October 30, 2009
Hiply Hectoring Hipster People

You've got to take a look at this, SureShot told me, it's just my thing. Ich werde ein Berliner, a blog by "Wash Echte", an English-speaking foreigner who lives in Germany and is chronicling his experiences in Berlin, as featured recently in the Tagesspiegel. One could certainly think I'd be interested, considering that I've now been in Hamburg for 23 years, over half my life, and I worked in Berlin for the past two and half years, living in an apartment in Berlin-Mitte until this past July.

What a disappointment, then, to go over there and find something so suffocatingly awful. It turns out, unfortunately, that our author Wash Echte is a pretentious, narcissistic poseur who has devoted an entire blog, since November of 2008, to sneer at "German people" as sneering, pretentious, narcissistic poseurs. The real target here is the urban hipster culture, certainly easy enough to pick on as excessively self-important and shallow, but Wash Echte refers to them indiscriminately as "German people" and badgers them with as much shallow, self-regarding hipness as he can muster. (The author's gender is not specified, as far as I can tell, so I'll just call him "him".) Such a thing might actually have some entertainment value -- Freudian projection as performance art, a maudlin display of someone shifting their own failings onto others, flamboyantly played out on the Internet so that all the world may marvel and gape. But for that, there'd have to be some sense of humor or irony, and there's nothing of the kind to be found here. It just drones, on and on and on.

In their ongoing quest to make themselves appear more cosmopolitan than their peers and pamper their fragile egos, elite German people have achieved good results by preposterously associating themselves with some kind of external entity, often a foreign country. ...

Among other criteria, elite German people like to measure another person’s level of interestingness by the quantity and quality of their wild weekend experiences, and will quickly feel uncomfortable if there is an individual around whose previous weekend’s wildness factor remains undetermined. Through the copious use of allusions, they can keep the potential adversary guessing and give their own weekend a mystical, larger-than-life pretense. ...

When first coming to Germany, foreigners are often startled by the sheer amount of palpable poor taste in clothing, hair cuts, movies, art, and career choices German people display. ... during the 90s, Germans were reaching a dangerous state of angst and low self-esteem once again, watching themselves labeled as stern, humor-free, and all around never being able to catch up to other nations they loved: Florida, East-Berlin, and Spain’s Mediterranean islands. ...

Confused, dark-haired girls have been deifyed by the natives of Germany since the late sixties. It is understood without saying that they also embody anybody’s dream sex partner. This applies to straight women as well. Confused dark-haired girls of course know about the effect they have on German people, so they are milking this affection to the last Euro-cent by writing inane books ridiculing people who shower once a day, recording indie albums, or working as TV presenters for quirky, “young” variety shows where they go to such extremes as smoking real cigarettes on air (!). For German people, this means the epitome of postmodern cultural criticism, a thing they revere very much.

You get the idea. And this is all there is, 23 chapters to date, all of it full of self-important hectorings of "German people" for being too self-important. The subtitle of the blog is "How to blend in wiz ze Germans" (get it, ze Germans, isn't that funny!), but you have to wonder why Wash Echte wants to blend in, and why he thinks he can explain how to anybody else. Really, why on Earth is this person in Berlin at all, if it's just too much for a person of such sincere sensibilities to endure? Well, I can personally attest that living in another country may just be the result of life's circumstances, work and family and the like, and not so much of a conscious choice; but if that's the case for Wash Echte, then one has to conclude that he's not doing a very good job making the most of it, if writing this blog is his method of coping. Even his peculiar linguistic habit of referring to "German people" or a "German person" (instead of just "Germans" or "a German") seems to drip with contempt, as if he's talking about "those people".

Many of these complaints apparently just report differences in taste, elevated to deeply important cultural and character flaws. Wash Echte evidently feels awfully put upon. One gathers that he does not like to drink Bionade or listen to techno, and has a special disdain for anyone working in media professions. He seems to deeply resent skepticism of global corporations, environmentalism and a variety of other political stances; and he doesn't like Hamburg or Cologne, either. All of which are opinions that one is certainly entitled to hold, but let's be honest and humble enough to acknowledge that they are one person's preferences and not an insight into the shortcomings of a whole culture. Some of it just seems to be some bizarre idea that's wandered into W.E.'s head; especially the bit about an alleged German fetish for "confused, dark-haired girls" is, uh, interesting at best, and, as I can assure you as someone who's been here for over two decades, it's just made up out of thin air.

I'm certainly familiar with the demographic that is under attack in this blog, the self-consciously urban young middle class would-be artistes; but this caste is nothing particular about Berlin or Germany, they can found in any of the world's capitals. And moreover, the blog talks about these people strictly in terms of caricature; in my experience, the real humans in question are far more complex and less cartoonish than the author would have you believe. And worst of all, W.E. refers to them indiscriminately as "German people" as if there's no other kind in the whole country. I spent two and a half years in Berlin and had a great time, easy enough to do if you find the people worth spending time with (which is true of any place in the world where I've lived). Wash Echte has evidently not managed to do this, which of course is quite a shame, but it's an indictment of his own efforts rather than of Berlin, and he'd do better to get over his confusion about that.

Gentle Reader, you may be wondering at this point why in the world I get so worked up about a blog like this. If someone else's blog sucks, why not just let it suck and leave well enough alone? A good question, I admit, and I also admit that one could certainly level a biting criticism of my own blog, with its on-again off-again posts meandering all of over the thematic road. If I think I could have written a better blog about Germany and Berlin, then I could have done so; Wash Echte did the work, for all of its failings, and I haven't, that's a fact.

So what's my problem? It's that the blog repeats the essential sin that I have encountered again and again in the two decades I have spent spanning two cultures -- one side points to differences on the other side that are wholly superficial, and purports to elevate these differences to some kind of profound psychological and cultural divergence. The bullshit that gets made up this way can be astounding. Germans talk to me about "mentality" all the time, telling me all about the differences between German and American mentality that they perceive, with all the airy conceit of penetrating insight on display in the Berliner blog. Germans and Americans have differently-shaped door knobs, light switches and electrical outlets, bake different bread, listen to different music and drink different drinks -- you can go on and on with this stuff all day. Just about all of these things can be explained by historical developments that were coincidental and essentially random, devoid of any kind of important meaning, and yet people are trying to attach a far-reaching significance to them all the time. Long ago when I first arrived in Germany and the Cold War was still going on, I knew a German who asked me about the north polar projection of the map, which makes it look as if Asia is surrounding North America and was apparently in use at the Pentagon at the time. She was convinced that this reflected the fear of the Soviet Union that was deeply rooted in my American psychology. I told her that she was full of crap.

The fact is that when we consider what can really be called "mentality" -- the goals and aspirations that people have, their vices and passions, their emotions and thoughts, everything that in the end really matters -- people are essentially the same, at least in the two cultures that I know. The differences that so many people point to and take so seriously are trivial and irrelevant. And that is a truth that a blog like Ich werde ein Berliner will probably never catch on to. It spends all of time mocking traits it regards as shallow, but never gets beyond shallowness when it does.

1 comment:

This is a good entry, but I think you missed something critical.

The individual behind "Ich werde ein Berliner" is engaging in an overseas pastiche of "Stuff White People Like", a similar blog. If you look at the text, the writing style has many similarities, and it appears he's going for a similar "edgy, ironic" spin on things.

It doesn't deserve as much text as you've given it, as it's, in itself, an inherently derivative work itself.
JustBill - February 08, 2010-22:20
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