Then what’s left? As the
reader readers of this blog have figured out, I pay attention to many things German. That’s scarcely accidental. I spent two years there as an exchange student, both my junior years. The first was decidedly a mixed bag as far as personal success is measured, the second was a glorious interlude in what has turned into a very mediocre existence. In any event, I got a good snoot-ful of All Things German and like heavy metal poisoning have never got it out of my system. Even my closest friends would tell you I can be more than a bit of a crank in that respect.
German culture runs in many channels (like any, I suppose). Two of those can be labelled Innerlichkeit, or inwardness, and Sachlichkeit, or matter-of-factness. The finest fruits of the former have given Western civilization some of what can with all fairness be described as its highest high points, in philology, music, philosophy, architecture, and literature. I once read of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor that it is “as if the eternal harmony were communing with itself.” Musicologists have dissected it sixteen ways to Sunday but for me it remains a source of never-exhausted wonder. Those of the latter have blown wide open the boundaries of human knowledge, and given the imprimatur “Made in Germany” an esteem unmatched anywhere in the world. There are entire branches of science and engineering which simply would not be what they are without that relentless pursuit of understanding, that merciless logic, which the German Sachlichkeit turns on any problem that swims into its ken.
Central to — I would suggest indispensable to — both Innerlichkeit and Sachlichkeit is an insistence on clear thinking, of contemplating the world and oneself without blinders. A core component of those processes is the willingness to call things by their correct names.
And that is why one must be alarmed by the suggestions emanating from a conference on poverty, recently proposed, to purge certain words and expressions from German discourse. That’s right, folks: Political correctness has come to Germany. Their National Conference on Poverty wants to expunge expressions like alleinerziehend from the language. That word consists of the roots allein, meaning “alone,” and the present participle of erziehen, meaning “to raise,” as in to raise a child. It refers to someone who is raising a child by him- or herself. In that respect it’s actually a better expression than our closest equivalent, “single parent,” because an enormous number of people who find themselves in that predicament are not the parents of the children they’re raising. But to the German poverty industry the word is objectionable not because it does not perfectly describe what is going on, but because it doesn’t imply anything about inadequate social integration or quality of raising. One might be forgiven for supposing that a word which mean exactly what it says, neither more nor less, and is perfectly descriptive of that concept, would be permissible. Apparently not.
“Unemployed” as a term of art likewise won’t pass muster for the poverty mavens. Arbeitslos, literally “workless,” might be thought a useful expression to capture the not-unimportant data point of those people who have no gainful employment. You see, gainful employment is an important measure of wealth, in that in order to be gainful, employment must be of a sort which other people are actually willing to compensate you for doing; the being gainful part is how you can tell that engaging in it is actually generating wealth. It’s the difference, in other words, between a prostitute and an armed robber. Whatever one may think of the former, she is providing a service to people who, of their own volition, are willing to pay her for her efforts. The latter, not so much. The poverty-mongers, however, object because “there are many forms of work that do not secure an income.” Well. No shit? Like being what in older, more honest times, the English used to describe as a “sturdy beggar.” No one ever said being a beggar was easy, but is it really helpful to lump the beggar in with the machinist whose plant got moved to a different part of the country but he can’t move with it because of family commitments like aged parents or sickly children? Both are erwerbslos, the poverty-peddlers’ preferred expression — “without compensation,” or “without compensated labor” — but erwerbslos blurs (and the cynic cannot help but suspect that’s the whole point) that persnickety distinction that the Erwerben of the beggar will never be of use to anyone but himself, while the machinist’s efforts, once applied again, will not only profit himself but his employer and all of his employer’s customers and the people who enjoy the efforts of those customers in turn. The guy who is trying to get back to making flat-head screwdrivers is simply not in any meaningful sense to be thought of in the same terms, economically speaking, as the guy who’s trying to get between you and your car as you cross the parking lot.
The poor-mouths likewise do not like Behindertentransport. Here the English speaker get a taste of the German predeliction for compound words, as commented upon by the late Mr. Clemens. The referenced word comes from two words, Behinderten, meaning “disabled,” and “Transport,” meaning exactly that. [Aside: This word also provides a glimpse into German’s twin influences of both Germanic and Latin origins, as well as English’s kinship with German. The same root word gives us the English hinder and the German behindern, both meaning to place obstacles in the path of someone or something. And of course transport means precisely the same thing in both languages.] The issue for the hand-wringers is that in German objects are transportiert (the past participle of the verb), while humans are befördert. The problem is that in ordinary usage, a Beförderung — a noun form — is usually applied in an alternative sense, meaning a “promotion,” as in a job. So to speak of Behindertenbeförderung to please the bleeding hearts would sound at best confusing to the ordinary speaker and at worst comical. The rude might be tempted to ask, “Really? To what positions are you promoting them?”
It is alarming that Germans would contemplate going down the road we’ve travelled in the English-speaking world. Habits of thought in fact do become habits of hands, and squishy unwillingness to call things by their correct names leads in a direct line to a squishy unwillingness to grasp problems by the scruff of the neck and then to wring same until overcome. In today’s world this refusal to engage in clear-minded thought and plainly-confronting action is a luxury that no society can afford. Fortunately for Germany they don’t have a local franchise of The New York Times, or the Washington Post, or Oprah joyfully to embrace and push this verbal dishonesty into standard usages of language. Instead, even the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which is commonly described as center-right, but which I would humbly suggest is at least half a standard deviation to the left of center, pours scorn on the yammerings of the poverty cheerleaders.
But the seal has been broken. Even if the balance of German society rightly laughs itself silly at this particular effort, the genie is out of its bottle, and it is only a matter of time before this kind of nonsense is taken seriously and — Germany being Germany, after all — engrafted into the fabric of their laws.