Saturday, December 22, 2007

Mele Kalikimaka

video

Here's wishing all of you a warm and wonderful Christmas holiday season and a great New Year that brings all the success and happiness you wish and need -

Mele Kalikimaka and Aloha, Eric

Saturday, December 15, 2007

New Website with Quiz! Auf Deutsch!

Meine neue Website zum Buch "Deutschland-Quiz" ist nun online:

www.erics-quiz.de verbindet eine Reihe von Podcasts, die Wolfgang Tischer von www.literaturcafe.de über das Buch aufgenommen hat, mit Blogeinträgen auf Deutsch von mir.

Besuchen Sie die Site!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The new book is out now!


My new book is out (in German only!): "Deutschland-Quiz: Alles, was Sie über dieses Land wissen sollten, aber nie zu fragen wagten."

Ist ein Gummibärchen koscher? Was muss ein Abgeordneter alles tun, um aus dem Bundestag rausgeschmissen zu werden? Gibt es eine geheime deutsche Weltverschörung? Hätte Hitler mit Hilfe der Juden den Krieg gewonnen? Warum wollen Deutsche lieber Indianer sein? Die Antworten zu diesen Fragen und mehr finden Sie in "Deutschland-Quiz"

Monday, November 19, 2007

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh No!


Want to know why Europe has such a hard time getting up off its ass and doing something? I call Angst Non-Fiction. Europeans and especially Germans love to face the future shaking in their boots about all the horrible things that could happen, and they spend a lot of money and time on experts who specialize in thinking up new ways to confirm their fears. Angst Non-Fiction writers are like doomsayers, with the difference that while doomsayers in America traditionally stand on the street corner and bother you though you never asked them too, Angst Non-Fiction writers are well-paid, privileged, respected and sought out. More like soothsayers, they set up their shop with a crystal ball and people pay to come in and be told how horrible life is going to work out.

One of Germany's most successful writers of Angst Non-Fiction is Frank Schirrmacher, an editor for the leading German newsdaily FAZ. A couple of years ago, Schirrmacher landed two bestsellers, one after the other, predicting that Germans will soon die out. As in all western democracies, the German population too is dwindling and the demographics show that there will soon be a surplus of (non-working) old people and not enough (working) young people. "Soon" in this scenario means several hundred years. The last time a prediction for over a hundred years based on statistics came true was... oh, wait, as far as I know no prediction of what will happen in over a hundred years based on statistics as ever come true.

The last time a German statistician predicted – again, in two bestselling books – that the Germans were going to die out was in 1925. Those classics of German Angst Non-Fiction of course didn't come true (the clean prediction of hundreds of years of non-growth was interrupted by, among other things, two world wars) but they did contribute greatly to the fears that were fanned into a nationalistic frenzy by the Nazis and others. The writer of those books, Friederick Burgdorfer, had a great career in the Third Reich and was much supported by Hitler. In Germany, writing Angst Non-Fiction is one of the few forms of populistic writing that is not only lucrative, but highly respected by the ruling elite as well as by the bug-eyed public who adore the writers for seeing so clearly and unwaveringly into the doomed future. Reagan was said to have consulted an astrologist; German politician read Angst Non-Fiction.

Now that Schirrmacher has gotten rich on predicting the extermination of all Germanness by low birthrate, he has gone on to predicting the loss of all Germanness per Internet. As an editor of the FAZ, Schirrmacher is especially concerned that the Internet will son overtake newspapers in terms of information dissemination and make his job – gasp! – superfluous. He cannot imagine a world without powerful editors in newspaper offices telling people what to think. He has invented a particularly strange reasoning why newspapers are superior to the Internet – newspapers, he says, have a 24-hour delay in which writers have time to think things over and therefore write only the truth, whereas Internet dissemination has no time for Truth.
Or course, he is assuming that his main audience consists of non-journalists. You can’t tell a real journalist that newspapers hold the Truth without getting a laugh. Every journalist knows how limited their tools are in a 24-hour news cycle - they almost never get the chance to do any real research or question what they are being told. Certainly the German press, which is often regarded as generally lazy, cannot be counted on for hard-hitting investigative journalism. Not to mention that the difference between print and Internet news is not the time you get to write, it's the time it takes to print and distribute the stuff you write. The time spent writing and researching articles for the Internet or for print is about the same.

No matter: A good Angst Non-Fiction writer can make it all sound good. In fact, German readers are so well-trained to be afraid of the future and anything new in general that they will gladly swallow anything said about the future as long as it's expressed in negative terms. As soon as you say the future looks bright, German readers say: Hey, you can't fool me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Way to Go, Holiday Inn


The Holiday Inn in Dresden sent this letter to two members of the NPD, the neo-Nazi party that holds seats in the regional government of Saxony (of which Dresden is the capitol):

NPD Fraktion in Saxony Diet
H. Apfel and A. Delle

Bernhard-von-Lindenau-Platz 1

01067 Dresden
Dresden, 18th October 2007
Re: Your room reservation in Holiday Inn Dresden

Dear Herr Apfel,

dear Herr Delle,

today we received your reservation for the 7th of November 2007 made via www.hotel.de and were surprised that you should have chosen to stay in an American hotel enterprise with a foreign-sounding name.

As you are not welcome in our house and because I cannot ask my employees to greet and serve you, we have asked www.hotel.de to cancel your reservation.

In the case that this not be possible for contractual reasons, I would like to point out to you that all proceeds taken in by our house through your custom will be donated immediately to the Dresden synagogue. Please view this as a modest compensation for the damages that your fellow ideologists did to the synagogue and to its members years ago.


A copy of this letter has been directed to the Dresden press.


In the hope that you find lodging more suitable and that we are spared your visit, we remain,

sincerely yours,

MACRANDER HOTELS GmbH & Co. KG
Johannes H. Lohmeyer

Manager

The original German text of the letter is available here: http://hpd-online.de/node/3033
This was brought to my attention by the funny, brilliant ad-copywriter Alexander Ardelean: www.ardelean.biz
If you want to congratulate Holiday Inn: info@holiday-inn-dresden.de

Monday, October 22, 2007

Brilliant New Book by Erica Fischer


Himmelstrasse - "Heaven Street", a street in Vienna - by Erica Fischer, who wrote "Aimee and Jaguar". I love this book for more than one reason, including that it is a perfect example of non-fiction using methods of narrative fiction - sharp, precise, honest, convincing,and it doesn't dip into the kind of self-justification or self-heroisation that books like James Frey's Thousand Little Pieces does. It's about two generations of family living under the shadow of the Holocaust - and how they fell apart for no reason that anyone can explain, but which, with the Holocaust in the background, almost makes sense. It has only appeared in German so far, so here are my comments in German:

Ich liebe dieses Buch - Erica Fischers "Himmelstrasse" (Fischer hat auch Aimee und Jaguar geschrieben). Es ist ein perfektes Beispiel fuer ein Sachbuch mit den Mitteln eines Romans.

Die deutsche Literatur erlebt derzeit ein kleines Hoch, angetrieben von Werken, die gleichzeitig literarisch anspruchsvoll und publikumsfreundlich sind – wenn man zu diesem Hoch nur eine Handvoll Bücher zurechnen könnte, müsste Erica Fischers Buch "Himmelstrasse" dabei sein.

Das Buch ist ein kleines Wunder – während andere Holocaust-Bücher davon leben, Schuld zu predigen, lässt Fischer den Holocaust als übermächtiger, dunkler Hintergrund fungieren. Als Kind in England hat sie selbst ihre Großeltern nie kennen gelernt, die in Treblinka ermordet wurden. Auch ihre Mutter war mit Ach und Krach aus Wien rechtzeitig geflohen. Sie sind also keine Holocaust-Opfer. Dennoch schwebt der Holocaust über sie wie ein dunkles Erbe, das sie nicht loswerden. Am Ende wird die Geschichte der Überlebenden zu einer Geschichte von gescheiterten Menschen.

Als ich das Buch weglegte, dachte ich, ich würde etwas mehr von Leben verstehen – dass das Leben etwas ist, was wir Menschen gar nicht in der Lage sind, zu bewältigen.

Fischer nimmt sich auch nicht raus – sie porträtiert sich auch schonungslos ehrlich und ohne Mitleid. Und man merkt, dass sie auch nicht genau versteht, warum ihre Mutter und ihr Bruder scheiterten. Das ist unglaublich ehrlich. Die meisten Autoren, die Holocaust-Bücher schreiben (oder auch Leidensmemoiren – in Amerika gibt es derzeit eine ganze Gattung von solchen Bauchnabelschau Epen – siehe "Tausend Kleine Scherben" von James Frey – die davon leben, zynisch auf die Tränendrüse zu drücken), machen dem Leser unterschwellig vor, dass sie wissen, was passiert ist – wer die Schuldigen sind oder wo der Fehler lag. Wer die am Tod der Großeltern schuldig war, ist klar; alles andere aber bleibt unklar. Das ist ein ehrlicher Blick auf den Zustand des Lebens, und es ist ein Blick, das die wenigsten deutschen Autoren heute sich leisten. Das macht "Himmelstrasse" zu mehr als einem Stück Zeitgeschichte – es handelt vom Leben selbst.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Dear Titta!



A reader named Titta left a long comment in my German blog and on my guest book about American attitudes toward socialism, socialized medicine and, more interestingly, about the protestant-American belief that "Life is and must always be a struggle." Comments like that always bring out the worst in me: wordiness.

So here is Titta's original comment plus my response - in German.

Lieber Eric,

Die Regierung sorgt doch nicht dafür, daß ich überlebe, sondern die Gemeinschaft der steuerzahlenden Versicherten. Was mir auffällt: den Staat setzt du (als Amerikaner) vor allem gleich mit einer Institution, die dich in deinen Freiheiten beschränkt und behindert. Für mich (als Deutsche) ist der Staat daneben vor allem eine Solidargemeinschaft. 80 Mill. Deutsche zahlen (und wer sich davor drückt, ist unsozial) in einen Pott, der mich im Zweifelsfalle eben auch absichert. Das beruhigt doch ungemein und mildert die sozialdarwinistischen Tendenzen in einer Gesellschaft.

Du schreibst, daß die us-amerikanische Wirtschaft erfolgreicher ist, weil der Amerikaner gelernt hat, daß er sich anstrengen muß um zu überleben.

Warum ist "dem Amerikaner" dieser Selbstbeweis, diese Anstrengung so wichtig? Fast klingt es, als ob Amerikaner es verwerflich fänden, nicht mehr kämpfen zu müssen. (Ein Zustand, den man übrigens Frieden nennt.) Warum ist Faulheit, zu deutsch: Müßiggang, etwas Schlechtes? Woher kommt diese Arbeitswut? Diese Glorifizierung der Anstrengung?

Ich meine das jetzt ganz naiv und nicht rhetorisch. Über eine Antwort würde ich mich sehr freuen.

P.S. Es gibt übrigens auch Stimmen, die sagen, Roosevelt (selber Milliardär) hätte damals den Erhalt des kapitalistischen Systems für die USA gesichert, da viele Amerikaner aufgrund der Wirtschaftslage schon mit anderen, sozialistischen Gesellschaftsmodellen sympathisiert hätten.

Liebe Titta:

Vielen Dank noch mal für deinen Kommentar.

Ein Missverständnis vorweg: Ich habe nicht geschrieben, dass "die amerikanische Wirtschaft erfolgreicher ist, weil der Amerikaner gelernt hat, daß er sich anstrengen muß um zu überleben", sondern, dass die meisten Amerikaner und auch sehr viele Wirtschaftwissenschaftler das glauben. Es könnte auch richtig sein, aber ich weiß es nicht. Die meisten Deutschen glauben ja sowas nicht, und trotzdem ist die deutsche Wirtschaft eine der mächtigsten auf der Welt. In solchen Fragen bin ich als Ami-in-Deutschland immer ein wenig hin und hergerissen.

Du schreibst einige Zeilen, die sehr schön sind, aber möglicherweise etwas naiv. Deine Beschreibung des deutschen Sozialstates als "eine Solidargemeinschaft" ist eine sehr gute und ästhetisch/romanisch angenehme Beschreibung und kommt auch zum Teil an die Realität ran; es gibt aber auch Stimmen, die den deutschen Sozialstaat vor allem als eine politisches Konstrukt begreifen, um die Menschen "da unten" ruhig zuhalten. Bismarck, Hitler und Adenauer haben alle ihre Sozialsysteme mindestens zum Teil so begriffen: Wenn die Deutschen rundum versorgt sind, bleiben sie auch zufrieden. In beiden Beschreibungen des Sozialstaats steckt ein Körnchen Wahrheit drin.

Doch Deine schönste Frage ist: "Warum muss das Leben ein Kampf sein?"

Dieser Satz bringt die ganze Tragödie des Lebens auf den Punkt. Nein, es gibt kein wirklich logischer Grund dafür, dass das Leben ein Kampf sein muss. Kein Philosoph, kein Prediger kann es wirklich erklären, obwohl es immer wieder versucht wird. Marx' naiver Versuch, eine utopische Welt ohne Ungerechtigkeit herzuzaubern, war gleichzeitig der Versuch, ein Leben für alle "ohne Kampf" zu schaffen. (Millionen fanden diese Idee so betörend, dass sie die Wirtschaftlichkeit der Idee nicht überprüften und gern Millionen anderer Menschen dafür in die Knechtschaft führten. Die Idee einer Welt ohne Kampf ist eine Idee, für die man gern stirbt und auch gern tötet.) Selbst im Ur-Mythos des Judentum/Christentum steckt diese Frage: Im Garten Eden war das Leben eben kein Kampf; dann kam der Sündenfall, und das Leben wurde erst zu Kampf. Die Sünde als Antwort auf diese Frage. (Es ist eine Ironie der heutigen Gesellschaft, dass wir einerseits hypermoralisch denken und gleichzeitig die alte Vorstellung von "Sünde" und "Sündenfall" ablehnen.) Und trotzdem stehst Du da heute, mitten in dem privilegiertesten und kampflosesten Ära, die es je auf Erden gab, und stellst immer noch die gleiche Frage.

Ich habe natürlich keine Ahnung, warum das Leben immer ein Kampf sein muss, aber ich habe noch nie im Leben etwas ohne ein Kampf erreicht, ob es der Kampf um die Achtung einer Frau war (schönste Frau auf der Halloween Party Oktober 1995, 2 Uhr morgens), der Kampf gegen meine Faulheit (erste und bis jetzt einziger Marathon, Berlin 2005) oder ob es um die Verwirklichung eines Traums ging (Die Nibelungenreise, 2002). Vielleicht gibt es Menschen, die das Leben ohne Kampf meistern – die Brad Pitts und Claudia Schiffers dieser Welt, die Hilton- und Kennedy-Erben und die Kronprinzen Englands, oder auch die paar Menschen, die mit so wenig zufrieden sind, dass sie ihr Lebensglück schon im Sozialamt finden – aber für 99% der Menschheit trifft das nicht zu. Und immer, wenn an ein bisschen mehr hat, als das, was einem geschenkt wird, stellt sich irgendwann heraus – ich weiß auch nicht, warum – dass man mit sich selbst, mit widrigen Umständen oder mit einem Konkurrenten dafür kämpfen muss.

Würde sich das mit einer flächendeckenden Sozialfürsorge ändern? In einem utopischen System, wo jedem Menschen automatisch jeden Lebenswunsch erfüllt wird? Rein vom materiellen Potential ist es ja möglich – wenn die Reichen genug von ihrem Reichtum abgeben wurden (Hmm… dass muss ich korrigieren – auch wir Nicht-Reichen-Aber-Gut-Versorgten müssten einiges abgeben – das könnte ein Problem werden), wenn der Überfluss besser verteilt wäre. Als Junge hätte ich es gern gehabt, wenn ich nach Abschluss der Schule zum "Amt für einen Erfüllten Leben" hätte gehen und dort ein Formular ausfüllen können, auf dem ich mein Wunsch bekannt gebe, Autor zu sein. Theoretisch wäre es möglich, dass der Staat ein wenig Geld abzweigt, um mir meine Bücher zu drucken und zu verteilen. Da hätte ich nicht 25 Jahrelang darauf hinarbeiten müssen, Ideen und einen Schreibstil zu finden, die einem Verlag mehr ansprechen als die Ideen und der Stil irgendeines anderen Autors – meiner unsichtbaren, immer präsenten Konkurrenten.

Die Idee ist schön, aber in der Realität hat es nie eine funktionierende Utopie gegeben. Und das ist das Problem mit der Idee eines Lebens ohne Kampfes. Immer wieder zeigt die Erfahrung, dass das illusorisch ist. In meinem Lebenswünsch-Erfüllungs-Utopie würde irgendwann das Geld nicht ausreichen, jedem Autor sein Wunsch zu erfüllen. Da muss man eine Auswahl treffen. Die Menschen, die die Auswahl treffen, haben aber eigene Interessen und Geschmäcker. Sie müssen sich zum Beispiel mit ihrem Arbeitgeber gut stellen – mit dem Staat. Die Führer des Staates haben auch eigene Interessen. Das ist im Wesentlichen wie eine Diktatur fällt: Wenn alles von oben – von einer Partei – gesteuert wird, ist Wichtigste immer, sich mit der Partei gutzustellen, und Leistung ist nicht so wichtig. Ein Verlag verlegt Bücher, die von Menschen ausgesucht werden, die ihren Chefs aber nicht unbedingt dem Bücherkäufer, gefallen wollen. (So funktioniert der heutige deutsche Kulturbetrieb – wie viele der etwa 100 jährlich produzierten deutschen Filmen sehen Sie jedes Jahr? Wie viele von ihnen nehmen Sie überhaupt jedes Jahr wahr?) Irgendwann wird weniger Geld umgesetzt; da merkt die Partei, das Geld muss irgendwo anders her, sonst stirbt die Utopie, und woher soll es schon kommen? Die Bürger werden geschröpft. Da wird der Traum vom Leben ohne Kampf zum Kampf um das Überleben.

Das kapitalistische System ist alles anders als utopisch: Es ist dreckig und gemein und hält nicht viel von dem Guten im Menschen. Deswegen gehen keine idealistischen junge Menschen auf die Straße, um für Kapitalismus zu demonstrieren – Kapitalismus befriedigt unsere christlich/romantische Idealen nicht, und diese sind uns wichtiger als harte Realität.

Doch Kapitalismus, mitsamt seiner Ungerechtigkeiten, funktioniert – und zwar schon seit dem Mittelalter, als die Hansa und die Fugger und wie sie all hießen den Adel in die Knie zwangen und das vordemokratischen Bürgertum ins Leben riefen (man sagt heute, die Engländer haben Kapitalismus erfunden, aber da würde die deutsche Hansa nicht mit übereinstimmen).

Die ewig wiederkehrende Frage ist: Wie kann man das kapitalistische System so regeln, damit es einerseits die Menschen nicht ausbeutet, während man das System andererseits nicht so übermäßig regelt, dass es nicht mehr funktionieren kann. (Und machen Sie sich keine Illusionen – Deutschland, dieses wunderbare, christusähnliche soziale Gemeinschaft, ist nur deswegen so erfolgreich, weil es voll überzeugte Kapitalisten – alles, was man heute in Deutschland hat, einschließlich den Luxus eines Sozialstaates, wäre nicht da, wenn es nicht die Herren Siemens, Henkel, Daimler und wie sie alle hießen gegeben hätte.)

Das ist die einzige Frage, wirklich: Eine Frage des Grades. Wie viele Beschränkungen und Abgaben kann man von den Arbeitgebern verlangen, bis die Wirtschaft drunter leidet? Wie viel Sicherheit kann man dem Bürger bieten, ohne dass es ihm so gut geht, dass er gar nicht mehr arbeitet? Wie viel Kampf ist notwendig, wie viel darf man dem einzelnen abnehmen? Das ist die Frage, mit der man in Deutschland und auch in Amerika ringt. (Die Deutschen glauben, in Amerika herrscht der ungebändigte "Dschungelkapitalismus" – stimmt nicht. Unsere Anti-Kartellgesetze zum Beispiel waren ungleich härter als die in Deutschland, wo die EU immer noch kartellähnliche Strukturen abzubauen versucht.)

Deutschland und Amerika Ringen beide immer wieder um den richtigen Maß, aber jedes Land sieht die Antwort aus einer anderen Perspektive. In Deutschland, wo man eine tausendjährige Tradition vom fürsorgenden Obrigkeit hinter sich hat, neigt man dazu, den Arbeitgeber eher zu beschränken als in Amerika. Dadurch entsteht ein exzellentes Gesundheitssystem und sowas Geniales wie Mitbestimmung am Arbeitsplatz. Allerdings ist es auch teuer, und das Sozialsystem hat auch Mitschuld an der hohen Arbeitslosigkeit und langsamer wirtschaftlicher Dynamik des Landes.

In Amerika ist es genau anders rum. Wir verachten die Abhängigkeit des Einzelnen vom Staat und sehen den Erfolg, der nach einem individuellen Kampf kommt, als Erfüllung an. Aus diesem Grund stehen wir einem Sozialstaat grundsätzlich skeptisch gegenüber (auch, wenn auch wir einen haben). Die Nachteile sind bekannt: Ein schlechtes Gesundheitssystem, viel Armut, etc.

Es ist eine Gratwanderung. Wir sprechen immer vom Kampf Sozialimus vs. Kapitalismus, aber das ist nur Polemik. Amerika wird nie zu einem "wirklich freien Markt" und Deutschland wird nie zu einem "wirkliche sozialistischen Land." Die einziger echte Frage ist: Mehr Versorgung und weniger Marktfreiheit oder weniger Versorgung und mehr Marktfreiheit?

Trotzdem sehen die meisten Amerikaner im Kampf eine Art Heil des Einzelnen, und jeder von uns hat eine tierische Angst davor, "satt" zu werden und nicht mehr konkurrieren – nicht mehr kämpfen zu können ("Bleib hungrig!" ruft man sich zu – es ist ein Erfolgsformel). Das beleidigt Ihr deutsches "Wir sind eine Gemeinschaft"-Gemüt, aber wir sind so, und wir sind bis jetzt besser damit gefahren als die Europäer.

Ein häufiges Gesprächsthema am Esstisch in meiner Familie war: Wie fällt ein Reich? Nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg wurden wir zu einem Weltreich (Die Europäer mit ihren romantischen Ideen von Kultur und Krieg haben es uns im Grunde geschenkt), und sofort fing man an, sich darüber Sorgen zu machen, dass das Reich wieder fällt, wie alle Weltreiche irgendwann fallen müssen. Bestsellertitel waren: "Der Aufstieg und Fall des Dritten Reiches" und "Der Aufstieg und Fall Roms." Und Kindern werde immer wieder eingeprägt: "Rom fiel, weil sie fett, satt und schwach wurde. Man schwelgte in Luxus, man musste nicht mehr kämpfen, man bildete sich ein, nicht kämpfen zu müssen. Da erschienen die Barbaren vor den Toren und die Roemer konnten sich nicht wehren." (Wenn Sie diese Esstischgespräche nie miterlebt haben, können Sie nicht verstehen, welche apokalyptischen Visionen uns Amerikaner nach dem 11. September heimgesucht haben – da braucht man sich nicht wundern, das man überreagiert hat).

Wie viel von dem Romvergleich stimmt? Wie viel davon ist nur Paranoia? Das weiß kein Mensch. Das braucht auch Dich als Deutsche nicht zu kümmern. Für Dich ist die einzige wichtige Frage: Wie viel Utopie kann sich Deutschland leisten? Ab wann schwanken die sozialen Privilegien vom Vorteil zum Nachteil? Keiner verlangt von Deutschland, dass es so weit in die eine Richtung geht wie Amerika. Aber es wäre nicht schlecht, wenn auch die Deutschen ab und zu ihre naiv-romantischen utopischen Vorstellungen von pseudo-christlicher Totalversorgung hinterfragen. In dieser Beziehung sind die Deutschen ebenso naiv wie mancher Amerikaner, der glaubt, nur im totalen, freien Kapitalismus ist eine Gesellschaft funktionsfähig.

Und jetzt bist Du wieder dran – bis dann Aloha, Eric

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Art of the (German) Gang bang


There's an old saying: Nothing draws a community closer together than a good gang bang.

That is certainly true in Germany, where an idea – sometimes smart, often stupid, almost always in some way threatening to Germans – can become a kind of national hysteria overnight. The media concentrate all their efforts on it – the subject pops up endlessly in the news, in the talk shows, in the headlines. You can hear the idea in every party, in every bar, in every family, often repeated with a rush of anger and indignation:

The French are destroying our beloved culture (19th century)! The Jews are taking over (20th century)! The Americans are taking over (20th/21st centuries)! Bush is the devil (21st century)!

When that happens, it's amazing how little dissent there is. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon, making the idea seem so clearly correct that no one bothers to question it anymore, and it becomes a national obsession. It's amazing how universal the consensus becomes. In America, when an issue is controversial, here is still usually a pro and con of close to 50/50. During the Bush gang bang, about 80% of Germans thought he was the devil personified. (Of course you could mention the Red Scare as a good example of an American gang bang, but even then, I would guess that there were more than 20% dissenters.)
It's amazing how much a people can think of themselves as logical, deep-thinking and emotionless and at the same time whip themselves into hysteria. Especially when it's about things that are wholly insignificant in every way:

1. The Eva Herman gang bang.

Eva Herman is a TV talkshow host who – in a country where the media is definitely dominated by liberals – discovered the Germany, too, has what we Americans call a Silent Majority" – a large rural population with very conservative views. To capitalize on this surprisingly big crowd, she wrote a couple of anti-feminist reactionary books calling for women to return to home-making. The outrage in the liberal media was amazing. Everyone hated her. The consensus that she was stupid and evil was so universal that it was hard to explain who was buying her books, which were bestsellers. Recently, she was dumb enough to give them an excuse to jump on her: She said "At least the Nazis did something to support families."

It was a stupid remark (Myself, I don't think she's a Nazi, though clearly she is a reactionary, a wannabe demagogue and not too bright), and it was exactly what people were waiting for: In the press she was immediately portrayed as a Nazi and fired from her job at a state broadcaster and uninvited to talkshows where she could have explained herself. She immediately apologized and rightly pointed out that he had made in clear in (unquoted) parts of her comments that she in no way wanted to justify the Nazis, but it was too late. Now she is one of the most hated people in the media and also in the country. 2. The Scientology gang bang.

There are about 7000 Scientologists in Germany, a country of 82 million. They have about as much influence and clout as a cigarette butt. But they are always at the top of the news. Even when they don't do anything: According to politicians and TV commentators, they are trying to infiltrate the economy and the government, they are opposed to democracy and trying to turn Germany into a Scientology dictatorship. It's amazing how evil and dangerous such a tiny, insignificant group can be, and everyone believes it when it's stated on TV or by authority figures. (Or course, the established churches, which have successfully infiltrated the government and economy thousands of years ago and have successfully put an end to any attempts to separate church and state in Germany, are the most vocal opponents of Scientology, but that's to be expected: They have to protect their near-monopolies against competitors.) The German "constitutional police" have been observing Scientology for years and have never found a reason to take them to court or to accuse them of anything, but that doesn't stop politicians from screaming out dire warnings of a soon-to-come Scientology dictatorship. It's amazing. When Scientologist Tom Cruise wanted to make a film in Germany about a national German anti-Nazi hero, people in all seriousness discussed whether they could allow that to happen. Even when that controversy died down (a few months ago) and most people made an about-face and agreed that Tom Cruise was not the Devil Incarnate, the fear of Scientology wasn't allowed to flag – and continues to make headlines and to be featured in talk shows on state-run TV.

There are a lot of weird things going on in the world today, and frankly the world could use German help once in a while. Myanmar, Iran, Iraq, the future of the European Union – all these things could use a little German elbow grease. But that would mean joining a rational international dialogue, committing oneself to do something and perhaps making mistakes. Instead, Germans prefer to whip themselves into mini-rages over things that are blatantly unimportant.

But neither the Scientology nor the Eva Herman hysterics are not about politics. It' about the feeling the country has as they communally jump her bones – they feel vindicated, they feel together, they are on a kind of high, they feel they are all doing something to defend their community (and the entire world, of course – Germans always feel they are saving the world from something). It's a kind of animalistic, national community high that they just can’t resist.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Arrogance Can Be Art, Too


On my flight back from the US I read – in one swoop Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."

I loved it, I ate it up, it's page-turner, it's relevant to our post-9/11 times, it is a book that understands life – the despair, yet, at the end of it, the tendency of human life to somehow go in, not necessarily to conquer evil in a utopian sense of banishing it from our souls, but in the sense that the good, though it sometimes seems to be banished, is only hibernating, and always returns.

Then I thought twice about it. That's when a bad aftertaste manifested itself on my tongue.

McCarthy's book, as is most his writing, is most notable for its outright literariness. He doesn't put dialogue in quotation marks. He leaves out apostrophes. He creates new nouns by combining adjectives with nouns. At times he remains very abstract, not even giving his main characters names, then he turns around and explains mechanical processes, like lighting a kerosene light, savoring little-known technical words that sound good and that he probably got out of a thesaurus or manual. All that is literary. It's more than that: it's the signals of literariness. It like wearing a button on your lapel: Vote for Clinton, I Am Christian, I am A Vegan, or an AIDS ribbon. It tells people, in case they had doubts, that this is literature.

Whenever I see something like that, I play a little game with myself. I mentally strip away the literary signals and ask myself if it's still literature underneath. (I tend to do that with people who wear "I Am Christian" buttons, too: I wonder just how much I can rust that person to really act like a Christian and not just dress up like one.)

Stripped of its literary signals, does the "The Road" still hold up to its reputation, or does it turns out to be just another apocalypse story?

I come from science fiction. I have read and watched more than my share of apocalypse stories. Just recently I saw on TV ten minutes of the reputedly awful move "Reign of Fire," about dragons ruling the earth and destroying humankind. It's a parable of any kind of apocalypse and the story, even the little part I saw, included the traditional elements of despair and hope and the question of whether goodness can triumph in the end. In fact, those elements pretty much crop up in all apocalypse stories. Come to think of it, other apocalypse stories I have read were – taking just the story, not the buttons – more impressive than "The Road." Most impressive of all for me was Delany's most-modern masterpiece Dhalgren.

Sitting there watching ten minutes of "Reign of Fire," I realized that if you take the Road out of the literary setting and put it into the genre setting, it comes out lacking. It contributes nothing to the genre. In fact, in genre terms it's a step backward. In the literary world it won the Pulitzer Prize, but in the genre world it can best be described as stealing ideas that other genre writers invented long before and going nowhere new with them.

That bugs me. It's like Roy Lichtenstein. He doesn’t actually crate image, he repackages them for a high-culture audience and gets all the praise and money, while the comic book artists who created the images are forgotten. Sure, Lichtenstein added a sense of irony, as McCarthy added a sense of literariness, but it still stinks. Mainly it stinks of arrogance: "The Road" is about a literary author who basically disrespects genre writing so much and thinks himself so superior that he says to himself, "I'm going to write an apocalypse story the way it should be written." Then he writes something that has been written a thousand times before, but he gets the credit – the Pulitzer - , as if all the guys who went before and invented the genre – a gene that in popular film and books has contributed far more to the way the world thinks than a literary novel ever could – were just there to feed him ideas.

That's the bad taste I feel in my mouth now.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

THE TWO LAWS OF SCHELMUFFSKY



If you want to know just how conformist, submissive, rule-servile, uninventive and downright boring we have become, read the following two books at the same time: "Absurdistan" and "Schelmuffsky."

Absurdistan is a current bestselling comic novel about a fat (they're always fat) Jewish Russian and his misadventures in Russia and the US. It has "creative writing course" stamped all over it. It's in the sentences: author Gary Shteyngart positively strains to turn out well-formed sentences, like Michael Chabon and like most American writers writing today. They are grammatically correct, touched with a tinge of irreverence of the kind that might send an appealing tingle of shock through the fragile spines of upper middle class women at reading groups. Then he goes on and on about it. Scenes don't end. Over-ambitious similes take over.

"Rain fell like pin-pricks on his cheek." Do we need a sentence like that in a comic novel? Do we need a simile at all? Strained similes like this remind me of John Gardner, that stuck-up pseudo-elitist writing teacher who recommended "original, unusual" similes and metaphors in his classic book On Writing Fiction. Whenever I read a simile like that that the book can do without, I think of Gardner and I wonder if the author like Shteyngart isn't more interested in impressing his creative writing instructor than in writing a scene, much less a funny scene. Jesus Christ, just say it's raining and get it over with. Is the big thing the raindrops, or is the big thing the story… whatever that may be? "Pinprick raindrops" might in some cases establish a dramatic atmosphere, but here it is unnecessary and strained and that goes for about 75% of all his sentences. And In the above paragraphs you can replace the name Shteyngart with almost any name out there today.

At the same time I read "Schelmuffsky", a thin comic/picaresque novel from the 17th century that best translates from the German as "Rascalsky", which is the name of the main character. It's not a classic and it's not really a good book. The main attribute was that the author Christian Reuter seemed to start off in comic directions but stopped before going all the way. The absurdist elements were punchlines, not springboards to further absurdity.

But even then, Schelmuffsky was ten times better and far more absurder than Absurdistan. The way Reuter did it, without doing anything special, really, shows up our modern literature for just how unadventurous it really is:

1. Reuter doesn’t give a damn about grammar. This is typical for his pre-dictionary time (and for other classics, including Grimmelshausen and English writers of the day) and it gives his sentences a crazy, veering, careening life of their own. It starts with the (sub)title: "The curious and dangerous Travelogue." How can a travelogue be dangerous? It can't. It doesn't matter. It just sounds better, and funnier, than "The dangerous travels" or "Description of a dangerous journey." And come to think of it, who cares that it's "wrong"? Nowadays we over-schooled writers are so afraid of making a grammatical mistake that our prose becomes stiff and lifeless, every sentence cowering before the assumed scrutiny of our high school English teachers. All this right-and-wrong grammar stuff is nothing but modern-day literary Prussianism.

2. Reuter is not afraid of extreme absurdity. I know of no novel today that dares to be so ridiculous. While Tristram Shandy opened and closed from the womb, Schelmuffksy also starts in the womb than describes how a giant rat ran under the dress of his sister and into a "hole", causing his mother to faint and remain unconscious for a few days, causing him, after a few days of no food, to crawl out of his mother's womb with mature faculties, meaning he can speak and think as an infant – and immediately he gets into a confrontation with and triumphs over the village priest before waking his mother. It goes on and on like that. The only absurd thing about the hero of Absurdistan is that he is obese. Okay, fine, who cares? Why are there no adventuresome authors out there today? Reuter cold have gone another step or to beyond what he did, but he went a huge step beyond what we do today.

These, then, are the Two Comic Laws of Schelmuffsky: 1) Forget the pretty sentences already, and 2) go one step beyond.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Historia of Faustus Chapter 5


THE HISTORIA OF FAUSTUS

V.
Doktor Faust's Third Disputation and Pact made with the Spirit, Who was called Mephostophiles

As for the devilish pact, it came about in this way:

Doktor Faustus required the spirit to appear before him on the next morning, commanding him to come, whenever he was called, in the guise of a Franciscan Monk and always with a little bell so that by the sound of the bell it might be known when he was approaching. Then Faust asked the spirit his name, and the spirit answered:
"Mephostophiles."

In that hour, the godless man, seduced by pride, arrogance and transgression, cut himself off wholly from God and the Creator to become a liegeman of the abominable Devil.

Then, in order that these two wicked parties might contract one with another, Doktor Faust took a penknife, pricked open a vein in his left hand in order to make a contract with the evil spirit in his own blood. Even then in the last moments of hope for his Christian soul did God send him a warning, for there on the skin of his arm even as he pricked the vein did appear graven and bloody words, dancing there as if they were alive: o homo fuge--id est: o mortal fly from him and do what is right! But this warning, too, Faust ignored, and instead drained his blood into a crucible and set it on some hot coals. Then he sat at his desk and wrote on a piece of parchment with his own blood the words that here follow:

To be continued…
(For Chapters 1-4, see The Faust Rewrite Project)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How Not to Be Successful in America


If there's one thing that is and will always remain a constant in America's international relationships, it's the much-loved habit of other countries to underestimate the USA.

The Korean film industry has been booming for some time and now it has made its first major sally into the American market with "Dragon Wars", a big special effects movie based on a Korean legend. It has just opened to horrible reviews.

I wish the film and the Koreans in general success – not only would success inject the Korean entertainment industry with a dose of fresh adrenalin, Hollywood and America in general have always profited from outside influences.

But I was skeptical in advance, when I read a statement from the producer on the formula for movie success in America. He said: “The secret is to move beyond the melodrama that characterizes so many Korean films. They don’t understand that to be commercial in the U.S., you need great action and effects.”

Ah, but that's not the secret. In fact it's just the opposite: It is a gross underestimation of the American public. In fact, most outsiders underestimate the American public when it comes to Hollywood. Just like most European think westerns are just patriotic action movies and nothing more (the opposite is true, of course), they also believe that Americans are a bit stupid and only want violence and effects in their movies. That's partly because they want to believe that, it's also partly because they don't watch closely enough.

You can see that in Germany. Every once in a while, Germany produces an international English-language movie, most recently "The Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer", and usually it goes completely wrong. And they don’t know why. It's because they think American audiences are unsophisticated. Bernd Eichinger's big budget "The House of Spirits" in the nineties was chock full of Hollywood stars including Meryl Streep. I knew it would fail when in one scene, portraying a national election in South America, there was a banner strung across the street calling for the people to vote – in English. I cringed, as did most Americans. Why would a Spanish-speaking town put up a sign in English? Eichinger's thinking was most likely: "These Americans don’t speak any foreign languages, so they won’t like it if the sign is in Spanish."

In a made-for-German-audience TV-movie about the American "air bridge" that saved Berlin from a Soviet embargo in the 40's, an American officer played by Heino Ferch took out his gun in a hanger and shot into the roof to call for attention. For the Germans (the film was made for Germans, so it didn’t matter), this was a perennial American act: big, boisterous, violent, larger than life. As an American, I cringed. Sure, in a saloon in the Wild West that might have been possible, but in the US army, that has more rules that a Prussian officer has gold bangles? The officer would have been put under arrest in a second. We know that, as we know the rules for the very different Western and WWII genres, but the Germans think it's all the same.

Another German cliché about intellectually inferior American audiences is that they don’t like subtitles. Of course, "Star Wars" wouldn’t have been the hit it was, if it was all in subtitles, but once you produce a really good film, like "Run Lola Run" or "The Lives of Others," that hit a nerve, they work with subtitles. As did the recent subtitled hits of Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood and Ang Lee. "Americans don’t go to movies with subtitles" is just one of many ways to underestimate the American audience.

As far as special effects go – Korean and Germans are so impressed by special effects that they can't see beyond them. In fact, it's never really about special effects, it's about the American fascination with the New. They want to see something they haven't seen before. Once they've seen it, it grows old, just as CGI effects are growing old now, and they want to see something even newer. The fascination with the new is what makes the American economy so dynamic and the American audience so hard to please.

What neither Koreans nor Germans understand (with some remarkable exceptions) is the Anglo-American narrative tradition. It's a tradition of plot-based story-telling that goes back to Chaucer and has remained unique all that time. Campbell in his "Hero of a Thousand Faces" claimed that all myth had the same narrative backbone, but it's the English who launched a way of telling stories that installed meaning and statement in a plot that appeal to the masses. This is the narrative tradition that Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle and Hollywood have in common. But it's about more than just action or suspense.

Of course, even American producers underestimate their own audience. For every hundred films they produce, only ten or so are any good, I would estimate. So the odds were against a single Korean movie entering the marketplace anyway. But still, the "dumb-Americans-will-go-see-anything-with-explosions-in-it" attitude betrays an overblown sense of self-importance that is in the end self-defeating. Anyone who really knows the market could have told the producer that films like "Reign of Fire" and "Dungeons and Dragons" proved that special effects are not enough. Still producers keep making movies that assume their audiences are idiots.

I wish the Koreans good luck. But I wish both them and the Germans and others that they will someday take their audiences seriously.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Farewell, Mirek Nahacz


I've been trying for a while now to find out for sure how Mirek Nahacz died, why, and whether his fourth book is being published. But the Polish media seem to have dropped the story after the initial reports in July that is was suicide and besides, I can't read Polish, so the end of his story will remain closed to me as if it had happened on another planet, just as I will never know his books, which were never translated into English.

In the last days of July, they found his body in his apartment in Warsaw. Though I waited a while to find out more details and asked a Polish-speaking friend to comb the papers for additional news, all I could out was that the police believe it was suicide. I will probably never know more. The language barrier is complete. I will never know what happened; I will never know what happened to his girlfriend or speak to her; I will never know if his fourth book was published or will be published or if it worked out to be the masterpiece he wanted it to be.

I liked Mirek and I was jealous of him, too. I liked him because, from talking to him in his broken English, it seemed that he had a similar taste in literature as I did. He liked the American post-modernists; we were both fans of John Barth; he liked the beat generation more than I did, especially William Burroughs. I asked him about his new novel, the one he was working on – his fourth – and I liked what he said.

It was to be a science fiction novel with a real page-turning plot and written in a prose style with high literary standards. I too had always dreamed of that: combining the genre adventures I loved like Tolkien and Conan the Barbarian and all those things with a literary quality that lifted them up to the level of Shakespeare (after all – in a way, isn't that what Shakespeare did?). Though I could not read his books and never will be able to, I felt I was speaking with a kindred spirit. And I felt that perhaps he would succeed. That gave me hope, for I knew that I would never succeed in that one goal.

And I was jealous of him. I was jealous of his gung-ho, all-or-nothing personality. He would drink early in the morning. At night I would hear techno music blaring in his room. He would write all day and all night and then he would go out and party hard. He was a full-our worker and a full-out partier. He was extreme and radical and never let up, made no excuses, made no compromises, took no prisoners. I always wanted to be like that and never could.

You can say: "Yeah, but look, now he's dead and you're alive," but that makes no difference. He was still the kind of writer I wanted to be.

Now he is gone, disappeared behind a language barrier that will forever hide him from me. Goodbye, Mirek. I wish I could have known more of you.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

New Book and Aloha till August


Some idiot politician wants to ban Germany's top rap artist. German pop star Herbert Grönemeyer goes to court to stop the freedom of the press and wins. Germany thinks of itself as a socialistically progressive country but still it doesn't have a minimum wage. Plenty to blog about, but no time: I am sitting on the final draft of my new book, "Deutschland-Quiz", due out in November (Amazon site here), and I probably won't have time to return to bogging till August. Aloha till then, people.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Is War Good For You?


Here's a strange-but-true comment on the human condition.

In an article about researching moral behavior in chimps (did you know a chimp will drown trying to save another chimp from drowning?), the primatologist Frans de Waal is quoted as noting that morality may have its evolutionary roots in the tribe closing together to fend off another tribe. I.e., we only realized we needed each other – and needed to watch over one another – when we began noticing that members of other groups were picking us off.

De Waalis is quoted as writing, "The profound irony is that our noblest achievement — morality — has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior — warfare. The sense of community required by the former was provided by the latter."
So the question is: Is warfare necessary to our character? Are warmongers, by throwing us into hellish destruction at regular interval, doing us all a favor in evolutionary terms?
What happens if mankind really does, some day, succeed in ending warfare – do we all become selfish bastards? Do we ultimately, in some distant evolutionary future (hey, if we made it this far from the chimp stage, why can’t we keep on going just as long?) forget how to love?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Is Reality Stranger Than Fiction?

Now that the German version of American Idol (Deutschland sucht den Superstar) is over, I have to say, I'm more impressed than I ever thought I would be. It proves that reality TV can be great art. Even better: i proves that reality can be great art, and here are my two reasons: Dieter Bohlen and Dog.

In Germany we don't get many American reality shows, so I can’t judge whether Brigitte Nielsen or others are as good as "Dog", the cool white trash bounty hunter who runs around Hawaii with a holster by his side full of pepper spray. But he's good.

Germany has a similarly brilliant reality-TV star. His name is Dieter Bohlen. He is a former pop star, a multi-millionaire record producer and such a superficial, egomanical, stupid and conceited and nasty-minded creep that all of Germany hates him. And as a character, he could not have been written better by Shakespeare himself. Bohlen rules the jury of "Deutschland sucht das Superstar" (the German edition of "American Idol") and is known for his cruel, heartless, under-the-belt put-downs of badly-singing would-be candidates in the first phase of the show, when literally thousands of completely untalented people appear in front of the cameras and sing in a truly horrible way. Every time the show starts up with a new season, media (and moral) watchdogs get upset about Bohlen. Church leaders tell the press that he should be forbidden, that how he treats these poor kids (of course, clearly these poor kids know they will be meeting up with Bohlen when they come to audition – if that doesn't say something about the human condition, what does?).

But the truth is, Bohlen is a modern Archie Bunker or "Ekel Alfred" as the German knew that character. He is George Costanza, Ed Bundy, Mister Bean, he is everything that is horrible and disgusting about us human beings, but he does it with a bizarre charm and is, most ironically of all, incredibly successful with it. If he were a character in a sitcom, no one would complain (well, that's not strictly true: they complained about Ed Bundy and Ekel Alfred too). But no writer out there could write Dieter Bohlen. That's what's so great about him: He's a real life satire, and satire is all the most painful when it's real. Dog is the same way. He's not Archie Bunker, he's a white trash comic book superman, full of sympathy with his poor clients who are too stupid to even skip bond and get away with it. He always has a sermon on his lips for them, and he's so American in his chauvinistic self-confidence – he knows the difference between right and wrong, yet he's merciful and good, he's part comic book super-hero, part country sheriff, part Sunday school teacher and part… well, modern America.

People talk a lot about how reality TV has brought down the level of culture in the world, but I disagree: it is art, and, because it goes to the heart of who we are now (which is the real reason everyone claims to hate it), it is far better art than most everything else out there.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Ah, the Silence, the Silence!

If there is one constant in the German character, it is the complete lack of constancy. Or, to be more exact: Once the Germans have taken up a position, opinion or project, you can count on them, after only a short time, to rush frantically from it to the exact opposite and, after another short period, back again, and to always swear total conviction and confidence in the absolute truth, reality and necessity of each opposite side of anything for the time they spend there.

Goethe said "Two souls live in my breast". One could also say: In like a lion, out like a lamb." (Didn't Thomas Mann say something to that effect after Germany started portraying itself as a victim following WWII?) It's always either top of the world or bottom of it with these guys.

Only about a year ago, leading German politicians were out trying to get votes based on complaining about international investors (often the notorious hedge funds) coming into little helpless Germany, buying up their good, clean companies, slimming them down (meaning, in some cases at least, firing all unnecessary personnel in an attempt to make the companies profitable to they could pay the wages of the remaining personnel) and selling them again for a profit. They called these investors "locusts," and most of the "locusts they mentioned by name were American. The newspapers for the most part followed suit and agreed with the politicians.

But when, a couple of months ago, Stuttgart-based DaimlerChrysler fired 13,000 workers in America, the newspapers were full of reports that Chrysler (referred to as the American company, as if it had not been under German management for m any years now) was losing money and may rightfully have to be sold. I didn’t read the word "locust" anywhere. For about twenty years now, I have been listening to Germans complain about American pollution of the environment (which is true and a valid complaint). But when reports came out that German companies are among Europe's worst polluters, that German cars were also among the worst environment0wise (during the Berlin film festival, Hollywood stars like Jennifer Lopez refused to be driven around in the usual limos, because the German sponsors had no hybrids, so they chose the only car on the list of almost-environmentally-friendly cars, the tiny, rattling VW Polo) air polluters of the world, the report kind of came and went. The Greenpeace report complained specifically that though German helped develop the environmentally-friendly hybrid engine, German automakers didn’t use them (as Asian carmakers do). To be fair, since the recent reports on the greenhouse effect, German politicians have begun talking about their nation's cars, finally – but where were they over the last ten years? Too busy boasting, I suppose, that they had stuck with the Kyoto Protocoll even though America bowed out of it.

And then there's this minimum wage thing. I can't believe this discussion is even happening. You remember back in the Clinton days, when the economy was recovering and nearly everyone in America was employed? When reports to that effect appeared in the German papers, they were full of disparaging remarks to the effect that, "Yeah, but those are cheap jobs at minimum wage, you can’t live on that, it's not really low unemployment, it's just exploitation." Back then, I was a little naïve and didn’t question what the German papers reported. If I had, I would have found out what they neglected to mention, namely that Germany doesn't even have a minimum wage and that there's a huge spectrum of jobs that pay much less than the American minimum wage. In fact, one of the reason the German unemployment rate is constantly bouncing between 12% and 14% is that it is more lucrative in many cases to stay on unemployment than to work a low-paid job.

Now, German politicians are once again discussing whether they should institute a minimum wage (no one really wants to and it now looks like it won’t happen), and the Clinton-bashing is forgotten. But don’t get me wrong: This tendency of Germans to go back and forth is so reliable that if you hear them complain about some stupid thing – for example, that Americans are taking over the German economy and making all the rules and exploiting the European Union, or that Americans are bombing another renegade nation and acting as if they were the World Police and if they keep it up they will start World War III.

All you have to do is wait a while, and it will swing back in the opposite direction: Within a year or so, the Germans will be praising the Americans for some kind of support they got from the US, or remembering the days when America saved Berlin from starvation with the Air Bridge, or they will complain that America isn’t doing enough to solve the problems in the Middle East or in Sudan or somewhere else.

It's been weeks now since I heard a single German complain about the Americans polluting the environment or exploiting the German worker or anything like that. It will swing back again, of course, but right now I'm enjoying the silence.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Greatest City in the World

The votes are in and it's true: Berlin is the greatest city in the world.

I've lived here so long that it's hard for me to judge anymore, but last night I sat down with a newly immigrated English mother of two by the name of Sarah (well, she's been here a couple of years) and was surprised at the sheer unequivocal-ness of her endorsement. "I can honestly say I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else", she said. "If it were up to me, I would live here all my life."

Her points:

- It's a great place to raise children. Germans themselves will never tell you this, they think all Germans and Germany in general is anti-children, but it's not true. The subways have elevators, the buses have steps that tip down. Other cities don’t have all that. Go to New York or London or Paris. Berlin is an extremely modern city. There are still parts that could be cleaned up a little, but most likely that is only a matter of time.

- Cheap. It's true of course: Berlin is easy to live in money-wise. "For the money we're paying for our four-room apartment on the edge of town," said Guy, her husband, in Paris we'd be living in a place the size of this living room, and that would be generous."

- Not crowded. "It's not like London where everything is completely overcrowded. You can get around. You can take your children everywhere."

- Language-afinity. "When I came here, I assumed everyone was going to be very… well, German. Unfriendly. Rude. Cold. But the exact opposite is true. Everyone is cheerful and helpful. Germans make great neighbors."

- English. She doesn't speak any German, but that doesn't matter. Almost everyone speaks English, and if they don’t, someone within hearing range will, and will offer his or her services. "The down side of that is that I'm not learning the language, which I did when we lived in Paris, because the French refuse to speak English with you. But the Germans are just friendlier."

- Cosmopolitan. Her husband and I were debating whether Berlin is cosmopolitan or not. He said it's not, compared to London, New York and Paris. "You don’t get that electricity, the bustle," he said. He's a correspondent for a major news agency. "When we have a press conference at the Chancellery, we walk over a couple of blocks, go past one guard, through one metal detector, and we're sitting there with the Chancellor. In Washington, it would take hours of frisking and ID-checking. Everything is smaller –too small for a major European capitol. We call it Toy Town."

In favor of cosmopolitanism, his wife mentioned the language: Everyone speaks English. That's more cosmopolitan than Paris. Not to mention that Germany is a major world exporter – that mans most Germans have contact with the outside world, much more even than other countries. That's true, said her husband, but Berlin doesn't act like it. And the world doesn't notice it. "When we write a trans-European piece, with elements in it from different countries, we try our best to put a London dateline on it, to make it look like it's out of London. If it's out of London, the newspapers of the world will pick it up. If it's out of Berlin, they won't."

That may be changing, he said. "Things changed when Berlin hosted the World Cup in 2006," said Guy. "Everyone came to Berlin and war surprised how things had changed. Berlin was much more worldly, much more hospitable, much more modern than it had been before. Of course what they really mean by that is: Berlin is much different than they had thought it was, from cliches and rumors, because most of these people had never been here before and were surprised to find such a modern, hospitable city. Now they have gone home and told people about it and the image is changing."

"You know the English," said Sarah. "You mention Germany to them and they talk about the war. They don't think a single good thing about Germany. We have a good friend who is very much like that: He hates Germany. But he came to the World Cup and now he's completely changed his opinion. He won’t let you say a single bad thing about the Germans."

There you have it. If the English say it, it must true.

And that's exactly what I'm going to tell them in Boston when I speak at the Goethe Institute on April 25 and 26.

And I'll probably end up telling the Berliners that too, when I return about a week later for a reading at the Kreuzberg Book Night on May 5 at about 6pm in the Max and Moritz.

It's a good message. Gotta tell the world.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Underestimating America

Underestimating America has a long tradition in Germany (and in Europe in general). There is a general pooh-poohing, patronizing attitude that inspires Germans to assume that America could never do – nor would be interested in getting involved in – all the wonderful things Europe does. Germany underestimated America in World War I and, despite warnings from WWI veterans, did it again in WWII. We Americans on the other hand come across as uncultivated and disinterested in the world and people easily forget that once we decide to do something, we do it.

Is it happening again, right now?

Just as Europeans have a kind of privileged, entitled attitude toward culture and world politics that harks back to an earlier age that is long gone, Germans especially also have a natural superiority complex when it comes to the environment. Partly, it is justified. By some accounts, Germans are already now world leaders in the alternative energy markets, which arguably will become very important and very lucrative very soon. An of course they signed the Kyoto protocol, are getting close to fulfilling the stipulations, and they separate their garbage, all of which are at least morally correct.

That's all they need, and already Germans are talking about how green energy and environment is going to be the next big world economic segment that they will naturally dominate. Like they dominate the car business and many high-tech arenas. "Soon we will be known for cars, beer… and green!"

But they may have competition. Recently, more and more innovate green things have been happening in the US. Small but cool projects like "The Year of no Impact" and the San Francisco Compact movement (and here).

The more the conservative movement loses its credibility, mainly due to Iraq, the more the Green becomes interesting. The Al Gore film wouldn't have been a hit a few years ago, and neither would have hybrid cars in Hollywood. Burger King recently announced it would start buying eggs and pork from suppliers that did not confine their animals in cages and crates. In this week's New York Times Magazine, Thomas Friedman predicts that green will be America' next big thing. Interestingly, though Friedman is fairly well-versed in things international, nowhere in his long article does he mention German domination of the environmental market. Has he not noticed it, or are the Germans simply exaggerating their head start?

Some of the New American Green may be wishful thinking on the part of the left. But don't underestimate America's tendency to go from one extreme to the other: If people hate Bush and the Iraq War enough, they will swing all the way back to the left. That's what happened during and after Vietnam, and that's where Greenpeace and the health food movement came from, which, by the way, inspired to a large extent the German Green movement.

Is the German environment market ready for competition for the US?

Right now, Germany is heading the green market because there isn't all that much competition out there. But the question is: can they hold their lead when the competition gets tough? And believe me, if America goes green, the competition can get tough.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I'm Wearing My Aloha Shirt Today for Don Ho


Hawaii's last icon is dead.

Don Ho was an interesting phenomenon. In the 50's he was Hawaii's Frank Sinatra, he even had a little Hawaiian Rat Pack. Then in the seventies he was the embodiment of kitsch. He should have disappeared, like a one-hit wonder, but he didn't - he was and remained a Waikiki Hotel Staple. His sheer staying-power convinced everyone to love him. Soon even the scoffers and detractors loved him. When he underwent a major operation a few years ago and returned to the stage afterwards, everyone came out of the woodwork to play with him and praise him. He was a Hawaiian boy, a local, but at the same time he was the Icon That Didn't Go Away. You have to admire a guy like that, and everyone did. (Read stories in the Star-Bulletin and Honolulu Advertiser; photo above courtesy of New York Times.)

Now he's gone, and Hawaii has no more icons. There was Duke Kahanamoku the surfer, then Don Ho the Tiny Bubbles man, then Hawaii 5-0 and Magnum, and that was it. They're all gone now. People like Obama and Jack Johnson were just passing through, they're tourists. What is Hawaii with an icon? It's like America without Hollywood or Germany without beer. Hawaii needs a new icon.

But who can fill an Aloha shirt like his?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Grave Misunderstanding of Elfriede Jelinek and of Germanoculture

Nobel Prize-winning Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek's novel "Greed" has been translated into English and was promptly ripped to shreds by the New York Times.

The reviewer, Joel Agee, found no redeeming value in the book, no sense of humanity or story, no humor, certainly no warmth, no artistry, only a dour, depressing hatred of self and of the world in general.

I say: That's all true, but what's wrong with it? To call all that stuff bad is to basically misunderstand Jelinek. That is her art. She's not a novelist or an artist in the Anglo-American sense, she's a very specifically Germanic kind of artist, which is to say, she's a complainer. In the German-speaking world, complaint is an art. She is the natural successor to that all-time great (and, once you wrap your mind around the idea of complaining as art) opinion very funny Austrian complainer-novelist-playwright Thomas Bernhard (who actually deserved the Nobel). Her Nobel Prize was not really a Novel Prize for Literature, it was the world's first Nobel Prize for Complaining. Jelinek once said in an interview that her books are, in her view, funny. It's a humor you can only understand if you understand German culture: It's funny because she is spouting utter nonsense. Once you figure out that it's utter nonsense and that you are taking it as seriously as she's taking herself, you're in on the joke.

With all her radical rejection of the social world she lives in, right down to human sexuality in general (hell, he rejects everything, she rejects life itself, that's impressive in itself), Jelinek isn't really trying to say something, nor is she creating art, she's just shooting her mouth off, which in the German world is an accepted intellectual activity. No one expects her rants to change anything or even to communicate anything – they are just rants, and you read them to get that shiver of agreement: "Yes, that's right, if you look at it long enough, everything's shit." Then you can go on with your life.

To us Americans – in fact, to most of the outside world except, clearly, for a few Swedes – this I simply self-defeating behavior and is not comprehensible to us in any way, but it's how Germans (and Austrians) have been hanging on to their self-respect for the last 60 years.