Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Sarrazin, Broder and British Debating Culture

I have never been a great fan of the British university debating club. The one at my university attempted to invite Enoch Powell to speak to students, back in the early 90s. As I recall, it was a small group of ex-public school pupils with pretensions to the Conservative back-benches. I see they are still going strong, in fact, with a debate tabled for March with the title "This house believes that it is time to close the borders to economic migrants." The idea is that two people say very contentious things to each other in a witty manner, while students watch for cheap entertainment. A centuries-old tradition, free speech, fostering public speaking skills, bla bla bla. Not to my taste at all, as there are things that I consider too important to reduce them to their mere intellectual entertainment value. But at the very least, there are some kind of rules of balance that are intended to ensure a fair debate.

So students at London's LSE were not only dismayed to see that the German Society had invited everybody's favourite German racist Thilo Sarrazin to an event. They had also failed to find anyone to stand up to him on equal terms. Alongside Sarrazin on the platform was Henryk M. Broder, not a man known for airing his views on Islam in particular in an unprovocative manner. The students felt that the "contra" side was too weak, with the critic Hellmuth Karasek and Ali Kizilkaya, Chairman of the German Islamic Council, who "may very well speak for his religious community but cannot be expected to represent the great diversity of German immigrants and their children." They wrote an open letter to the German Society from which this quote is taken. Their campaign was picked up by the press and anti-racism activists, whereupon the event was moved from the LSE itself to a nearby hotel.

There have been some amusing accounts of the ensuing events in the German press, the best of which is in the Tagesspiegel (although they seem confused about the demands of the open letter). As it turns out, not even Karasek argued against the anti-Islam front. The event was topped off by an exchange in which Broder called a student who mounted the stage an
unmoderate double huge arsehole. And Der Freitag has a few words from one of the organisers of the open letter (my translation):

As a former colonial power, Britain has a much longer and more intensive history of integration. The majority of the guests at the Hilton had therefore noticed that "there was something very dodgy about Sarrazin." Compared to the quality of the British discussion, the London audience will have seen Sarrazin and Broder and presumably also Karasek as provincials at best. Sarrazin, says Fathollah-Nejad, "hardly got any applause anyway."

Back in January, it was another venerable British institution that first gave Sarrazin a platform in the English-speaking world. As Spiegel Online reported, he was invited onto the "discussion programme" World Have Your Say on the BBC World Service. Here's what they said:

For 50 minutes, Sarrazin -- whose book has been at the top of Germany's bestseller lists for weeks -- held forth on his opinions about Muslims. He discussed his book with callers from Great Britain, Germany, the United States and elsewhere in the world -- and didn't seem concerned that his ideas sound even crasser in English than they do in German.

Again, the format was part of the problem here. While most of the callers were apparently critical of his ideas, Sarrazin was in the studio as the main guest and therefore automatically in a privileged position to state his views. Sarrazin was presented as the expert while the people
countering (or indeed supporting) his arguments were presented as laymen. He also had more airtime than any other individual. Hardly a triumph of fair debate, no matter how crudely he came across.

Now just to get my position clear, I would rather nobody offered Sarrazin a public platform for his unscientific and plainly racist views. However, for a country that is so proud of its tradition of fair debate, these two events are an absolute embarrassment.

I'm looking forward to Thursday's launch of the Manifest der Vielen in Berlin - a collection of pieces by the very people Sarrazin dumps on in his mega-selling book. Because when the other side doesn't play fair, why should we bother? Dance the Sarrazin!

Update: my friend Karen Margolis sent me a link to an FAZ article by two of the signatories. Maria Exner and Max Neufeind are rightly annoyed at the German press coverage claiming they wanted to have the event banned, and the way Broder is treated as a harmless clown.

1 comment:

Karen Margolis said...

Love this posting!! - and the one on presentation of the Vielen book.- Karen M