Thierry Chervel, Bernard-Henri Levy: “Europe is possible” – signandsight

Thierry Chervel talks to Bernard-Henri Levy, who just wrote an amusing book called American Vertigo based on a one-year sojourn in the United States, about his view of relations between Europe and the U.S.:

Yet [America is] in a crisis with the debacle in Iraq.

No more and no less than during the Vietnam War, or in the decades before, leading up to the civil rights movement. People seem to be completely taken aback by Bush. Why? Before Bush there was Nixon. And before that there was segregation, the Ku Klux Klan. And all that didn’t stop American democracy from thriving, progressing and developing. And where are we today? People act as if America was going through a huge, irreversible shift to the right. But if you look at the last fifty years, you’ll see that today America has progressed a lot. Bush’s two victories, the triumph of the creationists and the religious fundamentalists is nothing compared with the – victorious! – battle for civil equality, for the equality between men and women, and the right to abortion. We’ve seen a democratic revolution the likes of which has happened nowhere else on earth. Compared with all that, the current shift to the right seems much more like the last shudder of a beast that knows it’s doomed.

What did you learn about Europe in America?

I learned that it’s possible. When I came to the USA I was in a melancholy mood over the question of Europe. It was the time of the French debate over the European constitution, the time when even the "yes" partisans didn’t dare say you had to vote "yes" because Europe was a good thing in itself, but because it was good for France. I was close to thinking that the Europe was possible just an illusion of our generation. I said to myself: "I’ve spent my life thinking Europe was one with history, that it will come together no matter what happens, you just have to let it be. We could all go to bed and it would form, behind our backs. But perhaps it won’t form itself at all, perhaps it’s undoing itself before our eyes…"

And America made you see things differently?

Yes. I saw this federation of states, this national community made up of people who speak even less the same language than the Europeans and who are faced with problems of ethnicity far more weighty than those in Europe. And I think that miracles are possible, that the inorganic nation, the inorganic social body, can be constituted. I discover that constitutional patriotism, to speak with Habermas, is not just a philosophical reverie, that it’s something that works. One can create an army, maintain schools, raise taxes, etc. When you cross the country as I did, when you see how a landowner in Alabama has nothing in common with a Mexican from San Diego or a European from Savannah or Charleston, and that despite all that America has been able to constitute itself, that rekindles your hope in Europe.

Cologne, Perfume’s Malodorous Home

Cologne was the birthplace of perfume, so they say, and you can still get "Echt koelnisches Wasser" there, although most Germans consider it vile.

From the Perfume-Smellin’ Things Perfume blog, a review of a much more obscure perfume from Cologne, Koelnisch Juchten:

Kölnisch Juchten is perhaps one of the most obscure scents I have ever had a pleasure to encounter. The story goes that it was first produced a couple of hundred years ago by Johann Maria Farina (or "Johann Maria Farina gegenüber dem Jülichs-platz"), the world’s oldest Eau de Cologne manufacturer in Cologne, established in 1709. At some point in time Kolnisch Juchten started to be produced by a company called Parfums Regence. In the States, it seems to be available exclusively at a small perfume boutique in San Francisco, allegedly owned by a moody proprietor, who, like the owner of the fragrance shop described in The Emperor of Scent, runs the store “according to the iconoclastic economic principle” that the perfumes are to be sold only if the owner likes the customers.

The entire blog seems to have been written by Truman Capote. It’s simply fabulous.

As to why Cologne has been associated with artificial man-made scents, let’s turn to our roving correspondent, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who filed this report:


In Koehln, a town of monks and bones,
And pavements fang’d with murderous stones
And rags, and hags, and hideous wenches;
I counted two and seventy stenches,
All well defined, and several stinks!
Ye Nymphs that reign o’er sewers and sinks,
The river Rhine, it is well known,
Doth wash your city of Cologne;
   But tell me, Nymphs, what power divine
   Shall henceforth wash the river Rhine?

Guns and Lectures About Guns

The shootings at Virginia Tech University first provoked a welter of condescending lectures from European media outlets (‘USA’s gun-mad culture reaps what it sows’ and the like); then a counter-reaction of outraged letters to the editor from Americans. Der Spiegel does us a service — possibly — by reprinting samples of both here (G). Neither side covers itself in glory, which is why I try to stay out of these debates.

Nevertheless, I thought I’d weigh in with a few points. First, this massacre has no implications for policy. Spree killings like this one are an frightening, but extremely rare, occurrence in modern societies, including Germany. They probably cannot be prevented altogether. The amount of media coverage they attract, while understandable, is wildly disproportionate to their real importance.

America’s ‘gun culture’ takes a lot of flak from Europeans, because it plays into the treasured stereotype of trigger-happy Americans. All cultural condescension aside, though, the evidence shows that the widespread distribution of portable firearms in the United States is the most significant factor driving the difference in murder rates between the U.S. and Europe.

Anyone who would like to go into the issue further might want to read Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins’ 1997 book Crime is not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America. After establishing a basis for comparisng crime rates between the U.S. and Europe, they come to some conclusions that might surprise some people. Europe is actually just about as crime-ridden and violent as the U.S., in general. Crime also follows very similar patterns in the U.S. as in Europe: it’s concentrated in urban areas and among ethnic minority populations. This means the much larger ethnic minority populations in the U.S. are an important explanatory factor in the difference in crime rates.

The U.S. does have a dramatically higher murder rate than Europe, however. And about half of this higher murder rate is explained by guns. Especially pistols, which are much more dangerous than rifles or shotguns, because they are portable, easy to conceal, and lethal. (This is why all those stories of how many Swiss own rifles are red herrings). An example: The homicide rate in the U.S. by all means (shooting, poisoning, stabbing, etc.) is about 3.4 times higher than the homicide rate in England in Wales. The homicide rate by firearm, however, is 175 times higher in the U.S. Drawing on this staggering difference, Zimring and Hawkins conclude that about half of the difference between European and U.S. homicide rates is explained by the prevalence of firearms, especially portable ones. (pp. 109-110).

The chance of any given citizen being killed by a mass-murdering fanatic are practically nil. That person’s chance of being killed by an enraged ex-spouse; angry drug supplier or gang competitor; opponent in a drunken brawl; or armed robber (together, these categories account for something like 85% of all murders), vary greatly depending on whether the attacker uses a gun, as opposed to something much less lethal, like a knife, club, or his fists.

So the lesson is: if you’re not in any of these categories I just mentioned, your chances of being murdered, both in the U.S. and in Europe, are virtually non-existent. Great news, isn’t it? However, they will be slightly higher in the U.S., because there are lots of pistols in circulation over there. One reason I like living in Europe is that I never worry, for a single second, about getting shot here. Sure, I might get mugged, or somebody might take a swing at me in a bar (although this has never happened to me), but the chance I will be shot for some reason is so small I can safely ignore it, along with the possibility I might be hit by a radioactive meteorite, or selected to win the lottery even though I didn’t buy a ticket.

In most U.S. cities though, you feel a very slight current of nervous awareness anytime you’re in public, mixing with strangers. It’s nothing crippling, but it’s there. Not because you’re likely to run into an alienated, pistol-packing mass murderer. Rather, because there’s a tiny risk that any routine confrontation that does take place could end up with your opponent pulling a gun. Granted, it’s incredibly unlikely even in the U.S., but if it does happen, the consequences can be devastating. And we tend to worry about rare, spectacular risks more than ever-present, mundane ones.

What, if anything, the U.S. should do about this state of affairs is a can of worms I don’t want to open too far, which will surely disappoint some readers. I will limit myself to the following observations: We are not worried here about law abiding accountant John Smith, who buys a pistol to do weekend target-practice. The key factor is how easy it is for society’s most unstable, dangerous members to somehow come by pistols. Of course, liberal gun laws allowed the Virginia Tech shooter get his guns.

However, most guns used in crimes are stolen or borrowed. They are just not that hard to find in dicy neighborhoods and public places in the U.S. So, even if you can’t buy a gun, you may, for example, find one when you’re robbing a stranger’s car. You’ll certainly take it, since it (1) is worth a couple hundred bucks; (2) prevents the car owner using it on you if he finds out you robbed his car; and (3) and ‘could always come in handy sometime.’ Or you can buy one from the shifty guy down the street for money or drugs; borrow one from your neighbor; steal one when you burgle a home, trailer, or gun shop (in some neighborhoods, there’s one in almost every house, and you’ll certainly take it — see above); pinch one from a drunk or dozing policeman or security guard; find one in an abandoned or lost duffel bag, etc.

Once again, in Europe, your chance of just accidentally coming across a usable pistol are much lower, although obviously not nonexistent.

So any solution that stops short of massively reducing the number of free-roaming pistols in the U.S., or fitting them with indefeasible security devices that let only the owner use them, will probably be ineffectual. That’s as far as I’m prepared to open that can of worms, feel free to open it further in comments!

Mow Down The Afro-Americans, Karlheinz

Some German army instructor needs to pump his troops up during live-ammunition practice. He’s caught on video telling them to imagine "Afroamerikaner" in the Bronx jumping out of a van and screaming insults at their mother durng target practice. It’s caused a minor stir both in Germany and abroad. Follow the link to see the video. I love the strategic use of the word "motherfucker" (in English, of course) as an "open fire" command.

Note the German officer’s use of the word "Afroamerikaner" to describe the black people jumping out of the "black van." He’s using black people as hypothetical targets, but still shows enough sensitivity to refer to them in the most politically correct way available in the German language.

Perhaps this is a sign the edifying public-enlightenment efforts of "Afroamerikaner" Dave Chappelle are having an impact even across the Atlantic:

FT Interviews the “Wholesaler of Entertainment”

Bertrand Benoit of the Financial Times tries to penetrate the mystery of German Volksmusik:

Ten years ago I spent an evening with German relatives in a vast beer hall housed in a tent overlooking a snowy valley. The beer was good, but the musical accompaniment – bouncy, folksy brass- and-accordion fare played by four moustachioed men wearing lederhosen – was a violent assault on good taste. Or so I thought until I discovered that my companions were immersed in a powerful trance, tapping their feet, hugging strangers, and raising their tankards skywards every 20 seconds.

This was my first brush with Volksmusik, a melodic form whose mysteries are beyond the reach of anyone not born in Germanic culture. To the unitiated, it is the pinnacle of kitsch, bucolic nonsense put to simplistic, sickly sweet music. It is the tonal equivalent of wooden cuckoo clocks.

Like most non-Germans, he comes to the conclusion that an ability to tolerate the many forms of German Volksmusik is probably an inherited genetic predisposition that non-Germans will never be able to acquire. He interviews Volksmusik impresario Hans Beierlein, who charmingly refers to himself as a "wholesaler of entertainment," and who has interesting things to say about why Volksmusik sounds the way it does, and why certain Germans love it so.

I learned from the article that Beierlein rescued the career of one of my personal favorites, Heino, "who, because of his strange albino looks and persistent (but incorrect) rumours about his reputedly right-wing leanings, had suffered from a near universal media boycott."

Duesseldorf World’s 5th Most Livable City

According to ratings from Business Week, Duesseldorf, Germany is the world’s 5th most livable city. Up from No. 6 last year.

I could not agree more. Because it doesn’t have any real tourist attractions, Duesseldorf doesn’t get much international press. But it scores high on all of my personal livability factors: it’s green (in both senses of the word), studded with museums, easy to navigate, well-ordered, and safe (2006 featured a whopping 11 ‘crimes against life’ in a city of 580,000 — virtually all of which resulted from private grievances).

Three cheers (again) for German urbanism!

Quote of the Day


Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic, Prince Karel Schwarzenberg, on the different level (G) of anti-Americanism in Western Europe and the former Eastern bloc: "Here, you don’t see the kind of virulent anti-Americanism that dominates Western Europe. After all, our nations weren’t nourished back to health on American Marshall Plan funds, and we therefore have less occasion to cultivate our prejudices."

P.S. I could tell he was Central European royalty just by the moustache, couldn’t you?

Germany Discusses Free Money For Everybody

The front page of my Zeit has a nice title: "The Dream of Money Without Work." It’s a3-page special feature in the business section about the idea of a guaranteed minimum income for every citizen of Germany, provided without any conditions. You need not prove any sort of need or fulfill any conditions — you just get a check in the mail. The idea has support among unlikely political bedfellows.

Tory "father-state" conservatives on the right, such as the CDU President of Thuringia Dieter Althaus, want to peg the basic income at under 700 Euro per month and call it something warm, fuzzy, and patriotically Christian-sounding: Solidarisches Buergergeld (citizen-money of solidarity!). The theory is that you’ll save enough money by abolishing the costly state bureacracy that administers current welfare schemes to finance the additional amounts necessary. Left parties are also interested, although they would put the monthly sum higher and call it a Grundeinkommen (basic income).

Götz Werner, super-rich founder of the dm chain of drug supermarkets, is traveling the country propagandizing his version, which envisions payments as high as 1500 Euro monthly (which he concedes to be a "distant goal"). His primary motivation is to free humans from the compulsion to work, so that they can satisfy the artistic, literary, or humanitarian drives that really make their lives worth living. Werner is a follower of anthroposophy,  sort of German-language "spiritual science" founded by an Austrian philosopher in the early 20th-century (think a German version of Scientology, with its own schools and complex mythology).

The idea, its backers insist, is not crazy. It’s based on a original concept developed by a Belgian social reformer in the 1840s, and its most prominent 20th-century backer was the libertarian Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman, who called it a "negative income tax." Yes, the State should mitigate the misery of the worst-off he concedes; but it should do so in a way that creates the least government interference in citizens’ lives. According to the idea’s supporters, people will still work even if their basic needs are covered, because humans have an in-born drive to engage in meaningful activity. The nastiest, worst-paid jobs — like toilet attendant, dishwasher, or migrant farm worker — will probably go unfilled, unless employers offer significantly more money to induce people to do them. (In America, these jobs are filled largely by immigrant labor).

But hold on! Some of you are sputtering — is that really realistic? Will people still go to work when they get enough money free to live on from the state? If not, then the state’s tax revenues will decrease, and paying the minimum income will no longer be feasible. Even German supporters of the idea admit that it’s "risky and filled with uncertainties." Gary Burtless, an American economist who participated in studies of the basic minimum income in U.S. cities in the 1970s found that men actually did decrease the amount of work they did when they got a guaranteed minimum income, women decreased it even further, and students most of all. He concluded the idea wasn’t workable, even though he was supportive at first.

I’m not sure what I think of the idea, since I’m one of those lucky people who’s got a job I would happily do even if I didn’t need the money. However, I find it reassuring to live in a country in which the idea is at least taken seriously, and discussed openly.

Kurt Vonnegut on Love & Books

Kurt Vonnegut’s death is news in Germany, which makes sense, since ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ (Schlachthof Fuenf) was popular here. To mark the occasion, an excerpt from an interview he gave to the Paris Review in 1977:

…I’m on the New York State Council on the Arts now, and every so often some other member talks about sending notices to college English departments about some literary opportunity, and I say, Send them to the chemistry departments, send them to the zoology departments, send them to the anthropology departments and the astronomy departments and physics departments, and all the medical and law schools. That’s where the writers are most likely to be.

You believe that?

I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.

Let’s talk about the women in your books.

There aren’t any. No real women, no love.

Is this worth expounding upon?

It’s a mechanical problem. So much of what happens in storytelling is mechanical, has to do with the technical problems of how to make a story work. Cowboy stories and policeman stories end in shoot-outs, for example, because shoot-outs are the most reliable mechanisms for making such stories end. There is nothing like death to say what is always such an artificial thing to say: The end. I try to keep deep love out of my stories because, once that particular subject comes up, it is almost impossible to talk about anything else. Readers don’t want to hear about anything else. They go gaga about love. If a lover in a story wins his true love, that’s the end of the tale, even if World War III is about to begin, and the sky is black with flying saucers.

So you keep love out.

I have other things I want to talk about. Ralph Ellison did the same thing in Invisible Man. If the hero in that magnificent book had found somebody worth loving, somebody who was crazy about him, that would have been the end of the story. Celine did the same thing in Journey to the End of Night: he excluded the possibility of true and final love-so that the story could go on and on and on.

Not many writers talk about the mechanics of stories.

I am such a barbarous technocrat that I believe they can be tinkered with like Model T Fords.

To what end?

To give the reader pleasure.

[From The Paris Review Interviews I, pp. 187-189 (New York 2006]

Due Process for Trees

Spring has sprung in Germany, and I am having a hard time staying in the office during this glorious weather, even though I’ve got far too much to do these days. In honor of Spring, a little story about trees.

Over the weekend, I spoke to a friend who had trained as a lawyer in Berlin. A friend of hers did an internship with a local court (Amtsgericht) in Berlin. These courts have jurisdiction over local and routine matters, which, in Berlin, includes the protection of trees (probably under this law (G)). In larger European cities, trees are considered precious commodities, and protected by law.

If you want to tear one down for any reason, you’ll have to submit a special petition to the local Amtsgericht. This will turn into a real legal controversy, since the standards for removing trees are very high. In some cases, you may be denied permission to cut down the tree, even if you planted it yourself. According to the Berlin ordnance, the principal reasons for permitting the removal of a tree are that the tree is ill or dead, has largely lost its "ecological function," or has become a danger.

Once presented with a petition, the judge will often hold a hearing in situ. He will summon his interns, his secretary, and often at least one of the lawyers, and visit the tree itself, holding an open-air hearing. Many judges actually look forward to these petitions, since it gives them a chance to venture out into the open air. The judge usually begins the proceeding with a thorough, careful description of the tree. Speaking into his dictaphone, the judge tours the tree: "Subject of this proceeding is an elm tree located near the intersection of Krupp and Wilhelmstrasse, approximately 10 meters tall, currently in bloom. Approximately three branches appear to overhang the street…"

I don’t have much to say about this, I just found the idea of a judge holding an open-air trial on the fate of a tree to be charming and Spring-appropriate.

Campaign Finance Regulation – Fascism’s Trojan Horse

Ahh, the controversial Austrian statesman. Nothing like a reference to Adolf to prick up everyone’s ears. Kind of like adding a couple bottles of grain alcohol to the thin gruel of ordinary political discourse.

Years ago Tom Delay, a second-rate political fixer from Texas became the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. That is, third in line for the Presidency in case of the death or incapacitation of the President and the Vice-President. Now under indictment for violating campaign-finance laws, he’s begun violating Godwin’s law as well. You see, Delay had to give up his seat in Congress after being indicted for said violations of campaign-finance laws. Which means, as he wrote in a recent book, that the "liberals" who are "persecuting" him are really goose-stepping Nazi fanatics, as Tiny Revolution reports:

It’s the same thing as I say in my book, that the Nazis used. When you use the big lie in order to gain and maintain power, it is immoral and it is outrageous…

It’s the same process. It’s the same criminalization of politics. it’s the same oppression of people. It’s the same destroy people in order to gain power. It may be six million Jews. it may be indicting somebody on laws that don’t exist. But, it’s the same philosophy and it’s the same world view.

A Bleg and a Plaque

Hello all. Back from Brussels, many thanks to Ed P. for the National Socalist tax history. At least, I think thanks are in order. Ever since I read the post, I can’t get out of my mind the image of an enthusiastic National Socialist accountant. Did they wear brown eyeshades?

Now to new stuff. First, a bleg (blog-beg). Take a look at this photo, which I took at an ordinary train station in Duesseldorf. Can anyone tell me who the bald, puzzled-looking man in the pink shirt is? I see similar graffiti all over, which makes me think it must have some distinct meaning. Any help would be appreciated.


Now, a plaque. While in Brussels, I paid a visit to the Grand Place, the big town square with lot of purty buildings. Every night in the summer there’s a light-show set to rather cheesy Euro-trash instrumentals (think Vangelis). OIff in one corner, set into the side of a building housing a restaurant called La Cygne ("The Swan"), there’s a small plaque — which every Asian tourist seems to know about — with an interesting inscription:


Apparently, he wrote "The Communist Manifesto" in this restaurant’s fetid confines. A German friend assures me that a visit to the Marx House in Trier is on the agenda of almost all Chinese package tourists.