Feces, fascists, and Michael Lewis

By Felix Salmon
August 14, 2011
Kevin Drum doesn't think much of Michael Lewis's latest European dispatch for Vanity Fair -- and neither do I.

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Kevin Drum doesn’t think much of Michael Lewis’s latest European dispatch for Vanity Fair — and neither do I. There’s precisely one thought-provoking paragraph in the entire 9,600-word article:

One view of the European debt crisis—the Greek street view—is that it is an elaborate attempt by the German government on behalf of its banks to get their money back without calling attention to what they are up to. The German government gives money to the European Union rescue fund so that it can give money to the Irish government so that the Irish government can give money to Irish banks so the Irish banks can repay their loans to the German banks. “They are playing billiards,” says Enderlein. “The easier way to do it would be to give German money to the German banks and let the Irish banks fail.” Why they don’t simply do this is a question worth trying to answer.

Sadly, Lewis doesn’t bother trying to answer that question. Instead, he returns to the running theme of the article, which might be evident if I excerpt a few words from here and there:

excrement – anality – Scheisse (shit), Dreck (dirt), Mist (manure), Arsch (ass) – The Money Shitter – crapping – rear end – toilets – “shit” – “my little shit bag” – laxative – “Purgation-Calendar” – anal – “As the fish lives in water, so does the shit stick to the asshole!” – scatological – “I am like ripe shit, and the world is a gigantic asshole” – sitting on the john – indulgence in fecal imagery – Scheisskerl (“shithead”) – feces – one of his favorite things to do with women was to have them poop on him – filth – coprophilia – The Call of Human Nature: The Role of Scatology in Modern German Literature - bowel movements – ring of filth – shit – Scheisse – splattered by their mud – a men’s bathroom – urinate – sat in the stall – “shit” – crap – crap – “Lick my ass” – “Lick my ass” – anally obsessed – stewing in their own filth – energetic anality – a blowout with prostitutes – anality – “Kackwurst is the term for feces” – ‘shit sausage’ – Bescheissen: “Someone shit on you.” Klugscheisser: “an intelligence shitter” – “you are said to shit money: Geldscheisser” – Die Kacke ist am Dampfen: the shit is steaming – a secret fascination with filth – “Scheisse glänzt nicht, wenn man sie poliert—Shit won’t shine, even if you polish it” – “Scheissegal: it just means I don’t give a shit.” – stick figures engaged in anal sex – simulating anal sex onstage

Which is not to say that there isn’t a sub-theme here. There is:

Nazi – Hitler’s favorite words – Hitler’s doctors – Hitler – the Nazis’ ambition – provincial Nazis – Hitler – Göring’s Air Ministry – Hermann Göring – the only advantage to the German financial system of having no Jews – the new Holocaust Memorial – Jewish Museum – spending decades denying they had ever mistreated Jews – Nazi-era expropriation of shares in the zoo owned by Jews – Hitler’s bunker – German guilt – “the Jews” – there are no Jews in Germany, or not many – “They never see Jews” -When they think of Jews – their victims – terrible crimes – a Jew whose family was driven out of Germany in the 1930s – Aryan – A Jew’s Life in Modern Germany - HOLOCAUST – Nazis – Hitler – A landscape once scarred by trenches and barbed wire and minefields – another Holocaust Memorial

Yes, the article’s about Germany. And, like Lewis’s previous articles on European countries, it’s an attempt to shine a light on the European financial crisis through the lens of national stereotypes. This is a dangerous exercise at the best of times, but in this case Lewis has gone way over the line. His article fails to say anything new or interesting about what happened in Germany during the crisis. And that’s fine, it has a lot of company in that respect. Everybody has an off day. But this essay is worse than that: it forces us to re-examine all of Lewis’s previous articles in the series as well.

Lewis’s articles on previous countries have all been criticized within those countries for precisely the kind of stereotyping which is so pointlessly offensive in this one. Not only has Lewis descended to an extended scatological riff which demonstrates absolutely nothing about the Germans’ propensity to buy subprime-backed bonds; he’s done so while violating Godwin’s Law. (Full disclosure: I’m half-German, so not entirely impartial in this case.)

Lewis is the best writer in financial journalism by some large margin, and much of what he does when reporting and writing his stories is simply unique. His technique is a labor-intensive one: Lewis talks to an enormous number of people, works out what story he wants to tell, and then puts together various tales and individuals he’s discovered over the course of his reporting in the service of telling that story in the most entertaining and compellingly readable way. It doesn’t matter how important you are, or whether you’ve given Lewis an important nugget of unreported news: if it doesn’t help the structure of his story, he’ll happily leave it out.

There are other financial journalists who are excellent writers, albeit not very many of them. Matt Taibbi and the NYT’s David Segal spring to mind. But none of them are willing to subsume news in service of the story to the degree that Lewis is.

This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. In fact, in many ways it’s admirable. Lewis is an expository journalist by nature, and a master storyteller; he’s not a muckraker or news-breaker. We have far too few storytellers in financial journalism, while there are literally thousands of journalists looking to break incremental pieces of news. It’s clear where Lewis’s value lies — he can explain what’s going on to a broad audience of Vanity Fair readers, and doing so in a way that they love to read. No one else could make them care about Greece’s role in the European financial crisis; Lewis’s article on the country is a veritable master class on how to take a dry and recondite subject and make it thoroughly entertaining.

But Lewis’s incredible facility at storytelling is a powerful tool, and we have to be able to trust the craftsman who wields it. Lewis’s stories tend to be far more deeply reported than they seem at first glance, and in order for us to trust that he stands on the side of the angels we have to be able to trust in his judgment about what exactly the real story is. Because his raw material is extensive enough to support just about any thesis he wants.

And this is why the Germany story worries me. Not because it’s wrong, exactly. Lewis hasn’t suddenly converted to some crazy theory of the European financial crisis which fundamentally misstates what’s going on, or misleads his readers. But when he reaches so readily for the feces and fascists, Lewis does make us question his broader judgment. No honest accounting of Germany’s role in the financial crisis would — or should — include either.

I’m inclined to see the lapse of judgment in this case as being one of style rather than substance, and I continue to be a huge fan of Lewis’s journalism generally. But the lines do blur. Malcolm Gladwell has said that good non-fiction writing “succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you”, rather than on its necessarily being right convincing. The result, at least in Gladwell’s case — and, for that matter, in Taibbi’s, too — is oversimplification in the service of style. Lewis, with his Germany piece, has done something a bit different: he’s demonstrated so little faith in the ability of his subject matter to be interesting that he’s resorted to the laziest stereotypes of all. You could even say he’s the kind of person who files a polished and prestigious article for Vanity Fair, but who, on closer inspection, turns out to have filled it up with excrement.

Update: Gladwell responds in the comments, to say that while he’s OK with readers being engaged but not convinced, he’s not OK with being wrong.

20 comments

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Felix Salmon reviewing Michael Lewis is the new killing it

Posted by johnhhaskell | Report as abusive

So much pointless crudeness. For a while I was quite convinced I was reading Matt Taibbi.

Posted by Mr.Tuxedo | Report as abusive

Felix, I like your post because it describes very well what Lewis is doing – and in a very balanced way, too. And yet, I like his approach, and I like his piece on Germany (and I am German!) I am ready to accept that his thesis on the anal nature of the German national character serves to lure in readers, and since it’s humorous and entertaining, I don’t mind at all. I agree that there is a fine line between style and substance, between stereotype and social analysis, but Lewis is on to something when he talks about the nature of risk taking in German culture and the obvious contradiction between a nation of savers and the behavior of IKB and some other banks before the crisis erupted (which he has researched well). I certainly felt engaged by his piece. Have the kind of issues Lewis is exploring played any role in the German media, back in 2008 or since then? No, for a lack of style and substance in public discourse, if I may say so – even though they are immensely relevant to the present Euro crisis. Lewis has tackled the subject, and you and others have responded well – but don’t expect his thesis to be discussed in the German media (except for a post on Spiegel Online – http://bit.ly/pvGRod – which, sadly, speaks for itself).

Posted by Wolffsbureau | Report as abusive

Felix! Wait! What I actually said was that good writing succeeds or fails on its ability to engage, not on its ability to CONVINCE–which, as I’m sure you will agree, is a very different point altogether than your version. I would never say that I would rather be interesting than correct. Rather, I believe that if my readers find me interesting–but aren’t convinced that I am correct–then I haven’t necessarily failed. Mind you, this does not absolve me of the occasional sin of oversimplification in the service of style. But if that were a sin, then all writers would be in jail. :-)

Posted by malcolmgladwell | Report as abusive

Felix! Wait! Would the real Malcolm Gladwell use a smiley? And at 9:46 AM on a Sunday morning, wouldn’t he still be sitting up in bed reading the NY Times like every other New Yorker, instead of typing away at you on a laptop?

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

Well done Felix. I am not impartial either as my wife is German and I would happily live in Munich or Frieburg if she would. The impression I had was there was a good article in there, about the foolish behaviour of German bankers. But for some reason it had to be surrounded and overwhelmed by all the silliness about scatology and Nazis, which is unfortunately what most people take away from the article. This is not the first article I have read recently which ends up being about this search for the German character. Are Germans and Germany really that much of a mystery?

Posted by wpw | Report as abusive

I remember reading a piece which explained that many US troops found the people and culture of Germany much more sympathisch and understandable in their advance across the continent late in World War II than they did any other European nation. Something to do with their nice, solid bourgeois values.

I also remember being surprised when a British friend explained to me that Germans comprised the largest ethnic group of immigrants to the United States. I wonder what, if anything, these two nuggets have to say about Americans’ view of Germans in general and Michael Lewis’s in particular.

Posted by EpicureanDeal | Report as abusive

Lewis has been writing about the financial crisis’ origins and impact on different nations by including a perspective based on the nations’ cultures. And when you write about the culture of a nation as large as Germany, you are going to come up with a lot of stereotypes that just apply to a small percentage of the country. If you read all of the features on America that pollute the printed and web world, you would think it’s a nation of christian tea partiers who spend every night watching reality TV shows. While that demographic does exist here (and sadly, they are allowed to drive cars and vote), it’s a very small percentage of the population. But it’s great for attracting readers and the advertisers who will pay plenty to have their ads ignored by those readers in search of entertainment.

The countries in the EU are all different, and just like the states in the US, there are going to be some that are in more trouble than others (keep in mind that virtually every nation in the world has economic problems of some degree). Germany happens to be one of the more fortunate countries, whether due to chance or conscious choices, and they have to realize it. They need to stop whining about the indebted nations in the EU, because if it weren’t for those free spenders, the euro would be at $2 right now. And if the Euro was worth $2, Germany wouldn’t be exporting all those Mercedes’, BMWs, Audis, machine tools, and other labor-intensive, high ticket items that keep their economy afloat. If they return to the DM, their exports will be cut in half. They need to understand this, that it’s cheaper to back up the GIPSI countries than to deal with the higher unemployment they would undoubtedly experience, which would put them in the same boat as the US, and make them forfeit their right to tsk tsk America’s debt addiction.

Is the article Lewis’ best work? No, but it’s interesting, as everything he writes is. And like usual, it gets people to think, not just absorb, but unfortunately the thinking is about the wrong $hit.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

Speaking of stereotyping, Berlusconi just summed up the Italian government better than any financial writer ever could:

“Berlusconi insists the measures will be passed by parliament quickly when lawmakers return from vacation.”

Posted by JBMcMunn | Report as abusive

” But when he reaches so readily for the feces and fascists, Lewis does make us question his broader judgment. No honest accounting of Germany’s role in the financial crisis would — or should — include either.”

Uh ok. Or you could, you know, entertain and explore the idea that if someone wasn’t able to overrun the rest of the world in one fell military swoop, they might regroup and think about doing it using their Köpfe. Let’s see: People are greedy and fearful, so use those nozzles to inflate and collapse a giant bubble? Too much rope sort of thing? Ja?

Posted by Uncle_Billy | Report as abusive

I think The Guardian’s John Lanchester should be added to your list of financial journalists who are also excellent writers. I’m not completely sure he qualifies as a financial journalist, more of an outsider looking in; probably one of the aspects that makes him so engaging. He also writes excellent restaurant reviews.

Does anyone else have any recommendations ?

Posted by RHarley | Report as abusive

Nicolas Dunbar wrote one of the best books on modern finance – Creating money – and one of the best books on the latest crisis – Devils Derivatives. Someone who actually bothered to learn the technicalities, which happen to be rather important.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

German mothers leave their babies to marinate in their own excrements?! Eewww!

Felix, you said you were half German. What half is that?

Posted by EmilianoZ | Report as abusive

“By their fruits ye shall know them.” If malcolmgladwell wants to refute the charge that he’s more interested in being engaging than being right, he will need to explain this (nonsensical mis-application of economic model) and this (pitching a tent for a patent troll).

Posted by minderbender | Report as abusive

I guess links aren’t allowed?

Nonsensical economic theory:

http://www.gladwell.com/2006/2006_08_28_ a_risk.html

Pitching a tent for a patent troll:

http://www.gladwell.com/2008/2008_05_12_ a_air.html

If the links don’t appear, you can find the articles in the New Yorker archive on Gladwell’s website. One is called “The Risk Pool” and the other is called “In the Air.”

Posted by minderbender | Report as abusive

“What I actually said was that good writing succeeds or fails on its ability to engage, not on its ability to CONVINCE–which, as I’m sure you will agree, is a very different point altogether than your version.”

I’m not sure about good writing, however as Malcolm has clearly demonstrated, monetary success certainly hinges on the ability to engage (regardless if the thesis is convincing or insightful).

Posted by inboulder | Report as abusive

Sorry, but as gracefully written as “malcolmgladwell”‘s rebuttal was, I can’t accept that the real MG has nothing better to do than to split hairs with Felix on a Sunday morning. Which raises a far more interesting issue: why on earth would anyone want to impersonate Malcolm Gladwell?

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

Lewis posits that due to the Germans scatological obsession,for which he creates an argument which he believes to be humorous, they drew toxic investments to themselves. Ok good, so it wasn’t the rapacious greed and deceptive manipulative tactics of Wall Street Bankers.

Posted by kidingme | Report as abusive

i don’t buy the whole thing. the Nazis were some of the least ‘conservative’ bankers in the world, and their descendants ran the banks. the first synthetic CDO lawsuit was by a german bank. his own Big Short features Lippman, a Deutschebank employee, whose bosses know he is running around shorting CDOs while other parts of DB are selling CDOs. i cant help but think there must be more to the story than ‘uptight conserative german dudes who cant conceive of bad products’.

Posted by decora | Report as abusive

This is racism pure and simple – an “opinion maker” of Jewish extraction “dumping” his barley concealed animosity against the Germans and trying to pass off the disgusting result as a piece of serious journalism. He is the mirror image of anti-Semites who accuse Jews of degrading society with moral filth – Freud and his theories on “anal fixation” being just one popular example. Just imagine if someone had written this filth about Jews – he would be drawn and quartered, so to speak. In any case, Lewis’ filthy spewings saw a lot more about his own squirming-like-a-toad mind than it does about the Germans. Go to hell, you hater!

Posted by Salmagundi | Report as abusive