Did you hear the one about the efficient German?

Here‘s a moderately interesting article in the Times about German attempts to collect taxes from the (legal) prostitution industry:

The city of Bonn has begun collecting taxes from prostitutes with an automated pay station similar to a parking meter, proving again that German efficiency knows few if any bounds.

What’s that, you say?  An article whose opening sentence ends by throwing in a completely irrelevant national stereotype?  Surely this is some sort of editorial oversight, and must be in violation of the New York Times Style Guide?  And yet, a few short months ago we had this article whose main purpose was to include as many stereotypes about Germans as possible (including some the author seems to have made up on the spot):

… in very German-style hand-wringing and paroxysms of self-loathing … Leave it to a German intellectual to discern a deep connection between an American president dissembling about oral sex with an intern in the Oval Office and a doctoral student at Bayreuth University cribbing passages in a 475-page dissertation about contrasting constitutional developments … Several hundred protesters hung their shoes on the iron fence outside the Defense Ministry in Berlin in a sly (again, typically German) multivalent allusion both to the now familiar Arab insult of displaying the soles of one’s shoes and also to the missing footnotes in Mr. Guttenberg’s dissertation.

And so on.  (It does seem worth noting that the shoe pun is truly excellent.)  This sort of lazy thinking, in which the actions of a person or group are “explained” by vague stereotypes, inhibits actual understanding; an author aiming to inform his or her readers should never do this. I wonder which groups or nationalities other than the Germans are subject to this sort of nonsense in the Times.

(As long as I’m here, I note that I would have thought that prostitution was a sufficiently sexy topic (har har) that it wouldn’t need punching-up with this sort of nonsense in order to catch readers.)

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2 Responses to Did you hear the one about the efficient German?

  1. Toby says:

    Very nicely said. I think lazy is really the key word here. After all, invoking vague stereotypes is easier than figuring out what’s actually going on. A lot of stories about recent E.U. politics suggest that events are driven by hardworking Germans resenting their profligate neighbors, but I’m pretty sure that things are more complicated than that.

  2. JBL says:

    Thanks! It seems that newspaper writers feel free to use these tropes quite openly in “silly” articles like the ones I quoted, but I think you’re right to point out that these weak ideas also show up in “serious” reporting, often more subtly. And much more damage to the ideal of informative reporting is done in those cases.

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