The ‘New Statesman’ on the German Opinion Corridor

The Swedish term for the Overton Window is the "opinion corridor" (åsiktskorridor). Germany has one too, well-described by this piece in the New Statesman from a year ago:

What is interesting about the AfD is what it tells us about the changes afoot in Germany. Its rise is a product of the constrained and elitist nature of German politics, in which – after the experience of Nazism – many subjects are declared to be outside the realm of political competition. All the mainstream parties are in favour of EU membership, the euro and the Atlantic alliance, and against war, inflation and nationalism.

What this leaves is a restricted political sphere where politicians have often been able to act against public opinion without fear of challenge – as in the decision to replace the popular Deutschmark with the strikingly unpopular euro in 1999. But those who dare to cross the threshold of political correctness tap in to a vast reservoir of pent-up popular frustration. And because the establishment cartel turns them into outcasts rather than arguing with their views, this reservoir continues to grow. A CSU minister recently told me that the German debate on refugees reminded him of the old East Germany, where there was a fundamental disconnection between what people thought and what they thought was acceptable to say in public. According to a recent poll, nearly half of all Germans are afraid to voice their opinion about the refugee crisis.

Leonard is not a right-winger, and the New Statesman is not a right-wing publication. But even Leonard finds German taboos childish and counter-productive. For an informed German-language critique, see this fine piece by Heribert Seifert in the NZZ.

I am tempted to say Leonard's comments show the typical divide between German and Anglo-American ideas about speech, but that's not quite right. America and England also have their taboos, they're just difference from the ones in Germany, or for that matter France.

The main difference, I think, is the structure of the press landscape. The line between topics that are considered proper for "tabloids" and the "respectable" broadsheet newspapers is enforced much more firmly in Germany. The same goes for tone. Every self-respecting English Bobo (f) obediently professes to despise — despise!! — the Daily Mail, whose lively, detail-rich, copiously-illustrated reporting should be a model for journalists everywhere. Yet you will often see the same topics covered by both the Daily Mail and the Guardian — often in the form of the Guardian noticing and attacking something the Daily Mail wrote.

German respectable broadsheets, by contrast, simply pretend that German tabloids (and their readers) don't exist. They never mention them except to use their names as an insult, and scrupulously avoid topics (such as celebrity gossip, onerous EU regulations, or crimes by foreigners) which are associated with the tabloids. When they do address "tabloidy" topics they consciously choose a vague, euphemism-clogged manner of reporting which seems intended to put the reader to sleep.

Then, often as not, they quote some professor, all of whom understand the Bobo party line, and many of whom helped create it. The professor will then duly recite more euphemisms about "context", a "nuanced perspective" and "not jumping to conclusions". Often, what the prof says contains minor or even major distortions and distractions, but the reporter (even assuming he knows) doesn't care, since the point of the interview is not to spark a debate but rather to instruct right-thinking people which opinion they are expected to hold.

I call it Respectable Waffle, and Leonard's phrase "constrained and elitist" is a pretty good way of characterizing it.

This is why, in my experience, it is incredibly easy to flummox German Bobos who get their news only from the Respectable papers — they are simply unaware of anything which isn't considered worth knowing by Die Zeit or the FAZ. They have never been exposed to thoughtful, informed challenges to the party line which Leonard describes, and therefore have no way to defend their views.

5 thoughts on “The ‘New Statesman’ on the German Opinion Corridor

  1. Kudos for this post. I have always wondered how these pampered political elites (in Germany and Sweden–my only experience) can sound so lost when they talk to REAL citizens and try to address REAL problems. Understand now that they aren’t talking to REAL citizens, but instead talking OVER them, only interested in impressing others in their åsiktskorridor. All Swedish politicians are this feeble and craven, totally unable to think outside the corridor. And to hear Martin Schulz say, “When I see refugees, I see the future of Europe…” leaves me speechless. Besides being a total loser, can’t he at least see that a LOT of people in Europe probably don’t see things that way, and the European experience with illegal, uncontrolled migration has not been exactly beneficial? They can’t talk about illegal migration in the same tones, because they don’t see the herds of muslim women in burqas, the gangs of illegal migrants on the streets at night that the average German citizen has to see, and they can ignore it. It is something they (thinking themselves so superior in intellect) feel they have to do.

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  2. “this reservoir continues to grow” – not really continuing, as it seems. they are slightly declining in the polls and underperformed in the latest elections.

    can we attribute the afd (5-10%) to “elitist politics”? if yes, then politics in germany is less elitist than in france (fn about 20-30%), the netherlands (wilders 13%), usa (trum 48%), or the uk (ukip 13%, brexit 50%) for example.

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  3. Had not heard of Overton’s Window until yesterday. Wikipedia (true facts) defines it as a spectrum of acceptance for public discourse. And it places public policy as the middle of this spectrum, flanked by declining levels of popularity/acceptability. Which is clearly nonsense, and it is obvious to many people including the Svengali figures behind the well-resourced major political parties. Weirdly, the only people who seem to buy into the official public policy agenda are what you describe as bobos (doctor’s wives?): extraordinarily well-off, highly educated but completely insulated from society in enclaves of equally self-referential wankers.
    Fifty years ago, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was our country’s most trusted source of (international and domestic) news and current affairs. However, its headquarters are situated in the inner-west of Sydney. These days, its news bulletins are nothing but gay marriage, indigenous rights, refugee advocacy (they are even at odds with the government on this), hatchet jobs on political bete noires, climate policy etc. They are publicly funded with a footprint covering an area the size of Europe.
    Following Deutsche Welle is a similar experience to listening to the ABC. Unchallenged “expert” opinion, propaganda (for pet topics) and faint praise (in the interest of balance) for topics that the editors disagree with.
    Besserwisserinen are not only German. And Germans are not the only ones to disagree with their self-appointed betters.

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  4. Fifty years ago, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was our country’s most trusted source of (international and domestic) news and current affairs. However, its headquarters are situated in the inner-west of Sydney.

    In a country with a population with roughly 25 million people, a metropolitan region with 5 million (i.e. one fifth of the whole country) is not the worst spot to be located if you want to keep up to date. It’s certainly not “completely insulated from society”.

    These days, its news bulletins are nothing but gay marriage, indigenous rights

    So what? Considering Australia’s history it’s perfectly fine to finally talk openly about indigenous rights. In fact, it’s a bit hypocritical if white Australians – descendants of immigrants themselves, let’s not forget that – complain about immigration. And in a climate that’s more and more influenced by culture wars and religious extremism, it’s also good to firmly support an end to the discrimination of gays, lesbians, etc.

    refugee advocacy (they are even at odds with the government on this), hatchet jobs on political bete noires

    Disagreeing with the government or certain politicians is one of the media’s core responsibility.

    Unchallenged “expert” opinion

    So you’d prefer to have people in the political talk shows with no basic knowledge of the given topic? These people dedicate a lot of time researching their stuff, and this is why they know more about it than you or me. If something in your house needs to be fixed, who do you call: a plumber, or some vague person you randomly meet on the street? And do you avoid going to see a doctor because he is one of those evil “experts”?

    propaganda (for pet topics)

    In other words: viewpoints you simply don’t agree with.

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  5. “It’s certainly not completely insulated from society”. If, Dr Benway, you feel that proximity to millions of people precludes one from an insular existence, then I disagree with you. ABC Ultimo in Sydney is in the middle of one of 10 out of 451 lower house State level electorates in Australia held by the Greens, and ABC Southbank in Melbourne is 50 metres from another of those 10 Green-held State electorates (and also the only federal seat out of 150). The ABC intentionally bathes itself in like-minded activists and moralists, and projects this viewpoint out onto the wider community who hold up deaf ears.

    “…it’s a bit hypocritical if white Australians – descendants of immigrants themselves…” : In 200 years, the descendants of the Syrians will turn to their German neighbours and say: “Leitkultur? WTF? We live here.”

    “Disagreeing with the government or certain politicians is one of the media’s core responsibility (sic).”: Fearless journalism, ja, providing a comprehensive public debate, ja, disagreeing with a side of a debate because you are biased: that’s Fox News, the ABC and Deutsche Welle.

    “Unchallenged “expert” opinion”: Perhaps this little stunt has passed your notice, Dr Benway. It involves a media outlet recruiting a (more or less) authoritative figure with an opinion which is predictably aligned with the editor’s, conducting an interview which is optimised to highlight the opinions of the figure without challenging any possible flaws in their stance. No dissent is brooked.

    “Propaganda”?: Do I have to agree with something for it to be propaganda?

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