Charlotte Wiedemann: "Now is the time for utopias" The end of white dominance
When the ground beneath their feet begins to quake, people tend to hold fast to the familiar. In such situations, there is no room for utopias; it is all about preventing things from getting any worse. Charlotte Wiedemann, however, sees things very differently.
As she writes in her new book, "Der lange Abschied von der weissen Dominanz" (the long good-bye to white dominance), now is exactly the right time for utopias, because the future has to be negotiated at a global level with the help of knowledge and values from all over the world, not just from the white West. After all, writes Wiedemann, the world view shaped by the white West has reached the end of the line.
For years, the multi-award-winning journalist Charlotte Wiedemann has been focussing on what she calls "Islamic lifeworlds". Mali is one of the African countries she writes about most. Prior to this, she reported for several years from South-East Asia. Unlike many other experts, Wiedemann knows all about transcultural perspectives and changes in global perspectives.
"No return to cosy unambiguity"
"White dominance is evident in the consumption of resources, in the balance of economic power, in capital flows, in the interpretation of conflicts, and in the writing of history. In all these areas, a new age is dawning," she writes. For centuries, Europe dominated the world politically and imposed on it a capitalist market economy, which to this day benefits itself more than anyone else.
The reappraisal of colonial crimes is only now beginning, and an awareness that our economy is still borne up by colonial structures is building, albeit slowly and sluggishly. The new world is multi-polar and highly complex. And yes, this can be frightening and intimidating. But Wiedemann is convinced that there is no alternative: the world has to undergo a radical change. "There can be no return to cosy unambiguity," she writes.
To start with, there is the demographic argument: "a major disequilibrium is now being brought into a better balance" writes Wiedemann. A minority of 510 million EU citizens and 325 Americans no longer steers the fortunes of a global population that will soon hit eight billion.
The right-wing populist will, of course, immediately see in this an approaching wave of "Muslims" and "Africans" rolling towards the West, overpopulating it with their allegedly high birth rates. According to Wiedemann, however, only 16 percent of migrant families in Germany have three or more children. What's more, she argues, allowing more people to have a say is profoundly democratic.
Despite the diverse legacy of exercising violent influence over others, we live on the sunny side of history. It is shameful, notes Wiedemann, how hesitantly the legacy of colonialism is being reappraised.
This is particularly striking when it comes to the debate about the return of stolen cultural property, which is now gathering pace. However, it is even more striking in ethical, moral matters: for many years, the white conquerors treated people like animals, shipping millions of them across the sea to work as slaves. And today, Europe is curtailing people's basic right to be allowed to leave their own country.
The white legacy
Naturally, the author is familiar with the force of inertia that characterises the old-established population. In times of upheaval, people have always shored up their own identity by fixing their gaze on those weaker than themselves. Indeed, this was quite literally the case with the people who were put on show at exhibitions and fairgrounds right into the twentieth century.
Racism exists in every society and group. "Yet," writes Wiedemann, "the systematic disparagement of other cultures, with the support of science, business, the Church and the military over an incredibly long period of time is the white legacy."
This is not written as an indictment; she would not presume to do that. She does note, however, that it borders on brainwashing to "deny the performance of migrants on the labour market – even though it is plain for all to see – and to portray their very presence as a burden." And so, the former scapegoat of choice – the lazy German benefits scrounger – has quietly disappeared and been replaced by another: the Muslim.
What makes Wiedemann's book so eye-opening is that it is so undogmatic. It is worthwhile reading about such new thought systems, such as critical whiteness or intersectionality, which seem so uncomfortable to many privileged people. Wiedemann approaches these complex themes, which are so heavily laden with historical significance, with curiosity and lucidity. Her aim is to promote networked thinking.
Take climate change, for example, and the hot summer of 2018, when some Europeans may have experienced for the first time what it feels like when what they know about the changing of the seasons is called into question by actual events. Yes, climate change can indeed cause people to flee their homes, and Wiedemann stresses that it is no coincidence that the right-wing populists deny it. After all, accepting the reality of climate change would force them to accept a whole range of very real causes of migration.
For hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers in the global South, what the right-wing populists deny has long been reality. "It would never occur to a female farmer in the Sahel to say that climate change was simply thought up by someone; the right not to know is simply not open to them."
At the end of the book is the realisation – one, incidentally, that is shared by many in the West – that capitalism, which is based on the maximisation of profit, no longer works, because it creates working conditions that "make thousands upon thousands of people sick, injure them, or even kill them without anyone being willing to assume responsibility."
Europe's resistance to fair rules
According to Wiedemann, Europe is hampering the negotiation of fair rules more than it is helping it, which is why it is so appalling that the societies of Europe are barricading themselves. "Migrants are adapting to changing conditions – as Africans have done since time immemorial. They are paying a very high price for doing so, and we should understand the lesson that this teaches us: the days when we were in a position to steer other people's behaviour are gone."
The strength of Charlotte Wiedemann's book lies in its clear, almost anecdote-like analyses. Perhaps those who read it should also read Stefan Weidner's "Jenseits des Westens" (Beyond the West), which was published in 2018: a clever book in which Weidner, an expert in Islamic studies and writer, also says that global co-existence requires a new set of rules that has not been dictated by the West.
"We need a vision of respect and of sharing on a global scale," writes Charlotte Wiedemann, adding that this sharing must be feasible and acceptable for all, including the disadvantaged in Germany and elsewhere. That is the vision. That is what it is all about.
Wiedemann does not outline this vision, and the reader is left with a feeling that something is missing in this respect. Nevertheless, she does provide valuable ideas for reflecting on and dealing morally with the uncertain future we face. Wiedemann herself sums it up best: "These are times of radical change, and they will provide us with clarity of thought – if we only let them."
© Qantara.de 2019
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan