Man Without Qualities

Sunday, September 22, 2002

Uber die Dummheit [Wieder, Mehr]

Associated Press is calling the German election for the Social Democrats.

German voters opt for de facto support of Saddam Hussein and a reduced chance of urgently needed economic reform. In particular, the smaller-government Free Democrats will be excluded from power entirely (of course, the antics of Juergen Moellemann show the dark side of even that party).

UPDATE: One gets the feeling that German elites have talked themselves into thinking that wide sweeping reforms are simply impermissible. The reasons are cultural. Individualistic Americans see government as "Uncle Sam"; the collectivist-oriented Germans, as "Vater Staat," or the paternal state. They are historical. Remember hyperinflation in the 1920s, if you wonder why Germans are risk-averse. Or the lethal fragmentation of Weimar, if you need to ask why Germans adore consensus and things like "Mitbestimmung" or co-determination, which allows unions a powerful voice in the ways companies are run. There's even the German character if you're reaching for an excuse. The poet Hoelderlin once mused about his fellow countrymen: "tatenarm und gedankenvoll" -- weak in deeds, but rich in thought. In the end, though, these excuses are mostly rubbish.

Wacky German "kulture," in the context of modern history, was seen as competing and inconsistent with, "civilization" (i.e. responsible Democracy). This fight between "kulture" and "civilization" was a hallmark of German politics for decades. The whole mess is nicely outlined in Paul Johnson's wonderful book "Modern Times".

“Uber die Dummheit” (“On Stupidity” - included here), a lecture that Musil delivered in Vienna in 1937 - note the date - deserves special attention for its relevance to this election and the german cultural and political experience. "Anyone, these days, who would have the audacity to talk about stupidity would be running serious risks: such audacity may actually be interpreted as arrogance, or, in a nutshell, as an attempt aimed at upsetting the development of our age." Particularly relevant is Musil's analysis of “the higher, pretentious form of stupidity” —the “real disease of culture,” in Musil’s opinion, which infiltrates even “the highest intellectual sphere” and has consequences throughout society. “The examples,” he dryly notes, “are pretty blatant.”

And they remain so today.

Parts of the essay sound as if they might have been taken from a Social Democrat strategy paper: "If stupidity did not resemble progress, talent, hope and improvement quite so perfectly, nobody would want to be stupid".

In particular, it looks like it's going to be a long, cold four years in US/German relations.

UPDATE: From a stock market's perspective, not every election contains real information. It seems this one did. But the real test will come in the near future.

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