Although it’s not a topic I deal with often on this blog, politics play an important and often uncomfortable roll (think root canal) in my daily life in Germany. It’s a difficult time right now to be an American living in Europe, particularly during this presidential administration. And it’s not just the war in Iraq that divides us. It’s everything from foreign policy to economic policy, education to health care.
Hardly a week goes by in which I don’t feel called upon to “answer for” some policy of my country that makes my classmates, my teachers and the European community in general spitting-mad. And although I didn’t make the policy – Hell, most of the time, I’m completely against it – I still feel the need to try to explain where we’re coming lest these constituencies continue to think of America as a reckless, selfish, immature teenager at best, or at worst, an outright conniving super-villain, hell bent on world domination.
And so I do my best to explain policy that sometimes I don’t even understand, in a language I haven’t mastered, and I feel very acutely that I am falling far short. Even when the language is not a barrier, the politics are.
So how exactly do Americans and Europeans misunderstand each other? Oh, let me count the ways…
Take for instance, my recent class to a field trip to an “environmental outreach center” here in Würzburg. (The name alone should give you some insight into the local politics.) Now, having already suffered through an entire “Climate Change” month on the BBC World, I already knew that Europe doesn’t hold a very high opinion of American environmental policy. So, when the director of the center asked if there were any Americans in the audience, I hid my head in shame – and I also hid, literally, behind a display board on wind energy. Unfortunately, one of my fellow students pointed me out as being a real red-blooded American.
“Ah, eine echte Amerikanerin,” he began. “Can you please tell me, American, which country is the world’s worst polluter?”
Now, as I had actually watched the full month of climate change programming on the BBC, I knew that the correct answer was China, which just this year has overtaken the U.S. in carbon emissions. However, I guessed that “China” was not the answer he was looking for.
“I dunno,” I said, “Perhaps its America?”
“You are right!” he said triumphantly. (I wondered if I’d be getting a prize.) “The U.S. is the worst polluter in the world. However, they are also the world’s biggest producer of Ethanol, which is a very good thing.”
Actually, I’m up on my Ethanol research these days, and I happen to know that Ethanol is actually not such a very good thing, but I bit my lip. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, right?
“But the problem is,” he continued, “that in order to make their Ethanol, the Americans steal corn from the mouths of the starving Mexicans, and that, meine Damen und Herren, is a very bad thing.”
Wah?! I was dumbfounded, actually slack-jawed in disbelief. Not only did he have the gall to single me out for insult in front of my entire class, he truly believes these gross inaccuracies. Sadly, I was not witty enough, neither in German nor in English, to come up with a biting retort.
Such misunderstandings work both ways, though.
A few months ago, I was at a dinner party with a bunch of Germans – Germans who all spoke perfect English – when the conversation turned to the planned release from prison of members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. It case you’ve forgotten (or like me, weren’t even born yet), they were the left-wing militants who unleashed a series of attacks in West Germany in the ’70s on individuals they identified as tools of “capitalist oppression and U.S. imperialism.” At the end of their little “reign of terror” more than 30 people were dead – among them a bank president, but also numerous “secondary figures” like bodyguards and chauffeurs. Several people were convicted of planning and carrying out the attacks, and this year, after more than 20 years in prison, two of them were granted parole. This created a minor scandal here in Germany, as the criminals, both women, have expressed no remorse for the murders. But it wasn’t as much of a scandal as I would have thought.
Much to my surprise, the Germans at this dinner party were all in agreement that these unrepentant murderers should be released. “It’s high time they were let go,” said one guest. “It was such a small thing after all.”
“Yes, and they were practically children anyway,” said another.
“Yeah,” I replied, “Children who kill and don’t even say ‘I’m sorry.’”
“So, what?” said the first, “You think we should have executed them all, they way you do in America?”
This really got under my skin, as I have been anti-death penalty for about as long as I’ve been breathing. “No,” I said, “but this was premeditated murder carried out by adults. They’ve admitted they’re guilty, and yet, they’re not the least bit sorry what they’ve done. And so I think they’re still a threat to society and should stay in prison until they rot.”
Although I felt I expressed myself clearly this time (we were speaking in English after all), I wasn’t any better understood. At first they merely assumed I didn’t understand the full history. (I did.) And then they thought that I held such opinions because several of the victims were Americans. (I don’t.) Yet despite my clear political beliefs on the topic, and my firm command of the English language, we were at a complete impasse. Ultimately, I think they left that night thinking me some trigger-happy, bloodthirsty American conservative. (I’m not.) And I left thinking they were lily-livered, pinko communists, or whatever that tired old slur is.
Anyway, from now on I plan to take a page from my mother’s Southern Lady handbook, and I will refrain from discussing politics at school or at the dinner table – in any language. I just hope the Germans will grant me the same privilege.