Previous month:
October 2009
Next month:
December 2009

Obama's Mother's Book

Duke University Press is about to publish a revised version of Stanley Ann Dunham's 1992 dissertation:

The book runs about 300 pages and focuses on a blacksmithing village called Kajar, in the province of Yogyakarta on the island of Java. The work has been whittled down significantly from its original form, which ran more than a thousand pages and investigated the socioeconomics of several village-based handicrafts, including batik, pottery, and the making of puppets used in shadow theater.

Dunham is Barack Obama's late mother, by the way. The piece about the book prompted me to take a look at Dunham's Wikipedia page, which I'd never done before. Turns out she was quite cosmopolitan, and a pretty damned interesting person all-around. I wonder if there's a good biography of her... 


The Swiss Minaret Ban

WWND -- What would Nicolae Do?

The Swiss minaret ban is just the latest in a series of raspberries European publics  have given to their mainstream political leaders. Lessons:

  • Social desirability bias is alive and well in Europe. Lots of Swiss apparently gave pollsters the 'right' answer, then voted their actual views.
  • If you relegate an issue to the fringe parties, it doesn't go away. All the 'mainstream' parties dutifully came out against the minaret ban, and apparently thought their work was done. After all, how could the people enact a law after being instructed by the respectable political elite that it was a bad idea? Looks like the Swiss political elite may have to elect themselves a new population
  • Allowing the people to alter the constitution by referenda can make politics a wild ride indeed. The people often have decidedly non-salonfaehig (a great German word meaning 'worthy of discussion in a salon') opinions, and referenda let their id come out. Several American states brought back the death penalty by using referenda, and California passed an initiative requiring all tax increases to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the state legislature. This has, of course, rendered California state government dysfunctional. But once the people have spoken, it's almost impossible to ignore them.
  • Next on the agenda, perhaps: A Swiss referendum bringing back capital punishment for those who sexually attack and murder children. The mainstream elite would uniformly denounce it, but nevertheless (or perhaps for precisely this reason) it would pass with a majority.

I'm not saying the minaret ban is a good idea -- far from it. Nor do I think the Swiss vote is a 'crisis'. It's a normal incident of life in political systems which operate (either implicitly or explicitly) on a model of Burkean trusteeship. The people occasionally defy the political elites, but soon enough, things are back to normal. After all, what's the alternative?


An Excerpt from 'Joy, Discipline, Faith'

While rummaging through some used-book stalls at the University recently, I found this book (g), whose title translates as 'Joy, Discipline, Faith [the motto of the Hitler Youth]: Handbook for Cultural Work in the Camp':

Freude Zucht Glaube Cover

It's a manual for leaders of Hitler Youth summer camps, published in 1943 (4th edition!) by the National Socialist Party. It features a short foreword by Baldur von Schirach. The book addresses many issues: setting up the camp, raising the official Nazi flag every morning and bringing it down every evening, 'communal' song evenings, marches, and ceremonies, and even what sort of writers should be invited to the camp to recite their work. There's a section on sayings and songs appropriate for camp life, and even a 20-page section on recent German history for camp leaders, told from a ...distinctive perspective. The words 'sacrifice' and 'betrayal' pop up frequently. There are also suggested 'political' songs and plays for the (apparently incessant) communal singing events as well.

I'll be translating sections of this fascinating document in the coming weeks. Here's a foretaste, from a section called: "Hosting a Writer" (Die Dichterlesung), pp. 220-222 (I translate the word Dichter with various equivalents below):

Visits by writers to the camp harbor a danger that it is best to eliminate during the preparatory phase. Not every writer who says truly important things in his writings has a personal appearance that is capable of holding its own with a camp full of exercise-honed young men. Camp life imprints individual boys strongly with the role model of an upstanding man who can speak in a loud, clear voice...

[Although poets in cities are permitted to slouch,] outdoors, in the camp, we want to hear only from men who, in their entire being and appearance, belong to our community (in the narrowest sense!). It should also be expected that young writers, if they belong to the Hitler Youth, should appear in the traditional summer duty uniform. If they are in another unit of the movement or not organized at all, they should still appear in clothing which is appropriate to the surroundings.

...

The writer should eat dinner together with the camp leaders, at the table sitting around the small camp flag. The boys should learn that poets -- and they often have a strange idea about this profession! -- eat the same plain bread that they do.

Afterward, the boys all go to the campfire, or sit in a  large ring. The poet should, if possible, read to a group that is not too large, so that he can sit among them like a comrade among comrades. It is now up to the poet to get across his desired message by a mixture of spoken and read words. The leader on duty will have spoken with the poet earlier about which points the reading or lecture should be interrupted with a song.

...

Even when the poet must leave the camp on the same evening, he should never fail to take part in the lowering of the flag. At this point, he will stand behind the camp leader. The lowering of the flag should be an obligation for him, through which he fits into the life of the camp as a comrade.

Perhaps the most basic rule for the writer's visit to the camp is: it is better that no writer come to the camp as for such an occasion to go awry for any reason -- either through poor preparation or through the writer's clumsiness. Our boys should see the poet as a 'the people's bard', who lives in struggle and service as everyone else. They should believe him -- and precisely because the boys are ready to believe, a disappointment can ruin a great many things.


James Wood Has a Go at Paul Auster

For reasons that have never really been clear to me, Paul Auster seems to be Europe's favorite contemporary American writer. Perhaps it's down to his heavy-lidded, writerly good looks, or because his last name means 'oyster' in German, or because his novelist wife speaks Norwegian. At any rate, his books are immediately translated all major European languages an many minor ones, and he is feted over here. Over at the New Yorker, critic James Wood wonders why:

A protagonist, nearly always male, often a writer or an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss—a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother. Violent accidents perforate the narratives, both as a means of insisting on the contingency of existence and as a means of keeping the reader reading—a woman drawn and quartered in a German concentration camp, a man beheaded in Iraq, a woman severely beaten by a man with whom she is about to have sex, a boy kept in a darkened room for nine years and periodically beaten, a woman accidentally shot in the eye, and so on. The narratives conduct themselves like realistic stories, except for a slight lack of conviction and a general B-movie atmosphere. People say things like “You’re one tough cookie, kid,” or “My pussy’s not for sale,” or “It’s an old story, pal. You let your dick do your thinking for you, and that’s what happens.” A visiting text—Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Poe, Beckett—is elegantly slid into the host book. There are doubles, alter egos, doppelgängers, and appearances by a character named Paul Auster. At the end of the story, the hints that have been scattered like mouse droppings lead us to the postmodern hole in the book where the rodent got in: the revelation that some or all of what we have been reading has probably been imagined by the protagonist.

Although there are things to admire in Auster’s fiction, the prose is never one of them.... When he thinks about actual America, however, his language stiffens into boilerplate. Recalling the Newark riots of 1968, he describes a member of the New Jersey State Police, “a certain Colonel Brand or Brandt, a man of around forty with a razor-sharp crew cut, a square, clenched jaw, and the hard eyes of a marine about to embark on a commando mission.”

...

The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue. Peter Aaron, the narrator of “Leviathan,” whose prose is so pressureless, claims that “I have always been a plodder, a person who anguishes and struggles over each sentence, and even on my best days I do no more than inch along, crawling on my belly like a man lost in the desert. The smallest word is surrounded by acres of silence for me.” Not enough silence, alas.


The Customer is Sometimes an Abbot

My day job occasionally requires me to don respectable-looking clothing. Yet, I don't like ironing and can't afford to send my clothes to the cleaners. The solution? Walbusch! It's a mail-order firm that offers impeccably stuffy clothing for the petty, and even the not-so-petty, bourgeoisie. There's nothing, literally nothing you can buy from Walbusch that would raise an eyebrow at a regional managers' retreat, or a seminar on the idea of nature in von Liliencron's late work. Plus, most of their stuff is ironing-free. You get it out of the washer, hang it up, and it pretty much looks wearable, without that cheap perma-press look. And it's not even all that expensive!

So I was sending them an email to get an order straight recently, when I happened upon the 'Titel' field in their email-contact form. One of the charmingly 19th-century things about Germany is the obsession with titles, which seems not to have slackened one micron since, say, 1867. And if there is any group of Germans likely to be persnickety about their titles, it's the kind of people who would order deeply respectable clothing apparel from Walbusch.

Walbusch understands their clientele. Oh yes, they do. Most certainly. Go to this page and click on the 'Titel' dialog-box, and you will see something truly majestic: a list of just about every title a German could possibly ever carry. The list starts with Abt (Abbot(!)), and then dazzles us with a cavalcade of social distinction, from Architekt to Botschafter (Ambassador), Baron, Prinz (Prince), Graf (count), zillions of kinds of Ingenieure (engineers) and Paedagogen (teachers educators), and some truly exotic creatures who perch in the higher echelons of administration: Oberamtsrat, Oberstudienrat, Hofrat and even Prokurist (no, it's not what you're thinking). The only one that's missing is Santitaetsrat. But if you're a MIN-RAT., whatever the hell that is, Walbusch has got you covered.

And why, pray tell, does a Prokurist give a shit whether a box of underpants comes with his title prominently displayed on the address label? Easy: because then all of the poor schlubs who took his order, packed his clothes, shoved the box in the cargo plane, drove it to his neighborhood, and delivered it to his front door will -- like his neighbors -- know that Maximilian Halbschmarotzer is a Prokurist, dammit!*

Continue reading "The Customer is Sometimes an Abbot" »


A Fine Red Mist for Everyone

I have a weakness for grisly first-person shooters, and few have ever compared with Quake. Now, the compassionate humanitarians at Id Software have create a thrilling online deathmatch version of Quake called Quake Live

Just the thing after a hard day of ratiocination!

Best of all, it's completely free, doesn't require any special graphics cards, and has no gimmicks or spyware or anything, as far as I can tell (and I'm persnickety). You just download a few small programs, create your character, and begin reducing other players to glutinous globules of glowing goo.

My handle is GiantMetalClown, if you want to frag me (if you know what I mean).


Lutheran Food and Liquor and in Wittenberg

Wittenberg is a small East German town quite close to Berlin. It's most famous, of course, as being the place where Martin Luther, according to legend, nailed his 95 Theses (g) to the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church). Wittenberg was a university town before that, and remained one for generations. Many of the houses in the city center bear large white plaques with the names of famous scholars who lived or taught there. Wittenberg University has now been absorbed into the Martin Luther University of Wittenberg-Halle (g), and, judging by the how utterly mouse-dead it was on a Saturday night (to Englishize a German expression), all of the student life seems to have decamped for Halle.

The town apparently built a shiny new visitors' center after the Wall fell, anticipating an influx of protestant tourists which doesn't seem to have materialized. Wittenberg is nevertheless filled with Reformation-related museums and Luther-kitsch. You can visit the permanent exhibition on Luther's life, and the house where his colleague, Philip Melancthon, lived and worked (Melancthon's original name was Schwartzerdt, or 'black earth', he later 'grecianized' it into Melanchthon). Local stores sell 'Luther Burps' schnapps, Luther beer, and Luther bread. As you see in the slideshow, you can even get 'lutheran food' in Wittenberg (bland and rigid?). Martin Luther marital aids are apparently so common that we saw one discarded near a construction site.

What's odd about Wittenberg is the cheek-by-jowl juxtapositions in the city center. You'll pass a row of trendy shops in carefully-restored buildings, and then encounter an abandoned, boarded-up hulk. A faded legend identifies the building as a former soap store or brewhouse, but the bottom floor is now encrusted with tattered posters, and the windows on the upper floors are shattered. The alleys and courtyards around these buildings offer numerous poignant still-lives of decay and abandonment. One building featured an impressive set of deer antlers nailed atop an ancient-looking carved-wood deer head, presumably the former emblem of a pub, or taxidermist or hunting shop.

Signs of East German material culture, such as Barkas trucks (g) (the 'Mercedes of East Germany', the owner proudly informed us) and typical elongated-oval streetlamps, are everywhere. Not to mention the 'Kramladen' (junk store) that offered 'Soviet childrens' gas masks' and displayed an Obama 'yes we can' T-shirt with a gun muzzle pointing at it. The local Sparkasse Bank was recently vandalized, leaving an oddly beautiful pattern of fracture planes in the front windows. Graffiti was everywhere, much of it of thoughtful or enigmatic.

Overall, Wittenberg left a somewhat somber and desolate impression, despite the fine churches and friendly people. Perhaps it's more inviting in the summer...


These Colors Do Bow

Colors run

This story by Politico gives a fine insight into Obama's approach to diplomacy, which involves treating the customs of other nations with respect. Obama, for instance, bowed deeply to Emperor Akihito of Japan, and shook hands with various heads of state whom he may not agree with.

Disgraced ex-Vice President Cheney was having none of it:

 "There is no reason for an American president to bow to anyone. Our friends and allies don't expect it, and our enemies see it as a sign of weakness."

So fatuous, on so many levels:

First, how is a polite ten-second bow, when called for by protocol, a sign of weakness? Does Cheney imagine Hugo Chavez crouching behind a shoji screen, waiting for just the right moment to shove a garrote up the First Rectum? 

Second, Cheney fails to mention that his former boss (in the technical sense, at least) literally held hands with other Oriental despots. Not that there was anything wrong with that!

Third, the deepest fatuity is that Cheney's remark perpetuates a theme of so many Bush Administration foreign-policy statements and actions, which raised the suspicion that foreign policy was being made in such a way as to flatter the wrench-wielding macho prejudices of yahoos back home. As a lodestar for successful presidential diplomacy, 'We don't bow to nobody' is on about the same level as 'Don't Tread on Me' and 'These Colors Don't Run'.

George Bernard Shaw once defined a barbarian as someone who "thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature." Good to know that the American barbarians, for the time being, can only posture on the sidelines.