We Need a Bavarian with Protestant Working-Class Parents and a Big Nose

Ian McMaster, An Englishman living in Germany wonders at the superfluous information on German job applications:

Why, for example, would I be remotely interested the applicant's parents and their professions and religion?

Perhaps this has something to do with German thoroughness – giving the whole picture in order to establish credibility. A similar concept can often be found in German business presentations, in which a company's history is presented in great detail from day one of its operations. ("Our company was founded in 1897. In 1898, we moved our factory to…")…

But back to job applications. I still don't understand why I need to know the applicants' religion, let alone that of their parents. This is a private matter – like political affiliation or sexual orientation – and nobody's business apart from the individual's.

The same can be said of many other details that one finds on German job applications, including marital status, the number and ages of children, and even the names of brothers and sisters. What any of these things tell me about somebody's ability to do a job is a complete mystery. So here's the deal: don't tell me and I won't ask. Promise.

But let's take this a step further. Do I even need to know your age and date of birth? Well, maybe if we employ you it would be nice to know this, so that we can remember to say "Happy birthday" and buy you a present. But at the job application stage? Hmm, not really.

I find it hard to understand the opposition of some people and firms to Germany's current experiments with "anonymous applications" . Why do companies need any information that is not relevant to the candidate's ability to do the job? They don't, but clearly some Germans find it hard to give up their traditional idea of completeness.

There are a couple of things going on here, I think. First of all, the lack of an advanced anti-discrimination culture in Germany. This is a country, after all, which had a prolonged national debate before passing the most elementary of anti-discrimination laws. And even then, the title of the law had to be watered down to 'equal treatment law' (Germans need a law to stop them from discriminating? Heaven forfend!) and the resulting legislation is pretty much toothless (g). The main problem is remedies: anti-discrimination laws only work when they inflict financial pain on losing defendants, but the current German law doesn't come near to doing this. The idea of a federal agency which, like the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, routinely files high-publicity lawsuits against prominent corporations for racial and gender discrimination, is completely foreign to the producerist German mentality.

The second issue is cultural 'thickness': like medieval courtiers, Germans tend to carefully monitor each others' behavior, clothing, and accent very carefully for various subtle social cues. In British English, this is known as 'seat-sniffing'. And just as in Britain, people who speak with regional German accents will pay lots of money to try to get rid of them and learn to speak (g) 'high German.' You want to know where your employee comes from and how they look because you have to make a judgment about whether they will 'fit in' to your particular workplace. Whether they appear capable of doing the job is important, but not the only question. Further, German employment law makes it hard to fire people, especially after they've put in their six months' probation. You're going to pay a lot more attention to intangible questions of chemistry if you know you may be stuck working with this person for years.

Rabbit Food der besonderen Art

Old German ladies: is there anything they can't do?

Police in Brandenburg who discovered a large plot of cannabis called on the neighbouring house only to find an 84-year-old woman who had been feeding her rabbits with the plants.

“The rabbits really like it,” the woman told officers who called on her in the village of Golzow near Belzig, according to Saturday’s Tagesspiegel.

A police officer had seen the healthy, metre-high plants from the road while on his way to work and told his colleagues, who visited the plot’s owner – the elderly woman.

She told them that she had not grown the plants herself, but that they had simply started growing there, and had proven to be excellent rabbit food. Not only did the rabbits love eating the plants, they grew back very quickly after she cut them down, she told the investigating officers.

Suspiciously Good Writing

Via Ed Philp, an excerpt from a dialogue between T, an adjunct professors of philosophy, and C, a hired gun who writes academic papers for university students in return for payment:

T: …In those cases I was alerted to plagiarism by the sudden appearance, in a paper that is otherwise a morass of grammatical errors, of a series of flawless sentences with complicated structures. The correct use of a semicolon is a big red flag for me. As is the use—and often misuse—of specialized jargon or technical language that I’ve not discussed with them in class. Then I type those sentences into Google, and they all wind up being smoking-gun cases of plagiarism. My favorite case this semester was plagiarism within plagiarism. When I informed this student that I suspected her paper was plagiarized, she said to me, “I got my paper from one of the students who was in your class last semester. How was I to know that she had plagiarized?” Which indicated to me, along with a number of the other email responses I got from students, that many of them don’t even know what plagiarism is.

C: I don’t disagree. But not knowing what plagiarism is isn’t really the problem. It’s unfortunate that right now the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism. And the reason the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism is because their product is less and less valuable these days. When students plagiarize, there’s an implicit recognition that “I’m just doing this for the grade.” That’s why they do it. And that’s the way that the majority of students look at the university, and have been for some time now. At my college, the frats had rooms full of file cabinets full of plagiarized papers. Plagiarism is old news. It’s really not just that plagiarism is getting easier to do, with the Internet. The problem is now that the grade doesn’t even get you the job.

T: That’s certainly true of my students, of whom I know, that unlike where you went to school, not a single one of them is taking it for anything but a grade. Or maybe one of them per semester does. They are taking this class because they need a series of credits.

C: My point in saying that is not to blame lazy students. I think that the system, grading in general, grading as a gold standard of employability, college as the necessary step between high school and employment, all of these things alone aren’t necessarily wrong. But when you get them all together in this network, and college is going to define your future, the grades will determine where you go, one, for a fifth of you, those of you who are going to grad school or law school or med school. For the rest of you, to get that job, you need that paper that says, “Diploma,” which means you need to pass. That’s all that matters.

The Mouse Goes up the River

I was just watching Die Sendung mit der Maus (The Show with the Mouse) this morning while cleaning house a bit. This is the most famous German childrens' television shows, broadcast every Sunday morning since 1971 on one of the main public-television stations. The star of the show is a pudgy burnt-orange mouse whose eyes click when he blinks them. He plays in silent comic vignettes. Between the vignettes there are real-world reports aimed at children.

As befits a public television station with an educational mission, the reporting segments are pretty matter-of-fact and highlight unflashy subjects like streetcar repair, how to build an Airbus, forestry, construction, jogging, and the like. This time around, to my amusement, the reporter Ralph took the kiddies inside a prison (g). The reporter Ralph, a genial fellow in his 20s with square black glasses, was first led through several big metal doors and fences to get inside the prison. Once inside, he was given a tour of the inmates' cells, the visiting room, meetings with social workers, the telephone area, and a few other places. We observed the nightly ritual of 'Umschluss', in which inmates are allowed to visit their friends' rooms (with the doors locked behind them) for a game of cards or a chat.

We saw an interview with Johnny, a bald 21-year-old serving a three-year sentence, which is long by German standards. Johnny describes his life in prison, tells us that he misses his family most of all, and wishes he had listened to the advice of friends and family, who had told him to clean up his act. When it comes time for Johnny to sweep his cell, the reporter helps. At the end of the interview, Ralph shakes Johnny's hand, wishes him good luck, and expresses a hope that next time, they'll meet in a more pleasant place. They then show him being escorted out of the prison.

A month or so I was at an academic conference, trying to explain German attitudes on criminal punishment to American scholars. I pointed out that state television is still important here, and programming on public channels is controlled by a certain set of guidelines and presumptions. The Show with the Mouse fits right in. There was no ominous music, no 'dramatizations' of the crime, no references to 'predators'. The millions of kids who watched this program saw a prisoner being treated with respect and even warmth by the reporter. The prison was portrayed as a place with strict rules where your freedom is limited, but where you can also socialize, take classes, and greet visitors from the outside world. Above all, it was made clear that all the people in this prison are going to get out within a few years and rejoin society, and this was portrayed as a normal and even good thing.

Of course, this is certainly not the only picture of crime and punishment German children are exposed to as they grow up — there are tabloid newspapers everywhere in Germany, after all. But the Maus show today at least can act as a counterweight to more exploitative portrayals of crime.

The Bread-Fed Scholar and the Philosophical Mind

At a party this weekend, this passage from Schiller came up during conversation:

The course of studies which the scholar who feeds on bread alone sets himself, is very different from that of the philosophical mind. The former, who, for all his diligence, is interested merely in fulfilling the conditions under which he can perform a vocation and enjoy its advantages, who activates the powers of his mind only thereby to improve his material conditions and to satisfy a narrow-minded thirst for fame, such a person has no concern upon entering his academic career, more important than distinguishing most carefully those sciences which he calls ’studies for bread,’ from all the rest, which delight the mind for their own sake. Such a scholar believes, that all the time he devoted to these latter, he would have to divert from his future vocation, and this thievery he could never forgive himself. He will direct all of his diligence to the demands made upon him by the future master of his fate, and he will believe he has achieved everything once he has made himself capable of not fearing this authority. Once he has run his course and attained the goal of his desires, he dismisses the sciences which guided him, for why should he bother with them any longer? His greatest concern now is to display these accumulated treasures of his memory, and to take care, that their value not depreciate. Every extension of his bread-science upsets him, because it portends only more work, or it makes the past useless; every important innovation frightens him, because it shatters the old school form which he so laboriously adopted, it places him in danger of losing the entire effort of his preceding life.

Who rants more against reformers than the gaggle of bread-fed scholars? Who more holds up the progress of useful revolutions in the kingdom of knowledge than these very men? Every light radiated by a happy genius, in whichever science it be, makes their poverty apparent; their foils are bitterness, insidiousness, and desperation, for, in the school system they defend, they do battle at the same time for their entire existence. On that score, there is no more irreconcilable enemy, no more jealous official, no one more eager to denounce heresy than the bread-fed scholar. The less his knowledge rewards him on its own account, the more he devours acclaim thrown at him from the outside; he has but one standard for the work of the craftsman, as well as for the work of the mind—effort. Thus, one hears no one complain more about ingratitude than the bread-fed scholar; he seeks his rewards not in the treasures of his mind—his recompense he expects from the recognition of others, from positions of honor, from personal security. If he miscarries in this, who is more unhappy than the bread-fed scholar? He has lived, worried, and worked in vain; he has sought in vain for truth, if for him this truth not transfer itself into gold, published praise, and princely favor.

Drowning in Alien Bric-a-Brac

Tim Parks has some interesting thoughts on why Jonathan Franzan is so popular in Europe:

Franzen … could hardly be more loudly American, and to come to him right after [reading Swiss author Peter] Stamm is to see how different are the roads to celebrity for the Swiss author and the American. While Stamm’s characters come free, or bereft, of any social or political context, Franzen’s often seem barely distinguishable from a dense background cluttered with product names, detailed history and geography, linguistic tics, dress habits, and so on, all described with a mixture of irony and disdain, an assumption of superiority and distance, that I immediately found myself uncomfortable with.


For the American reader there is the pleasure of recognizing the interiors Franzen so meticulously describes. Not so for the Italian, or German, or Frenchman, who simply struggles through lists of alien bric-a-brac. We might say that if the Swiss Stamm, to attract an international public, has been obliged to write about everyman for everyone everywhere, Franzen, thanks to the size of America’s internal market, but also to the huge pull the country exercises on the world’s imagination, can write about Americans for Americans (which is no doubt as it should be) and nevertheless expect to be read worldwide.

…It’s one thing for the Americans to hype and canonize one of their favorite authors, but why do the Europeans buy into it? Ever anxious that they need to understand America, fascinated by its glamor and power, Europeans are perhaps attracted to those American novels that explain everything: Roth’s American Pastoral, DeLillo’s Underworld. More than a novel by an American they want The Great American Novel. But of course Europeans also resent American world hegemony and feel (still and no doubt wrongly) superior culturally.

Freedom has this characteristic: Franzen appears to get all his energy, all his identity, from simultaneously evoking and disdaining America, explaining it (its gaucheness mostly) and rejecting it; his stories invariably offer characters engaging in the American world, finding themselves tainted and debased by it, then at last coming to their Franzenesque “corrected” senses and withdrawing from it. Blinded by this or that ambition, they come to grief because they lack knowledge, they lack awareness. Thus the importance of so much information. Unlike his characters, Franzen knows everything, is aware of everything, and aware above all that redemption lies in withdrawal from the American public scene. What message could be more welcome to Europeans? The more you know about America, which we need to do, the more you turn away from it, which we enjoy.

Aguirre: The Wrath of Perry

Werner Herzog is apparently making a documentary about death row inmates in Texas:

ZDF Enterprises has picked up Werner Herzog's forthcoming docu "Gazing Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life," about death row inmates.

In the film, Herzog — who is enjoying a hit with his docu "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," examining prehistoric paintings in Gaul's Chauvet cave — discusses life and death with the prisoners and examines their stories and crimes, which he describes as "a gaze into the abyss of the human soul"..

Among the inmates are two men convicted of triple murder, another who killed his girlfriend and her two mentally retarded sons, and a woman, one of only 10 on Texas' death row, charged with abducting a baby and killing the child's mother.

I am ordinarily somewhat wary of foreign news crews covering capital punishment in the U.S. The results can be tendentious and sentimental. However, I have a lot of faith in Herzog, who continues to be capable of making brilliant films.

The Escalator is Broken

Here's an article that explains succinctly what's wrong with the cost of American higher education:

The crux of the problem: Tuition and fees at public universities, according to the College Board, have surged almost 130% over the last 20 years — while middle class incomes have stagnated.

Tuition: In 1988, the average tuition and fees for a four-year public university rang in at about $2,800, adjusted for inflation. By 2008, that number had climbed about 130% to roughly $6,500 a year — and that doesn't include books or room and board.

Income: If incomes had kept up with surging college costs, the typical American would be earning $77,000 a year. But in reality, it's nowhere near that.

In 2008 — the latest data available — the median income was $33,000. That means if you adjust for inflation, Americans in the middle actually earned $400 less than they did in 1988. (Read: How the middle class became the underclass).

Financial aid: Meanwhile, the amount of federal aid available to individual students has also failed to keep up. Since 1992, the maximum available through government-subsidized student loans has remained at $23,000 for a four-year degree.

It's articles like this one that make me optimistic that the U.S. might be heading toward a political transformation. Americans are tolerate more inequality than other nationalities, but much of this is based on the belief that the playing field is relatively level, and thus that outcomes reflect talent as much as chance or a privileged background. It's OK if the rich can afford special private schools for their children, as long as there are mechanisms to permit the non-rich access to a sound education and chances for social advancement.

Access to an affordable post-secondary education is, I think, one of the 'escape valves' that induces Americans to tolerate inequalities elsewhere. The rich may send their kids to private schools, but our kids can at least compete and, if they're bright and work hard, can outdo even the scions of privilege. If that escape valve gradually shuts — if a decent college education becomes too expensive for the middle class — there will be plenty of anger and desperation among those people who, as Bill Clinton used to put it, "work hard and play by the rules." Not only are the rich becoming rapidly richer, but they are pulling up the ladder as they ascend, leaving ordinary middle-class people with no educational escalator to improve their standing over generations.

Whether this inchoate political resentment will be channeled productively into better policies is another question. If Obama is re-elected, things will look up. He's got his weaknesses, but he and his team are generally at their best addressing this sort of wonkish, nuts-and-bolts policy issue. At some point, the desire to address the increasing outrage of millions of voters will eventually counter-balance the (powerful, well-funded) forces behind the status quo, and there will be reforms.

Fooling the Spies


Red Picture with Horse, not by Campendonk
The FAZ has a long assessment (g) of the current state of the "Jäger Collection" case, the biggest art fraud in postwar German history. The forger, Wolfgang Beltracchi, created works "by" Max Ernst and Heinrich Campendonk (including the above fake), among others, and claimed they were part of a collection assembled by Helene Beltracchi's grandfather, Werner Jäger. Five of the works were brought into the art market by the auction house Lempertz, in Cologne.

Many of the Ernsts were declared authentic by Werner Spies, a doyen of the German art scene and editor of the Ernst catalog. To declare a work authentic, Spies would attach a small notice on the back of a picture of the work: "L'oeuvre reproduite va figurer dans le catalogue raisonée Max Ernst qui paraît sous ma direction (The work reproduced here will be included in the catalogue raisonée of Max Ernst, of which I am the editor.)" To be fair to Spies, there's no sign of anything improper in his conduct, and he has frequently declared Ernsts to be fakes. Yet the article identifies a serious conflict of interest in the fact that the expert who certifies the works as genuine gets a commission on the sale price down the road, which may run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The author identifies the problem thus:

The common practice of certifying works of art as authentic needs to be re-assessed. Nobody would go to a doctor who says 'your stomach looks very healthy from the outside' — only in the art world do people still believe in the 'absolute eye'. This is an anachronistic genius cult, trusting someone's ability to recognize styles or [in the case of sons or daughters of artists] genetically transmitted knowledge. Aside from his relation, what qualifies Claude Ruiz-Picasso to confirm the authenticity of a work just by looking at it? Who checks to see whether the widow of a famous German artist isn't being led by money to certify the most off-the-wall works? The judgment of experts is often just a glorified form of hocus-pocus, driven by factors totally unrelated to analysis of style.

Chinese Free Marketeers

From this Economist post, a link to this interesting result of a Globescan poll on whether Chinese or Americans have more faith in the free market:

What's odd about this result is that the average American likely has no idea what alternatives exist to the free market, since there is no meaningful socialist — or even social democratic! — party in the U.S. This explains why Americans feeling economic pressure might well decide to toss out Obama and replace him with a Republican, despite the fact that Republican economic policies worsen the situation of the middle class. In a two-party first-past-the-post system, there's simply nowhere else to turn.