This is a very special two-part GWOW. In Part I, the GWOW itself, and a very nice one, I might add. Then, in Part II, a special bonus: sociopolitical ruminations!
Part I: Aufgebrezelt
Aufgebrezelt means "pretzeled-up," and refers to someone who’s gotten all dolled up to go out into the night and attract the attention of the opposite (usually) sex. These days, German girls who want to ‘pretzel up’ usually go in for white leather belts and pointy white shoes. Depending on what sort of neighborhood you’re in, you might also see large plastic hoop earings, and — if you’re lucky — feathered hair. Pancake makeup never went out of style.
Now, you’re probably thinking that the girls in the photo at left aren’t all that pretzeled-up, although I’d say they’re moderately pretzeled-up. The photo is an illustration from a 1997 short educational film about becoming a woman (g), produced by a major German public television station in cooperation with the Federal Center for Health Information (g), which still exists. As does the Federal Center For Political Education (g), not to mention the 16 Consumer Information Centers that exist in every German state (g). These are all public institutions whose principal goal is to furnish Otto Normalverbraucher (Joe Sixpack) with basic information about his health, his government, and the consumer products he may be interested in buying.
As an ancient philosopher once said, time, in Germany, is like a river with many bends and a weak current. This means there are hundreds of little eddies in German culture, in which fashions and trends from past decades whirl lazily about, never again to be swept up in the surging current of Progress. There are still government-licensed chimney sweeps, for example, and any given apartment building in a middle-class neighborhood will have window decorations that look exactly as they might have looked in the 1950s — even if the people who live in the apartment weren’t even born then. Turn on any German radio station, and you may actually hear an earnest, nudge/wink-free review of the latest Bon Jovi record.
Part II: Sociopolitical Ruminations
Put simply, when Germans find something they like, they stick with it. For decades. Thus we return to all these federal ministries for providing information to citizens. Growing up in the U.S. in the 1970s, I saw lots of wholesome educational TV shows and ads produced by the federal government, or by civic-minded corporations. The good people from the government would tell you why you should immunize your children, warn you not to litter, explain how a bill becomes a law, or explain why it’s illegal to make racist comments in the workplace. At the end of the ad or short film, you were told that more information was available to those who wrote a letter asking for pamphlet #755 from the Government Printing Office in Pueblo, Colorado*
As I grew older, these institutions and ads seemed to disappear from public life pretty much entirely. Sure, there’s still a Government Printing Office, and various federal agencies still give away pamphlets and posters — about nutrition, for instance. But nobody pays any attention to them, really. The sense that there was one "America" that could be pulled together for an anti-litter campaign, or that ordinary citizens should expect the government to advise them what to eat or buy, seems quaint, if not positively nanny-state-ish. Especially in the age of the Internet, who needs some government agency to tell you about consumer products, when you can get a dozen different reviews with a simple Google search?
But you won’t find me sniggering at large German public institutions acting as conduits for practical information to ordinary Germans. You could make a very good case that many of America’s problems stem from the assumption that the free market alone will take care of citizens’ information needs. Of course, most of my European readers are saying right about now: ‘How naive can you get? If you dry up neutral, independent channels of information about things like diet, personal finances, or community involvement, the free market will not step in with adequate substitutes. The free market looks at people at consumers, not citizens, and primarily wants them to spend and indulge themselves. It doesn’t particularly care about their long-term health, their general knowledge, or their psychological well-being. And in a consumer-driven economy, the free market is positively opposed to financial responsibility.’
They’re right. For all you libertarians out there, remember that we’re not talking about well-educated and well-informed people with plenty of leisure time. They can take care of themselves in any country and will, of course, seek out (and often pay for) high-quality information, in America as they do in Germany. What all those public-service ads and agencies did was for the benefit of the masses. Judging from what you read even in American news sources lately, average Americans are getting more ignorant, unhealthy, and selfish. Plus, they can’t control their spending — America has, overall, a negative savings rate (Germany’s is about 8 percent). The subprime mortgage crisis is driven in part by huge numbers of Americans who just had no idea how to save money, stick to a budget, or plan for a financial setback. (If you don’t believe me, click here). And, of course, lenders who were all too willing to indulge their fantasies.
Could it just be a coincidence that so many of these dumb decisions Americans are making are just the kind of thing the government used to give people good advice about?
* Why Pueblo, Colorado? Who knows? Probably some U.S. Representative from that Congressional District who amassed 34 years of seniority, and brought a huge government facility to his home district.