Pale Copies of American Literature

A Japanese writer on the dominance of English:

When published in 2008, The Fall of Language in the Age of English created a sensation in Japan, winning awards, becoming a bestseller, and igniting a furious online debate between its detractors and defenders. This first book of nonfiction by Minae Mizumura, whose four novels have all won national awards, was published last year in a superbly readable English translation. This powerful, insightful work analyzes the predicament of world languages and literatures in an age when English has become the universal language of science and the default language of the internet. Even for creative writers, it is the virtually inescapable medium for those desiring to be taken seriously in an age of globalized discourse….

The Fall of Language in the Age of English concludes with somber reflections on the internet and the implications for national languages and literatures of hegemonic English, the world’s de facto universal language. But Mizumura also criticizes self-defeating public policies that have impoverished the Japanese language, and Japanese literary works that “often read like rehashes of American literature.” She calls for teaching more Japanese to younger students, and mandating that older ones read the full texts of Japanese modern classics.

She ends her rich, profound meditation on language and literature by encouraging people in English-speaking nations to consider the possibility that the advantage of fluency in our age’s universal language can also be a disadvantage:

If more English native speakers walked through the doors of other languages, they would discover undreamed-of landscapes. Perhaps some of them might then begin to think that the truly blessed are not they themselves, but those who are eternally condemned to reflect on language, eternally condemned to marvel at the richness of the world.

On the Street Where I Live

Somebody made a documentary about the shops on the street where I live. Aki Chaabeni, the owner of the cafe Süße Erinnerung (g) teamed up with another filmmaker to interview some of my neighbor-entrepreneurs.

Not exactly sure what the purpose of the film is — though they mention a food truck/marketing project named Petit Frere – but it's a nice piece of work, and shows you the side of Düsseldorf I see every day, which is its best side:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/192653712

petit frère doku from cafe suesse erinnerung on Vimeo.

It's people and places like this that make Düsseldorf one of the most livable cities on the planet.

Rifle Grenades Roasting on an Open Fire

2841228116

71 years ago, near the town of Rees, in far west Germany near the Dutch border, there was heavy fighting between the invading Allies and German defenders. A German soldier fired a rifle grenade which hit a tree and stuck there. Over the years, the tree grew, enveloping the grenade. Then the tree was cut down and sold for firewood. The woman in this photo was enjoying a pleasant Advent Sunday afternoon with friends, and put another log in the stove in her living room.

A fateful log.

A log of destiny.

A log, almost, of doom.

You can see the result above (g). The woman was unlucky in that the grenade destroyed her stove and sent bits flying around her living room. But she was lucky in another way: because the grenade was damaged when it hit the tree, its full explosive charge didn't go off. Otherwise she'd probably be drinking her Christmas goose through a straw.

It's things like this that help explain why Germans tend to have a strong pacifist bent.

Kafka Made Him Unhappy

A letter sent to Kafka:

Dear Sir,

You have made me unhappy.

I bought your “Metamorphosis” as a present for my cousin, but she doesn’t know what to make of this story. My cousin gave it to her mother, who doesn’t know what to make of it either. Her mother gave the book to my other cousin, and she doesn’t know what to make of it either. Now they’ve written to me. They want me to explain the story to them because I am the one with a doctorate in the family. But I am baffled.

Sir! I spent months fighting it out with the Russians in the trenches without flinching, but if my reputation among my cousins went to hell, I would not be able to bear it.

Only you can help me. You have to, because you are the one who landed me in this situation. So please tell me what my cousin ought to make of “The Metamorphosis.”

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Siegfried Wolff

Mitten in Deutschland — German History X

A huge conglomeration of public and private foundations put together a three-part series on the early 2000s murder spree of the National Socialist Underground called Mitten in Deutschland (In the Middle of Germany) in Germany and German History X when it was released by Netflix with English subtitles.

It's basically a trilogy of feature-length movies. I found it surprisingly good. German television and movies punch below their weight in general, but have shown some intermittent signs of improvement in recent years. Deutschland '83 is much more than watchable, and so is German History X. 

The first movie, about the formation of the 2-man one-woman 'trio' which formed the core of the NSU, shows the protagonists coming together in the 1990s neo-Nazi scene in Jena. The three core performers are stellar. The film also does a fine job of demonstrating how young people in the damaged, demoralized East often sought fellowship and a sense of purpose in violent Nazi groups. The second movie focuses on the victims, and is held together by a strong performance by Almila Bagriacik, who emerges from adolescence under the shadow of the murder of her father. The police immediately seek the killer in the 'milieu' of foreign small businessmen, without considering the possibility of a terrorist motive even after numerous other foreign shopkeepers are killed with the same weapon used to kill the first victim. 

The final movie, which focuses on the investigation, is the slackest of the bunch. This is hard to avoid, since the subject is, by definition, an investigation that went nowhere. The early-2000s murder spree of the three NSU members was discovered only posthumously, when two of them committed suicide after a botched 2011 bank robbery, and the murder weapon was found in their accomplice's apartment. The third movie paints a picture of detectives who develop solid leads, only to be frustrated by the machinations of the Thuringia state Verfassungsschutz. The Verfassungsschutz claimed to have deeply infiltrated the groups supporting the NSU trio, and fought against any arrests, questioning, or surveillance which could theoretically blow their agents' cover. Which meant, in the end, that they provided an enormous amount of cover, and even financing, to out-and-out Nazis who were committing sundry violent crimes. The movies' clear implication is that the Verfassungsschutz was operating at least in part out of sympathy for the right-wingers' goals.

The English translation of Verfassungsschutz in the movies was "secret service", which obviously doesn't do justice to this peculiar organization. English-language viewers certainly missed many of the implications of what was shown in the third film. Basically, the "Agency for the Protection of the Constitution", as the title means in English, is an originally West German domestic spying and intelligence agency. As its name implies, it is theoretically supposed to monitor, document, report on, and suppress any nascent threats to the German constitutional order. This includes right-wing and left-wing extremists, religious organizations, and cults. Each German state has one of these agencies, and there is a federal one as well. To call them controversial is an understatement — they are often accused of putting far more energy into surveillance of left-wing militants than right-wing groups, and are also accused of chilling free speech by singling out politically-charged organizations and publications for scrutiny in their public reports. In fact, the right-wing weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit – successfully sued to prohibit the Verfassungsschutz from mentioning them in its reports.

The agency has also been involved in innumerable scandals involving — at the very minimum — incompetence. The most recent in a very long list is the hiring of Roque M. (g) — a German citizen of Spanish descent who was hired as a Verfassungsschutz spy in the State of Northern Rhine Westphalia despite a history of mental instability and bizarre behavior, such as acting in gay porn films even though he was a married father of 4, running his own gay porn publishing house, running a website selling "German Military Underwear. Strong. Manly. Sexy.", and converting to radical Islam. The Verfassungschutz – apparently unaware of the possibility of running a Google search — only found out about him when he bragged about being a mole in the agency and working on plans to destroy it in an online forum which was being monitored by his co-workers.

In fact, the picture of the German law enforcement authorities in all of the films is devastating. The Keystone Kops of East Germany let the three neo-Nazis go underground even after finding bombs and weapons in one of their hideouts. Cops invent a hare-brained drug-smuggling conspiracy theory to explain the totally unrelated murder of ethnic-minority shopkeepers all over Germany with the exact same weapon. (Although this isn't mentioned in the film, they also chased a phantom serial killer whose existence was based on botched DNA testing). Their attitude toward murder victims' surviving relatives is callous in the extreme; Germany still has only a vestigial state infrastructure for providing counseling and care to surviving family members of murder victims. And in the third movie, the police actively allow and sometimes even assist neo-Nazis to commit violent crimes and spread propaganda, either out of incompetence or covert sympathy for their goals.

The general portrayal of police agencies is counterbalanced by sympathetic portrayals of individual cops, but they are seen as constantly having to fight against institutional blindness, rivalry, and silo-mentality thinking. When they're not fighting against moles in their own and other agencies who actually intentionally assist the neo-Nazis. The picture of police is probably a bit exaggerated, but there is no doubt much of it was justified — there are still dozens of very strange unanswered questions surrounding the fruitless investigation of the NSU murders. And, given the authorities' mania for secrecy and the lack of a culture of vigorous investigative journalism fed by leaks from inside the government, they'll probably remain unanswered forever.

Lead Exposure and Violence in the Middle East and North Africa — And Now Germany

Kevin Drum has an important point about levels of violence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). First, an image showing the time frame in which MENA countries phased out leaded gasoline:

Blog_middle_east_leaded_gasoline_phaseout_0

Drum explains why this is important:

[T]here's a lot of evidence that leaded gasoline produced a wave of violent crime between 1960-1990 in the developed world, and that the introduction of unleaded gasoline eliminated that wave and eventually brought crime rates down nearly to 1960 levels. In most developed countries, leaded gasoline was phased out starting around the mid-70s, which benefited children born after that. When those children reached their late teenage years in the early 90s, they were much less prone to impulsiveness and aggression, which led to lower crime rates.

But not every part of the world followed that timetable. In particular, leaded gasoline continued to be used in the Middle East up through the late 90s. Egypt began phasing it out in 1998, and most other countries followed over the next decade or so. Only a few—including Iraq and Afghanistan—still sell significant amounts of leaded gasoline.

Since lead poisoning affects infants, its affects show up about 18-20 years later. What this means is that in the bright red countries, the cohort of kids who reach their late teen years around 2020 should be significantly less aggressive and violent than previous cohorts. Around 2025 the countries in lighter red will join them. Around 2030 the countries in pink will join. By 2040 or so, the process will be complete.

If you want the longer version of Drum's argument, go this this article, which contains ample citations and further sources. Suffice it to say that I am convinced lead exposure is the main environmental factor in increasing violent crime.

As for the picture, you will no doubt notice that these are precisely the countries from which young males streamed into German in 2015. They are, of course, committing large numbers of all kinds of crimes here in Germany, as you would expect from young males anywhere. That is not open to dispute.

It's still too early to determine whether they are committing proportionately more violent crimes than people who grew up in (relatively) lead-free Germany. I have my suspicions that there are a large number of mentally-disturbed people among the new arrivals, judging by thousands of incidents of criminal and/or bizarre behavior, including public masturbation. Childhood lead exposure leads to lifelong permanent increases in impulsive behavior, and what could be more impulsive than deciding to whip out your penis and masturbate in front of a crowd of strangers?

In any case, if the lead-crime hypothesis is right, and I think it is, then young males from these countries will show an above-average tendency to commit impulsive violent actions which will probably persist until their testosterone levels drop when they reach their 40s. Of course, this doesn't mean most of them will commit violent crimes, only a minority will. Lead exposure varies considerably by geography. Nor does lead exposure turn everyone it affects into monsters, of course. It has marginal, population-wide effects of increasing the incidence of violent actions in a given cohort. But still, the increase is very noticeable and very measurable.

It seems like this is the sort of thing policymakers might want to have considered before letting hundreds of thousands of young males from these areas into the country, no?