationals within the enlightened West who have big beefs with diversity. But the movie shows immigrants a uniformity of native opinion. Perhaps the landed gentry should watch this on the silver screen….

Here is a link to the film's intro (in Dutch and requires Apple's Quicktime).

To my mind, the most telling segments are not the sexual-related bits that have grabbed all the attention for obvious reasons – but the ones showing daily life for immigrants in Holland. They depict a life stuck on welfare, facing discrimination, living in projects etc as what most likely awaits the immigrant! This is the greatest admission of failure imaginable AND simultaneously an admission that Holland cannot change its ways. And of course, for effect it exaggerates to the max. BTW, does anyone remember Australia’s infamous shark/snake infested ‘informational’ videos meant to deter asylum-seekers?

In both cases, the makers of these little jewels of a movie tried their hardest to show how nasty, dangerous, unwelcoming etc. their beloved countries actually are. Daily life there, however, is not that bad. But they do inadvertently demonstrate official strains of xenophobia: state-funded propaganda just to keep certain folks away from their paradise. Anyway....

There are some success stories in the Holland film, but they are ‘exceptions’. So I can see why the selective Dutch authorities don’t want Westerners seeing the film. If e.g. an average Canadian watched this film before migrating, he/she might reconsider their decision. I mean, leaving a society that deals with diversity as commonplace for one that is so torn and conflicted is not exactly appealing.

Gunther and Mehmet Down by the Schoolyard

Meanwhile over in Germany, there is less concern with newcomers than with those already there. Not all that surprising since net migration (immigration – emigration = Net Migration) is close to zero. So what’s on everyone’s mind is if second and third generation youth are learning German. This and who should be allowed to become a citizen.

My humble solutions: i.e. stop panicking; people are learning Deutsch and people born and/or raised there should have a right to become citizens, carry little weight in this tempest. Instead, a Berlin school recently introduced the following rule to its long list of “don’ts”, no foreign languages allowed. So next to no smoking, no spitting, no spicy food etc. there’s no Turkish, no Urdu, no this, no that. Unless of course, it’s English…now that kind of bilingualism is just hunky-dory and peachy clean.

At this Berlin-Spandau high school (click on the link for more nice photos), teenagers are still free to speak in any lingo, including slang.

The debate is pretty much beyond rationale dialogue, especially since it’s shrouded in that treacherous veneer of reasonableness and common sense (click here and here for two such examples). We want to help the kids etc. Well-established facts like that bi/multi-lingualism is not detrimental - but quite normal AND not useless in today's world - have gone out with the bathwater. So what is the reality? These kids actually speak German and the reasons they may not find work after graduation are entirely different.

I am talking about the rigid labor market that creates no jobs, and even worse, the education in the lower-tier schools that wouldn’t qualify the students for such a job if it did exist. The diplomas earned there are meant for a bygone era and do not even allow a person to enter any college or university. But since changing any or all of that sorry state of affairs would require….I dunno, something concrete, expect nothing. And thus, the time as always is ripe for scapegoating, side-tracking, smoke screens and silliness.

To my not very great surprise, the Herbert Hoover High School (U.S. President Hoover had some ties to Berlin) is now being rewarded for its efforts (link in German). The Helga and Edzard Reuter Foundation – he is the former head of Daimler (Mercedes Benz) Chrysler and son of a legendary Berlin mayor – is awarding the school 15,000 Euros with the following motivation: “ (For treading down) an exemplary, courageous path of fostering a flourishing togetherness in Germany between people with different ethnic, religious or cultural background”. Are you kidding me?

Those who have objected to the language ban are told that it was actually the students, parents and teachers who democratically elected to go down this road. Even if that is true, that would be the result of the prevailing climate of indifference and it still doesn’t address the real challenges mentioned above. Everyone’s been conned. Go figure.

In addition, the nationalistic Turkish press has gotten involved and called it all an anti-Turkish conspiracy. This has led folks in Germany to conclude that with such characters being against the idea, it simply must be a good one. This kind of faulty logic was applied recently during the Danish Cartoon Wars, i.e. because fundamentalist Islamists called Denmark’s bluff, that was taken as proof positive that it wasn’t one. Pretty spurious stuff, courtesy of those who simply can’t stay off the Kool Aid.

To become a citizen, please reveal your innermost thoughts

OK, to conclude a very brief mention of the latest in the sorriest saga of them all, the arbitrary surreality, tentatively called “You want to become German? Not in this lifetime!” The background is that Germany finally changed its pre WWI bloodline-based citizenship law in 2000, and made it somewhat easier to become a German national. But the muddled compromise was just that, and it remains temptingly controversial.

And so it was expected that it would be hijacked in 2006, during which a slew of various local and regional elections loom. It all started back in January when Baden-Württemberg drafted a citizenship questionnaire that seemed clearly meant to probe the opinions of Muslims. That’s an understatement: only nationals of the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference are subject to the test. This kind of discrimination and thought control is naturally controversial in Germany of all places. But anything goes in these times.

This type of U.S. citizenship ceremony (click on the link for a photo essay) has attracted interest during the German electoral season. My question: Do they really understand the spirit that lies behind this?

Ahead of this weekend’s state elections, party big-wigs – including Edmund Stoiber of Bavaria and even Chancellor Angela Merkel, i.e. folks NOT on the ballot – have been making similar overtures to the riled and frenzied base. This led the Green politician Volker Beck to quip: “It’s now easier to win 100,000 Euros on a TV quiz show than to become a German citizen.” If you’re interested in the kind of questions on these questionnaires, just click on the links above. Rest assured, however, that they are of a twofold nature:

a) the kind that most Germans couldn’t answer

b) the kind that most German wouldn’t answer (due to their unconstitutionality)

So, that’s a sampling of what’s happening on distant shores while Senators McCain, Kennedy, Kyl duke it out as Representative Tancredo lurks in his own shadow, ready to pounce.

Finally – just as I’m about to post this, it’s that slow Friday afternoon in Brussels – here’s the very latest crackpot idea, courtesy of the Daily Telegraph’s great David Rennie: the European Union Integration Contract! The gist of this? To make immigrants sign some kind of inane pre-nuptial agreement, and this is before they would have to watch all manner of tax-payer financed movies and answer quixotic questionnaires - all of which also cost the prospective immigrant big money.

Talk about lacking any self-confidence in one’s own culture and its ability to adapt. In Euroland, people are falling over themselves to come up with ideas like this. Here in the U.S., the fear is less-related to culture/identity – though there are the Samuel Huntingtons out there – but there are concerted attempts to create a panic about borders and security. Tune in next week when the Swamp will address more of that jabberwocky.


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