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04/04/2007

Verboten

Politicians ban the pleasures of the working man in order to feel they have power over something. By Jens Jessen

The republic has been gripped by prohibitions. Anyone keeping an eye on the law-making institutions here will quickly reach the conclusion that politics, media and the majority of society in Germany are conspiring in the pursuit of one goal: to make life less pleasant. Alcohol and tobacco, dogs and fast cars, flights and computer games, television and fast food – everything that is fun, that promises a bit of warmth or distraction and comfort, that bolsters self-confidence or aids in escaping the every-day, even the modest pleasures of the working man are to be limited, regimented, taxed or simply made impossible. The process is disconcerting and almost grotesque in its systematization. Why this furor for discipline, this pleasure in restriction now, at a time when we're not exactly wallowing in excess or threatened by burgeoning wealth?

The official explanations of the prohibiting elite involve climate change, public health, and the real or imagined fear that our streets are full of biting dogs and computer-game-crazed kids. But they can't explain this point in time, nor can they defend their selection. We've known of the damaging effects of tobacco and alcohol for centuries; we've been calculating the emissions from cars and planes for decades without taxing them appropriately, so why now? The influence of pernicious media has been debated since the printing press was invented. The church introduced the Index Romanus in an attempt to mediate against the seductive powers but then, realising its uselessness, got rid of it.

Likewise, healthy and unhealthy food has been in the world since time immemorial and it's always been sad but true that the poor feed themselves worse than the rich. But nowhere is the randomness and populist irrationality of the prohibitions so clear as in the dog blacklist, on which the most dangerous of them all is not to be found, because it enjoys such popularity here: the German Shepherd. Instead we find, in addition to a few races of fighting dogs that definitely belong on the list, a dozen races which, due to their rarity alone, have absolutely no history of violence. But they do have rather suspect foreign names. They represent no real threat, they are projections of our office-bound fears, of things that might not be controllable.

There are dog rules, unwritten of course, for human society as well. They regulate the leisure-time activities of the potentially dangerous social classes, milieus and social groups that are not to be reached by bourgeois pedagogy, and could not be included in the green propaganda of ecological behavioural norms. Let's take a look at the objects of the planned prohibitive laws. Their class character laughs back at us, shamelessly: alcohol and tobacco, dogs and cars, cheap holidays and computer games, television and fast food.

These pastimes, supposedly blacklisted for medical or ecological reasons, embody the proletariat lifestyle. Booze and smoke: the working man's pub. Dogs and cars: the working man's sport. Flights to Mallorca: the working man's holiday. Television, video games and fast food: everything that makes you dumb, violent and fat. There's only one question that politicians wanting to prohibit the leisure activities of the people avoid: whether these are not simply the logical choices of people who don't have much in the way of professional perspectives or ambition.

After the most recent cutbacks in Hartz IV, nobody can claim that the unemployed and welfare recipients have too much money for cheap entertainments. The social reforms and changes in the labour market of the last years have systematically robbed them of hope: for employment, for subsidies, for social ascent, for society's respect and recognition. And now? Why should the only pleasures that they can still afford, that belong to their milieu, be taken away from them now?

One could make the case that we no longer want to entitle the new or old underclasses to the pleasures with which they compensate for their misery because we're dealing here with a completely different kind of compensation: for the powerlessness of politicians in the face of globalisation. It's precisely the unemployment and social marginalisation resulting from global economic competition that politicians operating at the national level cannot control, over whose social impact they have almost no influence. The only tools with which politicians can prove their mettle are laws of a low pedagogical variety: there's little danger that they'll scare off shy capital and good chances they'll persuade the middle class that things are happening.

Of course the most recent objects of prohibition are edging close to bourgeois mobility ideals. The masochistic equanimity with which the middle class discusses speed limits on the autobahn or highly taxed flights suggests that we're not dealing with ecological needs alone. It seems significant that we're starting to talk about a voluntary end to unlimited growth, when the zenith of Western growth has already been reached and the problems of the future are no longer being produced in Europe but in the third world. One could say that western citizens are punishing themselves now to abdicate for their sins of the past, and the poor example they have set for the rest of the world.

But that may be too rationally thought-through. There's something recognisably auto-aggressive in this new prohibition orgy. It's as though the European rage at the Chinese or Americans, who are not to be converted to environmentalism, is now being aimed at the Europeans themselves - like the obscure emotional process that brings the victim to mutilate himself if he can't avenge himself on his tormentor. This is implied in the strictly symbolic quality of much environmental protection – like recycling separation, which could be done much more efficiently in factories than in homes.

The justification generally comes with the explanation: environmental protection begins in our own backyard. The obvious uselessness of individual efforts is accompanied by the increasingly critical observation of the neighbours. In every series of prohibitions lies the possibility of escalation. It's based on the competition which defines the markets of both consumption and asceticism. Anyone who prohibits himself something, for whatever reason or neurosis, doesn't like to see someone else indulging in it. He who practises abstinence disapproves of his neighbour's sex, the anorexic can't stand the sight of bursting grocery bags, the wooden sandal-wearer looks down her nose at the chrome tanned pumps on the elegant madam. (Just as the dourness and envious ugliness of the first alternative zealots in the environmental movement contributed to its monastic retreat from reality.)

That's the most dangerous thing about the spirit of prohibition; once it's out of the bottle, it spreads like an infection whose first casualty is tolerance. Where much is being prohibited, it's easy to prohibit more because the unprohibited is so conspicuous; in the end, the tolerated takes the form of the explicitly permitted. It's wrong, by the way, to see the state or frustrated politicians as the sole cause; the state is no more than the agent of a society living out its dark, censoring, egalitarian basic instincts.

So the second victim of the prohibition epidemic is in the political realm. The virtue-terror only works at the individual level; the environmental wickedness of a system that is to be combated with political means remains hidden to systems that know no individual responsibility. And that, in the end, is the ecologically fatal flaw of the strictly individual orientation of these assaulting prohibitions. The fettered citizens are going to lull in security; the more unbearable the state regulations, the more relaxed they will feel. But such a society, that makes the individual citizen and he alone responsible for all possible environmental sins, can easily become the blind accomplice to the worst catastrophes on the international stage.

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This article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on March 22, 2007.

Jens Jessen, born 1955 in Berlin, has been feuilleton editor of Die Zeit since 2000.

Translation: nb
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