German Piece on Criticism of Religion in the USA


At the invitation of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, which is associated with the German Free Democratic Party*, I wrote a piece on the laws concerning criticism of religion in the USA. Short version: there pretty much are no enforcable laws against criticizing religion in the US. The longer version is in the book, in German. I tried to keep it relatively non-technical.

There are also entries from many other writers on freedom of opinion concerning religion in other legal orders, including Russia, France, and the Islamic world. I haven't had a chance to read the other articles yet, but they look interesting.

The book has just come out and is available in written form and by download (pdf) from the Foundation's website. If you happen to read my piece, let me know what you think.

 * Does not imply agreement or disagreement with this political party's views, natch.

Germany and America is Paradise

A shout-out to FJ, who sent me a link to a sort of debate between an editor of the German center-right newspaper Die Welt and an American who lives in Berlin. The German, Frank Schmiechen, lived in California for four months and wrote a 'love letter' (g)  to the USA which, not insignificantly, was accompanied by this photo: 

Sieht aus wie ein Klischee, ist aber keins: Kalifornien entspannt ungemein

The things he loves about America are pretty standard things for Germans: People are nice and friendly. And who cares if it's superficial? Superficial nice is better than honest hostile. Everyone seems much more relaxed. People do stuff without endless discussion. Workers seem relaxed and smiling, there's none of the grimacing and yelling and stress and tension you see in German workplaces. Americans celebrate success, they don't envy it. Even powerful people dress like everyone else and don't insist on deference or titles. Why, I even saw a Stanford philosophy professor dressed like a bum! The landscape is gorgeous, and everything looks like a movie set in the mellow Californian light. The food is world-class, as are the local wines. If you screw up, you just try again, and everyone understands that. Of course, this all comes at a price: those who fail end up babbling on the street, and people work extremely hard to avoid this fate. But then again, you know this about yourself, America, and you always give people a second chance.

And now, an American living in Berlin, Clark Parsons, comes with his quasi-rebuttal: Deutschland, du bist einfach great! (g): Store clerks may not be quite as syrupy-friendly, but they actually know what they're talking about, take pride in their work, and will help you save money. Germans take friendships seriously. Germans are vastly more interested in the rest of the world than Americans, are much better informed, and don't have the typical American assumption that everone would be better off if their countries were run like the USA. Germans take seriously those things that are worth serious attention — for example, musicians who tour Germany are bowled over by the fact that German fans know a lot about their music and listen carefully to performances. The Bushes could play golf, but Helmut Schmidt is highly intelligent and has interesting points to make, and he gets a forum on Germany's excellent public-dominated mediasphere. German bitching and complaining is, at heart, all about setting high standards, and what's wrong with that? Germans build quality products and buildings for the long haul, and take care of them. Finally, the German sense of order. Often-mocked, but it also works. Garbage separation, precise information on consumer products, excellent public transportation, Saturday markets, 30 kinds of bread, all these things are just…great!

There's nothing too profound here, but these are op-eds, not dissertations. Most of the observations are on-target, but I have a quibble with Schmiechen's.

Schmiechen spent 4 months mostly, apparently, in Silicon Valley, since that's where most of his concrete examples come from (including a casually-dressed 'wiry Asian' guy the German took for a low-level PR flack but turned out to be the boss of the company). Most of the people he interviewed were millionaires. Germans are terrible at recognizing rich Americans for a few reasons. First, wealthy Americans don't follow high-bourgeois status codes the way Europeans do. Yachts, Bentleys, polo, luxury ski vacations, expensive watches, hand-tailored Jermyn Street togs, the word 'tog' — these things are as dated as Fantasy Island.

Granted, the rare American you meet who owns these symbols is probably rich, but for every one of him, there are 1000 even richer people who dress in jeans and ironic faded 1970s T-shirts and would burst out laughing at the idea of playing polo.  Especially in California, your wealth isn't judged by the quality of your suit, but whether you have to wear one at all. Suits are for drones.* About the only reliable visible class indicator in ths U.S. is a college degree. A four-year stay at any prestigious American university — and, increasingly, any American university — is a sure sign of wealth. You don't get into Stanford without costly preparation, and it's going to cost someone a a quarter-million dollars just for your first degree there.

The second reason Germans miss class signals is that Americans will insist they're jes' plain ordinary middle-class folks no matter how fabulous their wealth. There's an inverse relationship between how rich an American is and how honestly he'll discuss his finances. About all you'll get from a $500,000-a-year engineer is that he's 'comfortably off', but he'll then start bitching about how he's just scraping by, given rent, taxes, tuition, etc.

So sure, the people Herr Schmiechen met seemed relaxed, friendly, unpretentious go-getters, but he was, whether he knew it or not, hobnobbing with the American elite. To broaden his perspective, he might want to spend four months among the 40% of working Americans who make less than $20,000 per year. I think he'd be surprised just how much less a $20,000 salary buys you in the United States than it would in Germany, and he'd find all the surliness, misery, and envy he could handle.

* Yes, I know this is a misnomer, since real drones are almost the opposite of the stereotype: their primary purpose in life is to fuck the queen! 'Worker bees' are the real slaves, but the use of drone has become so widespread I've decided to give up and adopt it here.

The Musical Journey of Pete Seeger’s ‘Kisses Sweeter than Wine’

In the beginning was a rhythmless Irish ballad. Leadbelly liked the melody but added some punchy rhythm and chords. Pete Seeger adds words and records the first version with the Weavers: 

 Along comes Nana Mouskouri, who records a German version of the song in 1967. 

No, I don't know why there's an (apparently eyeless) dog in that video. Just be glad GEMA hasn't blocked it.

And then in 2005 or so, the criminally underrated Nottingham techno duo Bent use the queer warbling of Moskouri as the basis for K.i.s.s.e.s.

So there you have it. An Irish melody, reworked by a black American blues singer, lyrics added by a leftist white folk-singer, translated loosely into German by a Greek, and then processed into an ethereal techno track by Englishmen.

German Word of the Week: Trinkhalle

Tinrkhalle Behrensstrasse Exterior

This is an archetypal German Trinkhalle, found on the Behrenstraße in Duesseldorf. Note the red-white color scheme. These are the colors of Fortuna 95 Duesseldorf, the local soccer club. The Behrenstraße is a vortex of Fortuna fandom, with red-and-white banners hanging from many balconies. The former owner of this Trinkhalle seems to have accepted advertising only from sponsors whose logos share the Fortuna color scheme. Now that's dedication.

The word Trinkhalle comes from the root of the verb trinken (drink), plus Halle. I've never really understood this pairing, because a Halle generally refers either to a large, ceremonial hall, as in Festhalle (banqueting-hall), or to a cavernous storage space, such as a Lagerhalle (warehouse building).

A Trinkhalle, though, is anything but cavernous. They range from the ludicrously tiny to stately specimens like such as the one above. What distinguishes a Trinkhalle from a Stehcafe (standing-cafe) is generally the plexiglas service-window of the traditional Trinkhalle. And they're just plexiglas. Germany has essentially no random hand gun crime, so there's no need to make store windows bulletproof, even in the diciest areas.

You walk up, get the attention of the guy inside, and order your beer, cola, cigarettes, magazines, or candy. If you're well-off, you order pre-rolled cigarettes and quality German or Czech beers. If you're not, you buy off-brand Oettinger beer and a cardboard cylinder of barely-smokable shag and roll your own. If you're lonely, you stand there chatting with the owner as you consume them and watch street life roll by. Trinkhallen are often run by immigrants from non-Christian (or at least non-Western-Christian) countries, so they'll be open on Sunday and other religious days. Very useful!

Trinkhallen, at their best, are genuine neighborhood institutions and generate the all-important eyes on the street that keep German cities vital and safe. They're also probably kind of inefficient. Which means some group of soulless plutocrats capital investors, somewhere, is plotting to replace them with anonymous chain outlets or trendy boutiques. Will we let them win?

Why Germans Rent

Quartz explores Germany's low rate of home ownership, and finds it's due to a sensible mix of policy initiatives which result in decent rental housing, low rents (yes, low rents) and strong tenants'-rights protections:

By the time of Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945, 20% of Germany’s housing stock was rubble. Some 2.25 million homes were gone. Another 2 million were damaged. A 1946 census showed an additional 5.5 million housing units were needed in what would ultimately become West Germany.

Germany’s housing wasn’t the only thing in tatters. The economy was a heap. Financing was nil and the currency was virtually worthless. (People bartered.) If Germans were going to have places to live, some sort of government program was the only way to build them.
And don’t forget, the political situation in post-war Germany was still quite tense. Leaders worried about a re-radicalization of the populace, perhaps even a comeback for fascism. Communism loomed as an even larger threat, with so much unemployment.
West Germany’s first housing minister—a former Wehrmacht man by the name of Eberhard Wildermuth—once noted that ”the number of communist voters in European countries stands in inverse proportion to the number of housing units per thousand inhabitants.”
Here's the rental cost comparison:

Classical Music Circling the Drain in the USA

Another in the regular dispatches from America's moribund classical-music scene:

Live classical music is less commercially viable than ever. Attendance per concert has fallen, according to Robert Flanagan, an emeritus professor at Stanford. But “even if every seat were filled, the vast majority of U.S. symphony orchestras still would face significant performance deficits.” Live orchestral music is essentially a charity case. A Bloomberg story on the recent wave of orchestra bankruptcies (an unheard-of phenomenon outside of the U.S., says Flanagan) notes that by 2005, orchestras got more money from donations than from ticket sales. The New York City Opera, once hailed as the “people’s opera,” filed for bankruptcy in October. If the “people” want opera, they’ve got a funny way of showing it.

If classical music was merely becoming the realm of the old—an art form that many of us might grow into appreciating—that might be manageable. But Sandow’s data on the demographics of classical audiences suggest something worse. Younger fans arenot converting to classical music as they age. The last generation to broadly love classical music may simply be aging, like World War I veterans, out of existence.

What about making music? In 1992, 4.2 percent of American adults reported performing or practicing classical music at least once in the previous year.

By 2012, the number had dropped to 2 percent (compared with, say, the 5 percent of Americans who reported they created “pottery, ceramics or jewelry.”)

The only thing that can save classical music in America is a recognition by politicians of all parties that classical performance will never pay for itself, will never be popular with the mainstream, and is yet important enough to deserve large subsidies to prevent its ultimate disappearance.

And that will never happen.

Conan O’Brien Inspects a Kotzbecken and Confronts Harald Schmidt’s Producer

I stumbled on this 1997 Conan O'Brien segment recently. Far from his best work, but of sociological value for showing Americans a genuine German Kotzbecken (puking-sink) and, even more entertainingly, exposing Harald Schmidt's relentless plagiarism of American late-night television:


Arrgh, what I would have given to read those. Perhaps we can re-create some COUNTRY BASHING right here, folks — what do you say?

Socialism in One Library, Part I

Socialism's Librarian

Readers of this blog will know of my furtive affection for abandoned totalitarian ideologies. And truly, there's hardly a better place on earth than Germany for people like me. Today's fiery plunge down the memory hole takes us to the book A Pathfinder of Socialist Library Science: For Erich Schroeter's 70th Birthday, published in 1964 as a special issue of the Central Journal for Library Science of the former German Democratic Republic. Above, we see Herr Schroeter.

A few moments in a book-stall in Berlin or Leipzig confronts you with an eerie truth: socialism was no mere "political" theory — yea, verily it seeped into the very capillaries of East German social life. My library boasts a history of blacks in America, a sex manual, and a biography of Beethoven  — all written proudly and unmistakably from the perspective of class struggle (Beethoven's chamber works are praised for their "dialectic" character). If I had had room in my luggage, I would also have brought home socialist exercise videos, economics textbooks, campfire-song collections, and design manuals.

Which brings us to libraries. Can they help build socialism? The answer, according to this handsome Festschrift, is a resounding "Jawohl, Genosse!" Contributors who stress the central ideological role of libraries include Margarete Silberberg ("On New Men and New Book Collections"), Bodo Reblin ("The Antifascist-Democratic Concept of a Library in the Periodical 'The People's Librarian'"); Christina Steinert ("Use of Space in the Central Library of the VEB Industrial Works in Karl Marx City") and Katharina Bamberger's ("The Library in the Lovely Socialist Village"). More mundane contributions include Lisgreth Schwarz's "On the Importance of the Central Publication of Annotated Preprinted Forms for General Public Libraries" or Johannes Lohmann's remorselessly informative "Ten Years of Library Statistics."

As befits a Festschrift, the opening chapters detail Erich Schroeter's early life. Born in Breslau in 1894, his father soon moved the family to Berlin. They were working-class: his father threw packages in a freight company, and his mother took in sewing to make ends meet. While he went to school, Schroeter worked as a typist for a notary, and as an errand-boy in a typewriter factory. He completed an apprenticeship as an engineer. When he was twenty, his career was interrupted by the "first imperialist world war," during which he was severely injured. When he returned to his job, he began to interest himself more and more for labor issues, and to fill the gaps in his education by visiting the library in Neukoelln — then, as now, a social burning point. The library director, Dr. Helene Nathan, took an interest in him. Nathan eventually arranged a position for Leipzig as a formal apprentice in library science. 

Schroeter returned to Berlin in 1929, after passing the "Examination for Employment in Popular Libraries,"  and took up an official position at the Neukoelln library, just as the Great Depression reached Germany. "Thousands of unemployed people thronged the streets," he recalls, and many of them resorted to the library to kill all those useless hours. Schroeter describes his efforts to reach out politically to the unemployed:

In the Neukoelln city library, the checkout counter…was split into two areas: one for the proletariat, and one for the bourgeoisie. I myself was always at the checkout counter to advise the  the proletarian group. As soon as I detected in young people or adults an special interest in political literature or other special subjects, I spoke to them, and let them know of the information evenings I was holding in the nearby branch library…. This direct work with individual readers provided me with enormous satisfaction, and — since we quite consciously emphasized very progressive literature, and also political literature — this also provided valuable experience in political work with the masses. (p. 13)

To be continued…


Co-Opting Nietzsche for National Socialism

David B. Dennis has a long, fine essay on how National Socialist propagandists spun Nietzsche in the Völkischer Beobachter:

In addressing the “Germanness” of Nietzsche, however, the cultural politicians of the party faced some difficulties. The newspaper did not try to verify Nietzsche’s racial origins—as it did for many other Western creators, including and especially Wagner and Beethoven—despite the fact that he occasionally claimed to be of Polish heritage. But it did have to confront indications that the philosopher rejected nineteenth-century trends of nationalistic identification.

As one contributor to the Völkischer Beobachter wrote, there is “one important point in Nietzsche’s mental attitude on which even his friends have remained silent, from which they tried to distance themselves as much as possible: this is the matter of Nietzsche’s attitude toward Germanness and the state.” The philosopher, according to the paper, had seen with “sharp eyes” that while the Second Reich had been formed, it still “remained a shell without content” under Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik. To him, nationalism was the “illness of the century” because it “attempted to hide its emptiness.” In his words, “Nationalism as it is understood today is a dogma that requires limitation.”

But the point to keep in mind, according to the Völkischer Beobachter, was the qualifying phrase: “as it is understood today.” Nietzsche’s opinions about the German state could be understood only with reference to this phrase—that is, as critiques of his own specific time, not as categorical rejections of German nationalism.

This opened the way for the newspaper to present Nietzsche as a fervent patriot and strong representative of “Germanness.” In fact, the paper reminded, Nietzsche actually said of himself that “I am perhaps more German than the Germans of today.” And he valued the “earnest, manly, stern, and daring German spirit.” He knew that “there was still bravery, particularly German bravery,” that is, “inwardly something different than the élan of our deplorable neighbors.” Compared with the French essence, in particular, he was “consistently, strongly, and happily conscious of the virtues” of the German character. Above all, Nietzsche held that “it is German unity in the highest sense which we are striving for more passionately than for political reunification—the unity of the German spirit and life.”

Very few others “saw things so clearly” in those days, said the Völkischer Beobachter. As if on a mission to confirm the philosopher’s Germanness, another contributor traveled to Sils-Maria, wandered the region, and ruminated on passages Nietzsche had written there. The landscape, Ernst Nickell reflected, is “consecrated by German fate and German tragedy.” Nietzsche “needed this landscape; he had to stand near the highest things and the firmament”—because he was “German despite everything.”

‘I Want Young American Urban Spaces No. 87’


A man walks through Düsseldorf and asks random strangers if they know what's on their T-shirts. None does. I should note that about half of them are foreigners, to judge by their accents.

Herewith a taxonomy of T-shirt inscriptions, some from the video above, some not:

  1. Invented athletic team / college logo: 'Holister College Varsity Lacrose No. 1'
  2. Random strung-together phrases evoking freedom, the open road, crazy parties, and the like: 'California Roadster Valley Team'
  3. Gnomic phraselets: 'Urban Spaces', 'I Want Young American'
  4. Spurious brand names / series numbers: 'Brothers Denim Mfg. Since 1887 No. 7754'

The place being evoked is always America, you never see something like 'Hull Danger Warriors' or 'Yorkshire Youth Movement No. 445'. I always ask Germans wearing these things why they bought this T-shirt or jacket and what the random phrase on it means to them, but — like the people in the video — they're never able to explain.