REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

Do What I Say, Not…


edward tenner, a frequent contributor to the Review, is a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University.

Published December 9, 2022


Some recent New York Times articles reminded me of a decades-old exchange with one of my graduate school professors. The Times stories explained that while Americans had been telling pollsters that they were deeply concerned about inflation, they were continuing to buy branded products that had increased in price even faster than the overall cost of living. And despite expensive gasoline and rising hotel rates, they were also traveling much more. Why this gap between talk and action?

Stimmung versus Haltung

Back to my own 1970s episode. My dissertation advisor, Leonard Krieger, was not only one of the leading American intellectual historians of the time — protégé of a protégé of some of the greatest 19th-century German scholars — but also a veteran of World War II military intelligence. I asked him about German civilian morale during the last years of the war, whether the populace had lost faith in the regime. He said that he and his colleagues distinguished between the public’s mood, or stimmung, and its behavior under duress, or haltung. (The English word “bearing” comes closest to the latter.) The public grumbled but persevered.

Only later did I learn that the Allies had appropriated this analysis from none other than Hitler’s premier theorist of mass manipulation, Dr. Joseph Goebbels. This distinction became especially salient as the tide turned against the Reich after D-Day. German efforts to prop up domestic morale may even have worked at the expense of combat capacity. In his book, The Shock of the Old, The British historian of military technology David Edgerton, observes that the increasingly scarce metals, fuel and skilled labor that Hitler expended on so-called wonder weapons — in particular, the V-1 cruise missile and the V-2 ballistic missile that may have impressed the Nazi faithful but failed to break British morale as they were expected to — would have been far better used in defending the Third Reich with more fighter aircraft. (According to Edgerton, the V-2 budget could have produced 24,000 aircraft.)

How we spend our money is not the only realm of behavior with a stimmung-haltung gap. Consider privacy. Americans across the political spectrum are suspicious of the security of their personal data on social media sites — especially Facebook, which is distrusted by over 70 percent of Americans. Yet about the same proportion of Americans have Facebook accounts, and one statistical source projects the numbers will in fact rise to over 75 percent by 2027.

Still more surprising: the popularity of Alexa, Amazon’s voice recognition software now found not only on Amazon devices like Echo smart speakers but in a multitude of machines ranging from microwaves to SUVs. Indeed, the number of devices connected to Alexa has increased from 200 million to 300 million in only a few years. Corporate and government clients are generally confident that Amazon protects their data in the cloud. This should not necessarily reassure users of Alexa, though. 

In principle, Alexa does not begin recording user speech until it hears a so-called wake word. But it can wake up mistakenly a dozen times a day by mis-hearing a word. Yet such widely acknowledged privacy concerns have not materially affected adoption of Alexa-enabled devices or similar products running the Google and Apple voice-driven digital assistants. 

In its defense, Amazon does offer some strong privacy options, but how many people wade through the choices? Amazon’s acquisition of iRobot, which makes the popular Roomba self-propelled vacuum, raises additional issues since some models upload home layouts learned while vacuuming to the cloud. But in any event, concerns about Amazon as the privacy octopus with ever more tentacles have been overstated. (Jeff Bezos isn’t inclined to lose money on anything for very long, and according to the Wall Street Journal, Amazon’s devices unit, including Echo, is losing $5 billion a year.)

Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election was due in part to support from small town residents convinced that imports from China had devastated their economies. But here’s the kicker: their communities were (and are) enthusiastic shoppers at Walmart, which PBS Frontline documentaries dubbed a “joint venture” with China.
What, Me Worry?

In national security politics, too, stimmung and haltung do not always mesh. The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon raised the likelihood of additional, even more devastating attacks in many people’s minds. And while the initial fear that an encore was inevitable gradually faded, it hardly disappeared. Indeed, according to a Pew Research Center report published in 2014, concern over a new wave had actually been increasing. Among respondents, 34 percent said that terrorists were more able to launch a major strike, 36 percent believed the risk was unchanged and only 29 percent thought the likelihood had decreased.

Yet, despite these responses, it is difficult to find evidence that people made major changes in their lives because of existential fears. In the early Cold War years there was at least one famous case of such a decision. The founder of the Clark Art Institute, the Singer Sewing Machine heir Robert Sterling Clark (1877-1956), originally intended to open his collection to the public in a Manhattan townhouse. But since his home in Normandy had been destroyed in World War II, he was so fearful of a Soviet nuclear attack on New York that he chose to establish his museum in cooperation with Williams College. The college is in the northwest corner of Massachusetts about two hours from the nearest airport or train station and a fatiguing if scenic trip from Boston and the Big Apple.

By contrast, there was no such response to September 11: New York City condo prices rose steadily from the year 2000 to the Great Recession of 2009. In effect, New York real estate became a prediction market for the frequently discussed horror scenario of a dirty bomb smuggled into the city. For me, at the time, the what-me-worry price trend was the only reassurance I could find.

The Lure of Cheap Clothes

The most striking stimmung-haltung conflict of all may be the relationship among manufacturing, trade and politics. Dozens of books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles have publicized the decline of American manufacturing employment, especially in small towns in the Midwest. Automation has helped drive the trend for decades. Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election was due in part to support from small town residents convinced that imports from China had devastated their economies. But here’s the kicker: their communities were (and are) enthusiastic shoppers at Walmart, which PBS Frontline documentaries dubbed a “joint venture” with China.

The mood was dismay that good jobs were vanishing in their own communities. The behavior was that watching the Super Bowl on a 65-inch screen took precedence over buying American to maintain the jobs of other people like themselves.

But it’s unfair to point fingers at middle Americans when urban sophisticates have stimmung-haltung contradictions of their own. Many of the same people who deplore the environmental effects of mass textile production in principle are consumers of fast fashion — and without the protectionists’ excuse of financial necessity. Many love the Scandinavian modernist aura of Ikea’s assemble-it-yourself, globally sourced, flat-pack furniture that some experts say has a short life and winds up in landfills, where 12 million tons of furniture have already landed in the United States.

• • •

The lesson (to me, anyway): if we want a happier stimmung, we will have to work on our haltung.

main topic: Human Behavior