The Cameron Variations: Meme Carryforward Post

I'm a bit late in getting around to this meme, but Obscene Desserts hips me to a website that lets you create your own poster for David Cameron, the UK Conservative Party's candidate for PM in the upcoming elections. The original looks like this:


The poster's layout is easy to replicate with today's newfangled computers. Which is its fatal flaw. This website lets you customize the Conservatives' message. To make it a bit less Albion-centric. A bit edgier. John at Obscene Desserts creates a BL-themed poster:

Lebowski cameron

Here's another favorite:


And now, my modest contribution:


Now go create your own!

Hej, Teacher! Leave Them Kids Alone

Spiegel Online's English version reports on the Romeike family of Bissingen, who moved to Tennessee to home-school their children:

A German couple who wanted to homeschool their children have been granted political asylum in the US. Evangelical Christians have welcomed the decision, claiming that Germany was trying to "coerce ideological uniformity" through its ban on homeschooling.

Christian fundamentalists have welcomed the decision by a US court to award a German family political asylum in the United States because the parents were unwilling to subject their children to mandatory school attendance rules in Germany.

The Romeikes were represented by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which has a comprehensive website about the case. According to the website, the immigration judge in Tennessee, Lawrence O. Burman, held:

“Homeschoolers are a particular social group that the German government is trying to suppress. This family has a well-founded fear of persecution…therefore, they are eligible for asylum…and the court will grant asylum.”

In his ruling, Burman said that the scariest thing about this case was the motivation of the government. He noted it appeared that rather than being concerned about the welfare of the children, the government was trying to stamp out parallel societies—something the judge called “odd” and just plain “silly.” In his order the judge expressed concern that while Germany is a democratic country and is an ally, he noted that this particular policy of persecuting homeschoolers is “repellent to everything we believe as Americans.”

The decision doesn't appear to be available yet, but the home-schooling organization filed a brief on the Romeike's behalf, which you can read here (pdf). Speaking as a former member of the bar, I find it pretty well-written; whoever runs HSLDA knows how to pick their lawyers.* Here are some of the more dramatic allegations from the brief:

• On 09/20/2006, Wolfgang Rose, the principal of the government school,
confronted Mrs. Romeike at home, uninvited. He demanded that the children
attend the government school, or he would retaliate with unspecified action.

• On 09/21/2006, in writing, Principal Rose repeated his threat.

• On 09/25/2006, Principal Rose confronted both Mr. and Mrs. Romeike at home.
He stayed for about 90 minutes. Principal Rose insisted Mr. and Mrs. Romeike
could not teach their own children. He rejected and disparaged their motives of
religious conviction and their exercise of parental rights regarding educational
choice. He demanded that the children attend the government school, or they
would suffer consequences.

• On 10/06/2006, by telephone, Mayor Kuemmerle. the head law enforcement
official in the town of Bissingen, told Mr. Romeike that homeschooling was not
in the best interests of the children. He too rejected and disparaged their motives
of religious conviction and their exercise of parental rights regarding educational
choice. He too demanded that the children attend the government school, or they
would suffer consequences.

• On 10/09/2006, in writing, Mayor Kuemmerle threatened to fine Mr. and Mrs.
Romeike € 30,00 (about $45.00 USD) per child, per day (about S675/wk), if they
continued to homeschool their children.2o He also threatened to make the
Romeike children attend the government school through the use of police force.
Both of these specific threats were subsequently made good.

• On 10/24/2006, Principal Rose wrote that he would be reporting the Romeikes'
fai lure to send their children to the government school to the Jugendamt (Youth
Welfare Office). The threats by Principal Rose upset Mr. and Mrs. Romeike. as
tbey knew other homescbooling parents had been fined vcry large amounts,
arrested, imprisoned, and had their children taken away.

• On 12/12/2006, Dr. Klein, in person, threatened zero-tolerance enforcement of
mandatory attendance at the government school.

• On 12/19/2006, Dr. Klein wrote that the Romeike cbildren were required to attend
government school. He threatened continued fines and other consequences.

Mr. and Mrs. Romeike attempted to stop the fines through the German court system, but
to no avail. To collect these fmes, the officials could begin proceedings to take away Mr.
Romcike's home.  Mr. Romeike and his family fled Germany before these proceedings could be completed.

You can almost hear the threatening string glissandi in the background.** Rather hard cheese on the school authorities, who were probably well within their rights under German law to do everything they did here.

For people like me, who are intrigued by the intersection of cultural values and legal norms, cases like this are fascinating. It's important to be clear about the dispute here. Nobody is arguing that children shouldn't be educated; the Romeikes planned to educate their children at home. As they argue in their legal brief, the penalties they faced were actually even harsher than the penalties parents face for letting their children skip school. Further, the Romeikes argue, the idea that home-schooled children face disadvantage is inaccurate – studies show they outperform public-school children and don't have any noticeable social deficits. I for one don't doubt these results, but I'd be willing to bet they emerge mostly from selection bias: parents committed enough to home-school their children and proudly identify themselves as such are likely to be unusually capable and well-organized. For that matter, I'd expect people who grew their own food to eat healthier, for similar reasons.

Germany counters that its laws serve the purpose of discouraging the development of 'parallel societies' and ensuring that children are exposed to democratic, pluralist values. The American court dismiss these objections as 'odd' and 'silly'. Of course, lurking behind the phrase parallel societies is a complex of ideas that barely register in American society. I'd be willing to bet that German authorities aren't actually all that concerned about the Romeike children, specifically. After all, they speak German and understand the culture, and there are no specific allegations that their children haven't been learning properly. What the authorities are really concerned about is poorly-integrated religious and ethnic minorities, who might use a home-schooling right to basically detach themselves completely from German society. In order to avoid the allegation of selective enforcement, the authorities need to come down on white, Christian German families with all the force of the law. The ban on home-schooling becomes easier to understand if you put it into the context of a family who, for instance, wants to 'home-school' their daughters only in the duties of an obedient wife.

Nevertheless, it seems that a flat ban on home-schooling is the wrong way to accomplish this goal. The middle path is to permit home-schooling, but monitor it to make sure the parents are capable of teaching their children with acceptable competence and exposing them to enough social activities. If the parents repeatedly fail these examinations, then the mandatory-schooling duty kicks in. Given the considerable evidence that home schooling usually doesn't do any harm, I personally find the 'allow-but-monitor' approach better than a flat ban.

* Strangely enough, the names of the lawyers who wrote the brief have been stripped from the online .pdf document…

** This case also illustrates the different fields of cultural taboo in the U.S. and Germany. Americans find it hard to understand why Germans get so excited about Scientology (and other minority religions), parents naming their children oddly, and home-schooling (among other subjects). Whenever Germans begin pontificating on these subjects, it's not long before 'Anglo-Saxons', like the honorable Judge Burman, begin invoking the specter of enforced ideological conformity. 

Yet German society is tolerant of other quite odd ideas — provided these ideas had their origins in Germany. We're talking here about anthroposophy, homoepathy, and Karl Marx, to name a few examples. They're controversial all right, but professing a belief in homeopathy, or casually saying you've been reading some Karl Marx lately, won't bring the dinner-party conversation to a screeching halt — or a screeching boil. Americans, for their part, get extremely excited about any mention of Marx or Marxism. Ditto public nudity, atheism, adulterous politicians, and a few other 'sensitive' subjects which most Germans are usually capable of discussing without noticeable increases in blood pressure.

An Early Bernhard Poem, Englished

Building on Cold Foggy Night

One section of an online English translation of a sixteen-page poem privately published in 1962 by Thomas Bernhard (spacing in original):

In rags goes man, in stinking scraps of cloth.
The meat grinder wind says—I'm not dumb!
Siccing my trouser legs and the dog,
it comes inside my head and cuts me down.

I have this whore tap on my conscience,
this bundle biting into my hunched back.
These shoes, this frayed coat, are making me sick.
My soupspoon sticks through the pocket of my pants.

There in the courtyard, there stand the Pharisees,
Nothing but creature from the belt on down!
The club swingers, squealers, gunmen, spies
in the greasy boot-black of the prefecture.

The state's almighty, while you're bitter and weak.
Power and the uniform are one in the same.
You keep your mouth shut, your head in check,
you walk through the wood no one cuts for us.

What such a truncheon on the head ruins
I know already, it breaks my eardrums.
I'm outfitted by the most sub-moron
and driven mad with sweat, ransacked, and shorn.

These pants rub me raw and the backsides paint
The heads of misery on the thick wall.
Some get to drink and some have to pay.
And the thing that you are drips in your hand.

A Private Collection of Funky, Outsider-ish Art

Ten Commandments

  My friends George and Fran live in a Houston apartment crammed with artifacts from around the world; paintings and sculptures by young, up-and-coming artists from Texas and south of the border; and a few pieces by more established figures. Their taste is bold and eclectic, and the collection never dull.

They kindly let me take photos of many of the pieces, which I have now assembled into a photo gallery for your viewing pleasure here. Enjoy!

P.S. Unfortunately, I don't have the full title/artist details for all of the artists here — sometimes the titles are an approximation. The best way to get to know the collection is to have George and Fran shepherd you around after several post-dinner cocktails. So book your flights to Houston soon! If you're really interested in one piece or another, let me know, and I'll see what I can find out.

The Mass.-acre and the American Political Duopoly

Given yesterday's debacle for health-care reform, it may be useful to revisit a piece Clay Risen, a keen and sophisticated observer of German politics, recently wrote for Democracy warning against parliamentary systems with multiple parties and praising America's two-party system, warts and all:

Next to European health care and European urban planning, the aspect of European life for which liberal Americans pine most often is the continent’s parliamentary politics. Whenever I run down the litany of niche German political parties–alongside the Greens, the FDP, and the Linke, there’s the Animal Protection Party, the new-age Violet Party, and the Retired People’s Party, among others–for left-leaning American friends, they sigh and say, "I wish." Parties that actually represent people’s interests? Coalitions built on cross-party compromise, rather than ideological stone walls? Wouldn’t that be great, they say.

A progressive’s dream. I agree. Or rather, I did, before I spent this previous August and September in Germany. After seeing German politics up close, I’ll take my two-party system, thank you very much.

Clinton’s welfare reforms of the 1990s also produced enormous disagreement on the left. But because there was nowhere for dissenting factions to go, they had to fight it out internally–and, over time, these centripetal forces created a new consensus, which formed the basis for Barack Obama’s ride into the White House and the backbone of support for his progressive agenda. The German left, on the other hand, simply picked up its toys and went to play elsewhere, thanks to the centrifugal forces of the parliamentary system. The result is a rump center-left, an eco-centric postmaterialist left, and a self-righteous neo-Marxist far-left, none of which had anything constructive to say during the recent economic crisis, a time when, typically, left-wing, pro-government parties are needed most.

The problem is that the big decisions in contemporary politics–climate change, global terrorism, international financial reform–demand a policymaking coherence and stability that only broad-based, pragmatic parties like America’s can provide. Not surprisingly, big changes, particularly on climate, are increasingly passed up the ladder to the EU, where less transparent, less democratic bodies can make the tough decisions that national parliaments can’t.

Complaining about Washington infighting is practically a national pastime in the United States, but we’d do well to consider how much our two parties have achieved relative to Europe. Most of the things progressives like about Germany were established in the early postwar days or the unique moment of post-communist unification. Consider everything that, for better or worse, America’s two parties have achieved over the last decade: The creation of a massive domestic security apparatus after 9/11, the invasion and occupation of two distant countries, a series of deep tax cuts, a Medicare drug benefit, an economic bailout, and the temporary takeover of large swaths of the banking and automotive sectors. At the time of this writing, the United States is on the verge of passing sweeping reforms of its health-insurance system, a mid-stream step that few countries could dream of achieving.

Emphasis, needless to say, added. Although it's a bit unfair to criticize Risen's piece based on events that took place after it was written, I think Risen's analysis has several weaknesses.

First, his assumption that the proliferation of parties on the German political landscape has led to more political paralysis than exists in the U.S. seems suspect. First, Risen's list of the American system's recent accomplishments (many of which are dubious, as he concedes) is somewhat misleading, since many of the items on the list came about at times of national crisis in which normal partisan divisions were downplayed. Second, you could easily put together a pretty similar list for Germany. In the past decade or so, Germany also passed an economic stimulus package, a federalism reform, a reform of welfare laws, huge masses of environmental legislation, and approved a new EU constitution. Further, Germany amends its constitution — which requires 2/3 supermajorities of both houses of the national legislature – quite frequently, compared to the United States. Over 50 times (g) since 1949! That hardly seems to point to permanent gridlock.

Second, Risen opens his piece by comparing the fever and excitement he felt during the American presidential campaign of 2008 with the somnolent German 2009 campaign. Seems like a fair point, until you dig a little deeper. It's true, of course, that voter participation during the recent German election reached a historic post-war low. But it this low was 72.9%. Voter turnout during the super-exciting, historical, 2008 Presidential election in the U.S.: 56.8%. In fact, Germany's post-war low was 10 points higher than the highest post-war turnout in any U.S. federal election. There are many different reasons for this disparity, of course, but Risen doesn't give full credit to one inherent structural advantage of party proliferation: voters with a wider palette of options in the voting booth will be more likely to find a political party that they are actually eager to vote for, because it closely mirrors their interests.

Finally, Risen's piece mistakenly focuses exclusively on the proliferation of German political parties, without paying enough attention to their interaction. The Violets and Gray Panthers, as amusing as they are, don't count. Among the five parties which do, there is enough overlap in their agendas to permit them to run reasonably productive Black/Yellow or Red/Green — or even Black/Green coalitions. This is especially evident on the state level, where all sorts of coalitions exist. Once the German Social Democrats get over their fit of pique at the Left party, which they will inevitably do, there will be another chance for a leftish Red-Redder-Green coalition. In fact, the existence of lots of parties seems to actually facilitate political compromise (see all the amendments to the Constitution) by creating a framework in which it can take place openly and routinely, according to well-established rules. Voters always automatically know their party won't get everything it wants, which enables party leaders to do a certain amount of horse-trading without fearing a political backlash.

In any event, the events of yesterday certainly didn't reflect well on the American duopoly. I can't help but imagine that it would have been easier to work out an insurance compromise with a somewhat more fractured — but more fluid — party landscape.

America Dodges A Socialism-Tipped Bullet!

Friends, Germans, countrymen!

I am delighted to report that yesterday, the wise citizens of Massachusetts elected a likable, folksy Republican, Scott Brown, to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Edward Kennedy. With this signal victory for common sense and free enterprise, the danger of a socialist takeover of the American healthcare system may have been averted once and for all. The Democrats, playing to their strengths, are now forming circular firing squads and capitulating in advance to the fearsome Republican almost-majority. The GOP has a whopping 41 out of 100 seats in the Senate, after all, and those numbers don't lie. Plus, some of those Republicans say very rude things that make the Democrats feel sad and scared. Thus, according to most observers, the health-care 'reform' relentlessly pushed by Obama's red brigades is now on life support.

And all I can say is: pull the plug. As many of you know, I live in Germany, a country in which some dewey-eyed sentimentalist with the foreign-sounding name of 'Otto von Bismarck' set the stage for a government takeover of healthcare over a century ago. Now, its citizens live in sort of waking nightmare, in which health-insurance coverage follows them around wherever they go, whatever they do — like a pervert following an innocent, ponytailed girl walking home from the park. We all know what that leads to. As a result of this coercive, government-mandated system, the 'insured' must wait literally hundreds of minutes before getting an appointment with a doctor. And the system is obviously starved of resources. Some of the magazines on my doctor's waiting-room table are up to 4 months old!

If this Republican victory does signal the death knell for health-care reform, it will be a victory for free enterprise and economic growth. Sure, you could motivate workers with complex, hard-to-understand incentive schemes such as higher pay or job security. But we all know that workplace relations can't be all singing koombayah under a honey-dripping rainbow. There's got to be a stick mixed in with all those sweet, juicy carrots. And nothing motivates workers more than knowing they can be fired at any time, and will lose their health insurance if they go too long without a job. Just look at the productivity gains America's most valuable natural resources — its workers — have managed in the past 30 years:

Skyrocketing productivity is the message of this graph.

Unfortunately, this was the only graph I was able to find on short notice, and it seems to have some extraneous matter in it that I know my readers will have the good sense to ignore.

But it's not just productivity that benefits from America's system of free-enterprise health insurance choice — it's the workers' immune systems. Smart workers know that they face financial ruin if they are foolish enough to come down with a really complicated disease — and this is true even if they have health insurance. So they eat right, get plenty of exercise, and make sure their children do the same. In fact, American parents are such health freaks that they're limiting their 8-to-18-year-old children to an average of only 7 hours 38 minutes of electronic entertainment a day! I say: lighten up on the kiddos!

But seriously, folks. I, as an American, would like to express my gratitude to the voters of Massachusetts, who may well have driven the stake through the heart of health-care reform for generations to come. And to the American worker: enjoy those Chili's Smokehouse Bacon Triple Cheese Big Mouth Burgers with Jalapeno Ranch Dressing in moderation!

Obamania Hits the Stage in Frankfurt

The 2008 U.S. Presidential election becomes a stage musical in Frankfurt. Pictures here. Odd — all the actors appear to be fully clothed, nobody's smeared with blood, there are no video projections of Nazi rallies or sex-change operations in the background, and there's not even a single burning flag! Can this really be a German theater?

White Power à la Suisse


Michael Kimmelman explores Europe's culture of political posters and interviews the creator of the now-infamous 'Swiss minaret poster':

All across Europe populist parties are growing, capitalizing, to an extent unknown across the Atlantic, on a very old-fashioned brand of propaganda art. The dominance in America today of the 24-hour cable news networks and the Internet, the sheer size of the country, the basic conventions of public discourse, not to mention that the only two major parties have, or at least feign having, a desire to court the political center, all tend to mitigate against the sort of propaganda that one can now find in Europe.

It may be hard for Americans to grasp the role these images can play here. In subways and on the streets in America, posters and billboards are eye-catching if sexy or stylish, like Calvin Klein’s advertisements, or if modish and outrageous, like Benetton’s, but they’re basically background noise. By contrast, they’re treated more seriously here, as news, at least when they’re political Molotov cocktails. Cheap to produce compared with television commercials and easy to spread in small countries like Switzerland, where referendums are catnip to populists, they have the capacity to rise above the general noise.

Clients must “do their homework,” [poster designer Alexander] Segert said, by way of explaining how a design evolves. “It sounds easy, but most political parties don’t know their own message.” That’s the problem for centrist and many left-leaning parties.

By contrast, “everyone knows what the Swiss People’s Party stands for,” he said. “It’s against the European Union, for neutrality, lower taxes, no illegal aliens. You can hate it or love it, but the message is clear.” That message must then be refined. “Maybe 80 to 90 percent of people are not interested in elections. So our job is to tell them: Be interested in what doesn’t interest you, make a decision about something you don’t care about, then act on it, vote. That’s a lot for a poster to accomplish. We’re successful because we know how to reduce information to the lowest level, so people respond without thinking.”

One of the more interesting transatlantic paradoxes is that in the United States, racist speech is protected by the First Amendment – yet open, graphic, direct appeals to racism have been successfully marginalized in public discourse (not that racial discrimination itself has been ended, of course). Yet in European countries, almost all of which have laws banning racist speech, this sort of thing pops up quite frequently. As Kimmelman's article points out, the anti-racism laws often play into the hands of the various nativists and extreme-right forces they're intended to combat.

I get the feeling that European civil-society forces haven't really put much effort into thinking about how to counter racist narratives, given that 'there are already laws against it' and therefore the 'state will take care of the problem'. Since there are already formal sanctions against racist speech, the arsenal of informal sanctions (ridicule, ostracism, celebrity appeals, satire) is underdeveloped. Here's a thought experiment: if Europe abolished its anti-racism laws tomorrow, would we see (a) a strengthening of the decentralized civil-society 'immune system' against openly racist public discourse, as in the United States; (b) a sudden increase in racismt speech; or (c) no change?