It's independence Day. What do you like about America?
I like NPR. Its reporting is well-researched, its comments intelligent, its talk shows interesting and engaging. (Some day, if I can muster the courage, I'll ask Terry Gross if she'll marry me.) I also like that NPR is financed mostly by private contributions. Every six months or so, they write me a nice letter asking me
if I'd like to contribute something. Usually I do. A week later, I get another friendly letter from them saying "thank you."
You Americans may not see what's so special about this, so let me tell you how this works in my old country.
In Germany, if you own a TV, a radio, or even just a networked computer, you have to pay a contribution to the government-run radio and TV stations whether you watch them or not. They have an organization called GEMA, kind of an IRS for the radio and TV contributions. If you don't pay, GEMA will presume that you're a free rider until you prove to them that you're not. They will send you threatening letters every half year or so, telling you to pay up or identify yourself as a non-owner of a TV or radio. If you know your rights, you know you don't have to, and you usually won't. Why would you prove to any company that you are not their customer? But most people I know don't really know their rights, so they cave in.
For about seven years of my life, I owned neither a radio nor a TV set, so I didn't answer GEMA's letters. Consequently, every year or so, I got a visit from two official-looking representatives. They would ask me if I owned a radio or TV. When I said "no", they gave me the Important Government Official Stare (TM), threw around some official-sounding words, and asked if they could look around in my apartment. Knowing my rights, I answered, "sure -- can I see your search warrant please?". That made them shrug and buzz off. You see, they're not police. No judge would give them a warrant if they asked for one. So they just play a game of pretending to be law enforcement without technically saying so, and see if they get away with it. They usually do. Over the decades, they have polished their shtick to perfection. And since most people neither know nor care about their rights, they tend to cave in, and the Very Important GEMA Officials get their way.
To be sure, Germany isn't Communist Russia. We do have the right not to answer to GEMA, and Germany's public TV and radio stations are definitely worth paying for. But, I prefer the way Americans run their public media. I prefer my letters friendly, and I appreciate the warm fuzzy feeling that rewards me every time I contribute to my local NPR station.
So that's one thing I like about America. Coming up on July 4th 2010: Baby diapering tables in men's restrooms. If you're a man, and if you're carrying around a toddler who needs a new diaper, you needn't use the ladies' room to change them! The possibilities in America are truly limitless!