Opinion: A small philosophy of calm optimism | Opinion | DW | 01.01.2016
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Opinion: A small philosophy of calm optimism

The new year has been ushered in and once again, it is time to make New Year's resolutions. But coming up with the right ones is hard, writes DW's Kersten Knipp. At least one thing helps: the art of staying calm.

The new year has arrived, and that in itself is a positive thing. For it means that the old year is over and done with at last - a year that was extremely unpleasant and unsettling. But it will nonetheless remain in the memory as the year in which things lost their clear contours and the familiar criteria for judgment barely applied any more.

The rescue of Greece, for example: was it an act of European solidarity, or just an unwillingness to let go of an illusion? Or the cheap money from the European Central Bank (ECB): is it a bold action to save faltering economies, or a cool indifference to the future plans of millions of EU citizens? All of a sudden, it would seem, everything has two sides to it. Criteria for evaluation have lost any steady basis.

This also applies to the current mass migration in Germany, for example. Is it the result of unprecedented generosity? Or is it a glaring failure of the state both on its own outer borders and those of the continent?

Grumpy nostalgia

Much is unclear. For instance, what can we make of those people who want to react to the influx of people fleeing from war by setting up new borders, both physical and ideological ones? Are they the trailblazers of the skeptics? Or are they not rather reactionaries for whom the term "skepticism," in the sense of a recourse to critical reasoning, is much too polite?

A look at Germany's anti-migration PEGIDA movement and some nationalist statesmen in eastern Europe certainly awakens this impression. A kind of grumpy nostalgia is the driving force here. These are people who are propagating the idea of the ethnically homogeneous nation. What they are offering would, were it to become reality, bring about a horror that sometimes knows no bounds, as it has in the past. No country knows this better than Germany.

Knipp Kersten Kommentarbild App

DW's Kersten Knipp

In contrast, little is known about the ideologies the new immigrants have brought with them. But most of them come from a region of the world characterized by something that for their Western neighbors needs some getting used to: many people in the Middle East have a strong relationship with religion, and also accept that it should provide the guidelines for the way a society is ordered. What impact will this have in their new home country, Germany? Will it manifest itself as an enviable steadfastness of faith? Or will it be the source of cultural friction? Probably, both - on the whole, humans are a diverse lot.

The erosion of certainties

Germans are prepared to meet the new challenges – each individual in his or her own way. But the spirit of optimism that prevails at the beginning of the year is, in a way, betting against all rational odds. For there is actually not much reason to be optimistic. When, as Karl Marx puts it, "[a]ll that is solid melts into air and all that is holy is profaned," it makes it rather difficult to find any reliable principles to guide us in doing the right thing.

And this applies to politics as well - indeed, to politics in particular. The marvelous established political order of ages past no longer exists: the left-wingers on one side, the right-wingers on the other; the iconoclasts facing off with the guardians of tradition - all of this has ceased to be. That also means that politicians can no longer fall back on tried-and-true political programs to push through unpopular changes. Now, politicians are on standby. We still haven't quite arrived at "anything goes," but positions have become flexible beyond recognition. And political parties are faltering. They are so undecided that Germany's coalition, for example, has long become government and opposition all rolled into one.

The million-euro question

The million-euro question at the outset of this year, and probably not just of this one, is: how can one make a promising new start in a situation like this? As exciting as it has been in the past two or three centuries to tear down ideologies, both secular and religious, no one really knows what can take their place. The ECB's zero-interest policy, which is currently causing financial difficulties for millions of European citizens, is a good symbol for the difficulties in developing an ideological and political direction for the future: How can someone engineer changes for a new era when all savings have been devalued for the foreseeable future? What if we will now be forced to think in ever-shorter periods of time and our future outlook becomes dramatically more short-term?

These circumstances put a damper on the euphoric expectations going into the new year. But perhaps that is why the whole thing is exciting. Because it seems that only calm rationality and modesty make sense right now. The carefree times are over and there is no easy path to take anymore – not ideologically, and certainly not materially. Immigration comes hand in hand with an ideological and economic cost. There is no need for any pathos; it is enough to acknowledge the new realities.

It is already possible to say that these realities will generate ample pressure. Some people will feel it with regard to their income before taxes, and others with regard to the divine bank in heaven, which, under the pressure of market forces, will have less time in future for deposits in the form of prayers, blessings and worship. So the new year will become an exercise in sober calmness. If this exercise is successful, the magical optimism engendered by every new start would not stop there.

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