How Fake is American Niceness? How Is American Niceness Fake?

Two chatty German Youtube girls who live in Texas discussing whether American niceness is fake.

Ask any European who's been to America (except New York, and sometimes even then) what their impressions are, and "niceness" will be one of the first things they mention. Strangers smile, ask how you're doing, sometimes call you "honey". Most Europeans instinctively find this insincere, and ascribe it to superficiality and/or with corporate pressure to present a chipper, eternally happy exterior. Others see it as hypocritical. An American English professor makes the argument in the Washington Post:

In fact, Trump epitomizes the conventional version of American niceness, which assumes that Americans are fundamentally decent and benevolent people with the best of intentions, whose acts of aggression are reluctant and defensive necessities designed to protect us. (Or, as the office of first lady Melania Trump put it in response to the president’s latest Twitter tirade: “When her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder.”)

In a sense, this is quintessential American niceness: a tendency to insist on one’s own affability and friendliness while dismissing all unwarranted or unnecessary acts of cruelty as necessary evils. This is the kind of amiability that obscures the shadowy side of American life. On the other hand, Americans have also historically attempted to transform our niceness into a national attitude rooted in justice and mutual respect by acknowledging American cruelty and using it as an impetus to live up to an ideal of moral integrity based on the courage to tell the truth.

In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was among the first to comment on American amiability, comparing it with the “unsociable mood of the English.” In the 1840s, Charles Dickens, who couldn’t imagine an Englishman being happy living in the United States, nonetheless described Americans as “friendly, earnest, hospitable, kind.” By the end of the 19th century, the link between Americans and niceness had become accepted tradition, with Rudyard Kipling noting in 1891: “It is perfectly impossible to go to war with these people, whatever they may do. They are much too nice.”

Americans themselves regarded their famed niceness as the cornerstone of a democratic personality. The actress and writer Kate Field remarked in 1873: “To try to please everybody, is democratic; to be indifferent to everybody is aristocratic: consequently, Americans, men and women, are the best bred people in the world.” As a refreshing alternative to European stuffiness, American niceness conveys democratic informality while sustaining the myth of American exceptionalism: Americans are not just nice but the nicest people on earth. As Walt Whitman once put it, Americans are “the peaceablest and most good-natured race in the world.”

Since the 19th century, Americans’ belief in our own niceness has never wavered. Yet even then, American niceness obscured a tendency to refuse accountability for aggression and offense — and even unspeakable cruelty.

Europeans have two different "niceness" problems with the US.

The first is that the niceness is fake.

I don't think this problem is very important. American niceness is just being pleasant, friendly, and obliging to random people you meet. This is one of those common things, an accurate stereotype. Especially in really nice places, like the South, people are indeed damned friendly and helpful. 

This sort of ordinary, everyday niceness is, in my view, an unambiguously good thing. It just makes life easier for all concerned. Who cares if it's superficial? I take a consequentialist view of this kind of niceness: if it works, it's good.  A world in which everyone constantly expressed their deepest, most honest reactions would quickly drown in blood. Niceness is great social lubricant, every society should aspire to as much of it as possible.

That being said, the American advantage here isn't that great. When it comes to niceness, there is probably a bigger niceness gap between urban and rural people in any one country than there is between people in general in different countries. Berlin, New York, Paris, London — you're not going to be showered in gooey, spontaneous affection in any of these places. But in rural Germany and France — and even in fairly large cities  – people are quite friendly, as long as you at least try to speak their language and observe common behavioral norms.

The other kind of niceness problem is not that the niceness itself is fake, but that it is somehow hypocritical or inconsistent. This is a somewhat more sophisticated niceness critique, and the one that's being made in this op-ed. This one goes: "Oh sure, Americans are nice and friendly to other Americans or to 'acceptable' kinds of strangers such as tourists, but this is just an attempt to paper over inequality, racism, and militarism. Who cares how nice Americans are in America while their government is dropping more explosives on Cambodia than all the Allies used during all of World War II? Who cares whether that guy in the truck gave you a ride to the next gas station when he supports capital punishment and has Trump stickers all over his bumpers?"

This is a more serious objection, but it's not really logically consistent. The bombing of Cambodia had nothing to do with being friendly and helpful to strangers. The bombing of Cambodia would not have been more or less acceptable if Americans had been ruder at home. What these Europeans are complaining about is not American "niceness", but American moral posturing as the "shining city on the hill" which is a beacon unto the nations and the most morally upright of countries, etc. And to that extent, they're on solid ground. Too many Americans swallow this sort of guff about their country.

The association comes from the fact that the people most likely to uncritically swallow (only positive) American exceptionalism also tend to be really nice. But they're not nice because they believe in an air-brushed version of American history. You can like them for being nice while rejecting their blinkered opinions.

In Which I Admire Millions of Tiny German Lawsuits And Annihilate Several Canards About the Law

The U.S. is famous in Germany for its 'runaway' juries which hand down zillion-dollar lawsuits against poor defenseless companies. Yet, as I told my dumbfounded students, Germany is a far more litigious society than the USA. In fact, according to a book-length 1998 study, Germany is the most lawsuit-happy country on earth:

Country Cases per 1,000 Population

• Germany 123.2
• Sweden 111.2
• Israel 96.8
• Austria 95.9
• U.S.A. 74.5
• UK/England & Wales 64.4
• Denmark 62.5
• Hungary 52.4
• Portugal 40.7
• France 40.3

My German students were dumbfounded by this fact. Most of them got their image of the world from the mainstream press. And, as usual, German journalists tended to obsess over the real or imagined failings of other countries, while remaining ignorant of what was going on in their backyard.

But aside from the good clean fun of this tu quoque response, it's interesting to think about why Germany is so litigious. I think there are 4 main reasons:

  • Legal insurance (Rechtschutzversicherung). Millions of Germans have legal insurance policies that pay for lawyers both to file claims and defend against them. This insurance is affordable because litigation costs in Germany are low. Legal insurance is actually an excellent idea, every country in the world could benefit from widespread legal insurance. What it means in Germany, though, is that if you have a policy, you don't have to think twice about filing a lawsuit. Granted, the lawyer is not supposed to file if you don't have a claim, but many do anyway. Legal insurance also provides a lifeline for many small-time lawyers — they can patch together a decent livelihood by having a constant docket of 40-50 small time cases going on at any time. None of these cases will generate a huge verdict, but a steady stream of small payments is enough.
  • Lawsuits are a fact of life. Nobody really takes them seriously. If your landlord hikes your rent, you use your legal-insurance lawyer to fight it. The landlord uses their legal-insurance lawyer to defend. After all, if you don't sue, you'll certainly have to pay the extra 10% in rent. If you do sue, you might end up with a discount. The landlord would probably do the same thing in your position, and knows this.
  • Close neighbors make bad blood. Germany is a small country packed with people. Everything you do in public is going to have some effect on your neighbors. If a potted plant falls off your city balcony, it's going to hit someone or something below. If your cat likes to relieve themselves on your neighbor's lawn, they're going to notice. And might just take lethal action. Your barbecue smoke is going to trigger someone's asthma 5 houses down. The list goes on and on. Every German state has a long, complex "neighbor law" (here's the one (g) for my state), and many lawyers do nothing else. And once again, these petty squabbles are going to end up in court because it's so easy to go to court because of legal insurance. 

And finally, no lawsuit is too tiny. As Wagner once said, a German is someone who will always do something for its own sake. Which means Germans will file a suit over anything. Why, here's a story (g) from the excellent criminal-defense blog lawblog. Two retirees went fishing for deposit bottles in Munich, a favorite pastime of poor Germans, or just ones who need some way to fill their days in the fresh air.*

They approached a large man-sized glass-recycling container, whipped out their grabbers, and started fishing around inside the container. Recycling containers are supposed to be reserved for bottles which don't have a deposit on them, like wine bottles. But many people don't care or don't know how to tell a deposit from a non-deposit bottle, and just toss everything in.

Sure enough, our two hunters found 15 deposit bottles with a total value of € 1.44. Two other Germans, who were certainly feeling very German that day, called the police and reported the bottle-fishers for theft. Wait, what? Two people minding their own business, helping recycle glass, augmenting their puny incomes, harming nobody, and their fellow Germans report them to the cops? Welcome to Deutschland, my friends.

Now German prosecutors are obliged to investigate every credible accusation of crime that comes to their attention, the famous "Principle of Legality"**. This they did. The first thing they had to determine was what the value of the theft was. Technically, this was a theft — once you throw a glass bottle into a recycling bin, it becomes the property of the recycling company. So you might think that the amount of the theft was the deposit value of the bottles. But no! It turns out that the recycling company does not separate out deposit bottles from other ones. Scandalous, I know. So all the bottles just get melted down. The prosecutor asked the recycling firm how much value the bottles would have as recycling material, and the firm said: basically, it's too small to even put a number on.

At this time, the prosecutor chose to halt the proceedings (einstellen) based on the idea that there was no public interest in prosecuting the offenders. The writer at lawblog thinks this was the wrong reason to stop the prosecution — he thinks a better theory is to deny the people had any attempt to commit theft, because they had no intent to take possession of the bottles — their ultimate goal was simply to transfer them to a different owner. 

Be that as it may, the main thing to notice here is that several different government employees spent hours of their time and used considerable resources to investigate an accusation of a crime which, at the very most, involved the lordly sum of € 1.44. It's probably only a slight exaggeration to say that the German state spent 1000 times more money investigating the theft than it was actually worth in the first place.

Now, am I going to snigger about this? Of course I am, and so are you. But at the same time, I'm not going to go too far. The most important thing to keep in mind about high numbers of lawsuits is that they are an important sign of social health. In the vast majority of societies, lawsuits are prohibitively expensive and courts are woefully underfunded and corrupt, so nobody trusts them. Germans and Americans trust courts to usually resolve legal disputes in a fair and equitable manner, otherwise they wouldn't seek them out so often. They're right to do so; both the USA and Germany have exceptionally fair and efficient legal systems, despite their imperfections. A fair, professional, and generally non-corrupt legal system is one of humanity's most important achievements, full stop. Most countries don't yet have one. If you happen to live in a country which does, take a moment and thank your lucky stars. 

* You'd be surprised how many Germans decide they just don't fancy showing up to work anymore and having someone boss them around and tell them to do things. So they develop something hard to pin down, such as a bad back or burnout stress, hire a good employment lawyer, and presto! They're still technically employed in a certain sense, but they don't actually have to, you know, do anything. Everybody wins: their former employers are free of someone who wasn't really contributing, the employee has all the free time he wants, and most importantly, the government doesn't have to formally add this person to the unemployment rolls. Northern European welfare states are notorious worldwide for using a million different tricks to lower their official unemployment rate, and this is just one.

** Some German lawyers, or wanna-be lawyers, believe a lot of adorably misguided things about the principle of legality. If you begin talking about the American legal system, they will get up on their hind legs and begin intoning something like this: "Well, you see, in America most criminal cases are resolved by plea-bargains, where the defendant admits a crime — quite possibly not the one he actually committed — in return for a lighter sentence. This shows the irresponsible, frivolous gamesmanship of the system, where the objective truth of what happened can be bargained away as if justice were nothing more than a poker game. Here in Germany (string music starts swelling in the background), we believe in the principle of legality, which means the prosecutor must investigate all crimes and must prosecute based on the objective facts of what the defendant actually did."

It's at this point that I usually interject to point out that this speech is, not to put too fine a point on it, a crock of shit. First, German prosecutors are absolutely not obliged to bring every case to prosecution. As with all German legal principles, the principle of legality has a pragmatic loophole so big you could fit Saturn through it. A prosecutor is always permitted to "suspend" (einstellen) a prosecution if it is deemed a petty offence (§ 153, Criminal Procedure Code). Suspend is yet another German euphemism, it means the case is dropped. Although there may be a tiny theoretical chance of it being re-started, this basically never happens.

There are many other sections of the Code that permit the prosecution to suspend the investigation or to not bring charges on a variety of different grounds, the most frequently used being the prosecution's belief that bringing charges is "not in the public interest" for some reason. As you might guess, there are hundreds of stories of prosecutors suspending prosecution of high-powered or well-connected people for vague reasons. In fact, there's a whole book (g) ("Prosecution Unwanted!") about this, although it's not very convincing overall.

Also, if you believe plea bargains don't exist in Germany, I've got a bridge in Moscow I'd like to sell you. Even before plea bargains were legally allowed in Germany, it was common knowledge that prosecutors used their huge discretion to plea-bargain all the time. Like American prosecutors, German prosecutors are hopelessly understaffed, and the entire justice system would collapse if cases couldn't be resolved informally.

The practice became so notorious that eventually the federal legislature decided to stop pretending and legalize it. In 2009, it passed a law which, for the first time, legally recognized plea-bargaining in Germany. The law was full of procedural safeguards meant to ensure that the defendants' rights were respected and the principle of legality was not undermined. Would the law pass constitutional muster? The German Federal Constitutional Court held that it did, in 2013:

Mark Blyth on The Origins of Neo-Nationalism

It's not often you stumble across some professor who says he's going to explain the world, and then watch him actually do it.

I stumbled across Mark Blyth via MetaFilter. Mark Blyth is political science professor at Brown University — Wait! I know, you're thinking Brown University, the tiny, ultra-expensive US liberal arts college which is a hotbed of the most demented form of political correctness? Can any professor there be capable more than soft-focus P.C. pieties?

Well, Mark Blyth can. Perhaps because he's Scottish. Very Scottish, if you listen to him. In 2016, Blyth accomplished a pretty impressive trifecta in 2016: he accurately predicted Brexit, the Italian constitutional referendum, and Trump. His big idea is Global Trumpism, which involves defections both to the right and the left from the globalist neoliberal consensus. Whether it's Podemos in Spain or Trump in the U.S., middle-class voters in the West are reacting to 30 years of tectonic changes in the global political and economic landscape which have seen their quality of life being gradually eroded.

The end result is a sense of seething frustration in the middle and lower classes of Western countries. Unions have been crushed, more and more risk shifted onto the shoulders of individuals, job security is a thing of the past, international competition and automation are destroying millions of jobs which will never come back, the small luxuries of middle-class life are drifting out of reach, and each generation is seeing a decline in its standard of living compared to the last one.

All the while, the rich are getting almost exponentially richer, and mainstream politicians — whether center-right or center-left, there is no meaningful difference — seem at best helpless or disinterested at worst actively corrupt.

Here's some remarks he published in Foreign Policy (previous link), which are a bit heavy on the economics but still get the point across:

Back in 1943, [Michal Kalecki] he argued that once you target and sustain full employment over time, it basically becomes costless for labor to move from job to job. Wages in such a world will have to continually rise to hold onto labor, and the only way business can accommodate that is to push up prices. This mechanism, cost-push inflation, where wages and prices chase each other up, emerged in the 1970s and coincided with the end of the Bretton Woods regime and the subsequent oil shocks to produce high inflation in the rich countries of the West in the 1970s. In short, the system undermined itself, as both Goodhart and Kalecki predicted. As countries tried harder and harder to target full employment, the more inflation shot up while profits fell. The 1970s became a kind of “debtor’s paradise.” As inflation rose, debts fell in real terms, and labor’s share of national income rose to an all-time high, while corporate profits remained low and were pummeled by inflation. Unions were powerful and inequality plummeted….

But if it was a great time to be a debtor, it was a lousy time to be a creditor. Inflation acts as a tax on the returns on investment and lending. Unsurprisingly in response, employers and creditors mobilized and funded a market-friendly revolution where the goal of full employment was jettisoned for a new target—price stability, aka inflation—to restore the value of debt and discipline labor through unemployment. And it worked. The new order was called neoliberalism.

Over the next thirty years the world was transformed from a debtor’s paradise into a creditor’s paradise where capital’s share of national income rose to an all-time high as labor’s share fell as wages stagnated. Productivity rose, but the returns all went to capital. Unions were crushed while labor’s ability to push up wages collapsed due to the twin shocks of restrictive legislation and the globalization of production. Parliaments in turn were reduced to tweet-generating talking shops as central banks and policy technocrats wrested control of the economy away from those elected to govern.

Seen this way, what we see is a reversal of power between creditors and debtors as the anti-inflationary regime of the past 30 years undermines itself—what we might call “Goodhart’s revenge.” In this world, yields compress and creditors fret about their earnings, demanding repayment of debt at all costs. Macro-economically, this makes the situation worse: the debtors can’t pay—but politically, and this is crucial—it empowers debtors since they can’t pay, won’t pay, and still have the right to vote….

The traditional parties of the center-left and center-right, the builders of this anti-inflationary order, get clobbered in such a world, since they are correctly identified by these debtors as the political backers of those demanding repayment in an already unequal system, and all from those with the least assets. This produces anti-creditor, pro-debtor coalitions-in-waiting that are ripe for the picking by insurgents of the left and the right, which is exactly what has happened.

In short, to understand the election of Donald Trump we need to listen to the trumpets blowing everywhere in the highly indebted developed countries and the people who vote for them. 

The global revolt against elites is not just driven by revulsion and loss and racism. It’s also driven by the global economy itself. This is a global phenomenon that marks one thing above all. The era of neoliberalism is over. The era of neonationalism has just begun.

Blyth actually shines in videos; he's an outstanding and engaging speaker. I switched this video on to run in the background while I did some housework, but found myself repeatedly rushing to the computer to replay something I didn't quite get. This video is the best exposition of his theory as a whole. You'll have to get used to his Scottish burr:

Although his main critique is aimed at the technocratic managers of national and international economic policy, he also directs withering critiques at center-left politicians, who hurl accusations of politically-incorrect thoughtcrime to appear "left" while simultaneously suckling at the teat of the financial and technological elite and doing nothing to improve the lot of the middle class.

Blyth thinks the U.S. will stumble through, but Blyth believes that the outlook for Europe is much bleaker (this discussion starts at about 41:00). The Euro is a disaster which cannot be fixed, but European technocrats still refused to understand this, and continue to inflict crippling austerity on the European South in a doomed attempt to save it.

Melania Wasn’t “Sad”, She was Slavic

During Donald Trump's inauguration, his Slovene wife Melania looked sober and serious most of the time. This has led Americans to believe she was sad, depressed, horrified, anguished, perhaps even trapped in an abusive relationship.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

What these slightly fatuous Americans don't understand is that the European conception of personal dignity and institutional respect demands that public figures taking part in official ceremonies look serious at all times. In Europe, there is no penalty for looking stiff, even scowling, during official ceremonies; that's expected. There can be a significant penalty for a smile, or for any sign of levity. So everyone plays it safe and refrains from all except fleeting smiles.

Let me make my point with pictures of Supreme Courts. First, the American:

US Supreme Court

By my count, we have a whopping six smiles: the entire back row (Sotomayor, Breyer, Alito, Kagan) and two in the front (Roberts and Kennedy). Justice Scalia, the balding Italian man sitting next to the black guy, is wearing a sort of half-smile. Justice Thomas, the black guy, is wearing an angry scowl, his resting face, which seems out of place in this photograph, but would be perfectly normal in Europe.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the far right, seems to be cringing in terror. In fact, she seems to be looking at the same thing which has attracted Justice Thomas' attention. Maybe this photo was taken just seconds after the naked knife-wielding maniac broke into the photo studio screaming about CIA mind control: so far, only Thomas and Ginsburg notice him. Fortunately, he was tased by security before he could reach the Legal Minds.

Anyhoo, where was I? Oh right, facial expressions. Since Melania is Slovene, here's the Slovenian Supreme Constitutional Court:

Slovene

The first thing you notice about this official picture from the Court's website is how shitty it is. It's only 71 KB in size, and 60% of that is the surroundings. The picture is so crappy that if you zoom in to try to see whether any of the Justices are smiling, their faces devolve into pixelblurs. You get the definite impression that the Justices probably thought the entire idea of having their picture taken is a ridiculous waste of time, and tried to make it as unrevealing as possible. Nevertheless, I think we can still safely say: no open-mouthed smiles, possibly a mild expression of amusement on the woman in the center's face. That's all.

Bundesverfassungsgericht-senat_2

Here's the Second Senate of the German Federal Constitutional Court. Two open-mouthed smiles, the rest tight-lipped neutral expressions. Here's the First Senate:

Bvg_senat_1_2010

One open-mouthed grin. I can't even find a decent group photo of the French Court de Cassation (which has 85 members divided into a bunch of different groups), but the individual photos of the group leaders here (f) feature no open-mouthed smiles I can find.

And just to round things out, the European Court of Justice:

RTEmagicC_European-Court-of-Justice-Members-2013.jpg

A few smiles, a few scowls, but mostly neutral, purposeful expressions.

And in this particular respect, Slavs seem to be even more serious and scowly than Western Europeans. Here's the Polish Constitutional Tribunal:

Members-of-Polands-Supreme-Court

Being a Slav, as they say, is serious business.

So Melania wasn't "sad", you chirpy, fleering American flibbertygibberts. She was just showing respect by adopting a serious Slavic scowl.

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?

Weber The Ironmonger

From the Facebook feed Pearls from Düsseldorf, which is pictures of Düsseldorf from local graphic designer and photographer Markus Luigs (g), this picture of an old-school German storefront:

12419106_2185343131494609_1081350606375068115_o

'Iron-Weber' is the name. The store sells Eisenwaren (iron goods), tools, house and kitchen appliances. So, basically, a hardware store. But the name Eisenwaren is satisfyingly antique; from an era in which tools actually were made mostly of iron. So the capture the old-school flair, I'd translate it as an 'ironmonger'.

This picture gives you a good idea of German street architecture. The sidewalk, as you'll notice, is clean. Then you have the underground-access grates. Some of these are for city utilities, but the ones close to the building are for trash: you take your trash downstairs to the cellar, then put it in a special dumb-waiter like contraption under the street. The trashmen open the grate and haul up the square plastic trash can through the opening, or sometimes go down into it. All the while yelling at each other in a mysterious language that probably takes years to learn. Children love watching the trash and the men disappear up and down the magic sidewalk-holes. It's loud, but it solves several problems: first, no trash bins waiting on the street. Second, the garbagemen don't have to enter the store to collect the trash.

Here's one difference between Germany and developing countries. You will never see these grates lying open in Germany, posing a threat to pedestrians. Never. In my many years living here, traveling all across the country, in neighborhoods both haughty and humble, I've never seen one of these things lying open, unattended, unless it was roped off with warning signs and tape. Nor do they ever break. You can walk over them every single time, without giving them a second thought. The average German probably walks over 30 of them every single day, never giving them a second though. Contrast this to basically any developing country, where sidewalk murder-holes are a fact of life. Here's a picture I took in Alexandria:

Alex - Street near Pompey's Pillar

The contrast may help explain why so many people from places like Egypt want to relocate to places like Germany, no?

Then you have the display cases on either side of the storefront. Often, these are only big enough for posters, but these seem to have room enough for small displays. Then the actual display windows. If you want to run your own shop, you will generally go to a vocational school to learn, in great detail, how to structure an appealing shop-window display. This is called Schaufenstergestaltung in German. Of course, since this is a hardware shop, Weber hasn't really put all that much effort into it. Anything too schicki-micki (fancy) would probably drive away customers for these sorts of things.

Then you have the A-shaped ad placards to put in the way of pedestrians, stored safely beneath the chain protecting the door. Of course, since this is Germany, there are detailed regulations (g) for how large these stand-up signs (Stellschilder) can be, where you can put them, and how long you can leave them out. You may chuckle at those crazy Prussians, but you shouldn't. These signs are already an annoyance, and if the rules weren't there, they'd probably clog the sidewalk even more than they do already. Which would lead people to destroy them. So, a delicate balance is required between the needs of the shopkeeper and those of the public. That's what rules are for.

This store is almost certainly going to close soon, to be replaced by an artisanal vegan fair-trade frozen-yogurt studio. If this were Japan, the entire store would be recreated lovingly inside a museum, staffed by animatronic shopkeepers giving tinny mechanical advice to animatronic customers:

DSC_0164

But since this is Germany, 'Eisen-Weber' will probably just disappear forever. At least we'll have the photo.

You Cannot Film the Police in Germany

The German press is fascinated and disturbed by videos of American police using excessive force, like the one above.

Why do these videos exist? Because in the United States, it is every citizens' constitutional right to film the police doing their job unless they are interfering with police work:

Taking photographs and video of things that are plainly visible in public spaces is a constitutional right — and that includes the outside of federal buildings, as well as transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties.

Police often tell people to stop filming, but those cops don't know the law. Unless the videos are obscene, you can post those videos to the Internet with full constitutional protection, and that's exactly what people do. They are then played over and over on German websites.

Can you film cops arresting people in Germany and then post that video straight to the Internet? The short answer is: absolutely not. The somewhat longer answer is: Sure, you can do it, but you could well be sued for tens of thousands of Euro, and have to wait for a court decision about whether the public interest in publishing the video was stronger than the privacy rights of the people displayed.

The crucial background to know about this issue is that German law gives people powerful protections over the use of their own image and voice and the protection of their privacy — legal protections which most Germans appreciate, and which don't exist to anywhere near the same extent in the US. The question then becomes whether police officers doing their jobs in public enjoy these same protections. Many German courts have held that they do.  

Marvin Oppong, a journalist for the 'torial' (g) blog in Germany who wanted to film his own questioning by police decided to look into the matter in detail. He interviewed several lawyers nad journalists. Here's a summary of what he learned:

  • Can you take pictures of the police? German courts are all over the place on this issue. Some say this is basically allowed in public spaces. It also depends on where. Inside buildings such as train stations you may be prohibited from doing so because of station rules. According to other decisions, the police can also request that you delete the photos or promise not to distribute them in any way or they will sue civilly. 
  • Can you video record your own encounters with the police? Yes, unless it interferes with their work. However, you may face civil or criminal liability if you distribute the results in any way without the officers' consent, since they have a right to control the distribution of their own image. Recording their voices is only permissible in a 'completely open and public' situation. If that is not the case, then simply recording their voices is actually a crime bringing up to three years' imprisonment. You read that right: if the situation is not deemed public (whatever that means), merely recording someone's spoken words is itself a crime. If the policeman knows you are recording his voice and doesn't object, that may be a defense. 
  • Can you publish photos and videos of a police encounter on the Internet? No: German courts have held that publishing videos of a police officer's conduct on the internet creates a 'pillorying' effect that violates the police officer's right to the protection of his personality (Persönlichkeitsrecht in German). This is so even though you are filming the officer doing his or her job in public. You may be able to publish general photos of public events, but a photo that clearly focuses in on one officer will violate that officer's right to control over the distribution of their own image. Which means you will need the officer's permission to publish it.
  • Can police ask you to identify yourself if they see you filming them? Basically, yes. They can also bring you to the police station for questioning if you don't have any personal ID with you.
  • Are the rules different for journalists? Possibly. If they are filming an incident of public importance, they may be able to claim that their right to do their job outweighs the officers' rights.

So, to sum up: if you are a private citizen and see German police officers engaging in questionable conduct in public and post a video of that in the Internet — as Americans do hundreds of times every day — you will enter a legal minefield of contradictory court precedents. You will probably expose yourself to tens of thousands of euros in damages as well as possible criminal prosecution. Your only hope is if a court, in your specific case, finds that the public interest served by your publishing the video outweighed all of the restrictions German law places on taping and photographing people. Even police officers doing their job in public.

When Can German Police Stop and Question You?

Public service time! In the USA, there is a cottage industry of people spreading the word about what rights citizens have during encounters with police. One of the best videos is from 'Flex Your Rights'. It's just below. The video addresses automobile stops and house searches, but I decided to concentrate on this post on police stopping and questioning people on foot. The video starts just as a a police car pulls up to question a young black male. The cops are investigating illegal graffiti in the area. The lawyer comments on each step of the transaction: 

So what's the situation in Germany? A popular German legal website has a short but informative article here (g). The basic ground rules:

Police must always give you a reason for stopping and questioning you. However, this reason does not alway have to be a concrete suspicion. In certain circumstances police are permitted to stop people as a preventive measure to avoid dangers to public safety (Gefahrenabwehr). These are not intended to assist in investigating a crime, but rather preventing one.

For this justification to apply, it needs to be shown that a danger to public safety exists at a particular location — for instance, a demonstration in which disturbances are likely to take place, or a well-known drug market where crimes are routine.

Such places are often named specifically in your local state's local-policing law — for instance Bavaria allows suspicionless public-safety searches where large numbers of prostitutes gather. Also, in special circumstances police can declare entire regions of a city 'danger zones', as Hamburg did in 2014 during left-wing demonstrations.

And what if the police do stop you based on general location? You are required to answer basic questions: your name, your address, your nationality, date and place of birth. The police can ask you to present an identification card (either the German national identity card or a passport), but you are not required to carry this identification around with you everywhere, so if you don't have it with you, that is not against the law.

The police may ask you further questions, such as where you are coming from and where you are going, but you are not required to answer them. A lawyer quoted in the article recommends that you do answer them in a polite but very curt manner, since this is likely to de-escalate the situation.

Note that this applies only when the police stop you without any concrete suspicion you have committed a crime. If they do have such a suspicion, they may be entitled to ask more questions.

The police are also permitted to engage in questioning of random people without individualized suspicion of crime at airports and train stations and trains. The purpose of these stops is usually to try to find illegal immigrants. A German court has found that stopping someone based solely on their appearance or skin color is unconstitutional according to the German Basic Law. (The lawyer in me says they will almost certainly find other ways to justify the search, though.)

Japanese Revere, Eat Insects

You might notice I've been on a Japan kick recently, so here's a pice from Aeon in which Andrea Appleton describes Japanese insect love

Insects have been celebrated in Japanese culture for centuries. ‘The Lady Who Loved Insects’ is a classic story of a caterpillar-collecting lady of the 12th century court; the Tamamushi, or ‘Jewel Beetle’ Shrine, is a seventh century miniature temple, once shingled with 9,000 iridescent beetle forewings.

Insects continue to rear their antennae in modern Japan. Consider ‘Mothra’, the giant caterpillar-moth monster who is second only to Godzilla in film appearances; the many bug-inspired characters of ‘Pokémon’, and any number of manga (including an insect-themed detective series named after Fabre). Travel agencies advertise firefly-watching tours, there are televised beetle-wrestling competitions and beetle petting zoos. Department stores and even vending machines sell live insects.

Nor do the Japanese merely admire insects: they eat them too. In the Chūbu region, in central Japan, villagers rear wasps at home for food, and forage for giant hornets that are eaten at all life stages, while fried grasshoppers or inago are a luxury foodstuff. Entomophagy once had a place in Western culture too: the ancient Greeks ate cicadas, the Romans ate grubs. But while modern Westerners blithely eat aquatic arthropods – lobster, shrimp, crab, crayfish – we’ve lost our taste for the terrestrial kind.

‘Deeply Bogus and Deeply Boring’

Andrew Gimson, a former Berlin correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, has written a solid little article on the 'Conservative Home' website about the main misconceptions his countrymen have about Germany (h/t MTW):

1. Angela Merkel

The British have no idea what makes the Chancellor tick. The Germans too have no idea what makes her tick. Merkel is inscrutable even to her own Christian Democratic Union: a party accustomed to being led by Catholic men from the Rhineland. For the last 14 years it has been led by an unknown woman who spent the first 36 years of her life in East Germany, where her father was a Protestant clergyman….

2. The German language

Few of us understand it. To think one can understand a country without knowing its language is a presumption.

3. German manners

But even if one knows the language, one may find oneself unable to comprehend the manners. Take the elementary and unavoidable question of when to use a first or Christian name and call someone “Du” – the familiar form of the word “You”. One of my most treasured souvenirs of my time in Germany is “A short Guide on The Correct German Form” compiled by Lieutenant-Colonel Jan-Dirk von Merveldt, of the Royal Green Jackets, for the use of British officers stationed in Germany. Merveldt’s family emerged in Westphalia in 1159, both his parents were German and he spent the first 14 years of his life in Germany. He confirms that in many circumstances we are liable to get things wrong: “This British habit of liberal use of first names is regarded by many Germans as irritating, excruciating, unwelcome, over familiar and an invasion of privacy – although no German will actually ever admit it to you.” …

4. The drinking customs

This is a deep subject on which I am not qualified to give guidance: an example of something most of us don’t even know we don’t know about.

5. The slowness

Germans tend to have a different and less impatient sense of time. Doing something properly, with craftsmanlike deliberation, is more important than doing it fast. This has a bearing on politics: changes tend to be debated for 20 or 30 years before actually occurring. To reform the EU in two years might be quite difficult. It is true that the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred in a rush, and forced the Germans to display their gift for improvisation. But the popular demand to reform the EU is not quite so strong.

6. The geography

This may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning, but it is a subject which the British often ignore or underplay. Germany has more neighbours than any other country in Europe: nine with whom it shares a land border, and about the same again once one includes those which can easily be reached by sea….

7. The history

This again may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning. But it is unfortunately the case that very few people in Britain know much about German history before 1914, or after 1945. We even tend to overlook the large role played by Britain in the creation after the Second World War of free institutions in West Germany, a subject on which Thomas Kielinger touched in a recent piece for the Daily Telegraph. Concentrating on the First World War, and then on the monstrous events of 1933-45, and knowing nothing about what came before or after, is not a good way to set about understanding Germany. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has now produced, in Germany: Memories of a Nation, a series of 30 radio programmes which offer a brilliant account of some of what any educated Briton would hope to know about Germany. I have missed most of them when broadcast live, but find that even for someone as technologically backward as myself, it is possible to arrange to listen to one or more of these 14-minute programmes while doing the washing up….

8. The politics

The West German tradition of consensus politics is different to the Westminster tradition of adversarial politics, and is therefore difficult to explain to or bring alive for British readers. Here again is an aspect of Germany we do not really understand. And the German political class discusses these matters in a way which to the British ear can seem at once deeply bogus and deeply boring…

9. The similarities

And yet there are close similarities between Britain and Germany. We share an admiration for the Royal Family, and a fondness for beer and dogs, among many other things. And in both countries, one finds a conviction that it would be more sensible to run our own affairs, than to have them run for us from a city in Belgium….

'Deeply bogus and deeply boring' is tough but fair. After landing here, I quickly realized that all speeches with the word 'Europe' in the title given by German politicians, lawyers or other boffins are terrifyingly similar, as if they were all written by the same 1997-era algorithm. The speaker immediately switches into Euroblather mode, reeling off a bunch of inoffensive on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand abstractions nobody could possibly disagree with: 'We must ensure that prosperity is shared in a fair and equitable manner without stifling enterprise.' / 'Europe must balance its commitment to the integrity of its borders with a concern for human rights.' / 'Europe must rise to the challenges of the 21st century by drawing on its rich heritage.', etc. The speaker often seems even more bored than his audience. Martin Sonneborn pretty much summed it up with his campaign slogan for the European Parliament: 'Yes to Europe! No to Europe!'

I wouldn't mind adding a few more emendations and corrections of my own as time permits, but alas it doesn't (busy semester). But go nuts in comments, if you like!

I Have Herpes, and So Does Justine Henin, and So Do You!

And now to one of the most amusing sources of cross-cultural misunderstanding there is. One fine day, a co-worker and I were chatting in my office in German and she casually said: "Damn, my herpes is back. What do you do about your herpes? Is there some special American treatment?"

I just barely avoided a genuine, honest-to-Allah spit-take. Before I could ask what this prim, attractive member of the German haute bourgeoisie was talking about, she added "Fortunately, most of the blisters are on the inside, so it's not that embarrassing." And then she showed me what she was talking about, pointing to the location of the outbreak. I recoiled in horror, crossing my arms in front of me, as she exposed her infected…

…lips. The ones on the mouth, that is.

As you probably know, there are a few different kinds of herpes, and almost everyone carries Herpes Simplex Type I, the virus that causes blisters on the lips now and then. English speakers, in our prudish way, call these outbreaks 'cold sores'. In the English-speaking world, the word 'herpes', standing alone, refers exclusively to genital herpes, the incurable sexually-transmitted disease.

Which brings us to the tale of how Belgian tennis champion Justine Henin unwittingly became a poster girl for venereal disease. In a 2007 interview, she stated: 

Q. Weren’t you afraid that the emotional side of things would have too much influence on that match?

JUSTINE HENIN: No, I didn’t panic. I knew I was not starting that match well. I can tell you, I had a horrible night. My herpes came out again, and I said to my doctor, “Well, I see everything is fine, it’s great.”

So, really, I was a bit anxious. But also, I really wanted to do well. And very early in the match, the match turned over. And then I knew I was going to be able to keep it up until the end.

I rather doubt that Justine Henin, at the height of her career, casually confessed to millions of strangers at the French Open post-game press conference that she has genital herpes. That would be an extremely un-European thing to do.

But that is exactly how American fans interpreted it. One tennis forum entry reads: OMG!!!! Justine has herpes, while other articles praised her for her bravery and called her a 'champion' for herpes sufferers worldwide:

With six Grand Slam titles to her credit, Henin is no stranger to plaudits. But even more need to be extended to her for speaking openly about something that is the secret of so many.

With that one turn of a phrase, millions and millions of herpes sufferers now know that they are by no means alone. And with her remark, the term “Champion” fits her even to those who have no interest in professional tennis.

Another American sports outlet noted: "Henin either doesn’t mind talking publicly about her herpes, or herpes = humor in Germany." And another titled a post, "That's Right, Justine Henin has Herpes" and speculated whether her "admission" might have had something to do with her then-recent divorce.

And the legend lives on! Andrew Sullivan recently wrote something about the shame and stigma of herpes, and received the following note from a reader:

Update from a reader: As your friend Dan Savage would attest, herpes is shameful only to Americans. Justine Henin, when she was the #1 tennis player on the world, was asked why she lost a match. She very matter of factly said she had a herpes outbreak. Americans attend support groups for herpes, can you imagine an American treating herpes like the flu, something you have, not something to be ashamed of?

I've sent in a correction by email to Sullivan, but I thought a blog entry was also in order.