Paul Hockenos on German Arrogance

In Foreign Policy:

One year ago, Germany was named the “best country” in the world, according to a poll by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The poll relied on criteria measuring entrepreneurship, power, public education, and quality of life, among others. But for a growing number of Germans, the important thing was that it offered confirmation of their own self-image. Their country slipped to fourth in this year’s poll, behind Switzerland, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but that seems unlikely to do much to dim the self-confidence of a country enjoying a surging economy and growing international cachet.

Whether the field is migration or manufacturing, fiscal policy or renewable energy, Germans increasingly believe that they, and they alone, know best, at least judging from the attitude newly on display everywhere from newspaper columns to parliamentary speeches to barroom chats over beer. In German the phenomenon is summed up in one word: Besserwisserei, a know-it-all attitude, which the Germans themselves admit is somewhat of an engrained cultural trait.

But it’s increasingly clear that one country’s allegedly evidence-based Besserwisserei is another country’s intolerable smugness. Just ask Germany’s European neighbors, and others, including the United States, where resentment of Germans has been percolating for years, under constant threat of bubbling over....

German high-handedness is eliciting angry charges of “moral imperialism” from Hungary, and its central European neighbors, including Slovakia, Poland, and Croatia, largely concur. Meanwhile, during the first round of the French presidential election, candidates from more than one party chastised Merkel for dictating a German eurozone policy. “We order it, you obey, and tout suite,” is how the German publisher Wolfram Weimer critically summed up Germany’s new modus operandi during the bailout negotiations in an article titled “Virtuous Totalitarianism”. U.S. economist Paul Krugman repeatedly blasts Germany for “moralizing” on European fiscal policy, namely Germany’s obsession with budget discipline, which he considers entirely counterproductive. Since Germany’s setting of the onerous terms for the eurozone’s recovery packages, beginning in 2011, surveys in Europe show that many fellow Europeans consider Germans arrogant, insensitive, and egotistical (while, strangely, praising their dependability and influence in Europe)....

Of course, another reason German smugness can get under the skin is the fact that Germany simply isn’t nearly as universally superlative as it might prefer to think. A close corollary of Besserwisserei has always been hypocrisy. So Germany may browbeat other countries about their deficits today, but other Europeans remember that in the 2000s, when the German economy was in the dumps, and again during the financial crisis, Berlin consistently ran budget deficits in excess of eurozone rules — and avoided penalties for it. The deficits were critical for Germany to get its economy going again.

Meanwhile, Germany insists that other countries follow its lead on climate change, shutting down nuclear power stations and switching to clean energy generation. But Germany is Europe’s biggest burner of dirty coal (seventh in the world), and it’s not on track to hit the Paris Agreement’s reduction targets for 2020. Its best-selling export is big, expensive, gas-guzzling luxury automobiles, including diesels. The Dieselgate scandal caught Volkswagen and other German car manufacturers cheating on emissions tests.

And it’s no accident that the scandal was uncovered in the United States, far from the reach of German political and cultural power — nor that Germany’s discussion about the scandal has been just as focused on how the German auto companies in question can be saved rather than about the financial or moral atonement they might owe. “It’s obvious that the EU should take over emissions testing and that the commission should impose huge fines on Germany,” Lever says. “But it won’t, because it’s Germany, that’s why. It shows how much power Germany has now.”


"Every Other American" Thinks Like the German Right

Der Spiegel interviews (g) the Israeli-American-German journalist Tuvia Tenenbom, who's been called the Jewish Hunter S. Thompson. He's a rubicund old Jewish kibitzer who travels the world and reports what he sees in blunt, unvarnished, politically-incorrect language that you'll either find crudely oversimplified or refreshingly direct.

He's written books about Germany, America (this one was called "brutal, irreverent, and cutting"), and just published in German a book called "Alone Among Refugees" (g), which recounts his travels through Germany visiting refugees and activists on all sides of the issue. A few of his thoughts on comparative freedom of the press and opinion: 

Spiegel: Mr. Tenenbom, what is your opinion on the media landscape and freedom of opinion here in Germany?

Tenenbom: There's no more journalism, especially in Germany. Instead there's activism. Journalism no longer just report what happens, but what we're supposed to think....

Spiegel: So to you, the best journalists are those who...

Tenenbom:  ... report facts. And don't tell us what's right and wrong.
The reporter asks him about positive comments he has made about the personalities of German right-wingers such as neo-nationalist intellectual Götz Kubitschek and anti-immigration activist Lutz Bachmann: 
Tenenbom: I'm not naive. I know very well what they say and think. But to treat someone respectfully or like them doesn't require that I share their opinions. And by the way: Every other American thinks the things which Götz Kubitschek says, and what Lutz Bachmann says.

Spiegel: Well, that hardly makes it better.

Tenenbom: I just want to say: Should we treat all Americans this way [i.e. ostracize them because of their views]? No. And you know what? Many Germans think the same way, they're just afraid to say it aloud. And so what? All these people are entitled to call themselves Europeans. There is simply a difference of opinion between one point of view which existed earlier, which is based on the preservation of one's own culture -- you could call that narrow-mindedness -- and another movement which doesn't want borders or nation-states and wants to see cultures mixed. Those are two valid arguments, two acceptable wishes. Let the voters decide! But don't call these people Nazis merely because they want to preserve German culture.


The Students Without Qualities

The German newspaper Die Welt reports (g) on the case of a 14-year-old Jewish student from in the Friedenau suburb of Berlin who was harassed and attacked by his fellow students after he revealed he was Jewish. According to him, one of his fellow students told him: “Listen, you are a cool dude but I can’t be friends with you, Jews are all murderers.” He eventually had to leave the school.

A Jewish student being harassed, beaten, and insulted in the capital of Germany? This should be a major scandal, right?

Well, no. It has gotten some press coverage, as the Welt article shows, but not very much. Does this mean Germany really doesn't care about violent anti-Semitism?

Well, yes and no. To explain the response, we need, as always, to ask the question: Who is engaging in anti-Semitism? The Welt article, of course, never tells us. In that story, the young man is being attacked "by other children" or "by his classmates". Male? Female? Older? Younger? Ethnicity? Nope, none of that, thank you very much. All the Welt thinks you need to know about these violent anti-Semites are that they are "students".

They're the Students Without Qualities. Fans of the American sitcom Community might be reminded of the Greendale Community College mascot, the "Greendale Human Being": 

Only at the end of the story do we get a brief hint of who might be behind these attacks: "According to Tagesspiegel, 75% of the students at the school do not speak German as a native language, and many come from Turkish and Arab families."

Let's now turn to Tagesspiegel, the Berlin newspaper that first reported on the case in German. There, we come gingerly closer to the truth. After indeed reporting that there were many Turkish and Arab students at the school, the Tagesspiegel states (g) laconically, almost in passing: "According to the school's principal Uwe Runkel, this is also true of the criminal suspects [in the anti-Semitic harassment]." Blink and you might miss it, but here we finally have the truth: the anti-Semitic harassment did not come from Germans.

Fortunately, in this case we don't have to rely on the cloudy abstractions of the German press. The incident was originally reported in the English-language Jewish Chronicle:

Emma, who is British, said her son, Phillip (not their real names), 14, had been moved to an English language high school in Berlin .

Emma said she and her husband had originally been attracted to the school, Friedenauer Gemeinschaftsschule, which has a large proportion of Arab and Turkish children, by the fact it was so multicultural.

She said it had never occurred to Phillip to deny his Jewishness, and one day he mentioned it to his classmates.

One of them responded: “Listen, you are a cool dude but I can’t be friends with you, Jews are all murderers.”

The verbal abuse escalated to physical violence, until earlier this month, “when he was attacked and almost strangled, and the guy pulled a toy gun on him that looked like a real gun. And the whole crowd of kids laughed. He was completely shaken.”

“It was terrible,” Phillip said, “but I didn’t have time to think what’s happening at the time. Now when I look back, I think, oh my God.”

Emma said she decided then and there that “I am not sending him to this school any more, and that was it.”

...

The case underscores concerns that educators and parents have expressed for years in Berlin about the antisemitic harassment of Jewish pupils, particularly by Arab and Turkish children.

Berlin’s Jewish high school receives between six and 10 applications a year from parents who want to move their children away from schools where they are being subjected to antisemitic harassment, said Aaron Eckstaedt, principal of the Moses Mendelssohn Jewish High School in Berlin.

The requests generally are “in reaction to antisemitic statements coming overwhelmingly from Arabic or Turkish classmates,” he said, adding that “in most cases, the families complain about the relative lack of response from state schools” to the problem.

Being the target of anti-Semitic attacks seems to motivate people to actually want to know who's behind them. Indeed, the sub-head of the article reads: "Case illustrates long history of antisemitic harassment of Jewish pupils, particularly by Arab and Turkish children."

Now, to be fair, the principal has expressed dismay and regret:

When contacted by the JC, [the principal] Runkel said he regretted the antisemitic bullying of Phillip. He added he had hoped to help the student feel safe and also to make perpetrators face the consequences of their actions, but that obviously “for the parents it wasn’t fast enough”.

He said “a general approach in the school to antisemitism” was clearly needed, and was being developed.

Ahh, the "general approach" -- the Gesamtkonzept! You can't do anything in Germany without one. I am sure the principal actually is disgusted by a Jewish student being insulted and "almost strangled" at his school. But things get quite awkward when the anti-Semites in Germany turn out to be, er, not so German after all.

Although Turks and Arabs are allowed to point out the fact that anti-Semitism is endemic in Turkey and the Arab world, ethnic Germans can't really come right out and do so, for fear of being charged with stoking prejudice against Germans of Turkish and Arab descent. And there are a lot more of those than there are Jewish residents of Germany.

It's delicate, you see. Very, very delicate.

The problem with all this delicacy, though, is that sometimes people need clear information: "Emma said she and her husband had originally been attracted to the school, Friedenauer Gemeinschaftsschule, which has a large proportion of Arab and Turkish children, by the fact it was so multicultural." Apparently, nobody informed these folks that sending a Jewish child to a German school with a large Muslim population might not be such a good idea.

Euphemisms can be dangerous.

In any case, Phillip got the message: "As for Phillip, he would not necessarily recommend that other children reveal their Jewishness to classmates unless it’s 'a nice, quiet school.'"


The Sweariest Case Against Dubbing You'll Ever Hear

Living in Germany as an English-speaking expat is probably easier than living in France. France may be more charmante, but in Germany, stuff works. Having stuff work is a type of charm in itself. The kind that's important when you have to actually live there.

Paul Taylor, an English ginger and comedian who lives in the Hexagon has an amusing YouTube series called "What the Fuck, France?" which explore some of the peculiarities of French life. As you might expect from the title, they're extremely sweary. Why? Because English people are extremely fucking sweary, you fucking knob. Yes, I know that's a fucking cultural stereotype, you condescending prick, but stereotypes exist for a fucking reason.

Here Taylor takes on dubbing, the bane of every expat's existence: 

I will say, in Germany's defense, that German dubbing is extremely good. They've had decades of practice, and they're German. As I said, stuff works here.

The odd thing is I was just in Paris over the weekend, and I can't help noticing that France is rapidly catching up to Germany in the having-stuff-that-works department. The metros and buses run on time and have clear signs, the system of tickets is a hell of a lot simpler than in any German city, and everything's quite clean and orderly, even in the shabbier parts of town. There is still more dogshit on Paris streets, though.

Yet one day, sooner than you think, we are going to reach the Continental Singularity. As Germany gets more random and disorderly and France improves, there will come a time in which the orderlines efficiency of France's infrastructure, bureaucracy, and daily life are all as efficient as Germany's, a condition last seen only in 1788. 


Germany's Dumbest Inadvertent Condom-Machine Suicides

There's a show in the United States called "America's Dumbest Criminals", which does what it said on the tin. The show's main fodder is grainy surveillance camera footage, with some "dramatic re-enactments" when that wasn't available. Über-stoned robbers who forgot their wallets at the crime scene or shoot themselves, drunk drivers plowing into anything you can imagine, inadvertent confessions, you name it. The show's tagline was "names have been changed to protect...the ignorant".

I have the feeling this show has probably launched a thousand jargon-clogged dissertations ("Social Exclusion, the Authoritarian Personality, Cognitive Shaming, and the Re/In-Scription of Culpability on the 'Ghost' Body of the Offender in 'America's Dumbest Criminals'"), which we may safely ignore. Germany doesn't seem have an equivalent of this show, but there are plenty of articles (g) and video features (g) with the same theme (some variant of Deutschlands dümmste Verbrecher).

Mocking criminals for their stupidity seems a pretty harmless response to crime. From a criminological point of view, these shows seem to be a useful counterweight to the stereotypical movie portrayal of criminals either as ruthless masterminds (USA) or the hapless victims of psychological disturbance or turbo-capitalism (Germany). In fact, most criminals are neither cunning nor mentally ill, but generally are indeed very, very dumb. Studies from both the US and UK show that prison inmates, on average, have IQs in the mid-80s, about 1 standard deviation below the mean of 100, which is a big difference, and that lower intelligence is associated with more violence among prisoners. I can't find numbers for Germany offhand, but I can't imagine why they would be significantly different.

Which brings us to the guy who blew himself up yesterday in Dortmund. He was trying to rob a Deutsche Bahn ticket machine in Scharnhorst (g) in Dortmund, but instead inflicted "massive facial injuries" on himself and died at the scene. A few years ago, another young man killed himself while trying to blow up a condom machine (g) in sleepy little Borken (pop. 42,000), Germany. 

The first level of stupidity here is that these guys killed themselves. And that's a pretty significant level of stupidity! But the second level is why ticket and condom machines? I travel a lot on the German railways, and trust me, it is the exception to see someone paying for an expensive ticket with cash. Although perhaps the machines aren't cleaned out very regularly, and it piles up. I can't really say, since I've never broken into one.

But a streetside condom machine? I haven't ever seen anyone use one of these, have you? Besides, the maximum value of anything there is usually no more than 6-8 euros for the "luxury items" such as the notorious "Travel Pu**y" (let's keep it clean here, folks) or the "Vibrating Penis Ring"*. I have no idea how much is inside the average German condom machine, but I bet the explosive was probably more expensive. And even if the explosive was made from cheap homemade materials, the risk is obviously fairly astronomical.

Are these criminals really stupid for targeting ticket and condom machines here, or am I missing something?

Continue reading "Germany's Dumbest Inadvertent Condom-Machine Suicides" »


'Bei' und 'Noch' in Eastern Wisconsin

DeutscheHauser-annot-2
Source: Milwaukee's German Newspapers [http://milwaukeesgermannewspapers.blogspot.de/]

In my free time I've been dipping into the Netflix documentary 'Making a Murderer', which is about the trial of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin junkyard owner, for the murder of a young woman. It's pretty damned interesting, if you have a weakness for American courtroom drama.

One of the things that struck me is how German the American Midwest still is. Americans of German descent, like me, still form the largest ethnic group in America, with some 46 million people. Huge numbers of them settled in the Midwest of the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and in fact German was spoken as a native language by millions of people in places like Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois until well into the 20th century.

These days, German-Americans get no attention. German-Americans integrated completely into American society, keeping only their last names and perhaps a few scattered bits of tradition. And in fact, many changed those names to try to appear more Anglo-Saxon. Not only because some of the names were long and hard to pronounce, but also because fighting Germany in two world wars didn't do much for German ethnic pride. As I was growing up, the fact that my family was of German ancestry played almost no role at all, and the same was true for most everyone of German extraction I knew. After World War II, the notion of expressing much interest in your German heritage was seen as suspect in cosmopolitan circles.

So I was interested to see just how German the state of Wisconsin (largest city: Milwaukee) still remains.

Banner-ArbeiterZeitung(2)

The prosecutors and cops in the Steven Avery documentary have names like Gahn, Kratz, Wiegert and even Fassbender (!). The victim's name was Teresa Halbach. Avery's defense lawyers are named Strang and Buting. But what was even more interesting is the recordings and testimony of various witnesses. These were mostly country folk without much education, using nonstandard grammar: he ain't gonna win, don't none of this matter, etc.

But one thing both the educated and uneducated people had in common was using the English word 'by' just like the German word bei. Bei, in German, is like chez in French: it's an all-purpose proximity adverb meaning at someone's house, next to someone or something, near someone or something, the company you work at (I work bei Siemens), etc. English uses different phrases for all of these things: I'm going to John's house, I'm standing next to John, I work at Exxon.

But the people being interviewed for this documentary -- and not just the ones with German names -- used by in the German sense! I was by him (meaning at his house) the whole afternoon, I went up and sat on the stairs by (next to) Brendan, etc. They also used 'yet' in the German sense: instead of saying "she was still alive", they'd say "she was alive yet", just the way a German would use the word noch. This has nothing at all to do with accent, all of these people spoke perfectly normal Midwestern, with its slightly nasal vowels.

Scholars are pretty familiar with these aspects of Midwestern dialect, but I wonder how many of the Weicherts in Wisconsin and Monheims in Minnesota realize that their German heritage pops up in the way they speak every day?


-itzes, -ows, -dorfs- and -hausens

Moritz Stefaner, at truth and beauty, put together a list of the geographical frequency of place names in Germany. The whole map can be seen here. A few selections:

Place names Unspecified

I get that -ow and -itz are going to be mostly in the East, since they are usually transliterations of Polish words. But it would be interesting to know why certain other kinds of place names appear in such geographically distinct patterns.


Humorless Queue-Bargers

American writer Rebecca Schuman on her book about Germany, Schadenfreude, A Love Story:

Kafka is the muse of the book. Does his work encapsulate the German character—even though, as you are reminded again and again in the book, he wasn’t German at all? Do Germans find it annoying that the German-language writer who’s most widely read in English wasn’t even German?

They find it SO annoying, and I actually think that particular arc—someone saying, “Oh, you’re German—I love Kafka!” and then the German getting an opportunity to be pedantic (Ektually, zet’s not right is the national phrase of Germany, and I say that with love)—is the single most German thing in the world.

His work, though, definitely encapsulates the Austrian character (Prague, where he lived, was nominally Austrian for a lot of his life) with its endless bureaucratic entanglements. When I lived in Vienna for a year—a chapter, by the way, that got cut from the book—I had such a hard time getting registered for the university. I had to wait in line for 5 hours, and then when I finally got to the front, the worker was just like, Oh, I forgot to move you from one column to the other one, like it was the most normal thing in the world to require someone to come in for five hours to ask for a minor clerical task they didn’t know needed to be done. I got back to my desk at the research institute where I was doing my Fulbright and I said to my Austrian colleague: “I just realized that Kafka wrote nonfiction.”...

Do you have German friends who’ve read the book? What do they think of your portrait of their culture?

Just one so far, and he thinks it’s spot-on—but he’s very Americanized and has a great sense of humor about his mother culture. One of the most endearing things about Germans is that they neither understand nor enjoy exaggeration as humor. Given that hyperbole is my primary form of communication, I imagine many Germans will disagree with their culture’s portrayal. However, the second-most-endearing thing about Germans is that a sign of true friendship with a German is that you stay up all night screaming at each other in disagreement but still remain best friends. Germans don’t really believe in small talk and they don’t think that “certain subjects” are to be avoided in polite company, and they are pedantic as hell, but they don’t get offended easily. It’s one of the best things about them.

Is there a humor mechanism that replaces comic exaggeration, for the Germans? Or are they as humorless as some stereotypes suggest? (I grew up in England where the trope about Germans is that they always barge to the front of queues. I think this mostly speaks to the profound respect the English have for the queuing process.)

Oh, the queue thing is true. When I lived in Berlin I went to a Blur show in the dead of winter and had to check my coat. (It was a great show, by the way; Damon Albarn did an A-level in German and addressed the audience in German!) Afterward, I spent no less than 45 minutes in an obscene grinding mosh pit of German bodies, when a proper queue would have taken 5 tops. For a culture that prizes order so much that the idiom for “everything OK?” is Alles in Ordnung? the queuing habits are inexplicable.

As far as the humor thing—well, the stereotypes are true and they aren’t. The two most popular types of humor in German are slapstick and just bone-dry sarcasm. A great German “joke” is to say the meanest and most tragic thing possible and then follow it with a slight grimace. (Somehow it works.) Kafka, for example, was absolutely, rip-roaringly hilarious, obviously in a very dark way. Most people don’t know this about him, and early translations of his work (most of which are canonical) don’t play this up at all.

Might be a fun, light read. 


Melania Wasn't "Sad", She was Slavic

During Donald Trump's inauguration, his Slovene wife Melania looked sober and serious most of the time. This has led Americans to believe she was sad, depressed, horrified, anguished, perhaps even trapped in an abusive relationship.

What these slightly fatuous Americans don't understand is that the European conception of personal dignity and institutional respect demands that public figures taking part in official ceremonies look serious at all times. In Europe, there is no penalty for looking stiff, even scowling, during official ceremonies; that's expected. There can be a significant penalty for a smile, or for any sign of levity. So everyone plays it safe and refrains from all except fleeting smiles.

Let me make my point with pictures of Supreme Courts. First, the American:

US Supreme Court

By my count, we have a whopping six smiles: the entire back row (Sotomayor, Breyer, Alito, Kagan) and two in the front (Roberts and Kennedy). Justice Scalia, the balding Italian man sitting next to the black guy, is wearing a sort of half-smile. Justice Thomas, the black guy, is wearing an angry scowl, his resting face, which seems out of place in this photograph, but would be perfectly normal in Europe.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the far right, seems to be cringing in terror. In fact, she seems to be looking at the same thing which has attracted Justice Thomas' attention. Maybe this photo was taken just seconds after the naked knife-wielding maniac broke into the photo studio screaming about CIA mind control: so far, only Thomas and Ginsburg notice him. Fortunately, he was tased by security before he could reach the Legal Minds.

Anyhoo, where was I? Oh right, facial expressions. Since Melania is Slovene, here's the Slovenian Supreme Constitutional Court:

Slovene

The first thing you notice about this official picture from the Court's website is how shitty it is. It's only 71 KB in size, and 60% of that is the surroundings. The picture is so crappy that if you zoom in to try to see whether any of the Justices are smiling, their faces devolve into pixelblurs. You get the definite impression that the Justices probably thought the entire idea of having their picture taken is a ridiculous waste of time, and tried to make it as unrevealing as possible. Nevertheless, I think we can still safely say: no open-mouthed smiles, possibly a mild expression of amusement on the woman in the center's face. That's all.

Bundesverfassungsgericht-senat_2

Here's the Second Senate of the German Federal Constitutional Court. Two open-mouthed smiles, the rest tight-lipped neutral expressions. Here's the First Senate:

Bvg_senat_1_2010

One open-mouthed grin. I can't even find a decent group photo of the French Court de Cassation (which has 85 members divided into a bunch of different groups), but the individual photos of the group leaders here (f) feature no open-mouthed smiles I can find.

And just to round things out, the European Court of Justice:

RTEmagicC_European-Court-of-Justice-Members-2013.jpg

A few smiles, a few scowls, but mostly neutral, purposeful expressions.

And in this particular respect, Slavs seem to be even more serious and scowly than Western Europeans. Here's the Polish Constitutional Tribunal:

Members-of-Polands-Supreme-Court

Being a Slav, as they say, is serious business.

So Melania wasn't "sad", you chirpy, fleering American flibbertygibberts. She was just showing respect by adopting a serious Slavic scowl.