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.