What the BBC Gets Right, and German Public Broadcasters Get Wrong

German conservatives accuse the publicly-funded German TV networks ARD and ZDF (and radio stations) of liberal bias. Which is a problem, since the mandate of these license-fee funded networks is to provide a fair and balanced representation (g) of the spectrum of opinion in Germany. The public has no choice but to support these networks — the most expensive public-broadcasting system in Europe — so they should represent the entire spectrum of mainstream public opinion.

But do they? A new study offers ammunition to the critics. The Reuters Institute and Oxford University recently conducted a comparative study of public broadcasters in eight European countries. The study was designed to determine who the audience for public broadcasters were, what sorts of programs they watch or listen to, and how the Internet was affecting news consumption. The study found that in almost all European countries, the audience for public service media (PSM) was older and more educated than the audience for competing private channels, which comes as no real surprise.

The study also decided to test whether audiences perceived a political bias in public programming. It found (pdf) that German public broadcasters had a more liberal audience, and were more distrusted by conservatives, than almost all other European public broadcasters:

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Only in Greece was there a bigger left-right gap in trust in public service media. The BBC  gets noticeably better marks across the board.

The study is confirmed by observation: German public television has an evident center-left bias. Nobody who watched it for any significant length of time doubts this. The bias emerges from two factors which interact with each other. First, most journalists travel within an educated urban center-left filter bubble. Second, they are driven by a conception of the journalist’s role as activist for the underdog.

The long hangover from National Socialism has infused every aspect of polite German society with a “never again” morality, which is not a bad thing in many respects. But in journalism, it fosters overt bias and sloppy reporting. Before reporting about controversial issues, the typical center-left German journalist decides who the underdog and who the oppressor is, then structures the story to ensure that even the dullest viewer knows which moral judgments the reporter wants them to make. The underdog’s story is presented without any critical questioning and, as often as not, with a big wet sloppy kiss of sentimentality.

This is why conservative, or even just independent-minded viewers, quickly give up on German public media news reporting on certain issues. It’s not just that the bias is grating, it also makes for dead boring journalism. As soon as you hear “nuclear”, “McDonald’s”, “capitalism”, “refugee”, “EU”, “climate”, “Trump”, “USA”, “death penalty”, “Africa”, “police”, “Saxony” or other trigger-words, you know exactly what’s coming. There are never any surprises. It’s not so much that the reporting is inaccurate — although it often is — or that the bias is morally suspect. It’s just tedious and condescending to the viewer.

Let me provide a concrete example of what German journalism does wrong, and the BBC does right. Recently, two controversial public figures were charged with breaking the law for political reasons. One of them is the German ship captain Carola Rackete, who violated an order from the Italian foreign ministry to keep out of Italian waters, and brought migrants whom she had rescued at sea to the Italian port of Lampedusa. She was charged with numerous crimes for doing so. Rackete, free on bond, went on a German public-television talk show to be interviewed by Dunya Hayali. This was the result:

For those of you not yet German-powered, I’ll summarize. The moderator asks Rackete why she brought the migrants to Italy, why she didn’t choose another port, what the situation was like on board, what she thinks drives people to leave Africa, and how she felt during the crisis. Rackete is permitted to go on and on and on justifying her actions and setting forth her point of view, often to bursts of applause from the audience. The only hint of critical questioning is when the interviewer asks Rackete whether she can understand Europeans who think accepting millions of Africans might be too much, to which Rackete replies: “No, actually not.”

Rackete’s views are extremely left-wing, far to the left of the average German, but she’s allowed to spin them in a crowd-pleasing way, without being asked about the consequences of her favored policies. (The idea that German public media would grant an extreme right figure so much uncontested airtime is unthinkable.) The interview is one softball after another. Seldom has a controversial public figure with extreme political views been given such a sensuous tongue-bath, at least in public.

Now let’s turn to another controversial public figure who broke the law for political reasons: Roger Hallam, leader of Extinction Rebellion, the group which goes around blocking streets and chaining themselves to buildings to protest climate change. (Rackete wore an Extinction Rebellion T-Shirt during her interview). Here he is being interviewed for BBC’s Hard Talk by Stephen Sackur:

Now that’s what I call journalism. Hallam is allowed to state his point of view, but is challenged by Sackur at every turn with relevant questions backed by independent research. The result is an informative exploration of the climate crisis, and of circumstances which do and do not justify civil disobedience. It makes the German interview look like a celebrity puff-piece, which it basically was. And a conservative or independent-minded BBC viewer could also enjoy the Hallam interview, because Sackur, unlike the German journalist, actually asks the questions that would immediately occur to viewers who were skeptical of, or disagreed with, Hallam’s political views.

The BBC is far from perfect, but it’s a far sight better than ARD and ZDF. Because it treats its viewers as competent adults who can make up their own minds.

German Word of the Week: Pointendichte

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A few days ago a friend and I, in a state of complete sobriety, were comparing television sitcoms from the 1970s and the present day. The biggest contrast is the frenetic pace of modern sitcoms. The chart above shows how much faster-paced The Simpsons became during its early years. Nowadays, in any reasonably well-written sitcom (I’d cite Archer, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, The OfficeRick & Morty, Brooklyn 9-9, but of course YMMV)*, nary a minute goes by without 10-15 rapid-fire separate jokes. They can’t all be zingers, of course, but as long as the average quality is high enough, it hardly matters: you’re a deer in the headlights of comedy, dazzled and delighted by a remorseless cavalcade of whimsy!

I consider this progress: Using bleeding-edge humor techniques, TV writers now give us 3 times the laughter for the same amount of money and time. And believe it or not, German has a word for exactly this: Pointendichte. You pronounce the first half of the word Frenchified: “Pwanten”; the second half is the German word for “density”. Pointe (g), obviously a loan-word from French (let’s hope they don’t ask for it back, baDUM-tss), doesn’t mean joke, strictly speaking, more like a witty observation or clever jab. But that’s splitting hairs. So Pointendichte literally translates as “joke-density”. But sounds much classier.

English should consider adopting this word. It will be a hard sell because it’s not easy to pronounce. But still, it’s a crisp, efficient, and stylish way of describing something that doesn’t have a word in English.

And to end this post, my favorite joke — or Pointe, if you will (and you will) — from The Simpsons:

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Rocks Don’t Love You Back

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Someone writing in a journal which calls itself a “topology of unstable confluences” meditates on, well, something having to do with rocks. Probably.

The love of stone is often unrequited.

An intimacy of long unfolding fails to be apprehended, and the story concludes in familiar solitudes, human exceptionalism and lithic indifference. Withdrawal and remoteness are inevitable themes within any romance of stone, since rock outlasts that which it draws close, that which draws it close, that to which it is strangely bound. Humans respire, reproduce, invent, desire and dream. The lithic inhabits the secret interiors of the earth. What could be more cloistered? Inorganic, nothing like the familiar animals we conditionally welcome into community, an everyday material that surfaces blunt rebuke to assimilation, stone remains aloof. Yet a mutuality is always possible, some narrative of companionship and concurrency. This essay maps geophilia, a pull, a movement, and a conjoint creativity that breaches ontological distance. Even if born of a general principle of matter, geophilia’s mobility and clasp possess their own rocky effects, in the quadruple sense “effects” carries of aftermath, agency, production, and belongings. An elemental geophilia surely exists outside human experience. Yet to us nonlithics, its force will be most evident in the relations that enmesh us over long scales of time and in the “storied matter” these confederations of the human and inhuman divulge.[1]

Monstrous child of the meeting of incompatible scales, queer progeny of impossible taxonomic breach, geophilia is the lithic in the creaturely and the lively in the stone. Humans walk upright over earth because the mineral long ago infiltrated animal life to become a partner in mobility. Vertebral bone is the architect of motion, the stone around which the flesh arranges itself to slither, run, swim and fly. Had the organic not craved durable calcium as shield and conveyor, numerous types of sedimentary rock would never have arrived. A common mode of petrogenesis (creation of stone) unfolds when tiny ocean dwellers settle in their mortuary billions to the subsea muck. Limestone is a thick cemetery of mineral that had become animal now become rock again. Propelled by slow tectonic force upward into cliff and mountainside, limestone might be quarried to build a radiant carapace under which humans pray, govern and make purchases. The whorls and coils of unfamiliar sea life such stone divulges have fascinated masons since at least Neolithic times. We create art with stone because we recognize the art that stone discloses: fossils, a museum of strata, lustrous veins and faceted radiance. We think and reckon with stone, primordial invitation to extended cognition (calculus is the Latin word for small stone, an essential component of an abacus). With its keen heft we compose and kill. From rock we construct graves, memorials, and dwelling places to endure long after we become earth again. In its aeonic endurance we discern something ardently desired, something ours only through alliance. Stone is devoid of neither life nor love, even if it questions what we mean when we use those terms to enclose a small world.

Expansive, dilatory, recursive, semicyclical from a long perspective, full of residuum, temporal intimacies, intermixed strata, geophilia entwines the modern and the ancient, the contemporary and the medieval, the primordial with expansive futurity.

German Word of the Week: Witzelsucht

This is both a German and and English word of the week. Here’s the English Wikipedia entry:

Witzelsucht (German: joking addiction“) is a set of pure and rare neurological symptoms characterized by a tendency to make puns, or tell inappropriate jokes or pointless stories in socially inappropriate situations. It makes one unable to read sarcasm. A less common symptom is hypersexuality, the tendency to make sexual comments at inappropriate times or situations. Patients do not understand that their behavior is abnormal, therefore are nonresponsive to others’ reactions. This disorder is most commonly seen in patients with frontal lobe damage, particularly right frontal lobe tumors or trauma.

The Wikipedia article goes on forever, even including case studies:

Case #1: A 30-year-old, right-handed man was admitted to the department of neurology for irritability, inappropriate behavior, and morbid hyperphagia with obesity. His inappropriate laughter and persistent pun and joke telling was a sharp contrast to his personality as an intellectual theological scholar, known for his exceptional memory as opposed to his sense of humor. This behavior was generally prompted by environmental stimuli such as physician’s rounds or blood sampling. To the patient, his behavior seemed normal, which explains why he remained nondiscriminating toward his jokes, their context, and their impression on those around him.

I scoured the Internets for clips of people actually suffering from witzelsucht (no capitalization in English), but I found only sarcasm and mockery:

Apparently, people seem to have a problem taking joking addiction … wait for it … seriously.

For an example of an even rarer condition, see this heartbreaking case study, dramatized by English actors:

 

The Neglected, Overgrown, Eldritch Hubbelrath Valley

A few days ago I took Tapio, my mountain bike, out for a ride through Düsseldorf’s most neglected nature preserve: Hubbelrath Valley Creek.

This is a narrow valley around Hubbelrath Creek, a narrow, slow-moving creek originating in the hilly Bergisches Land about 10 km northwest of Düsseldorf.  The valley was formed by erosion and has fairly steep sides called ‘Siepen‘ (g) in the local dialect. The valley’s rich loess soil made it an ideal place for farms, and several large estates still survive.

The valley itself, and the trail within it, are pretty neglected. The main reason for this, as an account by a local nature group (g) attests, was the placement of a large landfill for household trash on one side of the valley. The landfill was found to be seeping chemicals into the valley, so it was excavated, and the household trash was removed and incinerated. The landfill was later used for construction waste, but is now in the process of being sealed and reforested. Ironically, though, the nearby landfill probably helped the valley regain its natural characteristics, since it kept people away.

The trail proper starts next to a huge country house and stable complex called Mydlinghoven Farm:

Der OrtThe oldest parts of the historically-protected complex date to 1460, and it was most recently expanded into a stable in 1915. After the stables closed, the area was transformed into a restaurant, then into a seniors’ home. After those closed, the future of the complex was uncertain until 2016, when a cooperative bought and removated it. It’s now a mixed-use “alternative living” community called “Wir vom Gut“, (“Us from the Farm”) which combines senior residence with apartments for young families and for people who just want to get somewhat (but not completely) away from it all. It’s sort of like a semi-commune, in which people share tasks and hang out a lot. They seem to enjoy living there.

To reach the trail, you ride past this estate into a meadow behind it. There are no signs for the trail, the trail-head is nothing more than a slight gap in the vegetation. I tried to enter it last year, but it was closed off with red-and-white tape. This time, I vowed to ride it no matter what. And lo and behold, no tape.

The trail is narrow single-track lined with stinging nettle and thorny bushes and creepers, including blackberries. I wish I’d brought a machete. The trail is also crossed by roots and fallen branches which create tripping hazards. I didn’t even think of trying to bike it — thorny branches and stinging nettle flaying my eyeballs isn’t my idea of fun, although I won’t kink-shame you if it’s yours. The first part of the trail, heading due south from Mydlinghoven Farm, is also interrupted by fallen trees seemingly about every 100 meters on average. Some of them have been chainsawed to free the trail, but most have just been left as they are, with their massive root-clusters sticking up into the air. The final problem with the trail is that you can’t see the creek from it. The creek runs off to one side, screened by vegetation. Parts of the creek-bed are actually fenced-off to prevent the organic Galloway cattle who graze nearby from trampling it. But the attraction is not really the creek, as such, but the marshy lowland surrounding it.

So, the trail’s poorly-maintained, muddy, blocked by fallen trees, runs by the side of a former landfill, and isn’t even a proper creek-side trail. So much for the downsides. There are plenty of upsides, though. First, alder, fir, and birch trees provide plenty of shade. There’s an amazing density of birdsong. The tall grass, the marshy patches, the standing and fallen trees, the bird and bat boxes, and the lack of humans or dogs make for an ideal avian retreat — 55 species have been spotted here, including black woodpeckers, red kites, kingfishers, herons, and sandpipers. There are also plenty of somewhat exotic plants which thrive in marshy conditions, such as loosestrife, great horsetail, and meadowsweet. Rich, pungent odors (most of them pleasant, all of them interesting) abound — every few steps brings a fresh olfactory bonanza.

About 400 meters south of Mydlinghoven Farm there’s an abandoned house in a small clearing that’s decaying most picturesquely. A bit further south is a large meadow with two rusty fence-gates standing in isolation. There are also a few metal measuring-station tubes in the meadow, presumably from the time when the landfill was in operation. Given that there are no humans around for kilometers, the traces of former use lend the trail a pleasantly spooky, slightly post-apocalyptic flair. Next time I’m going to wear hiking boots, bring a machete, and do some more exploring.

‘Victoria’ is a Mesmerizing One-Shot Thriller

Long-time readers know I approach contemporary German movies with a bit of trepidation. So I was amazed by Victoria, an gem of a German film from 2015.

The plot could hardly be simpler: Victoria (Laia Costa) is a Spanish music student who’s living in Berlin and working as a waitress. She goes clubbing one night, and meets a group of four young German guys who charm her with their broken high-school English, frisky late-night hi-jinks, and friendly, non-threatening manner. Sparks fly, in particular, between one of them, nicknamed ‘Sonne’ (Sun, played by Frederick Lau). Victoria decides to hang around with them after they all leave the nightclub together at around 4:30 AM. As she gets to know them, it turns out they’re a bit sleazier than she originally thought — one hints at a criminal record, another gets blackout drunk — but that’s all part of the no-strings-attached, exchange-student experience. Then one of four gets a fateful call from an old prison buddy, and things turn rather dark. That’s all I’ll say; avoid spoilers at all costs.

Victoria is one of the very few movies made in one continuous take. And what a take it is! We follow them through the club, out on the streets of Kreuzberg and Mitte, up to building roofs, down to parking garages, into banks, into apartments, and through courtyards. Much of the dialogue was improvised, and lots is in English (which disqualified the film for the Oscar foreign-language category). Of course, the one-take movie is a bit of a gimmick, but done well, it can ratchet up the tension and drama in an organic way. Which is precisely what happens here. Further, Victoria has none of the ‘choreographed’ look of some one-take movies. The action is seamless, fluid and convincing; you never doubt for a second that you’re ‘in the moment’ with the characters. And as the movie progresses, the fact that it was all done in one take became ever more jaw-droppingly astounding.

The performances are intense, believable and moving. Costa and Lau received German film prize awards, and deservedly so. Some people have called the plot a bit hare-brained, but I didn’t: The main event is a robbery by a bunch of hopped-up amateurs which goes horribly wrong. Most robberies are done by hopped-up amateurs, and most do go horribly wrong. The chaotic, violent final scenes are the sort of thing that’s becoming all too familiar on German streets.

Victoria’s a bit overlong, but just a bit. Other than that, it’s a minor cinematic masterpiece. It avoids all the weaknesses of German movies (sermonizing, heavy-handed symbolism, lack of drama), and draws on all the strengths (outstanding set design, awesomely talented actors, convincing improvisation drawn from extensive stage experience). I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

German Word of the Week: Schneckenkönig

Yesterday I biked near Lake Unterbach south of Düsseldorf and noticed something white in the path. It was this snail:

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This is a Roman or Burgundy snail in English, in German they’re called Weinbergschnecke: vineyard snail. These big, juicy bastards are common here (these are the snails from which escargot is made), but I’d never seen one with this light coloration before, perhaps it’s an albino, but I’m no malacologist. I posted it on Facebook, and one of my friends there said it looked at first like it might be a Schneckenkönig — a “snail-king”, but wasn’t.

So of course the question became: what in tarnation is a Schneckenkönig? And lo and behold, I found another German word that, if you trust Wikipedia (g), has no equivalent in any other language. A Schneckenkönig is a snail whose shell (Haus in German, ain’t that cute?) twists counter-clockwise, instead of clockwise. In English, this is known as inverse chirality, which is not very fun to say.

Left-coiling snails only occur about 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 1,000,000, so their title of ‘snail-king’ is well-deserved. Apparently there are people who devote a lot of time (g) to searching for one of these elusive beasts.

But even ordinary snails are electrifyingly bizarre creatures. Let Isabella Rossellini explain how:

The Sons of Hermann in San Antonio

I had somehow never heard of the Sons of Hermann (as in Herman the German, i.e., Arminius), a fraternal organization of Americans of German heritage:

The Order of the Sons of Hermann, also known as Hermann Sons and by its German name as Der Orden der Hermanns-Soehne or Hermannssöhne, is a mutual aid society for German immigrants that was formed in New York City on July 20, 1840,[1][2] and remains active in the states of California, Ohio, and Texas today. Open to members of any heritage today, the order provides low-cost insurance and mutual aid and has historically promoted the preservation of German language and traditions….

The Sons of Hermann was formed by Dr. Philip Merkel, George Heiner, John Blatz, A. Auer, R. Schwendel, W. Kohler, and Philipp Germann on the Lower East Side,[2][4]in response to anti-German sentiment during a period of heavy German immigration to the United States.

The order has some rites, but they don’t seem very complex. It was mainly a mutual-support cooperative, the sort of thing which many Northern European immigrant groups brought from the old country to the USA.

Hundreds of lodges were organized during the nineteenth century; by 1895 there were about 30,000 members,[2] and in 1896 there were Grand Lodges in CaliforniaConnecticutColoradoIllinoisKansasMassachusettsMichiganMinnesotaMissouriNew JerseyOhioPennsylvaniaTexas and Washington in addition to New York, as well as scattered members in 15 other states with a total membership of 90,000…. However, like all things German, the order declined sharply in popularity with the outbreak of World War I.[8]

The order’s symbolic colors are black, red and gold, representing German unity: black for ignorance, prejudice and indifference; red for the light and enlightenment spread by German culture and the German spirit; and gold for true freedom, which man arrives at through knowledge and labor….

German Jews participated fully in the Sons of Hermann; the order’s insurance fund was led by Jacob Brandeis and Rabbi Emanuel Gerechter, the former also directing the order’s choral group in Milwaukee.

A friend of mine, Robert Blackburn, recently took some photos of the handsome Art Deco “Hermann Sons Lodge” in San Antonio, Texas:

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And it still seems to be going strong:

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Cajun dancing, brought to you by liberal (in the 19th-century sense) Germans. I know the first place I’m going to visit if I ever return to San Antonio.

German Word of the Week: Schnibbelschinken

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I’m a farmer’s market kind of guy, and Germany’s a farmer’s market kind of place. So yesterday I visited the farmer’s market (g) at the Friedensplätzchen (“Little Peace Square”) in Unterbilk. I came home laden with farmer’s cheese, a swiss roast, vegetables, eggs in crinkly shells, and ham, Schinken in German.

Special ham this time. I was in the mood for what Americans call a loose-meat sandwich. So I needed me some loose meat, if you know what I mean. And I found some, at one of trucks run by super-friendly Meat Women™. It was a silver bowl full of tasty-looking ham scraps. I asked her what it was called, and she said: “Schnibbelschinken!” She was obviously delighted by the word. So was I. Schnibbelschinken, we repeated over and over, savoring every clown-like syllable.

Schnibbeln is one word for “whittle” in German, so Schnibbelschinken is meat “whittled away” during processing. It’s not bad meat, it’s just odd meat. Apparently it’s also called Schnippelschinken. There is probably some regional reason for this variation which I’m not aware of, but someone will surely jump into comments with it. Little help?

Dead People, Dead Birds, and the Responsibility Silo

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The New York Times has gotten rather scoldy about Germany lately. Judging by New York Times coverage, Germany is not doing enough to combat racism, anti-semitism, and right-wing violence. Nor has it fully confronted its Nazi past.

I’m not sure what the reason is for this critical undertone. Generally, American liberals find much to praise about Germany: free college tuition, universal healthcare, a deep aversion to war, generous social-welfare benefits. My theory is that the Times’ German aversion may something to do with the Times’ gradual conversion to full-scale wokeness. The Times now identifies with identity politics and American-style ethnic particularism. To a fully-woke American, Germany must seem backward indeed: after all, one of the highest-circulation German dailies just published a frontal attack on identity politics (g), something that no longer appears in major American newspapers.

Anyhow, enough speculation. The main point of this post is this article on Niels Högel, the German nurse who is accused of killing up to 300 hospital patients over a period of five years. The article singles out a certain aspect of German culture for criticism:

The number of killings and the amount of time it took for suspicions surrounding his actions to come to light have raised uncomfortable questions for Germany, including whether the same deference to hierarchy and predilection for procedure that once facilitated Nazi-era crimes allowed Mr. Högel to kill uninterrupted for so long.

According to Frank Lauxtermann, the only former colleague who testified openly about working alongside Mr. Högel, “A culture of looking away and keeping your head down” ultimately shielded the suspect….

She said Mr. Högel’s colleagues in Oldenburg had talked about him, but did not go to their superiors or lodge a complaint out of fear of being reprimanded or because they didn’t see it as their business in a country where citizens closely guard their privacy.

When another nurse in Delmenhorst told her superior she was suspicious of Mr. Högel, no action was taken and she never followed up….

“The course of events that took place on June 24 are symbolic of the failure of those responsible for their completely erroneous assessment of actual facts and the tragic results that ensued for the patients,” Mr. Schmidt said, announcing the results of his investigation in 2017.

That investigation came about only after years of pressure by family members, and led to the current trial.

Two former prosecutors from Oldenburg were investigated for failing to sufficiently investigate Mr. Högel in 2005, but neither faced charges. One is now a judge in Oldenburg.

I think the Times, for all its gimlet-eyed coverage of matters German, has a point here: There is a cluster of German cultural traits — many of them admirable — which often works against institutional accountability.

First is the German respect for privacy. You don’t pry into your co-workers’ personal affairs. You also don’t pry into their job performance, unless it directly affects you, and perhaps not even then. It’s the bosses’ job to evaluate job performance, not the co-worker’s. Complaining to the bosses about a co-worker’s performance comes dangerously close to informing on them, which immediately raises loud historical alarm bells. In both Nazi Germany and in East Germany, anonymous denunciations were often used to derail competitors’ careers. These historical memories metastasized into the corners of the German national character: complaining legitimately about a colleague’s serious mistakes on the job is, of course, not as sinister or serious as denouncing them to the secret police. But it’s the same overall genre of activity, the same kind of behavior. And thus it has Sinister Historical Overtones, and should be avoided.

Another factor is institutional. Germany’s public healthcare system is stretched to the limit; under-funding and under-staffing are the norm. A December 2018 EU report (pdf) concluded:

Understaffing in hospitals and residential homes is widespread, and the number of graduates completing vocational training falls far short of those leaving the job (due to retirement or dissatisfaction) and those which are additionally needed (due to the rising number of people in need of care). At the same time, working conditions for carers are poor, particularly in LTC: wages are low, the work is demanding and working hours are unattractive.

Accountability for medical malpractice is still limited in Germany. In the United States, a hospital can be sued for millions for negligently hiring or negligently retaining a worker who causes a serious accident. If you prove that the hospital knew, or should have known, about an incompetent employee, the hospital must pay. The German system creates less accountability, principally because (1) hospitals aren’t always liable for their employees’ on-duty mistakes; (2) malpractice judgments are notoriously hard to win; and (3) judgments are generally for modest amounts. German healthcare is still very good on average, but there are growing gaps in quality which Högel was obviously able to exploit.

And finally, there’s the “that’s not in my job description” effect. This is not solely a German phenomenon, but it’s very strong here. My job is to take care of my patients, not to make sure everyone else is. I have my tasks and my duty area, and I’m going to do my tasks within my duty area, then go home and forget about work. North Americans, in particular, notice this strong silo mentality. In a restaurant or a start-up, you do whatever is required to keep the customer happy and the business afloat. In a bureaucratic institution such as a hospital or university, the average Joe or Jane will normally do their jobs reasonably well, but feel no need to show any extra initiative.

Here’s a story. At the university where I used to work, a dead pigeon lay in front of one of the buildings. A friend of mine, also from the New World speculated on how long it would lay there. Hundreds of people walked past it every day, noticing it with disgust. But nobody did anything. Professors would never stoop to touch a dead thing. Nor would secretaries. Students reasoned that the university paid for cleaning crews, and it was their job to pick up the dead bird. But the cleaning crews were paid only to clean inside the buildings. Day after day, the cleaners wheeled their carts right by the rotting pigeon, ignoring it. The pigeon, you see, lay on an exterior brick walkway, and nobody had been clearly assigned the task of keeping that specific walkway clean.

The pigeon lay there for over ten days.

Not for nothing did Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once ask (g): “Tell me, is there any country but Germany in which people are more likely to learn to wrinkle their noses in disgust than learn to clean?”

East Asian Art in Cologne

After a trip to the Cologne Philharmonic to hear Yefim Bronfman play (g) Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, it was off to the Museum for East Asian Art, a favorite place for a calm, meditative morning after a night of drinking. The Museum sits right next to the Institute for Japanese Culture, both of them flat, quadrangular, mildly Brutalist/mies van der Rohian buildings whose spare lines and rectilinear spaces harmonize well with Japanese ideas of space. Even this hardcore anti-Brutalist finds them in Ordnung. The buildings are located next to Hiroshima and Nagasaki Park, created in 2004 at the initiative of peace groups.

The first floor of the Japanese Cultural Institute shows a fine photographic exhibition by Mitsumasa Fujitsuka on Japanese wooden buildings, including this shrine, erected in 719:

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And then to the Museum for East Asian Art. It’s located in a one-floor building designed by Kunio Maekawa in 1977, blending contemporary rectilinear minimalism with traditional garden courtyards. The building exudes an elusive, unpretentious sense of calm and order which visitors find immediately attractive. The temporary exhibit space is lined with sisal carpet which absorbs noise and lighting is kept at a minimum to preserve silk scrolls. (This is why it’s the right place to wait out a hangover).

The collection has been pieced together from various donations, and is a bit idiosyncratic, but solid. The highlight is a set of perfectly-tuned Chinese bronze bells. A recording of them plays in the gallery, inspiring meditations on timeless themes. And then you see an 1847 Hokusai print of the heads of two executed criminals, which slingshots you right back into the snares of delusion. But then there’s a sublime painting of fog-enshrouded cliffs.

A few camera photos to give you a taste: