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.


The Feuilleton and Its Discontents

Alexander Stern has an essay on the feuilleton which is as readable as it is erudite, no mean feat:

“In the beginning was the press, and then the world appeared.” So begins a satirical 1922 poem by Karl Kraus. A ruthless critic who regularly excoriated the press in his magazine The Torch, Kraus blamed German newspapers for the outbreak of World War I. He reserved a special hatred for the feuilleton (pronounced “fuh-yah-tawn”) section of the paper, which included, along with art, literature, and reviews, short impressionistic pieces about city life and culture. And he was far from the only one to bemoan “the age of the feuilleton,” as novelist Hermann Hesse dubbed it. In 1929 the philosopher Theodor Lessing, who would be assassinated by Nazis four years later, reflected that “feuilletonist” had become “the nastiest insult in the German language.”

Whence all this contempt for light reading material?

The answer is complicated, but lies somewhere at the intersection of a volatile political climate, quickly modernizing cities, and the emergence of mass culture. In papers like Die Frankfurter Zeitung, Das Berliner Tageblatt, and Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, German journalists attempted to come to terms with their fast-changing times, writing literary vignettes that reflected philosophically on culture, technology, and politics. The feuilleton section thus became a battleground over the meaning of modernity. The controversy it generated prefigured present-day concerns about the deterioration of attention and the media’s role in shaping—or, as Walter Benjamin suggested, generating—public opinion....

n modernity we are wrenched out of history, take up an “objective” viewpoint on our culture, and immediately find genuine connection to much of it gone. God dies, traditions wither, only the words remain. To the feuilletonist, in Benjamin’s view, this means we can finally think clearly. We can finally view religion, tradition, and so forth objectively—things that to premoderns were still obscure because they were too close to their culture, because the words meant too much.

The feuilletonist thus covers all his subjects with a finish of urbane, pseudo-philosophical detachment. Kraus wrote:

When a streetcar accident takes place in Vienna, the gentlemen [of the press] write about the nature of streetcars, about the nature of streetcar accidents, and about the nature of accidents in general, all with the viewpoint: what is man?

Glib generalization and a tone of seen-it-all skepticism seduces the reader and seems to lift them up into the writer’s realm of free-floating observation. Even when written in the first person, the feuilleton takes up a kind of third-person “I” that surveys the scene, wary and detached, hovering above the crowd. Judgments seem to emerge effortlessly. Individual observations always serve some unassailable universal point. Feuilletons were written with what Benjamin called a “false subjectivity that can be separated from the person and incorporated in the circulation of commodities.”

The feuilletonist is like a conversation partner who convinces you of something by assuming you already knew it. A tacit note of almost conspiratorial intimacy accompanies his opinions: This is just obvious to two people of our intellect and experience. The reader is, on the one hand, flattered without argument into accepting the view expressed, and, on the other, infantilized.

The result is the manufacture of opinion—not that the feuilleton necessarily indoctrinates its readers. Rather, it absolves them of having to think for themselves. “It is precisely the purpose of the public opinion generated by the press,” Benjamin wrote, “to make the public incapable of judging, to insinuate into it the attitude of someone irresponsible, uninformed.”

Read the whole thing, as they say. I love feuilletons, which don't exist in the English-speaking press. I've often thought of trying to import the genre, but there's probably a reason it doesn't seem to travel well. At first, the English-speaking reader is put off by the distinctive tone of amused, world-weary detachment. He's used to either facts or opinions, dammit, not some weirdly subjective mix of the two.

But once you get up to what masters like Roth and Kracauer and Tucholsky are up to, you're hooked.


Fine Buildings, High Culture, No Excuses, No Regrets

Martin Kettle, who proudly calls himself a Germanophile, expresses his admiration in the Guardian for the new Elbphilharmonie (Philharmonia on the Elbe River) concert hall in Hamburg:

[I]n Hamburg on Wednesday evening a substantial part of official Germany – and surely everyone in the city itself – turned out in force for the opening of the dazzling Elbphilharmonie concert hall stretching high into the heavens in the former port district. Germany’s president Joachim Gauck made a witty speech, chancellor Angela Merkel, Hamburg-born before her family emigrated to communist East Germany, sat in the front row of the stalls. The mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz (a social democrat opposed to Merkel), glowed with civic pride....

For sure, Germany is far too deferential for the British taste. It is too respectful, polite, orderly, above all too serious. At times, including in the course of my visit for the Elbphilharmonie opening, even I, a Germanophile, wanted to have a bit more naughtiness and surprise in the proceedings. And no British arts organisation would put seven white men on stage to conduct a press conference about a huge project – the way the Elbphilharmonie did this week – with not a woman nor a black face in sight. On social media, there is this week, certainly, a strong undercurrent of hostility to the Hamburg opening, and the amount of public money it has taken is eyewatering. But the fact remains that Germany’s readiness to spend on a project such as the Elbphilharmonie, though often controversial on matters like cost and the environment, is ultimately a unifying force.

The civic pride and pleasure now that the concert hall is finally up and running was palpable. The tickets are all sold out for the next six months. The aim is that every child in Hamburg will get to a concert within the first year of the opening. The hall has already had half a million visitors before the first notes (by Benjamin Britten, as it happens) were heard in the opening concert, broadcast live on German television.

...But the truth is we don’t care, not enough. Maybe Germany cares too much. But I’d rather care too much than too little. And it really is a stunner of a building in a city that it’s a joy to get to know.

Amen, brother. This is what makes living in Germany a delight: livable cities with bold, interesting architecture and thriving cultural scenes. German politicians all more or less agree that high culture is an end in itself. It is not open to debate whether the state should fund it. They know that many people find it elitist and a waste of tax money, but it has to continue.*

High culture cannot survive without subsidies either from the state or from private donors. And its existence benefits everyone, whether they understand that or not. So Hamburg spends millions to build a glorious new concert hall. And at the other end of the scale, municipal arts councils dole out grants and commissions here and there to small bookstores, avant-garde theater groups, nature education programs for children, jazz clubs, charity projects, and artists of all kinds. Of course there's some corruption and waste here, what government program doesn't have that? But overall, most of the money goes where it's supposed to, and keeps interesting things happening.

It all adds up, and has a subtle, but profound overall effect. This is why I love living in Germany.

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Germany: Less Perverted Than You Think. Despite All the Apotemnophiliacs.


sprockets germany's most disturbing videos von pentakatharidis

Canada's National Post fills us in on the latest in the field of apotemnophilia, which we're now apparently supposed to call "transability":

People like Jason [who chopped one of his arms off] have been classified as ‘‘transabled’’ — feeling like imposters in their bodies, their arms and legs in full working order.

“We define transability as the desire or the need for a person identified as able-bodied by other people to transform his or her body to obtain a physical impairment,” says Alexandre Baril, a Quebec born academic who will present on “transability” at this week’s Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Ottawa.

“The person could want to become deaf, blind, amputee, paraplegic. It’s a really, really strong desire.”

Researchers in Canada are trying to better understand how transabled people think and feel. Clive Baldwin, a Canada Research Chair in Narrative Studies who teaches social work at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., has interviewed 37 people worldwide who identify as transabled.

Most of them are men. About half are in Germany and Switzerland, but he knows of a few in Canada. Most crave an amputation or paralysis, though he has interviewed one person who wants his penis removed. Another wants to be blind.

One stereotype many Germans aren't aware of is "the German-speaking parts of Northern Europe are hothouses of the most exotic perversions known to humanity -- second only, perhaps, to Japan".

When Germans think of Kraut stereotypes, they generally imagine Alphorns, Bavarian dress, punctuality, precision engineering, Nazis, beer, sausage, pretzels. But not necessarily perversion.

But that is indeed one of the stereotypes. Where does it come from? Perhaps an amalgam of:

  • Weimar-era transvestitism, rape-murders, and Expressionist documentation of same
  • Nazi sadists and homosexuals, and the weirdly sexless Hitler
  • A long -- and continuing -- history of legalized prostitution
  • Freikörperkultur, i.e. hanging around in large groups naked
  • Extreme German performance and body art (I'm looking at you, Nitsch and, to a much lesser extent, Beuys)
  • Freudian theory and Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis
  • Elfriede Jelinek
  • Armin Meiwes (you know, the cannibal)
  • Berlin gay sex clubs

I could go on. Stereotypes are generally accurate, but I think this one ain't. It's a matter of selection bias and self-fulfilling prophecies: sex sells, so anything happening in Germany which has to do with sex gets reported to the outside world. Germany, like most European cultures, is fairly sexually conservative compared to the United States or Britain. Germans who travel abroad (both men and women) are usually shocked, even primly dismayed, by how promiscuous Anglo-American city-dwellers are. Not to mention all the irresponsible drinking and drug use.

Truth to tell, the kind of Germans in my social circle tend to combine a lack of prudishness with a sensible moderation in matters genital. It's quite admirable. And even the ones who might go in for a suckling-pig swinger orgy (g) or two (as a friend of mine once quipped, this would be the ultimate integration test for foreigners) are unrecognizable outside the club. You get the definite impression that their second-favorite activity, after swinger orgies, is scoring excellent deals on equipment to re-grout their bathtubs.

Germany, I pronounce thee no more perverted than any other advanced country, and a lot less perverted than some. You're welcome!


"Trump Will Complete German Idealism"

Behold: the first time the name of Friedrich Hölderlin has ever been mentioned during a street protest in the United States. He throws in Fichte, Schelling, Kant, and Hegel for good measure.

Does anyone know what "city" he's referring to which is going to be raised? And what's that Schelling quote at the end?


An American in Berghain

Schlecky Silberstein stumbled upon this instant Internet classic -- an American from San Antonio decides on the spur of the moment to visit legendary Berlin nightclub Berghain and, as his Yelp review indicates, is scarred for life. I'm putting it after the fold because, well, this is Berghain we're talking about. You've been warned.

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Germans Ignore Dying Man in Bank Despite Law Telling them to Help

Inore

The police in Essen reported (g) on a case in which an 82-year-old man collapsed to the floor of a branch bank in Essen, Germany in early October. At least four people were seen on security cam footage simply walking over his body without offering help or calling an ambulance. The man was eventually taken to a hospital, where he later died. The police are now investigating these persons for failure to render assistance, which is a crime under German law. Section 323c of the Penal Code:

Whosoever does not render assistance during accidents or a common danger or emergency although it is necessary and can be expected of him under the circumstances, particularly if it is possible without substantial danger to himself and without violation of other important duties shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding one year or a fine.

In common-law countries such as the United States, the law imposes no duty to rescue strangers. As long as you didn't cause the emergency and the bear no special duty to the victim (as a guest or relative, etc.), the law will not punish you for ignoring him. There are a number of justifications for this doctrine, both theoretical (you can't be held responsible for injuries you didn't cause), and moral (the state should trust its citizens to do the right thing uncoerced).

This is one of the most obvious differences between common-law systems and civil-law systems such as the ones in most European countries. When I was teaching, many of my German students professed to find the common-law doctrine shocking or cold-hearted. It's not hard to detect the attitude behind this: the still, small voice in every German's head which whispers: "Despite the recent unpleasantness, Germany is a more decent, moral, caring and sensitive society than all others in the world, except maybe Sweden, but at any rate definitely more caring and 'social' than the selfish, dog-eat-dog United States."

Am deutschen Wesen...*

The students assumed that the existence of a law requiring help made Germany a more caring place, and that it affected Germans' behavior toward one another. This is another typical German attitude -- the notion that once a law has been passed to address a problem, the problem no longer exists.

Alas, I had to shatter their precious smugness idealism.

Studies show that 'duty to rescue' laws have no effect on whether people rescue their fellow humans in need. In the United States, where the law says you don't have to try to rescue people, a huge majority does exactly that, often risking their own lives:

As Table 3 reflects, there are approximately 1003 non-risky rescues (cell 2) and 263 risky rescues (cell 4) per year in the United States. Thus, verifiable rescues outnumber non-rescues by almost 800:1. If one loosens the standard for rescue only slightly, to encompass instances of rescue that were reported in a newspaper but did not pass initial screening by the Carnegie Hero Trust Commission, the ratio increases to approximately 1400:1.

Approximately 100 Americans lose their lives every year as a result of attempting to rescue someone else. Thus, even in the absence of a duty to rescue, deaths among rescuers outnumber deaths attributable to non-rescue by approximately 60:1 every year. Stated differently, there are six times as many rescuer deaths every year as there are deaths attributable to non-rescue in the past ten years combined.

Finally, injury is common among rescuers. Aggregate figures are unavailable, since most of the data sources did not separately track injury, but in those that did and as detailed below, a substantial percentage of risky-rescuers and a significant number of non-risky rescuers were injured – sometimes quite severely.

This isn't to say that Germans are more cold-hearted than Americans. Why, just five days ago, a staff member on a German Rhine cruise ship jumped into the cold water to rescue a woman who had fallen off a bridge into the Rhine (g).

The point is first, that law on the books, as usual, has little to do with what happens in the real world. Second, that laws drafted by tiny commissions staffed by elites (such as law professors) and then passed word-for-word by the national legislature do not necessarily reflect "the values of our civilization".

Points worth remembering!

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Child Brides A Problem in Europe in 2016

Another problem Europe imported

Should a 14-year-old married girl who migrates to Europe be viewed as a child - or a spouse?

The issue has put European governments in a spin: forcing a policy U-turn in Denmark, new legislation in the Netherlands and an agonised debate in Germany.

Analysts say early marriage is often carried out in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey by families trying to protect girls from poverty or sexual exploitation. Elsewhere, poor families might marry off their young daughters in exchange for dowries.

The question is one of rights and protections - but which? When authorities stop minors cohabiting with their older spouses, are they combating child abuse or breaking up (often already traumatised) families?

Depending on where you go in Europe, you'll find a radically different range of responses to the issue.

This really shouldn't be a problem if we apply a few simple principles:

  • If some other cultures in the world approve of child marriage, that's fine. They should be permitted to carry on that custom without interference.
  • In modern Western culture, this practice is illegal and against public policy. It should neither be permitted on European soil or recognized in any way.
  • This means any marriage in which one partner is underage should be automatically dissolved by law when a couple emigrates to Europe with plans to resettle. Filing an asylum application is proof of intent to resettle. Each partner to the marriage will be processed singly.
  • If the parties do not agree to this, they will be summarily returned to the refugee camp from which they emigrated.

This policy should be posted everywhere in Turkish refugee camps, so people will understand before they set out for Europe. Child marriage is accepted in certain cultures and that's OK over there, within that culture. It is not accepted in Europe, and Europe has every right to absolutely ban it under all circumstances. Europeans aren't trying to bring Leather Pride parades to downtown Damascus, and people from Syria shouldn't try to bring child marriage to Europe. 

Every cultural practice in its proper place. What's so hard about that?