The Readers are Revolting

I just heard Jens Jessen, editor of the Feuilleton (arts & culture section) of the German weekly Die Zeit, being interviewed on Deutschlandradio Kultur (g).  He was talking about how the Internet is changing the news business, the subject of the lead piece in this week’s Feuilleton (whose title — is "237 Reasons to Have Sex", mocks Internet features that force reader to click single picture after single picture to generate more "page impressions," as they’re called in Denglish). 

Contrary to some editors’ expectations, Jessen said, online articles about difficult subjects often do get just as many clicks as news about Paris Hilton’s latest derailment: "Of course, the public is stupid (blöd)," Jessen said, "but it’s not as bad as some editors think."  (rough quote from memory). The interviewer jokingly warned Jessen that he was going to write that quote down, which made Jessen chuckle.

Here are two possible reactions to Jessen’s remark:

Reaction #1.  (The typical American and English reaction). Horror at the snobbery and condescension. Does Jessen really think he and his friends are so bloody superior to everyone else?  This is the key flaw of the European press: its cliquishness and insularity.  If you think the majority of your fellow citizens are idiots, you’re hardly going to listen to their complaints or suggestions.  You’re going to pay attention exclusively to what’s being said and thought in your tiny circle of well-educated haute bourgeois urbanite friends, and that will lead to navel-gazing and stagnation.  And it’s not just journalism that suffers from this elitism.  Even Jeremy Rifkin — that tireless American cheerleader for European social policies — is horrified by the open snobbery he often encounters among EU officials.  One good reason average Europeans believe that the Brussels elite distrusts them and ignores many of the things they care about them is that the Brussels elite — regardless of what they say at news conferences — does distrust them and ignores many of the things they care about.  This can’t be good for European society.

Reaction #2.  Jessen is the Feuilleton editor of Die Zeit, Germany’s most highbrow mainstream newspaper. It’s not his job to appeal to the masses or even enlighten them.  And the Feuilleton of Die Zeit does what it’s supposed to do well, week in and week out.  It’s ambitious but not too stuffy.  And at least Jessen is honest.  Americans pride themselves (often showily and self-aggrandizingly) on their ‘democratic values’ and lack of snobbery, but unpack this claim and you’ll find plenty of denial.  As W. Somerset Maugham once said of America: "Of all the hokum with which this country is riddled the most odd is the common notion that it is free of class distinctions."  American definitely has a class system, and there’s lots of horrid stuff being produced for those at the bottom of it.  The only difference between an educated American and German is that the German will say that it’s garbage and that the people who consume it are idiots, while the American will only think this.  And what’s more important: hurting the feelings of ordinary blue-collar citizens (who, anyway, aren’t listening to public radio), or actually designing a society in which they have a chance at a dignified existence and social advancement?  Some of the most elitist Europeans also willingly pay social-welfare taxes that are astronomical by American standards.  And finally, the history of the 20th century doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the wisdom and purity of the common folk, does it?  Nor, for that matter does the 2004 American Presidential election, although with somewhat less disastrous consequences.  And have you looked at a tabloid lately?

I think that about captures it, without tipping my hand.  Any other possible reactions?  What’s your reaction, esteemed readers? 

20 thoughts on “The Readers are Revolting

  1. He is right; 80% of the public are idiots.
    Idiots that read the BILD.
    Idiots that are afraid of terrorists.
    Idiots that form the majority and thereby dictate policy.

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  2. Interesting.

    I didn´t had time for the this weeks Zeit-Feuilleton, but i read the Page 3 article. In that piece they argue, that it is important for germany to get a class consciousness, because its the only way too understand the increasing juvenile delinquency.

    So i think, the Zeit realy wants to be seen as honest. And as part of their readership i prefer Reaction 2, also im not entirely sure.

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  3. Of course, Alphager (is that an abbreviation of Alpha German? now, that’d be idiotic), we’re all idiots. Who cares that Bild has only 3.3m readers. And terrorism: well, that’s some kind of new religion, after all, we’re all human and we want to believe in something, something we can share, something that binds us together: some kind of fear. And, uhm, if those 80% were dictating policy, then this would be a direct democracy. And, apparently, it’s not.

    So, like … I always try to differentiate between intelligence and education, because I thinks that these are two different things in my eyes: the first is about knowing how to solve a maths question or foreseeing what will happen next after some logic thinking, the latter about knowing / learning facts, like for instance: “Who is America’s president?”.
    Now, even if Jessen speaks of education only, he might still be wrong, because reality is what you make it and education is always about knowing one’s reality: if politics are reality for you, fine. But for some reality might be the latest Kinderficker cases. Or pop stars. Or clothing for dogs. Whatever.
    They just see that people are able to do policy without them and turn away, because they think they could spend their time on more useful things. For a journalist it’s extremely easy to mock other people’s behaviour — they have to keep up to date every day, or they’ll do awfully the next.

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  4. “Some of the most elitist Europeans are also true-red Social Democrats who willingly pay social-welfare taxes that are astronomical by American standards.”

    You mean like George Soros does in the US? That’s a laugh. Depends upon what one means by ‘the elite’ of course, but billionaires typically pay a lower marginal tax rate on their real income than janitors do. Much lower in most cases.

    No, people like Soros and Buffett deliver lectures to their inferiors concerning the higher taxes said inferiors ought to be paying – but such proposed tax increases rarely impact the billionaires in any meaningful way….

    Hmmmm, perhaps we ARE idiots after all. If we weren’t idiots perhaps the rational thing would be to toss molotov cocktails through the windows of Mr. Soros’ Fifth Avenue condo!

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  5. Sorry Andrew, but “page impressions” isn’t Denglish, it’s a term who was introduced during the 90’s by Nielsen or Jupiter Research (Recetly, Nielsen ditches page impression rankings). That’s why you can find it on many sites about internet marketing metrics like JICWEBS or IFABC. Needless to say that Jessen actually was referring to “Ad Clicks” but that’s another story – surely not a sign of Jessen’s alleged intelligence.

    Speaking of Jessen – are you familiar with his video blog – always showing a picture of Lenin on his office wall – and his profound analysis when a pensioner nearly was beaten to death some weeks ago in the Munich subway because he had asked a Turkish and a Greek youth to stop smoking in a non-smoking car? Here’s the gem: “I wonder if there might not be too many know-it-all German pensioners who make life hell both for foreigners and for many Germans. In other words, the problem in German society isn’t so much with foreign criminals as it is with home-grown intolerance.” Need I say more?

    But I’m really fascinated by your ideological verve against Europe. Some weeks ago, you praised Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter. Caplan is a self-declared libertarian and no evil European Social Democrat but his arguments sound exactly the same as those your “European” boogeyman stands for. His general feeling is that if the country were run according to the beliefs of professional economists everyone would be better off, therefore he wants to to raise the price of voting: he wants to require voters to pass a test for economic competence; give extra votes to people with greater economic literacy (“we could emulate pre-1949 Great Britain by giving college graduates an extra vote”) and reduce or eliminate efforts to increase voter turnout (“It might be politically possible to further increase the de facto influence of educated voters by spending less money to increase turnout.”) [CATO].

    So why didn’t you present your alleged “American” reaction – “Horror at the snobbery and condescension. Does Caplan really think he and his friends are so bloody superior to everyone else?” – at this time?

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  6. Assesing Jessen’s and other’s snobbery and condescension without mentioning his 15 minutes of video stardom idiocy is remarkable indeed. Steffi, you’re spot on as always – I think I wanna have your baby.

    > Some of the most elitist Europeans also willingly pay social-welfare taxes that are astronomical
    > by American standards

    Particularly in Germany, a shrewd tax advisor will help you to bypass taxes legally and almost completely, provided your income is high enough for the more costly variants of tax evasion. For those “ordinary blue-collar citizens” with their hurt feelings it’s not even worth trying to trick the system, except for the outright illegal moonlighting, which only pays off meagerly in comparison anyway. Besides, they couldn’t afford to hire a tax advisor in the first place. I don’t think there are many elitist Europeans without a taxista (hehe) and funny trusts in funny places.

    > And finally, the history of the 20th century doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the wisdom and
    > purity of the common folk, does it? Nor, for that matter does the 2004 American Presidential
    > election, although with somewhat less disastrous consequences. And have you looked at a tabloid
    > lately?

    Who needs tabloids to foster the common good? To dispense wisdom and purity among the common folk let’s have the US Society of Professional Journalists’s orwellesque Guidelines for Countering Racial, Ethnic and Religious Profiling, or Diversity Guidelines, as they’re fondly named by their acolytes.

    The last I like best:
    – Ask men and women from within targeted communities to review your coverage and make suggestions.

    Righto. Next time you cover tax fraud in Little Italy pizza joints you better have the local’s review. But of course, we’re not talking tax fraud here, we’re talking, say, about the eventual Hamas support of selected CAIR members, particularly, say, of those already convicted. Don’t you report on this without having your local chapter making, ugh, suggestions, you bigoted swine.

    Digressing, as mostly, sorry. So back to Jessen, who “at least […] is cynical honest.” Hooray for the upperclass twit’s refreshing insouciance. Thank God we don’t have this over here.

    …so nobody get’s offended (overly): yes, we’re all, ugh, classy over here, some way or the other.

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  7. Having grown up in a working class milieu on the East Coast, I can assure you that a frequent topic of conversation was class conflict and the distribution of wealth. Politicians who insisted there were no class lines were ridiculed. An obsession was moving up and over the class barrier.

    I suppose if one came from a monied, liberal background, one might engage in constructive denial of class differences to soothe a guilty conscience. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

    Maugham was right about many things, but denial of class division is not a common phenomenon in the U.S.

    “American [sic] definitely has a class system, and there’s lots of horrid stuff being produced for those at the bottom of it. The only difference between an educated American and German is that the German will say that it’s garbage and that the people who consume it are idiots, while the American will only think this.”

    With all due respect, Mr. Hammel, this is utter bullshit.

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  8. You may have one perspective on this, Paul, but just about every foreign visitor to the U.S., and every sociologist who has ever studied the issue, and every reliable survey ever conducted, has another: that issues of social class are much lower-profile in the U.S. than in most all other countries. The literature on this is overwhelming.

    Go pick up Paul Fussell’s “Class” and read the first chapter, “A Touchy Subject,” which cites dozens of these works, plus pretty reliable research showing much lower levels of class consciousness in the U.S. than exist in most other countries. Remember, 84% of Americans consider themselves middle-class, which obviously can’t be true.

    And if you think what I said is bullshit (which you’re welcome to do!), then go do some research and point me to mainstream American commentators who openly, directly mock and insult the primitive taste of the lower social orders. (The sociologist Cas Wouters calls this “superiorism”). Nota Bene: You’re allowed to say rap is bad because it’s violent, or video games are troubling because they harm child development, for instance, but you are not allowed to say that only the ignorant and uncultured would ever spend any time doing these things. That is, you’ll almost never find a direct expression of social superiority in mainstream American discourse. Extra bonus points if you can find an American newspaper editor who directly insulted the intelligence of the reading public, the way Jessen does here. And kept his job.

    For my part, these outbursts of superiorism often strike me as direct expressions of social insecurity. The American in me says winners never put other people down… Von Amerika lernen heisst Siegen lernen! (“Learning from America means learning to win!”) as a recent commenter nicely put it. (Yes, yes I know it was tongue-in-cheek).

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  9. “Von Amerika lernen heisst Siegen lernen! (“Learning from America means learning to win!”) as a recent commenter nicely put it. (Yes, yes I know it was tongue-in-cheek).”

    Perhaps it was tongue-in-cheek, but perfectly accurate from a historical perspective. On March 7, 1908 Kaiser Wilhelm woke up as the leader of a country which had certain problems but which was on balance the world’s leading power. This morning Chancellor Merkel woke up as the leader of a country which ranks where?

    There were a number of reasons for this development, of course. But which ones were most prominent, and which country the major cause for those reasons?

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  10. “Besides, they couldn’t afford to hire a tax advisor in the first place. I don’t think there are many elitist Europeans without a taxista (hehe) and funny trusts in funny places.”

    Andrew may be referring to the so-called cognitive elite – university professors, current affairs writers, journalists, EU functionaries, actoroids, and such.

    Of course if that’s true Andrew’s thesis that “The American in me says winners never put other people down… ” is utter nonsense. Putting people down is what the ‘cognitive elite’ do. At least the rattly bits at the bottom of the cognitive elite do it. Perhaps the per-eminent ones don’t have to….

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  11. > The American in me says winners never put other people down

    You have a point here, older wisdom attributes this to gentlemen. However, Voltaire, Brecht, or Alfred Kerr wouldn’t have qualified for any of both, then – let’s not mention Plato’s disdain for the unwashed masses. Yet, they were assets to humanity, while Jessen might not be.[1] Anyway, presently German media struggles with the term Unterschicht, while US winner’s society never had much qualms to coin brutish terms like “white trash.”

    Here he goes again, being not quite happy that the Berlin Galerie Nord exhibition reopened. “Trotzdem bin ich der Sache nicht völlig froh geworden […] Das Problem besteht ja darin, dass diese Konfession [i.e. Islam] in ihrer politischen Ausprägung eine gewaltätige Konsequenz zu haben scheint.” Savour that contorted thinking – and wording. As usual, its our biased perception that really is to blame for whatsoever. With sputtering casuistry like that, a duck categorically fails the duck test. Doesn’t this postmodern deconstructing approach to anything we hold evident just mask a reactionary sympathy for a world that’s older? “Es ist schön, dass alles möglich ist, aber die Ausnutzung der Möglichkeiten unserer liberalen Gesellschaft führt nicht unbedingt zu intelligenten Ergebnissen.” Boy, must he know.

    I find Jessen’s videos astoundingly sobering, they tell of the state our chattering commenting classes are in. If Andrew’s hunch is correct, Jessen loathes himself more that his perceived underlings. I’m afraid he and his ilk do, and secretly yearn for punishment. If there’s a Bild-Zeitung in hell, I hope he gets to edit its arts & culture section.

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  12. > The American in me says winners never put other people down
    >> You have a point here, older wisdom attributes this to gentlemen. However, Voltaire, Brecht, or Alfred Kerr
    >> wouldn’t have qualified for any of both, then

    Utter tosh. True, none would qualify as gentleman, as all were mean to foes and, occasionally, to friends and dependants. Yet, all were winners of sort and none did profess disdain for the masses below. What was I thinking? – hopefully nobody noticed.

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  13. Don’t know who said it but I read this quote in “Das Buch der Deutschen” by Johannes Thiele:

    “Deutschland ist wohl das einzige Land, in dem man eher die Nase rümpfen lernt als schneuzen.”
    (Germany is probably the only country in the world where people learn to turn up their nose before they learn to blow their nose.)

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  14. Mr. Hammel, I regard Paul Fussell highly, his wartime memoir and his reflections on prosody. I ordered “Class” and will be reading it shortly.

    Regret the tone of my last posting, a bit harsh.

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  15. @Don:

    “Von Amerika lernen heisst Siegen lernen! (“Learning from America means learning to win!”) as a recent commenter nicely put it. (Yes, yes I know it was tongue-in-cheek).”

    Perhaps it was tongue-in-cheek, but perfectly accurate from a historical perspective.

    Long before every schoolkid knew that the abbreviation “DSF” stood for the TV channel that’s dedicated to Grundversorgung like no other, it used to stand for [Gesellschaft für] Deutsch-Sowjetische Freundschaft, i.e. the Society for German-Soviet Friendship. This was a mass organisation in the GDR. Its motto was “Von der Sowjetunion lernen heißt siegen lernen” (or similar slogans), i.e. “To learn from the Soviet Union means to learn to prevail.” It has since been subject to many jocular variations; the slogan was never used in earnest with “Amerika.” However, there was never any doubt that it was “perfectly accurate from a historical perspective” – the allusion to the war could not have eluded anybody.

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  16. @Sebastian,

    “”To learn from the Soviet Union means to learn to prevail.””

    May I take it that this particular slogan is now considered outdated, Sebastian? 😉 True as it may have been in 1965?

    The same slogan could have been applied to the US or even the UK of course. Although one can certainly see why East Germans would see the USSR as the subject. Bismark saw very clearly that friendship and alliance between Germany and Imperial Russia was a cornerstone of the post 1870 order which he created – for both Imperial Germany and Imperial Russia.

    Unfortunately that order depended upon having a great German statesman at the helm and did not survive the fall of Bismark by long….

    Even so I think it’s fairly likely that the post-WWI European order would have been far more agreeable to Wilhemine Germans than what actually occured – had the US not intervened. It would have been a peace of exhaustion between the UK, France, and Germany – with Germany probably the least-exhausted of the three remaining great powers…..

    It was the fresh blood and enthusiasm of the Americans which provided the decisive edge in 1918, I think….

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  17. Mr. Hammel, Fussell’s “Class” has arrived and I have begun reading. It is an entertaining little book.

    I am flying to Bosnia and Herzegovina tomorrow and haven’t had time to finish my reading, but I will note that Fussell is concerned primarily with status, with the objects and qualities that confer status, whereas my comment has more to do with class, wealth, power. Of course, there is blindness among Americans–as in most countries–about class, its obvious and hidden injustices, and many do believe in a myth of equality.

    To that I will say that the myth of equality, in our esteemed country, is not entirely a myth. Americans are known for their flexibility and pragmatism, and, as foreigners themselves note, nowhere else is it possible to move as easily from one social stratum to the next.

    I thank you for your recommendation of Fussell. Reading his book has stirred up memories and reflections about the class system I grew up in and with. Perhaps that will lead to insights about the manipulative impact of class.

    By the way, if you are into America bashing, you should pick up a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s “Studies in Classic American Literature.” Lots of choice nuggets for you there, such as his “the American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer” remark.

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  18. Having grown up in a working class milieu on the East Coast, I can assure you that a frequent topic of conversation was class conflict and the distribution of wealth. Politicians who insisted there were no class lines were ridiculed. An obsession was moving up and over the class barrier

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  19. Highbrow Snobbery, American-style…

    >>As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts’ desire at last and the White House will be adorned with a downright moron.<>In any cafe in Paris one might find an American expatriate thanking his stars that he was free from standardization at last, oblivious of the fact that there was no more standardized institution even in the land of automobiles and radio than the French sidewalk cafe. The intellectuals lapped up the criticisms of American culture offered them by foreign lecturers imported in record-breaking numbers, and felt no resentment when the best magazines flaunted before their eyes, month after month, titles like “Our American Stupidity” and “Childish Americans.” They quite expected to be told that America was sinking into barbarism and was an altogether impossible place for a civilized person to live in-as when James Truslow Adams lamented in the Atlantic Monthly, “I am wondering, as a personal but practical question, just how and where a man of moderate means who prefers simple living, simple pleasures, and the things of the mind is going to be able to live any longer in his native country.”<<

    (Frederick Lewis Allen; Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's, NY 1931

    Chapter IV; The Revolt of the Highbrows: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/Allen/ch9.html)

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