Saturday, May 31, 2008

Time to go

I've been in London for the last week on a research trip, hence the relative silence. It's not so much the lack of internet access this time, but more a result of being a bit mentally switched off after a day in the archives.

Too much haystack, too few needles.

And there are also times when I agree completely with W.G. Sebald (via):

[O]n bad days you don't trust yourself, either in your first or your second language, and so you feel like a complete halfwit.


I will hopefully stop feeling this way sometime soon and get back to pestering you with over-long diatribes about something or other.

In the meantime two things occur to me.

First, I am relieved to note that the urban apocalypse that was predicted in some quarters should Boris Johnson become Mayor of London has not yet made itself apparent. Don't get me wrong, I don't like the guy or anything, but the city seems to be grinding along in its typically shambolic way with no more than the usual amount of social strife and cannibalism. I hope that continues to be so.

Secondly, I realised a day or so ago that I have been staying around the corner from 'The best Indian food in the UK', at least according to Justin Hawkins, singer in the now sadly defunct rock band The Darkness.

There's Justin and his mates now, on a sign outside Red Rose Tandoori:

I can't testify to the quality of the food, as I've not yet eaten there. At the same time, I'm doubtful of the culinary authority one should grant a glam-rock band.

Still, they do know a thing or two about rock and roll.

It's been a long week.

Back home tomorrow.

Take care.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Greek to Mr Barnish

Quaint little tale at the Mail (ooh, it rhymes, too) -- with kind of an ambiguous headline ("Fascist German Bastards Spoiled Honest Brit's Happy Holiday Fun By Doing Yoga in Hun").

No comment, just headshaking bewilderment. How about Butlin's in Skegness next year, sir?

Is there balm in Gilead?

Have we told you all lately that over here at Obscene Deserts we're insanely fond of The Mountain Goats?

I reckon it needs reiterating:

I have had, as some of you might guess from the video and my generally sombre tone, a crap week.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Thank you Thea

This is the last thing I will say about Charlotte Roche's drippy drivel. Granted, I haven't read the book, and am aware that it is a trifle dishonest to discount someone's work without even having considered it, but after all the media hype surrounding the publication of Wetlands I know enough already to embrace my dishonesty unflinchingly and proudly.

I know what Roche's protagonist does with her labia in public toilets, what loving nick-name she uses for her piles and why she hoards avocado stones like a latter-day Scrooge (great dissertation topic here: The Avocado Stone Writes Back: A Postcapitalist, Postmarxist, Postcolonial, Post-anything Study of Charlotte Roche's Subversive Anality").

I don't need to know more to have an opinion.

Above all, I simply refuse to fund this thinly veiled publicity stunt with my hard-earned money. Why is the whole world going "ooh-aah, rebellion" about this silly little book? Don't you people get it? Don't you get it that this is one big hoax in which you are instrumentalised as cash cows?

The question is: who's the boring bourgeois prude now? I can already hear some people out there tut-tutting at my un-fun un-subversiveness. Well, intercourse subversion! I'm past the age of having to prove how cool I am. And I have better things to do with my spare time.

Thea Dorn at Die Zeit has an answer to the above question that pretty much voices my own impressions (formed on the basis of the above-mentioned enforced hearsay): Roche's whole taboo-breaking spiel is a mere facade behind which slumbers her truly bourgeois primness and propriety. Her pseudo-rebellion (for that's what it is) is bound to founder, as the taboos that she sets out to break are second-rate taboos in the first place. Harmless, as it were.

Wetlands is about as radical as bloody Sex in the City.

The best article I have read on this matter so far.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


John's post from a few day ago might have created the impression that religious nuttery is mainly an Anglo-American phenomenon. Let me be quite clear about this: Germany isn't exactly a safe haven for sane and secular-minded people, although religion still remains much of a private issue. Here's some reading matter (though most of it in German, sorry) documenting how much this relatively sober world of ours is currently threatened by the forces of religious insanity.

First of all, old school stuff. Already in March, following the Bishop of Rome's decision to appoint 3,000 new exorcists, Der Spiegel published a couple of disturbing videos (here and here) about exorcism in the Catholic and Orthodox Church, as well as an article about the Pope's chief exorcist, the singularly simple-minded Gabriele Amorth.

No doubt, some of those newly appointed "specialists" will fill a gaping gap in the spiritual security net provided by the Catholic Church in Germany, where exorcism has been something of a taboo since the death of Annelise Michel, during a particularly "effective" exorcism conducted by the priest Arnold Renz, in 1976 (the case which inspired the Hollywood shocker The Exorcism of Emily Rose). According to Amorth in one of the two videos and other sources, a growing number of German Catholics believe that they are possessed by the devil and actively seek the help of exorcists.

This help might soon be at hand in the planned Polish exorcism centre, conveniently located only a stone's throw from the German-Polish border. Now Germans can, after having their hair and teeth done on the cheap in Poland (cause that's what they do), nip into "The Centre" for a drive-thru exorcism, before filling up their cars on cheap Polish petrol.

Oh Brave New World that manages to combine the worldly and the spiritual so effectively!

The most noteworthy comment on all this madness comes from Horst Herrmann, Professor of Catholic Church Law, in the second of the two Spiegel-videos: "The Church solves problems that wouldn't exist if the Church didn't exist."

Exactly. What does this tell us? Keep away from the Church!

Which is why a warning issued by Father Jeremy Davies, exorcist for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, against Yoga, Reiki, Hot Stones and Mystic Meg -- all of which may lead to possession by the devil -- fails to identify the real culprit.

A culprit on a pulpit? Nice name for a band.

However, presumably more "modern" forms of Christian belief are no less disturbing than the inquisitorial rites of exorcism, as an article about young evangelicals at Süddeutsche Zeitung reveals. It is fruitfully accompanied by Kamenin's recent post over at Begrenzte Wissenschaft about the growing influence that the evangelical Lakeland Centre and its pierced Canadian prophet Todd Bentley seem to have on German believers.

Thanks to this post I had the dubious pleasure to discover the vibrant Christian blog culture out there in the internet, all soft-spoken and pseudo-intellectual, with one particularly disturbing site called Die Schönheit des Simplexen (The Beauty of Simplicity).

Sadly, it's not the simple beauty of Darwinian evolution these people are speaking of. For simplicity read stupidity.

The seriousness with which people are willing to discuss humbug is beyond me.

And finally, to our special friends, the Scientologists. If you think Tottenham Court Road is bad, just wait until Xenu comes to take Berlin.

Happy godless Sunday, everyone!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Intervening where necessary

Timothy Garton Ash has been both defended and mocked at this location.

Yesterday, however, he wrote something well worth reading (all the more surprising considering the place where it appeared) about the aftermath of the devastating cyclone in Burma.

I have no doubt that we have a responsibility to act in this case, and that we have just cause to do so without the explicit consent of Burma's illegitimate rulers, who are letting their people die rather than letting in international aid. Unlike over Iraq, I would credit even George W Bush with right intention here. I suppose you could Noam-Chomskyishly argue that the interests of the west might be served by gaining influence over a buffer state between India and China (and, yes, Burma does have oil), but I don't think that's why a US ship is standing off the delta with helicopters and supplies. Proportional means? Yes, air drops and a "sea bridge" for aid would seem proportionate to save the lives of certainly tens of thousands, and potentially hundreds of thousands, of men, women and children....

The responsibility to protect has to be exercised responsibly: that is, with a careful, informed calculation of the likely consequences. I conclude that we should use every means except that of military-backed unilateral - or western "coalition of the willing" - action, which has few reasonable prospects, is arguably not the last resort, and would not have right authority. This does not mean we do nothing. We have a responsibility to act by every other means available, and there are many forms of "intervention' short of the military. (For us ordinary citizens, that includes ensuring the charities that do operate there have sufficient funds. In Britain, one good way to do that is through the multi-charity Disasters Emergency Committee,

(Edited selections via Mick Hartley, via Norm. Emphasis added.)

Especially now that it seems that the aid will get through, it is worth contributing (in Germany, for instance, to Aktion Deutschland Hilft).

And for his other, lesser, service in this piece, I am grateful to Garton Ash for his effort to popularise the word 'Chomskyishly', although -- despite what you might think -- he is not the first to use it.

Looking for a better day

The other day I really hurt somebody. And what is worse, it was a total stranger: the Deutsche Telekom saleswoman who phoned to flog their "Entertainment Package" for watching TV via broadband.

Upon her question: "So, do you have terrestrial or cable", I answered in all serious serenity: "Neither. We don't have any reception here. Last year, the local broadcasters went digital and we haven't bothered to get the 'set-top box' that you need to receive TV."

This is literally true -- all we've been receiving since 4 December 2007 is static. It's been absolute heaven!

Not to Miss Telekom.

Her stunned silence -- which almost made me ask: "Are you still there?" (I thought she'd died or something) -- spoke volumes ("weirdo", "nutcase", "whatever do you do in the evenings, you boring old cow?") and made me feel right crappy. I apologised profusely for failing in my duties as a hooked-up 21st-century citizen (and a malleable Telekom customer) and put down the receiver to be depressed for half a day.

Having said that, the Internet does us fine to keep abreast of the latest cultural developments. In fact, in some regards we are far better informed than ever before, thanks to people posting really funny, yet painfully true short films, disturbing documentaries or humorous, existential TV commercials on their blogs which would otherwise have escaped our notice (even with a TV).

Even such a fundamentally televisual phenomenon of the Eurovision Song Contest, which returns to haunt us all tomorrow, does not pass beneath our radar -- in fact, our experience of it is even better than before. No need to waste four hours in front of the tube waiting for the boring dance and video interludes or the typically gobbledygooked announcements of the results to be over (let alone having to endure the mostly terrible songs) -- fifteen minutes on YouTube will give you all you need to know. And that is before the event.

In fact, as regular readers of this blog will remember, I already posted a Eurovision note weeks ago, after reading about the political uproar in France over the fact that their contestant's contribution is sung in English.

What a waste of precious political debating time! Compared to this year's Eastern European razzmatazz, Portuguese pathos and English bin men plagiarising Hot Chocolate, this is a seriously charming ditty which does the hexagon more than proud. Sebastien Tellier looks like a cross between John Lennon "talking in a bed for a week" and Luke Wilson in The Royal Tennenbaums.

And he sings a groovy and self-deprecating tune (which of course doesn't stand an earthly in tonight's competition. Tant pis!). Check it out yourselves:

La France -- douze points!

(UPDATE: France came 19th -- behind the Swedish Roswell clone!)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Something nice... end the day with.

The Last Shadow Puppets, 'My Mistakes Were Made For You'.

Speaking of which ....

On the topic of religious madness .....

Scientology: You ARE a cult!

And we laugh at you.


Where the grim things are

I've had such a long day ... but theirs appears to have been much longer:

(Via Reuters).

Point one: We're pretty certain that there is an eighteenth-/early nineteenth-century image (Hogarth? Gilray?) that closely corresponds to this one. But, rack our brains as we may (as already stated, this has been a long day and we're also suffering from the lingering after-effects of the God-bothering madness bonanza earlier referred to), we can't seem to think of it. Would art historians out there please tell us which picture it is!

Point two: Based on this evidence, we are seriously concerned about the future of Britain. And we seriously care about some people who live there. How do you cope?

Today in religious insanity...

A couple of well worth noting dispatches on the topic of religion.

The New York Times (via LG&M) looks at a 'Father-Daughter Purity Ball', where daughters pledge to remain virgins until marriage and fathers pledge to help them:

after dessert, the 63 men stood and read aloud a covenant “before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity.”

"Purity." A nice concept when it comes to some contexts (say, beer), but a disturbing concept when applied to women, defined solely by their sexuality and enforced by men.

And, apparently, it's not even a very useful notion, overall:

Recent studies have suggested that close relationships between fathers and daughters can reduce the risk of early sexual activity among girls and teenage pregnancy. But studies have also shown that most teenagers who say they will remain abstinent, like those at the ball, end up having sex before marriage, and they are far less likely to use condoms than their peers.

Here's a picture from the ceremony:

(Ballerinas carried a 7-foot wooden cross into the ballroom at the Broadmoor. Photo: Kevin Moloney for The New York Times.)

No, the cross is not on fire, it just looks that way. But that and other images are plenty unsettling. I have to agree with Bean: "This whole phenomenon, of girls getting all dolled up to dance with their dads and swear their purity is just flat-out creepy."

Speaking of creepy...

...and taking us right into the realm of the fucking disturbed, Stephen Green is introduced to us by Francis Sedgemore, who does a great service in bringing our attention (especially those of us without easy access to British television) to this very special person.

Stephen Green, leader of the fundamentalist lobby group and rent-a-mob “Christian Voice”, has on pre-watershed TV this evening said that there will be civil war in the UK, with Christians taking up arms against our “nation in pain”’s Muslim population.

I hadn't heard of Green before, and I'm glad that I do now. Someone to keep an eye on, definitely.

In an updated version of his blog post, Francis points us to YouTube versions of the "Dispatches" documentary in question, "In the Name of God".

I've only watched part one so far (also embedded below).

And a disturbing little 10 minutes it was indeed.

You'll note--because it's impossible not to--the berserk obsession with homosexuality and the demented certainty that most of the people interviewed seem to have that the whole universe exists as a kind of background to their personal drama of faith.

Prepare to be sickened.

The obsession with homosexuality is, of course, nothing new. Dale has been keeping tabs on this issue, and, indeed, by one measurement it seems to be nearly the single issue that some conservatives care about.

That one chap named John seems very...disturbed. And certainly very certain about things for which there is no proof.

Another shining moment is when a teacher at an 'independent school' tells children that thanks to Jesus we don't need to fear turning into pillars of salt when we sin ('Which really, really, really happened in the Old Testament').

What a cow.

(I was also not aware that Jesus had so much time to act as a kind of personal spell-checker. That is certainly handy, and a benefit of faith that I admit I had not considered.)

And the 'science' teaching at the school will make you want to vomit.

The other episodes are available here: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

Happy viewing.

Wir fahr'n, fahr'n, fahr' Rad, Bus und Bahn

American economist Paul Krugman was apparently in Berlin recently, and he had some nice things to say about German urban planning and public transportation. (Via German Joys)

If Europe’s example is any guide, here are the two secrets of coping with expensive oil: own fuel-efficient cars, and don’t drive them too much.

Notice that I said that cars should be fuel-efficient — not that people should do without cars altogether. In Germany, as in the United States, the vast majority of families own cars (although German households are less likely than their U.S. counterparts to be multiple-car owners).

Krugman is right that this is not an issue of being 'anti-car': Germans, in my experience, love their cars.

But the average German car uses about a quarter less gas per mile than the average American car. By and large, the Germans don’t drive itsy-bitsy toy cars, but they do drive modest-sized passenger vehicles rather than S.U.V.’s and pickup trucks. [...]

And he's also right that they're not all driving micro-sized sub-compacts. There are a lot of substantial mid-sized cars on the road in Germany. You know, the ones you often see swishing by near the speed of sound on the Autobahn.

Some of these cars are not all that fuel efficient (especially when driven near the speed of sound), and the German auto industry has hardly been at the forefront of environmental technology (allowing Japan to gain an advantage in hybrids and the French to do so in diesels with particle filters to clean up their exhaust. I know that for many Americans the phrase 'French auto industry' is kind of a joke. They should get out more.)

However, truly monster-sized gas-guzzlers are a rarity. You see them, but they're rare enough that you notice seeing them.

Fuel prices have also, of course, been rising in Europe, where -- compared to America -- they were already quite high. Almost three years ago, the Christian Science Monitor pointed out that European were paying something around $7 a gallon. These days, we're paying about $8.25 for a gallon of diesel. Like about 40% of Europeans (according to the Monitor article), we drive a diesel, which has greater fuel economy: a little over 40 miles per (US) gallon in our case. (We buy it, of course, in litres. I've converted the measures for comparability. Because of differential taxation, diesel in Germany is cheaper than petrol -- but only just barely anymore.)

But, as Krugman points out, this is not just about fuel economy.

Can we also drive less? Yes — but getting there will be a lot harder.

There have been many news stories in recent weeks about Americans who are changing their behavior in response to expensive gasoline — they’re trying to shop locally, they’re canceling vacations that involve a lot of driving, and they’re switching to public transit.

But none of it amounts to much. For example, some major public transit systems are excited about ridership gains of 5 or 10 percent. But fewer than 5 percent of Americans take public transit to work, so this surge of riders takes only a relative handful of drivers off the road.

Among the various interesting bits of information in a recent report in Der Spiegel on how average Germans live, were statistics on how they get to work. (The whole report is here--a pdf, in German--and the relevant stats are on page 73, where you'll also find the very useful fact that 72% of Germans regularly sing while driving.)

Overall, about 13% of Germans commute via public transport. That's interesting -- even if I found it to be surprisingly low. (Still, it's more than twice the proportion of Americans.) More intriguing is the fact that 18% apparently commute via bicycle or even by foot.

Of course, this is based upon the fact that -- overall -- Germans are able to make these choices. And this is not an accident, but rather the result of a long-term town planning and transport policies.


Any serious reduction in American driving will require more than this [i.e., the minor rises in American public transit usage] — it will mean changing how and where many of us live.

To see what I’m talking about, consider where I am at the moment: in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping.

It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America, even in big metropolitan areas. Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin — but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars.

And in the face of rising oil prices, which have left many Americans stranded in suburbia — utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a hard time affording gas — it’s starting to look as if Berlin had the better idea.

I think it did.

It's not as if Europe is a paradise of rational foresight or a smoothly-functioning eco-utopia.

But what Krugman's article points out is the way that sensible planning (typically mocked by Americans as government interference) can increase freedom and allow people a greater array of options in living their lives.

And this is not simply true in large cities like Berlin.

We live in a small town in what is arguably 'the country' (I mean, we have tractors going by our front door every day, and a very short walk takes you into vineyards or fields planted with various crops...for someone born and raised in the suburbs, this is the country to me).

However, since the town -- like most small towns I've seen here -- is quite densely planned, we can walk to get essentially anything we need.

There are also lots of buses, some of which travel at least semi-regularly through surrounding villages.

Now, it's not as if all of this mass transit works perfectly or is ideal. But were we to become fully dependent upon it, we could manage with only a relatively small change in our lifestyle.

In much of the US, this is not the case.

Coincidentally, Molly Ivors at Whiskey Fire is soon to embark on an experiment to see just what shifting to mass-transit might mean.

Initial signs suggest this might be a good idea for her and her family:

The cold, hard, facts: A monthly bus pass costs less than a tank of gas.

Here on Liberal Mountain, we have two cars. One is a minivan which assures us it's a low-emission vehicle, but gets crappy gas mileage (about 20 mpg). It has a 26 gallon tank which, at current prices, costs us just over $100 to fill. We generally do so once or twice a week. The other is a small economy car which mostly belongs to the teen now. That gets slightly better mileage (about 30 mpg, on average), but also has a smaller tank. We generally spend about $50 filling that one weekly.

A bus pass for one adult for one month, entitled to bring up to three children free, is $35.

Sounds pretty good, only:
the bus doesn't actually come here. We have two choices, then. We can either (a) call the rural route bus, which is like a jitney and runs $2 per adult, or (b) drive to a place where the bus will meet us, preferably a parking lot where we can leave the car all day, maybe at a shopping center or similar. There are two places I can think of off the top of my head: one, a strip mall with Wal-Mart and Sam's Club and Barnes & Noble and stuff like that; the other the local library. The strip mall is 9.15 miles from Liberal Mountain, the library is 8.3 miles. So getting to either of those would mean driving more than half the distance to work anyway.
I can sympathise. I actually spent about 5 car-free years in America, actually in an area (suburban Maryland/Washington D.C.) with a reasonably good transit system. You get used to it, but even there it didn't always go where I needed and some of the routes were quite infrequent.

I'll be interested to see what Molly finds out about switching to the bus.

Of course, as Krugman points out, having spent a good half a century in constructing a society based upon cars and long-distance commutes, any improvement in the US is only going to come gradually.

But, it seems that it's going to have to come somehow.

Previous Obscene Desserts articles on related topics:
Going out on a line
Running on Empty (Words)
Auf Wiedersehen Wal-Mart

And in other 'Magic Bus' news...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Beware of the Hypocrite!

The Guardian has a teaser article by David Runciman, whose book Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond is to be published later this month. I admit that I'm unfamilar with Runciman's work and have no prejudices against the man. From what I can glean from the article, he defends hypocrisy as a bulwark of privacy and personal resistance – an intriguing hypothesis (I'm not joking), and probably well-worth pondering.

However, since hypocrisy is a pet hate of ours over here at Obscene Desserts, and something we both have a hard time taking as a positive character trait, I feel the need to comment.

Runciman begins by drawing attention to these pathologically confessional times of ours (which have recently reached their carnivalesque nadir with the publication of Cherie Blair’s tell-all blah-blah). Our problem with Gordon Brown, he suggests, is that he does not fit the bill of showbiz politicians like George W., Obama and our Tone, with their insufferable populist pseudo-honesty (after all, who knows whether they're not just being drama queens?).

In this climate, a person like Gordon Brown can but fail. The PM's voluntary exposure in the confessional media circus tends to result in embarrassing clumsiness, which one can either despise or read as a sign of his hypocrisy (i.e. he’s not genuine, he has something to hide). Runciman, by contrast, construes Brown’s blatantly unmediagenic style as a positive symptom of unease about contemporary political culture, which in turn betokens the secret – "the deep" – Gordon behind the public mask.

Fair enough. I too am sick to death of public personae forcing intimate details of their sorry lives upon me (from the texture of their bodily fluids to the kinky stuff they like to do in their spare time – it’s spare time, so would you please keep it private?). I really don’t care about “what happened at Balmoral” and whether Cherie favours banana-flavoured jiffies – but after my daily online dose of the British press (and I don’t mean the tabloids) one can’t help not knowing. My brain-cup overfloweth with the Snowdon of bullshit which “respectable papers” heap up as “valuable” information these days.

Runciman’s critical overture is followed by a longish discussion of George Orwell, whom he is at pains to co-opt to his defence of hypocrisy. Orwell according to Runciman was “an anti-hypocrite for whom there were worse things than hypocrisy.” Obviously, this defiant rejection of the popular image of Orwell as the incarnation of absolute moral honesty and plain speech is meant as a stab at people who endorse this view, such as Christopher Hitchens, whom Runciman doesn't seem to find all that cuddly.

Fair enough, too. We all know (or should know) how difficult it is to uphold one’s high moral standards as an instinct-driven animal surrounded by other, equally instinct-driven animals and there is no reason to believe that Eric Arthur B. was an exception to this rule of animal urges.

Nevertheless, I can’t help finding Runciman’s argument … dodgy, to say the least. So let's look at it a little more closely.

Given Orwell’s first-hand experience with British Imperialism (in which the imperial police officer in Burma was hopelessly – albeit critically – entangled), Runciman goes on to explain, Orwell not only accepted a certain, “sustainable” form of hypocrisy as an unavoidable trait of liberal democracy, he also thought that such a strategic hypocrisy is infinitely preferable to its radical opposite – absolute sincerity. Compared to this terrible sincerity, hypocrisy is not only the lesser evil, one might in fact take it positively, as a quasi-heroic act of resistance (these are ot Runciman's terms, but this seems to me to be the gist of his article).

Consider fascism, Runciman says, which, in ruthlessly promoting an all-engulfing ideology that infiltrates every nook and cranny of private life, eliminates the possibility of hypocrisy (in the Runciman sense of self-determined action).

To elaborate on this point, Runciman quotes from Orwell’s novel 1939 Coming Up For Air (nice touch: I love this sadly underrated book). The passage he refers to is one where the protagonist, George Bowling, attends an anti-fascist lecture. Having listened to a barrage of ideological claptrap in a half-empty auditorium, Bowling comments on the speaker:

Interesting to know a chap like that in private life. But does he have a private life? Or does he only go round from platform to platform, working up hatred? Perhaps even his dreams are slogans.

Which leads Runciman to make a big leap from this lesser known novel by Orwell to (arguably) his most famous one:
The scene from Coming Up for Air also foreshadows a theme of [1984], which is what it might mean not to have a private life, not to have anything held back or reserved, but simply to be the slogans that one is forced to spout through and through. In such a world, hypocrisy would not simply be valuable, it would in a sense represent the ultimate value, because its precondition is having something to hide. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a description of a world in which hypocrisy has become impossible.
Two points need to be made here. First of all, wherever did Runciman get the stupid idea from that fascism destroys hypocrisy? Granted, total transparency might have be an officially-desired by-product of Nazi Gleichschaltung (as indeed of any utopian-totalitarian system), but how encompassing was this desired transparency in Nazi Germany really? Runciman here seems to confuse Nazi propaganda with real life in Nazi Germany, in a way that seems entirely typical of the British obsession with this historical period.

But just because Joe Bloggs thinks that German life between 1933 and 1945 was completely suffused with Nazi ideology (in fact there seem to be quite a few Joe Bloggs around who believe that German life in 2008 continues to be suffused with Nazi ideology), does not mean that academics should also have licence to do so.

All the more so, as this conflation comes at a price. Runciman here seems to overlook Nazism’s distinct ability to foster and exploit the human capacity for hypocrisy: from the averted eye in the face of everyday violence to stockpiling spoils from confiscated Jewish property for personal gain – not to mention the hypocritical official line of the two Christian denominations (For a complex analysis of the position of the Church in Nazi Germany see Chapter 3 of Richard J. Evans’s The Third Reich in Power).

Secondly (and here’s the literary scholar speaking, who hates it when people plunder literary texts to illustrate their non-literary arguments): I really think that Runciman misreads Coming Up for Air, or at least that he doesn't read it fully. It is true, the notion of “keeping things private” expresses Bowling’s own guiding principle in life, but the novel also points out that it is precisely this attitude that gets him into trouble, especially with his forever nagging wife Hilda. The whole novel hinges on Bowling's clandestine trip - in a bout of middle-age nostalgia and with the aid of money won on a horse (without the wife knowing, of course) - to his childhood village of Lower Binfield. The frustrations of his journey down memory lane herald the domestic catastrophe to come.

When he is found out, Bowling briefly tries to explain, but Hilda’s stubborn refusal to listen to him leads him to back down and choose “the line of least resistance” instead. The novel ends with him listing the three options available to him in this situation:
A. To tell her what I’d really been doing and somehow make her believe
B. To pull the old gag about losing my memory.
C. To let her go on thinking it was a woman, and take my medicine.
But, damn it! I knew which it would have to be.
From Runciman’s perspective, Orwell would have to favour option C.: Keeping one’s peace by remaining silent, even when the need to explain oneself is urgent (along the lines of: "Screw Hilda, I know what’s the truth, and that’ll do me"). The open end of Orwell’s novel potentially affirms this interpretation.

But there is a deeper undertone to Bowling's concluding post-adolescent sulk. For what might work in Bowling’s private life is a different thing in reality. Written on the eve of WWII, Coming Up For Air is an alarm cry against the protagonist’s complacency, which may be read allegorically, as the embodiment of a particularly British attitude or even Britain itself (George Bowling - "GB" - know what I mean?). In the particular historical context in which the novel is written and set, taking the line of least resistance means accepting the possibility of global catastrophe.

Moreover, as we say in Eng Lit: never conflate author and narrator! Clearly, Bowling does not ventriloquise Orwell's view when he seeks refuge in his own mediocrity:
And what’ll happen to chaps like me when we get Fascism in England? The truth is it probably won’t make the slightest difference. As for the lecturer and those four Communists in the audience, yes, it’ll make plenty of difference to them. They’ll be smashing faces, or having their own smashed, according to who’s winning. But the ordinary middling chaps like me will be carrying on just as usual.
This statement would seem to be a full endorsement of Runciman’s idea of hypocrisy. But “George Bowling Hero” is certainly not the message of Orwell’s book. Instead of a latter-day St. George, he is a very British Everyman ready to put up with anything as long as his little life remains intact: “Who’d bother about a chap like me? I’m too fat to be a political suspect.”

Only Bowling’s latent anxieties give reason for hope. Only his fears suggest that he might muster some kind of courage if push comes to shove:
And yet it frightens me. The barbed wire! The slogans! The enormous faces! The cork-lined cellars where the executioner plugs you from behind!
The novel is clear about this: in order to prevent such things from happening, one must be ready to act – and in all honesty. In a world of cork-lined execution chambers, there is no space for hypocrisy.

But, come to think of it, there isn't any in an environment of mollycoddled post-capitalism either.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Of love and excrement

Francis Sedgemore points us to a classic set of propositions by Slavoj Žižek on the cultural significance of toilet facilities and pubic hair:

Our own contribution focuses on the topic of love. Not as comforting as you might think...

'Something went terribly wrong."



Here's to yesterday's decision by the California Supreme Court

striking down two state laws that had limited marriages to unions between a man and a woman, ruled on Thursday that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.

The 4-to-3 decision, drawing on a ruling 60 years ago that struck down a state ban on interracial marriage, would make California the second state, after Massachusetts, to allow same-sex marriages.

I'll let hilzoy take over from here:

Six of the seven justices on the court were appointed by Republicans.

This is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I am a complete sucker for marriage. I think everyone should have one. The idea that our governments decide to prevent people from having them -- that there are couples out there who love each other and want to get married and can't, not for comprehensible reasons like a ban on incest, but just because of flat-out bigotry, or because of the imaginary threat that same-sex marriages pose to heterosexual marriages -- is just plain wrong. Moreover, I think it's wrong not just substantively, but legally: distinctions based on sexual orientation ought to be suspect, and in this case the state does not have a compelling interest in drawing one.

Yay for California, and yay for its Supreme Court.

Also being a complete sucker for marriage, I say: Yay indeed.

You can, unfortunately, get here from there

Having invested a fair amount of blood, sweat and -- yes, dear reader -- even the occasional tear in this here outpost of reason and sensibility (and, admittedly, a certain amount of bitterness), it is fascinating to see just how people find their ways to us.

Yes, sitemeter is quite a fascinating little tool.

Bing has even developed quite an entertaining regular feature at his (wonderfully entertaining) blog based on the search terms by which people find him.

This is always very funny.

We're not quite up to such humour. We are not, fundamentally, funny people.

Nonetheless, let me just put it this way: you'd be surprised how many people use the vast power of the internet to find new dessert recipes.

Really, it's amazing.

We seem to receive a large portion of our relatively few visits via search requests along the lines of 'new German desserts' or 'fun desserts' or even the extraordinarily odd 'how humans affected desserts'.

To be honest, I cannot even begin to comprehend the context in which the last set of search words can even provide a meaningful answer.

Nor can I even imagine what kind of let-down it must have been for this person to click that link at the top of the search page (at least it's still there today) only to find my long-winded critique of a book about the genetics of capitalist development.

That must have been a drag. I'm sorry, whoever you were.

Then, as you might imagine, the 'obscene' part of our title also brings in its share of visitors. (I haven't kept stats on this, but quite a few are located in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.)

Many of them, I imagine, must be sorely disappointed when, instead of the dozens of lissome Central European bondage addicts that they were hoping to find (no, really, they are quite specific), they stumble across a text-heavy blog populated by two academics with anger management issues.

That must be a tough few moments for them.

So, I suppose my point is that despite the fact that we have little to do here either with pornography or sugary delicacies, we get a lot of traffic (OK, a trickle...) that is seeking one or the other.

And I am repeatedly astounded by what they were seeking.

However, today, someone stumbled upon our humble little electronic abode by searching for something that was both quite specific and quite disturbing in a way that was new to me.

I say this although we are -- I believe -- quite open-minded people.


We are not prudes.

However, even we were a bit taken aback when we found out that -- at least today -- if you type the following into, we end up at the top of the list:

german granny fucking out side in the wood or fields

And someone, who visited us at about 2 o'clock this afternoon, did type this into

What I perhaps find most intriguing about this is both its extraordinary specificity (she must be German, she must be a senior citizen, she must be engaged in sexual intercourse, and she must be out-of-doors) as well as its tolerant broadmindedness (she can be doing the aforementioned in the wood or in the fields. In the end, it's all good).

What is also interesting is that also adds the helpful suggestion: 'did you mean', it asks,

german granny fucking outside in the wood or fields?

And with 'out side' transformed into 'outside', we slide down (at least today) to second place in the rankings.

Such an enormous difference the space bar can make, eh?

([UPDATE]: Um, apparently due to this very post, that is no longer true. We're now top-ranked in both cases. Excellent...)

I'm not sure what to make of this.

Unfortunately, I can't say too much about the searcher. Mr. visit 23,470 (and, yes, odds are we're talking about a he) shows up as 'unknown' in terms of server and country.

Which is a shame.

Somehow, I want to know more.

I think there must be a story here. One that the world should know.

He disappeared after only one page view, so he obviously didn't find what he was looking for.

And this makes me feel immensely relieved somehow.

I'm waiting at the train station, waiting for my train

The wonderful einestages section of Spiegel Online currently has a series of photos of Jimi Hendrix on offer.

Of particular note are a few taken during his final tour in Europe, such as this one, taken in front of the Hamburg train station, where Jimi and band have just disembarked from a bus and are waiting for their train.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Without movement, we cannot cross the space-time divide

David Thompson has drawn our attention to something extraordinary.

And it reminded me of one of our old party tricks (somewhat revised and updated here).

I felt inspired.

'We inhabit our bodies differently when we are out of phase, oscillating in the turbulence of dynamic space, that space where the textual body is written as contextual knot. The ways of moving in virtual space are directed and mapped by the knots that span spatio-temporal rifts. Without movement, we cannot cross the space-time divide.'
--Catherine Guertin, "Wanderlust: The Kinesthetic Browser in Cyberfeminist Space", Extensions: The Online Journal of Embodiment and Technology, 2007.

Norm comments too.

(Image source)

The brain, the Buddha, and the ever-baffling David Brooks

It is hard to describe the true awfulness of David Brooks's current column in The New York Times, other than to say that it fleetingly inspired the wish that I had never learned to read. For all the problems that might have brought with it, I would at least have been spared his tortured logic, torrential non sequiturs and curious talent for combining smugness with ignorance.

It's unclear what Brooks is trying to achieve in 'The Neural Buddhists': he starts out by launching an attack on the 'militant materialism' of some 'self-confident researchers' in the natural sciences and then ends his essay by stating that he's not taking sides but merely trying to anticipate where 'the debate is headed'. In between, he doesn't actually say very much that makes sense.

Brooks kicks off his anti-materialist meanderings with references to a...novelist. I admit that I never read the Tom Wolfe essay he cites, 'Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died'. (I enjoyed The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test...reading it, I mean...but haven't read anything else.)

I still haven't given it sustained attention; however, even a quick glance through it has lowered my expectations almost exponentially. Wolfe, you see, is fond of depicting scientists' views as comparable to religious dogma. Certain notions, he claims, are 'devoutly believed' by neuroscientists. Of E. O. Wilson, (or, as he dubs him, 'the new Darwin') he quips: 'no one ever believed more religiously in Darwin I than he does.'

I am not fond of such arguments.

It goes downhill from there, as Wolfe mixes real science with pseudoscience and can't even seem to keep his sciences straight. (Although he correctly notes that E.O. Wilson is a zoologist, he then identifies him as a key figure in neuroscience, and then--later--points out again that he is not a neuroscientist, as if this were some kind of revelation of a sinister scientific fraud.)

And when I see the glib association of the term 'evolutionary psychology' with the phrases 'genetic determinism' and 'hardwired to be polygamous' then I switch off pretty much immediately, as it is then apparent that the person who floats these accusations hasn't actually read much (if any) evolutionary psychology.

He even cites renowned nut-bag Michael Behe as a serious scientific critic.

Although I'm not impressed with Wolfe's knowledge about science, at least he sometimes has a way with words. The same cannot be said of Brooks's clunky prose, but that's not something I want to go into now.

No. What bothers me is that Brooks has apparently no idea what he's talking about and nonetheless gets to flaunt his ignorance in the pages of one of the world's most prestigious newspapers. (He's not the only problem on that score, obviously: why anyone wants to know what Maureen Dowd thinks about politics is beyond me.)

A favourite Brooks tactic seems to be assembling lists in which the first few items are halfway plausible but then--somewhere in the middle--he crosses the line into assertions of a very different character. It would appear that Brooks would like to think that the credit won through making a few comments that are not completely bonkers will carry him through to the end of the paragraph.

Consider his description of what he takes to be the materialist world-view (or, perhaps, just that of 'hard-core' materialism, which may or may not be Brooks's real target, it's hard to tell):

To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness.

So far, not so bad, actually, even if the 'arises from' doesn't quite sound so right when it comes to atoms ('is composed of' sounds better to me, but I'll leave that one to the physicists in the audience). However, what immediately follows is this:

Free will is an illusion. Human beings are “hard-wired” to do this or that. Religion is an accident.

Keep in mind, Brooks is here essentially summarising a 12-year-old essay by a novelist to describe scientific materialism.

Apart from that, all three of the last three assertions demonstrate a serious misunderstanding of materialist views that, at least as far as I can tell, are pretty mainstream.

The status and functioning of 'free will' is a vexed issue, true; however at least one fairly well-known hard-core materialist has written a whole book about its evolutionary (and very material) basis.

In any case, whatever capability we have to decide and act wilfully is going to be material in the end. (Though many people seem to have a hard time understanding this, as has been pointed out in these pages before.) This kind of free will is going to be a different one than anything based on the notion of a supernatural 'soul'--and, yes, it might be far more limited than we might hope--but to claim that materialists simply think it an 'illusion' is facile. (Of course, it is in generating clever-sounding shallowness that Brooks's true talent lies.)

Once again, the 'hard-wiring' bit is a non-starter: all serious neuroscience and evolutionary psychology is essentially interactionist, taking into account innate predispositions that can be profoundly influenced by the environment.

By stating that 'religion is an accident', Brooks hauls out that old misunderstanding that evolution is a 'random' process. Which it is not.

But he compounds the incoherence of his argument by--in the very next sentence--arguing that the 'materialist view' is that 'people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems.' (Emphasis added.)

You can't have it both ways David: either something is 'accidental' or 'evolved'.

Furthermore, there is no single materialist view of the origins of religion. Indeed, much of the debate among 'materialists' about the origins of religion is to try to comprehend whether it provided some kind of evolutionary advantage (say, to groups) or whether it is essentially a side-effect of other evolutionarily shaped capabilities and predispositions (e.g., the tendency to imbue inanimate objects with agency).

But here we see the seeds of another Brooks tactic that, over the course of his essay, grows into a big ugly weed: the creation of a strange and non-existent division between 'hard-core materialists' and some putative other group that Brooks never names. (We might call their world-view 'soft-core materialism': materialism without the naughty bits, perhaps.)

In any case, although there is disagreement among scientists about the reasons for religion, what all materialists would tend to argue, David, is that many of the core claims of religion are not true. And this is a point to which we'll have to return.

Channelling Wolfe, again, Brooks says that the central 'assertion' of what he's challenging is this: 'everything is material and "the soul is dead"'.

The various scientific research that Brooks comments on, however, is not merely based on an 'assertion': an 'assertion' is a more like a statement that starts out 'god wants us to...' or ends with '...because God/Jesus/Allah/Zeus tells me so'. The notion that the universe--and all our mental activity and experiences--is fundamentally material has rather more evidence behind it than mere assertion. (See several centuries of materialist inquiry.)

I would like to think that Brooks understands this. And indeed, he then moves on in his column to cite some empirical neurological work that, he thinks, challenges 'hard-core materialism'.

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings.

[Brief note to Brooks: materialism does not require thinking people are machines, 'mysterious' is not a synonym for 'supernatural' and neurons guessed it...material. OK, back to the babbling.]

Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

OK, the amount of Pure Stupid piled up here poses a serious danger of collapsing in on itself and causing injury, so be careful.

It's not that each of Brooks's statements is all wrong; however, gathered together into an argument that supposedly challenges materialism, they suggest strongly that Brooks doesn't understand the term he's critiquing or the science that he's citing.

I will pass quickly over the comment about 'selfish genes' and the fact that it reveals that Brooks hasn't actually read the book that it is not-so-subtly referring to. I have commented on this mistake before. Quite recently, in fact. (For his part, Dale has already taken a textual baseball bat to Brooks on this point. For that and for the reference to Brooks's wisdom, I am grateful.)

Let's keep this simple: if there are 'universal moral intuitions' and 'deep instincts' that are shared among all representatives of Homo sapiens (and I think there are many good reasons to think so), then this can only be the product of a common psychology that is fundamentally material.

Certainly, they are experienced and developed according to environmental circumstances (um...which are also material), social relationships and inherited accumulations of culture. But, David, your evil 'materialists' have been talking about this for decades.

Finally, Brooks wanders into some very strange territory and turns all spiritualist. This is never a good sign. Observing that 'Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states' (whatever the fuck that means), he points to (um, materialist) research that shows how 'transcendent experiences' can be measured.

That is true, and that research sounds very interesting.

However, see if you can make any sense of the following sentence:

The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.

Consider this carefully: does the ability of the brain to generate feelings mean--in any way--that it has the ability to 'transcend itself'? What does this mean?! And what of the 'larger presence' (nice word that, 'presence' vague, so meaningless) that 'feels more real'.

It seems quite clear what all that research points to: the powers of the imagination.

Brooks, however, seems to forget that talking about the mental states that the brain can generate does not say anything--nope, not a damned thing--about any phenomenon outside of the brain.

This would be, you would think, be easy. A no-brainer even.

But Brooks thinks that this 'new wave of research' will not comfort 'militant atheism'. (Ah, 'militant atheism'. Another lovely term. Have we heard it before? I believe we have.)


Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.

It was at this point that my own brain nearly caused me to spit out my coffee this morning.

What does this mean? What does this mean? What, David, does this fucking mean?!

I'm at a loss, as 'the literature' that Brooks recommends people read ('if you want to get up to speed', he blithely and somewhat condescendingly says...David, some of us are already up to speed thank you and waving fondly to you from the passing lane) seems to have very little to do with 'neural Buddhism' and everything to do with the materialism that Brooks began his essay condemning.

Apparently based on these authors, he observes that 'certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion', namely:

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions.

With certain qualifications, the first point is unobjectionable (but also not incompatible with materialism). The second point also seems sensible: and, again, appears a thoroughly materialist statement.

The third point, however, is reminiscent of Brooks's comment above about transcendence:

Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love.

The first half is mostly fine (though 'sacred' is a terribly vague word): we are, obviously 'equipped' to be capable of having certain mental experiences that are emotionally power. (If we weren't, we wouldn't have them and we would not be having this discussion.)

But what does he mean when he says that these experiences lead us to 'transcend boundaries'? Which ones? How? Is he talking about connecting with a 'presence' outside the mind again? If so, what is this presence? Can he provide any proof of it?

No, outside of his own mental ouija board obviously he can't. Which leaves us in the realm of feelings, which leaves us--however flooded and drenched with love we might be--stuck in our embodied brains.

Maybe this is, you know, kind of a drag (though I'm OK with it, actually), but it seems to be reality.

And then there's this:

Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.
Which is all nice and inclusive and everything, but it kind of reminds me of the things I've heard stoned people say, usually at about 3 a.m. Other than that, I can only ask: if you're going to be this vague about 'God', why use that term if what you're actually talking about is the universe.

I'm baffled, moreover, about how Brooks arrived at these conclusions based on the authors he recommends.

OK, Jonathan Haidt, as I've discussed, has some questionable ideas about religion and group selection, even while he has some very interesting (and thoroughly materialistic) ones about moral psychology. (Marc Hauser--one of those on Brooks's list--has criticised Haidt for 'bad evolutionary reasoning' with regard to the former, though praises his work on the latter.) I can't imagine Brooks getting much reassurance from someone like Michael Gazzaniga, who has emphasised how much of our thought and action is automatic: the mental 'interpreter' module he posits is one that often is devoted to developing rationalisations for actions we have already taken.

Furthermore, like the others on his list, Gazzaniga and Hauser are both dyed-in-the-wool materialists when it comes to the question of where our mental processes come from. All of them, I think, would immediately note Brooks's sloppy sleight-of-hand rhetorical trick, shifting between noting feelings of transcendence and claiming some kind of factual transcendence.

Of course, those feelings of transcendence can be quite powerful.

As evidence, just look at how successfully Brooks transcends logic and sense:

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

'That was the easy debate'? Is Brooks convinced that 'the faithful' have won that debate? Easily?

Again, it is worthwhile drawing attention to a fundamentally wrong-headed tactic used here, where Brooks refers to 'people who feel the existence of the sacred'.

Feelings are one thing, and if you want to define 'sacred' as meaning something like 'the experience of awe or joy' or 'the feeling of being at one with the universe', then, yes, that is very possible and interesting and might be achieved via many routes (sex, drugs and rock'n'roll being just three of them).

But note the tricky insertion of 'existence of' in there, which makes Brooks at least sound like he's suggesting some actual connection with something outside of our skulls.

Having not defined at all the points at which he suspects science and Buddhism 'overlap', I've no idea what he's on about at this point.

But I do know that his conclusion is, by turns, both batty and bathetic:

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation.

Oh, man: joining hands!? Is Brooks gunning for a Templeton Foundation grant or what?

As to the 'new movements', he may be on to something. There just might be a series of movements emphasising self-transcendence (whatever that means). Maybe. Sometime in the future. Maybe they'll refer to themselves by some trendy label such as...oh,...I don't know...'New Age'. Yeah, that's a good one.

Keep your eyes open in case such a movement might arise. Sometime.

David Brooks certainly has his finger on the pulse of our times, I tell you.

Nonetheless, he seems to have overlooked the fact that a great deal of present-day religious movements do, in fact, put a great deal of stock in divine law and revelation. They might pose, I think, far more of a 'real challenge' to our world than the 'hard-core materialists' Brooks warns us about.

Perhaps I have been too harsh on Brooks. He does, as I've pointed out, say a few things that are not completely dumb. And he comes up with a few profound things at the very end of his column:

We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.

Oh yeah. Big effects, I tell you. Well spotted, David.

And he's certainly right about one thing:

I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me.

Truer words, better evidenced, were rarely spoken.

Monday, May 12, 2008

I don't like (Melanie Phillips on) Mondays. Or any other day, for that matter

Aaahhh, Melanie Phillips, you of the dangly earrings, the naff granny glasses and the seriously disturbed ideas .... So who is to blame for Britain's various social crises, ranging from the rise in crime committed by girls to the sluttish attire of Mick Jagger's great-great granddaughters and the emergent drinking problem of female royalty in waiting?

Ah, of course: feminism.

So the spoilt, bored and not very intelligent sprogs of the filthy rich are bumming around semi-naked and in a constant state of inebriation out of the mistaken feminist notion of what you call "identicality" - a dangerous conflation of social equality with sexual sameness - propagated by their bra-burning mothers and grandmothers? Essentially, Peaches Geldof's problem is that she wants to be a man - and a manly man at that.

Deep, Melanie, deep.

And your solution is just as profound:
We must restore the idea that women bring unique gifts and values to the national party. Reviving the traditional family would be a start. This would make men, women and children happier - and cut crime.

Gifts and values, eh? Like: macramé? And which "national party" are you speaking about? If it's partying that you are referring to, then, clearly, the kids are alright. Any other "national party" I don't really want to think about.

Is this a bit of Pentecostal speaking in tongues, Mel P.?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Love, (Anglo-)American Style

Yesterday marked my parents' 60th wedding anniversary. It seems a bit funny to say that, since neither of them is alive to celebrate it; however, not long before my mother died last year, she had commented to me that she still 'felt married' even though my father had been gone for two decades.

She still felt that the anniversaries were real enough to celebrate. And so do I.

Here they are, in 1948.

A handsome couple, if I do say so myself.

This has always been one of my favourite photos of them. In particular, I like my mother's glance over to my father. That one look says a great deal.

So, happy anniversary.

As usual, somewhat belated. Sorry.

Friday, May 09, 2008


Since this blog has become something of a site for closet birdwatchers, here's the link to an article in Süddeutsche Zeitung about the bird census currently conducted by the Naturschutzbund Deutschland.

This is a collective effort, so do participate. All it takes is an hour outside, watching the birds fly in and out of whatever greenery you have by you. Yes, this process may be accompanied by a glass of wine or two (or a beer, if you must). As the weather will be splendiferous at the weekend, you're bound to be catching numerous birds with one stone (pardon the pun): suntan, Vitamin D, serotonin ... and intimate data on the post-dinosaur population on whose territory you currently care to dwell.

The results can be phoned in (the number is in the article). The relevant form for your own birdwatching hour is here.

Happy birdspotting!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

We rule the school...

Who said that the new Notwist album, 'The Devil, You + Me' sounds 'flat' and 'middling'? Rolling Stone (German edition, #5, May '08)?

Well, not to put too fine a point on it: fuck off!

Our copy arrived early today. We've already listened to it four times. It is...extraordinarily good.

Especially track 3, 'Gloomy Planets'.

And all the rest.

Buy it, people. Ario agrees, I believe, eh?

Now, be careful blowing out all those candles...

Today, Israel is celebrating its 60th anniversary. A bit early, but, you know, no biggie.

I am grateful to Francis for reminding me of that and to Norm for expressing succinctly why it is worth celebrating.

So, from both of us here, very hearty congratulations.

As Norm's first reason for why this is worth celebrating suggests, this is an anniversary that is still (and will always be?...always is a long time...) marked by the memory of horror.

That was brought home to me about a decade ago when I was assigned as a teaching assistant to a course on Jewish history. I must admit to a certain amount of trepidation, as that was really not my field, and I was dreading facing courses full of students with a decade of Hebrew school in them, who would, of course, know far more than a humble goy like me about the history of their religion and ethnicity (as I learned right away, the issue of 'who is a Jew' -- whether it is about belief or about blood -- is one that seems to divide many Jews).

As I discovered, however, most of my students (about 90% Jewish according to one definition or another) knew very little about the topic of the course. Other than for the Orthodox students (a minority...but a strikingly intense and well-read minority) most of my class had two points of identity with Judaism: 1) The Holocaust and 2) Israel.

They ended up being a bit frustrated, as the professor (one of the best and most good-humoured I've worked with) spent all of two weeks on those topics. In fact, the last two.

The rest of the time was taken up with Jewish life and thought between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Although my memory of the course has become a bit fuzzy with time (and my research interests lie elsewhere), that was a remarkable period in Jewish history. A weird, ambiguous time, full of tragedy and occasional terror, but also of great achievement and patches of joy. (Indeed, there is nothing about that description that is confined to specifically Jewish history...those were an interesting few centuries in Europe for everyone.)

But, for my students, someone like Moses Mendelssohn was as distant as any other random eighteenth-century figure. The historic schisms among Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed Judaism were as foreign to them as any other historic event.

Which was rather a shame, I thought. There is quite a remarkable history of Jews in Europe before that iconic year 1933, when all the worst nightmares were let loose.

This was brought home to me only last week, when I (accompanied by The Wife and The Mother-In-Law) visited the Jewish cemetery in the Franconian village of Kleinbardorf, one of the largest in Bavaria. (Largest Jewish cemeteries that is, not villages as such.)

To give you an idea of what it looks like, here's a photo (sorry for the quality: the visit was spontaneous and I didn't have a proper camera with me. This is the best that my sorry Motorola can do...)

The cemetery has existed since the seventeenth century. It's a lovely, quiet place, particularly isolated as it's at the top of a hill and not all that accessible, really.

The most moving of the many monuments for me was this one:

Now, there might for some of you be a strange cognitive dissonance seeing that helmet in a Jewish cemetery.

However, this is a monument to Jewish soldiers who died in the First World War in the service of their country.

There is, I think, a special poignancy to this kind of memorial, and a reminder of just how integrated (indeed, how German), one particular Jewish community was. For many war heroes who survived the horror of either front in that war, the notion that they had done their bit for the Fatherland sustained their belief that they were immune from any political twist or turn.

That turned out to be wrong. In the worst possible way.

On the other hand, it seems to me a particular sorrow that the first victims of Nazism were not only specifically Jews (and socialists and Communists, and Catholics and homosexuals), but rather (all of them) other Germans. The extent to which a single society tore itself apart is -- even at this historical distance -- astounding. And that not only the children of war heroes, but even the war heroes themselves, could be re-imagined as 'enemies of the Reich' is a testament to how fragile modern collective identities can be.

Like my former students, however, I think it would be in some way wrong to focus too much on what has gone so wrong. Jewish history (like German history) is much longer than the sum of twelve years' horror.

There is a longer and more positive -- if still troubled -- historical relationship that, for those who lived it, was neither doomed nor second-rate.

This deserves at least some recognition.

Just as the quite remarkable -- flawed, full of ordinary ambiguities and disputes, and even a few extraordinary ones -- history of a state that has endured sixty years is more than the atrocity that preceded it.

No simple answers here. But a sincere hope that some -- however minor (we're not optimists here) -- improvement is on the way.

Mazel Tov!

Of pigeons and the Pope ...

OK, here are your options: I can tell you about the steamy pigeon sex romp which -- according to John -- has been going on in our neighbours' walnut tree all afternoon .... Or I give you some depressing info on the minor scandal that has been surrounding the presidential elections at the Catholic University of Eichstätt for months.


Since this is before the watershed (just), I reckon it'll have to be Eichstätt. Now, this is a very special place: a largely state-funded university where academic appointments literally have to be confirmed by the Pope. That's what being a Catholic university is all about - you have intimate ties with God's earthly ambassador (and possibly a handful of reserved places in the afterlife - indulgences pending).

However, being a public institution (three fourths of its budget come from the Free State of Bavaria) the university has to go through the protracted rigmarole of the German academic hiring system (the details of which I will spare you).

Suffice it to say that Eichstätt seriously wanted Prof. Dr. Dr. Ulrich Hemel, a theologian (In fact, according to Der Spiegel, a "brilliant theologian") with an impressive academic CV and a business career, as its new president. The university council voted 12 to 4 in his favour earlier in the year.

The rub: he's been married three times. And: he's been openly critical of Pope Benedict.

After weeks of waiting for an epiphany, we now know what's what: Hemel will not become president of the university, as the Vatican deems him unfit for the job. Why? Here, both the bishop of Eichstätt, whose task it would have been to appoint Hemel, and the Vatican, remain curiously mum. There are obscure mutterings of "breaches of trust" regarding Hemel's statements to the press over the past weeks. The rest is silence.

Now, what would our friend Jürgen H. -- much beloved and hotly discussed at this blog -- say about that? Not exactly communicative, eh? Not exactly ... er, transparent, tolerant and all that. Not exactly academic liberties, is it? But then: reality has never been a great concern of yours, has it?

Anyway, here's my plea: Hemel for president. And if Benedict won't agree to this democratically taken decision, maybe Cthulhu will.

PS: As I was sitting here writing about pigeon sex -- intercourse the pigeon! -- John forced The Greatful Dead upon me, as is his wont. But I'm grateful (note the pun, ha, ha), as it has drawn my attention to the fact that "Truckin'" is essentially "The Ballad of John and Yoko."

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Fascists Stole Cliff's Euro Victory (But Ex-Fascists Apparently Liked It)

Or how else are we to interpret the fact that this Express article on "The Greatest Eurovision Fraud Ever" - claiming a Francoist conspiracy against every British mum's dream son-in-law - ends with this reference to the success of Cliff Richard's "Congratulations" beyond the bespeckled isle:
The song stayed at number one in Germany for seven weeks and sold more than one million copies.

An appreciative slap on the back of the former enemy? Or a self-congratulatory reminder of Britain's finest hour - thanks to which a major musical war on two fronts was prevented? (The German Eurovision entry for that year was a pompous hymn by Norwegian-born Wencke Myhre - and what a fascinating combo this and the Spanish song would have been). And why the hell should this be an issue today?

At least, thanks to the research conducted in connection with this Matter of Great Concern, I know that the artist originally entered to sing the impostor song "La La La" was withdrawn because he wanted to sing it in Catalan.

“¡No Pasaran!”

I'm sorry if this is a trifle banal. I'm too tired to come up with anything deep at the moment.