Do We Still Need Arte? Or License Fees?

Holger Kreitling in Die Welt has an amusing article (g) on Arte, the joint French-German public television channel. Arte is conceived as highbrow television, broadcasting classical concerts, operas, political debates, and documentaries on everything from Claude Sautet to Heidegger to the Thirty Years' war to Bolivian street artists to (as Kreitling puts it) obscure Slovenian bread-making techniques. It is financed by compulsory TV fees (administered by a company called the GEZ in German), yet never attracts more than a tiny fraction of highbrow viewers. As Kreitling notes, a member of the German or French urban haute bourgeoisie is required to announce his social position by declaring either that he has no television, or if he does, that all he watches is Arte. But even for all its failings and occasional pretentiousness, Kreitling still likes it.

And so do I. The only problem is the political programming, which is tiresomely left-wing. There's nothing more superfluous than holding a "theme evening" on Trump's first 100 days on Arte. Every person watching Arte already despises Trump, so all of the Trump-critical documentaries and interviews will have no effect. That's true of all the debate and political programming as well. I am not happy to pay mandatory licensing fees to sponsor the same old debates by the same aging hippies about "the future of ecological Europe" or what have you ("Red Danny" seems to be on every second time I switch to Arte), but I think there's a good case to be made for challenging music and arts programming. I don't have kids but I'm happy to pay taxes for schools because that's part of a healthy and thriving society. People who find classical music and museums boring should still pay taxes to keep them going for the same reason.

But the money should come from general taxes, not the outdated TV licensing fees that so many countries, including Germany, still use as a funding model. There is already a growing revolt against these fees (currently € 17.50 a month), which even includes prison martyrs (g) -- people who refuse to pay the fees on principle and who are eventually sent to jail to serve time as a result. Technically, you don't have to pay the fee if you don't own a TV or radio or any comparable device, but the regulations on this point are baffling to most mortals.

There is endless online debate (g) about how far the government can go to determine whether you are receiving any form of broadcast programming which would trigger the fees. If Agents of GEZ™ knock at your door, which they are wont to do, do you have to let them in? The GEZ itself is a massive and expensive government bureaucracy as are all the myriad public television stations which it finances. This is the point where GEZ-defenders will step in and say "but it's not technically a government agency!" They're right, the GEZ is more of a Quango, but nobody really cares about this distinction. The bottom line is if they determine you have to pay the fees, and they don't, they will sic a team of lawyers on you, and you might well end up in prison.

All this money and bureaucracy might be OK if you got a BBC from it, but Germans definitely don't. The quality of the public television programming in Germany is the target of near-universal scorn. Everyone hates something about public TV: The urban haute bourgeoisie hates the folk-music and Schlager festivals and the exploitative shows made to compete with private-TV soap operas and scandal-fests. Conservatives hate what they see as the stifling one-sided political correctness of news coverage and talk shows. Everyone (including me) considers the vast bulk of German TV drama or comedy shows unwatchable.

It should come as no surprise 70% of Germans oppose the TV license fees (g). Seventy percent. That's a pretty high number in a democracy. Granted, when entrenched bureaucratic and governmental interests favor a policy -- and they most certain favor a continuation of fee-based public TV -- that policy can go on forever in Germany. Just think of the Euro, which was introduced over the opposition of 3/4 of the German population. Currently only the right-wing AfD party has staked out a clear position (g) in favor of abolishing the TV fee. Once again, the German "opinion cartel" funnels voters to the right wing: If you are one of the 70 percent of Germans who opposes the TV fee, the AfD is the only party which openly shares your view.

Fee TV is a zombie policy. You can either wait until it falls apart, or you can drive a stake through it now. Knowing Germany, they'll probably opt for the former. It'll be a pretty ugly process.


German Word of the Week: Fremdaussprechen

Behold the German (or "German") menu for McDonald's:

170309_McMenue_Landingpage_Teaser_948 (1)

Holy superfluous nipple, you might be thinking: it's almost all in English! This must make ordering a breeze even if you don't know German.

Not so fast. If you just waltz up to the counter and announce you want a "McWrap Chicken Caesar" the way you'd ordinarily pronounce it in English, there's about a 50/50 chance the clerk will look at you with befuddlement. And nobody likes to be befuddled. Or just plain fuddled, for that matter. Wait, where the hell did that word come from?

Where was I? Oh, right. If you want to be understood the first time, you're well-advised to butcher the pronunciation of "McWrap Chicken Caesar" so it sounds the way Germans would pronounce it. Germans consider it hip as hell to read English and write English, but not many can actually pronounce it.

Take the Big Mac. The "a" sound in Mac does not exist in German. German vowels tend sound more pinched and nasal and front-of-mouth than English vowels. Also, the standalone letter "c" is rarely used in modern German, having been replaced with the much more straightforward "k". The word for Caesar in German is Kaiser. Explains a lot, doesn't it?

So a German would pronounced Mac much more like "meck" (which a German, in turn, would spell Mäc). And a hapless Teuton with a high-school education would look at the meaningless letter-salad "Caesar", which breaks about 8 rules of German orthography, and pronounce it "TSAY-zarr"). "Big Tasty Bacon" becomes "Beg Testy Beckon".

Germans are aware of how ridiculous it is to use English words you can't pronounce. There's even a series of books (g) mocking the Deutsche Bahn (a favorite German pastime) based on the English phrase German train conductors always say at the end of announcements: "Thank you for traveling with Deutsche Bahn". The books are called "Senk ju vor träwelling", which mangles German spelling to re-create, for Germans, the butchery of words in English. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

So whenever I go to a store or a fast food place or cafe here in Germany and encounter English words, I gotta say 'em all wrong. Of course I could insist on the proper English pronunciation, and attach a short homily on how you shouldn't butcher words in languages you don't understand, but I prefer to be served spitless beer and dine unslapped.

I do as the Romans do, and pronounce my own beloved mother tongue as if my mouth were full or marbles. It always leaves me feeling soiled, as if I were begging for change in a red-light district by by reciting the Second Inaugural Address while wearing a crotchless Abe Lincoln costume.

Oddly enough, German doesn't actually seem to have a word for the phenomenon of having to pronounce your own language incorrectly to be understood in a foreign country. So I'm going to make one: Fremdaussprechen. Fremd for foreign or alien, and aussprechen for pronounce.


Sexism, Stupidity, and Immigration

Critics of uncontrolled mass immigration claim that importing large numbers of Arabs means importing backward attitudes toward women into Europe, which will inevitably cause problems.

Of course they're right, as a recent ambitious Promundo/UN study of gender attitudes in the Arab world shows. Only about a quarter of the men polled have liberal attitudes comparable to those of the majority of European males. Large pluralities and sometimes majorities of people in the four countries studied (and not just the men) believe males should exercise guardianship over female relatives, that women deserve to be beaten once in a while, that women should stay at home, and other prejudices we're all familiar with.

So is the solution to ban all Muslim immigration? No, although doing so would not violate any law. Countries are permitted to engage in intentional racial or religious discrimination when they decide which foreigners to let into their countries, and they do it all the time. With a few exceptions, Japan keeps out non-Japanese, Israel lets in only Jews. Nobody has any right to live in a country other than the one they are a citizen of. Countries have every right to screen people whom they let in to ensure they're likely to adapt successfully, and the best-run places on earth do exactly that.

So a European country can ban all Muslim immigration, as majorities of French and Austrian people want. But I personally don't believe this is necessary or justified. What European countries can and should do is only allow in educated people. There is an extremely strong correlation between increasing levels of education and more tolerant social views. So it's no surprise that the study of Arab populations concludes (pdf, pp. 47-48):

These overall attitudes toward gender equality were assessed using the Gender Equitable Men (or GEM) Scale, an internationally recognized and validated composite measure of attitudes toward men’s and women’s roles and rights....

Younger, urban, wealthier, and single women also scored higher on the scale. Education is clearly driving support for equality. Both men and women with higher education, as well as those whose mothers have higher education, scored higher on the GEM scale, women notably so. Parental division of household labour ... also contributes to more equitable attitudes; men and women whose fathers participated in housework also held more gender-equitable attitudes.

If you want immigrants who will respect European values, pick ones that already have these values. And that means pick educated ones.

Keep the rest out. Period.

This is absurdly simple, and it's already the policy of nations such as Australia. In fact, it's even the policy of the allegedly "anti-immigrant" AfD political party, which explicitly endorses skilled immigration to Germany and explicitly cites (g, pdf, p. 59) "Australia and Canada" as models of successful immigration policy. Bet lots of you didn't know that!

For decades, Germany recklessly ignored education as a factor in immigration policy, pretending that all immigrants were equally capable of integrating into German society, and that a ridiculously easy "test" would solve all the problems. Germany is finally recognizing that limited immigration of educated people is the only sensible path, and ist starting gingerly down this road. It's decades too late, of course, and 2015's massive influx of uneducated immigrants remains a costly, destabilizing slow-motion catastrophe. But most German political parties have finally seen the light and committed to joining the rest of the developed world in preferring educated immigrants. The sooner change comes, the better.


European Welfare States and Immigration

Christopher Caldwell's 2009 book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, is the best book on the European experience with Muslim immigration out there. It avoids the hysterical doom-mongering that plagues North American neo-conservatives and geriatric European reactionaries on this issue. But because Caldwell is an American and is therefore not bound by European taboos, he makes a lot of points which are rarely addressed in Europe.

His 2009 interview in Der Spiegel remains as relevant as ever, since the problems remain basically the same, even as their scale increases: 

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you suggesting there is no open discussion about Islam in Europe?

Caldwell: I think these things are getting much more openly debated than a few years ago. In the Netherlands and Denmark you do have a contentious debate. I think a lot of Danes and Dutch aren't really proud of the way their populist parties are discussing the issue of immigration, but it's generally much better if things are discussed openly....

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your book, "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe," you cast a skeptical light on Europe's relationship with its Muslim immigrants. In your view, do Muslim immigrants pose a threat to the Continent?

Caldwell: I don't speak of a threat, exactly. This is a very important distinction. The debate up until now has been marked by two extremes. On the one side you have the doomsayer extreme, the people who say Islam is "taking over" Europe. On the other, you have people with the point of view that there's no problem at all, except racism. I think both positions are wrong, and I have tried to set a new tone.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nevertheless, when reading your book, one leaves it with the impression that you think Europe will have real trouble integrating its Muslim immigrants.

Caldwell: Islam poses difficulties that other immigrant groups do not. Part of it is the growth of political Islam in the world in the last half-century. A large minority of European Muslims feel solidarity with the Muslim community abroad, and they feel at the same time that the West is at war with this world. That makes the transition into a European identity more difficult. But I think the problems at the cultural level are more important.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Such as?

Caldwell: A lot of overly optimistic people expect Muslims to give up, or to modify, their religion over time. They're going to change in some way, but we don't really know how. And attitudes around religion provide a lot of potential for conflict -- the attitudes towards women, towards family relations, sexual freedom or gay rights.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The percentage of Muslims in the European population is very low. The total is about 5 percent.

Caldwell: Right. The population of Western Europe is about 400 million, and there are about 20 million Muslims. Nevertheless, the population (of Muslims) continues to grow.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But to what extent is it really growing? You base this argument on a higher birth rate, but a number of studies suggest that in the second or third generations, immigrants have birthrates closer to the national average.

Caldwell: That is true. There are two things that will cause the immigrant descended population in Europe to grow in the coming years. One is that immigrants are still coming and the other is that birth rates, although they are falling, are still higher. But the real issue is not the size of the immigrant population. It is that their culture needs to be accommodated within Europe in a way that requires Europe to change its structures....

SPIEGEL ONLINE: To what extent are your views shaped by the fact that you're an American?

Caldwell: As an outsider, one has the advantage of seeing parallels between European countries as well as differences. I come from a country that has experience with a multiethnic society, and America's history has some lessons for Europe. Just because the European Muslim community is a small one does not mean it is uninfluential or that it can be ignored or that the problems surrounding it are trivial and will go away. Blacks have traditionally made up about only about 10 percent of the US population. But we have a horrible history of race conflict that has shaken our country for centuries.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is America more successful when it comes to integrating immigrants?

Caldwell: For now, yes. I think the first reason is the ruthlessness of the American economy. You either become a part of it or you go home. There are more foreigners in the workplace, and that's where a lot of integration happens. And because most immigrants are in the workplace, you never hear, as you do in Europe, that immigrants don't want to work. No American would dream of saying that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why do you think that's the case?

Caldwell: There is no welfare state on the scale of that in Europe, and I think welfare states are a bad fit for large-scale immigration. In an ethnically diverse society, people are less familiar with each other, and they are correspondingly less willing to pay taxes for social benefits. Two-thirds of the imams in France are on welfare. There is nothing wrong with being an imam. But I don't think the French are very happy about paying what is effectively a state subsidy for religion in that way.

The welfare state is a key distinction. I can't count the number of times people have asked me: "But you come from America, the nation of immigrants! How can you be so skeptical about Europe doing what America's been doing for centuries?"

The first answer is, of course, that European countries aren't nations of immigrants. Historians will often try to disprove this by pointing to ancient population flows, but they never convince anyone (not least because those population flows were usually accompanied by massive bloodshed). The fact is that European countries have established, centuries-old traditions and attitudes that are odd and opaque to outsiders, but which mean something to people born there.

More importantly, the European welfare state is an obstacle to integrating low-skilled foreigners, because it means they never have to work. Of course, most of them do eventually find jobs, but at rates lower than the native population. The U.S. gives immigrants nothing. They are expected to find jobs by themselves, without hand-holding by the state. Sink or swim.

Of course, immigrant Americans do end up on welfare more frequently than the native population, but America has an Anglo-Saxon welfare state that provides temporary assistance during down times. It is telling that the former U.S. welfare program called "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" was renamed in 1996 to "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families".

Temporary. You will get help for some time, but then it will stop, and you'll need to find another solution: Move in with family members, sell your possessions, beg on the streets. But preferably, you'll find a job. Will there be a welfare case-worker there to help you find it? No, you'll have to find one yourself. Same thing if you're an immigrant. 

Northern European welfare systems, by contrast, provide a permanent, unconditional lifelong cushion of support. (Southern European welfare systems aspire to this but don't have the money or organizational competence to genuinely deliver it). If you simply choose never to even try to find a job, you will continue receiving health insurance, rent support for a small individual apartment, and a basic income, no matter what. It will be anything but luxurious, but it can never be terminated, because the state must guarantee every person in its borders a basic level of existence required by human dignity.

Thus, Americans tend to look at unskilled immigrants as thrifty, God-fearing, hard-working types willing to do nasty jobs. Europeans tend to look at unskilled immigrants as yet another potential addition to the welfare rolls. They're not wrong: in 2006 every fourth welfare recipient (g) in Germany was a foreigner. And that number has skyrocketed: a recent government report leaked to the press showed that as refugees leave the program of temporary refugee assistance and enter the official government welfare rolls, the number only of non-European foreign welfare recipients shot up 132% from 2015 to 2016 -- an increase of about 400,000, to a total of 698,872 (g).

That's a whole lot of people to support, potentially for life, with free government-financed education, housing, healthcare, and welfare. Of course, some of these people will seek and find jobs. But they'll be in direct competition with low-skilled native workers. Low-skilled workers have noticed that their wages have stagnated with decades. They are also going to notice fresh competition from hundreds of thousands of foreigners willing to work for a fraction of their wages.

But hundreds of thousands of these newcomers with either never look for a job, or never find one. And plenty of Germans will ask a simple question:

"How does it benefit Germany -- or me -- for politicians to import hundreds of thousands of foreigners who will simply live here on welfare until they die?"

Of course, many members of the urban haute bourgeoisie, and probably all church officials, will react with outrage to this question. But that's not going to stop people from asking it, and demanding answers.


Allahu Akbar, Mr. Muffinpaws

Nintchdbpict000272867473

(source)

There are around 600 so-called "dangerous persons" (g) (Gefährder) living in Germany. These are people on an official government watch list because they're considered at high risk of committing terrorist attacks or other acts of violence. Most of them are Islamists. Some of them are in custody, others are not, some are under strict surveillance, others aren't. As with a lot of things in Germany, it's complicated.

In February of this year, German cops raided one of these men. He was a foreign national from "country N" (I'll presume Nigeria), born and raised in Germany, now a radical Islamist. He wanted to join up with ISIS in Syria, but couldn't manage the funds and paperwork, so he mulled over attacks in Germany with his chat partner, Abdullah K. who either was or pretended to be an ISIS recruiter.

The opinion (g) of the Federal Administrative Court authorizing his deportation lists the possible targets identified in these chats: stabbing police officers, building a car bomb, attacking a "university party or gay parade", attacking people in a pedestrian zone with a kitchen knife or car bomb, throwing stones from a highway bridge, or driving a car or truck into a crowd. In messages marked by truly shitty spelling, our nice Nigerian friend went on for pages and pages about how it was necessary to set Germany "in flames", spread "fear", "we can do more damage here at home", etc.

To prove he wasn't as dangerous as all that, his lawyers tried a novel defense:

The danger posed by the applicant is not contradicted by the fact that he recently acquired a young cat, since the symbol of the cat is an Islamically-justified expression of masculine tenderness and Salafist fighters from the West, in particular have used cats to convey the message of the masculinity of Jihadis. (see Dr. Mariella Ourghi, Ideas of Masculinity Among Salafists, Website of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation)

And here is what Ms. Ourghi has to say (g):

In 2014, we encountered a new aspect of the presentation of Jihadi masculinity, observed mainly among militants from the West. They present themselves in videos giving sweets to children, which is intended to express caring affection. Even more frequently, they post photos of themselves hugging and petting cats. The symbol of a cat as a sign of masculine tenderness in Islam is explained by the fact that the Prophet Muhammad and his companion Abu Huraira (literally "Father of the kitten") were known to be cat-lovers. The fact that it is primarily fighters socialized in the West who used cat photos appears not to be coincidental, since it corresponds to modern conceptions of masculinity in the West. One part of this is that most women today view tenderness and affection as an important part of a fulfilled relationship, and demands this from men.... Posing with cats therefore is aimed at potential marriage candidates, to convey the image of an affectionate lover in addition to that of strong masculinity.

German intelligence, if you're reading this blog (which would be flattering), I admit that I have two cats. However, I swear I'm a peaceful guy. Please don't deport me back to the USA -- can you really call it a safe country of origin?


Dr. Boll's Brilliant Career

Not that readers of this blog need it, but Vanity Fair's great piece on Uwe Boll gives us a bit of background: 

Boll made his name, such as it is, mostly by dragging the already abhorred genre of the “video-game movie” to previously unthinkable new lows. His video-game adaptations BloodRayne, In the Name of the King, and House of the Dead are rated 4 percent on Rotten Tomatoes; Alone in the Dark has a 1 percent rating. In 2007, BloodRayne received Golden Raspberry Award (Razzie) nominations for worst director, worst picture, worst actress, worst supporting actor, worst supporting actress, and worst screenplay. Two years later, Boll received a “Worst Career Achievement” Golden Raspberry Award.

“The man simply cannot direct,” Razzies co-founder John Wilson told me. “He doesn’t know where to put the camera. He doesn’t know how to suggest to an actor how to deliver their lines. Doesn’t know how to come up with an edit where you can tell where the hell you are and what’s going on. That’s kind of basic.”

Cast and crew members have denounced the films. “BloodRayne was an abomination,” said BloodRayne star Michael Madsen. “It’s a horrifying and preposterous movie.” Willam Belli, who acted in and had a co-writing credit on Blubberella, compared viewing the finished product to “watching a car accident with clowns.” ...

At the height of his infamy, a petition titled “Stop Uwe Boll” garnered 357,480 digital signatures, and the domain uweboll.com simply contained the entreaty, “Please stop making movies.” Now, at last, he has. With no fanfare—with hardly any acknowledgement at all, in fact—Boll’s swan song, Rampage: President Down, was recently made available on iTunes and Netflix.

And then Uwe quits filmmaking and...opens a restaurant in Vancouver!

We meet at Bauhaus, in the Gastown district of Vancouver, the restaurant he opened just before he decided to quit filmmaking. “That’s the wiener schnitzel,” Boll says over the pounding noises coming from the kitchen. “They have to hammer it.” There is one gigantic painting on the Bauhaus wall that says, in giant letters: “ART.”

Boll’s passion for food rivals his passion for film, and the reviews for Bauhaus are far more positive than those he received for his movies. A Globe and Mail food critic praised the veal tenderloin in demi-glace as evoking a “voluptuous Boll-inspired warrior goddess easing into a mud bath.”

Summing up the appeal of his new calling, Boll says, simply: “It’s less complicated than filmmaking.”

And I bet you didn't know it was Dr. Boll: "Along with a doctorate about narrative structure in television and literature—yes, technically, it’s Dr. Uwe Boll—Boll wrote around 15 screenplays by his early 20s."


The Simple Joy of Bashing A Culture

Mystery of the Missing Million from Phil Rees on Vimeo.

Germans love Japan. I live in Düsseldorf, home to one of the largest Japanese expat communities in Europe, and it shows. There's an annual Japan Day, a cultural institute (the Eko-Haus) -- complete with temple, garden, bell, and a traditional Japanese house -- and excellent Japanese food everywhere you turn.

When I visited Japan, most of the other tourists seemed to be from Northern Europe. Like me, they all raved about the discreet hospitality, the cleanliness, the attention to detail, the love of traditional handicrafts, the organization, the quiet, the world-class museums, the excellent fresh food everywhere, and all the many other things that make Japan such an intense pleasure to visit (seriously, drop everything and go now). Northern Europeans have an instinctive preference for cleanliness, order, and discretion, and they immediately sense they are among kindred spirits in the Japanese. And if you think that's a crude generalization based on outdated national stereotypes, loosen up. We're not in a seminar room here.

But of course these are only surface impressions. They obscure two central facts: First, many of the things cultured Europeans love about Japan (the tea ceremony, Noh theatre, Kabuki) are like organ music in Europe: followed only by a tiny, graying minority of aficionados.

Second, Japanese society overall is in long, possibly near-terminal decline.

Which brings us to an interesting 2007 book about Japan written by an American journalist who spent years there: Shutting Out The Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation (book excerpt and interview here). The first part of the book deals with the bizarre Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori: young people, 80% male, who simply drop out of society altogether. They cannot take the pressure to conform, the endless high-stakes testing, the cram schools, the bitter rivalry to get into the best colleges, and the myriad other pressures of Japanese life. 

So they simply drop out, like Bartleby. They retire to a room in their parents' house, and never leave. They usually change their sleep schedule to stay inside during the day and leave, if at all, only at night. They don't go to school, don't work, just sketch or read or play video games or watch porn. Their parents allow them to stay and provide them with food and other necessities, and often cover up the fact that their son or daughter has become a recluse to save face.

The defining factor of hikikomori is that they're not mentally ill. They are also usually of above-average intelligence, since it is these children who are under the most pressure to perform. Usually, their reclusion starts after some stinging failure (failed exam, university rejection, bullying) along the assembly-line route of school-college-job. These people have simply decided to reject a society which they see as forcing them through a bunch of meaningless and terrifying hoops, all in service to a failing and irrelevant social model which nobody seems to be able to change. Estimates are that there are between 500,000 and a million hikikomori in Japan. The consensus seems to be that this precise phenomenon happens only in Japan.

The author, Michael Zielenziger (who speaks Japanese) interviews a number of hikikomori and the counselors and psychologists who try to help them. What's refreshing about his book is that Z pulls no punches. He obviously likes the Japanese, has enormous admiration for their many achievements as a society. He's not simply spewing a rant, he backs up many of his assertions with interviews, statistics, and other staples of good journalism. And many of the harshest indictments come from Japanese themselves. But still, to use an appropriately American phrase, he tears Japan a new asshole

American and Japanese psychologists have demonstrated that when faced with a social situation they do not like, Americans readily try to influence others to change their behavior. Japanese, by contrast, are far more likely to adjust their own behavior to the demands others make upon them, to accommodate the wishes of the collective....

The group harmony this homogeneous people struggled so obsessively to achieve—through the pressure to conform, the resistance to criticism, the repression of dissenters, and a desperate, almost pathological need to keep “outsiders” at bay—carried a dark and destructive seed. Not only did this system seriously constrain individuality to the point of “infantilizing” many of it own people, effectively robbing them of their own identities; it also stripped the nation of its ability to adjust to the unforeseen changes in the world and in business practices that the inexorable process of globalization was now stirring up. Until this moment, Japan had been able to appropriate the trappings of the modern world without creating for itself a critical consciousness, a truly democratic sensibility, or a vision of how a “unique” people might interact easily and equally with the rest of the world. “The essence of Japan is to have no essence,” one famous Japanese political scientist concluded, arguing Japanese had never learned to properly differentiate between the instrumental and the ideal. His society, he said, was like a pot crammed with octopus, unable to discern a world separate from its own outsized tentacles. By analogy, he suggested, Western societies, where Judeo-Christian values had taken hold, or the Chinese culture, where Confucianism remains central, more resembled the sort of whisk broom used in a traditional tea ceremony, in which a sturdy, unitary wooden base splays itself into a finely separated tip, with space for each long and articulated tine of bamboo fiber to stand free and apart from the others....

As I got to understand it better, I saw that, rather than a vibrant free market, Japan actually functions more like a highly controlled, quasi-socialist system where bureaucrats feel they know best how to organize the system of production, and have the power to make life unpleasant for those who don't agree....

Predictably, the book has stimulated as many howls of outrage as it has nods of understanding. Which is a good thing.

Polite society these days enforces an unspoken code of never criticizing other cultures. You wouldn't want to be accused of cultural imperialism, or Orientalism, or condescension, or any of the other mortal sins of orthodox politically-correct sensitivity. But these taboos do what taboos always do: reduce everything to mush.

Some cultures are just more successful at certain things than others. In fact, some cultures are more successful at almost everything than others (here's lookin' at you, Scandinavia!). Everyone who's lived abroad understands this. And a bracing, well-informed critique is more honest and useful than a bunch of feel-good pabulum. The book was published in Japan. Many of his interviewees told him, they would never have spoken to a Japanese journalist, since they would be ashamed to discuss embarrassing secrets with someone who shared the same complex social codes.

It's not the be-all and end-all, but is a refreshingly blunt and lively book. Perhaps one day I'll write something similar about Germany. Germany, I love you, but I know just about all of your dirty secrets....


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. 


Bambi's Friends the Communist Spy and the Viennese Whore

Bambi

[from the extremely NSFW website Slutbambi]

If you're a fan of Roald Dahl, you know that in addition to the beloved children's classics such as James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he also published a collection of erotic stories entitled Switch Bitch.

But that's nothing compared to what the author of Bambi got up to. Bambi was originally published in Austria in 1923 as Bambi, eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde (Bambi, a Life in the Woods) by the Austrian writer Felix Salten.

Now before we get to the Viennese whore, it's time for a detour to visit with the Soviet spy. Bambi was translated into English in 1928 by none other than Whittaker Chambers, one of the most notorious American figures of the Cold War. Take it away, Wikipedia:

Whittaker Chambers ... was a 20th-Century American writer, editor, and Soviet spy.

After early years as a Communist Party member (1925) and Soviet spy (1932–1938), he defected from communism (underground and open party) and worked at Time magazine (1939–1948). Under subpoena in 1948, he testified in what became Alger Hiss's perjury (espionage) trials (1949–1950) and he became an outspoken anti-communist (all described in his 1952 memoir Witness). Afterwards, he worked briefly as a senior editor at National Review (1957–1959). President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1984.

But Bambi's unwholesome associations go even further. Long before he wrote the story of the cuddly deer baby Bambi, Felix Salten wrote what one critic called "the only German pornographic novel of world-wide status", the 1906 book entitled Josefine Mutzenbacher, or the story of a Viennese Whore as Told by Herself (Josefine Mutzenbacher oder Die Geschichte einer Wienerischen Dirne von ihr selbst erzählt) (full German text here). The initial printing was subscription-only to avoid censorship laws.

Salten never explicitly admitted authorship of Josefine Mutzenbacher, and because neither he nor the publisher submitted it for copyright protection, it was freely pirated, and remains in print to this day, having sold some 3 million copies to date. It furnished the basis for not one but 11 German soft-core porno films made between 1970 and 1994 (the original film's English title was "Naughty Knickers").

But even that's not all. The original novel itself was put on an "index" of books harmful to minors by the Federal Republic of Germany's Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors in 1969. This didn't mean the novel was banned, but it did severely restrict sales and marketing. The Wikipedia summary of the book's plot may give you an idea of why they made this decision:

The story is told from the point of view of an accomplished aging 50-year-old Viennese courtesan who is looking back upon the sexual escapades she enjoyed during her unbridled youth in Vienna. Contrary to the title, almost the entirety of the book takes place when Josephine is between the ages of 5–12 years old, before she actually becomes a licensed prostitute in the brothels of Vienna. The book begins when she is five years old and ends when she is twelve years old and about to enter professional service in a brothel.

Although the book makes use of many "euphemisms" for human anatomy and sexual behavior that seem quaint today, its content is entirely pornographic. The actual progression of events amounts to little more than a graphic, unapologetic description of the reckless sexuality exhibited by the heroine, all before reaching her 13th year. The style bears more than a passing resemblance to the Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom in its unabashed "laundry list" cataloging of all manner of taboo sexual antics from incest and rape to child prostitution, group sex and fellatio.

Adding to the general perversion, Bambi himself makes a cameo appearance in one of those group-sex scenes [no, he doesn't -- ed.]. In the late 1970s, a legal campaign was launched to remove the book from the index. In 1990, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court issued a landmark decision on the case.

Although the court acknowledged the book had plenty of potentially child-endangering pornographic elements, including a rather eye-popping amount of pedophilia and incest, it also had literary qualities which qualified it as a work of art, thus entitling it to protection under the artistic freedom provisions of Article 5 of the German Constitution.* The Court decision held (g) that some parts of the youth protection law were unconstitutional infringements of artistic freedom.

Nowadays, Felix Salten is largely forgotten, but that didn't stop the Austrian government from sending an official delegate (g) to the Jewish Museum of Vienna (Salten was Jewish) to open a 2007 exhibition on the man and his work.

Continue reading "Bambi's Friends the Communist Spy and the Viennese Whore" »


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.