Between left-green hegemony and radical Pegida movement

Ulrich Greiner: A return to the foundations of our culture

by Winfried Pogorzelski*

The book Heimatlos – Bekenntnisse eines Konservativen (Homeless – Confessions of a Conservative), by Ulrich Greiner, former head of the editorial section of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, presents a witty essay, based on a careful reconstruction and on clever comments about his own ideological and intellectual biography. With the title “Homeless” he refers to a book of the same title by Johanna Spyri, Swiss writer of books for youth and creator of the novel Heidi, that had moved the author as a child to tears.
Greiner’s book reminds former students among us of many things that have taken place over the last decades and years of important developments: from the German post-war period to the student movement of the sixties and from the German reunification to the advancing globalisation and the wave of refugees. The current debate on Islamism is discussed as well as the trend towards multiculturalism and vegetarianism. Above all, he is keen to bring into focus what should be preserved, what should by no means be sacrificed to any alluring zeitgeist.

The attitude of conservatism

The author, as he emphasises, is not concerned with developing a theory or programme of conservatism, where in contrast to left-wing and reactionary ideologies or political movements, “paternalism from the spirit of utopia” (p. 41) is unknown. His concern is to get to the heart of an open discomfort that is now affecting more and more people who do not automatically accept anything just because it is new. In his introduction, he speaks of the social-democratisation of the CDU by Angela Merkel, the euro rescue, free trade, and Angela Merkel’s handling of the wave of refugees, all being presented in unison as without any alternative by the media, or of the condemnation of meat-consumption and the propagation of vegetarianism, belonging to political correctness. In nine chapters, Greiner presents his observations and reflections, substantiated by references to historical events and developments, to biographies and writings of important authors. Keywords from the chapter headings are among others: The left-green cultural hegemony, The own and the alien, criticism of Islam and Multiculturalism, The ideology of feasibility – Euthanasia and reproductive medicine, the proven national state, promises of equality and limits of the welfare state.

The own and the alien

A typical attitude, according to Greiner, is the widespread self-hatred of many members of our culture, which is expressed by criticising one’s own while uncritically judging anything alien as better, more exotic, more authentic, just because it stems of another, strange culture. In this attitude, “everything that looks like a Christian tradition is refused under the guise of multi-cultural fairness” (p. 40). However, almost the entire history of our tradition is shaped by what is called “Christian Occident” (ibid.). Consequently, the author is concerned not to obliterate differences between the own and the alien, what was diligently pursued in multiculturalism and the so called welcoming-culture. Our tradition contains the Christian-influenced guiding culture – as according to Greiner validly defined by the German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière – with their unwritten rules of coexistence, essentially describing peaceful coexistence and the precedence of law over religious rules. For example, Islamic culture is alien to us, and –  one may add – will always stay alien. Self-determination and freedom of opinion were and are handled quite differently in Islamic culture than in ours. The contrast between alien and own must remain clear, emphasises Greiner with reference to demonstrations by Turks for the introduction of the death penalty in Turkey.
Greiner emphasises some differences between Christianity and pre-secular religions such as Islam, without, of course, praising Christianity as the sole blessing religion to the skies. Thus, the principle “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” [Lev 19, 18] is Christian, there is no requirement in Christianity to assassinate other believers or commit suicide attacks. The sacrificial death of Jesus is revolutionary because it rescinds the principle of retribution: instead of sacrificing others, the Son of God sacrifices himself to put an end to the cycle of violence. This does not mean, however, that Christians are better people per se. In the course of the history of Christianity, there were also dark sides, devastating damage. The author concludes this part of his remarks with the comment: “Historical experience shows: Feeling certain about the own one does not need defining it more closely, one can confidently approach the not own and the alien. Nevertheless, the times have changed. The own has become questionable. What once was normal has ceased to be.” (p. 75)

Ideology of feasibility versus self-restraint

Greiner speaks of the spreading “ideology of feasibility” (p. 77), of the attempt of modern man to “want to be God” (ibid.). In contrast, his conservatism is characterised by caution and self-restraint as shown on the example of euthanasia and reproductive medicine. He is extremely sceptical of both, since both are bound to the so-called – right to self-determination, being claimed as if it were the most natural thing in the world. First of all, the author states that the so-called “Freitod” (free death – suicide) of well-known contemporaries has received public acclaim over and over again, by considering it as brave or even courageous. Greiner, on the other hand, asks: “Does man realise his freedom in suicide – or does he not forever forfeit it?” (p. 79) He quotes the writer Reinhold Schneider, who is of the opinion that suicide is not limited to the ego. The suicidal person carries “something horrible into the world, something that should not exist and that threatens its order. […] His attitude, his thinking have something subverting. No one becomes guilty on himself alone, in this or any other sense. For the law of order, of preservation, of administration is given to all: therefore every one who violates the law, commits an outrage against all.” (pp. 79)
Later in the chapter, Greiner comes to the protection of marriage and family, granted by most states in the world. He is overwhelmed by an uneasy feeling at the thought that same-sex couples should be able to marry and adopt children. This feeling tells him, “that it would not be good, to open an institution that has been, since time immemorial, and still is intended for the legal union of man and woman and for the legitimation of their descendants, by allowing a ‘marriage for all’” (p. 83). In the following he points out the objections –  uttered more frequently and frankly – against the monopoly of the classical heterosexual marriage. For many “the idea that affection, sexuality, and procreation were necessarily related” is as obsolete as the “thought that only naturally born offspring are acceptable” (ibid.). The profiteers of reproductive medicine would only welcome proceedings in this field. The conservative, however, according to Greiner, would feel a considerable discomfort in the face of this development. In Germany there are created about ten thousand children per year by artificial means, breaking the order of descendance: “The genealogical order, which represents a cultural achievement of first order, seems to have come to an end.” (p. 84) An emerging consequence of this development is eugenics, for which the use of seed banks will open the doors. There would be the danger of a veritable optimization delusion – promoted by profit-oriented reproductive centres – of those who can afford this dubious form of medical progress. Greiner strikes a balance in this chapter when he analyses: “Self-realisation is the new credo. If you take a closer look at it, it is actually just an ‘ego-realisation’, but not the development of a social, dialoguical personality, but the enforcement of an ego. What follows is the optimization of the human capital, which finds its limits only in the feasible. […] In the first and last things, however, in giving birth and dying, there are borders that should not be transgressed. They are defined by the history of humanity, having been, wherever it was beneficial, a product of nature and culture. Those borders are based on wise self-limitation gained through experience. Whenever people have tried to play God, the outcome was bad for them.” (p. 97)

United States of Europe or strong nation state?

Greiner also stays with the topic conservatism when dealing with the nation state: A solid state, even a monarchy, was always the target of the conservative. Today the author advocates a strong nation state as an achievement of modernity and as protection against any tyranny. But the nation state is – due to the European unification in the EU – increasingly endangered or does not exist any more: In Germany the transfers of billions to other EU countries significantly exceeded the competence of the Federal Chancellor, in 2015 she lost the control about the wave of refugees. Committees whose members are no longer elected by citizens increasingly determine the everyday life of the citizens. The national constitutions of the EU member states cannot redeem their claim that every exercised rule has been legitimated by the people. The political authority does not come from the people – democracy!– but from the community of states, from Brussels, making many decisions, touching our lives directly.
An alternative would be a real European Constitutional state, whose citizens could be European citizens and not citizens of nation states. The development is going in the opposite direction: The EU is increasingly shaped by heterogeneity, the centrifugal forces increase, the participation in the elections to EU Parliament decreases, the euro is not at all suitable as glue of a deepened agreement. A reduction of the Brussels apparatus, a return to the cooperation of self-reliant states therefore went in the right direction.
And then Greiner surprisingly quotes the French politician and historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), founder of comparing political science, who realised that the idea of equality is probably directing to a central state and that this centralism might lead to a new despotism […] the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannise, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies.” p. 118) Greiner frankly admits: “You will not want to assert, the Brussels authorities resembled those by Tocqueville outlined sovereign, but if one reads, the Commission employs 35,000 officials and the entire body of law more than 50,000 pages […], then the differences are not that great.” (pp. 118) Tocqueville, born aristocrat, had foreseen the triumph of democratic society their difficulties in “a mixture of fascination and alienation. He was conservative and liberal at the same time. A man like him would be urgently needed today.” (p. 120)

The limits of the welfare state

Greiner sets apart with the limits of the welfare state too. The claim to equality among men would never become fulfilled. Inequality belongs to human existence. Nevertheless he is the opinion, that the “abysses between rich and poor are spooky, the salaries at the top are dizzying and the increase of ignorance and neglect at the bottom depressing” (p. 123). Of course it is an absolute scandal that the former chairman of the VW Group, Martin Winterkorn, gets a pension of 3,100 euros daily (!) while a worker has to live with a maximum pension of 60 euros per day. But implementing virtue by the state will never succeed. Hegel mentioned, it would violate the feelings of the poorer people concerning “their independence and honour” (p. 125), if the richer class would pay for them. The recipient of state caring is indeed freed from immediate distress, but also threatened in his self-esteem like the taxpayer, the state-supporting middle class, too: At his time Wilhelm von Humboldt came to insight that the inclination of the citizens to neighbourly sympathy and attention sinks, the more he is forced to become an anonymous taxpayer (see p. 127).

Sexual orientations and the search for a special identity

What also bothers the author is the incessant search, or the development of a very special identity of the individual, which is driven to extremes. He is oriented towards the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor here. With Immanuel Kant, he argues that the worthiness of human beings is “that they are capable of rational action, to let their lives be guided by principles […] What is emphasised here as valuable is a universal human potential, an ability that is common to all human beings.” (p. 130) This potential, and not what the individual makes or has done of it, ensures respect for everyone. In contrast, according to Taylor, nowadays the “individualised identity” becomes more and more important, for example the fact that I am “dark-skinned, female, or homosexual”. (p. 131) He locates the development of this idea in Rousseau and Herder – it is no longer a question of cultivating what is “general human in itself, but what is of one’s own. […] To be faithful to myself means to be faithful to my originality, and only I alone can articulate and discover it. By articulating it, I define myself.” (ibid.) According to Greiner, this kind of “Identitätspolitik” (“identity politics”, ibid.) contradicts the idea of equality, indeed – it dissolves it. Today, only the recognition of the difference counts. In addition, this recognition is still threatened because it comes from history, such as the fact “that as a black man or a woman of the history of colonialism or patriarchy, I am so damaged to this day that I have a right on redemption.” (p. 132) From here, it is only a small step towards gender issues, because the current socially relevant debate is decreasingly concerned with the common good than with the finding of one’s own identity. Children should not just learn to respect deviant sexual orientations at school, but also have the early opportunity to choose from the rich catalogue of sexual options what is right for them”, so at least according to curricula in federal states, in which the Greens co-govern. An article in the Wikipdea lists – believe it or not –  23 different gender’. Above all this is the formulation and enforcement or satisfaction of potentially infinite particular interests in a pure entitlement society, “having no vision of itself” (p. 141).

Give conservatism a voice

The media “from the leading newspapers to the public-service radio broadcasters cultivated an ‘moralism of compliance’ […] which does not offer a sounding board for opposing opinions” (see text on the back cover). That applies even more to political parties. Ulrich Greiner characterises many current developments precisely, stripping them of the fascination, they have for many, and encourages them to oppose against them, asking them to reflect on the fundamental values of our culture. In his closing remarks, he realises that the social attitudes and mentalities that are questioned can neither be changed by politicians nor even by himself. Above all, he wanted to be clear about his own conservatism. If he could convince many readers, he would no longer be homeless. He does not seem to mind outing himself being a conservative, social-democratic intellectual.    •
Greiner, Ulrich. Heimatlos. Bekenntnisse eines Konservativen. (Homeless. Confessions of a Conservative.) Reinbek 2017, ISBN 978498025366
(Translation Current Concerns)