Wednesday, November 28, 2012

News from Plutocracy Central

Just noticed in this morning’s news that all the new GOP chairmanship appointments, nineteen so far, have gone to white males. 

Some people are surprised by that, as if they hadn’t heard that this is the party of white males. 

I understand many will want to keep the focus on gender inequity, but I hope in the fuss, which I consider fully justified, we won't forget it's more precisely the party of rich white males.  I thought it might be interesting to poke around and see just how rich these nineteen would turn out to be, so I checked. 

Using figures provided by Christopher Schnaars of the Center for Responsive Politics, I lined the guys up in order of wealth, as determined by their 2010 income tax returns (which are estimates, by the way, and do not include the value of their home(s) or other personal property – like yachts and planes. And car elevators, of course.)

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) - $448,125,017.00
Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX) - $380,411,527.00
Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) - $16,288,608.00
Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) - $7,292,073.00
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) - $4,420,525.00
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) - $3,925,560.00
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) - $3,683,841.00
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) - $2,067,050.00
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) - $1,884,522.00
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) - $1,841,512.00
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) - $1,214,516.00
Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) - $1,108,005.00
Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) - $962,006.00
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) - $650,501.00
Rep. John Kline (R-MN) - $471,006.00
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) - $345,007.00
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) - $263,505.00
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) - $223,501.00
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) - $117,500.00

Lest you get the false impression I think there is something wrong with being rich, I don’t.  The reason I own my own home in the Bay Area is that I once had an annual salary for a few years to match the poorest guy of the nineteen on the list (his net was my gross, however), and I can only say this good fortune should be everybody’s.

At the same time, it is interesting to note that 12 of the 19 had incomes in excess of one million dollars in 2010.  (And #13 was in the whites of his eyes range.)  Not that you have to be rich to run the country, but it sure does seem to trend that way.

I am also not suggesting there is a link between who gets appointed to committees and wealth.  I have no evidence of that.  I'm simply looking at a random selection of GOP politicians, as far as I know, and at their wealth levels.  If I wanted to look at the power center, I'd have to look at

John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the House, from Ohio - $4,092,053.00, and
Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader, from Kentucky - $27,213,024.00, and
Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader, from Virginia - $5,471,054.00

Whatever you have to say about the GOP, there does seem to be a very high correlation between wealth and power.  

And gender.  They definitely need to correct for gender.  Be more like the Democrats from California.

Senator Diane Feinstein - $69,046,622.00, and 
Nancy Pelosi - $101,123,032.00

Mama, tell me once more, what’s a plu-to-crat?

picture credit

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Gustl Mollath Scandal

A week ago I wrote about the fascinating case of Gustl Mollath, the man sitting in a psychiatric clinic in Bayreuth claiming he was railroaded by the Bavarian justice system.   Since then I’ve been trying to find a way to establish a neutral position and to understand what might be going on with the justice system in the German state of Bavaria.  It has all the makings of a major scandal, yet for reasons I can’t explain, nobody outside Germany seems to have picked up the story.  All links to references are in German, unfortunately, but I trust anybody who would like to poke around in the details can make good use of the Google translator. Translations are mine and I welcome corrections if they are needed.

Just to review the he says/she says part of the story, Bavarian Minister of Justice, Beate Merk, tells the tale this way.  Petra Mollath, of Nuremberg, takes her husband Gustl to court charging that he beat her and tried to choke her to death.  The judge, Otto Bixner, decides Gustl is delusional because he keeps ranting about some money laundering scheme, so instead of jailing him for wife-beating Bixner sends Gustl Mollath to a psychiatric clinic in Bayreuth.  A judgment call.   All on the up and up.

Not so, says Gustl.  First, I never beat my wife.  She made that up.  Second, I was never delusional.  What I said about the money laundering and tax evasion was all true.

Now if you were raised with Perry Mason and hundreds of films and documentaries about court trials, as I was, what happens next will strike you as something out of fantasy land.  The judge, all on his own, decides to lock Mollath up in a psychiatric clinic, without a single audible peep out of anybody, apparently.   I have to admit I am unfamiliar with German justice, but didn't Mollath have a lawyer?  Were there no investigations into Mollath's claims?

Apparently not.   Now move ahead six years to 2011.  Apparently out of nowhere, the Nuremberg Hypo-Vereinsbank where Petra worked suddenly reveals that, although the police never investigated Mollath’s charges of banking chicanery, the bank did do an internal investigation.  Furthermore, they found he was telling the truth, and fired her and a colleague she was working with.  A third colleague resigned.  The bank filed the report somewhere, but never apparently shared it with the police, because they saw no reason to. 

Now tell me this story doesn't have stink written all over it.  How could anybody believe the bank would fire a couple of its employees for breaking the law on money laundering and not call the cops.  Wouldn't this scream for an investigation into whether somebody else at the bank was involved in the scheme, and whether the clients Petra Mollath was working for didn't maybe step in and shut down further investigation?

It remains to be seen whether the stink is coming from separate sources, or whether they are all tied together.  Let's start with the judge who tried Mollath, Otto Bixner.  He’s now retired and still maintains he did everything by the book, a claim Merk backs him up on.  But this begs the question of what the book says.  Or should say.   How the hell does a judge get to put a private citizen in a mental institution without more to go on than his own view that the citizen is a raving lunatic?  Are there no expert witnesses in Germany?  No psychiatric evaluations that figure into such “sentencing”?   Does a judge really have that much p̶o̶w̶e̶r̶  discretion? 

Since Mollath was not charged with wife-beating, there is perhaps no point in belaboring the point that it was his word against hers.  But the judge should at least have asked for some evidence he attacked her, wouldn't you think?   Did she see a doctor?  Where there medical records?  Witnesses?  Nobody followed that up because the hospitalization sidetracked the criminal charges.  When asked to explain the hospitalization, Merk, to this day, says it was appropriate “because he was dangerous.”   But he had only Petra's word to go on, and she had apparently been heard to say that she knew she could claim he was crazy and "do him in."  

Now wait a minute.  He was hospitalized because he was delusional, not because he was dangerous.  Nobody pursued the question of danger, as far as I know.  And now it turns out the charges of paranoid delusion were false.  The judge never gave Mollath his fair day in court; he never checked his story.

I’m an American looking at a story of German justice.  It’s possible, since I’m going on news reports and not from personal investigation, that there is a whole lot of information out there that would lead me to conclude otherwise, but I haven’t found it.  I’m sitting here wondering what the hell is wrong with the German justice system that they haven’t snapped into action and let Mollath go.  Just the obvious evidence given in 2011 by the bank should have led to that.  Why is he still sitting in an institution?  And, perhaps the most serious question raised by this story, is there no oversight in Germany that would prevent indefinite incarceration on the basis of a single judge's opinion?

Another question that looms large is how come the people at the Clinic for Forensic Psychiatry in Bayreuth where Mollath is interned are not speaking out?  Do they think he belongs there?  Is it that they are speaking out and the authorities are ignoring their pleas?  Are they complicit in an unwarranted hospitalization?   Or are they persuaded Mollath was correctly diagnosed by Judge Bixner and that his continued open-ended hospitalization is justified?  I realize that these questions will give some people reason to think I’m inclined toward conspiracy theories, but a few clear answers from the right authorities would knock these questions right out of the water, it seems to me.

Here are some of the reasons I’m asking them:

1. First of all there is Gustl Mollath claiming he’s been falsely hospitalized.  And he’d like you to read that: imprisoned.

2. There are two charges pending against Beate Merk of obstruction of justice, false imprisonment and perversion of justice.  One of these was filed by the office of Rainer Schmid in Munich, and the other bythe “Arbeitsgruppe Recht und Psychiatriemissbrauch (Task Force for Legal and Psychiatric Abuse)” of Saxony, according to spokesperson Brigitte Schneider.   In a report to a Giessen (in the state of Hesse) newspaper the Task Force charged Merk with using the methods of the Stasi (The former East German Secret Police) to prosecute the case  and with lying to Parliament.  They are also urging Bavarian Minister-President (State Premier) Seehofer to fire her.  Further details are available at the site of the ARD, the German national broadcasting system, which broke the story.

3. The story is being carried with obvious sympathy for Mollath in a number of prominent German papers.  Here’s one in the Süddeutsche Zeitung titled “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” 

4. I’ve also found a petition for Mollath’s release with 701 signatures, several pro arguments and no contra arguments that was delivered to the Bavarian Parliament (Landtag) in December 30, 2011.  Lawyers associated with the case, according to the web page are Dr. F. Weinberger und R. Heindl, a retired judge.   (This may be irrelevant, but I also found a website which appears to be a blog by someone charging that this railroading into psychiatric institutions is not an isolated incident.)

This is the kind of information that leads one to ask questions about conspiracy theories, and I am in no position to assess the veracity of these claims, of course, but they are real questions, it seems to me, and should at least be addressed. The site’s owner, Rainer Hackman, makes some strong claims that the practice of false institutionalization as a means of disarming political or other opposition is widespread.  A curious twist in this tangent, irrelevant or not, is Hackman’s contextualizing of this process of institutionalizing one’s enemies in the field of ponerology, the “study of evil,” a field developed by Andrzej M. Lobaczewski.  Lobaczewski also developed the notion of pathocracy, rule by psychopaths.  Hackman, in short, places deprivation of liberty, as is charged in the case of Gustl Mollath, alongside other great evils covering the whole gamut from militant aggression, conquest and colonialism to other forms of oppression including not only genocide but ecological destruction, economic depredation and even domestic conflict. Child abuse, would be including, and bullying, but also all forms of waste and neglect.  You can see how easily one might spin this story into the end of the world.  All the more reason, it seems to me, to get clarification, and get it quickly.

5. To get back to possible evidence that Mollath has a case, there is the testimony by Wilhelm Schlötterer, a former Bavarian financial officer and a man with a reputation as a whistle blower.  Mollath, he insists, should be released immediately and Merk should be fired.   On May 3, 2011, Schlötterer gave a talk in connection with the publication of his book, Macht und Missbrauch: Franz Josef Strauß und seine Nachfolger (Power and Abuse: Franz Josef Strauss and his Successors) in which he used the Mollath case as an example of the abuse of judicial power.   He concluded:

We consider the institutionalization of Gustl Mollath in various forensic psychiatric clinics as illegal and completely out of proportion.  It constitutes a human rights violation which endangers all citizens subject to the laws of Bavarian justice.

Wilhelm Schlötterer’s presentation is available on YouTube.

6.  Merk insists charges against her are an “unprecedented attack on the Bavarian justice system.” And that she is being attacked not because she has done something wrong, but because her political enemies see an opportunity of piling on.  But if you look at what they are actually saying, they are giving reasons for calling for her dismissal – and they are calling not so much for her head as for clarification:  

First there were the “Free Voters.”  Then the Bavarian Pirate Party joined the fray, arguing that Merk gave false testimony to the Bavarian Parliament, thus discrediting herself and doing harm to Bavarian justice, a charge lodged by others, as well.   According to the Pirate Party website author, Patrick Linnert (who makes a point of declaring he is not speaking for the party),
 Whether any of the crimes have passed the statue of limitations is irrelevant.  Here it’s not just the entire justice system that has failed to do its duty, but all the experts, all the doctors and caretakers.  This scandal shows what can happen when a state is governed for fifty years by the same party.  It wouldn’t surprise me to find that among Mollath’s ex-wife’s customers are some big shots in the CSU.   We eagerly await further results.
In the article, worth reading in its entirety, Linnert says his purpose is “to give Mr. Mollath a chance at rehabilitation and to clarify the case completely."  He also maintains that "Ms. Merk’s resignation (is) absolutely essential.”   The commentary that follows is also enlightening, showing strong support for Linnert’s assertions.

7. Online news magazine Telepolis on November 23 published another story which raises questions about Beate Merk.   About three weeks ago, the “medical commissioner for human rights” in Bavaria, Maria Fick, filed a complaint against Beate Merk, charging abuse, urging a review of the case and demanding reparations.  Merk has yet to respond to the charges.     To make the story even more interesting,  Merk questioned Fick’s competence in a public session of the Bavarian State Parliament, despite the fact that Fick has twenty-two years of experience in private practice, plus ten working in a clinic, and was for four years vice president of the Bavarian State Medical Association, specializing in medical ethics.  

In an interview with a fairly aggressive ARD interviewer, Merk adamently insists she has done nothing wrong.   When the interviewer asks her to explain why the D.A.’s office never explored the charges Mollath made about phony bank accounts in Switzerland, Merk answers, “You’re mixing information from two sources.  The tax office can proceed without evidence of a crime being committed; the district attorney’s office cannot.”  This is not evidence, note, that Mollath was hospitalized with good reason.  It is evidence only that Merk played by the rules of the game.

Mollath’s case was reviewed by Dr. Leipziger, the clinic's chief doctor, but Fick found "discrepancies" in his findings and described them as “inconclusive,” raising the question how it is Mollath could have been institutionalized on the basis of such findings – to say nothing of his being held there indefinitely.  In the ARD interview, Merk refuses to address the evidence of Mollath’s paranoia, arguing that the D.A. acted on the basis of information available to it at the time.   The interviewer presses her, “If he was institutionalized on the basis of paranoia over taxes, how is it the taxes were not part of the investigation?”  Merk answers that he was institutionalized on the basis of his attack on his wife – because he was dangerous, in other words, not because he was paranoid.  She does not explain how people who are "dangerous but not paranoid" end up in psychiatric institutions, and not simply jails.

The interviewer persists.  In 2007 a separate evaluator of Mollath’s mental state reports no evidence of paranoia.  How is it, the interviewer wants to know, that Merk left that information out in her report to Parliament.  Merk repeats that it is not her job to comment on the decision made by the judge in the original case.

The entire interview is available here and is worth watching, if only to see a tough interviewer in action.  Whether Merk’s insistence that she is being bombarded by questions she should not be expected to answer (arguably that she is being bullied by a reporter) is a separate question.  The interview comes to an end because she finally decides she has had enough.  The interviewer asks, “Just one more general question.”  Merk responds, “No.  I’m done.”

The tide seems to have turned.  New reports come in daily suggesting there is something really rotten in the Bavarian Justice System.   Today’s papers are carrying the ongoing story.  For samples, see here, here, here, and here.

I still find no mention of the case in the non-German press, but I suspect that is about to change.  This is definitely a story to follow.

For further, more detailed information, one place to start is the petition being sent round to free Mollath and bring about Merk’s resignation.  It includes links to both The ARD report, “Report Mainz” and a chronology of the case put out by the working group as well as
several other parts of the story.

photo credit

Friday, November 23, 2012

Who Turned the Lights On?

I wrote the other day about silence as a response to the horror of the Holocaust, and how it extended into the next generation, which was taught there was no use asking questions because there would be no answers.  I mentioned in passing my lasting impression of Japan as a place where I ran regularly into walls of silence.  At first, I assumed it was my lack of familiarity with the place and with the language.  But over time, as my Japanese improved and I began recognizing more and more patterns, I realized there were simply things about which one was not supposed to speak. Period.

As I thought about what I had written, I began to feel a tad sheepish.  I heard a voice in my head saying, “What a foolish generalization.  You, of all people, ought to know better than to make generalizations about national characteristics.”  I spent my career exploring various aspects of culture, the intersection of culture and religion, culture and society, culture and civilization, the anthropological understanding of the concept as against the popular understanding, and the ways culture makes the individual and individuals make and change their culture.  Sure, silence, or “sitting on information,” if you will, may be described as a cultural response when it is widespread, and when it becomes a common response, justified by what people would describe as “common sense.”  But it’s unworthy of you to think of it as in any way peculiar to Japan.

Yes, but… yes but somewhere along the line I came across a way of contrasting how Japanese and others, including Americans, dealt with social problems.  “You Americans,” one of my Japanese friends once told me, “When you find a social problem, you like to blow it up and make a big stink about it.  You think by getting everything out into the open and talking it to death you can solve it, somehow.  We Japanese prefer to handle the situation quietly, privately.”  I later came to describe that phenomenon as watching the Americans “turn the lights on” and the Japanese “turn the lights off.”

I ran into difficulty once when teaching a course in argumentation.  To build debate topics, I naturally turned to controversial topics, insisting that one of the fundamental rules of debating should be that you didn’t waste your time with trivial issues.  One debated for a reason, to find ways to make positive change.  How could one effect change without a proper understanding of the issues, I asked.  And for that, one had to “turn on all the lights.”

We took up the plights of minorities in Japan – the Vietnamese refugees, the Latin Americans of Japanese origin, the long-term Chinese and Korean residents of Japan, many of whom spoke only Japanese and had no other identity but were still denied access to full participation in Japanese life.  And, of course, the extremely touchy topic of Japanese “untouchables,” the burakumin.  As we began to get into the topic, one of my students came to me in some distress.  She had to withdraw from my class, she told me, because her mother could not approve of what we were doing.

Later, I found a similar response when I brought up the question of the “comfort women,” women, mostly Chinese and Koreans, who were pressed into prostitution to service the soldiers during the war, allegedly to cut down on rape.  Each time I searched for social movements that might address these issues, I encountered the same resistance.  Some things, obviously, were simply “too sensitive.”  Things were being done about them, I was told.  But quietly.  Without fanfare.

Memories of those experiences came rushing back today when I heard on the radio the story of Hashima 端島, an island off the coast of Nagaski Prefecture, also known as Gunkanjima 軍艦島 (Battleship Island), about nine miles from Nagasaki itself.   From 1887 to 1974, the island was a coal mining facility.  Mitsubishi bought the island in 1890 for ¥100,000, and eventually built large concrete structures to house the employees in the mines, rather than have them make the journey from the mainland.  Concrete was used to protect against typhoons, and the buildings became the precursor of the concrete nightmares in industrialized countries everywhere.   People were jammed in, with six times the population density of Tokyo.

In 1974, suddenly the coal ran out.  Mitsubishi told the more than 5000 residents that there would be a few jobs for them on the mainland, but on a first-come/first-served basis.  Now the storyline shifted from the hellish life in the mines to the kind of labor abuse big corporations routinely inflict on their workers, when they no longer serve their purpose as money generators for investors.  The same story whether it takes place in Hashima or Flint, Michigan. 

But then the narrative took yet another turn.  A Swedish report on The focuses on the danger common to all mining activities as well as on the workers left stranded.  Another article in Der Spiegel, takes it further yet.  It is estimated, they say, that some 1300 workers lost their lives on the island by the end of the Second World War, most of these forced laborers, many of whom tried to escape in vain.   Sakamoto Doutoku. who spent his childhood on the island and remembers how radically things improved after the war, is trying to persuade the authorities to make the island into a world heritage site. 

And here is where silence comes in once more.   Not only does Sakamoto observe that “perhaps this is something I should not talk about,” but we learn that the effort to make this into a world heritage site is being held up by some Koreans, distressed that the story of forced labor is not being widely told.   And a Swedish filmmaker who wanted to make a documentary of the island's history reports, "We met a lot of embarrassment. We met a lot of hushed faces, a lot of people who would turn away as soon as we started speaking about the island, almost like it was a leper colony or something." 

Japanese politicians are notorious for their denial of abuse of the Koreans from the early days of colonization through the end of the war, and Korean resentment refuses to die.  Now here comes another example.  One I had not heard of before.

Wouldn’t you just know it.  As Japanese wait for “all this to blow over,” the Brits have to go and make another James Bond movie.  Skyfall.  And they get Daniel Craig to be James Bond again.  And they get Javier Bardem to play the bad guy.

And the bad guy has to have an island to live on.  And where would we find such an island?

You guessed it.  Hashima

Damn. We were doing so well.  We were starting up a tourist industry, talking about making some money off this ghost island.  Now MGM and Sony (Sony! yet) has to come in with its Hollywood extravaganza sound and fury - and all those lights - and tell the whole world the story of this guy Sakamoto and his plans to create a world heritage site.   And so now the Koreans suddenly have a much bigger audience.

Just as the comfort women story was blowing over.  Because the last of the women are now dying off and, with few exceptions, nobody talks of this any more.

Damn you, James Bond.

P.S.  It turns out they didn’t do any filming on Hashima, after all.   According to a background story on the movie, the actual island used was "(l) the coast of Macau...based on the real-life, abandoned Hashima Island, near Nagasaki, Japan."

Based on Hashima?  You mean you didn't even use Hashima?

Oh, the ironies.  The ironies.

picture credit

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Working from Within

I just watched a half-hour video on the struggle by lgbt members of the Methodist Church at their national convention to remove the homophobic language from their Book of Discipline,  the Constitution of the United Methodist Church and statement of its doctrinal beliefs.  The event took place a couple months ago, but the issue is still current.

The lgbt members and their progressive allies were trying to remove the statement, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”  They succeeded in committee, but failed when the delegates to their national convention in Florida voted at large because of a large number of solidly conservative African delegates. 

A thought crossed my mind while watching this video.  All those pennies I put in the collection boxes for the poor people of Africa when I was eight or ten years old.  How many of them ended up helping to teach kids to grow up and be homophobes?   Cast your bread upon the waters, they say.  I can just see the nightmares coming now,  loaves of bread rising up out of the waves like sharks and biting me on the ass.

This is a story for anthropologists.  One American church after another has evolved on the issue of homosexuality, as have churches in other places where once authoritarian religious institutions have felt the power of the Enlightenment.   To counter this force, reactionary forces within the church are reaching out to church members from Africa, where the evolution of consciousness is taking place at a slower rate.

I don’t have a dog in this race.  I left the church a half century ago, way before the gay issue became a divisive factor.   From where I sit, religion is a silly game of first creating an imaginary friend who lives in the sky and then making him say all sorts of things about how people who make you uncomfortable displease him.  As a kid I remember battles over whether the communion wine should be grape juice and whether it was sanitary for everybody to drink from the same cup. Quibbling seems to be a primary feature of organized religion.  Today the struggle is over whether gay people should be labeled sinners and excluded from communion, but it strikes me as the same pitiful struggle by silly people over who gets to speak for God and which biblical cherries go into the pie and which get left behind. 

Today, what I find so interesting is that all these interdenominational spats have given way to intradenominational ones.  What the Methodists are going through – whether to raise the consciousness about the harm done to lgbt people by a literal (and arbitrarily selective) reading of scripture – the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church and many other protestant denominations have gone through before them.  Increasingly, they have come down on the side of full acceptance of their lgbt members, without reservation.  Wikipedia lists some twenty denominations in the U.S. and Canada they identify as “LGBT-Affirming.”  The Methodists will get there in time, I suspect.

I’ve been thinking out loud with a friend facing the same struggle within the Catholic Church.  I am probably not very helpful to him, since I have long since cut and run, and since I have committed myself never to refer to people and institutions who espouse homophobia as “home.”   But at the same time I recognize the desire to hang onto a home that you feel you should not surrender to those who would misrepresent it and make it less than it should be.  It’s a heartbreaking dilemma.  I’m in the curious position of wanting him to stay and fight for an institution I have little use for, and I question my own motives. 

Is that because I’m hoping the institution will get better?  I suppose so.  I don’t think the Catholic Church is going to disappear overnight and I sure would prefer a gay-friendly institution to the homophobic one it is now.  Actually, there is hope for the Catholic Church.  With 90% of its members openly practicing birth control despite the word from the hierarchy, you see the church splitting down the middle.  The progressives may some day take control.  If it ever becomes once again Christ centered instead of papacy centered, all sorts of things are possible. 

With this in mind, and looked at from the personal level, I hope my friend finds the home he is looking for.

Some time ago I blogged about the documentary Tears of Gaza and reflected on the gap between rational discussion of international foreign policy and bombs and drones and whether, on the one hand, Israel’s retaliation in Gaza for the Hamas inspired rockets into Israel is “proportionate” or not – and whether it should be.    And on the other hand what it looks like to sit with maimed children whimpering, because they are too exhausted to cry, at the physical and psychological distress.

In a much smaller way, that’s what this video of the Methodists in Florida did for the me – take the heady discussion over whether the evolution of human rights is accelerating or not, and replace it with the up close and personal image of a few heroic progressive members of a religious institution handling disappointment and defeat, and finding the strength to fight another day.

If you’ve got a half hour to spare sometime, even if you can’t tell a Methodist from a Pastafarian, have a look at these folk trying to make their lives better.

And send them some good vibes when you’re done.

Or prayers, if you’re a believer.

 picture credit


Monday, November 19, 2012

Blood in the Water in Bavaria

Gustl Mollath has been in an insane asylum in Bayreuth for more than six years.  He claims he’s there because he blew the whistle on the money-laundering activities of his ex-wife and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with his mind.  Beate Merk, the Bavarian Minister of Justice, on the other hand, says his talk of corruption at the Hypo-Vereins bank in Nuremburg, where Mollath’s wife worked, along with Mollath’s attempt to strangle his ex-wife, indicate he suffers from paranoid delusions and is dangerous.  Mollath doesn’t deny that he went after his wife, but not the way she claimed.  She says he was out to kill her.  He maintains that he was trying to get her out of the business of carrying illegal funds for rich clients to hide in Swiss bank accounts.  According to Merk – and she is backed up by the district attorney - there was ample reason for institutionalizing Mollath, ample evidence that he was violent.  She also maintains that his institutionalization had been revisited yearly and nothing has transpired to suggest an error was made.

Mollath steadfastly maintains he has been railroaded.  And just this week the story broke that he may well be telling the truth.  The bank has released documents indicating that Mollath’s charges against his ex-wife may have some substance.  She and others were fired from their job.  A friend of Mollath's has come forward with the information that Mollath's wife let it slip she she knew how to "do him in."

Now the question is why the bank didn’t come to Mollath’s defense? Did they have something to hide?  Was the Hypo-Vereins Bank in Nuremburg actively involved in illegal activities?  Why else would they sit idly by with proof that Mollath’s charges against his ex-wife may have been legitimate and let him be locked away by a local D.A. who argued to the contrary?

This could still be a story about a conspiracy theorist.  Mollath isn’t the only person behind bars maintaining his innocence.  But if it’s a story about a cover up, it has the makings of a major scandal.  So far I’ve found it covered only in the German media, but it has international implications, first off because it involves international tax fraud and money laundering via Swiss bank accounts, secondly because alarms naturally go off when any mortgage bank falls under suspicion.  Mollath apparently named names.  What are those names, and were his wife and her colleagues fired because of illegal extra-curricular activities?   Or were they paid off to keep quiet about the bank’s participation?  So far no guilt has been established, but what is one to do with the disconnect between the bank and the Ministry of Justice?  The bank had evidence from the start there was wrongdoing, but when Mollath testified to that effect he was declared delusional.  What is that all about? And what are we to make of the fact that when Merk gave her report in March of this year she deliberately left out the fact that her office was in possession of the bank’s evidence?   Where is this buck going to stop?

The charge that Mollath was delusional is one thing.   What about the second charge – that he was “dangerous”?  How, in any case, was it possible to institutionalize a man simply on his ex-wife’s charges that he attacked her?   And what’s with the small fine?  Apparently there were no witnesses involved, and the fine was a mere 1000 euros, hardly a sum one would levy for attempted murder.

Justice Minister Beate Merk is politically connected to the CSU, the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the Christian Democratic Union, Germany’s governing political party.  The opposition smells blood.  Germany has a group of independents known as the “Free Voters.”  They are especially strong in Bavaria (about 10% of voters) and their leader has labeled all political parties in Germany as a bunch of losers.   They seem to be picking up the charge against Minister Merk.  And Mollath now has a fairly professional website set up to raise support for his case. 

I’ve tried to find English language sources on this story, but so far have come up empty-handed.  If your German is up to it, the details are available here.

Stay tuned.  Something’s bound to break on this story eventually.  Definitely movie thriller material.  

The picture above shows a number of clippings about the story from various German newspapers.  If I am violating any copyright laws, please let me know and I will instantly take the picture down.  Google Images attributes it to this link.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Yesterday, I wrote a review of a documentary film about people whose lives were caught up in the Holocaust and its aftermath.  One of the responses I got to that blog posting came from a cousin from the non-German side of my family.

She wrote, in part:

… while the war was going on, what were you told about it - or were you too young?  I know your Mother and Grossmutter were both from Germany…

Although the older people, especially those who remembered WWI, spoke about the whole nation as being Hitlerites, I don't know why, but I always felt that there were those …who were forced to do things they did not believe in.

I was struck with the innocence, even naïveté, of that response.  I don’t mean that critically.  I am very fond of this person.  But it struck me that most people I know would still explain the world in terms of good people forced to do bad things. 

In 1960, when I first went to Germany as a student, I took a course taught by Germans for Germans in the history of the Nazi period.  I wish I had those notes.  I would love to be able to recreate the mind set and the perspective.  I was fascinated at the time, but now I’m not sure if I had the maturity to take things in I might want to take in now.  It began a life long quest to understand the meaning of personal responsibility.  How does one situate oneself in the world?  How does one know one’s capacity to go along or to resist?

I decided to try to answer my cousin’s implied question.  Here’s the letter I wrote back:


Dear B:

The quick answer to your question is I was too young.  I was five when the war ended.

I do remember Uncle Bill going off to war - but from home movies, not from memory.

My first strong memory was V-E Day when the factory whistles all started blowing and my grandmother took me by the hand - I was five at the time - to go meet my father.  We missed him because the crowd pouring out of the factory was too wild - decades before cell phones.  No way to connect.  I remember being swept up in the crowd and a little nervous.   I remember people dancing in the streets.

In other words, I did not experience World War II personally.  That was the only time I could speak of being swept up in the war emotionally.

But because of Grossmutter, I grew up with a very strong German identity, as you know, and that gave me some serious cognitive dissonance during the years when I began to move away from a childish good-guy/bad-guy understanding and into a more complex analysis of human thought and behavior.  I’d say that started when I was about twelve or thirteen and by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, or whenever it was that I got some real understanding of the genocide and brutality, I began wondering seriously what made the difference between the fun-loving Germans I lived among in America and the Germans in Germany who went along with Hitler.

Having that sense of somehow being German (and remember, I could always shut that identity off at will, and tell myself that actually I was an American, not a German, and I wouldn’t be lying to myself) put me out ahead of most of my friends with other immigrant identities or no hyphenated identity at all (they were rare) in having to contend with the notion of collective responsibility and the beginning and end of “us.”   And then having to move beyond a simple good German/bad German framework early on because I began meeting people who were actually involved in the war.  I remember one of my grandmother’s acquaintances who was from Danzig (now Gdansk, in Poland) and was married to a Romanian pilot who had flown for the Luftwaffe.  Lovely people, whose company I thoroughly enjoyed.  And then there were the photos of my Uncles Kurt and Willi in Nazi uniforms.  I would meet Willi one day, but Kurt was killed in the war.  My grandmother told me they were not Nazi uniforms.  They were German uniforms.  I was told he died trying to shoot down British planes bombing Hamburg.  That story turned out not to be true – he actually went missing in North Africa.   Probably more a creation of my own young boy fantasies, now that I look back on it, rather than information collected from listening to family conversations. 

I do remember asking my grandmother once why the Germans did such bad things.  Her answer was a reasonable one – “there are good people and bad people everywhere.”  It satisfied me at the moment, but it was like Chinese food – I was hungry again in no time.  Yes, but why should all the American Germans be good Germans and why should there be an entire nation of bad Germans who stayed behind.  Did the good ones see what was coming and the bad ones want to stay behind?  A lot of stuff for a young boy to process.

I was hungry for the explanation that some people had no choice, as you put it.  If you were young, you had to put on a uniform and fight.  Uncle Willi wasn’t necessarily a bad man.  He was wearing a “German uniform,” not a “Nazi uniform.”  The Nazis ran things.  Most people just went along.  We spent a lot of time discussing how war and genocide do not cancel out the printing press and Apfel Strudel, to say nothing of Bach and Mozart.

Little by little, step by step, I made more and more complex distinctions as I went down the layers of explanation from good guys and bad guys.

I remember the first time I saw the film Judgment at Nuremburg, with Marlene Dietrich playing the wife of a German officer trying to explain to the American judge – Spencer Tracey – that her husband was a noble man – noble in class and noble in character.  “We weren’t all bad.”  There’s a great line in the movie, at the end.  Burt Lancaster plays the Minister of Justice who went along with Nazi policies.  He tried to defend himself as somebody who understood things were wrong but wanted to work for his country and make use of his power and influence to mitigate some of the worst excesses of the Nazi regime.  He was on trial, however, for participating in sentencing people to death because they were infirm or mentally deficient.  “I never thought it would come to this,” he says to the judge. Tracy, the judge, answers back, "You knew it would come to this, the first time you sentenced an innocent man to death."

I later got interested in ethics and taught a seminar in it for many years in which I would show that film.  It’s one of the great films, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Gandhi and The Third Man, that raise the eternal ethical questions, whether it’s about how to face the challenge of moral principles in a world where you have to go along to get along, or not whether, but how, to face overwhelming odds in the battle against wrong, or the question of whether there is anything more important than democracy and justice and human equality.

When I was twenty and went to Germany for the first time I was still very innocent, still working out the good guys/bad guys question.  I would go down to the Hofbräuhaus in Munich on weekends and get into discussions with former soldiers and unrequited ex-Nazis and have some interesting exchanges.  It was astonishing to realize there were people all around filled with resentment at having lost the war, and not showing any guilt.  Years later, living in Berlin, I remember a grand old lady who used to serve me cognac and bring out the chocolates and line them up on her coffee table like tanks at the Battle of Stalingrad and tell me if Hitler had done this or done that how he might have won the war.  She was a little batty, but not that batty.  I realized how thoroughly the German ideology of the right to rule had spread throughout the culture and how it was never going to be entirely rooted out and how thin the line was between pride of German identity, which I had inherited from my grandmother, and the belief in racial superiority, which made enablers of so many.   Not too many years ago, a close friend of mine was mugged on her front doorstep in Berlin by a dark-skinned immigrant.  Her daughter’s remark after the event was, “Fifty years of denazification – up in smoke overnight.”  These were people I had genuine affection for.  Not bad guys.  But arguably, in some real way, enablers, however remotely.

I had a good friend in Berlin who worked after the war to maintain the graves of fallen soldiers.  I thought of it by this time as worthy charity work, selfless, and reflective of the man's basic decency.  He had served "in Hitler's navy," but that fact had lost its onus with time.  I was actually on a path which might have led, with a little push, to my giving up my American passport and taking on German nationality.  I had come to embrace the "das war damals" (that was then) mode of thinking and no longer needed to paint with too broad a brush.

But something happened that tested that friendship.  In February of 1985, Reagan decided he owed Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, a favor and responded positively to an invitation to meet with him at a German cemetery in Bitburg where we were told German and American soldiers were buried.  The planned visit exploded when it was discovered the planners had not done their homework.  Not only were there no Americans buried there, but 49 members of the Waffen-SS were.   To make matters even worse, Reagan had agreed not to visit a concentration camp to avoid, he said, "reawakening the passions of the time."

For the first time since the end of the war, a serious rift developed between the "das war damals", school of thought to which most Germans belonged, and the "never forget" school of thought to which most Americans belonged to.   I remember a speech on the White House lawn by Elie Wiesel, imploring Reagan to reconsider.   Most people remembered Reagan in a movie with a chimpanzee named Bonzo, and a punk rock band came out with the song, "Bonzo goes to Bitburg."   

I sided with Elie Wiesel.  My friend Achim sided with the 72% of Germans who thought the celebration of German-American friendship should be the focus and not the unnecessarily righteous stand the Americans were taking.  Suddenly we were faced with evidence that four decades after the war, even people who had more in common with each other by far than either had with their fellow countrymen of forty years earlier, instead of answering questions like how do good people do bad things, were still asking "who was us?" and "who was them?"

I never reached a point where I could explain German behavior during the war.  What happened instead was that I came to see that behavior in the broader world around me, and therefore less justifiably attributable to something essentially German.  The United States, to pick just one example, cannot escape the genocide of the North American Indian, slavery, land theft, and civil war as integral parts of its history.  Today we are an aggressor nation that kills people by the thousands under the rubric of fighting for freedom.  We took forever to come to the realization that Ho Chi Minh, if you just turned the lenses slightly, could be labeled a freedom fighter and father of his country.  We took the French colonial domination of Vietnam and made it ours.  In the end, we recognized that to win the war we would have had to resort to a kind of Hitlerian “total war” and we backed off.  That makes us better, arguably, than the Nazis, but only in degree, not in kind.  And, it seems to me what moral high ground we might have claimed by that voluntary withdrawal from mischief in the affairs of others we lost when we engaged in the same folly again a generation later, this time in Iraq, where we followed people who would be understood as war criminals who lied us into war, if we had lost that war to more powerful forces.

There is reason to reject the argument that our evil is comparable to the Nazi evil.  They were world-class aggressors; we merely interfere here and there to satisfy our national interest.  They went for total war; we send in only 1% of our population while the rest of us shop and vacation as usual.  But there are similarities.   We don’t foster genocide, but we have thrown away the Geneva Conventions and countenance and justify torture.   We bankrupt ourselves and cover everything in sight with the flag to mask the fact we find money for battleships but not for taking care of the thousands with missing limbs and mental illnesses.  You can argue over equivalency, but you can’t argue, it seems to me, that the evil that arose among the civilized people of Germany in the 30s is recognizable in the neocons of the Bush era whose goal was the expanse of empire and in the policy makers of today whose problem-solving mechanism of choice is military invasion.

This leads to the question of the extent of our participation.  How much are we responsible for “going along”?  During the Vietnam War, every year, I would march in the streets of San Francisco, down Market Street, to a rally of 70,000 people to protest the war.  It felt good.  It felt right.  And then the next day the newspapers around the country would not even carry the San Francisco event and the war went on and we realized our impotence – right up to the end when the tide finally turned.

So marching in protest wasn’t really enough.  What then?  Douse myself with kerosene in front of the Federal Building and burn to a crisp for truth?

I remember one time standing in a crowd watching the Chinese New Year’s Parade in San Francisco.  A military band marched by as one of the contingents.  It was the late 60s.  I had only recently gotten out of the army and was filled with cynicism and disillusionment.  Suddenly, I heard myself shouting at the band, “Paid killers!  Paid killers!  Paid killers!”  Over and over again.  A woman standing next to me turned to me with daggers in her eyes.  “How dare you!  My son is fighting for your freedom.  He wears that uniform proudly!”

I couldn’t tell her I had only recently taken off that uniform and was still suffering from some sort of shock.  I sometimes dream that I can go back in time and find her and apologize.  She deserved not to have her fears for her son trampled on like that.  But I had seen awful things, soldiers taken out and beaten, corruption and incompetence among officers.  The scales had fallen from my eyes and I could no longer think of America as a land of heroes.  My mother had written me once when I was stationed in Berlin and told me how proud she was that all three McCornick boys were in uniform – Brian in the Air Force, Billy in the Marines.  I wrote back and told her if she ever mentioned that again I’d never write to her again.  Wouldn’t even open the envelope, I told her.  Clearly I had lost my balance and it would take years to get it back.

I’ve got it back now.  I’m once again proud and happy to be American, actually, even though I think the country is in terrible trouble – was, at least, until this last election, which has given me some of the early faith back.   I no longer see nationality or ethnicity as meaningful categories for assessing people, though.  I no longer look for heroes and villains but at whether or not individuals are being taxed beyond their capacity to behave with decency.  It’s less interesting to me to ask whether there are good guys and bad guys.  Of course there are.   And whether good people are sometimes forced to do bad things.   Of course they are.  I’m much more interested in how people contend with the world around them when they are overpowered by events.  If they cave, what makes them cave.  If they resist, where they go to find the power to resist.   

I’ve known pathological liars, people who seem to lack all common decency, people who take pleasure in the misery of others.  I’ve also known people with great moral strength, and people totally lacking in guile.    I’m interested in the strategies of most of the rest of us in between, how we develop strategies for staying upright, for recognizing responsibility, how we aid in making sure we and others don’t get taxed beyond our capacities.  How we generate moral leaders.   Of course it’s nice, once in a while, to see real heroes – the fireman rushing into a burning building.  But I am more interested, frankly, in the ordinary person and watching the strategies they develop for getting the most out of life and helping others to do the same.

As a student of anthropology, I became intrigued by the question of whether there could be what one might call an “evil culture.”  Apparently some anthropologists think so.  There are certainly dysfunctional cultural practices.  The culture of destruction generated by the Nazis, which entirely too many people went along with, shows the depravity of which we are capable.  But so does our cultural practice of sticking our old people into homes for other people to take care of.  So does our willingness to surrender our inner cities to drug dealers and our natural resources to corporations interested only in short term profits.  We are content to live in gated communities according to an "I got mine" ethical code where we look down on the poor without health care and think, "There but for the grace of God go I."  Many of us are quick to label the less fortunate as ignorant and lazy moochers.  These impulses, if not corrected, lead to destruction as surely as bombs do.  But how many of us have what it takes to engage and try to turn things around?

Of course we go along with evil.  We can’t fight every battle.  We can’t give our all to do the right thing.  We lack the ability to see the future and understand what going along will mean in the long run.  We take it one day at a time.

Some years ago I had a gay student come into my office.  He said something to me that I wasn’t prepared for.  “I so admire you,” he said.  “You’re not afraid to be open about being gay.  I’m a long way from being there.  I hope some day I have your courage.”

I didn’t have much time to bask in the compliment before I had to explain to him that we were in very different places in our two lives.  He was barely twenty.  He lived at home with parents who supported him.  He had to worry about graduating and getting a job and making his way into a still fairly homophobic world.  I was in my fifties at the time.  I had a tenured job and didn’t have to worry about being fired.  I had worked out most of my personal identity questions, knew who I was, what my strengths and weaknesses were, more or less.  If somebody came at me, I had defenses.  I was able to carry myself with the kind of self-assurance that dissuaded anybody who might want to try and make me small.  It wasn’t courage that I had and he didn’t.  It was security.  I lived in a world where the tigers were mostly caged and where I had the benefit of health, wealth and life experience many people in the world lack – I played a part in that, of course, but it was largely chance where I had ended up.

We can imagine ourselves in more challenging situations.  We can wonder what we would have done in the time of the Holocaust.  Could we have hidden a Jew in our attic?  Would we have divorced the father of our children if he decided to join the SS?  Could we have lived with ourselves if we had, like Truman, dropped the atomic bomb, or like the founding fathers, allowed slavery in order to unite the colonies into a nation?

One cannot spend too much time with questions like this or one would never get dinner on the table.  But it’s important, I think, that we revisit them from time to time so we don’t forget who we are and where we’re going.

The Flat – A Film Review

Just saw a four-star, maybe five-star movie I want to share with you.

The Flat is an Israeli documentary film by Arnon Goldfinger.  It has been making a big splash in Israel, where it can also be seen in a stage version, since it first came out in September 2011.  And it has done well in Germany since it came out in June of this year.  It is only now reaching a broad American audience.

When Arnon Goldfinger’s grandmother, Gerda Tuchler, died at age 98 in Tel Aviv and her family gathered to clear out the apartment where she and her husband Kurt had lived for 70 years since escaping the Nazis in 1933, they uncovered evidence that Arnon’s grandparents had had a life-long close relationship with a Nazi couple.  And not just any Nazi couple, but with the man who was Adolph Eichmann’s predecessor and one-time boss, Leopold von Mildenstein.  And by long-term, I mean that they picked up this relationship after the war, despite the fact that one of the Tuchlers’ own parents was murdered in a concentration camp.

The two couples met when Kurt Tuchler, working for the German Zionist organization,  contacted von Mildenstein in the early 30s because von Mildenstein, a Second Lieutenant in the SS, was then in charge of Jewish Affairs and was known to be interested in the Zionist project.  Von Mildenstein wanted to know more about Palestine and asked Tuchler to accompany him to Palestine as his guide.  The two men took their wives with them, and the couples began a friendship that lasted, apparently, to the end of their lives.

Although the film is in documentary format, it plays like a thriller.  There are three main characters.  Arnon, a third-generation Israeli with a fearless curiosity about his family’s past; his mother, Hannah, committed to the core to living in the present and keeping the past out of sight and out of mind; and Edda von Mildenstein, the daughter of the Nazis who were Arnon's grandparents' friends.

The Flat is an intensely engrossing story which lays out, in full display, the worldviews of three generations directly affected by the Holocaust.  In the first generation are Kurt and Gerda Tuchler, German Jews who find their identity pulled out from under them and their nation captured by forces intent on destroying them, and the von Mildensteins, a couple whose story is not fully revealed at first, but comes alive through Arnon’s dogged research efforts.  In the second generation are the children of both couples: Arnon’s mother, Hannah, who raised her children as Israelis in Tel Aviv; and Edda von Mildenstein, who welcomes Arnon and Hannah into her home in Germany warmly and becomes, unwittingly and involuntarily, their gateway to the past.   Arnon becomes the voice and the spirit of the third generation.

In revealing these facts about the story I am not concerned they will act as spoilers for viewers.  To watch the story unfold is an experience you won’t forget.  There are scenes which will stick with you, like the time Arnon looks at his mother, as if for the first time, astonished that she is able to learn what he is learning – both of them travel to Germany to dig for details – with apparent equanimity.  He is becoming an emotional wreck; she remains cool and collected.

What makes this film so rich is the fact that one can't resist speculating about motives, because the conversations between the characters draw you in so tantalizingly.  Hannah, for example.  Why is she so cool-headed?  Is it her own disposition?  Or German family training?   Is her choice to ignore the past entirely a personality trait or just evidence that she is a typical member of her don’t ask/don’t tell generation, who chose to push the Holocaust and the war out of sight and mind because it was simply too hard to bear?   Is Edda living in denial for all her public persona as a modern-day liberal progressive citizen of the new Germany?   Is it possible her father lied to her as well as to Tuchler?   Is Arnon making the right interpretation of the documents he uncovers or is he working on other stereotypes?  Did Kurt Tuchler accept Leopold von Mildenstein as a friend after the war because of their common identity as Germans?  What did von Mildenstein tell him about his participation in the SS?  One desperately wants to know what information was exchanged between the two men after the war.  Did the relationship pick up and carry on with lies?  Or does their relationship reveal something about the nature of our capacity to compartmentalize that we had not considered before?  Do we have any evidence to change our view that you can't walk through mud without getting your boots muddy?  The questions keep piling on.

In one memorable scene we see Arnon and his mother sitting in a German train, going to visit Edda and distant relatives still living in Germany, working out between them whether to use the word “Nazi” in discussing the past.  They decide it’s better not to, only to discover later that it falls off the tongues of the people they meet with no apparent hesitation.  This episode is only one of several where you watch history unfold and learning take place.

We see Hannah learn of the “Stolpersteine” – the “stumbling blocks” that have been put in the ground in various places to remind people living today of people murdered in the Holocaust.  Hannah learns to her astonishment that somebody has put one in to remember her grandmother in front of her grandmother’s apartment in Berlin, and begins to think out loud of maybe doing something similar for another relative.  You see her drawn into the past in a way she never expected.

The documentary brings out the eternal nagging questions about the Holocaust - How could so many people remain silent, apparently forgetting, or lying, even to themselves, about its horror and its extent.  How could there be so many willing and unwilling enablers?  Many will want to avoid it for that reason.  That would be a mistake.  There is much to learn here.

Allow me a brief discursion for a moment.  One of the things I had a great deal of difficulty with living as an American in Japan for over twenty years was how differently Japanese seemed to approach information.  I was struck over and over how they could sit on information in situations where I think Americans would be more forthcoming.  How valid this is as a national cultural comparison I can’t be sure.  But over and over again I would be surprised – and not just at my workplace – by how information was more highly guarded than I found to be the case elsewhere, how people could know things and not reveal them, how information could be considered a reward that could be given or withheld at will, as a way of marking insider or outsider status, respectively.  I began – rightly or wrongly – to think that the default condition in America was to offer information before it was even solicited and in Japan to withhold it even in some cases where it was solicited.  I found myself constantly dealing with the question of whether it was “appropriate” that information I had available to me should be simply given away.

You can find all kinds of counterexamples, and I could be describing my own living and working situation rather than the larger Japanese culture, but the point I’m trying to make is the same either way.   Just as I discovered years earlier that Germans tended to close doors in their apartments and Americans tended to keep them open – a fact which could be explained, of course, by climate differences – this example of difference I am for the sake of argument attributing to culture illustrates that there is a “default condition” and that – all things being equal – there can be pressure – sometimes profundly strong pressure – to conform to the norm.

This, I think, is what is at work in Arnon’s attempt to understand the inexplicable behavior of his grandparents, whose ability to pick up again with the von Mildensteins after the war strikes him as evidence of madness.  It also explains his difficulty in not understanding why his mother is not a basket case when he himself is coming apart in a cemetery search for missing ancestors.

There was something about the culture of 1940s Germany (and elsewhere, as I suggested by my Japan example) that suggested one should reveal what one knew only with considerable caution.  Kids pick these behaviors up from their parents and the value seeps into the subconcious where, like most cultural values, they are taken for granted and spoken of as common sense.
To our eyes, the German protest, “We just didn’t know!” sounds hollow.  It is almost impossible for us to believe, especially now when we live in an age bombarded by reality shows and the explosion of facts of the information age, that it could be possible to live in relative silence.  Complicating the issue are the revelations that there were indeed large numbers of people who did know what was going on under the Nazis.  The problem may lie in the concept of “knowing.”  It is much simpler to see denial as a refuge of any loser, and moral cowardice as a German national trait.

What is fascinating about this is the degree to which don’t ask/don’t tell is embraced as a policy by both Hannah and Edda, the Jewish daughter and the daughter of Nazis, each for their own reasons, each seeming to display the values of the class to which they both belonged, as children of parents who clearly shared the same cultural space as members of the same intelligentsia.  It's almost as if they were both saying, "Nice people don't know these things."  

How could von Mildenstein not feel too guilty to pick up a connection with a Jewish friend, given his participation in the “final solution”?  How could the Tuchlers share a table with the killers of their parents?  The problem, I think, is that the questions, when posed in such stark language, masks the human ability to compartmentalize.  “Das war damals,” I heard as a kid.  “That was then.”  As if to say, “It happened on Mars.”  “Not our farm…not our pig,” as a friend of mine would say.  And your participation?  “We were all swept up.  You cannot determine our degree of participation, if any,” is the usual response, sometimes with justification, sometimes not.

Arnon has a key to this understanding, whether he wants to use it or not.  He tells us at the very beginning of the story that when he went to visit his grandmother, they would speak to each other in English.  Despite living in Tel Aviv for seventy years, her Hebrew was too limited, and Arnon spoke no German.  Even his mother was content to throw away her first language as an unpleasant remnant of the past, and struggled with it when she first began looking at the documents.  Members of the same family can be alienated from each other through the languages they speak.  Gerda Tuchler and the von Mildensteins shared Goethe and Schiller, Mozart and Apfel Strudel.  Why wouldn’t she want to return to Germany after the war?  Why wouldn’t she want to see the high culture of Germany – including the Strudel – in her friend, and ignore the rest?

The first generation makes it happen; the second goes into denial; the third recreates it, complete with the filters of a changed and changing value system, the limits of memory and the arbitrariness of what information is available for interpretation.  It’s not a task for sissies.

Arnon comes across as somebody engaged in a heroic task.  You want him to succeed.  You wish him every success.  Hannah comes across as a victim of her time, but as she finds her stride, she too becomes somebody you come to care for.  Edda is more enigmatic.  Was it that her father didn’t tell her he was in the SS?  Should we be considering the possibility – and this question applies to many others such as Günter Grass, as well, – that one might be able to walk through mud and not get one's boots dirty, unlikely as that may seem?  Does Edda now have to start over with a much darker image of his father?  And will she?

The many questions the world has asked since the mass slaughter of the Jews in World War II keep coming back, no matter how many times we think we have settled them in our minds.  Guilt and innocence; the need to forget in conflict with the need to remember; the duties, if any, of a survivor; individual vs. collective responsibility – they go to the core of who we are as moral beings.  Some people choose to give up asking after a time.  Others revisit the question all their lives.  This is a film for the latter, people who understand that each time we go around, we have another chance to deepen our understanding.

Movies usually entertain.  Documentaries usually inform.  Good documentaries, like good fiction, stimulate the mind.  As a structured work of art, I’d give this film four stars.  And because it opened new perspectives and left me with far more questions at the end than it would have occurred to me to ask at the beginning, I could be persuaded to add another star.

picture credit

Thursday, November 15, 2012

It wasn’t the butler

After a week of gloating over the election results, in which I participated fully, I note people are back to talking of the cultural divide.   Film critic Andrew O’Hehir at Salon, poked fun the other day at pundits like David Brooks and Thomas Frank, and the way they seem to generate one descriptor after another to characterize the two sides.  Volvos vs. pickups, Walmart vs. Whole Foods, FOX audience vs. MSNBC audience, Christian-Caucasian-libertarian-capitalist-nationalist vs. secular-multicultural-communitarian-internationalist-environmentalist.  We can all do it.  My snob friends and I tend toward phrases like “us” vs. “the low-information voters.”  Or Enlightenment tradition vs. authoritarian fundamentalist tradition.  Paul Ryan just added a new one.  The Republicans lost, he said, because so many people in the cities came out to vote.

Almost any news source will lead you to the conclusion that we live on separate planets, us and them.  Still making the rounds is the “idiot voter” sampler the left put out to poke fun of Romney’s clueless supporters.   Highly biased politicking, since you can find airheads on both sides, certainly.  Jay Leno used to send people out of the studio in New York to ask the man – or teenager – on the street questions like what is the capital of France and how many Supreme Court justices are there, and we’d all laugh at the dumb answers.  You may remember that clueless  Miss South Carolina who seemed incapable of finding her way out of a telephone booth.  But when we play this kind of game of laughing at the inmates in the asylum during a political campaign, we can spin ourselves into despair at the state of the nation.  There is serious debate to be had between large government and small government, between governance and the marketplace.  But how will we ever get there?  The Republicans have crashed and burned, and instead of waking up and smelling the coffee, a good chunk of them are back at their old ways with a vengeance.

Donald Trump wants us to march on Washington.  Karl Rove comes up with eighteen or nineteen reasons for defeat, which include the kind of reasoning Bill O’Reilly gave on his program – the minorities “want stuff.”  Not included in Rove's reason for victory is the possibility people had a problem with the likes of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock and their neanderthal attitudes toward women.   Obama had an 11-point edge in women’s votes, we're told, although as Dante Chinni in The Atlantic points out, the women’s vote may have had to do more with race and marital status than gender. 

Meanwhile, down in the ranks, there is talk of secession.   Last I checked, 700,000 people from all fifty states have signed a White House website petition asking for the right of their states to secede from the Union.   So much for one nation, under God, indivisible.  There’s a rule that says when the number of signatures on a petition exceeds 25,000, the president is required to respond.  So far seven states have gone over 25,000 signatures: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennesee and Texas.  (Hope you held on to your Confederate money, guys.)  Texas has more than 99,000.  If you'd like to join them, you can access the petitions here.   

To be frank, I have to tell you if the election had gone the other way, I’d be petitioning for California to secede, so I can’t claim the high road here.  But once folks signing these petitions realize what it would actually feel like to live in a hard red state without the blue states to build their schools and roads, they’ll sit down for a little rethink.  Like the 850 citizens of Atlanta who have signed a petition to secede from Georgia and remain with the United States. 

More long lasting trouble for the Republicans will come from all the combinations of conspiracy, McCarthyism, religion and jingoism that marble the ranks of the party.  I just saw a hilarious video of an award at a so-called Christian film festival.  It took place a couple years ago, but it’s a gift that keeps on giving.  I’m referring to the Agenda 21 Conspiracy Theorists. 

Agenda 21, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a UN plan for sustainable development initiated at the Rio de Janeiro Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.    The “21” refers to the 21st Century.  It is an action agenda which nations can sign onto, if they wish, and 178 governments did (and one wonders why the other thirteen did not), including the United States.  For how the agenda has progressed since then, link here.   Since Agenda 21 is not a treaty, there has been no serious debate in the U.S. Congress on it, but Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry and Harry Reid have spoken out in favor of it, and about 528 cities across the country have implemented local plans.

Then came the brick wall.  Once the Tea Party got wind of these efforts, they began to do everything they could to counter them.  They showed up at planning meetings to oppose bike lanes, public transportation and plans for more public open spaces.  Their efforts doomed the prospects of a high-speed train in Florida and in Maine they sabotaged a plan to ease congestion – all arguing that these are plots to turn the country over to the UN.  The Republican Party, apparently knowing on which side its bread is buttered, began speaking of “the destructive and insidious nature” of Agenda 21.   Agenda 21, no surprise, was a favorite hobby horse of "New York Times bestseller" Glenn Beck. * 

For an unusually vivid picture of the irreality engaged in by the Tea Party, check out that video of the award ceremony at the “San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival”  and you’ll see an award of $101,000 going to the maker of a documentary entitled – are you ready for it?  Agenda.  At the top of the web page is a blurb which says it all:  “Agenda is the most powerful expose of the communist, socialist, progressive (sic) attempt to take over America produced so far.”

The trailer is available.  It shows a mind-boggling mish-mash of demonic forces jumbled into one – Lenin, Darwin, Hitler.  A booster site would include Betty Friedan. (“A staunch supporter of Stalin, Betty Friedan launched the Feminist Movement in America.”)      

It actually has a young Ronald Reagan introducing the film (one wonders how they managed the time machine challenge)  and it features such illuminaries as Phillis Shlafly and Ed Meese.  There is a plot line, of sorts.  About how there is a grand plan to destroy civilization.  And (spoiler alert ahead) this is not a parlor game.  It wasn’t the butler who swung the election for Obama.   As filmmaker Curtis Bowers will tell you – and he got this straight from God – it was Satan.

I say I’m still gloating over the victory.  But I’m also still shivering at the thought of what forces would have been let loose if the election had gone the other way.

picture credit, with apologies if my choice of picture header should be mistaken for an endorsement of whackitude.  For facts on Agenda 21, link here and here.

*P.S.  (added at 3:43 p.m.)  I didn't realize it when I posted this this morning, but Glenn Beck, only yesterday, published a book on Agenda 21.  See what Mother Jones has to say about it here