Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The quiet #Mutti

The way #AngelaMerkel comes through in her lengthy New Yorker profile (“The Quiet German”) can provoke some mischievous thoughts. “She has always been,  ‘in her body language, a bit awkward’” (according to her long-time photographer); found public speaking “visibly painful…, her hands a particular source of trouble” – until “she learned to bring her fingertips together in a diamond shape over her stomach”; but still tends to speak in “toneless” voice, as if “reading out regulatory guidelines for the national rail system”; carries “an orange-red leather handbag that clashes with her jacket”; once worked on quantum chemistry, and still displays a “scientific habit of mind” (approaching “problems methodically” and with “scientific detachment” and empiricism – which makes her a sort of human “computer”); “was physically clumsy” as a child, and “could barely walk downhill without falling” (according to an earlier profile, she was five when she finally learned to come down stairs); looked “colorless,” as she wasn’t interested in clothes or in how her hair looked; her teacher had to “exhort [her] to look up and smile while offering another student a glass of water in Russian”; “is not a woman of strong emotions” (according to a prominent German journalist), and is hard to read due to her “emotional opacity”; doesn’t do well small talk; has “a reputation for accepting little criticism”; the way she stabbed her patron Helmut Kohl in the back “mixed Protestant righteousness with ruthlessness”; “is not from this world” (in the words of along-time political associate); has failed to develop “a fingertip feel for public opinion”; “plainness remains her political signature”; eventually came to appreciate the extent to which she and President Obama “were alike – analytical, cautious, dry-humored, remote.” These characteristics have been mentioned before, and previous articles can add some curious details – for example, about the way Frau Merkel left her first husband quite abruptly, taking away only the fridge from their Spartan apartment. And her eyes can look disturbingly empty in photos. But here the personality profile seems most complete.

George Packer, the author of the NY’r piece describing the "astonishing rise" of the German chancellor, mentions that she can be “lively and funny in private,” and has performed “wicked imitations” of world leaders. Still the preponderance of the evidence points in the opposite direction. Also, the impression that Merkel feels strongly about at least one thing – liberty – can be misleading, as Silicon Valley has become an epicenter of libertarian obsessiveness. In any case, one has to wonder to what extent this personal profile can explain the chancellor’s rigid approach to most issues – and particularly the way she has pushed for fiscal discipline in southern Europe “with no apparent regard for macroeconomic conditions” (and perhaps for the human consequences of years of “austerity”). Curiously, the vast majority of Germans have embraced her as a kindred soul – and a reassuring mother figure. In any case, the quirks Merkel has displayed are part of a broad spectrum – with Obama lacking most of the obvious symptoms (particularly those related to physical awkwardness), and someone like CIA director John O. Brennan appearing as a real cyborg by comparison (at his “torture” press-conference at least he surely came across as one, with his voice, body language, gaze, and vocabulary – referring to the “platforms you call drones,” refusing to make any qualitative assessment of the interrogation methods he defended, claiming that the utility of these practices will remain unknown as the “cause and effect relationship” there is “unknowable,” etc.).