'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!


Pay Your Church Tax or No Wafer for You

Rod Dreher, a conservative American commentator, can hardly believe his eyes when he reads about the German church tax (Kirchensteuer):

In Germany, as in a number of other European countries, if you are a member of a church or mainstream religion, you have to pay a pretty significant tax to the government, which distributes the money to the churches. From the Wall Street Journal:

German church members must pay an additional 8% to 9% of their gross annual income tax and capital gains tax bills to the church. That is typically steeper than in many other parts of Europe. A registered believer, for instance, paying a 30% income tax rate, or €30,000, on an income of €100,000, would pay another €2,400 to €2,700 in church tax.

To American eyes, that’s stunning. Now, the German government is closing a loophole having to do with capital gains, which means an effective tax increase for its officially registered Christian believers....  The church tax issue has become a big deal with the German Catholic bishops taking the lead in trying to liberalize the universal Catholic church’s rules on married and divorced people receiving communion. Look at this report from theNational Catholic Register:

In response to the numbers de-registering, the German bishops issued a decree in September 2012 calling such departure “a serious lapse” and listing a number of ways they are barred from participating in the life of the Church.

The decree specified that those who do not pay the church tax cannot receive the sacraments of Confession, Communion, Confirmation, or Anointing of the Sick, except when in danger of death; cannot hold ecclesial office or perform functions within the Church; cannot be a godparent or sponsor; cannot be a member of diocesan or parish councils; and cannot be members of public associations of the Church.

More:

The critics point out that while Cardinal Kasper and most of his fellow German bishops have been leading the charge to allow those in “irregular” marital situations — those who are divorced and remarried — to receive Communion, they have simultaneously denied the sacraments, including even Confession, to those who opt out of paying Germany’s “church tax.”

In both cases, the German position is at odds with Church teaching: admitting to Communion those formally not allowed; and forbidding those whom the Vatican says can validly receive the sacraments.

The German definition of mercy, critics say, is a “pay to pray system” that has its “financial” limits.

The bishops in Germany “are notoriously the most merciful in wishing to grant Communion to the divorced and remarried, but at the same time are the most ruthless in de facto excommunicating those who refuse to pay the church tax, which in their country is obligatory by law,” Vatican analyst Sandro Magister wrote Oct. 29 in his “Settimo Cielo” blog for Italy’s L’Espresso newspaper.

Read the whole thing.  If I were a German Catholic or Protestant, I would be enormously offended by this whole thing. It’s outrageous that if you are a German Catholic who wants to go to confession, the priest will deny it if you haven’t paid the church tax. How is this much different from Johann Tetzel’s indulgence business, selling salvation to Renaissance German Catholics?

So, who agrees with Dreher? Not being religious, I don't have a dog in this fight. Well, at least not in the title bout -- although as someone who pays German taxes I do subsidize many relgious activities with my tax dollars. Further, coming from the United States, I tend to regard estabilshed churches with a skeptical eye.

But even setting aside these biases, I've often thought the church tax was a particularly clumsy way of regulating church-state interaction. Nevertheless, Dreher can calm down somewhat: You aren't going to be denied Communion at a Catholic church in Germany if you haven't paid your Kirchensteuer unless you tattoo that fact on your forehead, and probably not even then. Germans are famous for dropping out of the church they were raised in as soon as they become adults, thus saving themselves the Kirchensteuer. Then, if they decide on a church wedding, they re-join, since getting married in church is complicated enough transaction that the church will demand you be a member to enjoy this benefit. But despite the Bishops' huffing and puffing, I've never heard of an ordinary German Catholic being denied Communion for not having paid the Kirchensteuer. But then again I don't travel in churchy circles, so I might not know.


German Hunters Shoot Thousands of Cats Every Year*

Section 25 of the State Hunting Law in Northern Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) provides (g, my translation)

(4) Those who are entitled to protect hunting conditions (Jagdschutz) are permitted:

1. To detain persons who enter a hunt area without permission or who commit another violation of hunt regulations or who are found equipped for hunting outside the general approved hunting paths, to gather personal information from these persons and to seize from them killed animals, firearms and other weapons, traps, dogs, and ferrets.

2. To shoot and kill dogs and cats which are becoming feral. A feral dog is defined as a dog which hunts, follows, or seizes wild animals outside the control of its master (orig. Führer!). A feral cat is defined as a cat found in hunt area more than 200 meters from the nearest house.... 

According to the German nature group NABU, German hunters in NRW alone kill around 8,000 cats a year (g) under this law. The Green Party in NRW is trying to eliminate this law (g), but the hunters are fighting back, claiming that culling cats protects songbirds and other species. The controversy rages!

Continue reading "German Hunters Shoot Thousands of Cats Every Year*" »


Raw Meat Punches Holes in Your Brain

Mettbroetchen

European friends often mock me for my aversion to raw meat. 'So American', they say, fingering their monocles and twirling their mustaches. But I defend my disgust for raw animal flesh. Mankind realized fire made meat good thousands of years ago -- forgoing cooked meat makes as much sense as trying to live without wheels. You wouldn't decapitate a pig and drink the blood spurting from its arteries, so why would you bite into its raw muscle? Besides, raw meat is full of bacilli, viruses, cysts, spirochetes, worms -- you name it.

Yet the Europeans, disdaining my advice, continue to eat it raw. Germans in the form of Mettwurst (seen above spread on a roll -- würg), the French in the form of steak tartare. Generally, they survive. The key, they will tell you, is freshness and quality.

But no matter how fresh the meat, it still contains nasty brain-changing parasites, says this fascinating article in The Atlantic about toxoplasmosis:

The parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces, is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii or Toxo for short) and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosis—the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats’ litter boxes. Since the 1920s, doctors have recognized that a woman who becomes infected during pregnancy can transmit the disease to the fetus, in some cases resulting in severe brain damage or death. T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity: in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before good antiretroviral drugs were developed, it was to blame for the dementia that afflicted many patients at the disease’s end stage. Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells—or at least that’s the standard medical wisdom.

But if Flegr is right, the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”

You can avoid toxoplasmosis by not eating cat parasites. So far, sounds pretty simple. But not eating cat parasites is harder than it might seem:

After an infected cat defecates, Flegr learned, the parasite is typically picked up from the soil by scavenging or grazing animals—notably rodents, pigs, and cattle—all of which then harbor it in their brain and other body tissues. Humans, on the other hand, are exposed not only by coming into contact with litter boxes, but also, he found, by drinking water contaminated with cat feces, eating unwashed vegetables, or, especially in Europe, by consuming raw or undercooked meat. Hence the French, according to Flegr, with their love of steak prepared saignant—literally, “bleeding”—can have infection rates as high as 55 percent. (Americans will be happy to hear that the parasite resides in far fewer of them, though a still substantial portion: 10 to 20 percent.) Once inside an animal or human host, the parasite then needs to get back into the cat, the only place where it can sexually reproduce—and this is when, Flegr believed, behavioral manipulation might come into play.

The rest of the article details the mind-breaking human behavior changes caused by those hundreds (thousands? millions?) of toxoplasmosis cysts in your brain, including reduced attention, risk-taking, even changing your reaction to smells.

Germans, I've found something new for you to be terrified of. You're welcome!


Sexy Communists are Sexy

Open Culture looks at a documentary (above, NSFW) on East German sex:

The documentary proposes that, for all its deficiencies, the German Democratic Republic actually put forth a remarkably progressive set of policies related to such things as birth control, divorce, abortion, and sex education — a precedent to which some non-communist countries still haven’t caught up. However forward-thinking you might find all this, it did have trouble meshing with other communist policies: the state’s rule of only issuing housing to families, for instance, meant that women would get pregnant by about age twenty in any case. We must admit that, ultimately, citizens of the showcase East Germany had a better time of it than did the citizens of Soviet Socialist Republics farther east. And if the Ossies had a better Cold War between the sheets than did the Wessies, well, maybe they just did it to escape their country’s pervasive atmosphere of “unerotic dreariness.” Still, one likes to believe in the possibility of a better world. Back in Los Angeles, I recently attended Competing Utopias, a show of East German household artifacts at Richard Neutra’s idealistic VDL House — now I just wonder what must have gone on in the bedrooms.

You can find Do Communists Have Better Sex? (2006), shot by André Meier, in our collection of 200+ Free Documentaries Online.

I have a copy of one of the premier works by East German sexologists on the question of sex in East Germany and it tends to confirm that East Germans indeed had a pretty exciting time of it.

I've noticed this sort of pattern of relaxed attitudes to sex in many Eastern European countries. In my armchair-sociologists' view, it can be explained by 4 factors: (1) Official atheism and pro-female policies largely expunged the shame and anguish attached to sex; (2) in these economic backwaters, there wasn't very much else interesting to do; (3) conservative social attitudes survived even under Communism, meaning that men openly appreciated attractive women and women were socialized to attract and please men; and (4) where people lived packed into thin-walled high-rises like sardines, there's little privacy and much temptation. Even a 4-year-old knows what Mommy and Daddy are up to when it's happening 1 meter away through a wall that's functionally cardboard.


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.


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.


Remigius-Ekkehard Scores!

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Look at the German men in those photographs. Erect, athletic, courteous, stylishly-dressed, sexually chaste* and happy. They surely bore, with pride, real Teutonic names like Wolfram, Ekkehard, Adalbert, Friedhelm, Karlheinz, Ulf-Wotan, or Eike-Siegfried. Names that evoke crystalline mountain lakes, Wergeld, jousting tournaments, roving bards, sacred groves, and unmixed ancestry.

Yesterday the German men's national soccer team won the World Cup. But what sort of names did these "'Germans'" have? Per and Philipp are just barely acceptable, but Toni? Kevin? Mario? Sami? Manuel?

Manuel?!

Did we lose a war, people?!

(picture here)

----

* This 1925 poster, from the collection of the German Hygiene Museum (!), reads: "Strive to remain chaste! The best way to do so is bodily exercise! Sports and games, swimming and hiking -- along with serious work, these make it easy to remain sexually continent. Continence is not harmful."

Speak for yourself, German Hygiene Council.

UPDATE: I bet these guys had Real German Names®:

Corrections

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