“Don’t mention the war!” is the catch phrase from “The Germans” episode of the British television series Fawlty Towers. I thought of this episode and John Cleese when I prepared a story for GetReligion on the New York Times‘ and Los Angeles Times’ reporting on the Bundestag’s vote to protect the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims by forbidding courts to ban the circumcision of infant boys.
The two Times were unable to get past the war in their reporting on this story, and ultimately missed the real story picked up by NBC, which was that German objections to circumcision were not crypto-Nazi prejudices but a consequence of the secularization of German society.
In “The Germans” episode, John Cleese, playing a concussed and bandaged Basil Fawlty, insults a party of German tourists dining at his hotel. Even though he warns his assistant Polly, “don’t mention the War”, he proceeds to do so with each line taking on a sharper tone. The comedy reaches its zenith when Basil gives an impression of Adolf Hitler and goose-steps round the hotel.
The humor in this episode comes from the interplay between the slightly mad Basil Fawlty’s attempts at maintaining bourgeois respectability and his German jokes. The audience also comes to this episode with a common cultural understanding that the Second World War was the fault of the Germans. However, being British, it is impolite to mention it.
Germans, like Catholics, remain one of the few “safe” topics of Anglo-American humor, and I find national stereotyping amusing. But when ethnic and national stereotypes blind reporters to the true issues at play, it is a problem for journalism.
My argument in this week’s Issues, Etc., show was that mentioning the war, e.g., alluding the Nazi past when referring to a court ban on circumcision, clouded the issues. As NBC News’ story pointed out, the objections to circumcision arose from the de-Christianized culture of Germany that ascribed no religious significance to the practice, and as such, viewed circumcision as a barbaric cultural practice that should not be permitted in an enlightened European state.
Ignorance of faith, not anti-Semitism, lay behind the circumcision ban. Well, that is what I hoped to have said. Listen — and let me know what you think.
If I blow this gig, could I try my hand at radio?