Radio France and Demagogy

From Classical Online Radio in Europe, this description of Radio France/France Musiques’ programming philosophy. And I think "philosophy" is the right word:

Without adhering systematically to the demagogic formula: "the public is right always", it is necessary for us well to agree that it is not always wrong: to hold account of its observations is least things on behalf of a radio of "public" service. Consequently, with two additional concerts diffused during the weekend, there are four hours more suggested to our listeners who will find – in addition – the appointments which them "fidélisent" throughout the week: this alternation of comments of sensitizing and information.The "plural" spirit of France Musiques will continue to appear by the opening of the chain to all the forms of expression: traditional musics, original film tapes, jazz, contemporary creations,etc.

Have they succeeded in their goal, whatever it is? Judge for yourself over at the Windows Media Stream or the MP3 Stream. Don’t blame me if you get sensitized, or even "fidélised," by the "plural" spirit.

Insult A Nation’s Literature, Win its Prize

One good reason to learn German is to read the many books that have been translated into German, but not into English. While American publishing houses release fewer and fewer works translated from other languages into English, translation from various languages into German continues apace. The Czech Library, 33 volumes of Czech literature translated into German, was recently completed (G). It’s a successor to the Polish library, a large translation project headed by the Polish-German translator Karl Dedecius. It’s subsidies that make this possible, although nobody is getting rich from it. Many translators into German work for a pittance, or for free. But work they do.

The German sinologist, poet, and translator Wolfgang Kubin is the latest to be recognized. Today, he was awarded the Chinese State Prize (G) in Beijing for his many translations of works of Chinese literature into German. Which is pretty stunning. Although Kubin is fascinated by Chinese literature and culture in general, he recently declared in an interview that most contemporary Chinese literature is "crap," because its authors never address controversial themes. Kubin’s view is that a modern society "needs critics, because without critics it is doomed to death." He calls many contemporary Chinese authors "cowards." In the link just above, he notes that many Chinese authors come to Germany for literary "vacations" and are content to be thought of as dissidents. But when they go back to China, they collaborate with the authorities. They permit portions of their works to be censored so that their books can appear in their native countries. Powerful politicians and writers in China, he says, "somehow, for various reasons, actually completely work together, and I don’t really have a complete picture of how that operates."

Nevertheless, he won the prize, awarded directly by the Chinese government. Perhaps it’s a sign of tolerance, he says, but he’s not completely sure…

“A Cake with an Ejection Seat”

That’s the title of this article in Spiegel (apparently not available online).

It tells the story of Dani, a Serbian air-defense soldier who shot down an American F-117A stealth fighter. Dani says he always enjoyed playing around with computers, and one day discovered a small midification to the Serbs’ ancient Soviet air-defense radar system that would make it possible to detect a stealth fighter. He suggested the change to the army brass.

In true Joseph Heller fashion, they told him to bugger off. But he tweaked his own unit’s machines anyway , and lo and behold, became the only person ever to shoot down an F-117A (the pilot was later rescued). He was promoted, but transferred out of the air defense troops because he had modified the computer system without permission.

Now Dani has returned to civilian life. He lives in the town of Kovin, near Belgrade, and runs a bakery. His best-selling cake?

The F-117A special, naturally:

[h/t Mica]

Moments in Gummy Bear History

…courtesy of Hans Traxler’s 1992 book "The Life and Times of Gummy Bears," one of the few German comic books to have been translated into English. I have the German version, but I’ll translate the captions into English.

"Ivan the Terrible went mad when he realized that he could not impress gummy bears with his tried-and-true torture methods."


"Through contact with humans, gummy bears began to develop all the afflictions of civilized life." (overweight, fear of flying, tennis elbow, weltschmerz)



All Hail the Brand

Maybe you’ve heard it said: despite all our national and cultural differences, we humans are really all the same, deep-down.

A questionable thesis. But here’s a data-point of proof for it:

John Brooks has observed has observed that the graffiti inscribers in the New York subway cars tend to write everywhere but on the advertising cards, "as if advertising were the one aspect of society . . .  that the writers can respect."

Paul Fussell, Class (1983), p. 47.

As unbelievable as it may sound, the windows that are covered by advertisements are not scratched [by vandals]! We spend over eight million euro per year replacing scratched windowpanes. We’re contemplating allowing posters on the sides of ticket machines, because they offer too much space for graffiti.

Petra Reetz, spokeswoman for the Berlin transporation agency BVG, in strassenfeger (Berlin street newspaper) July 2007, p. 10.

A sign of hope: Reetz also reports that "surfaces that have art on them are also less endangered by vandalism."

Riot Police Redux

Lots of interesting comments to my Riot Police post from a few days back. Let me clarify my point.

The problem I’d like to see addressed is very limited. It’s not peaceful political demonstrations. It’s not even not-very-peaceful political demonstrations. Both of those can, and should, be handled with the minimum amount of force necessary to keep order. Which, in most cases, would be none at all. Even if the protesters throw a few molotov cocktails or burn a few SUVs, that would not necessarily justify an aggressive police reaction — although people who willfully destroy property should, ideally, be located, prosecuted, and required to recompense the damage they cause.

My suggestion is limited to situations in which crowds of people target isolated individuals with the threat of potentially lethal violence. It happens primarily in the east, but also, recently, at a wine festival in the Rhineland-Palatinate (G), where a group of skinheads severely beat two Africans while chanting (roughly): "We’re going to beat the crap out of the niggers." One of the victims had a finger severed with a broken wine bottle. Taking the position of the man whose finger was cut off his hand, I’d say that incidents such as this are a serious threat to human life. As was the incident in Muegeln. The mob there was working on breaking into the pizza parlor in which the eight Indians had taken refuge when police reinforcements arrived. If things had gone slightly differently, people might have been murdered.

It should go without saying that I’m talking about any mob, targeting any individuals, for any reason. These incidents required a swift and aggressive police reaction because they represent a direct threat to human life. This doesn’t strike me as an unreasonable demand to place on the state. There are fire departments all over Germany who are ready to respond quickly to fires. Because fires represent a direct threat to human life and must be combated immediately. I see no reason why a similar quick-response mechanism could not be set up for situations in which a mob of people has targeted isolated, helpless individuals for beatings and/or death.

These incidents can be hard to predict. But these days, everybody has cellphones and can place anonymous calls to a police hotline within seconds. News agencies gather and show footage from people using their cellphones to record newsworthy events seconds after they occur. The state has plenty of resources to monitor and track potentially dangerous groups. For instance, the left-wing militante gruppe, which I posted about recently. The police authorities were listening to conversations, tracing cellphones, and searching apartments (G) of people suspected of being affiliated with this group, which has so far burned cars and offices in non-fatal arson attacks. The way is there, all that’s needed is the will (and yes, I’m well aware that German police agencies closely monitor right-wing groups already).

Should we also address the root causes of these incidents? (Racial prejudice, social alienation, etc.) Well, sure, as far as that goes. But root causes are not particularly relevant to someone bandaging a a bloody stump where his finger used to be, running through a small town in the western part of Germany, desperately looking for somewhere, anywhere to escape a drunken mob threatening to kill him. In that situation, a state as all-encompassing and strong as Germany’s (which, by the way, is running a budget surplus) should be able to show up within minutes, break up the mob with as much force as necessary, and track down, arrest, and punish the criminals. That’s what I pay my German taxes for. And I do pay German taxes.

Miraculous Self-Splitting Case of Beer

Ahh, glorious German beer. Bought most cheaply in crates of 18 to 24 bottles. The only problem is that these crates can be heavy and unwieldy, especially when they’re full of beer.

If you dropped one on a small child, for instance, tragedy could strike — you could lose several bottles, if not the entire case. Fortunately, German ingenuity has left its mark here. Behold the Paulaner 20-bottle crate (here, full of Kristallweizen):


When you liftt up the golden handles on either side of the top, something charming happens:


It splits safely into two halves, which are not only stable but easier to carry (in the above photo, I have returned the carry-handles to their "locked" position to make the separation mechanism clearer). The only problem is that for the uninitiated, like me, there is no warning this will happen. I picked up the handles of this case of beer at the store, and suddenly the bottom seemed to drop out of it. I quickly reached under the crate to stabilize it before I took a closer look, and saw that, indeed, the crate was designed to split apart in precisely this manner.

After that dawned on me, I was filled for admiration for the designer of this beer crate. Anyone happen to know who it is?

Primal Force: Volk

The word Volk (people, national community) is famously hard to translate into English. So famously hard to translate that it probably no longer needs to be translated.

I just heard a Deutschland RadioKultur documentary Urkraft Volk (G) on the history of the concept in Germany. It all started with the Roman historian Tacitus’ description of the Germanic peoples, in which he speculated that they must have been a native population, since their ‘blue eyes, reddish hair, and large, capable bodies’ seemed distinct from neighboring tribes. The notion of a unique, ancient Germanic habitus took on a life of its own in the 19th century. Hegel praised the "ardency" of the German Volk, Kleist called the German Volk purer than any other.

In the words of the moderator, the poets and thinkers gave their imprimatur to the discourse of "remote origins, purity, and superiority" that would be taken up by the white-knuckled ideologue of race and nation who began to flourish in the later 19th century. Here is where the notion of a Volkskörper ("people’s body") comes into play; the analogy of the entire group of humans of "Germanic" or "Aryan" descent to one large body. Of course a body must defends itself and cast out impurities; the nationalist thinker Julius Langbein said in 1900: "Life is a defensive struggle. One’s own blood wants to prevail against foreign blood; therefore Aryan blood wants to and will prevail against all other." It goes without saying that the "bloodstream" of the German Volkskörper must be purged of all elements "alien to the species," just as the Volksseele (national soul) must be purged of foreign philosophies and ideologies.

I think we all know where this led to. Let us, to paraphrase Gibbon, draw a veil before these unhallowed doings.

The documentary proposes that völkisch thinking is creeping back into the national discourse through four outlets. First, right-wing music, which is pretty open about the need to combat foreign and artfremde (alien to the species) people and ideas. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; What else are they going to sing about — butterflies? Second, fantasy novels and games. They’re generally harmless, but sometimes contain searches for roots and ancient mystical origins that have something of the folkish about them. Third, esoteric religious movements such as the New Heathenism. If you’re not convinced by the völkisch theory that Jesus wasn’t Jewish, then you have little choice but to chuck Christianity and go back to the ancient Druidic/Wicca religion of your forefathers, which has the added advantage of a lot of wicked-cool accessories of varying authenticity (runes, witchcraft, robes, crystals, ancient healing secrets, etc). Fourth, the crusty old national-conservatives, whose press organ is the Junge Freiheit and think-tank the Institut fuer Staatspolitik.

I don’t have much to add here; I just thought I’d link to this this thoughtful documentary.

Privacy on Both Sides of the Atlantic

James Whitman, is a Yale law professor specializing in comparative law, author most recently of the intruiguing Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide Between America and Europe. Here is part of the introduction to a 2004 law review article called Two Western Cultures of Privacy: Dignity versus Liberty (abstract here; full text in .pdf format here) which compares American and European ideas of privacy.

The introduction has some nice general observations. Here they are, stripped of legalese and footnotes:

To the Europeans, indeed, it often seems obvious that Americans do not understand the imperative demands of privacy at all. The Monica Lewinsky investigation, in particular, with its numerous and lewd disclosures, led many Europeans to that conclusion. But the Lewinsky business is not the only example: There are plenty of other aspects of American life that seem to Europeans to prove the same thing. Let me offer a variety of examples from France and Germany, two countries that have been my focus in recent research, and that are my focus in this Article as well. Some of the things that bother French and German observers involve what Americans will think of as trivialities of everyday behavior. For example, visitors from both countries are taken aback by the ill-bred way in which Americans talk about themselves. As a French article warns visitors to the United States, America is a place where strangers suddenly share information with you about their "private activities" in a way that is "difficult to imagine" for northern Europeans or Asians. Americans have a particularly embarrassing habit, continental Europeans believe, of talking about salaries. It is "normal in America," an Internet site informs German tourists, for your host at dinner to ask "not just how much you earn, but even what your net worth is" –topics ordinarily quite off-limits under the rules of European etiquette. Talking about salaries is not quite like defecating in public, but it can seem very off-putting to many Europeans nevertheless.   

But it is not just a matter of the boorish American lack of privacy etiquette. It is also a matter of American law. Continental law is avidly protective of many kinds of "privacy" in many realms of life, whether the issue is consumer data, credit reporting, workplace privacy, discovery in civil litigation, the dissemination of nude images on the Internet, or shielding criminal offenders from public exposure. To people accustomed to the continental way of doing things, American law seems to tolerate relentless and brutal violations of privacy in all these areas of law. I have seen Europeans grow visibly angry, for example, when they learn about routine American practices like credit reporting. How, they ask, can merchants be permitted access to the entire credit history of customers who have never defaulted on their debts? Is it not obvious that this is a violation of privacy and personhood, which must be prohibited by law?   

These are clashes in attitude that go well beyond the occasional social misunderstanding. …  When it comes to privacy, there are plenty of European practices that seem intuitively objectionable to Americans. Some of these have to do with seemingly minor aspects of the anthropology of everyday life, most especially involving nudity. If the Europeans are puzzled by the ill-bred way in which Americans casually talk about themselves, Americans are puzzled by the ill-bred way in which Europeans casually take off their clothes. Phenomena like public nudity in the parks of German cities are particularly baffling to Americans, but so are phenomena like the presence of female attendants in men’s washrooms. It is genital nudity that Americans find most bizarre: One’s genitalia are "privates" in the full sense of the word in America, and one does not ordinarily expose them in public, and certainly not before the opposite sex. Even breasts are supposed to be kept covered in the United States–as the occasional female European tourist has discovered, when arrested (or even jailed!) for sunbathing topless on an American beach. ("Those Americans are Out of Their Minds!" howls a headline from a Swiss tabloid reporting one such incident from Florida.) Even American advertising, which doesn’t stop at much, doesn’t show bare breasts.

Public nudity may seem little more than a curiosity (though we shall see that it raises revealing problems in the European law of privacy). But here again, it is not just a matter of norms of everyday behavior; it is a matter of law. There are numerous aspects of European law that can seem not only ridiculous, but somewhat shocking to Americans. For example, continental governments assert the authority to decide what names parents will be permitted to give their children–a practice affirmed by the European Court of Human Rights as recently as 1996. This is an application of state power that Americans will view with complete astonishment, as a manifest violation of proper norms of the protection of privacy and personhood. How can the state tell you what you are allowed to call your baby? Nor does it end there: In Germany, everybody must be formally registered with the police at all times. In both Germany and France, inspectors have the power to arrive at your door to investigate whether you have an unlicensed television. Evidence that Americans would regard as illegally seized is routinely considered in continental adjudication. In France and Germany, according to a recent study, telephones are tapped at ten to thirty times the rate they are tapped in the United States–and in the Netherlands and Italy, at 130 to 150 times the rate. All of this will make many an American snigger at the claim that Europeans have a superior grasp of privacy. What kind of "privacy" is there, Americans will ask, in countries where people prance around naked out of doors while allowing the state to keep tabs on their whereabouts, convict them on the basis of unfair police investigations, peer into their living rooms, tap their phones, and even dictate what names they can give to their babies?

Evidently, Americans and continental Europeans perceive privacy differently.

Bleg for U.S. Visa Help?

Now, a bleg (blog-beg). I get a lot of inquiries from people from The Foreign Countries who are want to come to the U.S. and add their stripe to the glorious rainbow of diversity that is the United States. However, they find themselves trapped inside the American visa/green card/work permit system which, apparently, is FUBAR:

Between 3 million and 4 million people around the world are waiting for green cards, papers that allow noncitizens to live and work permanently in the United States, according to Bill Strassberger, spokesman for US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Worldwide, workers without extraordinary skills or special status, such as exceptional scientists or academics, wait an average of five years before they can acquire a permanent work visa, while those hoping to come in under a separate program for family members of US residents are looking at waits of four to 23 years, depending on their country of origin and the nature of their relatives in the United States.

So here’s my question. Can anyone tell me of a law firm or other sort of company that can offer help streamlining the process of getting a visa for the U.S.? Is there any technique for getting the U.S. embassies and consulates to respond faster (or at all) to these requests?

I get these questions all the time, usually from people who have been driven into a foaming rage by Kafkaesque abstruseness of the regulations and the complete unresponsiveness of embassy personnel. They usually comment bitterly, "I thought the U.S. was supposed to be the ‘can-do’ nation."

Where are the Riot Police When You Need Them?

Germany is atwitter over the recent dust-up in the East German town of Muegeln, in which a mob chased a group of (subcontinental) Indian residents of the town through the streets, beating and kicking them, and then walled them up in a pizza parlor. The mob was apparently chanting anti-foreigner slogans, and was trying to break in the back door to the pizza parlor as the police arrived. The Jewish Council warned of increasing anti-foreigner bias in East Germany, leading to the development of "no-go" areas for foreigners in the east (G). These things happen relatively rarely, but the pace seems to be increasing lately (G).

I’m always puzzled by how long it takes police to respond. At football games, there are always long lines of police with dogs, batons, riot helmets, and cameras (to film hooligans) who generally manage to keep order quite well. Any documentary about the 1970s shows police primed and ready to suppress demonstrations with tear gas, water cannons, and liberal use of batons. Shouldn’t there be a some kind of a roving riot squad to intervene in these racist mob incidents before they get out of hand? Dispersing political demonstrations is one thing, but I can’t imagine many civil libertarians would be eager to defend the right of racists to gather in drunken mobs for the purpose of beating and killing people with dark skin.

If I were a foreign-looking resident of the east, I would demand that regional riot squads be formed. They would be drilled on their preparedness to reach any location in their area within 30 minutes, and kept on a high alert during the beer-soaked outdoor Volksfesten so beloved of certain kinds of Germans. When they got a call, they would arrive at the scene with large, intimidating, armored vehicles with deafening sirens and blinding lights, block the outlets, film everything they see, and arrest as many people as possible.

Sure, it would cost money, but Ican’t think of anything more worth spending money on than protecting citizens from drunken, murderous mobs. Can you?*

* Perhaps you could take some of the millions of taxpayer dollars spent monitoring Scientology and warning competent adults against its sinister wiles (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), and divert it into an effective response to a problem that actually damages Germany’s international reputation and endangers the lives of its citizens. Just a suggestion.