(Old) Europeans seem to share a nearly universal and unshakable belief that the European press and media are more accurate, objective and offer a wider range of opinion than their American counterparts. With few exceptions, they believe that the press and media in the United States print nothing but propaganda and that opposing opinions are simply not allowed. Germans in particular seem prone to believe in an active conspiracy which disseminates propaganda directly from the president to the media.
The vast majority of the people who hold that belief read American papers rarely, if ever. The claim that criticism of the government is not allowed in the American press doesn't even pass the sniff test, and it's easy to make the case that there is far more diversity among the mainstream American press and media than on the continent (the UK has a very lively press, of course).
I've been talking politics with Europeans (assorted nationalities but mostly in Germany and Holland) for a very long time, and perhaps my most disheartening discussion ever was an attempt to compare the German and American press coverage of, and editorial commentary on, the war in Iraq. I've had similar discussions on numerous occasions, but none that were quite so brutal.
This was about a year ago during a class in a German Language school that I attend regularly to keep my language skills from going stale, and the other participants were two Spaniards, an Italian, a Ukranian and a German (the teacher). A Japanese student and a Catholic Priest from India were also present but didn't participate much at all (frankly, they pretty much sat there looking stunned once the discussion got rolling).
I barely managed to state my thesis (that the German press expresses a much narrower point-of-view than the American press) before I was denounced by the others in more-or-less a single voice. When I brought out my assortment of German and American articles, in which the entire range of opinion expressed in the German press fit neatly into about 25% of the American spectrum, things turned truly surreal.
Their first line of "attack" was to change the topic. Instead of addressing the relative diversity of opinion in the US & German press, they asserted that the opinions reported in both the German and American press (uniformly anti-war) were "universal" and therefore obviously correct. Anything that was expressed only in the American press was, by the same measure, obviously propaganda unworthy of consideration.
When I pointed out that they had essentially ceded the question of diversity, they simply denied that they were doing so without offering any counterargument whatsoever.
Not having any real way to deal with "proof by vigorous assertion," I tried a new angle and pulled out articles in both German and American newspapers making a claim the others didn't want to accept (IIRC, they documented the likelihood that France and Russia were motivated by oil money and that the US was probably not). Citing their earlier principle that arguments that appear in both places were universal and therefore unassailable, I asked if they were willing to reconsider their original belief.
Their response was another (off-topic) tirade which claimed that the existence of this (lone) "pro-American" article in a German newspaper clearly refuted all claims of any sort of bias at all in the German press.
One last try. Around this time a couple of Wolfowitz interviews were being widely and wildly misquoted in the German press. I had the full transcript of both interviews handy, and tried to show the full quotes in context, so the others could decide how fairly he had been quoted. They flatly refused to even look at the transcripts.
At this point it was clear to me that they were clinging to their collective world view so dearly that nothing which might threaten it could even be considered. The fact that they refused to look (rather than confidently reading the interview on the assumption that they could dismiss it) also told me that, deep in their heart-of-hearts, they all knew just how shaky the foundation actually was. I gave up.
Please note that none of these people were zealots. They were perfectly ordinary, reasonable-seeming people with whom I'd spent many a pleasant evening drinking beer and talking about less controversial things.
That's what made this whole thing so disheartening. I love Europe (and especially Germany) and this discussion lead me to fear, deeply, for the future.
The kind of unthinking, narrow-minded blindness that was on display and which seems to be so prevalent in Europe today is fertile ground for a demagogue. The consensus opinion in Europe is already blind enough to make Jacques Chirac look like a hero and violent enough to have claimed the life of Pym Fortuyn. With the European economy continuing to struggle and its prospects for improvement looking grim, it's only a matter of time until a more palatable "savior" than Jacques Chirac arrives. I fear that day.
The Pot and Kettle Convention Last night, Jimmy Carter took Bush to task for being a foreign policy disaster, so next I imagine we'll see Teddy Kennedy berating him for driving drunk.
:: Erik | 7/27/2004 02:09:00 PM | | ::
:: Monday, July 26, 2004 ::
Beware the malfunctioning automated (push?) poll
I just got a call from on automated poll on my mobile phone (?!), and it seems to have malfunctioned. Question 1 was Kerry or Bush. I selected Bush, and it then asked if I was voting for Kerry because I liked the Democratic platform or because I disliked Bush. I hung up the phone.
:: Erik | 7/26/2004 07:14:00 PM | | ::