On Charles Bukowski

A favorite in Germany. Dan Piepenbring:

I have for many years now actively enjoyed not reading Charles Bukowski. I want to say with conviction that Bukowski is not so much a voice from hell as a voice from Hell-Lite™, a kind of flimsy, adolescent imitation of true misanthropy—but I have no evidence to furnish in my case against him. How could I? I’ve never read him. All I know is that I’ve listened to a tepid Modest Mouse song about him; I have spoken to a stranger at a bar who told me she’d “snort his words off the page,” if she could; and I’ve sneered at the cover of Ham on Rye in a Park Slope Barnes and Noble. If you asked me to mount a cogent defense of my antipathy, I’d have to say something pretentious like “I find his role in the culture banal.”


'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.


Handelsblad, Are You Crazy?

The Dutch broadsheet Handelsblad ran a review of three recent books on the state of race relations in America. Here are the graphics and the headline accompanying the review. You will notice the headline needs no translation:

CLvxdT5WwAURH2u
CLvxdT5WwAURH2u
CLvxdT5WwAURH2u
 

The Washington Post was not amused

How a group of Dutch editors decided to publish an attempt to examine race and racism in the United States, using the English n-word and blackface in a major newspaper is beyond comprehension at the least, and rage-inducing at worst. Indeed, the Twitter reactions were swift and angry. Michel Krielaars, editor of the Book supplement for NRC, said that the paper had taken down the illustrations online, in order not to “offend non-Dutch speakers who only read Twitter.” The illustration still appears on their online reader, however.

To summarize the backlash so far: the author of the review says he had nothing to do with the illustrations or headline choice, which is plausible. The editor who did make these choices has pointed out that the content of the review was sympathetic to the plight of black Americans. The quotation used as the headline comes from one of the books. The illustrations were not meant to be offensive: in fact they show black Americans cowering before well-armed white figures (90% of American black homicide victims were killed by blacks, and the white-on-black homicide rate is extremely small). He admits that there are no black editors in the book review section of the paper (although there are in other sections), and that he didn't get any input from any black people on the graphic. 

I read enough Dutch to know that the review is, of course, sympathetic and praises the books. But you'd hardly need to read Dutch to know that. It's Charlie Hebdo redux, fortunately without the mass murder. Europeans create a caricature graphic design incorporating centuries-old tropes about how to portray black people. They are either unaware that these tropes are considered offensive in the Anglosphere, or they think the Anglosphere are a bunch of PC hypocrites who should lighten up already. The Europeans point out, correctly, that the content of the caricature or text is anti-racist. The Anglosphere, usually unable to evaluate this claim, insists that's not the point; these stereotyped depictions are inherently evil and must never be used.

A few more points about this amusing kerfluffle:

  • You may be wondering why a Dutch newspaper should be so concerned about the state of race relations in America. After all, that country is across a vast ocean. America's race relations have negligible effect on Dutch society, and Dutch people can do nothing to affect them. Yet you will find wall-to-wall coverage of American race relations in the Western European news media. To understand this, you should understand that...
  • ...a bourgeois urbanite's opinions on race relations in America are a shibboleth, just as opinions on immigration are. The idea that America is an irredeemably racist society in which helpless blacks are excluded, oppressed, and harassed at every turn is part of the standard European urban-liberal catechism. This attitude has complex roots. Partly anti-Americanism, of course. Partly a response to mindless American crowing about being the Land of Opportunity. Partly a matter of compensation: 'Sure I supported austerity for Greece, but that doesn't prove I'm a reactionary -- look at my righteous outrage about America's blacks!' Soviet bloc countries denounced American racism as a defensive counterpoint to critiques of their own human-rights failings, as does China today. Europeans who denounce US racism may also harbor genuine concern for the plight of black Americans, but I've found most of them have never taken any concrete action. In any case, one of the reasons modern European left-liberal issues loud denunciations of American race relations for the same reason frogs issue mating calls: signaling.
  • This is what makes being called out by actual black people for using offensive caricatures and language so disturbing to people like Handelsblad editors. They consider themselves to be on the right-on progressive side of the issue of race in America (as to the issue of race in the Netherlands, it's complicated. Other People's Indians, you see). It strikes at a fundamental component of their identity. It's like accusing a devout Catholic of having recited an incorrect version of the Our Father her entire life.

In any case, I predict that Anglosphere norms about how to depict people of other races will soon spread throughout Europe. The pressure of international outrage in the era of Twitter is likely to prove irresistible. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing I leave for you to hash out in comments, if you care to.


'European Awakenings' and Dead German Tourists

Following up on the last two posts, here's a term I coined a while ago: 'European Awakenings.' This refers to the eye-opening experience Europeans have encountering ghettos in the US. Europeans, you see, are fed a constant, unrelenting stream of naked propaganda about how racist the United States is, because the assumption of enduring, inherent, systematic racism of the USA is one of the fundamental building blocks of the left-liberal urban bourgeois European worldview. You know, the people who used to control what Europeans see and read.

As a result of this  world-view, African-Americans are sacralized victims. European documentary producers routinely send camera crews to rough neighborhoods and stenographically report whatever the residents have to say without any attempt at fact-checking. Reports on the place of blacks in American society are filled with errors and exaggerations like this one and this one. And the errors and exaggerations always, without exception, portray blacks as helpless, innocent victims of pervasive racism by white Americans. No unflattering portrayals of American blacks are permitted in the Northern European media.

As a result, ordinary Europeans have a thoroughly one-sided view of race relations in the US, and are unaware of facts such as the ones mentioned in the last post. This means that when Europeans visit the USA, they scoff at Americans who tell them of the potential dangers of certain neighborhoods. In fact, German tourists getting killed in Florida has become such a cliche that there's a Miami punk band named Dead German Tourists.

The ones who survive -- and, of course, most of them do -- have a 'European Awakening'.

Example: I once visited Baltimore, recently in flames and routinely among the top 5 most dangerous cities in the USA, with a couple friends, one of whom was from, say, Slovakia. Let's call him Gumbo. Like many Europeans, Gumbo is fascinated by Edgar Allan Poe, who thanks to Baudelaire is even more of an intellectual hero in Europe than the US. Gumbo wanted to visit the historic Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore.

I said 'sounds like a great idea. I'll call a cab.' He said 'No, no way. It's a nice day. I'll walk there!'

I said, 'Uhh, that might not be such a good idea.' He said: 'Why?' I said: 'Because it's in a not-very-nice neighborhood, and you'll also have to walk through some not very nice neighborhoods to get there.'

'Oh I get it, you mean black neighborhoods,' he said.

'Well, yes. Poor black neighborhoods. There are plenty of middle-class black neighborhoods in Baltimore which are fine to walk through, but these aren't.'

'Well, I have to say I think that's a bit racist of you. I'm sure nothing will happen.'

'Yes, it's 99% likely that nothing will happen to you. But this isn't Europe. If the 1% happens, the person making it happen will have a gun. Anyway, I can't stop you, so go nuts!'

So then Gumbo, with his extremely pale skin, sandals, and bulging backpack, set out on a trip through Baltimore. I made sure his cellphone was fully charged.

A few hours later he returned, safe and in one piece, but a bit shaken. I asked him how it was. He said, 'Uhh, well, I can sort of see what you mean. Lots of people pointed at me and talked to me, and I couldn't understand them, and boys on bikes were always circling around me. And I saw some things I wish I hadn't seen. Many things, actually.'

From that point on, he took my advice about which parts of American cities to not choose for a leisurely stroll.

UPDATE: Here's a website that features current warnings about dangerous parts of Houston, Texas. This helpful contribution was written by a person who actually lives in one of those areas:

Welcome to Houston , I'm a 36yro native . I grew in north and northwest houston . The Northside is low income/middle class . The worst parts of it are Northeast and Northwest .Some of the reviews are correct and some are based on opinion . I'm going to explain the inner suburbs in this region . 

...

3. White Oak Terrace * 

* denotes seriously deadly area 
A. White Oak Bayou 
B. Metro Rt 85 , 45 , 79 
Most Dangerous Streets 
Before I mention the streets , They will have * denoting very high crime and deaths . Some info will be mentioned .
I. Antoine *- Metro Rt 85, This street is very busy around the clock . It junctions with two major rail lines BNSF to the north and UP to the south . It intersects with streets listed above . It runs north to Veterans Memorial and south to Memorial Dr. . It runs through the western portion of Oak Forest near 290 in White Oak Terrace . From Pinemont intersection to intersection of South Victory across White Oak Bayou to the north is White Oak Terrace . This is very high crime area normally at night especially on the side streets . Antoine is safe . Do not get on the side streets . There are many apt clusters on this stretch that are riddled with drug trafficking , prostitution , and murder .
IA . * Desoto St. - This street is to be avoided at all costs day and night . This street is two segments . It runs west from White Oak Bayou to Antoine and from White Oak Bayou east to Ella in Acres Homes both segments are deadly to be driving on especially at night . This street is known as the most deadliest street in the city namely the western portion . It got its name and reputation from the Hurricane Katrina / Rita period when the evacs were here and the crime was high then . There would be two or three murders in a day or a week . Every night I would hear sirens going and coming . Today ,it is now drug trafficking in and out of there because of a recently rebuilt property by the city and drugs have taken it over .It got so bad that it poured into the complex I'm currently residing in . But we kicked it out before it got started . Sadly it ended up at a property across the street . Stay off Desoto St period . If you are moving do not move there . 
IB ** Antoine/Tidwell to Tidwell/Bingle - This stretch is to be extremely advoided at anytime day or night .Walking , biking or driving. If you don't live there or know someone who lives there, you don't have no business around there period . There have been many murders take place there . Summer 2012 , two people man and woman have been shot to death and there have been death by stabbing . Gangs are known to hide out there . Go on though and don't stop for anything .It is best to go through there during the day and not at night . This stretch is a cluster of apts from one intersection to another . Pay close attention to this vacinity . 
IC. * Hollyview- This street is located to the north of the property I'm currently residing in . It is a dead end street like Desoto but it curves southeast from Antoine . The last major incident that took place on this street is a police officer was gunned down in his cruiser. Over the years that have been major drug busts . It has toned down but never take it lightly that it has the potential of increased crime . The area is somewhat dark at night but there is plenty of lighting due to any old complex that was demolished by the city as an eyesore . Don't chance it with Hollyview St. Keep going . 

And here's a somewhat poetic contribution, also focusing on Desoto Street:

I am a missionary from London UK and on a Saturday evening my friend
invited me to go jogging as I did not know the area I thought it was ok but we ended up on
a park at Desoto st called Highland Park in Acres Homes I only found out later
where I was as I don't know the area and we live in some houses complex nearby
I was attacked by about 8 black youths ( I am black) my friend is white
And I was seriously assaulted I could have died, when we saw them coming
We tried walking away but 3 followed and hit me from behind.
I was shocked, so Stay Away At All Cost.
I work and leave near so I have to get the 45,40 and 44 bus but as others have 
Said if you have no business here stay away.
Not even when I was on the streets of Rio I suffered an assault like here.
Thanks and God Save America


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


'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!


German Television is 'Low-Quality Schlock for Aging Viewers'

Thomas Rogers, a writer living in Berlin, takes to the pages of the New Republic to describe the oddity of 'Wetten, Dass...?' and the crappiness of German TV in general:

...[T]he mediocrity of [German] TV—and “Wetten Dass..?” in particular—is currently a particular source of national insecurity. Whereas other European countries, like Denmark and France, have impressed international audiences with high-quality shows like “Borgen” and “The Returned,” TV in Germany remains dominated by talk shows, schlocky crime procedurals, mediocre miniseries, and, well, “Wetten Dass..?”—or as a New York Times headline from last year described it, “Stupid German Tricks.” 

...Not only does the 33-year-old “Wetten Dass..?” seem to confirm a lot of the world’s less generous stereotypes of Germans—e.g. humorless, weird, with terrible taste in formalwear—its concept is also awkwardly difficult to explain....

For Hollywood stars used to appearing on “Kimmel” or “Conan,” [Markus] Lanz’s interview techniques—which often involve commenting on female stars’ appearance—can seem jarringly unpleasant and often sexist. When a baffled-looking Cameron Diaz appeared on the show this spring, Lanz asked her to stand up from the couch so two young boys could get a kiss from “one of the most beautiful women in the world.” She instead gave them high fives and awkwardly and silently sat back down.

On a cultural level, the show has also become a symbol of Germany’s continuing struggles to create good television. As television has emerged internationally as the new medium for sophisticated storytelling, public criticisms of the show, and German TV in general, have sharpened. In 2012,Spiegel published an interview with a top German media critic under the headline “Why are German TV shows so lousy?” Unlike the U.S., television in Germany is highly subsidized by the public.

Even if you ignore stunty shows like “Wetten Dass..?,” German narrative offerings have lacked the nuance and verve of high-end British, American, or Scandinavian productions. “Tatort,” the country’s most popular program, is an uneven cop show that often feels several decades out of date, and most other fictional TV shows perpetually reshuffle a few familiar elements (blonde doctor, romantic woes, rural hospital, Bavaria). As Lothar Mikos, the media critic, told Spiegel, the problem isn’t monetary, it’s the opposite: German broadcasters’ enormous bureaucracy and generous funding have largely insulated them from the need to innovate. And since younger people tend to watch American or British shows online anyways, there’s little to dissuade networks from creating more low-quality schlock for aging viewers.

Rogers has subscribed to the donut-hole theory: Germany does highbrow really well and lowbrow OK (but who cares), but the vast middlebrow area is a wasteland.


I Have Herpes, and So Does Justine Henin, and So Do You!

And now to one of the most amusing sources of cross-cultural misunderstanding there is. One fine day, a co-worker and I were chatting in my office in German and she casually said: "Damn, my herpes is back. What do you do about your herpes? Is there some special American treatment?"

I just barely avoided a genuine, honest-to-Allah spit-take. Before I could ask what this prim, attractive member of the German haute bourgeoisie was talking about, she added "Fortunately, most of the blisters are on the inside, so it's not that embarrassing." And then she showed me what she was talking about, pointing to the location of the outbreak. I recoiled in horror, crossing my arms in front of me, as she exposed her infected...

...lips. The ones on the mouth, that is.

As you probably know, there are a few different kinds of herpes, and almost everyone carries Herpes Simplex Type I, the virus that causes blisters on the lips now and then. English speakers, in our prudish way, call these outbreaks 'cold sores'. In the English-speaking world, the word 'herpes', standing alone, refers exclusively to genital herpes, the incurable sexually-transmitted disease.

Which brings us to the tale of how Belgian tennis champion Justine Henin unwittingly became a poster girl for venereal disease. In a 2007 interview, she stated: 

Q. Weren’t you afraid that the emotional side of things would have too much influence on that match?

JUSTINE HENIN: No, I didn’t panic. I knew I was not starting that match well. I can tell you, I had a horrible night. My herpes came out again, and I said to my doctor, “Well, I see everything is fine, it’s great.”

So, really, I was a bit anxious. But also, I really wanted to do well. And very early in the match, the match turned over. And then I knew I was going to be able to keep it up until the end.

I rather doubt that Justine Henin, at the height of her career, casually confessed to millions of strangers at the French Open post-game press conference that she has genital herpes. That would be an extremely un-European thing to do.

But that is exactly how American fans interpreted it. One tennis forum entry reads: OMG!!!! Justine has herpes, while other articles praised her for her bravery and called her a 'champion' for herpes sufferers worldwide:

With six Grand Slam titles to her credit, Henin is no stranger to plaudits. But even more need to be extended to her for speaking openly about something that is the secret of so many.

With that one turn of a phrase, millions and millions of herpes sufferers now know that they are by no means alone. And with her remark, the term “Champion” fits her even to those who have no interest in professional tennis.

Another American sports outlet noted: "Henin either doesn’t mind talking publicly about her herpes, or herpes = humor in Germany." And another titled a post, "That's Right, Justine Henin has Herpes" and speculated whether her "admission" might have had something to do with her then-recent divorce.

And the legend lives on! Andrew Sullivan recently wrote something about the shame and stigma of herpes, and received the following note from a reader:

Update from a reader: As your friend Dan Savage would attest, herpes is shameful only to Americans. Justine Henin, when she was the #1 tennis player on the world, was asked why she lost a match. She very matter of factly said she had a herpes outbreak. Americans attend support groups for herpes, can you imagine an American treating herpes like the flu, something you have, not something to be ashamed of?

I've sent in a correction by email to Sullivan, but I thought a blog entry was also in order.