"Germans are coconuts, Americans peaches..." In the German Studies department at the University of Michigan, this saying bounced around as a shorthand way for us to describe the supposed social differences between the two nationalities: Germans come with tough shells, but inside lies the sweetness of coconut milk. Americans, instead, are soft on the surface with a hard pit hidden at the core.
Of course, it's a generalization, but as another saying goes: There's a little truth to every stereotype. During the summer of 2014 I lived in Heidelberg, where I would sometimes go to bars and parties with my two German roommates. I quickly stood out amid the local crowd as a social butterfly, as even brief interactions would often end with my sending on-the-spot Facebook "friend" requests. For my two flatmates, this ever-American openness was peinlich, embarrassing.
"Why do you do that?" I remember one asking. "You don't know these people."
It's a fair question. And it's true, now that I think about it, that I've never seen any of those people again. Some of them, no doubt, deleted my friend request right away. After all, Germans — some of whom have lived under totalitarianism reigns of both the Nazis and the Communist GDR — have led the fight against Google and other Internet giants over protection of their online privacy.
Hamburg-based psychotherapist Michael Schellberg explained to Die Welt newspaper that most people can only count three Facebook friends as true friends. By this he means that the relationship is "exclusive" and built on "love with understanding."
A scant regard for the well-being of users.
But the longstanding German doubts about social media have been spreading across the Atlantic, as Facebook, in particular, has come under fire for failing to filter out propaganda during U.S. elections. One recent poll found that 78% of Americans believe that Facebook should do more to prevent the spread of "fake news' online.
More generally, people increasingly blame social networks for showing scant regard for the well-being of users and seeming to feed many of the worst human instincts. French daily Les Echos reports of concern that social media is actually bad for your health. "What researchers are beginning to find is that social networks affect the brain in the same kind of way as certain addictive substances, like cigarettes," writes Anais Moutot.
Social media hell? — Photo: Carnaval.com Studios
In a recent public interview, Chamath Palihapitiya, who worked for Facebook in its early years, denounced the destructive "dopamine" effect the very site he helped to create has on humans. "We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works," he told the audience, comprised of mostly Stanford business students. "No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth."
Palihapitiya, who has become a venture capitalist since leaving Facebook, cites a recent lynching of seven people in India as evidence of this. A hoax that was disseminated on Snapchat had sparked the violence.
With every technological advancement, there is always a puritanical reaction.
Of course, there are innumerable examples of social media's dark side: conspiracy theories, terrorist recruitment, election meddling — the list goes on. But Palihapitiya's claim that all of these were suddenly born (or at least worsened) in the digital age is flawed. Long before Facebook, anti-Semitic treatises and pamphlets incited deadly pogroms against Jews across Europe. In 1994, Hutu génocidaires in Rwanda used radio to disclose the whereabouts of Tutsis who had gone into hiding.
With every technological advancement, there is always a puritanical reaction that perpetuates this false belief: What's newly imagined could lead to society's demise. These apocalyptic harbingers often leave out innovation's positive qualities, which regularly outnumber the negative ones.
It's a truth that even Palihapitiya can't ignore. "I think that Facebook does overwhelmingly good in the world," he admitted at the end of his expletive-ridden diatribe. At the same time that Facebook helped Donald Trump become president, it also lets you share photographs of your daughter's graduation with friends and relatives across the world. And while hate groups and terrorist organizations have used Twitter to coordinate their efforts, so too have the Arab Spring protesters, Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo movement.
Still, back in Germany, the fight to protect privacy is as fierce as ever. This week, the Federal Cartel Office, the national competition regulator, accused Facebook of collecting user data from third-party sources and using it to better target advertising in users' Facebook feeds.
Ultimately, as much as stark national differences, the Internet poses new challenges for all peoples to balance two basic societal goods: freedom of expression and the right to privacy. Figuring out how to protect both will always be a hard nut to crack.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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