A Fake Quote from Peter Handke in the New York Times and Everywhere Else

Peter Handke has questionable political judgment, which is something he shares with most artists and writers. This post isn’t meant to defend his stance on the Balkan wars of the 1990s, although, as a German reader, I can state that it is much more nuanced than is being reported in the English-language press.

But one of the most-repeated and most-tweeted charges in the indictment against Handke is false. The charge is that, when confronted about Serb atrocities in Bosnia, Handke said: “You can shove your corpses up your ass.” Even the New York Times published this false quotation.

German-language outlets have established this quote is fake. As far as I know, no English-language source has yet done so. So let me be the first.

Here is what Handke actually said, live and in-person:

This was a recording of a talk Handke gave at the Akademietheater in Vienna in 1996. A member of the audience asks Handke why he never visited Bosnia, only Serbia. Handke says everyone else was already visiting Bosnia, and he wanted to be on the “wrong” side. This comment is obviously meant ironically, and the audience laughs.

The questioner then asks whether “journalists who were trapped in Sarajevo” might have been more “affected” (betroffen) by the war than Handke.

Handke then interrupts and says “‘Betroffenheit’ — das kann ich schon überhaupt nicht hören…” — “I can’t stand this word ‘Betroffenheit’. Go home with your ‘Betroffenheit’, stick it up your ass.”

To understand what Handke was saying, we need to unpack this word Betroffenheit. The verb betroffen means to be affected by something. Betroffen has a standard, neutral meaning in the sense of being literally affected: i.e., this law does not apply to you, you are not betroffen by it; they changed the test, but I graduated before that, so I was not betroffen by the change.

But betroffen also has an emotional meaning: something has affected your emotions, has touched you, has caused you anguish, etc. Usually it’s used in response to negative events: I was betroffen to hear of your mother’s death; he was betroffen by images of starving children on the television.

Betroffenheit is simply the noun version of the adjective betroffen — it means the state of being emotionally affected by something. Whenever a disaster or terrorist attack hits Germany, politicians always tweet about their Betroffenheit: they want to say they are deeply affected by whatever happened.

It’s kind of like the secular German equivalent of an American politicians saying their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims after a mass shooting. And this analogy is spot-on. Just as “thoughts and prayers” is a cliché in English, Betroffenheit is a cliché in German. It’s mocked as an platitude which politicians trot out just so they won’t be called insensitive, and which doesn’t require them to take a stand. In German-speaking media, people of all political stripes mock politicians for calling attention to their Betroffenheit all the time.

This is the point Handke is making. As someone who lives by language, he finds the words “betroffen” and “Betroffenheit” offensively unoriginal. And on another level, he is calling expressions of sympathy and concern by Western journalists and commentators are hypocritical, because these commentators focus exclusively on the suffering of Bosniaks and Muslims, while downplaying or ignoring the suffering of Serbs.

So he’s not saying “shove the corpses up your ass”. He is saying “shove your Betroffenheit [one-sided and hypocritical expressions of dismay] up your ass”.

Again, I am not here to defend all of Handke’s views. But this is a major error which, to my knowledge, has yet to be corrected and acknowledged in the English-speaking press.

What the BBC Gets Right, and German Public Broadcasters Get Wrong

German conservatives accuse the publicly-funded German TV networks ARD and ZDF (and radio stations) of liberal bias. Which is a problem, since the mandate of these license-fee funded networks is to provide a fair and balanced representation (g) of the spectrum of opinion in Germany. The public has no choice but to support these networks — the most expensive public-broadcasting system in Europe — so they should represent the entire spectrum of mainstream public opinion.

But do they? A new study offers ammunition to the critics. The Reuters Institute and Oxford University recently conducted a comparative study of public broadcasters in eight European countries. The study was designed to determine who the audience for public broadcasters were, what sorts of programs they watch or listen to, and how the Internet was affecting news consumption. The study found that in almost all European countries, the audience for public service media (PSM) was older and more educated than the audience for competing private channels, which comes as no real surprise.

The study also decided to test whether audiences perceived a political bias in public programming. It found (pdf) that German public broadcasters had a more liberal audience, and were more distrusted by conservatives, than almost all other European public broadcasters:

chrome_kCl1aJcjnx

chrome_EytejIh4yx

Only in Greece was there a bigger left-right gap in trust in public service media. The BBC  gets noticeably better marks across the board.

The study is confirmed by observation: German public television has an evident center-left bias. Nobody who watched it for any significant length of time doubts this. The bias emerges from two factors which interact with each other. First, most journalists travel within an educated urban center-left filter bubble. Second, they are driven by a conception of the journalist’s role as activist for the underdog.

The long hangover from National Socialism has infused every aspect of polite German society with a “never again” morality, which is not a bad thing in many respects. But in journalism, it fosters overt bias and sloppy reporting. Before reporting about controversial issues, the typical center-left German journalist decides who the underdog and who the oppressor is, then structures the story to ensure that even the dullest viewer knows which moral judgments the reporter wants them to make. The underdog’s story is presented without any critical questioning and, as often as not, with a big wet sloppy kiss of sentimentality.

This is why conservative, or even just independent-minded viewers, quickly give up on German public media news reporting on certain issues. It’s not just that the bias is grating, it also makes for dead boring journalism. As soon as you hear “nuclear”, “McDonald’s”, “capitalism”, “refugee”, “EU”, “climate”, “Trump”, “USA”, “death penalty”, “Africa”, “police”, “Saxony” or other trigger-words, you know exactly what’s coming. There are never any surprises. It’s not so much that the reporting is inaccurate — although it often is — or that the bias is morally suspect. It’s just tedious and condescending to the viewer.

Let me provide a concrete example of what German journalism does wrong, and the BBC does right. Recently, two controversial public figures were charged with breaking the law for political reasons. One of them is the German ship captain Carola Rackete, who violated an order from the Italian foreign ministry to keep out of Italian waters, and brought migrants whom she had rescued at sea to the Italian port of Lampedusa. She was charged with numerous crimes for doing so. Rackete, free on bond, went on a German public-television talk show to be interviewed by Dunya Hayali. This was the result:

For those of you not yet German-powered, I’ll summarize. The moderator asks Rackete why she brought the migrants to Italy, why she didn’t choose another port, what the situation was like on board, what she thinks drives people to leave Africa, and how she felt during the crisis. Rackete is permitted to go on and on and on justifying her actions and setting forth her point of view, often to bursts of applause from the audience. The only hint of critical questioning is when the interviewer asks Rackete whether she can understand Europeans who think accepting millions of Africans might be too much, to which Rackete replies: “No, actually not.”

Rackete’s views are extremely left-wing, far to the left of the average German, but she’s allowed to spin them in a crowd-pleasing way, without being asked about the consequences of her favored policies. (The idea that German public media would grant an extreme right figure so much uncontested airtime is unthinkable.) The interview is one softball after another. Seldom has a controversial public figure with extreme political views been given such a sensuous tongue-bath, at least in public.

Now let’s turn to another controversial public figure who broke the law for political reasons: Roger Hallam, leader of Extinction Rebellion, the group which goes around blocking streets and chaining themselves to buildings to protest climate change. (Rackete wore an Extinction Rebellion T-Shirt during her interview). Here he is being interviewed for BBC’s Hard Talk by Stephen Sackur:

Now that’s what I call journalism. Hallam is allowed to state his point of view, but is challenged by Sackur at every turn with relevant questions backed by independent research. The result is an informative exploration of the climate crisis, and of circumstances which do and do not justify civil disobedience. It makes the German interview look like a celebrity puff-piece, which it basically was. And a conservative or independent-minded BBC viewer could also enjoy the Hallam interview, because Sackur, unlike the German journalist, actually asks the questions that would immediately occur to viewers who were skeptical of, or disagreed with, Hallam’s political views.

The BBC is far from perfect, but it’s a far sight better than ARD and ZDF. Because it treats its viewers as competent adults who can make up their own minds.

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. Continue reading “They’re Watching US”