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.