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June 2017

What to Wear to Your Murder Trial

From my days as a criminal defense lawyer, I still remember the case of Robert L. Simpson, a Chicago-area defendant on trial for armed robbery and capital murder. While acting as his own lawyer during a death penalty trial in 1993, "he wore a black satin jacket inscribed with "Pimping Ain't Easy" across the back." The reporter also noted this illuminating exchange: "Jerry Dotson, a 22-year veteran of the Chicago police and the officer who was shot by Simpson, said he still keeps a photo of Simpson in his locker. When Simpson asked why, Dotson replied, 'Because you shot me.'"

Yasser S., is on trial for participation in the alleged honor killing of a mother of 5 from Solingen, Germany. The trial aroused some interest because the trial took place despite the body never having been found. On Friday, the skeletal remains of the woman were located after a two-year search. Here's a picture of Yasser S. from 2016:

Der-angeklagte-yasser-s-2016

Skeletal remains, indeed. § 187, by the way, is the Section of the California Penal Code for murder. Perhaps someone should have told his lawyers.


New Cocktail: The Proktophantasmist

Pancrace_Bessa00Last week, I tasted quince for the first time in my life. Before I came to Europe, I had never even seen a quince, and didn't even know what the word meant, except that it sounded funny, and was apparently something you could eat.

However, they are fairly popular in Europe, since they have plenty of uses

The very strong perfume means they can be added in small quantities to apple pies and jam to enhance the flavor. Adding a diced quince to apple sauce will enhance the taste of the apple sauce with the chunks of relatively firm, tart quince. The term "marmalade", originally meaning a quince jam, derives from marmelo, the Portuguese word for this fruit.[16][17]

Quince cheese is firm, sticky, sweet reddish hard paste made of the quince fruit, originating from the Iberian peninsula. It is known as dulce de membrillo across the Spanish-speaking world, where it is used in a variety of recipes, eaten in sandwiches and with cheese, traditionally manchego cheese, or accompanying fresh curds. In Chile, boiled quince is popular in desserts such as the murta con membrillo that combines Chilean guava with quince.

As drink

In the Balkans and elsewhere, quince eau-de-vie (rakija) is made. For a quince rakija, ripe fruits of sweeter varieties are washed and cleared from rot and seeds, then crushed or minced, mixed with cold or boiling sweetened water and winemaking yeast, and left for several weeks to ferment. Fermented mash is distilled twice to obtain an approximately 60% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) liquor. It may be diluted with distilled water to obtain the final product, containing 42-43% ABV.

So the other day, at the farmers' market, I had Afflatus # 1, and bought a bottle of quince nectar. You're never too old to try something new. Then I had an afflatus #2. I stopped by the Polish shop and bought a bottle of Grasowka Polish vodka, which is flavored with the aromatic scent of European bison grass. Each bottle contains one blade of the grass, although it's strictly ornamental.

I mixed one part vodka with three parts quince nectar and one part mineral water, and of course ice, since I'm American. The result was a pale honey-colored liquid that was sweet but not cloying, refreshing and full of interesting overtones. Quince juice tastes like apple juice, but has a faint citrusy overtone and more tartness.

I dubbed this cocktail the Proktophantasmist™, since I just came upon that word while re-reading Faust. You can call it a Prokto for short. It's like drinking a freshly-mown summer meadow.©

I hereby freely grant this cocktail recipe, in perpetuity, to the entire human race. That's just how I roll.


Bleg: Tiny Rhine Numbers

While biking yesterday, along the Rhine frontage of the Urdenbach nature preserve, I came across this small number on the shore of the Rhine:


Rhine Number 1

It was about 100 meters from the eastern shore, about where the gray location pinpoint is:

Rheinchild

As I rode the trail north, there was a "2" sign after about 100 meters, then a "3", then a "4", but then I turned off the riverside trail.

These are obviously not the large black-and-white kilometer markers along the Rhine (g). Does anyone know what purpose they serve? Thanks in advance for any help.


'Die Zeit' Interviews an "Expert" About Police Tactics Without Telling the Readers He's a Convicted Criminal

Tumblr_o8iexsMOcJ1qav5oho1_500[New Yorker cartoon by Kim Warp]

UPDATE (17:45 PM): Sabine Rückert, an editor at the printed version of Die Zeit, responded to a tweet in which I pointed out the facts contained in this piece:

 

"That is true. The person involved is Wüppesahl. I have informed my colleagues at ZON." (Zeit Online, the online presence of the printed newspaper Die Zeit, which is technically an independent organization.)

And now, the original piece:

Yesterday, the German broadsheet weekly Die Zeit published an interview (g) in which a so-called "police expert" harshly criticized the tactics of German police during the G20 Summit, comparing them to the Turkish police. As I pointed out in a tweet just after reading the article, the man, Thomas Wüppesahl is not an "expert", he is an activist, founder of a group called Critical Police Officers.

Shortly thereafter, in response either to my Tweet or to some of the 600+ comments (many harshly critical) to the original interview, Die Zeit changed the online article. Wüppesahl was now identified as a "critic" of the police, not an "expert". Further, a line was added to his biography indicating that his views were "highly controversial" (sehr umstritten).*

I pointed out the changes in a blog post yesterday. Yet a comment to that post (thanks, Björn!) altered me to a much more astounding fact than the changes to the article.

The "expert" on police tactics to whom Die Zeit gave a long interview is a convicted criminal. He was convicted of attempted robbery and murder in 2005. Because Wüppesahl is a former member of the German Bundestag and a prominent activist (a decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court even bears his name (g)), his trial was covered at great length in the German media. 

Let me quote my translation (footnotes removed) of the relevant portion of the German Wikipedia entry (g) on Thomas Wüppesahl**:

On 25 October 2004, Wüppesahl was arrested on suspicious of preparing to commit a crime. The informant and main prosecution witness was a former policeman and colleague of Wüppesahl's, who was also a member of the Critical Police group [which Wüppesahl had founded]. This person brought a non-functional pistol and a knife from police storage to the meeting with Wüppesahl. These were to be used to rob a money transport van. Wüppesahl was arrested in the colleague's apartment just after the colleague gave Wüppesahl the pistol and knife. 

The trial began on 4 March 2005. Wüppesahl's defense was that the plan which the prosecution claimed he had developed could not have worked in real life. He participated in the preparations only as a maneuver to uncover his former colleague as a police spy, and the action against him as revenge by the Hamburg justice authorities for his criticism of them [as an activist].... The Hamburg Regional Court sentenced Wüppesahl on 7 July 2005 for preparing and attempting to conduct murder in the course of robbery and violations of weapons laws. He was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. After Wüppesahl's appeal was dismissed, the conviction became legally binding....

With an eye to rehabilitating his reputation, Wüppesahl filed a complaint against his conviction with the European Court of Human Rights on 27 December 2006. After four years of review, the complaint was denied as inadmissible in December 2010.

A Spiegel article about his conviction stated (g): "According to the prosecutor, Wüppesahl planned to confront a money courier in Berlin, shoot him, and hack his hand off with a meat cleaver in order to escape with the suitcase full of money handcuffed to the man's hand."

Ladies and gentleman, this is the police "expert" who was interviewed at some length by one of Germany's leading newspapers. Insert joke here about interviewing a vegan about his favorite veal recipes, a neo-Nazi about Yiddish poetry, etc.

I suppose it's just possible to imagine that it might be appropriate to print an interview with a convicted criminal about police tactics.

But printing the interview without telling the reader the man is a criminal? That is journalistic malpractice. This information was one short Google-search away.

Die Zeit (or at least Zeit Online) owes its readers an apology. 

Continue reading "'Die Zeit' Interviews an "Expert" About Police Tactics Without Telling the Readers He's a Convicted Criminal" »


German Joys Gets Results Again

OK, the headline may be a bit self-aggrandizing. But here are the facts: In the early afternoon, I read an interview with Thomas Wüppesahl, a German activist, about the police tactics used during the "Welcome to Hell" demonstration.

Wüppesahl was harshly critical of the German police, claiming they provoked the demonstrators unnecessarily and used excessive force. The title of the article is "That is just like Turkey!". In the sub-heading of the article, Wüppesahl is described as a "police expert".

Here is a snapshot of the original description of Wüppesahl's qualifications as of 12:30 PM today courtesy of the Wayback Machine:

Wuepopesahl 1

 

"Thomas Wüppesahl is a former policeman and and was a Green Party Bundestag delegate from 1987 to 1990. He founded the Working Group of Critical Policewomen and Policemen, which advocates for civil rights."

I found this description to be another example of the overuse of the word "expert" by German journalists. German journalists routinely refer to activists as "experts". This is two journalistic sins at once. First, it gives the activist an undeserved veneer of objectivity. Second, it preempts the reader's judgment.

So I tweeted this:

 

 

Including a link to the former version of the piece, I tweeted "Sigh. No, he's not an expert, he's an activist."

Later, a Facebook friend asked me why I had been so critical of Die Zeit. After all, they had warned readers that Wüppesahl's views were "extremely controversial."

Wait, what? No they didn't! I called up the page again, and sure enough, everything had been changed. The introduction to the piece now identified Wüppesahle not as a police expert, but as a police critic. The graf about his background now (as of 8 pm) reads as follows:

Wup2

The added sentence, highlighted, reads: "Wüppesahl is highly controversial as a police expert."

I don't know whether my tweet prompted this change, but it's for the better. It might be a good idea for Die Zeit to let its readers know about the change, no?


Is There Anything Hitler *Didn't* Say?

D11

[An example of the Taylor Swift Hitler Quotes meme]

The New York Post "reports" on a Hitler-Said-That gotcha!

The principal of an Oklahoma high school apologized after its yearbook featured a quotation attributed to Adolf Hitler.

Students at Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School in Oklahoma City discovered the quote when they got the books earlier this month. Graduating seniors chose quotes to pair with their portraits.

A quote listed above Hitler’s name says, “If you want to shine like the sun, first you have to burn like it.” Some translations of Hitler’s manifesto “Mein Kampf” include similar wording, though the author of the excerpt is disputed.

Two problems here. First, neither I nor this reddit thread can find anything like this in Hitler's recorded writings.

Second, am I the only one who thinks it's rather silly to find something discreditable merely because Hitler might have said something a bit like it once?

Whoever said it, "If you want to shine like the sun, first you have to burn like it" is a pretty awesome thing to say.

Besides, Hitler spent his entire adult life saying and writing things. Let me quote Mein Kampf at random: "Even the amount of money allotted to the State buildings is in most cases truly ridiculous and insufficient." Hey, maybe he's right! If you read the art-criticism parts of Mein Kampf, you will see opinions that are held by at least 50% of the adult population of any country: Art should look like stuff, stories should have a plot, nobody likes looking at ugly people and things.

I propose a new rule: If you accidentally quote Hitler, you are forgiven. If you intentionally quote him, but only when he says something that anyone else might say, you get a slap on the wrist. If you intentionally quote him saying something really Nazilicious, then I will be outraged.


The Fallacy of Context Omission

Black bloc

[Black bloc in Heiligendamm, 2007, source]

A Croatian protester, , has arrived in Hamburg to protest the G20 summit and doesn't like the security precautions:

Arriving in Hamburg this week feels like entering a dystopian nightmare. As the city prepares to host the G20 summit this Friday and Saturday, many roads are blocked and high-security zones have been established. More than 20,000 police, many heavily armed, are patrolling the streets, backed up by drones and the latest surveillance technology. Helicopters are permanently “parked” in the clouds, so the sound of their rotors becomes a sort of background music you soon stop noticing. Perpetual police and ambulance sirens, emergency lights and water cannons accompany the orchestra of power.

This is an example of a type of argument I find especially irritating. As everyone who even briefly follows the news knows, there is a reason for these security precautions. And not just because there are a lot of powerful people at summits.

The reason is that, in 2007, the G8 held a summit in Heiligendamm, Germany. Germany is a favorite target for demonstrators, because it's easily reachable from all over Europe and has liberal laws on freedom of protest. Thousands of protesters, including at least 2,000 violent black-bloc militants, descended on that city. The result was burning cars and barricades, violent clashes, thousands of injuries on both sides (g) and millions in property damage. (Reliable estimates are hard to come by, because the Wikipedia entries on the 2007 G8 protests seem to be lively battlegrounds of editing and counter-editing.)

In other words, the G8 summit in Germany in 2007 turned into a violent catastrophe during which only random chance prevented loss of life. To prevent a recurrence, German security officials have instituted tight security for all later summit meetings, resulting in a much lower level of violence and destruction.

However, Horvat never mentions this context. He wants us to obediently shudder in horror at terrifying, Orwellian security precautions, without mentioning why they were taken. He apparently wants us to pretend the black bloc doesn't exist, and/or that the authorities shouldn't respond to their violence.

This is what I call the Fallacy of Context Omission. It doesn't seem to quite fit in with any existing recognized fallacy, but perhaps I missed something. The structure is simple: You decry a controversial state of affairs, and invite the reader to become morally outraged about it, without mentioning the context that led to the state of affairs and provides a rationale for its existence.

Examples:

Situation: Overpopulation of deer is causing serious problems, so authorities issue more deer permits.

Invitation to moral outrage: "The authorities have authorized a massacre of innocent deer because they despise animals!"

Situation: Cops put up more radar checkpoints because traffic accidents have risen significantly.

Invitation to moral outrage: "The cops are taking away our freedoms because they need more cash from fines!"

Situation: Heroin deaths and public drug use have increased, so the city creates methadone clinics and safe rooms.

Invitation to moral outrage: "The city authorities are subsidizing drug use!"

You get the picture. This fallacy shows a contempt for the reader's intelligence and understanding, since it presupposes (or demands) the reader's ignorance of obviously relevant facts.

The irony is that Horvat is a philosopher, so you would ordinarily assume he would be more attuned than most people to the need to avoid fallacies. But alas, he's the kind of philosopher who is more likely to "interrogate" logic than to use it.


An Englishwoman in 1980s Dresden

DD6b4SKXkAIMg3p

Die Hacke'sche Höfe in Berlin, 1979.

Through her excellent Twitter feed (source of the above photo), which posts a picture from the former East Germany every day, I came across this 2014 interview with Paula Kirby, an Englishwoman who taught English in Dresden in the mid-1980s. (Yes, she had a Stasi file and has seen it, although the results were unspectacular.) I find her observations colorful and free of the tiresome polarization that this issue often provokes. They generally mesh with accounts I've heard from East Germans. A few excerpts:

[T]he GDR was full of surprises. Shall I start with the good ones? Dresden was beautiful: literally breathtakingly beautiful, or at least, the city centre was. The half-finished suburbs full of hideous tower-blocks were as ugly in Dresden as they were elsewhere in the GDR, but much of the historic old town had been lovingly rebuilt after the war, and even the modern areas, such as the Prager Strasse pedestrian zone, where my flat was, were amazingly light and spacious, with dancing fountains and flower-beds bursting with colour, and people sitting outside at the street cafés, lapping up the sunshine while drinking coffee and eating cake. This was not what I had been expecting of a city behind the Iron Curtain!

Then there was Dresden’s astonishing cultural provision – It wasn’t just that there was an abundance of cultural offerings, but that the appreciation of culture clearly had mass appeal. The famous Old and New Masters art galleries were always busy, and I don’t think I ever went to a classical concert in the enormous Kulturpalast (‘Palace of Culture’) that wasn’t absolutely packed. And not just with the kind of people you might have expected to see in the West, where such things tend to be perceived as middle-class pursuits. In the GDR there was nothing elitist about going to a classical concert or opera: it was simply something enjoyable and stimulating that was accessible to all. Tickets for the newly re-opened Semper Opera House were only on sale once a week, from Monday lunchtimes, and people would start queuing before dawn, even in the depths of winter, in order to be sure of getting them.  Cultural events were heavily subsidised so, even though the opera tickets were still fairly pricey in relation to average wages, they bore no resemblance to the obscene prices charged in the West; and other cultural events were truly affordable for all. This was something I loved, and I still think that life in the GDR was enormously enriched by it.

On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.

There were some bad surprises too – the political propaganda I had been expecting, of course: just not that it would be quite so relentless. It was in the textbooks I was expected to teach from, it was on TV, it was in the newspapers, it was on banners draped above shops and offices, it saturated the endless staff meetings, it was even lit up in red neon letters on a block of flats near my home (“Socialism will triumph!”). The same goes for the bureaucracy: it wasn’t unexpected, but the extent of it and the frustration that went with it (and the number of times you would wait for hours to see an official, only to be curtly turned away because you didn’t have a particular form with you, or you did have the form but you hadn’t already waited two hours somewhere else to have it stamped by another official first …), these were things to which I eventually became accustomed but never reconciled.

While nearly all East Germans I got to know socially and professionally were warm and welcoming, an encounter with people in their official capacities was often stressful. Most shop assistants, waiters, post office clerks, ticket desk staff and even doctors’ receptionists often seemed to go out of their way to convey their low opinion of you and their resentment at having to engage with you. “Customer service” seemed an unknown concept, and to go shopping or to the local post office was to face an almost certain lecture on the many ways you had failed to live up to expectations. You would be scolded for not having wrapped your parcel properly, for not standing at the right place in the queue, for not stepping up to the counter quickly enough when it was your turn, for not having your ID ready to show, for not having the right change, for giving them too much small change, for speaking too quietly and, of course, for speaking too loudly. Such encounters were a constant test, it seemed: one we were all doomed to fail. In fact, of all the challenges of everyday life in the GDR, this was the one that ground me down the most.

How do you think  your status as a foreigner (and particularly, your identity as a Westerner ‘behind the iron curtain’!) impacted upon your experiences in East Germany?

On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.

...I think it’s unfortunate that today, so many people seem to want to deal exclusively in black and white. While there were aspects of the GDR that were, in my view, inexcusable, and I would never wish to downplay the persecution of those who dared to express thoughts and pursue goals that did not conform to the state ideology, it was not (for most people) the relentlessly grim and terrifying place of Cold War propaganda; and while there was also a great deal that I remember with fondness, nor was it the paradise on Earth that many of the Ostalgiker would have us believe. The reality was far more varied, far more complex and, above all, far more interesting. That’s what I try to convey through my tweets.

The most conspicuous kind of Ostalgie is the pure, un-nuanced version, which simply holds that everything damals (“back then”) was better. There are countless such groups on Facebook, where, if you were to believe everything you read, you would be convinced that everything damals tasted better, no one went without anything, the queues and the patchy supply situation only made shopping more interesting, the Trabant was the best car in the world, industrial pollution didn’t harm anyone, people rarely fell ill, national service in the army was the best laugh ever, and people who fell foul of the Stasi must have done something to deserve it. I have even seen a number of comments suggesting that we shouldn’t make such a fuss about people shot at the Wall, because they knew what the risks were and had only themselves to blame. Everything was for the best, in the best of all possible GDRs.

Personally, while sharing the nostalgia for some aspects of the GDR (if offered a trip in a time machine, I would set the dial firmly for Dresden 1985 and zoom back there like a shot; not because it was so wonderful, but because it was so interesting), I have little patience with those who are determined to whitewash history so completely.

However, there is also a more nuanced form of Ostalgie which I think is more defensible and represents a much more serious challenge to the reunified Germany. One of the enduring resentments felt by many in the East is that, whereas what they wanted was a genuine unification ­– a new Germany comprising the best aspects of both republics ­– what actually happened felt more like a takeover, or even a conquest. There was an assumption on the part of West Germany that everyone in the East accepted that the West was superior in all respects; and I think that assumption was largely false. There were many things about the GDR that much of the population genuinely valued: low rents, full employment, state childcare, good schools. It wasn’t that most GDR citizens despised socialism and longed to be plunged into full-on capitalism: what many of them wanted was not primarily a higher standard of living but more personal freedom. And while reunification has given them that, it has also brought with it a whole raft of problems that were unknown in the GDR, where virtually no one needed to worry about not being able to afford the basic necessities, and where there wasn’t the endless pressure to consume, consume, consume. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that some people in the East feel alienated in the new Germany, or that Ostalgie groups regularly talk about having had their Heimat(‘Homeland’) taken away from them.


How Fake is American Niceness? How Is American Niceness Fake?

Two chatty German Youtube girls who live in Texas discussing whether American niceness is fake.

Ask any European who's been to America (except New York, and sometimes even then) what their impressions are, and "niceness" will be one of the first things they mention. Strangers smile, ask how you're doing, sometimes call you "honey". Most Europeans instinctively find this insincere, and ascribe it to superficiality and/or with corporate pressure to present a chipper, eternally happy exterior. Others see it as hypocritical. An American English professor makes the argument in the Washington Post:

In fact, Trump epitomizes the conventional version of American niceness, which assumes that Americans are fundamentally decent and benevolent people with the best of intentions, whose acts of aggression are reluctant and defensive necessities designed to protect us. (Or, as the office of first lady Melania Trump put it in response to the president’s latest Twitter tirade: “When her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder.”)

In a sense, this is quintessential American niceness: a tendency to insist on one’s own affability and friendliness while dismissing all unwarranted or unnecessary acts of cruelty as necessary evils. This is the kind of amiability that obscures the shadowy side of American life. On the other hand, Americans have also historically attempted to transform our niceness into a national attitude rooted in justice and mutual respect by acknowledging American cruelty and using it as an impetus to live up to an ideal of moral integrity based on the courage to tell the truth.

In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was among the first to comment on American amiability, comparing it with the “unsociable mood of the English.” In the 1840s, Charles Dickens, who couldn’t imagine an Englishman being happy living in the United States, nonetheless described Americans as “friendly, earnest, hospitable, kind.” By the end of the 19th century, the link between Americans and niceness had become accepted tradition, with Rudyard Kipling noting in 1891: “It is perfectly impossible to go to war with these people, whatever they may do. They are much too nice.”

Americans themselves regarded their famed niceness as the cornerstone of a democratic personality. The actress and writer Kate Field remarked in 1873: “To try to please everybody, is democratic; to be indifferent to everybody is aristocratic: consequently, Americans, men and women, are the best bred people in the world.” As a refreshing alternative to European stuffiness, American niceness conveys democratic informality while sustaining the myth of American exceptionalism: Americans are not just nice but the nicest people on earth. As Walt Whitman once put it, Americans are “the peaceablest and most good-natured race in the world.”

Since the 19th century, Americans’ belief in our own niceness has never wavered. Yet even then, American niceness obscured a tendency to refuse accountability for aggression and offense — and even unspeakable cruelty.

Europeans have two different "niceness" problems with the US.

The first is that the niceness is fake.

I don't think this problem is very important. American niceness is just being pleasant, friendly, and obliging to random people you meet. This is one of those common things, an accurate stereotype. Especially in really nice places, like the South, people are indeed damned friendly and helpful. 

This sort of ordinary, everyday niceness is, in my view, an unambiguously good thing. It just makes life easier for all concerned. Who cares if it's superficial? I take a consequentialist view of this kind of niceness: if it works, it's good.  A world in which everyone constantly expressed their deepest, most honest reactions would quickly drown in blood. Niceness is great social lubricant, every society should aspire to as much of it as possible.

That being said, the American advantage here isn't that great. When it comes to niceness, there is probably a bigger niceness gap between urban and rural people in any one country than there is between people in general in different countries. Berlin, New York, Paris, London -- you're not going to be showered in gooey, spontaneous affection in any of these places. But in rural Germany and France -- and even in fairly large cities  -- people are quite friendly, as long as you at least try to speak their language and observe common behavioral norms.

The other kind of niceness problem is not that the niceness itself is fake, but that it is somehow hypocritical or inconsistent. This is a somewhat more sophisticated niceness critique, and the one that's being made in this op-ed. This one goes: "Oh sure, Americans are nice and friendly to other Americans or to 'acceptable' kinds of strangers such as tourists, but this is just an attempt to paper over inequality, racism, and militarism. Who cares how nice Americans are in America while their government is dropping more explosives on Cambodia than all the Allies used during all of World War II? Who cares whether that guy in the truck gave you a ride to the next gas station when he supports capital punishment and has Trump stickers all over his bumpers?"

This is a more serious objection, but it's not really logically consistent. The bombing of Cambodia had nothing to do with being friendly and helpful to strangers. The bombing of Cambodia would not have been more or less acceptable if Americans had been ruder at home. What these Europeans are complaining about is not American "niceness", but American moral posturing as the "shining city on the hill" which is a beacon unto the nations and the most morally upright of countries, etc. And to that extent, they're on solid ground. Too many Americans swallow this sort of guff about their country.

The association comes from the fact that the people most likely to uncritically swallow (only positive) American exceptionalism also tend to be really nice. But they're not nice because they believe in an air-brushed version of American history. You can like them for being nice while rejecting their blinkered opinions.


German Journalists Avoiding the Obvious, Part 425

Not another post about migrants, you're thinking. Please. Haven't you banged on about this enough?

I sympathize. I don't like it any more than you do. I start thinking about something interesting and non-political to write about. Then I browse a few German news websites. Invariably, within 5 or 10 minutes, I encounter some piece of reporting makes me do a spit-take. And then, more in sorrow than in anger, I again take up my soiled spade to shovel out the Augean stables of German journalistic self-delusion.

Today's candidate is Vanessa Wu, who has written an article (h/t SW) for Die Zeit on whether migrants who commit crimes in Germany can be shipped back where they came from. Overall, the article is informative and reasonably balanced. But then we get to this passage (my translation):

According to the federal immigration ministry, at least 60 percent of all asylum-seekers arrive in Germany without any identity documents. The reasons for this are diverse. Some come from countries without reliable government ministries for identification and passports such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia, or Nigeria. People from these countries may never have had personal identity papers. Others were considered members of the opposition and therefore were not given travel papers. Others lost their papers or gave them away during their flight. Smugglers often take identity papers away from their customers to prevent security agencies leaning about smuggling routes and networks. Some smugglers keep the passports as deposit for debts. Finally, some people destroy their papers out of fear that they may be rapidly sent back to their countries of origin. How many cases of missing identity papers are explained by each of these reasons, or the number of people in general who arrive without papers, have never been statistically measured.

I have no idea where the author gets the idea that Nigeria, Afghanistan, or Iraq don't have passport agencies. They do. They're probably not as efficient as Western passport authorities, but then again, that is true of every other institution in these countries. You can definitely get an Afghan passport. The German press, in fact, has published dozens of articles (like this one and  this one (g)) about people waiting for the passport agency in Kabul, Afghanistan to issue them passports so they can leave the country and go to Europe. I happen to know any number of Nigerians who have passports.

Further, the vast majority of people who reach Germany have transited at least 5-6 other countries before even reaching the outer border of the EU. How did they do this without passports? Doesn't the fact that Afghans know they need a passport to emigrate to the west, and are able to get one, raise any questions for the author?

Yet the main problem with this passage is the author provides a seemingly-exhaustive list of reasons why people show up without papers without daring to mention the one reason which almost certainly explains most of these cases. Can you think of that reason? I can! 

They intentionally destroyed or got rid of their passports. In Neuhaus, a German border town which became a key transit point for migrants in 2015, the mayor complained that toilets were being clogged (g) with all of the passports and identity papers migrants threw away before they were processed by intake authorities. (Once again, this shows that many migrants had passports, but threw them away as soon as they got to Germany.)

Why did they do this? For two reasons.

Reason One: So they could pretend to be Syrians. Everyone knew that the one nationality with the best chances of getting refugee status in Europe -- that is, Germany -- was Syrian. Even in the very newspaper Wu writes for, there have been articles (g) about how many migrants presented fake documents claiming Syrian nationality. A Dutch journalist showed how easy it was to get a fake Syrian passport for €750. For a picture, he used the Dutch prime minister (g).

Dozens, if not hundreds of cases of falsche Syrer -- "fake Syrians" are discovered in Germany every day. One family of Ukrainians even got residency papers by claiming to by Syrian. Since there was no personal interview or background check, they simply filled out a for claiming to be Syrian and and got recognized as Syrian refugees (g), despite not speaking a word of Arabic. They are now appealing their deportation order on the grounds -- believe it or not -- that they are entitled to rely on the government residency permit, even though they obtained it by fraud. The German government is now spending millions of dollars on specialized machines (g) and interpreters to detect fake passports and debunk false claims of Syrian nationality from Algerians, Tunisians, Egyptians, and even Pakistanis.

Reason Two: You can't deport people if you don't know where they came from. Wu just barely touches this reason when she mentions people who destroyed their ID papers to avoid "rapid" deportation. Of course, she knows, or should know, that there is no such thing as rapid deportation in modern Germany. As soon as a migrant pronounces the two syllables "Asyl" (asylum), this automatically begins a long, expensive administrative proceeding in which the asylum-seeker's claims are tested. If he loses at the first level, he can appeal. If he loses all his appeals and gets a deportation order, this begins a second set of court proceedings about whether the deportation order can and should be enforced (g). Even Green Party politicians (from the tellingly-named "realist" wing) complain that deportations take too long (g).

Wu observes that German law requires migrants who arrive without papers to "actively cooperate" with the authorities in proving their identities. She then notes that there are no real mechanisms for enforcing this theoretical duty. Why would you help the authorities find out that (1) you lied to them when you said you were a Syrian, and that (2) you're actually a Tunisian, when that means you will be (eventually) deported?

Wu notes the case of one rejected asylum seeker who missed nineteen (19) appointments to apply for a passport to enable his deportation. When authorities brought him to his home country's embassy, he remained silent. His punishment? A reduction of € 130 in pocket money. Housing, clothes, and food will continue to be provided gratis by the German state.

The case is a microcosm of the absurdity of German immigration law: The man came from Cameroon, which is a multiparty democracy and net oil exporter with "solid" economic growth. His asylum application was denied in...wait for it...

2004.

Yet when his welfare benefits were reduced (as allowed by German law) for failing to cooperate with the German authorities (as required by German law), he filed a complaint alleging that his constitutional rights to a minimum level of financial support had been violated. The case went all the way up to the highest social-benefits court in Germany, which decided the case in March 2017 (g) -- thirteen years after his asylum application had been denied. And he's still nowhere near being deported.

Every asylum-seeker knows that if you don't want to identify yourself, the German state cannot force you to, and you can live the rest of your years in Germany collecting welfare benefits (while augmenting your income, no doubt, with a variety of colorful black-market pursuits). 

This is why most people destroy their travel documents.

Wu's trying to be a Good German by avoiding any comment which might imply a negative judgment of migrants' conduct. They are coded as victims, after all, and therefore are sacrosanct and may not be judged (that would constitute "blaming the victim", a cardinal sin). But this reflects a kind of condescension toward migrants, whether intentional or not. They are portrayed solely as helpless, fearful objects and victims of anonymous social forces and bureaucracies, not as people capable of taking responsibility for their fate and their decisions.

Articles like this fail to take migrants seriously as responsible adults capable of rationally following incentives. As long as that mind-set dominates German politics and journalism, there can't be a productive debate on immigration.