compulsory reading, German Politics, media, US Politics, USA

What does it take to publish in the NY Times?

Firstly, let me admit that I chose this entry’s title to avoid Brad DeLong’s (in)famous “Why does the NY Times publish such Dreck”. Secondly, let me answer the question: Apparently, at least sometimes, not too much, it seems to me.

Yesterday, William Safire, a Pulitzer Price winner, published a tale about Germany’s self-evident imperial ambitions in Europe, the usually spineless French, and a Chancellor, who “does not share the free speech values of the West”. Since I do value free speech, I would like to assert that, of course, Mr. Safire is, just as everyone else, entitled to whichever opinion he chooses to hold, be it stupid or intelligent, informed or ignorant. Likewise, he is obviously entitled to have it published it in whichever form he – or a publisher – sees fit.

However, quality becomes an issue when innocent, unwitting others rely on published opinion because they think the person actually does know a little about the stuff he is writing about. In his latest book, Stupid White Men, the American author and director Michael Moore – who is, in my opinion, in many respects just as stupid as the (other) white men to whom he dedicated the book (“Bowling For Columbine” is so much better!) – presented an interesting example of the problem I am talking about. In the chapter titled “Idiot Nation” he speculates that America’s

“… problem is isn’t just that [the] kids don’t know nothin’ but that the adults who pay their tuition are no better … What if we were to give a pop quiz to the commentators who cram our TVs and radios with all their nonstop nonsense.”

He then describes how a magazine columnist called Fred Barnes (who I suppose might be somewhat famous in the US) whined in a talk-show

“… about the sorry state of American education, blaming the teachers and their evil union for [the fact that] … ‘These kids don’t even know what The Iliad and The Odyssey are!”. But when Moore called Barnes the next day to find out what exactly The Iliad and The Odyssey are the only thing Barnes could reply was “Well, they’re… uh… you know… uh… okay, fine, you got me – I don’t know what they’re about. Happy now?” (all quotes from the English Penguin edition, page 91)

The quality of arguments becomes even more important if it should be true that, as more and more people seem to assume, serious public policy debates in the USA are confined to the pages of the “liberally biased” NY Times and the Washington Post these days (note to European readers: I always find the American use of “liberal” extremely confusing, it means something once represented by the “Whig” faction in Parliament, but is clearly different from the European (political) usage of the word, either with a small or a capital “l”.)

Thus, if it weren’t for the fact that Mr Safire’s essay has been published (and is #7 of the 25 most emailed NY Times articles) on the day on which Donald Rumsfeld stated that France and Germany have become “problems”, I would have had a good laugh, shaken my head in disbelief and then turned the page. There are clearly more important things to worry about than the demons haunting a seemingly notorious Kraut-basher.

I stated often enough that I don’t mind Kraut bashing. But Mr Safire’s column amounts at least to blatant misrepresentation, and possibly to worse.
After repeating that Schroeder won last September’s elections on an anti-American ticket, which is true to some extent, but mostly overstated in relation to the boost his campaign got from managing the floods in East Germany, he goes on to describe how Schroeder went to Paris last week in order to “rule the world” – the most stunning feature of the column. Germany allegedly

“offered Chirac an offer he could not refuse: to permanently assert Franco-German dominance over the 23 other nations of Continental Europe … The German design is apparently to saw off the Atlantic part of the Atlantic Alliance, separating Britain and the U.S. from a federal Europe dominated by Germany and France (with France destined to become the junior partner).”

Am I hallucinating or did I just read this for real?

Mr Safire is evidently referring to last week’s Franco-German proposal to create a double-headed European Union leadership by creating an government-elected President of the Council (“a Franco-German Czar“, according to Mr Safire – should he be referring to Dennis MacShane’s FT interview he should note that Mr MacShane was talking about a single elected commission president, when he warned of a new European “Kaiser“) and a parliament-elected and Council-approved President of the European Commission.

Entirely disregarding the vocal German opposition to the proposal which more than anything else displayed a rift between the chancellor, who is said to have favoured the French institutional propositions, and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who has always favoured a single, parliament-elected head for the EU, as well as the longstanding and well-known British position to oppose any institutional design but a single long-term elected President of the Council, Mr Safire continues – “In a stunning power play in Brussels, Germany and France moved to change the practice of having a rotating presidency of the European Council, which now gives smaller nations influence, to a system with a long-term president.” I won’t go into all the details or even seriously argue for reasons of time and space, but let me just tell you that his “argument” doesn’t end here.

This is probably the most ridiculous, blatant, and unashamed display of ignorance regarding the complex decision making process of the European Union I have ever read. Let me restate this: I hope it *is* simply a most ridiculous, blatant, and unashamed display of ignorance, because if it is not just that, the only possible alternative is malevolent propaganda.

But let me state one thing I read last year in a strategic US policy report on post cold war France by Steven Phillip Kramer. Clearly, the Franco-German post-WW2 alliance of “the bomb and the Bundesbank” had to readjust following the seismic shock which the German reunification signified. But even back in 1994, Mr Kramer warned US policy makers not to force Germany to decide between its two most prominent allies and friends, the US and France. Germany, he wrote, does not want to choose. But any American administration should know that, if once forced to decide between the two, Germany would opt for France, for an endless number of historical and geostrategic reasons. I am not sure yet, but maybe we are witnessing the making of this decision.

The last section of Mr. Safire’s essay is concerned with Schroeder’s judicial victoriey prohibiting the German press from reprinting last year’s allegation that he could dye his hair (hence the title of the column – Bad Herr Dye) or any story about marital problems without any proof. This injunction, he says, reminds him of “an unfortunate tradition of judicial deference to executive policies once demonstrated by German courts.” Now here, he must be kidding. How a serious journalist can actually allege that vain attempts to keep up a journalistic ethos are reminiscient of a fascist court system is beyond me. It must have something to do with the demons I invoked above.

The following paragraph is also startling – he restates the inadequacy of the current UN security council veto right system (since France has threatened to veto a second resolution on Iraq following next Monday’s presentation of the weapon inspectors’ current results) saying that

“… the idle French threat … reminds populous and powerful nations like India and Japan of the inequity of mid-sized France having the veto power, and of the need to prevent Germany from getting it.”

Sure, I guess there is hardly anyone in this world who would not agree that a system designed immediately after WW2 and designed to prevent the nuclear holocaust is not necessarily an institution representing today’s geostrategic reality. But as no veto power will ever voluntarily renounce to their veto if the UN structure is not entirely redesigned at the same time, I actually don’t wonder what Condi (Rice) would say to his proposal to let India and Japan (or Brasil, or Pakistan) in as well. I’m sure she would be thrilled by the idea…

In the end, Mr Safire offers at least some insight into his worldview –

The chancellor’s Pyrrhic victories are part of the backdrop to the existential crisis that the Security Council is bringing on itself. The Iraq issue is not war vs. peace. It is collective security vs. every nation for itself.” So if the Security Council is not willing to comply with the US proposal that is in itself proof enough the system is in an existencial crisis. Let me translate for you: only if the world does what America wants can a system of collective security work. Donny (Rumsfeld) will be proud of his words.

And why, exactly, is it that some – well meaning – Americans wonder why there are people in Europe who forget the risk the Iraq poses while oppposing the “Bush junta” (as John LeCarre formulated in the London Times last week). Clearly, Chirac and Schroeder are none of those. But there’s a real chance people might actually listen to what the US has today (and they do have something to say) if the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and William Safire actually learned how to talk.

I don’t know about Schroeder’s hair. But it seems to me, William Safire plays with a too hot straightening iron while writing his columns…