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February 2005

Tall Stories

How democracy has reached new heights in Munich

In November Munich’s citizens took part in a referendum to decide whether the maximum height of buildings in Munich should be restricted to 99 m, the height of the Frauenkirche. Political and economic leaders who had opposed the referendum were unable to prevent themselves from thinking that the outcome—that the restriction should be enforced—would turn Munich on its head. Global investors would steer clear of the city. There would be massive layoffs, a shrinking tax base and increased poverty. For days they staggered around with preposterous political erections excited by the prospect of instrumentalizing a city-planning and investment disaster. The CSU and the Chamber of Commerce used the scenario to focus on Mayor Christian Ude’s tactical impotence; the SPD and Labor, to accuse Georg Kronawitter, a former SPD mayor and instigator of the pro-referendum faction, “Initiative Our Munich,” for attacking it from the rear with an emotional and self-indulgent campaign; and the Grüne domina, in concert with the mass media, to wail on a dumbed-down, irrational public.

Even though there are good reasons to believe that Munich’s future is bright, that rationality is largely in control and that the referendum was a good thing, responsible (read cowardly) Munich journalists have never said so much. The “Last Word,” however thrives on exaggeration and provocation. So let me say it here: the success of the referendum was a victory for local politics and marks a trend worth applauding. It shows that a flaw in democracy can be overcome by more democracy. The city council was simply out of touch with the public’s wishes. They had caved in to the flattery and reports provided by investor groups, global corporations and the mass media and had gone ahead and approved the construction of a 145-m-high skyscraper contracted by the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Indeed, the approval was a classic example of governing ugly. It came after one comment and a motion by the mayor to close the debate after five minutes of discussion. Members of the city council had become nervous with the possibility of an economic downturn, and calmed their anxiety by toeing the line of financial institutions, staying in tune with the times, protecting jobs and under no circumstances passing up opportunities for economic growth. The subsequent referendum, whose outcome has now nullified the approval, shows that democracy is strong enough to restrict our desires in the face of seductive voices luring us towards economic prosperity. With the passage of the referendum, Munich’s citizens committed themselves to protecting the city’s identity from a seize-the-present democracy. According to a poll only 33 percent of the German population think the passage of the referendum was a mistake. The outcome goes to show that democracy squeezes out the medicine it needs to heal its own diseases.

The defeat of city managers was not necessarily a consequence of their incompetence, but partly resulted from the fact that they are in charge of establishments that defy control—they’re too vast and composed of too many recalcitrant people and inimical functions. Even the CSU couldn’t mobilize its folks because very few of the rank and file were enamored at the idea of having a high rise in their backyard squashing their Gartenzwerge. Yes, the trend is turning against these guys—and is probably out to get them. It is highly possible that those seeking an identity for Munich, away from the high-rise facelessness of the likes of Kuala Lumpur and Frankfurt, are going to leave their opponents in something approaching dubious moral circumstances. In an age of diminished expectations, scant jobs and deficits, profit-hungry investors and their pretenders are not cool. Money, anonymity and global control are suspect, while virtuousness, transparency and local control are righteous.

“Our Munich”—the name says it all—was an antiglobal, anti-smarty-pants group as much as an anti-skyscraper one. Kronawitter appeared as someone at the service of something other than his career or money-for-me-ism. He was able to assemble, even though he spent only € 7,025.48 on the effort, a group far removed from party politics, big business boardrooms and the mass-media industry. A new urban virtuous parading around with a deep sense of cultural grievance outclassed the glitz, the glam and the sex appeal of skyscrapers. The problem-solving, technology-craving, Internet-supporting, Stoiberesque types were made to look silly. The Kronawitteristic, unslick, unmodern, unsexy, moralistic little guy who wants to bring rectitude and direct democracy into government, but who for sure isn’t going to make anybody rich, is on the march.

It’s back to “times they are a changing.” It’s always back to “times they are a changing” for someone my age. Three cheers for the parade. I hope my kids don’t get trampled. <<<

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