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    Kevin Kühnert
    If you share my view that the world is going to hell in a handbasket – an expression which, I realize, marks me as 110 years old – you will probably appreciate the occasional suggestion that comes down the pike that the news is not all bad. I felt the uplift when I read the other day that Kevin Kühnert, the young socialist in Germany currently making the rounds on all the talk shows on German television as the great hope of the Socialist Party, just came out as gay.

    I’m marked as old not just because I tend to use expressions like the handbasket one – or think in terms of something “coming down the pike,” but because I still have a keen awareness of how the world has changed since homophobia was as much a part of the fabric of American society as separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites and the custom my mother followed when she signed my report cards with my father’s name with a “Mrs.” tacked to the front of it. I remember when.  And I’m now in a place in my life where future shock is a constant companion, as I imagine it must be to everyone my age.

    “I thought people like that killed themselves,” was the attitude of the day toward LGBT people when I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s. No member of modern society would say that anymore, thank God. We’ve progressed. Mightily.

    I shared the happy news to some of my gay friends yesterday that one of our tribe had made a splash on the German political scene by coming out. One friend wrote back, “We’ve come a long way since Ernst Röhm was the model for homosexuals.” Words to that effect. He clearly meant it as a way of saying thank God we’ve risen out of the darkness, but I zeroed in on the use of the word “model” in connection with this thug who was close enough to Hitler to call him Adolf, long before “Mein Führer” became the prescribed form of address. Röhm created the SA, the “brown shirts,” a private police force to protect the Nazis as they roamed the country in the days of the Weimar Republic, hunting down communists, Jews, journalists and editors and university professors and anyone else conspicuously hostile to the Nazi Party. Their methods were violent and commonly lethal. Röhm was the very essence of National Socialism. He was also homosexual.

    I wrote back that my first impulse in reading the suggestion in my friend’s note that “we’ve come a long way” was not to celebrate progress but to want to go back to beating the drum on the importance of keeping the distinction alive that “gay” does not mean the same thing as “homosexual.” Homosexual is a neutral term to describe a sexuality. Gay is a political term. Anybody can be homosexual. One has to earn the right to be called gay.

    I am a great fan of Tony Kushner, as a man and as a writer. You may remember the scene in the movie Munich where Golda Meir has set up a clandestine assassination team to hunt down the killers of Israel’s Olympic Team who were massacred at the Summer Olympics in Munich in 1972. A profoundly moving scene is the one in which one of the revenge killer team finally tracks down the man he is assigned to kill and finds he can’t pull the trigger. He hears the voice of his grandmother, and she is saying, “It isn’t Jewish.”

    Jews don’t kill, his grandmother believed. Good Jews don’t murder people.

    By the same token, I believe that gays cannot kill people either. They cannot support an Adolf Hitler, cannot dedicate themselves to intimidation, cannot become fascists. Homosexuals can; gays can’t.

    We’ve merged the terms and it is now common to hear people substitute “gay” for “homosexual,” thinking they are simply bringing their language up to date, as they do when they say “African-American” instead of “Negro.” There are similarities, of course. Both are attempts to shed the negative connotations of a word used to identify a disparaged class. But whereas African-American is largely the substitution of one neutral term for another (there was never anything inherently wrong with Negro - the problem was always with the users), gay carries the additional connotation of pride and a seizure of the power to define oneself by a political-cultural term rather than a medical one.

    The official name for the modern-day socialist party in Germany is the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD). They are not socialists, strictly speaking, but social democrats. The SPD is active in 14 of the 16 state governments, and it has ruled in coalition with the Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists (the CDU and the CSU, respectively) since the 2013 federal election. It is the oldest party in Germany, going back to 1863.

    When Hitler came to power in 1933, he outlawed the socialists and had their leaders killed or sent into exile. Only in 1949 did they regain their earlier power and influence. Social Democrats held the office of chancellor from 1969 to 1982 and 1998 to 2005. It (the SPD) is the chief rival of the Union Parties (the CDU and CSU govern “in union” at the federal level – the CSU in Bavaria and the CDU in the rest of the country), and at the risk of oversimplification, they represent the kind of right and left division represented in the U.S. by Republicans and Democrats, the “right” representing the interests of the corporations and big business, the “left” placing a higher value on social equity and social justice – including a decent minimum wage and a fair distribution of wealth. The midpoint of the division is further to the right in the U.S., but the parallel between the two sides is still valid, I believe.

    Imagine what it would be like if we had a multi-party system in the United States, with the Republicans taking the place the CDU/CSU holds in Germany, the Democrats taking the place of the SPD, the Green Party being the same in both countries, and the left represented in Germany by Die Linke (the Left) and in the U.S. by the communists. Then imagine we had an additional party – let’s call it the Business Party, which we might propose as a counterpart to the German Free Democratic Party (FDP), currently shrunk to such a point they represent only about 10% of the electorate.

    Now imagine a new party is created in the U.S. Let’s call it the Nationalist Party. Its main raison d'être is to keep out immigrants. Some of their members are relatively moderate, but many of them are neo-fascists and outwardly racist. And imagine that for the past eight years, the U.S. has been run by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, because neither party won enough votes to go it alone. The Republicans dominated and the Democrats played the role of Junior Partner in order to get a few jobs where they might exert influence – the State Department, say.

    Over time, the Bernie Sanders Democrats got fed up with what they saw as the ass-kissing nature of their leaders, all for a few crumbs from the table, and they began leaving the party in droves, many leaving to join up with the party of the far left.

    To make sense of what I’m getting at, note that in the most recent federal election in Germany, Merkel’s CDU party won only 33% of the vote, a drop of 8% since the previous election.  The Schulz-led SPD did even worse, with only 20%. And, probably most disconcerting is the fact that many of the those who fell away from the two parties went and joined the AfD, who, with 12.6% of the vote got to take seats in Parliament, where they are free to push their anti-immigrant agenda and generally wreak havoc with the traditional way of doing things.

    I’ve pushed this US/German comparison much too far already, so I’ll stop. Except to say in the U.S., the hopes of the democratic socialists were on Bernie Sanders. And the failure of the Hillary Clinton democrats to inspire general enthusiasm among the Democratic mainstream led in large part to the rise of the nationalist Donald Trump. (Don’t let my comparisons tempt you to make too many one-to-one comparisons – I’d hate to have to take responsibility for that).

    And in Germany, the feeling is the old school SPD’s time has passed and the only way around the horror of watching the nasty folk with their anti-immigrant agenda take over is a serious infusion of young blood. Ditto for the U.S., by the way, and even more so when you consider that in addition to Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda you’d have to add anti-environment, anti-globalism, anti-abortion, pro-gun and pro-corporate welfare. (And an obscene level of deception and incompetence, but that’s a story for another day.)

    Enter young Kevin. Cute, if a bit nerdy. Smart as hell. Articulate. Still in his 20s (he'll turn 30 in July of next year), he plays with the big boys and holds his own.

    With the embarrassing showing in the 2016 election, the ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats looked like it was going to be over and done with. Socialists were tired of selling out their principles, and their new leader, Martin Schulz swore he would never work with Angela Merkel again. He would become the opposition party instead.

    I want to keep the focus here on gay accomplishments rather than play amateur political historian, but just to finish the train of thought...  fast forward to today, when the Germans are breathing a sigh of relief that they once again have a government. The haggling took more than five months and the only reasonable solution – surprise, surprise – was for the two parties, CDU/CSU and SPD, to go back into coalition (CDU and CSU being considered as a single union party, remember).

    Bad idea, says Kevin. Don’t want to work with the capitalists. Got to get back to democratic socialist principles. Got to be a party we can be proud of, the socialists that represented the best of German political forces – most equitable, most committed to peace and freedom and equality. The party of Willy Brandt.

    No such luck. The SDP caved “for the sake of the country” – can’t have a country without a government to run it. What can I say?

    Kevin accepted defeat gracefully. His day is yet to come. Merkel is slowing down and the hawks are circling already. Tomorrow is another day.

    Now where am I going with all this, you (if you are still reading) will no doubt ask yourself. Are you saying that to be gay is to be leftist? To be a Bernie Sanders supporter and an opponent of both Hillary and Trump? No, I’m not saying that, although that’s where my heart is. On the contrary, I want to see gay people everywhere, speaking for conservatives in their role of keeping progressives honest, as well as for progressives. Much as I loathe the AfD in Germany, there is a part of me happy to note that one of its leaders, Alice Weidel, is a lesbian. How she manages that in such a homophobic environment I can’t tell you. I don’t want to make the mistake of assuming if you’re not a progressive Klaus Wowereit (the SPD former gay mayor of Berlin) you’re a Nazi Ernst Röhm, and Wowereit has more than a few bungles under his belt, so I have to assume at some level, Ms. Weidel has some integrity. Haven’t seen it, but I’m sure it’s there.

    A better example of good guys on what is in my view the wrong side is Jens Spahn, one of the people many consider might make a good successor in the CDU to Angela Merkel. Another well-spoken, articulate gay man, he has devoted much of his energy to health care in Germany. He is currently part of the Finance Ministry, a job many consider a proving ground for the chancellorship. A practicing Roman Catholic, he nonetheless used his influence within his party to push for same-sex marriage in Germany. A hero of mine, in other words, even if his efforts went nowhere. On the other hand, he’s on record for his criticism of Merkel’s refugee policy as being too „humanitarian“ somehow. Did I say hero? OK, maybe not hero.

    To balance off Jens Spahn's position to the right of the SPD, there is Volker Beck to the left of the SPD. Beck is a member of the Green Party. Beck went down in flames, unfortunately, when he was caught playing with crystal meth. But not before leaving parliament to a standing ovation for his efforts to bring about same-sex marriage. A real tragedy. Beck was the real advocate for gay rights in Parliament and is known as the father of the German Registered Partnership Act, the forerunner to same-sex marriage. I won’t list his many superb contributions (you can find them hereto human rights, inside and outside of Germany. Nor will I bang on about his wrong-headedness, in my view, in regard to Palestinians. He’s a politician. He takes stands. Some you support. Some you want to throw eggs at him for.

    My point is that gays are now at the heart of our modern political systems. They are not heroes, even when they perform what we consider to be ennobling acts. They don’t have to be heroic all the time to be entitled to call themselves gay, as opposed to homosexual. But they have to have a gay consciousness, have to seek to advance the cause of gay liberation in some corner of their brain, whether they are heroic or wrong-headed.

    At the same time, just as I feel a kinship with a Jew who tells me "it is not Jewish" to assassinate one’s enemies, no matter how much they may deserve to pay for unspeakable crimes with their lives, I feel we owe it to the likes of Harry Hay, Frank Kameny, Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones and Barney Frank, just to name only a select few of the many American contributers to the welfare of LGBT people over time, to keep the word gay a word we can use with pride.

    Photo credit


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  2. Just watched New York Times reporter, and more recently columnist, Jim Risen debate one of my heroes, Glenn Greenwald. If you’ve got the time, have a listen. And if you don’t have the time, try to find it. It will restore your faith in the ability of Americans to address the flood of nonsense we’re up to our waist in these days. It’s only an hour long.

    Glenn Greenwald, Jim Risen
    Their issue, in a nutshell, is this. Risen’s perception of Greenwald, shared by most people on the left, I would guess, is that there is a gap between what he wants to communicate and how he is understood. Specifically, he is becoming a darling of the right because he is maintaining that the evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians simply isn’t there. Greenwald’s perception of Risen is that while his heart may be in the right place by worrying aloud that the country is in danger from the right wing, he is making a mistake in the long run by not insisting, as a journalist, that opinions and beliefs, no matter how broadly shared, are not the stuff of good journalism. Information based on evidence is.

    It’s perhaps a bit too overly simple to say this, but it is as if Risen writes from the heart, Greenwald from the head, and whichever of the two you find yourself siding with will reveal your own preference for head over heart or vice versa. The two men agreed, kind of, with Risen’s view that his primary goal in writing is the journalistic one - to reveal a good story. A true story, to be sure, but a good story. And Greenwald’s primary goal is an activist one – to achieve political ends. Greenwald suggests it’s not that simple, that he too is a journalist interested in getting at the truth of things.

    The moderator of the debate between these two good men is Jeremy Scahill, who dropped out of college to work with the homeless. He later went on to become a senior producer of Democracy Now. Most recently, he founded The Intercept with Glenn Greenwald, which has produced this debate. What the two men are getting at is what serves us better in the long run - the practical advantage of getting the dirt out to the masses quickly so they can act on it, or the ethical one of holding off until you are certain you are getting it right.

    If you’re not current on Glenn Greenwald, here’s a summary of this complex man reduced to one paragraph.

    And here’s one for Jim Risen, including his highs (Pulitzer Prize?) and his lows (NY Times getting sued for getting the Wen Ho Lee story wrong – the Chinese computer scientist they thought had stolen nuclear secrets for China – but couldn’t prove).  The Wen Ho Lee debacle would seem to make Greenwald's point that you don't publish until you've got the goods.

    What you have here are three of the more articulate voices of the left debating the best way to conduct the Resistance. In my view, something to watch closely.

    Here's the link again.

    photo credit - from The Intercept podcast site - which, if you're interested, also contains a transcript  and a podcast of an extended version of the debate in question.

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  3. 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?



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  4. 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

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  5. 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

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  6. Center: Clément Manuel as Guillaume, surrounded by (from
    bottom left) Julien Bouanich, as Yann; David Baiot as
    Emmanuel; Thierry Gimenez as Fr. Bosco; Jean-Luc Bideau
    as Fr. Fromenger, Clément Roussier as Raphaël; Samuel Jouy
    as José
    One of the challenges I have in my life is a variation on the Catholic maxim, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Only in my case, it’s “hate the Catholic Church, love the Catholic.”  And right away, I see the need to ask myself why it is I need to type the word “hate” in connection with that church, instead of immediately backing up and typing a euphemism. “Be suspicious of,” maybe. “Be aware of.” “Limit the damage of.” The answer is, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I’m dealing with a profound loathing for the Roman Catholic Church as an institution, and will likely be doing so for the rest of my life.

    I was not raised a Catholic, but I was raised in a culture where authoritarian forms of religion held sway, the two chief forms being the clerical form of Roman Catholicism and the fundamentalist literalist version of Evangelicalism among the Protestants of the world. So early on I had to learn to separate out blind followers from sincere seekers, those who use the church to satisfy their need to bully from those simply trying to make sense of life. In time I adjusted to the split and recognized that it’s not “the church” that evokes such feelings, but the authoritarianism that bothers me.  And right away, that divides organized religion into two camps – those lacking in humility who insist they know the mind of god, and those using their cultural traditions to create meaning out of the chaos and uncertainty of existence, and to center that meaning around a notion of what we all recognize as virtues: truth, love, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, kindness and I’m tempted to add a good sense of humor.

    I mention this only in passing as a way of making plain the lens I’m looking through in writing a review of a religious film in which the heroes are practicing Catholics, and the villains are the clericalists who reflect the authoritarian side of the official church. Even though I cannot share the values and the goals of the heroes, I can live with them, even love some of them, all the same. 

    I just finished binge-watching a very long made-for-TV series produced by Zadiq Productions and Arte France called Ainsi soient-ils in French (So be it), and The Churchmen in English – three seasons of eight hour-long episodes each. It is about a freshman group of seminarians at the Capuchin Seminary in Paris, with particular emphasis on five young men, several of their teachers, and a young nun. The series has been around for a while, having run between October 2012 and October 2015 in France, and simultaneously in Quebec and Belgium, as well. Also in Italy, under the title Uomini di Fede (Men of Faith). Upon receiving critical acclaim, a third season began in October of 2015. This review comes as a result of all three seasons being made available through Netflix in the United States.

    The story revolves around the moral dilemmas the seminarians and their mentors find themselves in, the struggle between their vows and their consciences. Leading figure is Father Étienne Fromenger, whose heart, despite his role as seminary head, is with the poor and others on the perifery of life. Fromenger fiddles with the books and takes money from rich realtors to keep the seminary afloat and is discovered by the righteous Father Dominique Bosco. Bosco subsequently comes down with cancer and then has an encounter with a woman whose spirituality lies outside the church and whose healing hands shake his faith both physically and emotionally. Counterpoints to these saintly men are the ambitious Monseigneur Joseph Roman, president of France’s Bishops’ Conference in Season 1 and his successor, Monseigneur Poileaux, a more “papabile” official, who moves to the center of subsequent Vatican infighting and intrigue in Seasons 2 and 3.

    But it’s the five novice seminarians, Yann, Emmanuel, Guillaume, Raphaël, and José, whose character development is what makes the series, in my view. It’s not often, in an ensemble piece, that virtually all of the main characters draw you in as surely as these guys do and make you care so much what happens to them. Their challenges become your challenges. Other, by no means minor, characters, Sister Antonietta, Father Fromenger’s assistant and Father Honoré Cheminade, play extremely sympathetic roles, as well.

    To list the plot devices around the moral dilemmas would make this series sound like a soap opera. It deserves better. A couple of serious ones are the relationship between Guillaume and Emmanuel, who fall in love with each other, and the discovery, by Yann, once he has left the seminary in Season 3 and gone out into the world, that his superior is a child molester. I’ll stop there. One should not spoil a great binge-watch. You could take it slow, of course, but if you’re like me, you won’t be able to resist the cliffhangers.

    The Churchmen has plenty of flaws. Things often happen too fast, and there isn’t sufficient thought sometimes behind the resolution of a particular challenge. The music is lovely, but the context to the singing is unrealistic. Particularly absurd is the way in which a group of tone-deaf kids are transformed into a choir that would rival the Vienna Choir Boys. But one forgives these foibles for the love of art and the charity which shines through so many scenes.

    A particular fascination for me was the way in which the series remained watchable despite a very heavy dose of religious affirmation. Belief testimonials have a way of making my eyes glaze over. I mentioned earlier that I see the Roman Catholic Church as two separate churches, one focused on spirituality and pastoral care, the other on the trappings of power and wealth. The Churchmen comes directly out of the former, what progressive Catholics would like to call the authentic church. Sins are readily forgiven, the church is viewed as a big tent organization, and doing the right thing involves bending the rules for the sake of compassion.

    There is, of course, the other side. The series came in for some hefty criticism from the clericalists. This criticism by Jean-Marie Guénois, religious commentator for Le Figarowill serve to present the view from a traditionalist's perspective: 
    Non seulement cette série travestit une réalité mais elle est une antithèse du christianisme puisque son ressort n'est pas l'amour pour le Christ mais la volonté humaine. Ces jeunes hommes ne sont pas des apprentis chrétiens mais des apprentis stoïciens qui, par leur propre volonté, vont tenter d'atteindre un idéal. Pas étonnant donc que la plupart échouent face aux tentations de la vie....  (L)e moteur de la série reste le « scandale » et la « caricature à l’extrême », qu’il reconnaît comme « l’ingrédient de toute fiction, causée selon lui par « une imposture : mettre à la place du christianisme ce qui n’est pas le christianisme. 
    Not only does this series disguise a reality, but it is an antithesis of Christianity since its source is not the love of Christ but the human will. These young men are not Christian apprentices but Stoic apprentices who, by their own will, are reaching for an ideal. No wonder then that most fail when encountering the temptations of life…. The engine of the series remains "scandals" and "caricatures in the extreme", which he sees as "the ingredient of any fiction.” This, says Guénois, is "a fraud put in the place of a Christianity which is not Christianity. (translation mine)
    Jean-Marie Guénois, « Ainsi soient-ils : une imposture [archive] », in Le Figaro, jeudi 11 octobre 2012, page 41. (Footnote 43, cited here) 

    No critique of the spirituality-centered branch of the church could say it better: “You’re not the real church," say the keepers of the keys.  "We (the clergy-centered) are the real church. You want to make it into something modern, something that will let you have your cake and eat it too. But we know that can’t be done. We are here to tell you that the truths of the magisterium are unchanging. The church cannot err. What was, is now, and always will be."

    Translated: Give up your expectation that women will have standing in the church, that homosexuality will ever be “normalized,” that birth control and abortion will ever be accepted, that celibacy for religious will be abandoned.

    Many years ago now, I went to see a psychotherapist and in the course of our conversations, I mentioned that I had once held religious views but had given them up. The therapist responded, “You’ve only given up the idol. The mold it was made in will probably remain in you forever.”

    To my husband, religion is a silly thing to get involved with. A thing of the past, a human foible, something that belongs on the ash heap of history. If you share this view, The Churchmen will not be your cup of tea.

    On the other hand, if you see what's left of the world of priests in training with affection, or if you see religiosity as just one of those things that sometimes makes people interesting, there are far worse ways to spend twenty-four hours.

    photo credit

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  7. Marlene Dietrich, from The Blue Angel
    I blogged the other day about Babylon Berlin, the sixteen-hour made-for-TV series about Berlin in the latter days of the Weimar Republic, that noble attempt at democracy Germany made between the end of WWI and the Hitler takeover in 1933.  I mentioned that I was so taken with the parallels between the failure of the Weimar democracy and what’s going on around me that I kind of took it for granted that I understood something about the filmmakers’ motivation in making the film – the fact that the failure of democracy during the Weimar period would speak to the fears of people today that democracy is on the run. It has failed in Victor Orban’s Hungary, is going down in Poland, and people are panicking that it’s going down in Trump’s America. 

    Just take a look at some of what is on the best seller list these days. I don’t mean just:

    1. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the White House.

    Granted, many consider that a hatchet job, poorly documented, exaggerated and slanted in places.

    I went looking for David Frum’s latest book, Trumpocracy, so I typed it into Amazon’s search. Look what popped up:

    Not just

    2. David Frum’s Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.

    But also:

    3. David Cay Johnston’s It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America

    4. Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die

    5. Paul McGuire and Troy Anderson’s Trumpocalypse: The End-Times President, a Battle Against the Globalist Elite, and the Countdown to Armageddon

    6. Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump

    7. Luke Harding’s Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win

    8. James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

    9. Charles J. Sykes’ How the Right Lost Its Mind

    10. Bob Riemen’s To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism

    11. Brian Klaas and David Talbot’s The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy

    12. Donna Brazile’s Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House

    I could stop with an even dozen, but there are more:

    13. David Martin’s Donny’s First Year – granted, Martin is a satirist rather than a serious critic, but like all the evening satire shows,  Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Bill Maher and others, his humor has an unusual sharpness to it that goes beyond normal chiding satire. Martin says, for example, “with such daily craziness, it’s often difficult to stay ahead of the satirical curve.”

    Then there is:

    14. Michael Mathiesen, who seems to have gotten to the term before Frum:

    Trumpocracy: A Demonstration Democracy

    That’s enough to suggest maybe the burden of proof is on the Trump camp to demonstrate that he is not actually subverting democracy.

    Still looking for more on the topic, I came across an interesting panel discussion at the Brookings Institute.

    First on the panel is David Frum, who got this ball rolling for me, the Republican conservative and onetime speechwriter for George W. Bush, often credited for the origin of the term “axis of evil”. Like many who supported the Iraq war at the beginning and became disillusioned, he admitted that he was unduly persuaded by the conservatives he hung around with who turned out to be wrong. Frum is clearly a thinking man, an honest intellectual who has been unafraid to drift into new territory and today is one of the more ardent of Trump’s opponents.  The kind that saw it all coming: he voted for Hillary.

    Also on the panel is Elaine Kamarck, an expert in American electoral politics and senior fellow at Brookings, lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and member of the DNC. Has a PhD from Berkeley in political science and worked in the Clinton White House.

    The third panel member is Benjamin Wittes, also at Brookings. He is a journalist with a background in law; he is co-director of the Harvard Law School project on Law and Security.  He has described the Trump’s policy on refugees and visas as "malevolence tempered by incompetence."

    Moderator is Jonathan Rauch, also of Brookings and, like Frum, an editor of The Atlantic.

    The discussion is worth listening to. In a nutshell, the two men, Frum and Wittes, worry there is a serious threat to democracy, while Kamarck insists that American institutions are strong enough to resist what’s coming down. And when we say institutions, it’s the media and the judiciary most at risk. Both, Kamarck insists will not only survive, but the challenge is actually doing them good.

    While Frum makes some of the most cogent arguments, it is the contrast between Kamarck and Wittes that most interested me. It’s the old story – what doesn’t destroy you only makes you stronger. It’s just a question of whether the test is too severe. Wittes worries about what will happen in post-Trump America, when the rules of gentlemanly behavior once associated with the White House have been shattered.  Will the memory of how easy it was to break things down encourage another Trump down the road? In fact, Kamarck is working on a research project to search out potential future Trumps and head them off.

    Will it only be easier from now on to take advantage of America’s weaknesses? I hope Wittes is wrong, but I also believe he’s got a point – once the toothpaste is out of the tube, Americans will not know how to put it back, I fear.

    There is also this thing called the law of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, which I have always understood as “Everything eventually turns to shit.”  OK, so physics is not my strong suit. But I have observed that it’s harder, for example, for decency to survive against indecency since the former plays by rules which the latter feels free to break. The guy who plays dirty has the upper hand. And in the current battle for control of government, it’s the liars who seem to be getting away with murder. Short of wholesale outrage at deception, there is no way to fight the deceivers. And whether the enlarged Ego at the center of things is manipulating those who want to help the rich get richer – or whether they are manipulating him is a less interesting question to me than whether we can survive in the devastated America he leaves behind once he’s either kicked out of office or goes quietly at the end of his term.

    To return to the Weimar comparison, my understanding of why the Weimar democracy failed is chiefly that the Germans had no experience with democracy. They were experimenting, making it up as they went along. Internally, the country was sharply divided between communists and nationalists. The former, remembering what it felt like to be at the bottom of society during the imperial years under the kaisers, wanted to bring the Russian Bolshevik revolution to Germany. The nationalists, on the other hand, wanted to bring the monarchy back.  To a great degree, it was a battle between the haves and the have-nots.

    [Some comic relief here, if you're finding this all a bit dry: Have a listen to a march I first learned at Carnival (Fasching) in Munich back in 1960. “We want our old Kaiser Wilhelm back! – The guy with the beard – the long long beard.”    Back in the days “when grandma was able to drink the water directly out of the Elbe River – it was so clean.”]

    There were parties in the middle – the socialists on the left and the liberals (what in America we call conservatives) on the right, as well as a (catholic) Center Party – but without a full commitment to democracy, a deep-seated understanding of the need to work together with others who held opposing views, there was a tendency for everybody to be pulled to the extremes. With loyalty going to the party one belonged to and not to the nation, the nation, in the end, could not stand.

    Adding to this problem of polarization was the cultural element. In the big cities – Berlin, in particular, in addition to a large number of working class folks on the left, you had the artists and entertainers – the Hollywood types of the era. The glamour set of the “Roaring Twenties,” who exposed attitudes that offended the good country folk – too little clothing, too much vulgarity, homosexuality and gutsy (many would say “loose”) women. Babylon Berlin opens on a scene of the vice squad breaking into a porno ring. Law and order meets decadence.

    Comparisons between Weimar and America become impossible to resist. We’ve got the ascendance of the evangelicals into the Trump administration and the demonization of “Hollywood types” by the Republican Party. We’ve got the extreme polarization and the quite evident proof that Republicans, who once were deficit hawks, for example, are now willing to go trillions more into debt to serve party interests: read: the furtherance of the financial interests of the 1%. We’ve got the direct attack on the judiciary and the press – examples galore on a daily basis. People who listen to Fox don’t listen to MSNBC and vice versa. Except, of course, to gather material to fan their outrage.

    The Weimar period ended in 1933 with the legal election of Adolf Hitler. Many point out that the handover to Trump took place legally, as well. Never mind the gerrymandering and the abomination that is the electoral college. The election took place according to the rules in place at the time. It was perfectly legal. Never mind the arguments that he didn’t win the election so much as Hillary lost it.  Weimar rightists made much of the “blood and soil” meme, blood meaning “the people” not the outsider Jew/Mexican/immigrant, soil being the land, not the cities. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann used to talk about the people in the middle as, “the real Americans.”

    Trump is not Hitler. He doesn’t advocate the creation of a Gestapo to pull his enemies out of bed at night. Elaine Kamarck is right – our institutions are holding – and are a long way from collapsing as they did under National Socialism. But just as Germans in the Weimar period read Mein Kampf, where Hitler put into words his plan to exterminate the Jews, and elected him anyway, Americans listen on a daily basis to Trump demean women, urge violence – “I’ll pay your legal bills…”, and let it be known that he expects lawyers and judges, the FBI and anybody else in government to do his bidding, show personal loyalty to him as opposed to the traditional ethical standards of their profession, and his supporters let it all pass. In fact, such Trumpist actions only seem to increase their support for him.  The “Lock her up” chants he cheer led shows he’d really like to not just to defeat his political opponents, but imprison them. Like Hitler, who admired Mussolini and Stalin, Trump has repeatedly expressed an admiration for tyrants – Putin, Erdogan, Orban, Duterte, to name the ones that come immediately to mind. And now he wants a military band to march down the boulevard and salute him. The parallels with dictatorships continue to grow in number.

    Trump is no Hitler, and this is not Weimar Germany. But the elements are in place. It’s not whether it can happen, but whether we can keep ourselves from becoming like the frog in the kettle, unaware that the water is heating up until it’s too late to jump out.

    David Frum argues that the decay of democracy is not something that happens overnight. People have it all wrong, he says. It’s not like a heart attack. It’s more like gum disease.

    One reads history not just to understand how we got where we are. There are historical lessons out there we’d do well to take a closer look at, to see where we really don’t want to go.

     photo credit - the iconic image of Marlene Dietrich

    trivia note: In the movie The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich plays Lola Lola a woman who ultimately seduces Immanuel Rath, played by Emil Jannings, a would-be embodiment of the essence of bourgeois propriety. Perhaps it's pure coincidence, but Volker Kutscher used the name Rath for the protagonist in his series of novels, the first of which the movie Babylon Berlin was based on. Pure coincidence, maybe, and Gereon Rath is not destroyed by a shady lady in the end, so the resemblence ends with the name. But when you're retired and have some extra time on your hands, you've got time to notice little things like this.



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  8. Two of Germany's movers and shakers. That's Mutti on the
    left and Cardinal Reinhard Marx on the right
    My heart breaks for those unfortunate lesbian and gay Catholics still holding out hope they might find their unions “blessed” by the hand of old Mother Church. Dream on, kids. You'd have better luck getting drug dealers to build a drug prevention center.

    German Cardinal and head of the German Bishops’ Conference Reinhard Marx gave an interview this week in which he was asked if the church was ready to extend its blessing to lesbian and gay couples. Showing himself to be a smart diplomatic politician, he deflected the question. “You’re asking the wrong question,” he said in effect.  What is important here is that some things can be regulated and some things must be left up to people making on-the-spot decisions. The church’s stand on homosexuality is one thing. Blessing an individual couple is another, in other words.  

    The cardinal likes to have his cake and eat it too.

    As you might expect, Marx’s response satisfied no one. Hardliners huff that the cardinal has no business leaving open the question of church doctrine. It is clear. Homosexual behavior is a sin. Those inclined toward it have one option – celibacy. If they want to avoid sin, that is. They should not expect the church to change its mind on this.

    At the other end of the spectrum are those who heard the cardinal’s clearly ambiguous answer and saw in it the prospect for change. Several German papers used the sneaky tactic of putting words into the cardinal’s mouth with attention-getting headlines. “Marx holds out the prospect of blessing,” say the Frankfurter Allgemeine of Frankfurt and the Rheinische Post, of Düsseldorf. When you read the articles themselves, though, you realize the headline is an ellipsis. The completion of the sentence runs, “but only in individual cases.” This only places the burden on the individual priest to remind himself that the price of a blessing for a gay person is celibacy. And for couples? Well, maybe if they just live together and never share any pleasure of their bodies...

    It’s an old church trick. Some people think of it as the Italian way of doing things. Say one thing and do another. Do what you want. Just don’t mess with the principle. Keep up appearances.

    Marx actually provides fuel in this interview to the fire in this battle by progressive forces such as We
    Munich's Frauenkirche, cathedral church of the diocese
    of Munich and Freising - and one of Munich's major
    Are Church
    and The Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), to include gay people as equals in the life of the church. Among the first questions Marx is asked are, “What changes have you seen since you have taken over this job (as head of the church in Munich and Freising)?” and “What is the biggest change you have seen?” To the latter question he responds, “The biggest change is actually a new awareness of change,” and urges his followers to be prepared to take on the challenges of a changing world.  One is reminded of the theological question debated recently of whether to change the wording of the Lord's Prayer.  Is God, the thinking goes, the type of guy who might actually “lead” one into temptation, and therefore must be begged not to? In the end the church decided to leave things as they are. not change the language, in other words. But let's not miss the point that this suggested what would have been a whopper of a change. One should get points for having the temerity to ask, right?

    Which ties this question to the larger question of how the church comes to terms with its past. They have admitted that St. Peter’s in Rome, the church of all Catholic churches, was built with money from selling forgiveness for not-yet-committed sins, a corruption which not only led to the Protestant Reformation but begs the question of just what won’t the church do for money?  

    On March 12, 2000 John Paul II surprised the world by apologizing for the sins of the church. Some of them. Addressing the Jews of the world, he said, "We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer." Nice. "Saddened" is not quite the same as "I'm really sorry; we were bad," but it was a start. And, to be fair, when he was done, Cardinal Edward Cassidy stepped up to acknowledge the "sufferings of the people of Israel" and ask divine pardon for the "sins committed by not a few [Catholics] against the people of the covenant". 

    I may be mistaken about this, but to my knowledge there was no mention of a misinterpretation of scripture or an admission that the theology behind the anti-semitism played any part in the commission of those sins. That would seem to be pushing it.  And lest this apology, if that's really what it was, get out of hand, the move seemed to be anticipated by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. In December 1999 they published a document entitled, "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past."  And what's that about?   Please note, says the commission, we don't want you to take this apology wrong. With our apology we are issuing a “purification of memory” statement which should work to “liberat(e) personal and communal conscience from all forms of resentment and violence that are the legacy of past faults.” You gotta love these guys.

    So much for fessing up for all that dark history, from the arrest of Galileo for maintaining that Copernicus was right, that the earth does go around the sun, to the sin of omission of not standing by the Jews at the time of the Holocaust and, for that matter, centuries of unmistakable anti-Semitism.

    So what went down last week was the church being church: Cardinal Marx sending out signals that led a number of German sources besides those mentioned above, like Domradio, in Cologne and Die Presse, in Vienna to suggest that there is some “room to maneuver” (Spielraum) in Marx’s statements about blessings for gays. Perhaps it’s not fair to the cardinal to blame him for the misleading headlines like “Marx holds out the prospect of blessing.” But if you read the articles, they point to the fact that he is avoiding the issue and throwing responsibility onto individual pastors whether to call what they do “blessing” the couples. Talk about plausible deniability.

    The church has definitely changed over the years. It no longer endorses slavery (or "perpetual servitude" if that distinction is meaningful to you), and no longer cooperates with fascists (well, in most places, at least). No modern-day pope would steal a child from a Jewish family on the excuse that its nanny had baptized him. It turns a blind eye to divorced couples and allows them to take communion, and it has pretty much cried uncle in the fight against the use of contraception, recognizing that when 98% of Catholics admit to using some form of it, they can't very well withhold blessings from that many people. But for some reason it continues to hold out on a couple of issues – not allowing women the same right as men to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of the son of their god, and not allowing gay people to be gay and keep their dignity as decent men and women who’d simply like to have a sex life and/or build a family along with a same-sex partner.

    Go join the Episcopalians, I want to tell them. But I recognize that in practical terms there are two distinct Catholic Churches – the clericalists, the folk in the clutches of the authoritarians; and the “ecclesia” – a concept that loomed large at Vatican II – the body of believers as a collective. The first church is about power and being in control, the second about trying to make meaning out of a Middle Eastern creation story and mythical tradition to which one can attach a moral code. I want to lend my support to those in the second group, because I think they are basically good folk looking for an anchor in life, and do a lot of good when they put their minds to it. 

    Unfortunately, this is a tough time for the sincerely righteous. Just as America is being held captive to greed and deceit at the moment, despite the best efforts of the not all that effective “Resistance,” the good Catholics of the “ecclesia” – the non-authoritarians, are in the clutches of the Vatican hustlers. Not all Republicans are indecent – many are well-meaning government-is-bad ideologues who become justifiers and enablers. And not all power-structure Catholics are indecent, either. Many – like Cardinal Marx, who foster the illusion that people can surrender their dignity and still have self-respect, are the Enablers who make the wheels of Vatican Central go round.

    Marx was given an opportunity to answer that question about whether the church could bless gay couples with a clear yes. He could still harbor the thought that these people are living in sin but see the grace of God extended to all believers, sinners and folk of the straight-and-narrow alike, as well as everybody in between. Are sinners (if that's what they are) not worthy of blessings? But he chose instead to remain in the good standing with his authoritarian bosses instead of joining with the large-tent contingent. Fine. The Catholic Church in Germany has a long history of enabling authoritarians - I don't need to mention names. Marx will go down in history as just another one.

    Maybe in a hundred years there will be a sea change and people will no longer need to believe God wants men on top, women on the bottom. And that hetero reproductive sex is the only permissible way to be erotic and passionate.  It's possible these notions will go the way of astrology and a belief in unicorns, and there will be more room for real love and compassion. In the meantime, lesbians and gays will no doubt go on fooling themselves into thinking they’re simply being forced to sit in the back seat when actually they are outside the car being dragged along the road on a rope.

    photo credits:




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  9. Our hero - Volker Bruch as
    Polizeikommissar Gereon Rath
    If you’re going to set out to build a blockbuster story, you’ve got to build it around some sort of struggle. Personal struggles are good – what the Muslims call jihad, the attempt to fight off evil within oneself. Patriotic struggles are good, saving the Motherland against the invading hordes. What about the battle to save democracy against nationalist thugs? Now there’s a battle worth fighting. Good entertainment on the screen. And you get in a few kicks against the trend toward modern-day authoritarianism, against a Donald Trump whose latest attempt at dismantling democracy involves getting an entire army to march down the boulevard saluting him.

    I’m not sure that’s what Volker Kutscher had in mind when he came up with the idea of writing a history of the Weimar period in the form of detective thrillers, the first of which, The Wet Fish (Der Nasse Fisch) has been turned into the film noir TV series, Babylon Berlin, but it provides a powerful background story for modern viewers, whether they are looking for an artistic outlet for processing current political events, or for a way to retreat into a shoot-em-up and escape them.

    Babylon Berlin has intersecting plot lines. Police Inspector Gereon Rath, the youngest son of a Cologne Police Inspector, has been transferred to Berlin to work with his father’s colleagues after messing up and killing someone. Gereon is assigned to a vice squad chasing down a porno ring. The plot thickens when it becomes known that there are several bigwigs caught on film doing the naughty, and it becomes uncertain whose feet the police are stepping on.

    Meanwhile, off in Stalin’s Soviet Russia, a train is heading for Germany carrying several tanks of poison gas, forbidden according to the Versailles Treaty. To make it more interesting, there is a car on the train filled not with gas but with gold bars, supposedly on the way to Turkey to help Trotsky bring down Stalin.

    So you’ve got a local detective drama, plus a little international intrigue. All that’s missing is a personal psychological struggle, and that’s easily fixed. Make Gereon Rath a man suffering from shell shock – what today is called PTSD – and a sense of guilt for not having been able to save his brother, who, by the way, was their father’s favorite. Got yourself one spiffy blockbuster.

    Set the whole thing in Berlin, the Roaring Twenties capital of Europe, add a bit of song and dance, and you almost can’t fail. Babylon Berlin takes sixteen episodes (just over twelve hours glued to the tube) to unfold.

    Have at it, I say. You’ll have a jolly good time.

    Babylon Berlin opened in Germany in October and became one of the country’s most-watched TV shows. Netflix picked it up and made it available for streaming on this side of the Atlantic on January 30.

    It’s a major production, filmed over 180 days at 300 different Berlin locations with a cast of over 150 plus 5000 extras.   It’s historical drama, albeit one that leave’s the book’s author’s desire for historical accuracy in the dust. This is the world of today, where entertainment matters more than fact. Historians will squirm. But it’s not that bad. It’s mostly true.

    The story is rich in complex characters, some sinister, some simply flawed human beings you find yourself rooting for – the sign of a well-written drama, in other words. I've already mentioned Police Inspector Gereon Rath, played by Volker Bruch.  Bruch played minor roles in two 2008 films, The Reader, and The Baader-Meinhof Complex, as well as the 2010 historical fantasy, Young Goethe in Love.  In Babylon Berlin, Bruch plays a man with a troubled war history, which has led him to a morphine dependency to control his PTSD.

    Levi Lisa Fries, as Charlotte Ritter
    Co-protagonist is Charlotte Ritter, known as Lotte, played by Liv Lisa Fries, a working class Berliner who rises from poverty and abuse by sheer willpower, eventually working her way into a job in homicide in the previously all-male Berlin police force, a job which she supplements by working as a free-lance prostitute at the Moka Efti cafe and nightclub.

    By all rights, the next character in order of importance should be Chief Inspector (Oberkommissar) Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), but I’d bump him down a notch and put the City of Berlin in next, laid out in all her conflicts and contradictions. Before she became the capital of the Third Reich and city where the two sides of the Cold War came nose to nose, Berlin had already had quite the reputation as an exciting, but slightly (OK, more than slightly) shady lady during the transition from one world war to the next, as communists and nationalists fought it out in her streets and in her civic and political institutions.

    The series is a mixed bag for history buffs, bringing to life the years from 1929 to 1934, between the two world wars in Weimar Germany up to the rise of Hitler. Like all historical drama, fact-based or fictionalized, you can watch this one with an eye to understanding the Tea Party type responses to the unrest the Nazis were able to tap into, the chaos that made the pied piper that was Hitler seem like an answer to their prayers. Or you can just sit back and enjoy the intrigue, the adventure and the love stories. We get our news now in large part from satirists on late-night television; why shouldn't the Germans get their history from detective novels?

    The plot involves an attempt by German nationalist forces known as the Black Reichswehr (Schwarze Reichswehr) to get around the restrictions and perceived insults of the Versailles Treaty and restore the German Kaiser to the throne. With the aid of the Russians, they are rebuilding the German Luftwaffe at a site not far from Moscow. Simultaneously, they are planning a coup to take place on Prangertag (Corpus Christi), a holiday observed till today in catholic parts of the country. 

    The story begins with the hijacking of a train leaving Russia for Germany loaded with tanks of poison gas to aid in the takeover effort. Also attached – and this is where (Trotskyite) secret agent Svetlana Sorokina comes in – is one railcar filled with gold bars, intended to be taken to Istanbul to support Trotsky’s overthrow of the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union. Nice coincidence of world history events that never came to pass. Unfortunately, the Trotsky bit is pure fiction, given that while the plot is set in 1929, the Trotskyist Fourth International didn’t actually get started till 1938. And not in Germany, or Turkey, but in France. OK, so what’s a little fudging when you’re creating exciting shoot-em-up historical dramas. Also problematic is the coup planned by the Black Reichswehr. This story takes place in 1929. The Black Reichswehr was officially dissolved in 1923, although many of its paramilitary forces eventually made their way into Hitler’s SA (Sturmabteilung).

    Moka Efti - not the historical one, the recreated one
    Besides this fast food for history buffs, there’s a lot of singing and dancing. Not enough to make this a musical, but more than sufficient to create a roaring 20s atmosphere, at least.  Moka Efti was a real place, by the way. It opened in 1927 as Café Schottenhaml and changed its name to Moka Efti in 1933 (another film anachronism, in other words) when it moved to the Tiergarten. Think Studio 54, except that it serves 25,000 cups of coffee during the day and has an attached bordello at night.

    The story is set at the time of the “bloody May” uprisings, May 1-3, 1929, when the police overreacted to a communist demonstration, killed thirty-three people and wounded nearly two hundred, and then used the press to blame it on the communists themselves. Gereon is present and sees what is going on, and chooses to support the lie the police are propagating for the sake of his job. We now have a hero with some seriously troubling flaws. Just like modern-day heroes are supposed to be. And incidentally, you can see where the term Lügenpresse (Lying Press = fake news) comes from.

    Making the story not just about local politics but international intrigue is the character of Russian double agent Svetlana Sorokina. She is played by Severija Janusauskaite, Lithuania’s best-known (I’m told) singer, dancer and actress, known locally for her role in the lesbian film Anarchy Girls. When Severija/Svetlana is not betraying lovers before shooting them in the forehead, she’s a cabaret artist. She sings the film’s main theme song, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust (Zu Asche zu Staub), available on YouTube here.

    Chief Inspector Bruno Wolther, Gereon Rath’s boss and supposed friend, played by Peter Kurth, turns out  – slight spoiler here – to be a member of the Black Reichswehr – a bad guy. The way his character is written, you’re left to wonder, however, whether he’s going to turn out to be a good guy in the end. I’ll say no more. The same goes for Alfred Nyssen, the big bucks behind the clandestine Black Reichswehr, played by Lars Eidinger. He is clearly a bad guy. On one occasion, as he is being feted as a great entrepreneur and philanthropist, a war widow speaks out against him as an arms dealer and blames him for her soldier husband’s death. In real life, it’s clear Alfred Nyssen is a stand-in for Fritz Thyssen. The Thyssens, along with the Krupps, the Stinnes, the Quandts and the Flicks, (as well as George W. Bush’s grandfather, Prescott, by the way) made huge profits during the Hitler period and are notorious for their use of slave labor.  The families are all intact today, and in possession of great wealth. Many of the progeny of the characters who played a role in Weimar history are intermarried with nobility and hold titles. Hindenburg's suggestion that instead of arresting the plotters for trying to overthrow the government, one use "common sense" - the political analogue of having banks and industries too big to fail - demonstrates the ability of anti-democratic forces to get away with murder. And what was true in the Weimar period is obviously still true today.

    One more main character is worth mentioning, August Benda, not coincidentally a Jew, played by Matthias Brandt. Benda is a Government Councilor (Regierungsrat) whom both police inspectors Rath and Wolther report to, an earnest official trying his best to hold back the tide sweeping over Germany which even Reich president Paul Hindenburg turns out to be involved with.  He takes in a friend of Charlotte’s who ends up through her naiveté being an enabler of the Nazis. Benda works with Gereon to try to expose the nationalists in the government who see democracy as the problem, as opposed to the harsh restrictions of the Versailles Treaty.

    As I suggested at the outset, some reviewers have wondered aloud how much of the clash between the authoritarian nationalists and the overwhelmed defenders of democracy was written deliberately to reflect modern political events, including Brexit, the fascists in Poland and Hungary, the attack on democratic institutions in the United States by the current administration, and the AfD party, the new nationalists now growing at an alarming rate in Germany. Ironically, as this story is told, it is the Communists doing the most to defend democratic values, in contrast to the power structure, from Hindenburg on down to the local police whose honesty and integrity are questionable.  Right up to the end, as they are picking up the pieces from the struggle to avoid a diplomatic breakdown over the gold and poison gas-bearing train and after the internal struggle against the Black Reichswehr, Gereon Rath is still willing for the sake of solidarity to support the police in scapegoating the communists, even though his communist neighbors know he is lying. The police are portrayed as good guys who have to become bad guys in order to fight even worse guys, and that moral dilemma never gets solved.

    And why should it, when we know what comes next. That’s the trouble with telling stories about the Weimar Republic. You can’t write a happy ending.

    As far as how this all turns out is concerned, I won’t include spoilers here, except to say that I expected, after sixteen episodes of about 46 minutes each, that I’d be ready to let it go. Instead, I went out and bought the book. The first of six Gereon Rath detective novels, if I’m not mistaken. Time will tell if I have the lasting power for the six novels that I had for the TV series.

    Most series suffer from too much stuffing. Babylon Berlin went over the top on a couple occasions with too many coincidences and too many car-chase, swordfight, does-she-or-doesn’t-she-die type scenes.  No car chases (this is 1929, after all) but some scary airplane scenes. No swordfights, but there is a duel conducted while running on top of a moving train – you get my meaning. And one seriously awful does-she-live, does-she-die scene. Nonetheless, this is very good entertainment. It will help, probably, to know who the historical figures are, but if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. You may have forgotten that it was Hindenburg that turned the country over to Hitler. But you’ll hate him anyway when you see how he is portrayed as somebody who lets democracy down and justifies that he’s only being practical and using “common sense.”

    And I’ll definitely put any films Volker Bruch or Liv Lisa Fries show up in on my must-see list.

    Using the Netflix 5-star scale, I’d give this four stars.

    I’d give it five if they had scattered a little trash in the streets here and there instead of making them look like they had all been waxed and buffed before each shooting.

    picture credits: Gereon and the Moka Efti are from the Guardian, photos credited to Frédéric Batier/X Filme
    Charlotte from Express, photo credited to Sky, Germany's pay TV network and one of the producers of Babylon Berlin. 


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  10. It’s appropriate, I think, that so many talking heads in the American media are rushing in to tell us what a great place Haiti is – the beaches, oh those great beaches. And how cruelly the Africans suffered under colonialism and how they therefore deserve much better than to have their countries described as shitholes. All good.

    And all beside the point.

    There are places on the planet where people live in misery. It’s not surprising that people have noticed that Mogadishu is not Paris and Port-au-Prince is not Amsterdam.  If you live in a wealthy country where things work and people dash around in shiny cars that you are not allowed to park in front of your house the first Thursday of every month because that’s when the streetsweepers come by, you might well be inclined to describe Haiti or Somalia as a shithole. You might do the same for Moldova or Jakarta or any number of other places. You may describe Ciudad Juarez or Acapulco in Mexico that way because of the wretchedly high crime rate. Or Detroit or the Bronx because of the urban decay.

    It strikes me as silly, and more than a little bit sad, that people are stepping up to tell us how beautiful the beaches are in Haiti and how underestimated the history and people of Africa are. What the defenders of these places are missing is that POTUS Agent Orange’s calling African countries a shithole was a stand-in for calling its people inferior people. He was suggesting that people trying to escape poverty are indistinguishable from the countries they come from. Don’t enter this restaurant, don’t come to this school, don’t sit next to me because you live in the wrong part of town.

    If AO and his enablers had any character, they would face this topic directly. We once allowed masses of people in, mostly from Europe at first, but eventually from all around the globe, in full confidence that people who come here from hardship situations tend to work hard. Their struggle would have its rewards in their children: first generation factory worker, fruit picker or housecleaner; second generation merchant, maybe, third generation doctor or lawyer. Now we want to keep the poor out and let in the techies and the mathematicians. We want instant immigrant gratification. It's a terrible argument, and I hate it that we would think we had to make it, but it is at least an argument that people could debate. The thing is, AO obviously isn't interested in debate. He's got the fast food equivalent of an academic line of reasoning - keep out people who come from shitholes.

    AO’s defenders take my breath away. I just listened to a Pastor Mark Burns talking on a panel on CNN, for example. Burns, an evangelical preacher quoted scripture: specifically, 1 Timothy 5:8: "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." My mind runs instantly to that quote* in The Merchant of Venice that has to do with the devil quoting scripture.

    Burns, like most American Evangelicals these days, is preaching the message that Jesus defines family according to modern political realities and wants us to give somebody with an American passport priority over somebody without one - a curious theology, to say the least. And yes, that's precisely what Burns is saying; otherwise why this particular quote? What Burns is missing entirely is   the point that you are not providing for your relatives by shutting out people from basket case countries simply because they come from basket case countries. On top of it all, AO’s thinking is uninformed. The overwhelming majority of Haitian immigrants are law-abiding and hard-working. 78% of them have a high school education or higher, compared with 75% of Caribbean immigrants on the whole. 71% participate in the civilian labor force, compared with 66% of the foreign-born population all-told, and 62% of the U.S. population. There is no justification for singling them out as having “shithole” features.

    I had a friend from Haiti back in graduate school. His family had sent him to France for a higher education and he had done well enough to get a professorship in philosophy at a major American university.  Very smart fellow. I remember a conversation with him once when we had both had a lot to drink. He let it slip that he was filled with self-loathing for having turned his back on his country. I tried to persuade him not to be so hard on himself. “Maybe you needed to get out to find yourself,” I offered. It was the 80s, but I was still filled with a 60s world view. “France gave you a home that permitted you to go farther than Haiti would have. Don’t fault yourself for your desire to stretch and grow,” I insisted.  I don’t know what happened to him; we lost contact and I can’t dredge up any contact information. What I do remember was the personal agony he experienced as a man who desperately wanted to love his country but felt he had to move on. How many similar stories are hidden, I wonder, under that cold hand designation: “people from shithole countries.”

    People who have long wanted to call AO a racist but have thought better than to say that out loud have now found their voices. It now seems that everywhere you turn you hear one news commentator after another declare, in no uncertain terms, that that’s precisely what he is.

    A friend just wrote me she couldn’t help crying when she heard the shithole remark, shocked by the “new level of hideousness coming from the White House.” Yes, I said. It’s good to cry. Appropriate to cry.

    Unfortunately the president’s remarks are only the beginning, and the story only gets darker. Apparently the fact that AO used the term several times made its way into the Washington Post, which attributed it to “several people briefed on the meeting (with POTUS on the immigration issue.”  Illinois Senator Dick Durban, who was sitting next to the president in photos of the meeting, confirmed that AO used those exact words. Not once, but repeatedly. And the story went round the world, as I reflected upon two days ago.    Initially, the White House was silent on the matter and Republican attendees at first claimed they could not recall whether the president used such language or not. But then the Twitterer-in-Chief twittered that he absolutely had not used that word. He did use strong language, he admitted, without specifying what exactly he said, but not that word. Whereupon Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Georgia Senator David Purdue, who had initially stated they “could not recall” allowed as how they could recall, after all, and that the president never used such language. Durbin repeated his assertion about what he had heard, saying AO’s denial made him feel he had been “hit between the eyes…” 

    So who’s lying? Durbin or Cotton/Purdue/President Orangestainonthesoulofhumanity? And is Cotton just rubbing salt in the wound by declaring that Durbin “has a history of misrepresenting what happens in White House meetings…”?  We should maybe believe AO, who some have calculated makes incorrect statements 80% of the time?  Can we take seriously the reporting on Morning Joe that Trump was calling his friends from Mar-a-Lago the night before testing out the use of the word shithouse/shithole? Boasting about how clever he was in coming up with it?

    What is so off putting – disgusting, frankly – about this discussion in the U.S. Senate is that these are the leaders of the Senate. Not intelligent people agreeing to disagree, but individual characters bearing false witness against one another. We hear constantly that “the two sides have to learn to talk across the aisle.”

    But how? How do you sit down and work with bare-faced liars?

    With men so conspicuously lacking in character?

    Don’t tell me this is business-as-usual and that politics is always dirty and politicians lie by nature. They push the limits of decency sometimes to get their way, yes. Politics is a struggle for power, after all.

    But this U.S. Senate of ours is turning out to be a real shithouse.

    I don’t care who you vote for in 2018. But take the time to dig around on your candidates’ backgrounds before you do. We can do better than this.

    Throw these bums out.

    “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

    An evil soul producing holy witness
    Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
    A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
    O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

           – William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice



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