Saturday, September 10, 2011

Germany and US

Axel Boldt

I grew up in Germany, lived there for 26 years, then moved to the United States in 1992. First I was a graduate student and now I work as a college teacher [..]

A little-known and blatantly unjust feature of the US system is "redistricting", also called "gerrymandering". The country is divided into congressional districts, one for each member of the House of Parliament. The person who wins the most votes in a district gets the corresponding seat in the House. Every 10 years a census is carried out, and then the state governments go to work and redraw the congressional districts, purportedly to make them all the same size. The real reason is of course to keep the other party out of Congress: the census provides enough information to know where supporters of the other party live, and the new district boundaries are drawn so as to segregate all of them in as few districts as possible. This same game takes place every ten years, and it seems to outrage no one but me [..].

Even though US politics are located to the right of German politics, there is a very real sense in which Germany is more conservative. New technologies and new ways of doing things are embraced much more enthusiastically in the US. Even conservatives will often propose quite radical policy changes, such as throwing out the whole income tax system and replacing it with a national sales tax. On a whim, some states will introduce gay marriage and others will put a prohibition against it into the state constitution. Things appear to move much slower in Germany [..].

This is not the full story however. I am constantly amazed by the poor quality and backwardedness of many technologies routinely employed in the US. Sometimes I think that while Germans tend to tolerate outrageous prices without complaint, Americans tolerate substandard quality [..]

It's a common stereotype that American TV is unbelievably bad. And for the most part, it is. You don't get any international news, instead you see hyped up national and local news, invariably stressing violent or freak or feel-good incidents; politics is always presented in a black and white, emotional, and incredibly simplifying manner, then you have UFOs and "Unsolved Mysteries", and of course a fair amount of daytime talk shows with transgender prostitutes who recently had plastic surgery and are now sleeping with their sons, or whatever. This whole disaster is thankfully interrupted by screaming commercials every couple of minutes. I can't stomach it for longer than half an hour [..]

Again, there's another side to the story, which is not well-known outside of the US, maybe not even inside. It is public TV and radio. Financed mostly by donations and partly by the government (few ads), it provides exceptionally high quality programming, much better than anything I've seen on German public TV. For example, I saw an 8 hour documentary about the war against the native Americans, stretching out over four days, and a similar one about the civil rights movement [..]

It turns out that professors in the US are a lot freer than their German colleagues: for about four months of the year, they can do what they want, without any obligations of presence whatsoever. While Germany also has long semester vacations, professors still have to report to work every day (except for their regular vacation time). On the other hand, German professors usually have personal secretaries and post doctorial academic assistants, which most US professors lack. Professors in Germany are very highly regarded in the public opinion and accordingly full of themselves [..]

It seems to me that while the average American is much more health conscious than the average German, the average German is actually healthier. The first thing every visitor to the US notices is the immense number of astoundingly obese people. There is a huge obsession with fat-free foods, to the extent that people happily eat sweet desserts as long as they are fat-free. Americans seem to be eating constantly: in the car, at the movie theater, at work, while watching TV; more often than not, it is fast food or snacks [..]

There is a strange parallel between the relationships Canada/US and the Netherlands/Germany: the smaller brother looks at the bigger one and finds fault with much of what he sees, he then desperately tries to do everything better, succeeds remarkably well, but tragically, his efforts are completely ignored by the big brother and the rest of the world -- he is simply too small and unimportant [..]

From the outside, the USA look like a terribly violent and aggressive country. [..] Somewhat paradoxically, everyday life is a lot less aggressive in the US than it is in Germany. People are generally more polite and friendly. Phrases like "please", "thank you", "excuse me" and "you are welcome" are a lot more common in the US. It happens all the time that a nice girl that you have never met before smiles at you for no apparent reason. (In Germany, they do it only if they have a very good reason, which means that you're in business.) If you wait in line in an American supermarket, you don't have to constantly watch out for people who try to cut in in front of you [..] The American friendliness is fragile however and is mixed with a strange moralistic streak: if somebody does anything considered morally wrong, the normal sympathy and empathy is immediately and utterly withdrawn and replaced by heart-felt condemnation [..]

In Germany, if they see police, people often think something is wrong; in the U.S., if they see police, people usually feel safe (except for many blacks who may have had bad experiences with police before).

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