War of opinions: fleischhauer or stokowski?

Here the malicious "old white man," there the "angry young woman" – each with a reliably excited following. A pair of opposites like in a "Celebrity Deathmatch".

Margarete Stokowski (Spiegel columnist) and Jan Fleischhauer (Focus columnist) Image: Illustrations: Jan Robert Dunnweiler

I once saw Clausewitz on the desk of Christian Semler, the intellectual memory of the taz. That was long before Facebook, long before Twitter, long before the current upheavals – and yet an unusual reading in this place and by this man.

The citizen’s hat flies off his pointed head

In all airs it echoes like shouting

Roofers crash and fall to pieces

And on the coasts – one reads – the tide is rising.

The storm is here, the wild seas are hooting

On land, to crush thick dams.

Most people have a cold.

The railroads are falling off the bridges.

Jakob van Hoddis, World’s End

I spoke to him about it. Semler slumped back in his chair, fixed me with an inscrutable gaze through his thick glasses, and sighed, "The tragedy of the left is that it doesn’t want to know anything about military matters." A hobbyhorse for apocalyptic horsemen. War, he added amiably, is "ewww!" for the left on moral grounds alone.

And that, spoke the chastened Maoist at the time, was a mistake.

Today, we live in tougher times. Anyone who wants to can take on the "peculiarly casual compulsion of the better argument" on Twitter. He or she will make a mockery of himself or herself. Jurgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action currently appears more like a communicative civil war in practice. Whoever talks about opinions should at least try to talk about war.

A communicative civil war

Because the left is about to lose this war. And this despite the fact that it can win skirmish after skirmish.

It is losing this war on the front lines of power, where it has never really been able to gain a foothold purely politically or legislatively without access to the economy – and if it has, then only with cosmetic concessions to minorities. For economic reasons, the really big levers, such as a containment of neoliberalism in favor of more social legislation, remain untouched. Serious steps against ecological collapse, the greatest of all problems, have never been at the center of the "leftist cause."

On another front, however, the left seems to have been rushing from victory to victory for several decades. It is the level on which our society, as Georg Seeblen writes, must reach a "political, discursive, aesthetic, and moral" understanding of what it is and where it is headed, for its own sake.

This public discourse about the "res publica" is possibly the real battlefield in this dispute. This is about interpretive sovereignty. About what will tip the scales at the actual moment when democratic power is exercised – at the cross in the voting booth.

Opinions are complex and personal

What a person really thinks and wants can increasingly rarely be assigned to a specific direction. Opinions are the private result of a complex DIY bricolage of the traditional, the picked up, the learned. What is learned is particularly interesting. It’s true that editorials have long since ceased to be as important as they once were and editorial writers still like to believe. In a society that is atomizing itself, however, they can still provide orientation, like a magnet that gives iron filings a direction.

Right-wingers read Stokowski and left-wingers read Fleischhauer because they want to get excited. Really nice excitement.

If one had to name two poles of a heated debate that is not yet heated in itself, it would be Margarete Stokowski on the left and Jan Fleischhauer on the right. Before Fleischhauer moved to Focus, the two were still united at Der Spiegel in the sense of internal pluralism. In the meantime, they stand opposite each other like hostile opinion warlords, both with a loyal following. Those of the feminist even call themselves "Margarete Stokowski Ultras" on Facebook in safe semi-irony.

Here the conservative proselyte, there the progressive idealist. Here the malicious "old white man," there the "angry young woman. A pair of opposites as if for the "Celebrity Deathmatch" on MTV, and possibly in some ways that’s exactly what it is: wrestling. A show for the audience, and afterwards "the good guy" and "the bad guy" go out for a beer together.

The "opinion knight" is a fitting image in this context. An actually soft little man, screwed into the dazzling armor of his convictions, the "pointed feather" like a lance under his arm – on the high horse of the medium in whose service he stands. At full gallop, to the amusement of friend and foe.

The system of excitement feeds itself

After all, it’s not as if Harald Martenstein, Birgit Kelle and other conservative to reactionary columnists are only read by their "followers." The same is true at the other end of the scale for Sibel Schick or Hengameh Yaghoobifarah.

No one listens to Andreas Gabalier or Beyonce because they think their music "really sucks. But right-wingers read Stokowski and left-wingers read Fleischhauer because they want to get upset. Really nicely upset.

Anyone who wants to be successful in the opinion industry today knows about this effect – and deliberately serves his shadowy readership with piquant provocations. Sometimes, whoever doesn’t want to think of a topic just dives bravely to the bottom of the cesspool of social media. There, evidence of the hatred and stupidity of others can always be found – fresh material and, at the same time, crumbling evidence of one’s own relevance.

This is how the system of excitement feeds itself, a perpetuum mobile of stimulus and reaction.

A text as a whetstone need not be a bad thing

Doesn’t such a mechanism increase the confusion and thus the division of society? Doesn’t it distract from the real problems? Can anything be learned from such journalism?

Yes, and clearly. And yes.

This article comes from

taz FUTURZWEI N°12

Personally, I am a left-wing reader. As a reader in the classical sense, my reading is not primarily to solidify my beliefs. I also read to be confused. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, such a text as a whetstone. On the contrary.

Conservative popular journalism, for example, goes like this: "Not every saleswoman melts into tears when she hears about the fate of a migrant-moving sociology student whose biggest problem in life is that she’s often asked where she’s from." That, even minus the polemical points, is a connectable sentence. Maybe not for the minority of "migrant-moving" sociology students, but for the saleswoman. And her boss.

Popular Journalism Promises or Denies Common Ground

What the ostensibly conservative writes only ostensibly addresses the true conditions and problems. "Contradictions of interests" that reveal themselves to the "economic gaze" of a "Marxist-trained left" interest him only insofar as he can play them off against identity-political claims. There are also said to be "Marxist-trained" leftists who consider such things to be side contradictions.

This text opens up. It calls out to the doubting: Come here, into "Team Fleischhauer," we have something in common!

Left-wing popular journalism, on the other hand, reads like this: "It is remarkable when men first have to have daughters for the enlightening step that not everything is in order in terms of justice." This, again minus polemical points, is a far from inviting sentence. It is addressed to converts with the warning not to trust late converts.

What the ostensibly progressive writes addresses a justified problem – in order to conserve it. Whom the "enlightenment" has not yet reached all too late that "justice-wise" things are not at their best, must not participate in the improvement either. It is pure Machiavelli: "He, therefore, who wants to gamble away the possibilities of victory, let him use auxiliaries; for they are much more dangerous than mercenaries."

This text closes. It calls out to potential allies: Go away, "Team Stokowski" has no use for you, we have nothing in common!

"Strong voices" lead to a dead end

Now the inclusive "common" of conservatives leads nowhere. First of all, the common does not arise by itself, it wants to be produced. Also, whoever preserves it wants everything to remain as it is.

Unfortunately, even the denunciation of the "common" does not lead to the goal, because there is no longer any goal at all. A commonality is not even invoked, but dissolved into an unmanageable multitude of minorities and their particular concerns.

It is possible that the journalistic circus of supposedly "strong voices" is leading to a dead end. Everyone appeals to reason, to "common sense" – and no one lifts his head out of his trench anymore. Not out of fear of the enemy. But out of fear of coming under friendly fire.

We won’t get anywhere like that. How then?

Ending the war

Slavoj Žižek wrote about the so-called "canned laughter" in US comedies that it frees us from the compulsion to laugh at stupid jokes ourselves. The television already laughs for us. Similarly, wrestling, for all its entertainment value, is a rigged game. Maybe the individual wrestlers really don’t like each other, but their exhibition matches follow well-worn patterns. It leads nowhere.

Perhaps we should turn away accordingly from the mirror fencing, the smoke candles and the sideshows. And stop letting opinion knights gallop for us.

That would include simply getting out of the trenches and, all to ourselves, declaring the war over. No more skirmishes, no more battles. There are bigger issues than who occupies the "common ground" and has the most territorial gains. It would be a matter of saving the territory. And sharpening the focus on what is actually common ground.

On all coasts, one hears, the tide is rising. Shouting in all the air is of little use.