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Public and Private Immigrants

Not a simple attempt at park beautification but rather an exclusionary social practice aimed at denying immigrants access to a public space.
John Brady

Issue #26, May 1996

"The opposition to foreigners in Germany isn't just about social services for foreigners. It is also about the sight of foreigners on the street and the anguish of hearing foreigners talking to one another without being able to understand them. It is about minarettes in residential districts and women who wear headscarves and thus change the appearance of German cities and German streets.
The individual who is identified as the foreigner loses every bit of intimacy. He must reveal everything; he becomes the target of everyone's attention."
— Zafer Senocak, Turkish-German Essayist
"A future anti-capitalist popular movement will probably have as its basis the inequalities that are suffered in common in a large number of social practices other than just production — for instance education, living conditions."
— Etienne Balibar, social theorist

Last summer, the Christian Democrats, one of Germany's four main political parties, attempted to ban barbecueing in the Tiergarten, Berlin's main urban park. The party's stated rationale for the ban was that the many picnickers who used the park on the weekend left behind an unsightly amount of litter.

On the surface, the Christian Democrats' effort seems like a fairly innocous attempt to better Berlin's appearance. Yet, as soon as one realizes that immigrants constitute the main group to use the park for barbeques and picnics, then the party's proposed ban takes on a completely different meaning. It is not a simple attempt at park beautification but rather an exclusionary social practice aimed at denying immigrants access to a public space.

The Tiergarten episode joins a long line of other episodes in the German politics of immigration in which conservative political parties have attempted to control the access of immigrants to public spaces and public institutions. In this politics of social exclusion, immigrants are denied recognition as equal members of German society and rendered partially invisible.

The appearance of immigrants in public is often perceived as a dangerous and unsettling phenomenon as the quote by the Turkish-German poet and essayist Zafer Senocak indicates. The presence of immigrants reminds Germans that the assumption that Germany as a nation-state still possesses a homogenous national culture is no longer valid. For those German political leaders and portions of the German population that have failed to realize and have yet to come to terms with the consequences of the role German politics and society has played in the presence of five million immigrants within the Federal Republic's border, this reminder is a bitter pill to swallow indeed.

Yet the meaning of the Tiergarten episode is not exhausted in its status as an exclusionary practice that denies access to public spaces. The proposed ban also touches on notions of privacy and intimacy. It is for this reason that I have included the second quote by Senocak at the start of this essay. Senocak's observation that the foreigner loses all intimacy applies to the proceedings in the Tiergarten controversy. In the course of the Tiergarten episode, the Christian Democrats not only attempted to deny access to the Tiergarten; they intervened in a part of the private lifeworld of immigrants by exposing their private leisure activities to public scrutiny.

As strangers to German society, immigrants lose the veil of privacy; their eating habits, their familial relations and their leisure activities become the targets of public policy and state control. Immigrants suffer a double injustice in this episode from the German public sphere. On the one hand, they are denied access to a common, public space because their right to shape their individual pursuits has been undermined. At the same time, they must suffer the intervention of the political authorities into their personal activities. This intervention brings with it a loss of personal autonomy.

What is the meaning of such a practice for leftist, oppositional politics in this "post-socialist," multi-cultural age of ours? Is the exclusion of immigrants from public space a social practice around which a broad oppositional movement of the type that Balibar mentions above can be mobilized? And if so, how? Or is such an exclusionary practice something specific to the politics of immigration and thus liable to disappear as soon as immigrants are integrated into society? These are the questions animating this essay, and I would like to approach them by examining the various interpretations of the immigrant presence in the park that appeared in the German media in the wake of the Tiergarten controversy.

In an article covering the Tiergarten episode that appeared in Der Spiegel, one of Germany's main news magazines, a number of representative perspectives on the episode are offered. A German social scientist consulted for the article interprets the picnicking as a "Fester Brauch," that is, an ingrained tradition of the immigrant community that is impervious to politics and cannot be dispelled by public policy and state action, however heavy-handed and cruel. In this expert's view the public presence of Turks is the expression of cultural difference which needs to be recognized and tolerated by the majority. What's more the failure to recognize the validity of this difference and the use of political demagoguery in dealing with its presence, can only lead to intensified cultural conflict in Germany and perhaps to a social explosion, the academic warns.

Similarly, a representative of one of Berlin's largest immigrant political organizations frames the issue in terms of cultural recognition. The picnicking in the park, he notes, is an integral part of immigrant culture in Berlin. Attempting to end this cultural practice with the racist Christian Democratic proposal would damage the viablity of the immigrant community in Berlin. What's more, the representative forecasts that this demonstration of hostility and intolerance will change the attitudes of Turks towards German politics and drive them to participate more fully in German politics and society. Both of these interpretations stress the importance of cultural difference in understanding the immigrants' use of the park. To deny the immigrants access to this public space is an example of cultural injustice.

A 'father from Moabit,' one of Berlin's districts with a high proportion of immigrants, offers a perspective on the Tiergarten that is slightly different from the first two. Like the other commentators, the man emphasizes the communal and cultural function of the picnicking, noting that marriages are often arranged and job opportunities are made public. In this view the public presence of the immigrants is embedded in a larger context, the lifeworld of immigrants in Germany.

The father's interpretation contains a dimension that the other two lack, as he goes a step further and draws attention to the larger social context of the Tiergarten festivities. His interpretation reveals that for immigrant families without the socio-economic resources to purchase homes with gardens, weekends in the park provide vital opportunities for leisure. This broadens the interpretive horizons of the immigrant's use of the park by setting this use within the socio-economic structure of German society. Public access to the park is not simply a matter of a fair recognition of cultural difference. It is also a matter of social relationships and the distribution of such social resources as public space. Issues of cultural justice are joined by issues of distributive, socio-economic justice.

As Nancy Fraser notes in the July/August 1995 issue of New Left Review, in contemporary societies the politics of identity and recognition have supplanted the more traditional politics of class and economic justice. In identity politics, cultural domination replaces economic exploitation as the fundamental injustice, and cultural recognition supplants redistributing wealth as the remedy for injustice and the goal of political struggle. We have an example of this trend in the opinions expressed by the first two commentators on the Tiergarten controversy. These reflect a general tendency within contemporary Germany to construe politics and the search for social equality in terms of recognizing cultural difference.

In the last few months, issues of economic justice have again appeared on the Federal Republic's political agenda as the effects of the continuing economic rationalization of German firms and the shrinking of the once generous German welfare state begin to be felt by the general populace. But these issues of economic justice are almost never combined with issues of cultural justice, although, as the Tiergarten episode indicates, the two are related if not inseperable. As Fraser notes, we need a critical politics of recognition that frames social justice in terms of both socio-economic redistribution and cultural recognition. Or in other words, we need a common political language, one that can thematize the relationship between the particular injustices of cultural non-recognition and the injustices of economic exploitation.

As a brief example of how we might simultaneously confront issues of cultural and social justice, I would like to return to Senocak's observation that the individual identified as a foreigner loses all intimacy in the gaze of the majority. I think Senocak is right because he identifies an aspect of the immigrant experience that is rarely discussed in the public debates about integration. But to stop here is to miss the universal content of Senocak's observation. The problem that Senocak identifies is not simply a problem experienced by foreigners and immigrants but by most of us. As members of modern, capitalist societies we are all subject to having our private affairs politicized by the intrusiveness of the state, the economy and the media. As the Tiergarten episode shows, some are more subject than others to this intrusive force.

John Brady is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at UC-Berkeley. He is currently in Berin doing research for his dissertation, which esplores the construction of a new political consciousness in that city's Turkish community. Contact him by e-mail at the following:

Copyright © 1996 by John Brady. All rights reserved.