Admit it, you don’t really care about Goethe!

Germans seem to know only two modes: naïve ignorance and wild outrage. The current inflow of North African and Arab refugees has therefore been an almost textbook example of these opposed drivers of public discourse. But this is less worrisome than it sounds as when both of them are at work at the same time, they seem to create some sort of equilibrium—and everything remains just fine. However, since the assaults of Cologne on New Year’s Eve, this balance seems to have tipped: violent outrage dominates, especially in the realm of social media. For me, some of the questions that are arising out of this scenario demand further attention; some of them, however, do not. For example, criminal rates among migrant populations. This is a field that has been studied intensively over a rather long time horizon—with the conclusion that migrants might actually be less likely to rob, rape, and commit other criminal acts. There is not much action going on besides blunt populism. (By the way, how about that: if you are desperately poor, as most migrants or refugees are, and therefore do not have the money to live in a fancy neighborhood, you might ultimately end up in the ones with the highest criminality—because they are cheap. The number of immigrants might not affect the criminality of a neighborhood but the criminality of the neighborhood the number of migrants. Just another narrative.)

It seems more interesting to me to tackle the question whether our (ze German but also Western) culture is threatened in the context of migration; and whether we have a right to cultural preservation. Since I am not a social scientist, I will solely comment on the latter one, a claim which I think appropriately captures the predominant belief within our population quite well—and which seems very relevant in the light of current Islamophobia. Actually, some of our fellow countrymen might even hold the opinion that they are entitled to their culture. This, however, is an outrageous and implausible version of this view. Therefore, I will engage with a more moderate claim, namely that we have some sort of right to cultural self-determination—at least within our current institutional setting. I am confident that this is a widely shared belief that many of our fellow citizen would wholeheartedly embrace. Nevertheless, I think it is wrong; I would even argue that most people act against this principle and therefore gives no basis to arguments for excluding immigrants. Let me explain.

First, I think it is best to think about culture as a non-rival and non-excludable good. Like most public goods it therefore depends on some sort of (quasi) coercion in order to be provided. Since our culture (if I grasp it correctly) seems to also be committed to broadly liberal principles such as respect and toleration, most coercive interventions are, however, prohibited: people are allowed to create building to worship their very own gods, employers can hire people who might teach their children that women’s emancipation is not a desirable goal (some of them may even sit in our parliaments), and supermarkets can actually sell their items to people who do not speak our language (e.g. tourists). So, state coercion does not seem to be a tool that reasonable proponents of cultural conservatism would endorse—unless they want to end up with authoritarian tendencies and thus contradictory beliefs.

Second, even if most (if not all) coercive measures are ruled out, it seems to me that most people would still claim that they find culture valuable. To me, this seems to entail that we can expect from people that they undertake (at least) certain efforts to preserve their desired social environment. Do they? Religious membership is declining for decades, democratic involvement hit rock bottom, sports clubs are notoriously understaffed, volunteers have become rare, our modern use of language has not much in common with the writings of Goethe or Rilke, we divorce constantly and have intercourse with an increasing number of people, table manners are regarded as an ancient relic, our taste of music would be a disgrace to Beethoven and Bach, and our way of dressing does not necessarily live up to the ideal of a respectful appearance to other society members. Please get me right, I do not want to lament or making normative judgments, all I am saying is: you are free riding, guys. Just admit it. You do not care about the values you claim to care about—and there is no problem with it (besides hypocrisy maybe). For a vast majority, this cultural artifacts might be convenient since they provide us with security and guide us through everyday life. But convenience is not enough to prevent others from moving here. And even if we could expect a massive shift in our values overnight (which seems actually quite unreasonable to assume), not many of you would actually care—if you are honest. Excluding people—who are much less well off than you—on these grounds therefore does not only seem not right, it seems utterly false and morally wrong.

On a final note, it does not really matter what you understand as culture. Most people would name something like tradition, history, customs, language, practices, norms, religion, and so forth—you get the idea.  Even if you take a very broad sense and include political institutions, my argument still holds. People do not seem to be only ignorant about language, religion or norms, but also about politics, local elections, town hall meetings, et cetera. My very own take on this deserves a different post, but—in a nutshell—I am convinced that cultural evolution reflects moral progress and therefore strives towards liberal values. Liberals should therefore embrace cultural change and not oppose it on dubious conservative grounds.