Fighting Poverty Costs Money, and Can Succeed

Picking up on a theme I posted about a few weeks ago, let me link to a few posts discussing a new study about income mobility in the U.S. and Europe. Income or class mobility refers to the likelihood that someone born into one class will reach another one. The rich generally stay rich over generations in any society, but how well does society do in lifting the poor into the middle-class? Americans, pointing to individual success stories, cling to a romantic notion that because of America’s more fluid and dynamic class structure, "rags-to-riches" life histories are possible in the New World that just wouldn’t be in Europe.

Turns out reality is more complex, and most reliable studies show it’s not true. Scandinavian countries (and, to a lesser extent, other European countries) do especially well in combating inter-generational poverty, especially in comparison to the U.S.  A few recent studies, summarized by U.S. labor lawyer Nathan Newman point this out:

Contrary to many Americans’ self-image, there is less social mobility from generation to generation in the United States than in supposedly class-bound Europe– and the European states like Sweden and Norway with the highest welfare spending also had the most people born in poverty becoming middle class when they grew up [quoting a recent article ($) in the Economist]:

Around three-quarters of sons born into the poorest fifth of the population in Nordic countries in the late 1950s had moved out of that category by the time they were in their early 40s. In contrast, only just over half of American men born at the bottom later moved up. This is another respect in which Britain is more like the Nordics than like America: some 70% of its poorest sons escaped from poverty within a generation…

The obvious explanation for greater mobility in the Nordic countries is their tax and welfare systems, which (especially when compared with America’s) deliberately try to help the children of the poor to do better than their parents…to the extent that redistribution is an explanation, it implies the opposite: that social mobility is a product of high public spending, a bit like the low incidence of poverty or longer life expectancy (on both of which Europe also does better than America).

The other advantage for the poor in Nordic countries seems to be a better education system that provides a more equal education for the poor compared to the United States.

The Institute for the Future of Labor study that forms the basis for Newman’s post and the Economist article concludes, on p. 27: "Indeed, it is very noticeable that while for all of the other countries persistence is particularly high in the upper tails of the distribution, in the U.S. this is reversed – with a particularly high likelihood that sons of the poorest fathers in the U.S. will remain in the lowest earnings quintile."

The Flight-Data Decision and U.S. Diplomacy

The European Court of Justice struck down the agreement entered into by the Council of Europe and the United States which required member states to send 34 pieces of information about every airline passenger boarding a plance to the U.S. The judgment’s here. The parties have 90 days to work out an alternate agreement. Many observers say the result will probably just be that there will be no Europe-wide regulation of the issue, and that member states will have to reach their own agreement with the U.S.

One thing worth noting is that the European Parliament filed the original complaint with the Court of Justice; thus the European legislative actually sued the rough equivalent of the executive branch, and the lawsuit was decided by the judicial branch. Another instance of the Parliament asserting its own profile; recently the Parliament also made headlines by taking an investigation of secret CIA overflights farther than most individual European governments (who secretly tolerated or approved the flights) were willing to do.

This brings into the headlines another example of tone-deaf U.S. policy and diplomacy. The flight data agreement was very big news all over Europe, where data privacy is taken seriously. "Why should I have to sacrifice my privacy to fly to the U.S. when I don’t have to do that to fly to any other country? How would Americans react if they were forced to give their credit card numbers to the Russian (or worse, French) government just to fly there on business? And why is the U.S. singling out travelers from other countries, when every one of the 9/11 hijackers lived in the U.S. at the time of the hijackings, and got into planes in American airports?"

These were all good points. I expected U.S. diplomats to recognize the growing problem, and to have sent people out into the public sphere to at least try to put forward some reasonable counter-arguments. I saw nothing. Zip. No editorials in German or French from State Department attaches, no interviews on the news in which the American side of the matter was put forward, nothing. Just an endless barrage of criticism, and utter silence on the part of American officials. This sends one of two messages. Either: "We’re the U.S., we get to do what we want, and we don’t even care whether you people object to it," or "Umm, we can’t actually think of a sound defense for these policies, so better to keep mum than make fools of ourselves." It’s your pick which message does more harm to the U.S.’s image abroad.

Granted, there’s a hard core of anti-Americans over here who aren’t going to listen to any attempts to defend ill-conceived policies like the passenger flight data law. But even the ones who would keep an open mind to reasonable arguments aren’t hearing  them. Now, we’re going to face many new rounds of criticism, as the U.S. fights it out with individual EU member nations on a country-by-country basis.

Message to the State Department: could you at least pretend to care about how U.S. policy is viewed abroad?

Joschka Fischer in the Washington Post

Joschka Fischer published an editorial yesterday in the Washington Post.  He makes three points. First, Iran’s acquisition of the bomb "would call Europe’s fundamental security into question." Second, Iran should not be lulled into thinking that high oil prices, and the "disastrous U.S.-led war in Iraq," have completely distracted the U.S. The question of whether Iran or the U.S. will dominate the Middle East is an "explosive" one for the U.S., and may lead to a confrontation that "Iran simply cannot win."

However, bombing Iran is not an option. It could well fail, and will certainly provoke a backlash: "[A]s a victim of foreign aggression, Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions would be fully legitimized…  [A] military attack on Iran would mark the beginning of a regional, and possibly global, military and terrorist escalation — a nightmare for all concerned."

Fischer proposes a "grand bargain" in which the U.S. gives Iran the security guarantees and aid Iran wants:

The high price for refusing such a proposal has to be made absolutely clear to the Iranian leadership: Should no agreement be reached, the West would do everything in its power to isolate Iran economically, financially, technologically and diplomatically, with the full support of the international community. Iran’s alternatives should be no less than recognition and security or total isolation.

Op-eds by retired diplomats are always interesting. On one level, the writer may well be stating his own position (Fischer’s English is very good, so I have little doubt he wrote this piece himself). On another level, he’s can take liberties which he couldn’t while he was in office. The use of the word "disastrous" to describe the Iraq war wasn’t necessary to make the point, but I’m sure Fischer couldn’t help himself. Finally, he’s probably sending a few messages across the Atlantic. From Europe to the U.S.: we understand a nuclear Iran is a threat, but bomb Iran? Are you nuts? From the U.S. to Europe: so if you want to take the military option off the table, there has to be some other meaningful threat, such as a cut-off of lucrative trade relations with EU members states.

I don’t see much new here, though. Fischer’s position seems to be just a beefed-up version of the current German government’s approach, but perhaps I’m missing something.

German Joys Review: Das Leben der Anderen

The former East Germany, a relatively small country of 16 million people, was controlled by the most sophisticated, cunning, and thorough secret police the world has ever seen, the East German Ministerium für Staatsicherheit, or "Stasi." The Stasi had about 90,000 employees — a staggering number for such a small population — but even more importantly, recruited a network of hundreds of thousands of "unofficial employees," who submitted secret reports on their co-workers, bosses, friends, neighbors, and even family members. Some did so voluntarily, but many were bribed or blackmailed into collaboration.

In a totalitarian country plagued by shortages, the State lavished funds and training on Stasi agents. They did sometimes resort to physical violence and torture, especially in the basement of the infamous Hohenschönhausen prison in Berlin. However, such drastic measures were rarely necessary — the Stasi could usually get the information it obsessively sought from a meek and terrorized population by doling out (or withholding) State favors: university slots for parents of teenage children, painkillers for closet addicts, or perhaps a visa to visit relatives in the West.

Das Leben der Anderen, ("The Life of Others") German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut, builds this painful legacy into a fascinating, moving film. In its moral seriousness, artistic refinement, and depth, Das Leben der Anderen simply towers over other recent German movies, and urgently deserves a wide international release. The fulcrum of  the movie (but probably not its most important character) is Georg Dreyman, an up-and-coming East German playwright in his late 30s. Played by the square-jawed Sebastian Koch, Dreyman is an (apparently) convinced socialist who’s made his peace with the regime. His plays are either ideologically neutral or acceptable, and he’s even received State honors.

Although he is a collaborator, he is also a Mensch. He uses his ideological "cleanliness" to intervene on behalf of dissidents such as his journalist friend Paul Hauser (Hans-Uwe Bauer). These unfortunates must contend with every humiliation a totalitarian state can invent: their apartments are bugged, friends and family are recuited to inform on them, and chances to publish or perform can be extinguished by one stray comment from a Central Committee member. The most recalcitrant can be kicked out of the country and stripped of their citizenship, like the singer songwriter Wolf Biermann.

Dreyman lives in a shabby-genteel, book-filled apartment with his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a renowned actress who often appears in his plays. At the beginning of the movie, Dreyman himself comes under the regime’s suspicion, for reasons that become clear only later. The fearful machinery of the Stasi rumbles to life: his movements are recorded, and his apartment bugged. The Stasi had bugging down to a science: a team of meticulously-trained agents swoop into your apartment when you’re not there, install miniscule, undetectable listening devices in every single room — including the bathroom — and vanish in less than an hour, leaving no trace. Agents set up an secret electronic command post nearby, keeping a written record of every joke, argument, or lovemaking session.

The "operative process" against Dreyman is overseen by Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler, played by Ulrich Mühe, an actor from the former East who was himself once in the Stasi’s cross-hairs. Captain Wiesler starts the film as a colorless, icy, tight-lipped professional who shows no mercy in fighting the "enemies of socialism": if he needs to interrogate a suspect for 10 hours without sleep to get a confession, he will do so — and then place the seat-cover the suspect sat on in a vacuum jar in case the miscreant should later need to be tracked by bloodhounds. At night, Captain Wiesler returns to his tiny apartment in an grubby, anonymous high-rise. He settles himself among his inexpressibly drab furniture, eats a meal squeezed out of a plastic tube while watching reports about agricultural production, and then goes to bed alone.

As Captain Wiesler listens to Dreyman and his girlfriend he begins to like them, or perhaps envy the richness and depth of their lives in comparison with his own. Perhaps he also begins to wonder why a stranger should have the right to become privy to Dreyman’s most intimate secrets: his occasional impotence, his girlfriend’s infidelities, his artistic crises. At the same time, though, Wiesler is under pressure: a Central Committee official has made it clear to Wiesler and his toadying supervisor Lieutenant Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), that Dreyman has to go down. Some traces of Prussian law-and-order principles survived the transition to "really existing socialism": although the "crimes" dissidents could be punished for were absurd totalitarian creations, the state required genuine proof of them — a tirade, a discussion of forbidden literature, or the worst crime of them all — writing an article critical of the East German regime and smuggling it to West Germany for publication. Of course, if surveillance didn’t turn up a political indiscretion, it would almost certainly turn up personal ones perfectly suited to blackmail.

I won’t discuss more plot details, as there are unexpected twists. Each of the main characters is drawn deeper into the conflict between Dreyman and the State, and each is torqued by loyalty conflicts that intensify as the pressure increases. The cast is outstanding. Sebastian Koch finds the right combination of poetic detachment and watchful sophistication for Dreyman. Martina Gedeck, as his girlfriend, has the most challenging role, since she’s buffeted from all sides: by her suspicious partner, by Stasi agents trying to turn her, and by a lecherous Culture Minister. Ulrich Mühe plays the Stasi agent’s transformation with reserve, only hinting at the stages in his character’s secret, but decisive, change of heart.

Director von Donnersmarck, a blue-blooded West German, has re-created the grey, drained look of the former East, and the nature of Stasi intimidation, with a fidelity that has earned the praise of East Germans. His pacing is relaxed, but doesn’t drag; although there are a few longueurs, most scenes unfold at just the right pace, and there are several great set-pieces. One is a bone-rattling episode in the Stasi canteen in which a young recruit is caught telling a joke about East German premier Erich Honecker. Another is the penultimate scene, a masterstroke in which Dreyman gains access to his massive Stasi file, while reading it, suddenly understands episodes of his own life which had never made sense to him before. The ending is perfectly judged; bittersweet and moving without swelling strings or teary confessions.

Das Leben der Anderen is an outstanding movie, probably a great one. Go see it now.

Screaming at Philip Roth’s Casket

A while ago, I was talking with a French friend of mine who did a one-year research stint in the U.S. The people seemed so strangely, robotically cheerful, he thought he was "living in Disneyland." As a corrective, here are excerpts of a recent interview with Philip Roth, who actually is American:

[Interviewer Martin Krasnik] "Are you satisfied with your life?" I ask.

P: "Eight years ago I attended a memorial ceremony for an author," he says. "An incredible man full of life and humour, curiosity. He worked for a magazine here in New York. He had girlfriends, mistresses. And at this memorial ceremony there were all these women. Of all ages. And they all cried and left the room, because they couldn’t stand it. That was the greatest tribute …"

M: "What will the women do at your funeral?"

P. "If they even show up … they will probably be screaming at the casket."

Blame Canada!

Recently, a European sent me an email petition about the Pascua Lama mining project in Chile and Argentina. If you want to read a fuller version of the petition, a link is here. The petition deals with a gold mining project called the Pascua Lama project, in a remote region near the border of Argentina and Chile.

A mining company wants to tear apart the mountains to retrieve huge stores of gold. To get at the gold, the petition assures us, "it would be necessary to break, to destroy the glaciers – something never conceived of in the history of the world – and to make two huge holes, each as big as a whole mountain, one for extraction and one for the mine’s rubbish tip." Gad! Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? I can already hear the ominous string music in the background. But it just gets worse. The mine

will permanently contaminate the 2 rivers so they will never again be fit for human or animal consumption because of the use of cyanide and sulphuric acid in the extraction process.

Every last gram of gold will go abroad to the multinational company and not one will be left with the people whose land it is. They will only be left with the poisoned water and the resulting illnesses.

Gadzooks! Where’s Bono when you need him? Assuming all of these assertions — for which no proof at all is delivered — are true, the next question is: Who could possibly be behind this nightmare? The petition says only the following: "The company is called Barrick Gold. The operation is planned by a multi-national company, one of whose members is George Bush Senior." Aha! American capitalist locusts. If "George Bush Senior" (otherwise known as George H.W. Bush) is somehow involved in it, it’s just got to be evil. Sounds like it’s time to get into our vans, strap on our armbands, and protest in front of Barrick Gold’s headquarters.

But, hmm, where exactly are those headquarters? How strange that the petition does not tell us, even thought it’s desperately eager to let us know that "George Bush Senior" is involved. Barrick Gold’s headquarters are actually in…Toronto. Barrick Gold is a Canadian mining giant. Yes, Canada, that U.N. supporting, Iraq-war criticizing, Kyoto-protocol-signing model of good world citizenship. How could they?

Here we have a shining example of the sort of smug, self-righteous naivete that characterizes so much discourse about the United States in Europe. Just look at the multiple stupidities in this email:

  • The fact that "George Bush Senior" is associated with the International Advisory Board of Barrick Gold probably means next to nothing. He decorates their letterhead, listens to a few conference calls a year, calls in some political favors. He’s almost surely also on the board of dozens, if not hundreds, of other companies. Most humans who’ve read a newspaper know that the favorite hobby of retired politicians is to join corporate and charity boards. (Sometimes even retired German politicians do it! (G)). In fact, the Chairman of Barrick’s International Advisory Board — and a member of its Board of Directors — is former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney III.

But why, I ask with wide, innocent Bambi-like eyes, why did the petition mention only the name of "George Bush Senior"?

  • The evil Canadians, we are told, are going to take "every last gram" of gold away from the poor South Americans. What an outrage! I just hope the Chilean and Argentinian governments (who own most of the land and have been involved with the preparations) remember to ask for $650 dollars for "every last [ounce]" of that gold. Do you think they will?
  • Apparently, in some parts of the world, it hasn’t yet sunk in that email petitions are useless, and often used by spammers to collect email addresses from unsuspecting victims.

Now don’t get me wrong here. The point of my post is to mock the crude anti-Americanism of this petition, not to praise the Pascua Lama project; it may well be a bad idea (although the questions seems complex, and I would want to study the facts before attempting an answer).

Nor is it to criticize the fine nation of Canada. First, most mining companies are so international these days that it’s hard to assign their operations to one particular country. Second, it seems that Barrick Gold is just doing what comes naturally, when it comes to multinational corporations. In soothing corporate PR-speak, Barrick Gold’s website informs us that its mission is to mine gold in a "safe, profitable and socially responsible manner." Its operations are likely no more or less questionable than other mining companies operating from other nations.

No, the point of this post is just to point out a classic trope of anti-Americanism — expecting your audience to howl with outrage at something done by Americans, while being dumb enough to ignore that other nations and companies are doing exactly the same thing.

The Case Against Kyoto

I’m a green guy, and I admire German environmental policies, which are some of the most forward-looking and responsible in the world. I separate my garbage and recycle everything that can be recycled. I even sold my car and go almost everywhere on my beloved bicycle Heinrich. Man, am I virtuous or what? Somebody please give me an award!

However, I’ve never really been convinced by Item Number One in the European press’ indictment of U.S. environmental policy.  No article about the United States in the European press is complete, it seems, without a mention of the fact that the U.S. never ratified the Kyoto Protocols, and that George W. Bush, shortly after he took office, "kicked them into the waste-bin" (G). The coverage in Europe often focusses on atmospherics and symbolism: Should Bush have been so rude and direct in disposing of the Kyoto Accords? Weren’t the accords, which were worked out after millions of hours of international effort, a rare and heartening symbol of international cooperation?

All good questions, but there’s another question. Do they work?  Gregg Easterbrook makes the case that most signatory countries aren’t observing them now, and they probably wouldn’t have caused a significant change in greenhouse gases even if the U.S. had signed up to them:

Most nations that have ratified the Kyoto treaty are merrily ignoring it. Canada, for example, frequently hectors the United States about being an environmental offender, yet its greenhouse gas emissions are currently 24 percent above the level mandated by Kyoto—and Ottawa has no meaningful program to change that. Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are also rising faster than greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Even Japan, which staked much of its international prestige on an agreement signed in its glorious ancient capital city, is turning a blind eye to treaty’s requirements: Japan’s emissions of greenhouse gases are 9 percent above promised level.

At current rates only Russia, Germany and the United Kingdom are close to complying with the Kyoto mandates, and most of the compliance by Russia and Germany is the result of backdated credits for the closing of Warsaw Pact-era power plants and factories that had already been shuttered before the Kyoto agreement was initialed in 1997. Meanwhile, developing nations especially India and China are increasing their greenhouse gas emissions at prodigious rates—so much so that in the short term developing nations will swamp any reductions achieved by the West. Since 1990, India has increased its emissions of greenhouse gases by 70 percent and China by 49 percent, versus an 18 percent increase by the United States. China is on track to pass the United States as the leading emitter of artificial greenhouse gases. If current trends continue, the developing world will emit more greenhouse gases than the West by around 2025. And here’s the real kicker: even if all the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol were enforced to perfection, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases in the year 2050 would be only about 1 percent less than without the treaty.

Easterbrook isn’t arguing that global warming isn’t a problem, he’s saying that Kyoto probably won’t solve it. Easterbrook thinks the press grossly exaggerates environmental problems, and neglects the frequent success stories of governments and markets getting together and bringing these problems under control. He provided hundreds of pages of evidence of this in his 1995 book A Moment on the Earth.  He concentrated on the English-language press, but that means he missed out on the even more hysterical German press. Remember the world-wide wasteland of yellow trees acid rain was going to cause? The German magazine Spiegel confidently warned (G) everyone in 1983 that an "environmental Hiroshima" was just around the corner, and the German press coined the word Waldsterben (the dying-out of entire forests) to describe it.

Once again, Easterbrook says, it’s time to get a grip. As he writes in a recent New York Times editorial: "Greenhouse gases are an air pollution problem, and all air pollution problems of the past have cost significantly less to fix than critics projected, and the solutions have worked faster than expected." And, according to Easterbrook, the United States (gasp!) might be in the forefront of the solution, if it imposes strict curbs on its own greenhouse-gas emissions:

The Kyoto Protocol might not have been right for the United States, but a mandatory program of greenhouse gas reduction is. For decades, the United States has led the world in technology development, economic vision and pollution control. Right now the catalytic converter and "reformulated" gasoline, anti-smog technology invented here, are beginning to spread broadly throughout developing nations. If America were to impose greenhouse gas reductions on a solely domestic basis—keep the United Nations out of this—it is likely that the United States would soon develop the technology that would light the way for the rest of the world on reducing global warming. The United States was the first country to overcome smog (ahead of the European Union by years), the first to overcome acid rain, and we should be first to overcome global warming. Once we have shown the world that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced without economic harm, other nations will follow our lead voluntarily. The United States needs to start now with mandatory greenhouse gas reductions not out of guilt or shame, but because it is a fight we can win.

I don’t agree with everything Easterbrook says (Two quick caveats: 1. the odds of the U.S. imposing strict limits on its own greenhouse-gas emissions in the near future are probably 50/50 at best. 2. Los Angeles has "overcome" smog?) but a little contrarian thinking never hurt anyone.

Getting Tired of Sir Simon

As a complement to my previous post, more anti-Rattle backlash here. The (rather opaque) summary: "But he also induces mild despair in the experts by essentially failing to expand, blithely diversifying instead of specializing. For him, Berlin is always a bit like Birmingham. In working with this venerable orchestra, he neglects the great German symphonic tradition, in particular the works of Anton Bruckner. Nor does he set out for distant lands."

Public Service Post: Watch What You Say in Germany

With this post, I am going to take the controversial step of actually posting something containing useful information. I know, it’s a break with GJ tradition, but something that recently occurred got me thinking.

The other day someone who shall remain nameless, an expat living in Germany, contacted me privately. The person had hired a professional — let’s say a plumber — and wasn’t satisfied with the service he provided. The person described the service on their blog, and apparently identified the plumber by name. Next thing you know, the person’s gotten a letter from the plumber’s lawyer. He’s suing the blogger for all sorts of scary-sounding things.

This says a few things worth knowing about Germany. First of all, the German cocktail-party stereotype of Americans as litigation-happy is pure, 100% Freudian projection. In fact, what stands out when you look at German cases is the sheer, mind-boggling triviality of the complaints. People will sue over an ugly comment, a negative customer evaluation, and, of course, over their beloved package vacations. A list of the "vacation defects" and the corresponding price reductions can be found here (G). Examples: "too little furniture" in your hotel room gets you a 5-15% percent discount; too much noise gets you between 5 and 40%; "no mini-golf" gets you a 3-5% deduction; "no nude beach" gets you a 10-20 percent discount!

I’m not pointing fingers here, in fact, I think a good number of lawsuits is a sign of a healthy judicial systen — it means people trust the courts, and in Germany especially, it shows that sensible regulations permit people to go to court without risking a fortune. But it also means you’ve got to be careful posting on blogs that can be read in Germany.

Germany has laws designed to protect people’s honor from unfair or insulting comments that has no counterpart in Anglo-American legal systems. They have deep historical roots.
An entire section of the criminal code deals with various kinds of insults and attacks on people’s honor, including "insults" and "malicious gossip," and my favorite, "Disparagement of the Memory of Deceased Persons." These provisions can also give rise to civil lawsuit in which you demand monetary compensation for the harm (people almost never go to jail for these things, despite the mention of prison sentences in the criminal code).

Of course, this doesn’t mean Germany doesn’t "respect freedom of speech": there are exceptions and regulations designed to protect legitimate debate about public issues. But it does mean that it is a very bad idea to publish something on a blog that criticizes a person by name. The risk is greatest when:

  1. You’re criticizing a private person who hasn’t sought publicity;
  2. You’re criticizing them for something that has to do with their profession or livelihood (i.e. this plumber screwed up my bathroom, this doctor was rude);
  3. You stray from purely factual reporting and include negative comments and judgments; and;
  4. Last and most importantly, you use their name or otherwise identify them.

The fact that that what you said was true (or "truly" reflects your opinion) may not protect you, unless you stick completely to the facts without any value judgments.

So that’s something to keep in mind as you merrily blog away. And let me remind you: Dude, this post is totally, like not legal advice.

Who’ll Take Over the Berlin Philharmonic?

That Eurovision contest was fun.  I’m putting it on my calendar for the rest of my life.

But now to classical music. This weekend’s FAZ [newspaper] has an entertaining piece on the behind-the-scenes positioning to replace Sir Simon Rattle as the Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle’s tenure has been a little rocky: in 2004, he got a taste of German criticism (which can be even more caustic and unsparing than its British counterpart), when Axel Brüggemann wrote in the Welt am Sonntag that "while Rattle romps expressively on the podium, the Philharmonic musicians sometimes tend to play as inconsequentially as if they were a wife reaching to the fridge to get out a beer for her husband."

That storm blew over, but the rumors continue that after having a few non-
Germans at the helm (Claudio Abbado and Rattle) for the past sixteen years, the orchestra feels it’s time to pick a German, or at least someone with a more Romantic sensibility. According to Fabian Bremer in Sunday’s FAZ (21.5.2006, p.27), "The initial excitement about the British new-music specialist has blown over. The longing for a new Karajan is growing in these neo-romantic times." Rattle, for all his gifts, is apparently just a little too crisp, too user-friendly and too modern. 

The two front-runners to replace Rattle are Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann, the last Karajan’s German protege and currently Music Director of the Munich Philharmonic. Thielemann’s by far the younger of the two, but has already established a reputation with his Bavarians; his recording of Bruckner’s No. 5, which I’ve heard, is pretty glorious Bruckner, alternately primeval and mist-shrouded and blazing.

One doesn’t openly campaign for this post, of course. That would be Vulgar, and is Not Done. Instead, you limit your present musical engagements, just so everyone knows you’d be able to take over the post if you had to. You also arrange your current programs and engagements to highlight your strengths. If there’s an opportunity to show up yourself against your closest competitor, don’t miss it (such as when Thielemann took over during rehearsals for Barenboim during Bayreuth preparations, during which he showed that he, unlike Barenboim, knew the score of Tristan by heart).

Bremer ends the story with this lovely anecdote:

Daniel Barenboim recently performed a guest engagement in Munich, performing Bach’s "Well-Tempered Clavier." Christian Thielemann was also in the city, and, as always, had rented the five-star suit in the Palace hotel. The hotel piano was also in the suite. When Barenboim wanted to practice, the hotel director went to Thielemann and began to ask him, but Thielemann cut him off: "Mr. Barenboim can have whatever he pleases from me." The instrument was then pushed across the corridor. The next evening, both of the men cancelled their engagements and sat together at the hotel bar.

LiveBlogging Eurovision V: And the Winner Is…

11:00 PM: I’ve spent 3 minutes giving the matter thoughtful consideration, and I’ve chosen Hari Mata Hari from Bosnia, because he sang in his own language, he reminded me of Wayne Newton, and the truly outstanding song’s stuck in my memory. Sorry, Texas Lightning. You’re number 2 in my heart.

But who will Europe choose? The votes are being counted while a Greek Chrous prances colorfully about the stage. Now an angel has arisen from their midst. A horrifyingly hot Greek angel. Female dancers dressed, inexplicably, in Green Arrow-style tights are diverting us while the accountants count the SMS’s. now Orthodox monks are marching about somberly. Will somebody please shut off that damned bazouki? No, apparently, they won’t. Peter Urban, the German commentator, is continuing his dry, objective German commentary. Yes! Slovenia, one of my favorite European countries is now being mixed in.

The point-counting system appears to be mind-breakingly complex. Now to the postage-stamp-sized countrylet of Andorra, then Romania, then Denmark. The countries seem to be voting for their neighbors. Finland’s beginning to break away. Germany’s getting creamed. UK as well, and deservedly so. Finland gave most of its points to Russia, perhaps for appeasement reasons. Serbia-Montenegro is voting, perhaps for the last time as a two-country bloc. Nobody understands the Finnish signs. Finland is beginning to pull away from the pack. Poor France, still 0 points. Malta gives 12 points to Switzerland, which the German commentator, in his best German, calls "strange."

UK gives five points to Germany. That’s reassuring. The UK gives its points to Finland, to honor its attempt to genuinely rock. France’s announcer is speaking only French, showing a bit of linguistic nationalism. The German announcer sounds as if he’d like to leave for the nearest bar, even as he announces the points from German voters. Germany’s announcer is riding a mechanical bull. Germany has given Finland a nearly insurmountable lead, but gives 12 points to Turkey, no surprise. Spain’s announcer is speaking French, for some gloriously European reason. Now from Moldova. [Where the hell is Moldova?] According to the German commentator, Iceland’s contribution, which got them thrown out on Thursday, was "very shrill."

The real country fans, says the German announcer, live in Albania, which gave Germany 5 points. Greece is hosting the contest, but cannot afford an actual live picture of the Parthenon in the background as the vote is announced. Finland has it officially wrapped up. The comment from Germany: "Finland. My God."

And that wraps up the live blogging!

LiveBlogging Eurovision IV

10:40 PM: Turkey’s heavily-tatooed singer, well on the north side of 30, looks like she just stepped (or perhaps better, crawled) out of a porn video, which is of course a compliment. Dress looks like shiny mother-of-pearl colored couch upholstery. The song appears to be half-Turkish and half-English, and deals vaguely with the theme "superstar."

10:43 PM: Armenia’s fielded a pleasantly-olive-skinned young man with a yearning expression. Musical accompaniment features a small stretch of squealing Armenian bagpipe (called the turniesdrtacntien. Perhaps). Touches of S&M in the choreography.

10:55 PM: The wrap-up and voting! Damn, I’m excited!

An American actress of Greek ancestry is co-hosting the event. Nana Mouskouri is now onstage, speaking French, then English, and perhaps some Greek. The German commentator is Peter Urban. I’m glad I missed Switzerland. I’m sad I missed the healthy blondes of Norway. Where did Israel get a gospel choir? Germany most certainly deserves to win with its turbocharged but still appropriately twangy Texas swing.

Wait, here comes Bosnia’s super-soulful Hari Mata Hari again, and he’s tugging at the strings of my heart again.  For me, it’s down to Germany or Bosnia. Who will Europe choose?