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Hans Magnus Rolls Cool

Fans and Air Conditioners Sold Out

I recently predicted that Germany's decades of inexplicable self-inflicted martyrdom will soon be approaching their end, as more Germans will buy air-conditioning units to use on the very hottest days, as I recently did.

Change comes more easily when a member of the elite takes the first step. Enter the 98th question posted to Hans Magnus Enzensberger by Moritz von Uslar in the August 8, 2010 edition of Zeit Magazine:

98. Any idea what the temperature it is in your study?

[Enzensberger]  reaches for a white piece of plastic which lay on the table before him and looks at the LCD display. The plastic is labeled "Mitsubishi Electric". It's the remote control for his air-conditioner.

21 degrees.


Pictures from Prague

We see some general views of the city taken from Hradcany and from a bridge on the Vltava, shops and people, spiders, the Veletrzni Palace museum of modern art (including two Archipenkos), Mukaffe underground bar in Vinohrady, the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord (by Joze Plecnik), medieval religious painting and sculpture from the magnificent St. Agnes of Bohemia Convent Museum, anti-American propaganda posters, dogs, advertisements, a 'guerilla' photo shoot in a fountain on America Street, a pinball machine with an anti-drug message (viewed, of course, through a bluish haze of marijuana smoke, as is common in Prague) and street pictures from Zizkov, Nusle, Karlin, Holesovice, and a few others places.

The collection is posted as a web album (with highly edifying captions!) here. Music is Parts XI and XII from Hans Otte's The Book of Sounds, played by Herbert Henck.


Two Coots Eating an Apple

Today I wandered through the Volksgarten/Suedpark (g), one of the finest parks in the world. Parts of it are like an English garden, with gentle knolls and copses of beech, maple, caucasian wingnut, and willow. The southern wing of the park was completely redesigned for the 1987 National Gardening Exhibition (g) and features a complex system of Japanese-inspired lotus-bedecked koi ponds connected by wooden walkways. The park is teeming with gray herons, cormorants, swans, geese, ducks, and coots.

Coots and moorhens are my favorites, because they work so damn hard. To give them a break, I threw an overripe apples to the coots. They promptly went to work:


Policies and National Character

It seems to me many commenters to the post about Gheogegan's book are conflating the issue of policy choices with national character. The argument in favor of social-democratic policies isn't that it makes people more cheerful and courteous. Those national traits, to the extent they can be measured at all, are determined by dozens of different factors. Perhaps government policy is one of them, perhaps not. Like many foreigners here, I think Germans complain vastly more than their material circumstances justify. However, it's precisely that demanding strain in their character that got them many of the benefits that, as Gheogegan's book shows, are the envy of many other nations.

Put another way, Germans might be even grumpier than they are right now if they didn't have the insulation from against war, medical-financial catastrophe, overwork, mass unemployment, and the harshest forms of global competition that they enjoy now. For that matter, Americans might be even more cheerful and trusting and patriotic if their government adopted policies that insulated the middle class better from these risks. Or perhaps they might become more petulant, or perhaps nothing at all would change. The cheerful, optimistic strain of American culture is currently being tested by long-term mass unemployment. Anyone who doesn't realize that ecomonic and social upheaval like that can unleash dark forces in America needs a history lesson.

But the rationale for introducing those policies isn't the effect it will have on the behavior of people, as measured by subjective individual observers. If the policies result in an overall increase in welfare, they should be adopted.

For that matter, I think cataloging the alleged defects of various societies in order to show that their policies shouldn't be adopted is a mug's game. There's not a society on earth that can't be filleted by a critical observer. Thus, the fact that a society has plenty of flaws to catalog doesn't really help us any further, unless it can be shown that those flaws are actually produced by ill-considered government policies.

However, that's not to say that cataloging a society's flaws isn't loads of fun, when it's done right, for instance by the immortal Phila:

It's strange how often we romanticize aspects of America that we blithely destroyed because there was money to be made. And it's even more strange that having destroyed such things, we replicate them shoddily, and market them as antidotes to the very psychic emptiness that made the real things seem worthless.

For instance, Bush and his creatures trumpet precisely those ideals of small-town life that his actual policies are destroying. The idea that we are a nation of caring families, or cooperative communities, doesn't withstand the slightest critical examination. But the concept of family and community - of belonging - remains eminently marketable. It's as though we've been locked in a bare cell, and are comforting ourselves by imagining the ineffable perfection of Platonic beds and chairs.

In America's smaller towns, neighborhoods have been destroyed and businesses torn down, only to be replaced by chain businesses that offer a cheap imitation of the community values they ruined. "Old-fashioned" qualities - such as conscientious workmanship - are promoted in cavernous, dismal buildings that were made cheaply, out of shoddy materials, by people whose emotional investment in their work was at a bare minimum. Lovely Victorian buildings are torn down, to make way for some gigantic drab enclosure where faux-Victorian gaslights are sold. Our neighbors are driven from their houses and scattered to the four winds, so that chain stores can arrive and proclaim themselves our "good neighbors."

Whatever you consider the human spirit to be, our official culture has stopped making an effort to appeal to its kinder or saner aspirations, or to please it with anything more profound than the numb familiarity one feels when entering a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart...which is really just an adjustment to diminished expectations.

Perhaps our diminished expectations explain some of our strange bitterness towards the rest of the world. We work harder and harder, and pay more and more, and get less and less, but it's almost as though we defend our lifestyle all the more fiercely because of its very shabbiness. For if this is success, who could survive failure? If this is profit, who could bear loss? The closer we come to outright failure, the less we want to admit it.


Tarantino's Repellent, Shallow Cynicism

Hiram Lee over at the World Socialist Web Site (!) pens by far the best review of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds I've read so far. Hat-tip to SK for the link:

Inglourious Basterds is a dreadful film. In spite of the ostensibly more serious setting of the Second World War, one finds in this work the same elements one has come to expect from Tarantino's films: gratuitous and psychopathic violence, endless pop culture references, the glorification of revenge, drawn-out and tedious scenes of incidental dialogue, a self-conscious use of camera movement and editing, and pervasive cynicism. All of this is delivered with a sly wink toward the audience. The pyrotechnics, as usual, cover up for the film's lack of depth and essential tediousness.

Tarantino has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, or portions of it, but it doesn't do him much good. He takes the path of least resistance at every point. The writer-director favors low-budget "grindhouse" material: martial arts films, "blaxploitation" works from the 1970s, "midnight movies" and spaghetti westerns. Treated entirely uncritically, these have been the primary influence on Tarantino, and not works that would have provided a richer understanding of life. Anti-intellectualism and laziness are here made into a program.

Tarantino's obsessive, unfocused interest in all things cinematic and his lack of concern with real life is a fatal weakness and leaves the director open to the influence of definite social processes that he hasn't even begun to understand. This is not to say that Tarantino is simply an innocent who stumbles blindly into the foul territory in which he so often finds himself. He is drawn to it, delights in it, and actively promotes it.

The "heroes" of Inglourious Basterds are sadistic killers who relish their mission of torturing, killing and even scalping their enemy. Fighting fascism with fascism. Precisely what is one to make of this?

...

As it is, Tarantino's use of World War II and the Nazis in his latest work is entirely false and gratuitous. Tarantino's motivation for setting his film during the Second World War had nothing to do with making sense of that period, the history of which he rewrites at virtually every step of the way. Rather, as Tarantino told the Los Angeles Times, he thought "It'd be really cool to do a spaghetti Western using World War II iconography." In other words, the war is simply another setting Tarantino can exploit and use as his own playground for self-indulgence.

...

In the film's final moments, Aldo Raine carves a swastika into the forehead of a prominent Nazi. This, like the rest of the film's violence, is shown in graphic detail. The camera angle then changes so that we see Aldo from the tortured Nazi's point of view. Raine looks at his carving (and into the camera) and says proudly to a comrade and to the viewers in the audience, "I think this might just be my masterpiece." The film ends with this comment. It is a moment that deserves to go down as one of the most cynical in recent film history.

Not much to add, except that Christoph Waltz was rather good, and was the only reason I watched this stupid and coarse movie to the end.


Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?

Thanks to commenter peter, who pointed out the new book by Thomas Gheogegan: Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? Here's a summary of the main points:

He begins by pointing out all the ways people live better in the European Union. They don’t have to worry about the Big Five: retirement, health care, education, transportation and childcare. The government sees to all of these. Since it buys in bulk, it gets great prices, and people don’t have to spend their time worrying about any of those things. Just think how great your life would be if you didn’t have to think about where you send your kids to school, or health insurance, or how long your commute is. And think how much better off you would be in this miserable economy if you didn’t have to worry about the losses in your 401(k) plan (if you had one), and how you would pay for health care if you have to pay COBRA on the paltry unemployment benefits you get if you got fired.

But there is more. In Europe, cities are livable. There are parks, beautiful buildings, wonderful museums, ancient churches, free or cheap concerts, festivals, open-air markets, functional subways, buses and trains, and street-cleaners. Geoghegan references the lovely public spaces with his comment on the banks of violets he saw in Zurich. There is café life, which is a gracious way to live, indeed. In Paris, the cafés are filled with people of all ages, sitting out at all times of the year drinking coffee and talking to each other, not immersed in private thoughts in front of a laptop or staring blankly at the third football game of a Sunday.

They can live this way because they aren’t working themselves to death. They get real vacations, tons of days off which create lots of three and four day weekends, and their daily work hours typically aren’t as long as ours....

How do they live so well, and we don’t? We are the ones with the great average Gross National Product per capita. It’s simple. They pay taxes, so they don’t have to pay for health insurance or retirement. They live in cities, so they don’t have to drive. They get great public education, so they don’t dump tens of thousands of dollars into private grade schools, high schools and colleges to give their kids a head start. The government provides childcare, so both parents can work or not as they see fit. With all that off their backs, they have time to live.

...

[Gheogegan then describes the high unionization among German workers and their strong influence on corporate policy.] With all this participation, workers have a direct stake in the business, and a real reason to pay attention to government and business. That means that everyone has a reason to continue their educations into their adult lives. It explains European TV: there are many talking head shows, and the discussions are rational. Newspapers are doing fine, at least compared to ours, and books sales are holding up. Geoghegan notices that you see people reading everywhere, books and thick newspapers, and in the homes of the people he visits he sees lots of books.

From this summary, it looks like Gheogegan's main point of comparison is Germany and, to a lesser extent, France. Needless to say, things would have looked a lot different had he chosen, say, Greece. In this Salon.com interview, Gheogegan makes the crucial argument about social democracy: it is a system in which government policy tilts toward the middle class, not necessarily the poor:

What are we missing when we measure the GDP?

We don’t have any material value of leisure time, which is extremely valuable to people. We don’t have any way of valuing what these European public goods are really worth. You know, it’s 50,000 dollars for tuition at NYU and it’s zero at Humboldt University in Berlin. So NYU adds catastrophic amounts of GDP per capita and Humboldt adds nothing. Between you and me, I’d rather go to school at Humboldt.

So much of the American economy is based on GDP that comes from waste, environmental pillage, urban sprawl, bad planning, people going farther and farther with no land use planning whatsoever and leading more miserable lives. That GDP is thrown on top of all the GDP that comes from gambling and fraud of one kind or another. It’s a more straightforward description of what Kenneth Rogoff and the Economist would call the financialization of the American economy. That transformation is a big part of the American economic model as it has morphed in some very perverse directions in the last 30 or 40 years. It’s why the collapse here is going to take a much more serious long-term toll in this country than in the decades ahead.

Who is better off in a social democracy like Germany?

Social democracy is good for the middle class even more than it is for the poor. We’ve got it completely backwards here. It’s the relatively educated and well-to-do that do well on European socialism. What’s the cash value of Humboldt education to people who are high school grads? Zero. For the German upper middle class, it’s worth 50,000 a year. That’s the difference. You have to remember, even if there’s universal healthcare, the more educated people always use the system better than the less educated people. They know how to make it work for them.

By some measures though, it's good for everybody. America has this wonderful freedom and openness and this ability to create yourself out of nothing. We’re just much more individualistic a country. I think we have overdosed a little bit on that, but I share that. I’m an America and I’m glad I was born in the U.S. and I always will be. But in terms of receiving the benefits of economic growth and both in terms of enjoying life and enjoying the richness of life in a developed country both in terms of private goods and public goods, quality of life that comes from that and leisure, I think Germany has an enormous amount to teach us.


"Binge Drinking is British"

englishwoman showing off her david hasselhoff comedy knickers. allegedly.

Here's a Washington Post hand-wringer on lager-guzzling British lads, chavs, louts, scrubbers, ladettes, and/or slags cidering their way to half-conscious promiscuity on the vomit-splattered cobblestones of London/Glasgow/Cardiff/Prague/Mykonos.

The prim American reporter interviewed a British alcohol lobbyist, who said the greatest thing any lobbyist has ever said:

Mark Hastings, who represents the British Beer and Pub Association, served the $44 billion-a-year industry's opinion straight up. "Binge drinking is British," he said. "Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens are littered with references to heavy drinking. Harold lost the battle of Hastings because of a big night on the mead. You're not going to change this by fiddling about with a few laws."

To which the Fat Slags raised their glasses in unison.

Any questions? No? Then bring me another K Cider.


German Word of the Week: Kriegweinwirkung

Csl6442l.jpg

Tomorrow I'll be in Cologne for a "business lunch," believe it or not. After enjoying some Koelnische Touristenblutwurst, I plan on visiting a few of the fine Romanesque churches in that city.

Being the Bildungsbuerger (building-burger) that I am, I perused the outstanding Wikipedia article (g) on the church (in fact, all of Cologne's Romanesque churches have great Wikipedia entries, and one even won a prize (g)).

In the paragraph on Glocken (which can mean bells or breasts, in this case most likely the former), I ran across this sentence: "Die ursprünglich kleine Glocke wurde durch Kriegweinwirkung zerstört, jedoch im gleichen Ton ihrer 1959 nachgegossen." The translation is: "The original small bell was destroyed by...", err, something called Kriegweinwirkung.

A close relative would be Kriegseinwirkung, which would mean "war damage." But what we have includes the word wein, which even non-German-powered can recognize as wine. Thus, we have a word which means, roughly, "the effects of war-wine."

Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article doesn't dwell on exactly how war-wine came to destroy the bell, although I imagine a little 'carbine practice' was involved.


Quote of the Day: Edward Bellamy

"[The average American] conceived of a socialist, when he considerd him at all, as a mysterious type of desperado, reputed to infest the dark places of continental Europe and engaged with his fellows in a conspiracy as monstrous as it was futile, against civilization and all that it implied."

Edward Bellamy, Introduction the American edition of Socialism: The Fabian Essays (1894).