Europeans Love ‘Columbo’, and Who Can Blame Them?

If you want to strike up a conversation with any European, just mention ‘Columbo’. I have yet to meet any European who doesn’t know and love the rumpled, quizzical gumshoe. Even Hungarians.

A few theories as to why he’s so popular:

  1. Pragmatic: The show seems to have been broadcast everywhere in Europe for much of its storied 32-year run. Can’t become a pop icon without everyone seeing you. The broadcast rights must have been fairly affordable.
  2. Linguistic: ‘Columbo’ and most of the characters spoke relatively slowly, without too much slang. This makes them easy to dub or subtitle.
  3. Universal cultural references: Everyone across the world likes Los Angeles, and knows (or thinks they know) enough about it to get most of the references.
  4. Universal themes: Everyone gets greed, duplicity, jealousy, and hate.
  5. Non-political in a vaguely leftist way: ‘Columbo’ was one of the few American TV series which was broadcast in Communist countries: “Hungarians love the series because it’s ‘thinking’ television, one in which the audiences enjoy watching the detective solve a murder…. ‘Columbo,’ like ‘The Saint,’ was among the few TV series allowed on the airwaves during the reign of communism — both shows were apolitical and painted the West as a den of murder and mayhem — making Falk a favorite uncle for Hungarian viewers over 30.” ‘Columbo’ was one of the few cultural products that were the same on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
  6. ‘Thinking’ television. Europeans have far less tolerance for gore and violence than Americans do (this is slowly changing). There was never any violence on ‘Columbo’; and he solved crimes by using his noggin. His European Jewish noggin. Not his giant American revolver.
  7. ‘Columbo’ was a real human: Bildergebnis für peter falkHe had a glass eye, slightly stained teeth (at least in the 1970s), rumpled clothes, strong opinions, a sharp tongue, faults, and moods. Europeans distrust and dislike shiny happy beautiful thin fun-loving perfectly suntanned Americans with their terrifyingly straight rows of blindingly white teeth. They like their heros to be slightly-above average schlubs, like Columbo was.

All told, ‘Columbo’ was probably one of the most effective American cultural exports of the late 20th century. And the show’s still pretty fun to watch.

Musil on Socialism

I’m dipping into the English translation of the diaries of Robert Musil, a handsome book published in 1998. Here is his discussion of socialism from the 1919-1921:

Ideology of socialism

  1. ) All people are equal
  2. ) Love thy neighbor as thyself.

1. is a downright untruth. The real true meaning of this assertion has become apparent in the meantime. Trials by jury, councils, parliament, the pupil often cleverer than the teacher. Take, from time to time, a spiritual purgative to clear out all knowledge. Spirit is destructive, and only constructive through setting up a collection of solutions from which practice makes its selection. When left to its own devices, spirit is a feud without end. (From this follows the position of the creative writer and the philosopher in socialist society.)

2. This principle has never been realized. It is not only unsuitable for the ethics of everyday life but also for the ethics of those who are most advanced. The only way it is realized, if at all, is in the exaggerated form: “Love thy neighbor more than thyself.” But then it is no longer pure, for here an idea is loved, an issue. Moreover, it denotes a condition, that of love.

This should be replaced by a principle that is, in ethical terms, of much less consequence but, in practical terms, more important: “Act in solidarity.”

Accordingly, the ethics of socialism rest on 2 practical maxims. That corresponds to the tasks of a political movement.

Hatred of the oppressors, feeling for the subjugated—all these ideas so dear to the socialist, his elan? First of all, these ideas all belong to the “status nascendi” of socialism, not to the finished society. [. . .]

Cycling the Rotthäuser Bachtal

The Rotthäuser Bachtal is a nature preserve just east of the Düsseldorf suburb of Gerresheim. Trails accompany a creek valley whose Western bank is made up of steep cliffs made of sandy yellowish soil with many erosion paths. The east flank of the creek is largely flat, and dotted with pastures. The area is heavily forested, mainly with splendid old beech trees. As the soil has eroded beneath them, many of these trees have begun to tip over at hair-raising angles, and some have been uprooted entirely by storms. If the fallen tree blocks the trail, then so be it: most of the fallen trees have been left where they are, and you just have to climb under or over them.DSC07474.JPG

DSC07476
DSC07481

The trail is twisty, with moderate ups and downs, plenty of tree roots, and some marshy areas, so it’s something for my 10-year-old Trek mountain-bike, Tapio, not my cross-bike, Elfriede. The creek has been dammed to create a series of fishponds which attract many native bird species, including a magnificent gray heron which exploded into flight right next to me as I skirted one of the ponds. There are also some protected plant species, like the odd-looking horsetail plant, with its long, spiky “leaves”. Of course, marshy areas mean mosquitoes in late summer, but they’re more of a nuisance than anything else.

DSC07484DSC07486DSC07496

The southern part of the trail skirts the Gerresheim Forest Cemetery, which opened in 1906. The idea behind a German forest cemetery is to leave large parts of the forest intact, and to spread graves around in a random-seeming manner, as if they had been scattered about by natural forces. The trails run up and down 20-meter inclines around the outside fence of the cemetery, which extends across the crowns of several hills. Owing to the height difference, the cemetery offers a free bus service for people who don’t fancy climbing to the higher graves on their own.

After snaking around the trails next to the Forest Cemetery, you descend into the idyllic pastures surrounding Pappendelle Farm, with its two large ponds, half-timbered farmhouse, and contented cattle munching grass.

DSC07503DSC07510

If you live in central Düsseldorf, your ride home takes you through the former Glassmaker’s Quarter in Gerresheim. This used to be a massive glass factory drawing workers from all over Germany, but it has been torn down to make way for new apartments. All except for the former water-tower, which is now a protected landmark.

DSC07518

The Rotthäuser Bachtal is one of the gems to the east of Düsseldorf, in the outskirts of hilly Bergisches Land territory. The trails are well-marked, the scenery diverse, and the ups and downs make for a solid workout. If you haven’t paid it a visit yet, now’s the time — the fall foliage is just coming in.

German Word of the Week: Reanimieren

Here’s a headline from Austria about an accident during a youth outing. A boat capsized, and two girls were rescued from drowning and resuscitated:

reaminated

The German word for resuscitation is “reanimate”. Which makes me think two things:

1. That’s a lot less fussy and pretentious than “resuscitate”.

2. H.P. Lovecraft would approve.

Ähnliches Foto

Blame-Shifting Slang, or ‘The Anglo-Saxons Made Me Do It!’

Got something you’re ashamed of as a nation? Blame it on foreigners! Syphilis is the most common example: The English call it (if memory serves) the French pox, the French call it les pustules anglaises, the Russians call it the ‘Albanian abomination’, Canadians call it ‘Yankee palsy’, etc.

Anything to do with organized crime, violence, or police brutality gets blamed on the Anglo-Saxons, especially the Americans. American movies have been shocking everyone with their over-the-top violence all the way back to Scarface (1932 and 1983) and Little Caesar.

In both Germany and France, you can read about the “American third-degree tactics” when cops browbeat suspects into confessing (And of course Americans and Brits return the compliment by denouncing “Gestapo tactics”.). In the 1920s and 30s, papers all across the world denounced “Chicago-style gangsterism”. The list goes on and on.

I just found another example. I’ve been reading a lot of James Ellroy lately (recommended), and decided to do a bit of research on brass knuckles, which various men are constantly punching other men with in Ellroy’s famously gore-gushing, testosterone-tainted crime epics. Wikipedia tells me:

“In Brazil, brass knuckles are legal and freely sold. They are called ‘Soco Inglês,’ which means ‘English Punch.’…The French term is ‘poing américain’, which literally means ‘American fist’.

So there you have it: We Brazilians and French were once peaceable and civilized peoples, incapable of violence when left to our own devices. And then came the insidious Anglo-Saxon plague of brass knuckles….

Zombie Institutions and Zombies in Institutions

A reporter for the Berlin Tagesspiegel visits (g) an evangelical Christian church in Berlin, where the congregation is young, hip, friendly, and enthusiastic. The big mainstream established churches in Germany, Catholic and Protestant, have been hemorrhaging members, but the evangelical churches are growing, even without the official status and tax subsidies the big churches get.

The big churches are zombie institutions — they still exist, even though their primary purpose has nearly disappeared. They still do secondary stuff like run hospitals and schools, but only a small fraction of Germans use them for regularly gathering to celebrate the Christian faith. Germany has a lot of these zombie (or near-zombie) institutions, some huge, some as tiny as a single job. Examples: TV license collecting bureaucracies, various commissions which produce reports and recommendations nobody will ever read, dead-weight older professors and teachers and civil servants who have stopped showing up, or are on various kinds of permanent sick leave.

Part of this is down to Germans. Germans on average, are conservative and tradition-oriented, so they will keep doing stuff that previous generations did, even if it no longer serves much of a purpose. (This is why you still see fax numbers everywhere). Protestant pastors and Catholic priests in official state churches preach to near-empty churches in German cities, but they are government employees with great job security and benefits. You basically can’t fire them.

And they don’t want to quit. In many other countries, people might give up jobs like this, since every workday means being confronted with the increasing futility of your profession. Why not switch to something more fulfilling — some thing people actually want you to do? Because that’s not how most Germans think. Most Germans still show up to do jobs which have become largely meaningless (most of which are in the public sector, of course). Who cares if your job makes no sense in the larger scheme of things? Who cares if nobody really cares about what you do or how you do it? Your psyche doesn’t require you to actually care about something larger than yourself or transform your life into a kick-ass mission to change the world. It only requires that you perform certain assigned duties, in accordance with contractual stipulations. And by God, you’re gonna do that.

The other reason is institutional stickiness. Say you have a 61-year-old schoolteacher, Elfriede, who’s burned out. She starts showing up only a few times a week, and then began daisy-chaining various kinds of sick leave, disability leave, and vacation to the point that she never shows up for weeks, or even months, at a time. (Very much doable if you’re clever).

Now the rest of the staff is faced with a dilemma. Sure, you can fire Elfriede, but you know that as soon as she notices that process starting, she’ll wake up from her magical slumber, hire a lawyer, and fight. She doesn’t want to do her job, but she also doesn’t want to lose it. You may be able to finally fire her, after a 12-to-18 month process, minimum. But you’re still less than halfway done. Now, you’ll need to go through the complex rigmarole of hiring someone new: publishing job announcements, holding interminable meetings to discuss qualifications, commissioning the disability and gender equity ombudsmen to issue reports, holding interviews, negotiating about office space and funding for assistants, etc.

It’s all a huge hassle. Why not just keep her on the payroll until she ages out at 65? It’s only four years, and replacing a retiring employee is easier than firing someone. And during the interminable meetings held to discuss what to do about Elfriede, something magical happens: Other professors and staff realize, quietly, to themselves: “Holy crud, she’s going to get away with it. Which means I can too, when I get to be 61 or 62. That means three or four extra years of de facto retirement, while I’m still accruing pension benefits.”

Does this mean they’ll all head for the exits at 61? No, these are Germans, after all. 80% of them will keep working, and many will keep helping for free even after their official retirement. But maybe 20% of the most dissatisfied and bored fifty-something profs intend to pull an Elfriede. And 30% of the fifty-something profs would at least like to keep that option open. So they vote to keep Elfriede on the payroll, to set a precedent they can follow later.

Germans will keep showing up for jobs that they find meaningless, which keeps zombie institutions alive. And if they stop showing up, German law makes it prohibitively complex and expensive to fire them, which keeps zombies within institutions alive.

The Brand-New Neanderland Hiking Trail

The German love of hiking and nature paired with German efficiency and organization is a formidable combination.

The Neanderland Hiking Trail (NeanderlandSTEIG) is a 240-km loop of hiking trails encircling the city of Mettman and the Neander Valley area, all of which is all east-northeast of Düsseldorf. It was opened only in 2014, which means all the signage is brand-new (and well-thought-out). It has its own thorough, informative website (apparently only in German so far). The trail is divided into 17 different sections, each with its own GPS map, and there’s even an app, which appears to have at least some English features.

neanderlandSTEIG wanderkarte

The way is marked by small red badges affixed to (or painted onto) trees, poles, or signs along the way, so you rarely have to consult a map to make sure you haven’t lost the plot. Almost all of it is within forests and pastures, sometimes on broad paths, sometimes on narrow, almost-overgrown single-track. The path enters cities only at the beginnings and ends of each of the 17 stages, to allow you to catch a bus or a train back home.

What the path shows is how much nature there is in this part of Germany. This might come as a surprise, since the Rhein-Ruhr region is the most densely-settled area in all of Europe. However, the key word is densely: there’s a clear demarcation between compact, circumscribed built-up areas and forests and pastureland. If you don’t allow sprawling suburbs to develop, you can pack a lot of people into a small area, and leave the rest for farming and nature.

I’m doing the trail on my cross bike, which usually works out pretty well. Especially in the northeast portions, there are lots of hills, but they’re not particularly brutal. There are a few gnarly passages, with tons of tree roots and undergrowth, so sometime you just have to portage the bike. But by and large, the trail is quite ride-able, and a skilled mountain-biker could probably do all of it. So far, I’ve only ridden three sections of the trail in full, and each has been memorable. I plan to assault the rest of it over the coming months. Here’s a picture gallery (taken during Stages 4, near Velbert, and 12, in South Düsseldorf) which helps explain why:

 

Dorm-Room Bullshit Sessions, Lovingly Filmed

Above is a trailer for a German movie, ‘303’ (link here if the embed doesn’t work). The English-language description is:

When biology student Jule finds out she’s pregnant, she sets out for Portugal to find her boyfriend Alex, who works on an organic commune there. Traveling in a Mercedes ‘303’ bus, she picks up hitchhiker Jan at a gas station outside Berlin, who’s traveling to a Spanish fishing village to tray [sic] and find his biological father. They’re both passionate and not very diplomatic, very interested in world affairs and philosophy, and while they’re “on the road”, they have impassioned and deep conversations about capitalism, human nature, love and relationships and the meaning of life. They trip becomes an emotional roller coaster, which finds them falling in love with each other? [sic]

Middle-class kids who inexplicably have months of free time on their hands conversing earnestly about “capitalism” and “the meaning of life”?

Alas, my pressing schedule will not afford me time to see this film.

The Transcultural Overton Window Displacement (TOWID) on Race

Here is a tweet from an editor at the FAZ, a German center-right newspaper:

Responding to a tweet that mocked “white men” for being offended at this label, the author tweets: “When old white males feel themselves targeted by disparaging remarks targeted at ‘old white men’, this supposedly makes them self-absorbed morons? It’s pretty amazing how many people are willing to justify discrimination when it targets the ‘right’ people.” The tweeter is a legal journalist with centrist, perhaps slightly right-of-center views.

This illustrates an interesting cultural divide between Germany (and, I suspect, many other European countries), and the US. In Germany, mockery of “white” people certainly does happen — the tweet I cited above responds to exactly this.

However, there is almost always a pushback against the use of “white”, or “white man”, or “heterosexual white man” as a dismissive epithet. Someone will virtually always respond by saying that it’s hypocritical to attack white people for gratuitously identifying someone’s race or gender to dismiss their arguments. Nobody in their right mind, these critics say, would think of dismissing a female columnist’s opinion by saying “That’s women for you — always letting emotions cloud their judgment”, or “Of course this Turkish guy wants to expand welfare benefits — typical!” So why is it any more acceptable to dismiss a white male’s opinion just because of his gender and skin color? To mock white people for their skin color is no better or worse than mocking black people for theirs. Discrimination is discrimination, no matter who the target is.

The important thing is that in Germany, this pushback comes not just from the right, but also from the center, and even sometimes the center-left. In the mainstream press, you almost never see a headline or an opinion piece singling out “white” people in a mocking, supercilious tone — and if you do, the response is swift.

Compare this to America. In America, there is a widespread conviction among college-educated people that discrimination can only be genuine when powerful majority groups practice it. When I went to college, in the late 1980s, it was generally assumed that there could be “no such thing” as discrimination or racism against white people, since they were powerful and dominant. To favor a “color-blind” society was seen as a mark of right-wing conservatism — it was a code for undoing affirmative action (hiring preferences for minorities) and entrenching the unfair privileges white people enjoyed from centuries of racism and slavery.

The basic idea is that minorities groups are knowingly given a pass for expressions of racial bias which would be unacceptable among white people. There’s no such thing as “reverse racism” against white people. Here’s one statement of this idea:

“Things like BET, Black Girls Rock or Black History Month are not reverse racist against white people,” Zeba Blay, a Huffington Post Black Voices writer, illustrates in a video. “Because remember, in a society where white is seen as the default race, all history is white history. But racism isn’t just someone feeling superior to another race and then discriminating against them.”

Racism and prejudice aren’t quite the same thing. Racism, rather, is best known as a system in which a racial majority is able to enforce its power and privilege over another race through political, economic and institutional means. Therefore racism can be described as “prejudice plus power,” as the two work together to create the system of inequality.

Note how the author doesn’t say this definition of racism is his opinion, he claims it’s just a fact, like the sky being blue.

I’ll call this idea “racism is always contextual” (RIAC). Or as Lenin said, the question of Who (is doing what to) Whom. RIAC thinking has not only survived to this day, it’s gotten even more deeply entrenched. As a recent analysis pointed out, white American liberals are getting “way more liberal on identity issues”.  You now see headlines mocking white people, or males, almost every week in mainstream(ish) news sources such as the New York Times and Washington Post. A few examples: The Post famously ran an opinion piece straightforwardly called: “Why Can’t We Hate Men?

So men, if you really are #WithUs and would like us to not hate you for all the millennia of woe you have produced and benefited from, start with this: Lean out so we can actually just stand up without being beaten down. Pledge to vote for feminist women only. Don’t run for office. Don’t be in charge of anything. Step away from the power.

Of course this editorial was met with “a deluge of criticism“. But that’s not the point — the point was that it ran in the first place. Nobody at the Post apparently thought, even for a second, whether they would run a similar piece entitled “Why Can’t We Hate Jews” or “Why Can’t We Hate Blacks”. Because, to them, RIAC means there is an obvious distinction between hating men (a point of view which you may disagree with or find controversial, but which deserves to be aired) and hating these other groups (a point of view no sane or decent person could possibly hold, and which it is wrong to disseminate).

Another example: the New York Times published a piece by a black professor in which he said he would discourage his children from befriending white people:

I will teach my boys to have profound doubts that friendship with white people is possible. When they ask, I will teach my sons that their beautiful hue is a fault line. Spare me platitudes of how we are all the same on the inside. I first have to keep my boys safe, and so I will teach them before the world shows them this particular brand of rending, violent, often fatal betrayal.

This piece sparked outrage from many readers. But once again, it was published in the New York Times, which obviously thought it a respectable opinion worthy of being broadcast to millions.

I doubt any mainstream German newspaper would have published either of these pieces, although the left-green taz has come close once, and had to defend itself by pointing out that the opinion piece was tongue-in-cheek (g). If you had submitted either piece to a more mainstream German newspaper, it would have encountered a buzz-saw of resistance.

So, to sum up: The RIAC idea, in Germany, is confined to the left. If you endorse RIAC in Germany, you will automatically be pigeonholed as left-wing. If you reject RIAC in the USA, you will automatically be pigeonholed as right-wing.

Here’s my point in terms of the Overton window:

Overton Window

You could definitely put France in the same position as Germany. I call this phenomenon the Transcultural Overton Window Displacement, TOWID™ for short.

I don’t have any particular explanation ready to hand for this (nor am I expressing any opinion on who’s “right” on the issue), I just find it interesting. It also creates amusing cross-cultural misunderstandings: I have personally witnessed Germans mistaking a centrist American for a left-wing extremist, and Americans mistaking a centrist German for a right-wing extremist, based on this TOWID.

Others examples include a right to own guns (Germany: Radical; USA: Popular/Sensible); universal health care (Germany: Policy; USA: still just barely Radical, but moving rapidly toward more acceptance); popular referendums (Germany: Radical; USA: Policy). There are undoubtedly many more, but I need to get back to work. Feel free to add some in comments!

UPDATE: Via Twitter, here are some thoughtful tweets composed by Sarah Jeong, who just joined the New York Times editorial board:

jeonghate

The Viking Claw

According to a 2001 study, Dupuytren’s Contracture is:

“…an ancient affliction of unknown origin. It is defined by Dorland as shortening, thickening, and fibrosis of the palmar fascia producing a flexion deformity of a finger.”

This is what an advanced case looks like:

Bildergebnis für dupuytren's contracture

I have this in my right hand, although nowhere near as bad as this guy; one of my fingers just bends a little. It’s painless. It will get progressively worse, and one day I’ll need surgery, but for now, it’s just a slight nuisance.

What I did not know until yesterday was that Dupuytren’s contracture seems to be a genetic sign of Viking or Scandinavian heritage:

In his 1963 book, the Australian hand surgeon John Hueston wrote, “Dupuytren’s contracture is virtually confined to people of European descent” (). Its highest incidence is recorded in Iceland. As expected, the incidence is also high in Scandinavia: In a Norwegian study of 15,950 citizens, DD was present in 10.5% of men and in 3.2% of women (). In a large 1962 review of published figures, P. F. Early arrayed the countries of European stock in order of incidence of DD: Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. He also commented that the incidence in Australia, Canada, England, and Wales was similar since their populations are of basically English stock, which may itself represent a diluted strain of Danish (Viking) stock (). The incidence in Sweden is matched in Edinburg. Two different studies by James and Ling in Scotland showed such a high family incidence that DD was described as inherited through a single autosomal-dominant gene of variable penetrance ().

In a study in the French port of Toulon, 60% of the general population had brown eyes and 40% had blue eyes, but 80% of inhabitants with DD had blue eyes. The latter individuals were traced to the families of Breton and Norman sailors in the city’s history ().

DD is relatively uncommon in Spain, Greece, and Italy, except for Greece and Italy’s northern Adriatic Coast, which was penetrated by a northern genetic invasion during the Austro- Hungarian Empire.

I first learned of this yesterday, when a relative visiting a Viking museum in Norway sent me a photo in which this link was noted. The text next to the display had almost a note of pride, as in: Look how far we got despite our crippled, claw-like hands!