The Coming Exodus from Baltimore

I've been getting, and refusing, a few German press inquiries about recent events in Baltimore. I don't do hot-take live interviews. Someone was arrested and suffered a fatal injury; we are still a long way from knowing all there is to know about that incident.

Another reason I didn't give an interview is I have nothing new or reassuring to say. American cities occasionally erupt in riots after high-profile sporting events or police killings, something that happens in poor parts of cities across the globe. 67%-black Baltimore itself has been a watchword for urban despair for generations, as the 1977 Randy Newman song Baltimore shows:

Hard times in the city

In a hard town by the sea

Ain't nowhere to run to

There ain't nothin' here for free

 

Hooker on the corner

Waitin' for a train

Drunk lyin' on the sidewalk

Sleepin' in the rain

 

And they hide their faces

And they hide their eyes

'Cause the city's dyin'

And they don't know why

 

Oh, Baltimore

Man, it's hard just to live

Oh, Baltimore

Man, it's hard just to live, just to live

Baltimore's problems were also clinically dissected 30 years later in The Wire. Most talented people with valuable job skills have already left Baltimore, unless they are associated with medical or university institutions located there. Whenever poor parts of American cities burn, politicians usually convene a blue-ribbon commission, a report is issued, and there are various halfhearted efforts at urban revitalization for a few years afterward. Here is a recommendation from a 1965 report issued after rioting in the Watts area of Los Angeles:

We propose that the programs for the schools in disadvantaged areas be vastly reorganized and strengthened so as to strike at the heart of low achievement and break the cycle of failure. We advocate a new, massive, expensive, and frankly experimental onslaught on the problem of illiteracy. We propose that it be attacked at the time and place where there is an exciting prospect of success.

The program for education which we recommend is designed to raise the scholastic achievement of the average Negro child up to or perhaps above the present average achievement level in the City. We have no hard evidence to prove conclusively that the program advocated in this report will accomplish this purpose. 

Then attention fades, the money dries up, and conditions regress to the mean. I see no reason this time will be different. A few years or decades from now, Baltimore or some other city will burn, and again people will wonder at the fact that nothing has changed, and the people there are just as desperate and poor as they were before.

There are a few reasons for this eternal recurrence of the exact same debates. First, many problems of poor inner-city areas cannot be solved. Other problems could theoretically be solved, but doing so would involve huge investments of money, talent, time, and patience. People usually claim to be sympathetic to the problems of inner-city residents, but most voters don't want large amounts of their tax money diverted to try to fix their problems. I suspect the advice most Americans would give to residents of Baltimore is: 'Leave'.

Forcibly busing poor kids to rich areas and vice versa — to combat racial segregation — was tried once in America and turned out to be a disaster. This isn't just an American problem, either: Malmö, Stockholm, Paris, Marseille, Copenhagen all have heavily-immigrant problem zones that erupt into rioting once every few years. (Germany is an interesting counter-example). If even the world's most social-democratic countries can't find the resources, solutions, and political will to create lasting, meaningful improvements to life in urban poverty pockets, there's no chance the USA will.

So the exodus from Baltimore will continue.

Begin Japanology with Peter Barakan

I went to Japan last Christmas and loved it. Everywhere is clean, the people are courteous, street life is lively and safe, free public restrooms everywhere, spectacular shrines temples and gardens, handmade things made of natural materials. The entire country seems to be curated by people with discreetly minimalist good taste mixed with a bit of wabi-sabi aesthetic. I just scratched the surface, but it's quite a surface. 

While surfing around for things Japanese, I came across the oddly-named TV series Begin Japanology, produced by Japan's national television channel. The understated host, longtime Japan resident and fluent English speaker Peter Barakan (apparently he's half Burmese and half English) presents half-hour shows dedicated to everything from Kyudo to festivals to incense to fireworks to shopping streets to sake to masks to swords to folding fans to Western Japanophiles to pickles, plums, sushi, and calligraphy. Here's one on incense, which, it turns out, has its own highly formalized ceremony: 

By now there seem to be hundreds of episodes — a long but not exhaustive Youtube playlist is here.  The production values are reasonably high, without being ostentatious. There's often a slight twist: the episode on kendo features an in-depth profile of a young kendo master with one arm who routinely beats two-armed opponents without being given any advantages. Barakan profiles many fascinating Japanese, from retired managers who carve masks in their spare time to famous tea masters, actors, puppeteers and architects. Barakan, a congenial, low-key host, also has a weakness for ordinary Japanese who are trying to maintain some of the many traditions which teeter on the verge of extinction. As with many Japanese shows, there's a lot of pleasantly burbling background music, some of it a bit incongruous.

The shows focus on traditional, non-controversial topics, so I don't think we're going to see a episode on soaplands anytime soon. But within their limited scope, these shows are well-done, with thoughtful scripts, interesting subject choices, and a few modest surprises here and there. Highly recommended.

African Immigrants and the Peter Singer Problem

Those who advocate open borders, or at least a huge liberalization of EU immigration policy, have an ally in the influential Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who has argued that all people in the West must make painful financial sacrifices of most of their disposable income to help the world's poor:

Peter Singer has argued in Practical Ethics (1993) that you are morally deficient if you eat meat, or if you fail to give a good bit of your income – 5% if you earn more than $100,000, and at least 10% of income over $150,000 – to help the world’s most destitute. It’s actually worse than that. If you take Singer’s arguments seriously, you should be giving nearly everything you have to charity. (Singer himself doesn’t go that far, giving away only 20% of his income. Nobody’s perfect.)

…Singer’s basic argument is simple, relying on two main principles. Somewhat paraphrased, these principles are, first, maximize pleasure and minimize suffering; and second, all pleasure or suffering counts equally. (Because of Singer’s particular interests, the bit about minimizing suffering plays a larger role than the bit about maximizing pleasure.) You can question how to apply these principles in particular situations, but for Singer there are no principles more fundamental.

One immediate consequence of Singer’s principles is that animal suffering should weigh as heavily in your decisions as human suffering: that’s part of what he means by ‘all suffering counts equally.’ Animals may not suffer as much as humans, but whatever their suffering, it’s as significant as an equal amount of human suffering.

Another consequence of treating everyone’s – sorry, every organism’s – suffering the same, is that your suffering doesn’t count more than anyone else’s. Since there are so many people in the world who suffer more than you, it follows that you should give a substantial part of your wealth to alleviate that suffering…

To convince you that you should give more of your wealth to alleviate suffering, Singer uses a persuasive analogy. Suppose you see a child drowning in a pool. You can rescue the child at no danger to yourself, but at the cost of ruining your new suit (PE, p.229). Clearly, you are morally obliged to wade in, suit be damned. But, says Singer, if you are a moderately well-off citizen of a first world nation, donating 10% of your income to CARE or Oxfam will similarly relieve much suffering, with only a modest impingement on your lifestyle (p.222). As with the drowning child, you can’t just walk by. You have to grab your chequebook and wade on in.

Using similar principles, Singer concludes that you must be a vegetarian, 'that you shouldn’t give your own children extraordinary advantages' and that we should encourage very old people to kill themselves — perhaps even kill them ourselves — so that we can spend the €200,000 it costs to prolong Grandma's life for 4 months to immunize 1000 poor children. Some of these things Peter Singer believes, others are thought experiments designed to foster discussion (and boy, do they ever). He cheerfully admits people will never do most of these things, but they should.

I don't know whether Peter Singer has endorsed open borders between Europe and Africa, but I can imagine he would. And therein lies the problem: almost no Westerners have ever lived up to Peter Singer's idea of completely moral conduct, and they never will. And most of them are OK with that, don't like being scolded as immoral, and think that they are nevertheless decent people. The counter-arguments to Singer are manifold, starting with Hume, who declares it to be perfectly normal and understandable that we care more about those closest to us than those far distant. (The linked article sets out all the critiques). Catholic social teaching holds the same view. And virtually every human alive does too, especially if we judge them by their actions, not their words. Plus, you can't develop a workable ethical system without context-based compromises:

In real societies, and especially in large-scale modern societies, there are a profusion of competing ethical principles. In speaking of ‘competing principles’, I don’t just mean that different people have different principles (although they do), but that there are many principles, in competition with each other, guiding any single person’s actions. All those principles can’t all be true all the time. We harmonize them, to the extent we can, by adjusting the contexts in which we see them as applicable.

If ethical rules arise out of the rough and tumble of harmonizing our own interests, including our social impulses, with the interests of others, and with the contingencies thrown up by an infinitely-various natural world, then the rules we come up with are likely to be partial rules for the here and now, not universal rules which will work in all situations, especially those far from our experience; and there are likely to be a large number of rules, each applicable in a small if ill-defined context. For even the most basic ethical rule, there will be contexts where it clearly applies, contexts where it clearly doesn’t apply, and a large grey area in which there can be indecision and controversy. ‘Thou shalt not kill’, for example, is an unimpeachable moral principle, but we can still argue about its range of legitimate application. Self-defense? Just wars? Abortion? Euthanasia? Animals? Vegetables? Around the sizeable edges, there is plenty of room for dispute. It’s not a criticism of a rule to admit that it’s not always clear where it applies.

Why Not Get the Federation of Expellees on Your Side?

One thing that anti-death penalty forces in the US have been doing for years is reaching out to conservatives. Everyone knows all the arguments of lefty death penalty abolitionists and most people disagree with them. Usual suspects, heard it all before, etc. But when those arguments, or similar ones, come from conservatives, people may give the message a second chance. The movement against mass incarceration and capital punishment in the US has gained momentum recently in part because conservatives, not just the usual suspects, have joined in.

Why not reach out to the Federation of Expellees, or the Bund der Vertriebenen? This is the organization that represents the families of the 12 million Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after World War II. It's got a reputation for being right-wing in outlook, since some of the people who got expelled were either active Nazis or collaborators. But at the same time, these are people who claim to be intimately familiar with the wrenching agony of being displaced and dispossessed by war and its aftermath. They might be convinced to issue a statement saying that Europe should massively increase the number of refugees it will accept from Syria and Iraq, especially Christians and other religious minorities who face massacre by Islamic extremists. After all, it is their signature issue. Heck, they may even have already done this, but if so I can't find anything on their website. People would sit up and take notice if the Bund der Vertriebenen called for the German government to accept 200,000 Syrian war refugees from Lebanon and Turkey. Germany has the resources to settle 200,000 immigrants, and if they were all actual, documented refugees from war zones, the political will might exist as well.

This would not address the issue of economic refugees, but nothing is going to convince large numbers of Europeans to accept millions of new immigrants just because those people can't find good jobs at home. Many pro-immigrant groups seem to intentionally obfuscate the line of demarcation between economic refugees and those fleeing war and deadly persecution, lumping everyone together with feel-good slogans like 'No person is illegal'. But this is dumb and shortsighted, since the average citizen of an EU country is likely to have much more sympathy for war refugees than economic ones. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

They Will Be Sent Back

The Guardian has seen a draft of the new EU plan for combating boat refugees:

Only 5,000 resettlement places across Europe are to be offered to refugees under the emergency summit crisis package to be agreed by EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday.

A confidential draft summit statement seen by the Guardian indicates that the vast majority of those who survive the journey and make it to Italy – 150,000 did so last year – will be sent back as irregular migrants under a new rapid-return programme co-ordinated by the EU’s border agency, Frontex. More than 36,000 boat survivors have reached Italy, Malta and Greece so far this year.

Instead, the EU leaders are likely to agree that immediate preparations should begin to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers”. The joint EU military operation is to be undertaken within international law.

But the head of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, said on the eve of the summit that saving migrants’ lives should not be the priority for his maritime patrols despite the clamour for a more humane response after the deaths of 800 refugees and migrants at the weekend.

Way back in February, your humble blog-master said:

Given a choice between opening Europe's borders and ruthlessly ratcheting up border controls, European leaders will mouth the appropriate platitudes about human rights and enhancing opportunity, then send out the warships to mine the Mediterranean. And in the cold hard light of political reality and modern statecraft, there is no reason they shouldn't, since that's what their voters prefer.

As long as European voters and societies are not willing and prepared to accept tens of millions of refugees from Africa and the Middle East — and they're not — this is the policy you're going to get. I would say there should be many more places devoted to actual refugees from war zones or facing imminent injury or death from ethnic persecution, since that is the core of what refugee protection is for. But to stop the pull factor, you'll need to destroy the boats before they can launch. If they do launch, rescue the refugees, process them, and then send them back unless they can prove they are not economic refugees.

This may sound harsh, but it will save lives in the long run. And if you think enforcing strict border controls is beyond the pale, have you noticed that Australia and the U.S. — racially diverse nations composed (largely) of immigrants, which have a comparatively welcoming attitude towards foreigners — have tight border control policies? President Obama, that notorious racist xenophobe, has presided over an unprecedented levels of deportations at the US-Mexican border, and has seen attempted border crossings drop.

Any announcement will bring the predictable denunciations, but that is pure signaling. People who have no constructive solutions for this thorny issue will nevertheless write self-congratulatory screeds denouncing whatever the EU does, and heaping scorn and vilification on EU policymakers. This makes them feel good, signals their superior morality, and does nothing to help refugees. If you want to liberalize EU immigration policy, you need to start at home, by convincing your fellow citizens that they should support such a move. And here's a pro-tip: calling them racists, xenophobes, and/or Bild-addled troglodytes may make you feel terribly virtuous, but it doesn't work.

The Animal Anal Alarm™

So, I have cats. Like dogs, cats sometimes like to lick you. This can be pleasant and invigorating. But when Fido jumps up on you when you return from work and plants a big wet kiss on your cheek or hand, somewhere in the back of your mind you're thinking: 'I wonder how long it's been since Fido gave a tongue-bath to his anus.' In fact, your dog may have just eagerly gulped down a family-sized portion of some other dog's — or even his own – fecal matter.

Why can't technology provide a solution to this problem? If you can wear something on your wrist that knows whether you're sleeping or how many steps you climbed, you should be able to invent some sort of accelerometer-GPS-quantum-gizmo that can tell when your pet last french-kissed the old bunghole. So as Fido closes in for the greeting, you sneak a peek at the digital collar display. If it reads '210 minutes', you're probably OK. If it reads '6 seconds', EVASIVE ACTION.

Who wants to help me kickstarter this and become a millionaire?

German Pharmacist-Interrogators Despise Your Diseased Feet

Firoozeh Dumas moved from America to Germany and experienced the opinionated world of German customer service at the pharmacy or, as she calls it, the shame shack:

Let’s say you have a borderline embarrassing medical condition. Here’s how it goes down in America: You go to Target, walk past the dollar bins (keep walking, your local landfill thanks you), stroll to the pharmacy located near the free restrooms, pick up your over-the-counter medication, amble toward the registers while deciding which one of the many available cashiers will have the pleasure of ringing up your purchase, and finally pick up a pack of gum or the latest Disney princess Band-Aids. A minute later, the cashier asks, “Did you find everything you needed today?”

I moved to Germany two years ago, and my German friends tell me that they dislike this fake American friendliness. But it’s not fake! If you ever respond to the cashier with, “I did not find the all-in-one solar-paneled suntan spray with built-in fan that doubles as a beer mug,” said cashier will call over a colleague whose sole purpose will then be to find this object in the vast caverns of Target. Granted, maybe both of these employees hate their jobs, but you will never know that by their pleasant behavior. That’s America.

[Now to Berlin] I … approached the pharmacist. “I am looking for medicine for foot fungus, fusspilz,” I added, in a low voice.

“This is for YOU?” she asked loudly, pointing to me. Her English was fine. Volume control, not so much.

… As soon as I confessed, a second pharmacist popped up, like a jack-in-the-box, from behind the counter. She said something to the first pharmacist, who said something back. It all sounded very judgmental. “What did they say?” I asked my daughter, who is not only my restroom decoy but also my translator.

“You have foot fungus?” the second pharmacist asked. Why was she getting involved? I did not need, or want, two pharmacists.

“Yes,” I said, again.

She then reached for a small box behind the counter.

The first pharmacist said, “You use TWO times,” holding up two fingers. “Every day.”

“Wear socks, then wash socks,” the second one added.

“Wash socks in HOT water,” the first one said.

“But not with other clothes,” No.2 added.

“Separately,” No.1 said.

“More laundry! Lucky me!” I said, trying to be funny, which never works in Germany.

“This is because you have foot fungus,” No.1 reminded me.

“Yes, I do,” I confessed again.

I paid for the ointment, while my daughter selected a lollipop.

As we left the shame shack, I felt a pang of nostalgia for the Target employees whose names I may not remember, but whose earnestness I do. I miss you.

I had minor surgery a couple years ago. Before leaving, a seemingly normal German doctor in his late 50s came by to advise me about wound care at home. I asked him when I could next take a shower. He said: 'Wait 2 days. And don't use soap of any kind.'

'Why not?' I asked.

'Why, do you normally use soap when you shower'?

'Uh, of course.'

'Well, I don't. You shouldn't either. Nobody should. By all means shower, but avoid soap. All that stuff does is clog your pores and stick germs to your body, and it's terrible for the environment. The only reason people use it is the big companies have convinced them by marketing that they need to smell like flowers. Your body is covered in natural oils that have protected it for hundreds of thousands of years when soap never existed. Soap destroys that natural protection layer. Don't use it, ever.'

'But what do you use to avoid stinking like a French whore?'

'Nothing. Just a nice shower of plain water every couple of days.'

He was standing about a meter away from me and never came close enough for me to test his theory.

I still use soap when I shower. 

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

I'm exploring Typepad's new Nimble Design Lab, which is supposed to make your blog nicer-looking and more readable on various different kinds of devices. I like what I see so far, but I plan to continue tweaking it a bit, so let me know what you think.

Me and the German Press: A Troubled Relationship

Just got another press inquiry from a German TV station, this time about the recent study of unreliable FBI hair-comparison evidence, which was used in hundreds of convictions. There were also a few calls after the Charleston shooting.

I've decided to no longer give spontaneous, off-the-cuff interviews about whatever US criminal-justice story is burning up the German Internets. I tell them I'll read up on the issue in my spare time until I have a secure understanding of the facts and legal background, and then be happy to answer questions in a few days. I told this nice lady that I didn't know enough about the story to comment intelligently (especially in a 2-minute interview), and that probably wasn't going to change, since I'm not really interested in it. 

They are always disappointed, while I am relieved. I hate telephones anyway, I have no idea why they still exist.

Coming to Terms with Günter Grass

Marian Wirth allowed me to post his pithy assessment of Grass, hoisted from a comment feed on another website:

Grass was pretty much the last surviving founding father of German post-war literature. He became instantly famous with his debut novel and used the financial independence and the fame to promote authors younger and/or less successful than him, to improve Germany's position in the world and to boost interest in German as a language all over the world.

It still confuses me to hear foreign authors praise Grass – celebrities like Salman Rushdie, who spent the day Grass died defending him on Twitter, as well as national celebrities in, say, Brazil or Nigeria, who tell you how much they adore Grass ever since they read the TIN DRUM as a teenager and I'm always like "WHAT?!" when I hear that because everything about Grass and his most notorious book is so German that I have still trouble believing it even got translated into English.

Bottom line: He was THE most important figure for German literature and one of the leading brand ambassadors for German culture. Even people who disagreed on everything with Grass can't deny that and it drives them crazy, I can tell you.

Grass was a man of many talents. Unfortunately, he got famous for writing novels, his least developed talent.

He was a world class boozer, smoker and dancer.
He was an outstanding sculptor.
He was a phenomenal graphic artist.
He was an efficient SPD canvasser.
He was one of the three leading anti-Semites in Germany, and a decent poet, resulting in the ugliest piece of anti-Semitism published in Germany after the second world war.

His novels are more or less unreadable, since he subscribed to the leading principles of German post-war literature such as the following: avoid direct speech at all cost. Direct speech and dialogue are evil, leave them to the Americans and their movie-script like writing. It's your job to make the readers suffer. Insurmountable blocks of text are your thing. Long winding, meandering sentences filled with German guilt and with guilt to be a human being enjoying life are your profession.

I have read several of his novels, though failed twice to read the TIN DRUM (I'll give it a third try soon). "Too Far Afield" took me over a year to get through. My favorite Grass novel is The Meeting at Telgte.

Politically, he was wrong on everything after 1990. Not only was he wrong on everything, his criticism was always over the top, mean, vile and presented in an apodictic fashion that made it impossible to argue against it. This rant is presented in a similar way to make it more obvious what drove me away from Grass.

So much for an executive summary of what needs to be said about Grass. Vale, rest in peace etc. should still apply, of course.