Opinions are Like . . . Well, Opinions

Which is to say, they’re all over the map.

When we first got Internet access in our office, a dozen or more years ago, I used CNN as my start page.  Come into the office in the morning, fire up the coffee machine, crank up the desktop, and see what’s going on in the world.  It was all the more helpful because I don’t have a television at home.  I very clearly recall that on September 11, 2001, I couldn’t get to their site for some reason.

And then came 2006.  If Gentle Reader will recall, that was the year Al Qaeda made a propaganda film.  We know it was a propaganda film because they announced it as such; they stated that they had compiled it and released it in hopes of affecting the outcome of the 2006 mid-term elections.  It was a compilation of video of terrorist snipers shooting American soldiers, marines, and airmen.  CNN, knowing what the film was, and why it had been produced, and understanding that Al Qaeda believed its release would product electoral effect favorable to it, ran the film.  And ran it.  And ran it. 

To get an idea of the morality of what CNN did, imagine if you will that, during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, the longest land battle the U.S. has ever fought, and which began in September, 1944, the Nazi camera crews had shot footage of American soldiers stepping on land mines, or being shredded by artillery shells bursting in the tree canopy, or hosed down with flamethrowers, or caught in interlocking machine gun fire.  I have a history of the battle (annoyingly, while the book is packed with place references, as any tactical level military history will be, there are almost no maps at all anywhere in the book, so unless you grew up in the place, or have handy some official map publication, you’re at sea trying to understand the ebb and flow of the battle), and it was impossible to avoid the impression that the American command seriously mismanaged it.  In the event, several infantry divisions got fed into the battle, piecemeal, and chewed to bits.  Over a quarter of the forces engaged on our side became casualties.  Now imagine that Goebbels decides he’s going to try to meddle in the 1944 presidential election by putting together this film in an effort to show the American people that Roosevelt’s a callous bastard who’s just Squandering Your Boys’ Lives and his party’s no better.  And now imagine that Movietone Newsreels decides to show that film in every theater in the country.  What would be the reasonable citizen’s reaction?

I decided then that it was true what some were saying about the mainstream media in America:  They’re not anti-war; they’re just on the other side.  So I decided that if I was going to get my daily dose of hostility to America I would do so without the alloy of treason.  From then until now I’ve used the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s website as my start page.  It helps me keep up my German, acquired with such effort, and it provides a helpful cross-reference on issues that affect us all.  They’re usually described as a center-right publication, but in truth I’d say they’re left of center by a comfortable margin.  Not as much as most of the American media, but still perceptibly so. 

From time to time I’ll run across articles on things that don’t directly have anything to do with the U.S., but which relate to issues and arguments current here.  Not having the same historical and cultural reference points, you can find things said there which would be assiduously suppressed here (and vice versa, by the way).  I recall a report on a lengthy study done on what things have measurable positive effects on student performance in public schools.  If memory serves it was actually a European-wide study.  Among the things they found had no discernible positive effect on measurable student performance:  increased spending per pupil; increased teacher pay; reduced class size.  I can’t recall if technology spending was also examined.  Interestingly, one of the things the study did recommend was to leave the students together longer.  In Germany students are divided after a few years into those who will attend the Hauptschule and be essentially done after tenth grade, and go become blue-collar workers, farm hands, or whatnot; the Realschule, who attend I think through 12th grade and who are targeted for the lower white-collar jobs in industry, trade, and government bureaucracy; and, last, the Gymnasium which runs through a 13th year and in which in one’s final two years one selects two main subjects for concentration.  Those final two years really are more like the first two years at an American university (in fact they’re actually more demanding than that, by a good margin).  Only the Gymnasiasten are eligible to attend the universities and their technical equivalents, the technische Hochschulen.  The study recommended deferring the point of division for a year or two.  But for me what was interesting was its finding that the usual NEA-espoused nostrums just don’t seem to work.  As mentioned, stuff like that I find helpful because it’s a cross-reference that you can’t tar with the brush of Bush, or Halliburton, or MoveOn.org, or the Koch brothers, or whoever is your particular bugaboo.

In this morning’s edition there’s a report on German opinions of America and Americans.  Specifically they report on what has every appearance of being an actual permanent shift in their perceptions of us, their liking of us, their willingness to emulate us, and their understanding of the nature and desired direction of their relationship with us.  The results discussed are the most recent results of a battery of questions that’s been asked periodically and to a greater or lesser extent since the 1950s (at least for some of the questions).

The article reports that since the early 2000s, particularly since 2003 and the invasion of Iraq, the Germans’ overall good opinion of the U.S., the percentage identifying the U.S. as Germany’s closest friend, the percentage seeing us as that country with which it is desirable to work closely, the percentage seeing us as a place of opportunity, have all plummeted, in some cases by two-thirds or more.  The Germans still think Dear Leader walks on water and parts it for those who can’t; he polls better than JFK after his visit to Berlin in 1963.  But the article reports what it bluntly calls markedly increasing anti-Americanism among the Germans. The percentage that perceives us as a land of high criminality, social injustice, inequality, superficiality, uncultured, a land with low quality of life, represents a majority, in some cases a huge majority, of the German population.  For example, only 19% described the U.S. as a place where one may enjoy a good quality of life.  Only 17% of the population expects to find gebildete individuals here (Bildung, in German means something quite different from “educated,” “accomplished,” or “talented”; I’m not even sure “refined” or “cultured” even quite capture what they understand by it; the topic gets a good airing in The German Genius, a book to which I’ve previously linked several times).  A high level of culture is anticipated by every bit of 8% of Germans.

The country which seems to have taken America’s place in German hearts, by the way, is France.  That’s encouraging.

Those last two data points cited by the article’s author are juxtaposed with what he calls the “enormous scientific and cultural achievements” of the U.S., together with, just as another example, the library system here which is explicitly favorably compared to that in Germany.  The author references those and then allows that the Germans’ perceptions of us an ungebildetes Volk and uncultured “can only indicate expression of a massively distorted perception” of the U.S.  This massively distorted perception exists side-by-side with the data point, also referenced by the author, that fully one-quarter of the German population has friends or relatives here.

The author proposes that the German-American relationship has been inadequately fostered in the last few years.  He notes that public expression of clichés and stereotypes of ethnic, religious, or other groupings in Europe is widely condemned.  “Apparently there is little contradiction when Americans are publicly and categorically described as dumb, asocial, and uncultured.”  Well, but of course.

Does this all matter, and why?  I think it does, because as the rest of Europe slides into insolvency and is swamped by would-be Islamofascists, among the continentals only Germany seems to be holding out for some degree of fiscal sanity.  Only Germany has taken the position that, well, yes, you’re welcome here and you’re welcome to practice your religion here, but you’re by Allah going to become Germans while you do it (note the diametric opposition of this position to the Nuremberg Laws, by which Jews could not ever be “German”).  Within the past couple of years a cabinet minister (I think it was the cultural minister, but I can’t recall exactly) came right out and said that separatism was to be resisted, that assimilation was and had to be the formal goal of public policy.  This is good; as American society and politics is driven ever further down the road of Balkanization by — among others — Dear Leader himself, we need a close friend who’s looked into that dark pit and decided not to jump in.

I’ve always thought that, after its language and literature, the most precious gift England gave us was the concept of “reasonableness.”  That does not mean reasoned.  Reason drives a concept to its logical conclusion, however absurd that may be when fitted around the odd shapes and contours of human nature.  It produces silliness like the French Revolution and its train of horrors.  Reasonableness tells us not to take ourselves so damned seriously; it reminds us that everything’s got its limits, and that if two is good three isn’t necessarily better.  Reasonableness reminds us that just because we can doesn’t mean we ought to.  It reminds us to seize the chance to shut up and mind our own business.

By like token, Germany has given the U.S. many precious gifts in its cultural legacy.  Too many to go into here, but there are more than sufficient to justify regarding America’s relationship with Germany as every bit as special, in its own way, as ours with Britain.  The coming years will be years of great trial, I am afraid, as we struggle against a world-view which thinks the Seventh Century is to be reimposed on the globe, and we try to maintain that struggle with the shackles of socialistic organization about our ankles.  We will need every bit of help from every willing hand.  With the degree of estrangement described the FAZ article one would be forgiven for questioning whether if we stretched our hand out to Germany, we would find theirs in it.

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