Sunday, December 14, 2014

Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras get Carl von Ossietzky Award

Edward Snowden is in the German news this morning for two distinct reasons.  First off, he has, along with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, been awarded the Carl von Ossietzky medal in Berlin today for defending human rights. This follows on two similar awards the team has received recently.  Glenn Greenwald won the Geschwister Scholl Prize for 2014 in Munich for his courageous journalism, and the same day Edward Snowden was awarded the “alternative Nobel” prize in Stockholm, the Right Livelihood Award. 

The second reason Snowden is in the news today is that Germany’s Constitutional Court, the Bundesverfassungsgericht, has denied a request by a coalition of Germany’s Green and Left Parties to have Snowden granted asylum in Germany long enough for a court to investigate charges he has made about crimes committed against German citizens.  The court argued it would strain relations with the United States, which would be obliged to demand extradition for Snowden – a demand which Germany would then be required to comply with.  So no.  He stays in Moscow.  Laura Poitras, who lives in Berlin, received the award for the three of them.  The award is sponsored by the International League for Human Rights.  The New York based organization has a branch office in Berlin.

A parliamentary (Bundestag) investigative committee was formed last March  to determine not only the role of the American NSA in spying on ordinary citizens, but to what degree their own Bundesnachrichtendienst (literally, “Federal Intelligence Service” - the German “CIA”) was involved.

While the German government agreed that Snowden should be asked to testify on his charge that the NSA had spied on Germans all the way up to and including the German chancellor, they disagree on how and where.  The ruling Union parties (CDU/CSU) and the Socialists allowed it could be done in Moscow, but the Green Party and the Left Party sued the German government and the NSA last September for neglecting their duty to bring Snowden to Germany to provide that information.  Snowden isn't making it any easier by insisting he will testify only if he is given safe haven long enough to do so in Germany.  

Now, the German Constitutional Court has denied that it has standing to involve itself in the case, since the government’s decision on the matter is actually still in progress, and there are other issues at stake, such as whether Snowden can get a passport – the U.S. has taken his away – and whether the Russians would allow him to travel.   The Constitutional Court has suggested this is a matter for Germany's other Supreme Court, the Federal Court of Justice, which decides civil and criminal matters.  I am at a loss to explain their reasoning, except that they simply don't want to touch this hot potato.

The entire issue is highly politicized in Germany.  For the opposition parties, this is the story they want to tell – that the ruling coalition is illegally stonewalling the work of their investigative committee.  For the ruling coalition, they are merely acting sensibly by arguing their hands are tied because of the extradition treaty with the United States.  Some have raised the issue of technical problems in testifying about sensitive issues via the internet; others have called that a red herring. 

What is going on behind the scenes, of course, is that the left opposition parties (Green and Left) are pushing for permanent refuge for Snowden in Germany and playing off the popular disgust of the average German for American arrogance, and the suggestion that their government is in America’s pocket.  As much as members of the ruling coalition may be in sympathy, and in some cases even agreement, as long as Snowden is routinely labeled a traitor and it is clear that if Snowden is tried in the U.S., the trial can be done in secret, nobody wants to be responsible for Snowden’s capture.

Now, on top of all this comes the question of what, if anything, Germany can do about the revelations that the CIA's use of torture is worse than originally thought.  Wolfgang Büttner of Human Rights Watch is pressing for Obama to admit that the torture was illegal.  This would raise questions, of course, about how one should proceed against those who broke the law.  It turns out a Hamburg court, in 2007, admitted testimony obtained by the Americans under torture.  Human Rights Watch wants the German government to recognize this is a direct flouting of the Geneva Convention.  To say nothing of what it means to modern-day Germans to have a German court using testimony obtained by torture. Germany is bumping up against American international offenses all over the place. So far, the German government has not taken any significant steps in opposition to the U.S. way of doing things, but it is clear this decades long relationship is cracking at the seams.

This latest Snowden award is, like the previous ones, getting an almost universal response of silence; only the Deutsche Welle has carried it so far.  Is this because people would start making connections with the Nazis? – the Scholl siblings and Carl von Ossietzky are heroes in modern-day Germany for having been opponents of the Nazis, remember.  And because of a common understanding that only hysterical folk make comparisons with the Nazis?  And to do so destroys one's credibility instantly? We still have to remind ourselves that we are, after all, the Good Guys.  We still wear the White Hats. We still lead the world in democracy.

Yeah, right.

photo credits - waterboarding

Carl von Ossietzky award

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Berkeley the morning after - a grumble

Protest outside Berkeley Police Headquarters, Dec. 6
My friend Don refers to my blog entries as my rants.  I wear the ranter and raver title with pride.

This is not a rant.  It's just a little grumble. Wasn't even going to post it, except that I'm really conscious this morning that in all the justified protest about racism in the police forces of America and all the abuses of white power, it's easy to lose perspective.

A couple of Berkeley cops were hurt last night, and I feel the need for perspective.


The protests have come home.  Berkeley is all over the national news this morning because a protest turned violent last night and there was violence and looting at Trader Joe’s, Radio Shack, and a downtown Wells Fargo Bank office.  One police officer has a dislocated shoulder; a second one has injuries of some kind, as well.

This is seriously disheartening.  This is a town where the cops are a good lot, in my experience.  We’ve had lots of neighborhood meetings with them; they come to neighborhood events and there is good personal interaction – the way I think people should interact with the cops.  They have even invited neighborhood people to accompany them as they make their rounds.

I call the cops all the time.  We live with students all around who get loud and stupid at times on weekend nights, party through the night, walk to their cars drunk and wake you up.  You don’t get used to it.  You pick up the phone and call the cops.  They come.  Not usually in time to stop a particular noisy party, but sometimes.

The other times I’m tempted to call the cops is when somebody is blocking my driveway.  Usually, though, I pound on doors till I find the idiot, who almost always has that guilty look of a spoiled child on his face.  He (almost always he) looks sheepishly at you and says, “I was only going to be a minute but I got held up.”  It brings home the point that there is a lot for cops to do of this nature in a college town, so it makes sense to me to cut down on the times I’m dependent on the police.  I’m conscious of how much better a view of the police I have than most people currently involved in protesting have.  I also have a clear memory of times gone by when I didn’t hesitate to call the cops pigs.  I know how easy it is to be young and stupid and lash out against the wrong guys.

But the news that two cops got hurt last night bothers me.  Over the years I've lived here, I've gotten to know a number of Berkeley cops by name.  One I consider a friend, actually.  He was injured not long ago when a guy strung out on drugs tried to wrestle his gun away and would almost certainly have killed him if he had.  The cop ended up in the hospital and has suffered months of pain in recovery.  The thought that he might have gotten killed, this guy I regularly eat dinner with, leaves a very sour feeling in my stomach.  These things look so differently when they are up close and personal.

This is Berkeley.  Commonly pronounced Berzerkeley.  Lefty heaven.  You’ve got a cause?  Want to change the world?  This is the place.  Let your feelings out.  Shout for liberty.  Don’t just stand there, asshole, protest! 

I don't mean to be cute or silly.  I’m proud to be part of Berkeley.  Proud of the free speech heritage.  Proud that Daniel Ellsberg lives here.  Proud that George Lakoff lives here.  That Robert Reich lives here.  I think of the United States as a broken system with a terrifying amount of proto-fascist sentiment just beneath the surface.  And occasionally right out plain for all to see, as well.   I think racism in America is a problem not being dealt with and I’m all for protests in the street.  I don’t think anything else is working.  Yes, to the protests.  March and bang your pots and pans till somebody in power starts listening.  And come out in greater numbers and use your influence to keep the violent protestors in line so the cops don’t have to do it all themselves.

And no to the violence.  Absolutely no to the violence.  

At some level, of course, you could call this a media-generated problem.  There were only a few hundred protestors in the Berkeley streets last night, and only a small number of those were violent.  But the destruction was serious, and it made all the national news. There’s something wrong with that picture.

This is familiar stuff.  “It’s only property,” I hear on a regular basis.  “It’s not as if lives were lost, as in the case of this long string of white cop on black kid crime!”  As if one of these destructive acts were actually tied to the other.  There’s the problem with democracy.  We try to run it without firing up the brain power first.

All through dinner last night, and later into the night the sound of the helicopters overhead was relentless and annoying.  I can only imagine living in a part of the country where this is a regular occurrence – and being unable to move.

I don’t know what you do about vandalism and looting.  There were lots of peaceful protestors, the overwhelming majority of them, in fact, people you might even call the average Berkeleyite, students and old hippies and just regular folks, as well.  You could hear them calling for calm and trying in vain to persuade the vandals to back off.  An age old story of a Pandora’s Box situation.   Lots of people out there dying to cause some destruction and bop some heads.  As with war, the only solution seems to be to head the problem off in the first place; once things break out you’re stuck with negative consequences no matter which way you turn.

We have to sit and watch a dysfunctional government go on day after day being dysfunctional.  People could fix it if they would vote, but they won’t vote because they are persuaded the structure is broken and there are no choices worth making.  So we approach chaos and anarchy, and sometimes actually go over the line into it, like last night, fifteen minutes from my house.

This is not a good time.

Hope those cops are all right.

Photo is credited to Sam Wolson, Associated Press - AP Photo/San Francisco Chronicle, Sam Wolson) (Sam Wolson)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Right Livelihood

Edward Snowden appearing yesterday by video before
Swedish Parliament
After commenting on the award of the Geschwister Scholl Prize for 2014 to Glenn Greenwald yesterday, I sat back, waiting for the American press to pick up the event.  I was bracing for the commentary that I was convinced would follow.

As the day went on, I realized something quite strange was happening.  Recognition of Greenwald’s accomplishments as a journalist, a major news story in Germany, is not even on the American radar.  Nor, actually – to be fair to the American press – does it register all that much elsewhere.

In Germany, the event was covered in every place I thought to look.  Virtually all the newspapers, online news agencies, television news.  Since it is the story of an award by Germany’s Publishers and Booksellers, you might say I should not be surprised that it's being treated as something for the local Munich press.   In Holland, one of the few other countries that picked up the award story, it was reported by two papers, one placing it under “Entertainment – Books”, the other under the rubric of “Culture.”

At least it appeared in the Dutch press, and the Russian press (see below).  And the Brazilian press.  Try to find the story in the Toronto Star, or the Corriere della Sera in Milan, or Le Monde in Paris.  It’s not there.  

For me the Glenn Greenwald/Edward Snowden story is one of the top stories of the year.  It is possible that Snowden will have a greater impact on how we deal with the struggle between civil and human rights on the one hand and the need for security and the government’s need to police the population, on the other, than any other single event, maybe ever.  It blows my mind, frankly, that Greenwald is being recognized in Germany for his stunning bit of investigative journalism, whether you agree with his slant or not, and the American and other European and Asian media have not considered it noteworthy.

I assumed there for a while that I might be placing too much stock in the Google and Yahoo search engines.  But I went to the newspapers available on line and found no mention of the event, so I doubt I’m that far off base. Type in Geschwister Scholl Prize in the New York Times search engine and you get a story about the award being given to Victor Klemperer posthumously in 1995.  The same is true for "Greenwald Munich" or any other combination I can think of that would lead to the Geschwister Scholl award story.

I decided to go back and try again, this time not with Google News but with Google Search.  Sure enough, one English language source popped up this time – from Nigeria, of all places: And this time, unlike the Dutch press, which covered it under entertainment or culture, the Nigerians recognized it as a political story and put it under “Foreign News.”    

The Nigerians lifted it verbatim from the Deutsche Welle,  right down to the last detail:

Previous recipients of the prize include Chinese writer Liao Yiwu, former East German civil rights activist and current German President Joachim Gauck, controversial Israeli author David Grossman and Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who received the award posthumously in 2007.

Which is fine.  What's bugging me is not that non-German sources cite Deutsche Welle.  Obviously, the story would have to originate from a German source.   What’s bugging me is that if Nigeria can post the Deutsche Welle-based news item, why can’t the French, the Poles, the Canadians and the Japanese?  Why can't the Americans?

Try it yourself.  Type in “Geschwister Scholl” plus the word prize in any language you can think of.  Don’t worry about the word order, since Google doesn’t.  Prix, in French; premio, in Spanish, Portuguese or Italian; præmie, in Danish; premien, in Norwegian; pris, in Swedish; díj, in Hungarian; verðlaun, in Icelandic; palkinto, in Finnish; nagroda, in Polish; جائزة , in Arabic, or הפרס , in Hebrew.

I tried all these possibilities myself.  The Dutch sites included one digital website, and one from Eindhoven.  Interestingly, both items are from October 1 when it was first announced the prize would be awarded to Greenwald.  There is nothing from the actual event yesterday.  

The Russian site which showed up, Литературная премия имени Софи и Ганса Шолль (Sophie and Hans Scholl prize for Literature in Russian) points you to an online source which gives you an objective account of the event and makes note of the fact that the award went posthumously in 2007 to the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.  No Place to Hide, by the way, in its Russian version is: Негде спрятаться. Эдвард Сноуден и зоркий глаз Дядюшки Сэма (Negde spryatat’sya.  Edvard Snouden i zorkii glaz Dyadyushki Sema), which translates to No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden and the keen eye of Uncle Sam.

What is one to make of such extensive coverage in Germany, on the one hand, and such sparse coverage in the rest of the world, on the other?   Can it be that it is really being processed, as the Dutch seemed to, as nothing more than a book prize?  Do people really not understand the political importance of the Snowden story?

Maybe I should be asking not why nobody is paying attention outside of Germany, but why Germans are paying so much attention.  Der Spiegel had an article yesterday claiming that Angela Merkel’s intelligence coordinator, Klaus-Dieter Fritsche, is fed up with the Americans.
It's the last straw, Fritsche told the gathered lawmakers with a steely voice and dark expression. Because of the ongoing betrayal of official secrets, Fritsche said, the German government will be filing a criminal complaint. The situation in which classified information has repeatedly found its way into the public domain cannot be allowed to continue, he added.
Apparently he’s not alone.  Merkel's chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, was also speaking to the Bundestag recently about the possibility of charging the NSA with criminality.

Interestingly, in an interview about the award, Greenwald, apparently unconcerned about the risk of biting the hand that feeds him, charged the German government with cowardice in not granting Snowden asylum.  You’re just too “unterwürfig”  to the Americans, he told them. (He was speaking English, so I assume he said "subservient" - but I love this picturesque word - literally, you "throw yourself under (somebody)" in German.) 

You’ve got to love these two guys.  Snowden gets taken in by the Russians and turns around and quizzes Putin’s human rights record.  Greenwald is recognized by the Germans and virtually no one else, and in the award interview he scolds them for their subservience.  It’s clear the term courageous applies to both of these men.  It's also true, I think, the answer to my question is obvious.  Greenwald has the ability we all should have to distinguish between a people and a government currently in power.

But, getting back to the question of whether I am wrong about the impact of the Snowden story and Glen Greenwald’s part in it, if I had any real doubts, they would be assuaged by another event that happened in Stockholm, almost simultaneously with what was going on in Munich. The Swedish Parliament presented Edward Snowden yesterday with the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.” Snowden received the award “for his courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights.”

Not too shabby.  Snowden appeared before the assembly by video and received several standing ovations.  RT carried Snowden’s speech in its entirety.  You can get it there or on the Daily Kos site.
And this story, at least, was carried by the American press.

Laura Poitras lives in Berlin; Glen Greenwald lives in Rio; and Snowden lives in Moscow, shopping for a new home.  Both the Swedes and the Germans have Snowden supporters trying to persuade their governments to take him in.   None of these three courageous Americans feels they can live here anymore.  Not surprising, when John Kerry, once a voice of opposition to the Vietnam War, but today a member in good standing of the American war machine, has branded Snowden a “traitor.”

The Swedes and the Germans see it differently.

photo credit 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Geschwister Scholl Prize awarded to Glenn Greenwald

Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst
When I first went to Europe in 1960, at the age of 20, I was a country kid who had never been out of his native New England, except for a summer job in Ohio.  I lucked out.  My father agreed to finance a year at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, a transformational year which exposed me to theater and the arts, and to a world beyond my own provincial origins.  I cannot imagine a greater opportunity for any young person than a period of life and study abroad.

Munich in 1960 still had traces of the war.  There were lots of people on crutches in the street, and bombed out blocks with rubble still uncleared.  My roommate still made do with a slice of dark bread smeared with lard, and maybe a boiled egg for lunch.  I felt obliged to keep hidden my large American income of $80 a month, which enabled me to sneak out to restaurants for a Wiener Schnitzel now and then.  It was, after all, only fifteen years after the war, and Germany was still getting back on its feet.

Because it was still relatively close to the end of the war, like the other Americans I befriended, I was curious about how the Germans would speak of the war years.  Would they speak of it as we did, as a period of shame?  Would they be all "Hitler built the Autobahns" and even try to justify it?  Remain silent about it?   I got my answer soon enough, from little old ladies who moved chocolates around on their coffee tables and explained how if Hitler had just moved his tanks this way at Stalingrad, and not that way, things might have turned out differently.  Or the old soldiers at the Hofbräuhaus who would, with several liters of beer under their belt, let loose about the injustices of having to eat crow.  Or the nice folks, like members of my own German family, who would insist it was a time for looking forward and not back.  For a while, I began to build a sense of alarm that this period of history might actually be shoved under the carpet, and a whole new generation might never learn the full extent of the horror inflicted on the world by the German nation.

Geschwister Scholl Plaza,
Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich
Fortunately, though, resistance to that will to forget began to reveal itself.  About the time my worst culture shock hit with full force, and I was getting a bit down on all things German, I noticed that the area around the fountains in front of the grand main entrance to the university, which I took a bath in at four o'clock one drunken morning, and dumped laundry detergent in on another, was called the Geschwister Scholl Platz.  Geschwister is more an equivalent to the everyday English “brothers and sisters” than to the more scientific sounding “siblings,” as it is commonly translated.  When I asked a German colleague who these people were, he said, “war resisters.  Students here at the university who were caught and executed.”  They were guillotined, actually, for distributing pamphlets in the Lichthof, the main court just inside the entrance, urging resistance to the Hitler regime.  A janitor sweeping the main hall saw who it was who had the temerity to oppose the Führer, and turned them in to the Gestapo.   At twenty-one I was in this place, horsing around in the fountain; at twenty-two and twenty-five, they were in this same place, headed for the guillotine.  
the "Lichthof" - main court just inside the entrance

Here, at long last, some official recognition of what I was looking for.

Die grosse Aula at LM University, Munich
Once I learned the names of these two students, Hans and Sophie Scholl, I began to feel differently each time I passed through that courtyard.  I had several classes right off that space.  It was a heady feeling knowing what had transpired just a few feet from where I was sitting and trying, in one romantic literature class, to identify which lines from the Outpourings of the Heart of an Art-Loving Monk” were written by Ludwig Tieck and which ones were written by Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder.  Or in another, this time in the "Grosse Aula" back in the days before decent loudspeaker systems, wondering what that guy up on the stage was going on about.  

Fast forward a half century.  Germany’s democracy has grown and matured and few who know it well worry all that much about the fringe group of neo-Nazis.  Fascism is a thing of the past in Germany, and Germans no longer need to explain to Americans such things as what I had to do when I registered with the police upon arriving in Munich. One of the questions they asked was “Where were you on September 1, 1939.”  I wish I had had the courage to give a straight answer: “In my mother’s womb.”  What they were after was trying to determine everybody’s origins for statistical purposes.  Were you a Sudeten German, and Easterner, Westerner, a refugee from parts of Germany that are now Poland?  History was still a living, ever-present challenge.

Most Germans today were not even born at that time, so the question is no longer relevant. Today the Germans are asking some equally embarrassing questions of the Americans.  Where were you during the sit-ins at the lunch counters in the South during the Civil Rights movement?  Which side were you on?  What is your stand on whether the genocide of the natives of the North American continent by European invaders was equivalent to the Holocaust?  Do you think the Washington Redskins ought to change their name?  Why, or why not?  Are you with the 59% of black Americans who believe Darren Wilson should have been charged with murder?  Or the 15% of whites with similar beliefs?  If not, why not?  And why the discrepancy, by the way?   Do you believe Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz should be tried in an international court for war crimes for their invasion of Iraq?  Do you believe the United States of America is a proto-fascist nation?

And not just the Germans, but progressives from around the world, including many in the United States, are answering this last question in the affirmative.  Just how far away from “full blown” this proto-fascism is, is anybody’s guess. The good thing about “proto-fascism” as opposed to full-blown fascism, is that there is time to turn the tide.  That, I think, is what the bestowers* of the Geschwister Scholl Prize are doing today in the Grosse Aula at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.  They are awarding the prize this year to Glenn Greenwald, for his past work, and particularly for his book, No Place to Hide.

Previous winners of the award include the playwright Rolf Hochhut, whose play, The Deputy, charged Pius XII with being a willing enabler of the Nazi regime; German philosopher Jürgen Habermas; historian and political scientist Peter Gay, known for his many books on Voltaire, the Enlightenment, Freud, and Weimar; and Anna Politkovskaya, the courageous Russian journalist and Putin opponent who covered the Chechen War and was assassinated in 2006,  just to mention a few. 

To some, this may seem like a local Munich event, but its consequences go far beyond progressive circles in one German city.  Just as, with time, our consciousness has been raised about slavery and genocide in American history, we may hope it will be raised again by the dark events in Ferguson, Missouri.

And again, by a group of literati in a far off land called Bavaria, who are drawing a direct line from a couple of their own local heroes in the fight against fascism, a horror still alive in their cultural consciousness, to an American journalist making waves.

Should you want to call me an alarmist for throwing around a word as loaded as fascism, let me explain how I am defining it.  Fascism is a political philosophy originally limited to the authoritarian style of Benito Mussolini which today may be generalized to apply to a system of government led by a dictator or to dictatorial forces who exercise power for its own sake, reach readily for military solutions to conflict, for the good of a few, generally at the expense of the many, without regard to such civil rights as the freedom of expression and a free and open press, or respect for transparency or diversity of opinion, and without regard for truth.

I have found an English language news source from the Deutsche Welle (no American sources yet!) on the event, but I have been unable to find an English version of the award committee’s explanation for the award, so I have translated a portion of a version from the German press report:

Glenn Greenwald is a dedicated lawyer and passionate journalist who has sounded a warning about a powerful surveillance apparatus which promises to destroy the private sphere and threatens to undermine the foundations of democracy. He embodies by this act a compelling contemporary example of a courageous citizen who, along with others and without regard to personal risk, advocates for the right to unrestricted reporting, free speech, individual liberty and the necessity of control over the power of the state. With his articles and now also with his book No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald has provided us with a prime example of what a free and independent press can and should accomplish. 
Only through the enlightened work of Glenn Greenwald and others of evaluating the documents made available by Edward Snowden and the revelation of the activities of the secret service which have damaged our foundational liberties in the name of security, have we gained a clearer insight into the threats of our time. This has given us the opportunity to correct mistakes and prevent the abuse of power. This accomplishment, which furthers civil freedoms and moral and intellectual courage and provokes strong impulses to a responsible contemporary consciousness, bears witness to the intellectual independence of Glenn Greenwald.

*the recognition for excellence and service comes with a 10,000 euro grant from the German Publishers and Booksellers Association (Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels), the Bavarian State Association and the city of Munich.

photo credits:

  • Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, from a tumblr site worth visiting for extensive information on the Scholl siblings, including information on the film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.  (The 2005 film is available on Netflix.)
  • Geschwister Scholl Platz:
  • The Lichthof: photo credited to Jan Greune at
  • Die Grosse Aula: