Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Romance of Self-Defeating Behavior

If you ever wanted to see a good case study for people zealously and happily pursuing self-destructive courses of action, I got one for you. No, I'm not talking about the mating habits of Hollywood stars of the voting habits of conservative America. I'm talking, of course, about Germans.

I recently sat down to a cup of coffee with a respected and highly intelligent professor and he lit up a cigarette with the words, "I am one of the last of the valiant ones." He was referring to the increasing trend in Germany to ban or frown upon smoking. The professor was being ironic, of course, but at the same time there was a bit of truth in it. I remember well those kinds of comments in Germany in the 90's, when America started banning smoking in public places and Germans loved talking about how silly and Puritanical that is.

Then the rest of Europe also realized that smoking is a major health hazard and began banning it, too. Only Germany held out. Now, not smoking is becoming the trend and fewer and fewer Germans are romanticizing it.

But there is still an underlying feeling that smoking is morally correct and shows character (the smoker is not killing himself, he is staying true to his principles in spite of the peer pressure); that not smoking is somehow following a trend and non-smokers are not trying to live healthily, they are conforming to the masses.
You can find that same instinct in America too, of course, but somehow it seems to typically German to me. Germans see depth of character in things that are old – traditions, bygone culture and out of date technology – and superficiality in everything new.

Maybe that's the real reason why Germany is the last country in Europe (anyway I think it's the last country) to refuse to ban smoking in public places. While my first heimat Hawaii just implemented the most modern and most encompassing smoking bans in the world, my second heimat Germany refuses to leave the eighties, when smoking was cool.

That might also explain why Germans refuse to institute speed limits on the autobahn. Some people say it's the strong cigarette and car lobbies that keep change from happening, and it's true that industry lobbies are probably even stronger in Germany than they are in America, but if the voters really wanted safe autobahns and less cancer risk, they would let their politicians know.

The truth is, Germans are die-hard romantics. They romanticize non-conformity so much, it's a wonder they even made it into the modern age. Back in the Middle Ages it took them centuries to adopt paved roads and coin money. They eventually adopted indoor plumbing, but I can just imagine guys sitting around muttering, "Ja, we caved in and got a toilet, but a real man goes out behind the shed."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

After having lived three years in England, I know we can be pretty proud of our plumbing in Germany today. English plumbing is even worse than English food.

H.