Vanishing New York

Last Saturday, when the spring just started, I went out to the park, and stayed out side for as long as the sun was out, and the air was warm. Later in the afternoon, I suggested to my two buddies that we could grab a glass of beer at my favorite German beer garden in my neighborhood. I fell in love with this beer garden almost 4 years ago when I first moved to New York. The first time I had a beer there, I chatted with the owner, a German gentleman from Bonn. I savored its flammkuchen, or German pizza. My weekly order for snacking at the place up until last Saturday was pretzel and bratwurst. I would order glass after glass of Hefeweizen without feeling guilty about its calorie content. I have introduced it to all of my friends. At one point when hanging out with my buddies there, I  had too many beers and too many pizzas to the point that I ran out of cash to pay. I ended up shamelessly asking a stranger at the next table for $5. It was embarrassing, but funny at the same time.

When we all arrived at the restaurant last Saturday, we saw this sign:

IMG_5433.JPG

After reading the close-down announcement, I fell like a part of me was gone. The expression “vanishing New York” had never been something that I was familiar with. I just moved to New York about 4 years ago, and I am still in a honeymoon with it. I embrace the high speed of change in this city. I embrace seeing something new and impressive that I encounter in this city.  Yet this particular farewell with my favorite restaurant made me rethink about my experience. Parts and pieces of New York are vanishing. I do not know what drove my favorite restaurant out of business. I could not explain the reasons why the owner closed it down other than the rent has become too expensive. Many things in New York just disappeared out of a sudden like this place. Because of the fleeting nature of everything in New York, I suddenly feel the urge to take pictures of everything that I encounter. I am hoping that at least I can capture something in my unreliable memory.

Soziopod: Sociology Podcast from Germany

In the past, I have reviewed two sociology podcasts from the United States and the United Kingdom, namely The Annex Sociology, and Thinking Allowed (Than 2017). Still an avid listener of both channels, I am constantly learning about new ideas and the development in my field on the two sides of the Atlantic. Yet, the previous blog post reveals that my consumption of sociological knowledge is very Anglo-American centric. That is, outside of what is available in the English language, I almost never tried to read sociological knowledge written in another language. While in Berlin, I discussed this issue with a good friend, Herrmann Königs, a sociologist in training at Humboldt University in Berlin. He suggested that I should listen to a sociology podcast in German. It’s called Soziopod. I took a listen, and was pleasantly surprised by its content, the quality of the debates, and the number of episodes available. This blog post summarizes my overall evaluation of the podcast.

Soziopod

One can find more information about the podcast here. According to Wikipedia, it is dedicated to sociological and philosophical topics, and started in 2011. The podcast is unfortunately in German, which means that it is non-accessible to many. Unlike the two podcasts mentioned above, which focus mainly on sociology and other related social sciences, this podcast brings philosophy to the center of all social debates. This element in itself is very refreshing.

The podcast is hosted by Dr. Nils Köbel and Patrick Breitenbach. Dr. Köbel is a trained sociologist of children, youth, and religion, and Patrick Breitenbach is an expert in digital media. They make a good pair of hosts because both of them are invested in various topics. Since one of them is a media expert, he could translate abstract concepts into layman’s language. Many a times, the podcast avoids sociological jargon, which only insiders could understand.  The purpose of the podcast is to make sociological knowledge accessible to everyone. Dr. Köbel stated that they try present the topics in a manner of general understanding to “bring Sociology to the streets, where it belongs.”

A typical episode lasts around one hour. It is structured around a topic such as social inequality, migration, power, right-wing extremism, religion, or the Frankfurt School of social theory. That means, it’s a wealth of knowledge for anybody who is interested in social debates in Germany. Every once in a while, they also air a special episode where the hosts discuss an issue with a body of audience, and interact with them. Sometimes they invite experts to comment on certain topics. That means listeners could directly raise a question to the hosts/moderators, and sometimes debate with the two hosts as well. Since its inception in 2011, the program has produced more than 70 episodes, a few public forums for an audience to interact with the hosts, and they have published one book. This is quite impressive!

After the topic is being introduced, the hosts would define an important concept or concepts. Then they introduce the different social theorists who have written about the topic, and elaborate more on how these theorists are in conversation with one another. More importantly the discussions are situated in the context of contemporary Germany, which makes abstract scholarly debates relatable to daily life experience.

The discussions have a lot of pedagogical values. During the course of one hour, one can learn many important social theory concepts, and could look for appropriate examples to make sense a particular concept.  Each episode contains lots of knowledge about social theory.  The hosts often highlight theoretical concepts which have been invented by German theorists such as Jürgen Harbamas,  Thomas Luhmann,  or Theodor Adorno. I found these discussions fascinating because I have never really read these authors closely, nor used any of their works before. What is even more intriguing is that the hosts would relate sociological concepts to philosophical concepts. In other words, they acknowledge the foundation of sociology: philosophy. When unearthing the genealogy of a particular term, one could trace it back to some philosopher who wrote about similar topics. This is a contrast to my current sociological training in the United States, which as a field has developed into something that has been moved quite far from philosophy, or social theory.

Even though the podcast is a great pedagogical channel, as an American trained student of sociology, I cannot help but point out some of its shortcomings. First, its main topics would be categorized under the umbrellas of social theory or political sociology in American sociology terms. According to the recent sections that are listed on the American Sociological Association’s website, social theory and political sociology are two among its 52 official sections. In other words, the podcast covers a very small fraction of all possible sociological topics that one can study.

Given the nature of its leaning toward social theory, and philosophy,  most discussions stay on the abstract level. The discussions are centered around a topic, relevant sociological concepts, and different possible directions that could be taken to deal with the topic. What is barely discussed is empirical evidence to test whether the theory actually works on the grounds. The general structure of one episode is organized as follows:

  1. Definition of a concept
  2. How to operationalize the concept?
  3. Can one use the concept in a particular context in relation to the given topic?
  4. Who else has talked about the concept and this phenomenon since ancient philosophy?
  5. What else can we learn about the phenomenon?
  6. Is there any unresolved contradiction?

The hosts barely cite new research conducted in contemporary Germany. They often talk about big thinkers, who came up with concepts that could be applied universally. There are almost no discussions about methodology and data, which in my opinion are the strength of sociology. We are a pluralistic bunch of scientists who employ a variety of methods, theories, and data to study the social world. The podcast’s main focuses are concepts, and argumentation. As a student of immigration, work, and the urban, I find the podcast lacking because those fields are by definition not the main focus of the podcast. Because of its emphasis on theory, the podcast is also not paying enough attention to the lived experience of a particular group, which quintessentially showcases how a person inhabits their living environment, and reveals their social world.

When I brought up my observation about the lack of empirical research discussions in the podcast, my friend, Herrmann Königs, commented that this illustrates what is valued and emphasized in sociological research and pedagogy in Germany. In his words: “German sociology emphasizes intellectual history of a concept, and whether the concept could be applied universally.” We then went on to debate the question: Is it necessary to learn about the historical context, through which the concept arose in order to understand a contemporary social phenomenon? We couldn’t come up with a consensus whether it is productive to learn about intellectual history of a concept, or whether it is more productive to learn how to apply it in a contemporary situation. However, our discussion highlights the differences in our training on the two sides of the Atlantic. American sociological training tends to emphasize the empirical; the German, the theoretical.

Due to their training, my German counterparts impress me with their expertise in close reading of original texts, and the logic of their argumentation. However, I find their main interests on formal institutions such as the church, the school, and the state to be limiting. Sociologists can also study sub-cultures such as that of the urban squatters, Punk Rock culture, the Fusion (the equivalent of the Burning Man), the proliferation of Yoga, and the immigrants. All of those marginal groups might one day become mainstream, and by studying these subgroups, sociologists could reveal social transformations.

One could criticize that I am too American-centric, and that I cannot impose an agenda set by my profession on one side of the Atlantic to the other. I agree that I am an American trained sociologist, but I also think that as a profession, scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have much to learn from each other. German sociology provides rigorous theoretical training that I wish American graduate programs could provide. I would like to see students from day one to engage more with theoretical texts, and learn how to do it properly rather than seeing people like myself scared of social theory, and opt to do empirical research from day one. Thus, many a times sociology papers read a-theoretical to me. However, American pragmatism is much to be praised. With this pragmatic orientation in mind, we are looking for mechanism of why something is the case, and using our sociological imagination to reveal it. The two papers that I have read lately that showcase how a mechanism-focused researcher could be done are “When two bodies are (not) a problem” by Lauren Rivera (2017), and “All that is Solid” by David Peterson (2015). They exemplify some of the best contemporary sociological research that American academia has to offer.

Another aspect that I find not satisfactory is that the main (if not only) geographical focus of the podcast is Germany. It doesn’t give any air time other German speaking countries such as Switzerland, Austria, and Lichtenstein. If the social concepts are so universally applicable, why are they not applied in other cultural, sociopolitical contexts? According to Jaeeum Kim(2017), the field of sociology is openly anti-area studies. In other words, American sociologists tend to study American society; Germans study German one. Despite all odds, many sociologists travel across nation-state boundaries to study a particular social phenomenon. A few great books that I have read in the past two years include Jaeeun Kim (2016)’s Contested Embrace, where the author examined immigration from the Korean Peninsula, and their diasporic politics in the 20th century. Another example is Kimberly Hoang (2015)’s Dealing in Desire, which is an excellent ethnography that looks at the co-production of gender and capital in the sex market place in the context of globalizing Vietnam. Two growing subfields of sociological research are China Studies and Asian Studies. The 21st century has been dubbed as the Asian Century. It would be a mistake to not pay any attention to this important geographical area. In other words, only paying attention to social phenomena that occur within the geographical boundary of the German nation is a disadvantage for German sociologists in the context of increasing interdependence and interconnections of different areas of the world.

In conclusion, Sociopod has provided me with a substantial vocabulary to talk with my sociology colleagues on this side of the Atlantic. If you’re comfortable with social theory, political sociology, or pedagogy, you should give it a try. It is packed with bite-size discussions of theoretical knowledge. Its ability to reach a popular audience is aspiring. Bringing sociology to the street is such an inspiring goal, and it ought to be supported. In the context of the increasing emphasis of public sociology, I wish that all academics could use some of the hosts’ techniques to mainstream sociological knowledge to the wider audience. Sociology indeed belongs to the street, and that the knowledge of the profession should not be contained within the walls of the academe.

 

 

 

“Ausländer Raus!” : The Unleashing of Populism & Collateral Damage to All Ethnicities

Last weekend, I planned a trip to Hamburg to hang out with some friends. At 6 o’clock  on Saturday, I darted out of the apartment headed to Ostbahnhof Station, which is located in the Eastern Part of Berlin. With my rucksack on my back, and a tot bag on my shoulder, I hurried to get out of the door. On the way, while waiting for the pedestrian traffic light to turn green, I saw two men in their late 20s or early 30s on their bikes approach the zebra crossing. Three of us were to converge at the same crossing line. As soon as the light turned green, I headed toward the other side of the road. While trying to plug the earphones to Iphones, I heard: Ausländer Raus!,” which means “Foreigner  Out!.” Puzzled, and shocked, I looked around, trying to figure out where the voice came from.  There were only three people on the street: two German men on their bikes, and myself, an Asian woman walking across the street. I stared at them for a moment, puzzled, upset, and literally FURIOUS. Agitated, I held my hands up, gave each of them a middle finger. Then one of them said “not you” in English. I didn’t want to pick up a fight, and knew that if the fight had happened, I would not have been able to handle it. Instead I kept walking without looking back.

The entire interaction unfolded in less than 30 seconds, but it took me almost a week to digest, and come to terms with what happened. How did these men dare to shout such a xenophobic phrase at me? Who were they? What did they really mean? Why did they say “not you” at the end?

The Expression „Ausländer Raus!”

To me the expression represents the AfD’s position towards immigration. They basically do not want any person with an immigration background in Germany. I learned it in Dresden 4 years ago, when Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, was demonstrating frequently in Dresden to show that their Islamophobia and anti-immigration politics. Simply put, they don’t want any Muslim person in Germany. This sentiment has been going on in Germany for a long time, and those demonstrations took place even before the European refugee crisis, starting in 2015. Then every time I visited Dresden, what I didn’t receive any a direct anti-immigration utterance, but silent stare from Dresdeners. It was not comfortable, yet I didn’t feel that my existence was being attacked physically or psychologically. The harmless stare could mean many things. There was simply not enough evidence to come to any hasty conclusion.

This incidence was different. It challenged my physical appearance, and it left a permanent psychological disturbance. It took place in the neighborhood of Friedrichshain in East Berlin, where the majority voted for the Green Party, or the Linke in the last state election. I didn’t expect such a characteristically AfD behavior on the streets of the district. In the period of two years I had lived in Germany before, I never encountered such an incidence. Yet now as a tourist, the expression was directed to me, and it disturbed me tremendously. How daily civility has changed in this city!

Men in their late 20s, early 30s during day time brazenly showed their hostility toward me. What emboldened this behavior? Is that true that Germany can no longer contain, or manage xenophobic sentiments toward any person who doesn’t fit in the popular imagination of who a German should be? Why is it happening now?

What did “not you” mean at the end?

For a moment, I thought the phrase “Ausländer Raus” was a word play or a game between the two of them. Trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, I  fancied that they maybe didn’t mean it. First of all, they were young men of the age of late 20s, or early 30s. They were out and about at a very early hour in the morning. Possibly, they were coming back from a party; hence they’re possibly drunk. Maybe they thought that I didn’t understand German, and wanted to test to see whether I was indeed a foreigner. But “Ausländer Raus” was not an expression to approach a stranger regardless of their nationality. It’s rude, and it’s hurtful. Assuming that I didn’t understand German, and I simply walked away without any reaction, what would they have talked among themselves after I had left? Would they triumphantly claim that I was indeed a foreigner, and I had no right to be in Berlin at any moment in time? Was the expression “Ausländer raus” a Freudian slip after an entire night of drinking?

The men didn’t look violent to me. They rather look like some of my Berliner friends whom I would hang out with whenever I were in Germany. They seemed to be like any young Berliner, who enjoyed techno music, good beer, and would cheer for their national team during the World Cup. They didn’t look like “Nipsters,” which refer to young neo-Nazis who embrace the hipster culture. In other words, they looked like any resident of Friedrichshain: maybe students, maybe working class men. They were on their bikes. That is to say, they possibly supported a pro-environment life style. But they expressed some of the most anti-foreigner utterances toward me. People can be leftist on one thing, and extreme-far-right on another. It’s politics: full of contradictions.

Why did they say “not you” in English to me at the end? Maybe they wanted to make up for their racist/xenophobic utterance. Now they assumed that I understood English. How many more assumptions did they have about me? How would those assumptions help or hurt our interactions? Did they really mean not me or just not people who look like me? At that traffic intersection, there were only three people: two of them, and myself. Who’s the foreigner here?, I asked myself. I was outraged. The damage was done on my psychological being, and no amendment could be made. If I could stand there, and call the police, I would. I would like to suit them for psychological damage if possible. I wonder how many therapy sections I would need to unpack the various layers of meaning of this very incidence. Over the weekend, friends freely gave me some quick kitchen therapy, so I could let my outrage out, and to come to terms with what happened.

My expectation was the word “sorry,” not the phrase “not you.” To me speaking English didn’t signify a level of cosmopolitanism that these men had cultivated. It just showed the most ignorant way of correcting a wrongdoing. Almost three decades ago, this very neighborhood was squarely located in one of the most closed-off country one earth – the GDR. As much as they tried to be cosmopolitan, this recent past could not be erased that fast. As much as they tried to show their understanding of the new global linguistic hierarchy, the bridge had been burnt. It often takes more time and effort to build a bridge than to destroy one.  The bridge between me and them was not even been constructed yet, they already smashed it by a simple phrase.

“Politics of Silence”

What I am most uncomfortable with in Germany is not that there was no right to free speech, but the right to remain silent. There is no vocabulary to discuss about racism because the concept “race” has been artificially suppressed. Of course, the reason for the lack of the concept has to do with the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, this absence of a controversial topic has helped German society to move on from their past experience. Yet the lack of it made people of non-German background to be not able to express their lived experience. It is estimated that actually out of the 82 million people, 62 million are actually German. That leaves 20 million other people to be of immigration background. That is to say, almost a quarter of the population do not have the right vocabulary to describe their lived experience.

In the absence of the vocabulary one has to resort to the next best thing. Now one of the controversial discourses about integration in Germany has to do with cultural assimilation of Muslim immigrants, and refugees. The framing that immigrants are un-assimilable because they come from a different culture would not really result in any substantial change. Assuming that all Muslim persons in Germany gave up their religion, cultural practices, their lived experience would still be very different from an average German simply because of their physical appearance. Taking one’s ethnicity, and other factors into consideration, cultural assimilation does not lead to social, political, and labor market assimilation. Assimilating an immigrant culturally first does not guarantee other integration aspects. In many ways, cultural assimilation is something that one cares the least about when one’s being an immigrant. Who cares about giving up some bit of cultural practices, when you don’t know where to sleep tomorrow?

Regardless of how much I have been Germanized, I would still be a visible minority, if I were to settle in Germany. This would be a hard fact. In other words, the silence of a discourse results in the proliferation of another discourse that might not lead to any concrete result. The current cultural conflict discourse could be very much enter a vicious circle, which brings everyone back to the starting point, which is everybody who doesn’t look like an imaginary average German is deemed to be un-assimilable. 

Collateral Damage of the “Not-you” Mentality

The two men assumed that by saying “not you,” I would be able to forgive their behavior. That’s wrong! In contemporary immigration history of reunified Germany, that mentality has had a serious consequence. People who looked like me: the Vietnamese, suffered from collateral damage because of a xenophobic attack against the Roma refugees in Rostock in 1992. Let me remind everyone of the Rostock-Lichtenhagen riots in 1992. Young neo-Nazis didn’t plan to attack the Vietnamese, those who came in the GDR as contract workers, who then remained living in Germany after the reunification. Their targets were the Roma asylum seekers. The young men and women of the town set a few residential buildings where immigrants, and refugees lived on fire, while the police were silently witnessing those houses burned down to the ground. In that situation, everyone was hurt. The politics of silence contributed to the violent act of young people. The Romas got hurt; the Vietnamese were terrorized, psychologically and physically damaged. The entire episode was documented well, and one could watch the movie “Wir sind jung. Wir sind stark” or  “We are young. We are strong,” on Netflix to remind oneself of the violent recent past.

How many generations of immigrants have been psychologically terrorized by these seemingly harmless incidences on the streets? Have immigrants transmit that knowledge to their kids? The concept “Cultural Trauma” by Jeffrey Alexander might be helpful when thinking about this inter-generational phenomenon. One could predict that these interactions will have generational effect from one generation to another. Coupling with the politics of silence in Germany, one will have to deal with it throughout life. Instead of collectively mourning over these incidences, one is asked to privatized those feelings, and seek to fix those feelings oneself. Maybe God helps. Maybe a personal therapist.

I love Germany no doubt. But the more I love this country, its culture, and its people, I would hope it to be different when working with its refugees, immigrants, and minority groups. The people who are called “undeutsch” by  Fatima El-Tayeb, or people of color in the American context, would keep their experience private, or suppress their feelings because they are not able to mourn about their existence. Besides, blaming all xenophobic acts to the neo-Nazi youngsters would never be sufficient. It’s a systematic failure to address the politics of silence that is at the heart of the problem. What if the youngster neo-Nazis don’t grow out of their teenager ideology; they simply grow old, and become gatekeepers of various institutions in Germany? What if one of them became a director of a social science research institute?

Clearly, more questions than answers have been raised in this blog post. Mostly likely I will talk to a therapist when I get back to New York to unpack the convoluted feelings evoked during this summer. In the future, I might forget that this encounter ever happened. Yet not all “undeutsch” people have the privilege to bring a complex social problem to solve in a private office of a well-trained psychologist. Not everyone has the option to leave Germany. Many people immigrate to this land, and are stuck in their situations for various reasons. At the end of the day, all visible minorities suffer regardless of which group is being targeted. Once populism is unleashed, harm is being done to everyone on a daily basis. This year Germany celebrates the 200th birthday of one of the most well-known, and well-celebrated German philosophers and social theorists: Karl Marx. Instead of writing more biographies about him, I would call for more reflection on his  seminal essay: “On the Jewish Question.”  It’s an attempt to deal with the question of race in Germany almost 2 centuries ago. It’s already the time to re-open the question.