The German Stereotype
There were lots of stories that left a lot unsaid. The Germany/EU debt imbroglio was one of them. The more Germany’s 80 million people were looked upon to bail out the 120 million of Mediterranean Europe—if not still more in France and Eastern Europe—the more in our politically-correct age we never quite were told how this could be possible.
Did Germans not sleep? Did they each have eight arms? Was Germany itself sitting on secret oil reserves? Did it have tons of stolen war gold horded in its vaults (as some Greeks alleged)? Had it harnessed a new type of energy? How strange to be told that Germany was the new heart of Europe but never to be to told how and why?
So how, in fact, did a humiliated Germany of 1919, a Germany after the ashes of 1945, and a Germany stung by a $2 trillion bite in absorbing a ruined East Germany in 1989, find itself—as Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand once feared in 1989—once more adjudicating the history of Europe? Were we terrified of stereotypes that were cruel to Germany (goose-stepping automatons were back again?) or that were cruel to southern Europeans (the Danes and Dutch were likewise solvent in comparison to the siesta-napping, and perennially shouting sunny Mediterraneans)?
Is there such a thing as national character or habit—both having nothing to do with race—in our postmodern age? In the 21st century, can we still say that Germans go to bed when Athenians go to dinner, or that they more likely consider tax cheating theft rather than ingenuity, or that they make things to work well rather than just make things to sell? Is it that when you go into a German bank you are served, and when you go into a Greek counterpart you witness an unending coffee break? Do tiny habits like your bus driver going down the aisle to collect trash versus throwing it out the window add up? When I see two Greek drivers scream and gesticulate at each other in Omonia Square over a tiny fender bender—as four lanes are shut down for their fifteen minutes of machismo — and, in contrast, watch two German drivers on Neuhauser straße in Munich exchange information, shake hands, and help push their dented cars off the road, does all that 1000 times a day also make a difference?
Is there a reason, aside from weather, why one would rather relax for a week in the Aegean than in Berlin, or retire on the Costa del Sol rather than in Bremen? For all the angry op-eds about the unraveling of the EU, no one quite walked us through exactly what Germans do each day that makes them different from other Europeans—although most who have visited Athens and Munich, or walked through Rome and Copenhagen, or sat in a café in Madrid and Frankfurt might be able to offer journalists some help. Of course, throughout 2011, I did read clever essays advising readers about how not to walk into this trap of believing in archaic and stereotyped notions like national character when some esoteric and almost unfathomable “real” cause (Thucydides’s aitia) far better explained the differences.
Iran: If Only …
Iran was another incomplete story this year. As the year ended, the Iranians were once again, in North Korean style, sounding off about their great navy closing the strait of Hormuz, attacking “foreigners” and all the other 1% probability nutcakery that responsible powers must nevertheless prepare for.
Oh, the efforts we go through to explain Iranian hatred of America, as we search endlessly for the “moderates” and remain puzzled over how in the world anyone could not like Barack Obama. Ad nauseam, we hear of 1953, Mossadeq, and the Shah—never that we originally found ourselves involved in Persia not for oil (cf. the British), but in World War II to supply communist Russia against the Germans, and then afterwards to ensure the Russians did not do to Iran what they had done to most of Eastern Europe. From 2007-2009, we heard from Obama about reset and dialogue with Iran, and “face-to-face” negotiations. And we got all that and much more.
Four or five “deadlines” for Iran to cease work on the bomb were ignored. Obama not only was silent when nearly a million protested in the streets of Teheran against the theocracy in spring 2009 (one of the great blunders in American diplomatic history), but he even tried to contextualize his silence with, of course, oblique references to Mossadeq who, like Allende, is forever frozen in leftist amber to be hung as a locket next to the heart. The last three years of reset with Iran had followed thirty years of hostage taking, Hezbollah’s murdering of Americans, subsidization of terrorists to attack Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, and various efforts worldwide to hamper U.S. interests.
Why do the Iranians do these things, year after year? To paraphrase Dirty Harry, “Because they like it.” And, of course, it pays. Take away the bomb threats, the terrorism, the hatred of the U.S., and Iran would be an oil-rich Turkey or a bigger version of Kuwait, in the way that Costa Rica is not Cuba or Laos is not in the news like North Korea. Influence, attention, the spotlight, fear, honor—these are not inconsiderable stimuli.
That fact does not mean we must be at war with Iran, but that the government in Teheran has similarities with other violently anti-American regimes in North Korea and Cuba that have long bitter histories with America, a deeply entrenched sense of victimization, and a wildly inflated notion of their own importance—and who all find “outreach” and “reset” a sort of weakness to be despised rather than magnanimity to be appreciated. In short, if Iran were to normalize relations and call off its endless religious war against the West, then hundreds of thousands of otherwise incompetent religious hacks, who are now wealthy and powerful at the helm of their police state, would have to go back to ranting and panting at mini-skirts from the mosque as they returned to the dole. Constant near war is what enriches them, and so why would they give that up for an empowered, free populace and a watchdog press?
Miles To Go
We are now into our twenty-third year of our long struggle with Iran—or around 1972 in Cold War chronology with the Soviets. I would imagine that we might well have another fifteen or twenty years to go before that rotten regime finally collapses. In short, the story of 2011 was, again, that the Iranian government hates us and always will until its own incompetence finally destroys even a huge oil exporting economy—about fifty years in normal dictatorship collapse time (e.g., 1979-2029).
Ah—Those Damn Records Again
There were lots of incomplete stories on the domestic front. From time to time, the media caricatured Rick Perry’s Texas A & M’s aggie Cs as proof that he was “dumb.” Recently Chris Matthews (but, of course) derided Mitt Romney’s privilege by comparison to Barack Obama, “who busted hump” to get into prestigious schools and Harvard Law. (“Busted hump” is now to follow “tingle” from out of Matthews’ creepy Freudian recesses?) Remember in 2008 that John McCain’s lackluster US Naval Academy transcript was supposed to offer proof that he was always an unserious and irascible sort. But the media never finish this silly go-all-the-way-back-to-college narrative by producing Obama’s straight As— to remind us how brilliant academic achievement has now continued with inspired White House leadership. Why is this?
First, the minor, peripheral reasons. The media were burned with the George Bush “dunce” stories of cheerleading at Yale—when it was revealed that both his SAT scores and GPA were as good or better than John Kerry’s. The media also believe that the Ivy League is a certifier, not an institution, of higher disinterested learning. The point is to get in somehow and get out any way possible stamped with the brand—not what you did in between (unless you are a nucular Bush). Most accept that if one is not in chemistry, engineering, math, etc., then one can coast in the humanities or social sciences in the Ivy League without a lot of work. Flunking out as a sociology or political science major at Yale or Stanford is a lot harder to do than flunking out with the same major at Ohio State or Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
Or is it that Obama was a straight-A student and is holding back on the release of his transcript for the right moment to embarrass critics, in the way he did the sudden “birther” Donald Trump? Are the hidden straight As a complex political IED that will blow up in the face of any who jump upon it? Not likely, but to be fair I had to raise the possibility.
All of which gets us to the real story that was never reported on:
1) Barack Obama simply does not expect to follow normal political customs and traditions because he knows the media do not expect him to: he will not release the transcripts because he does not have to and it is his pleasure not to, in the way he did not worry about explaining his near worship of his racist pastor of twenty years, or being the first to renounce public financing of presidential campaigns in the general election, or the first nominee in recent memory not to have released his medical records, or the first to have raised $1 billion dollars in private cash, or the first to have played 90 rounds of golf in his first three years in office. All of these may or may not be real issues, but they have always been real issues to the press and suddenly are no longer such—and Obama not only knows it, but enjoys knowing how the media exempts rather than audits him. Does a Chris Matthews understand just how much contempt Obama has for someone so sycophantic as himself?
2) The second reason may well be that Barack Obama really did not “bust hump” to get into Occidental, Columbia, or Harvard, but in fact coasted the entire time. In other words, the record does not reflect an A-/B+ student whom affirmative action consideration can boost into the Ivy League, but perhaps a C+/B- (or worse?) student whom even “diversity” usually cannot. That would prove embarrassing in the sense that the myth of Michael Beschloss “smartest president ever” might be endangered (remember, PJ readers, the media, not us, iconize long ago college grades). A lackluster academic record might as well bring up the entire topic of affirmative action in a way not heretofore discussed. Finally, a dismal transcript might offer perspective on the Obama method of rhetoric over achievement.
At some point the Republican nominee will produce his entire medical and college records and matter-of-factly expect Obama at last to do the same. Watch the hysteria that follows—for 24 hours. (Or would it be better for a Romney or Gingrich to say, “Of course, my medical and college records remain off-limits as is now the custom, and by the way, I will not be taking any federal campaign financing funds with all their bothersome attached strings”?)
What We Owe
But the big story of 2011 was debt, as in $16 trillion of it at home, a bankrupt European Union abroad, and a number of blue states—California, Illinois, New York— struggling under burdens of pensions, public employee salaries, entitlements, and the flight of higher income earners. There was a pattern here, right?
No one in the media connected those dots that Plato and Aristotle did long ago from their own observations of radical democracy: the “people” —hoi polloi, the dêmos, the ochlos, whatever—inevitably vote themselves entitlements that they cannot pay for and then in vain damn the shrinking number of those who can pay for them for a while longer—while questioning the entire premise of a system that allows some to have more than others. Under Obama we piled up a new $4 trillion in debt. The media was content to say that it was Bush’s fault, given that the latter did the same thing—but it left out two key “buts”: one, Obama did it in three years, not eight; and, two, Obama added to an $11 trillion existing debt, not a $7 trillion—a consideration in the modern age of interest.
The subtext of the Simpson-Bowles commission was not just that Obama picked a committee and then ignored its findings, but that even the recommendations of this responsible commission were too timid: under their suggestions, most of us would never see a balanced budget in our lifetimes (e.g., over the next twenty years). Dream up the most stringent austerity program that is politically viable, and it is far too little and too late. So we wait, hoping that near zero interest rates will allow us to borrow even more.
In short, every time we promised the Pakistanis more money, each time the president promised more unemployment insurance and food stamps, at every evocation of a new element of the Dream Act, at all the fury over the number of F-22s to be built, no one said, “Hmm, all on borrowed money.” (To be fair, Ron Paul said just that [but unfortunately a lot of other things as well]). The media simply did not tell the public that we have collectively taken out a huge adjustable rate mortgage to pay for our daily consumption, and that each day we are going to have to eliminate more expenditures to service the interest.
Why the silence? Are the numbers simply too staggering to get a handle on? Is the reality too depressing? Or is there a sense that as we reach the unsustainable $20 trillion at last “they” will cough up (gorge the beast to ensure higher taxation?), as deficit spending is not the end, but the means, to ensure full income redistribution? Or perhaps at some point, our technocrats will remind us that “they” who have raised the bar on the rest of us, the 1%, the corporate jet owners, and the millionaires and billionaires, already have money. So are we, the 99%, forced to pay interest to “them” (whether Americans or not) who don’t need it? In the manner of the Chrysler creditors, perhaps we can run through the list of holders of U.S. debt, and decide whom and whom not should be paid back.
The Ministries of Truth
As a general rule, when you watch a story on CBS, listen to NPR, or read the New York Times, assume that the news is prepped in such a way as to suggest the opposite of what really happened. As for German dominance—mercantilism, reactionary financial ideology, and cultural insensitivity over patterns of consumption and lifestyle should not reflect any larger truth other than in the game of capitalism some like a few German bankers put “success” at a higher premium than did others. Who is to say it is better to count money in the bank on a Friday afternoon than to enjoy an outdoor glass of wine and conversation?
Moderates in Iran are still struggling with the legacies of colonialism and U.S. imperialism and so on occasion lash out in ways that sober and judicious Westerners must contextualize as we slowly rebuild trust through dialogue and consultation on shared issues of concern.
Straight-A students do not rub in their genius by releasing their long ago and now irrelevant college transcripts that would only prove what we already know and bring needless humiliation to lesser folk; those who are fit and trim really do not have health “issues” in a way those over sixty-five do, and therefore properly spare us the boredom of learning what we already know. As for those who cling to these birth-certificate-like obsessions, they should confront honestly and openly their own fears and prejudices that prompt such conspiracy mongering about Obama.
As far as debt goes, money, like the speed limit or changing hair styles, is simply a construct, a “keeping track” system that is always fluid and so can be at times modulated and redefined by our custodians to reflect social and cultural justice, whether by debt restructuring, various “hair-cuts,” inflation, quantitative easing, or renegotiation. $5, $15, $25 trillion even are just the score-keeping of blinkered, emperors-with-no-clothes card players who pile up their winnings, oblivious that their chips at some point have to be cashed out—and by those who might just see them as little more than red, blue and white plastic.
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