They’re Watching US

In 2000, a bunch of convicts escaped from a Texas prison and murdered a police officer named Aubrey Hawkins during a subsequent robbery. Here’s an odd fact: Wikipedia has an article on the death of Hawkins in German, but in no other language, including English. That means at least one German cared enough about a decades-old killing on the other side of the Atlantic to devote hours to creating a German Wikipedia page about him, even though the case has no discernible relevance to Germany.

People who follow the German media soon notice how obsessed German mainstream news outlets are with the United States of America. Coverage is of hugely varying quality, from intriguing and balanced outsider perspectives to the condescending fictions of Claas Relotius. Much of it shows an all-knowing tone of faux-sophistication, combined with instructions to the reader what they are to think about whatever’s being reported. The undertone is roughly as follows:

This article about America is a cautionary tale about right-wing populism / firearms obsession / religious mania / grotesque income disparities / militarism / racism / a nonexistent welfare state / environmental destruction.

German Reader! Do not let the seductive promises of populists entrance your flimsy and impressionable minds, or you find yourself trapped within in the nightmare world of … (cue ominous string glissandi) American social conditions! (amerikanische Verhältnisse)

Disclaimer: Not that these critiques don’t have a point. American policy leaves a lot to be desired in these areas, and a fair-minded critic should be entitled to point them out. What grates, though, is, first, the fact that German journalistic critics seem to simply assume that Germany has none of the problems which they denounce abroad. (Am deutschen Wesen…). Second, these journalists rarely pen a flattering, or even simply a neutral, article about any aspect of American society.

The typical German journalist is fascinated with America because he or she believes that American poses a unique, and uniquely sinister temptation to which uneducated Germans are primed to succumb. (I know this from umpteen pub / dinner party conversations with actual German journalists). Ordinary beer-swilling German proles have already proven their susceptibility to the seductive promises of populists 80 years ago, a journalist may explain, and nothing has changed since then. Now, the danger is that German plebes will be taken in by American propaganda: perfect white smiles, glamourous Rodeo Drive boutiques, the promise of the open road, the land of unlimited possibilities, fake breasts, fake smiles, cardboard homes, mindless TV pap, all those shiny, happy people holding hands.

This idea of Americana is largely based the biases of sixtysomething journalism professors and bosses, which in turn were largely based on 1980s television shows nobody watches anymore. But these sixtysomethings still control plenty of access and funding, so they matter. For that matter, there is also a counter-tendency of German libertarians to unthinkingly embrace American culture and values simply because it triggers the libs. Never adopt a political position for the primary reason that it annoys people you find smug and tiresome. Even smug and tiresome people are right sometimes.

I think there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, and much of it is due to one man: Claas Relotius. The Relotius scandal (which sounds like a tight airport-bookstore thriller) has forced a great deal of soul-searching. He made up preposterous lies about America which nobody with the slightest knowledge of that country could have believed.* And not only did they make it through Der Spiegel‘s supposedly relentless fact-checking, they earned Relotius several prestigious journalistic prizes. The affair not only highlighted problems with German journalism, it specifically highlighted problems with German journalism about the United States. Will it prompt real changes? We’ll see.

In the meantime, journos and editors, I happily offer my services to read any article about America and point out likely lies and exaggerations.* Perhaps the most blatant fabrication was found in Relotius’ article about the small town of Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Relotius claimed (g) that, right next to the welcome sign into the town, someone had, “perhaps during the night”, installed another sign with the painted slogan “Mexicans Keep Out”.

Let’s go over why this was an obvious lie. First of all, there’s no picture. The Spiegel seems, incredibly, not to have even asked for one. That alone should have set off alarm bells.

Second, Minnesota is renowned as one of the nicest states in the nation. It is renowned nationwide for its niceness, there was even, for decades, a radio show dedicated to the niceness of Minnesotans. The idea that a blatantly racist sign would remain undisturbed while thousands of Minnesotans passed it, without a single person complaining or removing it, is absurd. Frankly, there isn’t a town in the US in which such a sign would stay up next to a major road. The US has its share of racism, obviously, but blatant racism like this would cause an instant national scandal.

Third, even if a passerby didn’t get to it first, the city would remove the sign instantly, since it was set up next to the official sign welcoming visitors to the city. If there’s even a chance people could have confused the sign with the official policy of Fergus Falls, this could have led to major lawsuits, since both private businesses and public authority have been prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race for decades, and (in the case of public authority), over 150 years.

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