Official Announcement of Theme End

Another Pew survey shows world opinion of the United States in the toilet.  "In Germany, traditionally one of the closest U.S. allies, only 30 percent now have a positive view, down from 78 percent before Bush took office in January 2001."

A German Joys policy change: to avoid beating this dead horse any further, I will cease any and all commentary on polls about America’s standing until they show an uptick.  Goodbye theme, see you in 2009!*

* Unless Americans elect Fred Thompson, which, heaven forfend, there’s a decent chance they’ll do, the yutzes.

It’s no Duesseldorf, but It’ll Do in a Pinch

Germany continues to nab urban-design top honors.  Munich is the world’s most livable city, according to Monocle magazine:

After much tire-kicking, data-sifting and deliberation, Munich emerged as Monocle’s most liveable city in the world. A winning combination of investment in infrastructure, high-quality housing, low crime, liberal politics, strong media and general feeling of Gemütlichkeit make it a city that should inspire others.

Maxim Biller on Sighing in Hindi

For a while, I’ve been working on a translation of Maxim Biller’s sulfurous 2000 essay "Cowardly the Land; Feckless the Literature" (G).  It’s a sparkling cavalcade of well-focussed hatred directed at deserving victims.

One of his stories, "The Mahogany Elephant," has just been translated into English and published in the New Yorker.  Turns out some of his stories have been published in the New Yorker in English.  Here’s an excerpt from an online-only interview with him:

Are there American writers you have drawn inspiration from? Jewish-American ones?

When I was twenty, I discovered the books of Malamud, Heller, Bellow, Roth. They taught me to be free to write about my own—the Jewish—people, just as Chekhov, Camus, and Fitzgerald wrote about their people. My biggest hero was always Mordecai Richler. I loved him, because he was comic, tragic, and never pseudo-intellectual. He understood that literature is about telling a story, not showing off your vocabulary. I met him once. We went on tour through Germany—he was reading in English, I was explaining in German who he was, and at night we had a whiskey and smiled at each other and didn’t talk much. I’m sad that he is no longer alive and can’t write more of his wonderful novels.

Are there themes in your writing that seem to you to be typically German, and that American readers might be unfamiliar with?

I hope not. I think that literature—if you succeed at it—is universal. It is always this thing with love and war and parents who lied to you, and, of course, there must be some suspense and a lot of invisible poetry, and then it doesn’t matter whether the characters sigh in German or in Hindi.

There Goes the Neighborhood!

I know one frequent commenter who may find this interesting.  A conservative website reports that a recent study of American cities by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam (no right-winger himself) shows that ethnic diversity may have serious drawbacks:

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, is very nervous about releasing his new research, and understandably so. His five-year study shows that immigration and ethnic diversity have a devastating short- and medium-term influence on the social capital, fabric of associations, trust, and neighborliness that create and sustain communities. He fears that his work on the surprisingly negative effects of diversity will become part of the immigration debate, even though he finds that in the long run, people do forge new communities and new ties.

Putnam’s study reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer. The problem isn’t ethnic conflict or troubled racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”

In the 41 sites Putnam studied in the U.S., he found that the more diverse the neighborhood, the less residents trust neighbors. … 

Putnam emphasizes that the long-term effects of immigration are generally positive, when there’s a responsible policy in place. However, he "acknowledges that most empirical studies do not support the ‘contact hypothesis.’ [i.e. that tolerance grows with increased contact with people of different ethnicities].  In general, they find that the more people are brought into contact with those of another race or ethnicity, the more they stick to their own, and the less they trust others."

My two cents on this. To me, Putnam’s research (assuming it’s being accurately portrayed by John Leo, a man with a distinct agenda) confirms the need for an anti-discrimination law like the one Germany passed in 2006. This may seem a bit counter-intuitive, so let me explain my reasoning. First, humans have likely been programmed by evolution to prefer associating with people who share their ethnicity, a point E.O. Wilson made nearly 30 years ago. Yet, the growing interdependence of nations and increased mobility mean that we’re coming in ever more frequent contact with people different from us. Germany’s already got a lot of immigrants, they’re here to stay, and Germany probably needs more of them. What Putnam’s research shows (not that it’s all that surprising) is that this influx of immigrants will cause strains.

To preserve as much social harmony as possible, a two-way compromise needs to be maintained. First, the immigrants need to adapt, to some reasonable degree, to life in Germany. Second, and as a conscious bargained exchange with the first requirement, Germany needs to make it official policy that, as long as immigrants have made honest efforts to adapt to the extent their abilities permit, access to jobs, housing, and other opportunities will not be restricted based solely on their ethnicity. There’s a difference between an employer who has a policy of "only fluent German speakers need apply" and one who has policy of "no Turks need apply." The latter approach needs to be illegal, attempts to achieve it "through the back door" also need to be illegal.

Yes, punishing people who discriminate on the basis of ethnicity costs money, but it’s money well-spent.  It shows Germany is keeping its part of the two-way bargain and is therefore justified in demanding integration from immigrants. Put another way, no reasonable immigrant will be satisfied with a social compact that says "You will be discriminated against unless you learn to speak reasonable German and make some effort to fit in. However, even if you do all of that, you might well still be discriminated against by certain powerful people just because your last name is Yildiz or because you’re a Muslim. We aren’t going to do anything about that, because of freedom of contract, individual automony, blah blah blah."

Expats: Support the Internet Radio Equality Act!

This is a message mostly for expats. Like many of those peculiar creatures, I sometimes get a hankering for things that I had no time for in my home country.

Things like country music. There were some country acts I liked, such as Waylon, Willie, and especially Waylon & Willie. But most of the time, I preferred angular jazz or tongue-in-cheek Britpop. When I crossed the Atlantic, however, a previously-hidden need for American roots music burgeoned within me. Whenever I wanted a fix, I went to Soma FM‘s awesome Boot Liquor internet radio channel, which dished up a solid mix of non-glossy, non-corporate roots music.

Now, a decision by the American Copyright Royalty Board will mean that the licensing fees for independent online radio stations like SomaFM are going to skyrocket. Briefly put, independent Internet broadcasters used to have to pay a percentage of their revenue for the license to broadcast music. The Board’s decision changes the method of calculation to a flat per-song rate, which will result in much higher fees, driving many stations out of business. Satellite radio, oddly enough, was not affected by the decision and will go on paying the previous, affordable rates.  As one legal commentator writes:

The webcasters have an excellent point: Instead of increasing rates enough to properly compensate rights holders and encourage creation, the new rates are so unreasonably high that they are threatening the survival of an entire industry. Unless the new regulations are successfully repealed, the new rates will result in true perpetual "radio silence" for thousands of online radio stations – a loss for rights holders, distributors and consumers alike.

If you vote in the U.S., follow the link and consider writing a message to your local Senator or Congressman, asking them to support the Internet Radio Equality Act.  It would repeal the Board’s decision and save net radio!

Tom Cruise as a Multiple-Amputee Nazi

The category is links I will never follow:

Entertainment: Tom Cruise Pushes Ahead With Nazi Movie, Hires Prosthetics Expert

Alright, I did follow the link. The movie’s called Valkyrie, and Tom will play a "Nazi general under Hitler’s command [who has] already lost an eye and a couple of limbs." OK as far as it goes, but wouldn’t it spice things up a little if he were a Nazi general under Churchill‘s command? Dare we hope that Tom Cruise will chop off a couple body parts for the sake of authenticity?

Snark aside, let me say this loud and proud: I cannot wait for this movie. In part because it’s my first-ever job as a script consultant.  Can spot my handiwork in this sneak peek at the thrilling climax?

Scene: Fuhrer Hauptquartier

General von Kreuz: [Played by Tom Cruise.  He is agitated, pacing nervously, his prosthetic left leg making a loud clumping noise] "But Mein beloved Fuhrer, I haff said again und again, zee situation is hopeless!  Hopeless!"  [His glass eye pops out of its socket and falls to the floor. Von Kreuz attempts to pick it up with his black-leather-clad prosthetic right hand, to no avail] "Ach, this is alvays happening ven I am aufgeregt!"

Hitler: [Can we get Dennis Hopper? Jeff Bridges? Safety choice: Steve Buscemi. Whoever he is, he is screaming] "You are a coward und a traitor! A deesgrace to zhe Fazerland!  Lieutenants, take heem avay…to Niederschleimhausen."

Von Kreuz: "NeinNicht Niederschleimhausen! [Eye pops out again, but von Kreuz is too terrified to notice]  I cannot be laboring vith zhe common criminals! At least you must be letting me to kill zhe self in act of self-murder, to be preserving zhe honor of a soldier!"*

If you want to know what happens to our gruff-but-lovable multiple amputee Nazi hero, you’ll just have to see the movie. Let’s just say that the ending is suprisingly heart-warming and family-friendly. Unlike the ending to World War II.

* Note: in order to avoid confusing American moviegoers, the characters are speaking with a "Nazi-German" accent which, as Max Goldt has pointed out, has nothing to do with actual German accents.

Miserable Lawyers, Part XXVII

It’s true, I used to be a lawyer.  I recently changed by status to ‘inactive,’ a decision I made without a twinge of regret.

In countries like Germany, you begin studying law as an undergraduate, when you’re around 19.  Very few 19-year-olds can make a rational, informed decision to become a lawyer.  That’s why I always give my students a lecture on the hard, cold realities of the legal profession. The point is to try to alert some of the students to the fact that they don’t have the talent or inclination for this job, before they waste 4 or 5 years of their lives.

The really unlucky ones find out that being a lawyer is not for everyone only after they’ve already passed all the tests and gotten all the certificates. (In Germany, this routinely lasts until students are in their early 30s.)  This delayed reaction, of course, leads to problem of miserable lawyers who hate their work.  Take it away, Toronto Globe and Mail:

Pity the lawyers?

"Law school is one of the [few] graduate degrees that make you more employable," writes Penelope Trunk, author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success. "Unfortunately, it makes you more employable in a profession where people are more unhappy. Law school rewards perfectionism, and perfectionism is a risk factor for depression. Lawyers have little control over their work and hours, because they are at the beck and call of clients, and many are constantly working with clients who have problems lawyers cannot solve. These two traits in a job – lack of control over workload and compromised ability to reach stated goals – are the two biggest causes for burnout in jobs."

[h/t – Ed Philp]

Sicko Coming to a Theatre Near You

Michael Moore is a big star over here in Germany — translations of his books top the best-seller lists, and Farhenheit 9/11 did land-office business. (As you might imagine, I have veeerrry mixed feelings about this.) His new mocku-rocku-documentary on the U.S. heathcare system, Sicko, will surely be a hit as well.

The opening scene of the movie, according to Jonathan Cohn’s review "portrays…Rick, who accidentally sawed off the tops of two fingers while working at home. With no insurance to pay the bill and limited funds at his disposal, he has to choose whether to have the hospital reattach his middle finger for $60,000 or his ring finger for $12,000. (He chooses the ring finger.)."  Cohn — who writes books about the healthcare system — gives the new flick a cautiously positive review: "Sicko got a lot of the little things wrong. But it got most of the big things right."

Moore also compares the U.S. healthcare system, which leaves 45 million people uninsured, with the systems in Cuba, Canada, Britain, and France. The first three choices are more than questionable, given the problems these systems face and the extremely loud bitching emerging especially from Britain. The comparison to France, though, is right on-target:

As Paul Dutton explains in a new book called Differential Diagnoses, the French prize individual liberty, so they created an insurance system that, today, allows free choice of doctor and offers highly advanced medical care to those who need it. One of this system’s most appealing features, which Moore showcases, is the availability of 24-hour house-call service via a company called SOS Médecins. (Moore travels along with one of the company’s doctors as he rides around Paris one night, taking dispatch calls like a taxi driver and then administering at-home medical care to a young man with some kind of stomach problem.)

All of this does cost money, naturally, and Moore acknowledges what many assume is the French system’s big drawback: its high taxes. But Moore also provides the same answer that any good policy wonk (including yours truly) would: They pay more in taxes but less in private insurance. In fact, the French system, like every other one in the rest of the developed world, costs less than ours overall.

The French like their system a lot–more than the citizens of any other country, including the United States, if you believe the opinion polls. The World Health Organization likes it a lot, too: It has ranked France’s system tops in the world.

I am satisfied with the German healthcare system, which also does well in international rankings. I’m currently covered by the national healthcare scheme. You can choose which doctor you’d like to visit, you don’t have to wait for an appointment, and prescription drugs are quite cheap. Granted, I haven’t had a major medical emergency over here (thank G-d), but I have confidence that I’d get good care if I did.

Yes, you can find Germans bitching about it, but then again, Germans bitch about everything.* Any health-care system will have shortcomings. For instance, the U.S. healthcare system appears to have a big problem with getting the right prescription drugs to people in the right doses. Germany, for its part, has a physician brain-drain problem (G).

However, one of these countries provides solid medical care to basically everybody, and the other doesn’t. That, to me, is a difference worth erasing.

* Yes, I know this is an unfair generalization. However, as generalizations go, it is excruciatingly accurate. Just trust me on this one.

The Phenomenology of Getting Whacked

From the Toronto Globe and Mail:

This month, police in Palermo, Italy, discovered the lifeless body of Nicola Ingarao. The reputed leader of a Cosa Nostra clan had been shot repeatedly in the chest, reports The Guardian. "Detectives found to their astonishment that Ingarao had written a university philosophy exam the day before. He had sat at a desk in a room with dozens of other students as they grappled with the issues raised by the Italian idealist school. Pietro Di Giovanni, a professor at Palermo University, said Ingarao would has [sic] got an excellent result." The mobster had been inspired to study philosophy from the reading he had done during a nine-year prison sentence.

On Nearly Purchasing a Trabant

The New York Times visits a Trabant owners’ rally in Germany:

“I’m not a typical complaining ossi, who always talks about how great everything was then,” Uta Pleissner said, using the colloquial term for East Germans. “But we treasured things in those days. The Trabant was a symbol: You had your family, you had a house, and you even had a car.”

Or at least a reasonable facsimile of one: With a body made of fiber-reinforced plastic, known as Duroplast, the Trabant really has more in common with a lawn mower than with a modern car. With its two-stroke engine, it accelerates from zero to 60 miles an hour in a leisurely 21 seconds.

…Moreover, unlike a Mercedes, the engine is so simple that virtually anyone can peer under the hood and make sense of it. Because East Germany produced only two main models of the Trabant over 30 years — more than three million cars in total — the parts are easy to find and interchangeable.

When I first came to Germany, saw one of these cars parked on the street with a "For Sale" sign, and decided to buy it.

After all, it was only 500 Euro. Plus, the sign in the window said that it had something "automatisch." With my faulty German, I interpreted as meaning it had an automatic transmission. This is important. Like most Americans, I can’t drive a manual-transmission car. "Fancy that," I though, "a Communist vehicle with automatic transmission!" So I call the guy who owns it, and ask him whether the car really has automatic transmission, in my crappy German. I have a strong suspicion that I asked him whether the car had "automatic grain", since the word for cereals (Getreide) is similar to the word for transmission (Getriebe) to non-native speakers.

"Yes! Yes!" he responds in his crappy English. Of course, he had no idea what I was saying.

We meet outside the city, so I can test-drive the ancient plastic Communist chariot. The first sign is reassuring: there’s a gear-shift lever on the neck of the steering-wheel. Just like in real automatic transmission cars from the 1970s! I shoehorn myself into the car, which is slightly bigger than a cake decoration. The owner, an amateur tennis player in his 20s, is even taller than I am. He contorts himself into the passenger seat, with much grunting and the rich crackle of kneecap displacement. I cheerfully start the car, which, if memory serves, required doing something very odd with the key, like inserting it a hole between the seats. "Yes, it is wonderful car! "says my new friend. "The family has been waiting 10 years for the car, then comes the Wende and I became the car as a transport means."*

Who could have been stupid enough to think that Communists could design a car with automatic transmission?  Me, that’s who. Of course, the car was a manual. I have no idea how — or even why — to operate a clutch lever. To make matters worse, the clutch lever in this model is some sort of flimsy metal flange located far beneath the dashboard. The ‘test drive’ can be divided into three parts: (1) hideous grinding and thumping noises; (2) stretches of free-gliding down narrow streets in a hilly suburb, narrowly missing pedestrians and other cars; and (3) mind-breaking terror as the Trabant rolls toward a busy intersection and, cursing and shrieking, the owner tries to explain to me how to downshift and stop the car before it plunges into cross-traffic. Him: "Nein! Nein! Push down the Kupplung!! Please do it now!" Me: "What the fuck is a Kupplung?" Him: "Ach! You must stop the car! You have not the Vorfahrt!" Me: "Shit, these gear letters make no sense! [grind, thunk] Am I supposed to shift up or down? [thunk-thunk, shudder] What the fuck is a Vorfahrt?"

We survived.  Needless to say, the previous owner drove the car back to the city, amid awkward silence.

I learned a lot of valuable lessons that day.

* Germans frequently directly translate the German work bekommen, or "get," as "become"’ in English.  A friend once described a meeting in which his boss, a German media executive, tried to convince Chinese clients that if they hired his firm, "they would become lots of money." The Chinese looked down at their bodies, as if contemplating an exchange of those sacks of smelly flab for crisp 500 Euro banknotes. They seemed to find the idea intriguing.

So I Guess You’d Prefer Anarchy?

From an email forum for expats in Germany, a cry for help from a non-German (guess which nationality) married to a German:

Last night my husband informed me offhand he needed to pay his bi-yearly car tax again. Since he recently joined a new firm which provides their employees a company car I inquired which car he meant… He said no, he was paying the taxes on a car he hasn’t owned for the past nine and a half years. !!!

After my initial shock I inquired further and the story unfolded as follows. In mid 1998 (before I joined him) he owned a used Volkswagen Polo. He was a career Army guy back then and while on the way to work one day the car began to smoke, got too hot apparently, and the motor locked up on him on the autobahn. After having it inspected he learned that to fix the car would take more than what it was worth, so he contacted a junkyard in Bonn and arranged to have it towed away and junked. No money changed hands so there was no receipt.

…My husband informed me there are (at least) two sets of papers required to own a vehicle. One set are for ownership and the other are something to do with the allowance to drive it on the public roads. I’ll have to take his word for that. When the junking company showed up he was required to give them the ownership papers and the other papers he kept.

No money changed hands so there was no receipt to show any transaction had taken place. The company simply showed up with a wrecker, hauled the car away and that was that. He was supposed to receive some kind of documentation per mail (transferral of ownership?) regarding the car but very shortly after this happened he…was out of the country for approximately a year.

When he returned he found out he was still being billed for the taxes on the car. When he went to the tax office to straighten things out he was told he needed proof of the transferral of ownership in order to stop being taxed. He went to the junkyard and requested a copy of the paperwork they had, only to be told they didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, didn’t know which car he meant, and couldn’t help him.

He went back to the tax office and they told him without those papers he has to pay the tax or they will prosecute him. He yo-yo’ed back and forth between the two offices for a while longer with no result before he gave up and paid the tax. After a few years of paying the tax and it being a hardship he decided to try again to resolve the problem, only to find the junkyard had gone out of business.

Now it seems we’re stuck paying this tax (approximately 400,-Euros per year) forever on a vehicle that hasn’t been in our possession for going on nine and a half years. I am highly frustrated about this and the fact he’s been simply paying it year after year without getting it taken care of, but he says he’s exhausted the known possibilities and it’s at an end.


German Word of the Week: Warzenhof

There’ll be light blogging for the next few days, because I’ll be visiting a seminar in beautiful downtown Recklinghausen.  Thanks for your patience.

But before I go, quick: What is Russian actress Svetlana Metkina accidentally showing in this picture? If you said "nipple," you’re only 10% right. In fact, she’s mostly showing aureola, the nipple’s staging area, or plush honeymoon-suite bed, or landing strip, or perhaps just ‘hood.  That circle of brown around el areal sensitivo.

Which brings us to German. German words for body parts are frequently priceless, and the more sensitive the body part, the more risible they are. One look at "shame-region," for example, and you’ll see what sort of killer material Freud had to work with.

The word for nipple in German is Brustwarz. "Breast-wart." I don’t suppose the nipple is very happy about this, but what can he do? Grow a tongue and begin talking? If he could, he would probably point out that, under the same logic that saddled him with his ludicrous appellation, we should be calling our mouths "face-anuses," or our toes "foot-cysts."

As compensation, though, our friend the breast-wart gets to dominate the aureola, which is not called aureola in German, but rather Warzenhof, which you could translate as "wart-corona," "wart-yard," or my favorite, "wart-court."

All hail the nipple! Warty little king of his bouncy, circular court!