Why German Movies Disappoint Again and Again

A few days ago I watched ‘Die Habenichtse’ (‘The Have-nots’), a German movie from 2016, based on an award-winning 2006 novel of the same name.

The plot revolves around Isabelle, a thirtysomething graphic designer, and her romance with and marriage to Jakob, a thirtysomething lawyer. It takes place in both Germany and the UK.

Julia Jentsch was good in the main role, she’s a fine actress. Overall, though the movie was quite dull.

There are two levels to its dullness: one specific to this movie and script, and a much more general kind of dullness which afflicts most movies made within the German public film-subsidy system, as this one was.

Since I think this movie’s a good example of the problems with German movies, I thought I’d take it as an exemplar.

First, a digression. At this point, I don’t think many people would challenge the statement that there’s something wrong with the German movie business. Germany is a large, prosperous, well-educated society. It should be a major player in international cinema. But it punches far below its weight. German movies connect with foreign audiences so rarely that it’s a big story when they do. This is not how it should be: a country with this much talent and funding should produce at least 3-4 German-language movies every year which catch the eye of higher-end international audiences, as is the case for France and Japan, to say nothing of the UK. (German TV series, on the other hand, are steadily improving.)

Instead, Germany produces maybe one movie like this per year, and that’s counting very generously. And even the movies which attract international attention rarely attract international enthusiasm, much less a cult following. The majority of German-language movies produced with film subsidies show to German-only audiences of a couple thousand people, then slide silently into obscurity. German culture-types are generally aware of this underperformance, and respond either with acute analyses (g) or defensive justifications.

Now let me point out the problems with Die Habenichtse.

  1. The characters never do anything interesting. Isabelle is a graphic designer, but she doesn’t burn with creative energy. She never addresses her work or sources of inspiration. She never says or does anything particularly interesting. The same is true of Jakob the lawyer, although he has a minor nervous breakdown during the movie. A very dull nervous breakdown, which is only hinted at.
  2. The main characters never say anything interesting. The German characters are neither witty nor insightful nor profound. They spend most of the time silently moping, even when they’re together. There is no repartee, no in-jokes, no chemistry, no sardonic commentary (except for one pretty good joke*). Their arguments are just ordinary spats and disagreements.
  3. I didn’t care what happened to them. Which is basically a consequence of #1 and #2, plus the fact that the characters weren’t appealing. They weren’t revolting, either. They were just blah.
  4. The movie actually seemed allergic to anything interesting. Jakob the lawyer works for a law firm which represents the heirs of Holocaust survivors trying to reclaim property in East Germany. Wow! That really does sound interesting, doesn’t it? But perhaps only 10% of the screenplay relates to this work, and you are never shown any interesting details. Nor is there any exploration of the various ethical dilemmas the work raises. The characters hint at these things, but then the thread is dropped, and the story returns to the dull relationship between Jakob and Isabelle. I wanted to grab the director by the lapels and say: “Jesus Christ, can’t you recognize drama, conflict, and moral complexity when you see it? No, don’t drag the script back to Jakob and Isabelle’s relationship! I don’t care about that! Neither does anyone else!” The same thing goes for Isabelle’s art. Instead of learning what drove her to become an artist, how she cultivated her talent, or what her aspirations are, we see her boring fights with her partner.
  5. The movie was shot in black-and-white for no discernible reason. The action is set in 2001 and 2003 in Berlin and London. The cinematography was competent, even good, but not particularly distinctive or ambitious. Nowadays, there are any number of interesting options between color and black-and-white. Unless there’s a very good reason for doing so, shooting a movie in 2016 solely in black-and-white is an affectation.
  6. The only interesting characters in the movie were artists, and even they weren’t that interesting. When an American movie needs a character full of soulful wisdom or magic powers or crazy do-anything spontaneity, it often wheels out a tired trope Spike Lee calls the Magical Negro. Germany has its own equally tired trope: the Krazy Kunstler. He (it’s usually a he), dresses and acts real funny, does whatever the funk he wants, follows his impulses no matter where they lead, and speaks the truths no-one else dares to. (Of course, he lives a comfortably middle-class life, and most of his income comes directly or indirectly from the state or rich patrons, but we will discreetly gloss over that.). Yeah, there’s two of those in this picture, one of them actually named “Ginka”. Ginka!

I asked myself: Why was this movie made? The characters do not come from the working class, which is neglected by most movies. They aren’t charming or funny or perceptive. There is only one intense dramatic confrontation in the movie, which is spurred by an implausible sub-plot involving a drug addict who somehow manages to live in a ₤2000/month townhouse apartment in London.

German art-house movies are beset by one all-encompassing fear: seeming too “Hollywood”. German screenwriters and directors are obsessed with being everything Hollywood is not: authentic, modest, naturalistic, low-key, and oblique. German art-house movies are, therefore, peopled with fairly ordinary-looking people with crooked teeth, who don’t give Sorkin-like canned speeches, who make silly mistakes, who may not be very bright or articulate, who aren’t all that appealing, and who spend most of their time just trying to manage ordinary relationships.

This aesthetic is not totally misguided, by any means, and can be refreshing. The crushing idiocy and ubiquity of superhero movies — in fact, the very existence of superhero movies — is a sign of cultural bankruptcy to all thinking persons. Ordinary stories need to be told. The problem, though, is that German movies tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Movies need not be packed with ridiculous characters and stupid catchphrases and bombastic music and relentless, over-the-top conflict.

But they should be at least somewhat more interesting, unusual and/or entertaining than ordinary life.

What else are they for?

Continue reading “Why German Movies Disappoint Again and Again”

Thoughts on ‘The Staircase’

‘The Staircase’ is the series-length true-crime documentary series that started that wholesome genre, way back in 2004. It follows the case of Michael Peterson, an American military veteran and war novelist who faced trial in 2003 in North Carolina for the murder of his wife. He says he found her unconscious and covered in blood at the bottom of a staircase in their home. The prosecution claimed he had killed her by hitting her in the head with a fireplace tool.

There are many odd things about this series. First, it was made by a French director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, for Canal+ in France, where the first episodes were broadcast. How and why a French director got interested in an American criminal case must be an interesting story. Second, the series is still going on: de Lestrade has followed all of the twists and turns in the appeals of the case up to even 2017, and has kept adding to the original episodes, which were filmed in 2003.

The result is a gripping portrayal of American criminal justice system, and I say that as a former American criminal-defense attorney. It shows the system almost in its ideal form Peterson had money, and bought a team of fabulous lawyers and investigators and experts. In fact, we see discussions of how much this defense is costing him — the fee was ultimately somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars. This allowed the defense to chase down every single piece of evidence imaginable, and attack the state’s case from every possible vantage point.

And we see exactly how they did it. That’s another startling thing: de Lestrade gets complete access to the defense team and even Peterson’s home and family. We see his lawyers discussing very sensitive stuff with their client (such as fees) which had my lawyer-confidentiality alarm blaring at deafening levels. This extreme level of disclosure could only have been authorized by a direct order from Peterson himself to let it all hang out.

Which, as the film proceeds, you realize is something he would do. He’s smart, articulate, and something of a drama queen (it turns out he’s bisexual, and occasionally visited male prostitutes, a fact which comes out at trial). He says he’s innocent and has nothing to hide, and this seems credible, even if his protestations of innocence — and basically everything else he does — appear a tad histrionic and calculated. He’s also intensely self-aware; he understands how some of his actions and statements must look to the jury, and even ruminates, before the camera, about how the justice system must treat people who, unlike him, have to rely on public defenders. (The answer is: not well).

The lead lawyer, David Rudolf, is also sharp as a tack. He has the typical trial-lawyer blend of agile intelligence, worldly wisdom, and total partisanship for his client. He is obviously having a ball — finally, he’s got a client who’s smart, didn’t leave incriminating evidence or talk to the cops, and who can pay for him to prepare the case of his dreams.

Rudolf also gets to parade his forensic skills before an audience of millions. He speaks in complete paragraphs, without ‘uhs’ or ‘ahs’, and with plenty of wry jokes and clever turns of phrase. (Yet he’s too good for his own good: some members of the jury find him too slick — which, in North Carolina, probably includes an element of too Jewish). His opening statement is soulful, his cross-examinations pointed without being snotty, and his tactical know-how formidable. In one conversation, he manages to dissuade Michael Peterson from testifying on his own behalf (always a bad idea, for reasons many clients don’t understand) while making it seem as if this were Peterson’s own idea. We see Rudolf and his team grapple with the hundreds of strategic and tactical decisions needed to prepare a complex legal defense. My favorite bit is the day before trial, when Rudolf is telling Peterson how to behave in front of the jury (don’t look bored, don’t look at the jury, don’t laugh) and reminds him to trim his giant, furry eyebrows.

One thing that always strikes me is why all these documentaries are made in the United States (or, rarely, the UK), never in France or Germany. German and French documentary producers seem to lack any curiosity at all about how their own justice systems operate, although they’re more than happy to shoot thousands of hours of footage about how the American justice system works. Even when German TV producers do address the justice system, they ignore the actual rules which govern it and focus all their attention on the sort of stuff they talked about in their college journalism or philosophy seminars (the nature of guilt, man’s inhumanity to man, the position of minorities, the cold logic of capitalism, etc.). They never get the legal stuff even close to right — they don’t even try. Every German crime show is a parade of laughable legal howlers.

Europeans seem to believe that actually addressing the rules of evidence or burdens of proof or expert opinion about blood spatters in a halfway realistic way would be too boring and technical. Of course, they’ve got it backward: moralizing, didactic screenplays drawn from college-dorm bullshit sessions quickly get stale, while shows that feature genuine people mastering complex tasks under real-world conditions have an enduring and universal appeal, even if the jobs themselves are highly specific to one culture. Which is why tens of thousands of German and French people will be mesmerized by The Staircase, while nobody in the UK or the US has heard of Tatort.

My Contribution to the Enlightenment Now

A friend who’s reading Steven Pinker’s defense of the European Enlightenment, Enlightenment Now, alerts me to the fact that I am name-checked on page 210:

pinker name check.JPG

Nice to encounter a fair and reasonable summary of your work in a best-selling book, especially one whose argument you find congenial.

If you’d like the longer version of this argument, you can buy, or borrow, or otherwise acquire my 2010 book, Ending the Death Penalty: The European Experience in Global Perspective. And if you’re wondering: Yep, it’s written for non-lawyers.

Graphic Designers and their Goddamn Chameleons

A friend in Düsseldorf spotted this sign offering a €50 reward for the return of their veiled chameleon (which is called a ‘yemen chameleon’ in German):

chameleon

It reads “It may sound unlikely, but unfortunately, our chameleon seems to have run away.

REWARD 50 EURO.

He’s probably curled up in a corner of our apartment, but we wanted to cover every base. He’s not dangerous or poisonous, just kind of a punk.”

The little arrows next to the picture say he “likes to eat flies and crickets”,  “moves slowly and is fragile”, and has a “helpless, usually skeptical expression”.

This is what happens when you live in a city full of creative types. (1) They keep foofy-ass pets, and when they lose them, (2) painstakingly craft the most eye-catching missing posters you’ve ever seen.

In fact, I’m not sure this isn’t mainly an ingenious freelancer marketing scheme. (‘Did this missing-chameleon poster catch your eye? Wouldn’t you like your ads to do the same?’).

German Word of the Week: Bruchwald & Hörsturz

I don’t travel in the summer, too hot and sticky. But the past few weeks have brought a spell of dry, sunny weather that has tempted me out on my Bulls cross bike several times a week. I’ve been riding to the east of Düsseldorf, to the hilly areas which mark the far eastern outskirts of the Bergisches Land , an area of low mountains and hills west of Düsseldorf and Cologne.

One discovery during these rides was the Stinderbachtal (g) nature preserve. A stream called the Stinder flows in the middle of a marshy area set among rolling hills and cliffside forests. A sign by the hiking trail identifies this as an Erlenbruchwald, where Erle is the German word for alder and Bruchwald (literally, break-forest), is the German word for…what, exactly?

Once I got home, I looked it up, and it means “carr“:

carr is a type of waterlogged wooded terrain that, typically, represents a succession stage between the original reedy swamp and the likely eventual formation of forest in a sub-maritime climate.[1] The name derives from the Old Norse kjarr, meaning a swamp. The carr is one stage in a hydrosere: the progression of vegetation beginning from a terrain submerged by fresh water along a river or lake margin. In sub-maritime regions, it begins with reed-swamp. As the reeds decay, the soil surface eventually rises above the water, creating fens that allow vegetation such as sedge to grow. As this progression continues, riparian trees and bushes appear and a carr landscape is created–in effect a wooded fen in a waterlogged terrain.

I make my living with words and I have a pretty damn big vocabulary, but I had never heard of the word “carr” before.

This is an example of the back-door second-language vocabulary enhancement effect, or BADOSLAVEE. The German term Bruchwald is not technical, Germans probably have a vague idea what one is (valley forest), even if they may not be able to identify it in precise geological terms. But its English counterpart is exotic as hell. And I would never have run across the English word had I not learned its German equivalent first.

Learning a second language exposes you to words that are ordinary in that language, but exotic in yours. Another example of this is Hörsturz, a German word which literally means “hear-fall”, and refers to a sudden loss of hearing.

The first time I heard this word, I said, “What? A sudden loss of hearing? You mean like after an explosion?”

“No, silly,” my German Interlocutor (GI) said, “it’s because of stress or overwork. You suddenly lose your ability to hear. It’s happened to me a few times. Happens to everyone now and then.”

“No it doesn’t,” I said. “You’re otherwise healthy, just sitting there, and you suddenly go deaf for no reason? And then you regain your hearing again at some point? How? Why? Never happened to me or anyone I’ve ever known.”

“Are you crazy?” GI said. “I though it was universal. Are you sure there’s no English word for that?”

And in fact, Germans consider a Hörsturz to be an ordinary sign of stress. You can call up your boss here and say: “I’m not coming in today because I suddenly lost my hearing for no reason, probably because you worked me too hard. But it will return on its own in a day or two, and I’ll come back then.” And your boss will say, “OK, get better soon.”

But you won’t be able to hear him.

Try that in any other country.

To check my suspicion that this was a German idiosyncrasy, I turned to Wikipedia, and sure enough, there’s a detailed entry for Hörsturz (g) including sections coverage by medical insurance, as well as treatment by vitamin-C infusion, “corticosteroids”, and “fibrinogen reduction” by apheresis. All for a medical syndrome that appears to be a by-product of some sort of Sapir-Whorf effect (language shapes perceptions of reality, things become much more common and recognizable if there’s a word for them), or generation-spanning mass hysteria.

Sure enough, there’s no entry in any other language except…Japanese. Intriguing, that.

Anyhow, as a reward for reading to the end of this post, I give you a few photos from the Erlenbruchwald, or “alder carr” of the Stinderbach Valley, plus surroundings:

‘Growing Up in Germany’: Meinhof, Meins, and Fassbinder Yelling at an Old Woman

On a recommendation from John of Obscene Desserts, I watched this joint French/German documentary about the origins of the German terrorist group the Red Army Faction. (The title of this post is my translation of ‘Eine deutsche Jugend/Une Jeunesse Allemand’). It consists of nothing but media documents from the late 1960s: political talk shows, revolutionary student films, Germany in Autumn, and contemporary news reports, and contemporary documentaries.

Those who aren’t familiar with this era in German history may have a hard time following it, because there’s no voice-over explanation or modern interviews to explain dated references. But that’s the point of the movie: the story of the RAF has been encrusted with decades’ worth of commentary, analysis, and speculation. This movie scrapes these barnacles away and shows you what a reasonably well-informed German or French person would have seen as events unfolded in real time.

‘Growing up in Germany’ also presents some excerpts from Germany in Autumn, an odd omnibus movie made by four German directors which, at least nominally, addresses the wave of RAF terrorism and the state’s response to it during the autumn of 1977. We see Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the most overrated (I didn’t say bad, just overrated) German director of the 1970s, harassing his own mother in a (likely coke-fueled) interrogation designed to reveal her alleged authoritarian tendencies. At the time, the interview was celebrated by some as a ‘devastatingly personal reckoning’ with the ‘hidden authoritarian conformism’ of elderly Germans. Now it just looks like some greasy-haired guy yelling at an old woman.

The film offers a few interesting insights into the “leaden years” of German political terrorism, especially Ulrike Meinhof’s early appearances on German political talk shows. In the mid-1960s, she was a fairly well-known commentator for the radical journal konkret (g), and represented the leftmost fringe of respectable German public opinion on political talk shows, usually as the only female on the panel. She emerges as equally smart and dull. Her arguments, conveyed in agonizingly long sentences, are sometimes pretty convincing — the troubling authoritarian holdovers in German society in the mid-1960s which she criticizes were all too real. However, she always speaks in a near-monotone, sometimes almost mumbling, with very little eye contact with fellow panelists. She seems incapable of humor in any form. Today, we might put her somewhere on the mild side of the autism spectrum.

The director also dug up some of the student films made by Holger Meins, who later participated in several RAF terrorist actions, was imprisoned, and starved himself to death during a hunger strike, thus becoming the movement’s martyr. The excerpts of Meins’ films show young, smart, middle-class Germans striking poses while discussing revolutionary thought and assessing the contemporary state of German society and its readiness for revolutionary transformation, reminiscent of Godard’s ‘La Chinoise’. It all seems quite dour, lacking Godard’s wit, and, not to put too fine a point on it, German.

The verbosity of the RAF’s communiqués provides one of the few points of comic relief, as a West German news commentary shows scenes from the life of one of the ‘exploited workers’ the RAF claimed to be saving from the clutches of capitalism. We watch a montage of him leaving work, riding home in his nice little car to his nice little wife, pouring himself a frosty beer from the refrigerator, and settling in for an evening of bland, inoffensive public television. Meanwhile, a narrator reads a typical passage from an RAF communiqué, an clot of German caterpillar-sentences about objective and subjective conditions, revolutionary potential, alienation, consumer terrorism, the continuity of post-war German society with National Socialism, etc. The narrator asks whether any ordinary German worker could even understand this gobbledygook, much less be moved to give up his rather comfortable life for it.

I found the film a bit depressing. Germany, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was, overall, a prosperous, stable, pleasant place to live — at the time, probably one of the most prosperous, stable places to live on the planet. Yet, through a rigorous program of tunnel-vision indoctrination, a small group of student radicals managed to convince themselves that it was actually a grisly, contradiction-riddled nightmare of exploitation, just waiting to be swept away by revolution.

‘Growing up in Germany’ shows you just how this echo-chamber process of self-radicalization evolved in real time. It’s not a pretty sight, but an informative one. The intellectual tropes which drove radicalization still exist on the German hard left: the tendency to conflate all coercive state actions — even those which are part of the necessary functioning of any state — with fascism; the failure to draw distinctions between isolated social problems and total corruption; a hermeneutics of radical suspicion discerns conspiracies behind every unanswered question; cynicism toward every claim by authority figures to be acting in the name of any ideals higher than profit.

Underlying all of this is a tendency toward totalizing, principle-driven conceptual critiques (also a very German thing) which, followed to their logical conclusion, require rejecting Western society as a whole. In the words of one of the most famous revolutionary slogans: “It is impossible to live rightly within a wrong system” (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen). Adorno coined this phrase in Minima Moralia, published in the direct aftermath of National Socialism. The fact that student radicals blithely applied this formula to the very different Germany of the late 1960s is a useful reminder of the human capacity for self-delusion.

Learning to Read, Write, and Murder

From the explainer accompanying the great Twitter feed Medieval Death Bot:

1. Who were clerks and just why did they murder everybody?

Clerk is an umbrella term for a variety of offices in the Middle Ages. A quick google of the term points you towards the clerical side of clerkdom, the word coming from the Latin clericus which also gives us the word ‘cleric’, which is technically an accurate description, but not really the whole picture. Some literature on the Middle Ages impedes proper research as well, the word clericus being translated as something like ‘secretary’ or even ‘deputy’, which makes tracing the occupation through society difficult.

In general, clerk referred to anyone who had a job that incorporated writing and keeping accounts. And there were a lot of clerks. They were in every part of  religious and secular society keeping records of everything that needed keeping record of. Important households and individuals employed clerks (and subclerks) by the handful. In Peter Brears’ Cooking and Dining In Medieval England, there are about a dozen different kinds of clerks mentioned just in relation to the kitchen and food preparation.

However, clerk was also a term used for scholars. Most of the murders of or by clerks would be of this sort, making these clerks young men aged anywhere from eleven to about nineteen, likely far away from home at school and with full access to alcohol. The bulk of these clerk murders come from the Records of Medieval Oxford which makes these groups of drunken, armed clerks wandering the streets, trying to cause trouble, students at Oxford. They often found the trouble they were looking for; groups of clerks murder a single clerk, or two clerks get into a ‘strife’ at a tavern and one of them ends up killing the other, etc etc.

The following reports give us a good look at some very traditional clerk murders in detail:

William de Bufford – 1302 – on Wednesday after the feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin the said William stood in the door of his house immediately after curfew, and John de Bellgrave and John de Cliffe, clerks, came there and made an assault on the said William; and John de Cliffe with a sword gave him the aforesaid wound on the shoulder, and John de Bellgrave with a dagger gave him the said wound on the left side, whereof he died; but he lived for 17 days after he was wounded, and had all his church rights.

William de Roule – 1303 – “a clerk named William de Roule from the bishopric of Durham died in his lodging where he abode in the parish of St. Mildred… The jurors say upon their own that one Louis, of North Wales, clerk, and one David ab Oweyn, clerk, of Wales, and others whose names are unknown, were in a street called School Street about the hour of curfew; and two of the companion of the said William de Roule, who were outside Smithgate, came there, and when they would pass, Louis and the other assaulted them, and at once they raised the hue; which when the said William heard as he was in his lodging, he came forth with a staff to help his companions; and the said malefactors at once beat him, whereof he died.

Philip Port – 1305 – John de Berdon… late in the dusk of the evening, came to lodging where the said Philip abode… and as he was in his chamber called him and asked him to come with him to a beer tavern, promising that he would give him drink; and he came out and went with him; and John after drinking withdrew; and so Philip began to go towards his lodging after curfew, and when he came to the corner under the wall towards East Gate, five clerks whose names they knew not came and made an assault on him; and he would have fled from them; and they followed him and caught him and wounded him as aforesaid, and slew him, and at once they fled.

Philip was wounded in the front of his head from one ear to another, so that all his brain was scattered outside; and he had another wound across his face to within the teeth, four inches long and one inch wide, and his right hand was cut off and lay beside him, and as it seemed to all who were there he had been wounded on the head with a hatchet, called in English sparth (halberd).

The murders by clerics in the sense of parish clerks and priests are rare, and their deaths often accidents, such as Robert de Honiton who accidentally fell through a trap door in the bell-tower attempting to ring the bells on New Year’s Eve.

In the end, the clerks that crop up often in the tweets are just drunken university students causing trouble after dark, and generally not priests.

University students? Drunk? Heaven forfend!

German Words of the Week: Gink, Morp, Norf, Piwipp

Bildergebnis für soviet science fiction poster

Few people remember the East German answer to “Star Trek”, Raumschiff ‘Frieden’ (Spaceship ‘Peace’), broadcast from 1970-1973. The hyper-militarist aliens were called the ‘Erkrath’, and were led by Supreme Commander Piwipp, Captain Gink, and the ambassadors Morp and Norf.

Oh wait, no, Piwipp, Gink, Morp, and Norf (all g) are all names of places close to Düsseldorf. Sorry, my mistake.

 

“Imagine There Are No Countries…”

Yesterday, under the motto “#Seebrücke” (sea-bridge), protests (g) occurred yesterday in various German cities to support the operation of NGO rescue ships in the Mediterranean.

As anyone will tell you, the point of these protests was to support the humanitarian rescue of people in emergencies in the middle of the sea. After all, who could possibly oppose rescuing people in an emergency? Do you want people to drown?

Here we see a protester with a sign featuring the #Seebrücke slogan:

nnnc

This man is appealing to your conscience as a human being. All he wants is for people in need to be rescued. Really, it’s so simple, people. How can anyone opp– wait, what’s that on his sign?

“No nations, no cry”?

So he also opposes the existence of…countries. Hmm, perhaps there’s a bit more to these protests than meets the eye.

The European Convention on Human Rights is not a Suicide Pact

There’s a strain of pragmatism in American political discourse summed up by the phrase “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” The underlying idea is simple: If following some abstract constitutional principle in a particular situation would cause massive problems, then the principle should be ignored or watered-down in that case. This doesn’t mean the principle is abandoned; it’s just not implemented in one particular situation because the consequences could be destabilizing or dangerous.

This is the critical insight John Dalhuisen mentions in his interview, which I quoted yesterday. Throughout 2015 and long after — and still today — human-rights activists are insisting on an extreme reading of asylum and immigration law which would, in effect, result in open borders. His thought experiment is simple: Imagine what the world would look like if every demand made by groups such as Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders (“EU: Your Fences Kill. Provide Safe and Legal Passage“) had been met by European governments.

Word would quickly spread that Europe had decided not to turn anyone away, and the result would have been an influx of millions of migrants from Africa and the Middle East. In the three years since 2015, 5 million, 10 million, perhaps 15 million people would have emigrated to Europe. This is no exaggeration; see the video above.

If you ask activists whether this would be good for Europe, or for the countries which the migrants left — and I have asked them this — they are usually surprised by the question. Because they have never considered the real-world consequences of their positions. They simply insist on a de facto open borders policy because they believe that human-rights treaties, or European “principles”, require this policy. Political backlash? Not their problem. Conflicts over scarce housing and jobs? Not their problem. Exploding welfare budgets? Not their problem. Culture clash? Not their problem. The treaties (or “humanity”, or “European principles”) demand it, and therefore it must happen. End of discussion. Europe can find some way to deal with all these new arrivals. That’s not our problem. We’re activists, not politicians.

This approach is short-sighted and dangerous, as Dalhuisen points out. I would add: childish. Yes, human rights are important, and activists play a vital and necessary role in enforcing them, etc. But most questions of human rights have few broad policy implications: whether a country does or does not execute criminals is not an issue of national survival. Whether press freedom laws allow hate speech is not an issue of national survival. Whether accused criminals are kept in custody for years pending trial is not an issue of national survival. In these cases, arguments based on pure principle are appropriate, necessary, even vital.

But when activists enter the realm of immigration, they are entering an area with huge policy implications, including national survival. Germany would not cease to exist if 7 million Africans entered in any given year, using the “safe and legal” migration routes activists demand. Maybe. But even if it did, it would be a Germany nobody would recognize. And by the time the last of the 7 million arrived, there is not a single chance the EU would still exist. The European Convention on Human Rights, if it still existed, would have been gutted beyond recognition.

For human-rights activists to ignore the implications of their demands on immigration is irresponsible, perhaps even inexcusable. If they insist that the only permissible interpretation of refugee laws and treaties is “suicide pact”, Europeans will soon teach them that they’re not interested in sacrificing themselves on the altar of moral purity. In fact, they’re sending this message right now.

John Dalhuisen Switches Tactics, Not Sides

Just a year ago, John Dalhuisen was the director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia division, and was saying things like this about the deal to stop illegal migration into Europe from Turkey:

Today marks a dark day in the history of refugee protection: one in which Europe’s leaders attempted to buy themselves out of their international obligations, heedless of the cost in human misery,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe.

And this:

“European governments have not just been fully aware of these abuses; by actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, they are complicit in these crimes….  You will see us in court.”

But shortly after issuing these rhetorical broadsides, Dalhuisen joined the very organization that created the Turkey deal, the European Stability Initiative. And today, an interview with him appeared in German in the FAZ in which he explains why he left Amnesty.

Although he takes pains to stress his former colleagues are admirable, hard-working people whose hearts are in the right place, he faults them for rigidly adhering to a no-compromises, maximalist rhetoric about human rights and migration which leaves no room for compromise and risks a massive political backlash (my translation):

It was the migration debate which spurred Dalhuisen to reflect on the question of whether the human-rights movement had grasped the scale of the challenge it faced — and whether Amnesty was still the right place for him. “Many Europeans have been unnerved by the arrival of a large number of migrants in the past years. Nobody should ignore this fundamental fact. Yet the human-rights movement tends to do just that.”…

Dalhuisen…believes that Amnesty and Western liberals share a risky conviction of the irreversibility of human-rights achievements. He is surprised by the untroubled self-confidence with which many supporters of open borders — and these include Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and Doctors without Borders, whose demands would create de facto open borders — take the right to asylum for granted, as if it were somehow immune from any interference by political forces. They seem to treat the Geneva Convention on Refugees or the asylum articles of European constitutions as written in stone, a sort of law of nature. But this is simply not the case. The law of gravity cannot be abolished, but the Geneva Convention can, and so can the asylum rights guaranteed by national constitutions. Humans can destroy what they once created….

Dalhuisen’s complaints can be illustrated by a thought experiment: Imagine what Europe’s parliaments would look like today if European politicians had given in to all the demands of human-rights organizations during the past three years. If Macedonia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and other states had built no fences. If the EU had not signed the agreement with Turkey. If “safe and legal migration routes” had been created, as demanded by Doctors Without Borders, among other groups. If the stream of more than one million people per year not only continued, but perhaps even increased. If European reality had become a sort of endless loop of summer 2015. How would the elections have gone in France, Germany, or Italy?

“In that situation,” Dalhuisen suggests, “established parties who could not offer any solution to control immigration would have been swept away by the first party which could.”…

“It is a…political reality, that citizens in Europe want to see borders brought under control, and if necessary will elect parties which promise to meet this demand. The question, as a human-right activist, is whether I accept this reality and attempt, under these circumstances, to achieve the best possible conditions for protecting refugees — in the hope that some political actors will adopt these policies? Or do I insist on my perfect solution, without any concessions?” Dalhuisen thinks the path of compromise is correct because, in contrast to maximum demands, it offers a possibility of success. But established human-rights groups reject this view. They want to see the EU-Turkey agreement abolished, immediately. But what would happen after that? “Many human-rights activists tend to overlook the suffering imposed on the people they are especially interested in protecting by their own unwillingness to compromise.”…

He no longer wants to be a part [of the mainstream human-rights movement], because he did not join the human-rights movement to take comfort in the purity of his ideals, but rather to implement as many of them as possible. “Amnesty International and the human-rights movement have done an enormous amount of good in general. But if they don’t adapt to the challenges of our time, they will sink into obscurity, while human-rights treaties which took decades to achieve will be swept away.”

If large majorities of voters want X to happen, but lawyers and activists claim that X is prohibited under existing laws, then voters will change the laws to get X. That’s a feature, not a bug, of how democracy works. Kudos to Dalhuisen for making these arguments publicly. Presumably he will soon publish something in English.

No-Package Store Opening in the Hood

Ah, the Brunnenstraße (Well Street) in Düsseldorf, my stomping grounds. When I moved in, this storefront contained a regular video store, complete with actual VHS tapes and an X-rated section. Then it became the late, lamented Filmgalerie (g), an upscale video rental store with a massive selection of art-house, classics, anime, and horror from across the globe. And then it was a clothing design boutique named Carmona (g). And now, it’s going to become ‘Pure Note’, a ‘packaging-free’ grocery store:

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Don’t worry, the neighborhood (Bilk) is still ‘diverse’ and ‘vibrant’ in the good way: almost 1 in 4 of the people who live here is a foreigner, like me. But the kooky young kids with their fresh ideas do liven the place up. I will post a report once the store opens.