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.

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