Saturday, January 27, 2007

Suddenly, Ruby Wednesday Pops Up

My Big Beautiful Blond/Brunette Niece has been threatening us with a baby for some time now, but it was hard to imagine her actually doing it. Then, all of a sudden, there she was: A beautiful little thing, tiny, with a cute stub nose and dainty feminine lips, sleeping quite contentedly on April's arm.

She arrived on January 24th, 2007 at 3:55pm, a Thursday, which matches well her name, which is Ruby Wednesday. From observing her, she seems to have no idea how much of an upset she has caused in her parents' world. She also seems to be the type of young woman who never think twice about details like that. She arrived so quickly that the nurses dubbed her, at first, "Rocket Baby;" a little bit later - it was probably her stub nose, but possibly also her part arrogant, part charming sense of entitlement, both of which she certainly inherited from her mother - they called her "the diva." Mother April's comment to that was: "Girlfriend, you and I are going to have a problem - there's only room for one diva in my house."

Big Beautiful Blond/Brunette Mom described the birth as a long period of indescribable pain during which she had no idea who else was in the room or what she was screaming at them. She later said she would have rather had an arm taken off than go through that, had she known how painful it would be. Cool Berlin Dad later assured her that he was in the room and the vile, insulting things she was screaming at him and the doctors were completely incomprehensible. He described her in those moments as white as a sheet, blind with pain and possessed of a demon.
The amazing thing, she reported, was the change when Ruby had finally battled her way through her mother's formally intact body: "As soon as it was over, it was as if it had never happened, and suddenly it was the exact opposite, like night and day: I was incredibly happy and nothing else mattered." I can confirm that because I talked to her on the phone shortly after the birth and she sounded so happy, jaunty and relaxed I thought she was just kidding about having given birth and was really having a ball at some hip party somewhere.

Visiting the New Mom in the hospital the next day, talking about the pain and everything else, I noticed that one phrase kept coming back again and again, maybe a dozen times: "I'm so in love with her. I'm just so in love with her. I can't believe how much I'm in love with her." And she didn't have to tell us. We could tell by the way she cuddled, coddled, held little Ruby Wednesday.

Strange how things change overnight. We had met with April and Stefan the Sunday before and had brunch with them and April's mother Melanie. They seemed like they have always seemed: a typical, cool couple of the Prenzlauer Berg Boheme. Like always.
A few days later, they were suddenly completely different. It was in the glow that surrounded them. It was in the way that glow was directed not at themselves, but at that little bundle of goo-gooing and ooh-oohing, Ruby. It was as if they had been hiding alternate personalities within them all this time, like a small town school teacher who is really a sleeper spy and only needs a phone call to turn him into s deadly weapon. It was like a switch had been turned on and suddenly there they were: Mom and Dad.

It was a beautiful sight to behold.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Germany, You Have a Problem

Right now, you can still say that even conservative politicians in Germany – including the governing chancellor Angela Merkel – lean further to the left than members of the Democratic party in America. German is simply a leftist state. And that goes not only for politics or Germany's panicy fear of American conservatives like Bush. Few people in Germany go to church, for example, and in fact religion in general is often made out to be something evil.

I was watching one of Germany's ubiquitous talkshows the other night and the subject was raising kids: Should one use discipline or not? The round of guest included two freaks. Besides a children's psychologist and a guy who had written a book, they had invited a cabaret star who wore green lipstick and a young advertising copywriter with a Mohawk haircut who was raised by anti-authoritarian principles and proud if it, etc. But those weren't the freaks.

The freaks were a young (in her twenties), pretty violinist who had become world-famous before she was ten. She was successful, clearly happy and well-adjusted, and she contributed something to society. She said she was raised not so much with "discipline" than with "rewards:" If she practiced, she given certain privileges. The show host immediately said: "Like one of those seals in a circus you give herrings to." She smiled. Only in Germany would a show host compare a successful, well-adjusted person who is clearly an example to young people to a circus act.

They had invited even more of a freak: A Christian. He was a father of eight kids (this is a signal in Germany that something is wrong) and he insisted that his kids all did some kind of sport and learned an instrument. He also disciplined his kids using "violence." They didn't give him a chance to say what he meant by "violence" – I suspect he meant spanking – but immediately jumped all over him and basically accused him of being a child abuser. Especially the guy with the Mohawk haircut, who apparently thought he was a rebel, jumped all over the guy.

(Coincidentally - it looks like America is making a move to ban spanking. A new bill is being introduced in California which would outlaw spanking of children under 3. Will it get past republicans? Maybe: Schwarzenegger is European when it comes to rearing children. In the nineties, the UN called for violence of all kinds to be banned from the rearing of children, and in 2000 Germany appended its constitution with a clause that doesn;t quite outlaw (or make a crime of) spanking, but does guarantee children a non-violent upbringing. That clause has yet to be tested in court. But most Germans agree that spanking is not good for kids and parents who dfo it are monsters.)

It was interesting because it was clear who belonged to the establishment and who didn’t: The two guys who dressed like "freaks" to signal their rejection of society were clearly accepted members of liberal German (media) society, while the family father and the over-achiever were the weirdoes.

But that is changing, and it is changing now. I never thought it would happen, and I suspect most Germans don’t suspect it will happen, but it is: A groundswell of conservatism is breaking.

It's visible on the bestseller lists. About a year ago, a news anchor man wrote a very short book called "Schluss mit lustig" in which he called for a return to religious values. It is still on the bestseller lists. Shortly after that, a TV show host wrote a book called "Das Eva Prinzip" in which she called for women to return to the home and bear children. (I haven’t read wither book – what's really in them, I only know from press reaction). Also a bestseller. There are others as well along those lines. In fact, the book that inspired the TV-discussion about "discipline" is called "In Praise of Discipline" and recommends that parents forget all the anti-authoritarian stuff return to being the boss in the household.

Especially that second book is causing quite a stir and a raft of anti-Eva-Principle books. Most newspapers and TV shows as far as I can see are shocked that one of their own – the writer is a TV talk show host – could write such a horrible backwards book. They look at her a s a freak, an anomaly. But the thing is, people are buying it. It's a bestseller. There are a lot of people out there who don’t really like the German media's liberal values and are looking for something else. The book writers have discovered this audience and it's only a matter of time before the media and politicians also discover them.

Sound familiar?

A Newsweek article from a few months ago also predicted that there was going to be a swing toward conservatism. The article took a look at European demographics. As you know, the birth rate in Europe is down and sinking. Germans, in their typically apocryphal fashion, are already talking about "dying out." That's to the advantage of the conservatives, because conservative and religious families tend to have more children and they raise their children to continue having more children. Within a couple of generations, Germany will be conservative. Maybe not as conservative as America, but conservative enough.

Which means it will be time for me to move back to the States, because at around that time the USA will already be swinging back in the other direction.

They say everything that happens in America comes to Europe ten years later, and in this case it's true. If the liberal establishment doesn't want to get rolled over by this wave as by a bulldozer, they'd better take it pretty seriously and do something about it now. But of course they won’t.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Super Father

A reader, a student named Martin in Rostock, sent me a long e-mail after reading "Planet Germany," in which he tried his own hand at analyzing the Germans and did a damn good job.

I liked the way he included the B-movie actors Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer (two Italians whose comical action movies were extremely popular here in the 70s but practically nowhere else) in his list of German heroes (it's true, Germans really do grow up with those two, alongside German-made Westerns and German-made Edgar Wallace movies… and if you don’t know who Edgar Wallace is, you're just not German. In his list of German heroes he also included Peter Lustig, the host of a TV-show for kids named Löwenzahn that explains how things work ("we all wanted to know what he knew and be able to do what he did, and walk through the world asking the questions he asked without being considered dumb – he you can’t imagine how many scientists today were inspired by him.")

But I really liked Martin's description of Goethe, Germany's culture God, whom I treat a bit disrespectfully in the book. Here's Martin's take on Goethe, the "German Uebervater"… if you ever wondered why German writers all want to be politicians, artists and philosophers – hell, why everyone in Germany wants to be politicians, artists and philosophers, this is why:
"Why do we have this Goethe-Culture? Because he's the most impressive genius Germany ever had. He was man of letters, painter, philosopher, politician, artist, mathematician and much more. And he was good at it all! That's the standard the German strives for… for talents he can never have, for here in Germany, as in the rest of the world, you have to be specialized. Everyone knows it, but only he who is eternally striving has a fulfilled life. And by the way: Most people think he's boring or don’t understand him. That's just show. I personally, like a lot of people, enjoy only "Faust Part One: and the poem "Prometheus" and I hate "The Sorrow of Young Werther" because the writing is so difficult. And his pal Schiller (Germany's second-greatest writer) is largely ignored, usually he kind of disappears in Goethe's shadow. And if you read Faust exactly, you'll notice that Goethe describes the German people in his work and comes to similar conclusions to yours. Faust and (the devil who buys his soul) Mephisto are two sides of the German character: Faust is bitter, old, stiff, cerebral, hungry for knowledge and never satisfied. In Mephisto on the other hand you have everything from devil to fraud. This is the German idealistic dualism, Goethe saw that even back then. Probably he was even parodying himself. That makes him just as German as his characters, for he is at once Faust (scholar, genius) and Mephisto (scoundrel, fraud). There you have your German ideal. No one – or course – will tell you that that's what we’re about, but believe me, there's a lot to it."

So now I guess I have to go out and read Faust again. Just when I thought I had it all behind me.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Curse of the Pseudo-Intellectual

Somehow, I managed to paint myself into a corner again.

The big thing in Germany now is the new film by Dani Levy, "Mein Fuehrer," supposedly a comedy about Hitler. It is big because it is a sign that Germans are losing their guilt feelings about the past. If they can make frivolous, funny films about Hitler, that means they are no longer overloaded with guilt feelings and are free to look at the subject from a distance. Which means they are normal, are part of the outside world, have paid their debt and put the past behind them, etc.

So what I want to know is what the normal average Germans think about the movie. Did they laugh? Were they horrified? Are they "normal" now? What?

Unfortunately, I can’t get any of my friends to see the damn thing. Don't get me wrong – normal, average Germans are going to see it. It's becoming a hit as we speak. But my friends are pseudo-intellectuals, and that means they are slaves to the reviews, and all the reviews were bad. Most reviewers thought the film was simply not funny – including me (I reviewed it for the Hollywood Reporter). And all my friends read the reviews and plan their lives accordingly.

That means I am completely out of touch with the real German world. All I want to do is have a beer with an average-Joe-German and find out what he feels about the movie. But I can’t get any of my friends to go see it and tell me about it.

I guess being completely out of touch with the real world is just the price I have to pay for wanting to be an intellectual.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Why Americans Love Thinking of Themselves as Dumb

When Gwyneth Paltrow, now living in London, told the press a couple of weeks ago that Britons are much more intelligent and make much better conversation at dinner parties than Americans, she may have insulted many Americans, but in fact it's the way most Americans think of themselves.

Much like Germans, who derive a perverse pleasure from thinking of themselves as having lost their identity and culture, Americans derive a perverse pleasure form thinking of themselves as less intelligent, less educated and less cultivated than other countries.

It's a habit we got into in our colonial days, when we had no museums, no universities, no artists or theater, and the streets were filled with mud. We were English then and though we treasured the opportunities the colonies offered, we also looked toward England for things of culture and were embarrassed when the homeland Britons visited us and we couldn't taker them to the opera.

It became a habit we still can’t shake. Today we have the best universities in the world, the best writers, we win more Nobel Prizes than any other country and even in the literature category we are second only to the French. We take the lead not only in politics, military and science, but in high culture, too: Philip Glass, Jackson Pollock, Robert Wilson and Philip all lead the high culture lists in any country.

But still we have the nagging suspicion that we are dumber than anyone else. In fact, I think we really like that feeling. It lets us say (as we said in 1776): "To hell with those pretentious Europeans, we don’t need them."

Not too long ago I watched a documentary on German TV (3Sat) about a German writer named John von Düffel. In one scene, he was invited to New York to introduce modern German literature to a New York audience. The master of ceremonies was an American guy who launched the evening by citing a comparative statistic about reading in Germany and in America. The average German, he said, buys 6 books a year. The average American buys 0.3 books a year. He concluded: "They have the Frankfurt Book Fair. We have Disneyland."

The (American) audience applauded. I can imagine how they felt: "I knew it! I always knew everyone here was dumb. Except me, of course."

I felt that way too, for a minute or two, then I remembered my last trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the incredible amounts of American books that were on sale there. Come to think of it, any German book store sells huge amounts of American books. Wait a minute – we're the country that put a man on the moon, we are foremost in most economical and technical sectors, not to mention the Nobel prize thing.

How do we accomplish that if we are all illiterates? Isn't there a contradiction there? Can a country like America even exist if we only read so little? Where did this guy get his statistics from? Does he even know himself where it came from?

Probably not. It didn't matter. He wanted to believe it, and so did everyone there. It's like Germans who say "Look at all these McDonalds everywhere – it's like in America" but they don’t see the Kebab stands and the pizza places. They want to see it that way.

By the way, here's a more accurate statistic. According to The Economist, the average American spends $102 a year on books; the average Germans spends $120 a year on books. Yes, Germans read more than Americans – but only about 20% more, not several thousand percent more.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Congrats Andrea & Scott

Congratulations to Red The Mad Canadian and his beautiful wife, who just gave birth to their second child, Penelope. Two daughters: It's the best thing could happen to a man.

Neo-Nazi Joke

Christoph the Rock 'n' Roll Doctor left a comment on that last post (below):

"I think you´re wrong: Most of the articles I read about the film were not arguing about whether one should laugh about "the fuhrer" or not. On the contrary: The bad critics (Die Zeit, H. Martenstein, Tagesspiegel, etc.) all complained about the film being not really funny! The film makes you feel sorry about that old jerk but doesn´t leave you laughing your ass off. By the way: do you know any good Hitler jokes? Would be interesting..."

Unfortunately I don’t know any really good Hitler jokes (but if you haven’t already, check out "Walter Moers – ich hock in meinem Bonker" (

I do know a couple of good neo-Nazi jokes, though. Here's one of them (actually, I stole this from Robin Williams):

A Neo-Nazi walks into a bar with a frog on his shoulder.

The bartender says: "Where did you get that?"

The frog says: "In Brandenburg. They got 'em out there by the dozen."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Elvis Meets Hitler

For about the last five days I could hardly work. I could hardly sleep. All day long, I walked around in a daze. On the outside I seemed withdrawn and tense; on the inside I was in fighting a grueling, drawn-out battle for my very life with Elvis.

Not your Elvis, my Elvis. Elvis is my Own Personal Inner Swine-Dog. An Inner Swine-Dog is a quaint but forceful German mythological creature that lives within you and has as its main goal in live to stop you from doing What Is Right. It is the Nemesis of your conscience. Everyone has a conscience; only the Germans have an anti-conscience.

I am normally on very good terms with Elvis, mainly because I let him do whatever the hell he feels like doing. That makes for peace in the family and, I believe, a long life. But last week was different.

It all started when I was asked to write a review of the new movie by Dany Levy. It's a comedy about Hitler called "Mein Fuehrer," starring the popular stand-up comedian Helge Schneider as Hitler and the terse, precise dramatic actor Ulrich Mühe as Hitler's nemesis, the Jewish acting coach Adolf Grünbaum.

It's a well-made movie, a satiric fantasy about a Jew (Grünbaum) teaching Hitler how to be Hitler. More importantly, it's politically right on the money.

As Germany gets further and further away from the Third Reich and more and more involved in the goings-on of the Western World – not only economically, but politically as well (Fall of the Berlin Wall as major world event, the new German Pope, a modern female Chancellor, and the fact that Germany was at the forefront of the prestigious moral resistance to the Iraq war), Germans feel the need to put the past behind them – and not only the past, but the burden of feeling bad about the past: Constantly thinking about it, making apologies about it to themselves, thinking about their responsibility, feeling guilty for something that this generation never did.

This movie is an important major sign that Germany is moving on: At last, Germany can laugh about Hitler instead of getting all flustered and guilty-feeling whenever his name comes up. If Germans can go into this film and come out laughing, they will think to themselves: See? It's over. We've overcome the past.

That's good. I think it's time they overcome the past. And a little voice inside me said: "Write a good review."

Then I heard the other little voice inside me, saying: "Are you kidding? It's crappy movie. It's not funny. Did you laugh? No. Not once. Did anything happen you didn't expect, anything that made you smile, jump in your seat, squirm, anything? No. It's crap, write a bad review."

That other little voice had a point. It's not a funny movie. It's bland, boring, avoids all the good gags, not to mention controversy. In fact, I had the feeling Levy, who also wrote it, wasn't really interested in comedy. He was interested in making a statement about Hitler. But what is he going to say what's not been said by better thinkers?

The opening joke is narration: The narrator Adolf Grünbaum describes Hitler as a man who failed at painting and so he joined the Nazis, meaning that the Nazis was a collection of failures. Which is probably true, but for "Hitler became Hitler because he failed at everything else" to be funny, it would have to be in some way insightful or surprising or new. We've known he was a failed artist and a failed human being for about 60 years. It's not news.

"It's not news" describes most of the points Levy makes in the film: Hitler had a bad relationship to his father. Hitler had a small penis. At times, it feels like he's trying to poke gentle fun at the dictator. To show a little disrespect. To nudge him just all little bit from his pedestal. To get us to look at him in a slightly different, less reverent light.

Am I the only one who thinks that's a little weird? Maybe that's the problem behind all this "Is it possible to laugh at Hitler?" crap: Someone should tell the Germans that Hitler hans't had a pedestal to stand on for over half a century now.

"But that's exactly what they're trying to do," said the first voice. "German guilt is so strong it's become a kind of perverse respect. They want to start laughing at Hitler so they can stop respecting him. This is about Germans shaking off their past. Give them that much."

That made sense. I was torn. For days I sluffed around listening into both little voices duke it out.

In the meantime, all the German newspapers started getting into the act. There was hardly an article that didn’t address, in a very important-sounding fashion, the important question: "Is it possible to laugh about Hitler?" have you ever heard such a stupid question? Where have these guys been the last 60 years? Everyone laughs about Hitler except maybe Germany's cultural establishment, who wouldn';t have anything to write about otherwise. In the outside world people have been laughing about Hitler for, well, 60 years. It's not just Chaplin, Lubitsch and Roberto Benigni. Not only in the outside world. Even today, Germans are laughing about Hitler. Take a look in the Internet. Here are a couple of links that easily run circles around "Mein Fueherer" (in German):

Then I realized: Wait a minute. Levy is not a politician, he's a filmmaker. This is 2007. The Brits just made "The Office" and "Borat." The Americans have making "The Shield" and other dramas that are anything but politically correct. And what about the Germans? They're still off in a corner somewhere discussing whether comedies should be funny or not.

Suddenly I was really mad. Germany is one of the most intelligent and modern countries in the world. It's a country I happen to like and admire. But here they are acting like idiots and no one has the guts to tell them: Hey, wake up, you're acting like idiots.

When Germans make cars, they put their hearts and souls into it. When they make movies, they are constantly looking over their shoulders to see if anyone could possibly disapprove and in the end they produce bland, meaningless stuff designed to earn the approval of cultural politicians who are also constantly looking over their shoulders for fear that someone might disapprove.

That's what makes me mad about "Mein Führer" – no one is saying: "This is a movie, not politics, and it’s a bad movie and no one is doing anyone a favor with it."

I sat down and trashed the movie (the review appears today in "The Hollywood Reporter" if I am not mistaken). I had won the fight. For once in my life, I had overcome Elvis.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Faust Rewrite #4

The Historia Of Faustus

Dr. Faustus' Second Disputation with the Spirit

It was Vespers on the very same day, when the day was just beginning to dim and the twilight would not be far, that Faust summoned once more the gray friar into his chamber and asked the spirit what he, Faust, must do in order to command over him.
Once more the spirit appeared to offer his obedience and subservience in all things and without any conditions or limits, but only if Faust would tender certain articles to him in return. For such is the rhetoric of a devil: To offer all at any time and under any circumstances, and to pretend as though the thing comes with no price and no sacrifice and no effort, and to create the illusion that the thing is a gift given for no reason at all, and to make the recipient think: But why have struggled all this time through my life thinking that everything has a price and that I must work hard and suffer to get what I want and even then in many cases I will not get it, when all this time I needed merely ask this devil for the thing and he would give it to me without any effort of my own? And so as soon as the mere mortal begins to believe that he can receive a thing without paying for it, the devil mentions as if he had forgotten it, or as if it is hardly worth the mention, that there is indeed a small price, and by that time the foolish mortal is so consumed with greed for the thing he believes he can get for free that he is willing to pay any price, even the very price of his immortal soul.

And so it went between the devil and Faust on that afternoon: The devil in the guise of the gray friar promised that his desires would know no want if only the following, hardly mentionable small articles were surrendered by him unto the spirit:

"Firstly," spoke the spirit, "that you, Faust, should name a certain number of years at the expiration of which our pact will be reversed, and I will no longer be thy servant, but thou, Faust, will be my servant; you must promise and swear now that at that time you will become mine own property.

"Secondly, that you will confirm our agreement upon a writ to this effect authenticated in your own blood.

"Thirdly, that you will renounce the Christian faith, renounce the Christian God in all ways and defy and revile all believers in Him.

"Should you observe all these points, I will fulfill every lust of your heart and shall immediately transfer to you all the powers and privileges that I own to do with as you will."

Doktor Faust considered this for a short time, but even as he thought it over, he knew that his own pride, greed and arrogance would never allow him to resist such an offer, and he knew that the spirit knew this as well. So reckless and proud had he become that he could no longer even properly concentrate and imagine the worth of his own soul, which he knew he must lose, but instead created excuses in his own mind and said to himself:

"How do I know what my soul is really worth? How do I know that there is even such a thing as heaven and hell, or even god? For God has never revealed himself until me, but this devil has, is it not a surer thing than any fantasy I may have about a God and heaven I cannot know truly exists? I do not see God or Heaven before me, nor do I see Hell before me, but before me I do see a spirit that is willing to give me a specific, clearly defined thing for a price that is clearly set out beforehand. God has never made such an offer to me. On the contrary, all offers that come from God are unclear and difficult to understand, just as His commandments are difficult to follow and his precept are difficult to understand. This offer, however, is not only clear to understand, it is clearly of a high value."

And so Faust came to terms with the evil spirit.

To be continued…

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Another First from Hawaii

Here's another first from Hawaii: America's first PhD program in a Native American language – Hawaiian.

Teaching and learning the dead Hawaiian language in school has been growing in popularity since the seventies or earlier, and it has been a staple in bachelor's and master's degrees for some time (there are an estimated 100 people in Hawaii who grew up speaking Hawaiian, but some 15,000 people who have learned it in school), but this is the first PhD program in Hawaiian, or in any Native American language.

The degree is also the first doctorate to be offered by the small University of Hawaii – Hilo Campus (founded 1970 as the youngest part of the much older and larger University of Hawaii on Oahu). It is a degree in philosophy and includes not only Hawaiian language and literature (Hawaiian "literature" consists mainly of oral poetry) but also studies in the revitalization of the language and culture.

The doctorate program is not just idealism. As more and more Hawaiian schools begin offering total-immersion Hawaiian language programs (in some high schools, students speak Hawaiian all day, not only in the classroom, but in the hallways), the study of the language and how to maintain it is becoming professionalized.

It seems like Hawaii is producing firsts one after the other nowadays. Only a month or two ago, the state instituted the most stringent anti-smoking ban in the US, making it illegal to even smoke within twenty feet of a doorway to a public building. Hawaii comes across as a simple, small-town kind of place, but I'm amazed again and again under that countrified veneer is an amazingly forward-thinking, can-do spirit.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Euro-American Proxy Wars

Just when I thought it was safe to claim that I am really actually very liberal in my politics, Saddam gets the rope and all of a sudden I am a conservative reactionary war-mongering swine all over again.

This time it's hard to say exactly how it happened. The occasion was the hanging of Saddam Hussein. My good friend the Cruel Mean Schinder (named that way because of the way he brutally forced me to run the marathon) were having a drink and he mentioned his outrage at the hanging, which threw all human rights to the wind.

In my American naivete, I said: "So? He's a dictator, a mass murderer and his crimes are not in doubt. Why keep him alive? Are you expecting him to write any great works of literature while he's in jail?"

Schinder: "That's so typical for you Americans. You'd kill everyone you don’t like if you could. Everyone in Europe is against the death penalty. The right thing to do would have been to send Saddam to the Hague. At least he would have had a fair trial."

Naïve American: "Why on earth would an Arabian country which newly won its own independence and is now ruled by the very people who were tormented by Saddam hand over their greatest arch-fiend to the Europeans? Are the Europeans the only ones in the world with the wisdom to do justice? Isn't that just a little bit presumptive?"

That was it.

Schinder: "You damned American running dog! You act like you rule the world, you waltz all over other people and their feelings, there has never been a bigger hypocrite than you and now I'm going to end it once and for all by dousing you in gasoline and setting you on fire right here in the middle of Berlin!"

I'm exaggerating here a little – he didn't actually use the term "running dog."

But he did give me a lecture that ranged from American imperialism to the CIA's support of right extremism in Chile to Bush's pact with the Devil. It's pretty amazing how much sheer American badness an average European can pack into a single run-on sentence of about 25 minutes. All I wanted to say was that if the Iraqis want to kill Saddam, let them kill him, people die everyday without Europeans getting upset about it in bars. But once again I somehow managed to maneuver myself onto the wrong end of European moral outrage.

Now, later, I realize that as a naïve American I had taken the conversation at face value: I thought we were just talking about the death of a mass murderer at the hands of his former victims. Once again, I forgot to read between the lines.

The conversation was really about America's and Europe 200-year-old struggle for moral leadership. The war has been going on since America did away with the aristocracy, which Europe had been trying and failing to do for centuries. That was a slap in the face. While we held high the banner of freedom and democracy, the Europeans stewed and looked for ways to regain the moral high ground. Well, Bush gave it to them on a silver platter.

Now, whenever you talk to a European about world politics, you really end up talking about how horrible America is compared to the morally upright Europeans. These discussions are very much like the so-called "proxy wars" of the Cold War, when the US sent troops to Vietnam when in fact the greater issue was really between the US and the USSR: Since we couldn’t fight directly, we fought by proxy.

We talk about the US in Iraq, but in fact we are talking about the relationship between Europe and the US. Europe feels insulted when the US doesn’t do what Europe wants, even though Europe is clearly older, wiser and morally superior; the US feels insulted when the Old World starts meddling in its affairs and that makes everything worse.

What bothers me about this is not that Europeans are pretentious and overbearing when it comes to their superior morals - there's nothing wrong with that. What bothers me, if I am to be honest, is that we Americans handed victory to them on a silver platter. Fighting it out with Bush on a moral battleground - hell, this is one war they can't help but win.

Monday, January 01, 2007