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Erdmöbel's apolitical pop

A few days ago, Peter Unfried of the left-leaning German daily taz interviewed Markus Berges, singer and songwriter for the German pop band Erdmöbel. I've raved about Erdmöbel before in this blog, and here's a short summary: the lyrics are drenched with longing, but not sentimental; the music is graceful, hook-ridden, and elegantly orchestrated.

In short, Erdmöbel are the most interesting pop band in Germany.  If they sung in English, they would be beloved of pop conoisseurs worldwide, as are Beth Orton or Everything But the Girl. But for now, only those of us boneheaded enlightened enough to have learned German can fully enjoy these gems. (But yes! Buy the records for the music alone, if you don't understand German.)

The goody-two-shoes green/socialists of the taz are suspicious. Isn't it a little frivolous to just make lovely pop songs? The title of the article, "Rock against Nothing At All", is almost an accusation.  Like a dog worrying at a bone, taz writer Unfried tries to get some sort of political opinion out of Berges. 

Berges is much too clever for that.  He toyed with punk when he was younger, he admits, but quickly found it a dead end; people who have to demonstrate their principled rejection of bourgeois conformity box themselves into equally boring little ghettos of non-bourgeois conformity, and end up just whining about the world in general.

Well, fine, the taz writer says.  But aren't you then just producing relaxing adult pop that permits high-IQ capitalist drones "to go out next morning and pursue [their own] individual economic goals full of elan?"

You can almost hear Berges sigh.  "You can't just pull an Ermöbel song out of an automat to satisfy a certain need," he objects.  Unfried visits a concert.  The music is gorgeous, he admits, but Ermöbel have short hair, don't call attention to themselves, and seem focussed on the music.  Suspicious, Unfried resumes the inquisition.  Can taz readers be sure that Berges doesn't vote for the conservative party (CDU)?  Berges smiles: "I understand the impulse.  I'd also like to be sure that someone whose art I treasure doesn't vote CDU.  But that's all nonsense.  Because I know that art has its own independent existence, even if it's just a pop song."

Crime, Innocence, and Therapy Part I

Last week I watched several parts of a documentary series called "Mask of Evil", about the detection and treatment of sex offenders in Germany, on the public-affairs channel here. 

I've been noodling around on a post about it for a while now.  The post is turning into something of a monster -- I'm writing something academically in just this area right now, which means my little head's full of ideas and research that just want to be free!  The post is so long that I'm going to have to split it in sections, and into two parts.  Sorry about the prolixity, but remember, (1) I am a recovering attorney; and (2) I warned you.  Anyone who's interested in criminal-justice might find it interesting, for everyone else, freedom's just a mouse-click away...


"Mask of Evil" was made in 2004, and originally shown on a major public TV channel.  The directors traveled throughout Germany to various prisons and treatment facilities, interviewing not only the violent sex criminals who were the focus of the film, but also police officials, family members, and victims; as well as and therapists and psychologists who worked with the inmates.  Despite the dramatic title, it wasn't particularly sensationalistic.

The subjects were men who had committed sexual offenses and had been caught and imprisoned.  "Georg B," or "Konstantin N.," appeared onscreen, without concealing their faces.  The documentary even re-created interviews between the sex criminals themselves -- played by themselves -- and psychologists who were treating them: "So, do you think that your fantasies have become more or less violent here in prison?" "More violent.  I don't want to be released, because I know I'll do something horrible again."

Continue reading "Crime, Innocence, and Therapy Part I" »

Umlaut-Grumpiness Connection Myth Debunked

I sent an email to David Myers asking him about the umlaut article.  Prof. Myers was kind enough to send me the following response:

This is a misreported story that took on a life of its own.  I've never done research on German speech and personality (this was an utterly mistaken press report misattributed to me that has recycled for several years).  But here is what I do report in my introductory psychology text:

Saying the phonemes e and ah, which activate smiling muscles, puts people—believe it or not—in a better mood than saying the German ü (rather like saying the English e and u together), which activates muscles associated with negative emotions (Zajonc & others, 1989).

Zajonc, R. B., Murphy, S. T., & Inglehart, M. (1989). Feeling and facial efference: Implications of the vascular theory of emotions. Psychological Review, 96, 395–416.

Let us set the record straight.  The original press report was unreliable, Professor Myers does not stand for the proposition that frequent pronunciation of umlauts "causes German grumpiness."  He has only cited, in passing, a study that appears to support a much more limited proposition.  If I didn't have a day job, I might actually want to track down the Inglehart & Murphy article.

The decision to wait and see whether I could find out more about this theory has paid off.  I believe this is the first time anything approaching journalism has ever been committed on German Joys.  I promise it won't be the last!

Tërrïbly Ünhäppy Germans

Marginal Revolution points us to a study by an American professor which blames umlauts for German grumpiness: "Hope College psychology professor David Myers says saying a vowel with an umlaut forces a speaker to turn down his mouth in a frown, and may induce the sadness associated with the facial expression."  English, he claims, involves broad 'ah' and 'eh' sounds which require you to mimic smiling motions.  This story was originally reported back in 2000 by the BBC

Hat-tip to Marian Wirth, valued German Joys Commenter and freshly-minted blogger, for the link.

Now to the substance: I have my doubts. I'm not going to address Myers' theory in detail, because there's not enough information about it in the article to draw an informed conclusion. I have an email in to Myers to see if he published his results anywhere; I'd love to learn more about the methodology and conclusions.

However, I can't see how umlauts could be the culprit here. Some background for non-German speaking readers, umlauts are the two little dots on top of a, o, and u in the German language.  They change both the pronunciation and the meaning of words considerably.  'A' in German is pronounced like the 'o' in 'gone,' while 'ä' is more like the 'a' in 'bake.'  'O' is pronounced a lot like the English 'o,' but 'ö' is pronounced like "er."  Pronouncing 'u' with an umlaut is tricky, it's a sound halfway between 'u' and 'e' that non-native speakers almost never master.

What I don't understand about the theory is that rough equivalents of the umlauted sounds of 'a' and 'o' exist in English, so the umlauted 'u' is really the only way in which umlauts introduce a sound into German that doesn't exist in English. I have tried smiling while saying umlauted vowels, and it seems to work just fine, it's only a little tricky with the 'ü', since you've got to tighten your cheek muscles a bit to really get it right.

Mr. Wirth noted another potential objection: If Germans are so glum because they have a few umlauts, what about Finns and Turks, who decorate their vowels (and even their consonants) with an almost-ludicrous variety of diacritical marks?

As I said, I'll withhold an analysis until I get more details. But color me, so far, not yet convinced.

A Little Political Correctness Goes a Long Way, Part 2

I thought I would respond to a few comments on my last post about the cartoon affair, especially Marek Moehling's long, thoughtful (and brilliantly HTML-enabled!) effort.

First, some things we agree on.  Many governments in the Arab world are indeed, authoritarian and corrupt. I certainly wouldn't want to live there. Major currents of Islamic thought, to my knowledge, don't recognize a difference between church and state (see this article (G) for such an argument). I certainly wouldn't fancy living under shari'a, that's for sure. Furthermore, I agree it's laughable to hear Muslims reciting conspiracy theories about 9/11, and asserting that Muslims couldn't have been responsible for various atrocities because "Muslims don't do such things." I should note, however, that I have heard the Bush knew/CIA/Mossad theory much more frequently from non-Muslim Europeans than I have from Muslims.

But what do these observations have to do with the proper approach toward Muslims living in European societies (except for the fact, of course, that some immigrants have fled backward, repressive regimes for precisely these reasons)? These observations about Islam may be useful to shaping foreign policy. They might also be good things to think about when deciding whether to permit large-scale immigration of Muslims into Europe. But we are past that point. About 15 million Muslims live here in Europe, many are citizens, almost all of them have a legal right to stay.

Continue reading "A Little Political Correctness Goes a Long Way, Part 2" »

German Words of the Week: Schreibtischtäter

This week's GWOW is a triple-combination special.  First, the root: Täter (pronounced as in "Pass the taters, Maw!").

It's derived from the neutral word tun, or "to do."  So a Täter is "doer."  However, a we don't like the things Täter do: they beat people, scratch cars, embezzle money, smuggle drugs, kill animals, burn embassies, and such like. They are criminals.

There are different sorts of Täter. A Triebtäter is someone who'se motivated by unwholesome drives or urges (Treiben), an "urge-criminal," or sex offender. 

You can have some sympathy for an Überzuegungstäter, though.  What he does is, of course, wrong, but he's a "conviction-criminal," operating on the basis of his sincere convictions (Überzeugungen).  This is about the nicest thing you're allowed to call George W. Bush in most German newspapers.

Now to the pièce de résistance: Schreibtischtäter.  We'll need to do some (light) German compound noun math to understand this word

Schreib (write)    X  Tisch (table) = "write-table", or desk.

Now plug the result of the above equation into the next phase:

Schreibtisch (desk)   +    Täter (criminal) = desk-criminal.

A desk-criminal kills with his pen.  He sits at his desk in the Ministry of Internal Security, or Refugee Resettlement, and decides the fate of a single human being -- or thousands of them --with a simple check-mark on a form, or by filing folders in certain cabinets. 

More about a simple "Transportation Administrator" who became history's most notorious Schreibtischtäter here.

The German Joys Cultural Trivia Contest Part I: The Pink Austrian Mercury

Yep, it's a new contest. This contest will reward those of you who, like me, have wasted spent invested countless thousands of hours exploring the hidden treasures of European culture, broadly defined. 

This contest is not designed to increase traffic to my site.  It's designed to reduce it.

Here are the rules.  I ask one or two questions.  The questions relate to one particular work of art (remember -- broadly defined).  The first person to answer these questions correctly, either in a comment or in an email to me, wins the contest. Your answer has to identify the work of art that provides the answer to the question. 

Don't go thinkin' you can just Google up an answer.  The questions are all going to be Google-proof, I guarantee you (at least the English and German versions of Google...)

What does the winner win?  They win a few DVDs, lovingly created by me, filled with huge amounts of beautiful music.  You win, you give me your address, and you'll get the DVDs.  Promise.  I'll ship them anywhere in the world. Restriction: Nobody who knows me gets to play! 

Simple, eh?  So here are the first two questions:

Continue reading "The German Joys Cultural Trivia Contest Part I: The Pink Austrian Mercury" »

Heiner Lauterbach's a-Drinkin' and Whorin'

German actor Heiner Lauterbach, star of various films I've never seen, has something he wants to tell (G) us. "I drank and I whored!" runs the title of the article.  After describing why so few men are good at group sex, Lauterbach

...speaks just as openly and unreservedly about his 25-year addiction to alcohol. "I went to the bar at 11 in the morning and drank twelve hours straight. That was sometimes extremely amusing and sometimes rather stupid." Drinking was just plain a "banal thing to do," Lauterbach's motive was simple boredom.

If there's anything I've never associated movie stars with, it's boredom. If group sex, drug abuse, and the adulations of millions of fans can't dispel boredom, what hope is there for the rest of us?

What's So Funny 'bout Political Correctness?

Everywhere I go, it seems, people are talking about the cartoon controversy. Even by European standards, the press coverage has been intense, and at times hysterical.

I was content to simply watch it all with detached amusement, as is my usual practice. However, so many people stated (or screamed) their opinion in my presence, and asked me for mine, that I found it necessary to develop an opinion on the matter.

An unpleasant task, but apparently unavoidable. I will now write my opinion in my blog, so that when the subject comes up again -- as it surely will -- I can just say "If you want to know what I think, go read my blog. And now, can we please talk about something different?"  That's why blogs are so handy!

So here is my humble opinion, for anyone who's interested.

  1. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten should not have published the caricatures of Mohammed, for reasons of taste and respect. Civilized people don't gratuitously insult others' religious beliefs.
  2. Boycotts and demonstrations against the publication are perfectly in order.
  3. Arson or death threats are -- duh -- not. Individuals who respond in such a way should be hunted down by the police and sentenced to long prison terms, or expelled from the country, if they are not citizens.
  4. To the extent the peaceful demonstrations and boycotts target Denmark in general, and not just Jyllands-Posten, they are probably too broad, since the Danish government's control over what gets published in Denmark is limited.
  5. I fully agree with the decision of all mainstream Canadian and U.S. publications not to publish the cartoons, and would make the same decision myself.
  6. To the extent that the publication of the cartoons exposes some of the bizarre attitudes toward Islamic immigrants in Europe, it's probably a good thing.
  7. No, this does not herald an impending "crisis" or "clash of civilizations."  In two weeks we'll all be talking about something else. Thank Allah God.

Continue reading "What's So Funny 'bout Political Correctness?" »

The Only Good Swastika is No Swastika

Displaying a swastika (in German Hakenkreuz or "hooked-cross") in public in Germay is prohibited by Section 86 of the German Penal Code. 

But did you know it may be illegal to wear a swastika with a red bar through it -- such as on this t-shirt (G) as well?  Or to wear a button showing someone throwing a swastika into a garbage can?

Patrick Helber, a student from Tuebingen, was prosecuted (G) by the local district attorney for wearing a crossed-through swastika on his backpack, even though it's clear to all this symbol sends an anti-right wing message. His sentence? He was required to donate to the Buchenwald concentration-camp memorial. The Nix-Gut shipping company, which distributes anti-fascist T-shirts, buttons, and stickers, was raided, and many of its articles seized -- along with client information. Irmela Mensah-Schramm, who photographs and then erases radical-right graffiti, watched a poster for one of her exhibitions be confiscated by the police.

The public officials are unapologetic. Their basic message: you cannot publicly display "symbols of an organization that is hostile to the Constitution" in Germany, period. Doesn't matter what your attitude toward those symbols is. In the meantime, the sentence against Helber has been lifted (G) by an appeals court, but it's not clear what will happen in other cases.

I tend to suspect there's more going on here than meets the eye. Organized anti-right-wing forces (known as "anti-fa" for "anti-fascist") contain a few excitable left-wing activists within their ranks. They will show up at right-wing protests and demonstrations, and sometimes things get violent. It's possible the police are just trying to defuse potential problems before they occur, by banning particularly provocative signs and emblems of all stripes. Whether that's a legitimate goal, I leave for the reader to decide...