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October 2005
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No Sex Please, we're...

British German.  According to a recent survey (German) Germans aren't screwing around.  In 57% of the households, sex occurs at most once a week.  17 percent of the respondents report regularly having no sex for periods of four weeks. 

This must have something to do with the economic climate.  In an environment of rising prices, empty public coffers, and belt-tightening (so to speak) the average German is hoarding everything.  Even bodily fluids.


About those secret prisons...

In this article, the Washington Post describes the very delicate task U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has ahead of her on her upcoming Europe visit.

Just as she's receiving the inaugural visit from Germany's new Foreign Minister and planning her trip to the Continent, suspicions begin circulating that the U.S. landed planes in various European countries which contained terror suspects probably being detained in violation of internation and EU law.  Add to that the possibility of secret U.S. prisons on the soil of at least one EU member nation (in which torture is likely being committed by U.S. officials or those under their command), and you have a very sticky situation indeed:

The report spawned a frenzy of investigations and news reports in Europe, dismaying administration officials who have painstakingly tried to repair U.S.-European relations this year after they ruptured over the Iraq invasion. "There is a tone in a European press, an anti-American sentiment, that I have not seen in a year," said one senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

None of this came as much of a surprise to me.  Almost a year ago, Dana Priest of the Washington Post wrote a nice piece of investigative journalism about at least one covert CIA jet.

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Paul Berman on French Anti-Anti Americanism

Paul Berman is an American intellectual who's generally left-learning, but recently surprised quite a few people by supporting the Iraq war.  He's now returned to less controversial ground with a long, perceptive review-essay on anti-Americanism in the New Republic.  Unfortunately, the essay is behind a paywall, but I will give you generous free excerpts here, because I think he makes some interesting points.  (Be warned: Berman's prose can be a little foggy at points).

Berman focuses on a crop of recent books dealing with French anti-Americanism.  Among them is The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism, by Philippe Roger (it gets Berman's best marks, "solid and scholarly"), Anti-Americanism, by Jean-François Revel, and Le discours de la haine by André GlucksmannBerman speaks French and Spanish and spends much time on the Continent, so he, like me, has had the experience of seemingly sane people recite the most ludicrous anti-American conspiracy theories: George Bush and the CIA/Mossad staged 9/11, religious zealots are secretly taking over the government, the creeping fascism in America's DNA is about to take over the entire body politic, if it hasn't done so already, etc.:

How seriously did people in France cling to these beliefs? Here is a puzzling question. Modern political life is a landscape befogged with mists and clouds of halfway held fugitive opinions--the kind of landscape that allows an intelligent and well-educated person to say with perfect sincerity, "George W. Bush is a fascist and the United States is on the brink of becoming Nazi Germany," and yet allow that same earnest person cheerfully to acknowledge, in the next breath, that, come January 2009, Bush and his entire fascist crew of Zionist conspirators are absolutely guaranteed to vacate the White House in favor of a new and popularly elected team, who might well be Bush's fiercest opponents.   

The further away from power someone feels himself to be, the easier it is to wander into these foggy zones of half-believed beliefs, freed of any responsibility to subject any given opinion to the simplest of common-sense tests. In France, even the most sophisticated of people have felt themselves to be located ever further away from the power that is American, and triply so after Bush decided, by abolishing diplomacy, to make a public show of his indifference to French opinion; and this has given a powerful allure to the half-believed beliefs. Nor are the French unusual in this respect, by the way. A fairly astonishing number of serious and prestigious journalists and intellectuals throughout Europe harbor a suspicion right now that, in the age of the possibly crypto-fascist Bush regime, America has turned away from civilization--an opinion that I have heard repeated in one country after another, usually in a tone of sad and anxious concern, the way that someone might express worry about a friend with advanced cancer. And, naturally, there are always professors from America at hand [or Michael Moore, as Berman mentions in another passage] to assure their European colleagues that life in America is sheerest hell, and dissident opinions are about to be crushed under the iron heel, and Bush is a sort of Hugo Chávez, if not far, far worse--just to make these fears seem realistic.

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Neurotic Cops Hunt Neurotic Killers

Tatort ("Crime Scene"), which shows every Sunday night at 8:15, is the flagship German TV crime series. 

There are a couple of interesting things about Tatort.  Every episode's 90 minutes long, and has no commercial interruptions (Ahh, the glories of state-subsidized television).  Tatort is shot on-location in various different German cities, so we get to know teams of murder detectives in Berlin, Kiel, Munich, and Hamburg.  Germany can do this because it has a dense network of state-subsidized media production companies all over the country.  Because Tatorts are all made by different regional production companies and feature different sets of actors, they vary in quality.  Some become wildly implausible or flutter off into pseudo-intellectual la-la-land in the first 15 minutes, some are original, tautly-constructed thrillers that keep you guessing until the very end.

Last night's was typical.  It played in Hamburg, where tall, bearded police commissioner Jan Casstorff (Robert Atzorn) is the main figure.  Jan wanted to be a psychiatrist, but quit school to care for his son Daniel.  This episode starts with a shooting in an underground parking garage.  The victim, a workaholic former Army major who served with the KFOR intervention force in Kosovo before becoming the personnel director of a private security firm.  Castorff and team begin looking into recent company firings and military connections, but don't get very far before another, almost identical murder occurs, this time of a psychologist who treated KFOR soldiers in the field before going into private practice.

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"[A] solid piece of musical manufacture"

So did George Bernard Shaw describe Brahms' German Requiem, which I just saw performed by the Duesseldorf Symphony under the American Leon Botstein.  The choir was especially good, although there were some coordination problems with the symphony during the fugues. 

Brahms composed the German Requiem in the mid-1860s to a text of his own composing.  Although Brahms had been confirmed a Lutheran, nothing pissed him off more than to be taken for a conventional believer.  Thus, instead of adopting the Latin text, he chose the most tender and consoling Biblical passages he knew, without regard to their theological significance.  Carl Reinthaler, the organist of Bremen Cathedral, helping Brahms prepare for a early performance, gently noted that none of the texts mentioned a Redeemer, to which Brahms replied, in effect, "so what?"

The German Requiem has adorable flaws.  The soprano and tenor solo parts are overshadowed by the choir's near-constant participation.  The solo parts are just too short, which reesults in the two soloists having to sit onstage doing nothing for 80% of the performance.  Most commentators consider the last of the sevent movements rather unfortunate; in fact the whole thing was considered too long (and too unorthodox) to perform in its entirety for the first years after its completion. 

So it's a masterpiece, but not an intimidatingly perfect one.  The minor flaws are forgotten in the many moments of tender, dignified lyricism and the fiery, galloping affirmation of the climaxes -- especially the coruscating brass passages in the sixth movement.  In re-reading a little monograph about the Requiem I bought some time ago, I was struck by how its reception into the standard repertory was held hostage to the Great Brahms-Wagner conflict of the last decades of the 19th century.  It was decades before the Requiem was accepted into the orchestral canon.  George Bernard Shaw was a feverish Wagnerian (I don't know exactly why, but this fact surprises me), so he jeeringly praised the Requiem, saying "it could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker."

Luckily for us, other Englishman knew a fine piece of choral music when they saw it, and they helped establish op. 45 in the repertory for ever and ever.  Amen.


Voluntary and Involuntary Leisure

In this article, James Surowiecki hazards an explanation for European unemployment.  Europeans work far less than Americans: "The French work twenty-eight per cent fewer hours per person than Americans, and the Germans put in twenty-five per cent fewer hours. Compared with Europeans, a higher percentage of American adults work, they work more hours per week, and they work more weeks per year." 

Perhaps this is because Europeans value free time more highly than Americans, but it is also due to broader social aspects, such as the strength of labor unions and stringent workplace regulations: "The difference in work habits between Europeans and Americans, in other words, isn’t a matter of European workers’ individually deciding they’d rather spend a few extra hours every week at the movies; it’s a case of collectively determined contracts and regulations."

Two factors explain why American unemployment is so much lower, explains Surowiecki:

Factor #1:  Because Americans are richer than Europeans and also work harder, they hire people to do things that Europeans do themselves: "Americans ... spend roughly twice as much in restaurants as the French, and almost three times as much as the Germans. Not surprisingly, many more Americans than Europeans work in the restaurant business. The same is true of child care."  European women spend, on average, ten more hours per week doing household work than American women do.

Factor #2: Because labor in the U.S. is cheaper and more loosely-regulated than it is in Europe, there are lots of people to perform these service-industry tasks.  In Europe, it's difficult for people to break into the labor market in low-skill, low-paid jobs: "[V]oluntary leisure for some Europeans has helped lead to involuntary leisure for others."

Since Surowiecki might not be familiar to German readers, I should point out that he's not a right-winger or Europe-basher, and this piece appears in the reliably liberal New Yorker.  He wants to explain something, not point fingers.

If he is right, and I think he probably is, this means a lot of the debate in Germany about how to solve the unemployment problem is woefully misguided.  German politicians speak constantly about beating the unemployment problem by creating high-quality jobs through the magic of "innovation" or the export of high-value goods like drugs or precision machines.

Continue reading "Voluntary and Involuntary Leisure" »


German Word of the Week: Schnecke auf Glatteis

Ok, it's a phrase, not a word.  It means "like a snail on a sheet of ice."  I heard it this morning on the local radio call-in show, and was enchanted.  Here's a real-world example which helpfully explains the phrase.  Plus, the example deals with the position of women in Bavarian public-service jobs, which I know has been on all our minds lately. 

Speaking of efforts to promote equality between the sexes in government bureaucracies, Ms. Christa Naaß, chairwoman of some comission or other, says: "The efforts to advance womens' equality in Bavaria are proceeding like a snail on an ice-sheet, incredibly slowly and stubbornly, with lots of sliding to-and-fro!"  Isn't that actually how government bureaucracies operate?

Enough snide quips.  Now to science.  I'm no malacologist, but I believe I am correct in saying that a snail is a mollusc, and molluscs are cold-blooded.  I'm also no iceometrist, but in my experience, ice is generally rather cold.  Therefore, I would imagine that a snail trying to move along on a sheet of ice would soon get very, very, sleepy.  He would probably curl up in his little shell and take a nap until Spring.  Goodbye, snail! 

Until we see you again in the Spring, let's learn a little about your molluscy brother, the sea slug.


Kissinger on Merkel

Henry Kissinger writes an editorial on the new German government today in the Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune

I pay attention to anything Kissinger says for a few reasons.  First, he's razor-sharp analytically.  Second, he's an elder statesman like Brent Scowcroft, which means you can generally assume the views he expresses also represent the views of a large segment of the American and international establishment.  Perhaps he has even consulted with them concerning the phrasing and emphasis he applies to various points. Third, like many other non-Germans who can speak German, Kissinger enjoys an astoundingly high profile here.  Fourth, Kissinger writes like a German in English.*Second, how many (informally) accused war criminals ever get to write editorials in major papers?

I'll give you the executive summary.  At first, Kissinger was discouraged by the fractured vote results and the need to patch together a grand coalition made up of parties "normally in strident opposition."  Now he's cautiously optimistic.  Merkel has made her way up in the ranks of the CDU against stiff opposition and without a natural base of support, so she's made of tough stuff.  Domestically, the grand coalition will probably develop the will to impose reforms at some point, because each member of the coalition realizes that if "if they frustrate each other, the coalition will break up, and each of them would face the dilemmas that obliged them to form the coalition in the first place."  Everyone knows a meltdown of the coalition would drive even more support to fringe or client-based parties, leading to a disastrous phase of Italian-style gridlock.  Germans want to bring Italian cars back home, not Italian politics.

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Wal-Mart and the Friendliness Academy

Wal-Mart came to Germany in 2001 and found out something a little odd.  Germans, apparently, didn't necessarily want salespeople to be friendly:

The marriage of American hominess and German frostiness has been rocky so far for Wal-Mart.... With its first two custom-built "hypermarkets," or superstores, open in time for holiday shopping, Wal-Mart is under pressure to make its huge investment pay off in Europe's largest economy. Much of its challenge lies in coaxing attitudinal changes in the country where the customer traditionally comes last.

Customer comes last?!  Wait a minute, says a Karl W. Schmidt, former head of the German-American chamber of commerce:

This is "totally incorrect," says Schmidt.

"The customer over there is still the person who pays the bill." But, because German consumers educate themselves about a product before they buy," he said. "The need for interaction between customer and salesperson is minimal."

Can Germans become friendlier? Can and should, says Tanja Baum of the Academy of Friendliness in Cologne. She describes the problem thus:

"We have a society problem, not a service problem," she said.

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How Germany Subsidizes Hollywood

Fascinating. Germany sets up a complex tax-incentive scheme to help subsidize German films. According to this Slate article, lawyers in Hollywood and Germany figure out how to structure a complex sale-leaseback transaction to turn it into a tax-shelter:

Unlike subsidies in other European countries, Germany didn't require that films be shot locally, use German actors, or employ German crews.  The tax-code only required that the film be owned by a German company that theoretically could share in its earnings. No problem for Hollywood lawyers. They arranged the deal on paper so the studio nominally sold the movie's copyright to a German corporate shell, which would then lease back the copyright to the studio with an option to repurchase it after the tax shelter had reaped its rewards.

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