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March 2006
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Two Cheers for the Revolting French Students

William Pfaff analyzes analyzes the French riots in the New York Review of Books without a hint of frog-scolding. To Pfaff (a man of the left), the demonstrations, for all their silly excesses, are a harbinger of increasingly sharp debates to come, as globalization begins to threaten more and more Western workers who once thought their jobs secure:

I would suggest a larger explanation for the prevailing anxiety: that, as throughout modern history, France functions as the coal miner's canary of modern society, reacting to political and social forces before anyone else. France's refusal to approve the European Union constitutional treaty two years ago caused an international shock because the voters rejected the view, all but universally held among European elites, that continuing expansion and market liberalization are essential to the EU, indeed inevitable. The reaction of the European public elsewhere to the French vote seems, on the whole, to have been one of relief.

***

[From the perspective of globalizaion skeptics], what in France seems a sterile popular defense of an obsolete social and economic order might instead be understood as a premonitory appeal for a humane successor to an economic model that considers labor a commodity and extends price competition for that commodity to the entire world. The apparently reactionary or even Luddite position inspired by French reactions might prove prophetic.

As for French politicians:

Neither political party, as a party, has made other than an equivocal or reactionary challenge to the social and economic model of market liberalism that much of France rejects. As elsewhere in Europe—notably in the European Commission under its current president—French elites seem unaware of the degree to which the global model they are being pressed to adopt is already under attack from within. Instead, the French, who consider pessimism evidence of intelligence, are telling themselves that the nation suffers some profound crisis.


The European Parliament and CIA Flights

The Christian Science Monitor, an American newspaper with a solid team of foreign reporters, addresses the European Parliament's investigation of CIA flights and prisons in Europe.

The article makes two main points. The first one, which I find pretty interesting, is that the European Parliament seems to be consciously bypassing national parliaments and officials. The EU Parliament is investigating something  that Europeans themselves -- but not necessarily their respective national governments -- want investigated:

The [EU Parliament's] allegations have so far created few official waves, coming as they do as European governments mull their own responses to international terrorism - and after reports late last year had already prompted a round of transatlantic diplomacy. But the response does indicate that the US has a black eye not so much with European governments, but with European publics. And it also hints - as the report alleges - that at least some European governments not only knew of the flights and transfers of suspected terrorists, but also cooperated with them.

European governments and security forces, the piece makes clear, are urgently aware of the risk they face from Islamist terrorism. I've been surprised to see more press coverage of European anti-terror tactics (especially in France) in the English-speaking press than in the European press. Generally, the coverage is neutral or even positive, as in "Even though France has millions of Islamic citizens, it has had no terrorist attacks on its soil. That's not by chance, it's the result of a successful security policies. Here's what they are -- marvel at their un-French harshness!"

I didn't see a single article on this topic during my stay in France, and I've seen only one in Germany, although it's possible I've missed something. I often wonder whether, if Europeans received daily coverage of their own governments' aggressive anti-terrorist policies (including surveillance, infiltration, detention, and deportation), that would change their attitude toward the fact that their officials tacitly consented to the CIA's actions...


Chainsaws, Loincloths, Eurovision

This band is Finland's entry to the 2006 Eurovision song contest:

They're called Lordi. They sing songs like "Chainsaw Buffet." According to the New York Times, after they were nominated to represent Finland, "critics called for President Tarja Halonen to use her constitutional powers to veto the band and nominate a traditional Finnish folk singer instead."

Lead singer Tomi Putaansuu said ""In Finland, we have no Eiffel Tower, few real famous artists, it is freezing cold and we suffer from low self-esteem. Finns nearly choked on their cereal when they realized we were the face Finland would be showing to the world."

I have mixed feelings about Lordi, despite my general approval of blood-spurting chainsaws and leather loincloths. On the one hand, mocking the Eurovision song contest is a national industry in the English-speaking world, providing needed subject matter to thousands of music journalists. From this perspective, the Eurovision song contest needs more, not fewer traditional Finnish folk singers.

But maybe it would actually be good for humanity if the ESC somehow became hip. Assuming, of course, that a higher global level of hipness is desirable. In any case, Lordi's still playing catchup, considering that GWAR (featuring Oderus Urungus) was spurting blood on its audiences way back in the mid-1980s...


Germany's Relaxed Mothers

Germany's controversial Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently released a report on the state of German mothers which showed that German mothers with children under six years old spend "clearly" less time in gainful employment than mothers in many other EU countries.  According to this article in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the Family Report concludes that these mothers aren't spending the extra free time in domestic work, but rather in "personal leisure time." 

Apparently, one of the sources for the Family Report's conclusion was the How Europeans Spend their Time, a study released in 2004 by the European Commission.  This document is packed with fascinating tidbits:

  • The French have the most uniform mealtimes (p. 25).
  • Germans work an average of 1,509 hours per year, the second-lowest amount among the countries studied (the lowest?  Norway at 1,484) (p. 32)
  • Women do 2/3 of all domestic work (p. 45)
  • Food preparation is the most time-consuming task.  Hungarian women spend almost 90 minutes per day preparing food, while German women spend the least time, under 50 minutes.  Men (no surprise here) spend an average of about 20 minutes. (p. 49)
  • Dish-washing is also time-consuming.  Once again, those beleaguered Hungarian women lead the pack with almost 30 minutes of dish-washing per day. (p. 51)
  • Across Europe, women do 80% of the cleaning (p. 53).
  • Both men and women have about 5 hours of free time per day. (p.87)
  • Germans spend enormously more time at "entertainment and culture" outside the home (theatre, cinema, museums) than any of the other countries studied except Belgium! (p. 103)

To that last point, I can only say, Go Germany!


Kurt Tucholsky in English translated by Indeterminacy

Over at the aptly-named http://kurttucholsky.blogspot.com/, Indeterminacy has begun translating pieces by the Weimar-era satirist, pamphleteer and poet Kurt Tucholsky (G).  A sample, from Tucholsky's short 1919 essay "What May Satire Do?" [answer: everything]:

We should not be so narrow-minded. We, all of us, school teachers and shop owners and professors and editors and musicians and doctors and public officials and women and representatives of the people - we all have our shortcomings and comical sides and foibles great and small. We must not be so quick to protest ("Butcher's Guild, protect your holiest of goods!") when once in a while someone tells a really good joke about us. It might be mean, but it should be honest. There isn't a proper man or a proper class that cannot stand a fair shove. He might defend himself by the same means, he might strike back - but he should not turn away injured, outraged, offended. A cleaner wind would blow through our public life, would they all not take it badly.

Go have a look!


A German Orchestra in the Middle Kingdom

On Friday, I saw the premiere of a documentary about a German orchestra's tour of China and Japan.  The orchestra in question is the Heinrich-Heine-University Orchestra, a semi-professional ensemble made up of current and former students of the University, under the leadership of University Music Director Silke Loehr.  (Disclosure: I know several members of the orchestra).  After months of intense preparation, the Orchestra finally set out, in fall of 2005, to play six concerts in Shanghai, Tokyo, and Beijing.

Ordinarily, you would hire professional tour managers to move 74 people and $60,000 worth of musical instruments around big foreign countries.  The HHU Orchestra, though, doesn't have fancy managers.  The orchestra members all have day jobs, and took time away from those jobs to organize the tour themselves.  They booked the hotels, planned the itinerary, and managed the customs and visa regulations themselves.  Nobody paid them a cent; and many used up most or all of their vacation days to make the trip.

Fortunately for us, the orchestra was accompanied by a team of young filmmakers from Duesseldorf's Robert Schumann Conservatory (G).  The conservatory students are studying sound and image technology, and the resulting film is their doctoral dissertation.  And boy, does it look professional -- the director, Aleksander Bach, seamlessly mixes interviews, jump-cut videos of pulsing, neon-drenched metropolises, cinéma vérité treks through the backstreets of Beijing, dramatic confrontations with defective hotel doors and defective Chinese customs officials (who unexpectedly demanded a huge security deposit to let the orchestra's instruments through customs), and -- of course -- generous excerpts of the orchestra playing Wagner, Schumann, Bizet, and Beethoven.

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The Rolling Stones Theory of Transatlantic Perceptions

"You can't always get what you want," the Rolling Stones sing, "but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you can get what you need."

The Stones provide the soundbite for European press coverage of the United States (and, to a much lesser extent, Britain), and American coverage of Europe: Anglo-Americans criticize European societies because on the Continent, so the meme goes, the most talented members of society can't get what they want.  The European press criticizes the United States because there, the least talented people can't get what they need.

First, the America --> Europe direction.  What little coverage there is of Europe in the United States is driven by two constant themes: First, European polities are riven by deep ideological divides and are essentially ungovernable (Italy, France), or stifled by a need for consensus that strangles needed reforms in their crib (Germany).  This is a dire state of affairs, because (second theme) Europe needs a good big dose of liberalizing economic reform right now.  Europeans who have talent, ideas, and the will to work hard find incentives stifled by taxes and regulations, and innovative flexibility crushed by rigid work rules and union contracts.  European universities are overlarge, stuffy, incompetently-managed bureacracies where innovation is smothered by the "dead hand of the state."  To continue quoting The Economist:

The German government—both regional and central—tries to micro-manage every aspect of academic life, from whom universities employ to whom they can teach. The state has progressively starved universities of funds, not least because it has forbidden them from charging fees. It has also snuffed out academic competition. Universities have little power to pick their pupils and even less to attract star professors.

According to this critique, Europe's future is pretty grim, because Europe desperately needs talent and new ideas.  Why?  Because it can only continue paying for its welfare states only by developing high-wage, high-value-added, knowledge-based economies.  European countries won't survive with their current level of social welfare unless they concentrate on areas in which cheap substitutes can't replace the real thing (medical devices and procedures, precision weapons, high-tech machine tools, space-age optical mirrors, etc.), create the best products in the world, and charge lots of money for them.

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George Mikes on the "Collective Guilt" Hypothesis

A few weeks ago, I posted a short excerpt from a book called Über Alles by George Mikes.  A refresher: Mikes was born in Hungary, emigrated to England, and became a reasonably famous English comic.  They sent him all over the world to write humorous travel books, which became huge bestsellers. 

Because he spoke fluent German, his publishers sent him to travel through Germany in 1953, to see how the Jerries were getting on.  The result is hardly brilliant.  Mikes himself reminds the reader routinely that he's just a comedian, and that nothing he says should be taken seriously.  The book does, however, provide an intermittently interesting time-capsule of a foreigner's take on immediate post-war Germany.

In a chapter called "Shall We Love Them?" Mikes addresses the "collective guilt" hypothesis.  He also, of course, takes a few more swipes at humans who are foolish enough not to be British:

I met altogether two persons in Germany who thought in a balanced, logical and unemotional way about the German problem. Both were Germans. I heard many intelligent, brilliant and illuminating things from others, but everybody else I talked to was carried away by emotion as soon as this so-called German problem was mentioned.  The English in England have no bitter feelings against the Germans, in fact, they like them better than they like the French and much better than the Americans. There is something paternal in their attitude. And they seem to believe that there's something irresistibly funny in being German.

In Germany, however, with very few exceptions, this attitude changes to dislike. This antipathy has nothing to do with former Nazi crimes or anything of the kind. The British dislike the Germans because they have their hair cropped in a funny way; because they eat sandwiches with a knife and fork; because they are formal, stiff and click their heels; and because they work too hard and take themselves deadly seriously. The Americans, on the other hand, always have the past crimes in mind. The Germans killed 6 million Jews, consequently every tenth German must be a murderer; no, it is even worse: every German must be one tenth of a murderer. That is a matter of clear calculation for the Americans. Americans feel very strongly against the persecution of races, provided (a) it is white races that are being persecuted and (b) it is outside the U.S.  And outright killing goes too far, in any case.

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Visiting a German Tierheim

The always-welcome Ed Philp returns from the dense thicket of German tax law to the cuddlier, fuzzier realm of cute, furry animals.

Ed Philp here, with another entry (thanks Andrew!). This week my girlfriend and I visited the Düsseldorf Tierheim (animal shelter). In theory, we were looking for a second cat. Since we are out of the house often, we thought our present cat could use some companionship. Also, we brought our cat from North America to Germany, and even after being here for two years, her German skills are still miserable.

Having visited animal shelters in the US and Canada, I was expecting rows of small cages with unhappy animals condemned to death in the space of a few short weeks if not adopted. Most municipal shelters in North America have a time limit for keeping animals – thousands of healthy dogs and cats (most of them abandoned, sick or aged) are put to sleep every year for want of an owner. Not so in Düsseldorf.

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Those Ugly Americans

The U.S. State Department plans to issue instructions to U.S. citizens on how to behave decently abroad, according to the Daily Telegraph:

Keith Reinhard, one of New York's top advertising executives, who heads BDA [Business for Diplomatic Action, a business group], said: "Surveys consistently show that Americans are viewed as arrogant, insensitive, over-materialistic and ignorant about local values. That, in short, is the image of the Ugly American abroad and we want to change it."

The recommendations include:

  • Think as big as you like but talk and act smaller. (In many countries, any form of boasting is considered very rude. Talking about wealth, power or status - corporate or personal - can create resentment.)
  • Listen at least as much as you talk. (By all means, talk about America and your life in our country. But also ask people you're visiting about themselves and their way of life.)

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