Africa wins the World Cup!

There have been some interesting stories coming out of the recent World Cup which deal with the make-up of European teams consisting of players from families with immigrant backgrounds. Given the large number of players on the French national team with North African roots, Trevor Noah, the host of the US TV show The Daily Show, exclaimed on his show last Monday, that “Africa won the World Cup!”. It was a joke and meant as a complement (Noah is himself from South Africa), but the French Ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, didn’t see the humor. He wrote a letter of complaint to Noah, in which he wrote:

As many of the players have already stated themselves, their parents may have come from another country but the great majority of them, all but two out of 23, were born in France. They were educated in France, they learned to play soccer in France, they are French citizens. They are proud of their country, France. The rich and various backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity.

Noah read the letter on the air and added commentary. After reading the statement in the letter that the variety of backgrounds of the players “is a reflection of France’s diversity,” Noah paused and commented, “That line here was interesting. Now, I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I think it’s more a reflection of France’s colonialism.” That is indeed the hard reality of French diversity, that in fact the French language and aspects of French culture were imposed on those conquered countries – it’s not that they had a variety of options to choose from and selected French.

The Ambassador’s letter continues: “Unlike in the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin. To us there is no hyphenated identity. Roots are an individual reality. By calling them an African team it seems you are denying their Frenchness.” This is in fact an area where there is a clear distinction between France and the United States. Many Blacks in the US identify as African-American and many other “hyphenated identities” are commonplace: Asian-American, Native American, etc. Rachel Donadio wrote about the difference in The Atlantic recently:

In the United States, just about everyone’s hyphenated. In France, or among parts of the French establishment, the notion of communautarisme, American-style identity politics in which groups derive identity and clout from their backgrounds, is seen as anathema, an affront to the French ideal that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the state…It’s a hard-won notion of citizenship that comes from a history in which the ancien régime was overthrown to create a modern French state.

France has a particular history that shapes attitudes towards citizenship and identities, especially the French Revolution and its embrace of secularity and social leveling as well as colonialism and its bitter end (Algerian war). Indeed, all European countries have histories and geographies that guide perceptions. Immigration in recent times has played an increasingly important role in that process, as large numbers of migrants have changed ethnic and racial population mixes. In Germany, there are a large number of inhabitants with Turkish heritage, with many families arriving in the 1950’s and 1960’s as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) and eventually settling in Germany. One of

Özil with the Turkish President

those families was that of a prominent soccer player for the German national team, Mesut Özil. He has been in the news recently, having quit the team under accusations of racism that he wrote about on Twitter. He stated there “I am a German when we win and an immigrant when we lose”. In fact, Özil has been criticized not only for lackluster play in Germany’s embarrassing early exit from the World Cup, but also for something he did before the competition. He had his picture taken with the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan is a controversial figure in Germany, a country of which he has been very critical in recent years. The picture was much discussed in the German media, with some seeing it as evidence of misplaced loyalties.

Monument of shame?

Replica of Holocaust memorial next to Björn Höcke’s home, a German politician who called the memorial “a monument of shame.”

This year there has been considerable controversy in the US over historical monuments, namely statues of heroes of the Confederacy. That came to the fore this summer in the white supremacists’ march in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The debate over monuments has led to discussions on how to interpret the US Civil War with, for example, White House chief of staff John Kelly citing as the cause of the war an “unwillingness to com-promise,” not the maintenance of slavery.

A similar debate has occurred recently in Germany. In this case, it is not about the removal of monuments, but rather the placement of a monument. Last month, the local head of the right-wing political party, AFD, the Alternative for Germany, awoke one morning to find a new monument next door to his home. It was a smaller version of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, a set of concrete slabs. The miniaturized monument was set up as a protest over politician Björn Höcke’s comments on German history, particularly the statement that Germans were “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of their capital,” referring to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. This challenged the founding narrative of modern Germany, the acceptance of guilt for the crimes of Nazism.

Höcke is the leader of the AfD branch in the central German state of Thuringia, a place rich in history, as remarked in a recent story in the NY Times: “The memorial has put an uncomfortable national spotlight on Bornhagen, a village of 309 inhabitants on the former border of East and West Germany in the fabled rolling hills of Thuringia, where the Brothers Grimm long ago collected fairy tales.” The situation is rich in ironies and contradictions, pointing to the complexities both of German history and recent German politics. Bornhagen has a connection to the greatness of German culture – not just the Grimm Brothers, but also Goethe visited the town. The major tourist attraction there (up until the new monument) has been Burg Hanstein, the ruins of a 13th-century fortress, a reminder of the old German empire.

Ruins of Castle Hanstein

That is the setting for a popular Christmas market every year. As the fortress was almost on the border between the two Germanies, one of its towers was used by the East German border guard as a watch tower.

Because of Höcke’s prominence as a spokesperson for the extreme nationalist wing of the AfD, Bornhagen is considered a very “brown” town, in German political symbolism, a color associated with neo-Nazis. In fact, in the federal election in 2017, the AfD captured 34% of the votes in the town. On the other hand, Bornhagen is home to 80 refugees from countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, a large number for such a small village. Reports indicate that the refugees have been treated well and some have found employment there.

The NY Times article concludes with comments from a local inhabitant, Susanne Prinz, who visited the monument and found that it serves the purpose of leading people to think and to take a stand on historical events:

“You can’t just look the other way; that is one lesson we learned from history,” she said. “When children ask questions, you have to explain.”
“Yes, it’s uncomfortable,” Ms. Prinz added. “But then, Germany’s history is uncomfortable.”

That discomfort is a feeling that has become familiar this year in the US, as a new President has upended many long-accepted views on a variety of issues, including US history.

 

Why Americans Smile

I was in Russia last year, my third visit, and noticed again how solemn everyone seemed to be. In public transportation and on the street, there was not a lot of chit-chat, or smiling. Of course, that’s not surprising in Moscow – similar to New York City in that regard. But I was in Pyatigorsk, a resort town in the Caucuses, and it was summer. In terms of not seeing a lot of smiling faces on the street (or especially, in my experience, in service encounters), Russia is no different than many other countries. Germany, for one, comes to mind. But one country that is different is the United States. We tend to smile a lot. Smiling for no good reason is likely to make Russians think you’re a bit off. Walmart was not successful in Germany in part because managers insisted that cashiers smiled at customers. That irritated many Germans, after all, the customer didn’t know the cashier, so why act as if they are friends? That behavior would be akin to the cashier using the informal you, “du”, in addressing the customer, rather than the formal “Sie”. Some German men thought the cashiers were flirting with them.

So, why do Americans smile so much. That was a question addressed this week in the Atlantic. The answer, according to the article is surprising: “It turns out that countries with lots of immigration have historically relied more on nonverbal communication. Thus, people there might smile more.” The authors of a study published in 2015 compared countries in terms of the number of source countries that make up their population: “Canada and the United States are very diverse, with 63 and 83 source countries, respectively, while countries like China and Zimbabwe are fairly homogenous, with just a few nationalities represented in their populations.” The researches polled people from 32 countries about expressing feelings openly. They found that “emotional expressiveness was correlated with diversity. In other words, when there are a lot of immigrants around, you might have to smile more to build trust and cooperation, since you don’t all speak the same language.” So citizens of countries with more diversity smile in order to bond socially. On the other hand, “countries without significant influxes of outsiders tend to be more hierarchical, and nonverbal communication helps maintain these delicate power structures.”

The article points out that not only do US inhabitants smile more, their smiles are also wider, with higher levels of “facial muscle movement.” The article doesn’t discuss whether all the smiles in the US are genuine, that seems especially doubtful in the section of the article discussing how extensively politicians in the US smile.

Germany has been experiencing in recent years a large influx of immigrants, from a variety of countries – who knows, maybe next time you’re in Berlin, you’ll see more smiles.

Burkinis & European integration

burkini_banThe highest administration French court (Conseil d’Etat) today overturned the ban imposed on some French beaches and swimming areas of women wearing a “burkini”, a swimming suit that covers the body and includes a hood. The ban has led to the strange scene in the photo above, of four policemen at a beach in Nice forcing a Muslim woman to remove some of her clothing. The ban follows other measures in France that have sought to use the tradition of laïcité, the strict separation of church and state, to prevent the wearing of head scarves in schools or the burka when driving. The measures have been widely seen as discriminatory, as they target Muslim women. If integration of immigrants is socially desirable, forcing Muslims either to reject traditions and religious beliefs or to stay away from public spaces does not seem to be an effective strategy.

There has been discussion recently in Germany as well of passing regulations aimed at how Muslim women dress, with suggestions from the state interior ministers representing the conservative CDU to ban the wearing of the burka and the niqab in public places including schools, government offices, court rooms and in traffic. A recent poll in Germany found that 81% of respondents favored simply banning the burka in Germany. It was exactly a year ago that Chancellor Merkel at a press conference famously commented “Wir schaffen das” (We will get it done) in the context of integration of the flood of refugees coming to Germany. At the time, she received considerable praise for her welcoming attitude, both within and outside of Germany. That positive assessment has changed considerably in recent months, following the attacks on women by foreigners New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other cities, and especially by a series of small-scale terrorist attacks in several German cities this July. It may even be that Merkel will be in trouble in the national election a year from now.

In a report from NPR today, the changing attitude in Germany was discussed in the context of a small town in Germany (population 280) struggling to integrate over 80 immigrants. The story illustrates that the difficulties of integration go well beyond appearance and language. Some of the immigrants took swimming lessons, but the locals were upset that they didn’t stay in their lanes – public behavior in Germany insists on Ordnung (order), meaning in a pool context, you stay in your lane. The rumor mill soon turned that behavior into intentional harassment of the Germans by the immigrants – it was not possible for the locals to accept that others would not have the same appreciation of what they likely saw as a universal human value, expressed through the proverb Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).

Another disaster in Magdeburg

AfD-Demonstration in Magdeburg

2016: Local Leader of the AfD, André Poggenburg

1631: Sack of Magdeburg

1631: Sack of Magdeburg by Imperial troops

For anyone who has studied German history, mention of the capital city of the German state of Saxony-Anhalt brings to mind its significant history. Founded by Charlemagne in 805 as Magadoburg, it was one of the largest cities in the time of the Holy Roman Empire, a member of the Hanseatic League, and the city where young Martin Luther went to school. Under Luther’s influence, the city sided with the Protestants in the 30 Years War, leading to the event known as the the sack of Magdeburg, the massacre in which Imperial troops ravaged the city; out of 30,000, only 5,000 survived. By the time of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the city’s population stood at 450. In the 20th century, the city suffered another disaster, being almost totally destroyed in the course of World War II. Adding insult to injury, the city found itself on the wrong side of the dividing line after the war, becoming part of the Soviet occupation zone, then incorporated into communist East Germany.

The latest disaster? This past Sunday, when the extremist Alternative for Germany party (AfD – “Alternative für Deutschland”) won 24% of the vote in the election for the Landtag, the regional parliament for Saxony-Anhalt, which meets in Magdeburg. It came in second to the Christian Democratic Union (29%). While that fact has been widely reported (and lamented), what is less well known is that if one were to add in the votes for smaller, right-wing parties such as the NPD (the neonazi party which is currently under threat to be outlawed) winning 2%, the “Free Voters” (a highly nationalistic party) at 2%, the “Alliance for Progress and Renewal” (a splinter group of the AfD) at 1%, and other smaller parties such as the scary “Die Rechte”, the percentage of far-right leaning groups is likely higher than for any other party. Unfortunately, the rise of the AfD is not limited to this state, they did well in other state elections on Sunday as well. This is the party that is strongly anti-immigrant, anti-EU, and generally anti-establishment. While the general consensus (see the Economist’s analysis) seems to be that the election results are not disastrous for Chancellor Merkel or for Germany generally, it’s worrisome for anyone familiar with the history of the Weimar Republic to see such movements gain significant popular support. Of course, Germany is not the only country seeing xenophobic, populist politics on the rise. The primary elections today in several large states in the US might help determine if the US sees a similar trend prevail in one of its major political parties.

Good Germans?

Das Sound Machine, from Pitch Perfect 2 - Photo Credit: Richard Cartwright      © 2015 Universal Studios.

Das Sound Machine, from Pitch Perfect 2 – Photo Credit: Richard Cartwright – © 2015 Universal Studios.

I watched recently with my daughter Pitch Perfect 2, a movie about a cappella music groups who compete in an international competition in Copenhagen. The main competition to the US group (the focus of the film) is the German group (“Das Sound Machine”), who are portrayed as strange, humorless, threatening, semi-robotic, and focused on winning at any price. Not an unusual stereotype, when it comes to Germans (cf. “Sprockets” from Saturday Night Live). Another popular image is currently being played out both in Munich and in local Oktoberfests across the US (and in many other countries): happy, singing, Lederhosen and Dirndl wearing beer drinkers.

Interestingly, the images of good Germans and scary Germans are playing out in a very real arena today: the reception of thousands of migrants (probably up to a million this year) in Germany, the preferred destination of most of those fleeing Syria, as well as others from Afghanistan, northern Africa, and many other countries. In contrast to their reception in Hungary, many Germans have come out to greet the new arrivals and to provide food, supplies, and toys. Some have opened up their homes to the new arrivals. Angelika Merkel has received a lot of positive press for announcing that Syrians who make it to Germany will be granted asylum. However, now that so many are arriving daily, German officials are taking a closer look at who’s coming across their borders. They also are sending newcomers away from the Oktoberfest festivities in Munich (and away from contact with the thousands of free-spending tourists) to Nürnberg, where they will not mar the fun.

The scary Germans are the ones fire-bombing the centers for housing refugees. This has been under-reported in the press outside Germany. This summer, there have been almost daily arson attacks, particularly in the former East Germany, ironically a part of the country where there have been relatively few foreigners. This is the region that gave birth to the “PEGIDA” movement last year (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident).

If the members of that group think that the influx of vast numbers of Syrians and others will change the character of the nation, they are right. The evidence is clear: the Turkish “guest workers” (who arrived in large numbers in the 1950’s and 1960’s) and their descendants have had a significant cultural impact. Turkish-German music (mostly hip-hop), novels, and films have been phenomenally popular in Germany. Turkish words have infiltrated the German language, not to the extent that English has, but any German today will recognize words such as döner (meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie), babo (boss), lan (buddy), and many others. Just as African-American culture has enriched the US, that has been the case with Turkish-German culture as well, and is likely to play out in a similar way with Syrian-Germans.

The other benefit to Germany, of course, is the influx of warm bodies, to counter-act the declining birth rate – those young Syrian-Germans will be paying for the pensions that allow retired Bavarians to have their Mass (liter) of beer at the Oktoberfest.

Appearance = character?

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 2.19.40 PM

Ece B. before her conversion

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 2.19.56 PM

Ece B. after her conversion

Given the treatment of women by ISIS (“Dash” or the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levan”) it’s hard to imagine women voluntarily joining that radical Islamist group. But in fact a number of young women from Western countries have done just that. The largest number are from Britain, but they have also come from other countries, including Germany. Recently, a 17 and 18 year old traveled to Iraq to Join ISIS from northern Germany. They created a big splash in the German media, particularly because the father of one of the girls committed suicide. One of the aspects of the story that struck me was the gradual change in behavior and appearance of the girls, as they came under the influence of ISIS online propaganda. There was an interview with the mother of one of the girls who remarked on the change in appearance, with her daughter beginning to use a headscarf, then gradually moving to a body-covering outfit. She said in the news story that she had spotted her daughter in town at a bus stop and only knew it was her from the purse she was carrying. She went to her and forced her to take off the robe she was wearing.

In this instance, the way the girls were dressing was a clear indication of their turn to a different way of life, namely radical Islam. A very different case is that highlighted in a new movie called 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets, which is about the shooting of four African-American teenagers over the volume of their rap music, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis, by Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old Caucasian man. One of the interviews that was conducted for the documentary was with Jordan Davis’ mom. She described him, as did other witnesses, as a well-behaved young man. In an NPR story about the film, she was asked about how he dressed, which was often in hip-hop style with this cap cocked to the side. She said that she told him repeatedly to pull up his pants, but he wouldn’t listen. She warned him that if he kept dressing that way, she would pull his pants down in public, which in fact she did at a mall, much to his embarrassment.

In this case, in contrast to the German girls, how Jordan dressed was not indicative of a major change in his worldview. It was just a matter of fashion, not an indicator that he had become a gang member or anything else nefarious. That, however, may not be how some whites view someone dressed that way, which, as in the tragic case of Trayvon Martin, may in this case as well have contributed to his death. The reality is that how others are dressed often provides a powerful first impression, often based on stereotypes of questionable validity.

Cry now for Argentina?

germany-v-argentina-2014-fifa-20140713-222236-556The evening news in Germany on the Tuesday (Tagesthemen) after Germany won the World Cup showed the welcoming celebration in Berlin (naturally at the Brandenburg Gate) for the victorious German national soccer team (not called die Mannschaft, as the US media dubbed the team, but rather the Nationalelf – the national eleven). There followed a piece showing some German soccer fans – they were in the process of taking down the German flags displayed in windows. In contrast to the US, the display of flags in Germany, as well as other symbols of patriotism, are relegated almost exclusively to use in contexts related to sporting events. Waving a flag in other contexts signals support for extreme right wing political parties. The national pride the Germans experienced has little to do with feelings US citizens might have in terms of the superiority of the US over other countries. It’s more a feeling of community, and perhaps happiness over something positive that brings all Germans together. More an excuse to party than anything else and to let loose, not always an easy thing for Germans.

I was reminded today of that newscast due to news from the country that Germany defeated in the World Cup final, Argentina. The despair that Argentinians felt at the loss was likely as strong, if not stronger than the joy on the part of the Germans. And now another blow to Argentinian pride, having to default on a loan to a small group of bondholders, who refused to go along with the “haircut” agreement made in 2001 to receive partial payback. The default signals serious economic problems ahead for the country, which already has an inflation rate of 40% and has lost 25% of the value of its currency against the US dollar this year. Social unrest may follow. Once again, the contrast with Germany is stark, as the Germany economy continues full steam ahead. If in fact Argentina does default on the loan and the economy worsens, it will be interesting to see if the Argentine government once again brings up the issue of sovereignty over the Malvinas islands, as the Falklands are known in Argentina, another source of hurt national pride.

Frau Merkel’s lover

16933418,14048206,highRes,1344610095Sorry, there isn’t one. François Hollande, her counterpart across the Rhein?  Sure, he’s French.  The stories in the news recently from France and Germany make it hard to imagine that the two cultures have Charlemagne (Karl der Große) as a common ancestor, or that they share much at all in terms of values and way of life. It’s nothing surprising or shocking in France that a politician would have a maîtresse, even a politician as uncharismatic and down-to-earth as François Hollande. Just because they are elected to public office, French politicians aren’t expected to stop being human or men or French.

In Germany one expects politicians to be serious, that is to say, to focus on their responsibilities and to do their duty.  Such extra-curricular activities are verboten as an unnecessary and unwanted distraction.  How do German leaders break the public trust?  If they plagiarize on their university theses, as has caused the downfall of several ministers in the last few years (dishonesty).  Or they fall behind schedule on a building project, such as the debacle over the years late new Berlin airport (incompetence).  Or they spend an inordinate amount of public money (in this case from Church tax paying German Catholics) on luxury for themselves (extravagance), as did the “bling bishop” (Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg).

The big news in Germany in recent days has nothing to do with lovers or sex, but instead with something much closer to the hearts of many Germans: their automobiles.  The scandal in the news is the sudden loss of trust in an organization Germans depend on and see as the ideal complement to their cars, namely their automobile association, the ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club). The ADAC has served as the trusted advisor to German car owners and prospective car buyers since 1903.  The most widely published periodical in Germany is not Der Spiegel or Die Zeit, it is the ADAC Motorwelt (motor world). Now it turns out that data supplied by the ADAC (for example on the number of votes for car of the year) has in some cases been either manipulated or invented, possibly in order to inflate the importance of the organization in order to gain more members.  This is not just dishonesty, incompetence and greed – it’s all three combined to swindle Germans in relation to their prize possession, the symbol of German economic power and engineering prowess. Mein Gott, o Gott! 

Unlike their preferences in cars, Germans don’t like flashy leaders.  What they do value in leaders and cars is dependability and familiarity – just the qualities the reliable and consistent Mutti Merkel provides.  Mutti take a lover?  No way.

Housing Styles and Openness to Strangers

lanaiI am in Seoul, South Korea this week but was in Honolulu last week for the CALICO Conference on language learning and technology.  Walking around Honolulu and seeing how people live prompted some thoughts about the relationship between housing styles/preferences and communication patterns.  One of the things that struck me in riding around Honolulu on the bus was how open communication between strangers was.  I noticed on a couple of occasions older Hawaiians striking up conversations with schoolchildren and, contrary to the reaction typical in many other U.S. cities, the children readily responding.  Guess they didn’t get the message about not talking with strangers.  The porous barriers between people is reflected in the housing styles in Honolulu where there is an open transition between indoors and outdoors.  You see lots of furniture outside, including sofas, that would be a strange site in most North American cities.  Hawaiians love to hang out on the lanai, which is a patio that serves as another room of the house. This is related of course to the wonderful year-round weather in Hawaii, but it struck me also as being in harmony with the casual communication style.

I think those thoughts came to me from watching while in Hawaii the German news reporting on the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma.  There was disbelief on the part of the German reporter in Oklahoma and the news anchor that houses there were made of wood and had no storm shelters. There are no tornadoes in Germany (hence probably the intense interest by Germans in this exotic and frightening weather event) but if one roared across the Atlantic, German houses would be ready.  They are built very securely and have heavy shutters with which to cover windows, with roofs covered in slate or ceramic tiles (not our flimsy roof tiles).  German houses are self-sufficient islands of security, fenced off additionally from the outside world through tall hedges or fences surrounding the garden areas and house. Doors are closed and locked.  When we exchanged houses a few years ago with a German family, my German colleague’s wife was quite upset that there were not locks on all the interior rooms. What a world of difference from Hawaii!  And certainly riding on public transportation in Germany you rarely see the kinds of interactions among strangers I saw in Honolulu. Germans tend to be reserved in public, but quite open and friendly once you get to know them. Maybe the difference has more to do with the weather than anything else, but it is interesting to reflect on the mirroring of environment and communication.

On talking to the strangers, there is a very nice recent TED talk by Maria Bezaitis, “The surprising need for strangeness

Turks in Germany

turksInteresting piece today on NPR on the changing situation of Turkish “guest workers” (Gastarbeiter) in Germany today.  These are workers who were brought to Germany in the 1960’s with the expectation that they would go back home after a few years.  But instead, the Turkish workers stayed in Germany and brought their families to join them – jobs were much better paid in Germany and the political situation in Turkey was unsettled. Today there are 2nd and 3rd generation German-Turks, who often stand between two cultures. The report indicates that increasing numbers of Turks are going back to Turkey.  In contrast to the economic problems in the European Union, the Turkish economy is doing well.  The earlier Turkish ardor for entering the EU has cooled considerably.

Another aspect of that movement back to Turkey has to do with the attitude changes in Germany (and Europe generally) since the economic downturn of the past few years.  Racism and islamophobia have increased, as jobs become harder to come by.  In Germany a group of neo-nazis murdered Turks over a period of several years.  This has led to much questioning in Germany about police lack of interest and/or competence in fighting violence against foreigners from far right groups.

One of the interesting twists in the story about Turks returning to their home land is the reverse culture shock described by one of the young returnees, who had gotten used to the sense of order in Germany society:  “He was surprised to find a Germanic desire for order welling up in him one day while walking down Istanbul’s teeming downtown thoroughfare, with masses of people jostling this way and that. ‘You know, I can’t understand why all the people are walking like this! And one day I was nearly to cry, “Stop! You go right and you go left!”, ‘ he says.” .Anyone experiencing everyday German life quickly sees the real life acting out of the German saying Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).

German rock

Dieters-Dance-Party

Dieter’s dance party on Sprockets

Story today on NPR about German pop singer Herbert Grönemeyer, one of the more popular singers in Germany in recent years.  He has a new album in which he sings some of his best known songs in English.  This has always been a dilemma for German singers, whether to record in English, so as to reach a larger audience.  Even within Germany there have been periods when radio stations would be more likely to grant air play to German singers if they sang in English, as the overwhelming number of songs played were in English, building that expectation for listeners.  Of course this has been in issue in rock music not only in Germany but for all rock singers whose native language is not English.  Interestingly, hip-hop, has gone mostly native in non-English cultures, as can be heard in popular German, French, Turkish, etc. hip-hop groups.

Predictably in the NPR interview, Grönemeyer had to address the perennial question from the US when it comes to popular artists in Germany:  what about David Hasselhoff,.  American journalists may know very little about contemporary German music, but they do know that David Hasselhoff has been very popular in Germany, not just for Bay Watch, but for his singing, hard for Americans to understand.  Scott Simon in the interview also brings up the old stereotype chestnut that in Germany there is “taste for some of the darker material than we do in this country or they do in the U.K.”  You need only consider the popular SNL skit Sprockets, in which Mike Myers played the very dark and eccentric Dieter (“Touch my monkey!”) to see this idea perpetuated.

Copy or have sex?

annette-schavanIt’s interesting to compare across cultures how politicians run into trouble from their personal behavior.  In the USA having an affair can get you into hot water.  In France, not a big deal.  The ultimate  no-no for American politicians may be saying you’re an atheist.  Lately in Germany, it’s been plagiarism that has gotten two of Angela Merkel’s ministers into trouble.  Two years ago, the wonderfully named Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg was forced to resign from being Minister of Defense after it was discovered that he had plagiarized passages in his Ph.D. dissertation.  At the time he was the most popular politician in Germany.  Now, the current Minister of Education, Annette Schavan, has been found by a university panel to be guilt of plagiarism in her Ph.D. thesis.  It’s particular troublesome, as she oversees German universities.

For German politicians having advanced academic degree can be a big plus (unless , of course, they’re caught cheating).  That’s quite a difference from the U.S. where politicians don’t want to be labeled intellectual eggheads.  George W. Bush promoted himself by talking up his Texas roots, not his ivy league degrees.

Competitiveness

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 10.26.11 PMI’m in the process of watching the Super Bowl, a quintessentially American institution and a demonstration of American competitiveness. There’s a lot of stake of course, but do the coaches and the players have to look so angry all the time? It started with the coin toss when the team captains frowningly looked away from each other. As the game progresses, lots of scowling players.  The tv commentators commented that the respective coaches encourage their players to be “on edge”.  In fact, lots of pushing and near fights.  But for me the most interesting scowling was the “game face” on Beyonce throughout her half time set. Does even music have to have an “in your face” attitude? This is an image of America that’s being projected to the rest of the world, in an event broadcast to a large number of countries.

Here’s another TV program which may not embody the best of a culture:  the German variety show, “Wetten, dass…” (I’ll bet that…).  An article in today’s NY Times, “Stupid German Tricks, Wearing Thin“, discusses the drop in popularity of the show which has run since 1981 and has been one of the highest profile shows on German TV.  I have to agree with the article that it’s astounding that such a dreadful show would have such a long run, given the grand cultural traditions in German literature and music.  Of course one could say the same for the popular German singers of recent decades such as Peter Alexander or Heino.  Could it be that the silly antics of “Wetten, dass..” (contestants bet with the host and others that they can win ridiculous challenges) are a release valve for the seriousness of German life? German society, like that of the US, is largely individualistic and values and rewards individual achievement. But for Germans, entertainment is making a mockery of that competitiveness.

Reconciliation

barbaraStory today on NPR about the song “Gottingen” from French singer Barbara.  A beautiful song, beautifully sung, on an unlikely subject for a popular French song – French-German friendship.  This was even the more the case at the time when the song was written, in 1964, when the memories of WW II were fresh.  More surprising is the fact that the woman who wrote and performed the song, whose real name was Monique Andrée Serf, was a French Jew, who had a traumatic childhood, hiding from the Nazis in occupied France. She had been invited to come to Göttingen, a small university town in central Germany. She categorically declined the offer, but eventually was persuaded to come for just one concert, but then ended up staying for a week, having been overwhelmed by the positive reception and the friendliness of the people.

At the end of the week, she wrote the moving tribute to the city, in which she dares to compare the sleepy German town to Paris.  She celebrates “les enfants blonds de Göttingen” (the blond children), the Grimm fairy tales (Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were professors there), and the dark soul of the Germans (“Eux, c’est la mélancolie même” – with them it’s melancholy itself).  The images strike us today as stereotypes, but they are positive – not like the negative images prevalent at the time in France. The song had an impact on the relations between the two countries and has been referenced by politicians from both Germany (Gerhard Schröder) and France (François Mitterand).