Previous month:
July 2008
Next month:
September 2008

You're No Longer On Your Own

I haven't been following the Democratic convention very closely, but I generally listen to the important speeches on my laptop the next morning, as I lounge about drinking coffee. Sometimes, my attention wanders.

But not this time. I found Obama's speech electrifying, which seems to be the general verdict. His voice occasionally became ragged from anger, he bluntly attacked his opponents with outrage instead of ridicule, and he sprinkled just enough of the technicolor fairy-dust of American-style optimism here and there. As he's been doing lately, he also picked up on Jared Bernstein's theme of YOYO ("You're on your own") government, arguing forcefully that liberal ideals are as deeply woven into the American promise as self-reliance.

And finally, he dealt with the most substantive problems with his candidacy: his youth and lack of foreign-policy experience. He probably didn't convince many doubters, but he showed he had the balls to address the issue head-on. He discussed a couple of policies, but avoided detail. Here, I think his instincts were right: When almost 80% of the population thinks the country is on the wrong track, you don't need to compare white papers, you just need convince them you'll change the status quo.

That's just what he did, and man, was it ever a dazzling piece of political theater.


German Expats on Italy's Continuing Crisis

Burned mopeds in front of nomentana trenino stop Juden Raus Graffito

West German Radio (the local public radio station) had a feature on German expats living in Italy. Originally lured to "Bella Italia" by their love for the country, language, and/or people, they report that life in Italy has become much more depressing (g) in the last few years. Italy's economic problems have worsened dramatically, fueling xenophobia, selfishness, and corruption. Stagflation is eroding middle-class Italians' standard of living: among themselves, middle-class Italians talk about little else.

The country's low birth rate reflects the reality that, in a country with an anemic economy and no real family subsidies, having a child means severe financial hardship to middle-class parents. Jobs are so scarce that half of all 30-year-olds still live with their parents, earning pocket money by part-time work and unpaid internships. After a brief interlude in which the authorities made some progress cleaning up politics, corruption and ineffeciency are back with a vengeance. 

Further -- and this is what depressed many of the German commentators -- most of their Italian friends seemed resigned and apathetic. Italians who were hopeful that a new era was dawning in the mid-1990s no longer even pretend to believe that the numerous crises plaguing their country will ever be resolved. News of the latest outrage is greeted with a shrug of the soldiers. There's a bit of Schwarzmalerei (gloom and doom) in all this, but not much. I'm a pretty frequent visitor to Italy, and I've seen and heard lots of the same things myself. It's a damn shame.

For a bit more background, Perry Anderson explains recent Italian political history here. It's pretty long -- but what would you expect?

[Photos: burned mopeds in front of Nomentana train station, Rome, Nov. 2006; anti-Semitic graffito in Tuscolana, Rome, June 2008]


Life and Opinions of the Sprayer of Zürich

Naegeli_undine

The lesson every "Anglo-Saxon" learns after a few years in Europe is this: When Europeans begin pontificating on political subjects, don't take what they say as any sort of guide to what they'll do. I suppose this is universal, but I can't shake the feeling that there's more hypocritical grandstanding on this side of the Atlantic.

This also applies to artists and writers: there's usually a positive relationship between the level of epater-les-bourgeois provocation they aim for and their dependence on government subsidies and social approval. Josef Beuys was so traumatized at being fired from his professor post at the Duesseldorf Art Academy (for, among other things, doing away with entrance criteria) that he circulated protest postcards claiming he'd been "Ruined by [the] State." State and federal authorities shower even the most mediocre German literary talents with awards and prizes. Those who get them invariably accept them, and those who don't are consumed with envy. The same theatre director who burns German flags onstage will go to the wall to protest a minor change to his pension benefits. As Karl Mannheim once remarked of Heidelberg professors, the more given to heaven-stormingly radical speeches they were, the more meekly bourgeois their lives.

The rule is: pose as an anti-authoritarian rebel, but get the the subsidy application in on time, and if the state offers you a lifetime civil-servant post, take it! By all means bite the hand that feeds you (don't worry -- it'll keep coming back!). Never, ever slap it away.

The latest example is "The Sprayer of  Zürich," a man named Harald Naegeli (g). Naegeli started his artistic career in the late 1970s, spraying sinuous graffiti designs on buildings in Zürich in black spray-paint. This was, of course, illegal, so Naegeli kept his identity secret. He was caught after he forgot his glasses at one of his sites and returned for them. In 1981, he was sentenced to nine months in prison and a significant fine. Instead of serving his sentence, he fled Switzerland, staying in Duesseldorf and traveling around Europe. An international arrest warrant was issued for him. He was apprehended in 1984, and was required to serve out his sentence, despite interventions from various elite figures in Germany, such as Willy Brandt and Josef Beuys. After serving his time, he established himself in Duesseldorf, where he continues to produce some graffiti, as well as more conventional artworks.

So what's not to like? Certainly not the graffiti, which are elegant enough. But a recent radio interview on WDR5 was rather revealing. Naegeli rushed to reassure the interviewers that his work was "political" (and therefore, of course, Very Serious). Apparently, it was some sort of silent protest against of Switzlerand's bourgeois conformism and obsession with private property. Naegeli sniffs at today's graffiti artists because, he claims, they're not "political" enough. The interviewers seemed to share Naegeli's view , gently mocking the Swiss courts for going to such lengths to protect "sacred" private property.

But at the end of the interview, we learn something curious: Naegeli, who's now 70, does not have to work, because of a "rich inheritance." Of course, inheriting such large amounts of money is only possible in a social order that...protects private property. Naegeli also expressed dissatisfaction that no government authority had yet extended official historical-protection status to one of his plein-air works of art. Let's review: Use of state power to punish me for damaging other peoples' property without their consent: wrong. Use of state power to ensure I receive tons of cash without working for it, and that nobody else can damage my "property": right.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: artists, with rare exceptions, should be seen and not heard.*

* Let me clear a few things up. This post is about poseurs, not about my political and aesthetic positions, which are as follows:

Naegeli's graffiti? Delightful.

Arts subsidies? A fine investment, for which I gladly pay my taxes. Also, I want some! 

Cushy government jobs? I want one!

Private property? No problems with it. Have lots myself. 

Inheritance laws that permit parents to shower their children with unearned wealth? Not so hot on those, but they're probably unavoidable in a free legal order.

[Illustration: "Undine," a 1978 Naegeli graffito on a building at the University of Zurich (g)]


The Eggheads Call It for Obama

What if all of these conventions, and in fact the entire Presidential race, were just window-dressing? What if we could predict with near-certainty who's going to win the Presidential race right now, no matter what happens in the next 10 weeks?

According to lots of scholars, we pretty much can. Reader Alex (h/t) sent me a few classic articles on the subject after I last posted about the Presidential race, and just yesterday, the Washington Post wrote a piece about the historian Alan Lichtman, who has developed a model that predicts American Presidential elections based on thirteen "keys." According to Lichtman's model, Obama is going to win, no matter what happens in the coming weeks. You can see a more detailed explanation here.

Lichtman's approach relies on models originally developed to predict earthquakes, and looks at voter behavior in the aggregate, as he explains here:

My approach steers clears of micro-level analysis because it is impossible to model a complex system of 120 million voters at the individual level. It is possible, however, to distill the key components of the system and from those components model the behavior of the system as a whole.... My notion is that campaigns have little or no influence on elections for two reasons. First, voters are pragmatic. They base their decisions on whether or not the party holding the White House merits on third term based on performance as gauged by such big-picture considerations as the economy, foreign policy, social unrest, scandal, and policy change. Second, voters discount as political and self-interested what candidates say or do in a campaign.

In a 1993 article, statistician Andrew Gelman and political scientist Gary King observed (.pdf):

As most political scientists know, the outcome of the American presidential election can be predicted within a few percentage points (in the popular vote), based on information available months before the election. Thus, the general campaign for president seems irrelevant to the outcome (except in very close elections), despite all the media coverage of campaign strategy.

They point to various models developed by other political scientists which accurately predicted the outcome of every Presidential campaign since the mid-19th century.  Steven J. Rosenstone even sent letters in mid-October accurately predicting Reagan's win in the 1980 election. Lichtman points out that he correctly predicted George H.W. Bush's 1988 victory over Michael Dukakis at a time when Dukakis enjoyed a 17-point lead in the polls.

All of this is good news for Obama supporters -- although Lichtman cautions that Obama's race will be a wild-card factor. It's also a pretty reassuring picture of American democracy, since the underlying assumption of the model is that the American electorate (as opposed to individual voters) pays more attention to genuine issues of substance than to campaign ads or the latest controversy of the week.


German Word of the Week: Insektensauger

Bzzz...glubb....bzzz...

Today's German Word of the Week comes to us from the Lahn-Post Lokalanzeiger, proudly serves the community of Lahn, which is near Limburg. This doesn't really bring me much farther, but perhaps this datum is exciting oohs and aahs of recognition from Limburgers. On Page 1 of the August 6th edition, we find an article about the Lahn Post "Beachsoccer" team, which won the "Beachsoccer"-Cup (www.guggmo.de has more details). We're also advised of the Freienfels "Country & Western Games", in which Freienfelsians will be treated to a barbecue, Whisky and Tequila bar, and groovy (fetzig) music from the likes of "Album" and "Arizona." Not to mention "Square-and Line-Dancing" for all.

 

But this post is really about the article "Wasps and Hornets Aren't Monsters." Background: every summer, a plague of smallish yellow wasps descends upon Germany. Starting in mid-July, trillions of these evil little bastards appear from nowhere. They spend all 7 days of their sorry little lives trying vigorously to pollinate your beer. When that fails, they fly under your clothes. A few weeks ago, I was trying to have an adult conversation with a woman about Very Serious Matters when one of these little jackasses began trying to have sex with my nose. How these moronic creatures -- I hesitate to dignify them with the title "insect" -- manage to reproduce is beyond me. During these weeks, I join most Germans in entertaining gruesome fantasies of mass wasp extermination.

 

But not Hans-Juergen Herrman, the wasp-lover from Limburg. Oh no, he would never, ever, ever hurt one of these precious creatures! First, he advises us that we shouldn't gesticulate and run away when a wasp approaches. And if they build a nest on your property, should you immediately drench them with deadly chemicals, and cackle with glee as they write in death-agonies at your feet? Heaven forfend! Instead, you should call Hans-Juergen, and he will show up with his Insektensauger ("Insect-sucker"), apparently some sort of wasp-vacuum. He will suck all your wasps into a bag, drive far away, and release them into his ex-wife's car the wild, so they can gambol about in nature's fair bosom. How very enlightened of him!

 

As for me, I'm all for the deadly chemicals. Unfortunately, you can't get them over here, apparently. Thanks, Green Party!


Kinski on Herzog

I'm slapping together a short review of Alex Ross' book "The Rest is Noise," but while looking for a nice image of the book's cover, I came across this review by Ross of an English translation of Klaus Kinski's memoir, Kinski Uncut:

Episodes recorded in Kinski Uncut fall into four categories: 1) sexual encounters with hundreds of women, beautiful and ugly, young and old, in a grotesque pornographic idiom that excludes sensual pleasure; 2) Céline-esque voyages of degradation and misery, often involving vomit, excrement, and delirium; 3) excoriations of incompetent directors, producers, writers, actors, journalists, and generally, all individuals who are not Kinski; 4) bouts of self-righteousness mixed with intense self-loathing. He actively sets out to make himself appear the biggest creep who ever walked the earth.

...

[Kinski on Herzog]: "Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, blackmailing, cowardly, thoroughly dishonest creep. His so-called 'talent' consists of nothing but tormenting helpless creatures and, if necessary, torturing them to death or simply murdering them. ... Every scene, every angle, every shot is determined by me. ... I can at least partly save the movie from being wrecked by Herzog's bungling,"

I should note that since Ross' review was written, Herzog made the excellent documentary Mein Liebster Feind (g) in which he tells the story of Kinski visiting him (at one point, Herzog and Kinski were neighbors), and asking Herzog to help select grotesquely insulting adjectives to describe himself. "I'm sorry to do this to you, Werner," he recalls Kinski saying, "but you know people -- they only want to read the bad stuff!"

[Photo: ultra-creepy digital age-progression showing how Klaus Kinski would look today, created by a team (g) of programmers and filmmakers in Baden-Württemberg]


Obama's "Cult of Personality"

Poster5  

While we're on the subject of the O-man, let me address a meme that seems to have buried itself inside the consciousness of the European haute bourgeoisie: that the excitement surrounding Obama as a presidential candidate constitutes a scary, sinister "Cult of Personality." (here are examples in German). I've now heard this meme from at least four intelligent people from three different European countries. As is often the case, it's impossible to pin these Europeans down about what exactly they mean by "cult of personality" -- which leads me to believe it's little more than a catchphrase which they can use to sound sophisticated and above-it-all.

To me, this is a textbook example of Europeans viewing American affairs through a distorting lens shaped by their own history and cultural practices. As we all know only too well, European history is replete with hundreds of examples of leaders styling themselves as demi-Gods, while "the masses" grovel in real or purchased obeisance to them. (I hope nobody's going to question this asssertion, because that would force me to carpet-bomb this blog with hundreds of specific examples.)

The hallmarks of a cult of personality include the belief that The Leader has quasi-supernatural powers, and can work miraculous transformations in realms far beyond ordinary politics. Supporters deny that the Great One has any defects, and attribute any missteps to "corrupt advisors" or "an inability to understand human weaknesses, seeing as He has none himself." Once the object of the cult of personality comes to power, those who criticize him in public soon disappear discreetly. The media rush to report His every word uncritically, and intellectuals write books analyzing His speeches and sayings. Among the ordinary folk, His sayings are applied to solve everyday problems, and contemplation of His image is reported to bring about little miracles. Soon, the entire nation is (at least in public life) securely gleichgeschaltet.

That's a cult of personality. The support Obama has achieved because he's a fresh face and a charismatic politician is just that: support for a charismatic politician. American politics is more personality-driven than European politics, and candidates' private lives are more in the foreground. But this doesn't mean that popular politicians excite the sort of groveling obeisance needed to build a cult of personality. Sure, you can find the odd Obama supporter whose eyes light up at the mere mention of His his name, and who yearn simply to touch him. These people will make it onto the news broadcasts, because they're exciting to watch. To educated Europeans, who view American enthusiasm and openness as "naive," their behavior will seem freakish. "Politics is about compromises over percentage changes in government programs," they will think to themselves, "what kind of a simpleton expects politics to be exciting?

What these Europeans rarely understand is that, if Obama is elected, these glassy-eyed supporters will soon be disappointed with the compromises leadership demands. Americans may be enthusiastic, but they're also pragmatic, and a leader who doesn't get results will get raked over the coals. Most importantly, in the U.S. (unlike certain other nations which will not be named here), it's impossible for the President to enforce uniformity positive media coverage or to make promotion dependent on someone's political convictions (outside of a small sub-set of high-level federal government jobs). Cults of personality have to be enforced: the natural human instinct to criticize leaders and express dissent must be artificially suppressed.

American public life is much too results-oriented, fluid, and market-driven to make this sort of enforced uniformity of opinion possible. Always has been, and -- I hope -- always will be. This fact is something many Europeans apparently still don't understand.