The Political-Correctness Gap is Closing

The German hardware store Hornbach thought it had a clever idea for an ad called “This is How Spring Smells”. You can watch it here; there’s no dialogue in it, so you don’t need to be German-powered:

I hope you didn’t find this advertisement amusing. The South Korean and Japanese embassies did not; they denounced it as “racist”. Dozens of complaints were filed with the German Advertising Council. Hornbach briefly tried to defend the ad on a special website, claiming that it merely illustrated the “longing for springtime” in a humorous manner. “To do this, we leverage the supposed taboo subject of “smell fetish” in a humorous way and put a twist on well-known gender clichés.” Eventually, though, it climbed down, removing the ad from television and movie theaters.

This little episode sheds light on a few characteristics of the German national character. First, the earthiness. Germany is still the land of breasts on prime-time and self-fellating gargoyles on ancient public buildings. The existence of Japanese vending machines which sell used underwear appears to be a myth. But even putting that aside, you would never see an ad using such a tangy, moist conceit on American television. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

This episode also shows that the political-correctness gap between Germany and the “Anglo-Saxonsphere” is closing. It’s been interesting to watch this phenomenon in action. Many Germans consider the Anglo-Saxon model of political correctness censorious and prudish. Most of these Germans are on the right, but not all: A German travel writer (g) with thoroughly wholesome political views (as far as I know) recently took to the pages of Die Zeit to complain that political correctness was hampering her ability to write interesting stories — for example, she had to remove a description of a cockfight from a story about life in a Colombian village because editors feared it would unleash a “shitstorm” of controversy which would eclipse the rest of the article.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that part of the self-definition of what it means to be German — a small part, of course — is to resist political correctness. If you ask Germans what distinguishes them from the English or especially the Americans, one argument will inevitably be that Germans are more ready to recognize that life can be gritty, hopeless, brutal, and filthy. That people have complex motivations, and even underdogs can be flawed. That airbrushing reality leads to shallow and hypocritical thinking. That problems need to be faced head-on and pointed critique is no sin. And that jokes can be as funny as they are tasteless or insulting.

But the politically-correct insurgency has seized most of the highlands and villages, and launches increasingly frequent raids into the capital city. They haven’t seized power quite yet, but they can’t be dislodged — especially since the number of ethnic minorities in Germany, the natural infantry of the army of correctness, steadily grows.

As for me, I’m watching from the sidelines. I like to think I don’t have a dog in this fight. Not that I would ever attend a dogfight.

‘Rostock is a Beautiful City’

A brief slice of an educational English-learning TV show from the former East Germany. Unfortunately, it cuts off just before the good part, in which Muttonchop drops some Sweet Slabs of Socialist Science™ on the English reporter: 

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

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

Just underneath the video: DISABLING COMMENTS – YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL CHILDISH DOLTS. THIS IS A COMEDY VIDEO. ENOUGH WITH THE COUNTRY BASHING.

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

German Word of the Week: Lebensabschnittsgefährte (and why opera DVDs rule)

MH points me to the a 3 Quarks Daily piece by Brooks Riley about German-English language exchange:

The German language may have a reputation for exhaustively long words, but when it's pithy, it's penetrating: The word for 'scene of the crime' is 'Tatort', a linguistic slamdunk.

And then there's the economical 'doch', an invention that should have been imported years ago. I say, 'The world won't end today.' You answer, 'Oh yes it will.' A German answers, 'Doch', a four-letter contradiction instead of a four-word one. 'Doch' has an elegant finality about it—having the last word without spelling it out. ' You're not going out dressed like that!'. 'Doch.' Try to argue with that.

…English also suffers the boyfriend-girlfriend issue, a problem dating back to the Sixties, when young people started avoiding marriage. Before then, 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' were useful terms for a temporary state of affairs, to be discarded when the young ones tied the knot. Now that marriage is just one of many forms of monogamous pairings, those without a wedding ring are left hanging–some of them well into old age–without a proper word to describe their Significant Other, other than 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'. In both languages, the rather tepid solution is to use 'my friend' to imply romantic involvement, and 'a friend of mine' to suggest friendship. (This distinction works only if you omit the name of the loved one: "My friend Flicka" would hardly be mistaken for a romantic liaison). 'Partner' pops up in both languages, but what does it mean? A business partner? A lover? Is it a he or she (the same predicament applies to the word 'lover')? Do they live together or do they just do dinner? In German, unmarried cohabiting (or is it co-habiting) pairs refer to each other as Lebensgefährte (male life companion), or Lebensgefährtin (female life companion), profiting from a language with male and female nouns. But what if they break up? You can't exactly refer to a former boyfriend as a 'former life companion' (unless you tweak it to 'companion of a former life'). One cynical German suggested the word 'Lebensabschnittsgefährte', or 'slice-of-life companion'. An American friend of mine uses the term 'serial monogamy' to describe a lifetime of long-term relationships, but it's not one that solves the problem of what to call the S.O.

I would translate Lebensabschnittsgefährte more as 'phase-of-life' or 'period-of-life' companion, but there's no doubt it's a magnificent word. It's still a bit louche: you would never describe your current girlfriend as a Lebensabschnittsgefährte — at least not in front of her — but that's only because we humans are masters of self-delusion and wishful thinking.

I also have to quibble with Riley about the boyfriend/girlfriend issue. Not that the problem she describes doesn't exist, but that Germany, like many other languages, lacks a distinction between boyfriend and friend. If you're a woman, you call your boyfriend merely your  'Freund'. But, of course, you may have other male friends, who are also your Freunde. The only way to know whether someone is talking about their boyfriend or merely a friend is context and/or body language. Alternatively, you can use the formulation ein Freund von mir (a friend of mine) to describe a Platonic friendship, but that's a bit clumsy.

Germany's lack of words for boyfriend/girlfriend leads to amusing situations in which a British man brings over his German girlfriend to meet the family, and she constantly refers to him as merely 'my friend', even as they're sharing bodily fluids and discussing wedding plans. Alternately, I constantly fall into the trap of referring to my male friends as mein Freund, which leaves people who don't know me unsure whether I've just declared my homosexuality.

Oh, and as a bonus, here is Brooks Riley describing why watching operas on DVD is so rewarding:

J.S. How would you compare the experience of watching an opera at home on DVD, versus seeing it in the theater?

B.R.: Of course, there is nothing quite like seeing an opera in the theatre. But there are disadvantages too, the most obvious being that you’re always seeing the long shot. And depending on where you’re sitting, you may miss a lot of directorial nuances which give a production its effect. At home, you’re seeing a range of different shots, from close ups to medium shots and long shots, or the establishing shot. The job of the video director is to enter the production, so that the viewer has a dramatic perspective he may not get in the theatre, without losing the value of the whole. Of course I determine what the viewer will see, but I always try to remain true to the production. Because my background is the cinema, I try to direct opera productions with the cinematic experience in mind. For instance, I am just as interested in reaction shots as I am in the shot of the person singing. When I edit, I edit the material like a film. I also try to make the shots themselves interesting. There’s more going on in directing a production than coverage and reportage.

I was never much of an opera fan until I began collecting opera DVDs. That changes the entire experience. The advantages are overwhelming:

  • You can drink and eat and smoke whatever you want while watching.
  • You can get a fantastic blu-ray DVD of an opera for perhaps 1/3 the price of a decent ticket.
  • You can see operas from all over the world.
  • You get a variety of camera angles, not just one static view from 100 meters away.
  • The sound quality is incredible on the newest DVDs and blu-rays, and superior to what you would hear in any seat you can afford.
  • For foreign-language operas, you can see immediate translations as the singers are singing, enabling you to appreciate the acting and follow the plot.
  • You control the climate, so no stuffy, over/underheated concert halls, no coughing, no hyperflatulent geezers, no ringing cellphones, etc.
  • You can back up and re-play interesting scenes or arias.
  • You can skip the dull recitative.
  • For non-opera CDs, you can see the facial expressions of the soloist, members of the orchestra, and/or conductor. This adds immeasrably to the listening experience.

The list just goes on. I still go see live performances here and then, but only when they promise to be something special, with an electric live atmosphere. Everything else I watch on DVD.

German Word of the Week: Glitzkrieg

I'm a couple months late linking to this clip, in which the Daily Show's Jason Jones interviews Scott Lively, president of an American lobbying group called Defend the Family. Lively is one of those countless American ideologues who rip isolated facts out of history (especially Germany's history) and use them to cover their prejudices with a spray-on sheen of truthiness.

After literally dozens of minutes of research, Lively returned from the library, panting and out of breath, waving a yellowing news clipping: "There were — gasp — gay Nazis!" He quickly attached a tube to this fact and pumped it full of Significance. He even published a book about the results of his research, The Pink Swastika.

In the interview below, Lively calmly explains that homosexuals are violent sadists, which is why Hitler liked them so much. Oh, and Hitler was also gay.

Jones lets Lively ramble on about his cockamamie theories, while the producers illustrate them with a documentary-style voice overs. During one of these "historical interludes", if I may, Jones invents the word Glitzkrieg. Badly needed inventing, if you ask me!

Have fun! (Warning: The image that appears at about 1:00 into this report may haunt your children's children).

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Gay Reichs
www.thedailyshow.com
http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:341214
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Rally to Restore Sanity

German Word of the Week — Plus!: Moralin and Gulaschkanone

This week's German Words of the Week is not only a twofer but also — an example the kind of fabulous positive-plus synergy which makes this blog world-famous — coupled with What I Learned from Tatort. Wow! I can hardly wait to type the post!

Last week, I dutifully switched on my television to watch Tatort. Every Tatort plays in a different German city, and this one was in Kiel, a port city way up north on the Baltic sea. Unfortunately, the detective who features in the Kiel Tatorts is Borowski, who has all the charisma of a sea cucumber. Yes, I know, his waxen flesh and papery monotone are supposed to convey the legendary taciturnity of Germans from the north, renowned as the dullest, stuffiest, and most reserved of all Germans. Which, believe me, is saying a lot. My pragmatic Anglo-Saxon mind entertains the heretical notion of whether these Ent-like humanoids should be the subject of televisions shows that purport to be "entertainment." The most brutal blow was the casting of gorgeous Turkish vixen Sibel Kekilli in a supporting role. She stole every scene she was in, and made the viewer desperately yearn for her to suddenly break into the other scenes, which mainly featured North Germans bitching and seething.

But I digress. I should have known I'd be in for something special this time, because the entire week, the main German public-television station had been highlighting proper nutrition with various specials and cooking shows. And that meant that this week's Tatort had to Teach us about Proper Nutrition. As Christina Sieben observed in her review, the "die Gulaschkanone" of high-minded educational public TV was set on "constant bombardment." Now, a Gulaschkanone is basically what it sounds like: a goulash cannon. The term originally referred to military field kitchens, for obvious reasons. But here, in context, the cannon is spouting edifying lessons like a Stalin's organ. In Sieben's summary:

Artificial colors have to be, because nobody will buy white energy drinks. Cows are always chained up in the dairy. "Research Institutes" are in the pocket of industry. Good food costs money, but people are too cheap to pay for it. The old organic farmer in the show knows all his cows by name. Everyone wants to earn money. And, at the end of the day, it's all our fault. Bon appetit! 

Sieben goes on to predict that with Public Television Nutrition Edification Week over, the next Tatort will contain slightly less Moralin. You know, Moraline (not to be confused with Betweenanene (Screwene)). Like Adenosine, Guanine, Cytosine, Adrenaline, or Methamphetamine. Moraline bonds with plot elements in public-television dramas, causing the narrative to coalesce in ways that offer edifying lessons to the benighted, easily corruptible audience.

Thanks to Moraline, we learned all those valuable things about food and nature from last week's Tatort (although strangely enough, the topic of lavish cow subsidies (g) was barely mentioned). Moraline additive also helps us understand, for example, that unemployed people want to work, alcoholics and drug addicts roll like they do because of childhood trauma, women can do everything men can, family-run firms are the only halfway-acceptable form of free enterprise, and that Scientology, nationalism, plastic toys, wars, lobbysists, and nuclear power are evil.

If you watch too much German public television, your moraline levels may reach toxicity: You may begin to use phrases like "our fellow-citizens of the Islamic faith" or "food-chain-renewability enhancing measures" in everyday speech. At this point, you'll need to spend a few hours in a secure, moraline-free environment. The most reliable place is Titanic Magazine (g), which, is 100% moraline-free and whose motto is "Ein klares Ja zum Nein!" (A clear Yes to No!).

All the ‘Tatort’ Cliches…

…in one handy list here (g), from secretaries with funny regional accents to fat men eating sausage in front of a river to boarding schools full of scheming scions of wealth neglected by their rich parents. As with so many aspects of German life, the appeal of Tatort lies not in the fact that it's entertaining and original, but precisely in that it's comforting and familiar.

This cultural trait also makes the writer's job much easier. Coming up with original ideas (especially in a decades-old series) is risky, and beyond the capacity of many people. But churning out familiar variations on well-worn themes is child's play. Come to think of it, I'm sure you could take this list and program a computer to write perfectly serviceable Tatort scripts. Hmm, that gives me an idea…

It occurs to me that there must be some reasonably good Tatort parodies out there. Little help?

The Literature Pope and the Vast Wasteland

In case you were wondering, the 88-year-old 'Literature Pope' of Germany, longtime critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, thinks German television is crap. At Saturday's German Television Prize proceedings, he decided to tell everyone responsible for German TV what he thought, on live TV, as they tried to give him a lifetime achievement prize. Very exciting! I'll comment later as time permits, but for now, here's the video of his "rejection speech."

How Duesseldorf Gave Birth to ‘Stand-Up Tragedy’

Famous Duesseldorfers include Kraftwerk, Heinrich Heine, and Josef Beuys (sort of).  Plus, never forget that Robert Schumann went insane in this city!  Unfortunately, few of these names rings a bell outside of Germany (although they should, they should!).  Therefore, I’ve been on the lookout for other famous Duesseldorfers. 

And I found one. The one, the only, the inimitable Brother Theodore:

Brother Theodore (11 November 19065 April 2001) was a German monologuist and comedian known for rambling, stream of consciousness dialogues [sic] which he called "stand up tragedy." He was born Theodore Gottlieb into a wealthy family in Düsseldorf, Germany, where his father was a magazine publisher. Theodore attended the University of Cologne. Under Nazi rule, he was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp until he signed over his family’s fortune for one Reichsmark. After being deported for chess hustling from Switzerland he went to Austria where Albert Einstein, a family friend, helped him escape to the United States. He worked as a janitor at Stanford University, a dockworker in San Francisco and played a bit part in Orson WellesThe Stranger before moving to New York City.

His ‘act’, if you can call it that, explored what would happen if you re-animated Schopenhauer, glued mutilated chunks of a silver wig on him, stuck a gun in his back, and ordered him to ‘be entertaining.’  Here is BT from one of his sixteen legendary appearances on the David Letterman show.

Now, I’ll admit, a little of Brother Theodore goes a long way.  In fact, 2 minutes or so is enough to last most people their entire lives.  But I couldn’t get enough of the man. As I watched the flickering, glowing television screen in my suburban home, I thought to myself: "One day, I must go to live in the city that brought forth this diseased man-child!"

Some of Brother Theodore’s other aphorisms:

"The best thing is not to be born. But who is as lucky as that? To whom does it happen? Not to one among millions and millions of people."

"All the great spiritual leaders are dead …. Moses is dead …. Muhammed is dead …. Buddha is dead …. and I’m not feeling so hot myself!"

"Her hair was of a dank yellow, and fell over her temples like sauerkraut, her face was sweaty like a chunk of rancid pork…"

"What this country needs, and I’m not joking, is a dictator. I feel the time is right, and the place congenial, and I am ready. I will be strict but just. Heads will roll, and corpses will swing from every lamppost."

Germany’s Doughnut-Hole TV Landscape

Two commentators in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung here try to explain why so much German TV kind of sucks. Adrian Kreye here (G) maintains that "America is unbeatable" when it comes to television, because American TV mirrors the "experience-world" (Erlebniswelt) of higher-class social groups at a high level of quality.  I’ve heard this from many Germans as well — even those who see American mainstream movies as superficial trash may love series such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, or Gray’s Anatomy.  These high-end series offer clever writing, original ideas, sharply-drawn characters — exactly the sort of thing you rarely see on German TV.  Not that all of these series play well in Germany — precisely because they are so finely-tuned to the experience of American social groups, Kreye notes, the best series often flop in Germany, while generic police thrillers like "CSI" do well.  Thus, Kreye’s not saying that the solution is to import American shows; rather it’s to create the conditions in Germany that will lead to better television.  Kreye suggests that the American practice of offering important players (actors, writers, directors) a percentage of revenue cultivates talent much better than the German system, which is more oriented toward lump-sum payments and buyouts.

Christopher Keil then piles on.  He points to what I call the "doughnut-hole" structure of European popular culture.  Let me here define the Hammel Doughnut-Hole Theory of the European Cultural Landscape (HDHTECL): At the high end, we find subsidized "serious" entertainment such as symphonies, operas, museums, and contemporary jazz and dance.  Often uncompromising, usually of high quality.  At the low end, "entertainment" for the masses: tabloid confessional talk-shows, "folk music" festivals positively eerie in their frozen-in-amber 1960s campiness, soft-porn video clips and movies, ludicrously exploitative call-in contests, etc.  In the middle, there’s some good stuff, but not much, and with little cross-cultural appeal.

We may contrast this with the Anglo-Saxon world.  The middle-brow consumer in Britain and the U.S. is well-served — not least becase she’s likely to have lots of disposable income.  She can watch the above-named TV series or quirky but non-confrontational movies like Little Miss Sunshine or Sideways. For music, she can see a taffetta-and-morning-coat opera production which would be seen as ludicrously stuffy by European standards, and even a newly-composed opera by someone like John Adams or Philip Glass.  This opera will be comfortingly tonal and possibly even "uplifting."  For the less abmitious, there’s a choice of hundreds of indie-rockers, some of whom are damned creative.  Most of this stuff is classic middle-brow entertainment, defined as having some cultural cachet and not insulting the viewer’s intelligence; while avoiding formal innovation and direct challenges to middle-class values.  (The debate over whether all this middlebrow entertainment is Good for Us — about which I have Complex Views — will have to wait for another post).

So much for my theory, which Keil seems to share.  The problem with German TV, Keil suggests (G), is that educated Germans are "more and more radically turning away" from television as a whole, because they see the whole thing as increasingly dominated by dreck for the masses.  Sensing that educated viewers are ignoring TV, even the large publicly-funded television stations are reorienting their fare towards the lower orders, perpetuating this vicious circle.  Of course, strong anti-TV sentiment from people like this has always existed in German society, but has increased since 1984, when private television channels (which are allowed to aim much farther below the belt than public ones) were first permitted.

It’s an interesting argument, but unfortunately, one part of it  — that is, that educated Germans are increasingly viewing no television whatsoever — needs to be backed up with empirical evidence, which Keil doesn’t provide.  German journalists tend to move in pretty stuffy, insular little circles, and sometimes talk about things people in their social circles are doing as if they were national trends.  So, does anyone know whether he’s right?

“Thomas Mann Would Make TV Series Today”

Christian Petzold — none of whose films I have yet seen (although I plan to see ‘Yella’ soon), has this to say about television:

The most interesting it gets are the crime series by Dominik Graf or imports like "The Wire" or "The Sopranos". These are the best things I’ve seen on television. Cinema is nouvelle, TV is roman and "The Sopranos" is an absolute epic. Thomas Mann would make TV series today.