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The 'New Statesman' on the German Opinion Corridor

The Swedish term for the Overton Window is the "opinion corridor" (åsiktskorridor). Germany has one too, well-described by this piece in the New Statesman from a year ago:

What is interesting about the AfD is what it tells us about the changes afoot in Germany. Its rise is a product of the constrained and elitist nature of German politics, in which – after the experience of Nazism – many subjects are declared to be outside the realm of political competition. All the mainstream parties are in favour of EU membership, the euro and the Atlantic alliance, and against war, inflation and nationalism.

What this leaves is a restricted political sphere where politicians have often been able to act against public opinion without fear of challenge – as in the decision to replace the popular Deutschmark with the strikingly unpopular euro in 1999. But those who dare to cross the threshold of political correctness tap in to a vast reservoir of pent-up popular frustration. And because the establishment cartel turns them into outcasts rather than arguing with their views, this reservoir continues to grow. A CSU minister recently told me that the German debate on refugees reminded him of the old East Germany, where there was a fundamental disconnection between what people thought and what they thought was acceptable to say in public. According to a recent poll, nearly half of all Germans are afraid to voice their opinion about the refugee crisis.

Leonard is not a right-winger, and the New Statesman is not a right-wing publication. But even Leonard finds German taboos childish and counter-productive. For an informed German-language critique, see this fine piece by Heribert Seifert in the NZZ.

I am tempted to say Leonard's comments show the typical divide between German and Anglo-American ideas about speech, but that's not quite right. America and England also have their taboos, they're just difference from the ones in Germany, or for that matter France.

The main difference, I think, is the structure of the press landscape. The line between topics that are considered proper for "tabloids" and the "respectable" broadsheet newspapers is enforced much more firmly in Germany. The same goes for tone. Every self-respecting English Bobo (f) obediently professes to despise -- despise!! -- the Daily Mail, whose lively, detail-rich, copiously-illustrated reporting should be a model for journalists everywhere. Yet you will often see the same topics covered by both the Daily Mail and the Guardian -- often in the form of the Guardian noticing and attacking something the Daily Mail wrote.

German respectable broadsheets, by contrast, simply pretend that German tabloids (and their readers) don't exist. They never mention them except to use their names as an insult, and scrupulously avoid topics (such as celebrity gossip, onerous EU regulations, or crimes by foreigners) which are associated with the tabloids. When they do address "tabloidy" topics they consciously choose a vague, euphemism-clogged manner of reporting which seems intended to put the reader to sleep.

Then, often as not, they quote some professor, all of whom understand the Bobo party line, and many of whom helped create it. The professor will then duly recite more euphemisms about "context", a "nuanced perspective" and "not jumping to conclusions". Often, what the prof says contains minor or even major distortions and distractions, but the reporter (even assuming he knows) doesn't care, since the point of the interview is not to spark a debate but rather to instruct right-thinking people which opinion they are expected to hold.

I call it Respectable Waffle, and Leonard's phrase "constrained and elitist" is a pretty good way of characterizing it.

This is why, in my experience, it is incredibly easy to flummox German Bobos who get their news only from the Respectable papers -- they are simply unaware of anything which isn't considered worth knowing by Die Zeit or the FAZ. They have never been exposed to thoughtful, informed challenges to the party line which Leonard describes, and therefore have no way to defend their views.