The Feuilleton and Its Discontents

Alexander Stern has an essay on the feuilleton which is as readable as it is erudite, no mean feat:

“In the beginning was the press, and then the world appeared.” So begins a satirical 1922 poem by Karl Kraus. A ruthless critic who regularly excoriated the press in his magazine The Torch, Kraus blamed German newspapers for the outbreak of World War I. He reserved a special hatred for the feuilleton (pronounced “fuh-yah-tawn”) section of the paper, which included, along with art, literature, and reviews, short impressionistic pieces about city life and culture. And he was far from the only one to bemoan “the age of the feuilleton,” as novelist Hermann Hesse dubbed it. In 1929 the philosopher Theodor Lessing, who would be assassinated by Nazis four years later, reflected that “feuilletonist” had become “the nastiest insult in the German language.”

Whence all this contempt for light reading material?

The answer is complicated, but lies somewhere at the intersection of a volatile political climate, quickly modernizing cities, and the emergence of mass culture. In papers like Die Frankfurter Zeitung, Das Berliner Tageblatt, and Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, German journalists attempted to come to terms with their fast-changing times, writing literary vignettes that reflected philosophically on culture, technology, and politics. The feuilleton section thus became a battleground over the meaning of modernity. The controversy it generated prefigured present-day concerns about the deterioration of attention and the media’s role in shaping—or, as Walter Benjamin suggested, generating—public opinion....

n modernity we are wrenched out of history, take up an “objective” viewpoint on our culture, and immediately find genuine connection to much of it gone. God dies, traditions wither, only the words remain. To the feuilletonist, in Benjamin’s view, this means we can finally think clearly. We can finally view religion, tradition, and so forth objectively—things that to premoderns were still obscure because they were too close to their culture, because the words meant too much.

The feuilletonist thus covers all his subjects with a finish of urbane, pseudo-philosophical detachment. Kraus wrote:

When a streetcar accident takes place in Vienna, the gentlemen [of the press] write about the nature of streetcars, about the nature of streetcar accidents, and about the nature of accidents in general, all with the viewpoint: what is man?

Glib generalization and a tone of seen-it-all skepticism seduces the reader and seems to lift them up into the writer’s realm of free-floating observation. Even when written in the first person, the feuilleton takes up a kind of third-person “I” that surveys the scene, wary and detached, hovering above the crowd. Judgments seem to emerge effortlessly. Individual observations always serve some unassailable universal point. Feuilletons were written with what Benjamin called a “false subjectivity that can be separated from the person and incorporated in the circulation of commodities.”

The feuilletonist is like a conversation partner who convinces you of something by assuming you already knew it. A tacit note of almost conspiratorial intimacy accompanies his opinions: This is just obvious to two people of our intellect and experience. The reader is, on the one hand, flattered without argument into accepting the view expressed, and, on the other, infantilized.

The result is the manufacture of opinion—not that the feuilleton necessarily indoctrinates its readers. Rather, it absolves them of having to think for themselves. “It is precisely the purpose of the public opinion generated by the press,” Benjamin wrote, “to make the public incapable of judging, to insinuate into it the attitude of someone irresponsible, uninformed.”

Read the whole thing, as they say. I love feuilletons, which don't exist in the English-speaking press. I've often thought of trying to import the genre, but there's probably a reason it doesn't seem to travel well. At first, the English-speaking reader is put off by the distinctive tone of amused, world-weary detachment. He's used to either facts or opinions, dammit, not some weirdly subjective mix of the two.

But once you get up to what masters like Roth and Kracauer and Tucholsky are up to, you're hooked.

"Trump Will Complete German Idealism"

Behold: the first time the name of Friedrich Hölderlin has ever been mentioned during a street protest in the United States. He throws in Fichte, Schelling, Kant, and Hegel for good measure.

Does anyone know what "city" he's referring to which is going to be raised? And what's that Schelling quote at the end?

Germans Ignore Dying Man in Bank Despite Law Telling them to Help


The police in Essen reported (g) on a case in which an 82-year-old man collapsed to the floor of a branch bank in Essen, Germany in early October. At least four people were seen on security cam footage simply walking over his body without offering help or calling an ambulance. The man was eventually taken to a hospital, where he later died. The police are now investigating these persons for failure to render assistance, which is a crime under German law. Section 323c of the Penal Code:

Whosoever does not render assistance during accidents or a common danger or emergency although it is necessary and can be expected of him under the circumstances, particularly if it is possible without substantial danger to himself and without violation of other important duties shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding one year or a fine.

In common-law countries such as the United States, the law imposes no duty to rescue strangers. As long as you didn't cause the emergency and the bear no special duty to the victim (as a guest or relative, etc.), the law will not punish you for ignoring him. There are a number of justifications for this doctrine, both theoretical (you can't be held responsible for injuries you didn't cause), and moral (the state should trust its citizens to do the right thing uncoerced).

This is one of the most obvious differences between common-law systems and civil-law systems such as the ones in most European countries. When I was teaching, many of my German students professed to find the common-law doctrine shocking or cold-hearted. It's not hard to detect the attitude behind this: the still, small voice in every German's head which whispers: "Despite the recent unpleasantness, Germany is a more decent, moral, caring and sensitive society than all others in the world, except maybe Sweden, but at any rate definitely more caring and 'social' than the selfish, dog-eat-dog United States."

Am deutschen Wesen...*

The students assumed that the existence of a law requiring help made Germany a more caring place, and that it affected Germans' behavior toward one another. This is another typical German attitude -- the notion that once a law has been passed to address a problem, the problem no longer exists.

Alas, I had to shatter their precious smugness idealism.

Studies show that 'duty to rescue' laws have no effect on whether people rescue their fellow humans in need. In the United States, where the law says you don't have to try to rescue people, a huge majority does exactly that, often risking their own lives:

As Table 3 reflects, there are approximately 1003 non-risky rescues (cell 2) and 263 risky rescues (cell 4) per year in the United States. Thus, verifiable rescues outnumber non-rescues by almost 800:1. If one loosens the standard for rescue only slightly, to encompass instances of rescue that were reported in a newspaper but did not pass initial screening by the Carnegie Hero Trust Commission, the ratio increases to approximately 1400:1.

Approximately 100 Americans lose their lives every year as a result of attempting to rescue someone else. Thus, even in the absence of a duty to rescue, deaths among rescuers outnumber deaths attributable to non-rescue by approximately 60:1 every year. Stated differently, there are six times as many rescuer deaths every year as there are deaths attributable to non-rescue in the past ten years combined.

Finally, injury is common among rescuers. Aggregate figures are unavailable, since most of the data sources did not separately track injury, but in those that did and as detailed below, a substantial percentage of risky-rescuers and a significant number of non-risky rescuers were injured – sometimes quite severely.

This isn't to say that Germans are more cold-hearted than Americans. Why, just five days ago, a staff member on a German Rhine cruise ship jumped into the cold water to rescue a woman who had fallen off a bridge into the Rhine (g).

The point is first, that law on the books, as usual, has little to do with what happens in the real world. Second, that laws drafted by tiny commissions staffed by elites (such as law professors) and then passed word-for-word by the national legislature do not necessarily reflect "the values of our civilization".

Points worth remembering!

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Child Brides A Problem in Europe in 2016

Another problem Europe imported

Should a 14-year-old married girl who migrates to Europe be viewed as a child - or a spouse?

The issue has put European governments in a spin: forcing a policy U-turn in Denmark, new legislation in the Netherlands and an agonised debate in Germany.

Analysts say early marriage is often carried out in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey by families trying to protect girls from poverty or sexual exploitation. Elsewhere, poor families might marry off their young daughters in exchange for dowries.

The question is one of rights and protections - but which? When authorities stop minors cohabiting with their older spouses, are they combating child abuse or breaking up (often already traumatised) families?

Depending on where you go in Europe, you'll find a radically different range of responses to the issue.

This really shouldn't be a problem if we apply a few simple principles:

  • If some other cultures in the world approve of child marriage, that's fine. They should be permitted to carry on that custom without interference.
  • In modern Western culture, this practice is illegal and against public policy. It should neither be permitted on European soil or recognized in any way.
  • This means any marriage in which one partner is underage should be automatically dissolved by law when a couple emigrates to Europe with plans to resettle. Filing an asylum application is proof of intent to resettle. Each partner to the marriage will be processed singly.
  • If the parties do not agree to this, they will be summarily returned to the refugee camp from which they emigrated.

This policy should be posted everywhere in Turkish refugee camps, so people will understand before they set out for Europe. Child marriage is accepted in certain cultures and that's OK over there, within that culture. It is not accepted in Europe, and Europe has every right to absolutely ban it under all circumstances. Europeans aren't trying to bring Leather Pride parades to downtown Damascus, and people from Syria shouldn't try to bring child marriage to Europe. 

Every cultural practice in its proper place. What's so hard about that?

Welcome, Sturdy, Sober, Hard-Working Danes! (Other Danes Need Not Apply)


Tyler Cowen reviews a new book calling into question Scandinavian welfare states as a model for the world, and working out its implications for immigration policy:

Nima Sanandaji, a Swedish policy analyst and president of European Centre for Entrepreneurship and Policy Reform, has recently published a book called "Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism." And while the title may be overstated, his best facts and figures are persuasive. 

For instance, Danish-Americans have a measured living standard about 55 percent higher than the Danes in Denmark. Swedish-Americans have a living standard 53 percent higher than the Swedes, and Finnish-Americans have a living standard 59 percent higher than those back in Finland. Only for Norway is the gap a small one, because of the extreme oil wealth of Norway, but even there the living standard of American Norwegians measures as 3 percent higher than in Norway. And that comparison is based on numbers from 2013, when the price of oil was higher, so probably that gap has widened.

Of the Nordic groups, Danish-Americans have the highest per capita income, clocking in at $70,925. That compares to an U.S. per capita income of $52,592, again the numbers being from 2013. Sanandaji also notes that Nordic-Americans have lower poverty rates and about half the unemployment rate of their relatives across the Atlantic.

It is difficult, after seeing those figures, to conclude that the U.S. ought to be copying the policies of the Nordic nations wholesale. It is instead more plausible to think that Americans might learn something from the cultural practices of Nordic-Americans. Sanandaji says those norms include hard work, honesty, a strong civil society and an ethic of cooperation and volunteerism....
For one thing, Nordic immigrants to the United States probably came from the better trained, more literate and more ambitious segments of the population. For instance, data on Danish migrants from 1868 to 1900 show that laborers were underrepresented in the group and artisans and craftsmen were overrepresented by a factor of two. It is perhaps no wonder that the ethnic Danes in the U.S. are relatively high earners, because they are the results of a process of positive selection.  And there is a growing literature showing that the cultural traits of migrants can persist to some degree for generations in their new countries....

Most of all we should consider the option of greater freedom of choice for residence decisions. For all the anti-immigrant sentiment that is circulating at the moment, would it hurt the U.S. to have fully open borders with Denmark? It would boost American gross domestic product and probably also improve American education. History teaches that serious assimilation problems would be unlikely, especially since many Danes already speak English. 

Open borders wouldn't attract Danes who want to live off welfare because the benefits are so generous at home.

How's this for a simple rule: Open borders for the residents of any democratic country with more generous transfer payments than Uncle Sam's.

A few observations: Simple one-to-one comparisons of Danish to American living standards are not very meaningful, because even if Americans make more money, they have higher living expenses. They have to pay for (or do without) many things a Scandinavian welfare state provides for free or subsidized. How exactly do you calculate the effect on living standards of guaranteed paid parental leave, health insurance, pre-school education, and public transportation so effective that nobody has to buy a car?

That aside, though, notice the argument Cowen is making. Cowen is a professor of economics, a centrist with libertarian tendencies, and an interesting blogger. Being libertarian, he tends to be in favor of immigration in general. Economists tend to like many kinds of immigration, because it fosters economic growth and comparative advantage and those sorts of things.

But since Cowen is a pragmatic American, he accepts two arguments as so obvious as to need no elaboration. First, that immigration should favor the talented and intelligent. The Danes America got are doing well in America because they come from a successful culture, and because they were some of the most enterprising people in that culture. Second, he notes that immigration policy should obviously not attract people "who want to live off welfare". (Also, note that he uses the word "selection" in reference to getting better Danes. The German version of this word, Selektion, is thermonuclear-level verboten in Germany because it was the term used for the process of determining which new arrivals at Nazi death camps would be selected for immediate death, and which would be put to work).

Both of these arguments will immediately be disputed in European Urban Haute Bourgeois circles. Trust me, I know from personal experience. European urban elites who have liberal-arts educations are educated in hothouses of deontological thinking, in which experiences and policies should be evaluated according to abstract universal principles of humanism. In this view, selecting immigrants is denounced as elitist, as ignoring the "sacred principle" of human equality, as treating some persons as more inherently valuable than others, and as implicitly asserting the supposed "superiority" of Western culture.

Discouraging welfare tourism is denounced for similar reasons. Also, you often encounter the notion that Europeans have no "right" to live in comparative safety and prosperity, and therefore have no legitimate objection to foreigners coming to their country and living off state assistance their entire lives. What are you trying to say, that Joseph from Cameroon somehow has less right to live off German welfare than Josef from Dibbersen? Both are human beings, both have the same entitlement to inviolable human dignity, and therefore both must be treated equally by the welfare state. You didn't choose which country you were born in, so how is it fair for you to reap the incalculable privileges of being born in a place like Germany as opposed to, say, Zimbabwe?

To which the average Brit or American (but not Peter Singer) responds: What's all this bosh? These arguments may have abstract appeal in a seminar room, but as guides for formulating policy in a Western democracy, they're useless, not even wrong. Principles are all well and good, but they're hardly a guide to practical policy-making. Favoring skilled immigrants is legal, proper, does not violate any mutual obligations we may owe to others, and benefits us. Same with making sure foreign welfare cases don't burden our system, which is designed for our people. And no, we think the notion that making sure our welfare system helps our people is not only proper, but that it's the only remotely sane approach. And we feel no need to justify or explain these views. As Disraeli said, "Never complain, never explain."

This, gentle readers, is one of the most fascinating and enduring differences between the mindset of the educated elites of the English-speaking world and those of continental Europe.

Belief in a Borderless World is 'Stupid and Lazy'

Michael Lind, a pretty interesting and sometimes contrarian American center-left political writer and critic of the Iraq War, looks at the ways in which academics and intellectuals ('Freaks') conflate their own preferences with the public good:

[I]t is natural for academics to view a borderless world as the moral and political ideal — natural, but still stupid and lazy. Make-believe cosmopolitanism is particularly stupid and lazy in the case of academics who fancy themselves progressives. In the absence of a global government that could raise taxes to fund a global welfare state, the free movement of people among countries would overburden and destroy existing national welfare states, or else empower right-wing populists to defend welfare states for natives against immigrants, as is happening both in the U.S. and Europe.

The views of intellectuals about social reform tend to be warped by professional and personal biases, as well. In the U.S. the default prescription for inequality and other social problems among professors, pundits, and policy wonks alike tends to be:  More education! Successful intellectuals get where they are by being good at taking tests and by going to good schools. It is only natural for them to generalize from their own highly atypical life experiences and propose that society would be better off if everyone went to college — natural, but still stupid and lazy. Most of the jobs in advanced economies — a majority of them in the service sector — do not require higher education beyond a little vocational training. Notwithstanding automation, for the foreseeable future janitors will vastly outnumber professors, and if the wages of janitors are too low then other methods — unionization, the restriction of low-wage immigration, a higher minimum wage — make much more sense than enabling janitors to acquire BAs, much less MAs and Ph.Ds.

The social isolation of intellectuals, I think, is worsened by their concentration in a few big metro areas close to individual and institutional donors like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. (where I live) or in equally atypical college towns. It was never possible for Chinese mandarins or medieval Christian monks in Europe to imagine that their lifestyles could be adopted by the highly visible peasantry that surrounded them. But it is possible for people to go from upper middle class suburbs to selective schools to big-city bohemias or campuses with only the vaguest idea of how the 70 percent of their fellow citizens whose education ends with high school actually live.

Germany has a sizable contingent of 'make-believe cosmopolitans' who are endangering the Northern European welfare state, probably the most civilized and humane form of government ever devised. They don't know they're endangering it, because their thinking is 'stupid and lazy'. 

The U.S. Is Much Less Xenophobic Than Europe

Foreigner poll

Here's another cultural difference to add to the others.

If you believe it's a good thing for a country to have a generally positive attitude toward diversity, then you must acknowledge that the USA is morally superior to any European country. European elites overwhelmingly think diversity is a good thing, which makes the results of this survey problematic to them. How can a country which embodies so many things they disapprove of 'score' so well on a value they desperately wish their countrymen shared?

If you're neutral on that question, as I am, this is just an interesting difference. Doubtless the main factor here is that the US is a nation of immigrants, while European nations all have native traditions and populations and thick, deep cultures and identities.


Anglosplaining and the Amusingness Gap

The Economist looks at why the most high-middlebrow shows and books about Germany are written by Brits:

This popularity of Anglo-Saxon storytellers “really is astonishing”, says Hermann Parzinger. He is a German archaeologist (best known for his work on the Scythians) and president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which owns museums, libraries and archives in Berlin. He is working with MacGregor in dreaming up how to curate the Humboldt Forum’s exhibits.

German academics, Parzinger says, write books to impress the five most important experts in their field. Popularity is suspect in German academia. The German word unseriös, etymologically the same as “unserious”, in fact means “lacking credibility”. But Anglo-Saxons, Parzinger thinks, “have it in their blood to make these things suspenseful and interesting even for lay people”. In particular, they know how to integrate into their storytelling “both the high and the low, without anything being banal”. Thus MacGregor effortlessly mixes Luther and Goethe with sausages and garden gnomes into one analysis that makes Germans feel they’ve understood something about themselves.

The Anglos also come across as likeable rather than belehrend, says Parzinger. That German word means “lecturing”, and is often used by Germans of Germans. The greatest fear of intellectuals in Germany and other continental countries is to appear shallow. The greatest fear of Britons is to seem pompous, says MacGregor. So they enliven their knowledge with good delivery and showmanship....

But even among outsiders the Anglos have the edge in Germany over, say, French, Polish, Dutch or Danish intellectuals. These neighbours were often part of German history – as enemies, victims or collaborators. German audiences expect them to reflect that perspective. A French historian talking about the 1940s, say, should probably also expound on Vichy and French collaboration.

The Brits, however, were always “geographically more outside”, says Parzinger, which makes them appear credible. Since the 1960s, for example, it has been all but taboo for German writers to argue anything other than that Germany bears sole responsibility for starting the first world war. Clark gleefully ignored that taboo in “The Sleepwalkers” – and outsold all the Germans, even in Germany. Clark can say the question of guilt is complicated, says Parzinger, but hearing it “from a German would have been more difficult”.

This goes back to a fundamental cultural difference which virtually every Anglo-Saxon picks up on quickly in Germany: Most Germans just aren't funny in ways Anglo-Saxons recognize, and a substantial minority aren't funny at all. Free-floating, value-neutral absurdity; obscene wordplay; sarcasm and irony; casual teasing insults among friends -- these styles of communication are much rarer in Germany than in the Anglo-Saxon world. Unless you know someone fairly well, the safest mode of communication is straightforward communication about mundane details of everyday life or anodyne remarks about current affairs which do not reveal a controversial personal opinion.

This is not to say there ain't no funny Germans, etc. etc. As with everything in life, this is a matter of probability distributions and bell curves, not of absolutes. Behold this scientific-looking graph:

DddThe more to the left you are on this graph, the more sincere and loyal. You become more entertaining as you move to the right. Germany is the bell curve with the peak of 52. England with the peak of 76. The separation is too wide, but it still makes the point. There's plenty of overlap (i.e. decent and funny people) in both directions, but the average Brit you meet is likely to be more entertaining than the average German.

The canon of values the average German has been raised with tend toward sincerity, honesty, credibility, punctuality, and loyalty. You can be a worthy, admirable person on this scale while being crushingly boring. In fact, being crushingly boring can actually be a helpful strategy, since humor, used inappropriately or at the wrong time, can undermine your reputation. Leave humor to the professionals. Or if you are called upon to be funny yourself, have a few memorized jokes or sayings on tap, just in case. Even if they're crushingly unfunny, people will laugh. Out of politeness.

Maybe I can't make you laugh, says the German, but I will take time out of my busy schedule to visit you in the hospital, and bring a thoughtful gift. Which is more important?

Growing up in the Anglo-Saxon world, there's a premium on being entertaining. Your cultural heroes are likely to be comedians rather than violinists or human-rights activists. You're likely to spend hours each day consuming humor. Dull people are ostracized. Unlike in Germany, where you might bring them along even though you know they'll just sit there silently, in England and the USA you will simply avoid them and mock them.

In this atmosphere, even renowned historians often learn to be decent storytellers and amusing chaps, because everyone is expected to be a decent storyteller and an amusing chap. In Germany, you can live a life that you and others would consider rich and full without ever (1) intentionally provoking (2) sincere laughter in another human being.

Patriarchy, Social Trust, and Smiling

The Atlantic summarizes a recent study:

Why do some societies not encourage casual smiling? I got my answer, or at least part of one, when I stumbled across a new paper by Kuba Krys [Kuba Krys? Didn't he lay down a smokin' freestyle on that Kendrick Lamar album? - ed.], a psychologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences [Oh, that Kuba Krys - ed.]. In some countries, smiling might not be a sign of warmth or even respect. It’s evidence that you’re a fool—a tricky fool.

Krys focused on a cultural phenomenon called “uncertainty avoidance.” Cultures that are low on this scale tend to have social systems—courts, health-care systems, safety nets, and so forth—that are unstable. Therefore, people there view the future as unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Smiling is a sign of certainty and confidence, so when people in those countries smile, they might seem odd. Why would you smile when fate is an invisible wolf waiting to shred you? You might, in those “low-UA” countries, even be considered stupid for smiling.

Krys also hypothesized that smiling in corrupt countries would be, um, frowned upon. When everyone’s trying to pull one over on each other, you don’t know if someone’s smiling with good intentions, or because they’re trying to trick you....

He found that in countries like Germany, Switzerland, China, and Malaysia, smiling faces were rated as significantly more intelligent than non-smiling people. But in Japan, India, Iran, South Korea, and—you guessed it—Russia, the smiling faces were considered significantly less intelligent. Even after controlling for other factors, like the economy, there was a strong correlation between how unpredictable a society was and the likelihood they would consider smiling unintelligent.

In countries such as India, Argentina, and the Maldives, meanwhile, smiling was associated with dishonesty—something Krys found to be correlated to their corruption rankings.

I've lived here in Tschermany long enough to witness a change or two. One is the increase in smiles on websites. Just anecdotally, I think the percentage of people smiling in websites about firms and universities has risen steadily. At one point, smiling too much in German would get you the reputation of being 'unseriös', but that seems to be fading these days. Also, cosmetic dentistry is becoming mainstream and affordable here. With the standard delay -- about 20 years after this happened in the USA.