Archive for ‘MyCountry’

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Euroland, Aching to Grow

Our Beautiful Money

When I listened to the Voice of Greece last time, probably on a Sunday morning in May, while doing my share of the chores, I caught myself thinking something like: Why the heck are they still broadcasting on shortwave, while other countries, including mine, are cutting their foreign radio stations’ budgets? My brain didn’t add “It’s our money”, because, despite reading Germany’s biggest tabloid once in a while, I know that things are a bit more complicated. It’s more like the banks’ money, or it’s becoming the money of the German state, several other European states, and the European central bank’s in that they are trying to save not only the commercial creditors’ existence, but actually every Eurocent the Greek state owes to the commercial banks.

I hope the Greek government won’t get this influential blog wrong. I love shortwave radio, and I don’t care how the Greeks find their feet again, as long as they do manage to bounce back at all. And while I do feel that, once upon a time, a Greek government did fool Berlin and many other Euroland capitals when it provided numbers seemingly consistent with the convergence criteria and joined Euroland – apparently in 2002 -, its European partners were only too willing to be fooled at the time. And I guess that next time a similar opportunity arises, they will be only too willing to be fooled, once again.

It would be heartening to think that even the most skeptical German might have some sympathy for the average Greek,

Inside Greece wrote in May, given that the average Greek, knowing nothing more than you or I about political economics, was still facing a barrage of opinions on debt restructuring.

Which is true. But it would be heartening, too, to think that even the most skeptical Greeks might have some sympathy for the average German, who has lived with very little growth in individual purchasing power ever since the mid-1990s, who has seen restructuring which spelled upheaval of sorts, and who is under the impression that this was exactly the restructuring the Greeks saved themselves, at about the same time, and at our costs.

Either way, the main question is no longer how we got into the mess, but how we get out of it again – as Europeans, if possible.

Want of Fresh Ideas

Premature Concept

Science and Politics

The Economist is in no doubt about which European state can do most to prevent the situation from aggravating further. But

[Germany’s] strategy, in so far as there is one, has followed a twin track. One has been to push others to adopt Germanic rigour through tougher fiscal rules and a “fitness programme” to make economies more competitive. This is meant to prevent a future crisis. As for today’s ills, caused by the sins of the past, the answer has often been just to play for time: to try to repair Europe’s banks, insist on deficits being trimmed and hope that growth makes the problem more manageable. (May 14, 2011, page 40)

And the same article pointed out that Germany had opposed Eurobonds, resisted immediately imposing losses on bondholders (while insisting that they had to share the pain from 2013), and backed arguments against Ireland burning its bank creditors.

What strikes me most is how resentful – and at the same time fatalistic – many of my compatriots seem to react to the bad  news they are showered with. Granted – Germans and revolutions live on two different planets. But innovative thought should be nothing outlandish here.

I am skeptical of too innovative ways of thinking, and frequently, what is meant to be innovative is in fact only dogmatic. The political Left and the Vatican aren’t as different from each other as they may like to think. But this country would deserve a much more open press which would discuss real political alternatives. There will be no change without new concepts. Christian Y. Schmidt, a journalist living in China, stated correctly in a talk half a year ago that even though the German press criticized the government – and the opposition – frequently and with pleasure, there were limits. Germany’s economic order wasn’t questioned. The idea that banks could be nationalized, as a result of the recent financial crisis, hadn’t been discussed in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

Not that nationalizing the banks would necessarily be a great idea. But legislation that would make banks more responsible creditors, and less prepared to bet on bailouts with public money, is mandatory. Unfortunately, German politicians have preferred to defame the Greek pension system, rather than to address the actual issues.

I have shifted somewhat during the past few years, from reading mainstream printed papers to more “exotic” stuff online. Der Spiegelfechter is a website which provides posts from fresh (usually rather leftist) perspectives, and its contributors aren’t shying away from explaining  the background to the issues in the news (in German).

In many cases, I disagree with hopeful leftist articles about a European preparedness to address the real issues. When – mostly young – Spaniards began to protest at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, for example, I heard some of them vent their frustrations in front of a BBC microphone – in Spanish. It struck me because, whenever they can, BBC reporters seem to use  English-language statements from foreigners in their coverage, even from Joe Blow. Could it be that there were no protesters with sufficient confidence in their English language skills available? If so, don’t blame the state for that.

And am I jumping to conclusions when thinking that many “people in the street”  are just as prepared to have their lives subsidized, as are many commercial banks?

Change don’t come Easy

In the Grapes of Wrath (1939), chapter 14, John Steinbeck wrote:

The causes lie deep and simply – the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times. The last clear definite function of man – muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need – this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike anything organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man – when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.

I hope this is true. And I hope that what followed in the same chapter, is not:

This you may say and know it and know it. This you may know when the bombs plummet out of the black planes on the market-place, when prisoners are stuck like pigs, when the crushed bodies drain filthily in the dust. You may know it in this way. If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the bombs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live – for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live – for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken. And this you can know – fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.

Human brains will need to be aching to work and to create, too.

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Related
» Creative Destruction or Development, March 15, 2010
» From Confederacy to Federation, Joschka Fischer, May 12, 2000

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Feelgood for the Day: Margot Christ Superstar

Margot Käßmann was the leading Lutheran bishop from 2009 to 2010.

On the Shining Path of Protestant Virtue

On the Shining Path of Protestant Virtue, there's no Room for Subtleties

Kirchentage – a traditional, now biennial lay-movement event,  – are something some of my family and friends love, and what others of us – me included, aren’t fond of at all. Controversy is a good thing – but sometimes, there seems to be too little controversy when the Kirchentag mainstream – yes, such a thing does exist – kicks in. In short, I distrust the atmosphere. That said, church congresses aren’t exactly what they appear to be on television. There are many small workshops coexisting, and somewhere, once in a while, you might get food for thought after all.

It seems that former bishop Margot Käßmann has managed to trigger second thoughts among some of the usually more happy Kirchentag goers though. That’s not because they wouldn’t be practising Christians. But it seems that they take their religion too serious to have it sliced into moralistic canapés.

“Frankly, I think this is a much better idea than to bomb road tankers in Kundus.”
Margot Käßmann, reacting to sarcastic advice to sit down in a tent with the Taliban and candles, and to pray.
Quoted by evangelisch.de

For Margot Käßmann, too, Dolly Parton’s wisdom applies – in the make-up room, to make oneself look natural takes longer than anything else.
Jan Feddersen, in an article for taz

taz is no likely paper to advocate war, but Feddersen appears to be thoroughly pissed-off. So seem several other editorialists. Lutheran theologicans may don simpler robes than Catholics, but that’s no all-around protection against hypocrisy and moralistic superelevation.

I thought about leaving church for some time during the 1980s,  which were similar times in wonderland. I took offense then, because I do have a sense of belonging to my denomination, even if a faithless one. But meantime,  I seem to take things easier. Käßmann’s platitudes don’t anger me the way similar 1980s simplifications did. Rather, they inspire the cartoonist inside me.

The real treasures of thought lie much deeper than the plebeian donnybrooks around Käßmann, or Eugen Drewermann.

That I’m too lazy myself to dive into them more frequently shouldn’t lead me to believe that there would be nothing but  “intellectual fast food” (Feddersen on Käßmann’s sermons) on offer.

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Related
» My Fearful Country, March 19, 2011
» “Wild Justice”, Philosophy Now, 2010
» An Exclamation of Joy, Urban Dictionary, July 9, 2007

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Beer in Peace: the Middle East, and German Anger

I’m no Mideast expert. I’m not a Germany expert either – I’m German, and only foreigners can be Germany experts. But given that there are views you will hardly find on the Voice of Germany, and out of a patriotic sense of mission, I’ve decided to create a new category on this blog – MyCountry. Blogposts on this particular topic will be sparse, hence no extra blog.

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It was probably Kurt Tucholsky, a journalist, and even more famously a satirist, during the Weimar era, who suggested that the most dangerous man was the one who just wanted to drink his beer in peace.

And even if Tucholsky never really wrote that (can’t find it on the internet, and I lent the book in question to someone and never got it back), it doesn’t really matter, because people will have other beef with him anyway. Stuff like Wo waren Sie im Kriege, Herr –? (This refers to world war 1.)
Another famous sentence of his, Soldiers are Murderers, is not so unpopular in Germany any longer, but that may be owing to the fact that we lost world war 2, as well. By 1945, it had become too obvious that going to war doesn’t pay, at least not for Germans.

Anyway – during the years of the Weimar Republic, Tucholsky belonged to the minority of Germans who strongly believed in free speech (his own freedom, and that of others), and who opposed the rising nazis openly, and consistently. Once the nazis had come to power, Tucholsky lived in exile. Otherwise, he might have been among the first citizens to be arrested, murdered, or put into a concentration camp after January 30, 1933. Carl von Ossietzky, one of his colleagues at the Weltbühne weekly, was arrested on February 28, 1933, and put into “protective custody”.

If his record as a journalist hadn’t been enough to get Tucholsky arrested, too, his life would have been in danger soon after, anyway – Tucholsky was Jewish.

Ever since 1945, an uncertain number of Germans has been busy with either white-washing the twelve years of nazi rule (usually a habit of those who, due to their personal record, prominent nazi membership etc stood no chance to make their contemporaries – or the allied forces’ authorities – believe that they had merely been fellow travellers or Mitläufer), or with distancing themselves both from the nazi ideology, and from any earlier German tradition that might have contributed to nazism. And of course, also to this day, an uncertain number of Germans continues to whitewash the nazi years because they believe that Germany had been attacked by Poland, in 1939.

Rudolf Augstein, a Wehrmacht lieutenant in world war 2, and founder of Germany’s news magazine Der Spiegel in 1947, liked to dive deep into history. He seemed to see a line of tradition from Friedrich II of Prussia right down to Adolf Hitler. He didn’t condemn Friedrich II, but he certainly wasn’t one of his greatest fans. Augstein was just as outspoken – rightly or wrongly – when it came to the Middle East conflict:

Ariel Sharon wants war, he has left no doubt. He brushed aside two decades of peace efforts. He accuses Yasser Arafat in the first place for the need [for Israel] to withdraw from Lebanon in 1982. He had wanted to turn Lebanon into an Israeli protectorate. And he would tinker one over Palestine if only he was allowed to.
(Ariel Scharon will den Krieg, daran hat er nun keinen Zweifel mehr gelassen. Zwei Jahrzehnte Friedensbemühungen hat er beiseite gewischt. In Jassir Arafat sieht er den Hauptschuldigen dafür, dass er 1982 aus dem Libanon zurückweichen musste. Den Libanon wollte Scharon zu einem israelischen Protektorat machen. Ein Protektorat über Palästina würde er sich auch heute zurechtzimmern, wenn man ihn nur ließe.)

If anyone who can read my post here can read Ariel Sharon‘s mind – as of 1982 -, too, please volunteer your findings now. To be clear, Augstein’s choice of the word “protectorate” would earn him a lot of critics nowadays – and maybe it did, too, back in December 2001, when he wrote the a/m article. After all, the nazis liked the concept of protectorates. Bohemia and Moravia were explicitly named protectorates, proclaimed by Adolf Hitler, from Prague Castle. Vichy France may count as another protectorate.

The concept existed long before nazi rule – but mentioning protectorates in the context of Israeli policies was an absolute NO in Germany – unless your name was Rudolf Augstein.

All that said, I found his article refreshing when reading it back then, in Der Spiegel’s printed edition.

Almost exactly two years after Augstein’s accusation, Sharon announced his disengagement plan from Gaza. Maybe Augstein had been wrong, and Sharon wasn’t that fond of protectorates after all.

But some German critics of Israel’s occupation policies might think of this policy change as a change of mind, and attribute it to critics like Augstein – when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they frequently overestimate our country’s role. German daily Die Welt‘s Clemens Wergin, a blogger, and one of the critics’ opposite numbers in our daily Mideast brawls, relishes in pointing out how insignificant Germany – and Europe – actually are when it comes to current affairs south and east of the Mediterranean. His point, of course, isn’t that we did nothing to help building peace in the Middle East more in general. It is that we did nothing, or too little, to protect Israel in particular.

In another blogpost, he pointed out that opinions concerning the Mideast conflict were usually stronger than (background) knowledge.

Wergin usually sticks to the political or security issues, although he may sometimes try to draw psychic profiles of the German public and its Israel– or America-related debates.

In a recent post, he suggested that  U.S. president Barack Obama‘s recent policies on the Middle East were a disaster, in that Obama had joined Europe in believing that the Israeli-Palestine conflict was the central cause for all other problems in the region. The commenter thread which followed Wergin’s post was little more than an exchange of credos – either blanketly defending or attacking Israel’s policies. And soon enough, the first critic was lablelled an anti-semite. Both sides accused each other of being uncapable of listening to actual points in an argument. Some commenters from both sides indeed seemed to be unable or unwilling to argue – especially those who accused the other side of such incapacities.

Such accusations of anti-semitism can make sense, at times. But about as frequently, they are a convenient ersatz for an actual discussions of issues. That may be the case elsewhere, too, but particularly in Germany, and given our country’s nazi past, with millions of Jewish people murdered, it will usually carry weight, no matter who is applying the label on whom, and no matter if the accusation is justified or not.

Wergin’s posts take a perspective which might be described as Western, American, and Israeli security interests. Apart from relative outsiders to the Mideast conflict, people with an immediate interest in the conflict may occasionally be commenting on his blog, too – but you can’t usually tell from the way they express their views, and once the commenter threads begin, the my-beer-in-peace mechanism kicks in, either way. To those who side with Israel, Israel is seen as the party which wants peace, but is refused a peacful arrangement by its enemies. To those who side with Palestine, Palestine is the innocent party who is refused such a peaceful arrangement. To many of both sides, plus many of those who don’t really care about the Middle East, it seems to be seen as a region that doesn’t allow Germans to drink their beer in peace.

Anyway – while you may find characteristics in this debate which may apply to discussions in your country, too, some aspects and forms of such exchanges amount to an argument with particularly German characteristics. Israel and Palestine then mainly serve as dummies in exchanges of German righteousness (“we’ve learned our lessons from ww2”), anger and frustration – all that, however, with tons of explanations, and showing off individual Mideast expertise. Both sides prove each other wrong all along the time, or claim that they are doing that, and once nothing else works anymore, each side makes referrals to Germany’s nazi past in ways which suit its case best.

What both sides – and that’s pretty German, too – seem to ignore is that in the end, an individual’s opportunities to influence his or her country’s security policies are usually limited – and there is little evidence that as many Germans, if in a situation similar to Israel’s, would be prepared to join Gush Shalom, as are Israelis. Neither too many Israelis, nor too many Palestinians, can be happy with everyday life under today’s circumstances – but just as for people elsewhere, politics is only one aspect of daily life, and people have to earn a life, and to have some fun and family life after hours.

It’s only fair to point out that some very modest welfare state reforms in Germany, not too long ago, led to an old and venerable political party being shredded in subsequent elections. But removing the Israeli settlers from the West Bank is considered to be a piece of cake, from a German perspective. Or – an argument from the other side of the German debate – the concessions the Palestinian peace negotiators reportedly put on the negotiation table  were either too little to be taken serious, or too much to be believable.

I usually prefer to discuss such issues without too many referrals to my own country, or to the nazi past. The past is a factor, but when defenders and critics of either (German) side refer to it too often, I begin to doubt that the Middle East is the actual issue, and I begin to believe that our domestic issues are actually taking control of the debate. In that light, I have started to re-think my past ideas about the Middle East. What America does for Israel in security terms may not be glorious, but it may be a necessity. I have believed that before. What Europe does for Israel – and Palestine – may not be glorious either, but Israel’s and Palestine’s connections with Europe in terms of the economy, and culture, shouldn’t be despised as “too little to count”. That’s where I have changed my mind. I used to wonder if Europe couldn’t do more.

There are sources to the fruitless German public debate which can be found in Germany itself – both in circumstances of today, and of the past. There is an incapacity to take the perspective of a common citizen in the Middle East. Every discussion seems to boil down to angry exchanges between armchair politicians or armchair generals.

But another source is the incapability of either side in the argument to think of themselves as people with an anti-semitic heritage. That heritage is generously applied to Germany as a nation, especially by pro-Israeli posters. But it never seems to dawn on them that unconditional support for Israel can be no substitute for occasional individual soul-searching. Generations of people everywhere in Europe, and in Germany in particular, have inherited prejudices against Jewish people. Neither criticizing, nor supporting either side in the Middle East can be a replacement for self-awareness.

As far as that’s concerned, I’m beginning to appreciate the EU’s Mideast policies (to the extent that common EU policies exist). These policies aren’t rushing to conclusions. They provide for the role that the immediate stakeholders – Israelis and Palestinians themselves – need to play, before relative outsiders can begin to play a helpful role. And they have – by and large – resisted the temptations that lie in heroic, but hollow, rhetoric and gestures.

Those may work for newspapers, but not usually in politics, or in daily life.

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Related
» Exorcising Hitler, Hester Vaizey / The Independent, April 29, 2011
» My fearful Country, March 19, 2011
» We Invented the Katyusha, October 30, 2009
» Mit Panzern nach Berlin, Henry Kissinger, November 8, 2002

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