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July 2008
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September 2008

Deleuze Getting Marvinized

Months ago, I predicted a McCain victory in November, and many were incredulous, or disgusted. Now, McCain has pulled even with Obama in most polls, and leads in this one -- in which voters actually give McCain better marks on the economy.

We're seeing a replay of 2004. The tall, elegant, patrician Democratic candidate is too high-minded, and too given to speechifying. Unlike his earthier opponent, he's incapable of giving a crisp, black-and-white 3-word answer. He's terribly shocked at all the unfair attacks, and is asking his tough, ruthless opponent to stop being so mean. When Joe Sixpack hears this, he says to himself: "What a wimp." As Josh Marshall says, "STOP BEGGING."

As I feared, Obama is indeed running the sort of goody-two-shoes, policy-driven campaign that leaves ordinary Americans cold (but which strikes the European bourgeoisie as just what the doctor ordered). Unless he changes tack quickly, Obama's going to lose, for the reasons Theda Skocpol lays out here:

Politics is not just about issues, it is a metaphorical test of strength. If a man will not get immediately -- if quietly -- angry and fight back when his patriotism is attacked, why should we trust him to defend the country? And if he won't punch back by explaining clearly why his approach to foreign policy is actually tougher and smarter, why McCain's is thoughtless and reckless, why would we think he is better to be Commander in Chief?


Obama is lucky he is not further behind already. And he is going to fade fast if he just runs a feel-good, bland convention about abstract "hope" and "change." In addition to getting gritty and colorfully clear about his recipe for making Americans' lives better -- AND about his approach to make this nation safer and stronger in the world -- Obama needs to signal all the major speakers at next week's convention to go after McCain in a key part of each speech.

I hope Obama is smart enough to realize that he needs to start talking the gritty certainties that shape the world-view of the millions of the voters who don't have a college degree and don't want to be talked to in a way that seems to require one. But then again, I thought John Kerry would see this writing on the wall, and he never did. So I stand glumly by my prediction.

Nazis Or Fairies?

Some Englishman named Nigel has squatted, grunted, and delivered himself of the following squalling, mire-encrusted anti-Teutonic slander:

I hate to spring this on you without so much as a by your leave, but I heard it on the BBC World Service, so it must be true: 50 percent of German men wear tights. Yes that's one in two, every other German man. Pose the question 'Are you wearing tights?' on a German factory floor or in a German office, and not only will all the female hands go up (apart perhaps from a saucy minority), but every other male hand will also rise.

This foul calumny has now been taken up by Andrew Sullivan, and no doubt will soon burrow itself into the consciousness of millions of unsuspecting dupes, adding yet another undertone of queasy distrust to the world's image of German manhood.

Let me assure the Nigester that half of German men most certainly aren't wearing tights -- at least not during the day, under their ordinary clothes. Granted, I don't make a habit of removing German mens' pants, despite all those discreet and extremely lucrative offers. But I would assume that a tsunami of masculine tights-wearing would lead to stacks of mens' tights ("Now with extra-large codpieces!") at local stores, and overheard conversations between Karlheinz and Hans-Jürgen on the importance of breathable natural-fiber linings.

Not. Happening.

Oh, and by the way, most of the women under 45 aren't wearing tights either. Saucy wenches!

Be that as it may, I just heard on Deutsche Welle that fully 61% of Englishwomen use machetes to shave their legs.

German Joys Mini-Review: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

4 months posterThe questions on everyone's minds before the 2007 Cannes film festival was whether No Country for Old Men by old favorites the Coen Brothers, would win the Palme d'Or. Many observers expected it to. Instead, the Palm went to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a relatively unknown German/Romanian production about life in Ceausescu's Romania. I've now seen both movies, and the choice to me seems right: No Country displays many of the weaknesses of American independent movies*, while 4 months showcases all the strengths of European ones.

4 Months opens with 2 female college roommates and friends, Otilia and Gabita. Gabita seems distracted by some upcoming event, which her friend Otilia is helping her to arrange by renting a hotel room on the sly, and meeting with various unsavory characters. I didn't know what the ominous event was supposed to be (and won't reveal it here), although it became clear fairly early on. Otilia eventually gets drawn much farther into her friend's sordid problem than she might ever have imagined, and we see it warp all parts of her life, including her relationship with her boyfriend.

Director Cristian Mungiu uses one take per scene. This stretches out the pacing, but Mungiu compensates for that by building a (non-contrived) suspense into the plot. Some of the scenes -- especially Otilia, laden with contraband, wandering around the desolate wasteland that is Bucharest by night -- are downright Hitchcockian. But 4 Months' main strength is in its intense character studies. Otilia is the strong-willed partner in this friendship, which we see even in the brisk, no-nonsense  way she strips off a blouse or lays a passport on a hotel reception desk. Gabita is slender, quiet, indecisive and drifting.  She hardly seems to inhabit her own body. Otilia resolves to help pull her friend out of the quicksand she's stepped into.  But, as the rescue begins to demand more and more of her, she seems both surprised at how deeply involved she's become, yet unable to give up.

4 Months is in the tradition of what I'd call European neo-neo-Realism (I'd also put the Dardenne brothers in this category). These are spare, unembellished stories of ordinary people -- often social outsiders -- stumbling through moral dilemmas, often of their own making. There's no non-diagenic music, no makeup, no weird lighting, no digital effects, no suspiciously ornate speeches, no camera tricks, and no bolted-on symbolism. "Social commentary," if it exists, is muted and indirect. The characters have decent and corrupt motives, often at the same time -- and sometimes, they seem to have no motive at all. In his notebook (pdf), Luc Dardenne singled out a remark Elias Canetti made about Stendhal: "[...] he respected the singular nature of all individual traits. He never gathered them together into some sort of suspect unity." At their best, these movies have a sort of unpretentious moral seriousness and humility that I want to describe as Catholic. These are ordinary people, the directors seem to be saying. If you're bored by their lives, feel free to leave the theater. But there's something surprising and touching about the sacrifices these flawed people are capable of making for each other. As anyone who's ever tried to write a story like this knows, it's very, very hard to get at this idea without drifting into preachiness or sentimental uplift. 4 Months succeeds brilliantly.

* That's not to say I hated No Country. The Coen brothers can't make a dull movie. But I tire of the flowery speeches; the glib, soulless, blood-spattering; the laboriously overdrawn characters. No Country struck me as too clever by half. Set beside 4 Months, it comes across as empty and dishonest.

Quote of the Day: Musil on Ethnic Prejudice

Weimar Goethe Points Us to Weimar Haus

"She was not entirely free from the distaste the typical Austrian of her period felt for his German kin. It its classical form, which has become a rarity in our day, this distaste corresponded more or less to an image of the venerated heads of Goethe and Schiller planted guilelessly on bodies that had been fed on sticky puddings and gravies, and shared something of their nonhuman inwardness....  Now, ethnic prejudice is usually nothing more than self-hatred, dredged up from the murky depths of one's own conflicts and projected onto some convenient victim, a traditional practice from time immemorial when the shaman used a stick, said to be the repository of the demon's power, to draw the sickness out of the afflicted."

The Man Without Qualities, vol. 1, p. 461.

Diekmann to U.S. Papers: "It's Too Late"

This Newsweek piece (h/t influx) argues that German newspapers have remained largely untouched by the crisis that has hit American newspapers, which are all being killed by competition from online news sources. Jack Ewing interviews Kai Diekmann, editor-in-chief of Bild, about how his paper has managed to stay profitable. It's a combination of higher newsstand prices, sensationalism, original stories, and the web's slower penetration in Europe. The article ends: "What advice does Diekmann have for American newspapers? 'It's too late.'"

When I Hear the Word "Revolver"...

I came across this interview with Slavoj Zizek last week on Obscene Desserts:

Zizek makes interesting points about the displacement of political conflict over economic interests into anodyne debates about multiculturalism and "tolerance" (Walter Benn Michaels argues along similar lines here). Otherwise, Slavoj is in full-on vieillard terrible mode: advocating the death penalty for rapists, promising to send Peter Sloterdijk to the "gulag," even accusing cuddly, adorable Michael Palin of racism. At one point, Zizek proudly announces that he has "Joseph Goebbels' reaction" when he hears multicultural platitudes: "I draw my guns." 

Zizek gets it wrong, but we won't hold him to that, because it's a live interview. The interesting thing is that everyone else gets it wrong, too. The famous quotation that everyone attributes to Goebbels or Goering is "When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my revolver." It's even been used as the refrain of a pop song by Mission of Burma, later covered by Moby.

But there's no record of those two officials ever saying anything about revolvers. The quote everyone is actually thinking of comes from the first scene of a 1933 play, Schlageter, by the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst. Schlageter tells the story of one of the first National Socialist "martyrs," Albert Leo Schlageter (g), a NSDAP member who was executed by a French military tribunal for acts of sabotage against the occupation of the Ruhr Valley in the early 1920s. Schlageter later became the focus of a Nazi martyr cult. Streets all over Germany were named after him during the Third Reich, and his biography (see photo above) was mandatory reading for students.

In Johst's play, Schlageter talkes with a fellow student, Thiemann, about politics. Thiemann utters a long rant which ends with the phrase: "Wenn ich Kultur höre ... entsichere ich meinen Browning," which translates as: "Whenever I hear [the word] 'culture'... I release the safety on my Browning!" In the original, Schlageter reacts with shock to his friend's militance. But not the National Socialists: Baldur von Schirach apparently used the quotation in a speech.

But "release the safety on my Browning" isn't half so catchy as "reach for my revolver," which is how the phrase has been received into English. There are two problems here for the translator.  First, German actually has one catchy word for release the safety (entsichere="de-safety-ize"), but English doesn't. Second, Browning used to be a generic word for all sorts of pistols, but that's no longer the case.* Whoever first translated the phrase as "reach for my revolver" did a brilliant job, I would say. The translation preserves the original meaning, and makes the references more resistant to the passage of time. And it struck a chord, appearling both to American post-punk bands and Slovenian philosophers.

* These days, people are more likely to associated the word Browning with the English poet, which perhaps led to the ludicrous suggestion on the Wikiquote page that the reference to "my Browning" might actually be a literary pun. I like the idea of "releasing the safety" on a book of poetry, but that level of playful irony seems almost Wildean, and if there was one thing Nazi playwrights weren't, it was Wildean.


"Let's Steak Together"

Granted, the last example of Denglish came from Frankfurt. But exquisite speciments also await the Denglish-hunter in Dresden:

Pimp Handy

Technically only the first web address is classical Denglish. Extra points for not realizing that pimp is a transitive verb (i.e., "pimp your ride," not "pimp up your ride"). Triple bonus points for using the formal mode of address in a pair of web addresses that also includes the word pimp. "Sehr geehrter Herr Dr. Dr. von Recklenburg, wuerden Sie es mir erlauben, Ihr tragbares Fernmeldegeraet voll geil aufzupimpen, Opfer?" 

And here's a kiosk that puts lesser feats of Denglish in the shade by turning an English noun into a German verb ("Steak Together in Front of the Grill":

)Gemeinsam Steaken

My beautiful brothers and sisters, let's steak together (take it away, Al):

A Fine Set of Pipes

In many German cities, you see large metal pipes that emerge from the ground and snake along for hundreds of meters. They often bend upward and elevate themselves when they cross a road or sidewalk. Leipzig, or "Pipezig," as we came to call it, had more than any German city I've seen so far:

Pipezig 1

Pipezig 2

At first I thought these were temporary diversions caused by construction -- but many of these pipes looked like they'd been there for years, and aren't near construction sites. Does anyone know what's in these pipes, and why they're above ground? Will they ever go away?

Tomorrow's Commentary Today

Over at the American monthly magazine The Atlantic, resident blogger Marc Ambinder noticed something a little familiar about the cover of this week's Der Spiegel


Namely, that it's rather reminiscent of the cover of an Atlantic magazine cover from a few months ago:


The Atlantic, for those of you who don't already know, is an American monthly magazine of centrist news and commentary. They also have plenty of online features, including political and policy blogs that are usually worth reading.

A German Joys reader who also follows The Atlantic's website closely has repeatedly pointed me to German mainstream-media commentary and analysis that seems, shall we say, to have been influenced by The Atlantic. This reader's theory is that German journalists who are staring deadlines in the face know they can safely crib ideas from The Atlantic, since (1) it's non-controversial and has a solid reputation; and (2) the risk of being discovered is minimal, since The Atlantic is less well-known in Europe than, say, the New York Times or the Washington Post. This reader continues:

During the primary campaign, I noticed that the German columnists Pitzke, Schmitz and Steingart (even though he’s so sour, he would only refer to things from a lofty perch of European condescension and ate his words, sort of, when Obama ended up as the winner) almost always picked up on Atlantic themes about two days after any particular event of significance (primary, speech, absurd scandal, etc.) had taken place.

First, the Spiegel had the “this is what happened” coverage, then a day later, the sometimes thoughtful analysis. In preparing that, they more consistently relied on consensus established by the Atlantic than any other magazine of that nature that I read. Maybe they’ve pinned the Atlantic as commentary that is most on message for their readership. Maybe they just think it’s a reliable bet, seeing as only a few thousand people in this country have ever heard of the site.

To forestall tiresome discussions, let me make clear that I am not accusing anyone or any organization of wrongdoing. This sort of thing goes on in journalism all the time, and is not necessarily a problem, as long as it's acknowledged and credit is given where due. I'm just pointing out an interesting pattern...