A summer afternoon at the Reichstag. Soft Berlin light filters down through the great glass dome, past tourists ascending the spiral ramp, and into the main hall of parliament. Half the members’ seats are empty. At the lectern, a short, slightly hunched figure in a fuchsia jacket, black slacks, and a helmet of no-color hair is reading a speech from a binder. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and the world’s most powerful woman, is making every effort not to be interesting.
American politics is so polarized that Congress has virtually stopped functioning; the consensus in Germany is so stable that new laws pour forth from parliament while meaningful debate has almost disappeared.
“The German self-criticism and self-loathing are part of the success story—getting strong by hating yourself,” Mariam Lau, a political correspondent for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, told me. “And Merkel had to reëducate herself, too. She’s part of the self-reëducation of Germany.”
Steve McQueen has known about slavery for as long as he can remember. To the son of West Indian parents, slavery’s history is the story of his very existence: “So there is a weight on your chest, on your back, from a very early age.” Yet he cannot recall having ever felt angry about it.
“Angry?” He looks puzzled. “No. You feel hurt that someone did such things, but angry? No.” To McQueen, the notion sounds as bizarre as finding slavery funny. “Painful, sure. Hurt, absolutely. I don’t know if that can be seen as anger. Not to say that I’m not angry with injustice, of course – and slavery is a huge injustice. But thinking about it that way? No.” From his baffled expression, you might think him literally unaware that anger is quite a common response.