Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh No!
Want to know why Europe has such a hard time getting up off its ass and doing something? I call Angst Non-Fiction. Europeans and especially Germans love to face the future shaking in their boots about all the horrible things that could happen, and they spend a lot of money and time on experts who specialize in thinking up new ways to confirm their fears. Angst Non-Fiction writers are like doomsayers, with the difference that while doomsayers in America traditionally stand on the street corner and bother you though you never asked them too, Angst Non-Fiction writers are well-paid, privileged, respected and sought out. More like soothsayers, they set up their shop with a crystal ball and people pay to come in and be told how horrible life is going to work out.
One of Germany's most successful writers of Angst Non-Fiction is Frank Schirrmacher, an editor for the leading German newsdaily FAZ. A couple of years ago, Schirrmacher landed two bestsellers, one after the other, predicting that Germans will soon die out. As in all western democracies, the German population too is dwindling and the demographics show that there will soon be a surplus of (non-working) old people and not enough (working) young people. "Soon" in this scenario means several hundred years. The last time a prediction for over a hundred years based on statistics came true was... oh, wait, as far as I know no prediction of what will happen in over a hundred years based on statistics as ever come true.
The last time a German statistician predicted – again, in two bestselling books – that the Germans were going to die out was in 1925. Those classics of German Angst Non-Fiction of course didn't come true (the clean prediction of hundreds of years of non-growth was interrupted by, among other things, two world wars) but they did contribute greatly to the fears that were fanned into a nationalistic frenzy by the Nazis and others. The writer of those books, Friederick Burgdorfer, had a great career in the Third Reich and was much supported by Hitler. In Germany, writing Angst Non-Fiction is one of the few forms of populistic writing that is not only lucrative, but highly respected by the ruling elite as well as by the bug-eyed public who adore the writers for seeing so clearly and unwaveringly into the doomed future. Reagan was said to have consulted an astrologist; German politician read Angst Non-Fiction.
Now that Schirrmacher has gotten rich on predicting the extermination of all Germanness by low birthrate, he has gone on to predicting the loss of all Germanness per Internet. As an editor of the FAZ, Schirrmacher is especially concerned that the Internet will son overtake newspapers in terms of information dissemination and make his job – gasp! – superfluous. He cannot imagine a world without powerful editors in newspaper offices telling people what to think. He has invented a particularly strange reasoning why newspapers are superior to the Internet – newspapers, he says, have a 24-hour delay in which writers have time to think things over and therefore write only the truth, whereas Internet dissemination has no time for Truth.
Or course, he is assuming that his main audience consists of non-journalists. You can’t tell a real journalist that newspapers hold the Truth without getting a laugh. Every journalist knows how limited their tools are in a 24-hour news cycle - they almost never get the chance to do any real research or question what they are being told. Certainly the German press, which is often regarded as generally lazy, cannot be counted on for hard-hitting investigative journalism. Not to mention that the difference between print and Internet news is not the time you get to write, it's the time it takes to print and distribute the stuff you write. The time spent writing and researching articles for the Internet or for print is about the same.
No matter: A good Angst Non-Fiction writer can make it all sound good. In fact, German readers are so well-trained to be afraid of the future and anything new in general that they will gladly swallow anything said about the future as long as it's expressed in negative terms. As soon as you say the future looks bright, German readers say: Hey, you can't fool me.