Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Divided by Clichés

A transatlantic tragedy: ignorance in an age of instant information


As the Western world wallows in multiple crises, prejudice dominates the airwaves. Exasperated by a talk show star’s malediction on American television that it was time for the plague to afflict Europe (population: almost 500 million), our correspondent found solace in a simple Paris bar.

Phew! What a relief it was to plunk down at a small table outside a very modest Paris pub called Le Train de Vie, meaning train of life. Fourteen grueling hours in the air lay behind us. More than that, we crossed a transatlantic information gap rapidly dividing our continents.

We came from southern California where we now live pleasurably and surrounded by friends. But as lovers of the United States, we feel increasingly uneasy, more so than ever before in the more than four decades in the country. What troubles us is having to listen every day to televised invectives against our home continent, to hear slurs spoken by stars who know nothing about Europe yet opine against it venomously nonetheless.

This is what we mulled over as we comforted ourselves with fresh red wine from the Côtes du Rhône region served in half-liter carafes. Our minds wandered back to the latest apex of Europhobic hyperbole we had heard on Fox. “The problem with Europe is that there are too many Europeans,” one smart aleck quipped crudely, adding that a new plague would solve this problem. This prompted hilarity among his co-panelists but reminded us of the mindless things British bigots like to say about the French.

This was supposed to be funny. Granted I am German, and for Germans, humor is no laughing matter, according to another Anglo-Saxon inanity. But then my wife, Gillian, is an Englishwoman, and she did not get the joke either. “Imagine the international hullaballoo if a French talk show host told his audience at prime time, ‘The trouble with America is that there are too many Americans; may they be decimated by an epidemic,’” she said. We needed another carafe of wine.

At this point an inebriated Frenchman in his 60s stopped at our table. Staring distractedly above our heads, the stranger said, “I am wondering if I should have a nightcap before returning to my hotel room.” We invited him to sit down but no, he preferred to return to the bar. Bidding us farewell, he reached into a shopping bag and handed me a fistful of cherries, explaining, “They wouldn’t do me any good tonight after all the drinks I have had.” Then he staggered off.

Ah, echoes of the France of our youth! So she is not dead, thank God! Our thoughts then focused on the daily dose of venom emitted against the French by American commentators lumping all Europeans together as a moribund bunch of unreconstructed socialists. Before I continue, let me come clean: I am not a left-winger, neither is my wife.

In some respects, we are as conservative as TV hosts Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. We affirm the sanctity of life and the institution of marriage; we prefer government to be small and defense to be strong. As Europeans, we might be forgiven for being less engrossed with the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms but surely that’s forgivable.

The ceaseless prattle on American airwaves about “European Socialism” is getting on our nerves, though. Do American radio and television commentators not know that all major EU nations have currently conservative-controlled governments? Perhaps their daily abuse is just tit-for-tat, paying Europe back for eight years of anti-American agitation in the Bush years? Probably. If so, this would be childish given the contemporary condition of the world.

We requested another carafe of Red.

It seemed strange to us that televised American bile is focused first and foremost on the French and the Germans. Until now, the British have been spared such outbursts. Still, British pundits are also given to utter “tedious snobby sneers against the United States,” to quote Alex Singleton, a leader writer of The Daily Telegraph. Then Singleton labeled President Barack Obama “an idiot… hell bent on insulting [America’s] allies.”

I have never been an Obama enthusiast but I didn’t write that; an Englishman did.

On the following evening, Gillian and I returned to Le Train de Vie. At the table next to ours a solitary man ate his dinner. He turned out to be a middle-aged French journalist equally concerned with the state of the international media. Together we lamented the fact that biased postulations are increasingly taking the place of properly researched articles, and that rank prejudice is in the process of superseding fair and balanced reporting.

We were both old enough to have learned a different kind of journalism than is often practiced now, he at a provincial newspaper in eastern France, I with the Associated Press in Frankfurt. We became journalists in an era filled with lingering memories of a fratricidal war. We thought that we had learned the principal lesson of that war: Never let stereotypical thinking govern your pen and your lips.

We were taught as young men that our opinions were irrelevant. What mattered was the need of our readers to be comprehensively informed. This required legwork on our part, and it was precisely the excitement of this legwork that had made us choose our craft in the first place. We learned foreign languages. We were trained to go to enormous lengths to trounce clichés.

In those days, all major American media outlets had posted foreign correspondents in France and Germany. These men and women were driven by the same professional ethos as we, and spoke our languages well. They knew our literature, our art, our strengths and foibles. They were wonderfully curious reporters. I am still corresponding with some of these colleagues who are now in the 80s and retired, and I know that they are just as troubled as we with the way many of today’s media foster ignorance.

It told the Frenchman about a recent acrimonious discussion with the executive editor of the new breed in the United States. He could not understand my distress over the statement by a majority of journalism students that they had chosen this career to “make this a better world.” This, I explained to the editor, was what had motivated propagandists of totalitarian systems. In free societies, journalists had the calling to research and write, just as bakers had a vocation to bake. Wanting to “make this a better world” by telling their readers what to think reflects ideological hubris.

The French reporter nodded gravely and ordered another carafe of Red.

We then lamented the evident increase of ignorance as a product of our age of instant communication. I told him about a woman with a Master of Arts degree trying to persuade me recently that a direct philosophical line led from the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Hitler, and that therefore the proximity between Weimar in Thuringia, Goethe’s place of work, and Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp, was no coincidence. She had clearly never read anything by Goethe but watched a program linking the 18th-century Enlightenment to 20th-century totalitarianism.

There exists a serious school of thought making this connection, but it is much more complex, running via the anthropocentrism of the French Revolution; the German theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jürgen Moltmann argued that way. However, Goethe was neither an Enlightenment philosopher nor a revolutionary; he was a poet of classicism, a literary period that coincided with the French Revolution. He also told his friend Johann Peter Eckermann toward the end of his life that Christianity was the ultimate religion. Sadly, such details count little at an age of instant information dispersing ignorance in the form of packaged formulae.

My drinking partner and I found some comfort in the discovery that at least some of our readers were wiser than we. In the recent Franco-German tiff over bailing out bankrupt Greece, the Berlin correspondent of the Paris daily Libération charged German Chancellor Angela Merkel with scheming to forge a “Holy Germanic Euro Empire.” Going through the readers’ blogs of the Parisian press, though, we discovered the emergence of a different consensus: If France had followed the German example of frugality and industry since the rise of the new and reconciled Europe following World War II, we might all be better off. That’s what French readers are writing.

We left Le Train de Vie telling ourselves that the wall of clichés dividing nations and continents must not necessarily be permanent. If it has stopped separating France and Germany there is still hope, we thought, that the age of the instant media might also bear transatlantic fruit. The force that renders readers and listeners uninformed is the same that can make them wise. No, we do not need a plague to exterminate us. What we need is a wiser use of the gift of instant information.

from The Atlantic Times, July/August 2010 edition

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