The Health Alteration Committee

Over at Informed Comment, Juan Cole provides context on links between the United States and recently-departed Saddam Hussein, which seem to have gone all the way back to 1959. Here’s a fascinating nugget:

CIA involvement in the 1959 assassination attempt [on nationalist Iraqi premier leader Abdul Karim Qasim] is plausible. Historian David Wise says there is evidence in the US archives that the CIA’s "Health Alteration Committee" tried again to have Qasim assassinated in 1960 by "sending the Iraqi leader a poisoned monogrammed handkerchief."

"Health Alteration Committee"? I’d associated the CIA with many things before, but never with ironic understatement.

German Joys Review: Die Neuen Spiesser

Dns_1 The ‘New Squares’, Christian Rickens calls them in his new book, Die Neuen Spiesser: Von der Fatalen Sehnsucht nach einer überholten Gesellschaft ("The New Squares: On the Fatal Yearning for an Outdated Society"). It’s a provocative title, Spiesser (roughly, "square") is a mildly pejorative term.

The New Squares range from the Federal Constitutional Court Judge Udo di Fabio, whose recent book Kultur der Freiheit ("Culture of Freedom") warns us that the collapse of common sense puts the "west in danger"; to Paul Nolte (G), historian at the Freie Universität Berlin, who denounces a new permanent underclass of alienated, tattoed Gameboy addicts cut loose from stabilizing bourgeois values; to Eva Herman, a peppy TV celebrity whose new book Das Eva-Prinzip: Fuer eine neue Weiblichkeit ("The Eva Principle: For a New Femininity" (G)) calls on German women to admit that the attempt to combine children and career cannot succeed, and return to the comforts of hearth and home. This is a pretty European brand of conservatism; fond of talk about ancient customs and traditional values, and skeptical of the free market. You could call the New Squares throne-and-altar conservatives adrift in a throneless cosmopolis.

Now comes Christian Rickens, an editor at Manager Magazine (G), to give them the back of his hand in this crisply-written, entertaining polemic. The tone throughout is lightly ironic, although not flippant. Rickens doesn’t intend to confront right-wing doom-mongering with its left-wing Doppelgaenger. In fact, he mocks doom-mongering. Issue by issue, he sets out the New Squares’ claims and demonstrates, by a bit of research and clear thinking, that the problems they describe are nowhere near as grim as they’d have us believe, and that their proposed solutions are generally unworkable.

Rickens acknowledges differences in temperament and intellectual caliber among the New Squares — some are university professors, others tabloid columnists. However, Rickens identifies two typical thought-mistakes (Denkfehler) common to them all. The first is a weakness for spongy pseudo-scientific phrase-mongering: stuff like "the erosion of our cultural substance," or the "declining sense of togetherness and being bound together by fate" (Schicksalsgemeinschaft). The New Squares, he comments, seem to be reading "too much Nietzsche and too little Popper." Many of their arguments are, therefore, unfalsifiable — dinner-table banter wrapped up in pretty rhetorical ribbons. How are we supposed to tell whether a nation’s "cultural substance" is disappearing?

The second error is the conservative tic of confusing social change with collapse or decay. What Fritz Stern wrote of an earlier crop of German cultural conservatives still holds true: "[O]ften they mistook change for decline, and, consistent with their conception of history, attributed the decline to a moral failing." German society is changing, argues Rickens, but many of the problems bemoaned by the New Squares are much more manageable than they let on, and some of them aren’t problems at all.

Take, for example, the extinction-of-the-Germans meme. German women now have about 1.4 children during their lifetime, fewer than the 2.1 generally needed to maintain the population. However, smaller family size accompanies increased prosperity in all societies, and Germany’s actually in the middle of the European league table here. Further, there’s no epidemic of childlessness. In 1925, 75% of German women had children and 25% did not. The same holds true today. The difference? Women choose smaller families now, and those who remain childless do so by choice, not because disease or malnutrition made them infertile. Rickens calls that progress. As for Eva Herman’s suggestion that women stay home and care for the children, fine — for ones who wish to and can afford to. However, Rickens eviscerates the idea that this is woman’s "traditional" role: human societies rich enough to permit women (and children, for that matter) to choose not to work are historical exceptions. The fact that women find it difficult to balance child-rearing and a career means we should develop better policies to help them, not urge them to stay home.

Besides, Rickens asks mischievously, if having plenty of children is good for society, then the New Squares are surely praising Germany’s baby-happy immigrants! Err, not so much. Immigrants are a focus of tooth-gnashing anguish. They do poorly in school, they don’t learn proper German, their women wear strange headgear. Yes, there are problems here, Rickens admits, but keep them in perspective. The vast majority of immigrants in German find jobs and contribute to society, although they will never memorize Schiller or buy a Gamsbarthut. Further, Germany’s immigrants are nowhere near as dangerously alienated as those in other European countries.

Many of the problems the New Squares describe can be traced to bad immigration policy — one designed largely by conservative governments. Most German immigrants are asylum-seekers or "guest workers" and their family members. That is, people who came to Germany to escape poverty or oppression, not because they specifically wanted to settle in Germany. Until recently, national policy treated immigrants as temporary visitors, instead of acknowledging these immigrants are here to stay and devising a flexible, tolerant concept of integration. Although the New Squares are concerned about the failure of a minority of immigrants (and their children) to adapt to German society, they generally offer no practical suggestions for helping them, or improving Germany’s immigration policy. This is so, Rickens suggests, because the New Squares do not wish to have larger numbers of immigrants in Germany, period.

This tribal suspicion of foreigners, Rickens argues, is much more dangerous to Germany’s future than the foreigners themselves. The numbers leave no doubt: to alleviate its demographic problems, Germany must attract skilled, adaptable immigrants. Lots of them. Starting yesterday. This means creating an immigrant-friendly society. Drawing on his experience meeting "Muslim Yuppies" in the USA, Rickens lays out his view of the issue. A skilled Indian programmer might come to Germany hoping to start a company, but she’s not going to stay if she’s constantly made to feel inadequate because of her imperfect German; people point out her ethnic difference everywhere she goes; and she can’t start a business because she’s hamstrung by cumbersome regulations. The Red-Green coalition government that ruled Germany until recently put together an imperfect but sensible immigration bill designed to attract these sort of skilled immigrants, and supported an atmosphere of cultural tolerance to make them feel welcome. Who torpedoed the immigration bill and howled with outrage at the "politically correct multiculturalism" allegedly being forced down Germany’s throat? Why, the New Squares and their ideological allies, of course.

But you don’t have to go to immigrant neighborhoods to find maladjustment. What about all those disconnected, alienated members of the German underclass, with their Arschgeweih, their alcohol problems, and their antisocial habits? To the New Squares, (especially Paul Nolte (G)) these uncouth, directionless people symbolize Germany’s cultural rot. Rickens, however, sees them as a product of social trends. Globalization has closed thousands of low-tech factories, mines, and farms in the West. German workers will never be cheap enough to compete with developing nations in these low-value added industries. Thus, working-class Germans, whose lives were once given structure by a job at the the factory or the machine-shop, now have nothing to do all day, and feel disposable.

The welfare system, in turn, discourages them from working, since their social welfare benefits may drop by 70-80% for every Euro they earn. So some of them begin drinking too much and numbing themselves with mindless distractions. But keep in mind, Rickens insists, that the problematic, self-destructive behavior of some members of the underclass is (a) historically seen, nothing new; and (b) a by-product of the social changes that pushed them to the edge of society, not a harbinger of that society’s collapse. These people are globalization’s losers, and they should be compensated by globalization’s winners: Rickens proposes a "guaranteed minimum income" model that would provide a a basic living to all and allow recipients to keep most of every extra Euro they earn.

There will still be people who dress poorly and play more Gameboy than they should, but that’s part of living in a free society, and there’s not much use getting upset about it. In the book’s conclusion, Rickens hazards a guess as to why so many middle-class Germans snobbishly criticize mass taste: they themselves feel the icy breath of global competition on their necks, threatening their comfy middle-class jobs. (Next victims: German radiologists). If the day comes when they, too have to apply for government benefits, they can at least point to their superior taste and cultivated habits to maintain that crucial sense of distinction and superiority.

And now to patriotism. Why, ask many of the New Squares, must Germans still hang their heads in shame for the 12 unfortunate years of Hitler, a "freak-accident" of history? (to quote a phrase used by Matthias Matussek, culture editor of the Spiegel and author of a book called "We Germans: Why Other People Can be Fond of Germany"). Rickens doesn’t begrudge his fellow-citizens their World Cup flag-waving or justifiable national pride in Germany’s present-day institutions. However, the New Squares have an unhealthy urge to go farther and move aside the heavy brown "bar" of National Socialism that stands athwart German history. If you’re going to evoke the lost innocence and sounder values of a bygone era, you going to have to develop some strategy about the "bygone era" of 1933-45, and everything that made it possible.

An example: Rickens catches Judge di Fabio, who really should know better, ‘reasoning’ thus: "Hitler was not a German — not because he was of Austrian ancestry, but because he had not the slightest jot of a Prussian civil servant’s sense of duty, had neither the local patriotism or the joie de vivre of Bavarian Catholicism, had no tendency whatsoever towards diligence and hard work, no feeling for the German way of life, for bourgeois habits, or Christian traditions. He was only disguised as a German, he was a rootless gutter-impostor who sucked up all the energy and cultural treasure of the German people and accepted its utter destruction with indifference." Those poor Germans! How could they have been so naïve?

The fact that Hitler was originally Austrian is, Rickens notes, painfully irrelevant, despite di Fabio’s impressive rhetoric. There are two agendas at work behind these subtle attempts to relativize and revise German history. First, the New Squares need to distract readers from the role that some of their most beloved "German virtues" (discipline, loyalty, love of order, respect for authority) played in allowing Hitler to turn Germany into a genocidal war machine. The classic formulation, which helped thousands of SS officers and Wehrmacht soldiers win light sentences before indulgent German courts in the 1950s, went something like this: "Personally, I had nothing against the Jews/Poles, and deeply regret what happened to them. But I’ve always been a disciplined person, and orders are orders." The second subtext: the New Squares’ historical arguments devalue the achievements of the ’68 generation, the New Squares’ favorite whipping-boy. The ’68 generation was the first to directly confront these excuses and rationalizations, shove their fellow citizens’ noses deep into the horror that they had inflicted, and subject some of the most-abused "German virtues" to a shattering critique.

The social ferment of the late 1960s was, of course, a mixed blessing. But one thing the ’68 generation did was to create, for the first time, a liberal, pluralistic German society which trusted its people to live their lives more or less as they pleased. Until 1957, Rickens reminds us, German husbands were permitted to decide whether their wives could work or not. Now, the mayor of Berlin can show up with his homosexual partner at public functions. It’s this freewheeling live-and-let live liberalism that is the target of many New Square arguments: in the name of Germany, they want us all to share some set of common ‘German’ values, they want us all to disapprove of people who get divorced or wear piercings, they want all foreigners to satisfy some ‘test’ of Germanness or be shunned or excluded. They exaggerate Germany’s problems, and prescribe more conformity to their own particular idea of ‘traditional values’ as the only solution. There’s nothing new here folks, Rickens assures us, just a conformist longing for some sort of conflict-free "community," an unhealthy undercurrent of German conservative thought that’s been around in one form or another for centuries.

Rickens’ book is a polemic; and it’s hardly the last word on the subject; I am sure that his targets could, and probably will, eloquently defend themselves against some of his charges. To his credit, though, Rickens doesn’t just critique the critique; he lays out some of his own reform ideas which would help tackle some of the real problems the New Squares highlight — while preserving pluralism and diversity. Rickens is by no means a traditional leftist (he writes for Manager magazine, after all). Many of his assumptions (Germany can do nothing to prevent deep social changes brought about by globalization) and solutions (a minimum income a la Milton Friedman, instead of  job-creation measures) will not please old-fashioned leftists. However, Rickens’ ideas are usually stimulating, and the final chapter, in which he sets out ten theses to explain why the New Squares came about and why they appeal to so many Germans, contained many insightful points.

I should openly declare my bias: I liked the book partially is because I agree with Rickens on many points. After hearing and reading so much po-faced fustian about ‘traditional values’ and ‘social decay’, it’s refreshing to read someone who bursts out laughing at language like this. Rickens’ style is lucid, witty, and often laugh-out-loud funny. However, he never loses sight of his argument, which is, at heart, optimistic. Yes, there are a lot more different ways of being German now than there were in 1950, but remember, that’s a good thing. Diversity, freedom, and social change raise challenges, but Germany can best meet these challenges with flexible, enlightened policies (or sometimes, no policies at all), not by shoving Germans into the straight-jacket of ‘traditional’ values.

[Die Neuen Spiesser by Christian Rickens, Ullstein Verlag 2006. All translations in this review by Andrew Hammel.]

Does Germany Have an Asshole Problem?

One thing I kind of miss about American universities is the fact that professors say "fuck," "shit," and "asshole" all the time, and nobody cares. Sometimes they even put naughty words in the titles of the books they write, as with Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, published by the Princeton University Press.

In this video, Stanford management professor Robert Sutton explains his new book, The No-Asshole Rule, which details the harm assholes do to corporate work environments. His book has been translated into German, with the title Der Arschloch-Faktor. In fact, the book came out in German translation before it was even published in its original language.

Does this mean that some editor in a German publishing house looked over new lists of English books and said: "Mein Gott! This book must be translated into German immediately! Germany is full of assholes!" I don’t see Germany as particularly asshole-rich, in fact, most Germans have far better manners than I do. I have heard, however, that German publishing houses are full of assholes…

Nunc Dimittis by Joseph Brodsky

Merry Christmas, everyone. To mark the occasion, an early poem by Joseph Brodsky, translated and annotated by George L. Kline.

Nunc Dimittis1

When Mary first came to present the Christ Child
to God in His temple, she found — of those few
who fasted and prayed there, departing not from it —
   devout Simeon and the prophetess Anna.

The holy man took the Babe up in his arms.
The three of them, lost in the grayness of dawn,
now stood like a small shifting frame that surrounded
   and guarded the Child in the dark of the temple.

The temple enclosed them in forests of stone.
Its lofty vaults stooped as though trying to cloak
the prophetess Anna, and Simeon, and Mary —
   to hide them from men and to hide them from Heaven.

A chance ray of light struck the crown of the head
of that sleeping Infant, who stirred but as yet
was conscious of nothing. He blew drowsy bubbles;
   old Simeon’s arms held him like a stout cradle.

It had been revealed to this upright old man
that he would not die until his eyes had seen
the Son of the Lord. And it thus came to pass. And
   he said : ‘ Now, O Lord, lettest thou thy poor servant,

according to thy holy word, leave in peace,
for mine eyes have witnessed thine offspring, this Child —
in him thy salvation, which thou hast made ready,
   a light to enlighten the face of all peoples

and carry thy truth to idolatrous tribes;
bring Israel, thy people, its Glory in time.’
Then Simeon paused. A thick silence engulfed them,
   and only his echoing words grazed the rafters,

to spin for a moment, with faint rustling sounds,
high over their heads in the tall temple’s vaults,
Like some soaring bird that flies constantly upward
   and somehow is caught and cannot return earthward.

A strangeness engulfed them. The silence now seemed
as strange and uncanny as Simeon’s speech.
And Mary, confused and bewildered, said nothing —
   so strange had his words been. The holy man, turning

to Mary, continued: ‘Behold, in this Child,
now close to thy breast, is concealed the great fall
and rising again of the many in Israel;
   a source of dissension, a sign to be spoken

against. The same weapon which tears at his flesh
shall pierce through thine own soul as well.
Thy wound, Mary, like a new eye, will reveal to
   thy sight what in men’s deepest hearts now lies hidden.’

He ended and moved toward the temple’s great door.
Old Anna, bent down with the weight of her years,
and Mary, gazed after him, perfect in silence.
   He moved and grew smaller, in size and in meaning,

to these two frail women who stood in the gloom.
As though driven on by the force of their looks,
he strode through the cold empty space of the temple
   and moved toward the whitening blur of the doorway.

The stride of his old legs was audibly firm.
He slowed his step slightly when Anna began
to speak, far behind him. But she was not calling
   to him; she had started to bless God and praise Him.

The door came still closer. The wind stirred his robe
and touched his cool brow, while the roar of the street,
exploding in life by the door of the temple,
   beat stubbornly into old Simeon’s hearing.

He went forth to die. It was not the loud din
of streets that he faced when he flung the door wide,
but rather the deaf-and-dumb fields of death’s kingdom.
   He strode through a space that was no longer solid.

The roaring of time ebbed away in his ears.
And Simeon’s soul held the form of the Child —
its feathery crown now enveloped in glory —
   aloft, like a torch, pressing back the black shadows,

to light up the path that leads into death’s realm,
where never before until this point in time
had any man managed to lighten his pathway.
   The old man’s torch glowed and the pathway grew wider.

16 February 19722

1. This poem – titled in the original Sreten’e ("The Presentation [in the Temple]") – is based on the account in Luke ii: 22-36, which Brodsky considers the point of transition from the Old Testament to the New.  Simeon’s speech in the fifth and sixth stanzas is the Nunc Dimittis (‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart…’) found in most Christian liturgies.

2. The date February 16 (on the New Calendar; or February 3, on the Old) is the Feast Day of Saints Simeon and Anna, and hence the Name Day of Anna Akhmatova — a point which Brodsky wishes to emphasize.

[Source: New European Poets: Joseph Brodsky, Penguin Books 1973, pp. 165-67. All formatting and notes as presented in the original.]

Roger Boyes on his dear Krauts

It’s hardly a surprise that English journalist Roger Boyes’ book on the Germans, which I previously posted about here, is at the top of the sales charts. Here’s Boyes’ analysis of the German character:

No other society so regularly seeks the views of foreigners. How are we doing, Dutch or Italian or indeed British correspondents are asked on television. Are we messing up again; are we failing Europe; are we incapable of change? It is difficult to imagine British television producers showing a similar interest in the opinions of the outside world. This vulnerability makes Germany attractive. Interesting, even, for those of us who are paid to live here. You never know from one morning to the next whether politicians (or your doctor or your pub landlord) are going to be crippled with self-doubt or whether they will declare their undying pride in being German.

And Boyes’ ruminations on those supposedly dour, unfunn y Germans:

I think that the British prejudice about Germany’s supposed humour famine stems from the fact that there is no German tradition of daily banter. In London you can hear a dozen wisecracks in a day — at work or on the bus or in the coffee shop. They may be lame, but at least they’re quick. In Germany, humour is stockaded, kept apart from everyday life. In the evenings Harald Schmidt, a genuinely funny talk-show host, will crack their sides. But only after dinner has been eaten, the plates rinsed and the yoghurt pots washed, ready for recycling. In the office next day people will repeat Schmidt’s gags and they will laugh again. However, they will fail to spot the inherent absurdities of their own office life.

German Word of the Week: Arschgeweih

Arschgeweih I won’t be coy: I like girls with a lot of tatoos skin art and piercings body modifications.

How about when the skin art is art located just above the rear end? Do the Germans have a word for that?

Yes, they do, Arschgeweih: "butt-antlers." A glorious specimen on the left, courtesy of the Jaegermeister Miss Arschgeweih contest.

Of course, to take the analogy to real deer antlers further, you’d have to imagine two women in the middle of a field running backwards toward each other, smacking their butts together in order to prove their dominance.

But since this is a family blog, we won’t be going there.

German Word of the Week: Arschgeweih

Arschgeweih I won’t be coy: I like girls with a lot of tatoos skin art and piercings body modifications.

How about when the skin art is art located just above the rear end? Do the Germans have a word for that?

Yes, they do, Arschgeweih: "butt-antlers." A glorious specimen on the left, courtesy of the Jaegermeister Miss Arschgeweih contest.

Of course, to take the analogy to real deer antlers further, you’d have to imagine two women in the middle of a field running backwards toward each other, smacking their butts together in order to prove their dominance.

But since this is a family blog, we won’t be going there.

Carless in Germany

The Christian Science Monitor profiles the German city of Vauban, which is full of children, but not full of cars:

Welcome to Germany’s best-known environmentally friendly neighborhood and a successful experiment in green urban living. The Vauban development – 2,000 new homes on a former military base 10 minutes by bike from the heart of Freiburg – has put into practice many ideas that were once dismissed as eco-fantasy but which are now moving to the center of public policy.

With gas prices well above $6 per gallon across much of the continent, Vauban is striking a chord in Western Europe as communities encourage people to be less car-dependent…

"Vauban is clearly an offer for families with kids to live without cars," says Jan Scheurer, an Australian researcher who has studied the Vauban model extensively. "It was meant to counter urban sprawl – an offer for families not to move out to the suburbs and give them the same, if better quality of life. And it is very successful."

I live in Germany without a car, and enjoy it. But I confess, it’s not just because I’m morally virtuous. Like many positive aspects of European life, government policy nudges people in the direction of responsible decisionmaking. Bad choices aren’t banned outright (you can still buy a Hummer in Germany if you really want one), but better choices are encouraged. Discouragements: $6 a gallon gas, and special taxes on extremely inefficient vehicles. Encouragements: An efficient public-transport system, and compact, diverse neighborhoods.

Vauban’s streets, the article notes, are too narrow for cars, but it’s been specifically designed so that you don’t need a car in order to get to the places you need to get to on a daily basis. My neighborhood is exactly the same way. It’s also worth noting that Vauban’s design was created by a grassroots process: a group of citizens persuaded the local government to provide them with the land after a French military base was closed, and designed a city with the specific goal of making it car-unfriendly.

Germany’s environmental movement catches grief for its occasional excesses and hysterical rhetoric. However, as this article shows, Germany’s far-sighted environmental policies also earn positive press internationally. Someday soon all of us are going to have to pay a great deal of money for gasoline. That’s going to be a much nastier shock to some people than to the residents of Vauban.

Max Goldt Treasury: Weapons for El Salvador

Well, Max Goldt is visiting Duesseldorf on his barnstorming tour of Germany and has sold out zakk. What better time for the next installment of our occasional series ‘The Max Goldt Treasury’? First installment (and short intro) here, second installment here.

Weapons for El Salvador

Sometime’s life’s a bitch. You come back home late at night and put your bag down where you always put it, but then realize that this isn’t possible, because the bag is gone. That’s like getting hit by a bear’s paw. You open the door and, to exaggerate a bit, a brown bear in your apartment roars: “Where the hell is your bag?” You get a sudden hot flash, like a woman in menopause, and you begin feeling your own body to see whether your bag might be hanging from one or another of its parts. But it’s gone, it’s somewhere else – where? In the bar? In the taxi? And what was in the bag? This is bad. Loss researchers from 16 countries compare the loss of a bag with the loss of hair, honor, watch, and homeland – in fact, all of them at the same time. Other researchers compare the loss of a bag to the extinction of the eagle owl, but these scientists are considered lightweights in the loss-research scene. Hair grows back, you can admire eagle owls in the zoo, and you can restore your honor by scraping pigeon droppings from the balconies of manic-depressive women. And plenty of people found a new homeland right there in the country they’d been abducted into. A bag, however, stays gone, and never comes back.

I lived through something just as awful: the loss of an almost completely full notebook. When you’ve got two seats free in a train, you naturally tend to spread all your junk around in the free seat. Recently, as I reached my destination, I had forgot that at the start of my journey, I’d written something in my small notebook and then laid it on the neighboring seat. I then proceeded to pile the seat high with newspapers, orange peels, and chocolate-drink packages. Later, they all ended up in the janitor’s garbage bag along with my notebook. A shame, because this book contained the sketch of a wonderful story that I’ll never be able to recapture. Roughly, it goes a bit like this: John Lennon, four weeks before his death, happened to be filmed by a Japanese television crew at the post office, withdrawing $15 million from his savings account.  He wanted to buy weapons for El Salvador, which was very much the done thing in 1980. I still remember discussions with a left-wing friend, who wasn’t rich at all, but who had given 1000 Deutschmarks to the “Weapons for El Salvador” campaign. This completely puzzled me. Remember that in 1980, I paid only 179 Deutschmarks in rent. People assured me El Salvador could be helped only with weapons, and they accused me of political ignorance.

John Lennon wanted to buy $15 million worth of weapons and, as I’ve said, it was pure chance that he was filmed withdrawing the money. The Japanese only wanted to make a film about how average Americans withdraw money from their bank accounts, and didn’t even recognize John Lennon. And really, when you looked at John Lennon, he was a pretty unspectacular lanky, stoop-shouldered guy. The film was never shown on Japanese television, because Tenno, the elderly Japanese emperor, didn’t like the subject. So the movie disappeared into Japanese television’s legendary soundproof basement labyrinth. After old Tenno Hirohito died in 1989, the new Tenno Akihito, as a kind of act of rebellion, watched all the movies that his father didn’t like. There was a lot of sheer crap in there, such as a two-hour special about a married couple from Ludwigshafen on the Rhine who, for 25 years, vacationed at Ludwigshafen on Lake Constance. Just by chance, the wife explained, "not because the name was the same." Their cousin had inherited a vacation house there, and all they really needed to do was co-ordinate vacation dates with her. “But it’s still strange,” the husband added, “before, when we still used to take the train there, the conducted sometimes grinned and said: ’Well, these two seem to be traveling from Luwigshafen to Ludwigshafen!’” Sometimes, everyone in the train smiled. But that’s all in the past; we’ve started driving there five years ago.”

Unfortunately, the interviewer didn’t ask the couple whether now, the entire Autobahn smiled. Talk about no sense of humor. No wonder Emperor Hirohito didn’t like the piece. Nor did he like the film named Two Pairs of Shoes are Two-and-a-Half Pairs of Shoes. First, the film proved that a pair of shoes worn every day lasts six months. However, if you alternate between two pairs of shoes, the entire lifespan of both pairs is not twelve months, but rather fifteen. If you have three pairs of shoes, you’ll have something to wear not just for eighteen months but actually twenty-four – that is, three pairs of shoes are four pairs of shoes. Maybe Imelda Marcos saw this show, which would explain her shoe addiction. She thought: Three thousand pairs of shoes are eleven thousand four hundred pairs of shoes! I described fourteen of these films in my notebook, but unfortunately I can’t remember the other twelve in sufficient detail. I suppose it might keep the narrative trim if I skip these twelve movies – most of which were horrible anyway – and just announce right now that the Emperor finally got to the savings-account movie, recognized John Lennon, and said:  “Wow! That’s really a nice little historical document, that’s ‚popular culture.’ I’m going to give it to UNESCO.”

Tenno turned to his chambermaid and said: “Birgit, gift-wrap this.” The chambermaid came from Denmark or Sweden. The actual country she came from was in my lost notebook, and I can’t reconstruct it exactly anymore, no matter how much I detest having to deliver this slap in the face to my public, which is licking its lips in hunger for detail. The name “Birgit” was also kind of improvised in all the note-remembering excitement. But what I definitely do know is that the Danish or Swedish chambermaid studied at the court of Regensburg and was therefore quite familiar with the manners of western civilization. Thus she said to the Emperor: “When one seeks to transfer an invaluable cultural treasure to an international organization, that’s not a present, it’s a donation. That’s kind of like the difference between a move and a resettlement. When you move from Bochum to Dortmund, that’s a move, but when you move to another continent, one uses the word ‘resettlement.’ And just as you don’t organize a resettlement with a bunch of college students, you don’t gift-wrap a ‚donation.’ For a donation, you’ve got to have official certificates in a folder wrapped with cord, and for the donation itself, you’ve got to have a custom-made case lined with red velvet. Plus, there’s got to be a nice coat of arms on the cover.”

“OK, but which coat of arms?” Akihito called.

“Damned if I know, whatever coat of arms you want,” answered the chambermaid, whose cheekiness hadn’t been entirely suppressed by years of Regensburg discipline. The Emperor went into the library and started rummaging through heraldic encyclopedias in the flickering torchlight. What he finally chose was the coat of arms of the city of Berlin. Not because he had any ties to Berlin, but because the unnatural way the Berlin bear walked reminded him comfortingly of the unnatural way some Japanese women walk. A bit strange, but who can probe the erotic depths of the psyche of Asian royalty? Perhaps the weak, flickering torchlight also had something to do with it. Well, whatever the explanation: The Berlin Bear decorated the donation case in which the John Lennon movie was sent to UNESCO. At UNESCO, though, nobody recognized John Lennon. They thought the film was some kind of boring, violence-free bank robbery. They decided to return the donation. However, the Emperor made the stupid mistake, also pretty common in Germany, of putting the sender’s address on the outside of the package, but nowhere inside. Of course, the shipping box had long since been thrown away by the time the UNESCO experts viewed the film. What’s more, the Swedish or Danish chambermaid had accidentally packed the donation certificate under the red velvet, where the protectors of cultural heritage didn’t think to look. After all, you can’t lift up everything in the world and look under it to see what’s there. The UNESCO people did notice the Berlin Bears, though, and send the historical film material to the Berlin City Council. That was at the beginning of 1990.

The mayor back then, Momper, was super-busy with the recent fall of the Wall, and didn’t know what to do with the package. Therefore, he instructed his lackeys to send it to the Beatles Museum in Liverpool. In Liverpool, however, they were disgusted with the Japanese stamps on the box: “Ugh, that must have something to do with Yoko Ono, and we don’t fancy her here at all.” — Of course, that’s a logical mistake, since, as I remarked a few lines ago, the UNESCO had already thrown away the original Japanese package. In my little notebook, there was a truly majestic and critic-suffocating explanation of how the Japanese stamps suddenly reappeared, but what can I say? The notebook’s lost forever. So the Beatles Museum sent the film to Yoko Ono in New York. When the mailman came, however, Yoko Ono happened to be out at a guitar auction. Later, she had to go to the post office with the delivery notice in her hand. Now here comes the truly magical occurrence – the key that finally brings everything full-circle: The post office in which Yoko Ono was now standing was exactly the same post office in which John Lennon, just ten years earlier, had withdrawn money from his savings account.  Of course, the clerks had diametrically different haircuts, the blinds had a more tasteful pattern, but it was still pretty much the same post office. Yoko Ono, however, didn’t know this!

What kind of emotional thunderstorm would have rumbled in this woman’s breast if she had been able to murmur to herself: “I am standing here in the post-office and will shortly take delivery of a film in which my deceased husband can be seen standing in the same post-office”? Presumably, Yoko Ono has never seen the film, because this woman, who’s always being denounced for her greed, has yet to demand the $15 million back from El Salvador. Maybe she left the package in some bar, and never thought about it again.

Losing a package with unknown contents is less painful than losing a bag, not to mention a notebook whose incomplete skeletal remains I’ve just been scratching out of my memory. The whole story was glamorous and filled with twists and turns, but it is lost for ever. There was a lindworm in there somewhere, but in what context? Catherine Deneuve also played a role. She was standing in a smoke-filled bar in Tel Aviv and singing a breathy blues number called ‘Monika Hohlmeier, Barefoot Tyrant of the North.’ She earned plenty of applause from the Israelis, along with cries of “Bravo, Bravo!” and even “Logical, Logical!” But why? Monika Hohlmeier is the daughter of Franz Josef Strauß, she wears shoes just like the rest of us, and I have no idea whether she’s ever tyrannized anyone, much less the North. How did Catherine Deneuve come to portray Ms. Hohlmeier as a monster – especially in a blues song, a musical genre which had never yet been used to monsterize Bavarian politicians? And what actually happened to El Salvador? Were the weapons any use?

[Source: Fuer Naechte am offenen Fenster: Die Prachtvollsten Texten von 1987-2002, pp. 307-313, Rowohlt Verlag, 3rd. ed. 2005]

Max Goldt Treasury: Weapons for El Salvador

Well, Max Goldt is visiting Duesseldorf on his barnstorming tour of Germany and has sold out zakk. What better time for the next installment of our occasional series ‘The Max Goldt Treasury’? First installment (and short intro) here, second installment here.

Weapons for El Salvador

Sometime’s life’s a bitch. You come back home late at night and put your bag down where you always put it, but then realize that this isn’t possible, because the bag is gone. That’s like getting hit by a bear’s paw. You open the door and, to exaggerate a bit, a brown bear in your apartment roars: “Where the hell is your bag?” You get a sudden hot flash, like a woman in menopause, and you begin feeling your own body to see whether your bag might be hanging from one or another of its parts. But it’s gone, it’s somewhere else – where? In the bar? In the taxi? And what was in the bag? This is bad. Loss researchers from 16 countries compare the loss of a bag with the loss of hair, honor, watch, and homeland – in fact, all of them at the same time. Other researchers compare the loss of a bag to the extinction of the eagle owl, but these scientists are considered lightweights in the loss-research scene. Hair grows back, you can admire eagle owls in the zoo, and you can restore your honor by scraping pigeon droppings from the balconies of manic-depressive women. And plenty of people found a new homeland right there in the country they’d been abducted into. A bag, however, stays gone, and never comes back.

I lived through something just as awful: the loss of an almost completely full notebook. When you’ve got two seats free in a train, you naturally tend to spread all your junk around in the free seat. Recently, as I reached my destination, I had forgot that at the start of my journey, I’d written something in my small notebook and then laid it on the neighboring seat. I then proceeded to pile the seat high with newspapers, orange peels, and chocolate-drink packages. Later, they all ended up in the janitor’s garbage bag along with my notebook. A shame, because this book contained the sketch of a wonderful story that I’ll never be able to recapture. Roughly, it goes a bit like this: John Lennon, four weeks before his death, happened to be filmed by a Japanese television crew at the post office, withdrawing $15 million from his savings account.  He wanted to buy weapons for El Salvador, which was very much the done thing in 1980. I still remember discussions with a left-wing friend, who wasn’t rich at all, but who had given 1000 Deutschmarks to the “Weapons for El Salvador” campaign. This completely puzzled me. Remember that in 1980, I paid only 179 Deutschmarks in rent. People assured me El Salvador could be helped only with weapons, and they accused me of political ignorance.

John Lennon wanted to buy $15 million worth of weapons and, as I’ve said, it was pure chance that he was filmed withdrawing the money. The Japanese only wanted to make a film about how average Americans withdraw money from their bank accounts, and didn’t even recognize John Lennon. And really, when you looked at John Lennon, he was a pretty unspectacular lanky, stoop-shouldered guy. The film was never shown on Japanese television, because Tenno, the elderly Japanese emperor, didn’t like the subject. So the movie disappeared into Japanese television’s legendary soundproof basement labyrinth. After old Tenno Hirohito died in 1989, the new Tenno Akihito, as a kind of act of rebellion, watched all the movies that his father didn’t like. There was a lot of sheer crap in there, such as a two-hour special about a married couple from Ludwigshafen on the Rhine who, for 25 years, vacationed at Ludwigshafen on Lake Constance. Just by chance, the wife explained, "not because the name was the same." Their cousin had inherited a vacation house there, and all they really needed to do was co-ordinate vacation dates with her. “But it’s still strange,” the husband added, “before, when we still used to take the train there, the conducted sometimes grinned and said: ’Well, these two seem to be traveling from Luwigshafen to Ludwigshafen!’” Sometimes, everyone in the train smiled. But that’s all in the past; we’ve started driving there five years ago.”

Unfortunately, the interviewer didn’t ask the couple whether now, the entire Autobahn smiled. Talk about no sense of humor. No wonder Emperor Hirohito didn’t like the piece. Nor did he like the film named Two Pairs of Shoes are Two-and-a-Half Pairs of Shoes. First, the film proved that a pair of shoes worn every day lasts six months. However, if you alternate between two pairs of shoes, the entire lifespan of both pairs is not twelve months, but rather fifteen. If you have three pairs of shoes, you’ll have something to wear not just for eighteen months but actually twenty-four – that is, three pairs of shoes are four pairs of shoes. Maybe Imelda Marcos saw this show, which would explain her shoe addiction. She thought: Three thousand pairs of shoes are eleven thousand four hundred pairs of shoes! I described fourteen of these films in my notebook, but unfortunately I can’t remember the other twelve in sufficient detail. I suppose it might keep the narrative trim if I skip these twelve movies – most of which were horrible anyway – and just announce right now that the Emperor finally got to the savings-account movie, recognized John Lennon, and said:  “Wow! That’s really a nice little historical document, that’s ‚popular culture.’ I’m going to give it to UNESCO.”

Tenno turned to his chambermaid and said: “Birgit, gift-wrap this.” The chambermaid came from Denmark or Sweden. The actual country she came from was in my lost notebook, and I can’t reconstruct it exactly anymore, no matter how much I detest having to deliver this slap in the face to my public, which is licking its lips in hunger for detail. The name “Birgit” was also kind of improvised in all the note-remembering excitement. But what I definitely do know is that the Danish or Swedish chambermaid studied at the court of Regensburg and was therefore quite familiar with the manners of western civilization. Thus she said to the Emperor: “When one seeks to transfer an invaluable cultural treasure to an international organization, that’s not a present, it’s a donation. That’s kind of like the difference between a move and a resettlement. When you move from Bochum to Dortmund, that’s a move, but when you move to another continent, one uses the word ‘resettlement.’ And just as you don’t organize a resettlement with a bunch of college students, you don’t gift-wrap a ‚donation.’ For a donation, you’ve got to have official certificates in a folder wrapped with cord, and for the donation itself, you’ve got to have a custom-made case lined with red velvet. Plus, there’s got to be a nice coat of arms on the cover.”

“OK, but which coat of arms?” Akihito called.

“Damned if I know, whatever coat of arms you want,” answered the chambermaid, whose cheekiness hadn’t been entirely suppressed by years of Regensburg discipline. The Emperor went into the library and started rummaging through heraldic encyclopedias in the flickering torchlight. What he finally chose was the coat of arms of the city of Berlin. Not because he had any ties to Berlin, but because the unnatural way the Berlin bear walked reminded him comfortingly of the unnatural way some Japanese women walk. A bit strange, but who can probe the erotic depths of the psyche of Asian royalty? Perhaps the weak, flickering torchlight also had something to do with it. Well, whatever the explanation: The Berlin Bear decorated the donation case in which the John Lennon movie was sent to UNESCO. At UNESCO, though, nobody recognized John Lennon. They thought the film was some kind of boring, violence-free bank robbery. They decided to return the donation. However, the Emperor made the stupid mistake, also pretty common in Germany, of putting the sender’s address on the outside of the package, but nowhere inside. Of course, the shipping box had long since been thrown away by the time the UNESCO experts viewed the film. What’s more, the Swedish or Danish chambermaid had accidentally packed the donation certificate under the red velvet, where the protectors of cultural heritage didn’t think to look. After all, you can’t lift up everything in the world and look under it to see what’s there. The UNESCO people did notice the Berlin Bears, though, and send the historical film material to the Berlin City Council. That was at the beginning of 1990.

The mayor back then, Momper, was super-busy with the recent fall of the Wall, and didn’t know what to do with the package. Therefore, he instructed his lackeys to send it to the Beatles Museum in Liverpool. In Liverpool, however, they were disgusted with the Japanese stamps on the box: “Ugh, that must have something to do with Yoko Ono, and we don’t fancy her here at all.” — Of course, that’s a logical mistake, since, as I remarked a few lines ago, the UNESCO had already thrown away the original Japanese package. In my little notebook, there was a truly majestic and critic-suffocating explanation of how the Japanese stamps suddenly reappeared, but what can I say? The notebook’s lost forever. So the Beatles Museum sent the film to Yoko Ono in New York. When the mailman came, however, Yoko Ono happened to be out at a guitar auction. Later, she had to go to the post office with the delivery notice in her hand. Now here comes the truly magical occurrence – the key that finally brings everything full-circle: The post office in which Yoko Ono was now standing was exactly the same post office in which John Lennon, just ten years earlier, had withdrawn money from his savings account.  Of course, the clerks had diametrically different haircuts, the blinds had a more tasteful pattern, but it was still pretty much the same post office. Yoko Ono, however, didn’t know this!

What kind of emotional thunderstorm would have rumbled in this woman’s breast if she had been able to murmur to herself: “I am standing here in the post-office and will shortly take delivery of a film in which my deceased husband can be seen standing in the same post-office”? Presumably, Yoko Ono has never seen the film, because this woman, who’s always being denounced for her greed, has yet to demand the $15 million back from El Salvador. Maybe she left the package in some bar, and never thought about it again.

Losing a package with unknown contents is less painful than losing a bag, not to mention a notebook whose incomplete skeletal remains I’ve just been scratching out of my memory. The whole story was glamorous and filled with twists and turns, but it is lost for ever. There was a lindworm in there somewhere, but in what context? Catherine Deneuve also played a role. She was standing in a smoke-filled bar in Tel Aviv and singing a breathy blues number called ‘Monika Hohlmeier, Barefoot Tyrant of the North.’ She earned plenty of applause from the Israelis, along with cries of “Bravo, Bravo!” and even “Logical, Logical!” But why? Monika Hohlmeier is the daughter of Franz Josef Strauß, she wears shoes just like the rest of us, and I have no idea whether she’s ever tyrannized anyone, much less the North. How did Catherine Deneuve come to portray Ms. Hohlmeier as a monster – especially in a blues song, a musical genre which had never yet been used to monsterize Bavarian politicians? And what actually happened to El Salvador? Were the weapons any use?

[Source: Fuer Naechte am offenen Fenster: Die Prachtvollsten Texten von 1987-2002, pp. 307-313, Rowohlt Verlag, 3rd. ed. 2005]

Why Do They Hate Us? Rap or Iraq?

Martha Bayles, who is now a visiting fellow at the Aspen Institute Berlin, recently gave a speech at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. The subject was America’s rapidly-declining reputation in the rest of the world.

Her conclusion? It’s our sick, degraded popular culture:

When people, especially young people, in rapidly modernizing societies look at America through the lens of our no-holds-barred popular culture, what they see most glaringly is a passion for personal liberation from tradition, religion, family, and restraint of all kinds.

She harks back to a time when the U.S. State Department could partner with Hollywood to officially screen American films at foreign embassies, because these movies presented a positive and clean-cut image of American life. Nowadays, she claims, the world is horrified by our "coarse, violent, and obnoxious" rap music, video games, and "’date movies’" (Date movies?). She also singles out internationally popular television series such as Sex and the City, Oprah, South Park, and Seinfeld (Yes, even Seinfeld!) for critique.

I can’t agree. To be fair, she does cite studies that show about a third of people polled in various countries dislike American popular culture, so she has a bit of empirical proof. But having lived abroad for years, and having talked to more people than I can count about attitudes towards the United States, I think she’s off the mark in two big ways.

No. 1. It’s the invasion of Iraq, stupid.

[Note: This is a paraphrase of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan, not an insult.]

Bayles claims that the export of "debased material" from the U.S. to other countries is the unspoken "elephant-in-the-parlor" that degrades America’s image. But her speech has its own "elephant-in-the-parlor": the invasion of Iraq. Bayles mentions it only once, in passing. But guess what? Many foreigners have the good sense to judge American by its policies, not the latest Hollywood blockbuster or Lil Jon (G) album. Excluding the political extremes, the ordinary Germans I speak to on a daily basis over the past years report a mildly-to-strongly positive image of the United States — popular culture and all — until the invasion of Iraq.

Before Iraq, mainstream Germans may not have supported every aspect of American foreign policy, but they were willing to overlook some points of disagreement (too-uncritical support for Israel) because of the points of agreement (similar values; protection of Western Europe). They respected the people who made American foreign policy. They believed that America, while obviously pursuing its interests foremost, did care about general stability and progress, and was, on the whole, a beneficial and stabilizing force on the world scene.

Now that has changed, because of the way the U.S. staged the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Let’s review: The U.S. invaded Iraq on false pretenses (see Colin Powell’s speech). In order to achieve its ends, it seriously — and intentionally — damaged the reputation and effectiveness of the U.N. (a respected institution in Europe). After taking direct responsibility for the fate of 26 millions of Iraqis by invading their country and dismantling its previous government, the most powerful nation in the world then failed to ensure the safety and dignity of the Iraqi people by providing security and a workable political arrangement. Now, millions of Iraqis, through no fault of their own, face years of civil war. The civil war could engulf the region and provoke countless crises and problems (oil price spikes, refugee flows, new recruits to Islamic extremist movements) that will directly affect Europe.

All of this was, and is, perceived as the direct fault of the United States. The invasion and occupation of Iraq is thus seen, at the very least, as arrogant and reckless. At most, it’s seen as a serious crime against the international order. What’s more, the collapse of Iraq will continue to eat away at (what’s left of) America’s reputation for years. Every new atrocity, mass migration, or government overthrow in the region will be accompanied by a pointed reminder of who initially unleashed the instability. Some American neoconservatives are (contemptibly enough) trying to blame Iraqis for the current problems, but the rest of the world prefers Colin Powell’s formula: you break it, you bought it.

Compared to the invasion of Iraq (and the personality of George W. Bush), the impact of U.S. popular culture on foreigners’ attitudes toward the United States is a mere footnote.

No. 2. American Popular Culture Isn’t All That Unpopular

Two sub-points:

First point. Most Europeans I know have a relatively positive view of American popular culture. Sure, there’s nasty rap music and violent video games, but those are sub-cultural phenomena; nobody is basing their opinion of America on these things. Not to belabor the point (although it deserves belaboring): Percentage of Germans who know (and care) that gangsta rapper Lil Jon exists: 3%. Percent who know (and care) that the U.S. is losing the war it started in Iraq, thus condemning millions of Iraqis to forced migration, despair, or an ignominious death: 97%.

Further, even rap is not regared as uniformly evil: the reaction is often two-sided, in the sense of "yes, it’s pretty coarse," but then, just as much, "those Americans, for all their faults, are damnably dynamic and creative." Recently, for instance, Die Zeit published a long, fair-minded and generally positive history of rap music (including a visit to Brooklyn, where it all started in the mid-1970s). German hipsters wrote to this very staid weekly newspaper to congratulate it for its unexpected fair-mindedness.

By far the most popular exports, however, are mainstream, relatively wholesome commercial Hollywood action movies and romances — anything that has Jennifer Aniston or Brad Pitt or even Tom Cruise. (Most-watched movie in French history? Titanic.) If Bayles believes shows such as Seinfeld and South Park are harming America’s image, she’s got it exactly wrong. I have met dozens of German and French fans of these shows. These programs create an image of Americans as relaxed, funny, hip, casual, ironic, open-minded, and sincere. South Park, and the movies its creators made, are also popular here, as is The Daily Show. And of course, The Simpsons is now practically an international language.

Second point.  In the speech I linked to, and in this interview, Bayles laments the fact that we’re no longer exporting Duke Ellington but 50 Cent. That is, no longer are we parading the virtuous, positive image of America that popular culture reflected in the 1950s, but rather "debased material" which mocks American values and showcases our depravity. Ms. Bayles appears to simply assume that television shows that sometimes highlight the underside of American life or mock American values harm America’s reputation. The opposite is true: these shows improve America’s image because they take pot-shots at American values and institutions.

In Europe, it’s precisely The Daily Show and The Simpsons and Michael Moore (whatever you think of his methods) that mesh with the ideas educated European have of the role of the artist or cultural critic. It’s a sign of health when artists and writers critically examine — and even vituperatively attack — their own countries’ values, traditions, and policies. Europeans expect this sort of critique of their own societies from their own creative elements, and they get it.

Two recent examples, picked at random: I just saw Claude Chabrol’s 1990 film of Madame Bovary (G). Have middle-class values (patriotism, ‘common sense’, hollow sentiments) ever been more acidly mocked? Example number 2: L’Enfant, an estimable movie by the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Philippe Dardenne. The plot (ridiculously shortened): Unemployed welfare cases in a moribund Belgian industrial town bear a child and then sell it. Were European critics outraged at its bleak portrayal of failed European social policies and anomie? No, they gave it the Palme D’Or.

To Europeans, then, people like Michael Moore, and shows like The Simpsons, provide social critique — a bracing tonic to arrogance and self-satisfaction. Americans are respected for the rare ability to combine this critique with laffs-a-plenty. Further, many American artists are popular and influential in Europe. The outsiders, subversives, and freaks: Charles Bukowski, Paul Auster, Allen Ginsberg, the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Truman Capote, Hank Williams, Jr., Johnny Cash, Mahalia Jackson. And, yes, to a certain extent, rap stars. What attracts Europeans is the rebellious, anarchic, extravagantly individualistic side of American popular culture. If it has a dark side to it, all the better.*

So, to sum up: at least in Europe, you might improve America’s image not, and I repeat not, by presenting images of wholesome American ‘traditional values.’ A better way might be to show the world that Americans can be just as self-critical as other nations, and recognize that their country has social problems. Finally, and most importantly, that Americans acknowledge and regret the harm recent American foreign policy has brought to millions of innocent people, and are committed to preventing further such disasters.

* It also helps when an American shows a genuine interest in a country that is not America. The writer Jonathan Littell, a U.S. citizen, recently scored a trifecta. Not only did he write a 900-page novel (exertion factor), but did so from the point of view of an unrepentant Nazi (controversy/social critque factor), and did it in French, as an hommage to his French literary idols (engagement with foreign culture factor). He swept the French literary prize season.

My Accountant ♥ Me

Unlike most countries, the good old U.S. and A insists on making its citizens pay American taxes on every single penny they earn, from any source whatsoever, no matter where they live, for ever and eternity, amen.

Rather than go into the mind-breaking complexities this policy causes to someone who, like me, has income both from the United States and Germany, I will just tell you one thing: My German accountant just sent me a Christmas card.