Consternation Ruthless Criticism

MSZ 6-1986

A catastrophic bad habit:


Those who look on at catastrophes
wrongly expect
those involved to learn something.
So long as the masses
are the “objects” of politics
they cannot regard what happens
to them as an experiment
but only as a fate.
They learn as little
from catastrophe
as a scientists’ rabbit
learns of biology.

– Bertolt Brecht, Notes on Mother Courage and her children

Bad experiences are not in short supply. Catastrophes, of course, are something special because they offer a little distraction, at least by the scale of damage that overcomes people. For one thing, they boggle the mind, because so many people are suddenly suffering enormous damage without being able to do anything about it and they have to quite defenselessly accept whatever a whim of nature or a higher power has brought on them. On the other hand, once the initial horror and the worst is over, they offer a great opportunity to circulate the slogan: now we need to learn a lesson. That sounds pretty good because it comes across as a sensible invitation to give up the standpoint of powerlessness. In certain cases, such as wars and nuclear meltdowns, encouraging people to make sense of the damage suffered can go a ways toward denying the rumor that nobody could have done anything about it and that nobody knew anything.

The Chernobyl meltdown is that type of disaster. What it has wrought in its area in Ukraine, in Poland, will surely provide the journalistic profession with enough material to stretch out its wares for a few years. The victims and witnesses to the damage over there would do well to figure out what happened. And certainly not to accept the explanations of its architects.

The Chernobyl meltdown has blown a whiff of catastrophe into the German landscape as well. The comparatively smaller but existing damage has already had its first “effects.” Many people have tried to figure it out for themselves – and proved that, in terms of catastrophe, it’s a horror. They are going through a chapter of political psychology that once again makes us fear the worst: this national breed, after a homemade “misfortune,” may tell their descendants exactly the same story that the last wartime generation told their astonished children: “You can’t even imagine what we went through.” And this message wants to tell of having participated so that nobody who hears it will think “involvement”; not even the obvious interpretation of “went along with it.” No, only the German meaning of “experienced and suffered” should be pictured and acknowledged.

Our prediction, which we are still doing quite a bit to refute in practice, is based for now on observations we could not avoid before, during, and after the radiation cloud. Political psychology tends to be conducted in public. Its techniques are suitable for any content; in current or imminent catastrophes, it brings forth a fair amount of mumbling among the people.

“The affected”

This is another word in our beautiful language that we Germans perform true feats with. We are not content with the idea that someone is affected when they have been impacted. We think its dull to just describe the damage that has been done to one. We put a little something extra into it – the passive and the past tense should be given their due. It happened, we are the casualties, and we are standing here pretty dumbstruck. This is our character when we are “affected” and we wonder woefully. Everyone knows what this word has to do with political discussions: anyone who presents himself as a victim is owed the right to speak and to complain. When the affected gather together, there’s not a dry eye in the house. Because a decent German does not criticize straightforwardly, but only from the standpoint of the victim. The disappointed innocent who displays this feeling is guaranteed to stand around completely passively and incapable of doing anything about the suffered harm and gets a chance to have a say when “affected people” of all types become active on the German scene. Here is where the fun starts and it doesn’t matter if the “criticism” boils down to gathering evidence about how one has been affected. Showing anxiety, demonstrating a self-awareness that consists of nothing more than “I = the one who suffers,” is not a criticism or the prelude to it. Events like this boil down to the ridiculous argument that one has the right to be heard. In the posture of feeling ignored, grown up humans set out only to show that they don’t want anything indecent and politely ask for some consideration, which they deserve by having been affected. It isn’t difficult to guess from whom. By those who are

in charge

of the damage that has been done. But that in no way hinders them from at the same time bearing responsibility for supporting those who beg for it. They always have understanding for those who are “affected,” they can always promise to represent them, and they handle it well because these types of subjects will empower anyone who honors their “consternation.” They ask questions on the level of “how much milk and spinach am I allowed to eat?”, get the advice they ask for – and the relationship of trust is restored because it was never budged. A “movement of the affected” has nothing to do with resistance. It is well served as voters.