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Christopher Dickey on the Toxic American

Discussing the recent fall of Italy's government, Christopher Dickey, Newsweek's European Bureau Chief, highlights the real-world consequences of George W. Bush's cataclysmic unpopularity:

The backlash brought on by what we’ve seen since then runs so deep today that even reasonable policies become political poison once they’re branded pro-American. Thus bitter memories of lies and insults undermine legitimate efforts to restrain the Iranian nuclear enrichment program. They discredit efforts to encourage democracy, inevitably branded by dictators as an American import....

All this strikes me as sad, and dangerous. As the Iraq war continues to worsen and Washington is forced to search ever harder for an exit, it will need a lot of help from countries it used to rely on as friends. But governments are concluding that any sign of a warm relationship with Bush’s Washington is likely to leave them out in the cold with their public. In the end, their voters—their people—are a focus group that just can't be ignored.

Unsettling; but in line with what I see on the ground here in Germany.


The Constitutional Court Expands Protection for Journalists & Sources

The Federal Constitutional Court today issued a ruling in the Cicero magazine case, which I have been following for a while. In April of 2005, Cicero, a German political magazine, published an article about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Iran. The article was based in part on confidential documents generated by the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA, or Federal Office of Criminal Investigation).

After the BKA was unable to determine the source of the leaked documents, Interior Minister Otto Schily authorized a search of the magazine's officers and the residence of its publisher, Bruno Schirra, on the basis of being an accessory to the betrayal of state secrets. According to this article (G) in the FAZ, the Court ruled the searches unconstitutional. Any betrayal of state secrets was committed by whomever originally took the document from the BKA, not by the journalists who eventually obtained access to it. By the time they got the document, the crime had already been committed and they could no longer be accessories to it. (In fact, the local court later declined to authorize a trial against the journalists involved for betrayal of state secrets, holding that there was insufficient proof of the charge.)

The court held that the mere suspicion that a journalist may have been an accomplice to betrayal of state secrets could not serve as the basis for a comprehensive search of his offices. Further, conducting intrusive searches merely to try to pin down an informant's identity is disproportionate and impermissible. Publishers' groups are hailing the judgment, but also calling for new legislative guidelines to reflect the court's balancing of interests and improve protection for sources.

I don't have much comment on this just now except to say "me like freedom of press very much," but I thought I'd pass it along. 


Study: Three Percent of the People in U.S. Prison Are Innocent

As we all know that the American criminal justice system is of urgent concern to average Germans, I pass along this study by Seton Hall Professor D. Michael Risinger, which attempts to provide a scholarly and reliable estimate of the number of innocent people in U.S. prisons:

Using DNA exonerations for capital rape-murders from 1982 through 1989 as a numerator, and a 406-member sample of the 2235 capital sentences imposed during this period, this article shows that 21.45%, or around 479 of those, were cases of capital rape murder. Data supplied by the Innocence Project of Cardozo Law School and newly developed for this article show that only 67% of those cases would be expected to yield usable DNA for analysis. Combining these figures and dividing the numerator by the resulting denominator, a minimum factually wrongful conviction rate for capital rape-murder in the 1980's emerges: 3.3%.

I haven't read the entire article, but I can say that this result squares with my gut feeling gained from my personal experience as a (soon-to-be-erstwhile) criminal defense lawyer.


American Kulturpessimismus

Ahh, Kulturpessimismus, or "Cultural Pessimism." Sweeping, grandly-formulated, apodictic condemnations of modernity, computers, biotechnology, nuclear weapons, television, America, or (not so very long ago) "World Judaism" -- whatever the intellectual took to be the latest unmistakable sign of humanity's impending doom. No pragmatic solutions on offer, of course, because how can there be a pragmatic solution for "world-pain" or "sickness of the soul"?

There's nothing really like this in American discourse (which many people take to be a good thing). Or is there? I give you an essay called The Fall of Modernity, which, in tone and theme, reads like the sort of thing that appears in German Feuilletons every week, from every conceivable political direction.

This example, however, comes from American Conservative Magazine (of all places --or predictably?) and it was written by Michael Vlahos, a defense intellectual. His prognosis for American ambitions: critical. A sample:

America’s destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan mobilized the Muslim world against us, but more than that it put the global other on notice. For much of the West and most of Islam, the lie of modernity as American altruism is dying in Iraq. Americans care about the death of their soldiers but barely a whit for the destruction of a society wrought in the name of “democracy.”

Our future now veers wildly from the Cold War’s end, when our sacred narrative touched fulfillment. We thought we were moments from finishing the Lord’s work. Now the Lord’s work is killing Islamists.

A great nation continues to marshal its collective power, but it will face a changed world. There will still be grand nations like China, India, and others. The United States survives, in material terms greater than ever. But its war narrative has helped to birth a changed world and to cast off its claim to the universal. There will also be a weltering of new human combinations and re-combinations.


Von Donnersmarck's Land

Congratulations for Florian von Donnersmarck for nabbing an Oscar for best foreign-language film for The Lives of Others, which I praised here. I'm not going to admit to taking the Oscars very seriously, or knowing anything about the other foreign-language contenders, but it's always good to see a fine movie get more attention.

Von Donnersmarck's English is good. Frighteningly perfect, in fact. I also found his praise of Arnold Schwarzenegger for teaching him to eliminate the words "I can't" from his vocabulary to be kind of cute. It's good to know Ah-nold is still helping give birth to film milestones.


Interlude: "Opus 40" by Mercury Rev

Currently watching a DVD called, a bit pompously, The Work of Anton Corbijn. A Dutchman, he's directed of videos for Nirvana's Heart-Shaped Box, Henry Rollins' Liar, and Herbert Groenemeyer's Mensch.

It's a European joint: moist, suffering, exalting humans fill the screen, there's always a narrative, plenty of religious imagery, and constant allusions to stages and other created interiors. The only thing that's missing is a few commedia dell'arte characters. Speaking of America (follow the link), the USA, in Corbijn's videos, is seen through Wim Wenders glasses: all big open spaces, cowboy hats, theater marquees, and homespun interiors.

Here's a high point, courtesy of YouTube: Corbijn's video for the glorious Mercury Rev's majestic song "Opus 40". They're troubled geniuses: "[T]he group was reportedly banned from air travel after Donahue attempted to gouge out Grasshopper's eye with a spoon in mid-flight. Following the tour, Mercury Rev again went their separate ways; the members found menial jobs, moved in with their parents, or earned money by participating in medical experiments. "


Bringing our Ragazzi Back Home

Amid all this talk of irrational anti-Americanism, let's remember that American foreign policy nobody is more responsible for the recent spike in disgust with the United States than Richard B. Cheney (policies) and George W. Bush (inept, unwittingly offensive attempts at explaining/defending same).  The latest casualty appears to be NATO participation in Afghanistan; the question of Italy's military cooperation with the U.S. just toppled Romano Prodi's razor-thin center-left/left coalition government:

“We have not supported the neoconservative politics of the American administration and we have not sent soldiers to Iraq,” [foreign minister Massimo d'Alema] told his colleagues. “There is a profound difference between the military operations in Afghanistan, approved by the United Nations, and those in Iraq.” He added that the support of expanding the base was essential to good relations with America. “To change course would be a hostile act against the United States,”

The course was changed, at least for now. Two far-left deputies bolted, and the Italian government collapsed. Of course, Italian government collapse fairly often, but it shows that doubts about Afghanistan are transforming into policy decisions, and not just in Europe.


A Foretaste of Markovits

On the strength of the essay I linked to a few weeks ago, I ordered Andrei Markovits' Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America.

I did not know that before Markovits published this book in English, he published Amerika, dich hasst's sich besser (G) in German (the title, roughly, "America, Hating You's Much Better" is a pun on Goethe's "America, You Have it Better." An amusing essay of the same name as Markovits' book is here (G)).

I will try to consume Markovits' book in the next few days and post thoughts, but here's a quotation to whet your appetite:

If anti-Americanism has been part of the condition humaine in Europe for at least two centuries, it has been since 9/11 tht the rise of a hitherto unprecedented, wholly voluntary, and uncoordinated conformity in Western European public opinion regarding America and American politics occurred. I would go so far as to characterize the public voice and mood in these countries as gleichgeschaltet, comprising a rare but powerful discursive and emotive congruence and conformity among all actors in state and society. What rendered this Gleichschaltung so different from those that accompany most dictatorships was its completely voluntary, thus democratic, nature. . . .

Here, in short, is the book's overall argument: Ambivalence, antipathy, and resentment toward and about the United States have comprised an important component of European culture since the American Revolution at the latest, thus way before America became the world's "Mr. Big"--the proverbial eight-hundred-pound gorilla--and a credible rival to Europe's main powers, particularly Britain and France. In recent years, following the end of the Cold War and particularly after 9/11, ambivalence in some quarters has given way to outright antipathy and unambiguous hostility. Animosity toward the United States migrated from the periphery and disrespected fringes of European politics and became a respectable part of the European mainstream. These negative sentiments and views have been driven not only--or even primarily--by what the United States does, but rather by an animus against what Europeans have believed America is.

Markovits promises to investigate the extent to which anti-Americanism plays a part in an otherwise commendable "discourse that favors the weak" later in the book.

This, to me, is an often-overlooked contextual factor. If you track Europe's media, you will notice that they're more adventurous and worldly than the mainstream American media. One day of watching or listening a week or two ago brought me stories about from genital mutilation in Nigeria, the Naga peoples of northwest India, and Japanese Shinto rituals. Of course, you can find plenty of reporting like this in the United States, but almost none of it in the mainstream news sources that most Americans get their world-view from.

The crusading European reporter delivers the perspective of the weak, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the outsider. Many also highlight outsiders in their own societies, as the innumerable documentaries about German heroin addicts, welfare recipients, immigrants, prisoners, and mentally ill people I've seen demonstrate. If you conceive of your mission as a reporter as highlighting underdogs and outsiders who would otherwise struggle and die in obscurity, then you may very well take exactly the converse attitude towards an "overdog." That, in my view, helps explain the shape of media coverage of the U.S., which in turn is an important factor driving anti-Americanism.

That's what I think. What Markovits thinks, I promise to report toute de suite.


German Words of the Week: Dissen & Cruisen

I'm listening to the radio this morning, and a woman's talking about the new edition of the Pons publishing house Woerterbuch der Jugendsprache (Dictionary of Youth Language). Some nice examples can be found here (G): Solarium = chick-toaster; coin-operated Mallorca. Fat guy = Sidewalk-tank, Puddingsteamer, Double-Whopper. Weakling: Teletubbyzurueckwinkler - "guy-who-waves-back-at-the-teletubbies."

Two of my favorites were dissen and cruisen (G), which means just about exactly what they mean in English. Now, as we all know, when you want to express a wish or an "irreal" proposition in German, you have to do weird stuff to the verb, like add a -te at the end, change the vowel, or sprinkle a few umlauts over the vowels. As always, the irregular verbs get the weirdest conjugations.

A friend and I derive strange joy from trying to imagine how this mysterious Konjunktiv II Präteritum transformation would look for new German words. Any guesses? I'd guess dissen would be conjugated regularly, so it would just get a -te. But cruisen has a 'u' in it, so maybe, in my little fantasy-world, it could get its own very special umlaut: "Ich crüiste mit euch gern, muss aber hausafgaben machen."

What do you think? Am I onto something? And if I am, can't we trademark the Konjunktiv II Präteritum of new German words, so that we get a couple of Euro-cents everytime someone uses them?