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09/09/2005

Standing in file

Tanja Dückers prefers not to be co-opted by a party in the German election campaign.

Under the pseudo-rabble rousing title "Writers! Break free of your routine!", Eva Menasse, whose work I otherwise enjoy, laments the refusal of writers to take a position behind the SPD. She observes querulously the "bored routine" with which the question "are the intellectuals political enough?" is posed in the German feuilletons. She also complains that almost no authors referred to party affiliation in their refusal to join Günter Grass' request to openly support the SPD in the campaign; their unwillingness was based on a general rejection of the idea of writers advertising for a political party.

It's about time that someone explained, just as querulously, how dreadfully boring it is when young writers or their generation are unable to develop a political vision of their own; when they think "political engagement" means following an old established party that embodies commonplace Realpolitik. And one more thing: it is a writer's right to turn down active participation in a political campaign as a matter of principle.

When one recalls how difficult it was in centuries past to liberate art from religion, when one thinks how, until relatively recently (1945, 1989 respectively), literature was used as propaganda to serve political interests in this country, it seems perplexing that writers are so willing to serve a party today. They relinquish their positions as neutral observers, even though they are quite capable of addressing political themes in their own domain – there are hardly any literary works of real acclaim that fail to paint society in political terms so to speak from the inside. In times where animosities have become diffuse and a "new complexity" has taken over, a complex novel serves better to criticize the current state of affairs than a "contribution to the discussion" or an abbreviated statement in a forum.

To go to bat for a party means saying yes to umpteen positions which one would probably not support when considered individually – that has nothing to do with independent judgment. I know what I'm talking about here. I too was asked by a party to campaign for it, a party that I will probably vote for. But I said no. Not because I'm apolitical but rather because I'm political. For an intellectual, being political means for me being politically independent.

I can understand why older writers and journalists who have been identified with a party for decades continue to take this engagement seriously. For older writers the SPD - Green Party coalition is the project of their generation; they helped build it and give it shape. The older SPD supporters were at least dissidents in their youth. They glided from the oppositional margins of society, right to its pinnacle. Such gentrification processes are ubiquitous and don't discredit the project – certainly not in retrospect.

Willy Brandt really did indicarte a vision when he introduced his Ostpolitik, which was very controversial at the time, and the Greens were, at one time, truly new, different, unconventional – a political avant-garde. But the young writers who will be doing PR work for the SPD don't seem to have any vision of their own. There is no longer even the faintest whiff of that spirit of rebellion or desire for change that once brought people flocking to the SPD or the Green Party. The Kosovo War, the Hartz IV reforms to unemployment and social security benefits, social cutbacks, they're behind it all. Writers for Hartz IV! - that's the revolt of today's youth.

Avant-garde? What is that? Writers don't have to and should not kiss up to politicians! One expects them to be capable of imagining another, better future – a Utopian moment, a visionary book. If literature addresses politics, it should do so not to serve the status quo but rather to compare the negative situation as it is with what might be possible. Good literature is similar to good music in this sense. It transcends reality and opens up, for a moment, the possibility of a better life.

Such a hope was kindled in the initiatives of Brandt and the Greens. But which Utopia lies in the support of Hartz IV remains a mystery to me. The youth have allowed themselves be appropriated by someone who could be their grandfather; that doesn't reflect poorly on Grass but on them. Young writers were never so conservative in the past. Instead of at least getting involved beyond the apparatus of the established parties, they prefer to mount the old hacks of previous generations.

Media-consciousness is showing its face; plus which, nobody really wants to go to the trouble of starting something new. It's all too clear: it's not the visionaries but rather the pragmatics that are standing in file.

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This article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on September 1, 2005.

Tanja Dückers, born 1968, is a writer, journalist and literature studies scholar in Berlin. Her most recent book "Himmelskörper" appeared in 2003.

Translation: nb
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