I Can’t Stand Being German

…says Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre:

The thing that seems impermeably German is, in fact, anger. Collectively and individually, the Germans are angry about something. The pursed lip and the muttered expletives, the furious glance and the beetled brow are Germany’s national costume.

A simmering, unfocused lurking anger is the collective cross Germany bears with ill grace. I can see it in German faces, in the dumb semaphore of their bodies. It’s how they stand and fold their arms and wait in queues. It’s why they can’t dance or relax.

Anger has made the Germans an ugly race. But then this anger is also the source of Germany’s most admirable achievement — their heroic self-control. It’s the daily struggle of not giving in to their natural inclination to run amok with a walking-stick, to spit and bite in a crowded sausage-stand, that I admire most in the Germans. It’s not what they are, but their ability to suppress what they are, that’s great about the Germans.

Oops, sorry.  That actually wasn’t Benjamin v. Stuckrad-Barre on the Germans, it was AA Gill writing about the English

Yes, the English.  I thought only continentals really enjoyed the masochistic spiral of self-hatred, and shame based on that self-hatred, and shame and self-hatred caused by being ashamed of the self-hatred.  Not by a long shot.  John Bull, welcome to the club!

Norbert Lammert Dissected

Norbert Lammert is the new President of the German Parliament.  He wants to re-start debate over the idea of a German Leitkultur.  Hard to translate 100% accurately, but you could say something like "leading culture" or "principal culture."  Roughly, that means a set of principles that define German society, and which would somehow become as the "preferred" charter of social principles.  This concepts is supposed to be a counterproposal to multiculturalism. 

I’m pretty skeptical about this Leitkultur thing, as I sketched in a previous post.  So I listened with especial care to an interview broadcast on the glorious WDR 5 radio station on Friday evening.  Lammert defended his notion of Leitkultur.  The host then asked Lammert the obvious question: isn’t the basis of our Leitkultur already spelled out in our Constitution, and doesn’t just about everyone agree with that stuff already?

In response, Lammert made one argument and cited two examples.  This is all recalled from my memory; sorry but the interview doesn’t seem to be available online, so you’ll just have to trust me.  Here are the argument and the examples:

  1. Argument: it’s not just about the specific values (rule of law, freedom of speech, etc.) in our Constitution.  People have to realize that those values are based on historical, deeply-rooted German values.  We should proclaim that those are our values, and prefer them to other values.
  2. Example number one: If in your cultural tradition the man is given the leading role in society and women are to be submissive, you must realize that’s inconsistent with the principle of equality of the sexes in our Constitution.
  3. Example number two: Some religions (hint hint) specify that there is no difference between secular and state authority.  The state, according to these religions, develops its identity from the fact that it requires citizens to behave righteously according to religious principles.  People who believe in these religions must accept that in Germany, the state is separate from religious authority, and is the sole arbiter of government.   

So, Lammert summed up, we should officially endorse the notion of a Leitkultur, and make it clear that everybody has to agree with it in some fashion.  Of course, he doesn’t specify which fashion.

I don’t find any of this particularly convincing.  First of all, the idea that there’s a rich tradition of pluralistic, tolerant, democratic thought in Germany that pre-dates and provides the context fo the 1949 Grundgesetz (Basic Law or constitution) is rather shaky.  These currents of thought existed, but the ugly fact is that in Germany they usually didn’t win.  And, unlike in many other nations, these civilized and pleasant currents of thought were actively opposed by other, stronger currents of thought that despised parliamentary democracy.

As for the examples, I cannot understand what Lammert means, unless he explains himself a lot more clearly.  I see no conflict at all between someone running his private household in line with a theory that men are the ultimate authority.  Millions of Americans, for instance, think this way.  The Southern Baptist Convention endorsed a version of marital vows which recognizes the wife’s duty to submit to her husband.  When you go to work in public life, though, you recognize that the secular world expects women to be treated equally.  You may have to work for a female boss.  If you can’t handle this, then you’ll probably be fired, or you may decide to quit your job in some big institution and set up your own business, which you can run as you please.

The example I most often hear in this context is of young Muslim women not being allowed to go to sports lessons, or to take class trips unescorted with boys.  My answer to this is, so what?  Sports and class trips are nice, but they are not the core of the state’s educational mission.  It might be unfortunate if girls are excluded from these activities by their parents, but it’s not the end of the world.  In the course of time, these communities will probably gradually loosen up a bit about such things, as their sons and daughters steadily acquire more education and experience in the world.  Insisting that they conform to things that violate their traditional notions will only drive them further into their own insular communities.  As long as the parents aren’t trying to interfere with their daughters getting a basic education, I see no reason for concern, even though I wouldn’t raise my own children that way.

Same for number 2.  You can privately believe that God’s law is supreme, but if you act on that belief somehow — say by not paying your "worldy" taxes or by ignoring various "worldly" laws with which you don’t agree — you will be dealt with.  There are already laws on the books that require you to conform your law to accepted standars.  If you happen to privately believe in a Higher Law, that is none of the State’s business.  As Thomas Jefferson once said, "But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."  As long as there are laws against pickpocketing and leg-breaking (i.e. laws that require individuals to conform to reasonable norms of community conduct), the individual’s private belief system is none of the State’s business.

Lammert’s casual mixing of concerns that do and do not implicate the public sphere tells me that he has a very fluid idea of where the public sphere ends and the private begins.  And that, to me, deals a fatal blow to his credibility.

Europe’s “Soft” Intellectuals

I’ve read a few entries by Leon de Winter, whose blog I mentioned in the last post.  What he writes reminds me strongly of the arguments of a good friend of mine whom I visited recently, who is likewise a European intellectual.  This friend of mine, along with de Winter, are harshly critical of the mainstream of the European intellectual elite for being soft on terrorism.  These folks have nothing in common with American conservatives, and may not particularly fancy George W. Bush.  They do, however, believe that Islamist terrorism poses a vital and direct threat to the West’s interests, perhaps requiring military force and stronger limits on immigration. 

Thus they have offered support to the Bush Administration, even though their political views might be very different from the average American Administration supporter.  In the English-speaking world, you could also put Christopher Hitchens, Norm Geras, and Andrew Sullivan in the camp of "unexpected" and perhaps hesitant Bush-supporters.  The first two are former leftists, the last a gay moderate English conservative.  All supported Bush — albeit sometimes with tones of faute de mieux.

These writers frequently condemn European intellectuals for not grasping the threat of Islamist terrorism.  The quote from de Winter in the last post is a good example of this.  Europe’s intellectuals, so it goes, are so terrified of offending others or imposing their own cultural assumptions that they won’t clearly name and condemn the evil of suicide bombing.  They are also too timid and filled with self-hatred to proclaim the Western liberal democratic way of life as clearly superior to the model that various Islamists would impose on us if they had the chance.  These intellectuals should be coming to the defense of the Western way of life now that it’s come under attack, not picking it apart because it fails one or the other of their Utopian tests of perfect fairness.  The words of praise Michel Foucault had for Ayatollah Khomeini are often cited as an example of (in the words of the linked article) "the illusions of intellectuals." 

But does it really matter what intellectuals think?  The characteristic error of any intellectual is overestimating his own influence.  As for me, I don’t really care whether German or French intellectuals correctly perceive the threat of Islamist violence.  I care whether immigration agencies, police, and lawmakers correctly perceive the threat.  The evidence tends to show that these agencies take the threat very seriously and have been able to book notable successes recently.  Just yesterday, a Duesseldorf court sentenced (German) three Islamic radicals to long prison terms (by German standards) .  The French security services are legendary for their no-nonsense, ruthlessly illusion-free methods of combating the potential for Islamic terrorism on French soil.  They even cooperately closely with the Americans.  There are still serious problems of coordination and information-sharing, but I get no sense that these agencies underestimate the threat.

As long as the folks who have real power stay up at night worrying about the potential for Islamist terrorism in Europe, I will sleep well at night, no matter what the intellectuals argue about.

The Free West, a Blog by Leon de Winter

I see that the Dutch author Leon de Winter has started a blog called "The Free West," appropriately enough hosted by the online site of Die Welt (given de Winter’s political leanings).  From the introductory announcement:

The title of my pages is The Free West. It is not a random title. It is something I believe in. I am a secular person but I deeply believe – in an almost religious way – in the freedoms our western societies have achieved through sacrifice, pain, suffering, and through the collective intellectual and emotional efforts of millions of human beings who have shaped our pasts.

Our freedom is not a phenomenon we should take for granted. It is a miracle. The basic ‘natural’ state of human existence is marked by repression, lack of justice, hunger, the rule of tyrants, and only in the last three centuries, we see the emergence of individual freedom. Technology, sciences, the separation of church and state, helped in creating the right mindset for the development of the free spirit that independently produces its own values, its own lifestyle, and its own world – without neglecting tradition and history.

Since 9/11 my life has been marked by the feverish question why young, bright men started to hate our freedoms and gave their lives – and took the lives of thousands of others – in order to create a world ruled by ancient superstition.

Our freedoms exist thanks to individual discipline and individual responsibility within functioning organizational bodies like the judiciary, the state, the police, and the great thing is that this system works: never before in European (and Western) history have so many people been living with so much freedom, so much wealth, so much possibilities to shape their lives in peace and safety.

The blog itself is here.  According to de Winter, the historian Walter Laqueur, author of No End to War: Terrorism in the 21st Century (review in German here), will also be a regular contributor, although most of the posts so far have been by de Winter.

I haven’t made a careful study yety, but one thing’s for sure: Winter has shown himself capable of leaving the Empyrean of Great Literature behind and slinging some good old-fashioned mud, in this case at a certain sub-set of European intellectuals:

If these intellectuals would take the words of these Islamic-Fascists for what they are, they would be forced to prepare for the worst. But Europe cannot prepare for the worst. It will always try to redefine and rephrase the problems and conflicts and Islamic-Fascist declarations until it find a way to sneak into a delusion which could give it a couple of extra seconds of peace of mind.

Glories of Do-it-yourself Marketing

And now, as John Cleese might say, for something completely different. 

Nothing warms my heart more than local amateur retail.  Stores run by people who just wanted to open up a coffee shop, or video store, or organic food store, and did it.  They have no professional training and no formal instruction in marketing.  They’ve got to put something in the shop window, though, and they do.  These living, working folk-art installations are unique expression of the human spirit, and they are all around us, at least in Europe.  How can people walk blithely past them, I often wonder?

Fancy stores have enough money to hire professionals, which kills the charm. Therefore, the best shop windows are in non-chic neighborhoods like mine. My neighborhood, for example boasts the (unnamed) women’s shoe shop, whose window showcases row after row of used women’s shoes (usually rather schoolmarmish brown-leather affairs from the 1970s or 1980s).  Methinks I have seen one or two shoe fetishists spending a little too much time in front of this particular store.  Or there’s the hearing-aid store whose window features tiny hearing aids perched, for some reason, atop child-sized Dubuffet-like biomorphic papier-mache sculptures. 

But my favorite, bar none, is a store about 2 blocks from my apartment, on a pleasant, wooded streetcorner. 

Shop_1_soforteinbau_1 What does this store sell?  I haven’t the faintest idea.  If you look at the first shop window (l), it seems to be an auto radio store.  "Instant installation," it advertises cheerfully!  At this point, everything seems clear.  You go inside, buy an auto radio, and the guy installs it for you.  On closer inspection, though, there’s something not quite right here.  What is Shop_2_bicycle_repair_1a "Take Two" bicycle rack doing in the shop window?  And why do all the packages look as if they’ve been sitting in the punishing sun for years?  And why are there styrofoam packing peanuts strewn carelessly on the ground?

You then move to the next window (r), and something confusing happens.  The auto-stereo theme starts to be displaced by a bicycle theme.  Oh sure, there’s still a Pioneer sign there, but there underneath it stands a variety of bicycles in various states of repair.  "OK," you think to yourself, "the guy installs auto radios and repairs bikes.  An odd combination, but hey, everyone’s gShop_3_go_westernotta make a living somehow."

Now we reach the third and final shop window.  What could possibly be in the third shop window, you ask?  I know what you’re thinking, and no, it’s not Beethoven_shooting a mynah bird.  Good guess, though. 

Look instead to your left.  This is a decidedly more ambitious affair than the first two.  The author here, blocks out the background, creating a delimited and depersonalized space.  To establish thematic unity (or as a sop to commerce), he has included a Blaupunkt stereo sign.  But underneath?  A fringe jakcet, cowboy boots, and books about Big Sky Country, open to pages describing the rough and ready pleasures of life on the range.  There are subversive undertones to this depiction of manly individuality, though.  To the right of the jacket, on a small stand, we find not the expected cowboy hat, but instead some odd oval headwear that only some European fairy would wear.  And at the extreme right, a faded poster of a male tennis player, with flowing golden locks, chasing a drop shot.

The entire composition is entitled ""GO WEsTERN"".  Every time I pass it, I feel the urge to nominate it for a prize, but I cannot find the right one.  Perhaps the Bundesverdienstkreuz?

What is this funny thing called Leitkultur?

Well, Mr. Koch has certainly done his homework.  He gets an A+, or a 19, or a .1, or whatever grade is most appropriate.   He’s given us all a lot to chew on.  I can respond to all his eloquently-made points, but I’ll try to get to a few while setting out my perspective on this matter.

First, I agree that Leitkultur is probably not intended to mean something as crude as "dominant" or "superior" culture.  But that raises the question, what does it mean?  I’ve followed the debate somewhat, but I’ve never really heard anyone who is in support of the idea give a clear, specific definition of the term.

To me, this is a typical German debate.  It goes like this:

  1. Some politician throws out some vague term or concept designed to appeal to his or her party’s base (think "Solidarity" or "Social Justice" or "Locusts of Capitalism" for the Social Democrats, or "Leitkultur" or "Multi-Kulti" for the Christian Democrats.  The politician throws it out in public forum, in a somewhat provocative way.
  2. Everyone responds, because, for some reason, everyone pays a lot of attention to what politicians say in Germany.  The mainstream seems to have agreed that the state, in the form of its politicians, sets the subject and tone of public debate.  The very same people, of course, complain about how politicians never say what they mean and always recycle the same poll-tested nonsense.  But since they apparently don’t have anything more original to contribute, they take their lead from the politicos.
  1. Because the phrase used to start the debate is fuzzy and capable of a hundred different interpretations (that’s exactly the point, in fact), everyone develops their own individual idea what it might mean.  The politician’s opponents assign a dark, sinister meaning to the term, and then the supporters attack the opponents for assigning this dark meaning, and then the supporters explain what the real meaning was, and then the opponents take apart this new suggested meaning.  And so on, and so on, until everyone gets bored and moves on.

The problem with this sort of debate is that it never really goes anywhere, or leads to a helpful definition of the term.  Thus, I have no idea what Leitkultur means.  Perhaps it means something like a consensus over basic governmental goods, as described in part (3) (a)-(h) of Koch’s post [Perhaps Mr./Ms. Koch is a lawyer?], that is, tolerance, freedom of expression, a secure legal order, etc. 

If that is so, then the entire dispute is a tempest in a tea-pot, or a storm in a water-glass, to use the German variant.  Claudia Roth and the Greens clearly supports this definition of a Leitkultur (# 1), in fact that’s exactly what the editorial says.  The number of people in Germany who disagree with these basic principles of Western liberal democracy, and are prepared to act on this disagreement, is miniscule.  In fact, Germany certainly has less of a problem with virulent fanatics than places such as Denmark or France.  Most immigrants came to Germany precisely because Germany offers almost all these things (and, most importantly, economic opportunity), whereas their homeland doesn’t.  They voted with their feet in favor of these tprinciples.

So I don’t see why Norbert Lammert thinks Leitkultur # 1 is under threat, or needs to be defended.  The idea that it is in danger is a slippery, phantom ideological construct.  I could be wrong about this, but I bet he didn’t actually point to a single book, idea, practice or group that actually represented a serious, immediate threat to the good-government principles that make up Leitkultur #1.  In public, Lammert probably says what he means by Leitkultur is # 1 — we should all agree that Germany’s current constitutional and social order is a Good Thing.  But this makes his argument redundant, since there’s no disagreement over that among anyone who counts for anything in this country. 

I get the feeling that this is probably political atmospherics and kabuki.  Could his real intent be to send a message about Version 2 of the Leitkultur, which is nothing more than an attempt to assuage good old-fashioned mild European xenophobia?  It certainly resonates with a large chunk of CDU voters.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from Germans — mostly elderly, mostly well-off, mostly slightly intoxicated — that they can’t stand the ugly new mosque in their city, are suspicious why "these Turks" make their women wear headscarves, and don’t understand why we’re supposed to be tolerant of Islam when everyone knows it preaches hatred of the infidel ("just look it up in their Koran!  it’s all there for everyone to read!"), how that ugly screeching music "those people" play in their cars and doener shops is just rubbish, how they can’t understand why queers think they need all these special rights, etc. etc. etc.

Not that Germans have a monopoly on assholes, of course.  "Every society has its conformism," Ralf Dahrendorf wrote in his 1965 Society and Democracy in Germany, but "…it is not mere conformism, but rather the especial clamminess and narrowness of the conformism that distinguishes the behavior of many Germans toward other people."  Whether an individual living in Germany decides to eat a non-German dish, or practice a not-traditionally German religion, or wear something on their head which a German wouldn’t, is of absolutely no relevance to the public at large, but pissess off a minority of tight-assed people.  I think the use of the word Leitkultur is designed to send a message to this loathsome minority of Germans, a minority that despises people simply because they are different.  These folks wish those who look, smell or believe differently from them would just go away.  The word Leitkultur to them is saying "we understand your discomfort and sympathize, although we can’t do so openly." 

If you look at it this way, it’s just a routine episode of political code-talking, not so different from that used by various other parties.  Which thus means perhaps we’re all wasting our time paying so much attention to it.  On that note, I’ll stop this post, and wait for what will doubtless be further intelligent comments.

Homework for Joysters: The Leitkultur Debate

The winter semester has begun, and I’ve returned to "teach" in the classroom.  In that spirit, I’m going to assign some homework to Joysters. 

Read this editorial by Green Party / B ’90 Chairman Chairwoman Chairperson Claudia Roth.  It’s about the issue of a German Leitkultur.  Be prepared to participate in a group discussion tomorrow.  I will, of course, contribute my own two cents, as they say…

P.S. I want someone to give me the Marxist analysis of the Leitkultur debate.  As a rapper might ask, "Do we got any Marxists in the house?"

Brains…brains…Germany want BRAINS!

German universities are pretty, uh, mediocre.  They get the job done, and clever people can get a great education, but they’re not generating world-changing ideas, or fascinating press coverage.  For complex historical reasons (including a rather pronounced sense of egalitarianism), none of them has been able to develop into a world-class institution, where the best students and professors mingle in a hothouse environment. 

Now there’s a plan to create "top universities" that will attract the best students and professors. 
Because this is Germany, it’s all being run by the Federal Education Ministry as a coordinated, highly-regulated program.  The program even has a motto: "Brain Up!  Deutschland sucht seine Spitzen-Unis"  ("Brain Up!  Germany’s looking for its top universities").  Yes, "Brain Up !" is in English. 

One interesting aspect of the policy is — whoa, hold on a second: "Brain Up !"?!  Trust me when I say that English knows no expression "Brain Up!" (The German equivalent must be something like Aufgehirnt!).  The sarcastic remarks practically write themselves.  Nor is the second part of the motto particularly, er, elite.  It seems to imply that (1) German already has a top university; but (2) lost it somewhere.  "Excuse me very much, please.  I am Germany, and I seem to have lost my exclusive elite university.  I think I last saw it around Rome, but I was also showing it to a few people near Bristol.  Listen for many people using words like Verdinglichung, or young people protesting against tuition fees.  If you find it, very big reward!  Big medal for chest, we call it Bundesverdienstkreuz!" 

Brains…brains…Germany want BRAINS!

German universities are pretty, uh, mediocre.  They get the job done, and clever people can get a great education, but they’re not generating world-changing ideas, or fascinating press coverage.  For complex historical reasons (including a rather pronounced sense of egalitarianism), none of them has been able to develop into a world-class institution, where the best students and professors mingle in a hothouse environment. 

Now there’s a plan to create "top universities" that will attract the best students and professors. 
Because this is Germany, it’s all being run by the Federal Education Ministry as a coordinated, highly-regulated program.  The program even has a motto: "Brain Up!  Deutschland sucht seine Spitzen-Unis"  ("Brain Up!  Germany’s looking for its top universities").  Yes, "Brain Up !" is in English. 

One interesting aspect of the policy is — whoa, hold on a second: "Brain Up !"?!  Trust me when I say that English knows no expression "Brain Up!" (The German equivalent must be something like Aufgehirnt!).  The sarcastic remarks practically write themselves.  Nor is the second part of the motto particularly, er, elite.  It seems to imply that (1) German already has a top university; but (2) lost it somewhere.  "Excuse me very much, please.  I am Germany, and I seem to have lost my exclusive elite university.  I think I last saw it around Rome, but I was also showing it to a few people near Bristol.  Listen for many people using words like Verdinglichung, or young people protesting against tuition fees.  If you find it, very big reward!  Big medal for chest, we call it Bundesverdienstkreuz!" 

Bad Germans Speaking Bad German

One of the high points of any month is the day when the German satire magazine Titanic lands in my mailbox.  Immediately, I skip the various pages of defamation, scurrilous cartoons, and falsified advertisements and move straight to Hans Mentz’s Humor Kritik (humor criticism). 

Under a black-and-white profile portrait of a fin-de-siecle dandy sporting a fine van Dyck (Mentz?), you finds his humor criticism.  These are brief assessments of the latest books, movies, or performers that (at least in theory) are supposed to make you laugh. 

Mentz’ irony gland is of English proportions, and his judgments are quick and merciless.  He knows his stuff; he’s capable of an elegant structural critique of the relative merits of two English sitcoms that takes up less than a paragraph.  But he also takes time for broader reflections, such as the following, which appears on page 55 of the October Titanic.  [Of course, this is my translation, and it’s loose.  I even had to translate bad German into bad English]:

Heinrich in the Heating-house

A few years ago, when I saw the original version of the action film "Die Hard," I immensely enjoyed the performance of the two blonde German bad guys "Karl" and "Heinrich."  It was especially amusing when, after having cornered Bruce Willis in the elevator shaft, they exclaimed, in broken German "He is in the heating-house!"

Just as uncreative as the screenwriter from Die Hard was the not-undeservedly-praised novelist Patricia Highsmith.  I just found out, unfortunately, that thirty years ago, she had to supply some Germans with names for her book "Ripley’s Game."  Three guesses what they were called.  Yes, you got it: "Karl" and "Heinrich."  Not to mention "Rudolf," "Max" and "Fritz." 

Crime fiction and screenplay writers of all nations, listen up!  It’s been a long, long time since German criminals had names like Karl and Heinrich.  Now they’re called Gerhard or Josef or Claudia.  And in the near future they’ll have names like Soeren or Kevin.  Or Oliver-Noel.  Or Birte-Jasmin.  Please take note!

Credit Cards, Honor, and the Fatherland

I first noticed how credit-card shy Germany was when I tried to pay for something with a credit card at Data Becker, a computer-store chain.  Not accepted.  Incredulous and amused, I pointed out that Data Becker actually sold hardware and software that allowed stores to accept credit cards.  The irony was lost on the humorless crone behind the counter.

In this story, the Christian Science Monitor notes Germans’ reluctance to embrace credit cards.  Europe-wide, 13% of purchases are made with credit cards, in Germany it’s only 5%:

Despite record-low interest rates and a credit spree sweeping across Europe, Germans are shunning the lure of credit cards – the result, many say, of a German pragmatism made more acute by uncertainties about the country’s generous social model.

"The Germans have a different consumption mentality: They don’t get into debt," says Hubertus Pellengahr of the German Retail Association in Berlin.

I loved the quotation from a high school student:

"When I want something I pay for it myself," says David Hausen, a senior in high school. "It’s a question of honor."

What price a nation in which high-school students talk about honor? David Hausen, Du bist Deutschland