Relativize That Cliche!

As so many think they know, Germans are cool and relaxed about sex (Bodycheck! Nude bathing! Breasts on network television! Page One Girls! Bordellos!) while Americans are puritan moralizers, ludicrously uptight, laboring under an insidious double standard.

Now I'm no implacable enemy of all cultural stereotypes — they came from somewhere, after all, and they're real time-savers. No amount of pointing to exceptions can counteract the fact that national cliches, dammit, are a pretty reliable thumbnail guide to what to expect from people. After all, 95% of all humans are not stereotype-defying mavericks; they're meek conformists whose main goal in life is not to stand out.

Yet you've always got to be on the lookout for stereotypes that have outlived their usefulness. And I propose the dichotomy between earthy Germans and uptight Americans needs a re-think. Case in point — last night's Maischberger show (g). This woman with the squishy mouthful of a name hosted a discussion on whether German society was 'oversexualized,' the title of the show being 'No Decency — No Taboos?' She invited an authoress of dirty novels, a Christian journalist, a couple of feminists, and a literary critic. The upshot was that almost everyone turned on (g) Charlotte Roche, the author of the dirty books. And just to clarify, that's 'turned on' in the sense of attacking.

The feminists objected to the idea that women should 'sexually serve' their men, most of the people condemned porn, prostitution, and blowjobs, and the Christian defiantly stated that he actually had not had sex before marriage. In her introduction of Roche, Maischberger announced breathlessly that Roche had actually described, in one of her books, 'how to satisfy a man orally', as if this were a shockingly bizarre kink. Millions of German women, internationally renowned for their curious aversion to this activity*, doubtless recoiled in horror from their television sets. It was like watching an American debate show from the early 1980s.

Now let's turn to the United States, that coldbed of uptight puritans. One of the most popular advice columnists, if not the most popular, is Dan Savage, an openly gay man who lives with his partner and adopted son. Savage thinks monogamy is impossible for many people, and describes his own relationship as 'monogamish.' His readers — overwhelmingly young urbanites, it must be noted — send in questions about various sexual kinks they have, and he gives them all sorts of extremely frank advice.

And that advice is unrelentingly pro-kink! Just read a couple of his most recent columns. Savage confidently states, without fear of contradiction, that oral sex is a mandatory part of all relationships, and that anyone who doesn't provide it for their partner should be considered damaged goods and 'returned to the lot'. As for unusual sexual practices, he's all in favor of them as long as they're safe and consensual, and scolds people for not being 'game' to entertain their partners' fantasies about feet, cages, candles, rubber gloves, diapers, or whatever else (within reason) turns them on. Savage's only rules are about safety and hygiene. If you want to visit a sex worker, says Savage, go right ahead. Just visit someone who does their job professionally and safely, and don't bring anything home but memories. And perhaps a few consensually-inflicted bruises.

Because Savage is gay and America is a Third Wave feminist society, there's none of this outdated tosh about women being 'sexually objectified' by men or marriage being rape, etc. That's all so 1988. Women are just as entitled to active sexual desire as men without being judged for it. They can also be lying bitches and shallow gold-diggers, just as men can be emotional 13-year-olds and cheating bastards. Women themselves write in to Savage, their best gay e-friend with whom they can talk about anything, and describe what they do for their boyfriends/husbands/girlfriends and what they demand being done for them, all without whining about oppression. Pornography is, to Savage, not just an inevitable but a welcome and life-affirming aspect of human sexual expression.

Granted, Savage started out as a somewhat fringy figure in alternative local newspapers, and you won't find his gleefully profane column in mainstream newspapers. But he appears constantly on national television, has authored several popular books (including The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant) and has been profiled by innumerable publications, including the New York Times.

Now, this is not to say that America is now officially a Sexier Society™ than Germany. Dan Savage writes for a small, well-educated group of financially-secure, tolerant, urban 20 and 30-somethings, not for Arkansas Baptists. And it will still be a long time before bare female breasts are shown on normal television in the U.S. But the simple Germany relaxed/America prudish distinction, whatever weight it may once have carried, just doesn't work anymore. It needs, to use the German term for it, to be relativized.

* While discussing this with a German woman recently, she proposed two theories for German womens' reluctance to polish the helmet (to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger). First of all, deficient personal hygiene among German men. Second, under 20% of German men are circumcized. Both valid points.

Obscure Cultural Trivia Contest: The Demon

I just got back from the Allgäu and/or upper Swabia, and quite enjoyed it. Some comments as time permits. For now, your mission is to identify this object:

Ye Gods, my tongue has been fused to my lower jaw!!

A few hints: it was made in 1730, and has a very specific purpose in the manufacture of a pretty common thing that is still very much in use today.

UPDATE: Kudos to Mathias Warkus, who correctly identified this as a spout for bran during the milling process. During the milling, the bran, which nobody wanted to eat in their bread back in 1730, was pushed to the side and fell out of this demon's mouth. The German name for this object is Kleiekotzer, 'bran-puker.' I spotted it in the German Bread Museum in Ulm, one of the many ludicrously specific small museums in Germany (including the German Packaging Museum in Heidelberg and the German Blade Museum in Solingen).

Anality and High Finance

There's been plenty of buzz surrounding Michael Lewis's recent article on Germany's role in the financial and Euro crises. Let me sum it up for you:

  • Germans are obsessed by shit.
  • By some obscure mechanism of causation, this led them to buy a lot of "shitty" subprime-backed loans.
  • Also, they love rules, and their rule-based system for evaluating securities generated misleading results which they didn't question, because they love rules.
  • Also, they were hopelessly naive and way out of their depth — especially the ones who worked for quasi-public banks such as the Landesbanks. Long after everybody else in the world was running in the other direction, "idiots in Düsseldorf" were still buying crap from the US.
  • Germans are less greedy and speculative than lots of other nations, and their financial people get paid way less than they do in the US.
  • German civil servants are remarkably loyal to the state, and aren't all itching to leave government work for a giant bonanza in the private sector.
  • One reason they got stuck holding so many worthless derivatives was, ahem, that they didn't have enough Jews around.

Lewis has a pretty good line in describing complex financial transactions in ways mortals can understand, but he doesn't use it here. Instead, he lets himself be guided by cultural stereotypes, which he manfully tries to wrench into some form of relevance for his thesis. I'll turn things over to Felix Salmon for the rest:

There’s precisely one thought-provoking paragraph in the entire 9,600-word article:

One view of the European debt crisis—the Greek street view—is that it is an elaborate attempt by the German government on behalf of its banks to get their money back without calling attention to what they are up to. The German government gives money to the European Union rescue fund so that it can give money to the Irish government so that the Irish government can give money to Irish banks so the Irish banks can repay their loans to the German banks. “They are playing billiards,” says Enderlein. “The easier way to do it would be to give German money to the German banks and let the Irish banks fail.” Why they don’t simply do this is a question worth trying to answer.

Sadly, Lewis doesn’t bother trying to answer that question. Instead, he returns to the running theme of the article, which might be evident if I excerpt a few words from here and there:

excrement – anality – Scheisse (shit), Dreck (dirt), Mist (manure), Arsch (ass) – The Money Shitter – crapping – rear end – toilets – “shit” – “my little shit bag” – laxative – “Purgation-Calendar” – anal – “As the fish lives in water, so does the shit stick to the asshole!” – scatological – “I am like ripe shit, and the world is a gigantic asshole” – sitting on the john – indulgence in fecal imagery – Scheisskerl (“shithead”) – feces – one of his favorite things to do with women was to have them poop on him – filth – coprophilia – The Call of Human Nature: The Role of Scatology in Modern German Literature – bowel movements – ring of filth – shit – Scheisse – splattered by their mud – a men’s bathroom – urinate – sat in the stall – “shit” – crap – crap – “Lick my ass” – “Lick my ass” – anally obsessed – stewing in their own filth – energetic anality – a blowout with prostitutes – anality – “Kackwurst is the term for feces” – ‘shit sausage’ – Bescheissen: “Someone shit on you.” Klugscheisser: “an intelligence shitter” – “you are said to shit money: Geldscheisser” – Die Kacke ist am Dampfen: the shit is steaming – a secret fascination with filth – “Scheisse glänzt nicht, wenn man sie poliert—Shit won’t shine, even if you polish it” – “Scheissegal: it just means I don’t give a shit.” – stick figures engaged in anal sex – simulating anal sex onstage

Which is not to say that there isn’t a sub-theme here. There is:

Nazi – Hitler’s favorite words – Hitler’s doctors – Hitler – the Nazis’ ambition – provincial Nazis – Hitler – Göring’s Air Ministry – Hermann Göring – the only advantage to the German financial system of having no Jews – the new Holocaust Memorial – Jewish Museum – spending decades denying they had ever mistreated Jews – Nazi-era expropriation of shares in the zoo owned by Jews – Hitler’s bunker – German guilt – “the Jews” – there are no Jews in Germany, or not many – “They never see Jews” -When they think of Jews – their victims – terrible crimes – a Jew whose family was driven out of Germany in the 1930s – Aryan – A Jew’s Life in Modern Germany – HOLOCAUST – Nazis – Hitler – A landscape once scarred by trenches and barbed wire and minefields – another Holocaust Memorial

Yes, the article’s about Germany. And, like Lewis’s previous articles on European countries, it’s an attempt to shine a light on the European financial crisis through the lens of national stereotypes. This is a dangerous exercise at the best of times, but in this case Lewis has gone way over the line. His article fails to say anything new or interesting about what happened in Germany during the crisis. And that’s fine, it has a lot of company in that respect. Everybody has an off day. But this essay is worse than that: it forces us to re-examine all of Lewis’s previous articles in the series as well.

Lewis’s articles on previous countries have all been criticized within those countries for precisely the kind of stereotyping which is so pointlessly offensive in this one. Not only has Lewis descended to an extended scatological riff which demonstrates absolutely nothing about the Germans’ propensity to buy subprime-backed bonds; he’s done so while violating Godwin’s Law. (Full disclosure: I’m half-German, so not entirely impartial in this case.)

A Goy in the Allgäu

In his left hand the man is carrying the traditional kämärli, a device for recording images of rural life
Sorry about the light posting lately. A combination of actual work and fitful pulses of a social life have distracted me from my most important obligation — blogging.

Anyway, in a few days I plan to set off for a trip to the Allgäu, on a mix of business and pleasure. I'm gonna bring my bike with me to Ulm, then bike down the Danube until around Memmingen. My schedule is pretty flexible.Does anyone have any particular tips for things to see, taste, drink, have stamped, or do in this area? All suggestions are welcome!

Blogging may (continue to) be light, obviously…

Trojan T-Shirts


Music fans who took souvenir T-shirts from a rock festival in Gera, eastern Germany, have discovered they hold a secret message.

The so-called Trojan T-shirts bore a design of a skull and right-wing flags and the words "hardcore rebels".

But, once washed, the design dissolves to reveal a message telling people to break with extremism.

Some 250 T-shirts were donated to organisers, who handed them out at the nationalist rock festival in Gera.

The stunt was organised by a left-wing group called Exit, which seeks to reduce the influence of the right-wing in Germany.

Touching that the Exit people actually assumed neo-Nazis wash their clothes! (h/t RB)

Some Comments on the Portillo Video


A few responses to the comments to the last post:

I found the documentary a bit flawed: some of the experiments had little to do with the actual methods of execution being used. But they were pretty interesting to watch. The major problem with the method Portillo advocates at the end is that it also requires the cooperation of the inmate, who presumably would have to be restrained to make sure he didn't rip the mask off. Seems like you could create a chamber in which the same thing would occur without the need for cooperation from the inmate.

The principal point the documentary makes is how path-dependent execution methods are. People still use outmoded methods years after their defects become obvious, just because they were considered progressive and 'scientific' when introduced. As for Blecker, I think Ney's diagnosis is pretty much on-point. He hasn't created a niche by advocating capital punishment from a retributivist perspective — that's a respectable minority position in U.S. legal academia — but rather being a law professor talking about capital punishment like a dockworker after a few beers.

Most US law professors are anti-capital punishment, so he can raise a few eyebrows being pro. Nevertheless, he's not as unusual as you might think. In legal academic circles in the US, you can be a straight death-penalty-advocating retributivist. Consider this recent New York Times op-ed from a law professor named Thane Rosenbaum (h/t Ed Philp):

Many believe that in such cases [referring to the Norway shootings], capital punishment is appropriate because it comes closest to avenging victims. Norwegians may be contemplating this very idea. Polls suggest that most people around the world support the death penalty, especially for wrongdoers deemed the “worst of the worst.” Certainly Mr. Breivik qualifies for that distinction.

Legal systems should punish the guilty commensurate with their crimes and recognize a moral duty to satisfy the needs of victims to feel avenged. Plea bargains invariably shortchange this settling of scores — which is why, practical difficulties aside, they should be used only sparingly (and always with the victim’s participation). And allowing the guilty to walk free because of procedural errors — or because of the ambiguities of “reasonable doubt,” as in the case of Casey Anthony — invites vigilante justice. Neither justice nor revenge is negotiable.

Getting even is not complicated arithmetic. A just outcome in Norway, however, given the number of young lives taken, will doubtless be unsatisfying.

It's hard to imagine a German law professor writing something like this, not least because capital punishment is outlawed by Article 102 of the German Constitution. (Whether this narrowing of the field of debate is a good thing or a bad thing I leave to you to decide).

The key difference between German and American legal academia on questions like these is that in the U.S., law professors may well advocate retributivist positions that are also favored by ordinary people, while seeking to clothe them in somewhat more scholarly rhetoric than a dock worker would use. German law professors, on the other hand, are either (1) off among themselves debating abstruse conceptual questions (g, pdf); or (2) worrying about the fact that 25% of Germans still favor the 'unconstitutional' practice of capital punishment, and trying to figure out ways to 'enlighten' the masses and bring their thinking in line with 'correct' principles of rehabilitation and re-integration.

The Nitrogen Method

In this BBC documentary, former Conservative MP Michael Portillo goes on a quest to find the ultimate humane way of killing a human being. He displays the gruesome shortcomings of existing execution methods, often by 'testing' them on himself or on animals. The video is not for the squeamish.

Considering this is a BBC documentary, it may surprise you to find out that, in the end, Portillo actually does find what he considers to be a foolproof, humane method of execution.

Wednesday Music Blogging: Ich bin in diese Stadt Gekommen

From Iowahawk, a collection of British Invasion and psychedelic rock from around the world, including this 1967 number from East Germany's Thomas Natschinski (g) and his Group. 

Natschinski is still alive and kicking [it], having just written a book called Damn, Who Invented the Piano? (g). Not sure what to make of title, except perhaps as a sort of play on expressions like "Damn, what's making that awful screeching sound?" or "Damn, whoever thought mixing gin with Vegemite could yield such delicious results?"

Blame the Eurocrats, not the Speculators

Ryan Avent shares his take on what the 1930s tell us about the current collapse of the Euro:

There is a striking irony to the current situation in the euro zone. It's often assumed that hyperinflation gave the world the Nazis; that's wrong. The hyperinflation ended in 1923, and the German economy and political system functioned fairly well from then until 1929. The rise of the Nazis was precipitated by the stunning economic collapse that began in 1929, but which intensified significantly in 1930 and 1931. During the recovery years, the German economy accumulated a significant amount of debt, as lenders rushed to take advantage of the boom. When the economic crash hit, Germany found itself squeezed on two sides. The economy was crushed by an intense cycle of deleveraging and austerity, as the government struggled to maintain market confidence. And pressure was also applied on the monetary side, as Germany battled to fight gold outflows and keep itself on the gold standard.

The gold standard had long threatened to destabilise Europe, thanks to a fundamental imbalance among the continent's large economies—Britain, France and Germany. France had huge gold reserves while Britain and Germany had meagre stockpiles. As a result, the latter two were often confronted by the need to tighten policy to fend off market attacks on convertibility, the process of which damaged their economies and contributed to market scepticism. As European economies like Austria and Germany flailed, America, Britain and France scrambled to assemble aid packages that might prevent a collapse, but these negotiations were inevitably characterised by petty disagreements and myopia, and the resulting aid packages were always too small and came too late.

Eventually, the system failed entirely, countries began abandoning gold, reinflating, and spending heavily on an arms buildup. The back of the Depression was broken. But it was too late to save Europe from utter catastrophe.

The European Union, and its single-currency extension, were forged in the decades following the war in an effort to make sure that war never again divided and savaged the continent. But strangely enough, in the effort to tie itself together, Europe imposed some of the same fiscal and monetary constraints that precipitated the collapse of the 1930s. And here we are, watching history repeat itself. Within a Europe riven by imbalances, the fiscal and monetary screws are once again being applied to countries with no hope of escaping their financial burdens. Markets are attacking, and efforts to salvage the situation through massive aid packages are emerging too small and late to matter. The pressure within the squeezed economies is building, and that pressure will find a release, one way or another. A Europe hoping never to repeat its historical tragedies has gone and blundered into institutions that make those same tragedies more likely. The European project, as it looks now, has failed.

My view is that the pressure this time is less intense and the institutional environment is stronger. As a result, I think it's really, really, extremely unlikely that the euro-zone crisis will culminate in a new continential war with associated horrors. Really unlikely. Odds are good, however, that once again the prevailing system will break down. And the end of the euro zone in its current form won't be pleasant at all, in the short term anyway.