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More Germans in Harm's Way

For you foreign-policy types out there, here's Michael F. Harsch and Calin Trenkov-Wermuth on what Obama will want from Europe:

Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently stated that he does not believe the Obama administration will make any unrealistic demands once it comes into office.

Steinmeier is likely to be disappointed. The first item on Obama's wish list will most likely be greater European burden-sharing in Afghanistan. The danger of a NATO failure in Afghanistan is real, and this issue will dominate the NATO summit's agenda... [Obama] may also insist that NATO allies like Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium remove "national caveats" that limit how their forces can be used. These restrictions prevent the commander of the international forces in Afghanistan (ISAF) from permanently deploying their troops in the more dangerous south and south-east of the country. Supported by those NATO members operating in the south, like Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands, Obama could make it clear that disparate national rules bring into question the principle of solidarity on which the Alliance is based.

The second issue likely to come up concerns transatlantic strategy towards Iran's nuclear program. Obama has indicated that he is willing to talk to the Iranian leadership if this would help to keep the US safe. European leaders would welcome such a policy change in the United States, which broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980. However, before starting any negotiations, Obama will expect the Europeans to agree on more than just 'carrots' promising rewards if Iran should abolish its nuclear program. The new administration will also demand agreement on credible 'sticks' in case the Iranians are not ready to compromise. These could be simply tougher economic and political sanctions but Obama has also made it clear that he will not put the military option off the table.


Thoughts and Photos from India

In 2004, I was lucky enough to take a trip through many parts of India, including Bangalore, Marahashtra State (in which Mumbai is located), Kerala, Jaipur, and many locations in-between. I and a group of friends hired an Indian man from Aurangabad who was an experienced professional tour guide (Ebote B.V., whose services I can strongly recommend) and went on our merry way. My modest trip through India will remain one of the high points of my life; something that I have described at agonizing length to all of my friends.

Throughout the trip, I felt completely safe, despite being surrounded by swarming masses of people, and despite the hair-raising chaos that is Indian transportation. The trip included a several days in Mumbai, so many of the locations of the current terror siege are familiar to me. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed with astounding hospitality and benign (sometimes intrusive) curiosity. Since that first trip, I've been scheming to get back to India.  Nothing that's happened in the past few days has changed that, nor should it discourage anyone who is thinking of visiting this thrillingly vibrant place. Considering the country's huge and diverse population, and the inevitable social friction that entails, the remarkable thing is that violence is so rare.

An Indian friend recently sent me these two comments from Indian writers. Maximum City, the book that's referred to, is strongly recommended:

The writer Suketu Mehta captured brilliantly the dogged, resilient compassion of Mumbai in his book “Maximum City: Mumbai Lost and Found.”

In remarks he has given based on the book, he spoke of asking a man named Asad bin Saif, who worked at an institute for secularism, whether the chaos and slums and filth made him pessimistic about human beings. Here is how Mr. Mehta continued the story:

“Not at all,” he responded. “Look at the hands from the trains.”

If you are late for work in the morning in Bombay, and you reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and you will find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outwards from the train like petals. As you run alongside the train, you will be picked up and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the compartment. The rest is up to you; you will probably have to hang on with your fingertips on the door frame, being careful not to lean out too far lest you get decapitated by a pole placed too close to the tracks. But consider what has happened: your fellow-passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts already drenched in sweat in the badly ventilated compartment, having stood like this for hours, retain an empathy for you, know that your boss might yell at you or cut your pay if you miss this train, and will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable, or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning, or whether you live in Malabar Hill or Jogeshwari, whether you’re from Bombay or Mumbai or New York. All they know is that you’re trying to get to work in the city of gold, and that’s enough. Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.

Our colleague Anand Giridharadas, who writes a column for the International Herald Tribune, sees the Taj Hotel as unique. He had this to say:

Anyone, anywhere who has lived in Mumbai was gasping at the sight of a burning Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel. That is because it is not your average hotel.

It is not another Sheraton or Hilton in the business district of another world city. It is the aorta through which anything glamorous, sentimental, confidential or profitable passes in Mumbai. Its major role is to serve its guests, who come from around the world and elsewhere in India. But it also serves the local city in a way that few hotels in the world could claim to do.

If a momentous infidelity is being committed on a given night, or a billion-dollar business deal being inked, or a recklessly brilliant idea being hatched, there is a fair chance it is being committed, inked, hatched at the Taj. Mumbaikars who can afford it have their most romantic meals at its Wasabi restaurant, accept marriage proposals in its Sea Lounge, land job offers in its coffee shop.
Non-guests are forbidden to use the pool. But so many Mumbaikars enterprisingly bring a towel, furnish a fake room number and dip into its manmade lagoon.

It stands across from the Gateway of India. Those who would not dream of paying $3 – a decent daily wage – for one of its fresh-lime sodas sit outside the hotel, leaning against the stone wall on the sea. They take in the scene; they admire the finely dressed people breezing in and out. They know that it is not their time for the Taj now, but, should a fortune bless them, it is in the Taj they will spend it.

Few other hotels of the world could say they were built out of spite.

Legend has it that Jamsetji Tata, a nineteenth-century industrialist, was once turned away from a hotel in British-era Mumbai because he happened to be Indian. He decided, in a strange kind of revenge, to build the best hotel in the country, outfitted with German elevators, French bathtubs and other refinements from all around the world.

The hotel became, for many Indians, a symbol of the overthrow of the indignities of the colonial age. And it became a symbol of the best that could be had in a city paved with dreams.

After the break, I've posted a slideshow of some of the pictures I took on the India trip. The slideshow starts  in Bombay, then moves on to Hampi, Kerala, Jaipur, and lesser-known places in-between. It includes places and monuments sacred to Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity, and Judaism, as well as pictures of the gorgeous chaos that is Indian street life. No captions, but really, none are needed.

Continue reading "Thoughts and Photos from India" »


Tragically, Teutonically Tedious

On question I occasionally ask myself is: 'Why are so many German professors so unnecessarily boring?' Of course, there are exceptions, many of whom I know personally, yadda-yadda. But the observation still holds.

I use the word "unnecessarily" advisedly. Of course, all professors have to be sort of 'boring'; they're experts after all, and tend not to express themselves in the black-and-white certainties beloved of the tabloids and the pub debate. But in Germany, there's a further joy-killer at work: the expected 'habitus' (roughly, code of conduct) of German professors. Take it away, Greg Nees:

In a Diskussion one is expected to be as impersonal, serious, and objective as possible. This, of course precludes any banter or attempts at humor, which are considered inappropriate. In the German education system similar behavior and attitudes are expected in class, resulting in a more intellectual atmosphere. A German friend, while training as a graduate teaching assistant at a major American university, told me how shocked he was upon being instructed to intentionally use jokes in order to loosen up the classroom atmosphere. Such behavior went against all he had learned as appropriate classroom protocol. (p. 78)

This is not unique to profs: it ties into notions of discretion and dignity deeply coded into German social life. Pick up any book for how to get along with Germans, and it will tell you to speak in as deep a voice as possible and not to smile or make jokes, lest you be considered "unserious" by your hosts / colleagues. That's right -- even one joke can brand you forever as a lightweight.

Note that this blot often cannot be dispelled by actual talent. Again and again, I've seen Germans give the job / position to a candidate of average abilities who has demonstrated mastery of unwritten behavior and dress expectations: who 'conducts himself properly,' uses the expected formal phrases, and 'fits in.' Candidates who display much more talent -- but who appear unconventional in dress, speech, or manner -- are quickly processed out of the system. Their intelligence may be grudgingly acknowledged, but a consensus quickly forms that they might 'rock the boat,' or otherwise prove themselves 'uncomfortable' (unangenehm). As soon as they're declared unangenehm, they're toast.

I'm not saying that Germans won't tolerate eccentricities in extremely gifted people -- they certainly will -- but once you exclude candidates at either extreme of the talent spectrum, Germans will definitely sacrifice some additional talent to obtain a higher level of conformity. Thus, many German professional and academic settings end up as the worst of all possible worlds: they're stuffed with mediocrities who aren't even funny.

Sure, once you get a few drinks into some of these people, they 'lighten up'. But it's important to understand exactly what that can mean. Many Germans have simply never developed a talent for inventing their own witty observations or discerning genuine wit in other people. These are skills they have never been called upon to develop, and which can be positively dangerous in many German professional settings. Once these people lower their inhibitions (invariably through massive alcohol consumption), their version of humor often turns out to be reciting boorish pre-fabricated jokes, often targeting women and minorities. And yes, I have encountered this among German professors as well. Oh boy, have I ever.

If you're getting the idea that I try to avoid socializing with Germans in stiff formal / professional settings, you're right on-target!

Now let us turn to the United States.

To keep myself apprised of the financial meltdown, I sometimes surf over to the blog written by Princeton economics professor Paul Krugman, where he offers analysis of the latest numbers and thoughts on Obama's new economic team. But right in the middle of all this high-flown analysis -- complete with charts and graphs -- I find that Krugman has linked to the following photo:

Bernankepraysmore

This is, of course, a Fedcat, which is a parody of a Lolcat, the captioned pictures of cats that are perhaps the Internet's most welcome innovation (Krugman himself captioned this photo "cats are cuter"). After reading Krugman for a while, I turn to Brad DeLong, tenured professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley. Among the graph-heavy, extremely high-level discussion of the financial crisis that I certainly don't understand, I find that he's linked to this Monty Python video:

Don't these professors realize that they are undermining their sacred honor and the dignity of their entire profession by linking to frivolous, superficial 'humorous' commentaries? Don't they see that they are pandering to the basest impulses of the complacent bourgeoisie, who crave the political pacifier of light entertainment? Don't they realize, as Adorno has over and over patiently explained to us, that laughter and jokes have immanent fascistic implications? And DeLong has compounded his sin by even linking to a 'humorous' video that openly mocks the very fundaments of the monotheistic tradition, which even the unchurched must take terribly seriously!

And yet, somehow, their occasional jokes or ironic comments haven't destroyed their reputations. Indeed, Krugman just won the Nobel Prize in Economics. There appears to be at least one country on the face of the earth in which you can be respected for your intellect without bolting yourself into an exoskeleton of stuffiness. Kind of makes me homesick, to tell you the truth...


'Decomposition of the Soul' on DVD?

It's time for another bleg. I'm looking for a DVD of a 2003 documentary called "Decomposition of the Soul," about Stasi psychological terror tactics (Zersetzung). The documentary apparently had a theatrical release in the U.S. and U.K. in 2003, and has been broadcast on German stations. Here's a review by the New York Times' critic:  

A German and Belgian co-production, “The Decomposition of the Soul” ... offers no palliatives, though partly because it’s a bore.* It takes more than a worthy subject to make a good documentary, after all; it takes intelligent, specific, directed filmmaking. The German-born Ms. Toussaint and the Italian-born Mr. Iannetta have seized on a fine subject and, in Hartmut Richter and Sigrid Paul, former Stasi prisoners, found witnesses who put a face on a national calamity. Yet they have made a film as austere and barren as an old Stasi prison hallway.

The filmmakers basically employ one strategy: they shoot interviews with Mr. Richter and Ms. Paul inside the Stasi’s former prison (part of it now a museum) in the East Berlin district known as the Hohenschönhausen. These survivor-witnesses, who were arrested on different charges, alternately walk through the building’s desolate halls and rooms, movingly relate their stories on camera and stare silently into space, sometimes while their voice-overs continue. The filmmakers are big on silence, which perhaps they mean to seem poetic, but mostly feels like padding.

Ideally, I'd like to buy a version (1) on DVD; with (2) English subtitles. I wouldn't mind seeing this film myself, but a friend of mine who's very interested in the Stasi would also like to see it, and English subtitles would help him a lot.

I made a few perfunctory efforts to find this movie on DVD, but had no luck. Then, I thought "why not see if my good-looking, ultra-sophisticated readership can find this movie for me?" Go to it, you beautiful bastards!

Continue reading "'Decomposition of the Soul' on DVD?" »


Zizek's Beautiful Curls

Noted Post-Marxist Sociologist, Philosopher, and Cultural Critic Slavoj Žižek Welcomes You to the Gym:

As I am standing here, doing curls, I am reminded of a joke about a frog who is working out in the gym, like we are, wearing bright-colored shorts and a muscle shirt. Because he cannot grow a mustache, he has drawn a small one on his face in Magic Marker. Just a little bit, like Hitler.

But the frog is sweating, and sweating, and so the marker smears all over his face, and then a unicorn, who is using the treadmill next to him, she says, "Did you shave in the locker room?" and the frog screams, "Shut up! You're not real!"

OK! We have worked our muscles forward—anterior. Now we work on the backward of the muscles, the posterior.

What is this? It reminds me of a device that would be used to force confessions during Stalinist era. No! This is a lat pull.

***

A deviation: have you ever been doing a repetitive motion over and over and then thought, "My God, what am I doing?" Exercise allows us to engage in these repetitive motions without having to question why. The superego asks the id, "What are you doing? Don't make me look stupid," and then the ego and id respond, "Go to bed, old man. I am working out like Olivia Newton-John!"


Max Goldt Receives the Kleist Prize

Kehlmann (l) and Goldt (r), with Kleist in the Background

Moments of crisis reveal the stuff a man is made of. We may imagine a Prussian officer, faced with the chore of inseminating his wife, carrying it off with customary reserve and precision. P.G. Wodehouse, while interned by the Nazis in Upper Silesia, was surely tempted to pen a profoundly un-Wodehousian testament to the human spirit. Instead, he tossed off comments such as "If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like..." English medical history is studded with tales of gentlemen sauntering into the emergency room holding a blood-drenched bandage carefully away from their jodhpurs, and chirpily informing the doctor: "A few of us idle fellows were out hunting when Tiddles, that excitable  young twit, seems to have shot off a distressingly large portion of my right hand. Treed the fox, though!"

This is what made the hottest ticket in Berlin this weekend the conferral of the Kleist Prize on Max Goldt. This was Goldt's crisis. Upon being hoisted into the company of Musil, Brecht, and Essig (Hermann, that is) would he perhaps be moved to say something a tad…fulsome? Earnest? Improving? It's easier to imagine Helmut Kohl break-dancing. But you don't win the Kleist Prize every day. Would Max Goldt be driven by the august occasion to say something unGoldtian?

The answer is no. The matinee started with members of the Berliner Ensemble reading a selection from Kleist's works (many can be found in an excellent English translation by David Constantine). Then Goldt himself read three pieces -- a new column about attempted unauthorized exhumations at a Berlin cemetery (to put it very loosely), The Magic of Walking Past Sideways, and the "Eastern European absurd" dialogue "We're Deserting." Professor Günther Blamberger of the University of Cologne had the unenviable task of following Goldt. The good professor praised Goldt's unsleeping hatred of cliche -- his efforts to "drain the swamp of empty phrase-making" through the clarity and precision of his prose. Daniel Kehlmann, a 2006 Kleist-prize winner and chairman of this year's jury, then gave a Laudatio in Goldt's honor. Kehlmann located Goldt in the tradition of Laurence Sterne and P.G. Wodehouse, and argued for his place on the "comedic" side of Schiller's distinction (g) between comedic (scherzhafte) and moralistic-punishing (strafende) satire.

Finally, Goldt delivered his acceptance speech. He graciously thanked the jury, and then confounded any expectation of a conventional acceptance speech -- genially launching a few arrows in the direction of the literary establishment, confessing his childhood love of taxonomy, admitting he'll probably never read The Man Without Qualities, and bemusedly rejecting every attempt to classify him, from "columnist" to "cult-writer" to (shudder) "observer of everyday life." It was not so much a description as an enactment of his literary personality.

And, of course, it was funny. Max Goldt has a Midas touch of humor: again and again, without perceptible effort, he produces finely-turned witticisms as satisfying to the mind as a well-crafted cane is to the hand. He scatters them in his wake like discarded jewels. We should remember that Midas' touch was a curse, and that Goldt, as he makes clear, hates nothing more than to be considered a "comedian." But the man is funny. Daniel Kehlmann (if I remember correctly) called Goldt untranslatable. I have to agree, as the meager efforts presented on this website attest. However, a book of translations of Goldt's selected works may apparently be in the works, and we can only hope it comes about. Because a good Max Goldt column, even glimpsed through the dark mirror of translation, is a gift to everyone who loves language.


Anguish Coming out the Wazoo

One of the few brights spots associated with the current financial crisis is that Switzerland's going bankrupt. Alright, that was just a joke. Not the part about Switzerland going bankrupt, mind you -- that's quite possible.

No, the real bright spot is the darkly amusing sub-text the crisis brings to so many bits of pop culture associated with the free market. Take Friedrich Merz, for instance. He's a German politician who's also a partner in the Berlin office of a large law firm -- and who lists one of his specialties as banking and finance. Could he have picked a more delectably ironic time to bring out a book called "Dare more Capitalism"? (g).

And now I read that retail stockbroker E*Trade, is begging the U.S. government for $800 million in taxpayer money to stay alive. Back in the day, E*Trade built its business as a low-cost, user-friendly way for Joe Sixpack to buy into the boom before it's too late!

Here's one E*Trade ad that dates from two (2) financial cataclysms ago (bibliographical note: wazoo: (n) Am. slang anus; to have money coming out the w. - to be extremely rich):


Max Goldt: On the Magic of Walking Past Sideways

It's time for part two of Max Goldt Weeks here at German Joys. Just in time for the annual opening of Christmas markets all across Germany! Which, for at least one German, is an occasion for gnashing of teeth...

On the Magic of Walking Past Sideways

by Max Goldt

translated by Andrew Hammel

How delightful it would be to receive a letter which said: “Please never write a satirical Christmas story. Writers who do that are really, truly crap.” Instead, every year there’s the following message: “We’d love to have a wonderful satirical Christmas story from you!”

To hell with that. The worst thing about Christmas is the yearly deluge of satirical Christmas commentaries in written, musical, and dramatic form. With the onset of winter, hordes of writers who preside over meager talents – and understand and profit from capitalism the whole year through – suddenly detect an onset of “consumer terror” which may trigger an intoxicating rush of spending in its supposed victims. But doesn’t terror generally provoke fear and mourning? If it were known to get you high, it would probably have some quite respectable admirers. Anyone who gets a rush from carrying home plastic bags full of toys would be well-advised to ask certain people who seem to hang around for an awfully long time in front of disco bathrooms if they perchance have something that might clear up any mistake about what it means to get high.  

Continue reading "Max Goldt: On the Magic of Walking Past Sideways" »


The Naked Blogger

Swedish scientists, no doubt using scads of EU money, have just invented the "Typealyzer," which analyzes your entire blog in 2 seconds and tells you what sort of personality you have. Here is the result for German Joys:

INTP - The Thinkers

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

The "INTP" is an abbreviation for one set of results of the Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory. Like Kevin Drum, I have taken this psychological test before and found it depressingly accurate. INTP means I am an "Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiving" type. Here are the good sides of INTPs:

INTPs value knowledge above all else. Their minds are constantly working to generate new theories, or to prove or disprove existing theories. They approach problems and theories with enthusiasm and skepticism, ignoring existing rules and opinions and defining their own approach to the resolution. They seek patterns and logical explanations for anything that interests them. They're usually extremely bright, and able to be objectively critical in their analysis. They love new ideas, and become very excited over abstractions and theories. They love to discuss these concepts with others. They may seem "dreamy" and distant to others, because they spend a lot of time inside their minds musing over theories. They hate to work on routine things - they would much prefer to build complex theoretical solutions, and leave the implementation of the system to others. They are intensely interested in theory, and will put forth tremendous amounts of time and energy into finding a solution to a problem with has piqued their interest.

Sounds great!  I'm feeling pretty good about my "extremely bright" self, until I get to the many horrible drawbacks:

The INTP has no understanding or value for decisions made on the basis of personal subjectivity or feelings. They strive constantly to achieve logical conclusions to problems, and don't understand the importance or relevance of applying subjective emotional considerations to decisions. For this reason, INTPs are usually not in-tune with how people are feeling, and are not naturally well-equiped to meet the emotional needs of others.

The INTP may have a problem with self-aggrandizement and social rebellion, which will interfere with their creative potential. Since their Feeling side is their least developed trait, the INTP may have difficulty giving the warmth and support that is sometimes necessary in intimate relationships. If the INTP doesn't realize the value of attending to other people's feelings, he or she may become overly critical and sarcastic with others. If the INTP is not able to find a place for themself which supports the use of their strongest abilities, they may become generally negative and cynical. If the INTP has not developed their Sensing side sufficiently, they may become unaware of their environment, and exhibit weakness in performing maintenance-type tasks, such as bill-paying and dressing appropriately.

"Self-aggrandizement"? "Social rebellion?" "Overly critical and sarcastic"? I thought those were features, not bugs! I'm beginning to think this part of the profile was written by my ex-girlfriends. But wait, it's not all cold, sarcastic eccentricity:

The INTP is usually very independent, unconventional, and original. They are not likely to place much value on traditional goals such as popularity and security. They usually have complex characters, and may tend to be restless and temperamental. They are strongly ingenious, and have unconventional thought patterns which allows them to analyze ideas in new ways. Consequently, a lot of scientific breakthroughs in the world have been made by the INTP.

The INTP is at his best when he can work on his theories independently. When given an environment which supports his creative genius and possible eccentricity, the INTP can accomplish truly remarkable things. These are the pioneers of new thoughts in our society.

Ahh, that's more like it. Hate me, love my ideas!


My Epitaph For the Bush Years

Auf nie mehr wiedersehen, W!

I am gradually turning my attention away from the greasy back-and-forth of retail politics, back to the eternal verities of human existence-- navigating the vessel of my mind, as it were, once more by the stars, and not by the light of passing ships [preeee-tentious! -- ed.].

But before I begin completely ignoring the Mayberry Machiavelli who's darkened our lives for the past 8 years, let me sum up the Bush years in an aphorism which came to me recently as I was writing an email to a friend:

The old saying has it that a professor once reviewed a paper submitted to a journal by with the comment: 'This paper is both original and sound. However, the sound parts aren't original, and the original parts aren't sound.' President Bush was both a competent and principled leader. However, when he was operating on principle, he was incompetent, and when he was motivated by sheer cynical expediency, he was blindingly efficient.

I thought that was pretty good, but then again, I wrote it.

In related news, "The people who believe Obama is the Antichrist are perhaps jumping to conclusions, but they're not nuts." Note the 'perhaps'!