Book Blurb Banner Redux

Ending the Death Penalty Front CoverI'll be traveling for a family get-together for the next week or so, so I'll take this opportunity to post a book blurb, including the official new cover.

A note to my readers: My first book, Ending the Death Penalty: The European Experience in Global Perspective, will be published in the UK in June by Palgrave MacMillan. The cover's at left.

You can pre-order it at Palgrave's website here, at here, and at here.

I've often heard the question "Why does the United States still practice the death penalty"? And interesting question, but the more I researched movements to abolish capital punishment, the more I became intrigued by a related question: "Why does Europe no longer have the death penalty?" That question, I found, had not attracted anywhere near as much scholarly attention. I wrote the book to try to redress that situation. I analyze the question based on the historical examples of Great Britain, France, and Germany. I try to answer questions such as "How did abolition come about?" "Who were the main actors?" "How did public opinion on capital punishment affect the abolition struggle?" I then try to place the resulting conclusions in global perspective.

More information here.

A Real Debate on Afghanistan

Last week, I was installing some Velux heat-deflecting windowshades (I live on the top floor, and it gets hot in the summer) and had Anne Will (g) on in the background. The Anne Will show can be compared to the Sunday morning talk shows in the U.S. Will broadcasts late every Sunday evening after the popular Tatort crime series. 4-5 million Germans watch the show regularly. The Sunday late-neight talk show is kind of a traditional franchise — Will took over the host's job from Sabine Christiansen in 2007, but kept the show's format and design largely the same.

The topic that night was the German engagement in Afghanistan. This has been high-profile news in Germany lately, given the German casualties that have been flown back from there recently. High-ranking German politicians, including Defense Minister Karl-Theodor von Guttenberg, have given speeches at  the soldiers' funerals, and have made headlines by calling the Afghanistan conflict a 'war' and promising that the soldiers' sacrifices will not be in vain.

Germans media critics and commemtators love to lob grenades at this political talking-heads show, for all the usual reasons. But from an American perspective, the array of political opinions represented on the average Anne Will show is stunningly, refreshingly broad. The Afghanistan show, for instance, featured two outspoken opponents of the Afghan war, journalist Roger Willemsen and Left Party honcho Gregor Gysi. The debate got extremely lively (g), with pro-war panelists accusing Willemsen and Gysi of effectively favoring the Taliban.

Nevertheless, Willemsen and Gysi held their ground. Willemsen once had supported the reconstruction aspect of the mission, but argued that the increased militarization of the engagement was counterproductive and wrong. Gysi questioned the entire enterprise. When asked whether he thought the recent soldiers' sacrifices served a purpose, he basically said 'no'. He defended himself against the accusation that he was downplaying the soldier's bravery by reminding the viewers that he never supported the policy that sent them into battle in the first place. He also pointed to the insidious danger of promising to give meaning to soldiers' sacrifices — it leads to endless conflict, as further troops are thrown pointlessly into harm's way to try to salvage something, anything that can be called 'victory.'

And speaking of endless conflict, Gysi and Willemsen went on, what has the west to show after years of fighting? The security situation is still volatile, the current leadership of the country is hopelessly corrupt, and there is no obvious path either to improvement or disengagement, given the German government's current rhetoric. These are some perfectly good reasons, they reminded the viewers, why 70% of Germans want their troops out of Afghanistan. The other guests spoke of the need to improve the security situation to further 'stabilize' the country and provide breathing space for 'reconstruction', but Gysi and Willemsen kept hammering back with the simple question: after almost nine years of occupation, what is there exactly left to try that hasn't been tried? Where is the bold new plan that promises to actually bring stability to this notoriously ungovernable country? And if there actually is such a plan, why wasn't it put into place long ago?

In short, it was much closer to a real debate on the war in Afghanistan than anything you will ever see on American prime-time television. Every second sentence out of Gysi and Willemsen's mouth would have been enough to end the political career of a mainstream Democratic or Republican politician. Whatever you think of Gysi and Willemsen (both have a long and controversial history that I won't go into here), their arguments were clear, and most of their points were rewarded by enthusiastic applause by the studio audience, who were by no means all card-carrying leftists. And the counter-arguments they faced were pretty weak tea. The elephant in the room was the simple fact that Western troops have been in Afghanistan for almost nine years and still face powerful and growing opposition. This state of affairs could last indefinitely.

I was reminded of the show by this new report from the Pentagon on Afghanistan:

The new report offers a grim take on the likely difficulty of establishing lasting security, especially in southern Afghanistan, where the insurgency enjoys broad support. The conclusions raise the prospect that the insurgency in the south may never be completely vanquished, but instead must be contained to prevent it from threatening the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The report concludes that Afghan people support or are sympathetic to the insurgency in 92 of 121 districts identified by the U.S. military as key terrain for stabilizing the country. Popular support for Karzai's government is strong in only 29 of those districts, it concludes.

U.S.-led military operations have had "some success in clearing insurgents from their strongholds, particularly in central Helmand," the report said. But it adds: "The insurgent tactic of re-infiltrating the cleared areas to perform executions has played a role in dissuading locals from siding with the Afghan government, which has complicated efforts to introduce local governance."

The insurgency has easy access to fighters, small arms and explosives for roadside bombs, the report notes, giving fighters a "robust means" to sustain military operations.

"A ready supply of recruits is drawn from the frustrated population, where insurgents exploit poverty, tribal friction, and lack of governance to grow their ranks," the report said.

The report also notes that insurgents' tactics are increasing in sophistication and the militants have also become more able to achieve broader strategic effects with successful attacks. The Taliban continue to use threats and targeted killings to intimidate the Afghan population.

Every day these wars continue, more people are killed and maimed — whether psychologically or physically — on both sides. Here's a wrenching interview with a Army Specialist Ethan McCord, who came upon the aftermath of the 2007 Apache helicopter attack investigated by Wikileaks:

McCord: I have never seen anybody being shot by a 30-millimeter round before. It didn’t seem real, in the sense that it didn’t look like human beings. They were destroyed. Was anyone moving when you got there other than the two children?

McCord: There were approximately two to three other people who were moving who were still somewhat alive, and the medics were attending to them. The first thing you saw was the little girl in the van. She had a stomach wound?

McCord: She had a stomach wound and she had glass in her eyes and in her hair. She was crying. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I went to the van immediately, because I could hear her crying. It wasn’t like a cry of pain really. It was more of a child who was frightened out of her mind. And the next thing I saw was the boy…. He was kind of sitting on the floorboard of the van, but with his head laying on the bench seat in the front. And then the father, who I’m assuming was the father, in the driver’s seat slumped over on his side. Just from looking into the van, and the amount of blood that was on the boy and the father, I immediately figured they were dead.

So, the first thing I did was grab the girl. I grabbed the medic and we went into the back. There’s houses behind where the van was. We took her in there and we’re checking to see if there were any other wounds. You can hear the medic saying on the video, “There’s nothing I can do here, she needs to be evac’d.” He runs the girl to the Bradley. I went back outside to the van, and that’s when the boy took, like, a labored, breath. That’s when I started screaming, “The boy’s alive! The boy’s alive!” And I picked him up and started running with him over to the Bradley. He opened his eyes when I was carrying him. I just kept telling him, “Don’t die; don’t die.” He looked at me, then his eyes rolled back into this head.

…We’re sorry for the system that we were involved in that took their father’s life and injured them. If there’s anything I can to do help, I would be more than happy to.

…Now, as far as rules of engagement, [Iraqis] are not supposed to pick up the wounded. But they could have been easily deterred from doing what they were doing by just firing simply a few warning shots in the direction…. Instead, the Apaches decided to completely obliterate everybody in the van. That’s the hard part to swallow.

…I don’t think that [the] big picture is whether or not [the Iraqis who were killed] had weapons. I think that the bigger picture is what are we doing there? We’ve been there for so long now and it seems like nothing is being accomplished whatsoever, except for we’re making more people hate us.

If the U.S. had a functioning public sphere, this interview would have been broadcast live on national television, rather than a website whose stock in trade is tech gadgetry news such as: "Racing Game for iPad uses iPhones as Controllers".

Tickets for Vienna Philharmonic?

I'm visiting Vienna in early June, and would love to see the Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikvereinssaal on either the 4th or 6th of June. I need 2 tickets. It would be fulfilling a lifelong dream, blah blah blah. Plus they're playing Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin.

Yet I see that getting tickets to the VPO is about as simple as getting tickets to Bayreuth. Anybody have tips? Any help would be appreciated.
Also let me know if there are things I must see in Vienna that I probably don't know I need to see yet. Uncanny museums, musty bordellos, frozen-in-amber cafes, unsettling political meeting-places, peculiar customs, etc. I know I can count on the je ne sais quoi of my cultured, suave, worldly readers to help me out.

Think Before you Hit ‘Send’…

…because, as Goldman Sachs trader ‘Fabulous’ Fabrice Tourre found out, email can become very public, at least in the U.S.: 

“The whole building is about to collapse anytime now,” Fabulous wrote in one of the e-mails that have come to light. “Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab . . . standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstruosities!!!”

Fabulous, in an e-mail from 2007, described the mortgage business as “totally dead, and the poor little subprime borrowers will not last too long!!!” Yet two months later, he boasted that he had managed to dump some more of the worthless mortgage securities on “widows and orphans that I ran into at the airport.”

Having  just linked to Withnail & I, I suppose there’s no way I can deny finding the “widows and orphans” line pretty damn funny.

Communists, Baby Extinct Animals, and Factory Explosions

What do they have in common? On Saturday, I saw them all. First I went to the Neander Valley (Neandertal in German), where the remains of Neanderthals were discovered in 1856. Most of this picturesque valley has been turned into a handsome nature preserve.

Large parts of it are off-limits, though, because they've been made into enclosures for the kind of Ice Age mammals the Neanderthals might have hunted or eaten: the Wisent, or European bison, the Tarpan, or European wild horse, and the Aurochs (German Auerochse), a kind of Eurasian ox that is the ancestor of all modern cattle. The wisent is not extinct, but vulnerable; there are colonies of them all over Europe. The last aurochs was killed in Poland in 1627, and the last Tarpan died in the early 20th century. The animals in the Neanderthal Valley are the product of selective back-breeding by German zoologists Heinz and Lutz Heck. In the 1920s, they attempted to re-create the aurochs and tarpan. The results are what we see today — plausible, but of course not genetically identical with their deceased ancestors.

Here are a few photos of wisents, tarpans, and aurochses (including young'uns) in that order:

Wisent Sleeping

Curious Wisent

Tarpan Foal

Tarpan Mare and Foal 1

Aurochs with Medium Length Horns

Aurochs Calf 1

To see a few more baby animal photos and views of the Neandertal (as well as the majestic, Brueghel-esque Spring Landscape with Defecating Wisent), just drop by the online photo gallery

Now that the nature buffs are satisfied, we can move on to something a bit more sociological. If you went up to this pleasant-looking woman…

Christian Schura German Communist Party Poster

…grabbed her by the lapels, and yelled: "Why, you're a…a…a…Communist!", she would answer "Na, und?" ('Yeah, so what?'). She is the candidate for the DKP, or Deutsche Kommunistische Partei. She represented the party (g) in the local council of the working-class Duesseldorf neighborhood of Eller. She is now running for a position in the state government from District 41 in Duesseldorf's working-class east. Her slogan (Konsequent antikapitalistisch) means, roughly, 'Seriously anti-capitalist.' The vote is 9 May. I'll let you know how it all turns out.

In case you're asking why communists would be fielding candidates in fashionable, wealthy Duesseldorf, the answer is that Duesseldorf is not all fashionable and wealthy! On the way back from the Neander Valley, you ride through Gerresheim*, a working-class suburb. Dominating the landscape is the former Gerresheimer Glassworks, a huge glassware factory (one of the biggest in the world) that once employed 8,000 people. After a storied history, the factory was shuttered in 2005 (g), and is now being carefully dismantled by a Dutch demolition concern. Here's one part of the remaining factory, which seems to have suffered some bizarre explosions:

Gerresheimer Glashuette 1

Gerresheimer Glashuette 2

* I also learn from Wikipedia that the suburb of Gerresheim is home to its very own regional dialiect, called Hötter Platt. The glassblowers who moved to the area in the 1860s and 1870s lived in a settlement near the factory (Huette in German, transformed into 'Höttin dialect) and developed their own dialect imported from the regions from where they came. A "dialect island" thus developed which has nothing to do with the regional Duesseldorfer Platt spoken in the rest of the city. With the closing of the factory and the increasing age of the last remaining speakers, Hötter Platt is slowly dying out. 

“A Tenacious Obsession with the Last War”

If I were a UK citizen, I'd probably vote for the (party of) the man who said this:

"Watching Germany rise from its knees after the war and become a vastly more prosperous nation has not been easy on the febrile British psyche. All nations have a cross to bear, and none more so than Germany with its memories of Nazism. But the British cross is more insidious still. A misplaced sense of superiority, sustained by delusions of grandeur and a tenacious obsession with the last war, is much harder to shake off. We need to be put back in our place."


 Ahh, I sighed wistfully, would that my country had a national leader who could properly use words like 'febrile' and 'tenacious'. Oh wait, I forgot — it does.

Quote of the Day/Trivia Contest!

It's time to break out of the stovepipe paradigm and unleash the explosive potential of synergy! Thus, today's post is not only a quote of the day, but also a trivia contest. Two great tastes that taste great together!

Your mission: Tell me who said "Democracy is an exaggeration of statistics."*

To get you in a democracy-bashing mood, the ever-dyspeptic Flaubert once said: "The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeois."

* I heard this quotation from a friend, who had translated it on the fly out of its original language. Therefore, if anyone can point me to a more reliable source or authoritative version, I'd be much obliged.

Where All the Money Went

Allan Sloan over at the Washington Post writes:

So at the end of the day, you have Goldman facilitating a deal that cost European taxpayers about $1 billion. As soon as the British and German publics figure this out, if they haven't already, there's going to be hell to pay in Europe. That's not good for capitalism, to say the least.

Two choices of whom to blame here: the cynical American gougers who structured the deal, or the naive European playground-capitalists (their suits are pretty! their boardrooms are shiny and designed by top architects! they use trendy English business jargon!) who unknowingly poured (what either started as or ended as) European taxpayers' money into the accounts of obscure American hedge funds. Pageant, in comments here, makes the case against the German banks:

I've said it here before, and I'll say it again. The German state, regional and "local" banks, especially those with public mandates of any sort, are disasters. No research departments, cosy incompetent management, career quasi-civil servants, and delusions of grandeur that the BayernLB will someday rival JP Morgan in prowess and financing ability. It would be interesting to tally up the costs associated with these banks' perennial failures, restructurings, mergers and demergers, bailouts, external advice costs and general opportunity costs in a given year.

German Corporate Incompetence

Europe's most gullible subprime investors? The Germans, says Joshua Green:

The SEC's complaint against Goldman Sachs alleges that it defrauded clients by conspiring with hedge-fund manager John Paulson to create collateralized debt obligations on subprime mortgage bonds that were almost certain to go bad. Paulson made $1 billion shorting these toxic assets. And who was foolish enough to buy them? The German state-owned bank IKB was one major victim, promptly losing $150 million, according to the SEC. The Wall Street Journal's David Wessel calls IKB "hapless." Apparently nobody ever thought "Achtung!"

This isn't the only example of Germans getting suckered into buying subprime mortgage bonds by big Wall Street firms. In Michael Lewis's new book, "The Big Short," about a handful of investors who anticipated the crisis and, like Paulson, bet against subprime mortgage bonds, one major source of bafflement is who is on the other side of the bet. They wonder, what investor would be foolish enough to buy this junk? Greg Lippman, a Deutsche Bank bond trader who made a fortune by placing himself in the middle of these deals, eventually reveals the answer: Germans. Says one of Lewis's characters:

"Whenever we'd ask [Lippman]  who was buying this crap, he always just said, 'Düsseldorf.'" It didn't matter whether Düsseldorf was buying actual cash subprime mortgage bonds or selling credit default swaps on those same mortgage bonds, as they amounted to one and the same thing: the long side of the bet.

And of course they got pounded flatter than a Wienerschnitzel.

Let’s Wipe that Smirk off Iceland’s Face

Operation 'Krïppëleuröpadóttir' in full swing

First they rob decent Englishmen of billions of pounds. Then they outlaw topless dancing. Now, their unpronounceable volcano has brought European air traffic to a screeching halt. You can't miss the menacing undertone in the Icelandic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir's recent statement:

Sigurðardóttir held a video press conference today from the Prime Minister's underground bunker near Njörllnökullirtyllüükillinnottäer. Stroking her Siamese cat with a leather-clad hand, the head of state announced: "We very much regret the inconvenience caused to European governments by the deployment of our, er, 'volcano'. We are in constant contact with European leaders, and are confident that they understand the very …reasonable… steps that need to be taken to return travel to normal." Sigurðardóttir then emitted a high-pitched laugh.

This ludicrously tiny, treeless island is certainly punching above its weight — right into Europe's kidneys. Again and again.

How long are we going to let these -dottirs and -ssons push us around? It's time to take action. Germany will be responsible for organizing the invasion (relevant experience). Sweden will then stage a topless parade through the streets of Reykjavik (relevant experience). This will get the covering, sniveling, superfluous Icelandic 'men' (if you can still call them that) on our side. Then we'll organize a bucket brigade to douse the volcano. Needless to say, the bankers will be stationed closest to the volcano, followed by the legislators who voted for the topless-bar ban. We should have everything back to normal in days.

Then we can deal with the looming menace of the Faroe Islands.