Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sarrazin vs the Saracens

IT WAS an unusual book launch. Journalists jammed themselves into a suite of overcrowded rooms at the headquarters of Berlin’s press corps. Security was tighter than for appearances by the chancellor. When the author at last showed up he was greeted with the flashbulb fireworks you expect on the red carpet at the Kodak Theatre. The centre of the fuss was Thilo Sarrazin, a rather dour economist who sits on the board of the Bundesbank. His book, "Deutschland schafft sich ab” (“Germany does away with itself”) is explosive.

In a nutshell, Mr Sarrazin’s argument is that the right sort of German women are having too few babies and that the wrong sort—Muslims and those with little education—are having too many. The result is not only that Germany’s population is shrinking, it is also getting dumber. “With higher relative fertility among the less intelligent, the average intelligence of the population declines,” he writes. His defence of eugenics—through policies to encourage fertility among smart women—seems like a throwback to a grimmer time.

For this Mr Sarrazin has been roundly and nearly unanimously denounced by the political establishment. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), to which he surprisingly belongs, has started proceedings to expel him. Angela Merkel, the chancellor, accused him of “dividing society.” The Bundesbank is wrestling with the question of whether to sack him, which might require the approval of the German president.

But among a lot of ordinary Germans Mr Sarrazin has struck a chord. The publisher cannot ship the book to shops fast enough—many are sold out. In one survey conducted by a television news station, 95% of the respondents did not think his statements went too far. Unlike many of its neighbours Germany does not have strong right-wing parties led by populist rabble-rousers. Mr Sarrazin looks to many like Germany’s leading candidate to fill the gap. Comparisons with Geert Wilders, the flamboyant anti-Islamic leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, are common.

This does not seem right. The dry, understated Mr Sarrazin can fill a conference room but probably not a concert hall. Although the SPD wants to be rid of him, he means to keep his membership “to the grave” if he can. The issues he discusses should be addressed by the big political parties, he thinks, not left to radical right-wing forces, which he regards as “very dangerous”.

Much of what he says has been said before by perfectly respectable people. He is not the first to point out that Germany’s relatively generous welfare system saps the initiative of badly educated migrants. Ministers routinely bemoan the growth of “parallel societies” among Muslim immigrants and their children. The government encourages middle-class women to bear children by offering a parental leave stipend linked to the parents’ salaries, the sort of family policy Mr Sarrazin would like to see more of.

Where he runs into trouble is with two theses that are normally found on the fringes of polite society. The first is his sweeping condemnation of Islam, which could easily be echoed by Mr Wilders or his compatriot, Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Mr Sarrazin rehearses the usual accusations of intolerance, illiberalism and penchant for violence and concludes that “at bottom, Islam today has a fraught relationship with western modernity.”

The second is his claim that, because people at the bottom of the social pyramid are less intelligent and have more children than those at the top, and because intelligence is largely inherited, “the inherited intellectual potential of the population is being progressively diluted.” Mr Sarrazin compounded the damage by referring carelessly in an interview to a “certain gene” shared by “all Jews”. This appeared to bring him perilously close to the pseudo-scientific ranking of ethnic groups that the Nazis engaged in.

But the accusations of racism and anti-Semitism seem overdone. It is fairly clear that he likes Jews, who are not known as underachievers and do appear to be biologically linked to one another, although not in the crude way Mr Sarrazin at first suggested. He does not propound the preposterous idea that Muslims are genetically inferior to non-Muslims; his objections to the religion are cultural and political. At one point he graciously suggests that Germany could use well-educated workers from Turkey and Egypt. Mr Sarrazin’s sin is to condemn on different grounds two large groups—Muslims and the lower class—whose integration into German society is vital for its future and who are not, in fact, doomed from birth.

In a way, the stir he has created is a tribute to Germany’s political culture. The mainstream parties are not blind to the problems he identifies but strive to be politically correct about them. The few openly xenophobic parties are marginalised. Mr Sarrazin has given voice to fears and resentments that have no political outlets. Germany has rightly worked hard to close them off. Now that Mr Sarrazin has prised one open, politicians will have to work doubly hard to prove him wrong.