Sunday, June 5, 2011
by Werner Krauss
Why do newspapers or journals such as The Daily Telegraph, Die Zeit or the New York Times write about the German national character when commenting on Merkel's decision for a nuclear phase out? What role do these mostly embarrassingly stupid stereotypes play in the discussion about energy supply? This makes me really wonder. German angst; Germany, the land of great poets and thinkers; German irrationalism; German organization etc etc - what is this all about?
Here my explanation: the debate about nuclear energy is highly emotional. There are excellent and reliable science & technology experts on both sides, pro and con. There is the question of the future (of economy, of markets, of resources, of values, of technologies etc), which is unknown. There is the question of global warming and CO2 emission, again highly emotional. There is a troubled history of 40 years struggle about nuclear energy in Germany (see the picture above) etc. In short, there is both an abundance and a shortage of good arguments - again, on both sides.
This is where "nation" as an argument comes in. It leaves the football stadium and enters the public arena. Journalists and experts on both sides of the nuclear energy debate transform themselves into rhetorical hooligans, while still pretending to be "scientific", to argue "technical" or "in the name of reason". They use either negative (angst, irrationalism, romanticism, forest etc ) or positive (thinkers and poets, adventurous, industrious, engineering etc) stereotypes of an imagined "national character" in order to support their arguments. As we know from scholars such as Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, nations are "imagined communities" , which in turn are based on "invented traditions". Nations do not have "characters"; character is something ascribed to them. Consequently, we first have to keep an eye on those who speak about national characteristics, before taking the ascribed characteristics at face value.
Once in the nationalistic mood, there are no limits to sarcasm, polemics, and Schadenfreude. Many of the arguments in the newspapers, journals and comments in the blogosphere give ample proof of this. Determinisms flourish in this atmosphere: Germans are just like this or that, and consequently they do this and that.... There are no limits in misusing this powerful source. From Benedict Anderson's seminal book "Imagined communities" we know, that "nation" is the most powerful source to agitate people; to include and exclude people; to make people even willing to die for their nation! That's why the pro-nuclear expert suddenly talks about the "German angst" when he runs out of arguments, or the anti-nuclear guy remembers the power of engineering qualities in Germany. Once infected by the nationalistic virus, nobody seems to remember that Germany is a democracy, and that energy supply is of course subject to political decisions. As is the nuclear phase out: yes, it is a political decision in a highly democratic country. Is it too much to ask to assume that Germans are not slaves to an obscure national DNA? Just read the names of the German national soccer team and think about it once more...
But even worse, the arguments on German's national character are even enforced by other seemingly "objective" criteria such as "technology", "progress" or "markets" - do they all really want to substitute politics by these empty phrases? Some even come up with a new carbon emission determinism -as if national, natural and biological determinisms hadn't caused enough damage in Germany!
Okay, I hope you get the idea. I want to suggest that "nation" is not a valid argument. Quite the contrary, to go back to national stereotypes in order to win an argument in the energy debate is simply embarrassing. On the other hand, it is so difficult to avoid. Because we live in nations, and we live in nations that are mostly fueled by fossil and nuclear energy. Debates about our energy futures will affect the very condition of our existence. But anyway, German history shows that we should take care with misusing "nation" as cheap excuse for having run out of arguments.