Conan O'Brien Inspects a Kotzbecken and Confronts Harald Schmidt's Producer

I stumbled on this 1997 Conan O'Brien segment recently. Far from his best work, but of sociological value for showing Americans a genuine German Kotzbecken (puking-sink) and, even more entertainingly, exposing Harald Schmidt's relentless plagiarism of American late-night television:

Just underneath the video: DISABLING COMMENTS - YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL CHILDISH DOLTS. THIS IS A COMEDY VIDEO. ENOUGH WITH THE COUNTRY BASHING.

Arrgh, what I would have given to read those. Perhaps we can re-create some COUNTRY BASHING right here, folks -- what do you say?


The Chinese: Steampunk Cyborgs?

I'm reading the latest edition of Lawrence Friedman's A History of American Law. It's actually a pleasure to read, which is no mean feat for that sort of book. I'm pretty sure it would also be comprehensible to non-lawyers. Friedman has an eye for the colorful quotation, such as this description of 'The Chinese', from the remarks of John F. Miller during the 1878 constitutional convention in California. See if you can tell what sort of immigration policy the new constitution favored:

[The Chinese] is a sinewy, shriveled human creature, whose muscles are as iron, whose sinews are like thongs, whose nerves are like steel wires, with a stomach case [ed. 'stomach case'!!] lined with brass; a creature who can toil sixteen hours of the twenty-four; who can live and grow fat on the refuse of any American laborer's table.

(p. 263). Actually, they sound pretty handy (unless they become, er, sentient). Where can I get one?


Taking German Chauvinists Down a Peg

FINAL UPDATE: OK, I've inserted a few more links and done a bit of editing, so I'll leave this as the final version.

Let me reiterate one critical point: the purpose of this list is not some sort of a scorecard for an asinine whose-country-is-best locker room contest. Many of the stereotypes of America listed in the left-hand column have more than a grain of truth, and there are plenty of counter-arguments to mitigate the criticisms of Germany. This is not meant to be an even-handed scholarly analysis. It is just a handy cheat sheet to use when a certain (blessedly rare) kind of pompous, overbearing German launches into an anti-American tirade. In my experience, these episodes have become much less frequent since George W. Bush left office. But nevertheless, you never know when you'll get cornered at a party with one of these people, and this list can help the hapless Yank move from defense to offense.

UPDATE 12 April: Since a few commenters have implied I'm making these criticisms up or don't know what I'm talking about (which I do), I've decided to go through the list, revising a bit and adding links to back up my points. Still an ongoing process...

By popular demand, here's the list I mentioned in a recent post. As noted, the list is largely not of defenses to these stereotypical shortcomings of American society (many of which I find accurate). Rather, they are lists of similar/comparable shortcomings in German society. If I can't think of a comparable fault, I just say Touche.

The point of this informal, highly unserious list is just to provoke reflection and provide talking-points to wrong-foot German chauvinists, not make anybody feel bad. I haven't provided links to proof of the German shortcomings, but I'm pretty sure they're accurate, and proof is available if you know where to look.

American failing German Failing
Americans are hostile to science because they reject evolution / global warming About 2/3 of Germans (g) believe in homeopathy; Germans have a widespread, exaggerated fear of certain technologies such as nuclear power and genetically modified food.
The American criminal justice system discriminates against minorities because they're overrepresented in prison Judged by that metric, so does Germany (g). The typical response of the German chauvinist to this uncomfortable fact is the overrepresenation of minorities in German prisons shows their bad character and failure to integrate into society, while the predominance of blacks in American prisons shows exclusively the racism of the US justice system. I always find this amusing.
Americans are fat Touche! Yet Germans are catching up fast (g).
Americans eat garbage fast food / have no idea about quality, freshness, etc. Touche! Yet German cuisine isn't up to much, and ordinary Germans seem to like US fast food as much as ordinary Americans do. Perhaps even more, given that they pay much higher prices for it (g).
Americans worship money and are obsessed with the lives of the rich and famous Many rich Americans earned their fortunes, while many rich Germans simply inherited theirs, and haven't done a thing to contribute to society in decades, except perhaps open an art gallery. Germans may not be quite as openly money-obsessed as Americans, but easily make up for it by their lust for  titles, nobility, and social status.
The American education system privileges the rich and well-educated So does the German system (g). The German system also quasi-forcibly shunts (g) most students off into non-university education tracks quite early, and it's difficult to overcome this decision.
Americans are racist; America is a racist society Racist attitudes are at least as widespread in Germany (g) if not more so. Germany had to be prodded repeatedly by the EU to pass a law banning racial discrimination among private actors, and only did so in 2006, after a loud debate, and had to take 'anti-discrimination' out of the law's title to get it passed. The law continues to permit many forms of discrimination and has been criticized as toothless (g). Germany was criticized by the UN as late as 2011 for ongoing discrimination against non-Germans. Many Germans believe it's OK for private business owners and landlords to discriminate, while such practices have been made illegal and stigmatized by society in the US since the 1960s. You won't hear an American say anything about a black person that Germans haven't said about Turks -- most recently in a book written by a prominent German politician which became one of the bestselling non-fiction books in German history (g). Also, 1933-1945.
Americans don't love nature or the environment Wrong. Americans were creating national parks and raising environmental awareness long before Germans were. Americans burn about as much fossil fuel per capita as Canadians do, for basically the same reason -- big countries, lots of space to cover.
Americans are obsessed by the military/easily led into war without considering the consequences Touche, at least since 1945.
Americans file too many lawsuits Surprise! Germans file almost twice as many lawsuits as Americans do per capita, and are the most litigious society in Europe, perhaps in the entire world.
Americans file crazy lawsuits like the hot coffee lawsuit Germans file lawsuits over ludicrously trivial matters, such as €1500 for the fact that a hotel room had only two single beds instead of a double bed (g) or because an employee was called by the informal 'du' instead of the formal 'Sie' (g). And besides, what's so bad about litigiousness? Most of the world's population desperately yearns to live in a country in which the powerful can be called to account and disputes can be reliably settled without violence.
The fact that large numbers of Americans don't have health insurance is scandalous Touche. 
Americans are uneducated and lack knowledge of history & the outside world A much higher percentage of Americans has college degrees than Germans. Embarrassingly, German universities punch well below their weight in international comparisons (in part because cheating is rampant among German university students), while American schools regularly top almost every ranking. Plus, Americans are far ahead of Germans in understanding & using the Internet, an inexhaustible source of knowledge. Who created Wikipedia?
Americans often vote for foolish/unqualified politicians Germans have no direct control over the leadership of their political parties, and have much less control over policy than American voters, leading to widespread alienation and lack of enthusiasm (g).
Giant corporations control Congress Lobbying is just as widespread in Germany and the EU, and 85% of laws passed by the German Bundestag originate in Brussels. Further, the situation on lobbying and campaign donations in Germany is much more non-transparent than in the US.
There are dangerous ghettos in American cities filled with disaffected, outcast populations Germany, like all modern nations, has neighborhoods and cities which are concentrations of the poor and minorities. In German, they're called Soziale Brennpunkte (g), roughly translatable as 'socially-deprived hot spots.' There are many of them all around Germany. In Gelsenkirchen, for example, 21.5% of the population lives from government assistance (g). Not to mention no-go areas where far-right and neo-Nazi groups predominate. The only difference is that Germans tend to stack their poor on top of each other in run-down housing projects, while in the US they tend to live on the ground next to one another. And in America, they have more guns.
America is a violent society Ever notice how giant police cordons are required to keep German soccer fans from beating each other to a pulp? More statistically, the overall crime rate in Germany is almost twice that of the United States, according to one study, although that probably overstates the matter due to different ways of counting crime. Nevertheless, overall rates of violent crime in Europe and the US are comparable and Europe has higher property crime rates. Murder rates are higher in the US, mainly because of guns. In Germany as elsewhere, your likelihood of encountering violence is overwhelmingly dependent on where you live and who's in your social network.
Many American workers work for pitifully low wages with no job security The US has a national minimum wage, which Germany so far lacks. And Germany is rapidly catching up with the US in creating an easily-exploitable, low-wage workforce (g) with minimal job security. Since 2000, median German wages have actually declined, whereas American wages have merely stagnated.
Americans have a sexual double standard that combines prudishness with porn Touche.
Americans discriminate against Muslims since 9/11 Germans were doing it long before 9/11 and haven't stopped. American Muslims are much better integrated into American society than German Muslims are; a comprehensive 2007 study (pdf) described American Muslims as 'largely integrated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.' -- a state of affairs Germany can only dream of.
American television shows lots of garbage So does German television. Ever seen a 2-hour-long Volksmusik program? The best American television drama and comedy (The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Community) beats comparable German fare hands-down in terms of realism, freshness, quality of writing, universal appeal, and even social criticism.
Americans watch too much television Touche! Yet once again, Germans, who watch 4 hours 2 minutes per day (g) aren't all that far behind.
American news media are too tame and superficial Germany lacks a culture of aggressive, oppositional investigative reporting and passed its equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act about 30 years after America did. Lots of German papers are full of pompous opinion pieces and court stenography of the rich and powerful. Plus, Germany has Bild, an influential (g) tabloid full of T&A, nationalism, reactionary platitudes, scandal-mongering, and crappy reporting (g). Nothing quite like Bild exists in the U.S.
Americans are superficially cheerful and fake Germans are superficially cold, reserved and rude. And sometimes not just superficially.
Americans lack a culture of literature and reading The percentage of people who genuinely read quality literature is tiny in all societies, and many German 'literary' novels have to be heavily subsidized, sell 200-300 copies maximum, and are so derivative, navel-gazingly self-indulgent or dully Germany-specific that they attract zero interest in other countries. The same is true of most German art-house movies as well.
American society is too car-dependent and lacks good public transportation.

Touche.

UPDATE in response to Marcellina's comment:

Americans are uncultured and don't provide enough state support to museums, symphonies, etc. America's flexible, multi-source model of cultural funding actually brings its own kinds of vibrant results. Germany's top-down system of cultural subsidies has been often criticized as elitist, wasteful and redundant (g). It also gives dictatorial power to self-indulgent directors and smug, insular, out-of-touch cultural bureaucrats, who routinely interfere deeply with artists' expression. Anyone who's ever been to one of the countless plays and operas defaced by gratuitously offensive / nonsensical / tediously didactic productions will wonder whether Germany's problem is actually too much arts funding with too little accountability.

UPDATE 2: Oh, and one other thing:

American beer and coffee are undrinkable Note how I had to leave wine out of this one to even make it a fair fight. Everywhere there's a Starbucks, and that's everywhere except maybe nuclear missile silos, you can get a cup of coffee brewed with reverse-osmosis-purified water and expertly-roasted, freshly-ground, 100% Arabica beans. Germany's beers, while consistently tasty, are also boring, predictable, uniform, and old-fashioned, when they're not sickening beer-cola swill. This is a product of German brewers' adherence to a pointless 500-year-old law that cripples their ability to innovate. Germany had to resort to naked protectionism (g) to try to protect its beers from the glorious diversity of foreign beer, and even so, the German beer industry is withering. By contrast, the average American grocery store on any streetcorner stocks a much wider selection of beer from all over the world than all but the most exclusive German luxury shopping stores.

Europe's Hidebound Class Prisons

One zombie trope among many Americans, especially conservative Americans, is that European societies are still stuck in yesterday's class conflicts, while America, having no class system (no really, some of them actually say this with a straight face) lets even the most modest citizen rise to the top. The latest version of comes in a speech from a prominent Republican lawmaker, Paul Ryan:

Telling Americans they are stuck in their current station in life, that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control, and that government’s role is to help them cope with it — well, that’s not who we are. That’s not what we do.

Our Founding Fathers rejected this mentality. In societies marked by class structure, an elite class made up of rich and powerful patrons supplies the needs of a large client underclass that toils, but cannot own. The unfairness of closed societies is the kindling for class warfare, where the interests of “capital” and “labor” are perpetually in conflict. What one class wins, the other loses.

The legacy of this tradition can still be seen in Europe today: Top-heavy welfare states have replaced the traditional aristocracies, and masses of the long-term unemployed are locked into the new lower class. …

Whether we are a nation that still believes in equality of opportunity, or whether we are moving away from that, and towards an insistence on equality of outcome.

Jonathan Chait dismantles the entire speech here, in a blog post that probably goes too deep into the weeds for most non-American readers. Here's where he takes on Ryan's rose-colored vision of American opportunity:

Unfortunately, Ryan’s understanding of reality is a complete inversion of actual reality. “Equality of opportunity” bears no relation to the reality of the American economy or any economy. Parents can benefit their children by giving them money, better schools, better home environments, tutoring, camp, and other advantages. Opportunity is overwhelmingly unequal. One result is that rich kids perform far better in school than poor kids. But that is not the only result. Poor kids who beat the odds and get high test scores are less likely to complete college than rich kids with middling or even low test scores. Poor kids who beat those odds and graduate from college are still less likely to grow up to be rich than rich kids who did not graduate from college. I'm not sure if there's a perfect solution, but pretty sure Ryan's plan to slash [subsidized student loans] is not going to help.

Ryan’s decision to cite Europe as a place where people can’t move beyond their birth station is especially unfortunate. In fact, social mobility in Europe is higher than in the United States, a fact even [right-winger] Rick Santorum has acknowledged.

There's one nugget of truth in what Ryan says, in that there's a bit less open class snobbery in the United States than in Europe. But in terms of practical, real-world outcomes, European societies offer more class mobility than the United States. One problem with American political culture is that a stubborn minority of citizens won't admit this fact, or even the existence of America's class system.


Gumbrecht Dissects Deutschland

In an interview with Die Welt, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a German professor of Romance languages who relocated to sunny California and became an American citizen, notes the things that annoy him about Germany when he returns (excerpts, in my translation):

Welt:...What is lame about German debates?

Gumbrecht: I would say: The fact that there actually aren't that many different ones. There is a certain spectrum, but the individual positions on the spectrum are always there and recognizable. Here's how it works: On the one side you have people who say we should just love all the wonderful foreigners, on the other side, people who think German culture is unique and must absolutely be preserved, a view that's almost fascistic. When people like Sarrazin come along with their viewpoints, which are somewhat right-wing, then a certain predictable sequence of reactions begins. It reminds me of a xylophone: You keep hammering your little plate, and the others hammer theirs a bit -- but always in the same way.

...

Gumbrecht: In Germany, there's still this idea that Europe, and not America, should be the center of the world, and that Europeans actually already know how the world should be ideally. But you actually see things going wrong there constantly.... This creates a lot of dissatisfaction.

Die Welt: How does that present itself in the society?

Gumbrecht: In the nine months when I was in Germany, it struck me as extreme how social democratic the country is. You barely ever meet anyone who isn't somehow calculating how they can obtain the maximum amount of leisure time with the least effort.

 ...

Gumbrecht: My thesis is there's a specific kind of German know-it-all self-righteousness (Rechthaberei).

Die Welt: A German kind?

Gumbrecht: You very seldom talk to people in Germany who are capable of viewing their own opinions in a sort of second-order way; that is, to be able to say 'this is my opinion, and it might be correct or false.' Or people who enter a conversation without thinking it would be a terrible defeat if they were to change their opinion. If it begins to seem during a conversation -- either in academic ones or in normal middle-class ones -- that not everybody is going to sonorously state their agreement, then the subject will be avoided. Take, as an example, that there are no 'debate clubs' in Germany.... [In the U.S.], it's like a sport. But it's completely unthinkable that there would be debate clubs in Germany. Either you know what's right and wrong, or you don't. By the way: Two out of three Germans who visit me in Stanford explain to me after ten minutes what America is and how it works. When they notice that I don't think the same way they do, they then explain to me why I'm wrong and what the right opinion is. Even people whom I consider intelligent do this.

...

Die Welt: And this doesn't happen in America?

Gumbrecht: Oh sure, there's a culture of political correctness here. But the basic differences begin with the legal system, the common law and it's basic principle that 'each case is to be argued.' Or with nationality. The judge who swore me in stressed that from that moment on, I was 100% American, just as American as someone whose ancestors came here in the 17th century. That is an interesting premise. Or look at these absurd churches. You have to have them all. Whether they'll last is another question. But this inability to tolerate all sorts of things existing side-by-side -- this need to force them all to be compatible -- this you find specifically in Germany. Take the university debates. In Germany, people think there's an ideal model of a university that can be made uniform. But here in the USA, it's considered perfectly fine that Stanford is so different from Berkeley, or Harvard from Yale. The more diverse, the better.

Die Welt: ...so can you think of anything positive?

Gumbrecht: I really tried! I have to say one thing. All these things I've just mercilessly dissected -- a very academic thing to do, by the way -- also exist in American, as trace elements. But the worst know-it-alls here are slightly less annoying, because it's clear to them that there are lots of people around who don't think as they do. In a society in which you can either be Protestant, Catholic, or nothing, you can be convinced you're right. In the crazy plurality over here, though, even when you're a total fundamentalist, you have to recognize there are others. And thus, one thing doesn't exist here: the desperate search for correctness and this German oxymoron: the 'desired opinion.'

I'll refrain from comment, except to note that this blog noted the lameness of German debates years ago...


Explaining American Europe-Bashing

Simon Tisdall has a thumb-sucker at Foreign Policy on the strain of 'ignorant, narcissistic' Europe-bashing that prevails on the American right. Highlights:

Beside himself with indignation [at a recent speech by Obama], columnist and pundit Charles Krauthammer led the charge on Fox News:

"Obama says, 'In America there is a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world.' Well, maybe that's because when there was a civil war on Europe's doorstep in the Balkans, and genocide, it didn't lift a finger until America led. Maybe it's because when there was an invasion of Kuwait it didn't lift a finger until America led. Maybe it's because with America spending over half a trillion a year, keeping open the sea lanes in defending the world, Europe is spending pennies on defense. It's hard to appreciate an entity's leading role in the world when it's been sucking on your tit for 60 years."

Many Americans shared his fury. But in his eagerness to condemn Obama's European "apology tour" (as former Bush advisor Karl Rove later dubbed it), the spluttering Krauthammer inadvertently revealed that he suffered from the very problem Obama was trying to address. After all, it is one thing to disagree with a president and his policy. It is quite another to be so bitterly and scathingly contemptuous of an entire continent and its people, especially one that, for better or worse, is a historical ally and a close political, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic relation.

Uncertain whether to laugh or cry, Europeans ask: Is this sort of thing to be taken seriously? What is going on?

...

Seen from Europe, of which Britain is (arguably) a part, the roots of American anti-Europeanism appear many and varied. At one end of the spectrum, there is the widely shared view that Europe does not pull its weight in a world that Washington would like to order according to its lights. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the unpalatable fact of widespread American ignorance, exacerbated by indifference, of all things European.

...

Fear, envy, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, cultural inferiority-superiority complexes, trade, political and military rivalries, and America's quest for identity all fed anti-European feeling as the new country sought to differentiate itself from the old countries whence most of its people came. Many of these phenomena remain relevant today.

"Expressing one's anti-European sentiment can be a way of building up and displaying one's American identity and patriotism," said Patrick Chamorel in a European University Institute study published in Italy in 2004. "Anti-Europeanism has always been part of American exceptionalism, which defined itself in contrast to European history, politics, and society."

..

It would be easy for Europeans to shrug off America's Europhobic generalizations and mischaracterizations if they were exclusive to would-be-intellectual neoconservatives, Bible Belt evangelists, and provincial Midwest xenophobes. But ever since the European Union dropped the ball in the Balkans in the mid-1990s, a potent mix of influential American thinkers, policymakers, and commentators have given anti-Europeanism a new respectability that cannot be dismissed out of hand. On the major issues that preoccupy Americans -- defense, security, terrorism, intervention, free trade, sovereignty, and nationalism -- the argument that Europe has lost its way has gained in influence. And as a debt-laden European Union stares at the fiscal abyss, one can almost feel the schadenfreude emanating from across the pond.

There's something to Tisdall's argument, but I think he misses one root cause of this anti-Europeanism. What needs explaining is why there is so much bile and contempt in the Europe-bashing of many conservatives. After all, the mere fact that Europe may not be 'pulling its weight' (however that may defined) doesn't really justify the snotty, mocking tone of much anti-Europe commentary. After all, you'd usually reserve such rhetorical fireworks for a country that actually posed a threat to you. And Europe hardly 'threatens' America in any sense worth taking seriously.

Except one. Europe has more extensive social-welfare benefits than the U.S., guaranteed universal healthcare, and all the other familiar goodies. And providing them hasn't bankrupted European countries. Even after the wave of belt-tightening currently underway across the Continent, European social welfare policies will still be more generous than their American counterparts. These policies stand as a constant reminder that the choices that shape the American economy and workplace are just that -- choices. Other countries have made different choices about how to allocate social resources, and it is thus always possible for the United States to do the same. 

In boom times, Americans rarely concern themselves with the possibility of a more generous social welfare system. But with American unemployment hovering well over the catastrophic level of 9 percent and long-term unemploymen growing rapidly, a more generous welfare system -- along with the kind of counter-cyclical job benefits that helped European countries weather the economic crisis without a dramatic spike in unemployment -- might look more and more tempting. Conservatives tirelessly warn that 'socialism' kills the goose that lays the golden egg of growth, but millions of Americans have looked around recently and asked, what golden egg? Even when productivity increases, real wages don't:

Productivity

(source)

And, thought Tisdall mentions several instances of American provincialism in his piece, there's still some awareness among Americans that Europe does things differently, and a vague idea what it does differently. Witness Newsweek's recent cover story arguing that 'We're All Socialists Now', or any of Michael Moore's films. And, as Anne Applebaum recently pointed out, the notion that ordinary Americans are all rugged anti-government individualists is also largely bogus -- Americans are quite fond of government programs -- so long as the benefits flow primarily to people like them. (Which also explains the obsessive American suspicion of foreign aid):

If you don't live in [America] all of the time, and I don't, here is what you notice when you come home: Americans -- with their lawsuit culture, their safety obsession and, above all, their addiction to government spending programs -- demand more from their government than just about anybody else in the world. They don't simply want the government to keep the peace and create a level playing field. They want the government to ensure that every accident and every piece of bad luck is prevented, or that they are fully compensated in the event something goes wrong. And if the price of their house drops, they will hold the government responsible for that, too.

If your core message is 'we don't want to end up like Europe', you need to carry the argument further and explain why that would be a bad thing. Conservatives, thus, will always need to portray Europe as 'other', and a rather unimpressive other at that: weak, vacillating, directionless, declining, and increasingly irrelevant.

Needless to say, European politicians delivers regular examples of fecklnessness, which helps U.S. critics no end...


Air-Conditioning: Coming Soon to a German Near You

Peformance and Temperature

Well, it's shaping up to be a long, hot summer here in Germany, so I did what any self-respecting American would do: I bought an air-conditioner. And no, I'm not sheepishly admitting this, I am proudly acknowledging it! I haven't really needed an air-conditioner during the past several summers; really hot days were the exception to the rule. But long stretches of really hot days are most unpleasant here in Germany, for one simple reason: Germany is a woefully under-air-conditioned country. Just yesterday, dozens of schoolchildren had to be rushed to the hospital (g) after one of the the (notoriously underpowered) air-conditioning units in one of Germany's (otherwise-stellar) ICE trains crapped out, sending temperatures inside the sealed tubes to a hellish 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

I'll get to the reasons for Germany's reluctance to embrace climate control in a minute. First, let's acknowledge air conditioning for what it is: one of the greatest technological achievements of the twentieth century, as acknowledged by the National Academy of Engineering. Let's look at the benefits air-conditioning brings. First, as the graph above shows you (from this study (pdf)), your productivity and accuracy at intellectual tasks decreases once the temperature exceeds about 27 degrees. Thus, air-conditioning is a huge benefit for every single field of human endeavor, from banking to art restoration to musicology.

Widespread air-conditioning also has positive knock-on effects. In his classic article The End of the Long, Hot Summer, historian Raymond Arsenault documents how air-conditioning led to a vast improvement in living standards in the American South:

Climate control has not only brought new factories and businesses to the region. It has also brought improved working conditions, greater efficiency, and increased productivity. As numerous controlled studies have demonstrated, an air-conditioned workplace invariably means higher productivity and greater job satisfaction.

One of air conditioning's most telling effects has been its positive influence on southern economic growth. This economic growth has led in turn to a rising standard of living for many southern families. Real wages have increased substantially during the postwar era, and per capita income in the South has risen from 52 percent of the national average in 1930 to almost 90 percent today. Although this increased income has been unevenly distributed across the region -- Texas, Florida, and Virginia registered the biggest gains -- few areas have been left unaffected. Maldistribution of wealth remains a serious regional problem, but the proportion of southerners living in Tobacco Road-style poverty has declined significantly in recent decades. Thus, in an indirect way, air conditioning has helped to ameliorate one of the post-Civil War South's most distressing characteristics. The social and cultural implications of the decline in southern poverty are immense, because, as C. Vann Woodward noted in 1958, "Generations of scarcity and want constitute one of the distinctive historical experiences of the Southern people . . . . "

Further, air-conditioning has had positive health effects. Mosquito-borne diseases such as yellow fever and malaria became much easier to control once people had an comfortable alternative to open windows. Air-conditioning also improved health outcomes in hospitals:

In addition to making millions of hospital patients more comfortable, air conditioning has reduced fetal and infant mortality, prolonged the lives of thousands of patients suffering from heart disease and respiratory disorders, increased the reliability and sophistication of micro-surgery, facilitated the institutionalization of public health, and aided the production of modern drugs such as penicillin.

Look at the chart above: would you rather have a surgeon operating on your spine at 23 degrees Celsius or 33? Today, thanks to ingenious engineers, patients have this choice.

Now when I make these seemingly uncontroversial points, many Germans immediately bristle. For some reason, the very idea of air-conditioning often has a negative emotional valence for them. There's a vague sort of politically correct eco-Luddism that tells Germans air-conditioning is Suspect, and possibly downright Wrong. When I ask for specific arguments, they're often a bit hard-pressed to come up with any, probably because they've never met an apostle of air-conditioning before. Here are some of the anti-A/C arguments I've elicited, and my responses:

  • We don't need it, because our country doesn't get really hot. Oh yes it does. Not for months at a time, thank God, but there are routinely 40-50 days per year in Germany which are not just warm, but uncomfortably hot.
  • We don't need it, because our buildings have thick walls. That's fine for people who actually live in such buildings, but most people don't. Especially few are the people who work in buildings with thick walls. And once you get above the 2nd or 3rd floor of any modern building on a hot day, you will feel the need for air-conditioning.
  • It's expensive and wasteful. That's by far the best counter-argument. Air-conditioning uses plenty of energy. Yet nobody is suggesting running the air-conditioner every time the temperature gets above 26 degrees. Whenever there's a breeze, my apartment is quite comfortable up to 27 degrees or so, and I will have no need for an air-conditioner. But on those occasional days where the mercury rises much higher, why not have the option? Merely having air-conditioning available doesn't mean you must overuse it, as so many people in India or the American South do. In any event, air conditioners don't use fossil fuels. Like electric cars, they're run by power from the electrical grid. The cleaner and greener that power gets, the less environmental damage air-conditioning will do.
  • We've lived without it for the last 50/500/5,000 years, ergo we can live without it for the next 50/500/5,000 years. No, it's not a joke -- you will hear this argument from many a German.In fact, it epitomizes the German's attitude toward many aspects of social life. Of course, it pretty much refutes itself: after all, Germans lived without dental care, anesthetics, and football for millennia, yet today...you get the idea.
  • Cold/circulating air is unhealthy. This hoary old wives' tale, it seems, will never die. Illnesses are caused by viruses and bacteria, not by cold air. The modern era's most severe pandemic spread most quickly during the summer. And don't forget that modern air-conditioning systems have filters, which means that air coming from a properly-maintained air conditioner is actually cleaner than it would otherwise be.
  • Sweating is healthy. Being able to sweat is obviously healthy, but sweating is neither healthy nor unhealthy. It's the body's reaction to temperatures outside its comfort zone. Like shivering. Perhaps I'm just an oddball, but I find life most comfortable when I'm neither sweating nor shivering. And thanks to modern technology, that can be arranged!
  • Air conditioning will interrupt Europe's natural life patterns, such as taking holidays in August. First of all, there's plenty not to like about these 'natural' patterns, such as mass deaths of abandoned seniors, gigantic traffic jams, and cram-packed beaches and airliners. Yet if you really fancy joining the lowing herds for the mandatory August trip, nothing's stopping you. Unless you spring for a really fancy unit, your air-conditioner will not emit secret mind-control rays forcing you to vegetate in front of it all summer long. You can just switch it off and hop in the bus!
  • Air conditioning will turn is into overweight, car-dependent loners with no connection to nature, like Americans in the South. This is something to worry about. For all the benefits air-conditioning has conferred on the American South, there are huge drawbacks in the areas of community life, urban planning, energy use, and the like. Yet there are two counter-arguments. First, it's hard to trace all of these unpleasant aspects of life in the South only to air-conditioning. Television, poor urban design, and certain aspects of Southern culture also probably played a role. Second, it's important to realize that in most areas of the South, the outside is like a horrifyingly intense, humid sauna from April to October, and it doesn't cool down at night. The reason air-conditioning has changed the face of the south is that, earlier, the South's unique climate helped determined its culture and history. Once air-conditioning became possible in the south, it became mandatory. There are very few places in Europe that have a climate as oppressively hot, windless, and humid as the American South. Thus, the widespread introduction of air-conditioning is unlikely to have a massive cultural impact.
  • Everyone in China and India will want air-conditioning, and that will mean a massive ecological crisis. This train has left the station: everyone in India and China already wants air-conditioning, just as they want cheap cars. Anyone who's visited India can testify that air-conditioners are one of the most powerful status symbols of striving middle-class families. Nothing like being able to get together at the end of a hot, frustrating day at the office and enjoy some cool air. I'm not denying that this is an environmental problem -- it most certainly is. But here's the interesting news: if you fail to buy an air-conditioner in Germany, not a single Indian will notice or care! They don't want air-conditioning because they've seen it on TV, or experienced it on a trip to Berlin (where it's depressingly rare anyway). They want it because, quite understandably, they hate sweating all the time. The increasing affluence of the Chinese and Indian middle classes will pose significant environmental problems, but declining to cool down with A/C for a couple of weeks per year in Germany will not help solve them.
In the next few years, air-conditioning is gradually going to become common all over Germany, just like deodorant, cable television, and even the newfangled intertubes all eventually came. Air conditioning units are getting quieter, cheaper, and more efficient all the time, and, to judge by conversations overheard in my local air-conditioned REWE supermarket yesterday, Germans who encounter (moderate, well-maintained) air-conditioning on hot days are deeply grateful. In fact, when I went to my local store to buy an A/C unit on sale for 50% off, it was completely sold out, and I had to back-order it. Change is coming, Germany, as usual from the United States, and as usual, over the snippy whining of your insular elites. Believe me -- you'll love it!