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October 2007
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Victory for the Teacher-Graders

About a year ago, a few young Germans set up an Internet forum, (G), that lets students anonymously rate their teachers. The ratings were divided into categories such as "good lessons," "knows his field," and "cool and funny."  Oh, and you could rate how "sexy" your teacher is, until some teachers complained. 

How did teachers react to the website?  According to one of the webmasters, not very accommodatingly:

"At one high school in Cologne, the principal allegedly threatened the students with 'consequences' if they put any grades on the site; at a school in Karlsruhe, a letter was distributed to the parents, with the request that they sign it, certifying that their children did not use the site.

The teachers' lobby groups also attacked the site.  The 'Philologists' Association' [the name of one German teacher lobby group] referred to Spickmich in the same sentence as mobbing-videos and porno-montages featuring teachers.  And the head of the German Teachers' Association, Josef Kraus, even said that students were not capable of judging teachers' quality.

But that's not all.  In Germany, people whose feelings are hurt when somebody says something rude about them in public can file a lawsuit on the grounds of "insult," among other legal theories.  A teacher who got low marks in the online forum did just that.  However, the Regional Court of Cologne just ruled (G) against the teacher on free-speech grounds.

As someone who actually is a teacher and presumably gets 'rated' by students all the time, I say 'Hooray for free speech!'

Cultural Driftwood Wins Bambi

After floating around in the roiling sea of Anglo-American popular culture, many artists find themselves stranded on the lonely shores of obscurity.  There, they're gradually bleached out by neglect, playing to ever-smaller venues, bumping down the food-chain to ever-smaller record labels, and giving ever-bitterer interviews to ever-smaller magazines, until the interviewers finally stop calling.

Then, like an interesting piece of driftwood spotted by a beach wanderer, Germany picks them up, takes them home, polishes them lovingly, and displays them on the coffee table.  This has happened to Chris de Burgh, Motörhead (perhaps because of the umlaut), Metallica, and dozens of other grateful has-beens, including Jon Bon Jovi, who is not only still alive and apparently producing records, but just won a Bambi award, which is basically a German grammy. 

Yes -- Jon Bon Jovi.  Touching, really.

Theorizing about U.S. Pop Culture

I just got back from an academic conference -- No! don't click away, I'm not going to talk about the conference, I promise!

Still with me?  Good.  There were lots of "Americanists" at the conference -- German scholars who study North American culture and society.  Interesting to hear what these folks have to say.  They focus on aspects of American life and history that are distinctive to the US or particularly pronounced there, such as Indians, transcendentalists, the frontier, slavery, suburban life, media culture, the position of minorities, and how affluence shapes society.

Plus, of course, American popular culture.  Here's an explanation of the popularity of American popular culture by one of Germany's leading Americanists and cultural theorists, Winfried Fluck.  (German translation here).  After rejecting various explanations as too facile, Fluck argues that America simply developed an early lead in 'popular culture':

In the past, culture was tied to privilege and wealth. Until the 18th century, books were comparatively expensive; their ownership was limited largely to the propertied classes. Moreover, a certain educational grounding (such as knowledge of Latin or Greek) was necessary to make sense of most cultural objects.


The development of an "entertainment culture'' around the turn of the 20th century, including vaudeville theater, amusement parks, a dance craze triggered by the domestication of black plantation dances, and silent movies, further reduced the prerequisites for cultural understanding. The invention of radio and television extended the audience for this new "mass'' culture even more, and the shift to the priority of pictures and music created a "universal'' language, not limited to a particular community.

For a number of reasons, America was in the forefront of this cultural revolution. Due to its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural composition, especially in the formative years of modern entertainment culture around 1900, American popular culture was faced with the challenge of a market that anticipated the present global market on a smaller scale. This led to the development of broadly comprehensible, non-verbal forms of performance, relying preferably on visual and auditory forms of expression. Before Americanization of other societies could occur, American culture itself had to be "Americanized.''


Americanization, indeed, is carried by the promise of heightened imaginary self-realization for individuals who are freed from the bonds of social norms and cultural traditions.

Americanization, thus, cannot be viewed as a tacitly engineered hidden cultural takeover but as a process in which individualization is the driving force. This process is most advanced in the US for a number of reasons. The promise of a particular form of individualization provides the explanation why American popular culture finds so much resonance in other societies where it has taken hold almost without resistance (mostly carried by a young generation trying to escape tradition).

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Americans with Odd German Names Teil Drei

Should we be worried that an American with a peculiar German name is a top adviser to the President of the United States?

“This is very much in accord with the president’s vision from the get-go,” said Karl Zinsmeister, a domestic policy adviser to Mr. Bush....

I think we should, given that his name means, roughly, "interest-rate-master."  The German word for compound interest, by the way, is Zinseszinsen: "interest-rate-interest-rate."  Ingenious, no?

"What a Sex!"

Here's a slideshow of (discreet) nude photographs of Marlilyn Monroe, presented to us by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung under the "English" headline "What a Sex!"

I'll be at an academic conference the next few days, so light blogging.  But, in the meantime, an amusing/depressing portrait of German academic feudalism can be found here (G) [h/t Frankie].

Why is Henry Kissinger so Famous in Germany?

Over at Altantic Review, Joerg Wolf has a good post quoting a recent interview with Henry Kissinger and a Foreign Policy piece arguing that Americans no longer have the will to see through long-term commitments of troops to combat operations abroad.  Neither do Europeans, for that matter.  Difference is, American voters can still be persuaded to let their leaders start military conflicts.  European voters are much more skeptical of military force as a tool for international problem-solving.

That's an interesting debate in itself, but I refer you to the Atlantic Review post for more.  The question I want to ask is: why is Henry Kissinger such a presence in Germany?  He's interviewed on German television and media frequently, and his views are usually treated with solemn respect.  I suppose the easiest explanation is that he still speaks his native language, and any prominent figure who can speak German (Peter Ustinov, for instance), will draw disproportionate attention in Germany.  Further, the people who run German media grew up seeing Kissinger on television every day (many probably protested his policies every weekend).  In the U.S., Kissinger receives much less media attention than he does here.  He still has some influence, but the last time he made the news in any serious way was when he resigned from a government commission convened to investigate 9/11 because of potential conflicts of interest stemming from the client list of his international consulting firm, Kissinger Associates.

This firm, by the way, has contracts with many multinational corporations.  We don't know which ones they are, because the firm refuses to reveal its client list and, reportedly, requires clients to keep their relationship with the firm secret as well.  You'd think basic journalistic practice would require this fact to be at least mentioned whenever Kissinger airs his views on foreign policy.  In Germany, however, it never is.  None of the people I have ever discussed Kissinger with here in Germany were aware that he runs a consulting firm whose clients have an interest in steering American foreign policy in particular directions.  Nor, for that matter, do German interviewers ever ask him questions about the matters discussed in Christopher Hitchens steaming little 2002 book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger.  (Large excerpts of which can be found online here and here.)  Whether or not you agree with every one of the many items in Hitchens' indictment, the book makes serious allegations that, to my knowledge, have yet to be refuted.

Law Across Language Barriers

Jane Stapleton makes a good point about the difficulty of doing comparative law in other languages  here (pdf).  Speaking of English-speaking lawyers and scholars who analyze foreign-language concepts or institutions, she asks:

[H]ow confident can a domestic practitioner or judge be that it is the output of these foreign lawyers that are put up for translation into English? This problem is especially acute in Code systems where certain academic commentaries on tort law both within and outside the Civil Code have influence and authority far beyond any academic materials in English-speaking jurisdictions.... The fact that, whereas the English legal tradition treats judges as the senior partners in law-making, the Continental tradition recognizes legal academics in this role, partly explains why some Continental jurists make statements that such and such is the “correct” “solution” to a legal issue. Such language can shock lawyers in common law jurisdictions where it is customary to couch normative arguments with greater reserve, unless they appreciate that these Continental lawyers seek to have their academic commentaries accepted as law. The legal cultural reasons for this difference in the role of jurists are fascinating in their own right, especially in comparison to U.S. and other common law systems.  But the point I want to make here is that of the six or so most authoritative and extensive commentaries on the German Civil Code and extra-code law of obligations, none has been translated into English. This means that English speakers do not have these texts available so as to provide the necessary foils for the one extensive text on German tort law that has been written in English.  Moreover, to my knowledge there are no other texts, written in English or in translation, that deal in detail with tort law in other foreign-language jurisdictions.

Some Pictures From Italy

One of the advantages of having friends, aside from the whole having-friends part, is that sometimes they go live in cool places, and invite you to visit them. Here are a few photos from last week's visit to Rome and Frascati.

This time around, its the cute side of Italy.  For instance, a cat living in a box on the side of the road going out of Frascati...


...or this roadside shrine to the Virgin set into a wall along the Via Nomentana:


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