Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Freude und Sympathie (Mitleid schlagen?) für den Teufel

The bizarre, broad and so far mostly ineffectual efforts of much of the mainstream American media to twist the consequences of Hurricane Katrina into a anti-Bush diatribe are disgraceful, predictable and, for most people, fairly obvious. But American media efforts are nothing compared to some of the European treatments. Consider this revealing screed:

[J]oy and sympathy beat simultaneously in my chest. I am, for example, joyful at the moment that the latest hurricane catastrophe hasn't again hit some poor land, but instead the richest country in the world. Yes, I even see in that a form of balancing justice for that which the inhabitants of that country have done to others through their war in Iraq. I would, however, be even more happy, if I knew that only the houses of Bush voters and members of the Army had been destroyed
-- German journalist Philipp Mausshardt, writing on Hurricane Katrina in the left-wing Berlin newspaper Tageszeitung (a computer-generated translation of the full article is here).

Joy and sympathy presumably also beat simultaneously in Herr Mausshardt's chest when, for example, he sees that his neighbor's cat has been poisoned. After all, it might have been a third-world child instead of a rich german cat. Would it be rude to point out that if "joy and sympathy" really beat simultaneously in one's chest as the result of such things as a hurricane striking a country with a government with which one disagrees, or at the thought of a voter or soldier in that country perishing in such a storm, or at the sight of a neighbor's poisoned cat, then one is probably a psychopath? Perhaps there is a foothold for psychiatric treatment here, since Herr Mausshardt does at least allow that "Fun is not the correct word. Really not. One does not feel fun at the sight of corpses or destroyed houses." So "joy and sympathy" is OK, but "fun" goes too far. Thanks for sharing that, Philipp!

It is interesting to imagine what the reaction - inside and outside the US - would have been if a moderately prominent US columnist had written comparable things about the German floods that put Schroeder back in office in 2002. Such a columnist would likely have been sent to the same hinterland to which Pat Robertson found himself dispatched for advocating the assassination of Hugo Chavez ... until he recanted.

But at least so far Herr Mausshardt continues comfortable and unapologetic, clutched sweetly to the bosom of Germany's political left. And perhaps that makes more sense than at first might seem the case. A major characteristic of the "left" is its general and strong rejection of the aggregate welfare (or wealth) maximization so beloved by many classical and neo-classical economists as a particularly desirable social goal. The "left" generally prefers to concentrate on the distribution of wealth - not its aggregate maximization. If one is focused on wealth (or welfare) distribution, it makes perfect sense that an event that increases the equality of distribution - even an event that violently destroys much aggregate wealth, such as a hurricane in a wealthy country - might elicit "joy and sympathy." What Herr Mausshardt is expressing here is consistent with, perhaps compelled by, such a focus. On the other hand, one who is a "conservative" more focused on the importance of wealth (or welfare) maximization would generally and more naturally deplore any wealth-destroying event, regardless of the identity of the victims or whether one agrees with them or their government. This may help to explain why a relatively "conservative" nation like the United States is so often in the forefront of disaster relief efforts - including disasters taking the form of hurricanes striking countries with which it strongly disagrees like, say, Cuba. The irony, of course, is that those mostly concerned with "redistribution" - such as Herr Mausshardt - will naturally embrace some disasters, including some violent natural disasters. Herr Mausshardt may show more of his cards than most on the left, but he's not betraying some of his, and their, basic principles in this article.

POSTSCRIPT: It is worth keeping in mind that Herr Mausshardt is not a very prominent or significant columnist in Germany, and the Tageszeitung is a left-wing fringe paper. I am aware of no mainsteam or prominent German columnist or publication that has expressed sentiments as bizarre and extreme as those of Herr Mausshardt. A substantial minority of the German left may well be quietly harboring such sentiments, but most of such people recognize the unseemliness of exprssing such views in public. Herr Mausshardt gives voice to this silent minority. Touching.

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