Two Truths About Greece

Boarded Doors Psirri

I've been to Greece several times and have Greek friends, so the recent election has sparked my interest. It seems to that the polarized debate over the Syriza victory is a classic case of motivated reasoning and opinion overkill on both sides. I want to make two brief, seeminly-but-not-genuinely contrary observations which you don't often see made in the same spot by the same person.

First, Greece is a corrupt, inefficient second-world country. This is something Greeks complain to one another about endlessly, but are hesitant to fully admit to outsiders on grounds of national pride. But it's the truth. Access to many jobs, including government jobs, is regulated by informal patronage networks, which often keep the best candidates sidelined. The Greek public education system varies hugely in quality and large portions of it are horribly dysfunctional, which means every parent who can afford to sends their children to private school. There is an ingrained culture of rule-breaking, tax evasion and black-market work that is only now slowly beginning to change. (Many Greeks will tell you this is a product of centuries of Ottoman rule). Kickbacks and bribes are still part of life, although apparently receding slightly. Much of the Greek economy is made up of labor-intensive, low value-added, non-export-generating jobs that generate little economic vibrancy. Greece has its own kind of license raj, in which sloth-like bureaucrats enforce pointless or antiquated regulations. Greece still doesn't have a modern, functional, reliable system of land title registration. There's only a weak culture of civic engagement and participation. For most Greeks, it makes more sense to simply adapt to the current horribly dysfunctional system, since challenging it as an individual is pointless and potentially even dangerous. This may well be changing, but the main reaction to Greek social dysfunction I witnessed during many visits in the mid-2000s was basically a sort of jovial what-are-ya-gonna-do despair.

In other words, when scolds say Greece needs massive reform, they are right. Most Greeks would enthusiastically agree with that sentiment when expressed by a fellow Greek.

Second, the troika's policies caused needless suffering among ordinary Greeks. The approach of the troika, which basically forced Greece into a round of significant austerity just as its economy was collapsing, was deliberately chosen from among a broader palette of options. Greece could have exited the Euro, of course, although that might have been even worse. Or Germany could have followed expansionary policies to increase inflation in Northern Europe while providing generous support to Greece. Germany, and Northern Europe more broadly, chose not to do so for a number of reasons, including the difficulty of selling such a policy to voters and the not-unjustified concern that it would ease the pressure for Greek reforms. But the fact remains that the EU and international institutions could have chosen policies to address the Euro crisis that would have had much less disastrous effects on southern European countries, but chose not to do so. Northern European countries consciously chose to put their own economic interests ahead of European solidarity.

The reason German politicians have looked so cynical during this crisis is that they want the world to interpret their calculated pursuit of their own economic interests as the principled, neutral enactment of strict but commonsensical policies with which every decent person must agree. In other words, like most of us, they want not only to pursue their own self-interest, but also be praised and admired for doing so. They often become angry when this doesn't happen, but they shouldn't be surprised.


Answering for America

Ann Jones, who lives in Norway, presents a list of questions she's constantly asked about America that will be drearily familiar to any expat in Europe. The main issue is why the US doesn't yet have universal healthcare. She praises the Norwegian social-welfare model, which is a bit unfair, since Norway is rich enough from its oil wealth to triply gild every tree in the country if it wanted. But of course, other countries with fewer resources have done this as well. 

Jones goes on to list more questions: 

Implications of brutality, or of a kind of uncivilized inhumanity, seem to lurk in so many other questions foreign observers ask about America like: How could you set up that concentration camp in Cuba, and why can’t you shut it down? 

Or: How can you pretend to be a Christian country and still carry out the death penalty?

The follow-up to which often is: How could you pick as president a man proud of executing his fellow citizens at the fastest rate recorded in Texas history?  (Europeans will not soon forget George W. Bush.)

Other things I've had to answer for include:

* Why can’t you Americans stop interfering with women’s health care?

* Why can’t you understand science?

* How can you still be so blind to the reality of climate change?

* How can you speak of the rule of law when your presidents break international laws to make war whenever they want?

* How can you hand over the power to blow up the planet to one lone, ordinary man?

* How can you throw away the Geneva Conventions and your principles to advocate torture?

* Why do you Americans like guns so much?  Why do you kill each other at such a rate?

To many, the most baffling and important question of all is: Why do you send your military all over the world to stir up more and more trouble for all of us?

...It’s hard to know why we are the way we are, and -- believe me -- even harder to explain it to others. Crazy may be too strong a word, too broad and vague to pin down the problem. Some people who question me say that the U.S. is “paranoid,” “backward,” “behind the times,” “vain,” “greedy,” “self-absorbed,” or simply “dumb.”  Others, more charitably, imply that Americans are merely “ill-informed,” “misguided,” “misled,” or “asleep,” and could still recover sanity.  But wherever I travel, the questions follow, suggesting that the United States, if not exactly crazy, is decidedly a danger to itself and others. It’s past time to wake up, America, and look around.  There’s another world out here, an old and friendly one across the ocean, and it’s full of good ideas, tried and true.

Ann Jones knows where she prefers to live, and so do I. And the list is not the dumbest, since it concentrates on areas in which the U.S. actually is exceptional, not areas in which the US merely shows one form of a social disorder which is present in every other nation. For the past 15 years, we really have been going all the world bombing and invading, and it certainly has caused problems for lots of European nations.

But still, let me provide a few correctives:

"Why can’t you Americans stop interfering with women’s health care?" The US can be largely exonerated on this one. Sure, there's a political controversy about abortion and a large and active anti-abortion movement. But American abortion regulations are, from a purely legal perspective, comparable to many European nations' laws, and more liberal than many Catholic countries. The United States provides more freedom to women and men in many other areas: it allows practices such as in vitro fertilization, surrogate parenting, and fertility treatments which are banned or regulated in many European countries. 

"Why can't you understand science?" Pfft. This is a product of biased press coverage: American fundamentalist yahoos and fanatics are favorites in German and French newspapers, but represent the views of only a minority. The questioner here is ignoring the basic ground rule of comparing like with like. The cognitive upper class understand science well in any country, and the cognitive underclass in any country either don't know about, don't understand, or reject many key scientific findings. Your ability to be a good clothes-stacker in a mall in Keokuk, Iowa or Dibbersen, Germany is totally unaffected by your belief in Biblical creation or ignorance of the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. Most humans think it's a waste of time to spend a lot of time learning about abstract ideas that are completely irrelevant to how they spend all their waking time. And irrational beliefs are omnipresent. Germans eagerly follow horoscopes and take homeopathic sugar pills. In Japan, one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world, millions of people believe beckoning cats and various other charms and tokens will bring them love, financial success, and good luck, yet Europeans delicately refrain from criticizing these ludicrous superstitions, presumably on grounds of multi-culti delicacy.

"Blind to climate change?" Simple, because it's in the financial interest of certain powerful sectors of the American economy to question climate change, and they have convinced a minority of the population to do so as well. This is foolish and potentially harmful, but the US, unlike most European countries, has a massive and powerful resource-extraction sector. Every country has disproportionately powerful and aggressive lobbies. French and Japanese farmers, for instance. In any event, the real damage to the climate is going to be done by the billions of Indians an Chinese acquiring cars and air-conditioners and other energy-using gadgets, and that's going to happen regardless of what Americans believe about climate change. 

"Why do you murder each other?" The overall U.S. murder rate is about 2-3 times higher than in most places in Europe, but still low by international standards. And here's another interesting fact: if you count only murders among white Americans, the murder rate, 2.64 per 100,000, sits comfortably between the overall murder rate of Norway (2.2) and Malta (2.8). Here's a January 2014 study on the subject (pdf):

According to the FBI SHR data, in 2011 there were 6,309 black homicide victims in the United States. The homicide rate among black victims in the United States was 17.51 per 100,000. For that year, the overall national homicide rate was 4.44 per 100,000. For whites, the national homicide rate was 2.64 per 100,000.

Black Americans, about 13% of the US population, commit somewhere between 60 and 70% of all murders in the USA, for a murder rate 5-6 times higher than that of white Americans. Just as in Germany and France, violent crime is not distributed evenly across the entire population, it is markedly concentrated among ethnic minorities. About 70% of all prison inmates in France, after all, are Muslims. Let that sink in for a minute. To be sure, the overall murder rate in America is high by European standards, and that can mostly be explained by guns. Most studies conclude that about 50% of the difference between the USA and economically and demographically similar countries is explained by the prevalence of guns -- especially unlicensed handguns -- in the US.

"Your Presidents break the law to make war whenever they want." A bit starkly formulated, but I would say 'guilty as charged'. Also torture, rendition, black sites, etc. 

"Power to blow up the planet to one man." Actually, considering the likely aftermath of any nuclear strike anywhere, there are probably at least 7 men who have the power to blow up the planet. In any case, the likelihood of nuclear weapons ever being used is incredibly tiny, and the likelihood of the US starting a nuclear exchange is basically nil. President Obama has announced that he would like to see a nuclear-free world, and has presided over historically unprecedented reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles. I'm not sure what the 'one man' complaint is supposed to mean, either. Is the US supposed to surrender control over its nuclear weapons to some sort of international commission? Six words: Not. Going. To. Happen. Anywhere. Ever.

So those are a few rebuttals, or at least new perspectives. The US is never going to resemble Norway or Germany .


A German Exchange Student in the Middle of a Campus Rape Shitstorm

Meet Paul Nungesser, a German exchange student at Columbia University in New York:

Speaking carefully, with a slightly formal bearing and an accent so faint that it can be hard to place, Mr. Nungesser, who is from Germany, says he believes sexual assault is an important cause for concern. “My mother raised me as a feminist,” he says, well aware of how those words will strike some people, “and I’m someone who would like to think of myself as being supportive of equal rights for women.”

Yet according to campus activists, Nungesser is a 'rapist' and 'sexual predator', and his actions have sparked a 'national movement' to address the supposed (my skepticism expressed here) campus-rape crisis in America. 

This year, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz became an emblem for how colleges mistreat victims of sexual assault on campus. After Sulkowicz reported an alleged rape to the Columbia administration and the college found the accused not responsible, she began hauling her 50-pound dorm mattress across campus as a powerful symbol of an adjudication system she claims is confounding, ineffectual, and unfair. The act has grown into Sulkowicz’s undergraduate art thesis project and inspired a national movement, Carry That Weight, that advocates on behalf of campus sexual assault survivors. In the shadow of her campaign stands Paul Nungesser, the student Sulkowicz says raped her. Today, the New York Times published the first interview with Nungesser himself. It’s the most intimate, high-profile portrait so far of a college student who was accused of rape—one who says that the system has failed him, too.

In his time at Columbia, three female students have accused Nungesser of sexual misconduct. He's denied each accusation, and has not been formally disciplined by the university. When one student accused Nungesser of groping her at a party, the university initially decided against him, but he successfully appealed the ruling. After another student accused him of intimate partner violence, the university dropped the case when the alleged victim stopped cooperating with the investigation. And when Sulkowicz accused Nungesser of raping her, Columbia declined to find him responsible, citing lack of evidence.

In lieu of any formal finding, Nungesser had paid a social cost. “He has gotten used to former friends crossing the street to avoid him,” Ariel Kaminer reports in the Times. “He has even gotten used to being denounced as a rapist on fliers and in a rally in the university’s quadrangle. … His name has been plastered on campus bathrooms and published in easily searchable articles. His face is visible online, too, in photos that detractors have posted as warnings to strangers.” Because Columbia failed to discipline Nungesser, Columbia bloggers, activists, and supporters have stepped in to exact their own punishment, and national media has fanned the flames.

Paul Nungesser, I have some advice for you. Your ordeal may seem pretty horrifying now, but when you return to Germany, hire a ghostwriter and publish an account of your situation (suggested maximum-sales title: 'How I Became the Victim of a Puritanical American PC Witch-Hunt'). It will sell millions, and you'll never have to work a day in your life.


In Defense of 'Serial', a Brilliant Podcast about the Epistemology of Investigation

 
If you haven't been following 'Serial', the podast from Chicago Public Radio, you should. It's like nothing you've ever heard before. Go to the podcast website and listen to the episodes in order. 'Serial' patiently re-investigates a 15-year-old American murder case:
 
On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She'd been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae's body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.
 
'Serial' uses the unique openness of the American criminal justice system: the reporter, Sarah Koenig, plays audio recordings of the actual trials of Syed (the first ended in a mistrial), interviews jury members, and plays for us long excerpts of her conversations with Syed from the Maryland Correctional Center. She re-interviews witnesses at the original trial, and many who didn't testify. She visit the places where things important to the case happened. Experts on everything from cellphone tower tracing to attorney competence to police investigations to psychopath and personality disorders weigh in on both the original evidence and what Koenig's team have uncovered since the trial. She discovers some new evidence that seems to point away from Syed's guilt, and other new evidence that is either ambiguous or, as we lawyers say, 'unhelpful' to Syed. And then she speaks directly to Syed on the telephone and asks for his comments on what she's found. Syed is not your average convicted murderer -- he's intelligent, articulate, and a model prisoner, and knows precisely when to parry and when to thrust in response to accusations.
 
The podcast has sparked huge interest, with over a million people listening, and partisan commentary raging all over the Internets. The last episode broadcasts today and is already available for download, but I haven't heard it yet. The comedy sketch above satirizes one aspect of 'Serial' -- its open-endedness. Many want the podcast to end with everything tied into a neat little bow: Syed is innocent, and I found the magic bullet that proves it! Syed is guilty and has been lying all along, and I uncovered the magic bullet that proves it! To these people, the podcast seems to meander back and forth between trying to convince listeners Syed is innocent and sadly confirming the charming young sociopath's guilt.
 
This attitude slights 'Serial's' genuine achievement, which is precisely its openness, its effort to bring the reader along on a journey to genuine understanding. Journalists -- especially German ones -- are prone to be condescending crusaders, spoon-feeding their readers one-sided narratives intended to hammer home Approved Opinions™ about everything from the death penalty to fracking to immigration to Greek finances. To make sure nothing complicates the lesson, these journalists swallow the most outlandish tales of victimization, ignore glaring contradictions, and leave contrary viewpoints and empirical verification outside in the cold. Not all of them, to be sure -- there are lots of German journos doing solid, thoughtful work. And the problem ain't just Germany. Why, just last month a major American magazine published a made-up-story of gang rape based on a teenager's romantic catfishing ploy without doing even the simplest verification.
 
Koenig treats her listeners like adults, in fact almost like accomplices in the investigation. And on the way, she illustrates a number of points that ordinary people don't understand about criminal investigations (full disclosure: I was a criminal defense lawyer in a previous life):
  • Eyewitnesses who saw the same incident often -- in fact usually -- describe it in inconsistent ways, which makes eyewitness testimony one of the leading causes of false convictions.
  • Many criminal cases are based on the testimony of acomplices who are just as guilty, if not even more guilty, than the defendant they testify against.
  • Men and women who are guilty of crimes can adamantly and convincingly protest their innocence. Many can even do so sincerely, because they have convinced themselves they are innocent.
  • Since most normal humans are lucky enough never to have never encountered a sociopathic liar willing to recite detailed, convincing lies to another person, they are often taken in by these people. (I'm looking at you, European women who marry American death-row inmates).
  • The way in which a person reacts to news of a loved one's death is so individual and unpredictable that it's meaningless as a clue to guilt or innocence.
  • If you hire a private criminal defense lawyer in the U.S., there is no effective real-time regulation of that person's fee policies or performance. If they make an error that leads to you being convicted, you can only argue about that after the fact in expensive appeals, and you face a forbidding standard in proving your case.
  • Notorious criminal cases attract unstable people who will do everything from claiming responsibility for horrific murders to fabricating evidence for or against the accused.
  • If you investigate any incident long enough, you will inevitably come across spectacularly improbable 'coincidences', such as the fact that the man who discovered Lee's body happened to be a notorious streaker who once intentionally exposed himself naked in public to a female police officer in uniform. (After he waggled his dong at her he ran away. She found his clothes and confiscated them).

During her patient re-investigation of Lee's death, Koenig encounters almost all of these vagaries of investigation. She shows how the fabric of reality attending the actual events starts dissolving immediately, and decomposes further with every passing day until the original pattern is irretrievably lost -- or distorted by bias, error, or selective memory. Koenig can't wrap the events up in a neat little bundle because this isn't fiction, there is no bundle, there is no happy ending. It is to her credit that she chose a case marked by ambiguity, and that she resisted the urge to channel the facts she found into a pat, tidy, misleading narrative. By doing so, she conveys profound truths about memory, bias, violence, and justice. 'Serial', if you ask me is journalism at its finest.


American Moral Panics Then and Now

So, the comments are in (thanks!), and the consensus seems to be that there's no special focus on campus sexual assault in Germany because (1) Most German universities don't have traditional campuses or an insular 'campus culture' like American universities; and (2) German university authorities just aren't expected to deal with crimes between students. That's what the police are for. German universities have no 'campus police' in the American sense, just a few hired security guards.

And there's no special concern about 'campus' sexual assault in Germany the way there is in the U.S. Disclaimer: I believe sexual assault is a serious crime that should be punished. Every allegation should be followed up, preferably by specially-trained investigators. These things are self-evident to any civilized person, but in this crazy modern era, there are people out there eager to misconstrue.

That out of the way, I have three problems with the particularly American approach to campus sexual assault, which strikes me as a classic moral panic:

  • First, the debate revolves far too much around whether you immediately 'believe' personal stories of people who say they have been victimized. Most accusations of sexual assault are well-founded, but some people invent rape stories to gain sympathy or take revenge, or more commonly because they suffer from mental illness. Statistics vary from study to study, but they generally put the rate of false accusations between 2 and 8%. A small percentage, but considering  that many American states impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 5-10 years in prison for rape, caution is in order. The focus of activists on immediately believing all rape accusations creates self-inflicted wounds when some of the accusations turn out to be unfounded, as they inevitably will. As Freddie de Boer recently put it in an intelligent piece: 'By creating the expectation that all rape accusations must be presumed true regardless of circumstance, anti-rape activists have tied the credibility of their efforts to every individual accusation, and in so doing perversely undermined our efforts to end sexual assault.' His argument is more complex than this, go read the whole thing. But the point comes across.
  • Second, many universities, in response to pressure from activists, have adopted investigation guidelines for allegations of sexual assault that deprive the accused of a fair chance to be informed of the allegations against him or her and respond effectively. Twenty-eight Harvard law professors from across the ideological spectrum recently denounced Harvard's new guidelines for exactly this reason. Emily Yoffe's recent long read on one of these cases shows, in my view, a system that makes a mockery of due process. Like university administrators, the American criminal justice system is heavily influenced by public opinion, which means moral panics often translate into an urgent call to do something, and this call is heeded by elected prosecutors eager to make headlines (like this guy). From the death penalty to Satanic child abuse to life in prison for drug dealing to civil forfeiture, the list of American punitive overcorrections based on moral panics is long indeed.
  • Third, there is a class angle to this story that many people ignore. Three quarters of Americans will never go to college. Women who do not attend college are more likely to be raped than women who do. The farther down the socio-economic ladder, the wider the prevalence of sexual assault. As one recent study put it: 'Research shows an undeniable link between poverty and sexual violence.' America is focussed on sexual assault on campus because politicians, journalists, and activists almost exclusively emerge from the college-educated class. If we really want to combat sexual assault, it would probably be much more effective to concentrate resources in poorer areas, where it happens more often than on university campuses. Instead of reporters fanning out across campuses interviewing upper-middle class people like themselves, why not fan out to isolated suburban strip-malls and ask the working-class female employees how prevalent rape is in their lives? Whether their workplaces have adequate security? How long they have to walk through dark parking lots to get to their cars at night? I wager the results would be pretty sobering. But the upper-middle class college-educated journalists who shape news coverage don't seem to be very concerned about the 75% of Americans who will never go to college. Whenever class raises its fat, pimply head, an uncomfortable silence descends on the American chattering classes, with a few notable exceptions.

Are There Any Crises at German Universities?

Given my interest in public opinion and constitutional law, I've been following the so-called University of Virginia rape story with considerable interest. Briefly put, here's what happened:

  • On November 19, the US pop-culture magazine Rolling Stone publishes an explosive story about an alleged gang-rape at the University of Virginia, a prestigious state university. The lodestar of the story is an account by a 20-year-old student named Jackie, according to which she was viciously gang-raped by a bunch of fraternity members.
  • The story gains massive publicity in the U.S. According to some activists, there is an 'epidemic' of sexual assault on campus at American universities. One study concluded that 1 of every 5 female American university students will be 'sexually assaulted' before she graduates, although that statistic is based on an Internet survey conducted on just two campuses and which used an extremely loose definition of 'sexual assault'.
  • While skeptics question that statistic, which would mean that rape is more common on US university campuses than in war-torn central Africa, the President of the US, sensing a low-risk, high-reward political issue, decries the epidemic of campus rape on American universities.
  • Five days after the Rolling Stone story is published, Richard Bradley, an American editor, publishes a blog entry basically saying it's over-the-top, thinly sourced, and generally incredible:

One must be most critical about stories that play into existing biases. And this story nourishes a lot of them: biases against fraternities, against men, against the South; biases about the naivete of young women, especially Southern women; pre-existing beliefs about the prevalence—indeed, the existence—of rape culture; extant suspicions about the hostility of university bureaucracies to sexual assault complaints that can produce unflattering publicity.

And, of course, this is a very charged time when it comes to the issue of sexual assault on campuses. Emotion has outswept reason. Jackie, for example, alleges that one out of three women who go to UVA has been raped. This is silly.

  • For this, Bradley is pilloried by feminists. Until, that is, further reporting, especially by the Washington Post, shows that Jackie's story is almost certainly a fabrication, and that the original reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, never spoke to several witnesses who would have cast doubts on Jackie's story. In particular, she didn't even speak to the men Jackie accused of the rape.

The story has also gotten plenty of play in Germany, as you might expect. The story and its implosion raises plenty of fascinating legal questions, but I will spare you a discussion of those.

What strikes me is this: I work at a German university every day. I am surrounded by young undergraduate students, male and female. Many of them live close together, and they most certainly have parties, get drunk, and have sex. I mean, how could they not? Yet there seems to be no hysteria about a supposed epidemic of sexual assault or rape at German universities. No 'slut walks', no pressure to reform 'campus guidelines' to punish students accused of rape, no sit-ins, no dramatic stories of sexual assault. It's possible I've missed an op-ed or demonstration here or there, but I think I'm on 100% solid ground in saying there's nowhere near the level of hysteria in Germany as there is in the USA on this issue.

Why is this? Is it because German university students are more mature and law-abiding? Is the 'campus rape' bubble a typically American 'moral panic'? Is it because many German universities don't have traditional campuses which many students live on or near? Is it because German universities aren't expected to deal with crimes between students?

Or is it because the problem exists, but German universities are covering it up? What say you, readers?


'Deeply Bogus and Deeply Boring'

Andrew Gimson, a former Berlin correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, has written a solid little article on the 'Conservative Home' website about the main misconceptions his countrymen have about Germany (h/t MTW):

1. Angela Merkel

The British have no idea what makes the Chancellor tick. The Germans too have no idea what makes her tick. Merkel is inscrutable even to her own Christian Democratic Union: a party accustomed to being led by Catholic men from the Rhineland. For the last 14 years it has been led by an unknown woman who spent the first 36 years of her life in East Germany, where her father was a Protestant clergyman....

2. The German language

Few of us understand it. To think one can understand a country without knowing its language is a presumption.

3. German manners

But even if one knows the language, one may find oneself unable to comprehend the manners. Take the elementary and unavoidable question of when to use a first or Christian name and call someone “Du” – the familiar form of the word “You”. One of my most treasured souvenirs of my time in Germany is “A short Guide on The Correct German Form” compiled by Lieutenant-Colonel Jan-Dirk von Merveldt, of the Royal Green Jackets, for the use of British officers stationed in Germany. Merveldt’s family emerged in Westphalia in 1159, both his parents were German and he spent the first 14 years of his life in Germany. He confirms that in many circumstances we are liable to get things wrong: “This British habit of liberal use of first names is regarded by many Germans as irritating, excruciating, unwelcome, over familiar and an invasion of privacy – although no German will actually ever admit it to you.” ...

4. The drinking customs

This is a deep subject on which I am not qualified to give guidance: an example of something most of us don’t even know we don’t know about.

5. The slowness

Germans tend to have a different and less impatient sense of time. Doing something properly, with craftsmanlike deliberation, is more important than doing it fast. This has a bearing on politics: changes tend to be debated for 20 or 30 years before actually occurring. To reform the EU in two years might be quite difficult. It is true that the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred in a rush, and forced the Germans to display their gift for improvisation. But the popular demand to reform the EU is not quite so strong.

6. The geography

This may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning, but it is a subject which the British often ignore or underplay. Germany has more neighbours than any other country in Europe: nine with whom it shares a land border, and about the same again once one includes those which can easily be reached by sea....

7. The history

This again may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning. But it is unfortunately the case that very few people in Britain know much about German history before 1914, or after 1945. We even tend to overlook the large role played by Britain in the creation after the Second World War of free institutions in West Germany, a subject on which Thomas Kielinger touched in a recent piece for the Daily Telegraph. Concentrating on the First World War, and then on the monstrous events of 1933-45, and knowing nothing about what came before or after, is not a good way to set about understanding Germany. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has now produced, in Germany: Memories of a Nation, a series of 30 radio programmes which offer a brilliant account of some of what any educated Briton would hope to know about Germany. I have missed most of them when broadcast live, but find that even for someone as technologically backward as myself, it is possible to arrange to listen to one or more of these 14-minute programmes while doing the washing up....

8. The politics

The West German tradition of consensus politics is different to the Westminster tradition of adversarial politics, and is therefore difficult to explain to or bring alive for British readers. Here again is an aspect of Germany we do not really understand. And the German political class discusses these matters in a way which to the British ear can seem at once deeply bogus and deeply boring...

9. The similarities

And yet there are close similarities between Britain and Germany. We share an admiration for the Royal Family, and a fondness for beer and dogs, among many other things. And in both countries, one finds a conviction that it would be more sensible to run our own affairs, than to have them run for us from a city in Belgium....

'Deeply bogus and deeply boring' is tough but fair. After landing here, I quickly realized that all speeches with the word 'Europe' in the title given by German politicians, lawyers or other boffins are terrifyingly similar, as if they were all written by the same 1997-era algorithm. The speaker immediately switches into Euroblather mode, reeling off a bunch of inoffensive on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand abstractions nobody could possibly disagree with: 'We must ensure that prosperity is shared in a fair and equitable manner without stifling enterprise.' / 'Europe must balance its commitment to the integrity of its borders with a concern for human rights.' / 'Europe must rise to the challenges of the 21st century by drawing on its rich heritage.', etc. The speaker often seems even more bored than his audience. Martin Sonneborn pretty much summed it up with his campaign slogan for the European Parliament: 'Yes to Europe! No to Europe!'

I wouldn't mind adding a few more emendations and corrections of my own as time permits, but alas it doesn't (busy semester). But go nuts in comments, if you like!


The Exaggerating Nun

The usual suspects (feminists and Christians) are lobbying for Germany to ban prostitution. They're not likely to get very far -- the current government is only contemplating punishment for men who knowingly hire women who have been forced into prostitution. How you're supposed to prove that is anybody's guess. As usual in these debates, nobody seems to even acknowledge the existence of male prostitution, or the possibility that men might be forced into selling their bodies. When it comes to human dignity and exploitation, apparently gays get a free pass!

The politics of prostitution in Germany are interesting: the educated urban bourgeoisie (EUB) is generally against it, likely because (1) that's the position of many (if not all) German feminists; and (2) prostitution involves capitalism, for which German EUB-types are expected to evince a genteel disdain (they aspire to high-prestige government jobs with excellent benefits). Yet being anti-prostitution puts them in the same boat with American puritans and conservative Catholics, two perennial bugaboos of the EUB. 

What to do? Most seem to favor banning or limiting prostitution. Which means when a German journalist interviews an anti-prostitution campaigner (just as when they interview an anti-GMO, anti-death penalty, or anti-nuclear activist), the questions are softballs and not even the craziest claim is challenged. Not to put too fine a point on it, German reporting on these issues is riddled with outlandish claims and bare-assed lies (GMOs cause cancer! Fukushima engineers died by the dozens!) passed on uncritically by cheerleading journalists.

Case in point, a nun named Sister Lea Ackermann, who heads a group called Solwodi (g), short for Solidarity with Women in Distress -- doubtless an extremely worthwhile organization. In this interview (g) Sister Lea says she wants Germany to combat prostitution by making it a crime for men to buy sex from women, as some Scandinavian countries have done. Note that she doesn't seem to have any opinion on whether men who buy sex from other men shoud also be punished. At one point in the interview, she makes a rather startling assertion about 'flat-rate' bordellos (my translation):

Heuer: [So you want to ban] things that violate human dignity such as 'flatrate-sex'. The governing coalition wants to ban that as well.  

Ackermann: Yes! Why haven't they done this long ago? A woman, a beer and a sausage for €8.90. Can you imagine anything worse?

Heuer: No, I can't. I find it exactly as horrible as you do. But the question is whether such things can be banned by law. How would you be able to enforce it?

When I read this, I nearly did a spit-take. Are there places where you can actually get a beer and a sausage and a sex act for €8.90 (about twelve bucks)? That sounds shriekingly implausible, yet the interviewer lets Sister Lea assert it without a shred of proof. And it fails the bullshit test on many levels. For one thing, given Germans' love for beer, sausages, and most of all bargains, there would be a line of men (and perhaps even a few women) stretching halfway across Germany to get into this place.

Just a few seconds' searching on the Internet reveals that this horror scenario is fake. Since prostitution is basically legal in Germany, bordellos can advertise openly, with price lists (Here's the Wikipedia entry for Pascha, a bordello in Cologne that's Europe's largest). I won't link to any here, since this is a family-friendly blog, but you will find that even the cheapest German house of joy literally won't even let you in the door for less than 25 Euros, and the costs surely mount quickly (so to speak) once you're inside. The average price for a 1-hour visit to an 'entertainment lady' (to translate the German phrase literally) seems to be between 80 and 150 euros, depending on what services are on offer.

By all means debate the proper policy on prostitution, German journalists, but don't treat your readers like idiots.


A Free University Education for Americans

Since the price of a university education in the U.S. has been climbing for decades just as quality crumbles, some Americans are looking with interest at German universities. Rebecca Schuman at Slate makes some cogent points:

Last week, Lower Saxony made itself the final state in Germany to do away with any public university tuition whatsoever. You read that right. As of now, all state-run universities in the Federal Republic—legendary institutions that put the Bildung in Bildungsroman, like the Universität Heidelberg, the Universität München, or the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin—cost exactly nichts. (By the way, they weren’t exactly breaking the bank before, with semester fees of about EUR 500, or $630, which is often less than an American studentspends on books—but even that amount was considered “unjust” by Hamburg senator Dorothee Stapelfeldt.)

...Germany didn’t just abolish tuition for Germans. The tuition ban goes for international students, too. You heard me right, parents of Amerika: You want a real higher-education bargain? Get your kids to learn German and then pack them off to the Vaterland.

Of course, while it is both uplifting and jealousy-provoking to see our Teutonic friends put so much public investment into higher education—while we do just the opposite—there are important reasons that German universities have been either inexpensive or free for their entire existence. The German university experience isn’t worse than the American one, but there are vital cultural and infrastructural differences between our systems that bargain-hungry students (and their parents) might want to consider before bidding Auf Wiedersehen to Big State U.

First of all, the concept of “campus life” differs widely between our two countries. German universities consist almost entirely of classroom buildings and libraries—no palatial gyms with rock walls and water parks; no team sports facilities (unless you count the fencing fraternities I will never understand); no billion-dollar student unions with flat-screen TVs and first-run movie theaters. And forget the resort-style dormitories. What few dorms exist are minimalistic, to put it kindly—but that’s largely irrelevant anyway, as many German students still live at home with their parents, or in independent apartment shares, none of which foster the kind of insular, summer-camp-esque experience Americans associate closely with college life (and its hefty price tag). It’s quite common for German students simply to commute in for class, then leave.
 
I'd make a few other points:
 
1. You don't have to have great US grades to get admitted to a German university. Trust me, Germany routinely admits thousands of foreign students from developing countries whose education systems are barely functional. I'm sure someone who has a good high-school diploma will be able to find a place at some German unis, although entrance standards will vary and you'll have to fit your US credentials somehow into the utterly different German schema.

2. Germans often like to argue that their Abitur is the equivalent of a U.S. bachelors' degree but, of course, it's not. German 18-year-olds who get an Abitur are no better or worse educated than American 18-year-olds who have completed the most-talented track in a good American high school.

3. Something like 40-45% of Germans start university, but half drop out. Measuring education levels cross-culturally is tricky but about 27% of Americans graduated with a B.A. and about 23% of Germans have gotten the rough equivalent of one.

4. German universities are no-frills, sink-or-swim places. You can get an excellent education there, but you will have to show more initiative and drive and go out of your way to claim your professors' time. This helps to explain the high dropout rate.

Why Are Americans so Cold-Resistant?

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Over on Facebook, Dan asks in a comment:

'Gibt es eine Theorie, warum Amerikaner weniger kälteempfindlich sind? Diese eiskalten klimatisierten Räume überall. Im Sommer nie ohne Schal in die USA reisen. Bei 15°C rennen sie mit T-Shirt rum.'

In English, 'Is there any theory why Americans are less sensitive to cold? These ice-cold air-conditioned rooms everywhere. Even in summer, always take a scarf to the US. They run around in T-shirts when it's 15°C/59°F.'

This is one of the most glaring cultural differences Europeans and Americans immediately notice when they switch continents. Europeans see Americans walking around in the cold seriously underdressed, and marvel at the fact that Americans not only don't seem to care about drafts at all, but actually generate artificial drafts with omnipresent fans and air-conditioners. Americans in Europe watch fellow-passengers in overheated cars and trains sweat into their clothes without complaint, and grimace in horror as the only open window in a stuffy bar or restaurant is shut by a draft-hating German. And many interior spaces in Germany seem over-heated to Americans. As soon as the temperature drops below 20°C or so, Germans switch on the heaters.

Now, the first thing I will say is that I think this cultural gap is narrowing -- Germany is moving towards greater acceptance of fans and air-conditioning, just as Germany first ridiculed the puritanical American idea of smoke-free bars and restaurants, then quietly adopted it wholesale. But there is still a formidable divide in how people perceive temperature. I have a few theories about the American attitude:

  1. America is a much hotter country than many Europeans imagine. The American Northeast coast has colder winters than Europe, but hotter summers. Most of the country, though, including the south and midwest, get extremely hot and humid in summer. Every state in America gets more sun each year than Germany, with the sole exception of arctic Alaska. I'd say it's basic human nature to appreciate a drastic change from temperatures that are uncomforable to most humans. And most humans feel comforable between 22 and 25 degrees Celsius. So when it's 10 degrees outside, as if often is in Germany, Germans will breathe a sigh of relief in entering a room (over)heated to 27 degrees. And if it's 32° outside, Americans will breathe a sigh of relief entering a room (over)chilled down to a comfy 19°.
  2. This also explains the prevalence of air-conditioners. But there are other factors at work here. First of all, America in the 1950s and 1960s was wealthier than war-ravaged Europe, so business and private people could afford air-conditioners. This led to a general cultural norm that most interiors would be air-conditioned. Energy costs in the U.S. were low in the 1950s and 1960s, so nobody was really that concerned about how much juice air-conditioning used. Air-conditioning also drastically improved office productivity during hot months, adding an economic argument to adopting AC. Spaniards take a siesta because it's impossible to work effectively when it's really hot inside, and they're abolishing the siesta because it's a drag on productivity. But if they really want to boost productivity, they will have to install air-conditioning, not just expect people to work when it's 35° inside and sweat is streaming down their forehead. Air-conditioning would also have reduced the death toll of 15,000 French people during the heat wave of 2003. It should surprise no-one that air-conditioners are increasingly popular in Germany (g).
  3. Americans are fat. 31.8 percent of Americans are obese, making them the 2nd-fattest nation on earth, behind Mexico but just above Syria. If you know that 1/3 of the people entering your store or restaurant are going be fat, you'll adjust the temperature accordingly to keep them happy, keep them inside, and keep them spending money. Thin people can always put on a sweater, but there's only so much clothing fat people can remove before the police have to intervene.
  4. European culture has a tradition of folk-wisdom that drafts are bad for your health. No 19th-century novel would be complete without a character blaming a draft for anything from a headache to evil nightmares to consumption. And in Germany, this belief still exists. As the German-language wikipedia article on drafts notes, there is still 'a widespread superstition in German-speaking countries that drafts can cause illnesses'. This belief is not unknown in the U.S., but it never became as widespread as in Europe.
  5. Americans do not like to sweat during nomal daily activities and are extremely concerned, if not obsessed, about personal hygiene. They spend enormous amounts of money and go to great lengths to ensure that their bodies do not emit unpleasant odors, and anyone who fails to do this will be ostracized as surely as a German crossing the street against a red light. Once again, this is a cultural norm that Germany has, in the last 20 years or so, quietly adopted. Sales of chewing gum, routinely mocked by intellectuals as mindless cud for bovine Yankees, increased by 600% in Germany between 1972 and 2012. Deodorant use in Germany skyrocketed in the 1980s and has increased notably even in the period 2010-2013, which has made train travel much more pleasant for all concerned. If you place a premium on smelling good (or at least not stinking), that means you place a premium on not sweating, which means the cooler the temperature, the better.
  6. And finally, perhaps population genetics may play a role. The majority of Americans are still white, and immigrated predominantly from Northern European countries. Although all humans can adapt to all climates, studies have shown that Europeans who relocate to hot places sweat more than indigenous people there.

Those are my theories. Feel free to dispute them or add your own in comments.