A Bit of Merkel-Bashing to Start the Weekend

Schadenfreude is neither edifying nor wholesome.

But there's something satisfying seeing German politicians getting the sort of self-righteous condemnation most German journalists routinely spatter on the rulers of certain other nations:

Angela Merkel is the most monstrous western European leader of this generation. Politicians who inflict economic cruelty on a mass scale, trashing the lives of millions as they do so, do not end up in courts to face justice. But Merkel undoubtedly stands tried and convicted in the dock of history already....

All Europe’s leaders have to offer is broken societies and broken people. Over half of young people in Spain and Greece are without work, leaving them scarred: as well as mental distress, they face the increased likelihood of unemployment and lower wages for the rest of their lives.

Workers’ rights, public services, a welfare state: all won at such cost by tough, far-sighted people, all being stripped away....

That’s why Greece has to be defended urgently – not just to defend a democratically elected government and the people who put it there. European elites know that if Syriza’s demands are fulfilled, then other like-minded forces will be emboldened. Spain’s Podemos, a surging anti-austerity movement, will be more likely to triumph in elections this year. Syriza has already achieved change: the European Central Bank’s limited quantitative easing is partly a response to its rise.

And, of course, in seeing German journalists rushing to the defense (g) of policies they would condemn if those policies served the interests of a country not named Germany.

As it is always with humans, where you stand depends on where you sit. Or to cite a recent study of cognitive bias and motivated reasoning among Americans:

In one [study], we asked people whether President Bush acted rightly by using a loophole to make appointments in defiance of Senate opposition. Most Republicans said he did the right thing while most Democrats said he acted wrongly. We then put Obama’s name in for Bush with a different group of respondents and asked the same question. This time the vast majority of Republicans opposed the appointments while most Democrats said he did the right thing.

We posed a similar question about use of the signing statement—Bush’s and now Obama’s controversial practice of signing a bill while stating that he will not enforce portions of it. Again, Republicans were more sympathetic to the practice when the question invoked Bush, Democrats when the question invoked Obama.

Like the football fans, most partisans see a neutral process in a favorable light if it advances their parties’ goals and in an unfavorable light if it does not. And this is true even if partisanship is not salient. We asked another group of respondents whether they supported same-sex marriage and whether they thought Congress could either mandate nationwide recognition of same-sex marriage or prohibit states from recognizing same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage supporters were much more likely to believe that Congress could mandate it than ban it; opponents believed the opposite.

We call this phenomenon “merits bias”—a bias in favor of evaluating a rule or institution in terms of whether it advances one’s political goals.

The merits bias is relevant in the German case: a broad majority of non-German economists argued from the very beginning that expansionary austerity violated fundamental textbook economic laws and couldn't possibly work, but German elites convinced themselves otherwise because (1) the policies appeared to serve Germany's short-term economic interests; and / or (2) the institutions they served had already announced support for the policies.


Answering for America

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

Jones goes on to list more questions: 

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

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

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

Other things I've had to answer for include:

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

* Why can’t you understand science?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still, let me provide a few correctives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


'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.