Erdmöbel’s apolitical pop

A few days ago, Peter Unfried of the left-leaning German daily taz interviewed Markus Berges, singer and songwriter for the German pop band Erdmöbel. I’ve raved about Erdmöbel before in this blog, and here’s a short summary: the lyrics are drenched with longing, but not sentimental; the music is graceful, hook-ridden, and elegantly orchestrated.

In short, Erdmöbel are the most interesting pop band in Germany.  If they sung in English, they would be beloved of pop conoisseurs worldwide, as are Beth Orton or Everything But the Girl. But for now, only those of us boneheaded enlightened enough to have learned German can fully enjoy these gems. (But yes! Buy the records for the music alone, if you don’t understand German.)

The goody-two-shoes green/socialists of the taz are suspicious. Isn’t it a little frivolous to just make lovely pop songs? The title of the article, "Rock against Nothing At All", is almost an accusation.  Like a dog worrying at a bone, taz writer Unfried tries to get some sort of political opinion out of Berges. 

Berges is much too clever for that.  He toyed with punk when he was younger, he admits, but quickly found it a dead end; people who have to demonstrate their principled rejection of bourgeois conformity box themselves into equally boring little ghettos of non-bourgeois conformity, and end up just whining about the world in general.

Well, fine, the taz writer says.  But aren’t you then just producing relaxing adult pop that permits high-IQ capitalist drones "to go out next morning and pursue [their own] individual economic goals full of elan?"

You can almost hear Berges sigh.  "You can’t just pull an Ermöbel song out of an automat to satisfy a certain need," he objects.  Unfried visits a concert.  The music is gorgeous, he admits, but Ermöbel have short hair, don’t call attention to themselves, and seem focussed on the music.  Suspicious, Unfried resumes the inquisition.  Can taz readers be sure that Berges doesn’t vote for the conservative party (CDU)?  Berges smiles: "I understand the impulse.  I’d also like to be sure that someone whose art I treasure doesn’t vote CDU.  But that’s all nonsense.  Because I know that art has its own independent existence, even if it’s just a pop song."

Crime, Innocence, and Therapy Part I

Last week I watched several parts of a documentary series called "Mask of Evil", about the detection and treatment of sex offenders in Germany, on the public-affairs channel here. 

I’ve been noodling around on a post about it for a while now.  The post is turning into something of a monster — I’m writing something academically in just this area right now, which means my little head’s full of ideas and research that just want to be free!  The post is so long that I’m going to have to split it in sections, and into two parts.  Sorry about the prolixity, but remember, (1) I am a recovering attorney; and (2) I warned you.  Anyone who’s interested in criminal-justice might find it interesting, for everyone else, freedom’s just a mouse-click away…

Introduction

"Mask of Evil" was made in 2004, and originally shown on a major public TV channel.  The directors traveled throughout Germany to various prisons and treatment facilities, interviewing not only the violent sex criminals who were the focus of the film, but also police officials, family members, and victims; as well as and therapists and psychologists who worked with the inmates.  Despite the dramatic title, it wasn’t particularly sensationalistic.

The subjects were men who had committed sexual offenses and had been caught and imprisoned.  "Georg B," or "Konstantin N.," appeared onscreen, without concealing their faces.  The documentary even re-created interviews between the sex criminals themselves — played by themselves — and psychologists who were treating them: "So, do you think that your fantasies have become more or less violent here in prison?" "More violent.  I don’t want to be released, because I know I’ll do something horrible again."

One of my areas of academic interest is comparative criminal justice, which means I pay close attention to how different societies deal with crime.  Watching the documentary, I could not help drawing a number of comparisons to American criminal justice. 

I.  Level of punishment

The first, and most glaring difference, is the level of punishment.  The criminals profiled in "Mask of Evil" would have been sentenced to death in most places in the United States.  Prosecutors can and do make choices which "death-eligible murders" they will seek the death penalty for.  Sex murders are at the top of the list, for several reasons. First, the perpetrator often leaves behind biological evidence that can lead to a conclusive DNA match.  No worries about executing the wrong guy.  Second, stranger-on-stranger sex crimes — as opposed to ‘ordinary’ robbery-murders — trigger extreme horror and disgust among jury members. American juries hand down a death sentence only about 50% of the time when the prosecution asks for it, in general. Violent sex criminals, however, get death probably 70 or 80% of the time.

Germany, of course, has no death penalty.  Most of the criminals in the documentary were sentenced to "life imprisonment," the most severe punishment available under German law.  This means they are technically sentenced to life in prison, but they have a right to be released after 15 or 25 years.  Under German law, however, criminals who continue to pose a severe risk to society can be kept in prison after their sentence has expired.  Although they think they’re still being punished because they have to stay in prison, the law says the only purpose of holding them in prison is to "treat" them until they are no longer a danger.  So, as a practical matter, the most serious sex criminals may well actually spend the rest of their life in prison.  They will not, however, be executed.

2.  Criminals Talking Openly

It always stuns me how openly German criminals speak about their crimes.  One of the things outside observers find problematic about the U.S. criminal justice system is that it doesn’t offer a formal, guaranteed reward to suspects who confess guilt.  In Germany, suspects have the right to remain silent.  However, Germany also has official and inofficial sanctions and rewards that strongly encourage defendants to confess their guilt.  The judge will almost always give them a big sentence reduction if they do, and they can also be diverted into treatment programs less harsh than prison.  The German system sends the message: "don’t blow smoke in our eyes by lying to us about your innocence.  Help us understand why you committed the crime, and we’ll cut your sentence and try to help you avoid offending in the future."  And the system really means it; criminal sentences are much shorter in Germany, and the entire prison system is geared toward "resocialization," to use the German word.

Confessions also happen in the U.S. quite often.  However, the system does not officially encourage them or regard them as a part of the rehabilitation process, as in Germany.  Prosecutors will "cut a deal" with a defendant (give him a lower sentence if he pleads guilty to a less-serious crime) not because they necessarily think it’s the right thing to do, but because the U.S. criminal justice system is so overburdened that it would be impossible to give everyone a trial who wanted one.  Especially when there is a long prison sentence involved, nobody admits guilt during a trial.  If the crime is very serious, and the defendant doesn’t confess during police interrogation, the first thing his lawyer will tell him is "don’t say a single word to anybody about your involvement in this crime."  The advice makes sense: why confess guilt to a crime that might carry the death penalty?  Or a sentence of real, no-parole life in prison?  Or to get a prison sentence of 10 years, instead of 25?

Because of these incentives, what happens in serious criminal cases in the U.S. is the client maintains his innocence — no matter how ludicrous the story he has to come up with.  His lawyer attempts to show that he wasn’t at the crime scene, or that there’s some weak point in the State’s case against him.  Even long after the client has been convicted, and has begun serving his prison sentence (or waiting to be executed), a lawyer will almost always tell the client never to admit his guilt to anyone, for any reason.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, if the prisoner’s conviction is overturned and he gets an new trial, anything he said in prison could be used to convict him during the second trial.  Second, what if the lawyer is arguing in an official court pleading that his client was wrongly convicted because of mistaken identity?  If the client confesses, the lawyer may have to withdraw the pleading, or give up the appeal altogether.

Not so in Germany. The criminals in "Mask of Evil" — when they weren’t working on sculptures, playing pool, making furniture, or lounging outside on a sunny day — spoke quite frankly about the crimes they committed, the urges and fantasies they had, when their criminal career began, etc.  They seemed positively eager to discuss their crimes, since by doing so they could impress their therapists with their "openness" and "insight," and thereby possibly win earlier release.  By contrast, my experience in the U.S. was that most criminals spent their mental energies tracking the legal proceedings against them, and constructing ever-more-elaborate ways to "explain away" the State’s evidence of their guilt.  This became an obsession for many of them.

[This difference, incidentally, helps to explain one distorted European perception of the U.S. criminal-justice system — the notion that large numbers of innocent people go to jail in the U.S. When Europeans see documentaries about inmates in U.S. prisons, most of the inmates protest their innocence.  The European thinks: "Well then, he must be innocent.  If he admitted his guilt, then he would get therapy and possibly leave prison earlier.  The fact that he is not taking advantage of this possibility means his claim of innocence must be sincere."  Wrong.  If he admits his guilt, his sentence will remain the same, he won’t get additional "therapy" (which is almost non-existent in warehouse-like U.S. prisons anyway), and risks spoiling his chances during appeals.]

Crime, Innocence, and Therapy Part I

Last week I watched several parts of a documentary series called "Mask of Evil", about the detection and treatment of sex offenders in Germany, on the public-affairs channel here. 

I’ve been noodling around on a post about it for a while now.  The post is turning into something of a monster — I’m writing something academically in just this area right now, which means my little head’s full of ideas and research that just want to be free!  The post is so long that I’m going to have to split it in sections, and into two parts.  Sorry about the prolixity, but remember, (1) I am a recovering attorney; and (2) I warned you.  Anyone who’s interested in criminal-justice might find it interesting, for everyone else, freedom’s just a mouse-click away…

Introduction

"Mask of Evil" was made in 2004, and originally shown on a major public TV channel.  The directors traveled throughout Germany to various prisons and treatment facilities, interviewing not only the violent sex criminals who were the focus of the film, but also police officials, family members, and victims; as well as and therapists and psychologists who worked with the inmates.  Despite the dramatic title, it wasn’t particularly sensationalistic.

The subjects were men who had committed sexual offenses and had been caught and imprisoned.  "Georg B," or "Konstantin N.," appeared onscreen, without concealing their faces.  The documentary even re-created interviews between the sex criminals themselves — played by themselves — and psychologists who were treating them: "So, do you think that your fantasies have become more or less violent here in prison?" "More violent.  I don’t want to be released, because I know I’ll do something horrible again."

One of my areas of academic interest is comparative criminal justice, which means I pay close attention to how different societies deal with crime.  Watching the documentary, I could not help drawing a number of comparisons to American criminal justice. 

I.  Level of punishment

The first, and most glaring difference, is the level of punishment.  The criminals profiled in "Mask of Evil" would have been sentenced to death in most places in the United States.  Prosecutors can and do make choices which "death-eligible murders" they will seek the death penalty for.  Sex murders are at the top of the list, for several reasons. First, the perpetrator often leaves behind biological evidence that can lead to a conclusive DNA match.  No worries about executing the wrong guy.  Second, stranger-on-stranger sex crimes — as opposed to ‘ordinary’ robbery-murders — trigger extreme horror and disgust among jury members. American juries hand down a death sentence only about 50% of the time when the prosecution asks for it, in general. Violent sex criminals, however, get death probably 70 or 80% of the time.

Germany, of course, has no death penalty.  Most of the criminals in the documentary were sentenced to "life imprisonment," the most severe punishment available under German law.  This means they are technically sentenced to life in prison, but they have a right to be released after 15 or 25 years.  Under German law, however, criminals who continue to pose a severe risk to society can be kept in prison after their sentence has expired.  Although they think they’re still being punished because they have to stay in prison, the law says the only purpose of holding them in prison is to "treat" them until they are no longer a danger.  So, as a practical matter, the most serious sex criminals may well actually spend the rest of their life in prison.  They will not, however, be executed.

2.  Criminals Talking Openly

It always stuns me how openly German criminals speak about their crimes.  One of the things outside observers find problematic about the U.S. criminal justice system is that it doesn’t offer a formal, guaranteed reward to suspects who confess guilt.  In Germany, suspects have the right to remain silent.  However, Germany also has official and inofficial sanctions and rewards that strongly encourage defendants to confess their guilt.  The judge will almost always give them a big sentence reduction if they do, and they can also be diverted into treatment programs less harsh than prison.  The German system sends the message: "don’t blow smoke in our eyes by lying to us about your innocence.  Help us understand why you committed the crime, and we’ll cut your sentence and try to help you avoid offending in the future."  And the system really means it; criminal sentences are much shorter in Germany, and the entire prison system is geared toward "resocialization," to use the German word.

Confessions also happen in the U.S. quite often.  However, the system does not officially encourage them or regard them as a part of the rehabilitation process, as in Germany.  Prosecutors will "cut a deal" with a defendant (give him a lower sentence if he pleads guilty to a less-serious crime) not because they necessarily think it’s the right thing to do, but because the U.S. criminal justice system is so overburdened that it would be impossible to give everyone a trial who wanted one.  Especially when there is a long prison sentence involved, nobody admits guilt during a trial.  If the crime is very serious, and the defendant doesn’t confess during police interrogation, the first thing his lawyer will tell him is "don’t say a single word to anybody about your involvement in this crime."  The advice makes sense: why confess guilt to a crime that might carry the death penalty?  Or a sentence of real, no-parole life in prison?  Or to get a prison sentence of 10 years, instead of 25?

Because of these incentives, what happens in serious criminal cases in the U.S. is the client maintains his innocence — no matter how ludicrous the story he has to come up with.  His lawyer attempts to show that he wasn’t at the crime scene, or that there’s some weak point in the State’s case against him.  Even long after the client has been convicted, and has begun serving his prison sentence (or waiting to be executed), a lawyer will almost always tell the client never to admit his guilt to anyone, for any reason.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, if the prisoner’s conviction is overturned and he gets an new trial, anything he said in prison could be used to convict him during the second trial.  Second, what if the lawyer is arguing in an official court pleading that his client was wrongly convicted because of mistaken identity?  If the client confesses, the lawyer may have to withdraw the pleading, or give up the appeal altogether.

Not so in Germany. The criminals in "Mask of Evil" — when they weren’t working on sculptures, playing pool, making furniture, or lounging outside on a sunny day — spoke quite frankly about the crimes they committed, the urges and fantasies they had, when their criminal career began, etc.  They seemed positively eager to discuss their crimes, since by doing so they could impress their therapists with their "openness" and "insight," and thereby possibly win earlier release.  By contrast, my experience in the U.S. was that most criminals spent their mental energies tracking the legal proceedings against them, and constructing ever-more-elaborate ways to "explain away" the State’s evidence of their guilt.  This became an obsession for many of them.

[This difference, incidentally, helps to explain one distorted European perception of the U.S. criminal-justice system — the notion that large numbers of innocent people go to jail in the U.S. When Europeans see documentaries about inmates in U.S. prisons, most of the inmates protest their innocence.  The European thinks: "Well then, he must be innocent.  If he admitted his guilt, then he would get therapy and possibly leave prison earlier.  The fact that he is not taking advantage of this possibility means his claim of innocence must be sincere."  Wrong.  If he admits his guilt, his sentence will remain the same, he won’t get additional "therapy" (which is almost non-existent in warehouse-like U.S. prisons anyway), and risks spoiling his chances during appeals.]

Umlaut-Grumpiness Connection Myth Debunked

I sent an email to David Myers asking him about the umlaut article.  Prof. Myers was kind enough to send me the following response:

This is a misreported story that took on a life of its own.  I’ve never done research on German speech and personality (this was an utterly mistaken press report misattributed to me that has recycled for several years).  But here is what I do report in my introductory psychology text:

Saying the phonemes e and ah, which activate smiling muscles, puts people—believe it or not—in a better mood than saying the German ü (rather like saying the English e and u together), which activates muscles associated with negative emotions (Zajonc & others, 1989).

Zajonc, R. B., Murphy, S. T., & Inglehart, M. (1989). Feeling and facial efference: Implications of the vascular theory of emotions. Psychological Review, 96, 395–416.

Let us set the record straight.  The original press report was unreliable, Professor Myers does not stand for the proposition that frequent pronunciation of umlauts "causes German grumpiness."  He has only cited, in passing, a study that appears to support a much more limited proposition.  If I didn’t have a day job, I might actually want to track down the Inglehart & Murphy article.

The decision to wait and see whether I could find out more about this theory has paid off.  I believe this is the first time anything approaching journalism has ever been committed on German Joys.  I promise it won’t be the last!

Tërrïbly Ünhäppy Germans

Marginal Revolution points us to a study by an American professor which blames umlauts for German grumpiness: "Hope College psychology professor David Myers says saying a vowel with an umlaut forces a speaker to turn down his mouth in a frown, and may induce the sadness associated with the facial expression."  English, he claims, involves broad ‘ah’ and ‘eh’ sounds which require you to mimic smiling motions.  This story was originally reported back in 2000 by the BBC

Hat-tip to Marian Wirth, valued German Joys Commenter and freshly-minted blogger, for the link.

Now to the substance: I have my doubts. I’m not going to address Myers’ theory in detail, because there’s not enough information about it in the article to draw an informed conclusion. I have an email in to Myers to see if he published his results anywhere; I’d love to learn more about the methodology and conclusions.

However, I can’t see how umlauts could be the culprit here. Some background for non-German speaking readers, umlauts are the two little dots on top of a, o, and u in the German language.  They change both the pronunciation and the meaning of words considerably.  ‘A’ in German is pronounced like the ‘o’ in ‘gone,’ while ‘ä’ is more like the ‘a’ in ‘bake.’  ‘O’ is pronounced a lot like the English ‘o,’ but ‘ö’ is pronounced like "er."  Pronouncing ‘u’ with an umlaut is tricky, it’s a sound halfway between ‘u’ and ‘e’ that non-native speakers almost never master.

What I don’t understand about the theory is that rough equivalents of the umlauted sounds of ‘a’ and ‘o’ exist in English, so the umlauted ‘u’ is really the only way in which umlauts introduce a sound into German that doesn’t exist in English. I have tried smiling while saying umlauted vowels, and it seems to work just fine, it’s only a little tricky with the ‘ü’, since you’ve got to tighten your cheek muscles a bit to really get it right.

Mr. Wirth noted another potential objection: If Germans are so glum because they have a few umlauts, what about Finns and Turks, who decorate their vowels (and even their consonants) with an almost-ludicrous variety of diacritical marks?

As I said, I’ll withhold an analysis until I get more details. But color me, so far, not yet convinced.

A Little Political Correctness Goes a Long Way, Part 2

I thought I would respond to a few comments on my last post about the cartoon affair, especially Marek Moehling’s long, thoughtful (and brilliantly HTML-enabled!) effort.

First, some things we agree on.  Many governments in the Arab world are indeed, authoritarian and corrupt. I certainly wouldn’t want to live there. Major currents of Islamic thought, to my knowledge, don’t recognize a difference between church and state (see this article (G) for such an argument). I certainly wouldn’t fancy living under shari’a, that’s for sure. Furthermore, I agree it’s laughable to hear Muslims reciting conspiracy theories about 9/11, and asserting that Muslims couldn’t have been responsible for various atrocities because "Muslims don’t do such things." I should note, however, that I have heard the Bush knew/CIA/Mossad theory much more frequently from non-Muslim Europeans than I have from Muslims.

But what do these observations have to do with the proper approach toward Muslims living in European societies (except for the fact, of course, that some immigrants have fled backward, repressive regimes for precisely these reasons)? These observations about Islam may be useful to shaping foreign policy. They might also be good things to think about when deciding whether to permit large-scale immigration of Muslims into Europe. But we are past that point. About 15 million Muslims live here in Europe, many are citizens, almost all of them have a legal right to stay.

This means there is no longer any point in asking Question #1: "Can we find a way to peacefully coexist with the Muslims who are living in Europe?" What if we ask that question, and decide the answer is "no"? Then what? Lots of very, very ugly scenarios begin to play themselves out.

Thus, we come to Question #2: "How can we find a way to peacefully coexist with the Muslims who are living in Europe?" This is really the only question that European governments can afford to ask, unless they want to start repealing large portions of the European Convention on Human Rights, which I hope they do not do.

That’s why I find many of Marek’s comments, among the others, somewhat off-point. These observations are factually accurate, many are insightful, but I can’t see that they help us to answer Question #2. Take the issue of whether Islam (or certain variants of it) is "consistent" with democracy. What if we decide it isn’t? What then? Shall we force Muslims to give up their faith or leave the country? Require them, by law, to believe a form of Islam that we find "nicer"? Perhaps, while we’re at it, we will also force the 40% of Germans who believe in the death penalty (a position that’s "inconsistent" with the German Basic Law) into exile.

Where does it all lead? To one conclusion: a society that wants to survive in harmony can ask Question #2, but not the questions just above. Although I doubt many Europeans will ever be willing to recognize this, the United States of America has developed an answer to question number 2 that works. (Note: I am well aware that U.S. foreign policy is regarded with hostility in the Muslim world.  I am talking only about what happens inside the U.S., just as the problem for Europe is mainly how to coexist with the Muslims who are already here). 

This answer is usually mocked by Europeans as "political correctness," but many Americans would call it "good taste," "decency," or simply "respect." In order to harmoniously accommodate the huge variety of ethnic groups and religions that exist in the U.S., everyone agrees to avoid discussing certain extremely sensitive topics in the public sphere, and to avoid intentionally insulting the basic tenets of other peoples’ religious faith.

American philosopher Robert Wright explains in a recent New York Times op-ed, "The Silent Treatment":

So why not take the model that has worked in America and apply it globally? Namely: Yes, you are legally free to publish just about anything, but if you publish things that gratuitously offend ethnic or religious groups, you will earn the scorn of enlightened people everywhere. With freedom comes responsibility.

***

Of course, it’s a two-way street. As Westerners try to attune themselves to the sensitivities of Muslims, Muslims need to respect the sensitivities of, for example, Jews. But it’s going to be hard for Westerners to sell Muslims on this symmetrical principle while flagrantly violating it themselves. That Danish newspaper editor, along with his American defenders, is complicating the fight against anti-Semitism….  [O]ne key to the American formula for peaceful coexistence is to avoid such arguments — to let each group decide what it finds most offensive, so long as the implied taboo isn’t too onerous. We ask only that the offended group in turn respect the verdicts of other groups about what they find most offensive.

***

[And this goes not just for] media outlets. Most Americans tread lightly in discussing ethnicity and religion, and we do it so habitually that it’s nearly unconscious. Some might call this dishonest, and maybe it is, but it also holds moral truth: until you’ve walked in the shoes of other people, you can’t really grasp their frustrations and resentments, and you can’t really know what would and wouldn’t offend you if you were part of their crowd.

The Danish editor’s confusion was to conflate censorship and self-censorship. Not only are they not the same thing — the latter is what allows us to live in a spectacularly diverse society without the former; to keep censorship out of the legal realm, we practice it in the moral realm. Sometimes it feels uncomfortable, but worse things are imaginable.

You may not agree with Wright here, but his point of view is the mainstream one in the United States, even right-wingers. There are no Blut und Boden nativist conservatives in the mainstream of U.S. public opinion.  Conservatives do often mock extremes of political correctness, such as sensitivity training or university "speech codes," but they do so only when the rules go too far and prohibit legitimate debate on sensitive subjects. 

However, every American agrees that a large, multiethnic, diverse country should enforce informal — but strict — restrictions on gratuitous mockery of ethnic or religious groups.  They will even permit the state to outlaw behavior that needlessly inflames racial tensions. The Supreme Court held that it was permissible for the State of Wisconsin to punish people more severely when their criminal conduct was motivated by racial hatred, and upheld a law making it illegal to burn a cross (a KKK ritual symbolizing oppression of blacks).  Both of these decisions were written by conservatives, not do-good liberals. This shows how deep the consensus against racial, ethnic or religious provocation goes in the U.S. — everyone in a position of responsibility realizes it’s essential to society’s survival. (Of course, many European government have come to exactly the same conclusion about Nazism and Holocaust denial.)

Germany is lucky.  Its immigrtion debate is not yet being conducted with the level of mutual hostility, bitterness and despair that exist in places like Denmark and France.  There are German politicians who want to begin the pointless spiral of intrusive, enforced conformity followed by outraged backlash, but they are relatively few. Most people still inhabit the middle-ground, where people want to defuse tensions and find a way to get along with one another.

I think a little bit of American Canadian-style respect will help it stay that way. Non-Muslim Europeans have their taboos, Muslim Europeans have others, we can respect all of them simultaneously and equally on all sides. Sure, we’ll lose a little free speech along the way, but I think speech that’s intended mainly to degrade and mock others based on their ethnicity or their religion is worthless. We can outlaw it or make it taboo without significant harm to society. The American and Canadian experience show that we can waive the right to say or show certain extremely offensive things without sacrificing the ability to have honest, vigorous debates.

Worse things, as Robert Wright puts it, are imaginable…. Much worse.

German Words of the Week: Schreibtischtäter

This week’s GWOW is a triple-combination special.  First, the root: Täter (pronounced as in "Pass the taters, Maw!").

It’s derived from the neutral word tun, or "to do."  So a Täter is "doer."  However, a we don’t like the things Täter do: they beat people, scratch cars, embezzle money, smuggle drugs, kill animals, burn embassies, and such like. They are criminals.

There are different sorts of Täter. A Triebtäter is someone who’se motivated by unwholesome drives or urges (Treiben), an "urge-criminal," or sex offender. 

You can have some sympathy for an Überzuegungstäter, though.  What he does is, of course, wrong, but he’s a "conviction-criminal," operating on the basis of his sincere convictions (Überzeugungen).  This is about the nicest thing you’re allowed to call George W. Bush in most German newspapers.

Now to the pièce de résistance: Schreibtischtäter.  We’ll need to do some (light) German compound noun math to understand this word

Schreib (write)    X  Tisch (table) = "write-table", or desk.

Now plug the result of the above equation into the next phase:

Schreibtisch (desk)   +    Täter (criminal) = desk-criminal.

A desk-criminal kills with his pen.  He sits at his desk in the Ministry of Internal Security, or Refugee Resettlement, and decides the fate of a single human being — or thousands of them –with a simple check-mark on a form, or by filing folders in certain cabinets. 

More about a simple "Transportation Administrator" who became history’s most notorious Schreibtischtäter here.

German Words of the Week: Schreibtischtäter

This week’s GWOW is a triple-combination special.  First, the root: Täter (pronounced as in "Pass the taters, Maw!").

It’s derived from the neutral word tun, or "to do."  So a Täter is "doer."  However, a we don’t like the things Täter do: they beat people, scratch cars, embezzle money, smuggle drugs, kill animals, burn embassies, and such like. They are criminals.

There are different sorts of Täter. A Triebtäter is someone who’se motivated by unwholesome drives or urges (Treiben), an "urge-criminal," or sex offender. 

You can have some sympathy for an Überzuegungstäter, though.  What he does is, of course, wrong, but he’s a "conviction-criminal," operating on the basis of his sincere convictions (Überzeugungen).  This is about the nicest thing you’re allowed to call George W. Bush in most German newspapers.

Now to the pièce de résistance: Schreibtischtäter.  We’ll need to do some (light) German compound noun math to understand this word

Schreib (write)    X  Tisch (table) = "write-table", or desk.

Now plug the result of the above equation into the next phase:

Schreibtisch (desk)   +    Täter (criminal) = desk-criminal.

A desk-criminal kills with his pen.  He sits at his desk in the Ministry of Internal Security, or Refugee Resettlement, and decides the fate of a single human being — or thousands of them –with a simple check-mark on a form, or by filing folders in certain cabinets. 

More about a simple "Transportation Administrator" who became history’s most notorious Schreibtischtäter here.

The German Joys Cultural Trivia Contest Part I: The Pink Austrian Mercury

Yep, it’s a new contest. This contest will reward those of you who, like me, have wasted spent invested countless thousands of hours exploring the hidden treasures of European culture, broadly defined. 

This contest is not designed to increase traffic to my site.  It’s designed to reduce it.

Here are the rules.  I ask one or two questions.  The questions relate to one particular work of art (remember — broadly defined).  The first person to answer these questions correctly, either in a comment or in an email to me, wins the contest. Your answer has to identify the work of art that provides the answer to the question. 

Don’t go thinkin’ you can just Google up an answer.  The questions are all going to be Google-proof, I guarantee you (at least the English and German versions of Google…)

What does the winner win?  They win a few DVDs, lovingly created by me, filled with huge amounts of beautiful music.  You win, you give me your address, and you’ll get the DVDs.  Promise.  I’ll ship them anywhere in the world. Restriction: Nobody who knows me gets to play! 

Simple, eh?  So here are the first two questions:

1.  What do you have to trade to get the Pink Austrian Mercury?

2.  What other colors from that set did the old man have when he died?

Yes, these questions have answers.  In fact, you can answer both of them in 5 words. 

No, I won’t give any clues.  Good Luck!

Heiner Lauterbach’s a-Drinkin’ and Whorin’

German actor Heiner Lauterbach, star of various films I’ve never seen, has something he wants to tell (G) us. "I drank and I whored!" runs the title of the article.  After describing why so few men are good at group sex, Lauterbach

…speaks just as openly and unreservedly about his 25-year addiction to alcohol. "I went to the bar at 11 in the morning and drank twelve hours straight. That was sometimes extremely amusing and sometimes rather stupid." Drinking was just plain a "banal thing to do," Lauterbach’s motive was simple boredom.

If there’s anything I’ve never associated movie stars with, it’s boredom. If group sex, drug abuse, and the adulations of millions of fans can’t dispel boredom, what hope is there for the rest of us?

What’s So Funny ’bout Political Correctness?

Everywhere I go, it seems, people are talking about the cartoon controversy. Even by European standards, the press coverage has been intense, and at times hysterical.

I was content to simply watch it all with detached amusement, as is my usual practice. However, so many people stated (or screamed) their opinion in my presence, and asked me for mine, that I found it necessary to develop an opinion on the matter.

An unpleasant task, but apparently unavoidable. I will now write my opinion in my blog, so that when the subject comes up again — as it surely will — I can just say "If you want to know what I think, go read my blog. And now, can we please talk about something different?"  That’s why blogs are so handy!

So here is my humble opinion, for anyone who’s interested.

  1. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten should not have published the caricatures of Mohammed, for reasons of taste and respect. Civilized people don’t gratuitously insult others’ religious beliefs.
  2. Boycotts and demonstrations against the publication are perfectly in order.
  3. Arson or death threats are — duh — not. Individuals who respond in such a way should be hunted down by the police and sentenced to long prison terms, or expelled from the country, if they are not citizens.
  4. To the extent the peaceful demonstrations and boycotts target Denmark in general, and not just Jyllands-Posten, they are probably too broad, since the Danish government’s control over what gets published in Denmark is limited.
  5. I fully agree with the decision of all mainstream Canadian and U.S. publications not to publish the cartoons, and would make the same decision myself.
  6. To the extent that the publication of the cartoons exposes some of the bizarre attitudes toward Islamic immigrants in Europe, it’s probably a good thing.
  7. No, this does not herald an impending "crisis" or "clash of civilizations."  In two weeks we’ll all be talking about something else. Thank Allah God.

Let me explain a little.

I don’t feel threatened by "Europe’s Muslims." There’s about 15 million of them here, academics, shop owners, taxi drivers, office drones. Among this group are a minority of religious fanatics, who pose a genuine danger and should be — and generally are — treated accordingly. These religious fanatics do not represent the majority of Islamic Europeans, who just want to be left alone and make a living, just like the rest of us.

The more observant European Muslims have religious beliefs I don’t share. Some take those beliefs seriously, and act on those beliefs in their everyday lives by, for instance, wearing special clothing, or praying 5 times a day in the direction of Mecca. This does not bother me in the slightest, and should not bother anyone. To quote Thomas Jefferson, "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." When I see a Muslim woman walking along the street in a headscarf, I think to myself: "nice headscarf." If it’s nice.

I find stories of honor killings and other brutal acts within the Islamic community disturbing, but they don’t make me ask myself the question "What should we do about ‘the Muslims’?" That goes for all population groups. I recently watched a documentary (G) about an East German woman who locked her children in a room and let them die of thirst while she went out partying. Very disturbing. After watching the documentary, I felt no need to ask, or answer, the question: "What should we do about ‘the East Germans?’" The reason I don’t ask these questions is because these news stories are about unusual, exceptional cases. Newspapers don’t run stories about Muslim girls who aren’t killed by their family members to protect the family’s honor, just as they don’t run news stories about planes that land on time. And for exactly the same reasons.

Everything Germany needs to do about honor killings or death threats has already been done. It’s called having a penal code and establishing prisons. When an individual breaks the law by murdering or beating someone, or threatening them with death, or causing public disorder, they should be punished accordingly. If they are not, that’s a problem of the effectiveness of law enforcement, nothing more.

If Muslims don’t break the law, I don’t care what they do. I am aware that some Muslims tend to run their families in a way that I would not care to imitate. Perhaps they force their daughters to wear headscarves, or arrange marriages for their daughters. My response to that is: "So what?" If they work, pay their taxes, obey the law, and don’t harm or threaten people, I don’t care how they raise their children. It’s not my role, or the State’s role, to tell people how to run their private lives. Establishing standards of behavior for your children to obey — and enforcing them through sanctions, if necessary — is something all well-run families do. The fact that I wouldn’t choose the same standards of behavior is irrelevant.

Yes, I am aware that some women in a small minority of traditional Islamic households complain of coercion, and are forced into a subordinate role. (Others, odd as it may seem to Europeans, don’t seem to have a big problem (G) with it). There is a difference between things I disapprove of, and things I think the government should ban. Europeans cite this difference when they mock the United States for, for example, banning prostitution or cigarette smoking. If these traditional mores are enforced by threats or beating, the men doing the threatening and beating should be locked up. There should be social service agencies to provide women locked into abusive relationships with at least the possibility of a way out. There are, in Germany. Of course, these measures do not solve the problem completely, but that’s the thing about social problems like unemployment, drug abuse, or abusive relationships. You can’t solve them completely; you can only try.

Of course, there are lots of people who are now practically screaming at the screen: "How can he be so naive?  How can he not see the threat of Europe’s Islamization that’s staring him in the face?  Can’t he see that they want to force us all to live like them?  He must be some sort of left-wing politically-correct wimp who will knuckle under to these fascists and thugs out of fear."

To that I say, calm down, my friend. I’ve read all those arguments, but I don’t find them particularly convincing. Perhaps you’ve been reading the wrong kind of European newspaper. Especially these days, many of them are full of hysterical denunciations, vapid generalizations, and screamy phrase-making.

It’s precisely this tone of barbed, bitter rhetoric that’s caused a lot of the problems. If I were in charge of Jyllands-Posten, I would never have published those caricatures. People who needlessly mock the religious beliefs of a quarter-million of their fellow citizens are assholes. Note, I said mock, not "disagree with" or "criticize." A reasoned critique of Islamic extremism? Sure. An insulting caricature of Muhammad? Nope.

And before you accuse me of endorsing self-censorship, let me proudly admit my guilt. Yes, indeed, mainstream newspapers — like ones in the U.S. and Canada have done — should avoid publishing material specifically intended to mock people’s religious beliefs, unless doing so it is necessary to illustrate some important public issue. Remember, these cartoons insulted all Muslims. Reza Aslan, a Muslim academic working in America, explains:

The fact is that Muslim anger over the caricatures derives not merely from their depiction of Mohammed. That may have upset more conservative Muslims, but it alone would not have engendered such a violent and widespread response. Rather, most Muslims have objected so strongly because these cartoons promote stereotypes of Muslims that are prevalent throughout Europe: Mohammed dressed as a terrorist, his turban a bomb with a lit fuse; Mohammed standing menacingly in front of two cowering, veiled women, unsheathing a long, curved sword; Mohammed on a cloud in heaven complaining that Paradise has run out of virgins. It is difficult to see how these drawings could have any purpose other than to offend. One cartoon goes so far as to brazenly call the prophet "daft and dumb."

A Muslim living in Canada — a country in which freedom of speech coexists with laws that prohibit intentional race- and religion-baiting, writes:

Those, … who speak out in favour of freedom of speech and press should also speak out against the raising tide in Denmark of racial and religious intolerance. The Danish cartoon affair is NOT just a test of basic freedoms, it is a concerted attack on a visible minority and that attack is being waged not only by incendiary cartoonists but also by government officials included the Queen of Denmark herself.

These are reasonable people, not despicable embassy-burning thugs. They don’t want to "force us to live like them." They would just appreciate it if they didn’t receive gratuitous insults to their religious faith delivered with their morning paper. Pretty reasonable, if you ask me. And an editor can respect this reasonable wish while fully exploring controversial issues.

That’s exactly what Jyllands-Posten did three years earlier, when it rejected caricatures of Christ because they could "provoke an outcry." The editors claim the two situations are completely separate, because the Christ caricatures involved unsolicited submissions, and the Muhammad caricatures were commissioned by the newspaper.

Perhaps you’re convinced by that distinction; I’m not. I think the explanation is much more simple. In Denmark, a leading national newspaper will take into account the religious sensitivities of Christians, but Muslims can be offended at will. They won’t publish one drawing because it might "provoke an outcry" among Christians, but will hold an entire contest which was intended to "provoke an outcry" among Muslims. Perhaps Denmark’s leading center-right newspaper once also held a "blaspheme Christianity" competition, and published the winning cartoon. Somehow I don’t think so. The signal is clear: some Danes’ religious beliefs are worthy of respect, others not. What a vicious message to send.

And they’re not alone. Denmark’s Queen recently announced that "we have to show our opposition to Islam." Not radicals or Islamists or extremists, mind you, but Islam itself. A prominent Danish right-wing party compares (G) Islam to a "cancerous tumor" and a "terrorist movement." Not just Islamic extremists, mind you, the whole religion. This party is part of the ruling coalition. Fortunately, these fools are still a minority in Denmark. Let’s hope it stays that way, because otherwise, the white European nativists and the Islamic extremists will drag us all into the idiotic "clash of civilizations" they yearn for.

Sometimes a litte bit of "political correctness," — that is, not mocking peope for things they were born with, like their skin color or their religion — is just what the doctor ordered. To quote Aslan again:

[T]hat is why as a Muslim American I am enraged by the publication of these cartoons. Not because they offend my prophet or my religion, but because they fly in the face of the tireless efforts of so many civic and religious leaders—both Muslim and non-Muslim—to promote unity and assimilation rather than hatred and discord; because they play into the hands of those who preach extremism; because they are fodder for the clash-of-civilizations mentality that pits East against West. For all of that I blame Jyllands-Posten. We in the West want Muslim leaders to condemn the racial and religious prejudices that are so widespread in the Muslim world. Let us lead by example.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Only Good Swastika is No Swastika

Displaying a swastika (in German Hakenkreuz or "hooked-cross") in public in Germay is prohibited by Section 86 of the German Penal Code. 

But did you know it may be illegal to wear a swastika with a red bar through it — such as on this t-shirt (G) as well?  Or to wear a button showing someone throwing a swastika into a garbage can?

Patrick Helber, a student from Tuebingen, was prosecuted (G) by the local district attorney for wearing a crossed-through swastika on his backpack, even though it’s clear to all this symbol sends an anti-right wing message. His sentence? He was required to donate to the Buchenwald concentration-camp memorial. The Nix-Gut shipping company, which distributes anti-fascist T-shirts, buttons, and stickers, was raided, and many of its articles seized — along with client information. Irmela Mensah-Schramm, who photographs and then erases radical-right graffiti, watched a poster for one of her exhibitions be confiscated by the police.

The public officials are unapologetic. Their basic message: you cannot publicly display "symbols of an organization that is hostile to the Constitution" in Germany, period. Doesn’t matter what your attitude toward those symbols is. In the meantime, the sentence against Helber has been lifted (G) by an appeals court, but it’s not clear what will happen in other cases.

I tend to suspect there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Organized anti-right-wing forces (known as "anti-fa" for "anti-fascist") contain a few excitable left-wing activists within their ranks. They will show up at right-wing protests and demonstrations, and sometimes things get violent. It’s possible the police are just trying to defuse potential problems before they occur, by banning particularly provocative signs and emblems of all stripes. Whether that’s a legitimate goal, I leave for the reader to decide…