Sunday, October 30, 2016

Carolin Emcke

Carolin Emcke at her acceptance speech in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt
Not long after Johannes Gutenberg came up with the notion of moveable type and invented the modern printing press in Mainz, the ancient German city on the Rhine, some folks in nearby Frankfurt came up with the idea of a book fair.  The idea caught on. Enabled in no small part by the fact that Luther’s translation of the bible into the vernacular played a major role in bringing about widespread literacy, they have been holding the Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse) every year now for more than five hundred years.  When it was revived after the war in 1949, it was still largely a German phenomenon.  But not for long.  Today, there are more international exhibitors than German ones.  One of the highlights of the fair is the granting of prizes to winning authors.  Some of these, like the Diagram Prize for the most curious English language title, or the strangest title of the year all told, sound capricious and silly.  At the other extreme, though, is the much revered Peace Prize, where an individual is honored for their “extraordinary contributions to literature, science and art which further the cause of peace.” Hence the name.

Past recipients of the award included Albert Schweizer, Martin Buber, Thornton Wilder, Paul Tillich, Yehudi Menuhin, Jürgen Habermas, Susan Sontag, Chinua Achebe, Orhan Pamuk, just to select a few whose names I know well.  I mentioned last year’s recipient Navid Kermani in passing in an earlier blog. Iran-born Cultural Muslim Kermani was not only a Peace Prize recipient; he was invited to address the German Bundestag on the 65th anniversary last year of the German Constitution. 

This year the award went to philosopher and journalist, Carolin Emcke.  She is known for her reporting from war zones and for her reflections on the nature of war and bigotry.  She is also a lesbian activist known for her outspoken views on the rights of minorities.  Her acceptance speech took up the meaning of belonging, and the way some seek to define themselves as insiders and others as outsiders.

My friend Barbara in Berlin sent me a link to her speech.  I went to it right away and was blown away.

For years I’ve heard people speak of the German language as unappealing to the ear.  I never understood that, probably since I came to know it from, among others, my maternal grandmother and a favorite great aunt, two of the most loving people I have ever known.  Nothing that came out of their mouths could sound ugly to me.  Over the years I learned, one language at a time, that no language sounds ugly if spoken by a beautiful person or even by an ordinary person expressing beautiful thoughts.  I have had the experience of sitting back and swimming in the beauty of French, Spanish, Russian, and Japanese, as well as German and English. I wish I could extend that to even more modern spoken languages.

Carolin Emcke delivered her acceptance speech in Frankfurt’s St. Paul’s Church (Paulskirche), the site of the birth of German democracy in 1848.  It was badly bombed in 1944, but rebuilt after the war.  Today it is a national monument and site of important events of national consequence.

I was so moved that I set about finding a copy of the speech and translated it for a few friends, since I wasn’t able at first to find an English translation.  The gods were playing with me.  No sooner had I finished than I did find an official professional translation, but that’s another story.

Now this will not come as a surprise to any rhetorician, but as I became intimately familiar with the text, as one is forced to when attempting a translation, I realized I wasn’t finding the speech all that inspirational after all.  Nice words, to be sure.  But special?  Not really.  The written version clearly did not pack the wallop her spoken delivery did.  I concluded that much of what had grabbed me lay in her delivery, in the fact that she spoke so articulately and beautifully, had such marvelous diction, and in her choice of words.  Her commanding style, her ability to put beautiful thoughts into beautiful language and deliver them flawlessly meant she was about as eloquent as one can be.

I would, if I could, because I’d like to understand this phenomenon, pick apart how much power lies in language, how much in delivery, how much in the content of speeches, or in ordinary conversation, for that matter.  There’s no doubt some speakers can carry you away, even seduce you into doing things against your own better judgment.  No one who has ever heard King Henry’s speech to his troops on the Eve of St. Crispin’s Day – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” can mistake the reason the theater holds such power over us.  Theater is language.  And delivery.  And style.

The next question is how much of the power comes from content.  Carolin Emcke speaks to me and for me when, writing of her homosexuality, she says,

It is a very strange experience that something so personal should be so important to people that they claim for themselves the right to interfere in our lives and deny us our rights and our dignity. As if the way we love is more meaningful to others than to ourselves, as if our love and our bodies did not belong to us but to those who reject or pathologize them. This has a certain irony: as if our sexuality defined our belonging less than it did theirs.

The text of her speech is a philosophical reflection on belonging.  On how we belong, and how in being rejected we come to belong to those who don’t belong.

Emcke writes about the challenges facing modern Europeans, challenges which resonate here in the U.S., where a large number of people, now feeling disenfranchised and neglected, are following a Pied Piper, a populist who would unite his followers through fear, scapegoating others (Muslims, Mexicans) as Jews and other outliers were once scapegoated:

There is currently a climate of fanaticism and violence in Europe. Pseudo-religious and nationalist dogmatists are spreading the doctrine of a "homogeneous people", a "true" religion, an "original" tradition, a "natural" family, and an "authentic" nation. They are drawing up terms with which some should be included and others excluded. They are arbitrarily dividing us up, and deciding who among us may belong and who may not.

Everything that is dynamic, everything varied in its own cultural references and contexts is negated. Everything unique about individuals, everything that makes us human beings, but also people who belong, our struggles, our vulnerabilities, but also our fantasies of happiness, is denied. We are sorted according to identity and difference, are packed into collectives, all living, delicate, contradictory affiliations are scraped off and dulled down.

They may not be ones to stand in the street and spread fear and terror themselves, these populists and purity fanatics.  They may not be among those who torch refugee shelters, rip the hijabs off of Muslim women or yarmulkes off the heads of Jewish men.  They may not harass Polish or Romanian women (in our midst), may not attack dark-skinned Germans.  They may not necessarily be haters themselves.  But they are enablers of hatred.

Emcke concludes:

Freedom is not something you possess, but something you do.

Secularization is not a finished product but an ongoing project.

Democracy is not a static certainty but a dynamic exercise in dealing with uncertainties and criticism.

A free, secular, democratic society is something we must learn. Again and again. By listening to each other. Thinking about each other. In common words and actions. In the mutual respect for the diversity of affiliations and individual uniqueness. And not least, in the mutual acceptance of weaknesses and through forgiveness.

That's it.  That's the whole story.  It's like the guy who asked, "Why can't we all get along?"  The message is both utterly simple and utterly important for all its plain speech repetitions.  Nobody can claim originality anymore, since these thoughts have been expressed thousands of times in our hearing in our lifetimes.  One can only hope that the way one says it grabs new people each time, as this message did me.

So no biggie.  No transformative new thing.  Just a smart lady saying shame on you world for your bigotry and lack of imagination and good will.  Get with the drill!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Heiko Maas

Justizminister Heiko Maas
Let’s hear it for Heiko Maas.  Love that name, Heiko.  If I were going to change my name to anything, it would be Heiko.

Have a thing for Heiko.  Don’t know why.  He’s not particularly gorgeous, although I'm more attracted to his type than to the George Cloonies of the world.  He’s also straight and has a wife and kids, although he's now separated.  He’s a triathlete; I'm a couch potato.   So it's not about male attraction, although men in their forties and early fifties are looking kind of nifty to me these days.  He's 50.

But I like him.  I like the fact he’s a member of Germany’s Socialist Party.  Belongs to the party I’d probably associate with if I were a German citizen.  He comes from the Saarland, which is the part of Germany I feel the least connection with.  Kind of too far out there.  A little too Frenchy maybe.  Too Luxemburgy?  No serious objections to the place.  It’s just that it has a different feel from Lower Saxony, where my family comes from and the speech patterns are warm and satisfying.  Or from Berlin, with its unique sharp sense of humor and joie de vivre, which will always be home to my soul.

Maybe it’s just that I resonate with his politics.  He has taken on the CIA and the NSA, and demanded they piss off out of the lives of German citizens.  He has taken on Google and Facebook as well, for their failure to take more effective steps against hate speech.  He’s Germany’s Minister of Justice, the equivalent of Attorney General, so he speaks with some authority.  At the same time, he has been criticized for a number of conservative stances.  Somebody tried to pass a law which would withdraw recognition of marriages performed abroad of people (i.e., girls) under fourteen, and he dragged his feet.   Dragged them again when they tried to pass a no-nonsense law against groping, following the nightmare at the Cologne train station this past new year’s.  Said it was too broad and made bad law.  I see him as taking a reasonable approach, though, with an eye on the big picture instead of on the politically appealing mood of the moment.  I think he’s the kind of person you want running the show, whether you agree with every one of his decisions or not.

So I’m already a fan.  Which is saying something when it comes to politicians.

So imagine my delight when reading just now that he has taken another stand, in opposition to Chancellor Merkel, in support of same-sex marriage in Germany.  He’s already not merely a member of the Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation (remember Magnus Hirschfeld as the gay rights researcher par excellence, world wide) – not just a member, but president of its Board of Trustees.  Germany already has a pretty liberal registered partnerships law giving gays and lesbians almost all the rights of other citizens.  But it withholds adoption rights.  There is still the lingering fear on the part of the Christian Democrats and the Christian Socialists (note the word “Christian”: in their names), Merkel’s ruling “union” coalition, that there is something not quite right about being gay.  Heiko Maas wants to shed that notion once and for all.

For that reason, he’s my man.

Go, Heiko!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Pardon me not

Alan Turing
Somebody sent me a link to a news item the other day about the decision by the powers that be in Britain to “pardon” all the gay men (I think the law only applies to men) who were arrested in the past for crimes like “buggery, gross indecency and loitering with intent.”

My first response was anger.

Who the hell are you to presume the right to "pardon" me, said the voice in my head. You want to "pardon" me for committing a crime? It's on your head, you blinkin’ twit, that what I did was a crime in the first place!"

It’s me who should pardon you for being such a retrograde bigot. Like you, we all did things in the past we are ashamed of today.  I'm happy to see you are no longer hung up on the sex lives of others, and sure, it's good to let bygones be bygones.

But pardon me?  Come off it!

I then read the article about the new Turing Law, as it's being called (a wonderful way, at least, to honor Alan Turing) and was not surprised to find I'm not alone in this reaction.  The article mentions a 93-year-old gay activist from Brighton named George Montague who was among those swept up in the legal prissiness of the day.  He refuses to accept a pardon.

The problem is by now a familiar one.  It is the gap between legal terminology and words as we use them in daily life.  If in passing the Turing Law they had announced only that they were going to “correct the injustice” or “put right the damage done to gays,” there would, I think, have been a huge sigh of relief.  Some “it’s about damn time!” responses, but a much more general welcoming of the change in attitudes in Britain toward LGBT people.   It's the use of the word "pardon" that gets under your skin.

The legal term “to pardon” is the word used to mean “remove charges,” so, properly framed, this is a story of the justice system righting itself. Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for illegal wiretapping.  I wouldn't have, but the "dignity of the White House" was never a priority for me. Nixon had clearly done wrong. 

Unfortunately, in daily parlance, one “pardons” a person for doing an actual wrong. These men, consenting adults who sought each other out for sex, did no wrong.  There’s nothing to pardon.

Well, let me back up here.  Turns out this is a sticky business because the charge of “lewd behavior” covered a multitude of sins, and folks of a conservative bent are pointing out, with good reason, that a blanket “pardon” might include those who did harm to others – who took advantage of the vulnerable and forced them into sex against their will.

There’s the rub.  When you use a trumped up excuse to go after someone, it can come back at you.  Go into a private space, like a gay bar, grab somebody dancing with somebody of the same sex, and throw them in jail for “lewd behavior,” and you lose the moral high ground you need when you then want to go for a sexual aggressor on the same charge.

This issue bugged the hell out of me recently when Donald Trump began hitting back at Hillary Clinton because, as he put it, her husband “did far worse.”  Forget the by now familiar habit Trump has of responding to things like a five-year-old.  His mode of interacting with the world is usually, “Johnny hit me first!” What got lost was the distinction between sex and violence. Between consent and aggression.

The prissiness of the Victorian age is still with us.  Hillary was married to a horn-dog.  Bill Clinton pulled a stupid that will go down through the ages.  He had an intern in the Oval Office on the floor on her knees giving him a blow job.  Couldn’t get tackier if you tried.

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn't Monica Lewinsky a consenting adult?  There never was any evidence that she was forced into a sex act.  What she did was inappropriate, and that’s an understatement.  But there was never any way to put it down as an act of violence.  The issue in Trump’s case was – or should have been – sexual aggression, sex with people against their will.  That is, and should remain, a crime.  (And yes, it's entirely possible that Trump is telling the truth for a change and the "crooked Hillary" campaign got these ten women to lie under oath and claim Trump was sexually aggressive. That seedy issue has yet to be worked out.)

If we could just get past the church’s brilliantly sinister decision to get control of people by making morality center on sex, and recognize that the real ills of this world center on violence and deceit – and not sex between consenting adults – we could eliminate the need for folks at some future date to “pardon” people for doing what comes naturally.

We've been down this road before with the word tolerance.  Just as the good folk of the British legal system think they are doing good with pardon, most people think they are doing good when they preach tolerance.  But it’s the same inclination to place oneself in a superior position.

“What the world needs is more tolerance of others.”  Sounds good, right?  Until you put tolerance into context and you come up with things like, “I’ll tolerate you for being Jewish.”  Or “I’ll tolerate your after school work with handicapped kids, but I think you should be working full time on your MBA.”

I don’t need your tolerance, and I don’t need your pardon.

I need your recognition that we are equals, and that we have common problems to worry about.

Let’s get on with those.

photo credit

Added 4:15 p.m. - What escaped my notice until just now is the fact that Germany did the same thing the Brits are now doing, earlier this month.  But here the focus is on compensation, and not simply on giving the men a pardon.  They have set aside 30 million euros to compensate the 140,000 men convicted, 50,000 of those since the end of the Second World War.  About 5,000 men are expected to apply for compensation.  The notorious "Paragraph 175" that made gay sex illegal was abolished in West Germany in 1995.  East Germany abolished it as early as 1968.

Telling is the phrasing of the announcement.  According to the Minister of Justice, Heiko Maas, “We cannot completely undo these outrages of the rule of law, but we want to rehabilitate the victims.”

That's a damn sight better than "We will pardon you," I'd say.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Freispruch! (Not guilty!)
Back in my teaching days, one of my favorite courses was my seminar in Ethics.  I taught in a program dealing with language and culture, and my focus was on how the concepts of right and wrong vary over time and space.  The goal was to help students become aware of what happens when cultures with conflicting values come in contact.  As an educator, I was also hoping to raise consciousness in my students about the importance of clarifying one’s own values and building a rational basis for an ethical system in a world of constant change.

At some point, we would run through the tried and true standard ethical dilemmas.  The survivors on a life raft, for example.   If there is no way to keep the raft afloat with more than five people and there are six of you, do you toss someone overboard?  If so, who?  Is a doctor’s life worth more than a carpenter’s life?  A child’s life worth more than a 60-year-old’s?  Would you torture somebody to prevent a nuclear disaster?

Occasionally, students would protest these hypothetical situations.  Ethics, many argued, are contingent.  I’d torture someone to save a loved one, my child, for example.  But not to save a stranger.  One student once told me he was offended that I should be doing this kind of exercise in the first place.  He should not be forced to reveal his values.  They were his and nobody else’s business.

I followed the Abu Ghraib story and the example of water boarding in particular.  Not just because I was obsessed and depressed with the thought that America had failed a major moral test miserably, but because I was fascinated by the reasons people came down against it.  A Kantian, or somebody at Stage 6 on the Lawrence Kohlberg scale, people who think principles are higher than individual needs or wants, will tell you you need to establish the right thing to do and then do it, period.  Others will want to make room for all sorts of contingencies.  So I became fascinated with how many people would say torture, water-boarding in particular, was wrong – not because it was morally wrong but because it was ineffective and often led to false information.  The implication, obviously, is that it would be all right if it actually worked.

This week, Germans turned their country into an ethics classroom.  A stage play entitled Terror, written by Ferdinand von Shirach, one of Germany’s most respected writers, was adapted* for television.  The play poses the question, "Would you shoot down a passenger plane – particularly in the light of the 9/11 experience – to save a football stadium filled with spectators?"

It is the story of a plane carrying 164 passengers which has been commandeered by a terrorist intending to crash it into Munich’s football stadium filled with 70,000 people.  A major makes the decision to shoot the plane down, thus committing what some will designate the “lesser evil.”

Complicating the question for those who place a high value on the law is the fact that until recently Germany had a law allowing such measures to be taken, in the event of a terrorist act.   Following 9/11, Germany instituted what was known as the Luftsicherheitsgesetz – the “Aviation Security Act on January 15, 2005.”  However, a year later, on February 15, 2006, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court, their Supreme Court, declared that law unconstitutional.  Their reasoning was based on Article 1 of Germany’s constitution, its “Basic Law (Grundgesetz), which reads: “Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar,”  ("Human dignity shall be inviolable" in the official English translation.)

Article 1 has been interpreted to mean that one may not justify the taking of a life by the saving of another, no matter how many persons are involved.  The court is thus following the Kantian prescription, “Let justice be done, though the world perish.”  Kant’s approach to ethics is in contrast to the utilitarian argument that actions must be taken to bring about “the greatest good for the greatest number.”    Utilitarians focus on the outcome of an action and judge it accordingly.  Kant’s “imperative” is “categorical,” that is it is true for all times and all occasions, without exceptions or conditions.  You can’t shoot down a plane, because you can’t kill people.  Period.

So when Major Koch, upon whom the duty falls to decide who lives and who dies, kills the 164 to save the 70,000, he has done wrong, according to Immanuel Kant.  And more relevant to his fortunes, he has broken a fundamental law of Germany’s modern democracy.

Problem is that while Germany’s Supreme Court would seem to be Kantians, most Germans are clearly utilitarians.  And a gap this wide between a people and its government is what makes this a big story.

Hart Aber Fair panel, left to right: Jung, Wassmann,
Bahr, Baum, Plasberg (standing)
When the TV film was shown, it carried the title, Terror – Ihr Urteil (Terror – Your Verdict), and the public, effectively turned into a national jury, was invited to telephone in their decision to a talk show, Hart Aber Fair (Tough But Fair), which then released the results and debated them with four guests.  The two panel members who pronounced the major innocent of murder included Franz Josef Jung, a former defense minister, and Thomas Wassmann, a military man and fighter jet expert.  The two who pronounced him guilty included the theologian and bishop of Hannover, Petra Bahr, although she defended her position on grounds less theological than constitutional; and Gerhart Baum, the former Minister of the Interior, a passionate defender of the constitution.   If your German is up to it, the program is available here.  

The show, and thus the ethical dilemma, captured the imagination of the nation.  It had an audience of 6.88 million viewers.  That’s a market share of more than 20%. 

There are two sources of public opinion on the question of whether shooting down the plane was the right thing to do, the stage play and the television version.  When the play was performed around the world, in Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Venezuela, Israel and Japan, audiences were asked to vote on Major Koch’s guilt.  Germans, for the most part, found Major Koch not guilty of murder by a wide margin – 90,357 to 60,897 of the votes tallied.   The range was even greater in Switzerland, where 2424 people voted not guilty to 882.  Tallies have not yet been taken in Denmark and Israel, but Venezuela and Hungary show similar responses to the German speaking countries (Austria's numbers on the television version were virtually identical to the German numbers.)  With the exception of Japan, where the vote went 569 not guilty to 958 guilty, the not guilty votes outweighed the guilty votes about 60/40. 

The Bundestag seems to have had the popular sentiment on their side when they first passed the Aviation Security Act, allowing a commandeered plane to be shot down.  And the Constitutional Court, their defenders might argue, did what Supreme Courts are supposed to do, determine constitutionality on the basis of reason, and not emotion.  

In real life.  But what about the television trial of Major Koch, who is found innocent of a crime? An overwhelming majority of citizens agree with the TV court, despite what one assumes would be the decision of the constitutional court in real life.  In the Hart Aber Fair discussion, the defense minister endorses the TV court’s decision.  The argument that one cannot measure one life against another is bogus, he asserts.  We do it all the time, for example, when it comes to saving a mother’s life over a fetus’s life, when faced with that choice.  The Catholic Church has made it clear the doctor’s obligation is to the newborn.  But the state argues a family can always have more children, but once the mother is dead, she’s dead.  And in wartime, medics performing triage routinely neglect a patient near death in order to save three with better life prospects.

But how to explain the wide discrepancy between the not guilty vote following the theater performances and the not guilty vote following the TV show?  Both agreed, but the TV audience voted for not guilty by a much larger margin – 87 to 13.  

Bishop Bahr attempts to make the point that the vote was not, in fact, a national referendum.  It was a vote on which ending was appropriate for a television program.  (They had prepared two endings, one in which Major Koch was found guilty, one in which he was found innocent, and it's the "best ending," technically, that they were voting on).  What governs the decisions of a law-making body in real life is not necessarily the same as what influences a television audience primed to be entertained. Florian David Fitz, who played Koch, for example, the major who shot down the plane, is one handsome dude.  As Bahr points out, he might easily be mistaken for Klaus von Stauffenberg, the man who made the attempt on Hitler’s life – a hero, in other words.  The “hero effect” might go a long way to explain the discrepancy between the 87-13 figure in the film as opposed to the 60-40 split in the theaters.  You watch a man on a stage from some distance.  On television, you watch his anxiety and his guilt and his vulnerability in close-ups on his eyes.  Then there’s the technology problem.  At some point, the phone lines jammed.  The figures are not necessarily representative of those who actually voted, much less of those who might vote in a real referendum. 

None of this detracts from the fact that, for a time, the German nation is being urged to debate a moral dilemma and consider the responsibilities of democratic institutions to follow the rule of law, or justify exceptions to the rule of law.  Such debates will quickly lead to others.  Security debates invariably involve the notion of privacy. Do you want police to be able to spy on everyone?  It would make everyone safer.  And it could perhaps head off such dilemmas as whether to shoot down a plane with 164 innocent passengers in it in the first place.

The former Minister of the Interior loses his cool in the panel discussion.  At one point the moderator asks him directly, “Are people wrong to find him innocent?”  “Yes,” Baum answers.  “They don’t know the law.”

Hard to argue with that, although one might raise the question, "If we don't permit our military to go after known terrorists, (remember, they are certain in this case) aren't we encouraging more terrorist acts? Wouldn't one successful attack on 70,000 football fans be certain to encourage another?"  To say nothing of sending the nation into a national trauma. How long would the country abide by the ruling that it's OK to sit tight and allow 70,000 people to meet their death, because "it's the law"? Would there not be riots?

And then there's the response to this response, "How is this not mob rule?"

And what about the argument that the folks in the plane are goners in either case?  Does this not suggest one should give them a part in history as tragic heroes and not define them only as tragic victims?

Or do you want to leave this decision to fate (or God, if you prefer)?  Or worry about guilt, and place it on the terrorists and not the major?

To which you have to ask, is doing nothing not also sinning/being guilty of criminal neglect of duty? Is being inactive the same as being responsible?

The questions go on and on.

It’s tempting to argue, as many have, that the national ruckus raised by populists like Frank Plasberg and his TV program have created more sound and fury than rational thought.  Der Spiegel suggests as much.  Interior Minister Baum lays blame on the author, von Shirach, for even getting this (bogus?) ball rolling (and missing the point that Shirach himself thinks the major is guilty.)

I’m persuaded by my years in the classroom watching otherwise tuned-out students come alive when faced with life and death questions that this debate is not a mistake, legitimate though the protestations of its faults may be.  I’m also persuaded by watching the sad state of political debate we’ve fallen into in the United States, that there are better things we might be doing, things such as this German debate, in the name of democracy.

*The play was adapted for television by von Shirach and the director, Lars Kraume and a third director and producer, Oliver Berben.  [To get a sense of Shirach as both writer and criminal defense lawyer, link here.]  It has been called "the TV experiment of the year."

panel on „Hart Aber Fair“