Biathalons, Polar Bears and Xenophobia! Oh My!

January 14, 2008

In some ways, Germany and the U.S. really aren’t that different. They are both Western, industrial countries that have been strongly influenced by each other, both economically and socially. But after going back and forth, as I did over Christmas, some small differences become apparent. Like what’s on TV. Flipping through the channels here in Deutschland, I sometimes feel like I’m on another planet.

First of all, I have never seen so much coverage of biathalons. Who knew that cross-country skiers who occasionally stop and shoot at little round targets could be such a crowd-pleasing sport? It must be because 3 or 4 channels seem to broadcast live coverage every day. There is often an entire page dedicated to the winter sport in the newspaper each day. I don’t really get it because it doesn’t really snow that much in Germany, really just in the south, and as far as I know, guns aren’t nearly as popular here as they are in the states. But every year in January, when the American tv viewers are gorging themselves on college football bowl games and NFL playoffs, the Europeans are watching ski jumping. And if they’re not watching that, then they’re probably watching some documentary on polar bears, which brings me to my next point.

There is a polar bear media frenzy in this country. I get it, bears- especially the baby ones—are cute. Should they be the main story on the news every night? I’m not so sure about that one. But the Germans just can’t seem to get enough of watching those little cubs wiggle their paws and blink. And, to the media’s delight, the world of captured polar bears is full of drama that would be fitting for a soap opera.
It all started with Knut in 2006. The little bear cub was born in the Berlin Zoo, abandoned by his mother, then bottle-fed by his keeper, Thomas Dorflein. That was all fine and good while Knut was no bigger than a cocker spaniel, but Knut kept on growing…and growing. Some people speculated (and still do) that Knut would one day attack his keeper in a moment of natural instinct and oedipal rage. That hasn’t happened yet, but Knut only just turned one year old.
Knut now has some competition for the limelight. Three more bears were born in Nuremburg several weeks ago. As with Knut, the mothers seemed to reject their newborn kids. This time, rather than intervene right away, the zookeepers let nature take its course. Result: one mother ate both of her babies. The third cub was rescued before it suffered a similar fate. Now that the cublet so far named “Flocke” is known to be a girl, there are already rumours about her hooking up with Knut in the future. Aah the drama!!!!! The local paper has started a daily Flocke column that updates readers with her weight (to the gram) and activities (such as moving around). Oh my.

When I actually think about it, though, the polar bear obsession actually fits quite well with the average German psyche. After all, polar bears are threatened by the melting ice caused by global warming. And I can think of no other topic (other than pointing out the foolishness of the Iraq war or perhaps the black hole of human rights that is Guantanamo Bay) that gets Germans so riled up as with Global Warming.

The third and final thing that the media just can’t report enough on is the topic of youth violence. Apparently two kids with an immigrant background attacked an old man in the Munich subway. The beating was caught on tape and the politicians and media have just been having a field day with it. I don’t think I’ve watched the news one day in the last week without seeing that footage of the attack. Over. And over. And over. It is on the news, on the talk shows, everywhere. The conservative party has been using the event (and several similar ones) to fuel their campaign, saying that “It’s the foreign kids that are causing all this trouble.” I’ve really been shocked at some of the things that high-ranking politicians have been saying. Their language is really divisive, as if they are saying that all foreigners are dangerous and are bringing German society down. They keep pointing out all kinds of cases where foreign kids (note:this usually implies brown-haired, muslim ones) have repeatedly been caught for violence and other crimes. But they are NOT talking about the cases where German neo Nazis have beat up immigrants and implying that all Germans are therefore Nazis. For some reason, they have no problem making a similar outlandish conclusion in the other direction, with the finger pointing at “the others.”

Typical xenophobic rhetoric, and just in time for the election season. Sigh. What a shame.


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