Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Thomas Sowell: Indignant over urban legends

There's a story floating around from email to email lately regarding the unemployment situation in Germany and how the government is forcing women into prostitution to get them off the welfare rolls. Mainstream new media in Britain and the U.S. have picked up on it, and today in the San Antonio Express-News I was treated to a column by conservative columnist Thomas Sowell:
A young waitress discovered one of these "solutions" recently when she turned down a job as a prostitute and was threatened with the loss of her unemployment benefits because prostitution—-"sex workers" is the politically correct term-—is a legal occupation in Germany, so a job offer from a brothel cannot be declined.

So far, so good. A concise statement of the facts. But then:
This is one of the many areas in which we Americans are lagging behind the more advanced thinking in Europe that our intelligentsia want us to imitate. However, in one sense the general pattern of political decision-making is very similar on both sides of the Atlantic: When political solutions create new problems, the answer is never to go back and stop doing what started a string of disasters in the first place.

Ah. I sense a deep-seated feeling of moral superiority emanating from Mr. Sowell. Note that he doesn't condemn legalized prostitution directly--only the "advanced thinking" of Europeans and "intelligentsia" of America. He is, naturally, painting with an oversized brush, tarring the opposition with the feathery spectre of mothers and daughters forced into a life of essential sexual slavery. Egads!
On the other hand, the mounting costs of unemployment benefits cannot be ignored—-and there is only so much that you can raise taxes to pay for these benefits without risking being voted out of office. The latest quick fix: Girl, take off your clothes and hop into bed, so that the government can save some money by not paying you unemployment benefits! Yet, in the eyes of much of the intelligentsia, it is America that is lacking in compassion because we don't have the kind of job security laws and generous unemployment benefits that Germany and other European countries have.

It apparently never occurs to right-thinking people-—which is to say, left-thinking people—-that such laws may have something to do with the fact that unemployment rates in Europe are not only consistently higher than those in the United States, but are especially higher when it comes to people who are unemployed for a year or longer.

Ah ha. So worker's rights and job security are the issue. Right. And women being forced into sexual slavery is Exhibit A . Which is all fine and dandy, except for the inconvenient fact that the waitress at the epicenter of Exhibit A does not exist.
In fact, the origin of this story was evidently a 18 December 2004 article published in the Berlin newspaper Tageszeitung (also known as TAZ) which did not report that women in Germany must accept employment in brothels or face cuts in their unemployment benefits. (Although it claimed there had been "isolated cases" of such, it did not provide any source or documentation to back up that statement.)

The Tageszeitung merely presented the concept of brothel employment as a technical possibility under current law; it did not provide any actual cases of women losing their benefits over this issue. The article also quoted representatives from employment agencies as saying that while it might be possible for employment agencies to offer jobs as prostitutes to "long-term unemployed" women, they (the agencies) could not require anyone to work in a brothel. (The agencies noted that brothels used "other recruitment channels" anyway.)

If there's one thing that gets my goat almost as much as Creationists monkeying with science textbooks, it's people reporting urban legend as fact. People, About.com and Snopes.com are your friends. When you hear an absurd story that is "absolutely true" even though it sound too bizarre to be, check them out before you forward it to someone else. That kind of sloppy writing ticks me off so much that I sat down and wrote a letter to the Express-News, and included a generous dollop of snark to go along with it:
I read with some interest Thomas Sowell’s column in the Feb. 8 edition of the San Antonio Express-News regarding an out-of-work German waitress who faced the loss of her unemployment benefits because she turned down an offered job in one of Germany’s legalized brothels. I found Mr. Sowell’s column confident and lucid, the ideas presented clear and concise. I, and anyone else reading the column, would have no trouble agreeing that Germany’s decadent bureaucratic morass--and by extension, Europe in general--is a tragic comedy of Orwellian proportions.

Except, of course, that it’s not true. It took me all of 10 seconds online to track down a thorough debunking of this urban legend at Snopes.com. With all the hoopla in recent years about accuracy and journalistic integrity, it strikes me as more than a little ironic that Dan Rather and the rest of the “Liberal Elite” media aren’t the only ones who refuse to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Mr. Sowell--if he ever see my missive (I forwarded a copy to Creators Syndicate as well)--will dismiss my protests as "semantics" or somesuch. That his main point of Germany (and the rest of the world, for that matter) going to hell in a handbasket is because of the morally bankrupt policies of the liberal "intelligentsia" is what matters. So what if his main example (and, I might add, the basis of his entire column) was not only faulty, but wrong? Hello, pot--it's the kettle calling...

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