December 5, 2007

National Security

My friend Birthe, who is German, recently asked me what I though was the biggest difference between Germans and Americans. I think she was expecting me to talk about how Germans won’t jaywalk or their obsession with sorting the trash or something, but really the biggest difference is much harder to pinpoint and much more central to the difference between German and American character. The difference is all about risk, how Americans embrace it and Germans avoid it at all costs.

For instance, it surprised me to learn that many of the people here in Würzburg were born in Würzburg, raised in Würzburg, went to the University of Würzburg, and will live and die all in Würzburg. I know that many Americans live their entire lives in the same town – many of my own family members do – but it is much more common, I think, for young people to leave their hometowns and go out and make their own ways in the world. Maybe they return to their old stomping grounds when they marry and settle down, but those years “away” are somehow central to their adult development, at least in th modern American mythology.

Take the American college experience, for instance. Somehow it’s not a real “college experience” unless it takes place far away from home. But very few German students go to University far from home. Most of them go to the nearest university and even live at home during their bachelor’s, their master’s, and even their PhD. Part of the reason is that in Germany “all universities are created equal,” or at least they try to be. Germany does not have the hierarchy of higher education that America does. There is no Harvard or Yale in Germany. All universities are funded by the State, and the State tries to make sure that they are equally endowed and equally respected, the thinking being that a kid from Sachsen-Anhalt shouldn’t have to go all the way to Baden-Würtemburg if she wants to get a good education. And this is necessary, in a way, because few Germans would take out loans to pay for their education. Here, taking on debt is a financial risk to be avoided at all costs, and so German parents pay for their children’s education out of pocket – all $1,000 a year – and many students live at home so as to avoid another rent payment.

Still, even after they’ve earned their degrees, few of them will move far from home, even for better opportunities. I’ve met several Germans, in fact, who even chose their professions, not based on their personal interests or passions, but based on the opportunities available in their hometowns. Kevin and I know a couple who are working toward their PhDs in Physics, but who plan on abandoning the discipline after graduation, because they plan to live in Bonn, where they are both from, and there are no faculty positions in Physics at the University of Bonn.

This is much more common that one might think. I was never so surprised as one day, when Birthe approached me with a question that was giving her a lot of trouble. She was assigned to write an “advice column” for her English class in response to one “Torn in Thüringen.” “Torn” wrote that she had just been offered her “dream job.” It would provide her with professional advance, creative satisfaction, and “double the salary.” The problem: She would have to relocate two hours away, leave her friends and attempt a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend, and even sell her apartment.

Well, after suffering through the vagaries of the German housing market I can understand her hesitation about finding a new home, but come on! I can’t imagine a single person who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity for the job of their dreams at double the salary. After all, you can make new friends, keep your old ones, and a move is the perfect opportunity for your boyfriend to finally pop the question, and if not, then he wasn’t the right one for you anyway. That is would be the American attitude to this conundrum, I think. But Birthe’s question was not whether or not the woman should accept the job. She should not accept it – selbstverstandlich. Her question was which verb form she should use in replying to the letter – formal or casual.

To me, all of these situations seem to point toward an almost pathological aversion to risk, an aversion that reaches well beyond the professional realm and into the personal as well. I know a German man who works as an editor. He hates his job. He is overworked and underpaid. He doesn’t have time to spend with his family, and yet he would never look for a new job or switch careers. He’s been with the same firm since he graduated from college. A change would be to Fremd – too strange, too risky.

I know another German man at the university here who has never traveled outside of the Bundesland he was born in. Recently, his colleagues made fun of him for his parochialism, and so he decided it was time to have an adventure and see some more of the world. He’s taking a trip to Vienna next week – just 24-hours, there and back. Anything more might be to stressful, too risky.

I know yet another German man at the university here (perhaps it’s a male thing?), who has dated the same girl for the past 12 years, since high school, actually. I have nothing against “high school sweethearts.” I think it’s kind of sweet, actually, that someone could maintain a relationship through one’s tumultuous teens and twenties. But after 12 years, the boy still doesn’t know if he wants to marry the girl! Furthermore, he’s a catch. He’s incredibly attractive, in great shape, super smart, and charming to boot. And the girl? Well, I hate to be shallow, but she’s none of these things. She also has a pack-a-day smoking habit and the dental hygiene to prove it. In short, the boy could do much better, and everyone thinks so, but he would never try, because that might be too risky.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. My friend Birthe is actually terribly adventurous. She went to Texas as an exchange student in high school and wants to move to England or maybe New Zealand and be a teacher after she graduates. Our friends, the Fakhers, lived in Tokyo and Santa Barbara before settling down here in Würzburg. My own German teacher has lived in the United States, Sweden and Korea, and now that she’s retired, she just picked up and moved to China because she though it would be “ein Abenteuer,” an adventure. There are always exceptions, but I would stress that they are exactly that – exceptions. Most people in Germany seem to live and die all in the same place, and to do everything thing their power to avoid risk, as well as adventure, from choosing careers to choosing life partners.

I don’t mean to make value judgments here. There are many lovely side effects to being so risk adverse and rooted in one place. People develop deep personal relationships and really care for their cities, and their cities profit as a result. Governments that avoid risk tend to refrain from disastrous foreign policy adventures and better protect the welfare of their citizens who are most “at risk.” The older I become and the further I travel from my own Arkansas roots, the more I appreciate this very sort of rooted-ness and sense of community.

On the other hand, when this sort of aversion to risk seeps into the very fabric of a culture, I think it can become very moribund and stifling. How can a society that is so averse to risk invent new technologies or create exciting art? Is it any wonder that right now, America produces the vast majority of the world’s movies, music, fashion and technology? Is it any wonder that brilliant students from all over the world come to study at MIT or Cal-Tech – exactly because they are so much better than all the other universities in the world? Sure, some of our risks prove to be foolhardy and dangerous, like the war in Iraq. And certainly, not every American can feel secure that their jobs will always be there, that their health insurance will always pay for the care they need. But sometimes our risks produce incredible results, like iPods and electricity.

Now, one could make the argument that iPods hardly make up for insufficient healthcare coverage. I’ll grant you that. But maybe it’s because I’m young, and maybe it’s because I haven’t yet felt the cold hard realities of someone faced with exposure to too much risk, but I love our adventurous culture. I love our avant-garde arts, our run-away stock markets. I love that in America, someone could drop out of Harvard, start his own company, revolutionize the way we do everything, make a fortune and then give it all away to fight AIDS and third-world poverty. And I suspect that as son as America becomes comfortable in its prosperity, as soon as it values its security over “what might be,” that America will become just as quietly content as Germany, and some other yearning young country – China, or India perhaps – will take over the mantel as the “center of the world.” And for now at least, I would always prefer to be at the center of it all, for all its risk.

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