Jets on the Autobahn

German newspapers have finally, gingerly, sort-of-discovered the interactive possibilities of the Internet, says Stephan Niggemeier in this piece (German) in the FAZ.  However, they’re still making rookie mistakes.  Take, for instance, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (Niggemeier, in my translation):

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung (to take only one example) is using the possibilites [of blogs] about as skilfully as someone who gets into an airplane in order to taxi nicely down the autobahn.  The "SZ" has fourteen blogs.  The majority of the authors write something perhaps once a month into their blogs and ignore what anyone else writes.  The medium that’s better suited for this sort of thing has already been invented, and is called the "book."

Niggemeier has interesting things to say about how the elitism of the "quality" German press is keeping them blind to the true promise of interactivity, and offers amusing critiques of the crappiness of many German news websites, which "treat their users like idiots."  Well worth reading. 

I will try to respond with a few thoughts later, but the bloody day job keeps rearing its ugly head.  What a distraction!

“I Could Have 45 German Women Living With Me”

Here’s an article about an American writer named Tim Barrus.  Barrus wrote a couple of books in the U.S. while pretending to be an American Indian named Nasdijj. 

In fact, it appears Barrus is a white man who originally made his literary breakthrough writing gay pornography.  He adopted the identity of an Indian, and wrote several "non-fiction" memoirs detailing his painful childhood on an Indian reservation. 

One of the earliest people to doubt that Nasdijjs identity was the writer Sherman Alexie.  Alexie, who really is Indian, read some books by "Nasdijj" and suspected that Nasdijj was only pretending.  When asked why someone would pretend to be Indian, Alexie responded:

"My stepfather once told me, if you want anyone in the world to like you, just tell them that you’re Indian,” says Sherman Alexie. “For some reason we are elevated simply because of our race. I’m so popular I could start a cult. I could have 45 German women living with me tomorrow.”

45 German women?  Why didn’t I think of this earlier?!  We all know about the sentimental attachment certain European women feel for America’s oppressed minorities.  Some of them even come over to the U.S. and marry death row inmates.  I know of one who gave up a promising medical career in her home country (which is renowned for its beauty) to move to suburban Houston, Texas and to work in an office supply store. All so that she could be near her husband, who lives on Death Row in Livingston, Texas.  Black friends of mine (even Republican software developers) have to beat the Ursulas and Wiebkes off with a stick when they visit Germany on business trips.

But alas, there is no way for me to become black — at least not without questionable, potentially dangerous medical treatments.  Murdering somebody and getting sent to death row also presents a host of practical problems (Germany has no death penalty), not to mention the ethical dimension. 

But I can claim to be an Indian — er, that is, a Native American.  They come in all shapes and sizes!  Did I just say "claim to be and Indian"?  I mean to say "finally reveal my long-suppressed Native American identity."  From now on, you can call me Andrew Grey Cloud.  I’ll be appearing live, in-person at my local left-wing pub, Tigges, tonight…

House Spiders — The Enemy Within

The most recent Titanic‘s "Letters to Our Readers" section addresses house spiders (who I didn’t know were subscribers):

Honorable House Spiders!

All these years we’ve lived together with you without serious problems.  Indeed, you could even speak of a peaceful co-existence.  And now we have to read in the specialty bug magazine Draco the following description of one of your species that lives all over the place, which bears the already rather unsettling name Scytodes thoracica:

The house spider "covers its prey with an stringy fluid and thus binds them to the ground.  The powerfully-build poison glands actually produce poison only in a small front portion — the larger rear portion excretes an extremely stringy glue.  From here, the spider sprays, under extremely high pressure, a secretion onto the prey from a distance of up to 2 centimeters.  The secretion immediately sticks to an immobilizes the prey." 

Poison glands?  Spraying glue?  Stringy secretion?  All this in our bedrooms?  In the kitchen?  The bath?!  But there’s more: "If the victim makes a strong escape attempt, it will be spat upon repeatedly.  Then the spider, looking quite relaxed, will eventually come by an apply the poison bite.  The victim will either be sucked dry right then or brought out of its bindings and dragged to a hiding place by means of the spider’s chelicerae and pedipalps."

That, house spider, is the last straw, and we really don’t want anything to do with it.  So next time we greet you in the sink or shower, whether you’re looking quite relaxed or not, we aren’t going to take your chelicerae carefully in a hand towel and shake your pedipalps gently out the window — instead, from this point on, we’ll get the vacuum cleaner and turn it up to 1000 watts!

Eek!  A Spider!  —  Titanic

A German-Jewish Journalistic Catfight

Free speech is protected in Germany, but it’s not a free-for-all. It’s well-known that it’s illegal to openly praise Hitler, deny the Holocaust, or display Third Reich insignia. You’d also do well to think before you insult somebody in public. Some insults are protected as legitimate opinions, but other, particularly grave insults can get you hauled before  a court for engaging in "vilification" that interferes with another’s "personality rights" to dignity and honor.

The Frankfurt Regional Court recently decided an interesting case involving these issues. Here’s the cast of characters.

The defendant: Henryk M. Broder, is an unmistakable figure on the German press landscape. He’s a Jew, a journalist, and generally supportive of Israeli policy. I once saw him on a TV chat show strongly defending the war in Iraq. You could say Broder doesn’t run from controversy. In fact, you could say Broder runs toward it. Very fast.

The plaintiffs: Abraham Melzer and Hajo Mayer, both Jews, and Mayer a concentration-camp survivor. Melzer published Mayer’s book "The End of Jewishness," which strongly attacked Israeli policy. Indeed, Mayer even compared Israeli policy to that of the Third Reich. They came to Leipzig to promote the book.

As the FAZ reports here (German), Broder was not amused.  On his website, he ran a piece under the title "How two Jews ‘made the Adolf’ for the Leipzigers," and accused the two of being (very approximate translation) "capacitors for applied Jew-phobia."  The published and author were, in turn, also not at all pleased, and went to court to obtain a court order forbidding Broder, in turn, to accuse them of "making the Adolf" and being accomplices to anti-Semtisim.

Broder appealed, citing his freedom to express his opinions, and there was a trial:

The visibly irritated presiding judge had to listen to a presentation on how Jews can also be anti-semites.  The philosopher Theodore Lessing analyzed this phenomenon in his 1930 classic "Jewish Self-Hatred" and described it using various examples, including the Vienna philosopher Otto Weininger. …  "Anti-semitism is a disease that can befall anyone," Broder lectured the judge and audience.

The publisher Melzer then took the stand.

Melzer, who was born in Uzbekistan, nevertheless grew up in Israel, where part of his family lives.  From his perspective, he sees in the anti-semitism accusation an outrageous vilification, indeed, the gravest insult one can inflict on a Jew.  "To be compared with Hiter is a catastrophe for every Jew."  He himself, he maintains, is a proud Jew who loves Israel, but not its policies.

The verdict: Broder’s use of the phrase "making the Adolf" or "doing the Adolf" (no, I’m not exactly sure what Broder meant by that either) can’t be forbidden, because it’s just a statement of opinion.  However, he is still forbidden from insinuating that Melzer and Mayer are somehow accomplices to anti-Semitism.

The dispute goes even further, thanks to the magic of the Internet.  Here, on Broder’s homepage, you can read him accusing Melzer of not paying him fees for something he once wrote, and then reprinting a letter from Melzer (not quite sure where it comes from) accusing Broder of generally being "not clever, not charming, not funny, not entertaining, and not even a good businessman" who can’t get his "written excrement" published anywhere and must therefore do it himself.

Perhaps there will be a Round 2 of the court proceedings?  I can’t wait…

Lars von Trier Saws Off the Hand that Feeds Him. Again. To no effect.

You’re Danish director Lars von Trier.  You’ve made a couple of interesting films during your life.  The rest are pretentious, incoherent disasters, in which you reach deeper and deeper into your bag of non-politically-correct tricks in order to shock the European movie-viewing audience.  This is hard to do, since they have already seen a lot of shocking movies, many filmed by directors with more talent than you. 

Although the film subsidies keep flowing, the viewers seem to getting a little bit bored, especially by the time you release 1998’s The Idiots, a Disneyesque feature about a commune whose members go out into restaurants and stores and pretend to be mentally retarded or insane by day.  They drool and scream and knock things over, attracting quite a bit of attention.  Then they return to their comfortable villa at night for orgies.  The audience isn’t very impressed.

It’s time to win them back, which you do by launching a filmic jihad against the United States of America.  You direct a series of movies which are little more than self-righteous, bitterly critical tirades against that nation.  The fact that you have never visited this nation and do not speak its language is no hindrance, of course.  Things are going well!  The new movies are called "thoughtful" and "provocative."  You’re getting back your audience using the controversial bad-boy technique of openly pandering to their prejudices.  (Good thing you just happened to pick the USA and not, say, South Africa as your target)

Then disaster strikes.  A right-wing Danish politician is concerned about Denmark’s immigrants, who don’t seem to be fitting in very well.  He warns Danes that they must fight a "long and bitter Kulturkampf", which raises an eyebrow or two.  At first this seems to have nothing to do with you.  Bu then the politician assigns a group of culture bureaucrats draws up a list of 108 glorious Danish masterpieces in 7 different categories.  (One of the chosen works is the Danish version of Donald Duck).  And what do these bourgeois prigs do do?  They pick one of your films!  And not just any one of your films, they pick The Idiots (German)!

Gaack!  What’s a bad-boy to do?  Soon little Ahmed will be watching good-looking young bourgeois Danes drooling and penetrating each other on a grainy videotape in his school classroom. And told to venerate it as a masterpiece!  Immediate action is required.  You go on Danish T.V., and, well, we’ll let the newspaper article take it from there:

The Danish director Lars von Trier, whose film "The Idiots" was also named in the cultural canon, protested against the entire plan as a "nationalization of culture," during a television appearance in which he cut apart the red-and-white Danish national flag, the "Danebrog", sewed it back together as a completely-red flag, and hoisted it again.  All the while he played "The Internationale" in the background.

Communism?  Is that the best you can do, Lars, baby? 

As You Drink, Think of The People Who Owe You Money

A while aInkasso_1go I was out with friends at a nice bar.  A female friend came back from the womens’ bathroom with an interesting paper towel.  They apparently have ads on them in this bar including the ad at left, which is for a…collection agency.  On the right it says "No Heart [that is, no sympathy] for Debtors"!  To the left, it lists the services provided:

  • Debt Collection with personal debt collection [senseless repetition in original]
  • Business Information Service [whatever that might mean]
  • Investigations

What interested me is not so much the fact that there is advertising for debt-collection services in Germany.  In hard times like these, it must be a booming industry.  The American equivalent is surely the advertisement for the tough, smart personal-injury lawyer, complete with the list of injuries that you can turn into cold, hard cash!!  This offer covers those old favorites automobile collisions, defective products, aviation crashes, and industrial plant accidents; but don’t forget more exotic candidates like Toxic Torts, Vioxx; and the deeply unsettling category of — ye Gods! — Welding Rod Exposure

So no, it doesn’t surprise me that collection agencies are advertising in Germany.  What does surprise me is that they are advertising a) in the women’s restroom [not the men’s!]; of b) a nice, but not fashionable bar, in a very ordinary part of town; and finally c) on disposable paper hand-towels.  That surprises me.  Perhaps it shouldn’t.

I ♥ David Hasselhoff

Indeed, David Hasselhoff, like Paul Auster and Jim Jarmusch, is a much bigger star in Germany than in the U.S.  I don’t know exactly why, but perhaps this video for "Hooked on a Feeling" helps explain it.  Let me quote from an email I wrote to a friend after he sent me this link:

I will tell you something, without a drop of shame.  I enjoyed the hell out of the song and the video.  All of it.  The angels, the Masai warriors, the inexplicable detour to Alaska, the foreshortened background featuring dancing businessmen.  It was catchy, irresistible, and not without a disarming dose of self-deprecation.  A frothy, senseless celebration of lighthearted, lightheaded love.

And I stand by that.  David, ich hab’ dich gaaaanz lieb!!!

German Joys Mini-Review: Stasiland

Just reading Stasiland, a 2003 book by Anna Fuller, an Australian journalist and recovering lawyer who traveled through East Germany interviewing people who had something to do with the East German security state, either as members or as persecutees of the Stasi (the abbreviation for the East German Ministry of State Security).

Stasiland is loosely episodic and somewhat memoir-like, so it takes a little while to build up momentum. When it does, though it grips you. Many of the stories Funder tells will probably be familiar to Germans, such as:

  • The Klaus Renft Combo, East Germany’s only halfway-rebellious rock bank, who were tolerated uncomfortably by the State until they went too far and were disbanded by official decree in 1975, during a meeting the band later taped and broadcast;
  • The Lipsi, a "dance craze" officially ginned-up and imposed by the East German state in the 1960s to compete with rock and roll (Funder calls it "a dance invented by a committee, a bizarre hipless camel of a thing");
  • The frightening ideological mania of Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, a convinced Communist whose job it was to appear on East German television and explain, in long, unhinged tirades, why Western TV shows were despicable capitalist lies and propaganda designed to conceal a hellish, dollar-driven war of all against all. Even years after the wall fell, "Von Schni–" as he was called (because of viewer’s tendency to switch off the set as soon as his show came on), screamed at Funder that Germany needed it back "More! Than! Ever!"

Funder also gives full justice to stories that would otherwise have been lost in the flood of news — including tales of reuniting families, empying prisons, and former secret-service officers seeking to submerge quietly into their new jobs as security consultants or detectives — attending the fall of the wall.  Funder interviews about an equal number of ex-Stasi officers and ex-political prisoners. It’s odd to see how normal the ‘dissidents’ are. Few were particularly outspoken — the State wasn’t persecuting them for shoving blurry anti-regime pamphlets into mail slots or writing "bourgeois" plays, but only for trying to escape the country. Their stories are frightening, moving, and told by Funder without sentimentality.

The ex-Stasi officers Funder interviews, who responded to Funder’s newspaper advertisement requesting interviews(!), often defend their former wiretapping/interrogating/torturing of their fellow citizens. She interviews them in their stuffy, dark-brown living rooms in Germany’s suburbs. The explain to her how they recruited informal spies, exploited the State’s all-pervasive social role to bend people into line, and generally did a bang-up job of keeping the East safe from imperialist assault.  They take pleasure in describing how easy it was to get ordinary East Germans to spy on each other and turn each other in.

One more appealing figure is Hagen Koch, tells of how he gradually became disillusioned with the Stasi, and in 1985 applied to leave for the regular army. As a last act of defiance, he took from his office wall a small award plaque for "cultural work" done by his unit. The Stasi formed a committee and launched an investigation of the plaque’s disappearance, but Koch stonewalled them. During a 1993 TV interview, the plaque appeared in the background.  Shortly afterward, he claims, West German detectives visited him and told him he was being charged not only with stealing property from West Germany (which inherited all the East’s property), but also for lying during the East German investigation of the plate’s disappearance. He never had to go to prison, but his wife lost her job.  Whether the story is true or not (the lawyer in me says the claims were probably too old to prosecute), it could be true.  This tale of the man-hours spent and lives damaged over a meaningless €2.50 feel-good trinket says as much about the German soul as any volume of Schiller.

There aren’t many books written by native English-speakers about ordinary people in modern Germany, but Stasiland, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2004, stands out. There are some minor flaws, such as the fact that the memoir-like portions of the book sometimes don’t integrate well with the stories being told, and an irritating tendency to use Australian slang like "skerrick." However, these are minor quibbles. Stasiland is by turns funny, thoughtful and moving, and well worth a read.

Book Reviews I Never Finished Reading

The American magazine The New Yorker used to, and perhaps still does, run little featurettes after its articles entitled "Advertisements [or Letters, or News Items] we never finished reading…"

Let me import this tradition into German Joys.  From this week’s Die Zeit, page 52, come a review, by Tobias Timm, of a young Norwegian’s recent novel:

Do you like assholes?  Then you shouldn’t read very much farther — instead rush to the next bookstore and buy the new novel Power and Rebel by Matias Feldbakken.  For the anally-fixated, it’s a must.  Which means that for all who have only a limited interest in things rectal, it will be tought slog indeed…

OK, I admit, I did read the review to the end.  The book seems like a pretty standard epater-le-bourgeoisie exercise involving thoroughly hideous young Norwegians who loathe themselves and the society that subsidizes their rent, and prove it by engaging in a variety of senseless acts of fraud and brutality somehow intended as a critique of (what else?)capitalist excess.

Granted, I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve read similar ones.  Based on this experience, I usually answer the question "what are Europe’s young novelists writing about today?" with the answer "generally, what a certain kind of young British and American writer was writing about 10 or 20 years ago." 

To their credit, Germans are a pretty sophisticated bunch, and realize this themselves.  Take a book called Faserland [the title is an untranslatable pun referring to the narrator’s obsession with fashion], written in 1995 by a young German named Christian Kracht.  It involves a nameless protagonist, who is obsessed by brand-names and status symbols, who travels through Germany seeking immediate gratification in a superficial world of hollow young corporate suits, airhead debutantes, and mindless substance abuse (remind you of anyone?).

One German reviewer referred to it, tongue-in-cheek, as the "German translation of Bret Easton Ellis…"

From Minsk to Mönchengladbach

In the December issue of the left-wing magazine konkret, Jörg Kronauer, editor of the Internet magazine, writes about German policy toward the Republic of Belarus.  Kronauer comments on reporting about the "gray east" (my translation):

In order to ensure negative public opinion concerning the Republic of Belarus, which itself is almost enough to justify German interference in Belarus’ affairs, a simple propaganda recipe is enough: "The East," as the reporter’s rule has it, is gray.  A few years ago, a well-known German daily newspaper sought to nicely capture this fact with a photo of an aging streetcar sitting at a desolate intersection in front of a bunch of grim concrete blocks.  "Minsk" [capital city of Belarus] ran the caption, for those who didn’t want to make the effort to read the accompanying news report about the "gray city."  Of course, the photo editors had no idea that on that very day, there was a certain particularly clever head behind the newspaper.  Piqued, he notified the editors that he was very familiar with the streetcar in the picture, since he rode in it during his daily commute to work.  However, he wasn’t riding to Minsk, but rather Mönchengladbach.

An Essay on the Nature of Human Urination

In the English-speaking world, a conspiracy of silence and shame has long suppressed researching into the question of how men and women urinate.  In the Anglo-Saxon world, nobody seems to have perceived the need to devote a great deal of attention to the act of excreting urine. 

Leave it to the Germans, who combine a horrifying refreshing frankness about bodily functions with a boring obsession with the mundane aspects of everyday life a scientifically rigorous and historically-informed approach to questions of human urination.  This subject, evidently, is far too important to be left to the urologists and perverts.  Thus we have Standing While you Pee: The Last Bastion of Masculinity?  Identity and Power in a an Everyday Masculine Event, published in 2000, in which Klaus Schwerma delivers 144 more pages than we wanted to know about this subject. 

The blurb first notes that, apparently, German men sometimes do not have a slash with optimum accuracy, and for decades expected their women to clean up the resulting urine-splattered bathrooms without complaint.  Empowered by the women’s liberation movement, the women revolted, and ordered their men to sit down while bleeding the lizard.  Whereupon certain men launched a pro-standing-up-while-peeing counterrevolution.  (Remember, this is a social democracy with high unemployment — people have lots of time on their hands here.)

Let’s pick up the blurb from there, in my translation:

The vehemence with which some men have stood by and defended standing-while-peeing prompts one to suspect that this dispute is about something more than familiar habits and comfort.  Is standing-while-peeing an act of masculine idenfication, a symbolic exercise of power, an exercise of patriarchal power against women, a demonstration of the claims of masculinity and (phallic) male fantasies?  Is standing while you pee an expression of masculinity?

In one of the few scientific studies on the theme of standing while you pee, Klaus Schwerma addresses the subject from the standpoints of social-scientific, psychological-psycholanalytic, and political-science analysis.  At the same time, he describes and analyzes current everyday life and everyday contexts and social-cultural contexts.  In his theoretical discourse, he dives in [so to speak — tr.] to everyday life to see how these theoretical insights are realized.

According to my sources in the publishing industry, the book made quite a splash.

Horst Fascher and the Early Beatles

I just heard an interview with Horst Fascher, the German club-owner who gave the Beatles their start in various clubs in the German port city of Hamburg in 1962.  He’s written a book called (title in English, book in German) Let the Good Times Roll, about his adventurous life. 

Fascher himself is a formerboxer who spent some time in prison for manslaughter, but also learned excellent English in the sea trade.  Fascher realized the Beatles’ potential soon after he heard them. He invited them to play in clubs he managed, most notably the Star Club, provided them with accommodations (the Fab Four slept two to a room in a two-bedroom place), and even invited them home to share his mother’s stew, which she cooked in a big laundry-pot and flavored with plenty of meat that Fascher’s father, a butcher, brought home.

Fascher had plenty of juicy anecdotes.  The Star Club, it seems, was no dinner theater.  Things got moist and smoky and alcoholized. Paul McCartney handled it all gracefully — he really was the nice Beatle, according to Fascher.  In fact, he still returns Fascher’s phone calls, although Fascher has to go through McCartney’s front office like everyone else, since McCartney has no cellphone. 

John Lennon was much more difficult (George was introverted and thought only of his guitar).  When a fan yelled something rude or spilled beer on him, Lennon might well call him a "fucking Nazi bastard."  Not infrequently, Lennon jumped into the crowd and started mixing it up.  Fascher stepped in to prevent Lennon getting beaten to a pulp.  Fascher introduced the Beatles to Hamburg’s infamous red-light district, St. Pauli, and recorded their amazement at how realistic German transvestites looked.  Fascher also hinted, with some amusement, that he made sure the boys always had "the things they needed" when they decided to "pay visits" to that part of the city.

Fascher’s mother, German to the core, asked the Beatles what they were doing about washing their underthings.  The Fab Four replied modestly that they washed them in the sink in their communal apartment.  "Nonsense!" she said, "you’ll only turn them gray that way.  Bring them over here and I’ll wash them."  So the Beatles packed up their sweaty underwear and brought it to Fascher’s mother’s place for a thorough German scrubbing.  I wonder how much a 44-year-old pair of John Lennon’s underwear would fetch these days?

There’s much more in the whole interview, which you can download here.  Two warnings: the interview’s in German, and West German Radio’s links often don’t work…