Anglosplaining and the Amusingness Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The German Race Wars Have Just Begun!

William Faulkner (remember him?) once said: "The past is never dead. It isn't even the past."

Just when you thought it was safe to go into Central Europe again, comes this shocking news:

Fullscreen capture 572016 112034 AM.bmp

The German Race Wars (g) are back! "Session One" has already begun in Thuringia.

This time, instead of all those grim information placards threatening retribution massacres, the German Race Warriors are going for a decidedly lighter tone, promising "Action, Spaß und mehr..." There's even going to be a "Party Area".

If that's not enough to get you searching the attic for great-grandpa's old uniform, I don't know what is.

The German Race Wars: Come for the genocide, stay for the bratwurst!


That '70s Feeling: Jörg Immendorff's Revolutionary Struggle

MAO -- Materialien zur Analyse von Opposition (Materials for Analysis of the Opposition) is an online archive (g) of documents from the heyday of German Maoism. It collects flyers, magazines, manifestos, artwork, banners and other ephemera from the early- to mid-1970s, when some factions on the German left became enthusiastic adherents of Chairman Mao thought. The website is a bit hard to navigate, but you can tell it's a labor of love and probably dates from the 1990s, so gratitude is in order.

I stumbled on an interesting document, a review of a book by Jörg Immendorff. First, a bit of background. Immendorff was a Düsseldorf-based artist famous enough to have an English Wikipedia entry. He was a fixture of the Düsseldorf culture scene and a teacher at the Kunstakademie until his death from ALS in 2008. More on him later.

The book the Maoists review is entitled (my trans.): 'Here and Now: Do What Must Be Done. Jörg Immendorf. Materials for a Discussion: Art in Political Struggle. Whose Side Are You On, Culture-Creator?' Despite this engaging title, the book doesn't seem to have sold many copies and is now rare. This is the cover (from this antiquarian website (g) where you can buy the book for €120):  

12641_0

I'm sure this painting is by Immendorff himself. It isn't Hockney/Currin-esque ironically self-aware textureless or 'bad' painting. It's just clumsy. This is what most Immendorffs look like. If you're getting the idea that I don't dig him, you're right-on, man. I've always found his stuff unconvincing: either crowded and ugly, or flat and cliched.

But what about his political views? Like so many German lefty/culture types, Immendorff jumped onto the bandwagon of Maoism in the early 1970s. This book is obviously from that period.

A review of the book and the associated exhibition can be found in this 1973 agitprop flyer (g) from the Revolutionary Artists' Group, found on the archive website. Let me apologize in advance for the layout of this page from a self-proclaimed 'Artists' group'. Clearly, these Revolutionary Artists are mostly untrained, given what's on display in most of the pamphlet. Yet no matter how limited your means are, there's no excuse for pages clogged with unreadable clots of text like the one below. Apparently columns are tools of the bourgeoisie.

But let's forge ahead anyway. The handwritten title reads: "Progress at the anti-imperialist Culture Front!" and begins: "A book has just appeared from Comrade Jörg Immendorff, who is active in the Group of Revolutionary Artists -- Ruhr Struggle." 

  Duesseldorf_GRK_Ruhrkampf_1973_123_21

The review, misspelling Immendorff's name, reports breathlessly that he has decided 'to consciously place his artistic activity in the service of the people and the revolutionary proletariat'.

The article then reports on the exhibition accompanying the book, which was held in the Westphalian Artist's League in Münster. Both the exhibition and the book, the review states, 'show the attitude of a partisan artist who has developed away from bourgeois philistinism towards cultural creation marked by class struggle. Both (the exhibition and the book) are a declaration of war on the brainless bourgeois avant-garde...which have learned nothing from the anti-imperialist movement of 1968.'

During the entire exhibition, young members of the 'anti-imperialist league' staffed a book-table with 'revolutionary writings' inside the museum.

The exhibition also featured a roundtable discussion with members of the Communist Students' Association, the Anti-Imperialist League, the Group of Revolutionary Artists, and Immendorff. Immendorff admitted his works were not yet fully 'revolutionary', given their incompleteness and flaws, and thus that he sought 'discussion and critique' from the audience.

One critique focused on Immendorff's portraits of 'Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung', which were based on the works of Chinese 'people's artists'. One cannot simply import the stylistic devices of the Chinese revolutionary artists' Social Realism into German conditions, because the international class struggle is always defined by the particular historical, social, etc. etc. -- you get the picture. 

Immendorff's later history is well-known to all Germans. He continued producing masterpieces of socialist-realist artwork in the service of the international proletariat, donating every penny of profit to Third World liberation movements. He lived in a humble apartment in the working-class section of Düsseldorf, volunteering much of his time teaching painting to Turkish immigrant children. Even those who disagreed with his political views couldn't help admiring the depth of his commitment to social justice.

Oh wait, wrong Immendorff. While no doubt continuing to mouth the occasional revolutionary slogan, he went on to amass a fortune of between 15 and 18 million Euros (g) at the time of his death. He described his own philosophy of life as 'selfishness'. Late in life, he married a Romanian ingenue 30 years his junior (former student) and rechristened her Oda (after a Germanic god), last name Jaune. The French word for yellow, Immendorff's favorite color. Not hers.

But that didn't stop Immendorff from regularly renting luxury hotel rooms, to which he would invite groups of up to 15 prostitutes. There, he held hours-long cocaine orgies with them costing sums in the five-figure range. He was caught white-handed during one of these, so to speak, and eventually sentenced to 11 months' probation. At the time of this coke and champagne orgy, his wife Oda was in an advanced state of pregnancy. As a result of the prosecution, Immendorff nearly lost his comfortable civil-servant position as a teacher at the Düsseldorf art academy -- run by the state he no doubt routinely claimed to despise.

Just before he died, he changed his will to try to bestow upon the long-suffering Oda his entire fortune. This came as rather a disappointment to Immendorff's illegitimate son Jean-Louis, born in 1999. Immendorf ignored the letters and pictures his son sent him during his life, and took no interest in him. Fortunately, German law guaranteed the son an 1/8 of Immendorff's inheritance, no matter what Immendorff tried to arrange.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is yet another object lesson in why nobody should pay the slightest attention to the political opinions artists claim to have.

Especially, it must be said, German ones.


German Word of the Week: Jubelperser

Img
On June 2, 1967, the Shah of Iran and his wife Farah paid a state visit to Berlin, West Germany. Wherever he went, there were demonstrations by Berliners against the hospitality being shown to the dashing autocrat. To shield him from these demonstrators, the Iranian regime arranged for a group of about 150 Iranians to accompany the Shah and cheer him on.

Since the people were Persian, and since they cheered and celebrated (jubeln in German) the Shah, they were called the Jubelperser (g) "Cheering-Persians". It's pronounced roughly YOU-bull-pair-zer. But these Jubelperser had a sinister side as well -- some of them were members of the SAVAK secret police.

As the protests came to a head during the Shah's visit to the Berlin opera house, the Jubelperser took a break from cheering, whipped out clubs, sticks, and batons, and began beating nearby demonstrators. German police, who despised the student demonstrators, stood by and watched without doing a thing except possibly smirking.

Later that day, when the Berlin police violently dispersed the demonstrators, policeman Karl-Heinz Kurras (g) for reasons that remain unclear to this day, pulled out his gun and shot student demonstrator Benno Ohnesorg (g) to death. Kurras was never convicted of a crime for the shooting. In 2009 it was revealed that he had been an unofficial collaborator with the Stasi. The death of Ohnesorg on June 2, 1967 greatly accelerated the radicalization of parts of the German student movement -- in fact, one terrorist group that operated during the 1970s was called the "June 2nd Movement".

Jubelperser has entered the German vocabulary to describe paid professional fans, or generally any crowd which displays unnatural or exaggerated enthusiasm. There doesn't have to be something a bit menacing about their display, but if there is, the term fits even better. Example of use in a sentence: "When a flightsuit-clad Angela Merkel ran awkwardly onstage to the sound of 'Rock You Like a Hurricane', the audience, mainly members of the Youth Wing of the Christian Democrat Party, dutifully cheered like Jubelperser."


Another Prediction and Another Question

Ahh, screw it. One post a week was never going to work. It would be like trying to avoid posting about the Iraq war in March 2003. German politicians are seriously calling the current migration crisis the biggest not since German reunification but since World War II. Up to 50,000 new arrivals are predicted this weekend alone, while state-level officials (who are responsible for finding them places to sleep) are already saying they're completely out of room (g) right now and desperately begging the federal government for emergency assistance. 4000 members of the military have been put on call-up duty.

With that much at stake, how could I not post? But I will try to mix in more posts on other topics. Damn blog is getting too one-sided even for me.

Now for the prediction. Most of the German press is still largely on the side of trying to cultivate sympathy for migrants and refugees and celebrate German generosity. Skeptical voices are becoming louder and louder, but we can still put most reporters in the pro-migrant column.

And they've begun to notice that the pictures of all those young males are scaring people. Whether reporters know it or not, common folk-wisdom, sociological theory (g) and empirical research universally agree that young men are the most violent segment of any society, and the large groups of unmarried young men without regular gainful employment and a strong social network are the classic breeding-grounds of violence. The phenomenon is so well-known it's called 'young male syndrome'. There's a close statistical link between the level of violence and war in a society or region and its demographics. If you're not concerned about what large groups of unemployed, alienated young men concentrated in German migrant hostels will be up to in 2016, you should be.

Newspapers have already started producing articles explaining to worried Germans why the migrants are so young and male. The most recent, in Die Welt, interviews (g) two young men who are about to leave Syria and begin the trek to Germany, lured by the promise of free housing and education. (In this video, a Yezidi man in a refugee camp who plans to bring his entire extended family to Germany exclaims with delight and disbelief (g): 'They're building houses for us!!'). One young male, Azaz, is a member of the Islamic Front who's decided to stop fighting ISIS (ISIS says thanks!) and leave for Germany. It may be relevant to note that "[t]he Islamic Front's charter rejects the concepts of representative democracy and secularism, instead seeking to establish an Islamic state ruled by a Majlis-ash-Shura and implementing sharia."

I predict soon that photo editors are going to be a lot more selective. Pictures of children and families will be put in the foreground. Pictures that show the reality of large groups of young men will be quietly erased.

Now the question. Right now Germany's economy is doing relatively well and generating a decent amount of employment. But as we all know, business goes in cycles, and Germany's economy is beginning to show signs of weakness. I'm so old I remember when unemployment was considered a huge crisis in the early 2000s in Germany. 

We're being assured that importing hundreds of thousands of randomly-selected immigrants will work out because there are jobs for the taking. How's that going to sound when unemployment rises, and Germans find themselves competing with young men like Azaz? And how's Azaz, the former 'Islamic Front' soldier going to react when he's sent out 50 applications but keeps getting passed over because of his meager language skills?

Everyone can see this problem barreling down the road directly at us, can't they?


Migrant Children in Germany: "We Love Hitler!"

Ask any German who's lived in the Arab world for a while and interacted with normal people, and you will almost always hear of Arabs who admire, even love Adolf Hitler. Some of the ones I know even stopped identifying themselves as Germans in conversation, to avoid that blood-chilling moment when their conversation partner would say: 'Adolf Hitler very good man! Hero!' It has happened to me -- and not just in Arab countries -- when I identified myself as German to avoid getting into long conversations about American foreign policy.

But of course it's not just an Arab problem by any stretch. It happened to me most recently on a park bench in downtown Sofia, Bulgaria, where a man who borrowed a cigarette from me started chatting and revealed that he had once lived and worked in Germany but his work permit had been revoked because 'the Jews up there' didn't want more 'Christian Bulgarians' in the country. I was tempted to try to enlighten him, but really, where do you even begin with a comment like that?

Remember, we are not talking about the 15-20% of the educated elite of these societies, who either understand the evil of Hitler or know enough not to discuss the issue with foreigners. We are talking about ignorant or illiterate people. Their views are shaped by attitudes passed down through generations (and either tolerated or encouraged by their governments) and never challenged by an educated person.

But that doesn't mean we have to let these backward prejudices into Germany. Commenter KS brings a report from the front lines of migrant education in Germany right now which I thought worthy of hoisting to the main page: 

When I finished school in 2005, I travelled around some time in Egypt and Jordan and I was astonished by the fact, that the old-fashioned anti-semitism, that I only knew from history books, creepy internet-pages and grandma's honest moments, was pretty much political mainstream in these countries. Including the admiration of Hitler. (I mean, I expected some hatred towards Israel - but the arguments about filthy, conspiring jews were an exact copy of European anti-semitism.) Today I work as a teacher in a class in which pupils, who just came to Germany, learn the German language, before they can attend the regular classes.

Last week I taught about German history. Now my pupils were astonished by the fact, that Germany doesn't admire Hitler anymore. "Aber alle lieben Hitler!" ("But everyone loves Hitler!") was one of the reactions, by a Macedonian boy with a christian-orthodox background by the way. Two boys from Syria applauded him. So I asked politely (to get an honest reaction): "Wer von euch liebt Hitler?" ("Who of you loves Hitler?") Five out of eleven children raised their hands: the two guys from Syria (Kurdish Muslims), two Macedonians (Christian-Orthodox) and one guy from Somalia (Muslim). The children who didn't raise their hands were Roma and two boys from Portugal.

It's hard to imagine anything more depressing than young children taught to admire Hitler, isn't it? Now you could look at this as a glass-half-full optimist: at least these kids will be able to escape the miasma of ignorance and prejudice that poisons their countries of origin (and helps explain why their countries of origin have so many problems). At least they'll escape it while they're in school. Certain schools, that is. At home is a different story.

And I would agree with you, to a point. But an intensive re-education program requires significant resources. It might well work with 10,000, 20,000 or even 50,000 fresh migrants. But with 800,000+? And the millions who will follow thanks to family reunification? Not a chance. If policies don't change quickly, Germany may end up importing millions of new residents -- 3-4% of its entire population -- who despise Jews and admire Hitler.

I think that's a serious public-policy issue that should be openly and frankly debated right now, don't you?


Glimpse Tomorrow's Migrant Policies Today on This Blog

Well, so much for the one-post-a-week plan. I just can't help myself. You don't associate prudent, practical Germans with the act of sleepwalking into a crisis, but that seems to be what they're doing right now. It's a fascinating new experience for me. In any case, all my immigration posts will be tagged as such, so you can ignore them if you wish.

A while ago I jotted down an 11-point sketch for handling the migrant crisis. Nothing particularly original, but I thought it might stimulate some debate. Some readers surely found may plan Draconian and cold-hearted. Yet, as the migrant crisis keeps spiraling out of control (headline in the Sueddeutsche yesterday: "Increasing Signs of a Crisis" (g)), and costs mount into the dozens of billions of Euros, my modest proposals are quickly becoming the mainstream consensus.

A few examples:

Me, August 30: "The EU should build a high-tech fence around its external borders with non-EU nations."

Veteran Swedish diplomat and former Swedish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (strong opponent of the Iraq War), yesterday: '"[W]e have to find a coherent European response. Controlling the outer border of Schengen is vital to the system,” he said, referring to the passport-free zone within Europe. “It is uncomfortable but necessary, and it needs to be done.'"

Me, August 30: "All states within Europe, perhaps with the exception of Belarus, should be declared safe countries of origin. All migrants from Albania, Kosovo, etc. should be swiftly deported unless they can qualify for refugee status...."

Germany's leading grand coalition, policy reform proposals agreed yesterday (g): Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia will be declared secure countries of origin, immigrants from these countries will be swiftly deported, once their asylum claims are denied their cash handouts and in-kind support will be significantly reduced.

Seems like a weekend in which 20,000 refugees arrived in Germany (as many as Britain has pledged to take in 5 years), priorities quickly snapped into place. Send those buses brimming with Bogdans barreling back to the Balkans, aber schnell!

In other news, the right-wing anti-immigrant party Sweden Democrats is now the most popular party in Sweden, with 25% of the vote. This may have something to do with the fact that two Eritrean asylum seekers have recently been charged with stabbing a Swedish mother and her son to death in a terrifying random attack in an IKEA store, and asylum seekers have also been charged with the gang-rape of a Swedish woman in the town of Ludvika.

One might wonder whether Sweden is doing a responsible job of screening and monitoring asylum seekers to protect its citizens.

In any case, an official of Sweden's new most popular political party enthused: "It’s a tremendous breakthrough for us!" Until this time, mainstream Swedish parties have enforced a cordon sanitaire policy, refusing to form coalitions with the untouchable 'populist' Sweden Democrats. I wonder how that's going to work if they continue to be the single most popular party in the country.

And speaking of democracy, the leaders of Germany's grand coalition demanded a 'national act of strength' (Kraftakt) of Germans to handle the influx of hundreds of thousands of new migrants. They didn't mention that, over the years, these hundreds of thousands will swell to millions due to chain migration. They compared this massive national challenge to the reunification of Germany in the early 1990s. This trope was enthusiastically taken up by dozens of newspaper commentators calling on Germans to fundamentally re-assess their idea of what German society is and to prepare for 'huge new challenges' that will last for 'generations to come'. Am I the only one who finds this sort of language a bit ominous?

Also, these commentators are missing a rather fundamental distinction. The economic miracle and re-unification were national projects taken on by Germans, for Germans, with overwhelming popular approval from the German electorate (70% (g) were for re-unification in 1990). Current poll numbers show a similar level of support right now for providing immediate assistance to refugees. But after the initial rush of hospitality is over, people are going to start asking what was the precise democratic legitimacy behind the policy of (1) violating EU law by refusing to enforce the Dublin accords; which (2) let hundreds of thousands of completely unknown foreigners into the country; which (3) will impose huge and unknowable burdens on Germany for 'generations' to come. 

Seems like a policy this important should be approved in advance by a majority of the population after a thorough debate, should it not?


'My First Zonen-Gaby': An Exegesis of Two Famous Rude German Jokes

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussions of racial stereotypes and East German hairstyles.

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were cultural misunderstandings galore about whether the French satire magazine was an obnoxious racist rag. Some of the Charlie's satirical cartoons contained stereotypical depictions of black people and Muslims, which was enough for many non-French speakers to denounce the magazine. Those who spoke French and knew the French media landscape countered that the editorial line of Charlie Hebdo was left-wing. The use of rude caricatures -- whether of blacks, Catholics, gays, or royalty -- is simply par for the course in the rollicking, adolescent world of European satire. To those in the know, which includes me, there is no debate: the latter point of view is correct.

Here's another magazine cover that's sure to provoke controversy, this time in Germany. I will now explain the background to you before the controversy erupts. I happen to have learned a lot about Germany, even though I've lived here for over a decade.

The roots of this joke go back to November 1989. The Berlin Wall had just come down, talk of unification was in the air, and thousands of East Germans were traveling freely to West Germany for the first time. The West German satire magazine Titanic decided to weigh in with a cover. Titanic, you should know, follows the dictum (g) of Kurt Tucholsky: Was darf Satire? Alles. (What is satire alllowed to do? Everything.)

Here is their November 1989 cover:

Zonen gaby

The title reads: 'Zonen-Gaby (17) overjoyed (BRD) : My First Banana'. Let's unpack the cultural signifiers. First, the name. Gaby (short for Gabrielle) is a common name all over Germany, but was especially popular in the East. Zonen-Gaby refers to the fact that she comes from East Germany. Now, there is a whole code governing how one may refer to residents of the former German Democratic Republic. The most polite way is 'People from the New German Federal States'. Quite a mouthful. Then comes East Germans. By the time you get to Ossi, you're in the political-correctness danger zone. And that brings us to Zonies. Right-wing Germans, who never accepted the notion of East Germany as a legitimate, independent state, referred to East Germany as the 'Soviet Occupation Zone' to emphasize its temporary and non-democratic character.

'Zone-Gaby' is 17, and now residing in the BRD, the German initials for West Germany. She has several characteristics of people from the East, including the half-hearted perm and unisex denim jacket. East Germans were very much into these things. If you don't believe me, just look at the footage from the fall of the Wall. East German women were also delighted by geometric plastic earrings. There were lots of dangling red plastic triangles. Gaby has what looks like a peach-colored plastic wind-chime hanging from each ear. Also the teeth. Basic medical care in the State of Workers and Peasants was quite good, but there was neither the money nor the will to provide comrades with bourgeois fripperies like cosmetic dentistry.

And finally we come to the cucumber. Bananas were rare in East Germany, and one of the stereotypes of East Germans coming for a visit to the West (which was allowed under strict regulation) is that they ran to the nearest grocery store to devour exotic tropical fruits unavailable in the East. Poor Zonen-Gaby is evidently unfamiliar with bananas.

This is, without a doubt, the most famous Titanic cover in history, perhaps comparable to National Lampoon's 'If You Don't Buy this Magazine We'll Kill This Dog.' The number of people who found it grossly offensive was outnumbered only by the number who found it funny, which was only outnumbered by the people who found it both.

And now, 25 years later, Titanic has just outdone itself:

Refugee joe

Even if you're not German-Powered™, you can probably see where this is going. The more sensitive among you should click away now. I'll give you a few seconds.

OK, we're back. I will now continue to dissect the joke, solely in the name of cross-cultural understanding, and perhaps Science. Our old friend Zonen-Gaby is back, this time in the company of 'Refugee Joe.' The title reads: 'Refugee Joe (52 cm) overjoyed (asylum): My First Zonen-Gaby'. As we also see, Zonen-Gaby is (still) overjoyed at meeting her new friend. Her thought bubble reads 'Hee-hee -- Banana Joe'! The black band promises 'Even more asylum critique in the magazine!'

The reference to 52cm should be self-explanatory. Although I should note for accuracy's sake that the current owner of the world's longest penis is an American (of course) and his glistening missile of sin is only 13.5 inches, or 34.2 cm long. Erect.


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:

Romani_population_average_estimate

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?" »


German Prisons 'Astonish' American Visitors

A delegation of Americans just visited several German prisons this year and came back impressed:

Earlier this summer, we led a delegation of people concerned about the United States criminal justice system to visit some prisons in Germany and observe their conditions. What we saw was astonishing.

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs.

...

But for all the signs of progress, truly transformative change in the United States will require us to fundamentally rethink values. How do we move from a system whose core value is retribution to one that prioritizes accountability and rehabilitation? In Germany we saw a potential model: a system that is premised on the protection of human dignity and the idea that the aim of incarceration is to prepare prisoners to lead socially responsible lives, free of crime, upon release.

...

The process of training and hiring corrections officers is more demanding in Germany. Whereas the American corrections leaders in our delegation described labor shortages and training regimes of just a few months, in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, less than 10 percent of those who applied to be corrections officers from 2011 to 2015 were accepted to the two-year training program. This seems to produce results: In one prison we visited, there were no recorded assaults between inmates or on staff members from 2013 to 2014.

...

In Germany, we found that respect for human dignity provides palpable guidance to those who run its prisons. Through court-imposed rules, staff training and a shared mission, dignity is more than legal abstraction.

The question to ask is whether we can learn something from a country that has learned from its own terrible legacy — the Holocaust — with an impressive commitment to promoting human dignity, especially for those in prison. This principle resonates, though still too dimly at the moment, with bedrock American values.

At conferences the question often comes up whether the dedication to 'inviolable' human dignity that starts the German constitution has real meaning. The prison example shows it does, in my opinion. Nevertheless, many English and American lawyers claim that human dignity is not a meaningful legal value. Justice Thomas, a black conservative justice who voted against gay marriage, explained:

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

One American law professor even cautioned readers concerning the 'danger' of human dignity:

The word dignity eludes narrow definition, or for that matter, any generally agreed upon definition. The Court itself has not provided a clear definition of dignity. One scholar, William A. Parent, declares, “[D]ignity is to possess the right not to be arbitrarily and therefore unjustly disparaged as a person.” In another article on “the Jurisprudence of Dignity,” Leslie Meltzer Henry writes that there is no single definition, but that dignity includes various conceptions including institutional status, equality, liberty, individual integrity, and collective virtue. She concludes, “dignity’s conceptions and functions are dynamic and context-driven.”

If dignity is defined so elastically, then conservatives judges might invoke it to strike down not only gun-control laws, but also other progressive legislation. Libertarian groups invoked the “sweet-mystery-of-life” my [sic] language in Casey to argue that the Obamacare healthcare mandate unconstitutionally violated the dignity and autonomy of Americans by forcing them to buy health insurance. In the future, cigarette smokers might argue that anti-smoking bans violate their ability to create an individual identity. And conservative Christian wedding photographers could claim that anti-discrimination laws compelling them to photograph gay weddings violate their dignity and ability to define themselves as conservative Christians. What courts would do when confronted with the clashing dignitary rights of the religious wedding photographer and the gay couple, or the hunter and the victim of gun violence, is anyone’s guess, because dignity is such an abstract concept that its boundaries are difficult to discern.

I find the different attitude toward 'dignity' pretty interesting and have written about it in a few contexts, but I'll spare you the boring details. It's the kind of issue that, to do it justice, requires you to lay down a bunch of ground rules, collect historical examples, and carefully delimit your claims with a bunch of caveats. In other words, to write like a boring academic. If that doesn't deter you, head on over to my academia.edu page. But don't say I didn't warn you.