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Works and Days

Thoughts on the Rhine

May 28th, 2012 - 5:24 pm

In other words, government, economics, and social policy are critical, but themselves are driven by the minute-to-minute culture of everyday people. Germans pick up trash; in Athens, Greeks toss it. Germans do not honk; Italians do not not honk. In Libya or Egypt the pedestrian is a target; in Switzerland he is considered perhaps your father or grandmother. A bathroom in Germany is where someone else uses it after you; in Greece or Mexico, it is where you pass on the distaste of using the facility to the sucker who follows you.

I watch fender benders a lot. In northern Europe, addresses and information are exchanged; south of Milan, shouts and empty threats of mayhem follow. When I check out of a German hotel, I know the bill reflects what I bought or used; when I check out of a Greek hotel, I dread all the nonexistent charges to appear, and a “50/50 split the difference” settlement to be offered. Germans like to talk in the abstract and theoretical; with Greeks it is always “egô” in the therapeutic mode. I rent a car in Athens and expect charges for “dents” to appear; in Germany, there are such charges only if there are actual dents. Add all that up — and millions more of such discrepancies repeated millions of times over each hour — and you have one country that creates vast wealth and another that cons to land vast wealth it did not create.

Ah, you say, silly Hanson, Germanic order leads to the symmetrical barracks at Dachau, while “isôs avrio” Greece leads to live and let live. Perhaps, but if true, that paradox is yet an additional reason to work with rather than caricature and shake down Germany.

A final thought as I take in the inexplicable last seventy years along the Rhine. Where is America in all this? Ours was a noble experiment that would take the European legacy, Western civilization, and British law and implant it all in a frontier without the baggage of aristocratic hierarchy, stratified social classes, racial homogeneity, and pernicious doctrinaire ideologies. Instead, we would let the individual loose within the larger contours of the European heritage of government, law, economics, and human freedom.

It worked, and spectacularly so. Without an America there would today be no French Alsace, no German miracle (only a Hitlerian nightmare or a Soviet ghetto). In fact, over the last forty years America worked so well that our academic utopians glimpsed radical equality for all, and then — human nature being human nature, and individual difference being individual difference — did not quite achieve it, Great Society and all. The result was that in their failure they cursed the sins of man as if they were uniquely American — as racist, colonialist, imperialist, homophobic, sexist — even as they wallowed in the material prosperity that comes with free market economics, the rule of law, and political transparency.

So here we are in the age of Obama, as we talk about looking to Asia, redirecting to South America, wanting our own Arab Spring, praising the New Africa — all the while taking for granted the very European traditions that enrich us in our daily lives, which in the abstract we deprecate.

This week I am walking in German cities along the Rhine that were nearly leveled in 1945. Not long ago I visited Detroit, which was booming in 1945. The latter now looks like its own homegrown B-24s bombed it yesterday, the former as if they had been untouched in the war that Germans started. Ponder those interchanged fates, and why and how these respective American and German cities got to where they were in 1945, and then again to where they are now.

And that answer really is all ye need to know.

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