Saturday, November 30, 2019

Getting hate speech right on Thanksgiving

Salt Lake Daddies
Hate speech is one of those issues where you have to get it right. If you shut somebody up for saying ugly things, you run the risk of trampling on their right to free speech. Everybody has the right to be a shit, to say hurtful things. It comes with living in a free society. If it’s directed at us, we simply have to suck it up and know that we have an equal right to say something that will counter the ugliness. Normal rules of etiquette should apply. One should not take advantage of one’s power position to abuse a person for no good reason. But just as making a law that prevents us from being stupid is a waste of time, so is making a law preventing us from being unkind. If I think your nose is too big and I say so in public, I should not have to go to jail.

On the other hand, there are times when your gut tells you that hate speech should be punished. If a vulnerable person is standing on a balcony threatening to throw themself off and you say, “Go ahead. The world would be better off without you,” and they kill themselves, I’m not going to come to your defense if you get arrested. I’ll turn the key on your cell myself and bury it where nobody can find it.

So this is why we need judges. We need people to tell us where the line is between free speech and hate speech.

The key factor, it seems to me, should be the power factor. If you’re a public figure, somebody running for office or somebody actually in office, and you’re called a twit, well tough titties. Comes with the territory. If you’re a Muslim minority wearing a headscarf and I don’t like religion in general, I should be allowed to say I don’t like religion, and maybe Islam most of all, even, but I should not be allowed to advocate action that would hurt you. I should be required, even if I think your choice of a head covering furthers the subordination of women, to distinguish between general principles and your right to express yourself, even if we can’t agree on the symbolism, maybe especially if we can’t agree on what the symbolism actually is. I say you’re insulting women; you say you’re honoring God. You should be given the benefit of doubt here until or unless it becomes clear one of us is insincere and wrong.

I would expect principled advocates of civil rights to err on the side of free speech. I don’t want to live in a world where everybody has to worry before opening their mouths that they might end up in jail for expressing an opinion. And I think the Constitution is on our side here. Free speech is a basic right. If you are a strict Kantian, who puts principled behavior above all else, damn the torpedoes, this will be where you come down. You may want to cite the moral scale that Lawrence Kohlberg came up with where he attributed to the highest stage of moral development those willing to sacrifice self-interest for principle. We feel, instinctively, that there’s something noble about going down that path.

But let me give you a hypothetical. Suppose you’re a judge and you learn about a little boy who wants to be adopted. He finds a gay couple that wants to make a family with him, take him in and give him a permanent home. The kid is on pins and needles waiting for the adoption process to be completed.  It’s Thanksgiving, and his teacher asks his class to express what they are thankful for. He says, “I’m grateful for my two daddies.”

The teacher says, “That’s wrong. You shouldn’t be grateful for two men wanting to adopt you. They are homosexuals and homosexuality is wrong.”

The kid is terrified. He doesn’t want to speak out against his teacher, but on the other hand, he knows in his heart that she’s taking a position that could, theoretically at least, persuade the men to give up on their plan. Or persuade a judge to take a stand against the adoption. Never mind that we’ve come a long way toward accepting LGBT people. These thoughts are taking place in the mind of a frightened child, remember.

Should this teacher be censored for expressing her religious view that homosexuality is wrong?

There are two ways to answer the question, one from a legal perspective, one from a moral perspective. And both evolve over time. My hope is they evolve in the direction established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That's not a given, of course. Just as we can live in a democracy for a while and that democracy can give way to fascism, if we're not watchful, we can grant someone rights and then take them away again. We can take a moral stand for a while and then tire. We may not have been born in sin the way the Abrahamic traditions want us to believe, but we are not naturally given to doing the right thing, either. It takes consciousness, and it takes effort.

OK, so I haven’t been straight with you. This is not actually a hypothetical. It’s real. It took place in Salt Lake City, home of the Mormon Church, one of the central organs of official homophobia in America. This teacher is expressing not only her personal views; she’s reflecting her community’s moral standards. And before you get all fired up by my suggesting that homophobia can be moral, remember that morality is not a static concept. If you are a Nazi and you believe Jews and homosexuals and the mentally ill pollute the master race, then the moral thing to do is get rid of these people. This teacher, in her own mind, is acting with moral certainty.

If that teacher wants to ask me what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving, I’ll tell her I’m thankful that the good folk of Salt Lake City, Utah, have come to understand that same-sex desire and emotional attachment does not make one immoral, that that idea has to be tossed on the trash heap of history along with the notion that people of African ancestry should not be allowed to learn to read and women should only be allowed to have a credit card in their husband’s name. And, by the way, shame on you for scaring the bejeezus out of a child.

I’m thankful that we in this country - and that includes Utah - have come this far in embracing LGBT people. And I’m grateful for the two Salt Lake daddies who, I suspect, are going to make some kid very very happy.

Salt Lake Daddies photo (and story) credit

Friday, November 29, 2019

Are we in for another crash?

Marc Friedrich and Matthias Weik

Back in the day when I knew nothing about economics and saw no reason to apologize for that fact, I had a friend who was being trained as an economist at Tokyo University who thought I ought to be embarrassed about my ignorance. “Nobody can claim to know anything about the world today if they don’t have a basic knowledge of economics,” he declared.  That was in the day when everybody was proclaiming the right to do their own thing, and the most important thing was that we all exercise our right to make personal choices.

I had grown up in a much more restricted world, in New England, where shame was a useful tool in education. “What!? You don’t know that? How come?” was a common question.

After I got out of the army, I moved to San Francisco and got a job to hold me over until I could go back to school and get an M.A. in English so I could get a job I wanted that required one. I had filled up with literature courses in French, German and Russian while an undergraduate, but nothing in English. Fine, I said, I’ll take a Shakespeare course. A whole new world for me, but an adventure I looked forward to.

“What were Shakespeare’s years?” was the professor’s first question. Hands went up all over the place, and I suddenly felt like I was in over my head. I could guess it was in the 1600s somewhere, but I couldn’t possibly answer that question with any precision. “1600 to 1650” somebody says. “No much earlier, probably 1550 to 1600” says somebody else. “I think it’s more like the late 1700s,” says a third person. 

“Jesus,” I thought. What morons. Here I thought I was too dumb for this class. Turns out I’m too smart. These people are not only clueless; they don’t even know they’re clueless.

That was the beginning of a long learning curve for me in which I had to learn to disassociate knowledge and learning from attitude toward learning. I was raised in an environment where one was supposed to be modest about what one knew and ashamed about what one didn’t know. And suddenly I was in a world of “I gotta be me!” and everybody spoke less of responsibilities and more of rights. Less of living up to community standards, more of cultivating the self. These kids were simply showing they were unafraid of showing ignorance, confident that that’s what they were in school for - to tack on some more knowledge. In time I began to love this “California” learning style, as I came to call it.

And that’s what I was reflecting when a few years later I told my friend Yusuke that “I don’t care about economics very much.” I thought I had a right to choose what, if any, “academic” topics I would study, and what I would leave for another day, if ever. He thought the choice to be uninformed about his chosen field was a really bad one. I called him a New Englander held captive in a Japanese body.

These days, it’s a different ballgame. I’ve long since shed the oversimplified view of how Californians differ from New Englanders. I’ve also picked up some rudimentary understanding of economics. And I’m even more acutely aware of how terribly limited my knowledge of economics continues to be. I have embraced Karl Marx’s notion that our world view is colored by where we sit in society, that our life experiences are a lens for viewing the world, but that doesn’t mean I can sit in a circle with folk and have an intelligent conversation about the pros and cons of capitalism. I’ve read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century (more “read about” than “read” if I’m being honest) and I know that he is both highly praised and roundly criticized by other economists for his thesis that the main problem of the day is income inequality and the problem stems from investment (financial) growth outpacing production. We're good at generating wealth, and poor at distributing it equitably.

 But I support that thesis more at a gut level than out of any deep understanding of economics. As an American, I’m persuaded that there is something tragically wrong with our democratic project, and what’s wrong is reflected in the fact that the rich have for a long time now been getting richer as the poor get poorer. I think the Trump phenomenon is a distraction. He’s a wretched creature, to be sure, but he’s not the problem. The problem is that we’ve come to accept the right-wing claim that truth is whatever they declare it to be, not what is empirically verifiable. What I naively labeled and embraced as "the California approach to knowledge," as opposed to "the New England approach," is now everywhere evident in a seriously toxic form. Moreover, those who have become the ruling class no longer seem to share any concern about the general welfare, if they ever did. Once the leading American narrative was about building a new Zion, something we like to call "the American Dream," available to anybody willing to work for it. We've given that up as naive. Today we live in an “I’ve got mine” and “Devil take the hindmost” society.

I ache with frustration at the media circus over the impeachment hearings and the noble but inadequate attempts to right the American imbalance. The big questions - can we survive climate change, can we survive the ever growing gap between rich and poor, can we survive another crash like the one we experienced in 2008? These are the questions I want answered, even though I fuss as much as anyone over the lesser question of whether the democrats can agree on the candidate most likely to defeat Trump in 2020.

I think it’s a lesser question. Maybe it’s not. Maybe the big questions are directly related to who the Americans put in the Oval Office in 2021. I just don’t know.

I think the American media, like American democracy itself, has been savaged, and most of what we get to hear is determined by its entertainment value. "News" is what the mob is willing to pay for, not information of critical importance to our long-term well-being. So I search for supplemental information in the foreign press, much of which I think puts American political discourse to shame. The Brits do a good job, and in my view the Germans do, as well. I’ve been listening this past week to the views of two German economists who maintain that we’re heading for another crash like the one in 2008. This time, these guys claim, we’re heading for the mother of all economic crashes, because we papered over instead of fixing the problems of the 2008 bubble. 

I’m talking about Marc Friedrich and Matthias Weik, two best buddies who met in kindergarten and have now written at least four books together, the latest being Der größte Crash aller Zeiten (The biggest crash of all times), just out in October. They are near-native speakers of English and much of their work is available in English. Here’s an interview with them if you want to get a taste of what they’re all about.  

I’m still trying to figure out whether these guys are the real deal, or whether I’m being sucked into their work because I’m no better than anyone else at ignoring alarmist cries of coming death and destruction.

To be fair, despite their predictions of impending doom, they are still young (barely in their 40s), and optimistic. They see the crash as an opportunity to get things right this time. It will take longer than anybody would like, but ultimately we still have time to fix things. Marc loves whisky, and they both love to laugh. I’ve heard Marc on several German talk shows now and he’s singularly impressive. 

In my next life, I’ll take up economics much earlier on.

photo credit

Friday, November 8, 2019

Merkel - going out with a bang or a whimper?

I used to follow the German political news fairly closely, partly as a way of staying in touch with my personal "History of things that never happened" - I decided way back in the 60s I was going to emigrate to Berlin, which I fell in love with during the Cold War days. And partly because I was so fed up with American politics that I found it uplifting to observe what appeared to be a well-oiled political machine, by comparison.

That has become less and less the case, alas. I'm still fed up with the American machine, which sometimes doesn't seem to work at all anymore. But the German machine ain't what she used to be, either.

Does everything have to fall apart?

My friend Jürgen surprised me some years ago by telling me he was a supporter of Angela Merkel. My reaction at the time was astonishment. "But she's such a machine politician!" I think I said when he told me. "Yes," he said. "But she makes the machine work better than anybody else in government."

Jürgen seems to have lost some of his enthusiasm. He just linked me to an article in Die Zeit, one of Germany's news sources of record by one of Germany's leading journalists, Bernd Ulrich, section chief of Die Zeit's political division.

Ulrich has a history of going for the throat of Germany's politicians for withholding information and for being afraid to take up difficult topics, and this article, "Bevor da was verdirbt (Before something goes to ruin)" shows him true to form.  

Ulrich begins by bewailing the fact that after an impressive fourteen-year chancellorship, Angela’s ways of running the show aren’t working anymore. In fact, he says, things are falling apart all around her. First it was the Socialist Party that suffered the loss of its base support. Now it’s the Union Parties, the partnership between the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Socialists (CSU), that’s coming to pieces. And why? Because in the East (he’s talking specifically about Thuringia) some of their party colleagues in the state (Land) government are toying with creating a coalition government with a fascist. And Ulrich uses that word. 

Unlike in the U.S., where we have two parties, take them or leave them, Germany runs on a parliamentary system where support is spread among several parties who have to form coalitions in order to gain the authority required for running the government. Until recently, nobody in the traditional parties - least of all the moderately conservative establishment CDU - would ever consider the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party, a nationalistic anti-immigrant party, as a potential partner. But the AfD has seen such a rapid rise in popularity in the East in recent years, that even though this development is alarming progressives in Germany and wherever else progressives are paying attention to politics on the world stage, such a coalition has moved, at least in Thuringia (where Weimar is located), from the unthinkable to the thinkable.

It's not just Merkel facing challenges within the CDU. The Minister of Defense and Merkel’s successor at the CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is at loggerheads with Heiko Maas, the Foreign Minister, over how to deal with the crisis in Syria. AKK, according to Ulrichjust isn’t ready to take over. She is unprepared and her plans are not well thought through. As for Maas, he’s over in Turkey kissing the butt of the autocratic Erdogan government as a way, says Ulrich, to take AKK down. The implication is, what we need here is a strong parent figure to keep these kids from fighting within the family, and Merkel is not performing this role.

I have to say, by the way, I feel weird passing on this information from a single source; it’s just that the source is a trusted one. On the other hand, I find Ulrich’s a bit harsh on AKK for lacking the rank required to deal on a level playing field with Macron, for example, or stand up to Maas on her own, because she isn’t chancellor. A flaw in the structure of the system, evidently, this fact that Merkel’s power as both chancellor and head of the leading party is now divided, leaving both leaders handicapped.

And the problems don’t end there. The German army, Ulrich tells us, doesn’t function properly and Germany is now combing Mexico for nurses to deal with its aging population. They are unable to produce enough of their own due to low wages and demanding work requirements. As in the United States (my observation, not Ulrich’s) the need to give in to the demands of right-leaning voters on climate change has left Germany with a woefully inadequate response to the crisis, and it has been breaking treaties one after another. Furthermore, they are failing as well to face the challenges of ever-increasing digitalization. And the critical loss of species around the world.

Of course you can’t blame all of Germany’s problems on Angela Merkel, Ulrich says, nonetheless managing to take a swipe at her “Biedermeier” nature (i.e., stay at home and play it safe) at the same time. Not that Merkel herself is “bieder” (boring); it’s just that after so many years in office, fatigue and irritability have set in - fatigue on the part of the government, irritability on the part of the general public. That irritability (as paralleled in the U.S. by so many who voted for Trump) is evidenced by the advent and rapid growth of the AfD.

Merkel’s power has always been in her ability to moderate what came her way. That no longer seems to be the case. Things have gotten out of hand. In the past, if I understand what Ulrich is saying, Merkel solved problems in a kind of ad hoc fashion, without a clear program for making policy. And now there are no policies in place adequate to the challenges. Everything is about style and identity. Rather than having a clear well-founded argument for bringing CO2 down to a certain level, for example, it’s about being seen to be dealing with the problem. Gestures of moral superiority are assumed to be enough, and clearly they are not. It has not been whether Germany is actually safe, Ulrich complains, only whether it feels safe. “The assertion of uncertainty becomes more important than the crime rate, reality becomes opinion, assertion becomes proof, feelings become argument, concern becomes aggression.” Society has dammed itself up. And because Germany is an open society, these incongruities are there for all to see.

Conflict is everywhere. The government tries to be objective; the public gets hysterical. Negatives get normalized at the same time we face apocalyptic ideas. Depoliticization and over-politicization sit side-by-side and even condition one another.

The problems are huge. The huge influx of refugees fleeing war and poverty seems to be overrunning the continent, and many interpret this as an existential threat. Even historically liberal and progressive folks are coming around to thinking this way. The climate crisis is real and it is serious. The Merkel government’s inclination to continue with more of the same is increasingly seen as the wrong way to go, a more woefully inadequate response with each passing day. These days, says Ulrich, Merkel’s silence on the big issues speaks loudly. You have to wonder if she has anything left to say. What is she thinking? One is reminded of Ratzinger retiring as pope because he was not up to the priest abuse crisis (my observation, not Ulrich’s). But then again (also my observation), that's speculation, and unfair to somebody known for workaholic inclinations who should be allowed, like anybody else, just to get tired.

Is this going to be how Merkel is remembered? As somebody who had to retire because she can’t do anything about the fact that things are slipping away from her? About her failure to deal with the climate crisis? Because she was so wrong about choosing AKK as her successor? She created (and one assumed AKK would further this) a kind of feminist (and anti-Trump) way of governing, based on working together rather than humiliating one’s political opponents, being efficient, curious and unpretentious. Is this approach now to be discredited?

The article goes into the nitty gritty of Merkel's governing style, which I won't repeat here, since I believe this overview tells the heart of the story. As somebody who watches politics as an outsider, and rarely gets into the details where the devil lives, I am easily drawn to sweeping meta-explanations for what's going on. I like to think, for example, that what America is going through at the moment is a serious test of the strength of its institutions, that while we are easily distracted by a corrupt self-serving president, our real problem is that one of our political parties has become corrupted so badly that it has to be allowed to self-destruct and clear the way for a new one, one with integrity, to grow in its place, one that can represent conservative views with integrity. America, if this is what's happening, is righting itself, in other words.

But by that same reasoning it may be that Germany, on the other hand, for a long time in recent years a model for America to follow, may be going in the other direction. If Ulrich has his finger on the pulse of his nation (and I'm not in a position to judge that, I'm afraid), things are falling apart. And there is no one waiting in the wings to take over and put things right.

We're living at a time of tremendous internal churning. The U.S. so good at wealth generation and so poor at equitable distribution of that wealth, has generated a critical mass of folk susceptible to populist politicians ready to pull them out of the frying pan into the fire. The UK is being jerked around by a parallel minority of English voters who have torn Britain apart by Brexit; France and Spain, Holland and Scandinavia and Italy are all struggling with finding the right stance to take in regard to a defense of Western Civilization; Hungary and Turkey have already fallen to dictators, and Poland is drifting in that direction.

There's no joy in telling this story. There is hope, however, that since Europe and America have now had enough experience with democracy that they know how to straighten up and fly right if they want to, a critical mass of enlightened voters in these countries will find a way to make it happen.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch - a film review

I was all set to fire off a commentary on how the Netflix film,The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch was a nice little indicator on how far Germany has come since 1945 in normalizing relations between Jews and non-Jews in Germany. For war generation folk like me, the assumption is it would take at least a hundred years. But here we are, a mere three-quarters of a century after the fall of the Third Reich and the Germans are producing a nice little film about an Orthodox Jewish boy being bullied by his mother into finding a girl (any nice Jewish girl will do, apparently) and carrying on the Jewish tradition. Pretty impressive (still talking to myself) that the Germans can make a comedy - in Yiddish, no less - about a Jew marrying a German shiksa. Then I realize the movie’s not German; it’s Swiss. Before being Netflixified, it appeared as Switzerland's entry for best international feature film in the 2018 Academy Awards under the more expanded title, Wolkenbruch's Wondrous Journey into the Arms of a Shiksa (Wolkenbruchs Wunderliche Reise in die Arme einer Schickse). It is based on Swiss author Thomas Meyer's very successful first novel (2012) with the same title.

OK, back to the drawing board.

So leaving the social commentary behind for a minute - we'll come back to it - how good is the movie?  Zurich-born Joel Basman, who plays Motti, is perfect for the role. They found in Basman an experienced actor who speaks Hebrew, apparently the only Swiss actor with this ability, and can handle the part of the story filmed in Israel, and is able to come across as a twenty-something virgin. Basman makes a convincing naif, trying to be a good son while nonetheless chafing under the restrictions imposed on him by his overbearing mother.

The mame, the proverbial mother from hell, is the weak character in the film. Whether it’s the writing or the over-the-top acting by veteran Austrian actress Inge Maux, the character brings the entire plot line down to bad slapstick. She has virtually no lines, in other words, other than those related to getting her son married, no character other than that of an hysteric and a bore. She faints, drives into another car out of excitement when Motti tells her he has a girlfriend, and throws him out of the house when he brings his shiksa girlfriend home to meet her. A sentimentalist might view this character differently (see this video of Maux talking about her role, for example here); it just didn't work for me.

The film has other weaknesses. Motti is sent off to Israel on the advice of the family’s rabbi, because the rabbi thinks Israel is a great source for hot women. When he gets there, the rabbi’s contact is a JewBu and everybody is into meditation, including one of the hotties the rabbi must have had in mind, who takes Motti’s virginity and sends him happily on his way. As one reviewer put it, the whole scene smacks of a tourist pitch for Tel Aviv. Motti has two friends, a male friend and Laura, whose mother is also pushing her into marriage. Motti and Laura hash a plan to say they are engaged just to shut the mothers up and stop the pushing. At some point (you want to say “of course”) the friend and Laura get together, and by the end of the movie the contrived plot twists become tiresome.

The character of the rich widow dying of cancer and still smoking like a chimney adds color to the story but very little to the plot, other than to encourage, with her tarot cards, Motti's independent streak.

The Jewish community in Zurich is comprised largely of Ashkenazi Jews, and about 2000 of Switzerland's 18,000 Jews are Hasidic, so it makes sense that the main characters speak Yiddish much of the time. But when speaking German, why does nobody speak Swiss-German? Are they aiming at a broader audience? What about authenticity?  I'm also hesitant (not to say suspicious) about trusting storytellers who are not themselves of the community they are portraying. Good actors can overcome this limitation, of course, but neither the author, Meyer, nor the lead actor, Basman, are religious Jews. Michael Steinman, the director, once lived in an apartment below an Orthodox Jewish family, and served as its "shabbas goy" by turning their lights on and off, but it's hard to escape the question of when are you portraying someone with authenticity and when are you stereotyping and patronizing. Which I think the film risks doing by massaging the Yiddish to increase its entertainment value. Problem is, the best people to ask, the Hasidic Community itself, is unlikely to give you a roaring endorsement of any film featuring a love story about one of their members wanting out. Being patronized and stereotyped are not at the top of the list of their problems.

I don't want to make too much of big deal about the language and the code-switching between German and Yiddish, but I think that since it registers almost as if it were another character in the film, it's worth focusing on for a bit. I found it curious at first how much more German-influenced the Yiddish spoken in the film was than the Yiddish Americans are familiar with who know places like Brooklyn, for example. That mystery was cleared up in an interview in which the director explains that the Yiddish was in fact simplified down to about 500 words with Hebrew and Eastern European words removed, to make it easier for Bauman to manage - he speaks Hebrew, but not Yiddish. And for the German-speaking Swiss audiences as well.  I was also struck by the fact that you see pretty much only Orthodox men in street scenes near the house, but a bit of googling revealed that there is indeed an active Hasidic community among the city's 6000 Jews, give or take.  Half of the Jews, I understand, are still marrying out. This could account for mame’s hysteria, of course, but I kind of wish the dilemma of the possible slow dissolution of the Jewish community were portrayed with a tad more subtlety.

The ending - don’t want to ruin it for you - is, like the movie generally, kind of cute. But not really. 

Ambiguous - but not really.

Like preaching abstinence only to a kid in the U.S. exposed to sex, drugs and rock and roll on all sides, putting all your money on a healthy young man staying shut up in his room, when all the thrills of modern life are just outside his front door is not what you'd call a safe bet.  And coming out stories have real drama, usually involving, as they do, choices between family and community on the one hand, and full access to modern life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on the other. We all can learn a lot from other people's stories, about how they navigate these waters. And every story has its own twists, so total originality is not required. And they don't all have to be told in dead earnest. Comedy is, in fact, a great channel for treating such dilemmas. 

But what kind of comedy?

Slapstick is not my shtick.

photo credit