(By Ray D.)
Today's Germany is plagued by record-level, double-digit unemployment. Once an economic juggernaut and model, the nation has seen growth slow to a virtual halt. Once a paragon of fiscal responsibility, the nation's national debt has risen to record levels in repeated violation of EU standards. For the past several years, business after business has gone belly up. In wide segments of eastern Germany, unemployment hovers between 15 and 20% and a permanent underclass has formed that is increasingly marked by hopelessness and extremist tendencies. The bloated social welfare state and the convoluted tax code are both in urgent need of reform, yet the nation's leaders seem unwilling or unable to make those reforms in a timely manner.
You'd think that with so many domestic, economic problems, the German media would have plenty to report on. But get this: Germany's influential SPIEGEL ONLINE is currently running an enormous, four-part article on unemployment...in the United States!
And not only that, the article is featured as an exclusive piece at the very top of SPIEGEL ONLINE's homepage and has been prominently displayed for days now:
A Familiar Theme: "Amerikanische Verhältnisse"
The article focuses on the misery of unemployment in the North Carolina town of Kannapolis, which, according to the piece, was hard-hit by the closure of a major textile mill. We aren't going to analyze every line of this sixty-plus paragraph whopper, but the introduction pretty much sums up its tone and message:
"Unemployed in America: The Subjects of Kannapolis
By Alexander Osang
"Amerikanische Verhältnisse" is something like a scary ghost in the debate on the social system. The example of workers from a textile mill in North Carolina tells how it is to be an unemployed American.
Randall Keller has a lot of things on his mind that he could tell about, but not much of it would be appropriate for a wedding speech. His father is dying, his son is in the war and the factory that he worked for his entire life is being torn down. He hasn't bought himself a shirt for two years. Nobody would want to hear that at a wedding, not even at this one."
Truly depressing. It may well be that some of America's unemployed indeed face such a dire plight. But is Mr. Keller's story truly representative of America's unemployed? Is this an accurate representation of "Amerikanische Verhältnisse"? Or has the author chosen Mr. Keller and the town of Kannapolis as a conduit through which to reinforce political viewpoints and stereotypes popular with SPIEGEL ONLINE readers? Upon further examination of the piece it would seem that the latter is true. Take, for example, the following passages:
"The state only really plays a role in the social life of an American when he is old or crazy or ill - or a catastrophe happens, as it did a couple weeks ago in New Orleans. The state is something like the "cleaner". It comes at the last possible moment of urgent need and patches things up. Even the American social system itself was founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt after a crisis, the Great Depression. Other Presidents changed a few things here and there, mainly Reagan and Clinton, but it has really always kept its makeshift character. He who loses his job can receive unemployment money for 26 weeks, around nine million people are currently without a job.
Unemployment money varies depending on the state, it can be up to a maximum of half of the final salary and is paid out of the respective unemployment fund of each state. After 26 weeks there is nothing more. If things are really bad, like in Kannapolis, the phase in which there is unemployment money can be doubled and the states can borrow money from Washington. (...) In such a crisis even a land like America reaches for the tools of social democracy."
As a resident of the state of Maryland, in which the state covers health insurance costs for children who otherwise lack coverage, it is clear to me that Mr. Osang's assessment represents a massive oversimplification and is far from accurate. Yet his article is likely taken as gospel by far too many of its German readers. And of course, Osang cannot avoid the mandatory reference to the ultimate symbol of American societal decay:
"The "Jerry Springer Show" is playing on television. Two unbelievably fat black girls are fighting over a small, grinning boy. The audience is screaming. One of the girls pulls up her t-shirt and lets her breasts fall."
The Jerry Springer reference is extremely tiresome. So are the references to unions, Michael Moore and the Iraq war sprinkled throughout. Why? Because these references have reached a sort of critical mass in Germany. For years now they have been approached from the same angle time after time after time. They have become so worn-out and hackneyed that it seems a waste of time to even discuss them. What we should discuss is why they recur so often in German media...
Comfort: It's Still So Much Worse Over There...Really...It Is...Oh Yeah...
So here is the fundamental question: Why would a major German magazine prominently feature an article on American unemployment on its homepage at a time like this?
Clearly, there is a desire and need to provide readers with a sort of psychological massage. In other words, this article gives them the impression that while things in Germany may be quite bad, at least the situation is still much worse in the United States. Put another way, SPIEGEL ONLINE is providing emotional comfort and satisfaction in the perception that, as bad as things might be in Germany, the system (i.e. the German social-welfare state) is still superior to that of the Americans, a group whose more neo-liberal, laissez-faire approach to the world deeply threatens the left-leaning worldview of SPON readers. And this false sense of comfort is effectively delivered by articles like the one on Kannapolis that inaccurately present America as an uncaring, desolate social wasteland. Not surprisingly, it is far more emotionally satisfying to read about the perceived misery of others with an attitude of pseudo-superiority than it is to confront the misery of one's own nation.
Journalism the SPIEGEL Way: Stereotypes and Ideology Replace Reality
The photo that accompanies the Osang article really says it all. It fully embodies the long-held stereotypes many Germans hold of America as a land devoid of any sense of social charity and solidarity. The United States is presented as a land that leaves bent-over old men who have worked their entire lives to fend for themselves in an uncaring, Darwinian society.
And despite its length, Osang's work makes no real attempt to explain the true nature and complexity of the role played by the state in American society. It makes no real attempt to explain the multi-faceted, cross-jurisdictional aspects of social welfare systems on local, state and federal levels nor does it explore how they interact to provide services to citizens. It makes but a feeble attempt to describe the wide variations in benefits from state to state, only briefly glossing-over differences in unemployment benefits. It also largely fails to discuss the enormous role that private charities, institutions and organizations play in providing social services in America and how they cooperate with the state to provide programs, services and benefits. Instead, the article remains stuck in the anecdotal and focuses largely on a small, selective sliver of personal misery in one community with few real connections to the larger picture. And, unfortunately, that small sliver of misery is all SPIEGEL ONLINE really wants to show its readers.
Furthermore, Osang makes no mention of the fact that, despite 9-11, two wars, two hurricanes and rapidly rising oil prices, the US economy has maintained dynamic economic growth rates and has an unemployment level that is around half of the German unemployment rate in terms of percentages. The United States also has a lower percentage of long-term unemployed and continues to attract and provide jobs for millions of both legal and illegal immigrants. One has to ask: If America is really such a miserable place, how come so many people, including quite a few Germans, want to give up everything to move there?
Kannapolis Instead of Chemnitz
So let's not kid ourselves: Once again, SPIEGEL ONLINE has chosen the easy way out. Instead of running a large, four-part documentary on unemployment in a German city like Chemnitz, the magazine is running an emotionally-pleasing collection of stereotypes on Kannapolis, North Carolina. After all, why upset German readers with the reality that surrounds them when it is so much more enjoyable to wallow in the perceived misery of others...?
UPDATE: The unemployment rate in Cabarrus County, North Carolina (in which Kannapolis is located), is currently less than 5% and has dropped dramatically over the past two years. Today's Germany can only dream about unemployment levels that low. Looks like the people in Kannapolis are doing a little bit better than Mr. Osang and the cronies at SPIEGEL ONLINE would have us believe...
Update #2: This outstanding comment was left by one of our readers:
"One would like to believe that the German public is also beginning to find such articles "extremely tiresome." I do not, however, have the impression that this is the case. On the contrary, as the anti-American propaganda gets shriller and more outrageous the German public seems to clamour for even more of it.
This is not just a German phenomenon of course. Even a cursory look at a site like “Watching America” reveals the worldwide nature of the problem. These sorts of gratuitous attacks on America are global, relentless and, unfortunately, quite effective. That this nonsense has been so successful in Germany is, however, exceptionally disappointing. I grew up believing that Germany and America had built a special relationship after WWII, an impression that seemed to be confirmed when I first arrived in Germany in the mid-eighties. That this relationship could be so quickly and severely damaged by propaganda perpetrated by the German media and actively encouraged by the current German government has been a deep disappointment to me. I have little doubt that anti-Americanism played a significant role in the poor performance of the CDU in the latest German election – not that they didn’t try their best to lose outright.
Now I know that some people might counter that it is the actions of the current American administration that has led to the problem. Well, I have been living here for twenty years, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what any American administration has done during that time that should so anger the Germans. But I do know what I read, see and hear in the German news every day, and it is ugly, ugly, ugly.
It should be obvious to anyone with a lick of intelligence that it makes little sense for a German publication to run stories on the unemployed in some obscure American town when worse conditions exist in almost every German municipality, unless of course, the story actually has nothing to do with unemployment, but rather with demonizing one’s enemies. SPIEGEL doesn’t have a reason to do a story on unemployment in Chemitz, because Chemitz is not the enemy."
Note: "Amerikanische Verhältnisse" is a German term that means: conditions as in America. (Hattip Dan Kauffman, beimami)