Interview with the Soul of Angela Merkel
Philosophers' Mail Interview Principles
The Philosophers' Mail has secured access to the inner lives, the souls if you like, of some of the most famous and influential people on the planet. On a regular basis, we will bring you interviews with the movers and shakers defining our times.
We never work through PR agencies, we never attend press conferences and in fact we have never met any of the people we have interviewed.
We have a distinctive view of what is needed properly to get under the skin of a celebrity. Most news outlets try and get in the same room as the person, and then ask them questions, hoping thereby to work out who their subjects 'really' are. But that can be a frustrating process.
The journalist sits opposite the subject in a hotel suite and sees their questions ricochet off their armour. Most subjects don't know 'who' they are, or they don't want to tell you.
We prefer to go with the evidence that is already there. By definition, there will always be quite a lot already. We chew it over, hoping thereby to touch on a few of the essential things that make celebrities interesting.
We pick subjects to interview from whom we think there is stuff to learn. We don't think the people we feature are excellent in every respect. In fact, they are invariably a bit awful in some ways. But that does not make the virtues they do possess any less instructive.
Angela Merkel has just embarked on a third term as Chancellor of Germany - the most robust economy in the developed world and the country with the most traumatic political history on the planet. She's the de facto leader of the EU, which had a collective GDP of nearly 16 trillion US dollars in 2012, slightly larger than that of the USA itself. She is the final arbiter of the fates of Greece, Portugal and Spain. The fragile debt position of Ireland, Slovenia and Cyprus means that the most consequential decisions about their future may well be made by her. No democratic leader in Europe has ever had such power.
Every day, she faces a lot of very uncommon problems. Righ now, Merkel wants her country to have a great economic relationship with the US but she also needs to rein in Washington's penchant for spying on her. Maybe she'll find a good solution and budding leaders of major countries should probably study her moves carefully. But it's not exactly an issue most people need help with learning how to handle.
So what might be the point of Merkel for us? Why might studying her example yield something even if our lives are rather less dramatic than hers. In our eyes, the German Chancellor exhibits two virtues in particular: calm and independence. We don't personally need to take a lesson from her in how to design a good working relationship between Europe and the US - since that's not a task that's likely to fall to us. But it would be good to see how she keeps panic down to manageable levels and how she sticks to her guns without alienating everyone.
Merkel is the least glamorous woman - and possibly the least glamorous person - ever to have occupied a central geopolitical position.
German voters like to refer to Merkel as Mutti - mummy. There might be bad reason why they do this: she's a woman, she's in charge, they want to insinuate that she's bossy or that she treats the people like babies.
But there's a good reason for the name too. Ideally, a mother stays helpfully calm when other people are getting fretful and anxious. Although Merkel has no children of her own, she is in many ways like a harassed single mum. She's tired, she's got money troubles on her mind, she sits up late worrying; the kids are squabbling. And it's always going to be like this. She doesn't expect gratitude or a great big birthday present. She knows they won't thank her, really. She's not complaining. There's no alternative. She'll often have to say no when they want her to say yes. She wishes she could buy them all ice-creams, but she knows she can't afford it. She's got to be the one who is sensible. She gets overlooked. Other people's frustration and disappointment are taken out on her. She just has to accept it. No-one cares if she's having a good time - and that's OK.
The mother is harangued but stays steady.
Merkel seems to have taken early resignation from some standard ambitions that arise in a modern economy, in politics and simply from being a woman: to be liked, to look good, to fall in love, to make money, to be loved by crowds. When these avenues of hope get blocked, it normally drags a person down; they get bitter, disheartened and fragile. But by disengaging from them, Merkel has been freed up to focus very well on other kinds of success. Perhaps she learned quite young - not being very gregarious or standarly pretty - that she was never going to get a whole lot of things that might come to other people. She is unfazed by kinds of opposition that might very naturally put other people into a tailspin.
Merkel comes across as being able to cope well with the hysteria of others. She's encountered a lot of craziness before. She can hear what's being said at political rallies in Greece, even if they are waving placards of her with a toothbrush moustache. She's unflustered, unshockable; she doesn't need the melodramatic person to sort themselves out before she is able to listen.
This kind of calm is quite special and, fortunately, it transfers from the political arena to the domestic scale. The avoidance of panic matters, of course, in grand politics - when economies are in a serious trouble; but it matters also when one's partner is thoroughly worked up; when an employee is losing the plot; when a child gets hysterical. It's then that we want to be more Merkel-like, where her conspicuous example serves as an inspiration and a comfort. We face these difficult situations not because we have failed but because they are unavoidable parts of what it means to take responsibility.
There's another quality Angela Merkel exhibits which sounds utterly unremarkable, at first. She seems to know what she thinks. It has little to do with being pig-headed or dogmatic. Rather it involves keeping faith with your genuine insights when there is pressure to lose a grip on them. It means not being thrown into confusions when certain things get tough, because you've thought through what you are doing, you know why it is sensible. The ideal of conviction politics resonates deeply in the modern world. We feel that politicians lack conviction not because they lack intellect or are weak characters - far from it. It's a worry that can apply to political figures who are clearly very smart and strong willed. Rather it gets at something we intuit more often than we articulate: we suspect that many politicians do not actually quite know what they believe.
Knowing what you think isn't so easy when he's looking over your shoulder.
In talking about Angela Merkel's virtues we don't mean to imply that everything she does is perfect, or that she has identified absolutely the right policies for Germany or for Europe.
What we are trying to do is to pin down what she does get right in order to pay her the greatest homage: trying to copy her at certain challenging moments of our lives.