Tuesday, February 27, 2018

No pleasure in keeping it to yourself

Look up the word “communicate” in an English-German dictionary and you’ll find a plethora of possibilities.  There is mitteilen, first of all, a word which, when glossed, means “to share with”.  Both in the verb form: mitteilen, and in the noun form eine Mitteilung machen = “to do a sharing-with.”

Then there is übermitteln, which is a bit harder to gloss. Mitteln is commonly used as a noun which corresponds to the English means, as in “the means to the end.”  “The end justifies the means” is rendered in German as “Der Zweck heiligt (= makes holy) die Mittel.” There is a verb mitteln, but it means either to average something, or “to take the mean” of something. So that’s a dead end. On the other hand, when used in compound words, like übermitteln, it is fairly productive. Literally “to means over” means “to convey meaning,” i.e. “to communicate.”

Then, you’ve got vermitteln, also as a possible translation of “to communicate.”  The ver-prefix is one of those German morphemes seemingly designed in hell to drive people who like things simple mad. It can convey what the English prefix mis- conveys, (verrechnen=miscalculate; verlesen=misread, etc.) It can also mean “to move beyond the boundaries of the stem word in some way”: sprechen = to speak; versprechen = to promise. Note that the ver- in versprechen can also convery the first ver-meaning: to do something wrong. So versprechen means both “to promise” and “to make a mistake in speaking” and if you can find a better example of the irrationality of language I’d like to know what it is.

But back to words for “communicate.” There is also verkehren.  Since Verkehr is the word for traffic, the word conveys the connotation of “being sociable”. Or to consort with somebody, keep company with them. And, of course, if you stick the word “sex” in front of it: Geschlechtsverkehr, you’ve got “sexual intercourse.” To “communicate sexually” in other words.

Then there is übertragen, a medical word, literally to carry over. As in “communicable disease” (übertragbare Krankheit).

Just as English has pairs of Latinate (via French) and Anglo-Saxon words: pork/swine, encounter/meet, question/ask, German has kundtun “to do knowledge” and kommunizieren as well as korrespondieren.

If you know Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, you may be familiar with the opening lines of the Ode to Joy”, where the chorus comes in and generally blows the socks off the audience with their shouts of Freude, Freude (joy, joy).  Now the official anthem of the European Union, the German lyrics begin Freude, schöner Götterfunken..."  It is rendered "Joy, beautiful spark of the gods" in English, where it sounds to English ears much less like a VW ad than the original German. The part that brings tears is the "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" (All men will become brothers) part.

Did you know the lyrics were written by Schiller?  

A friend of mine once had two pet goldfish, which he named “Frieda” and “Freude” (Peace and Joy) and insisted he could tell them apart, something I was always doubtful of.

And you know the German suffixes “-heit” and “-keit,” which make nouns out of adjectives.  Gesund = healthy; Gesundheit = health.  Sparsam = frugal; Sparsamkeit = frugality.

Well, you’re now ready for the German word of the day – a word I just heard on television that I don’t remember hearing before:


The joy of communicating.

One of the good words, don’t you think?


You tell'em, Cem!

Try as I may, I can’t help letting the outrages coming out of the White House get to me. I make every effort to listen to music, keep conversations going with friends far and wide and to limit the amount of time I spend listening to the satirists like Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher shooting fish in a barrel with this kindness and compassion-challenged thug at the head of government. It’s no longer any fun listening to him being ridiculed. It’s just painful.

I'm not diminishing the importance of laughing at the Clown. It's an appropriate response. But I'm looking for more active resistance, as well. Not just against the man Trump, but against the disregard for truth,  the destruction of the environment, the manipulation of religious innocents for political gain, the return of open racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. 

The recent move toward the political right around the world puts us all in the same boat. The mass migration going on in Europe has brought out all the fear and loathing of "the other," and made the insecure want to circle the wagons. Trump has found he can rally his troops by promising he will build them a wall on the Mexican border. In Europe, it's all about closing the door to refugees fleeing war in Syria and recognizing - just as the American rightwing now wants to redefine us as "no longer a nation of immigrants" - that Germany and France and Britain, and virtually all modern nations now are "nations of immigrants." And that means we continue to embrace our diversity, not surrender to notions of racial purity.

When I lived in Japan, where I taught a seminar on culture theory, I spent a great deal of time analyzing the impact of cultures in contact, what happens when value systems collide. Japan has a singular history as an island nation, once shut off for some 250 years, long enough to leave Japanese marked with a sense of themselves as a unique people different from the rest of the world. One lasting effect is the tendency of Japanese to think in we/they terms. The world consists of insiders and outsiders. That’s common to most nations and people, of course, but when threatened, Japanese are easily manipulated into xenophobia. Because the birth rate is so low, they cannot keep the population level high enough to keep the economy running at the current level, and they really need a steady influx of immigrants. But immigration means an embrace of the “other,” and the backlash is as strong as it is certain. I remember long debates in Japan over how to deal with “Chinese criminals.” The rumor went around that the many guest workers from China were forming gangs of criminals. There was a grain of truth – outsider groups invariably stick together and poverty breeds criminality. But people were not looking at the statistics – far more crime was committed by Japanese than by these Chinese gangs.

Now in Germany that same problem has been generated in spades, thanks to the wars in the Middle East and the availability of the internet and the need for Germans, also suffering (if that’s the word – it’s not my word!) from a low birthrate, to keep the economy going with guest workers. You all know the recent history. Once popular Angela Merkel is being blamed for overdoing it with her open door policy, letting in far too many refugees and immigrants at one time to be absorbed easily. Her motives were Christian, she tells us, as well as based on EU law – a refugee must be given shelter. Not interested, says the political right. And not just the political right – people normally classed as centrists or moderates joined in and began crying that an open door policy was madness.

Trump supporters consist in large part of people easily manipulated by their fears. It has always been this way. The Germans under Hitler made scapegoats of the Jewish “other.” Trump, early on, told Americans that Mexicans were flooding across the border and they were rapists. The base ate it up. Just what they needed. Somebody to fear, to focus their discontents on. Never mind the facts, that Mexicans were actually returning to Mexico in greater numbers than they were coming in, or that drugs and criminality couldn’t possibly be curtailed by a physical wall, which would actually keep out more desirable workers (yes, desirable) than “bad guys” and be an ineffective means of stopping the flow of drugs anyway. The important thing was the appearance of things – it would look like Trump was taking positive action. For people who don’t dig deeper to verify his claims – which have been demonstrated to be false 80% of the time – it was sufficient to keep up their support.

Xenophobia in Germany and the rest of Western Europe is not all that different from xenophobia in America, in other words. It’s more intense, in many ways, more overtly racist, and supported by the conviction that Islam is inherently threatening to Western Civilization. But these are differences in degree, not in kind.

The news the other day that the U.S. will stop officially describing itself as a nation of immigrants hit me like a kick in the stomach. First because it is such a radical turnaround from what we have told ourselves for as long as I can remember, as a means of regarding out diversity as a positive thing. Second, because I see it as another bone thrown by the neo-fascist administration to the mob of xenophobic white supporters who make up the Trump cheering section. Truth doesn’t matter. Talk is cheap these days.

Deniz Yücel
A friend in Berlin called my attention to a speech given in the German parliament, the Bundestag, the other day. The Bundestag was debating a proposal by the AfD over how to approach the writings of Deniz Yucel.

For the first time since the war, Germany has had to contend with a far-right political party, the AfD, whose platform is based largely on hostility to immigrants and foreigners. That party now sits in parliament and has a powerful forum for its xenophobic agenda.  They have to be listened to and dealt with.

Before I go into the resistance to this wretchedness, a little background:

·      Deniz Yücel is a German-born journalist of Turkish heritage. He holds dual citizenship, Turkish and German. Until ten days ago, February 16, for a year and two days, he was being held in a Turkish prison charged with espionage against Turkey’s leader, Recep Erdoğan. One of hundreds of journalists similarly charged. 
·      In 2010, the right wing politician and writer Thilo Sarrazin, published a book titled, Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany is doing away with itself),  in which he launched a full-force frontal attack on Germany’s pluralist (now sneered at as "Multikulti") social and immigration policies, particularly in regard to Muslims. It became a best-seller, the best-selling hardcover in the history of the Bundesrepublik. And the book most checked out of the Parliament library between 2009 and 2013.
·      Some of the points Sarrazin raises are reminiscent of the issue raised in The Bell Curve. It should come as no surprise that the culture of Anatolia, where for centuries women have not been allowed to become literate, could not possibly have produced the level of critical thinking necessary to run a democracy, the argument goes. No wonder the Turks have limited intelligence. Common sense to some; racist nonsense to others.
·      Deniz Yücel took on Sarrazin in a satirical work in 2011. In 2012, he went over the line, suggesting it might be a good idea if Sarrazin had a heart attack. For this personal affront, Yücel’s newspaper, taz, was hit with €20,000 ($24,600) in damages.
·      The AfD succeeded in getting the whole question of Yücel’s remarks debated in the Bundestag, a move decried by the German Federation of Journalists as an attempt at censorship. To the right, he's an affront to German integrity. To everybody else, he's a German journalist who spent a year in jail for annoying the Turkish dictator.

Among the many speakers that got up to comment on the move by the AfD to censor Yücel was Cem (pronounced like the English word “gem”) Özdemir, former head (for ten years) of Germany’s Green Party.  Özdemir, like Yücel, is German-born to Turkish parents. He is a model of the modern German multicultural citizen. Of Circassian background , he describes himself as a “secular Muslim,” is married to an Argentine journalist and has two children. He calls Bad Urach home, a small town in the Schwaben (Swabian) region, just south of Stuttgart.

Cem Özdemir

I am hoping somehow the Bundestag or YouTube will post a video of this debate on its website with English subtitles. Here's one in German only; the German original text is available here.  I’d love for people in the English-speaking world to see this man go. The passion of his outrage fills the room.

And until you can get a professional one, here’s my translation of Özdemir’s speech. I have left out the catcalls and other interruptions:
Madame President, Honorable colleagues:  
We need to bring ourselves up to date on what it is that we are actually talking about here today. We’re talking about the work and the article of a German journalist. Normally we associate things of this sort with authoritarian countries. In contrast, the German Bundestag is not here to judge the work of journalists. We have no high-ranking censorship authority here in the Bundestag. That belongs in the countries you look up to. Germany is not among them. In Germany there is no “enforced conformity” [a term associated with the Nazi era], of the kind you dream of. What we have is freedom of the press, a term which, quite obviously, is not in your vocabulary, ladies and gentlemen.  
And we would extend this freedom of the press just as readily to your comrades in Turkey who robbed Deniz Yücel of a year of his life. 
We’re glad Deniz Yücel is free, and let me say here, so there is no misunderstanding, we would be just as happy if it were a Gustav Müller or whatever his name might be, because every citizen of this country is entitled to have his country behind him. That should be obvious. Everybody knows that, besides you.  And all of us, the democratic members of this house, are committed to the idea that the other journalists, the ones without a German passport also under arrest have the right to be released. Because journalism is not a crime, ladies and gentlemen.   
But something else that is true is the fact that things have changed dramatically in the year that Yücel was in prison, and that has prompted this debate. In the meantime there are now representatives in this house that must be described as racists – must be charged with racism, ladies and gentlemen. 
And I mean these ladies and gentlemen over here on the right – I have the microphone, and, thank God, you can’t shut me up. I know that in the regimes you dream of, you can shut off somebody’s mike, but here, thank God, you can’t. And you’re also not going to be able to change that, believe me.   
You want to determine who is German and who is not. How can someone who despises Germany, our common homeland, as you do, decide who is German? How can somebody who shows so little respect for Germany, our common homeland, as you do, determine who is German and who is not?  I’ll tell you one thing. If you were to be the ones to determine that, it would be like putting racists in charge of deciding who is a Neo-nazi and who isn’t. And by the way, if you want the number for the Neo-Nazis, I can provide you with it.  
[VP of Bundestag Petra Pau: Colleague Özdemir, will you allow a question? CÖ: No, I will permit no questions.] 
If you were honest, all of you sitting here, then you would admit that you despise this country. 
You despise everything that this country is looked up to for and respected for throughout the world: and that includes our culture of remembrance, for which I am extremely proud. It includes the diversity of the country, of which I am also proud. It includes Bavarians, Swabians, but also people with ancestors from Russia and people with ancestors from Anatolia, who are now equally proud to be citizens of this country. That includes – and I have to say this – that I feel personally offended as a football (soccer) fan – our great national team. If you are honest, you're crossing your fingers for the Russian team and not our national team. 
Admit it! You show disrespect also for this worthy house as well as for the Enlightenment. You are carved from the same rotten wood as those who had Deniz Yücel arrested. You are carved from the same rotten wood as those who had Deniz Yücel sit in prison for a year of his life. Let me put it into a single sentence. The AKP (Turkish president Erdogan’s ruling party) has a branch in this country. It’s called the AfD, and it is sitting here. 
Finally, let me say in conclusion, you had a political Ash Wednesday a little while ago. What it reminded me of was a speech in the Sportpalast [a clear reference to a major Hitler speech.] 
I want you to know: this Germany, our Germany, is stronger than your hatred will ever be.  You, the raging mob, wanted to deport me on Ash Wednesday. Well, that’s easier done than you might imagine.  This coming Saturday I’m going home. I’m flying to Stuttgart and from there I’ll take an S-Bahn and get off at the final station in Bad Urach. That is my Swabian home. And I will not let you ruin it.

We can't fight City Hall, they say. We can't take down the Trump administration, so long as the 1% find him useful to their purposes, they say. We can't hold back the tide of right wing neo-fascism on the rise around the world, they say.

Maybe not. But some of us can stand up and talk back.

When you find somebody talking back, I think you should share with others ways it can be done.

That's what I'm doing here. 

Doubt it will reach many people. 

But one does what one can.

photo credits: Cem Özdemir

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Gun control - the debate goes on

Friend Bill forwarded me an e-mail attributed to a man named Robert Göltl.  I don't know anything about the man, other than that he has one of the more unpronounceable names I've come across in a while. It's also the 562,492nd most common surname in the world (check it out).

And, of course, the fact that he would appear to be somebody my friends would call a right-wing gun nut.

Bill just left me with the posting (and the comment that maybe he should start worrying about bathtub deaths from now on).

My first response was to throw it in the trash and go listen to some Chopin or some Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

But I haven't had a good argument in a while, so I thought I'd see what I might come up with by way of talking back to this guy.

You can see it's been making the rounds for some time from the reference to Obama, but since things haven't changed on the gun control front, I think the arguments are still timely. Would love to hear if you agree or not and if you have anything to add.

Here goes. Mr. G's e-mail comments are in large font bold face. Mine are in this font.
On Thu, Feb 22, 2018 at 10:09 AM, William M <> wrote:
This is now circulating. I guess it is supposed to make me feel that I can live with the school massacres and mass shootings as a normal part of American life.
Interesting logic. We should probably add bath tub drownings to the list as well.

There are 30,000 gun related deaths per year by firearms, and this number is not disputed. U.S. population 324,059,091 as of Wednesday, June 22, 2016. Do the math: 0.000000925% of the population dies from gun related actions each year. Statistically speaking, this is insignificant!

Some people focus on violence and death and wish there were less of it.
Others focus on statistics.
Statistically speaking, compared to the number of human beings that have inhabited the earth since the beginning of time, the number of deaths in Nazi concentration camps is insignificant. You can twist statistics into saying almost anything.

What is never told, however, is a breakdown of those 30,000 deaths, to put them in perspective as compared to other causes of death:

Again, "perspective" can be pressed into service to defend virtually any cause. From the perspective of the Romans in the Colosseum, feeding Christians to the lions is pretty good entertainment.

The U.S. has a lower rate of firearm deaths than ten other countries in the world. You can focus on that fact and see the glass as half full, or you can focus on the fact that there are 30,000 people who lost their lives in the U.S., or 10.54 deaths per 100,000 population in the U.S. compared to .06 per 100,000 in Japan. Numbers carry a different impact depending on where you point the light.

• 65% of those deaths are by suicide which would never be prevented by gun laws

Not so. When the Israeli army stopped allowing their soldiers to take their guns home in 2006, the suicide rate dropped by 40%. Removing guns means removing convenience, giving people time to reconsider. Many suicides are spur of the moment decisions. You can't say "never."

• 15% are by law enforcement in the line of duty and justified

Fine. But let's not forget the other 85%.

• 17% are through criminal activity, gang and drug related or mentally ill persons – gun violence


• 3% are accidental discharge deaths

Whose side are you on in this argument?

So technically, "gun violence" is not 30,000 annually, but drops to 5,100. Still too many? Well, first, how are those deaths spanned across the nation?
• 480 homicides (9.4%) were in Chicago
• 344 homicides (6.7%) were in Baltimore
• 333 homicides (6.5%) were in Detroit
• 119 homicides (2.3%) were in Washington D.C. (a 54% increase over prior years)

So basically, 25% of all gun crime happens in just 4 cities. All 4 of those cities have strict gun laws, so it is not the lack of law that is the root cause.

Laws are one thing. Effective laws are another. And don't forget the laws that would prevent taking guns from one state to another and from the countryside into urban areas are notoriously weak, and have been weakened further by the current pro-NRA administration.

This basically leaves 3,825 for the entire rest of the nation, or about 75 deaths per state. That is an average because some States have much higher rates than others. For example, California had 1,169 and Alabama had 1.

Turn this around. The reason we're urging gun control is so that people living in highly populated areas, and are most at risk, might rest easier.

Statistics are useful for establishing context. But so is the notion that the preventing the death of innocents - even one innocent - is worth all the effort you can put into it.  Could you in good faith stand before the parents of the twenty six- and seven-year-old children who lost their lives in Sandy Hook and tell them twenty is an "insignificant" number?

Now, who has the strictest gun laws by far? California, of course, but understand, so it is not guns causing this. It is a crime rate spawned by the number of criminal persons residing in those cities and states. So if all cities and states are not created equally, then there must be something other than the tool causing the gun deaths.

"Criminals" is the wrong category label. "Killers" is the better label. And many would-be killers can be prevented from becoming killers if their access to guns is curtailed. And in discussing criminals/killers, you have not mentioned the mentally ill that this country currently gives relatively easy access to guns, compared to places like Australia, Japan and all the other modern societies with better gun control.

There is a flaw in your reasoning here.  You're saying it's not guns that are the problem, but the criminals. But that doesn't mean that making it harder for criminals to have access to guns won't help bring down the number of gun deaths. When Australia got rid of their guns, killing by guns dropped by over 59% between 1995 and 2006. And don't miss the fact that the suicide rate went down by even more – 65% – as well  That's only 200 fewer homicides, in the end, so "statistically" you might call that number insignificant. But tell that to the families of Australians who still have their loved ones with them.

Are 5,100 deaths per year horrific? How about in comparison to other deaths? All death is sad and especially so when it is in the commission of a crime but that is the nature of crime. Robbery, death, rape, assault all is done by criminals and thinking that criminals will obey laws is ludicrous. That's why they are criminals.

They are not criminals until they have committed a crime. The aim is to make access to guns more constrictive. It's like putting locks on doors. They don't really keep people from breaking in to your house. But they make it a lot harder.

And you're forgetting how successful most modern countries have been in bringing down the number of deaths by firearms,

But what about other deaths each year?
• 40,000+ die from a drug overdose–THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR THAT!
• 36,000 people die per year from the flu, far exceeding the criminal gun deaths
• 34,000 people die per year in traffic fatalities(exceeding gun deaths even if you include suicide)

Do you really think that because more people die from causes other than guns, that one should abandon the effort to get the number of gun deaths down? Do we give up the fight against cancer because there are so many deaths each year from heart disease?

Now it gets good:
• 200,000+ people die each year (and growing) from preventable medical errors. You are safer in Chicago than when you are in a hospital!

Statistics again.
It's not either/or; it's both and. We should work to lower the number of deaths from preventable medical errors and we should work to lower the number of deaths from firearms. Not use the tragedy of one problem to cause us to despair about addressing another.

• 710,000 people die per year from heart disease. It’s time to stop the double cheeseburgers! So what is the point?

What is the point?  Saving lives is the point.

If Obama and the anti-gun movement focused their attention on heart disease, even a 10% decrease in cardiac deaths would save twice the number of lives annually of all gun-related deaths (including suicide, law enforcement, etc.).

Great idea. Let's increase our efforts in fighting heart disease.  Both/and.  Both/and.

A 10% reduction in medical errors would be 66% of the total gun deaths or 4 times the number of criminal homicides......Simple, easily preventable 10% reductions!


So you have to ask yourself, in the grand scheme of things, why the focus on guns?

Because they are a problem which we, as a society, have the right to try and address. And because America leads the world in mass shootings. We focus on the guns in those shootings because the deaths are heart-breaking.

It's pretty simple.:
Taking away guns gives control to governments.

So you want to limit the power of governments?  I assume you want the police to come when somebody is breaking into your house, the fire department to come when it's on fire. The schools to give all children universal access to education. The military to be ready to jump in if needed for defense.  Governments are necessary to keep us safe. The notion that we all live in the woods, hunt our own food, and fight off marauding Indians belongs not in 2018 but in 1718. You're three hundred years behind the times.

The founders of this nation knew that regardless of the form of government, those in power may become corrupt and seek to rule as the British did by trying to disarm the populace of the colonies. It is not difficult to understand that a disarmed populace is a controlled populace.

You've lined everybody up on two sides - the government consisting of bad people and the general populace consisting of good people. Your model of who is government and who is populace is seriously skewed.

Thus, the second amendment was proudly and boldly included in the U.S. Constitution. It must be preserved at all costs.

No, not at all costs.  We need to be careful about changing the Constitution, to be sure. But we have laws to guide us in whether and how changes might be made. The Second Amendment was put in the Constitution (I don't know how "proudly") to assure that people below the federal level would be able to keep a militia. It's a law parallel to the notion of keeping a state police force. It was not written to assure any individual in the country would have the right to own an automatic assault weapon. That misinterpretation of the Constitution needs to be rectified.

 Gun deaths per one million people in 2010. Homicide figures are at the right, shaded darker.

So the next time someone tries to tell you that gun control is about saving lives, look at these facts and remember these words from Noah Webster: "Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed, as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword, because the whole body of the people are armed and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States. A military force at the command of Congress can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power." 

Do you really think Noah Webster had modern-day Sweden and Germany and Iceland and Denmark and Norway and Holland and Belgium and Finland and Italy and Japan in mind as examples of kingdoms we should fear becoming by copying their policies of better gun control?

Remember, when it comes to "gun control," the important word is “control," not “gun."

Yes. Firearms are lethal. And they should be controlled.
Just as Trump wants to do when it comes to bump stock devices.
Just as the NRA did when they banned guns when Trump addressed them in April 2017.
There are times and places for guns to be controlled.  We can argue over when and where and to what degree. But not over the principle that gun control is necessary (in my view) and a very good idea in the view of 66% of the American people.

photo credit
Chart of gun deaths per million people