I wrote this essay a long time ago. I created a video to go with it.
Yesterday my friend and I arrived in Germany by train from Amsterdam. I can't help but admire how efficient and effective the rail transportation system is here in Europe. Even though I am well aware of the arguments against such an extensive rail system in the US, it still seems to me that having such an infrastructure that supports public transportation at reasonable cost (even if subsidized by the state) and private transportation is the most socially responsible thing to do.
I wondered when we got to the first German town on our route, Bad Bentheim, where the customs agents were. When I was here fourteen years ago, every time I went to and from Holland, I was asked for my passport. I suppose it is thanks to the European Union regulations that this practice has been abolished.
Still, I could not help but have an overwhelming feeling as we glided into the ordered patchwork of German fields and small villages, that I was back in a place that I never really liked. I lived here for almost a year during a time that now seems like another lifetime ago, and I suddenly remembered why I needed to escape from Germany whenever I could. It was not simply the oppressively overcast skies, or the cold “Auslander” stares, or the deeply submerged Tuetonic rage, or the constant struggle to balance old-world values against the counter-cultural onslaught... it is because this country is soulless.
Of course, there are many individuals who, as in any culture, rise out of the provincialism or nationalism of a particular society such as this. I have met people in Germany who are warm, kind, artistic, and gentle - but who suffer for being this way. In America, being different from others is considered a birthright. America was founded as a new democracy which places the rights and value of the individual in a supreme position, and even though we sometimes violently became the world's “melting pot” of cultures and ethnicity, we have come to understand this diversity as a great strength.
By contrast, the federation of states that became Germany emerged from feudalism to democratic capitalism, bringing into the world a society which places great value on conformity. In Germany, as in no other place that I have had direct experience with, the racial homogeneity of the populace has bred a deeply ingrained mistrust of, and contempt for other peoples.
Individualism demands randomness and spontaneity. These are personal attributes that are only tolerated as aberrations of youth before one settles down into the serious work of being an adult citizen of the German state. There is a wistful, longing quality to anything to do with youth — young music, young art, young culture — is, by definition, defiant and anti-social, until one is confronted by the need to make a living. It is then that German culture delivers its particularly deadly dose of resignation to conformity. Past a certain age (I'll say near the late twenties) the societal demand to conform becomes as omnipresent as Einstein's special theory of relativity… the closer one gets to true personal liberty and self expression, the more impossible it becomes to achieve.
Much the same thing happens in America to people. The big difference, however, is that our “Go West” expansiveness of space leads us to believe that there is plenty of physical, as well as psychic room to grow. There is always a place to go for the rugged individual we fancy ourselves to be. Besides, this stuff of personal liberty is carved into our collective American psyche, guaranteed and made legitimate by the holy writ of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence... “we hold these truths”, et al.
But here, in a place like Germany, there is no frontier, no psychic space, and no Arizonian vistas into vast expanses. Things are cramped, space is at a premium, and the psychological cost of living does not allow for much vista viewing. The term 'lebensraum 'is not just a world war two-era invention... it reflects a virtually land locked country's cry for space.
I sat with two brothers of my traveling companion, Kenneth and Mike Noble last night. These two men in their early thirties are on the leading edge of cross-cultural rock music here. Always billed as being “Aus San Francisco”, they left the saturated American music scene to find their fame (and hopefully, some fortune) in Germany. They have had some limited success, even so far as getting a recording company to sign them as a kind of authentic novelty “American” band, but for the most part they are still waiting for a time when they do not have to be the opening act for a more successful band.
Still, it can be rightfully argued that they are having more success here than in the states. Be that as it may, even though they are as Caucasian as any German male, they have sometimes had unkind encounters with young German neo-nazis skinheads. Mike told me last night of an incident when they were physically accosted by skinheads because of their long-haired American rocker appearance. They were convinced that were it not for the lucky fact that two policemen happened to drive by, that they would have also been treated to what skinheads here call a “curb sandwich”.
When I was in Amsterdam earlier this week I saw another demonstration of the clash of cultures. In front of the main train station there was a group of Peruvian musicians playing now common-place Inca music. They had attracted a respectable group of onlookers who were arranged in a semi-circle. Just as my friend and I approached the scene, a group of Amsterdam versions of skinheads, broke through the circle. They were wearing black jackets, ridiculous looking long red and white stripped stocking caps, and armbands with the triple-x insignia of Holland. I don't know what they were singing so loudly, but they interrupted the performers with what sounded like a national anthem.
They came into the middle of the group and began making obscene gestures and screaming. The musicians stopped and simply looked at the men. The people in the audience all did the same thing. The skinheads left as suddenly as they appeared. It was very strange to witness such an event in a city as tolerant and open as Amsterdam.
It doesn't matter where you are in the world — people with prenatal intelligence are everywhere. Germany certainly does not hold a monopoly on intolerance... the German people are just better at it than most. I have the feeling that I have stepped into a fishbowl when I am here. I do not have any place to hide. I am African-American, and I might as well have a sign on my body announcing my intentions to rip open the very fabric of German society for all the discomfort I seem to produce. Fortunately for me, I lived here before, so I've mastered the art of the German stare, which is to blankly, and coldly stare back at whoever is staring at you.
It is in times like this that I wish I could have everyone see the images that the Hubble telescope has transmitted back to Earth. I wish more people could see the thousands of galaxies that have been recently discovered in a region that was thought to be a void. By shifting our point of view this way, by imagining ourselves as a speck of dust as compared to the magnificence of the larger cosmos, and by seeing how insignificant we truly are, then I believe that we can finally have some peace in this world of ours... and I would like Germany more.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!