There is that old cliché of travel: that it allows the traveller another perspective on the place left behind, the one he may or may not return to. With the rise of the internet and cable, an exterior, critical view of the American Empire is in some ways easier to get, even while American cultural exports from movies to McDonald's exert an unsettlingly unifying effect on the people and places one encounters over the seas.
Here in Berlin I have successfully avoided McDonald's, if not the movies, and more generally I've enjoyed a European distance from the homeland. One reason for this is simply that the news media — print, radio, and television — are far better in Germany than in the United States, though here too the newspapers are facing extremely hard times, and questions of concentration and monopoly are increasingly resolved in favor of the media magnates.
It does gratify the expatriate heart to see George Bush on the front page of the Tagesspiegel, Berlin's leading daily newspaper, holding a baked turkey on a platter in front of some soldiers in Iraq. It gratifies the heart even more when the editors of the paper introduce into the photo an arrow pointed at the plastic fowl along with the text: "This is not a turkey."
The last time I paid the ridiculous $4.50 for a Sunday New York Timesthe front page had a photograph of a soldier on the deck of an aircraft carrier with his gold club at the height of its backswing, poised to come forward and drive a golfball into the Persian Gulf. I vowed never to buy the Gotham rag again.
The "Not a Turkey Photo" as against the images of Bush in fly-boy dress-up to be found so often in the Times encapsulates the internal and external views of the US imperium: proud watchdog of democracy versus appalling hypocrite.
Bush is an easy target, and so is the American news media. But just because they are easy targets doesn't mean they aren't worth shooting at. A recent television program aired here took as its premise the notion that since America was the world's single super-power with the most aggressive foreign policy, its citizens should be required to be the best informed on world affairs. The German reporter then went on to a devastating indictment of local news media — newspapers, but especially television — for their disgraceful avoidance of international issues. The reporter surveyed the news offerings of Richmond, Virginia, where German viewers were treated to the bizarre spectacle of American "television journalists" standing next to pot-holes and declaiming on the state of the local roadways. There were also those three-minute stories on the inspirational comeback of a collie with cancer recently treated at the New York Veterinary Hospital Oncology Clinic.
The German reporter penetrated the newsroom of America television stations and spoke with editors, who unashamedly told him that their viewers were not much interested in foreign news.
The reporter juxtaposed this infantile use of air-time against the much more expansive treatment of international issues to be seen on comparable German television stations, that is, in a country much less committed to the idea of foreign intervention. The German reporter's account was polemical, unobjective — and spot on.
For a similar vantage point, it will be interesting to follow the American presidential campaign from Berlin, the coverage of which kicked off in earnest today because of the Iowa caucuses. In this morning's paper I was treated to a trenchant analysis of the role of religion in the race; the piece included an account of Howard Dean's recent and clearly opportunistic mouthing of Christian sentiments as he gears up for the southern primaries.
I don't know if one can find this kind of journalism in major American newspapers today, but I would not be surprised by the irony of getting better, or at least more trenchant, coverage of the campaign from Berlin than from New York, Chicago, or even Ames, Iowa.
The obscure notion of a caucus elicited a morning question in the stairwell from my downstairs neighbor, Ulrich. The vast majority of Americans don't know what a caucus is — in Iowa or anywhere else — and they don't care much either. I wouldn't call myself particularly expert on the subject either. Nor am I sure how good my explanation of the Iowa business was, but at least I was somewhat better prepared mentally than the last time Ulrich tested my knowledge of the America political system.
In our first week in Berlin, the postman dropped off a package for us at Ulrich's apartment because we were not home. When I stopped by that evening to pick it up, Ulrich invited me in for a glass of wine. My German had been long dormant, so I welcomed the chance to exercise it under the encouraging influence of a dry Riesling. Ulrich was raised in East Germany and he knows no English, as only Russian was rammed down his throat in school.
But consider my shock when a few minutes into our drink Ulrich confronted me with the following question: "Was ist's denn mit diesen Wahlmaennern?" which translates as, "What's the deal with members of the Electoral College."
I could have probably answered this question better in Swahili than German, or even English for that matter. Nonetheless, I took a big drink from my wine and gamely plunged in.
An hour-and-a-half later Ulrich remained less than fully illuminated on the subject. Aside from the thicket I was trying to hack through, there was the fact that we were well through a second bottle of south German grape juice.
By way of providing some relief for my own beleaguered mental forces, I asked Ulrich why he was so interested in the American political system. He said that the idea that someone could become leader of a democratic country with fewer votes than his opponent was a strange one to him, as was the fact that so few American's actually voted in their own elections.
Ulrich went on to tell me about the single election he had voted on in East Germany. He had gone into a small room with a table and picked up the ballot paper on which were listed only candidates of the Socialist Party. Three observers, all employed by the secret police, were seated in the room, which had neither a booth with curtians nor a partition of any kind. The voter was supposed to fill out the ballot at a nearby table and then deposit the ballot in the box on the observer's table. Like all elections, this one was won by the leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, with upwards of 95% of the vote.
In full view of the observers, Ulrich took the pencil and and cancelled out every name on the list. Then he folded the ballot and went to the table and looked squarely at each of the observers before shoving the paper into the ballot-box.
Some months later, in 1987, two years before the Fall of the Wall, Ulrich was on a plane from Berlin to Budapest. By coincidence, the daughter of the Austrian ambassador was sitting next to him. She told him that the flight went on to Istanbul and that there was a 50/50 chance that no one would come on the plane to check for tickets or passports.
Uli stayed on the plane and no one came on to check his papers. He got off in Istanbul, where he stayed in detention for two weeks under suspicion of being a spy. After his release he made his way to West Germany.
When Ulrich went to look up his secret police file some years after the Fall of East Germany, he found a pro forma account of his defiant non-vote.
It was getting late and time for me to go back upstairs, so I thanked Ulrich for the wine, but most of all for telling me his story. I also apologized for getting him to tell it, since I imagined he had to tell it quite often.
He shrugged and said that he hadn't told the story in a decade.