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”

Iceland is a Prosperous American Suburb

If there is one thing the world has enough of, it's "why can't we all be like Iceland?" articles. Here's the latest:

I wanted to know about the kind of society Iceland had cultivated and- what its outlooks were. How did women and men see each other and themselves? What was their character like compared to other countries I had lived in? Were women more confident, men more open-minded, children better cared for? Was life there, in any way, more balanced?

I suspected I would find enlightened ideas that benefit society, not just business, although I found that the two weren’t mutually exclusive. I spoke to innovators across genders in education, health, industry, science and the arts whose ideas exceeded my imagination.

And guess what? The author's gee-whiz tour of Iceland finds all sorts of wonderfully progressive policies. Paid family leave for daddies! Mandatory quotas for women! The world's first openly gay female head of state! Great schools filled with sensitive, caring social-pedagogues! And so on, and so on.

Many will remember probably the most stomach-turning piece of virtue-signaling the world has ever seen — the Facebook campaign in which 11,000 Icelanders volunteered their homes to Syrian refugees, under the founder's motto: "They are our future spouses, best friends, the next soul mate, a drummer for our children's band, the next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finishes the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, a fireman, a television host. People of whom we'll never be able to say in the future: 'Your life is worth less than my life.'"

Are you dabbing the second tear of kitsch from your eyes yet?

But guess what? None of those 11,000 virtue-signalers ever had to make good on their promise, and of course they knew that full well, since the government has a cap of a whopping 500 refugees a year.

Whoops! Did I just write 500? Sorry, the actual number is 50. Fifty. Per year.

But the empty promises of all those smug Icelanders earned Iceland yet another round of fawning publicity. The article continues the typical litany of the nauseatingly goody-two-shoes oh-so-gentle progressive paradise:

Icelandic society is proactively striving for gender equality, which sits at the centre of progress, and there are policies in place to promote gender equality in all spheres of society. Many stepping stones have led to the current gender equality legislation, including the use of gender quotas. As proven by the need for affirmative action policies in the USA, we are not yet evolved enough to choose fairly of our own volition.

After this rather sinister aside, the author does point to some of the more gloomy facts about Iceland, including this: "Iceland recently outranked the US in adult obesity (67.1 percent of Icelandic adults are overweight or obese compared to 66.3 percent of US adults)." Ha! Take that, Icelandic self-image!

You know what Iceland is? Iceland is a rich American suburb. (Or a German suburb, for that matter.) The population of Iceland is a laughably miniscule 330,000 people. And Iceland is 93% Icelandic, and 98% Northern European. Further, Iceland's median national IQ is 101, placing it 6th in the world. If you go to any large well-off suburb of the United States, you will see Icelandic living conditions: orderly homes, quiet evenings, honest officials, clean schools, smart students, modern gender roles, almost no violence, nice people, organic food, wooden toys, recycling, wine importers, futuristic espresso machines, tasteful earth-toned natural-fiber clothing, clean-lined architecture, yoga studios, women earning more than men, soccer, the whole nine yards. The one difference will be that the American suburb, although majority white, will still be more ethnically diverse than the Nordic purist's fantasy of Iceland.

Iceland is a fine place. I plan to visit one day, and I'm sure I'll be as enchanted as everyone else seems to be. But the world should stop looking at Iceland for lessons, because Iceland is a suburb, not a model society than can be replicated at will anywhere else.

Other Peoples’ Indians; or Why the Soviets Loved James Fenimore Cooper for All the Wrong Reasons

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The Paris Review is first mystified by the Soviet Union's love of American frontier novelist James Fenimore Cooper, but is soon set straight by someone who points to the ideological jockeying it represented:

I was perplexed to learn that the Soviet Union, in its waning days, produced a series of five vivid postage stamps devoted to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. It seemed as if some lazy Soviet bureaucrat must’ve made a mistake. Why, after all, would the USSR want to commemorate some of the foundational texts of American lit, especially when Natty Bumppo stands as a paragon of rugged individualism? In other words, how had one of our folk heroes found an audience in a place where he should’ve been reviled?

Sandra Nickel, an author of young-adult novels, got the answer from her daughter’s Russian godmother, whose youth was apparently filled with totally authorized American classics:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas by Thomas Mayne Reid. Almost every Russian child had read these by the age of twelve—and read them more than once.

I am sure the Soviet state approved these books because of their propaganda value. Put together, these three volumes could portray Americans as slave-owning destroyers of Native Americans, who are bigoted against Mexicans. Racists, across the board, in other words.

Instead of finding the disgusting evidence of prejudice and imperialism, though, young Russian readers tended to see the novels as ripping good yarns, so much so that their characters were inducted into public life.

As I've said before and will say again, other people's Indians.