This was, to put it mildly, an interesting week in which to find myself offering commentary on the theme of ‘Was uns zusammenhält’ for a “fish bowl discussion” as part of the Berliner Stiftungswoche. The event itself was extremely interesting (for ancient Chinese proverb values of interesting); representatives of six different Berlin charitable projects taking it in turns to give a 60-second summary of their work, followed by me (in my capacity as Einstein Visiting Fellow) hastily improvising some thoughts on wider themes, followed by more general discussion led by the very impressive moderator, journalist and presenter Jörg Thadeusz, who seemed determined to force me to talk more about Thucydides even when I was trying to waffle about ancient attitudes towards poverty instead.
I learnt a lot (or at least I think I will have learnt a lot, once I’ve filtered out the basic terror of having talked gibberish and/or said something incredibly unwise about the Gymnasium system without realising it). The projects included the Barenboim-Said Academy, bringing together young people from hostile communities through the common language of music; Kiron, which helps refugees gain access to higher education, especially if they’ve lost all their academic credentials (two quibbles: no Geisteswissenschaften, and they’ve taken the name from Cheiron, as if a mythical elite private tutor must be a good symbol for Bildung just because it’s Greek); and different approaches to supporting poorer people and giving them a proper stake in society.
The theme raises all sorts of questions (as I attempted to articulate with only intermittent references to Thucydides). Who is this “us” – Berliners, Germans, Europeans, humans? Does this automatically imply a “them”, are identities exclusive or multiple and negotiable – and can I claim status (or, indeed, political asylum) as an honorary Berliner? As for “what holds us together”, is there a risk that even asking the question is a sign that something has already been lost (cf. Schiller’s contrast of the organic community of the ancient Greeks with the mechanical – and self-conscious and self-reflexive – modern society)?
The key point, nicely argued by former minister Michael Naumann, is that differences and divisions are not only inevitable but healthy; what matters is how they are negotiated and accommodated. The drive for a fully unified community, wholly united in a single opinion and purpose, is a return to the ideals of 1933; it’s the politics of Trump’s America, Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, May’s Britain. Difference is presented as chaos, disagreement as sabotage of The Will Of The People; enough people can be scared by their apparent vulnerability, if they lack confidence in their institutions and fellow citizens, and persuaded to hand over more power to the authoritarian populists who promise to cure the problem. This is anti-democratic, even as it uses the mechanisms of democracy, and deeply dangerous.
So, yes, there were times when I felt my most constructive contribution to the discussion might simply be to sob quietly in a corner while everyone else took the UK as an Awful Warning and got on with things. What keeps us together – not just as a country (where currently the only obvious answer is the “shut up and recognise the glorious opportunities of walking off a cliff” line, which really doesn’t work for me) but at a personal level? I have friends who voted to Leave; older ones full of nostalgia, slightly younger ones fired up with the idealism of Lexit, contemporaries who seem to be living the cliche of moving from leftist 20s to Tory late 40s, and various relatives. What holds us together? Sheer proximity and neighbourliness, and the fact my wife may be unhappy if I start a row at a dinner party without really significant provocation; the fact that it’s just Twitter, and it’s good to remain aware of what others are thinking; and they’re family, aren’t they, so you just accept their flaws?
The problem is trying to scale this up; to establish accommodation, tolerance and a willingness to accept differences of opinion when the stakes remain high and when personal ties no longer operate effectively. Naumann, as Rector of the Barenboim-Said Academy, argued for the role of music as a common language and shared purpose, founded on the need to listen constantly to everyone else, that transcends other divisions – but that’s still pretty small-scale. Besides, as I argued, social life is more like jazz: no score, no conductor, requiring constant improvisation, and with the ever-present possibility of making what some will regard as a really horrible noise.
None of the Berlin projects offered answers to such society-level problems; they focus on the local, the practical, the manageable – and so are able to achieve real results. In the long term, such “schrittweise” approaches must be the solution, working together to maintain, develop and perhaps rebuild the public sphere. In the short term, faced with terrifying challenges? We have to hope that our existing institutions of politics, education etc. will hold together and function well enough, while we continue to improvise and listen to one another at the local and personal level.
So, no, even now I am not going to de-friend grouchy ‘bring back the Empire’ pensioners or irritatingly enthusiastic Lexiteers; if nothing else, it does me good to remain aware of such views. The fact that I think society needs more Peter Brötzmann at the moment doesn’t mean I actually want to ban Acker Bilk…