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September 2005
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I Can't Stand Being German

...says Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre:

The thing that seems impermeably German is, in fact, anger. Collectively and individually, the Germans are angry about something. The pursed lip and the muttered expletives, the furious glance and the beetled brow are Germany’s national costume.

A simmering, unfocused lurking anger is the collective cross Germany bears with ill grace. I can see it in German faces, in the dumb semaphore of their bodies. It’s how they stand and fold their arms and wait in queues. It’s why they can’t dance or relax.

Anger has made the Germans an ugly race. But then this anger is also the source of Germany’s most admirable achievement — their heroic self-control. It’s the daily struggle of not giving in to their natural inclination to run amok with a walking-stick, to spit and bite in a crowded sausage-stand, that I admire most in the Germans. It’s not what they are, but their ability to suppress what they are, that’s great about the Germans.

Oops, sorry.  That actually wasn't Benjamin v. Stuckrad-Barre on the Germans, it was AA Gill writing about the English

Yes, the English.  I thought only continentals really enjoyed the masochistic spiral of self-hatred, and shame based on that self-hatred, and shame and self-hatred caused by being ashamed of the self-hatred.  Not by a long shot.  John Bull, welcome to the club!

Norbert Lammert Dissected

Norbert Lammert is the new President of the German Parliament.  He wants to re-start debate over the idea of a German Leitkultur.  Hard to translate 100% accurately, but you could say something like "leading culture" or "principal culture."  Roughly, that means a set of principles that define German society, and which would somehow become as the "preferred" charter of social principles.  This concepts is supposed to be a counterproposal to multiculturalism. 

I'm pretty skeptical about this Leitkultur thing, as I sketched in a previous post.  So I listened with especial care to an interview broadcast on the glorious WDR 5 radio station on Friday evening.  Lammert defended his notion of Leitkultur.  The host then asked Lammert the obvious question: isn't the basis of our Leitkultur already spelled out in our Constitution, and doesn't just about everyone agree with that stuff already?

In response, Lammert made one argument and cited two examples.  This is all recalled from my memory; sorry but the interview doesn't seem to be available online, so you'll just have to trust me.  Here are the argument and the examples:

  1. Argument: it's not just about the specific values (rule of law, freedom of speech, etc.) in our Constitution.  People have to realize that those values are based on historical, deeply-rooted German values.  We should proclaim that those are our values, and prefer them to other values.
  2. Example number one: If in your cultural tradition the man is given the leading role in society and women are to be submissive, you must realize that's inconsistent with the principle of equality of the sexes in our Constitution.
  3. Example number two: Some religions (hint hint) specify that there is no difference between secular and state authority.  The state, according to these religions, develops its identity from the fact that it requires citizens to behave righteously according to religious principles.  People who believe in these religions must accept that in Germany, the state is separate from religious authority, and is the sole arbiter of government.   

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Europe's "Soft" Intellectuals

I've read a few entries by Leon de Winter, whose blog I mentioned in the last post.  What he writes reminds me strongly of the arguments of a good friend of mine whom I visited recently, who is likewise a European intellectual.  This friend of mine, along with de Winter, are harshly critical of the mainstream of the European intellectual elite for being soft on terrorism.  These folks have nothing in common with American conservatives, and may not particularly fancy George W. Bush.  They do, however, believe that Islamist terrorism poses a vital and direct threat to the West's interests, perhaps requiring military force and stronger limits on immigration. 

Thus they have offered support to the Bush Administration, even though their political views might be very different from the average American Administration supporter.  In the English-speaking world, you could also put Christopher Hitchens, Norm Geras, and Andrew Sullivan in the camp of "unexpected" and perhaps hesitant Bush-supporters.  The first two are former leftists, the last a gay moderate English conservative.  All supported Bush -- albeit sometimes with tones of faute de mieux.

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The Free West, a Blog by Leon de Winter

I see that the Dutch author Leon de Winter has started a blog called "The Free West," appropriately enough hosted by the online site of Die Welt (given de Winter's political leanings).  From the introductory announcement:

The title of my pages is The Free West. It is not a random title. It is something I believe in. I am a secular person but I deeply believe - in an almost religious way - in the freedoms our western societies have achieved through sacrifice, pain, suffering, and through the collective intellectual and emotional efforts of millions of human beings who have shaped our pasts.

Our freedom is not a phenomenon we should take for granted. It is a miracle. The basic ‘natural’ state of human existence is marked by repression, lack of justice, hunger, the rule of tyrants, and only in the last three centuries, we see the emergence of individual freedom. Technology, sciences, the separation of church and state, helped in creating the right mindset for the development of the free spirit that independently produces its own values, its own lifestyle, and its own world - without neglecting tradition and history.

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Glories of Do-it-yourself Marketing

And now, as John Cleese might say, for something completely different. 

Nothing warms my heart more than local amateur retail.  Stores run by people who just wanted to open up a coffee shop, or video store, or organic food store, and did it.  They have no professional training and no formal instruction in marketing.  They've got to put something in the shop window, though, and they do.  These living, working folk-art installations are unique expression of the human spirit, and they are all around us, at least in Europe.  How can people walk blithely past them, I often wonder?

Fancy stores have enough money to hire professionals, which kills the charm. Therefore, the best shop windows are in non-chic neighborhoods like mine. My neighborhood, for example boasts the (unnamed) women's shoe shop, whose window showcases row after row of used women's shoes (usually rather schoolmarmish brown-leather affairs from the 1970s or 1980s).  Methinks I have seen one or two shoe fetishists spending a little too much time in front of this particular store.  Or there's the hearing-aid store whose window features tiny hearing aids perched, for some reason, atop child-sized Dubuffet-like biomorphic papier-mache sculptures. 

But my favorite, bar none, is a store about 2 blocks from my apartment, on a pleasant, wooded streetcorner. 

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What is this funny thing called Leitkultur?

Well, Mr. Koch has certainly done his homework.  He gets an A+, or a 19, or a .1, or whatever grade is most appropriate.   He's given us all a lot to chew on.  I can respond to all his eloquently-made points, but I'll try to get to a few while setting out my perspective on this matter.

First, I agree that Leitkultur is probably not intended to mean something as crude as "dominant" or "superior" culture.  But that raises the question, what does it mean?  I've followed the debate somewhat, but I've never really heard anyone who is in support of the idea give a clear, specific definition of the term.

To me, this is a typical German debate.  It goes like this:

  1. Some politician throws out some vague term or concept designed to appeal to his or her party's base (think "Solidarity" or "Social Justice" or "Locusts of Capitalism" for the Social Democrats, or "Leitkultur" or "Multi-Kulti" for the Christian Democrats.  The politician throws it out in public forum, in a somewhat provocative way.
  2. Everyone responds, because, for some reason, everyone pays a lot of attention to what politicians say in Germany.  The mainstream seems to have agreed that the state, in the form of its politicians, sets the subject and tone of public debate.  The very same people, of course, complain about how politicians never say what they mean and always recycle the same poll-tested nonsense.  But since they apparently don't have anything more original to contribute, they take their lead from the politicos.

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Homework for Joysters: The Leitkultur Debate

The winter semester has begun, and I've returned to "teach" in the classroom.  In that spirit, I'm going to assign some homework to Joysters. 

Read this editorial by Green Party / B '90 Chairman Chairwoman Chairperson Claudia Roth.  It's about the issue of a German Leitkultur.  Be prepared to participate in a group discussion tomorrow.  I will, of course, contribute my own two cents, as they say...

P.S. I want someone to give me the Marxist analysis of the Leitkultur debate.  As a rapper might ask, "Do we got any Marxists in the house?"

President Bush vs. the Onion?

The Onion is the best satire magazine in the U.S.  One of their targets, of course, is President Bush.  They routinely produce stories which included a picture of the Presidential Seal.  The problem is, you're not supposed to use the Presidential Seal except for things Presidential, so the President's lawyer wrote the Onion to protest, as the New York Times reports:

Citing the United States Code, [the President's lawyer] Mr. Dixton wrote that the seal "is not to be used in connection with commercial ventures or products in any way that suggests presidential support or endorsement." Exceptions may be made, he noted, but The Onion had never applied for such an exception.

The Onion was amused. "I'm surprised the president deems it wise to spend taxpayer money for his lawyer to write letters to The Onion," Scott Dikkers, editor in chief, wrote to Mr. Dixton. He suggested the money be used instead for tax breaks for satirists.


"It is inconceivable that anyone would think that, by using the seal, The Onion intends to 'convey... sponsorship or approval' by the president," wrote Rochelle H. Klaskin, the paper's lawyer, who went on to note that a headline in the current issue made the point: "Bush to Appoint Someone to Be in Charge of Country."

How did the Bush White House find out about the allegedly improper use of the alleged seal?

"Despite the seriousness of the Bush White House, more than one Bush staffer reads The Onion and enjoys it thoroughly," he said. "We do have a sense of humor, believe it or not."

Brains...brains...Germany want BRAINS!

German universities are pretty, uh, mediocre.  They get the job done, and clever people can get a great education, but they're not generating world-changing ideas, or fascinating press coverage.  For complex historical reasons (including a rather pronounced sense of egalitarianism), none of them has been able to develop into a world-class institution, where the best students and professors mingle in a hothouse environment. 

Now there's a plan to create "top universities" that will attract the best students and professors. 
Because this is Germany, it's all being run by the Federal Education Ministry as a coordinated, highly-regulated program.  The program even has a motto: "Brain Up!  Deutschland sucht seine Spitzen-Unis"  ("Brain Up!  Germany's looking for its top universities").  Yes, "Brain Up !" is in English. 

One interesting aspect of the policy is -- whoa, hold on a second: "Brain Up !"?!  Trust me when I say that English knows no expression "Brain Up!" (The German equivalent must be something like Aufgehirnt!).  The sarcastic remarks practically write themselves.  Nor is the second part of the motto particularly, er, elite.  It seems to imply that (1) German already has a top university; but (2) lost it somewhere.  "Excuse me very much, please.  I am Germany, and I seem to have lost my exclusive elite university.  I think I last saw it around Rome, but I was also showing it to a few people near Bristol.  Listen for many people using words like Verdinglichung, or young people protesting against tuition fees.  If you find it, very big reward!  Big medal for chest, we call it Bundesverdienstkreuz!"