Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

01 January 2011

Can Europe Help Save Us?

[For the latest on electric cars, and what now appears to be a three-way race between the Volt, Leaf and Ford Focus, click here.]

[My last post before 2011 outlined our nation’s two most critical and immediate problems: (1) reducing our energy dependence before it destroys what’s left of our economy, and (2) curing our ideological disease before it kills us. A recent comment to that post got me thinking just how important problem (2) is. The comment, apparently from a German (maybe an East German), is one of the most important and interesting that I have yet received. So I’m taking the liberty of reproducing the entire comment below, with my response.]

Comment [with minor editorial changes] from an anonymous reader, apparently in Germany, on my last 2010 post

Let me begin by stating that Your [anonymous] comments in the NYT are always a refreshing and pleasurable way to learn new things.

Secondly, as a European, I am possibly somewhat more alert on the undeniable “soviet” undercurrent I see in America’s daily political madness. We have been “close to the fire” for years (I am of 60s vintage) and have seen the cold war develop from a rather difficult, but educational, position in-between, so to speak.

The way I see right-wing propaganda spout total untruths reminds me of Goebbellian propaganda too. There is a joke/saying here that states the following: “America has learned much more from Nazi Germany’s scientists than just rocket technology.”

There clearly is also a total divergence of culture going on between the “old” and the “new” world. Strangely enough, we are seeing the new world fall into the same traps that have marred Europe for ages: greed, religious strife, military enforced nepotism and egotism.

Europe learned the hard way that cooperation is a necessity for survival. The same thought hasn’t completely sunk in on the right in America, it seems.

The “left” (although, in European terms more “center-left”) knows it already, but constantly squanders the ability to do something about it by either internal strife or underestimating the pure evil and rucksichtsloses [German for “recklessness”] undercurrent in the Right-Wing.

The left’s habit of “wanting to do the right thing” is used expertly as a weapon by the Right-Wing hawks.

I consider myself lucky to be living in Northern Europe, where a general attitude exists of “taking care of the weaker parts of society.” Even our “right” doesn’t dispute pensions, accessible healthcare, etc.

I know the American side of the equation all too well, having family in LA. The situation for them has become so dire that we started to send THEM money to survive, while in the 60s THEY were the people that supported my parents when in a financial rut. Things completely inverted, bizarre as that may seem.

Well, enough blabbering. Looking forward to many more things to learn in Your sound posts.

[Signed, Anonymous]

My Response and Plea to this Commenter

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your vote of confidence and for your helpful observations.

For me, the most important part of your comment is the second-to-last paragraph. I urge every one of my readers to scan it—several times. The fact that at least one German family that once got help from its American relatives during the postwar period is now having to support those same American relatives should give us all ground for sober reflection.

The most chilling part of your comment is the observation that we Yanks learned more from the Nazis than rocket science. Apparently this view is common in Germany.

At first—with typical American twisted pride—I wanted to object. Hadn’t our own Fox surpassed Goebbels by delivering propaganda in the form of entertainment, thereby making it easy to swallow? But then I recalled Goebbels’ path-breaking effort (only partially successful) to recruit the best German movie-makers, singers and other artists to the Nazi cause, and the classic propaganda films that resulted.

There is, however, a subtle difference. Goebbels tried to use highbrow culture, while Fox is as lowbrow as they come. At the time Germany was only a generation away from the height of its own culture, and possibly the world’s. So Goebbels went for gloss. Rupert Murdoch’s genius is to bring Goebbels down to the level of the common man. I say “man” because, while I can’t prove it yet, I think Fox’s propaganda, with its unique brand of self-righteousness, intransigence, and undertone of near-violent anger, is peculiarly masculine. I doubt it appeals to as many women as men.

Beck’s and Limbaugh’s rants, for example, bear more than a passing resemblance to Hitler’s, but without the screechy voice and angry, abrasive delivery. They show what Hitler might have accomplished if only he’d had some media training, a more attractive personality, some talent for diplomacy, and the good sense to listen to his smarter advisers.

You and I can look at this all with a sense of bemused detachment. We probably won’t live to see the global cataclysm that an American replay might cause. But the world cannot.

I have long been skeptical of the common view here that Nazism overtook Germany because of some fundamental racial or cultural difference between Germans and the rest of us. Many here think Germans are inherently more authoritarian, more paternalistic, and more prone to obey without thinking. Maybe there’s a germ of truth in that view. But most Americans forget (or don’t know) that, just a generation or two before Hitler, Germany was at the peak of global culture in music (Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler), literature and poetry (Goethe, Heine, and Schiller), science (Einstein, Schroedinger, Planck) and mathematics (Euler, Gauss, and Lorenz). At that time, Germany was close to, if not at, the pinnacle of creative abstract thought for all of human history. Yet in a mere few decades it had morphed into the most beastly tyranny and history’s greatest threat to civilization.

Anyone who thinks the same thing can’t happen here in America is whistling past the graveyard. You have only to read the average on-line comment on almost any editorial in the Wall Street Journal to see how. The repeated name-calling, the absolute and virulent contempt, the undertone of incipient violence—all are there. All you have to do is replace “Jew” in Hitler’s rants with “liberal,” “Democrat,“ or “freeloader” to see the resemblance. There is no rational dialogue here, only stereotyping and scapegoating and an incitement to political obliteration, if not outright violence.

In a nation that prides itself on racial and ethnic equality, it would be impossible to stereotype and scapegoat a single ethnic group as Hitler did. The recent rejection of “don’t ask-don’t tell” showed that. So the undertones of racism here are all covert.

But Fox and its enablers have done the next best thing: they have managed to oversimplify, stereotype and scapegoat an entire portion of the political spectrum in Hitlerian terms. And without ever saying so, they have accomplished this feat by playing on semi-conscious racism against African-Americans, Hispanics and (more recently) Muslims and associating the scapegoated groups with the inimical portion of the political spectrum.

Why use just one ethnic scapegoat when you can exploit several? Hitler and Goebbels showed the way, but we Americans have done better. If you have several scapegoats, you can play them off against each other, as well as the majority against all of them.

At this point the propaganda has subverted only a minority of the American public, variously estimated at from one-quarter to one-third. But if the matches that Fox and its supporters have struck ever come close to a majority, the resulting conflagration will engulf the world, just as Nazism did. Don’t forget that we Americans have the world’s largest stash of reliable and accurate strategic nuclear weapons.

Our Constitution is of little help. Like William Randolph Hearst before him, Rupert Murdoch has one decided advantage over Goebbels. He is not an employee of the State. His empire is entirely private. And—in a state where private enterprise is sanctum sanctorum—that makes it largely immune from the checks and balances that are supposed to restrain our government.

The rest of the world, including Germany, has a vital stake in making sure that the terrible history of Nazism doesn’t repeat itself here, with the inevitable peculiar American variations. That’s why I welcome your comment, and why I hope we Americans will see much more of the same.

For decades now, we Americans have been giving Europe lots of unsolicited advice. Now is the time for Europe to return the favor. Europe (including the UK) is the ultimate source of most of our American culture. As you rightly note, she has a sober maturity derived from several centuries of religious, ideological and imperial upheavals. Whether we know it or not, we Americans have a lot to learn from Europe. (The same is true of Asia, but Asians have much higher barriers of language and cultural prejudice to overcome here.)

So I urge you and other Europeans to make a concerted effort to enlighten us. Meddle in our internal affairs as much as you can. Tell us of your personal and cultural experiences. Use whatever method you choose, whether comments in on-line newspapers, letters or e-mails to your American relatives, or your own English-language blogs. Google now makes translation easy, especially if (as most Europeans do) you already have a good basic grasp of English.

We Americans probably won’t seem to listen, because we are “exceptional” and “Number One.” But all we humans are now in the same boat—the same rapidly diminishing planet. So be assured that your voices will be heard, if not by all of us, then by many. And the world you help save may be your own.

P.S. The German word “rucksichtloses” in your comment suggests that you already used Google translation to help prepare it. Google probably wasn’t smart enough to recognize the typo in “rucksichtloses,” i.e., the missing “s” in the root “rucksichtslos,” which means “reckless.” (Google Translate recognizes typos and makes corresponding suggestions in individual words, but apparently doesn’t do so in whole passages.)

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  • At Sat Jan 08, 12:08:00 PM EST, Blogger Greg said…

    Dear Jay -

    Thank you for sharing that comment and pointing out the ironic twist of economic aid now moving towards the U.S.. Unfortunately, I have seen this phenomenon first-hand among non-Western immigrant families as well.

    My in-laws are from Laos, a communist country that would have literally put my wife's family to death had they stayed. In recent years, though, the relatives that stayed in Laos are becoming more affluent and economically stable than my mother-in-law and her kids who live here in the U.S.. They still talk as though their American relatives are living in a "wealthy land," but what has been translated to me describes a very different story.

    Out of financial desperation, my in-laws can no longer afford to help them. But, they only need financial assistance for acquiring luxury items any more, so there is no sense that we have abandoned them. My in-laws still have their pride and refuse to ask for help from them, but even without it they may not understand how much things have changed here. Since I'm lucky enough to have a job that pays more than minimum wage, my wife and I have been funnelling money to my mother-in-law and a sister-in-law who is in real financial trouble (due to medical bills!) so at least we still do what we can. The days of giving aid to family in 3rd World countries to get clothes and medicine are gone, it seems.

    My wife and I are still in our late 30s so we may not carry the same historical vantage point you may have, but the effect is not lost on us. We Americans are living in a fantasy world, watching black-and-white videos of WW2 to remind ourselves of our (former) greatness and sitting in a run-down trailer home telling ourselves "We're the greatest country on Earth!" Your posts point out obvious flaws with that misguided sentiment - not out of anti-Americanism, but a sober pride in admitting "We are not as we should be!"

    Once again, thanks for your enlightening observations, and I want to extend a thanks to the German poster who shared a fantastic perspective on America's state of affairs.

    - Greg


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