Wednesday, May 9, 2012

WORLD MATTERS: U.S. conservatives poorly served by the Fox News media culture


A nauseating remark by Donald Trump on Fox News about Germany this week made me wonder if today’s American and European conservatives are living on the same planet – assuming for the sake of an argument that this network is the authentic voice of conservatives in the U.S.A. Discussing the Euro crisis on Greta van Susteren’s “On the Record” show, Trump said: “Germany is trying to take over the world economically; they weren’t able to do it militarily.” This was preceded by a breathtakingly boorish divination of dire prospects for French President Nicolas’ marriage once he and his wife Carla Bruni have left the Elysée Palace in Paris. 

Now, before I let off steam about this claptrap, let me disclose this much about myself: I am a firm conservative of the European stripe. If I were a U.S. citizen, I could never vote for “pro choice” candidates or politicians favoring same-sex marriage. Like American conservatives, I want governments to be small and taxes low. I oppose the nanny state and entitlements. I support free enterprise, hard work and responsible lifestyles. I am a conservative because I want to “conserve,” in the original sense of the Latin verb, conservare, the Christian civilization we inherited including its religious, educational and cultural treasures, its civility, good manners, its emphasis of historical knowledge and critical thinking.

There are differences of course: I do not consider myself depraved because I like fast trains, speak foreign languages and never felt a desire to own a gun, and I see no merit in ethnic or national bigotry; I have learned in my childhood in Germany the hard way where this kind of rhetoric can lead. Still, irrespective of these Old World peculiarities, I have always held it self-evident that conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic are bound by shared values and presume this still to be the case.

Yet I feel politically homeless in contemporary America, a country I love; I despise the mindlessness reflected in Mr. Trump’s glib statement, which is emblematic of the discourse in the type of electronic media where he is seen and heard. Is this conservative? Not in my book. It is unintelligent and inelegant, two adjectives I do find incompatible with the grace of real conservative thought. It troubles me that Americans seem unaware of the catastrophic impression this makes on those Europeans who should be their natural friends and allies. They watch Fox News’ lowbrow talk shows on the Internet with dismay and see them, in the absence of alternatives, as true mirrors of American traditionalism. When I telephoned friends in France and Germany after the Socialist victory in the French elections, they emitted identical sighs: “If only American conservatives would give us any reason for hope!”

Back to Trump: He seems clueless about the distasteful company he is keeping by trumpeting out his ugly clichés before millions of Fox News spectators: the company of Greek anarchists, neo-Nazis and Communists burning German flags in the street of Athens and caricaturing Chancellor Angela Merkel as a brown-shirted, swastika-toting fiend, or advocates of irresponsible inflationary policies of the very type Fox News pretends to be fighting in America. In his postmodern inability to think in proper analogies, it did not occur to Trump that Germans abhor this behavior just as much as Americans loathed morons burning their national flag and spelling the name of their country Ameri-kkk-a in the 1960s.

Oh, now I get it! Perhaps in Trump’s mind solidarity is a leftist term and not something conservatives do to each other, at least not from the perspective of the kind of conservatives we are discussing here, the “me”-conservatives unbound by codes of honor worth conserving, just as the rest of the “Me” culture. Again, I suspect that a majority of conservatives might not belong to the “Me” variety; but they have chosen not to invest in a voice that can be heard and seen around the globe, a shortsighted omission.

What exactly is it that Trump, in line with European leftists and extremists, dislikes about today’s Germans? I say today’s Germans, those 90-odd percent of us who were not even around when Hitler came to power. He admits that Germans have done “unbelievably well,” and he surely cannot claim that they have accomplished this by force of arms or knavish tricks. I posit that they reaped the fruits of doing what Germans always do best: hard work, precision engineering, making beautiful products of the highest quality that sell well around the world, maintaining sound labor relations, training their workers superbly, and exercising fiscal responsibility. I believe Germans have by now earned the right to grab Trump by the lapels and thunder: “How dare you liken our honorable behavior to the shameful deeds a criminal regime has committed before you were born!”

Or is it that in his mind only Americans are virtuous when they work hard and well and behave prudently, whereas Germans doing the very same thing are by definition Nazis light? What must Germans do to receive the approbation of Trump and similar hypocrites? Must they become sloppy? Must they go on strike all the time like French railway workers? Must they produce rubbish in order for others to get a larger share of the market? Should they have followed the American example, much bemoaned by Trump and his fellow Fox commentators, of destroying their own economy?

Trump’s insult to Western Europe’s most populous nation could be dismissed as crude drivel if it were not one exceedingly rare item of information about Germany, or for that matter any other Western European country except Britain, broadcast by America’s premier “conservative” cable network, which is too mean to base foreign correspondents in continental capitals and apparently too hick to cover the Continent instead of badmouthing it almost daily. I will never forget the thigh-slapping hilarity in a Fox talk show when a panelist proclaimed a few years ago: “The only trouble with Europe is that it has too many Europeans.” By God, this was unadulterated Nazi diction! I am proud to say that in Germany this kind of rhetoric would be treated as a hate crime.

As a journalist who has learned his craft with the Associated Press, I am disconsolate that for world coverage on the evening news I must go to the English-language Al Jazeera program, compliments of PBS, if I want to avoid networks whose liberal slant I find objectionable. Why don’t conservative billionaires like Donald Trump see a need to invest in a restoration of genuinely “fair and balanced” journalism in this country that used to be the international leader in high media standards? Why for that matter don’t other wealthy conservatives worried about the decrepit state of our craft? Why is it that responsible media people, and here I include myself, only meet uncomprehending stares when panhandling for funds to launch, not a mouthpiece for right wingers, but simply a responsible, cosmopolitan, professionally well-crafted mass publication, printed or electronic. For democracy to survive, we need an abundance of solid facts to reach the electorate, not more half-baked opinions posing as “conservative.”

Contrary to what Fox’s smug talk show hosts will have you believe, the frightening collapse of journalistic standards is by no means an exclusively left-wing phenomenon. The so-called conservative media outlets are no better. Take Germany. Fox’s listeners don’t know that Germany, the world’s second largest exporter, maintains the third-largest NATO contingent in Afghanistan, after the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and that German soldiers are also dying in the Hindu Kush. Never do the journalistic poseurs talking over their interview partners in prime time offer a detailed report of a compelling international saga that is as much a human interest as a political story: Whether you like Germans or not, the Herculean act of one middle-aged East German pastor’s daughter and scientist, Angela Merkel, carrying the rest of Europe is a stirring occurrence in the history of Western civilization, especially if you consider that Germany has just had to spend nearly €2 trillion ($2,7 trillion) to repair the disastrous damage 40 years of Communist have done to its eastern territories. But to understand this you have to know history.

When discussing health care, these pundits ridicule the British and Canadian systems but never mention Germany’s, which is the world’s oldest, having been started by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1883 in order to stave off socialist alternatives. It is really irrelevant whether this omission is due to prejudice or ignorance; the consequence is the same: these “journalists” keep their public ill informed at a time when international perils call for well-educated voters.

Donald Trump said, “Germany is trying to help Germany.” So? He complained that the euro was not created “for the betterment of the United States.” So? Isn’t it a little narcissistic to demand that only things serving the betterment of one country should be permitted elsewhere in the world? He also claimed that the whole European project was directed against U.S.

No! The European unification process resulted from the lessons wise and eminently decent men of the caliber of Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, Paul-Henri Spaak, Charles de Gaulle and others had drawn from the bloody fratricide of two World Wars. It was a human endeavor and therefore subject to human fallibility. Perhaps in hindsight Germany should never have agreed to a joint currency that included Greece, which was not ready for it. But that was one price she had to pay for France’s acquiescence to her reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Instead of ridiculing Germany or accusing her of ill intent, Mr. Trump should be thankful that he has never experienced the horror that prompted Europeans to act the way they did. I am ten years older than Trump; I have lived through it, which is why I don’t long for a repetition. European wars have never been good for Americans either. Mr. Trump should have thought of that, but he hasn’t.

Moreover, it seems illogical for a champion of free enterprise to view the competitive intentions of the European Union as detrimental to the United States, as Trump insinuated in his interview with Greta van Susteren. Have I missed a class at school? Is not competition what free enterprise is all about? Why should peaceful competition be fine on a national but not on an international level, as long as both sides subscribe to the same principles of freedom?

I would not have lowered myself to venting my anger here about the utterances of a billionaire buffoon had 55 years in international journalism not taught me to appraise most somberly the state of the world we are living in. From this I can only draw one conclusion: American and Continental conservatives need each other today more than ever; but I mean real conservatives determined to conserve our civilization, including hard work, fiscal discipline, entrepreneurship, a commitment to the sanctity of human life and, yes, international civility, which I found lacking in Donald Trump’s superfluous remarks.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 55 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.