USA Getting More Secular, Less Nationalistic

God guns guts

From a recent survey:

When Americans were asked if they think the United States is the greatest country in the world, there were sharp differences in the responses across generations. In total, 48% of Americans believe the United States is the greatest country in the world and 42% believe it is one of the greatest countries in the world, but a significant portion of the Millennial generation responded differently.

Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. That number progressively increases among the Gen X (48%), Boomer (50%) and Silent generations (64%). Millennials were also the most likely generation to say America is not the greatest country in the world (11%).

Millennials also are less likely than their elders to express patriotism. A majority of Millennials (70%) agreed with the statement “I am very patriotic.” But even larger percentages of Gen Xers (86%), Boomers (91%) and Silents (90%) said the same. This generational gap is consistent and has been identified in surveys dating back to 2003.

The annoying 'generation' names can be ignored — the key thing is that the younger an American you are, the less likely you are to call yourself 'patriotic', which (if you'll pardon a bit of snark) describes the mental state Americans denounce as 'nationalistic' whenever non-Americans display it. In related news, the number of non-religious Americans is on the increase — about 20% of Americans now fits this category.

Sociologists have long puzzled over the U.S.: given its levels of prosperity, technological advancement, and education, it should be a lot less religious and nationalistic than it is. Put crudely, the richer a country gets, the less religion it needs, and the the more educated its citizenry, the less prevalent the cruder forms of nationalism and tribalism. We seem to be seeing a gradual end to this aspect of American exceptionalism: in 20 years, the psychological profile of the average American will probably be much closer to the average European, Canadian, or Japanese.

I would be willing to wager the Internet has had something to do with this, but that's pure speculation. So here goes: If you seek critiques of religious faith, all manner of them — from the ridiculous to the cogent to the sublime — are no more than a mouseclick away. It's hard to enforce conservative sexual mores in the age of Internet porn, where any anyone can see people having loads of fun with their genitals, and afterward suffering no disease, ostracism, or scorn at all. As for the nationalism angle, you can hardly swing a dead cat in cyberspace without hitting a website that shows you that many people (1) distrust the U.S., and have legitimate reasons for doing so (yet who aren't anti-American cranks); and (2) don't consider the U.S. paradise on earth, and think the quality of life they enjoy in their own country superior to that of the U.S. It's a bit hard to maintain the fantasies of your country's superiority and innocence in the face of these competing narratives.

America’s Orchestras are Dying

Philip Kennicott on the sorry state of American orchestras

It has been a dark few years for this country’s orchestras. In the past season, a bitter strike in San Francisco and a lockout in Minneapolis led to cascading cancellations, including of the San Francisco Symphony’s East Coast tour. Since the economic crisis of 2008, bankruptcies have afflicted orchestras around the country, leading to the closure of the Honolulu, Syracuse, and Albuquerque symphonies, and in April 2011 came the stunning news that one of the country’s “Big Five,” the Philadelphia Orchestra, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Some of those groups reorganized, or opened in new forms, and Philadelphia emerged from bankruptcy in July 2012 with a hiring freeze, ten fewer players, and a 15 percent pay cut for the remaining ones….

Historians of classical music in the United States point out that … an orchestra program in the age of Mark Twain might include popular waltzes, Irish ballads, a movement of a Beethoven symphony, and a potboiler of patriotic ditties inexpertly woven into symphonic form. In some venues, juggling, ballet, and monologues from Shakespeare might be interspersed with the musical offerings, and clapping, whistling, and hooting were all acceptable, even during the music. When Twain recounted his European travels to American audiences, one thing he noted approvingly about the musical experience in Germany was the audiences: they were quiet, well-behaved, and reverential, unlike American audiences, which still enjoyed classical music as if in a beer hall.

But the appeal to history does not end there. American orchestras got better and taste grew more refined. With an influx of European Jewish musicians in the 1930s and 1940s, American orchestras achieved a sophistication second to none in the Old World. The concert format became settled, audience members began to respect each other’s right to listen attentively, and (like so many other cultural institutions in America) the whole thing took on a pseudo-historical aura of sacredness. Advocates for blowing up the current concert experience—which in the orchestral world is seen as the proper progressive approach—view this period as an aberration, a pompous deviation from the true trajectory of American musical history.

Orchestras no longer offer just classical and pops nights but have become presenters of all kinds of music, with or without orchestra backup. The Detroit Symphony, for example, uses a taxonomy that includes Classical, Pops, Jazz, Young People's/Tiny Tots, Civic & Education, and Special Event. The last of these, special events, has become a catch-all for almost any kind of music. Sift through various season calendars and you find video-game nights, the Texas Tenors, the Indigo Girls, Christmas, Halloween and Fourth of July events, movie evenings, and organ spectaculars, among others.

Almost none of this is of any interest to serious listeners, including those with diverse musical tastes who prefer the real thing to the local orchestra’s attempt to imitate jazz, ethnic, or pop forms. In some cases, it has also curtailed the number of nights the orchestra presents classical music, and the repertory presented on those evenings is more limited. Orchestras increasingly rely on the drawing power of star soloists to sell classical repertory, which means more repetition of a handful of overfamiliar concertos, and huge fees to (and unholy bargains with) management agencies that marshal top talent…

To be fair, orchestras may have few options, and much of the battle was lost decades ago. Orchestra leaders bought a lot of snake oil in hopes of democratizing the concert experience, and now they have an audience that views classical music as just one among many entertainment options, and as not very entertaining compared with bubble-gum pop and action movies. They talk about education but have in many places done away with program notes. Marketing material uses a hyperbolic language of emotional engagement to oversell the concert experience, implying that one has only to pull up a rug and surrender to the music. That musical appreciation takes work, and that its greatest rewards are cumulative over a lifetime rather than immediate, is not much discussed.

If you ask me, symphony orchestras can't be run like community outreach programs, or as private-public partnerships subservient to corporate sponsors. They are public goods which should be heavily and unconditionally subsidized by the state. They should concentrate on genuine classical music, and if the concert halls are half-full, then so be it. That's the only model that will let them survive.

Aphorisms on Marriage

Once in a while it's good to whip out Auden's cheerfully misanthropic book of aphorisms:

Forty years of romance make a woman look like a ruin and forty years of marriage make her look like a public building.


So heavy is the chain of wedlock that it needs two to carry it, and sometimes three.


The music at a wedding procession always reminds me of the music of soldiers going into battle.


Marriage is the only adventure open to the cowardly.


That sudden and ill-timed love affair may be compared to this: you take boys somewhere for a walk; the walk is jolly and interesting-and suddenly one of them gorges himself with oil paint.



Bilk in Blog

The neighborhood I live in, 'Bilk' (in Düsseldorf), is one of the most delightful places on the planet. Like Williamsburg but without all the trustafarians and €10 coffee. Young hipsters mingle peacefully with mild-mannered drunks, Eastern European immigrants, German Lumpenproletarier, office workers, and students. There's always something going on, and not just one but two sites dedicated to all the events and happenings and boutiques and everything else: duesseldorfbilk and BilkORama.

German Word of the Week: Lebensabschnittsgefährte (and why opera DVDs rule)

MH points me to the a 3 Quarks Daily piece by Brooks Riley about German-English language exchange:

The German language may have a reputation for exhaustively long words, but when it's pithy, it's penetrating: The word for 'scene of the crime' is 'Tatort', a linguistic slamdunk.

And then there's the economical 'doch', an invention that should have been imported years ago. I say, 'The world won't end today.' You answer, 'Oh yes it will.' A German answers, 'Doch', a four-letter contradiction instead of a four-word one. 'Doch' has an elegant finality about it—having the last word without spelling it out. ' You're not going out dressed like that!'. 'Doch.' Try to argue with that.

…English also suffers the boyfriend-girlfriend issue, a problem dating back to the Sixties, when young people started avoiding marriage. Before then, 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' were useful terms for a temporary state of affairs, to be discarded when the young ones tied the knot. Now that marriage is just one of many forms of monogamous pairings, those without a wedding ring are left hanging–some of them well into old age–without a proper word to describe their Significant Other, other than 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'. In both languages, the rather tepid solution is to use 'my friend' to imply romantic involvement, and 'a friend of mine' to suggest friendship. (This distinction works only if you omit the name of the loved one: "My friend Flicka" would hardly be mistaken for a romantic liaison). 'Partner' pops up in both languages, but what does it mean? A business partner? A lover? Is it a he or she (the same predicament applies to the word 'lover')? Do they live together or do they just do dinner? In German, unmarried cohabiting (or is it co-habiting) pairs refer to each other as Lebensgefährte (male life companion), or Lebensgefährtin (female life companion), profiting from a language with male and female nouns. But what if they break up? You can't exactly refer to a former boyfriend as a 'former life companion' (unless you tweak it to 'companion of a former life'). One cynical German suggested the word 'Lebensabschnittsgefährte', or 'slice-of-life companion'. An American friend of mine uses the term 'serial monogamy' to describe a lifetime of long-term relationships, but it's not one that solves the problem of what to call the S.O.

I would translate Lebensabschnittsgefährte more as 'phase-of-life' or 'period-of-life' companion, but there's no doubt it's a magnificent word. It's still a bit louche: you would never describe your current girlfriend as a Lebensabschnittsgefährte — at least not in front of her — but that's only because we humans are masters of self-delusion and wishful thinking.

I also have to quibble with Riley about the boyfriend/girlfriend issue. Not that the problem she describes doesn't exist, but that Germany, like many other languages, lacks a distinction between boyfriend and friend. If you're a woman, you call your boyfriend merely your  'Freund'. But, of course, you may have other male friends, who are also your Freunde. The only way to know whether someone is talking about their boyfriend or merely a friend is context and/or body language. Alternatively, you can use the formulation ein Freund von mir (a friend of mine) to describe a Platonic friendship, but that's a bit clumsy.

Germany's lack of words for boyfriend/girlfriend leads to amusing situations in which a British man brings over his German girlfriend to meet the family, and she constantly refers to him as merely 'my friend', even as they're sharing bodily fluids and discussing wedding plans. Alternately, I constantly fall into the trap of referring to my male friends as mein Freund, which leaves people who don't know me unsure whether I've just declared my homosexuality.

Oh, and as a bonus, here is Brooks Riley describing why watching operas on DVD is so rewarding:

J.S. How would you compare the experience of watching an opera at home on DVD, versus seeing it in the theater?

B.R.: Of course, there is nothing quite like seeing an opera in the theatre. But there are disadvantages too, the most obvious being that you’re always seeing the long shot. And depending on where you’re sitting, you may miss a lot of directorial nuances which give a production its effect. At home, you’re seeing a range of different shots, from close ups to medium shots and long shots, or the establishing shot. The job of the video director is to enter the production, so that the viewer has a dramatic perspective he may not get in the theatre, without losing the value of the whole. Of course I determine what the viewer will see, but I always try to remain true to the production. Because my background is the cinema, I try to direct opera productions with the cinematic experience in mind. For instance, I am just as interested in reaction shots as I am in the shot of the person singing. When I edit, I edit the material like a film. I also try to make the shots themselves interesting. There’s more going on in directing a production than coverage and reportage.

I was never much of an opera fan until I began collecting opera DVDs. That changes the entire experience. The advantages are overwhelming:

  • You can drink and eat and smoke whatever you want while watching.
  • You can get a fantastic blu-ray DVD of an opera for perhaps 1/3 the price of a decent ticket.
  • You can see operas from all over the world.
  • You get a variety of camera angles, not just one static view from 100 meters away.
  • The sound quality is incredible on the newest DVDs and blu-rays, and superior to what you would hear in any seat you can afford.
  • For foreign-language operas, you can see immediate translations as the singers are singing, enabling you to appreciate the acting and follow the plot.
  • You control the climate, so no stuffy, over/underheated concert halls, no coughing, no hyperflatulent geezers, no ringing cellphones, etc.
  • You can back up and re-play interesting scenes or arias.
  • You can skip the dull recitative.
  • For non-opera CDs, you can see the facial expressions of the soloist, members of the orchestra, and/or conductor. This adds immeasrably to the listening experience.

The list just goes on. I still go see live performances here and then, but only when they promise to be something special, with an electric live atmosphere. Everything else I watch on DVD.

Suicides in the US and Germany

Surfguard writes:

Do you think it is adequate to take the suicide of a human being as an opportunity to reflect on the allegedly sad state of German hip-hop? Or to present suicide as the logical consequence of a "whining" character?

And should you not, at the very least, have checked a few facts that support your insinuation that the depressed German nature leads to depressed hip-hop artists who can't help but kill themselves?

Let me help you out: 
Places 33 and 49 might be of particular interest.

I love your blog but I find this post pretty disgusting.

Here's the thing about those suicide statistics, which show America having a higher suicide rate than Germany. In the U.S., 55% percent of suicides are committed by firearm. In Germany, the most common method by a massive margin is hanging (g). In 2011, 4,664 people killed themselves by hanging. The next most common methods were pills, jumping off a high structure, and getting run over — but all of those were under 1000.

For reasons that should be obvious, suicide by self-inflicted gunshot wound is much more effective than any other method. It's much harder to kill yourself with pills than you might think, and a large number of overdoses are simply cries for help. Also, given modern emergency medicine, you'd be surprised how many people survive jumps from bridges or high buildings, albeit with horrible injuries. Further, gunshots are instantaneous — unlike with jumping, hanging, or laying down on railroad tracks, once you begin the process it's over in milliseconds. So the placement in that list of the USA is probably slightly anomalous, given the difference in methods. I have no idea how much of an effect this is, but it's probably unwise to speculate that suicide rates in the USA and Germany differ radically.

The other point I was making, though, is that whining is a form of expression that should be suppressed by scolding and shaming. I'm not talking here about criticizing social problems, or pointing out flawed policies, or angrily denouncing injustice, or even registering disgust or hatred. Those things are all constructive in one way or another. But helpless, morose, why-me-O-Lord, I'm a victim of my society and my parents whining is not just pointless, but distasteful and actively harmful, since it spreads a miasma of helplessness, futility, and resignation.

It's also an expression of pure ingratitude, surely one of the ugliest human emotions. When the world hears Germans whine, it sputters in outraged scorn. Here's a society with full employment, a high standard of living, free universities, universal healthcare, an excellent justice system, good schools, plenty of parks, functioning state institutions, low rates of violent crime, etc., and they're still whining? What utter self-obsessed ingrates. What do they want, a fucking pony? Who would they trade places with — a Syrian refugee?

I have no idea why Jakob Wich killed himself, but I do know a number of Germans who show clear signs of depression, but refuse to get it treated — especially with pills. There's this peculiar cult of Wertherian authenticity that almost luxuriates in depression and melancholy. And I'm not talking about grief after a death or breakup. Most Germans quite rightly feel these are natural phases that should be gone through. I'm talking about years-long bouts of intense depression caused by an imbalance in brain chemicals. I've known several peopel in this state who refuse all treatment simply because they don't want to be 'fake' or to take 'chemicals'. So they wallow, year after year, in a state of depression that is probably treatable.

A Bleg: First-Person Accounts of Psychosis in German?

Ever since I worked in a mental hospital for a few years, schizophrenia has fascinated me. I now have a modest collection of first-person accounts of psychosis written by recovered patients, as well as some written by patients who have not recovered. My small library includes Daniel Paul Schreber's classic Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (full text in German), Thomas Hennell's The Witnesses, and many others. A recent acquisition is Barbara O'Brien's utterly fascinating Operators and Things, in which she recounts her 6-month journey around the U.S. in 1958 trying to evade the Hook Operators:

Whenever I think of the Hook Operators now, I see a picture of a man with a hook stuck in his back. The hook is attached to a rope and the rope hangs from a ceiling. At the end of the rope, unable to get his feet on solid ground, the man dangles in the air, his face distorted in agony, his arms and legs thrashing about violently.

Behind him stands the Hook Operator. Having operated his hook successfully, the Hook Operator stands by with his other instruments, the knife and the hatchet. He watches the thrashing man, speculating, considering, If necessary, he will move in and cut the victim’s throat, or with his hatchet cleave through the victim’s head.

The Hook Operator is a maker of tools and if he is an expert tool-maker, the hook alone will serve his purpose. The victim, in his thrashing to be free of the hook, will most likely cut into his back the crippling gorge the Hook Operator seeks. The Hook Operator waits and watches. What a man will do, once he is caught on the hook, is always a gamble. There is the chance, of course, that the man may squirm off the hook, in which case the Hook Operator will move in with his other weapons.

There is, too, the chance that the victim may accomplish more than the Hook Operator strives for and crack his backbone or, giving an unexpected twist to his thrashing, tear himself completely in two. Should break or schism occur, the Hook Operator as much as anyone may pause in distress, surveying a wreckage he did not seek and for which he feels no guilt. When he hooks, cuts, or cleaves, his object is not to destroy but to impede and remove. Not personal animosity but competition has impelled him to use his weapons. The man on the hook was not an enemy but an obstacle. Even had the Hook Operator cut his competitor’s throat he would have cut it sufficiently but no more; had he cleaved his skull, he would have cleaved it just enough. Of his weapons, the hook is considered the least barbaric, the one which requires the most skill and the one for which he will receive the least censure.

You can download the entire book for free here. Unlike many such accounts, O'Brien's book has a sort of happy ending: her subconscious generates an incredibly complex and ultimately successful strategy to knit her mind back together.

Now for the bleg: What are some other first-hand memoirs of psychosis in German? What I'm interested in are first-hand accounts written by people who experienced psychotic breaks and then went on to describe them in book or article form. They're pretty rare in any language, but I imagine there must be a number of them in German. Any tips will be gratefully acknowledged.


Depressed Dawg in da Haus

Hip-hop was created in the USA, but since then it's spread everywhere, like a gigantic sentient fungus with moist, throbbing, pinkish pedipalps. The biggest mainstream hip-hop band in Germany is the Fantastischen Vier (Fantastic 4). The Fantastic 4 are amusingly earnest. One of their MCs, Smudo, for example, is a socially-conscious vegetarian.

The most 'gangsta' rapper in Germany is, naturally, not white. His name is Anis Mohamed Youssef Ferchichi, otherwise known as Bushido. Bushido's rhymes cover reassuringly familiar territory: fucking bitches, buying expensive shit, getting beatings from drunken parents and rival gangs, drug excesses, beating up faggots (Schwuchtel), etc., etc. The cherry on top is Bushido's alleged links to organized crime, rumors of which which he carefully cultivates. Runner-up position goes to Sido, a white German named Paul Würdig, whose stage name stands for the German abbreviation for 'Super-Intelligent Drug Victim'. His solo breakthrough came in 2002 with the sentimental lullaby Arschficksong, or 'Ass-fuck Song'. The cherry on top for Sido is that his civilian name, Würdig, means 'Dignified'. 

And then there are rappers who rap about how much they despise society and how depressed and helpless they are. Normally we associate rappers with unrealistically high self-esteem, but Germany wouldn't be Germany if it didn't produce rappers who drop knowledge like this (g):

Ein Opfer der Gesellschaft, ein Opfer deiner Eltern. Die andern werden größer und stärker, du wirst nur älter.

A victim of society, victim of your parents. The others get bigger and stronger, you just get older.

The composer of these lines was Jakob Wich, alias NMSZ ('Nemesis'), a rapper with the Düsseldorf outfit Antilopengang, most of whose members were formerly associated with a scene called the Anti-Everything Crusade, or Anti-Alles Aktion (g). I don't know how this rhyme continues, but I'm not all that eager to find out. I'm still American enough to have a deeply-ingrained aversion to, well, whining about how fucked-up everything is. Whining, however accurate, doesn't add to humankind's reserves of wisdom, inspiration, creativity, resolve, compassion, or beauty.

Given the proudly untreated depression and learned helplessness which emanates from just those two lines, it should come as no surprise that, tragically, NMSZ killed himself earlier this year. Here's another one of his songs, for the curious: