Taking German Chauvinists Down a Peg

FINAL UPDATE: OK, I've inserted a few more links and done a bit of editing, so I'll leave this as the final version.

Let me reiterate one critical point: the purpose of this list is not some sort of a scorecard for an asinine whose-country-is-best locker room contest. Many of the stereotypes of America listed in the left-hand column have more than a grain of truth, and there are plenty of counter-arguments to mitigate the criticisms of Germany. This is not meant to be an even-handed scholarly analysis. It is just a handy cheat sheet to use when a certain (blessedly rare) kind of pompous, overbearing German launches into an anti-American tirade. In my experience, these episodes have become much less frequent since George W. Bush left office. But nevertheless, you never know when you'll get cornered at a party with one of these people, and this list can help the hapless Yank move from defense to offense.

UPDATE 12 April: Since a few commenters have implied I'm making these criticisms up or don't know what I'm talking about (which I do), I've decided to go through the list, revising a bit and adding links to back up my points. Still an ongoing process...

By popular demand, here's the list I mentioned in a recent post. As noted, the list is largely not of defenses to these stereotypical shortcomings of American society (many of which I find accurate). Rather, they are lists of similar/comparable shortcomings in German society. If I can't think of a comparable fault, I just say Touche.

The point of this informal, highly unserious list is just to provoke reflection and provide talking-points to wrong-foot German chauvinists, not make anybody feel bad. I haven't provided links to proof of the German shortcomings, but I'm pretty sure they're accurate, and proof is available if you know where to look.

American failing German Failing
Americans are hostile to science because they reject evolution / global warming About 2/3 of Germans (g) believe in homeopathy; Germans have a widespread, exaggerated fear of certain technologies such as nuclear power and genetically modified food.
The American criminal justice system discriminates against minorities because they're overrepresented in prison Judged by that metric, so does Germany (g). The typical response of the German chauvinist to this uncomfortable fact is the overrepresenation of minorities in German prisons shows their bad character and failure to integrate into society, while the predominance of blacks in American prisons shows exclusively the racism of the US justice system. I always find this amusing.
Americans are fat Touche! Yet Germans are catching up fast (g).
Americans eat garbage fast food / have no idea about quality, freshness, etc. Touche! Yet German cuisine isn't up to much, and ordinary Germans seem to like US fast food as much as ordinary Americans do. Perhaps even more, given that they pay much higher prices for it (g).
Americans worship money and are obsessed with the lives of the rich and famous Many rich Americans earned their fortunes, while many rich Germans simply inherited theirs, and haven't done a thing to contribute to society in decades, except perhaps open an art gallery. Germans may not be quite as openly money-obsessed as Americans, but easily make up for it by their lust for  titles, nobility, and social status.
The American education system privileges the rich and well-educated So does the German system (g). The German system also quasi-forcibly shunts (g) most students off into non-university education tracks quite early, and it's difficult to overcome this decision.
Americans are racist; America is a racist society Racist attitudes are at least as widespread in Germany (g) if not more so. Germany had to be prodded repeatedly by the EU to pass a law banning racial discrimination among private actors, and only did so in 2006, after a loud debate, and had to take 'anti-discrimination' out of the law's title to get it passed. The law continues to permit many forms of discrimination and has been criticized as toothless (g). Germany was criticized by the UN as late as 2011 for ongoing discrimination against non-Germans. Many Germans believe it's OK for private business owners and landlords to discriminate, while such practices have been made illegal and stigmatized by society in the US since the 1960s. You won't hear an American say anything about a black person that Germans haven't said about Turks -- most recently in a book written by a prominent German politician which became one of the bestselling non-fiction books in German history (g). Also, 1933-1945.
Americans don't love nature or the environment Wrong. Americans were creating national parks and raising environmental awareness long before Germans were. Americans burn about as much fossil fuel per capita as Canadians do, for basically the same reason -- big countries, lots of space to cover.
Americans are obsessed by the military/easily led into war without considering the consequences Touche, at least since 1945.
Americans file too many lawsuits Surprise! Germans file almost twice as many lawsuits as Americans do per capita, and are the most litigious society in Europe, perhaps in the entire world.
Americans file crazy lawsuits like the hot coffee lawsuit Germans file lawsuits over ludicrously trivial matters, such as €1500 for the fact that a hotel room had only two single beds instead of a double bed (g) or because an employee was called by the informal 'du' instead of the formal 'Sie' (g). And besides, what's so bad about litigiousness? Most of the world's population desperately yearns to live in a country in which the powerful can be called to account and disputes can be reliably settled without violence.
The fact that large numbers of Americans don't have health insurance is scandalous Touche. 
Americans are uneducated and lack knowledge of history & the outside world A much higher percentage of Americans has college degrees than Germans. Embarrassingly, German universities punch well below their weight in international comparisons (in part because cheating is rampant among German university students), while American schools regularly top almost every ranking. Plus, Americans are far ahead of Germans in understanding & using the Internet, an inexhaustible source of knowledge. Who created Wikipedia?
Americans often vote for foolish/unqualified politicians Germans have no direct control over the leadership of their political parties, and have much less control over policy than American voters, leading to widespread alienation and lack of enthusiasm (g).
Giant corporations control Congress Lobbying is just as widespread in Germany and the EU, and 85% of laws passed by the German Bundestag originate in Brussels. Further, the situation on lobbying and campaign donations in Germany is much more non-transparent than in the US.
There are dangerous ghettos in American cities filled with disaffected, outcast populations Germany, like all modern nations, has neighborhoods and cities which are concentrations of the poor and minorities. In German, they're called Soziale Brennpunkte (g), roughly translatable as 'socially-deprived hot spots.' There are many of them all around Germany. In Gelsenkirchen, for example, 21.5% of the population lives from government assistance (g). Not to mention no-go areas where far-right and neo-Nazi groups predominate. The only difference is that Germans tend to stack their poor on top of each other in run-down housing projects, while in the US they tend to live on the ground next to one another. And in America, they have more guns.
America is a violent society Ever notice how giant police cordons are required to keep German soccer fans from beating each other to a pulp? More statistically, the overall crime rate in Germany is almost twice that of the United States, according to one study, although that probably overstates the matter due to different ways of counting crime. Nevertheless, overall rates of violent crime in Europe and the US are comparable and Europe has higher property crime rates. Murder rates are higher in the US, mainly because of guns. In Germany as elsewhere, your likelihood of encountering violence is overwhelmingly dependent on where you live and who's in your social network.
Many American workers work for pitifully low wages with no job security The US has a national minimum wage, which Germany so far lacks. And Germany is rapidly catching up with the US in creating an easily-exploitable, low-wage workforce (g) with minimal job security. Since 2000, median German wages have actually declined, whereas American wages have merely stagnated.
Americans have a sexual double standard that combines prudishness with porn Touche.
Americans discriminate against Muslims since 9/11 Germans were doing it long before 9/11 and haven't stopped. American Muslims are much better integrated into American society than German Muslims are; a comprehensive 2007 study (pdf) described American Muslims as 'largely integrated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.' -- a state of affairs Germany can only dream of.
American television shows lots of garbage So does German television. Ever seen a 2-hour-long Volksmusik program? The best American television drama and comedy (The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Community) beats comparable German fare hands-down in terms of realism, freshness, quality of writing, universal appeal, and even social criticism.
Americans watch too much television Touche! Yet once again, Germans, who watch 4 hours 2 minutes per day (g) aren't all that far behind.
American news media are too tame and superficial Germany lacks a culture of aggressive, oppositional investigative reporting and passed its equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act about 30 years after America did. Lots of German papers are full of pompous opinion pieces and court stenography of the rich and powerful. Plus, Germany has Bild, an influential (g) tabloid full of T&A, nationalism, reactionary platitudes, scandal-mongering, and crappy reporting (g). Nothing quite like Bild exists in the U.S.
Americans are superficially cheerful and fake Germans are superficially cold, reserved and rude. And sometimes not just superficially.
Americans lack a culture of literature and reading The percentage of people who genuinely read quality literature is tiny in all societies, and many German 'literary' novels have to be heavily subsidized, sell 200-300 copies maximum, and are so derivative, navel-gazingly self-indulgent or dully Germany-specific that they attract zero interest in other countries. The same is true of most German art-house movies as well.
American society is too car-dependent and lacks good public transportation.

Touche.

UPDATE in response to Marcellina's comment:

Americans are uncultured and don't provide enough state support to museums, symphonies, etc. America's flexible, multi-source model of cultural funding actually brings its own kinds of vibrant results. Germany's top-down system of cultural subsidies has been often criticized as elitist, wasteful and redundant (g). It also gives dictatorial power to self-indulgent directors and smug, insular, out-of-touch cultural bureaucrats, who routinely interfere deeply with artists' expression. Anyone who's ever been to one of the countless plays and operas defaced by gratuitously offensive / nonsensical / tediously didactic productions will wonder whether Germany's problem is actually too much arts funding with too little accountability.

UPDATE 2: Oh, and one other thing:

American beer and coffee are undrinkable Note how I had to leave wine out of this one to even make it a fair fight. Everywhere there's a Starbucks, and that's everywhere except maybe nuclear missile silos, you can get a cup of coffee brewed with reverse-osmosis-purified water and expertly-roasted, freshly-ground, 100% Arabica beans. Germany's beers, while consistently tasty, are also boring, predictable, uniform, and old-fashioned, when they're not sickening beer-cola swill. This is a product of German brewers' adherence to a pointless 500-year-old law that cripples their ability to innovate. Germany had to resort to naked protectionism (g) to try to protect its beers from the glorious diversity of foreign beer, and even so, the German beer industry is withering. By contrast, the average American grocery store on any streetcorner stocks a much wider selection of beer from all over the world than all but the most exclusive German luxury shopping stores.

Tatort as After-School Special

There's an English phrase that always comes to my mind when I watch a particularly preachy episode of Tatort ("crime scene"), the weekly crime show that is a German institution. The phrase is "after-school special". An after-school special, was a TV show, usually a drama, that played at 4 pm or so, just as kids would come home from school. The scripts taught us kids to to tolerate all races; be proud of who we were; accept people who are different; be kind to the handicapped; avoid drugs, smoking, alcohol, and sex; not let strangers touch us "there"; and so on. The clip above gives you an idea of what we're dealing with (and, as an extra bonus, it features the title "The Boy who Drank Too Much"!).*

German publicly-financed television has a so-called Bildungsauftrag, roughly, "duty to educate". Now there's nothing wrong with requiring broadcasters who are financed by TV fees to provide educational programming. The talk shows and documentaries you see on regular German television -- as much as we might mock them -- are streets ahead of anything on American TV. The show Titel Thesen Temperamente (g) which runs every Sunday on the main German broadcast station, shows a fantastic dog's breakfast of 8-10 minute long clips about everything from jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani to discrimination against homosexuals in Turkey to Tiken Jah Fakoly (including a tour of his home and studio in Bamako, Mali), to anti-right-wing activists to Werner Herzog's new films to the Nazi past of the Alpine climbing group. Just about every one of these segments would have been deemed too controversial/hifalutin/boring/full of non-Americans for any of the 500 channels of American television. Except the stuff about Nazis, of course. Nazis always sell.

The problem is that this duty to educate often seeps into the dramas. Tatort, nominally a crime thriller, often reeks of after-school special. Frank Junghänel provides an example (g) in the Frankfurter Rundschau (my translation):

The problem is often the stories...they always have to be relevant. If there's a case from the 'beekeeper milieu', we're guaranteed to find out that the bees ate some genetically-modified rapeseed. Then the detectives will spontaneously discuss the dangers of adulterated honey, [Detective] Freddy Schenk will wring his hands over his granddaughter's future, and, at the end, the pharmaceutical industry will be outed as the villain, having sponsored experiments with rapeseed...

These after-school-special theme episodes are rarely highlights. But Tatort produders want to remain true to their mission to educate the public. "I'm trying to motivate the screenwriters to be more flexible with their narrative structures", says Tönsmann. "The theme should develop from the story, not be imposed beforehand." Screenwriters tend to want to explain too much. "We want to reduce the didactic element." At home, he likes to watch DVD series such as "The Wire." It plays in Baltimore, and shows police mostly at work.

The article goes through an entire laundry list of weaknesses in Tatort scripts: the sensitive would-be literati who write them have no idea about real police work, the situations are often ludicrously exaggerated, the characters make implausibly long and well-organized speeches, didacticism makes things boring and predictable, the same targets get whacked again and again. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the after-school special in the USA was designed for teenagers, while Tatort, broadcast on Sunday night, is watched (mostly) by adults.

Which leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that the people who write for German public TV stations think of their audience as largish children still in need of moral instruction. According to Tatort, adult Germans need to be taught that neo-fascists are bad, asylum seekers/transvestites/nonconformist teenagers are misunderstood and unjustly persecuted, corporations (especially pharmaceutical and agricultural corporations) are evil, sexual abuse destroys lives, yet even pedophiles deserve a second chance, vengeance is always an wrong, Eastern European crime gangs and their rich German customers exploit women, your cheap clothes come from stinking sweatshops, etc.*

As Junghänel's article shows, there are some producers and writers for Tatort who are aware of the after-school special problem. The mention of The Wire is promising: High-end American TV has recently gotten very good indeed at Balzacian realism, and The Wire is among the best shows ever made. It's based on careful observation of reality, and its writers generally let the chips fall where they may: if a scene was logical and right, it got shot, regardless of whether it might have happened to confound or confirm a stereotype.

An example: one character, Kima Greggs, is a detective who -- even though she's a a gay black woman -- is not shown to be unusually noble, self-sacrificing, or wise. She's out on patrol when a bunch of mostly-white officers are arresting some black men, and one of them turns around and assaults a cop. Big mistake. A cluster of uniforms surrounds the hapless arrestee, beating the living crap out of him. Greggs runs over to the scene. Does she deliver a lecture on racial tolerance or police brutality to the beefy white cops? No, she joins in -- because a good cop always protects fellow officers, and that includes making sure anybody who attacks a cop lives to regret it. And of course there's no disciplinary proceeding, because (a) the guy really was resisting arrest, and (b) nobody's going to snitch. This would be the point at which a robot programmed with politically-correct Tatort episodes would begin shrieking "does not compute" and finally explode in a shower of sparks. Good riddance.

Continue reading "Tatort as After-School Special" »


Germany as Elegant Senior Residence for Forgotten Anglo Pop Stars, Part XVI

Remember Kim Wilde? I didn't think so.

But I do! Granted, it's not much of a memory, really nothing more than a hazy recollection of hearing one of her last pop hits on the FM radio of my Toyota Corolla in 1985. Since then, nobody in the English-speaking world has paid the slightest attention to Wilde. Allmusic devotes precisely one sentence to her later career: "Wilde continued to record in the '90s, scoring the occasional hit, either in the dance or adult contemporary field." You can almost hear the author filing his fingernails and yawning.

Needless to say, if the Anglo world has forgotten about a pop star, this is the cue for Germans -- with their charming loyalty to faded relics of pop-music history -- to step in and save the day. And lo, Wilde just played a concert in a large venue in Frankfurt, Germany, and the concert was actually reviewed in one of Germany's leading newspapers (g)! And Wilde was joined on stage by members of -- wait for it -- Kajagoogoo and Alphaville!


The Irony Gap

Yes, yes, there are many Germans who are quick-witted and attuned to the joys of absurd, free-floating irony. And more with every passing generation!

Yet the awkward fact fact remains that the standard normal distribution of irony appreciation among the entirety of German society peaks significantly to the left of where it peaks in the Anglosphere. You have your functioning social welfare system, your quality newspapers, your hundreds of museums and opera houses, and your world-famous consumer products. But we are, on average, more entertaining. The evidence is all around you. The most popular German comedians (no, not the cabaret people, we're talking Paul Panzer, Mario Barth, Ätze Schröder, Hape Kekerling) still feel the need to wear "WACKY COSTUMES!" to elicit laughs. The German imitation of The Office features a boss who is just an asshole -- entirely missing the point of the original series. A comment which would be immediately understood as a harmless jape by even the dullest Englishman often elicits, in Germany, a confused look and the slightly menacing response: "Willste mich damit verarschen, oder was?" (Are you making fun of me?).

I hate to have to pour salt in this would yet again, but it was just brought home to me by the reviews of these public telephones on Immobilienscout.de. Immobilienscout is a website that allows people to review apartments and buildings and such. For some reason, it has an entry for two public telephones near where I live:

ZNi77NfKMn8NLb80FHLECz
There are only two reviews of these public telephones. One, from 2007, notes: "These telephones are located to the left of the post office." The other, from 2010, observes: "good for people who want to make a call but don't have a mobile phone." The second reviewer also notes that he "recommends" this place.

Pitiful. The opportunity for a Tuscan Whole Milk-style orgy of webby jouissance goes completely unrealized.

We could start one, of course, but does anyone doubt that if that happened, Immobilienscout.de would immediately erase the page?


ZDF's Pathetic Lowbrow Cultural Vandalism

A while ago, I posted this ad for Mad Men that I saw at a local train station:

Mad Men Ad
The tag line translates: "Behind Every Successful Woman Stands a Man Who's Staring at her Ass." It's the ad campaign for the American television series Mad Men, which has been bought by ZDF Neo (g), a branch of one of Germany's two main public-broadcasting channels.

Now, back when I saw this poster, I hadn't watched Mad Men, although it had been recommended to me by people whose taste I trusted. Cohu, in comments, pointed out that the entire premise of the ad campaign was wrong. Boy, was she right.

The two characters shown in the poster are Don Draper, the series' main figure and creative director of a Madison Avenue advertising firm, and Rachel Menken, the owner of a New York department store. They have a brief romance during the show's first season, while Don's firm is wooing her as a client.

Let me count the ways in which this ad is cultural vandalism:

  1. It completely distorts the relation between the two characters. First of all, Don Draper although a womanizer of the highest order, doesn't "stare" at women's "asses". His manners are too refined for that. This is not to say that he's an enlightened, sensitive 90s man (Thank God) -- the series is set in the early 60s. But he generally treats women with respect. In fact, Draper punishes underlings for stupid sexist comments, perhaps more for the stupidity than the sexism, and recognizes talent in female subordinates. Menken, for that matter, is Don's equal in all things, and he treats her as such.
  2. The pointless vulgarity. One of the intriguing things about Mad Men is the fact that its past is a different country. There are no cute, winking anachronisms. Although the characters' attitudes toward women and minorities are more cliched than they would be today, their manners are more polished. People dress formally, use the subjunctive, help the ladies with their coats, speak in complete sentences, and use appropriate greetings and goodbyes. This is what makes the alcohol-fueled lapses in decorum so pleasantly shocking: when one character says "fuck" (which happens a grand total of once in the series), the other characters react as if they'd just been slapped. So the whole snarky talk of staring at asses -- doubtless conceived by some insufferable young German ad-man who sprinkles his business-jargon with the English word "edgy" -- is completely out of place.
  3. It sells the series as lowbrow for no reason. God knows, the German television landscape is full of lowbrow (g) shtick complete with ass-staring jokes. But Mad Men isn't lowbrow, it's high-middlebrow. (This is, by the way, the level of brow that Germany seems to be incapable of producing itself). People who tune in looking for crude humor are going to be quickly disappointed, and will tune out after 20 minutes. Why is attracting a blip of attention from fans of fart jokes worth vulgarizing and caricaturing the very artistic product you're promoting?
  4. It's worse than a crime, it's a mistake. The ad shows the condescending amateurism that you so often see in the German media. As Cohu pointed out, nobody who had watched even one episode of the series would have approved this marketing approach. Unless, of course, they just didn't care. Which, obviously, they didn't. I mean, why bother actually coming up with a stylish, witty ad campaign for the series? It'll just go over the heads of the stupid couch potatoes we "serve"...

Now, don't get me wrong. Sponsoring this stupid ad for Mad Men is not taking a hammer to the Pieta. Mad Men is not a timeless masterpiece, it's more like a Trollope novel. But it is damn good television, and this ad completely disrespects that fact. Perhaps if Germans began actually taking well-made high-middlebrow television seriously, they'd finally be able to create some of their own...


All the 'Tatort' Cliches...

...in one handy list here (g), from secretaries with funny regional accents to fat men eating sausage in front of a river to boarding schools full of scheming scions of wealth neglected by their rich parents. As with so many aspects of German life, the appeal of Tatort lies not in the fact that it's entertaining and original, but precisely in that it's comforting and familiar.

This cultural trait also makes the writer's job much easier. Coming up with original ideas (especially in a decades-old series) is risky, and beyond the capacity of many people. But churning out familiar variations on well-worn themes is child's play. Come to think of it, I'm sure you could take this list and program a computer to write perfectly serviceable Tatort scripts. Hmm, that gives me an idea...

Continue reading "All the 'Tatort' Cliches..." »


Falco's Grave, by Popular Demand

To us in the Anglo-Saxonsphere, Falco (Johann Hölzel) is but a footnote. He created some catchy,  original hits in the 1980s, but then seemed to fade away, like an Austrian 'Flock of Seagulls'.

But when you visit Austria, you're on the other side of the cultural telescope. Falco is still, twelve years after his death, a beloved icon. One reason is that he was one of the few German speakers capable of performing pop music that people in other countries voluntarily paid money to listen to in their private homes. Another reason is that he made the rest of the world notice Austria for benign reasons (unlike the controversial twentieth-century statesmen* or surgically-retouched crypto-homosexual neo-fascist).

So it will come as no surprise that Falco is buried in the 'Grove of Honor' (Ehrenhain) of Vienna's Central Cemetery, next to renowned composers, professors, and scientists. Here's what it looks like:

Grave of Falco

The grave is a place of pilgrimage -- in fact, you see the shadows of two Falco admirers in the picture. Here are some of the offerings:

Offerings at Falco's Grave

A bonus grave, György Ligeti:

Grave of Ligeti

Continue reading "Falco's Grave, by Popular Demand" »


Firing Someone's Easier in Latin

One of the quainter sides to life in Germany is the fact that large numbers of schoolchildren (about 10%, according to recent figures) learn Latin in school. But what's even quainter is the reaction foreigners get when they praise this adorable throwback of German educational culture: "No, no, it's not impractical at all! It teaches you logical thinking and helps you learn Romance languages. It helps you in the real world!"

The FAZ decided to test this argument by surveying German companies (g). No, really -- they did! The results (my translation):

A survey by this newspaper to which 22 of 30 DAX-listed businesses responded showed: 95 percent of the firms no longer see Latin as a formal selection criterion for applicants. In only one firm -- Bayer -- were we told that knowledge of Latin might be advantageous for certain selected positions. None of the HR departments said that knowledge of Latin would be the decisive factor in not picking an applicant. In some firms, the question of how useful Latin would be for employees gave rise to a certain amount of amusement.

Well, I suppose that's hardly unexpected. But I hope this doesn't mean kids will stop learning Latin. It's one of the adorable sleepy-village/1950s aspects of Germany that makes life here so charming!

Finnish national radio's Nuntii Latini (news in Latin) page is here, a recent 5-minute audio podcast in Latin is here.


Italy's Doughnut Hole

Perry Anderson, one of the most astute commenters on Italy, on the emergence of that country's doughnut-hole cultural landscape:

The case of the cinema, where Italy had above all excelled after the war, can be taken as emblematic. There was no relay of the generation of great directors – Rossellini, Visconti, Antonioni – who had made their debut in the 1940s or early 1950s, and whose last important works cluster in the early 1960s. Missing thereafter was any combustible crossing of avant-garde with popular forms to compare with Godard in France or Fassbinder in Germany; later on, only the weak brew of Nanni Moretti. The result was a gap so large between educated and popular sensibilities that the country was left more or less defenceless against the cultural counter-revolution of Berlusconi’s television empire, saturating the popular imaginary with a tidal wave of the crassest idiocies and fantasies – schlock so wretched the very term would be too kind for them.