And now to one of the most amusing sources of cross-cultural misunderstanding there is. One fine day, a co-worker and I were chatting in my office in German and she casually said: "Damn, my herpes is back. What do you do about your herpes? Is there some special American treatment?"
I just barely avoided a genuine, honest-to-Allah spit-take. Before I could ask what this prim, attractive member of the German haute bourgeoisie was talking about, she added "Fortunately, most of the blisters are on the inside, so it's not that embarrassing." And then she showed me what she was talking about, pointing to the location of the outbreak. I recoiled in horror, crossing my arms in front of me, as she exposed her infected...
...lips. The ones on the mouth, that is.
As you probably know, there are a few different kinds of herpes, and almost everyone carries Herpes Simplex Type I, the virus that causes blisters on the lips now and then. English speakers, in our prudish way, call these outbreaks 'cold sores'. In the English-speaking world, the word 'herpes', standing alone, refers exclusively to genital herpes, the incurable sexually-transmitted disease.
Q. Weren’t you afraid that the emotional side of things would have too much influence on that match?
JUSTINE HENIN: No, I didn’t panic. I knew I was not starting that match well. I can tell you, I had a horrible night. My herpes came out again, and I said to my doctor, “Well, I see everything is fine, it’s great.”
So, really, I was a bit anxious. But also, I really wanted to do well. And very early in the match, the match turned over. And then I knew I was going to be able to keep it up until the end.
I rather doubt that Justine Henin, at the height of her career, casually confessed to millions of strangers at the French Open post-game press conference that she has genital herpes. That would be an extremely un-European thing to do.
But that is exactly how American fans interpreted it. One tennis forum entry reads: OMG!!!! Justine has herpes, while other articles praised her for her bravery and called her a 'champion' for herpes sufferers worldwide:
With six Grand Slam titles to her credit, Henin is no stranger to plaudits. But even more need to be extended to her for speaking openly about something that is the secret of so many.
With that one turn of a phrase, millions and millions of herpes sufferers now know that they are by no means alone. And with her remark, the term “Champion” fits her even to those who have no interest in professional tennis.
Another American sports outlet noted: "Henin either doesn’t mind talking publicly about her herpes, or herpes = humor in Germany." And another titled a post, "That's Right, Justine Henin has Herpes" and speculated whether her "admission" might have had something to do with her then-recent divorce.
And the legend lives on! Andrew Sullivan recently wrote something about the shame and stigma of herpes, and received the following note from a reader:
Update from a reader: As your friend Dan Savage would attest, herpes is shameful only to Americans. Justine Henin, when she was the #1 tennis player on the world, was asked why she lost a match. She very matter of factly said she had a herpes outbreak. Americans attend support groups for herpes, can you imagine an American treating herpes like the flu, something you have, not something to be ashamed of?
I've sent in a correction by email to Sullivan, but I thought a blog entry was also in order.
An American legal journalists reacts to a German internet privacy ruling:
Wow, Europe just doesn’t buy the American idea that free speech online is sacrosanct. Earlier this month, the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of a “right to be forgotten,” requiring Google to remove links to old and embarrassing articles about debts a Spanish lawyer had long since paid. And now a German court has come down on the side of a woman who wants her ex-boyfriend to delete nude pictures and erotic videos of her from his computer. This kind of claim would never fly in the United States—the First Amendment would trample it. That’s exactly why I’m glad Europe is building a different sort of online universe. Will it prove better or worse to strike a different balance between the competing values of preventing reputational harm and protecting free speech? I look forward to finding out.
There is no right to dignity in the U.S. Constitution, much less the freedom to control the development of one’s personality, or brand. You can sue someone for slander, or the publication of private facts, if defamatory posts go up about you online. But those cases are hard to win (and sometimes even to find out the identity of the poster, if he or she acts anonymously). It is also hard to get any kind of relief if someone has nude images of you even if they took them without your consent. A few states have tried to address the problem of revenge porn, but this is only an initial effort. And it confronts an entrenched American tradition of treating the right to free speech as absolute. We do cherish our First Amendment.
What if the European experiment shows little speech of value to be lost—and a lot of relief from humiliation and invasion of privacy gained? Would we ever rethink our approach in the U.S.? Cases like this one in Germany raise the questions.
We seem to be witnessing the emergence of a Europe-wide legal consensus on the right to be forgotten (or in this case, deleted, since the defendant just had photos of his ex-girlfriend on his computer and had not posted them).
There are a couple of legal issues -- antitrust enforcement, for example -- in which courts all over Europe join a bandwagon to defend specifically 'European' values against American cultural influence. Which, as this case shows, can be a very good thing indeed! If European courts continue to develop the notion of Internet privacy, Big Data will have to develop programs to implement these rights. Of course they'll protest all the way, but once the model is developed, it can be also be used in the USA, if courts go along. We'll see.
Adam Liptak of the New York Times recently noted and lamented the fact that the decisions of the American Supreme Court are increasingly decided on explicitly partisan grounds:
The perception that partisan politics has infected the court’s work may do lasting damage to its prestige and authority and to Americans’ faith in the rule of law.
“An undesirable consequence of the court’s partisan divide,” said Justin Driver, a law professor at the University of Texas, “is that it becomes increasingly difficult to contend with a straight face that constitutional law is not simply politics by other means, and that justices are not merely politicians clad in fine robes. If that perception becomes pervasive among today’s law students, who will become tomorrow’s judges, after all, it could assume a self-reinforcing quality.”
Presidents used to make nominations based on legal ability, to cater to religious or ethnic groups, to repay political favors or to reward friends. Even when ideology was their main concern, they often bet wrong.
Three changes have created a courthouse made up of red and blue chambers. Presidents care more about ideology than they once did. They have become better at finding nominees who reliably vote according to that ideology. And party affiliation is increasingly the best way to predict the views of everyone from justices to bank tellers.
The lefty in me wonders what all the fuss is about. Commentators such as Driver posit a politics-free space of legal analysis which used to exist and has been eroded in the past few decades, and that this erosion is a bad thing. You can doubt each proposition; perhaps the Supreme Court has always been a place of political contention obscured by a thick veneer of procedural legalism, and we're all better off now that the veneer's been washed away.
But this seems a bit glib. The increasingly naked partisanship of American Supreme Court Justices is almost certainly a Bad Thing, and damages the reputation the United States internationally. Further, it's hard to see it changing anytime soon: given that (1) there are only 9 spots on the Supreme Court; (2) the ideological balance is razor-sharp, and (3) each judge literally serves for life, any President who defected from the strategy of appointing reliable votes for his party would face a huge backlash: 'Why did you appoint that squish when you could have appointed someone more reliable? Do you think the next president from the opposite party is going to return the favor? Of course not -- congratulations, you've just changed the composition of the nation's highest court for the next 35 years.'
Germany doesn't have problems this acute, since German Federal Constitutional Court (FCC) judges serve only 12-year terms. In Germany, seats on the Federal Constitutional Court are allocated according to a semi-secret agreement between the two largest political parties, the CDU and the SPD. As Maximilian Steinbeis points out in a recent entry. The judicial Selection Committee of the German Parliament is formally assigned to choose new FCC judges, but the real decision is made out of public sight long before the Committee votes. Right now, an 'SPD-associated' judge is about to retire, and the SPD gets to choose her replacement. They actually carried out a sort of audition for potential replacements. But picking judges through informal backroom agreements has its own problems (my translation):
I was always for a more public and transparent procedure for choosing FCC judges. The SPD parliamentary group's procedure thus conforms to the trend: choosing FCC judges is getting more political. The expertocratic tradition that has dominated until now -- in which the search for candidates is in the hands of tight-lipped and well-connected legal politicians do thorough background checks, conduct many, many confidential discussions, and then filter out the One (and for God's sake no one else!) to present to the parliamentary party behind closed doors -- this sort of thing no longer looks good.
Therefore, the plan to have judges ... chosen no longer by the intransparent Selection Committee but chosen in a plenary session of the Bundestag (g) seems like an appropriate solution. Of course, nobody wants the process to become as politicized as it is in the USA, and therefore the vote should happen without public speeches. Even so, we will in the future know -- for better or worse -- exactly how much support each Judge had when he or she assumed office. It remains to be seem how that might affect the atmosphere in the chambers of Karlsruhe.
Steinbeis isolates the central problem here: transparency leads to political accountability, and that's precisely what you want to limit when picking judges. Until the late 1960s, the American system managed to sustain the ideal (illusion?) of neutral criteria for picking judges, but as hearings became increasingly public, the judge's political profile increased to the point where it's now dominant. And that's why Steinbeis cites America not as a model, but a cautionary example.
This from Salon:
This week, Pew Research Center published the results of a survey conducted among 40,080 people in 40 countries between 2011 and 2013. The survey asked a simple question: is belief in God essential to morality?
...In 22 of the 40 countries surveyed, the majority says it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. “This position is highly prevalent, if not universal, in Africa and the Middle East,” says the report. No surprise there, but Asian and Latin countries such as Indonesia (99%), Malaysia (89%), the Philippines (99%), El Salvador (93%), and Brazil (86%) all fell in the highest percentile of respondents believing belief in a god (small G) is central to having good values.
Interestingly, clear majorities in all highly developed countries do not think belief in god to be necessary for morality, with one exception only: the U.S.A.
Only 15 percent of the French population answered in the affirmative. Spain: 19%. Australia: 23%. Britain: 20%. Italy: 27%. Canada: 31%. Germany 33%. Israel: 37%.
So what of the U.S.? A comparatively eye-popping 53 percent of Americans essentially believe atheists and agnostics are living in sin. Despite the fact that a research analyst at the Federal Bureau of Prisons determined that atheists are thoroughly under-represented in the places where rapists, thieves and murders invariably end up: prisons. While atheists make upward of 15 percent of the U.S. population, they only make up 0.2 percent of the prison population.
The result for Germany's a bit surprising -- just a reminder that despite green energy, a gay foreign minister, and swinger-club sex-and-suckling-pig parties (g - as a friend of mine once said, 'the ultimate integration test for foreigners'), large parts of Germany are still quite conservative. Also, these results are yet another reason no lazy reporter should ever mention 'Catholic Spain/Italy' again.
The atheist result is pretty interesting, although I'm sure it's mostly an artifact of the fact that atheists are richer and more educated than the general population, and are therefore less likely to end up in prison for various reasons. But still, if the New Atheists need a rallying cry, why not 'There are no Atheists in Prison Cells?' NAs, you can have this one for a reasonable licensing fee.
As I mentioned recently, German convenience kiosks don't have bulletproof glass, because there's almost no stranger-on-stranger violent crime in Germany.
Meanwhile America, according to a recent study, is the most heavily-guarded nation on earth right now, with more private security guards than schoolteachers. The authors say income inequality is one reason for this:
Note that, in 1979 (shown by the pink dot), the United States was less unequal and employed less guard labor. In the graph, inequality in income takes account of payment of taxes and receipt of government transfers such as Social Security. (We measure inequality by the Gini index, a measure that varies from 0 for complete equality — that is, if all families have the same income — to a value of 1 if a single person has all of the income.) The data shown are the most recent for all nations on which comparable measures of inequality and guard labor are available.
For the same countries, guard labor is also more common where those starting out in life face a sharply tilted playing field, such as America, Britain and Italy. These are countries in which the income of a father is a good predictor of the income of his adult son. The countries with the least guard labor are those in which there is greater equality of economic opportunity by this measure: These are Denmark and Sweden, countries in which knowing the father’s income does not enable a very accurate guess of the son’s income when he grows up.
...[T]he correlation evident in the graph could be evidence that economic disparities push nations to devote more of their productive capacity to guarding people and property. Fear and distrust of one’s neighbors and fellow citizens fuel the demand for guard labor. Economic disparities can contribute to both. Among the countries shown, a common measure of distrust of strangers is strongly correlated with both the guard-labor fraction and inequality.
Social spending, also, is strongly and inversely correlated with guard labor across the nations shown in the graph. There is a simple economic lesson here: A nation whose policies result in substantial inequalities may end up spending more on guns and getting less butter as a result.
A shout-out to FJ, who sent me a link to a sort of debate between an editor of the German center-right newspaper Die Welt and an American who lives in Berlin. The German, Frank Schmiechen, lived in California for four months and wrote a 'love letter' (g) to the USA which, not insignificantly, was accompanied by this photo:
The things he loves about America are pretty standard things for Germans: People are nice and friendly. And who cares if it's superficial? Superficial nice is better than honest hostile. Everyone seems much more relaxed. People do stuff without endless discussion. Workers seem relaxed and smiling, there's none of the grimacing and yelling and stress and tension you see in German workplaces. Americans celebrate success, they don't envy it. Even powerful people dress like everyone else and don't insist on deference or titles. Why, I even saw a Stanford philosophy professor dressed like a bum! The landscape is gorgeous, and everything looks like a movie set in the mellow Californian light. The food is world-class, as are the local wines. If you screw up, you just try again, and everyone understands that. Of course, this all comes at a price: those who fail end up babbling on the street, and people work extremely hard to avoid this fate. But then again, you know this about yourself, America, and you always give people a second chance.
And now, an American living in Berlin, Clark Parsons, comes with his quasi-rebuttal: Deutschland, du bist einfach great! (g): Store clerks may not be quite as syrupy-friendly, but they actually know what they're talking about, take pride in their work, and will help you save money. Germans take friendships seriously. Germans are vastly more interested in the rest of the world than Americans, are much better informed, and don't have the typical American assumption that everone would be better off if their countries were run like the USA. Germans take seriously those things that are worth serious attention -- for example, musicians who tour Germany are bowled over by the fact that German fans know a lot about their music and listen carefully to performances. The Bushes could play golf, but Helmut Schmidt is highly intelligent and has interesting points to make, and he gets a forum on Germany's excellent public-dominated mediasphere. German bitching and complaining is, at heart, all about setting high standards, and what's wrong with that? Germans build quality products and buildings for the long haul, and take care of them. Finally, the German sense of order. Often-mocked, but it also works. Garbage separation, precise information on consumer products, excellent public transportation, Saturday markets, 30 kinds of bread, all these things are just...great!
There's nothing too profound here, but these are op-eds, not dissertations. Most of the observations are on-target, but I have a quibble with Schmiechen's.
Schmiechen spent 4 months mostly, apparently, in Silicon Valley, since that's where most of his concrete examples come from (including a casually-dressed 'wiry Asian' guy the German took for a low-level PR flack but turned out to be the boss of the company). Most of the people he interviewed were millionaires. Germans are terrible at recognizing rich Americans for a few reasons. First, wealthy Americans don't follow high-bourgeois status codes the way Europeans do. Yachts, Bentleys, polo, luxury ski vacations, expensive watches, hand-tailored Jermyn Street togs, the word 'tog' -- these things are as dated as Fantasy Island.
Granted, the rare American you meet who owns these symbols is probably rich, but for every one of him, there are 1000 even richer people who dress in jeans and ironic faded 1970s T-shirts and would burst out laughing at the idea of playing polo. Especially in California, your wealth isn't judged by the quality of your suit, but whether you have to wear one at all. Suits are for drones.* About the only reliable visible class indicator in ths U.S. is a college degree. A four-year stay at any prestigious American university -- and, increasingly, any American university -- is a sure sign of wealth. You don't get into Stanford without costly preparation, and it's going to cost someone a a quarter-million dollars just for your first degree there.
The second reason Germans miss class signals is that Americans will insist they're jes' plain ordinary middle-class folks no matter how fabulous their wealth. There's an inverse relationship between how rich an American is and how honestly he'll discuss his finances. About all you'll get from a $500,000-a-year engineer is that he's 'comfortably off', but he'll then start bitching about how he's just scraping by, given rent, taxes, tuition, etc.
So sure, the people Herr Schmiechen met seemed relaxed, friendly, unpretentious go-getters, but he was, whether he knew it or not, hobnobbing with the American elite. To broaden his perspective, he might want to spend four months among the 40% of working Americans who make less than $20,000 per year. I think he'd be surprised just how much less a $20,000 salary buys you in the United States than it would in Germany, and he'd find all the surliness, misery, and envy he could handle.
It's always slightly surprising to meet one of the many well-educated Germany who believe that homoepathic medicine works -- that is, that it has a physiological effect in addition to the placebo effect. It's like talking to a prim, proper middle-class couple for a while and then having them calmly announce to you they're into bondage. Homeopathy is mainstream in Germany, as in all continental European countries. You can find homeopathic 'remedies' in every German pharmacy. Sometimes they are advertised as homeopathic, sometimes this fact is relegated to the fine print, so that customers who understand that homoepathic remedies are placebos may nevertheless be gulled into buying them. German universities routinely offer courses in the history of homeopathy, and in 2008, the first German professor of homeopathy and alternative medicine was created (g).
Homeopathy is one of the more unexpected Anglo-Saxon / Continental European cultural markers. Not that there isn't homoepathy in the U.S. and the U.K. -- as James Randi points out in the above video, there are also homeopathic 'medicines' on sale in nationwide drugstore chains in America. But homeopathy is much more entrenched in Europe. Both France and German are home to large companies that manufacture homeopathic products, and the Swiss government, for instance, issued a report in 2011 finding that homeopathy was effective and should be covered by health insurance. The UK government, by contrast, issued a report at the same time finding that homeopathy is bunk, should not be covered by the NHS, and is unworthy of further research. Wikipedia informs us that homeopathy is in decline in the UK, with one homeopathic hospital closing in 2009 and another renaming itself. In the US, '[t]eaching of homeopathy in the USA declined rapidly in the 20th century' and only tiny percentages of Americans use it.
The Overton window is a useful framework. Homeopathy exists in Anglo-Saxon countries, but it's marginal and controversial, and there are active and public forces hostile to it, so it's not Unthinkable, but certainly Radical. In Europe, it still seems to be Sensible and Popular. And this seems unlikely to change.
Conor Friedersdorf notes the German privacy paradox:
Any inquiry into privacy in Germany would be incomplete without a look at the West German census of 1987 and the huge backlash against data collection it provoked. Opponents of the census challenged the very right of the West German state to know so much about what went on inside its borders, and argued that the census rules would permit personal information to be shared too widely among state agencies. A nationwide boycott movement went mainstream, a bitter debate about its propriety divided West Germans, and the Green Party made opposition a core issue. Even today, asking Germans about the subject, I noticed several repeating the same talking point: that a pre-WWII census in the Netherlands permitted Nazis to more easily round up Jews and other condemned classes when they invaded. This was intended to illustrate that even information collected with good intentions can be unexpectedly abused.
What a lot of foreigners in Berlin couldn't understand, and that confuses me too, is why the 1987 census, as well as Google Street View, caused such a fuss in the country, yet there seems to me no controversy about a longstanding requirement for everyone to register their address with authorities* when they move to a new city or apartment. Germans don't seem to be bothered by that policy, which would provoke widespread controversy even in some less privacy-conscious nations.
The immediate tu quoque riposte most Germans would think of: 'If Americans are so privacy-conscious that they would reject a registration law or government ID card, why is it they allow private companies such as Facebook, Google Street View, credit-rating agencies, etc. so much power over their lives?' Another thing that shocks Europeans is that there are no protections for your reputation if you become involved with the criminal justice system. Suspects are identified by name and address as soon as they're booked. In fact, as the New York Times recently noted, there are websites whose sole purpose is to collect mugshots (like the one above), publish them online, and charge victims hundreds of dollars to remove them later. Even if all charges against you are later dropped, the fact that you were once arrested can remain public knowledge to anyone, anywhere for the rest of your life. This could never happen to an ordinary citizen in Germany.
But on to the German privacy paradox. Why are Germans so nonchalant about informing the authorities where they live? A few hypotheses:
Those are a few reasons I can think of off the top of my head, but none of these explains why Germans would accept mandatory registration but fear a census. That, I think, is just a partially irrational distinction based on the fact that registration has always been a fact of life, but the census has not.
Sorry for the blog hiatus. I was visiting folks in Texas for a few weeks, but now I'm back in Germany, enjoying the glorious weather.
Let me give you the idea of the shit people deal with in Texas, and why I'm glad to be back in Germany.
First, a German insect problem. A parcel deliveryman in Krefeld, Germany recently had to be hospitalized after he stepped in an underground wasps' nest and was stung fifteen (15) times. They actually cordoned off the area (!) and called the city 'pest control' team out:
Before they could let the pest control guy into the Danger Zone™ to kill the beasts, they called up the Krefeld City Environmental Office to make sure the wasps weren't endangered (!). They weren't, so they died.
Now, a Texas insect problem:
A North Texas woman is recovering following an attack from a swarm of bees that killed her two horses....
Kristen Beauregard told NBC 5 she was working with Chip, her prize miniature horse, in the backyard when -- unprovoked -- thousands of bees swarmed her and the horse. The insects are suspected to be Africanized bees.
The pain from the stings was like being stabbed with hundreds of knives and torched with a flamethrower at the same time, she said. She still has some visible welts on her eyelids from the attack.
Chip quickly became covered with bees and began thrashing wildly around the yard in pain, she said.
She and the horse both jumped into the backyard swimming pool in an effort to escape the bees, but even that provided little relief. The bees hovered above the water and stung Beauregard's face when she would come up for air, she said.... Both horses died.
Beauregard, whom paramedics estimate was stung approximately 200 times, praised the efforts of the emergency crews who risked their lives in an effort to save her and her animals.
A beekeeper removed on Thursday the approximately 6-foot-tall beehive that was home to an estimated 30,000 bees. It was located in a shed about 30 yards from the scene of the initial attack.
It's a shame for the poor delivery guy, but the average Texan gets stung 15 times every trip to the outhouse.
My safe, pleasant, boring, beautiful Germany -- thank you for taking me back into your passionless arms!
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