Most journalists want people to like them. If you’re on the left, that’s not a problem, because most of your colleagues think like you do. Then you are quickly alone.
The great American conservative William F. Buckley was once asked why he wrote so much. His answer was because he was afraid that the other side would write more. For me, the sentence sums up perfectly what makes the US conservative: he is aggressive, rebellious and never at a loss for a punch line.
How do I get it? I recently had contact with Ben Shapiro. Shapiro is something of the enfant terrible of the American political scene. Already a columnist by the age of 17, a degree in political science by the age of 20, and then a law degree from Harvard Law School by the age of 23, with honors, of course.
I’ve lost count of how many books he’s published now. I think the number is 15. His latest book has just been published in German (“The Authoritarian Moment”), a reckoning, how could it be otherwise, with the milieu from which he comes. Shapiro is entirely a child of academia. He knows all the language codes and sensitivities that determine life at the university today. But he drew very different conclusions from it than his fellow students. That’s what makes him so interesting.
There are a number of things that make us different. I’m definitely missing the existentialist view that always comes at the expense of cheerfulness. I don’t see myself surrounded by enemies either. But if there’s one thing I like, it’s the boldness with which someone like Shapiro performs. I wish we had more people in Germany who didn’t think about every sentence and see if anyone could take offense at it. Less fear, more courage: that would do us all good.
The German conservative is defensively tuned. In principle he believes in progress, he doesn’t want to be seen as a curmudgeon. But his worldview is decidedly melancholic. In his sentences you can feel the effort for self-assurance, the need to tell yourself and the readers that you are on the right side after all. Because the situation is always serious, any arrogance seems out of place. Exaggeration, ridicule, polemics: In his view, this is only necessary for people who do not have the better argument on their side.
The American conservative is made of different stuff. He wants to dish out, not defend. His goal is to gain ground on the terrain of the battle of opinions instead of preserving what has been achieved. That is why he takes every podium that is offered to him. An invitation to a riot show on CNN or Fox News? But sure, if it’s for visibility! If a sentence goes wrong: So be it. A certain dubiousness is the price of popularity. Those who take themselves too seriously are usually unable to reach the masses.
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Most journalists I know want people to like them. If you’re politically left-leaning, that’s not a fundamental problem, because most of the people you meet see the world the same way you do. However, if you’re not a decidedly left-wing columnist, you’ll find yourself pretty much alone pretty quickly.
The tragedy of conservative writers, if you will, is that they live in a world where the overwhelming majority disagrees. In the media and in culture there are practically only people who are on the left and let everyone know that.
Of course, there are plenty of people out there who don’t think Winnetou is a racist figure, or Layla a song that needs to be banned. If it were otherwise, the Greens would not have to worry about ever moving into the chancellor’s office. But city dwellers rarely set foot in this normal Germany. It’s virtually non-existent at the stand-up receptions and dinner parties where the ruling classes stand together.
The home of the conservative is the provinces, those small and medium-sized towns where the majority of citizens live. Anyone who opens one of the country’s leading newspapers must get the impression that the average German populates one of the inner-city locations with waxed floorboards in old buildings, where the majority of them naturally choose green.
The truth is: Only 17 percent of Germans live in cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants, which may explain why the Chancellor is called Olaf Scholz and not Annalena Baerbock. The Bible Belt is places like Tuttlingen or Oggersheim, the world derided as the home of the lower middle class, where cups with the inscription “I’m at work, not on the run” are standing at the workplace and where flowers are given on Mother’s Day and you will not find anything reprehensible in curtains and crocheted doilies.
My impression is that the world as it is portrayed in the media and the world that a majority still call home are becoming ever further apart. As a sociologist, one would speak of a representation gap. This also applies to the political personnel. A man like Helmut Kohl, who embodied normal Germany as a matter of course, would be completely unthinkable today. To this day, what he stood for is much more influential on the country than many people think.
People like Shapiro are also so incredibly successful because they throw themselves into a fight with verve that others have long given up as lost. The new left-wing orthodoxy could already have reached its peak, is the thesis in “Authoritarian Terror”, as the German title of his most recent book is called. When the majority is fed up with letting a shrieking minority dictate the rules of coexistence, the rule is quickly over.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that if you’re not careful, people will step into the gap, and it’s best not to leave the fortunes to them.
It happened quicker than you think. I lived in New York for four years. During that time, I hardly met anyone who volunteered to have voted for the Republicans. Even Donald Trump was still a Democrat when I moved to America in 2001.
Who knows, if the New York elite hadn’t shown their contempt so plainly, he might never have thought to avenge himself by becoming President. But even then he was just the orange-faced monster to them, a figure of derision who was ridiculed for his penchant for Eastern European beauty queens as well as for the fake gold in his Trump Tower.
One could have seen that there were more people roaming Trump’s Talmi Palace in admiration than critics poking fun at the bad taste. But since nobody respectable in New York ever set foot in Trump Tower, it went unnoticed.
That’s the problem when the pendulum swings back: as far as it’s gone one way, it sometimes goes the other.
• Read all of Jan Fleischhauer’s columns here.
The readers love him or hate him, Jan Fleischhauer is indifferent to the least. You only have to look at the comments on his columns to get an idea of how much people are moved by what he writes. He was at SPIEGEL for 30 years, and at the beginning of August 2019 he switched to FOCUS as a columnist.
Fleischhauer himself sees his task as giving voice to a world view that he believes is underrepresented in the German media. So when in doubt, against the herd instinct, commonplaces and stereotypes. His texts are always amusing – perhaps it is this fact that provokes his opponents the most.
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