Merkel’s Successor Is Politically Incorrect

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The fight against political correctness has long been the domain of right-wing, often fringe, commentators and politicians. But Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of Germany’s strongest party and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chosen successor, is bringing it to the political center. She is testing the acceptable limits of conservative plain speech, and that’s an important endeavor, not just for Germany.

It all started at a quintessentially German event last week: a carnival “Fools’ Court” in Stockach, a town near the Swiss border. There, a jury of jesters tries a famous guest every year. AKK, as the leader of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) is known, was tried for sins such as “usurping the throne by seducing a minor,” a reference to her courting the support of Paul Ziemiak, the leader of her party’s youth wing, during her leadership bid last year. “There’s nothing minor about Paul Ziemiak,” AKK retorted.

But she also made some more dangerous jokes. Explaining she felt women had to take on more responsibility because men of the “latte macchiato faction” had grown too soft, she took a stab at “bathrooms for the third sex,” meaning intersex people. “These are for those men who don’t know if they can still stand up when peeing, or if they must already sit down,” she said.

The audience laughed and cheered – the beer and wine had been flowing, of course. But AKK didn’t get any applause from political rivals and even some allies. “Annegret Karrenbauer shows what an arch-conservative wind blows again in the CDU,” tweeted Lars Klingbeil, secretary general of the Social Democratic Party, the CDU’s partner in the governing coalition. “Such speech, even at a carnival, is absolutely disrespectful.”

Similar criticism of AKK’s insensitivity came from the Greens, the liberal Free Democrats and the far-left Die Linke. Even the leader of the gay and lesbian union within the CDU, Alexander Vogt, demanded an apology.

But AKK wouldn’t back down. On Ash Wednesday, the carnival now over, she doubled down angrily, expressing her contempt for political correctness. In a speech to the party faithful, she said those who “get artificially excited” about remarks like hers risk “breaking something wonderful” in Germany, namely the carnival tradition that doesn’t require people to “weigh every word on a jeweler’s scale.”

Germany has never, except possibly during the Weimar Republic, been a shining example when it comes to freedom of speech. The Nazi era and Communist East Germany aside, there are plenty of examples of suppression like West Germany’s hounding of mostly leftist radicals who were banned from public sector jobs. Now, the country has strict hate speech laws in place, mostly to exorcise the demons of Nazism; even some clothing brands are banned from schools and parliament because they cater to far-right groups’ tastes.

The lack of something as all-embracing and jealously-guarded as the U.S.’s First Amendment has fostered a climate in which it requires courage, or at least bloody-mindedness, to say things that any group might find offensive.

One could even say Germany fostered political correctness long before the U.S. did. And in recent years, the same battles as those raging in the U.S. have been fought in Germany, too – a professor prevented from lecturing because students consider him a fascist, an exhibition shut down because it is deemed sexist. A poem in Spanish about “avenues of flowers and girls” inscribed on the outside wall of a Berlin college had to be painted over because it objectivized women. 

The German language has seen changes, too; one can often see terms such as Mitbürger/innen (male and female fellow citizens) spelled with a “gender asterisk” – Mitbürger*innen – or with a “gender gap” – Mitbürger_innen – to convey the multiplicity of gender identities. 

Naturally, there has been some pushback. “The New Virtue Terror,” a book about political correctness in the German media by Thilo Sarrazin, a former Berlin senator and longtime critic of Muslim immigration, became a bestseller in 2014. And the far-right Alternative for Germany party has pitched itself as a resistance movement against what it sees as the suppression of conservative views.

It would be unheard of for Merkel to criticize political correctness in the media. Cautious to the point of being insipid in her public utterances, the refined intellectual is considered by the German right to be the mother of homogenous opinion. And that’s where AKK can differentiate herself from her political mentor and move forcefully out of her shadow.

A provincial from tiny Saarland, a conservative Catholic with three children who is openly opposed to gay marriage (and was named “Miss Homophobia 2018” by a gay rights initiative for that), she is also a natural stand-up comedian who enjoys the saltiness of German carnival shows. When she’s serious, she can still unleash her power of mockery against social justice warriors who won’t have a glass of wine and celebrate with her or Greens who object to New Year’s Eve fireworks and diesel cars.

The applause of CDU audiences is sincere. Many party members are deeply conservative and old-fashioned. But it is applause, too, for a political tactic that could lure back defectors from the AfD before this year’s elections to the European Parliament.

AKK’s rhetoric is unapologetic, but it’s not hysterical; it conforms to comfortable, long-standing norms rather than addresses new moral standards that are often hard for members of pre-millennial generations to understand and accept. It’s attractive to the kind of voter the CDU wants to capture, but it’s not so far over the line as to alienate even the Greens as potential allies when it comes to building the next ruling coalition. (For the record: I’m all for toilet equality and didn’t laugh at AKK’s joke.)

That’s where AKK will need to watch herself as she runs her many political campaigns to come. Does her political incorrectness stretch to anti-Muslim rhetoric, for example? Turkish jokes? That would be a much more politically important red line than being flippant about third gender bathrooms. Politically incorrect speech can only be useful to a centrist politician as long as outright hate-mongering remains taboo.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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