1. 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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  2. Modern-day American discourse - who says the two
    sides aren't talking to each other?
    When my father bought the house in rural Connecticut where my sister and I grew up, it had a shithouse out back. A one-holer, unlike the two-holers we were accustomed to in the more sociable Nova Scotia, where we spent the summers. Plumbing was an afterthought. My father was a grocery clerk at the time and still looking for a second nickle to press against the first, so they had to make do. When they did finally put in indoor plumbing – my father did everything himself – he had to dig through hardpan to put in a septic tank, and that took him years. The tank went in, but it never drained properly, and the toilet often backed up. The outhouse was left standing for emergencies. My mother complained constantly that she was not born to live in a shithole.

    I learned at an early age that shit was a bad word, and they would threaten to wash our mouths out with soap if we used it. My German grandmother, however, routinely referred to the outhouse as the Scheißhaus – the “shithouse”, in the quiet but certain conviction that one should call a spade a spade. In later years I learned that words don’t really have any inherent meanings; it’s only the way words are intended and understood that determines their power, or what linguists call illocutionary force.

    I remember arguing with my German roommate in Munich about which language, German or English, was more expressive. He used shit as an example. “You say shit, he said. One syllable and you’re done. In German, you can draw out the double s in Scheis-se and it’s so much more satisfying.” We would simply have to agree to disagree. Now, some sixty years later, thanks to the internet I can watch German talk shows day in and day out and I have observed that Scheisse is routinely in use by folks, even on television, while here in the U.S. one feels the need for circumlocutions. When POTUS Agent Orange came out with shithole the other day, most news agencies twisted themselves into pretzels to avoid repeating the word.  In writing and in speaking both, most of them chose to speak of “s-hole countries.”  Confrontation with this everyday word was suddenly turning everybody into prudes who – if forced to refer to it at all – could only blush and speak of “the s-word.” Huffpost even featured an article on the avoidance, “How May Times Can Wolf Blitzer Avoid Saying Shithole?” 

    NBC’s Peter Alexander introduces a segment in which he tells his audience that he is going to use the word  (sic) “once so that you can hear the complete quote for yourself” and warns that it might not be suitable for younger viewers.”  What a fuss over language. I understand the media have to create a firestorm to keep their viewers glued to the tube, but this American prudishness only distracts us from the weightier problem, the fact that we are dealing with a president who doesn’t give a shit what’s socially acceptable or whether America’s reputation as a land of opportunity is being shitcanned before our eyes.

    If you watch international news you may be amused by the difficulty people are having translating the word shithole. It’s the illocutionary force, you see. Translate literally and the air goes out of the balloon. It isn’t easy to translate the shock and the loathing. The words alone won’t carry that.

    The Tageschau on Germany’s Channel One reported the president’s insult to Haiti and Africa with Drecksloch-Länder.  Dreck, curiously, is already a circumlocution for Scheisse and carries far less of a punch. It is associated as much with mud as with shit, and the adjective dreckig suggests muddy, dirty, soiled, rather than “shitty.” On the other hand, once you add the word Loch (hole), that kind of snaps you to attention, and you kind of get the point. Since the loanword shitstorm is now an everyday word in German, one wonders why they didn’t simply stick with the English original.

    I came across a marvelous satire this morning in which Norway was alleged to have changed its name to Dritthull, in solidarity with Haiti and the African countries being disparaged by AO.  Dritt is a Germanic cognate to Dreck, of course, and hull to hole. 

    The no-nonsense Chinese got right down to the point. Rather that struggling with a word for shithole, they translated AO’s remarks as carrying the meaning of countries “where birds don’t lay eggs” – 鳥不生蛋國家.  One reader claims that the Korean paper, the JoongAng Ilbo, chose “beggar’s den.” In Japan, notorious for its poverty-stricken vocabulary for translating English (to say nothing of Russian or Arabic) vulgarities, apparently the best the Sankei (a.m. circulation 2 million plus) could come up with, oh dear, was countries that are dirty like toilets (便所のように汚い国). Another Huffpost reader points out how Romance language readers seem to suffer from a failure to appreciate the polysemy of shithole countries, settling for the simpler shit countries (pays de merde/ países de mierda).

    Forgive me for this linguistic tangent. Sometimes you get tired of gazing directly into the fire, and have to look aside.

    Tomi Lahren/Kevin Sieff  twitter exchange
    letter from Botswana Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation

    Added Sunday evening:

    Shit in Icelandic is skít.  Country/countries is land, plural lönd. They've followed the French and Spanish examples above and chosen "shit countries" (skítlöndum in the Dative plural, following the preposition  fra (from)) to translate AO's remarks, as opposed to "shithole countries." Got it.


    „Hvers vegna er allt þetta fólk frá þess­um skíta­lönd­um að koma hingað?“ is an adequate translation for AO's "Why do all these people from shithole countries come here?"

    So how come when you type that Icelandic sentence into Google translate, they give you:
    "Why are all these people from these countries to come here?

    Prudes, prudes. American prudes on all sides.

    Then there's Hebrew, where, according to the Jewish daily Forward,  shithole countries is rendered medinot mechurbanot by Ha'aretz, Tel Aviv's lefty newspaper and Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest.

    I cannot speak to the power of "mechurbanot," but Forward tells us it is "not exactly elevated, fit-for-company Hebrew."


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  3. If you are a hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobe, i.e., someone with a fear of long words, you will likely want to stop reading here. If not, you may be interested in noting, if you haven’t already, that the longest word in English language dictionaries is currently pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash or sand dust. Some prefer to refer to it as silicosis, which means pretty much the same thing. It's pneumonoultramikroskopikosilikovulkanokonioosi in Finnish;  neumonwltramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis in Welsh; Viêm phế quản-phế quản giác mạc in Vietnamese, 폐렴 현미경 in Korean.

    I remember as a kid being told that the longest word in English was antidisestablish-
    mentarianism.  I see now that that word wasn't even close. Just another "fact" that needed correction in due course of learning about the world and its complexities.

    Long words are rare in most languages, but common in German, where words can go on forever as long as they convey something about the real world. Mark Twain observed that German words are so long that some of them even have perspective.

    Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung (in English: “regulation on the delegation of authority concerning land conveyance permission.”) hit the dust a few years ago, pushing Vermögenszuordnungszuständigkeitsübertragungs-verordnung (“regulation on the delegation of authority concerning fortune responsibility”) into first place as the allegedly longest word in the language.  [Note, please, that the hyphens in the above words are not there naturally. I put them there so I could break the words in a way that would keep the margins pleasing to the eye. The words are properly written without hyphens.]

    In regular use, that is. Germans can combine words till the cows come home, thanks to the German convention of writing words together which express single concepts, as opposed to our way of keeping them all apart if they have meanings that stand alone.  Take any number, for example. What we write as three hundred sixty four thousand five hundred twenty-two, Germans write as dreihundertvierundsechzigtausentfünfhundert-zweiundzwanzig. And you can see the potential as you climb into the godzillions.

    Speaking of being misinformed about long words, I remember years ago being told that the longest German word was Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, which I read as “Union of lower rank officers of the Danube steamship’s main electrical workshop company,” but I am happy to defer to a native speaker from Dresden named Hutschi, who has determined it should be rendered in English as “Company for subordinated state employees for the main control office for electricity constructions/building for Danube Steamboat shipping. At the same time, I feel obliged to point out that “Haupt” (“head” or “main”) is ambiguous and could refer to a number of things – the Betrieb (enterprise), the Betriebswerk (factory of the enterprise), the Bau (construction being done by the factory of the enterprise), the Beamten (officials – actually “Unterbeamten” – or subordinate officials) or the Gesellschaft (society, or union, or company) Main lesson to draw from this, I guess, is length cannot be counted on to disambiguate.

    Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, while being proof that speakers of German can be as witty (or silly) as anybody else in the world (the word is made up as a means of poking fun at bureaucratic language), it also illustrates what can happen when people try to simplify things. There once was a German spelling rule dictating that if three identical letters come together, as in “voyage by ship” (Schiff-fahrt), one of them must be dropped. However, in its infinite wisdom, the folks who brought about the spelling reform of 1996, which I have not gotten a handle on to this day, decided to drop that rule of dropping the third letter. Hence, the three fs in the Schifffahrt of Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhaupt-betriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft is now once again de rigeur. You might like to meditate on the German words for "stinging nettle" - Brennnessel; "having 'grip strength'": grifffest; and "fast-moving/short-lived": schnelllebig.

    Place names are a separate category of their own. There is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch, a village on the island of Anglesey in Wales ; and  Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, a thousand foot high hill in Northern New Zealand.

    But back to the world of non-proper nouns, we must take note of the word Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (“the law concerning the delegation of duties for the supervision of cattle marking and the labelling of beef), introduced by EU authorities in 1999 during the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis (which many prefer to abbreviate to the BSE crisis – or use the slang “mad cow disease”). Because it was in regular use there for a while, it had its own abbreviation, the RkReÜAÜG. Which was OK for written materials, I suppose. Don’t know what they did every time they had to speak of it.

    To a linguist, this discussion is just plain silly. One only has to reflect upon the distinction between a word and a morpheme (defined as “the smallest unit in a word that carries a distinct meaning”:  “Say” in English is a single word and a single morpheme, but “says” is a single word but two morphemes, the suffix -s signaling that the word is in the third person singular. Antidisestablishmentarianism contains the morphemes anti (against); -dis (undo); -establish; -ment (the suffix that makes the verb establish a noun); -arian (a person who does this sort of thing); and –ism (the ideology which advocates this sort of thing. Incidentally, use the Google translator to get the Chinese translation for antiestablishmentarianism and they give you 反政教分離運動.  Character by character, that comes out  Fǎn zhèngjiào fēnlí yùndòng.  My knowledge of Chinese characters acquired through the study of Japanese tells me these "words"/"syllables"/"morphemes mean, in order: anti-politics-separation-movement. (Put it back into a Chinese-to English translator at Google Translate and you get Anti-Semitism movement - but that's a hurdle for another day.)

    Chinese, in terms of word formation, is at one end of a spectrum one might say. It doesn’t have words. It has only morphemes, with a character for each morpheme. (OK, OK, that’s an oversimplification, but stay with me here). At the other end of the spectrum are agglutinative languages, languages like Japanese, which pile up morphemes into a single word.  “I had to do it,” in Japanese, is “shinakerebanaranakatta.”  Proof of the existence of demons who roam the earth seeking the ruination of souls lies in the fact that the designers of the Japanese writing system chose Chinese characters as the basis of their written language. Imagine drawing an elaborate character for each of the syllables in shinakerebanaranakatta. Cleverly, following the principle of designing magnificent microsystems for dealing with their ridiculously cumbersome macrosystems, the Japanese created two separate systems – one based on Chinese character images, which they use for the content words, and one based on sounds, which they use for writing the string of grammatical forms. 

    The point being there is nothing strange or unusual about what seems like impossibly long words. They are a natural feature of agglutinative languages like Japanese or Turkish. If your eyes have not clouded over by now and you want to know how to say "As though you happen to have been from among those whom we will not be able to easily/quickly make into a maker of unsuccessful ones," in Turkish, Wikipedia has a marvelous morpheme-by-morpheme breakdown of
    Muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine here

    There. See?  I can go a whole day without once mentioning Agent Orange (as the Russians call him) in the White House. Or the need to go to the polls in November to throw out the bums currently taking money from the poor and giving it to the superrich, throwing people off of health care, advocating drill, baby, drill, along both of our coastlines, removing regulations put in place to keep children from ingesting lead, and pouring kerosene on fires all over the Middle East. Or wringing my hands in despair at the ever growing numbers of our arrogant and overweight population inclined to advocate notions that are comfortable to believe rather than truths that can be grounded in fact.

    A whole day.

    Maybe tomorrow.



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  4. If you could go back in time, and if you had the means to do away with Hitler, would you kill him? Would you have the personal courage to kill another man, even if it was Hitler? Would you risk changing history, confident that any alternative course of history couldn’t possibly play out worse than it did in the 20th Century?

    If you’re drawn to that kind of hypothetical ethical dilemma, let me recommend the 2016 documentary that reached the top of my Netflix queue the other day called Zero Days. I had not heard – or had not paid much attention to – the story about the Stuxnet malware generated by the Israelis and Americans to hinder the development of nuclear weapons by Iran. The Israelis saw Iran’s capacity to develop the bomb – still do – as an existential risk and, if the premise of the film is to be believed, went overboard and made the colossal error of exposing themselves, the result of which is that there is now software floating around in cyberspace which anybody can harness to destroy another nation’s infrastructure, shut down their water supply, their trains, their electrical grid, their financial systems, all of which could lead to slower death and destruction than a bomb, perhaps, but no less devastating in the end.

    It’s probably our disaster fatigue that makes us turn away from information like this. I know I can’t listen anymore to the onslaught of horror stories coming out of Washington. “Don’t Give Me No More Bad News” has become my mantra. I’ve got chocolates to eat and music to listen to.

    For most of my life, the world has lived with the grand fear of destruction of the world by nuclear holocaust. Now, however, despite the childish bluster between two guys with terrible haircuts arguing about the size of their nuclear buttons, the real risk is cyberwarfare. Don’t try to convince the hawks of the military-industrial complex; they’re too invested in military hardware, but bombs are actually passé. 

    Zero Days filmmaker Alex Gibney, whom Esquire Magazine declared in 2010 to be “the most important documentarian of our time,” has an impressive record of accomplishments. His works include Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (three Emmy awards); Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (nominated for Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2005); and Taxi to the Dark Side (winner of Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2007), to name just three of his 35 films.

    66 Rotten Tomatoes reviews of Zero Days as of May of 2017 produced a positive rating of 91%. It won a Peabody Award in 2017.

    The film details the successful efforts of the Americans (the CIA, the NSA) and Israelis (the Mossad) to hack into Iran’s nuclear facility computer and infect it with malware that lead the centrifuges it was building to self-destruct.

    Taken for granted is the assumption that the Americans and Israelis are the good guys and the Iranians are the bad guys. No mention is made of the conclusion the bad guys (North Korea included) have reached after observing that nations with nuclear weapons have the necessary deterrence to being attacked, while nations which don’t – think Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan – have been overpowered and devastated by the West. In this black and white world one makes the argument that the bad guys must be kept from building a bomb at all costs. One has no choice but to lie, cheat, do whatever is necessary, including engaging in first-strike aggressive cyberwarfare to shut the bad guys down, to get on top and stay on top in a hostile world.

    Zero Days illustrates how even the best laid plans can go awry. The special brilliance in the US/Israeli effort to create this destructive virus is that it could do its job undetected. For a time, Iranian centrifuges were blowing up and their scientists were being fired for incompetence because nobody had any idea they had been hacked. Most importantly, development of the bomb was at a standstill. But then, without informing their American partners, the Israelis started taking chances, and the hacking got exposed. The result was the secret of the destructive code got out. Russia got it. China got it. And in no time the Iranians were back at it, stronger than ever before. The capacity to destroy a nation’s infrastructure is now public domain and there are no international agreements to limit the implementation of such destruction.

    We are back where we were when the secrets of the atomic bomb began to proliferate except that now it's not so much about who is king of the hill but who is in a position to hack into whose computers. Only good will stands between us and the end of civilization. If that sounds like hyperbole, imagine the heat waves we had last summer with temperatures over 110 – and somebody takes down all your power grids. No air conditioners, no working hospitals. No trains. And no water. And remember, this is cyberwarfare, not ICBMs. We worry about Kim Jong Un’s ability to fling a bomb at Seattle or Chicago. But with cyberwarfare, you sit in a room anywhere in the world and just hack away at other computers anywhere else in the world. Distances are no longer a factor.

    The bad news only gets worse when you recognize that anything to do with these new forms of international warfare are so highly classified that people with any knowledge of what’s going on are under severe threat of some serious legal trouble if they don’t keep their mouths shut. All the world knows what happened to Julian Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since August of 2012, and Edward Snowden in Moscow. Gibney hauls out a number of prominent figures who tell you how they can’t tell you anything.

    Fortunately (for those who are convinced secrecy is an evil) or unfortunately (for those who believe it is a necessity) there are a lot of smart people around who can put two and two together. These include, in the current example, two engineers from Symantec, who talk us through the process of discovering the virus (or “worm” as it’s called) and eventually discovering that the people who put it in place were the Americans and the Israelis. Gibney also throws in an actress to read (with distorted face and voice to create a little extra drama – this is a movie, after all) the words of others involved who would/could not allow their identity to be known.

    For me, the most interesting aspect of this tale of modern-day espionage is the reaction to the movie. There are those I’ve quoted above, like the folks at Esquire who consider this documentary a must-see for all Americans and resonate with the charge that secrecy kills democracy, because the American public no longer has oversight over what its leaders are doing. And there are always those whose response goes along the lines of these two comments on the Netflix site:

    • My husband and I ended up falling asleep before we could finish watching. If you love documentaries, I would give it a chance. This documentary was not for me. 

    • Fell asleep watching this dvd. Not entertaining for the average person. Only computer software developers might be interested. Too technical to understand.

    I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I have to admit the technical focus was hard slogging at first, but if you stick with it, the bigger story eventually emerges. I’m with Variety, who pronounced it “Clear, urgent and positively terrifying at times.”  

    Whether one should kill Hitler if we get the chance to go back in time is an ethical game with no real consequences. Whether we should destroy another nation's infrastructure is not hypothetical. The power is now in our hands. And the even bigger moral dilemma is the issue of secrecy. Do we now surrender to our politicians the sole right to make that decision without oversight?  Is this a new kind of war to be fought by any and all means necessary?

    You may argue the film is too long, or it has too much difficult technological stuff that is hard to follow - I don't think so, but you certainly may - but there is no doubt it asks one of the big questions of the age: How do we respond to those in power over us who tell us they know what they are doing and we have no right to question them?


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  5. OK. Here’s my quick-and-dirty take on the mess the Germans are in at the moment. Anybody with the time for it should look elsewhere for a more knowledgeable analysis of the situation. But for what it’s worth, here’s my understanding of what’s going on.

    First off, a primer on the German political scene.

    Germany has six major parties – there are more, but they don’t have enough support to pass the threshhold for representation in Parliament (the Bundestag). You have to get a minimum of 5% of the vote to be allowed to take a seat.

    Germany’s six parties (with percentage of the vote in the 2017 election in parentheses) are:

    1. the far right – AfD (Alternative for Germany) (12.6%)
    2. the Conservatives – CDU/CSU – known as The Union (i.e., of Christian Socialists in Bavaria and Christian Democrats in the rest of Germany) (32.9%)
    3. the center-right business party – FDP - the Free Democrats (10.7%)
    4. the center-left social democrats – the SPD – “Socialist Party of Germany” (20.5%)
    5. The Green Party – its official name is a clumsy mouthful: Alliance 90/The Greens – (8,9%)
    6. the far left – Die Linke (the Left) – heirs to the former East German communist party dusted off and polished to look acceptable to western democracy – some see Die Linke as “old wine in new bottles," but many find that an unfair characterization. Definitely anti-capitalist, however.

    Now even though Merkel’s party came out the winner by a considerable margin, it nonetheless gathered less than a third of the popular vote. That means she has to make a choice – to run the country as a minority party, or once again to govern in coalition with others.

    Up till now she has governed in coalition with the Socialists, but in this election the socialists broke loose from the coalition and ran in opposition to her. Things got quite ugly, and Martin Schulz, the Socialist leader, is steadfastly refusing to make the compromises necessary to rejoin the coalition. He has declared the Socialists will now be known officially as “the opposition.”

    So, with the Socialists out, that leaves only the FDP and the Greens. Since these parties are quite far from the Christian conservatives in mindset and policy goals, this is a major challenge for everybody involved. Not impossible – if the socialists could do it, there is some hope other left-oriented non-conservatives could as well. So for the past few weeks headlines in the German papers have been all about “Sondierung” – a word which I understand to mean something covering the semantic range between negotiating and haggling with overtones of probing and sounding out. Or, perhaps more accurately the other way around – probing with overtones of haggling.  [Just checked: I believe the standard translation is "exploratory talks."]

    Some somber words came down from the President – Germany’s equivalent of the monarchs in Europe’s constitutional monarchies – the guy whose job it is to remain above and untainted by the sausage-making mess that is politics. “Time to forget party loyalty and work for the good of the nation” says President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

    Apparently right up to the other night, it looked like they were going to make it. There would be an agreement among the three parties, known as the Jamaika Coalition (parties are often referred to by their color designations:  the union is black, the FDP is yellow and the Greens are green – and since the colors of the Jamaican flag happen to be...).

    But then suddenly all eyes are on Christian Lındner, the head of the FDP. “No,” he says. “No coalition.”  Lindner’s quotation is one for the history books: “Es ist besser, nicht zu regieren, als falsch zu regieren – It’s better not to govern at all than to govern badly.” And “falsch” hits you in the face, since in German it means not only “badly” but “false” as well.

    So unless Schulz changes his mind and agrees to join a coalition once more (highly unlikely) or Merkel agrees to govern with a weak minority body of supporters behind her (also unlikely), there will have to be another election. And that’s bad news all around. People are afraid the nationalist (think “Make Germany Great Again”) xenophobic AfD will only gain more votes and have an even louder voice in the Bundestag. And what happens if everything just stays the same, and the votes come in showing the problem in Germany is the problem in America – that people are seriously divided and not in any mood to compromise?

    So much for the naive hope that a Merkel/Macron partnership can lead the EU to present a model for Americans to follow as they seek to rid themselves of the albatross that is Shitforbrains, whose name it hurts me even to pronounce. Who’s left? Putin? The Chinese? 

    It’s tempting to see Lindner as a bad guy, a “divider,” the politician who shows up at a party only to piss in the punchbowl. Saboteur. But listen to him. He sounds earnest when he says, “We’ve worked too hard all these years to build up liberal principles to govern by. We can’t throw out all we’ve worked for!” The Socialists lost favor for doing just that and saw their popularity drop dramatically in recent years. Lindner is trying not to make the same mistake.

    Politics, they say, is the art of the possible, and democracy works only when its participants avoid becoming hard-liners. Without compromise, nothing gets done. We simply sit on two different sides of the room and glare at each other.

    But this would appear to be a time for questioning the assumption that compromise is the only solution. In America, folks on the left are faced with compromising with a party unabashedly taking from the poor to give to the rich, dismantling rather than improving a shakey health care plan, removing safety protections in the workplace, insistence that global warming is a Chinese hoax, and sending signals that invite white supremacists, homophobes and other bigots to come out of the woodwork. Nay, I say. Better the Resistance.

    I don’t know enough about what Lindner is holding out for and what Americans are resisting is not what Germans need to resist, in my view.  If I were a German, I expect I would probably vote Socialist or Green. Possibly even left. Not FDP, in any case. But then again, who knows how I’d vote if faced with the realities of life in Germany on a daily basis.

    Once again, all I can really conclude from a rather dilettantish following of the German news is that I know it’s not enough just to read just the headlines and watch a talkshow now and again. You’ve got to dig down into the complexities. Is Lindner what his political enemies say he is - a smug know-it-all? Or do we use the word his followers use - a hero?

    He's not smug. He's terribly personable.

    But heroic?

    I really haven't the slightest idea.

    Interesting times we live in.

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  6. Way to go, Australia!

    I wish I could say I’ve been waiting forever to hear the results of the Australian postal survey on whether lesbians and gays should be allowed to marry. Truth is, I've been kind of grouchy about the whole idea of putting civil rights up to a popular vote. Australia is a modern democracy with a highly evolved justice system and I trust they are as capable as any modern democracy of finding the means to protect their gay and lesbian citizens from having their rights trampled on by religious groups who think the church, not the state, should dictate what constitutes marriage.

    In the end, I understood the reason for the vote. Proponents of the survey argued that it was likely to reveal Australians were quite in favor of the right of lesbians and gays to marry, and when lawmakers can demonstrate the population is behind a law, they have a much better chance of passing it and keeping opposition at bay. I was concerned about the other side of the coin: if the majority were to unexpectedly vote no, it would give them an excuse for sitting on their hands. I will never forget what a downer it was when in 2008 Prop. 8 in California actually took away the right of gays and lesbians to marry which had been granted them by the courts, and created an absurd situation where some gays were married and some were not entitled.

    You don’t leave basic rights up for grabs. Christians once used biblical authority to discriminate against Jews. The Mormons until quite recently found a reason in the bible to discriminate against people of color – and mainstream Christians in America kept the institution of slavery in place on the basis of those same passages for over a century.  So much for “popular opinion.”

    All this is now academic. The results are in and Australians have voted 61.6% to 38.4% to allow same-sex marriage to go forward.  Not only that, the yes vote outdid the no vote in every single state. In the capital territory, the vote went 74% yes to only 26% no. The sense of dignity that has come to gay couples in something like twenty-five countries around the world will now be extended to Australians.  I say “something like” because there is always a gap between entitlement and full application of the law, and there is still a lot of contention around the question of adoption. But the sea change in world attitudes toward LGBT rights has left Australia feeling a little embarrassed.

    They shouldn't be. Just because their legislators were slow. The population has been progressive on this issue for some time.

    Australians have now done their part, and it’s up to their Parliament to carry it home.

    Bravo, Australia. 

    Good on ya!

    photo credit



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  7. Some thoughts today on the significance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther coming up tomorrow.

    For most people October 31 is just Halloween. It’s a day when kids go from house to house extorting people, through fear of violence or through cuteness, into giving them candy. That’s my view, but I’m the village grouch. Others see it as the gay day to go crazy, naked, paint your body and dance in the street. Or as the day when people decorate their houses with witches, ghosts, skeletons and Frankenstein monsters and compete with their neighbors as they do with Christmas decorations to see who has the most eye-catching display.

    But I have Lutheran roots, and that means for me the “Hallowed evening,” is the evening (actually the whole day) before the day set aside as All Saints Day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 kvetches onto the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. What was bugging him was the fact that his church was selling forgiveness (no repentance necessary, just cash) for future sins to make money for its construction projects. Because he wasn't alone in recognizing the corruption of the Christian message this business move represented, his righteousness attracted lots of followers and ended up splitting the Christian world in two – Western Christianity, anyway. Put aside the modern day ironic observation that if he had had even greater clout we might not have this marvelous splendor that is St. Peter's with its Michaelangelo-tarted-up Sistine Chapel. OK, so it was rough on the poor folk.

    There are earnest attempts (it's called ecumenism) to put them back together now that religion has pretty much lost its clout in Europe, where it all began, and it hardly matters anymore. But Lutherans, at least, will tell you this is a day to remember the great man whom MLK Jr. was named after. Who did more for universal literacy than anybody else in history. Who brought the people of Germany together under a common language. Normally, I’m no longer a church goer – haven’t been for half a century – and the day would probably pass without notice. But this is the 500th anniversary, and I’m coming across all sorts of references to Luther and am struck with how much variation there is among interpretations of the day's significance.

    Most of the Protestant cultures of the world, i.e., the North of Europe and the English speaking countries in large part, go along with the Lutherans. Martin is their hero too. He was the guy who made personal responsibility the heart of morality, not adherence to the papal hierarchy. Who made it possible for the values of democracy and the enlightenment to grow, unfettered, at long last.

    When I was growing up virtually everybody in my town went to church. My family ended up in the First Church, a merger of First Baptist and First Congregational. Because the Congregationalists way outnumbered the Baptists, we got a lot less Roger Williams nobody-tells-us-what-to-do history and a lot more pride in being the direct descendants of the Pilgrims. But those were minor distinctions. Mostly this was Connecticut, back before black people and Hispanics came in large numbers, so we were pretty much WASPS from head to toe.

    Most of my friends were Catholic, though, and because I would join them for early mass and breakfast every morning before school during Lent, I got a good dose of Catholicism, as well. I even had the Latin mass memorized before long and would probably have converted if I had not also been exposed to my grandmother’s Lutheran church, as well.

    Looking back in later years, I think it was this heavy dose of conflicting religious practices that ultimately made it easy for me to stop taking religion seriously. But when I went off to college I was still yearning for certainty, and ended up become Lutheran. The Congregationalists, it seemed to me, had nothing much to offer in the way of doctrine other than that one ought to keep one’s lawn mowed and not say unkind things about poor people. I was looking for serious belief assertion material I could sink my teeth into. It wasn’t long before I became a big fan of Martin Luther. He had it all.  I spoke German with my grandmother and used his Small Catechism to build my vocabulary. I had developed an appreciation for Bach and the music of his church was chalk and cheese to “Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam.” And, as with the Catholic Church, when you walked in the door, you lowered your voice and allowed your attention to be drawn to the Gothic arches and the white alabaster altar. The little queen in me yet to raise her liberated head just loved it. Especially the candles. Loved the altar candles.

    Sunday School at First Congregational in my early years was all about Bible stories such as Joseph and his coat of many colors, Jonah and the whale, and Jesus casting out the money lenders. Among the Lutherans now in my late teens, I was digesting the "correction" to the Roman Catholic notion of transubstantiation. Eager to join my new tribe and worship its gods, I eagerly professed the conviction that there was no way an anointed cleric had the power to turn the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus. No, no no. Christ came “in, with and under” the molecules, to use Dr. Luther's choice of words. While others were out playing football, I was sucking up such things as “the priesthood of all believers” and “justification by faith alone.” It wasn’t long before I could explain to the world what “we” believed. I had not only a church to call home. I had the comfort of knowing its doctrine was the right doctrine.

    On the Jews and Their Lies
    Dr. M. Luth.
    printed in Wittenberg by Hans Lufft
    What’s amazing to me now is the fact that in all those early years, I never got a whiff of the fact that Martin Luther was an anti-Semite. Not your ordinary one, but a particularly nasty one. A real Jew-hater. A model for the thugs of the Hitler regime four hundred years later. In 1543 Luther published a treatise entitled, On the Jews and Their Lies, in which he advocates the persecution of the Jews.  Let their “Jewish synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books be destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes burned, and property and money confiscated, … shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection…” and “drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time.”  “We are not at fault,” he concludes, “for slaying them.” They are “full of the devil’s feces…which they wallow in like swine.” Adolf Eichmann couldn’t have said it better.

    My sources on the character of Martin Luther were so anodyne, in fact, that even his faults were turned into virtues. His heavy drinking and his vulgar language were described as “earthy.” He was a “man of the people.” I came to believe that he generated the modern German language practically single-handed.  

    All that good stuff still stands, as I see it. The unifying of the German language may not mean all that much to you if you’re not German/Swiss/Austrian, but the encouragement of literacy ought to be enough to have him count as one of the great figures in the history of the Western world. With that focus on the “priesthood of all believers,” i.e., the claim that all of us are equal before God and have personal responsibility for how we conduct our lives, Luther opened the door to not only the privatization of belief, but ultimately the privatization of the economy. That’s what Max Weber had in mind when he wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. To be sure, he had Calvinism, more than Lutheranism, in mind, but he recognized that it was the focus on earthly activity that all the protestant groups shared that ultimately fostered capitalism. Didn't create it, but definitely contributed to its becoming the leading political and economic philosophy in the world, alongside its chief rival, Marxism-Leninism, and ultimately winning out over it. No mean feat. If this is how you see Luther, as having made a virtually matchless contribution to Western Civilization and to modernity, you might well want to turn him into some sort of saint.

    I had mentors that made sure I didn’t make that mistake. I remember being told by a Catholic friend when I was about ten or twelve, “We worship Jesus Christ; you worship Martin Luther.” So much for a Catholic school education, I thought. I was schooled to have an immediate response to that charge: We don’t freakin’ worship Martin Luther. He was a leader, not a saint. And certainly not a god. You’ve got that wrong. But for all his failings, he was nonetheless a man of heroic proportions.

    Over the years since I was a kid, that attitude was pretty much held in place by all the popular treatment of Luther I was exposed to. There are no fewer than eight full-length films on the life of Luther, the first one coming out in 1928, one, in 1953, winning an Academy Award nomination, and one, in 1973, a film adaptation of the John Osborne play, Luther. There are also two TV adaptations of the Osborne play, plus at least two documentaries and a TV travelogue put out by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There are apparently lots of folks who have a dog in the race and want to keep his memory alive. I still have in the back of my mind the hope one day of joining the 300,000 tourists who make pilgrimages every year to the towns in Saxony associated with Luther, including the two towns that put the word “Lutherstadt” (Luther City) before their official names, Wittenberg and Eisleben.   Eisleben, the place where Luther was born and died, is a World Heritage site and Wittenberg, the place with that wooden door (today it’s bronze) he supposedly nailed his 95 theses to (today there is some doubt) and launched the Protestant Reformation.

    It would be years before I would come to find out that there was much more to the hero who got us out from under the heel of the pope and the collectivity of the Roman church tradition to a place of individual responsibility for our actions. He could be – he was – in fact, a mean piece of work, merciless to those who refused to accept his interpretation of scripture and theology, and failed to get in line behind his notion of order. In particular, while Luther rejected the authority of the bishop of Rome, he threw his support behind the various princely authorities of Germany. That meant seeing the peasants who chafed under their authority as enemies of order and thereby enemies of God. By 1525 he was even making the argument that one could get to heaven faster by fighting and killing peasants than through prayer.

    Denn die Hand, die das Schwert führt und tötet ist nicht mehr eines Menschen Hand sondern Gottes Hand, und nicht der Mensch sondern Gott henkt, rädert, enthauptet, tötet und führt den Krieg. 
    For the hand which swings the sword is no longer a man's hand, but the hand of God, and it is not man but God who hangs, stretches on the wheel, decapitates, kills and makes war.
    Let me take a step back just to observe that I’m banging on about something here that is of absolutely no interest whatsoever to most of the people I interact with on a regular basis. Religion, to most people I know, has been dumped on the ash heap of history. It’s an area which was, to begin with, always hard to distinguish from superstition and is arbitrary as arbitrary gets, given the high correlation between your "choice" of faith and the accidental location of your birth. Religion is something you grant your friends the space to diddle with if it gives them some comfort. Or a neutral sphere which works more like a Rorschach test than a truth claim, allowing decent people to store all their natural inclinations to be kind, generous and compassionate, and which gives the insecure folk of the world, in like manner, a place to store their lust for power and certainty and create the illusion they are in the right when most of the world is in the wrong. “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” the great Lutheran hymn starts out. He’s also, to many in the world, a great slayer of dragons. Or infidels. Or people who touch themselves down there, say.

    In the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, Columbus Day has pretty much become Indigenous People’s Day. We now focus not on the Italian guy with an imperfect knowledge of geography and a burning desire for wealth and adventure, and more on the peoples of the Western Hemisphere, many of whom have suffered unspeakably through death, disease and incoherence in the face of the European invasion.

    Isn’t it remarkable how history can provide you with new ways to frame events? The Stars and Bars of the Confederate flag, the Dixie flag, is not part of a proud American heritage. It's a symbol, like the swastika, of a regime of death and destruction, of human humiliation and degradation, and it's time we let the scales fall from our eyes. The Crusades were once a way to earn your way out of hell. Today they are viewed, even by the descendants of the crusader folk themselves, as an early example of the lust for power that is imperialism. The tribal struggle of People 2 of “the book” (the Christians) for hegemony over People 3 of “the book” (the Muslims), which ended with a whole bunch of People 1 of “the book” (the Jews) as collateral damage.

    Lutherans (and other Protestants) in my view don’t need to hang their head in shame over being identified with an angry foul-mouthed anti-Semitic drunk for a leader. Lutheran scholars, the ones I know of, never did feel such shame – they were the first to emphasize their church is Christ-centered, not centered on the sinner who founded it or the sinners who run it.

    I’m not sure I’m up for the idea of finding a Lutheran Church to go to, but something in me would love to belt out “A Mighty Fortress” once more as I used to do every year at this time when Reformation Day came around. There are still parts of me which remember fondly the Lutherans of my youth – my grandmother and many others – who taught me how to be a good guy. Even when I wasn’t, I knew what a good guy was supposed to be. That’s got to be worth something.

    I’m conscious of how much folly we let ourselves in for when we give in to pendulum swings. When we do something stupid or wrong and then swing the pendulum to the other extreme and end up not fixing it, but doing some folly at the other extreme. One need go no further than look at the people who wanted to get away from America’s messed up political system, who went from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak, threw the baby out with the bathwater – there are so many metaphors to mark the practice.

    I'd like to bring Martin Luther back out of that place in history many are now wont to place him, as an awful human being. Not put him back where he was when I was proud to call myself a Lutheran, exactly. But give the historical figure credit for his amazing accomplishments, the merest sliver of which I will never match in my lifetime. If I were king of the world, I'd eliminate Halloween candy. I'd also eliminate the misconception that sitting next to or making nice with a drunk makes you a drunk. Or the idea that acknowledging that Hitler built the Autobahn makes you a Nazi. Or that there’s any reason to reduce your fellow human beings to nothing more than their worst features.

    Five hundred years. My, that’s a long time.

     photo credit


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  8. Nachtcafé guests - Oct. 22, 2017
    I spend a lot of time watching German television, especially the talk shows. My top three used to be the political talks-in-the-round, hosted by women: Anne Will, Sandra Maischberger, and Maybritt Illner. A fourth, Hart Aber Fair (Tough, but Fair), also political, is hosted by Frank Plasberg. Then there’s Phoenix, which is a bit more academic, and also political. Then there are two which are not political at all, but a pot pourri of all kinds of topics dealing with society, sports, and the world of entertainment and culture, where the goal is primarily entertainment, not current events. They can get political when the guests are politicians, but mostly the focus is on simply tossing around ideas and revealing the lives of people with interesting stories to tell. The discourse is at a higher level than American shows like “Ellen” or “Oprah” or "The View" and more "German" somehow, in that there is less of a need to have a laugh a minute and a feel-good conclusion every time.  One of these is the powerful and fast-paced Markus Lanz Talkshow. The other, the one I want to talk about here, is the more leisurely and laid back Nachtcafé (Night Café). It’s a theme-oriented program with a very congenial host named Michael Steinbrecher. Steinbrecher has a talent for keeping the conversation going on a broad array of topics having to do with family, personal identity and relationships, social relations, art and theater and public life. Often the topics (death, divorce, failure in life) are sensitive and the guests include an expert to contextualize and expand the topic being discussed. Nachtcafé airs on Friday nights at 10 p.m., and becomes immediately available online. 

    Last Friday’s program was entitled: “Von Macken und Marotten: Leben leicht verrückt” (Quirks and Idiosyncracies: Living a bit crazy). The guests included a TV comedian noted for her loud mouth and brash interactional style, Hella Kemper, who goes by the name “Hella von Sinnen (Hella out of her mind).” Hella is married to the daughter of a former President of Germany, and the two authored a book which apparently gave the program its title. Another guest collects and sells insects. A third is obsessed with the Swedish royal family. A fourth appears in public nude to bring home the feminist insistence that a woman has the right not to be abused, even if she’s stark naked. A fourth spends her life entering (and winning) contests. The guest that really captured my attention, though, was the final guest of the evening, a man named Oliver Sechting.

    Rosa, right, in New York
    First, a brief digression here. LGBT people familiar with Germany will know who Rosa von Praunheim is. He’s one of my gay liberation heroes, along with Harvey Milk, Dan Savage, Barney Frank, Ellen, and many others. He was born to a prisoner in German-occupied Latvia, adopted and given the name Holger Bernhard Bruno Waldemar Mischwitzky, but decided at some point that he would go by the name of Rosa von Praunheim. Rosa is German for pink, the color of the triangular tag that homosexual prisoners had to wear in Nazi concentration camps. Praunheim is a district of Frankfurt/Main I’m assuming he feels a particular affinity for. He is a filmmaker with more than seventy documentary and feature films under his belt, an in-your-face AIDS activist who, like Larry Kramer, alienated many gay people by hounding them on the topic of safe sex. Subtle he is not. One of his early films (1971) carries the title, It is not the homosexual who is perverse, but the society in which he lives.

    Another of the many times he caught my attention was when he appeared on the Anne Will show (she’s one of the political talk show hosts I mentioned above, whom I still watch regularly) back in 2010 along with the catholic Bishop of Essen, Franz-Josef Overbeck. Overbeck made the mistake of claiming that homosexuality was a sin. Since the official church position is that it’s not “being homosexual” that is sinful, but “doing homosexual,” Overbeck made a fool of himself and Rosa von Praunheim called him out on it.

    Bishop Overbeck, Rosa von Praunheim on Anne Will in 2010
    Rosa von Praunheim: Homosexuality isn’t a sin.

    Bishop Overbeck: It is a sin. We know with absolute certainty that it is a sin. It goes against nature. The nature of man is based on a man and a woman being together.

    RvP: Bullshit. You don’t even believe that yourself.

    Forgive me for going out on a tangent to the tangent I’m already on, but I have to mention in passing that it was this encounter that Catholic theologian David Berger claims prompted him to come out and to write his book, Der heilige Schein (Sacred Illusion), which I reviewed on this blog soon after it appeared. And which put me in touch with people who have since become very good friends.

    But let me get back to the topic. I was talking about the last guest of the evening, Oliver Sechting.  For a while there it appeared as if the producers of this edition of Nachtcafé had made a terrible mistake – all of the eccentricities the guests displayed were harmless, and quite entertaining. There was little for the guest psychiatrist to talk about except to say, “If it doesn’t hurt anyone, why not?” But when it came to Oliver, the mood suddenly changed. Oliver has a severe form of OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder. Most people, when they hear OCD think of behavior compulsions - people who have to wash their hands until they become raw, or wipe doorknobs with bleach before touching them, or people with tics like head or shoulder jerking. But some OCD sufferers, like Oliver, have “thought disorders” that are not immediately evident to strangers. As a result, they often suffer in silence or have trouble getting people to take them seriously. Oliver can be traumatized when he comes across the number 58. And when he sees the color red on a black background.

    Fortunately, over time, he has developed strategies for coming to terms with these behaviors. He has come up with numbers (7 and 34) to “neutralize” the “bad” number 58. And if he can spot something white after seeing red on black, he can ease the tension to some degree. Life can still be hell – imagine what it’s like for him to walk the streets at night and come across a red “do not walk” signal on a street lamp, where the background appears black. Struggling with this OCD has hospitalized him with depression at times.

    Rosa von Praunheim; Oliver Sechting
    The Nachtcafé program ended with the question, “Well, Oliver, how are you doing these days?” You could hear the silence, as everybody waited for the answer. I thought we were going to end on a very sour note. Instead, however, Oliver smiled, and began telling the story of having met a wonderful man who has turned his life around. A much older man, somebody with “loads of life experience” who seems to know how to deal with his hangups just right, he says – not patronizingly, not overdoing it, but by being understanding and a terrific listener. That man, it turns out, is Rosa von Praunheim.

    Oliver became Rosa’s assistant at some point, worked as his assistant on the prize-winning Die Jungs vom Bahnhof Zoo (The Boys of Bahnhof Zoo - English title: Rent Boys) (2011) and more recently has even directed some of his films. Since the two began working together they have become life partners and now live together in Berlin.

    I’m such a sucker for happy endings.

    Photo credits:

    Oliver with face covered with numbers is taken from his book, Der Zahlendieb: Mein Leben mit Zwangsstörungen (The Number Thief: My Life with OCD)  https://www.psychiatrie-verlag.de/buecher/detail/book-detail/der-zahlendieb.html. Posted on his blog page:


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  9. I’ve long been a fan of Robert Reich. I love it that he’s at Berkeley and I’ve been able to attend a number of his lectures and public appearances. He strikes me as being sensitive and aware. He’s certainly more knowledgeable and experienced in the ways of government than most of his colleagues, even the democratic ones. And, probably most importantly, unlike me and others like me who are so weary of the corruption of the political process in this country that they/we have largely given up, he is doggedly in there fighting, a major figure in The Resistance.

    His latest contribution is an insightful claim that America has not two political parties, but six. It’s a simple but obvious look at how Americans have grouped themselves politically into six different factions, each with their own special interests.

    He’s saying, in effect, that we’ve become more like a parliamentary system that works with coalitions and a greater diversity of political parties. They represent their voters more closely because there are more options to choose from. 

    But leaving the question aside for the moment of whether there is all that much practical difference between a faction in a coalition government and a faction within a ruling party, I think it’s useful to look at how Reich sizes up the American electorate. As a Bernie Sanders supporter, I had no trouble dividing the country into black hats and white hats, the white hats being those who focused on social equity and a fair distribution of wealth. I think government should act as if we are a national community, and just as happens within a healthy family, never let the strong overpower the weak. Label me a democratic socialist, in other words. The label fits.

    I don’t think much of the folks in the black hats, the “I’ve got mine” party. They’ve become more open about advocating welfare for the rich of late – just check out the current misnamed tax reform efforts to eliminate taxes on those earning more than five million dollars a year. We know that the argument that this will generate more growth is bogus, and that it simply means those who earn less will pay more in taxes. But they have the political power now, and this effort may actually succeed.

    Here’s how I see Reich’s six categories. The expansions are mine, and Reich probably would find them oversimplified, overstated, and maybe even wrong, but they are how the landscape looks to me at present. First off the three subgroups among the Republicans:

    1. The Establishment – This is corporate America, sometimes called the 1%. Their goal is to keep the wealth in the hands of the superwealthy. They justify greed by the Calvinist notion that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. Even those who no longer cast it in religious terms have nonetheless inherited the notion as cultural (predestinationist) Calvinists. Some may be sincere – I believe most are not – when they attempt to justify the politics of greed by claiming the trickle-down theory of economics. I think anybody who has been paying attention knows that this theory has long since been debunked and what can one conclude but that the claim is self-serving bullshit?

    Along with this is the notion that rich people tend, in general, to be smarter than others. In many cases that’s true – they at least have better access to formal education, and in many cases that allows them to cultivate their intellectual capacities. But a simple rich = smart has got to be one of the most corrupt and immoral notions ever to come down the pike. Don’t believe me? Spend some time among the wise folks in poverty-stricken places. You’ll see what I mean. And, of course, even if there is a correlation between rich and smart, there is no logical connection to be made to the idea that smart = good.

    2. Anti-establishment. These are the Small Government Republicans. They include the Tea Partiers and the Libertarians. Reich stresses that in many ways their heads are in the right place. They are against corruption in government (the bigger the government, the greater the opportunities for corruption). They therefore want to starve government by limiting taxes. That leads them to underestimate the need for money to build roads and bridges and schools and provide welfare for the vulnerable and the needy among us. But they argue (and their arguments are worth listening to) that the solution is more sensible spending policies, not more money collected in taxes.

    3. Third come the Social Conservatives. This group is represented mostly by those with religious ideological convictions. Many will argue, if you push them, that God’s law (as they interpret it, of course) should outweigh man’s law. This is most clearly seen in the Islamic world where sharia law has become civil law, but even in secular states, and the United States was intended from the beginning to be one, despite the fiction that America is a Christian nation, you will find people who tell you in their hearts they believe they are justified in pushing God’s law onto the rest of us.

    Those driven by religious ideology are readily manipulated by more sophisticated folk who know what buttons to push. Wedge issues such as abortion and homosexuality, dear to the heart of absolutist literal-minded religionists, easily outweigh all other issues, and persons living on the edge of poverty can often be seen to vote for fewer taxes on the superrich and more on themselves, simply if along with those tax policies comes an anti-abortion policy. Check out the videos of Pat Robertson of Jim Bakker sometime.

    It’s important to distinguish among “religious” people. There is a far greater division between spiritual religionists and literal religionists than there is between the spirituality-focused religious and the non-religious. It’s not hard to identify who’s who. The spiritually inclined tend to listen in humility for the voice of God; the literalists are only too happy to tell you they can speak for God (“because I read it in the Bible!” – the evangelical version, or “because the church hierarchy has been ordained by God” – the catholic version). Another way to distinguish the two groups is to recognize that one (those with a spiritual focus) is essentially open and the other is essentially closed. Secularists tend toward a scientific world-view and thus take a “don't tell me/show-me” approach to knowledge. They want evidence for truth claims, and that makes them essentially open to change and possibility. Spiritual religionists and secularists are both “open” in other words; literalists are by nature “closed.”

    There are other social conservatives. Reich mentions rural Southern whites as such a group, but I think, when push comes to shove, that group is working on a fundamentalist Christian basis, and is not, for all practical purposes, all that different from other fundamentalists, closed to outsiders, closed to evolution in thought, closed to new possibilities.

    So much for the three subgroups under the rubric of the Republican Party. Reich then turns to the Democrats and finds:

    4. The Establishment – not all that different from the Republican establishment, and that’s why you so often hear “there’s no difference between the parties.” What people mean by that is there’s not all that much to distinguish the ruling class within the two parties. They are both governed by the conviction that reality means recognizing that money rules the world and that whoever has the most money when they die wins. What distinguishes the Republican Establishment from the Democratic Establishment is that the former adheres more to the “invisible hand” idea, the market place as the source of truth and knowledge, somewhat more than the Democrats do. And the Democrats take more time to see to health, education and welfare, to see to it that government follows Hubert Humphrey’s admonition to care for those in the dawn of life, the dusk of life and the shadows of life. But let’s not forget our priorities. Money comes first.

    5. My folk – the anti-Establishment Democrats. They tend to be younger, they are inherently more progressive, open to new ideas, committed to the welfare of the outliers among us – transgendered folk, prisoners, the mentally ill, no less than women, lesbians and gays, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities. They see inequity as America’s chief problem, they take the problem of climate change very seriously, and they definitely see money as a problem, not an automatic solution, especially in politics. To a Martian, they might appear to be advocating a practical and righteous (i.e., non-Stalinist) form of communism, or perhaps a practical form of Christianity (I don’t see much difference). This is due to their conviction that capitalism as it has come to be practiced in the West is crony capitalism – and some like to call it vulture capitalism.

    That leaves the final group, the one that put Donald Trump in power. The “out of the frying pan, into the fire” folk. The folk duped by a Pied Piper, the “none of the above” voters willing to give him free rein to ride roughshod over tradition and decorum simply to register outrage at change, at modernism, at internationalization, at evolution. A pot pourri of discontent.

    6. Trump – the greatest challenge to American democracy in modern times. Some claim he merely reveals the ugly underbody of a racist sexist society, a greedy self-serving bunch of folk for whom popular democracy is simply another way to rule by id and not by superego. The best we can hope for is that the shock of Trump in the White House will shake the apathy America (and other modern democracies) are cursed with.

    I am convinced that Trump is not the problem, that he is a symptom of the problem. He serves, of course, as the icon of the problem, but we will not get out of the current chaotic state if we continue to fail to see the problem is not this one wretched, probably mentally ill, narcissist, but a failure to show a respect for facts, if we continue to believe that truth is whatever we want it to be, particularly if we can get others to go along with our fantasies.

    Trump’s Republican enablers are leaving what looks for all the world like a sinking ship. That’s not all that needs to be done, but it’s a beginning.

    Coalition governments may be superior to government by a two-party system in some ways, but only if party leaders can find a way to override tremendous differences. The German government is struggling to put together a coalition that includes the German equivalent of our establishment parties (both Democratic and Republican) and the Green Party (our environmentalists). Some worry about the consequences of putting an environmentalist in charge of foreign policy - a real possibility in Germany - and other worry the question itself could become disruptive to efficient government.
    The point is only that the times call for desperate efforts to build coalitions and make them work. In the U.S., that means, according to Reich, getting the subgroups to work together – he stresses the tax relief and money-out-of-politics segments.

    Unfortunately, that’s only the what, not the how. What Reich leaves out is any information about the size and relative power of each of these factions, and the fact that the battle for control of the Democratic Party between Factions 4 and 5 (Establishment (Hillary Clinton/Debbie Wasserman-Schulz/Donna Brazile) Democrats and Bernie Sanders and the majority of young voters, respectively) gets both hostile and downright dirty at times - as hostile and dirty as the battle between parties.

    What I find useful in all this is the opportunity to look a little more closely than most of us look most of the time, to find distinctions, and possibilities for an opening.

    Something’s got to give.


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  10. Nedjma and Mustafa planning their interviews
    Algeria is probably not on the radar of most people I know. Another of so many troubled areas in the world, failed states or nearly failed states, or at the very least not-ready-for-prime-time states. What is on my radar, though, are film festivals. We are blessed here in the Bay Area with one after another – the LGBT festival, the Jewish festival, the German festival and more than a dozen others. And this year I found myself drawn to the Arab Film Festival, (now in its twenty-first year) because of an intriguing description of an Algerian film called Investigating Paradise (Tahqiq fel djenna).
    ...a layered analysis of Algerian millennial culture and the efforts made by Salafi clerics to tempt this particularly vulnerable demograph towards the embrace of jihad. Through a sampling of everyone from college students at internet cafes and a karate instructor, to Imams and social intellectuals, it becomes apparent that Allouache’s position is much deeper than what is readily and regularly espoused per “extremism” and “radicalization” on Western media outlets.
    Investigating Paradise is a curious genre, bound to make some people howl in protest: It’s a fictionalized documentary. The festival blurb refers to this genre as – are you ready for this? – “performative docuform.” But hold your horses. The silliness of that term (and the notion it captures) don’t do it justice.

    Two journalists, Nedjma, played by the well-known Algerian actress, Salima Abada, and her male colleague Mustafa, played by Younés Sabeur Chérif, set about investigating how it is that so many Algerian youth are drawn to ISIS and to radical Islam in general. What writer/director Merzak Allouache and his daughter Bahia (or perhaps I should say what Bahia and her better-known filmmaker father) have come up with is a vehicle for capturing the vulnerability of Algerian society today to political Islam and the readiness of an uninformed and badly schooled populace to be misled by their own programmed desires. Nedjma and Mustafa focus on the Koranic concept of paradise, which they understand to be driving so many young people into violence and self-destruction, and its bizarre macho vision of 72 virgins to take you into paradise. 

    Nedjma begins with interviews with young men in an internet café, but travels around asking everyone she meets how they conceive of paradise. She captures a full range of answers from the clueless young and their unquestioning acceptance of the ideas of the online video sermons of two imams, two televangelist types, to the feminists and other intellectuals at the other end of the spectrum who label the 72-virgin concept macho porn.  A taste of her interviews is available on YouTube here.  

    She travels across the Sahara at one point to the town of Timimoun, where she meets with one of the imams in question, a man who appears to be kindly and driven more by spiritual Islam than its political version.  The other imam, Abdelfatah Hamadache, the more strident of the two imams, refuses even to meet with her. Not part of the "docuform" is the suggestion found elsewhere that Hamadache in reality might actually have been an agent of the corrupt government, but now we're getting into far too much complexity, and we haven't begun to address the Western support of the Saudi-based Wahhabi Salafists that he speaks for. Whatever the twists and turns, what comes out of the interviews is a layered and richly textured study of a people under siege.

    Algeria’s road to modern democracy is filled with the kind of hurdles common to all postcolonial nations. Investigating Paradise suggests the possibility that political Islamist ideology may turn out to be much more than a just a bump, however. Many fear is could be a permanent – or at least a long-term – impenetrable barrier. In the background, coloring the quest for understanding and providing a context for why Algeria never participated in the Arab Spring, was the decade-long civil war between the corrupt government and the brutal and radical islamist forces, which left most Algerians with a “pox on both your houses” sense of alienation, with no place to go. [For one source on the corruption on the government side, click here.]

    At least this is the explanation given by the writer Kamel Daoud, whose interview was for me the highlight of the film. Daoud has gotten into trouble recently, not only among the religious sector in Algeria itself for being too much a part of the French-speaking secular elite, especially by the likes of Hamadache, who puts a fatwa out on Daoud for being an apostate and an “enemy of religion.”   But Daoud has lost favor as well among the intellectual left in Europe who see him as anti-immigrant for his outspoken stance that Europe is being naïve in allowing in so many cultural Muslims with little to no understanding of and appreciation for Western values.   Investigating Paradise gives a platform for Daoud to present his view that the Arab-Muslim world is "full of sexual misery," particularly when it comes to women, but also when dealing with the human body and any notion of healthy sexual desire.

    Daoud is hardly alone in his view that the problem with Islam (certainly political Islam, but to a greater or lesser degree cultural Islam as well) is its inability to read the Koran as poetry, thus missing the point and taking things literally that were never intended to be read that way.

    The film, despite the despair and conflict reflected in many of its scenes, is ultimately a warm human story. There are scenes of feminists giggling among themselves at the responses of the sex-obsessed boys and the silly old men who claim to be speaking in the name of Allah, and who, when asked what happens to single women when they enter paradise – what good are the 72 virgins to them? – are told that they become virgins again and get to choose their husbands this time. Or revert to the age of 33, the perfect age for a woman, and become beautiful, with long black hair and sparkling eyes. There’s a scene with a martial arts teacher who would love to train girls, but is handicapped by not having the money to keep them safe, he tells them, so has to turn them away from his gym. And there is affection for even the most radical of players in this Algerian drama, and much respect shown for older people with religious views. 

    Daoud, I believe it was, remarks at one point that the tragedy of the decade of violence, which one would expect would make the population war-weary and desirous of peace and cooperation, has made them suspicious and withdrawn instead. Many choose life in exile and migrate. Others draw into themselves, the young all too often into religion. It’s a melancholy world-view that Allouache père has revealed in his previous films. But the implied criticism of Muslims as unduly focused on the next world when they have so much to offer in improving this one, is not a cynical world-view. People can learn. They can lift themselves up and out of ignorance. It’s just going to take time – and a whole lot of effort.

    No doubt some will want to fault the film for being all about the problem and short on answers. Some will object that it's too critical of Islam, and that we must start and end with an acceptance of Islam. But that would be missing the point. If political and socially retrograde cultural Islam are the problem, one doesn't surrender to it; one seeks ways over it, under it, through it or around it. A daunting task, to be sure. But if the thinkers - perhaps especially the feminists - in this film are any indication of the richness to be found in the character of Algerian society the task is not insurmountable.

    While Investigating Paradise is doing well in the festival circuit - it has won the Berlinale and the Festival International des Programmes Audiovisuels in Germany and France, respectively - it deserves to make the leap up and out of festival status to reach a much broader audience.

    photo credit: clipped from Beirut film festival poster

    Should also include



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