Victory for the Teacher-Graders

About a year ago, a few young Germans set up an Internet forum, www.spickmich.de (G), that lets students anonymously rate their teachers. The ratings were divided into categories such as "good lessons," "knows his field," and "cool and funny."  Oh, and you could rate how "sexy" your teacher is, until some teachers complained. 

How did teachers react to the website?  According to one of the webmasters, not very accommodatingly:

"At one high school in Cologne, the principal allegedly threatened the students with ‘consequences’ if they put any grades on the site; at a school in Karlsruhe, a letter was distributed to the parents, with the request that they sign it, certifying that their children did not use the site.

The teachers’ lobby groups also attacked the site.  The ‘Philologists’ Association’ [the name of one German teacher lobby group] referred to Spickmich in the same sentence as mobbing-videos and porno-montages featuring teachers.  And the head of the German Teachers’ Association, Josef Kraus, even said that students were not capable of judging teachers’ quality.

But that’s not all.  In Germany, people whose feelings are hurt when somebody says something rude about them in public can file a lawsuit on the grounds of "insult," among other legal theories.  A teacher who got low marks in the online forum did just that.  However, the Regional Court of Cologne just ruled (G) against the teacher on free-speech grounds.

As someone who actually is a teacher and presumably gets ‘rated’ by students all the time, I say ‘Hooray for free speech!’

Cultural Driftwood Wins Bambi

After floating around in the roiling sea of Anglo-American popular culture, many artists find themselves stranded on the lonely shores of obscurity.  There, they’re gradually bleached out by neglect, playing to ever-smaller venues, bumping down the food-chain to ever-smaller record labels, and giving ever-bitterer interviews to ever-smaller magazines, until the interviewers finally stop calling.

Then, like an interesting piece of driftwood spotted by a beach wanderer, Germany picks them up, takes them home, polishes them lovingly, and displays them on the coffee table.  This has happened to Chris de Burgh, Motörhead (perhaps because of the umlaut), Metallica, and dozens of other grateful has-beens, including Jon Bon Jovi, who is not only still alive and apparently producing records, but just won a Bambi award, which is basically a German grammy. 

Yes — Jon Bon Jovi.  Touching, really.

Theorizing about U.S. Pop Culture

I just got back from an academic conference — No! don’t click away, I’m not going to talk about the conference, I promise!

Still with me?  Good.  There were lots of "Americanists" at the conference — German scholars who study North American culture and society.  Interesting to hear what these folks have to say.  They focus on aspects of American life and history that are distinctive to the US or particularly pronounced there, such as Indians, transcendentalists, the frontier, slavery, suburban life, media culture, the position of minorities, and how affluence shapes society.

Plus, of course, American popular culture.  Here’s an explanation of the popularity of American popular culture by one of Germany’s leading Americanists and cultural theorists, Winfried Fluck.  (German translation here).  After rejecting various explanations as too facile, Fluck argues that America simply developed an early lead in ‘popular culture’:

In the past, culture was tied to privilege and wealth. Until the 18th century, books were comparatively expensive; their ownership was limited largely to the propertied classes. Moreover, a certain educational grounding (such as knowledge of Latin or Greek) was necessary to make sense of most cultural objects.

The development of an "entertainment culture” around the turn of the 20th century, including vaudeville theater, amusement parks, a dance craze triggered by the domestication of black plantation dances, and silent movies, further reduced the prerequisites for cultural understanding. The invention of radio and television extended the audience for this new "mass” culture even more, and the shift to the priority of pictures and music created a "universal” language, not limited to a particular community.

For a number of reasons, America was in the forefront of this cultural revolution. Due to its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural composition, especially in the formative years of modern entertainment culture around 1900, American popular culture was faced with the challenge of a market that anticipated the present global market on a smaller scale. This led to the development of broadly comprehensible, non-verbal forms of performance, relying preferably on visual and auditory forms of expression. Before Americanization of other societies could occur, American culture itself had to be "Americanized.”

Americanization, indeed, is carried by the promise of heightened imaginary self-realization for individuals who are freed from the bonds of social norms and cultural traditions.

Americanization, thus, cannot be viewed as a tacitly engineered hidden cultural takeover but as a process in which individualization is the driving force. This process is most advanced in the US for a number of reasons. The promise of a particular form of individualization provides the explanation why American popular culture finds so much resonance in other societies where it has taken hold almost without resistance (mostly carried by a young generation trying to escape tradition).

American popular culture is thus popular across the world because it’s pitched at a modest intellectual level, not deeply embedded in a particular national tradition inaccessible to outsiders (unlike, say, Schlager), and conveys a message of individualism.  This strikes me as a pretty good explanation — especially since it’s very similar to what I hear from many Germans who are fans of some aspect of U.S. popular culture.

The one thing Iwould add is that the tone of U.S. popular culture is generally positive and life-affirming: think "Happy End." Even in mass-market television like Lindenstrasse or Tatort, things like terminal illness, alcohol, suicide, alienation, unemployment and family breakup are recurring themes.  European movies also feature characters who aren’t very bright, who have non-glamorous jobs, or no jobs at all.  The rare American TV shows — such as The Sopranos or Six Feet Under — that address dark themes without saccharine euphemisms or forced happy endings are usually praised as "daring" or "brutally honest," which shows how rare they are.

This, of course, is one of the main arguments European writers and filmmakers make in their favor — they don’t cover up the bleaker aspects of human life, and thus their movies and books and songs confront issues that superficial, focus-group-tested American pop culture rarely addresses.  I can see their point.  I have no problem with Fassbinder films or bleak Tatort episodes (as long as they’re leavened by more cheerful fare once in a while).  But then, I’m not a normal consumer of pop culture.  Most people have more than enough heartbreak, disease, and distress in their own lives. Sometimes, they go to the movies or turn on the radio not to be confronted with inequality or challenged by anbiguity, but to cheer themselves up and escape from their problems.  And much of U.S. pop culture is designed to do just that.

Americans with Odd German Names Teil Drei

Should we be worried that an American with a peculiar German name is a top adviser to the President of the United States?

“This is very much in accord with the president’s vision from the get-go,” said Karl Zinsmeister, a domestic policy adviser to Mr. Bush….

I think we should, given that his name means, roughly, "interest-rate-master."  The German word for compound interest, by the way, is Zinseszinsen: "interest-rate-interest-rate."  Ingenious, no?

“What a Sex!”

Here’s a slideshow of (discreet) nude photographs of Marlilyn Monroe, presented to us by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung under the "English" headline "What a Sex!"

I’ll be at an academic conference the next few days, so light blogging.  But, in the meantime, an amusing/depressing portrait of German academic feudalism can be found here (G) [h/t Frankie].

Why is Henry Kissinger so Famous in Germany?

Over at Altantic Review, Joerg Wolf has a good post quoting a recent interview with Henry Kissinger and a Foreign Policy piece arguing that Americans no longer have the will to see through long-term commitments of troops to combat operations abroad.  Neither do Europeans, for that matter.  Difference is, American voters can still be persuaded to let their leaders start military conflicts.  European voters are much more skeptical of military force as a tool for international problem-solving.

That’s an interesting debate in itself, but I refer you to the Atlantic Review post for more.  The question I want to ask is: why is Henry Kissinger such a presence in Germany?  He’s interviewed on German television and media frequently, and his views are usually treated with solemn respect.  I suppose the easiest explanation is that he still speaks his native language, and any prominent figure who can speak German (Peter Ustinov, for instance), will draw disproportionate attention in Germany.  Further, the people who run German media grew up seeing Kissinger on television every day (many probably protested his policies every weekend).  In the U.S., Kissinger receives much less media attention than he does here.  He still has some influence, but the last time he made the news in any serious way was when he resigned from a government commission convened to investigate 9/11 because of potential conflicts of interest stemming from the client list of his international consulting firm, Kissinger Associates.

This firm, by the way, has contracts with many multinational corporations.  We don’t know which ones they are, because the firm refuses to reveal its client list and, reportedly, requires clients to keep their relationship with the firm secret as well.  You’d think basic journalistic practice would require this fact to be at least mentioned whenever Kissinger airs his views on foreign policy.  In Germany, however, it never is.  None of the people I have ever discussed Kissinger with here in Germany were aware that he runs a consulting firm whose clients have an interest in steering American foreign policy in particular directions.  Nor, for that matter, do German interviewers ever ask him questions about the matters discussed in Christopher Hitchens steaming little 2002 book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger.  (Large excerpts of which can be found online here and here.)  Whether or not you agree with every one of the many items in Hitchens’ indictment, the book makes serious allegations that, to my knowledge, have yet to be refuted.

Law Across Language Barriers

Jane Stapleton makes a good point about the difficulty of doing comparative law in other languages  here (pdf).  Speaking of English-speaking lawyers and scholars who analyze foreign-language concepts or institutions, she asks:

[H]ow confident can a domestic practitioner or judge be that it is the output of these foreign lawyers that are put up for translation into English? This problem is especially acute in Code systems where certain academic commentaries on tort law both within and outside the Civil Code have influence and authority far beyond any academic materials in English-speaking jurisdictions…. The fact that, whereas the English legal tradition treats judges as the senior partners in law-making, the Continental tradition recognizes legal academics in this role, partly explains why some Continental jurists make statements that such and such is the “correct” “solution” to a legal issue. Such language can shock lawyers in common law jurisdictions where it is customary to couch normative arguments with greater reserve, unless they appreciate that these Continental lawyers seek to have their academic commentaries accepted as law. The legal cultural reasons for this difference in the role of jurists are fascinating in their own right, especially in comparison to U.S. and other common law systems.  But the point I want to make here is that of the six or so most authoritative and extensive commentaries on the German Civil Code and extra-code law of obligations, none has been translated into English. This means that English speakers do not have these texts available so as to provide the necessary foils for the one extensive text on German tort law that has been written in English.  Moreover, to my knowledge there are no other texts, written in English or in translation, that deal in detail with tort law in other foreign-language jurisdictions.

Some Pictures From Italy

One of the advantages of having friends, aside from the whole having-friends part, is that sometimes they go live in cool places, and invite you to visit them. Here are a few photos from last week’s visit to Rome and Frascati.

This time around, its the cute side of Italy.  For instance, a cat living in a box on the side of the road going out of Frascati…

Frascati_cat_sitting_inside_box

…or this roadside shrine to the Virgin set into a wall along the Via Nomentana:

Via_nomentana_roadside_shrine

Less cute, Piazza S. Giovanni in Laterano at night, after some rain:

S_giovanni_square_at_evening_after_

A photo of a "Black boy (moretto) praying for his benefactors", from the small, dusty Cardinal Massaia Ethiopian Museum in the Capuchin convent near Frascati (the museum documents capuchins’ missionary work in Ethiopia):

Black_boy_prays_for_his_benefactors

An Ethiophian painting, from the same museum:

Primitive_painting_from_ethiopia_in

These are "fiascos", the typical bottles Frascati wine is stored in:

Fiascos_of_frascati_wine

Back in Rome, the newly-restored Markets of Trajan by night:

Markets_of_trajan_night

Italian sugar packets. Molto adorabile.

Villa_torlonia_italian_sugar_packet

All over Rome, you find fountains that run non-stop with fresh, usually delicious water.  Here’s one in the shape of a wolf’s head, probably to commemorate Rome’s founding myth.  Notice the water spouting upwards out of the center of the wolf’s nose.  As with all Roman fountains, if you block the downward stream, the water spurts much farther upward, for easy drinking:

Villa_torlonia_wolf_fountain

Last but not least, a hieroglyph-covered obelisk on the grounds of the Villa Torlonia, a sprawling villa that Mussolini used as a headquarters, but which lay neglected for decades (Roman schoolchildren used to play in the abandoned buildings) until its recent restoration:

Villa_torlonia_obelisk_against_even

Fake Journalism, Real Ignorance

My point in the last post, and one I rarely tire of making, is to highlight the taboo against intruding too far into the private lives of public figures that we still see in (especially northern) European public discourse.  Kohl’s criticism of Thierse’s performance in office — however nasty — is fair game, because it relates to his performance in office.  But when he went into Kohl’s private life, he went to far, as even he recognized (and I assume he did apologize personally to Kohl in the letter). 

There are many reasons for this discretion, likely including a cultural tradition of respect for the private sphere, and a sense of decorum between journalists and politicians, who are generally both members of elite groups.  But another important factor is the belief that the public needs much more information about what politicians stand for in their public lives than what they do in their private lives.  Most journalists here have an ethos which recognizes that "bad news" — in the sense of trivial speculation about politicians’ private lives — will tend to drive out "good news" — in the sense of reporting about public policy and substantive differences between the political parties.  Why will bad news drive out good news?  Because it’s easier for journalists to write, and because lots of ordinary people are interested in gossip about public figures.  You can sell lots of newspapers with trivial gossip about politicians’ and officials’ private lives.

Let’s look at the United States, where virtually all media outlets are privately-owned.  Among the subjects covered intensely in the past few years in the mainstream media have been John Edwards’ haircut, whether Hillary Clinton prefers diamonds or pearls, what kind of underwear her husband wears, the state of the marriages of all presidential candidates, including whether they’ve committed adultery or been divorced, the clothes Al Gore picks, or whether he is too fat, or what his beard looks like (it "has become the subject of intense analysis"), George W. Bush’s taste for mountain biking, or whether former Presidential Candidate Howard Dean’s wife should have played more of a role in his campaign.  Trust me, I could go on, and on, and on.  (Want hundreds more examples, and I mean literally hundreds?  Troll the archives here.)  Let us not forget that in the summer of 2001, the American media was obsessed with the warning signs of a potential terror attack whether an obscure Congressman might have had something to do with the disappearance of an attractive female aide (turns out he didn’t).

I hear plenty of readers already: "Lighten up.  There’s still some reporting about substantive policy issues in the American media.  What’s the problem with a bit of fun once in a while?  Can’t you have some tasty soup after eating your broccoli?"  Sorry to be so curmudgeonly, but no, no soup for you!  There has to be an active taboo against gossip reporting (as in the German elite media), because it drives out substance.  Once the substance is driven out, viewers, like most Americans, will end up ignorant about basic political information, and about the rest of the world.  American’s aren’t getting, or eating, enough broccoli.  And speaking of broccoli, the two facts most Americans remembered the most clearly about the first George Bush presidency were the fact that his dog was named Millie and that he didn’t like broccoli.  In fact, studies consistently reveal that the most widely-known facts about politicians in America are trivial personal tidbits.  (I’m drawing these examples from a book by two political scientists: Michael X. Delli Carpini & Scott Keeter, What Americans Know About Politics and Why it Matters (1996)).

Judging by polls of younger Americans, this ignorance will only get worse.  A recent survey, in line with so many others: Two-thirds of Americans between 18 and 24 couldn’t locate Iraq on the map in 2006, half of them couldn’t locate the Indian subcontinent on a map of Asia, only thirty percent thought it was important to know the locations of countries in the news, and a miserable fourteen percent thought speaking another language is a necessary skill.  Of course, one shouldn’t put too much stock in these kinds of surveys, since Americans arguably need less knowledge of the rest of the world than people who live in smaller countries surrounded by larger neighbors.  But look at the lack of curiosity this poll reveals.  Not only are young Americans ignorant of other countries, they don’t care that they’re ignorant.  Even after three years of war, only 1/3 of them have bothered to try to find out where Iraq is, which seems like a fair enough proxy for some important forms of geopolitical knowledge.

Delli Carpini and Keeter also report studies showing Western European voters are better-informed than Americans.  The difference isn’t huge, but it’s there.  Now, nobody expects ordinary people to sit down and read complicated books about public policy.  Most people never do so, either in Europe or in the U.S.  They get their information from newspapers and, especially, television.  So it matters who’s providing them the television.  And there’s the rub: a strong, publicly-funded press which takes its mission seriously delivers more useful information about actual policies to ordinary people.  This, in turn, creates a better-informed electorate.

I hardly need to add that the ignorance of many Americans is a problem for the whole world, because (1) it makes them easily manipulable; and (2) their government has a powerful military, and the will to use it.  I’ll end with a statistic that says it all: after hearing years of threatening rhetoric about Iran, 52% of Americans now support a military strike against that country.  If you think that most of these people support bombing a country that isn’t at war with the United States because they have carefully reviewed Iran’s history, alliances, political system, culture, and military chain of command — and have analyzed the effect on oil prices and the possibility of a backlash — then I’ve got a bridge to sell you.   

To sum up, even if you believe that not knowing much about other countries (1) is an unavoidable aspect of human nature (2) an appropriate choice for most people (who don’t need this information); and (3) and nothing to be concerned about, that’s only true unless and until your country starts planning military action against those other countries.  That’s why I hope you’ll forgive me if I harp on this theme once in a while.

Rule by Grown-Ups

Franz Muentefering, the head of the German Social Democratic Party, decides to step down to spend more time with his ill wife.  A blow for the Social Democrats, since "Muente" was probably the most colorful politician in Germany.  During the media frenzy about the affair, the Vice-President of the German Parliament, fellow Social Democratic Wolfgang Thierse, defends (G) Muentefering’s decision by saying "To leave his wife sitting alone in the dark in Ludwigshafen, like [former Chancellor] Helmut Kohl did, is hardly ideal." 

This was a reference to the late Hannelore Kohl, wife of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.  She suffered from a severe light allergy, and took her own life in 2001.  Thierse was immediately criticized from all sides, including his own party, for referring to the private life of a fellow public figure.  He realized his error, and sent a letter to Chancellor Kohl apologizing for the remark.  Kohl says Thierse "apologized to me with good form.  I accept the apology.  As to other aspects of the matter, I will say nothing."

Class displayed.  Case closed.  Back to things that matter.