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American "Leitkultur"

An article about Germany in today’s New York Times by a German writer, Anna Sauerbrey, raises an interesting issue for those of us in the United States. Sauerbrey discusses an article published in a German newspaper, in which the author, Thomas de Maiziére, listed characteristics that define German culture (the concept of Leitkultur). Sauerbrey doesn’t publish the  list, but indicates that it contained such values (cited as “non-negotiable”) as “the priority of law over religion, respectful manners in everyday life, being part of the West, being proud ‘Europeans’, and being patriotic.” In addition, as if to emphasize at whom such a list was aimed, the article by de Maiziére also mentioned, “We shake hands” and  “We are not burqa,” these latter values directed toward Muslim men’s reluctance to shake the hand of women and Muslim women wearing face-covering clothing.  In other words, the  importation of Muslim cultural behaviors is not what de Maiziére meant by German Leitkultur.

Sauerbrey laments the delineation of German cultural characteristics that exclude the behaviors of immigrants, who have their own values based upon the cultures from which they immigrated. Partly, she says, such insistence upon discouraging cultural plurality is doomed. As she says, Germany “needs to accept that it will be less homogeneous.”  She goes on to say that, “Germany will have to accept that respecting the law is enough… In accepting pluralism, we will truly live up to our constitutional values.”

What is the relevance of this discussion to the United States? Although some claim that the traditional culture of America is “European,” that is only partially true, since it ignores Africans who were here since the beginning of the country as slaves, and it ignores Native Americans, both in North America and from what is now Mexico and Central America. Even from Europe, despite a predominance of British among the earliest settlers (excluding French in Canada and Louisiana and Spanish in Florida, Texas and California), with the increase in population coming mostly from immigration, the variety of Europeans and later Asians, led to varied cultural traditions becoming “American.” Culture continues to change with the influx of Middle Easterners, Africans, Asians, and Mexican and Central Americans into our society.

More so than in Germany, the “constitutional values” of the United States rest upon elevating the law above the sanctity of any other cultural practices, including the tenets of any particular religion, “traditional family values,” norms of dress, styles of social greeting or even of acceptable social decorum or self-identification. America’s “non-negotiable” values are all based upon the sanctity of individual freedom as guaranteed by law.

In America it doesn’t matter which day one goes to religious worship, or whether one goes at all. It doesn’t matter who one dates or even marries. It doesn’t matter whether or not one covers one’s head or face in public or whether someone follows strict religiously dictated guidelines for what one eats or whether one’s eating habits are good for his or her health. It doesn’t even matter which religious or philosophical figures one follows or even if one decides to follow none of them and denigrate all of them. All of these things are the subjects of individual decision because our constitution guarantees that they are, and we all agree that the central factor in our cultural identity as Americans is that we agree to live by our constitution.

In America our Leitkultur is the culture of inviolable individual freedom, which is not subject to the vagaries of whichever culture happens to be dominant in the local or national society, but is guaranteed by law.

Reader Comments (1)

Well said.

The only rejoinder I would make is that in MaiziƩre article synopsis from the New York Times piece, MaiziƩre is intentionally contrasting German constitutional law with Sharia and denoting that any cultural values as imposed by a religion are not necessarily compatible with those derived from the rule of state law. In fact, I'd suggest that the author is suggesting that those values and practices should be resisted or even rejected since the authority from which they derive is faith-based as opposed to those that naturally flourish through a law-building democracy.

May 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

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