Arab Spring and Arab Immigration

Marc Lynch is an American professor and Middle East expert who blogs at Abu Aardvark. Late last year, he wrote a disarmingly frank and honest article for the Washington Post on what scholars of the Middle East had gotten wrong about the Arab Spring of 2011. Many of them had high hopes at the time, which were later dashed. As I read it recently I thought to myself: 'Some of this wishful thinking and distorted perception reminds me a lot of what I am seeing currently in Germany.'

See if you agree:

I asked a group of the authors from my edited volume “The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East” to write short memos assessing their contributions critically after having another year to reflect. Those memos have now been published as POMEPS Studies 10 “Reflections on the Arab Uprisings” (free PDF available here). Their auto-critique is full of worthy observations: We paid too much attention to the activists and not enough to the authoritarians; we understated the importance of identity politics; we assumed too quickly that successful popular uprisings would lead to a democratic transition; we under-estimated the key role of international and regional factors in domestic outcomes; we took for granted a second wave of uprisings, which thus far has yet to materialize; we understated the risk of state failure and over-stated the possibility of democratic consensus.

One point that emerged in the workshop discussions is the extent to which we became too emotionally attached to particular actors or policies. Caught up in the rush of events, and often deeply identifying with our networks of friends and colleagues involved in these politics, we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment. That’s a fine quality in activists, but not so helpful for academic rigor.


As for me, there are a number of areas where I’ve been rethinking things over the last year or two. There are some negative developments that did not surprise me, I should add, even though I had hoped they would be avoided. My earlier book, “The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East,” devoted an entire chapter to demonstrating how each previous round of popular mobilization in modern Arab history had ended up with the consolidation of even more heavy-handed authoritarianism. The disastrous results of the decision by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to field a presidential candidate were easily foreseen. So were the catastrophic consequences of external support to the Syrian insurgency, which has produced unbelievable human suffering but few real surprises to anyone versed in the comparative literature on civil wars and insurgencies. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the problems of Yemen’s transition.


New Arab Public: For a long time I believed that a mobilized Arab public would never again allow themselves to be manipulated and dominated by autocrats. Whatever the tactical setbacks and inevitable ups and downs of difficult transitions, I thought that the generational transformation would keep trends moving in the direction of more open politics. It was this new Arab public that gave me at least some optimism that the region could avoid repeating the failures of the past.

That conviction suffered a near-mortal blow in Egypt, where a shocking number of the youth and public voices who had made the uprisings proved more than willing to enthusiastically support the restoration of military government and violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was not simply the military’s successful coup that was shocking – such a denouement was always a possibility. The shock was the coup’s embrace by many of the popular forces upon whom hopes of irresistible change had been placed. The new Arab media and social media proved to be just as capable of transmitting negative and divisive ideas and images as they had been at spreading revolutionary ones. Egypt’s military coup traveled just as powerfully as had its revolution. The pan-Arab revolutionary unity of early 2011 has long since given way to sectarianism, polarization between Islamists and their enemies, and horror over the relentless images of death and despair in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

The media generally played a highly destructive role in the post-uprisings environment. For a brief, tantalizing moment, independent television stations and newspapers seemed to constitute a genuine Egyptian public sphere. But that quickly collapsed. Unreconstructed state media offered up a relentless stream of propaganda. Many private media outlets were captured by the state or by counter-revolutionary interests and the airwaves filled with the most vile forms of populist incitement. Meanwhile, transnational broadcasting descended into little more than transparent vehicles for state foreign policies, a change most noticeable – and damaging – with the once proud Al Jazeera. And while social media and new Web sites have certainly offered a plethora of opportunities for information to flow and opinions to be voiced, they have largely failed to supplant mainstream media as a source of news for mass publics.

"[W]e understated the importance of identity politics...we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment."

Study-Abroad Programs Make Americans Prouder to be Americans

Calvert Jones, a professor of political science, tested American students who went to study abroad and compared them to similar students who hadn't. The results were interesting:

First, I tested the core liberal hypothesis that cross-border contact promotes a sense of shared international community, or what political scientist Karl Deutsch called a “we-feeling” across cultural divides. Theorists define this in terms of warmth, shared understandings and values, and trust. Surprisingly, the hypothesis was not supported: None of the indicators for international community was higher on average for students returning from study abroad than for those yet to travel. In fact, those who had just returned from a semester abroad felt they had significantly fewer values in common and were more likely to say their understandings of key concepts were different from the people of their host country. None of this was sensitive to potential moderators like whether or not students opted to live with a host family. Given the intuitive plausibility of the liberal hypothesis, these results are striking.


How about threat perceptions? I asked students to rate how threatening they would consider their study abroad host country if it were to surpass the United States in terms of material power, such as economic growth or military expansion. In theory, cross-border contact should mitigate perceptions of foreign threat and foster expectations of peaceful change and cooperation, despite uncertainty and shifts in the distribution of power. And indeed, given identical scenarios, those just returned from a semester abroad rated their host countries as less threatening than did students about to leave. So the liberal hypothesis that cross-border contact mitigates threat perceptions was supported, even though the hypothesis that it fosters “community” was not.

Finally, I tested a variant on the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis—that cross-border contact, rather than encouraging a sense of shared international community, promotes nationalism. Perhaps troubling for some, the results strongly supported that hypothesis.


Students returning from their study abroad experience were considerably prouder of America along a range of dimensions, including its literature, achievements in the arts, armed forces, athletic accomplishments and political influence. They were also prouder to be American, warmer toward American culture and more patriotic. Importantly, however, they did not display a heightened belief in America’s superiority; there was no difference in that attitude across the two groups. So while cross-border contact heightened nationalism, it did not appear to promote a virulent or chauvinistic form of it.

...We are used to thinking about nationalism and internationalism as mutually exclusive; people who are highly nationalistic are often assumed to lack the cosmopolitan mindset of a “global citizen.” Yet study abroad returnees were both more nationalistic and less prone to seeing other nations as threatening. Rather than fostering a sense of shared international community and warm realizations of “we are the same,” cross-border contact may instead encourage a form of “enlightened nationalism”—a sharper sense of national difference, and pride in that difference, tempered by tolerance and the realization that such differences need not be threatening.

It would be tempting to consider this another data point supporting the well-understood finding that close contact with foreign cultures reduces feelings of trust and empathy. Nothing new about that. That's why people generally prefer to live among people similar to themselves.

But not so fast. I think there's a huge limitation to this study: the fact that it was conducted among American college students. First, let's not beat around the bush: Americans know much less about the rest of the world than people in other developed countries, and are a lot less likely to speak a foreign language fluently. So they are generally ill-equipped to hit the ground running in a foreign country.

Americans are also on average the richest people on earth, and American college students come overwhelmingly from the upper-middle class. The contrast in standard of living between American and even UK college students is large. The gap between what an American expects from a university experience and what is on offer in France, Spain, or Germany is gigantic. Shabby, ancient buildings; no legion of mid-level bureaucrats to find you a place to live or guide you around campus or help you find a job; scummy student digs; overcrowded and often dull or inaudible lectures; rampant absenteeism and cheating. Having no standard of comparison, most American students going to an ordinary Spanish university will feel like they have been dropped into the third world.

I wonder if anyone's ever done a study like this among European Erasmus exchange students. I'd be willing to bet the ones who can actually remember their experience after all that partying probably had a very different reaction.

Should Germany Take all of Europe's Roma?

It’s interesting to explore the contours of political correctness in Germany. Case-in-point: Exactly who is leaving Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania to come to Germany and file asylum claims? Are we talking about degreed professionals looking for better jobs? Unemployed construction workers? The very poor, or the middle-class?

Or are we talking about Roma? People who want to liberalize German immigration policy say that some of those applying for asylum are Roma who face discrimination and therefore have valid asylum claims. But they rarely attach numbers to this claim. I went looking for such numbers, with little success. When you have a hard time finding out a fact from the mainstream German media, you can usually assume that the Platonic Guardians have decided that the readers of their publications cannot be trusted to handle it. It must therefore be concealed or obfuscated.

But one reporter in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung bucked the trend (g), and reported that 90% of Serbian migrants from January to March 2015 were Roma, and 60% or over of the ones from Bosnia and Macedonia. The majority of German journalists wants to conceal the fact that most asylum seekers from the Balkans are Roma because, presumably, this would reduce support for them.

A few, however, emphasize this fact to argue for granting them asylum. In fact, the rest of the article advocates granting them asylum owing to the discrimination and persecution they face at home. It quoted a research report by Norman Paech, a German international-law professor hired by a German Roma organization who concluded that although ethnic discrimination alone usually does not amount to the ‘persecution’ required to qualify for asylum under international law, the persistent and severe exclusion from society which he claims exists in countries such as Kosovo and Albania could fit that definition. Therefore, he’s against classifying these countries as ‘secure countries of origin’, which would make it easier to repatriate people back to them.

I think there's a good case Germany should agree to take on board all of Europe’s Roma who wish to resettle there.

Reason #1: Historical Responsibility

Germany murdered up to 400,000 Roma during the Holocaust. Every German politician recognizes a special responsibility to those who were persecuted and murdered during the Third Reich. 

Reason #2: European Solidarity

If you ask Bulgarians, Romanians, Albanians, and Serbians about the Roma, you will hear one argument over and over: France and Germany and the do-gooders in Brussels should shut the fuck up about how we treat the Roma. They point out that the absolute numbers of Roma in their country and the proportion of Roma as part of the population are much, much higher where they live than in Germany:


They will point out that their countries are dramatically poorer than Germany, France, or Sweden. They will point out that they barely have enough money to support their own retirees, much less administer expensive and often marginally successful 'integration' programs for the Roma. And finally, they point out that whenever large numbers of Roma turn up in Western Europe, there's almost always a huge public backlash. France has a stringent anti-Roma policies and routinely destroys gypsy camps.

Hundreds of thousands of Roma - mostly from Romania and Bulgaria - have moved to Western Europe since the 1990s. Widely perceived as scroungers and thieves, they are rarely made welcome.

But they come under a particular kind of pressure in France. Their illegal camps - such as the one Alex occupied in Champs-sur-Marne, east of Paris - are systematically destroyed by authorities.

According to the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), 19,300 Roma people were evicted across France last year - more than double the 2012 figure.

There are now so many Roma beggars on the sidewalks of Stockholm that half of Swedes favor outlawing begging altogether. 

I violated the first rule of the Internet and read the comments to the video I linked to above. There is the usual amount of racist garbage, but there are also a lot of comments from Bulgarians who deeply resent being called to task for the problems of Roma. Here's Valya Marinova:

They can go wherever they like within Bulgaria and the European Union. And a lot of them do it quite often because traditionally they are nomads and easy to move. France doesn't want them, destroys their camps there and sends them back to Bulgaria, in Britain there is a political party that is stongly against them, German people murmur a lot against the Bulgarian gypsies, but officially the country still plays the tolerant guy. Hurray for Germany, all the rest European countries should follow their positive example! 

In 2005, George Soros' Open Society Institute published a large study of attitudes about the Roma in 8 Eastern European countries. The study relied on focus groups made up both of Roma and non-Roma. I've put some excerpts below the jump for the curious. But the overall themes are unmistakable. Non-Roma in these countries believe: (1) Roma themselves are responsible for their place at the margins of society; (2) the negative attitudes toward Roma are based on personal experience, not on baseless stereotypes; (3) their countries are already doing enough, with their limited resources, to help the Roma; (4) life is hard for everybody in my country, so I am not going to support a government program that helps only one sub-group; and (5) Western Europe should stop the condescending bullying and lecturing, since they don't have to deal with the far, far larger number of Roma we have. If they think they can do a better job integrating the Roma, they should step right up and try it. Then they'll see how hard it is.

Reason #3: If Germany Can't Integrate Roma, Nobody Can

The third, related reason is that there is no country more likely to succeed in integrating Roma than Germany. Even though Germans share the basic European hostility to Roma, it's much less pronounced than in other European countries, for obvious historical reasons (see #1, above). Compared to, say, Albania, Germany is a rich country. It has hordes of trained social workers who have experience in integrating foreigners from remote cultures. It has a functioning educational system that already hosts students from dozens of countries. It is large enough to absorb, say, 4 million Roma immigrants (out of the 10 million in Europe) without the risk of social collapse.

Of course, this plan would require a vast investment of resources. Many of the Roma in places like Albania, Bulgaria and Serbia are illiterate, and many don't even speak the language of the country they currently live in fluently. Many will never be able to learn fluent German. Learning a second language to fluency as an adult requires significant cognitive abilities that most adults do not possess. The best predictor of your ability to master a second language is your level of ability in your first. Also, since their level of education is so low, most will never integrate into the mainstream job market. Many will likely live from social welfare benefits, odd jobs, begging, and petty crime -- just as they do today in their home countries. They will certainly cluster together in clan-groups.

In other words, they will present the same formidable challenges to integration in Germany as they do now in their home countries. Further, this project will enjoy very little support from the German population. Yet it's quite possible for European political elites to push through ambitious, expensive projects (such as the Euro) against the will of the majority of citizens. Similarly, Germany's decision to build a large Holocaust memorial or in the middle of Berlin or transfer billions to the former East may or may not have been supported by a majority of Germans, but that fact was irrelevant. It was pitched as an important national objective necessitated by History, and that was enough. Taking in all of Europe's unwanted Roma could be portrayed the same way.

What do you say, Germans?

Continue reading "Should Germany Take all of Europe's Roma?" »

Jochen Bittner and Anna Sauerbrey are the Face of Germany in the USA

Cultural Ambassadors. These are the people, usually journalists, who get picked by Home Country journalists to be the face of Foreign Country in Home's press. Usually, it's because they have learned to speak Home's language, and have connections there. They then become the sole source of information and commentary about Foreign Country for the vast millions of Home's residents who are mildly curious about Foreign Country, but not curious enough to do more than read an occasional newspaper column.

Right now, the preferred Germany-explainers to America are Jochen Bittner of Die Zeit, and Anna Sauerbrey of Die Welt. Here is an excerpt of Sauerbrey's most recent column in the New York Times, about the Muslim female blogger Betül Ulusoy (g) a lawyer who has blogged about facing discrimination because she wears a headscarf: 

That piety and independence, religion and political wit can go together indeed doesn’t fit into many Germans’ heads. Germany has become deeply secular in recent decades. Both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches have been losing members rapidly. Today, over a third of all Germans do not belong to any denomination.

Immigration, however, is bringing religion to Germany. The number of Muslims in Germany is estimated to be between 3.8 million and 4.3 million, about 5 percent of the population. That makes the Muslim community in Germany the second-largest in Europe, after France.

Though such projections show that Islam will remain marginal in Europe for decades to come, the fear of “Islamization” is widespread. It has led to the rise of right-wing populist parties from Finland to France. Their rise is usually regarded as a political phenomenon. It might as well be seen as a result of cultural alienation, though. In Germany, many have come to see faith as a spooky and potentially dangerous pathology. Want to make a character on a Friday night TV detective show look suspicious? Let him pray.

In Germany’s secular society, religion in general, and Islam in particular, is regarded as an atavism, a relic from a premodern era from which the country has luckily matured. Renunciation and deliberate submission, common elements of religion, throw the average German hedonist into a state of panic (unless they are part of a no-carbs diet or yoga routine). Why would anybody in her right mind refrain from eating or wrap a scarf around her head in the summer? 

So German readers, next time you're at a dinner party in the USA, be prepared to be confronted with the name Anna Sauerbrey and asked how she could possibly have been so brilliant/stupid as to write X in the New York Times.

Why Americans Don't Read European Writers in Translation

Bill Morris on why Americans don't read (European) writers in translation: 

On a crisp morning last October, I paused in front of one of the many magnificent bookshops that dot the city of Cologne. In the display window was a large, hand-lettered sign: NOBELPREIS FÜR LITERATUR, PATRICK MODIANO. Arrayed around the sign were a dozen works of fiction by Patrick Modiano—most in German, a few in French, none in English.

I walked into the shop and introduced myself as an American writer visiting from New York. Then I came clean: “I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never even heard of Patrick Modiano. Is he any good?”

“Oh yes,” said the woman behind the cash register. Like most bookshop workers in Europe, she was young and bright, fluent in English, and criminally well read. “He’s French and he’s quite good. You should definitely read him. Start with his first novel, La Place de l’Étoile, or Dora Bruder.”


Three Percent, a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester, derives its name from the fact that about 3 percent of all the books published in the U.S. every year are translations. But the bulk of these are technical writings or reprints of literary classics; only 0.7 percent are first-time translations of fiction and poetry. While the number of fiction and poetry books available in translation remains small, it has been rising steadily—from a total of 360 in 2008 to 587 last year, according to Three Percent.

So the question becomes: are so few translated books available because American readers don’t read them, or do American readers read so little foreign fiction and poetry because so little of it is available in translation? Or is it a bit of both?

“It’s complicated,” says Judith Gurewich, publisher of Other Press, which is consistently among the top American publishers of foreign fiction in translation. “I think it’s getting easier to get books in translation into the hands of reviewers. They’re excited—not only receptive, but very kind. But the reading public? That’s the million-dollar question.”


After noting that translators are doing some superb work today, Glusman offers his own theories about why translated fiction and poetry remain a tough sell for American publishers. One theory is that Americans lag behind other nationalities in exposure to foreign cultures, which is reflected in a lack of foreign language instruction in American schools. This certainly doesn’t help foster a hunger for foreign literature. Nor does the fact that only about one-third of Americans hold a passport.

Another theory, which Glusman credits to the German writer Peter Schneider, is deliciously counter-intuitive. Germany is a homogenous culture, largely white Anglo-Saxons with a smattering of immigrants, mostly from Turkey—and yet there is a voracious appetite for translated fiction in Germany, as I was reminded that day at the Cologne bookshop. America, on other hand, has been absorbing immigrants from all over the world for centuries, which might work as an impediment to fostering a hunger for foreign literature.

Schneider’s theory, says Glusman, “was that there’s an assumption that because of the heterogeneous nature of American society, we think we know more about foreign cultures than we actually do. And that breeds a certain insularity.”

National Scorpions in a European Bottle

The Washington Post examines the chances of a right-wing block in the European Parliament and uncovers a few interesting cross-currents among European Euroskeptic parties:

With France’s National Front the likely anchor of any nationalist coalition, it has been up to Le Pen to try to forge a legislative bloc. Success would mean winning at least 25 seats from seven countries. Though almost assured of enough seats, Le Pen appears to be at least one nation shy of the country threshold.

Meanwhile, one nationalist group, the United Kingdom Independence Party, has refused to work with her. Like Le Pen, UKIP chief Nigel Farage has sought to position his party as sane moderates who happen to have an anti-E.U., anti-immigration bent. While he touts his party as mainstream, Le Pen’s National Front, he insists, is just faking it.

“Our view is that whatever Marine Le Pen is trying to do with the Front National, anti-Semitism is still imbedded in that party, and we’re not going to work with them now or at any point in the future,” Farage told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

But even her critics concede that Le Pen has determinedly sought to distance herself from her controversial father and has made strides toward steering the party away from explicit racism. In October, the National Front ejected a mayoral candidate, Anne-Sophie Leclere, after she publicly compared France’s French Guiana-born justice minister, Christiane Taubira, to a monkey.

In fact, Le Pen is portraying the party as the best ally French Jews could have against a common enemy.

“Not only am I not anti-Semitic, but I have explained to my Jewish compatriots that the movement most able to protect them is the Front National,” she said. “For the greatest danger today is the rise of an anti-Semitism in the suburbs, stemming from Muslim fundamentalists.”

It seems to me the European nationalist right can be traced to two factors, the first being the economic distress in many southern and Eastern European countries. But that doesn't explain the rise of the right in Scandinavia or Britain.

What we're seeing, I think, is proof of the uncomfortable fact that as Robert Putnam reluctantly concluded, "[i]n the short to medium run, … immigration and ethnic diversity challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital." It appears impossible to induce ethnically homogeneous societies like those in Europe to harmoniously integrate people from radically different cultural, religious, and educational backgrounds. The best we can hope for is a largely peaceful but not static-free co-existence. 

Another factor is the often-feckless response of the pro-diversity crowd. No matter how much outrage or sarcasm you direct at the latest racist comment from a Front National member, their message will still resound with millions of people. And this is where many European social democrats turn to counterproctive responses:

  1. lecturing voters who keep stubbornly voting for the "wrong" parties;
  2. even more patronizingly, searching for the 'real' reasons behind anti-immigrant sentiment; and/or
  3. blaming the 'rat-catchers' and 'demagogues' and 'populists' for 'fanning the flames' of anti-immigrant sentiment (as if were somehow dishonest to address your clientele's genuine concerns).

The approaches seem to posit that there might still be a way to 're-educate' ordinary Europeans to embrace diversity. If only we could get rid of the demagogues! If only we could find the perfect way to showcase the benefits of diversity! But I suspect lots of European voters say they don't like foreigners because they don't like foreigners. And they never will, no matter how often you remind them that they really, really should

I'm not sure this particular problem has a solution. But as long as anti-immigrant parties are in the minority, it probably doesn't need one. The vast majority of Europeans, whether they're uncomfortable with immigrants or not, are still unwilling to vote for parties whose main focus is immigrant-bashing. Preserving that status quo is probably the best Europe can do.

USA Getting More Secular, Less Nationalistic

God guns guts

From a recent survey:

When Americans were asked if they think the United States is the greatest country in the world, there were sharp differences in the responses across generations. In total, 48% of Americans believe the United States is the greatest country in the world and 42% believe it is one of the greatest countries in the world, but a significant portion of the Millennial generation responded differently.

Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. That number progressively increases among the Gen X (48%), Boomer (50%) and Silent generations (64%). Millennials were also the most likely generation to say America is not the greatest country in the world (11%).

Millennials also are less likely than their elders to express patriotism. A majority of Millennials (70%) agreed with the statement “I am very patriotic.” But even larger percentages of Gen Xers (86%), Boomers (91%) and Silents (90%) said the same. This generational gap is consistent and has been identified in surveys dating back to 2003.

The annoying 'generation' names can be ignored -- the key thing is that the younger an American you are, the less likely you are to call yourself 'patriotic', which (if you'll pardon a bit of snark) describes the mental state Americans denounce as 'nationalistic' whenever non-Americans display it. In related news, the number of non-religious Americans is on the increase -- about 20% of Americans now fits this category.

Sociologists have long puzzled over the U.S.: given its levels of prosperity, technological advancement, and education, it should be a lot less religious and nationalistic than it is. Put crudely, the richer a country gets, the less religion it needs, and the the more educated its citizenry, the less prevalent the cruder forms of nationalism and tribalism. We seem to be seeing a gradual end to this aspect of American exceptionalism: in 20 years, the psychological profile of the average American will probably be much closer to the average European, Canadian, or Japanese.

I would be willing to wager the Internet has had something to do with this, but that's pure speculation. So here goes: If you seek critiques of religious faith, all manner of them -- from the ridiculous to the cogent to the sublime -- are no more than a mouseclick away. It's hard to enforce conservative sexual mores in the age of Internet porn, where any anyone can see people having loads of fun with their genitals, and afterward suffering no disease, ostracism, or scorn at all. As for the nationalism angle, you can hardly swing a dead cat in cyberspace without hitting a website that shows you that many people (1) distrust the U.S., and have legitimate reasons for doing so (yet who aren't anti-American cranks); and (2) don't consider the U.S. paradise on earth, and think the quality of life they enjoy in their own country superior to that of the U.S. It's a bit hard to maintain the fantasies of your country's superiority and innocence in the face of these competing narratives.

Intercultural Blind Spot: Glenn Beck's German Fans


This is a post about an intercultural blind spot. An IBS exists whenever people who are interested in another culture -- but not extremely well-versed in it -- develop a distorted view of the other culture based on the lack of contextual knowledge (and the hubris not to recognize that lack). This can take many forms:

  • You take the spokesman from another culture seriously because (1) you are unable to detect the tells that alert a homegrown listener to the fact that this person is stupid or nuts; and/or (2) you are unaware of that person's history which shows them to be nuts even though what you heard sounded fairly reasonable.
  • You assume that one of the spokesmen for the other culture whose work is easily accessible because he speaks your language 'represents' the other culture as a whole, rather than just a tiny, unrepresentative fraction of it (example for English-speakers: Peter Schneider).
  • You take a spokesman from the other culture too seriously because he or she is saying what you want to hear and/or confirming reassuring stereotypes (example for German speakers: Michael Moore).
  • You assume the spokesman from the other culture must be as popular and influential at home as he is in your country.

Doing some unrelated research, I came across the website Politically Incorrect, which subtitles itself as: 'News against the Mainstream - Pro-American - Pro-Israeli - Against the Islamization of Europe - For the Constitution and Human Rights'. It's a curious mixture -- some of the posts are the sort of heavy-handed sarcasm and name-calling you see on the more tiresomely ranty kinds of political websites. Other posts make halfway-defensible points, and yet others take fairly well-aimed potshots at the indubitably politically-correct German state-run media.

Just when I was tempted to think some of it might be worth taking seriously, though, I ran across this entry (my translation):

After the attacks of 11 September 2001, a document called 'The Project' was discovered during a raid in Switzerland. The information, which has been kept secret by the US Administration, reveal the largest terrorism-financing scheme in US history. This documentary film relentlessly uncovers how the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the US Administration in an attempt to destroy the West from inside.

The film will be shown on Glenn Beck's The Blaze...

Whoa, wait a minute -- Glenn Beck? Katy, bar the door! For those of you lucky enough not to know who he is, Glenn Beck is a tear-prone, soddenly über-patriotic, half-educated conspiracy monger (and former cocaine user and radio shock jock) who had a batshit-crazy show on Fox News in the United States, before even Fox News dumped him. After Fox fired him, he dropped off the radar screen, and all sane Americans breathed a sigh of relief -- except for the late-night comedians, who mourned the passing of the most ludicrously sinister and sinisterly ludicrous media figure since Father Coughlin. He now runs his own media empire, spinning out inane tales for the tinfoil-hat brigade.

Host nation, allow me to proclaim: Glenn Beck is a 24-carat, no-holds barred moron. It's hard to think of a German who occupies an analogous space in the cultural landscape, but perhaps Horst Mahler (g) comes closest, even though Horst Mahler is a million times smarter (and more malevolent) than Glenn Beck. Nevertheless, you get the point. If I were to mention to a German friend: 'You know, I was reading an article by Horst Mahler the other day, and he made some really good points!' there would be a spit-take and howls of laughter. That is also what you will get for taking Glenn Beck seriously.

Revelation In a Stovepipe Hat
I'm of two minds about the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as Mormonism, which is the religion of Mitt Romney.

On the one hand, I genially dismiss all religious dogmas which take the form of truth claims. Despite the manful efforts of gifted theologians and apologists throughout the centuries, faith (at least the portion represented by falsifiable statements about alleged real-world events) and reason continue to be mutually exclusive. I don't think any intelligent person genuinely believes in transubstantiation, for instance. In fact, I don't even think any intelligent person could even conceive of what it would be like to believe in transubstantiation.

The same goes for the various virgin births and miracles and the truth claims contained in the Jataka tales, Muhammed's night journey, Methuselah's age, etc. The more intelligent sort of religious person quietly acknowledges that these fables usefully inspire the simple-minded, but regards them as slightly embarrassing. They are like the 'miraculous' madonna figures in various cathedrals which are draped with lovingly hand-sewn (often kitschy) robes and jewelry. We discreetly walk past these, even though they are surrounded by throngs of believers, to admire some elegantly carved Gothic altar.

This is all by way of saying that I'm not singling Mormonism out. But boy howdy, Mormonism is strange. In America, it's considered poor form to mock someone's religious beliefs, no matter how odd they are. But the rules are different in Europe, so here goes. Mormonism's very origins are entertaining, as Laurie Winer's fine potted history of the religion (and its changing beliefs) shows:

In 1823, [founder of the church Joseph] Smith later reported, he was first visited by the angel Moroni, who revealed to him the existence of ancient golden plates, buried two miles from the Smith home, on which the true story of the gospel was written. Years later Smith, having “purified” himself, took possession of the plates. He kept them covered and advised friends and family that looking at them would mean instant death. Peering into a stovepipe hat and using a seer stone, Smith dictated what would become the Book of Mormon to different scribes. The plates told the story of mankind in a language called “reformed Egyptian.” Among the surprises: in 600 B.C., after being warned by God to flee Jerusalem, a Hebrew prophet named Lehi and his family built a ship and sailed to America.

Take that, Columbus! And here is the conception of the afterlife:

There are three heavens and one hell. The three heavens are ranked from most holy to least by their “degrees of glory." The celestial kingdom is the most desirable, and serves as the destination for all those who accept Jesus, are baptized within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whether before or after death), and remain faithful throughout their lives. People who die before the age of 8, when Mormons are baptized, also go to the celestial kingdom. The next most desirable heaven is called the terrestrial kingdom, which holds all those who don’t fully accept Jesus on Earth, but who are basically good people and accept him after death. The telestial kingdom is for those who never truly accept Jesus, and includes murderers, as well as “liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie.” These unbelievers must first suffer for their sins, but eventually end up in a blissful place “surpassing the great understanding of men.”

Now, this isn't going to be one of those ZOMG-this-crazy-religion-makes-Romney-dangerous posts. Like most Americans, Mitt Romney is expert at keeping his religious beliefs and his wordly interests separate when they conflict. Romney's behavior shows a mixture of cunning greed (as his world-class tax fiddling shows), religious charity, and political prudence and moderation. He's already told us he won't let his religion influence his Presidential policies, and I believe him.

But really, the more you read about Mormonism, the more delightfully kooky it becomes. And the special bonus is that the world -- definitely including Europe -- is crawling with well-groomed young men who want induct you into their preposterous religion! Mitt Romney spent a couple years in France doing just that, surely to the bemusement of the French. They're easily recognizable by their white shirts, name tags, dark pants, and backpacks:

Mormon Missionaries in Mongolia
I see them at least once a week in Düsseldorf -- often the same guys. Now next time you meet one, you can ask them what that stovepipe hat was for...