Last year I read an article by AmiExpat about how her politics underwent a dramatic shift by emigrating to Germany. I’ve been a liberal all my life and grew up in a bastion of liberalism, an ivory tower in the midst of the cornfields. Nonetheless, living in Germany and talking with Patrick about the inner workings of German law has had a significant impact in widening my horizons. Although American media often vilifies policy choices of other countries, that seems to me to be very much a product of nationalistic pride rather than actual knowledge of the pros and cons of how other countries do things.
As a warning before I get started: this is obviously shaped purely by my own experiences. Also, Patrick is working on a law degree, but I don’t have any American law people I talk to on a regular basis, so my knowledge on that front is becoming increasingly one-sided. That being said…
Learning about Germany’s social programs has made me agree increasingly with the idea of tax high, spend high. Of course, I would rather the government not take my money, especially for causes I disagree with, but I think the German Constitutional Court has a good idea in that everyone has a right to a certain standard of living – even criminals and drug users – and that if those people are doing something wrong (like using drugs) then a different solution has to be found than allowing them to sink below the poverty line. Everyone has a right to human dignity, which makes a huge impact on a lot of laws. More of an attempt is made to reintegrate criminals, rather than locking them away like animals for the rest of their lives.
I also think our education system in the US is messed up compared to Germany’s education system. To be clear, I’ve definitely gotten the impression American schools and universities push students to higher levels of motivation and aspiration than German schools – but at the same time I think it’s much easier for people to fall through the cracks in the US. Germany’s systems seem to level everyone out, both in terms of social status and social attitudes, where the US’s seems to divide people up and stratify them. You can be born in bad circumstances and the state will still check on you, help pay for your childhood, give you education, transportation, and everything you need to make a fair start on your life. From the little I know of the German system, I think it’s harder to make it through without learning anything. Of course there are still plenty of idiots in Germany, but I think they try more to avoid perpetuating questionable knowledge in schools (creationism, abstinence-only sex ed, etc). I think Germans lose the “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” attitude Americans have – but neither do they have to be afraid of losing the roof over their heads the way unemployed Americans do. Of course just as it prevents people from falling as far as in the US, Germans find it harder to rise as dramatically in their society. Since the wealth gap is significantly less than in the US, a dream of becoming part of the 1% is much less likely.
An area where I feel my views have been challenged most by German attitudes is when it comes to women’s issues – those lately being discussed in the “War on Women” being waged leading up to this election. I would say I’m pretty solidly on the feminist/left side down the line of women’s issues. On the one hand I watch the Daily Show, debate articles about Tosh.0′s “rape jokes,” and read ranty posts from feminist blogs when they pop up in my facebook feed. On the other hand I discuss the issues with Patrick and see these American online media sources thrown into stark contrast by Patrick’s perspective from German culture. Germany is much safer than the US, with stricter gun control laws, more welfare programs, better education, etc. I’ve walked around Cologne at 2am by myself to get home (through a pretty dark park area!) after light drinking with friends, and felt totally safe (granted, I’m very white and could mostly pass for an average German). So from what I understand, Germany can afford to have a policy on rape that is more skeptical and more of a two-way street, rather than the (to be honest, somewhat strange) American policies.
Although it may not look so on first glance, I think the German policy treats men and women with more respect by its more even-handed policy – you have to make it really clear you don’t want to have sex, or be incapable of objecting (physical threat, inebriation, etc). American policy says that sex (or even talking about sex) where there is basically any inequality of status = sexual harassment/abuse/rape; or if the woman even vaguely doesn’t want to do it, she can cry rape. Which, when you think about it, says that men can’t control themselves and women are too weak and scared to stop them. But I think America needs that kind of open-ended policy because the US has such high rates of rape and sexual harassment, lacks education about what is acceptable behavior, and law enforcement and communities so often blame or ostracize the victims, that we really need to have a policy that encourages victims to come forward – even at the risk of snaring a few false accusations. If our comedians can say it’s funny for someone to get raped, or our politicians and spokespeople make blatantly false statements that turn the accusation on the victims, there’s a serious and disgusting problem that I’m not sure Germans (and other developed countries) have to deal with, at least with such regularity.
Anyway, another aspect of women’s issues that has been challenged for me is the issue of abortion. German law defines when life starts (where US law seems much fuzzier and less sure of itself), and allows abortions during the first trimester, but they are generally not covered by public health insurance, and the woman is required to have counseling and wait a few days. The counseling is to remind her of the value of life and make her aware of resources available to her, but is not intended to shame her into giving up the idea – as a lot of American legislation attempts to do. The US system also seems completely unconcerned with what happens after the child is born, whereas the German system provides various forms of support to the family and the child to help ensure a reasonable quality of life for years. In light of this I think it’s much more reasonable for Germans to discourage abortion. If the state is willing to help give the child a chance at a good life, it has some right to give the child the chance in the first place. My understanding is also that it’s much harder for one of the two parents to just abandon the situation like one can do in the US.
On the flip side of these, I think German culture puts more stress on women to conform to their image of femininity. This is different than American expectations of women’s behavior. Despite being the home to the most powerful woman in the world, Germany has a lot of trouble getting women into top positions, and I think America does better. From what I’ve read on expat forums, it also seems that Germany is much more critical of women who choose to return to careers rather than tending to their children – there is even a name for them, “Rabenmutter,” someone who neglects her children. I think this is part of the cause (among a lot of others) that the German birth rate is so low – the government provides insufficient childcare resources (other than throwing money at the problem, as seen by the Betreuungsgeld uproar this past year) and forces women to choose between caring for children and advancing her career. And even if there were enough childcare options, the continuing social pressure for a parent to stay home seems to steer a lot of couples away from the messy situation of offspring. The US certainly has problems too, but I think Germany has more traditionalist expectations of women and seems less challenged by discussion.
So that’s me on my soapbox about politics and what I’ve seen of the alternative in Germany. AmiExpat has lots more. I encourage you to share your thoughts on the matter!