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Lell'd for Rom in half-English

From Words Without Borders, the website for international literature, a poem in a language you don't often encounter:

The Dui Chalor

Dui Romany Chals were bitcheney,
Bitcheney pawdle the bori pawnee.
Plato for kawring,
Lasho for choring
The putsi of a bori rawnee.

And when they well'd to the wafu tem,
The tem that's pawdle the bori pawnee,
Plato was nasho
Sig, but Lasho
Was lell'd for rom by a bori rawnee.

You cam to jin who that rawnie was,
'Twas the rawnie from whom he chor'd the putsee:
The Chal had a black
Chohauniskie yack,
And she slomm'd him pawdle the bori pawnee.

To see an English translation, go here.

German Murder Rates, 1300-Present

Here's something I came across in a recent article in the British Journal of Criminology: a graph showing murder rates in Germany from the medieval times to the present:


It's contained in an article on European murder rates by Manuel Eisner in the British Journal of Criminology.

Obviously, the graph shows only ordinary civilian murder rates. Wars and mass extermination programs are excluded. The developments in Germany mirror those in other European states. The medieval era, in addition to being smelly, was extremely violent and dangerous; in most places, the murder rate was between 20 and 100 per 100,000. Now, in all European societies, it's declined to around 1. Hooray for modernity!

But why has Europe become so much safer? Eisner discusses Norbert Elias' idea of the civilizing process, of course, but there are other approaches. Eisner suggests a multi-factor approach which takes into account the declining importance of concepts of honor, the emergence of an "inward" and "disengaged" conception of human identity that fosters self-reflexion and rational discourse, and moral individualism and the decline of religiously-based "sacred obligations" that need defending by lethal means. It's all very interesting, at least to me.

Herzog on the Pathologies of the German Press

A while ago, I was leafing through the playbill to the Duesseldorfer Schauspielhaus' stage adaptation of Bunuels classic 1962 film The Exterminating Angel - a typical afternoon's pursuit here at the Joy Division.

There, I found a reprint of a speech (G) given on April 26, 1997 by then-Federal President Roman Herzog. The Federal Presidency is an odd office. He's the titular head of state, and thus performs the sort of official functions a king might perform in a monarchy. His role has also, however, developed into the scold/cheerleader/conscience of Germany. Federal Presidents usually have a political background, but are supposed to put that off, as much as possible, when they take office. They're meant to look at Germany from an Olympian perspective, praising what is admirable and denouncing what is not.

Probably the biggest scold of the past few decades has been Roman Herzog, who was President from 1994-99. His political origins lay in the mainstream-conservative CDU/CSU, so he's a cherished whipping-boy of the left. Whatever you think of him politically, there's no question that he was one of the greatest scolds that ever scolded. In this 1997 speech, Herzog begins by describing the optimism he encountered on a recent trip to Asia, and then comparing it with German society, where he laments: "the loss of economic dynamism, the paralysis (Erstarrung) of society, and an unbelievable mental depression." Instead of approaching new technologies and challenges soberly, he continues,

...we fall prey to fear scenarios. There’s hardly a single new discovery which does not first provoke questions about the risks and dangers – but never about the opportunities. There’s hardly a single reform effort that is not immediately suspected of being an “attack on the social state.” Whether atomic energy, genetic technology, or digitalization: we suffer from the fact that our discussions are distorted into unrecognizability – to some extend ideologized, to some extent simply “idiotized.” Such debates no longer lead to decisions. Instead, they end up following a ritual, which always seem to play out in the same seven-step pattern:

1.            In the beginning, there is a reform proposal which would require some sacrifice from some interest group.

2.            The media registers a wave of “collective outrage.”

3.            Now (at the very latest) the political parties jump onto the bandwagon, one of them in favor, one against.

4.            The next phase produces a blizzard of alternative proposals and empty symbolic gestures of all kinds, going all the way to mass demonstrations, petition drives, and questionable blitz-polls.

5.            A general lack of orientation follows; citizens become insecure.

6.            Now, from all sides, come the appeals toward “prudence.”

7.            Finally, at the end, the problem is put off. The status quo is maintained. Everyone waits for the next big subject.

These rituals would be amusing to watch, if they didn’t also dangerously cripple the ability to actually make decisions.  We fight about the unimportant things, in order to avoid having to concentrate on the important ones.

I find Herzog's description spot-on. In fact, you can classify many German news stories precisely according to which of the above 7 steps they embody. Now you know why I rarely read German newspapers...

Buruma on Islam in Europe, Part VI

He makes two sensible points. First, he argues that European nations have no choice but to figure out a way to peacefully co-exist with minority populations which come from predominantly Islamic countries. Second, if 70s-style 'multiculturalism' isn't working, it's probably not a good idea to replace it with indiscriminate Islam-bashing:

Whether Europeans like it or not, Muslims are part of Europe. Many will not abandon their religion, so Europeans must learn to live with them and with Islam....

Even if all of Europe’s Muslims were Islamists – which is a far cry from reality – they could not threaten the Continent’s sovereignty and, by the same token, its laws and Enlightenment values....

We should distinguish carefully between different kinds of Islam, and not confuse violent revolutionary movements with mere religious orthodoxy. Insulting Muslims simply on the basis of their faith is foolish and counterproductive, as is the increasingly popular notion that we must make sweeping pronouncements as to the superiority of “our culture.” For such dogmatism undermines scepticism, the questioning of all views, including one’s own, which was and is the fundamental feature of the Enlightenment.

The trouble today is that Enlightenment values are sometimes used in a very dogmatic way against Muslims. They have become in fact a form of nationalism – “our values” have been set against “their values.” The reason for defending Enlightenment values is that they are based on good ideas, and not because they are “our culture.” To confuse culture and politics in this way is to fall into the same trap as the multiculturalists.

And it has serious consequences. If we antagonize Europe’s Muslims enough we will push more people into joining the Islamist revolution. We must do everything to encourage Europe’s Muslim to become assimilated in European societies. It is our only hope.

Fashion from the Social Burning Point

Anyone who knows me knows I love the German word sozialer Brennpunkt, which you could translate as "problem neighborhood." Could. But, as usual, the literal translation is much better: "social burning point." No, it's not something penicillin will cure, it's a neighborhood with social problems: unemployment, alcoholism, unintegrated foreigners, right-wing gangs, or some combination of these factors.

The Ruetli School (G) is located in the social burning point of Neukölln (G), Berlin. Now, I once stayed in a friend's apartment in this social burning point for 2 weeks, found it perfectly nice and wondered what all the fuss was about. But a social burning point it is, and the students at the Ruetli Ruetlischool were making news for all the wrong reasons. They were threatening their teachers, beating each other senseless, failing to learn proper German, and generally being little b*&tards. Their teachers wrote a letter of desperation (G) which got sent to the press and received wide attention.

Like any piece of bad news in Germany, this provoked a storm of press coverage and commentary: about 25% thoughtful, 45% hysterical finger-pointing, 28% predictions of imminent doom for Germany/the world, and 2% Other (unhinged tirades about headscarves, calls for the return of fascism/communism provocative theories about the composition of the Van Allen belt).

It also prompted an influx of well-meaning professionals, to help the students adjust to German society and improve their image. One of the projects is Ruetli-Wear, clothes designed by the troubled teens themselves. Not only are the students "re-branding" their school, they're also learning about practical things such as keeping accounts, designing clothes, and covering printing costs.

All profits go to the project. Won't you go buy some Ruetli-wear, and spread some soothing ointment on this social burning point?

German Joys Mini-Review: Netto - Alles Wird Gut!

Anyone who spends more than a few days in Germany will meet an unemployed alcoholic. In Germany such people get meager state benefits which keep them afloat financially. This exposes them to an unexpectedly demoralizing fate: having much more time than they can ever use. They spend a lot of it hanging about in the dark recesses of pubs. They come alone, but soon gravitate to any table whose denizens don't project the metal-plated wariness of the city dweller. When our watery-eyed friend plants himself at the table, the rest of the company will be in for some long, perhaps not particularly intelligible discussions about life, work, broken marriages, troubled relationships, petty government bureaucrats, and maybe art. (A surprising number of the ones I've met take up painting, and even bring their canvases along).

Netto_motiv2_gNetto - Alles wird gut! (roughly: "In the End, Everything's Gonna be OK!") takes us into the life of Marcel Werner (Milan Peschel), a former East German who, like millions of his countrymen, never quite found a place in the unified Germany. Werner, who's been unemployed for years, conducts long, one-sided conversations with the chef in his local Vietnamese restaurant, mostly concerning personal protection and security, the field he has utterly formless plans for conquering. Before his ship comes in, though, he supplements his government benefits by the modern German equivalent of rag-picking: taking in broken old computers and VCRs (yes, VCRs) for a pittance, fixing them, and re-selling them for a slightly higher pittance.

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Americans with Odd German Names

The largest ethnic group in the U.S. is Germans. However, they all came to the U.S. generations ago, and have since completely assimilated, to the extent that many don't even know they're German.

The country teems with Knapps, Schroeders, Schneiders (sometimes Anglicized to Snyder or Snider), among others. This website lets you check the geographic distribution of names all over the U.S.; you can see how common Schneiders are, for instance.

And that's just the Anglo-Saxons. There are also plenty of Jews, many of whom carry decorative names they received in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries: Himmelfarb, Rosenthal, Goldberg, Weinstein, Goldstein, etc. They tend to stick to the coasts, as this map 'o the Weinsteins shows you.

But my topic today is ordinary Americans with strange or enchanting (apparently) German surnames. A few examples:

That's all I can think of off the top of my head (which is all you get in a blog), but I'll try to add more as time permits.


  • Susan Ficken notes in comments that she's not quite a professor yet.
  • How could I possibly have forgotten Charles Krauthammer?! The name is so expressive, especially of his approach to foreign policy, on which he has plenty of modest, well-thought out opinions that have helped the Bush Administration usher in the era of peace and stability we're now enjoying.
  • For non-German speakers, I should say that some of these names could be translated in amusing ways. We'll leave Susan to one side for a moment, and concentrate on Sinnreich, which I'll translate as 'Kingdom of the Senses,' and Roehrkasse, which could mean 'pipe-cash register.'

France: Not Crumbling, says Judt

The estimable Tony Judt (whose Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944-1956 I just finished) takes to the op-ed page of the New York Times to -- gasp -- sort of mildly defend Jacques Chirac! In passing, he aims a few darts at America's Europhobes

On both sides of the Atlantic, Mr. Chirac’s political obituary is being written in distinctly unflattering terms.

But is the French situation really so dire? From every quarter one hears calls for “reform” to bring France more in line with Anglo-American practices and policies. The dysfunctional French social model, we are frequently assured, has failed. In that case there is much to be said for failure. French infants have a better chance of survival than American ones. The French live longer than Americans and they live healthier (at far lower cost). They are better educated and have first-rate public transportation. The gap between rich and poor is narrower than in the United States or Britain, and there are fewer poor people.

Yes, France has high youth unemployment, thanks to institutionalized impediments to job creation. But the comparison to American rates is misleading: our figures are artificially lowered because so many dark-skinned men aged 18 to 30 are in prison and thus off the unemployment rolls.

Pictures from Brussels

Well, it's a slow news day (actually a fast "real work" day), so I thought I'd post a few of the more interesting photos from Brussels. First, the Belgian pedestrian symbol -- always a profound glimpse into a nation's character:


Now, a portrait bust by Edmundo Valladares of the Argentine writer Julio Cortazar, which can be found in Ixelles, the Brussels suburb in which Cortazar was born in 1914. Note the pink candy in his right eye (he would doubtless have approved). An Argentine friend of mine and Cortazar fan quite likes the bust, except he says Cortazar, one of the great chain-smokers of history, should have a cigarette dangling from his lips.


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