It’s the one thing that drives people who engage with Germany at anything but a superficial level up the wall: the bitter, pessimistic whining. Sometimes, outsiders can chuckle about it. But sometimes, you get to thinking: Is there something in the water here? Is there perhaps actually something deeply wrong with the psyche of these people?! As one German writes: "I have been living in the US for about seven years now, and if there’s one thing I dread when I go home to visit Germany, it’s the complaining."
Maybe it’s their TV. From Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly:
In the LA Times today, Alissa Rubin writes that Europeans don’t like American politics but do like American entertainment. The following passage from Reinhard Scolik, chief of programming for Austria’s largest broadcaster, caught my attention:
"In American programs, people have problems, serious problems. In ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ people are dying, it tells you that life will be very, very hard, but at the very end they get a little hope and there is a way to get through," he said. "In German shows, which we also get on Austrian television, it is mostly a hopeless situation, it is too heavy."
Wow. Are German TV shows really that bleak?
It’s a good question. I don’t have much experience with German TV, but it seems to be a bit bleaker than U.S. TV, but not horrifyingly pessimistic. I’d put it at about the same level as British TV in terms of bleakness. (Come to think of it, the Brits are also more pessimistic than Americans, but they are nowhere near as glum as the poor Germans).
On German TV, there are quiz shows, shopping shows, crime shows that are unusually thumbsucky and psychoanalytical, and pretty good soap operas in which ordinary people have problems, sometimes overcome them, and sometimes fail. There is generally a lot more open conflict in these soap operas than there is on American TV, but Germans can handle conflict.
I’d look at the documentaries as a possible suspect. There are many more of them than on U.S. TV. Many tend to focus on German history, customs, crime, and political corruption. However, Germans are well-known for reporting about the world’s problems, so you see hundreds of documentaries that address the problems that exist in various developing countries, and do so with brutal honesty.
This is a big difference. American mainstream documentary film crews avoid Africa and dire third-world poverty. That stuff doesn’t sell. What does sell, for mainstream TV purposes, is nice documentaries about non-controversial subjects like science, weapons, American history, jazz, or baseball (Don’t miss this minor masterpiece about the often-overlooked Old Negro Space Program). The tendency of American mainstream documentary makers to avoid subjects that are (1) depressing; and (2) not directly related to the United States is, in my view, a cop-out. [But at least it keeps Americans happy, and what could be more important than that? — ed.] British teams do actually film documentaries about social problems in Britain and the developing world, but often with an uplifting twist: "Yes, it’s bad, but this new program/solar lamp/dedicated university graduate who came back to her home village is making a difference."
German and French documentaries are often brilliant and penetrating, but usually don’t have this uplifting angle. In fact, they may be so penetrating precisely because they don’t feel an obligation to tie a pretty pink bow on the package of human misery they deliver. At the end, the narrator often intones: "For generations, all the people of Bunakra province have known is war, disease, and chaos, and it appears that will continue for the next generations as well." Of course, in the preceding 60 minutes, they have shown you the political corruption, social anarchy, and exploitation that justify this prediction.
The result is that Germans are fantastically well-informed about development problems. No all of them turn away in resignation; in fact careers in development are the most prestigious service-sector jobs in Germany. But if you don’t have the personal make-up to react to these bleak documentaries in a positive way, they can rob you of plenty of hope plenty quick.
That’s my guess. I’d love to hear other people’s answers, and probably so would Kevin Drum…