No. Most Germans are reasonable and are motivated by goodwill toward others, at least in the way that most people everywhere are. But they live in an information bubble which spawns a further echo chamber of public commentary, so the mental world they live in is simply different from the one outside their borders. (I don’t know first-hand, but there may be a similar bubble enveloping the Netherlands, Finland and a few other countries.) Inside this bubble there is a steady stream of “news” whose common denominator is that slippery, corrupt Greeks are scheming to take advantage of Germans’ hard-earned wealth. This is something that every German now “knows”, part of the conventional wisdom that forms the bedrock for political analysis.
To really understand how this works you would have to be there. It’s not a matter of one or two biased news reports, but a steady stream of news, every day, in little snippets and major headlines, that reinforce the underlying message. Here I’ll present a small example that, multiplied by a hundred, gives a sense of what’s going on.
So have you heard the latest? In order to prop up his political support Tsipras has made public transportation free in Athens! Can you believe it? Here’s a country that’s bankrupt, that’s sucking in our money to stay afloat, that should be spending every spare penny on the poverty of its own citizens, and instead it’s the same old clientelism: hand out favors, buy a few votes. That’s how he bought those “no” votes in the referendum. We have to pay for transportation in Frankfurt and Hamburg! Why should they demand our money so that their people can have something we don’t have? Hasn’t it occurred to them that transportation and everything else has to be paid for, that people need to work and produce so that society can afford it? But I guess that’s how it is with those Greeks.
Now tell me: have you heard anything at all about free transportation in Greece? No? It was a big story in Germany, written up in all the major papers and discussed on radio and TV. Here, for instance, is Handelsblatt, the main business newspaper:
The state coffers are empty in Athens, hundreds of thousands of pensioners are waiting for their pensions, but Premier Alexis Tsipras wants to keep people happy before the referendum on Sunday. After Tsipras on Tuesday introduced a zero tariff for public transport operators in Athens, on Wednesday the Greeks got a 50 percent discount on all tickets of the national railway company OTE. The discount is allegedly designed to facilitate people taking part in the referendum on Sunday.
(Handelsblatt, July 1)In most of the world this was a non-story, unreported. One brief notice appeared in Straits Times, the respected English-language newspaper published in Singapore:
The Greek government has declared public transport free in Athens this week to ease difficulties created by the closure of the banks and a rush on petrol stations.Outside of Germany, Greece was scrambling to keep the economy going in the teeth of an intense liquidity crisis set off when the ECB froze its support of the country’s banking system. Germans however saw another shameful case of clientelism and corruption at the expense of hardworking taxpayers in the rest of Europe. Now imagine this being repeated every day for months and you get some idea of the different mental world Germans inhabit.
Greece's transportation minister, Christos Spirtzis, has announced that buses, trams, trolley-buses, and the Athens metro will not require fares until next week.
The offer is set to last until July 7, when in principle the banks will re-open.
(Straits Times, July 1)
(Incidentally, if I thought Tsipras was buying votes by giving Greeks benefits the country can’t afford, billing it to Europe, and then demanding that it all be wiped out in a future default, I’d be pretty angry too.)
If I’m sympathetic to the average German, it’s because, as an American, I’ve lived through the same thing. Replace “Greece” with “Saddam”, Iran, “the terrorists”, and so on, and you have plenty of information bubbles of our own. Remember the runup to the war in Iraq? Americans knew lots of things about Iraq’s connections to Al-Qaeda and its imminent threat to US security that made an invasion seem like a plausible solution. The fact that this looked like a collective mass hallucination from abroad had no effect on us. And Americans, despite their widespread support for military actions that can only be described as criminal, are not, for the most part, bad people. They want good things for themselves and others, and, given the information world they inhabited, their political views were not out of line.
Of course, information bubbles and the attitudes they lead to present a big problem. Wars of aggression are not OK, and neither are debtors prisons that lock up whole countries. To build a better world we will need to understand where the bubbles come from and how they can be perforated. Demonizing entire populations, however, is the wrong way to go.