A cultural divide laid bare

Prince Harry in a suit other than his birthday one.
Prince Harry in a suit other than his birthday one. (CHARLES DHARAPAK / AP)
Posted: August 31, 2012

By Tobias Peter

Rep. Kevin Yoder might be the first Republican in a long time to win a place in the hearts of many Germans. While Germans tend to be liberal, they also feel sorry for the conservative Kansas congressman who has been in hot water for a naked swim in the Sea of Galilee - the biblically prominent body of water that Jesus is said to have walked on.

Again and again, Yoder has apologized for the skinny-dipping incident, which took place a full year ago. Meanwhile, Germans and others across the Atlantic are wondering: What's the big deal?

Yoder might wish he could switch places with Prince Harry, Queen Elizabeth II's grandson. Harry recently lost a game of strip billiards while partying in a Las Vegas hotel suite; worse, other participants leaked photos of the prince cavorting in his birthday suit. However, the British public seems angrier with the people who leaked the photos than it is with Harry.

While Harry may have faced a reprimand from the queen or his father, heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles, many in Britain have reacted to the pictures with a shrug or a chuckle. From their point of view, the story only proves that the young royal is still up for some good, though brainless, fun. In fact, there are few worse things you can be called in Britain than "party pooper" or "spoilsport." That's why some Britons are even proud of their prince.

Telegraph columnist Dan Hodges wrote that Harry's behavior was ordinary for a young man and harmless. "I have to say though, if I'd ended up the way Prince Harry ended I'd have been pretty ashamed of myself," he added. "Mate, you've got to get your pool technique sorted out." London Mayor Boris Johnson said, "The real scandal would be if you went all the way to Las Vegas and you didn't misbehave in some trivial way."

Of course, Europeans might not praise a member of parliament caught skinny-dipping while on official business. Yoder was not on vacation, after all; he was traveling with a group of colleagues on a "fact-finding" trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation.

Nevertheless, a short spell without shorts would never cause such an uproar in Germany, where what a politician does while wearing his pants is usually considered more important than whether he takes them off to swim. There, a politician could probably get away with an excuse like: "What hardworking legislator would pack swim trunks for a business trip?"

Nudity is generally more accepted in Europe. In Germany or Finland, I would get strange looks if I wore trunks in a sauna, for example; in America, I could produce my own sauna scandal by not wearing them.

All this leads to the simple but clear conclusion that nudity is not a question of ethics, but of cultural convention. To a foreigner, it's hilarious that some Philadelphians challenge this convention with a yearly Naked Bike Ride. Next month, as part of the Philly Fringe and Live Arts Festival, the photographer R.A. Friedman also plans to buck prevailing norms with an open-invitation group nude photo shoot. It may not be everybody's idea of fun - it clearly isn't mine - but it shows there is room for different perspectives, and that not everything that's called a scandal has to be one.

Let's close, however, with some universal truths. Beware that, no matter how understanding the public is, your girlfriend might dump you if she sees a photo of you and another woman naked in her morning paper - as happened to Prince Harry, at least if we believe what the British tabloid the Sun is reporting. And: If you are a conservative politician who enjoys skinny-dipping, maybe you should do it somewhere other than the Sea of Galilee - though rumor has it that bathing fashions weren't much more sophisticated in Jesus' time.

Tobias Peter is a political reporter and news editor at the K├Âlner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper in Cologne, Germany. He is visiting The Inquirer as part of the International Center for Journalists' Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program. He can be reached at tpeter@philly.com.

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