Politics & Policy

Grim Tales

Want to get scared? Ignore what you see. Believe only what you read.

My late grandfather, Claude, distinguished combat veteran of the first World War and a man who could not say the word “France” without first saying “disgusting” or “ridiculous” or “gol-darn” or worse, felt about the press–such as it was in Kansas way back when–the way he felt about France. Once, fed up with a local newspaper, he abridged a half-hour fulmination on the idiocies of the midwestern media by simply picking up the rag, walking over to a window, looking out at a torrential downpour and muttering, “According to the paper, it’s partly cloudy.”

This was in the ’60s, when creating alternative realities was a chemical enterprise that would soon become a journalistic one. These days, disputing what any fool can plainly see is a sacred calling in the global press, but of course the Europeans do it with a special anti-American panache, fueled by the reelection of George W. Bush. The reality of another four years of Dubya has created in the media a demand for a parallel universe unlike any since a generation of shaggy noggins first nodded out to Surrealistic Pillow. Here are some headlines from a place called lost hope:

Americans Conflicted on 2nd Term

This, it probably goes without saying, is an International Herald Tribune pick-up from the New York Times, where no news is good news–and conversely all news is bad news, especially if the subject is Bush or Iraq. The idea here is as easy as 1-2-3, and it’s been noticed before by others: If the real world happens in a way you don’t like, 1. write the story that comforts you, then 2. make a poll to validate your comfort and then 3. extrapolate a more pleasing reality!

World fears new Bush era

World fears clowns, pit-bulls, and falling skies, too. The people who conducted the global poll before the U.S. election–reported in English here by Deutsche Welle, but trumpeted around the planet–showed Kerry the clear leader over Bush among people who cannot vote. Last week, they were back for a post-election recount, just to make sure they got it right. Sure enough, as the Guardian’s headline above makes plain, Bush really did lose, morally, anyway, and as a result, now we’re all losers too: “The survey also indicated for the first time that dislike of Mr Bush is translating into a dislike of Americans in general.” Not to mention Americans in uniform. Like the previous GlobalScan poll (want to participate in one? Here you go!), the European media loved this story: Here it is in Handelsblatt for the strudel crowd. The subtext of this is simple: If all you care about are stupid numbers, then, sure–Bush won. But as everyone in the media realizes, democracy has nothing to do with numbers. If what you really care about are ideas, the results are different, because, according to experts…

Democracy is dangerous

Leftwing Europeans know democracy is a crackpot notion because it figured prominently in George W. Bush’s inauguration address. Paleolithic Marxist Eric Hobsbawm helpfully explains democracy’s illusory qualities in (yet another) Guardian piece, this one borrowed from Le Monde Diplomatique. When Marxism had a shot, chaps like Hobsbawm were dreaming nightly of a single, global political model–theirs. Now that messy democracy is the planet’s political play, the idea that all people should rule their governments is suddenly ludicrous: “If gas stations, iPods, and computer geeks are the same worldwide, why not political institutions?” Indeed. Hear that, you computer geeks?

Torture in Iraq! Now more than ever!

That’s a paraphrase of a Le Monde headline, but unless you’ve spent the last year in an Iraqi jail getting the styling gel beat out of you, you’ve seen it before. It’s now accepted wisdom in Greater Vermont–and especially in the French and German parts of it–that in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers are keeping themselves busy killing civilians and torturing innocent British booksellers (that is, if this Guardian item resembles anything approaching the truth). Nothing turns reality on its head like huffing your own rhetoric. Use enough of it and you start hallucinating. For example, according to Belgium’s La Libre if you’re the formerly sane Ted Turner, Fox’s Rupert Murdoch is Hitler. And if you’re a George Soros’s favorite like Human Rights Watch, there’s a torturer behind the wheel of every passing Humvee.

Now, last time I was in this space, I made a crack about the “torture” that took place at Abu Ghraib, and my mailbox instantly filled with earnest e-mails wanting to know why I didn’t condemn torture. So here: I hate torture. I just don’t happen to buy the notion that torture is a routine policy of the U.S. government in Iraq or elsewhere. And I also don’t buy the notion that just because HRW reports it, it’s true. “Human Rights Watch reveals human rights abuse” is as compelling as “Greenpeace announces environmental crisis.” There are billions of dollars at stake in the crisis industry and millions of uh…what’s the polite word here? NPR listeners sending in their green. None of them is going to dig very deep when they read, “Greenpeace lauds environmental progress.”

As the BBC reports, this week Human Rights Watch has alleged Iraqi forces have been “systematically” doing nasty things to terrorists. This follows by a few days HRW’s effort to lobby against Alberto Gonzales, as reported by Le Nouvel Observateur, and a charge that bacon-packers are being abused in U.S. meat plants. Imagine if they were Iraqi bacon-packers! Look, if it’s proved that some American official is putting the government’s stamp of approval on actual torture–like, let’s say, the sort of thing Islamic fundamentalists do to their prisoners–then there’ll be hell to pay, no doubt. So far, that isn’t the case, and hysterically yelling “torture!” every day or so won’t make it so. It will take a Michael Moore movie to do that.

Auschwitz adds to U.S.-EU friction

This headline, on a Judy Dempsey item in the International Herald Tribune, is this week’s ultimate in bizarre, out-of-reality reporting. According to Dempsey, “the attendance of Vice President Dick Cheney is a bitter disappointment” to “prominent Poles”–who apparently represent the entire EU–because Cheney is not Bush. After all, writes Dempsey, “The Auschwitz ceremony will include President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Horst Köhler of Germany, President Jacques Chirac of France and President Moshe Katzav of Israel.” As evidence of how “Auschwitz adds to US-EU Friction,” Dempsey quotes “veteran intellectuals,” including MEP Bronislaw Geremek: “I would like to see the president of the United States attend the…Auschwitz commemoration.” Who wouldn’t? But why? Says Geremek, a historian, “[I]t should be said that the Holocaust helped to create the European Union. It was the answer to the totalitarian ideology created on European soil, such as Auschwitz.”

A digression: I admire Prof. Geremek. But it should not be said that the Holocaust helped to create the European Union. In fact, the European Union owes its provenance to Walther Funk and other architects of Hitler’s New Order, not to Auschwitz. Historian Mark Mazower, in Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, claims that the Funk plan “…bore more than a passing resemblance to the post-war Common Market. The ‘New Order’ beloved of the youthful technocrats at the Reich Ministry of Economics involved the economic integration of western Europe and the creation of a tariff-free zone.” Eugen Weber, writing a few years ago in The Atlantic (here, if you’re a subscriber), agrees: “The European Union, its attendant bureaucracy, even the euro, all appear to stem from the Berlin-Vichy collaboration.” To the extent that France did more than its share to fill the concentration camps for their partners, the Germans, and that their mutual hatred of Jews brought them both closer together, Geremek may have a point.

Of course, the real story about Bush, Poland, and the EU was not to be seen in the IHT. It was in Die Zeit, where Poland’s Wladyslaw Bartoszewski explained the reasons for Polish loyalty toward the US, and in Brussels, where, according to Handelsblatt, Polish representatives didn’t take very kindly to leftwing British and German efforts to spare German feelings by attempting to identify Auschwitz as a “Polish camp” in the official EU resolution commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation. The issue blossomed into a Brussels-sized furor, according to the EU Observer. Schroder had to call off his MEPs, who finally agreed to admit that “Nazis” had built the camps.

Meanwhile, Davids Medienkritik has collected a bunch of clips from the German press in which the Auschwitz-Abu Ghraib connection is finally explained. A sample, from TAZ: “The torture scandal of the US army in Abu Ghraib shows that sadism has a place in civilized nations, while Guantánamo Bay proves that the principle of the concentration camp…today is upheld with pride by the leading nation of the civilized world.”

Now there’s an artificial reality any German can uphold with pride.


Romancing the Stone: The mystification surrounding Bush’s upcoming voluntary mortification at the hands of Chirac and Schroder continues to grow. Writing in the IHT, John Vinocur observes Bush’s curious embrace of self-humiliation: “By spending time in Germany with Schroder in February during his trip to Europe, President George W. Bush is offering a sign of consideration that acknowledges both the likelihood of the chancellor’s being around for the long haul and more active German leadership in Europe.”

Whatever exists of an opposition in Germany is running, in a haphazard way, on what might not be described as a pro-American position, but at least the German conservatives are not surviving by promoting the widespread hatred of America, as Schroder has done. On his European fact-finding mission, Thomas Friedman did his reporting from “the Pony Club, a trendy bar/beauty parlor in East Berlin”–well, this is a Times columnist, remember. “There is nothing that the Europeans want to hear from Bush, there is nothing that they will listen to from Bush that will change their minds about him or the Iraq war or U.S. foreign policy,” Friedman writes in the IHT. “Bush is more widely and deeply disliked in Europe than any U.S. president in history.” Of course, that won’t stop Bush doing his best to prop up Gerhard. The theory apparently is that what Bush was able to do in Pennsylvania when he campaigned with Arlen Specter to defeat a conservative Republican will work for him in Germany. Maybe if Chirac comes up with a Title IX for French lady wrestlers, Bush will campaign for him, too.

Goodbye Lisbon. The Lisbon strategy for bringing the EU into competitive parity with the U.S. by 2010, has become as popular as Portuguese folk music, according to a round-up in Eursoc: “If business leaves the EU for friendlier states, it is unlikely to be lured back by the promise of even higher taxes to pay for workers languishing on welfare. As Europe’s population ages and the working population dwindles, companies will not be tempted to invest in economies which must dedicate ever higher proportions of GDP to pension schemes.”

Careful! That pipkin’s loaded! Binge drinking is a big problem in Britain. At closing time, drunkards empty out of the pubs, fill the gutters, fight in the streets, relieve themselves on shrubs and on each other, and break into people’s homes–with impunity, since the Labour government recently ruled that burglars should be protected from violence. The government’s proposal to stem the tide of closing-time drunks is to abolish closing times. The Daily Mail is furious, accusing the government of lunacy. According to the The Publican, a trade paper, landlords aren’t going to tolerate that kind of treatment by the press, so, as they edge their customers toward blind drunkenness, they’ll also be telling them not to read the Mail. Not while they drink. Not even while they drive. The Times’s patron saint of sanctimony, Simon Jenkins, is outraged at their outrage. “The alcohol lobby is Britain’s version of America’s gun lobby,” types Jenkins. That’s exactly the problem, of course.

Denis Boyles is author of the upcoming Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...


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