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December 2011
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February 2012

The German Scientific Monotone Claims a Royal Victim

American are often accused -- quite rightly -- of having an instinctive weakness for showbiz that causes them to attach all sorts of fripperies and bells and whistles to the most mundane -- or profound -- things. Witness Baconnaise, Christian exercise videos, facebooked family tragedies, etc.

Germans, on the other hand, are accused of having precisely the opposite gift (curse?): the ability to take inherently interesting subjects and drain all the sizzle, controversy, originality, and human interest out of them.* One aspect of this is the Scientific Monotone, the low-frequency drone emitted by professors and experts when called upon to explain something important. This curious tendency appears to have emerged from the notion that just as the most powerful medications taste the worst, the only respectable (konsequent) way to deliver specialized knowledge is to crucify your audience on a cross of dogmatic boredom.

The Scientific Monotone can drain an inherently fascinating subject of life faster than a spider can suck the juice out of a fly. When the technique is applied to a not-particularly-fascinating subject, the results can be life-threatening. As the Queen can testify:

According to a new biography, “Our Queen” by Robert Hardman, she has fallen asleep at work once, very briefly, in 2004, during a lecture on new insights into biology and medicine with the use of magnets at the Heinrich Heine University, Dusseldorf.

(h/t Ed Philp).

Continue reading "The German Scientific Monotone Claims a Royal Victim" »

Expansionary Austerity, RIP?

Via Brad DeLong, signs that European officials are beginning to spot the problem with the "beatings will continue until morale improves" policy:

Bowing to mounting evidence that  austerity alone cannot solve the debt crisis, European leaders are expected to conclude  this week that what the debt-laden, sclerotic countries of the Continent need are a dose of economic growth.

A draft of the European Union summit meeting communiqué calls for ‘‘growth-friendly consolidation and job-friendly growth,’’ an indication that European leaders  have come to realize that austerity measures, like those being put in countries like Greece and Italy,  risk stoking a recession and plunging fragile economies into a  downward spiral…. [L]eaders will discuss long-term structural reforms and better use of E.U. subsidies, while avoiding mention of the one thing that could change the climate: a fiscal stimulus from Germany, the euro currency zone’s undisputed powerhouse….

...Other analysts concur…. “Even countries with relatively strong public finances such as Germany — the country’s budget deficit fell to just 1 percent of GDP in 2011 — are tightening fiscal policy,” Simon Tilford, the chief economist for the Center for European Reform in London, wrote recently. “In so doing, European governments are standing conventional macroeconomic thinking on its head. Governments are withdrawing demand from their economies at a time of pronounced private sector weakness.” Output in both the euro zone and the European Union is still around 2 percent lower than before the crisis. The Spanish and British economies are still almost 4 percent short of their pre-crisis peaks, the Italian one nearly 5 percent, and the Greek and Irish economies 10 percent to 15 percent, Mr. Tilford added….

Germans increasingly accept that this is a dangerous outlook, said Joachim Fritz-Vannahme, director of the Europe program at the research institute Bertelsmann Stiftung. “Many people now say that it will never work to push all the Southern European countries into austerity, hoping that, one day, they will pay back what they owe,”’ he said. In Germany, the opposition Social Democrats have been calling for a new Marshall Plan for Europe…

On a related note, from the Spiegel:

Europe is pursuing a Greece strategy of pressing on regardless of the potential cost. Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly obvious that this method is not helping the country's economy get back on its feet. Although the Athens government is spending €20 billion less this year than it did in 2009, the debt ratio is still climbing, because the Greek economy will shrink for the fifth year in a row in 2012. And almost all experts agree that the country will not be able to pull itself out of the crisis on its own.


[E]conomists recommend finally doing what is already unavoidable: sending the country into an orderly insolvency. Greece's government creditors, which include the ECB and, most of all, the partner countries that have lent the country money until now, would have to abandon about half of their claims so that the country's mountain of debt could be reduced to a tolerable level. Then the measures that can return the Greek economy to growth on its own can become more effective: reforms in the labor market, more competition in the service industries and foreign investment.

The majority of European politicians still refuse to recognize reality, though. This is understandable, given that abandoning portions of their claims against Greece would translate into substantial losses. But some government representatives are at least willing to approach the first warm-up exercises. When Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker was asked by German financial newspaper Handelsblatt last Friday whether the euro countries should also forgive Greek debts, he replied that such proposed solutions are "not entirely absurd."

The Enlightenment Roots of American Mass Incarceration

Adam Gopnik on mass incarceration, the 'moral scandal' of contemporary American life:

The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.) Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized. Though we avoid looking directly at prisons, they seep obliquely into our fashions and manners. Wealthy white teen-agers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration that acts as a hidden foundation for the country.

He highlights a recent, counterintuitive argument about how things got this way:

William J. Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law School who died shortly before his masterwork, “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice,” was published, last fall, is the most forceful advocate for the view that the scandal of our prisons derives from the Enlightenment-era, “procedural” nature of American justice....

The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life. You may be spared the death penalty if you can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong. Even clauses that Americans are taught to revere are, Stuntz maintains, unworthy of reverence: the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” was designed to protect cruel punishments—flogging and branding—that were not at that time unusual.

More on the World's Most Controversial Petit Fours

Who knew that a post about insensitive pastries would unleash such a fine and lively discussion? My thanks to all participants. Just to respond to a couple of points:

  1. My role is not to convey American values to my students, or any other national values, for that matter. I am there to provide them with information and analytical skills that will be useful to them. That means explaining American values, to offer insight into the country whose law they are studying, but not cheerleading. I would never be so naive as to suggest that my personal ideological preferences don't influence what I teach, but I try to let my students decide the merits of controversial questions.
  2.  As for the pastries in question, I posted them to call attention to a quirk of German culture that I've addressed before. To me, I see it as another sign of German society being several decades behind the US, in ways both charming and not-so-charming. Think of Mickey Rooney's cringe-inducing 'Chinaman' in Breakfast at Tiffany's, for example. Nobody would dream of doing something like that in the US today, but as the comments have shown, blackface is still fine in Germany.
  3. I don't see my role as a moral apostle, although I may make some ironic comments, as I did in the post above (by channeling a stereotypical cracker's delight at finding these pastries). I try to avoid seeing Germany through American eyes as much as possible. (Suggesting that one or another country has the sounder policy on a particular point is different from arguing that one country is morally superior). The only time I'll knowingly haul out the moral mace is if some German starts self-righteously denouncing the United States for its alleged pervasive racism. If and when that happens, will I feel constrained to point out that Germany (1) still doesn't have anti-discrimination laws with teeth; (2) tolerates various kinds of racial stereotypes. Of course, racial discrimination remains a problem in American society, as it does in every society. But I find that Germans are much less wont to simple-mindedly moralize about the US than they were prior to 2008. 
  4. Since the 1980s, I've been skeptical of American-style political correctness, which I think tends to exaggerate questions of personal taste and bad manners to matters of state. I went to college in the late 1980s, the high point of p.c., and remember the seemingly endless debates about what preferred terminology was for various ethnic groups, or how big the cultural center for group X was going to be, or whether Professor Y should be censured for making an allegedly sexist comment during class. It got so bad that hundreds of campuses passed blatantly unconstitutional speech codes threatening drastic punishment for students and employees who were alleged to have made insensitive comments or statements. Students were being threatened with expulsion, or professors with career homicide, simply because of one stray comment (often reported only by hearsay). Fortunately, courts struck down these codes, but for a while there, the ability to voice controversial opinions was under threat -- and by people calling themselves 'liberals'.
  5. The other suspect thing about political correctness is that it can distract from questions about fundamental, systemic inequality. I recommend Walter Benn Michaels' book The Trouble with Diversity, in which he argues that 'diversity', while a fine and wonderful thing in itself, often distracts from much deeper inequalities in American society. The important question is not how many black or gay students there are at University X, it's why University X's tuition fees have been skyrocketing, shutting out the lower middle class. A law firm or lobbying firm can be diverse as heck -- and will strive to be so, since that makes for great PR and salves the consciences of the more 'liberal' partners -- but it will still be serving corporate interests.
  6. As for my personal attitudes, I try to be a tolerant enough guy, but I also enjoy the odd off-color joke and ironic provocation, and have neither the will nor the energy to constantly censor myself. People should be judged on what they do, not what other people guess that they might be thinking. Perhaps it's unfortunate that some people have backward attitudes, but it's a much bigger problem -- and an unquestionable evil -- when people are discriminated against in public life based solely on their race, ethnicity, orientation or gender. Along with many gifted colleagues, I actually did stuff to combat racial discrimination in the US. And any number of people can confirm that I have often spoken out publicly in favor or stronger anti-discrimination laws in Germany. To me, the real scandal is not insensitive pastries, but the fact that Germany's anti-discrimination laws don't yet have enough real-world financial bite to change behavior.

Delectable Stereotypes

Spotted at my favorite bakery, Cafe J-----, a few days ago:

Edible Negro and Chinaman

They were in a big display with a several other petit fours with geometric decorations (no, not swastikas). I had to specifically ask for the 'Moor' and the 'Chinaman'. The woman who served me was, by the way, Turkish.

Anyway, ah done ate me one Negro and one Chinaman. They wuz dee-licious, and the Negro wuz full o' rum. Typical!

Previous coverage of German ethnic insensitivity here.

In Idiomatic English, this Would Be Referred to as...

...throwing Greece under the bus:

Angela Merkel has cast doubt for the first time on Europe's chances of saving Greece from financial meltdown and sovereign default, conceding that Europe's first ever multibillion euro bailout coupled with savage austerity was not working after a two-year crisis that has brought the single currency to the brink of unravelling.

Just curious here: has any German-language news outlet cataloged the number of confident statements / predictions made by EU leaders in the past three years that turned out to be (a) wrong; or (b) lies?

The list would, I imagine, be quite long. Yet in the mainstream German media, all of this seems to get swept under the rug, and Merkel is congratulated for facing up to tough realities when, in fact, she's often simply backtracking on earlier promises or abandoning earlier predictions.

The Mystery of the Misunderstood Molester

It's never the child molester.
Yesterday's Tatort (g), "Kidnapped", was a creepy psychosexual affair which dealt with someone who kept little girls locked away in a basement for years, but never touched them sexually (which makes his behavior even creepier). Instead, he created a bizarre subterranean concentration-camp scenario, where the girls were forced to constantly wash and clean their bare-metal chambers in return for water and food. There were a number of nice touches, including the fact that the perpetrator's house had framed 'family' photos on the wall which were, in fact, pictures of himself, and some pretty breathtaking dolly-style shots vertically downward into the earth, to show us how far underground the secret chamber was. I've never been a huge fan of the Saarbrücken investigators as personalities, but they were pretty good in this one. And, of course, one can't overlook the enchanting Lale Yavas as the coroner, Dr. Rhea Singh.

This Tatort also marked the re-appearance of a stock Tatort staple every bit as familiar as a commedia dell'arte character*: the Misunderstood Molester. After one of the abducted girls escapes, triggering a girlhunt for the remaining abductees, suspicion immediately focuses on a middle-aged man, living along, who was fired from his job as a lifeguard for exposing himself to some of his young charges. The police pay him a visit, naturally, and yell at him a bit. Whenever the plot flags, we get more indications of his guilt: he smokes heavily (like the perp), he buttons his polo shirts to the top button like any self-respecting child molester, he lives near the scene of the abduction, his apartment overlooks a playground (and he has a pair of binoculars), his pet ferrets seem suspiciously high-strung, he's stopped taking the anti-testosterone medication prescribed by his therapist, and he even has a dress worn by one of the abducted children in his underground storage space.

But, of course, he's not the perp. It turns out there's an innocent explanation for all these factors. He is, after all, the Misunderstood Molester. Shortly after police focus on him, his therapist visits the cops to lecture them: his client deserves a second chance, therapy can prevent him from acting on his impulses, being scapegoated harms his chances of re-entering society, etc. The well-established pattern is followed:

  1. After crime against child, suspicion focuses on the released molester.
  2. Some clues point in his direction.
  3. The outraged/anguished parents of one of the victims target the molester by picketing him or attacking him.
  4. Someone (a skeptical cop, therapist, family member, girlfriend) begins to cast doubt on the molester's guilt and deliver edifying lectures about how everyone deserves a second chance.
  5. The Misunderstood Molester is finally cleared of all guilt -- often after being arrested, interrogated, and even attacked.

It's interesting how frequently the MM comes up in Tatort scripts. Recently, at a lecture about crime fiction in Germany, I met a man who had written some scripts for German TV, and who complained of the heavy interference by editors, who frequently returned scripts with suggestions intended to make them more politically-correct. Evidently, the German cultural elite believes that ordinary Germans have a dangerously low opinion of convicted child molesters, and that this is an important problem that must be remedied by public education. Why else would there be (seemingly) at least one Misunderstood Molester per every 5 Tatort episodes?

As far as changing Germans' opinions of child molesters, good luck with that! I'm not complaining, though. I find the constant recurrence of the Misunderstood Molester one of Tatort's most comforting qualities. You can spot him (and it's pretty much always him) coming a mile away, and then the suspenseful sub-plot begins: how much evidence of guilt can the script dump on the MM's head before the real killer is found?** Sometimes this sub-plot is lots more exciting than the main plot!

Continue reading "The Mystery of the Misunderstood Molester" »

The Turkey-Bashing Continues

Given a chance to repudiate or at least clarify his demented allegation that Turkey's rulers are 'Islamic terrorists' (which drew a furious response from Turkey), Rick Perry doubles down, in an interview whose cringe-inducing idiocy has to be seen to be believed:

I was always puzzled by Perry's decision to stay in the race even after he had been rejected as too dumb -- by Republican primary voters, no less. I mean, why expose yourself to the public humiliation? Why cram yet more gaffes to the footnote history will afford you? Perry is like a stand-up comic who's gotten nothing but crickets for 15 minutes, but instead of wrapping things up and scurrying off-stage, decides to plunge ahead for the remainder of the show, sweating, simpering, and droning off all the stale jokes he can remember.

Won't somebody please shut off the stage lights and put this sad man out of our misery?