Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

Why does the American press hate Angela?

Saturday, December 24th, 2011


Enough already! In their recent editions, both Newsweek and Bloomberg Businessweek are vilifying Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, for failing to solve the Euro crisis problem. The Newsweek article describes her in particularly unflattering terms, with not-so-subtle Aryan references (“the lady prefers blonds”), a Germanic over-preoccupation with rules and discipline, and an ill-advised focus on inflation rooted in the history of the Weimarer Republik. Bloomberg Businessweek’s article avoids WWII imagery, but similarly describes her as a cold-hearted incompetent leader, hopelessly stuck in a German paradigm of austerity and unable to grasp the new global economic realities.

I have been puzzled by this concentrated journalistic fire on the German chancellor in recent weeks. Why target her, when the euro crisis clearly did not originate with Germany, and when most country leaders are struggling with their response to the new economic challenge? At this stage, everybody is groping in the dark for a viable economic framework (the division of the US leaders on the virtues of tax reduction vs. stimulus spending constitutes exhibit A), so why zero in on Angela Merkel as particularly incompetent in this crowd of fumbling country leaders?

At the risk of inflaming the debate, these two articles seem to me to tap into both anti-German and anti-women-as-leaders sentiment. One way of hiding our own lack of answers is to find a common enemy, and what better enemy could there be than a German one, and a woman at that? The German thing is annoying because it reflects the continuing parochialism of some portion of the US electorate (witness Herman Cain displaying his utter insensitivity to global affairs in the infamous Uzbekistan interview) (link 4) and the willingness to mobilize against a common imaginary enemy, Germany in this most recent development (although China is the most common boogeyman, hello Donald Trump).

While the xenophobic overtone is annoying, I have particular trouble with the woman thing. I find it striking that both articles describe Angela Merkel as left-brained, analytical tendencies (the lady wrote her doctoral thesis on quantum chemistry) and highlight her lack of human warmth (“nobody really gets close to the chancellor”). What would we want Angela to be? A soft flower seeking men’s help in solving her government’s problems? A “don’t cry for me, Argentina” chancellor? Barack Obama is also predominantly left-brained, analytical and professorial, and arguably struggles with generating empathy among his electorate, yet this is not the stuff of magazine covers.

I am particularly troubled by the implicit reference to the lack of femininity of Mrs. Merkel. The unflattering pictures in both articles imply a “she’s not really a woman as we think of women” imagery, which is disturbingly sexist. There have occasionally been unflattering pictures of male leaders in magazines in the past (most recently Mitt Romney on the cover of Time Magazine), but they have not had the same gender-specific quality. Unlike many countries of the world, the US still hasn’t had a woman as its leader (Hillary Clinton came close in her 2008 presidential bid, and she generated some of the same anti-woman sentiment), so we may have to wait until then to see this ugly feature of anti-women-as-leaders sentiment finally fade away.

Winter in Berlin

Monday, March 1st, 2010

As a child of the Cold War, I have a special place in my heart for Berlin. For the first 35 years of my life, the only images of Berlin I carried were the decadent pictures of Marlene Dietrich’s Blue Angel, the ominous display of the 1936 Olympics, black-and-white television pictures of the wall, and drab East German buildings under Communism. Since my parents were both high school teachers of German, there were lots of discussions of Germany at home, but the stories always pertained to the Federal Republic of Germany in the West, never to the German Democratic Republic in the East.

One day, we received a letter from a young East German boy who wanted to have a pen pal in the West. I am not sure how his letter got to us, perhaps through the high school where my parents taught, but my parents got the relationship going. About two years into the process, they decided to send the boy a small present – a simple scarf bought at our local department store – only to find out that the East German authorities required a “disinfection certificate.” My father was so incensed that, probably in the only act of duplicity in his entire life, he created a fake French disinfection certificate and sent it with the scarf. Our pen relationship stopped abruptly – probably because our pen pal got tired of writing – but we speculated that maybe the Stasi, the East German secret police, had figured out the certificate was fake and confiscated the scarf, which further reinforced the dark mystery of East Germany in my child’s mind.

Since the fall of the Wall, I have been invited to go to Berlin on several occasions, and each trip has slowly helped erase the gloomy images of the city. A couple of weeks ago, I was there for a European co-creation workshop on agriculture at the invitation of a large chemical company. The city was appropriately cold, snowy and dark. I stayed at a modest hotel across from elevated train tracks from the city transit system in the so-called Downtown area (“Mitte”). This new city center is the former no-man’s-land between the two Germanys, a kind of compromise between the old West Berlin city center built around the posh Kurfürstendamm and the old East German city center at the Alexanderplatz.  When the taxi passed the old Checkpoint Charlie at dusk, it still felt like a John Le Carré book.

But Berlin is now full of life, with students and artists giving the city a unique cachet. The city is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, unbowed by its Nazi and Communist history. I keep promising myself I will one day find the time to visit the DDR Museum, which describes what living in East Germany was about (to exorcise my fears, if nothing else). The Holocaust Memorial, which lies only one block from the Brandenburg Gate – which saw many of the recent commemorative events of German reunification – is powerful testimony to the willingness of the new Germany to come to grips with its dark history. Against all reason, I have promised myself I will one day search to find out what happened to my pen pal after my father compromised him with an inappropriately disinfected scarf (although reason suggests he’s probably peacefully retired from a middle management career in a local government office). The workshop I was involved in was at the Kalkscheune, a giant loft for hip parties and punky Berliners. There was a delightfully incongruous quality to having conservative agricultural people meet there and deal with the clumsy staircase, the squeaky wooden floors, the oddly situated statues in the meeting rooms and the pictures of Amy Winehouse on the wall.

And when it comes to co-creation, it is hard not to think of the generosity of 63 million West Germans who took it upon themselves to reunite with their 16 million East German brethren, giving them in one fell swoop access to the rich resources of a powerful Western European democracy and taking on the cost of reunification without much hesitation. At a  time when democracy in the US is struggling with creating any kind of consensus, one might do worse than look at how Chancellor Helmut Kohl led his country into this giant act of German solidarity, single-handedly wiping out the wounds of several decades and bringing a fragmented country together.

Ich auch bin ein Berliner.