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November 2006
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The Health Alteration Committee

Over at Informed Comment, Juan Cole provides context on links between the United States and recently-departed Saddam Hussein, which seem to have gone all the way back to 1959. Here's a fascinating nugget:

CIA involvement in the 1959 assassination attempt [on nationalist Iraqi premier leader Abdul Karim Qasim] is plausible. Historian David Wise says there is evidence in the US archives that the CIA's "Health Alteration Committee" tried again to have Qasim assassinated in 1960 by "sending the Iraqi leader a poisoned monogrammed handkerchief."

"Health Alteration Committee"? I'd associated the CIA with many things before, but never with ironic understatement.

German Joys Review: Die Neuen Spiesser

Dns_1 The 'New Squares', Christian Rickens calls them in his new book, Die Neuen Spiesser: Von der Fatalen Sehnsucht nach einer überholten Gesellschaft ("The New Squares: On the Fatal Yearning for an Outdated Society"). It's a provocative title, Spiesser (roughly, "square") is a mildly pejorative term.

The New Squares range from the Federal Constitutional Court Judge Udo di Fabio, whose recent book Kultur der Freiheit ("Culture of Freedom") warns us that the collapse of common sense puts the "west in danger"; to Paul Nolte (G), historian at the Freie Universität Berlin, who denounces a new permanent underclass of alienated, tattoed Gameboy addicts cut loose from stabilizing bourgeois values; to Eva Herman, a peppy TV celebrity whose new book Das Eva-Prinzip: Fuer eine neue Weiblichkeit ("The Eva Principle: For a New Femininity" (G)) calls on German women to admit that the attempt to combine children and career cannot succeed, and return to the comforts of hearth and home. This is a pretty European brand of conservatism; fond of talk about ancient customs and traditional values, and skeptical of the free market. You could call the New Squares throne-and-altar conservatives adrift in a throneless cosmopolis.

Now comes Christian Rickens, an editor at Manager Magazine (G), to give them the back of his hand in this crisply-written, entertaining polemic. The tone throughout is lightly ironic, although not flippant. Rickens doesn't intend to confront right-wing doom-mongering with its left-wing Doppelgaenger. In fact, he mocks doom-mongering. Issue by issue, he sets out the New Squares' claims and demonstrates, by a bit of research and clear thinking, that the problems they describe are nowhere near as grim as they'd have us believe, and that their proposed solutions are generally unworkable.

Rickens acknowledges differences in temperament and intellectual caliber among the New Squares -- some are university professors, others tabloid columnists. However, Rickens identifies two typical thought-mistakes (Denkfehler) common to them all. The first is a weakness for spongy pseudo-scientific phrase-mongering: stuff like "the erosion of our cultural substance," or the "declining sense of togetherness and being bound together by fate" (Schicksalsgemeinschaft). The New Squares, he comments, seem to be reading "too much Nietzsche and too little Popper." Many of their arguments are, therefore, unfalsifiable -- dinner-table banter wrapped up in pretty rhetorical ribbons. How are we supposed to tell whether a nation's "cultural substance" is disappearing?

The second error is the conservative tic of confusing social change with collapse or decay. What Fritz Stern wrote of an earlier crop of German cultural conservatives still holds true: "[O]ften they mistook change for decline, and, consistent with their conception of history, attributed the decline to a moral failing." German society is changing, argues Rickens, but many of the problems bemoaned by the New Squares are much more manageable than they let on, and some of them aren't problems at all.

Continue reading "German Joys Review: Die Neuen Spiesser" »

Does Germany Have an Asshole Problem?

One thing I kind of miss about American universities is the fact that professors say "fuck," "shit," and "asshole" all the time, and nobody cares. Sometimes they even put naughty words in the titles of the books they write, as with Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit, published by the Princeton University Press.

In this video, Stanford management professor Robert Sutton explains his new book, The No-Asshole Rule, which details the harm assholes do to corporate work environments. His book has been translated into German, with the title Der Arschloch-Faktor. In fact, the book came out in German translation before it was even published in its original language.

Does this mean that some editor in a German publishing house looked over new lists of English books and said: "Mein Gott! This book must be translated into German immediately! Germany is full of assholes!" I don't see Germany as particularly asshole-rich, in fact, most Germans have far better manners than I do. I have heard, however, that German publishing houses are full of assholes...

Nunc Dimittis by Joseph Brodsky

Merry Christmas, everyone. To mark the occasion, an early poem by Joseph Brodsky, translated and annotated by George L. Kline.

Nunc Dimittis1

When Mary first came to present the Christ Child
to God in His temple, she found -- of those few
who fasted and prayed there, departing not from it --
   devout Simeon and the prophetess Anna.

The holy man took the Babe up in his arms.
The three of them, lost in the grayness of dawn,
now stood like a small shifting frame that surrounded
   and guarded the Child in the dark of the temple.

The temple enclosed them in forests of stone.
Its lofty vaults stooped as though trying to cloak
the prophetess Anna, and Simeon, and Mary --
   to hide them from men and to hide them from Heaven.

A chance ray of light struck the crown of the head
of that sleeping Infant, who stirred but as yet
was conscious of nothing. He blew drowsy bubbles;
   old Simeon's arms held him like a stout cradle.

Continue reading "Nunc Dimittis by Joseph Brodsky" »

Roger Boyes on his dear Krauts

It's hardly a surprise that English journalist Roger Boyes' book on the Germans, which I previously posted about here, is at the top of the sales charts. Here's Boyes' analysis of the German character:

No other society so regularly seeks the views of foreigners. How are we doing, Dutch or Italian or indeed British correspondents are asked on television. Are we messing up again; are we failing Europe; are we incapable of change? It is difficult to imagine British television producers showing a similar interest in the opinions of the outside world. This vulnerability makes Germany attractive. Interesting, even, for those of us who are paid to live here. You never know from one morning to the next whether politicians (or your doctor or your pub landlord) are going to be crippled with self-doubt or whether they will declare their undying pride in being German.

And Boyes' ruminations on those supposedly dour, unfunn y Germans:

I think that the British prejudice about Germany’s supposed humour famine stems from the fact that there is no German tradition of daily banter. In London you can hear a dozen wisecracks in a day — at work or on the bus or in the coffee shop. They may be lame, but at least they’re quick. In Germany, humour is stockaded, kept apart from everyday life. In the evenings Harald Schmidt, a genuinely funny talk-show host, will crack their sides. But only after dinner has been eaten, the plates rinsed and the yoghurt pots washed, ready for recycling. In the office next day people will repeat Schmidt’s gags and they will laugh again. However, they will fail to spot the inherent absurdities of their own office life.

German Word of the Week: Arschgeweih

Arschgeweih I won't be coy: I like girls with a lot of tatoos skin art and piercings body modifications.

How about when the skin art is art located just above the rear end? Do the Germans have a word for that?

Yes, they do, Arschgeweih: "butt-antlers." A glorious specimen on the left, courtesy of the Jaegermeister Miss Arschgeweih contest.

Of course, to take the analogy to real deer antlers further, you'd have to imagine two women in the middle of a field running backwards toward each other, smacking their butts together in order to prove their dominance.

But since this is a family blog, we won't be going there.

Carless in Germany

The Christian Science Monitor profiles the German city of Vauban, which is full of children, but not full of cars:

Welcome to Germany's best-known environmentally friendly neighborhood and a successful experiment in green urban living. The Vauban development - 2,000 new homes on a former military base 10 minutes by bike from the heart of Freiburg - has put into practice many ideas that were once dismissed as eco-fantasy but which are now moving to the center of public policy.

With gas prices well above $6 per gallon across much of the continent, Vauban is striking a chord in Western Europe as communities encourage people to be less car-dependent...

"Vauban is clearly an offer for families with kids to live without cars," says Jan Scheurer, an Australian researcher who has studied the Vauban model extensively. "It was meant to counter urban sprawl - an offer for families not to move out to the suburbs and give them the same, if better quality of life. And it is very successful."

I live in Germany without a car, and enjoy it. But I confess, it's not just because I'm morally virtuous. Like many positive aspects of European life, government policy nudges people in the direction of responsible decisionmaking. Bad choices aren't banned outright (you can still buy a Hummer in Germany if you really want one), but better choices are encouraged. Discouragements: $6 a gallon gas, and special taxes on extremely inefficient vehicles. Encouragements: An efficient public-transport system, and compact, diverse neighborhoods.

Vauban's streets, the article notes, are too narrow for cars, but it's been specifically designed so that you don't need a car in order to get to the places you need to get to on a daily basis. My neighborhood is exactly the same way. It's also worth noting that Vauban's design was created by a grassroots process: a group of citizens persuaded the local government to provide them with the land after a French military base was closed, and designed a city with the specific goal of making it car-unfriendly.

Germany's environmental movement catches grief for its occasional excesses and hysterical rhetoric. However, as this article shows, Germany's far-sighted environmental policies also earn positive press internationally. Someday soon all of us are going to have to pay a great deal of money for gasoline. That's going to be a much nastier shock to some people than to the residents of Vauban.

Max Goldt Treasury: Weapons for El Salvador

Well, Max Goldt is visiting Duesseldorf on his barnstorming tour of Germany and has sold out zakk. What better time for the next installment of our occasional series 'The Max Goldt Treasury'? First installment (and short intro) here, second installment here.

Weapons for El Salvador

Sometime’s life’s a bitch. You come back home late at night and put your bag down where you always put it, but then realize that this isn’t possible, because the bag is gone. That’s like getting hit by a bear’s paw. You open the door and, to exaggerate a bit, a brown bear in your apartment roars: “Where the hell is your bag?” You get a sudden hot flash, like a woman in menopause, and you begin feeling your own body to see whether your bag might be hanging from one or another of its parts. But it’s gone, it’s somewhere else – where? In the bar? In the taxi? And what was in the bag? This is bad. Loss researchers from 16 countries compare the loss of a bag with the loss of hair, honor, watch, and homeland – in fact, all of them at the same time. Other researchers compare the loss of a bag to the extinction of the eagle owl, but these scientists are considered lightweights in the loss-research scene. Hair grows back, you can admire eagle owls in the zoo, and you can restore your honor by scraping pigeon droppings from the balconies of manic-depressive women. And plenty of people found a new homeland right there in the country they’d been abducted into. A bag, however, stays gone, and never comes back.

I lived through something just as awful: the loss of an almost completely full notebook. When you’ve got two seats free in a train, you naturally tend to spread all your junk around in the free seat. Recently, as I reached my destination, I had forgot that at the start of my journey, I’d written something in my small notebook and then laid it on the neighboring seat. I then proceeded to pile the seat high with newspapers, orange peels, and chocolate-drink packages. Later, they all ended up in the janitor's garbage bag along with my notebook. A shame, because this book contained the sketch of a wonderful story that I’ll never be able to recapture. Roughly, it goes a bit like this: John Lennon, four weeks before his death, happened to be filmed by a Japanese television crew at the post office, withdrawing $15 million from his savings account.  He wanted to buy weapons for El Salvador, which was very much the done thing in 1980. I still remember discussions with a left-wing friend, who wasn’t rich at all, but who had given 1000 Deutschmarks to the “Weapons for El Salvador” campaign. This completely puzzled me. Remember that in 1980, I paid only 179 Deutschmarks in rent. People assured me El Salvador could be helped only with weapons, and they accused me of political ignorance.

Continue reading "Max Goldt Treasury: Weapons for El Salvador" »

Why Do They Hate Us? Rap or Iraq?

Martha Bayles, who is now a visiting fellow at the Aspen Institute Berlin, recently gave a speech at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. The subject was America's rapidly-declining reputation in the rest of the world.

Her conclusion? It's our sick, degraded popular culture:

When people, especially young people, in rapidly modernizing societies look at America through the lens of our no-holds-barred popular culture, what they see most glaringly is a passion for personal liberation from tradition, religion, family, and restraint of all kinds.

She harks back to a time when the U.S. State Department could partner with Hollywood to officially screen American films at foreign embassies, because these movies presented a positive and clean-cut image of American life. Nowadays, she claims, the world is horrified by our "coarse, violent, and obnoxious" rap music, video games, and "'date movies'" (Date movies?). She also singles out internationally popular television series such as Sex and the City, Oprah, South Park, and Seinfeld (Yes, even Seinfeld!) for critique.

I can't agree. To be fair, she does cite studies that show about a third of people polled in various countries dislike American popular culture, so she has a bit of empirical proof. But having lived abroad for years, and having talked to more people than I can count about attitudes towards the United States, I think she's off the mark in two big ways.

No. 1. It's the invasion of Iraq, stupid.

[Note: This is a paraphrase of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign slogan, not an insult.]

Continue reading "Why Do They Hate Us? Rap or Iraq?" »

My Accountant ♥ Me

Unlike most countries, the good old U.S. and A insists on making its citizens pay American taxes on every single penny they earn, from any source whatsoever, no matter where they live, for ever and eternity, amen.

Rather than go into the mind-breaking complexities this policy causes to someone who, like me, has income both from the United States and Germany, I will just tell you one thing: My German accountant just sent me a Christmas card.