Friday, March 30, 2012


YouTube is full of videos made by excited foreigners driving on the famed autobahns of Germany where, as everyone knows, there is no speed limit. Unfortunately, a lot of these videos involve people driving recklessly, committing various traffic offences and infractions, and, yes, sometimes even breaking the speed limit. Because, of course, not all autobahns are speed-limit free, and in any case the “no speed limit” thrill applies only to cars, and to other motor vehicles with a maximum permitted gross weight of at most 3.5 tonnes, as long as you’re not towing any trailers. Even then, you’re not really supposed to go much faster than about 130km/h (80mph), and that only if the road and weather conditions make it safe.

So much for the inspiration behind this video. What of the curious jump with me holding my nose? That’s a reference to an old British children’s television show, Rentaghost. It was very silly, and actually not very good (especially in its later years), but it remains an integral part of my schooldays. Rentaghost told the story of an agency run by, well, ghosts, who were available for hire for whatever you needed a ghost for. One of the things the ghosts could do was to teleport themselves by pinching their noses…

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Right... what was I thinking?

My latest video, the next in my increasingly popular “Surviving Germany” series, is about talking on the phone; and it may surprise you to know that there was three minutes’ worth of material in that idea. It certainly surprised me.

It’s the end credit sequence that I don’t understand, and I wrote the screenplay. In case you’re one of those who always bail as soon as the credits roll (and then comment to ask where I got the music), after the actual credits my “Surviving Germany” videos have a silent cameo scene. This is in fact because if I were to let the credits roll throughout the whole of the music, they’d roll hypnotically slowly.

This one, as I said, mystifies even me. I could think of nothing better than to have myself standing in the middle of nowhere with a mobile phone. The “middle of nowhere” is represented by signposts pointing to “Grossgüllen” and “Kleingüllen” and giving impossible distances. If I may be pretentious for just a moment, this is a reference to Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit (in German, Der Besuch der alten Dame), set in the fictional town of Güllen. The name Güllen, in turn, is derived from the German word for liquid manure.

But that’s about it, really. That is honestly as far as I got with the thinking for that little scene, and I simply don’t know what it’s supposed to mean. See for yourself.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cryptic thumbnails and cats’ teeth

I love being cryptic with my video titles and thumbnails, and this little vlog is no exception. The title isn’t that difficult to understand: since I begin by denying that I am about to become a father, Denial seems to be the obvious title. But what of the text in the thumbnail? Ceci n’est pas une chatte is French for “this is not a cat” which, considering that it is emblazoned above an image of me holding a cat, would appear to be a denial of something that is patently obvious.

It is in fact a reference to a famous painting by René Magritte. It is a painting of a pipe, below which is written Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Mystifying at first; but when you think about it, the legend is perfectly accurate. It is not a pipe, it is a painting of a pipe. In the same way, what you see below is literally not a cat, but a video.

The unfortunate bit happens about one minute in, where I have a wonderful close-up of Clyde yawning and displaying his beautiful teeth. It wasn’t until I had uploaded the video and watched it back that I noticed something odd: Clyde seems to have lost his upper left canine tooth. He had been slightly off his food and rather subdued the last couple of days, but I’d put it down to having us grabbing him and dripping medication into his eyes three times a day.

Seems that another trip to the vet is required.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Write no evil

This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
After all these years, Adolf Hitler continues to exert a strange and hypnotic force on the German psyche. A weekly periodical called Zeitungszeugen has been denied permission to reprint heavily annotated excerpts from Mein Kampf, on the grounds that they couldn’t guarantee that readers would read the annotations. This would expose them, apparently, to the full, undiluted power of Hitler’s words, and they would all go out and start declaring war on Poland. I myself, in doing a bit of research for this post, accidentally allowed myself to catch sight of a picture of the front cover of the book, and am now seized with the desire to shout antisemitic slogans at random passers-by, so I know how dangerous this can be.

Well, obviously not: that was deliberate hyperbole in order to make a point. But the Munich Regional Court’s decision is enough to make you believe that that was what they were afraid of. The problem, according to the court, is that Zeitungszeugen had no plans to interweave the original with the annotations; they were to be separated.

That the courts were involved should not be construed as official censorship, as that would be undemocratic. This is a copyright dispute. Because Hitler died childless and nobody else claimed ownership (his great-nephew, unsurprisingly, wanted nothing to do with it), the copyright passed to the State of Bavaria. It’s due to expire in 2016, and the Bavarian government is, ahem, slightly concerned about what will happen then. It’s not illegal to buy or own copies of Mein Kampf. It’s not unconstitutional because it was written long before the German Basic Law was. It’s all a bit of a headache, really.

To put it into perspective, we are talking about a two-volume work that Mussolini described as “boring”. It’s very antisemitic, yes, but its controversial status — apart from the fact that it was written by a man who made Beelzebub look like a primary school teacher — derives from a single sentence about how many problems could be solved by murdering a few thousand Jews. There’s a lot of other stuff in there, like Hitler’s plan to form an alliance with Italy and (get this) the British Empire to hold back the insidious and (according to Hitler) Jewish influence of Marxism. A plan which, famously, didn’t quite work out.

The stated aim is to prevent such stirring stuff from getting into the hands of neonazis, but to be honest, I think you’ll find that extremist groups will write their own scripts. Most other Germans — most other people, in fact — are perfectly well aware that Hitler was a nasty man and that slaughtering millions of people is at the “really atrociously evil” end of the scale, and their opinions won’t be swayed by reading Mein Kampf, or little bits of it, without the helpful notes about what a rotten cad Hitler is, or whatever is supposed to go in these annotations.

Worse than too much information (and this brings me to my clever Dickens quote) is not enough information. As a collective whole, Germany is very serious about the need to ensure that This Never Happens Again, but being kept in the dark about the man who started it all and what motivated him is hardly helping. If anything, it’s helping to deify him, possibly the worst thing that can happen, as his Almighty Word is being treated as sacred. It’s not the most violent book ever written (the Old Testament beats Mein Kampf hands down), and the only reason it’s treated with such care is the identity of its author.

In any case, this being 2012, I just found the complete, unabridged and unannotated text of Mein Kampf online in PDF format, fully accessible without any tricks, proxies, anonymizer or other devious methods short of a quick Google search. I can’t link to it — I’m allowed to read the book, but I’m not allowed to disseminate it — but I can tell you one thing: Mussolini was right.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Berlin any more

So the former President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Christian Wulff, forced to resign (as you doubtless recall) as his fondness for the jet-setting high life came to light, just never quite manages to leave the newspapers. He may have been moved off the front page in favour of more important stories (like the Queen of England’s Diamond Jubilee), but he still takes up too many column inches for a man in his position.

He’s not willing to forego his €199,000 pension. He insists on his right to have a staffed office for the rest, it seems, of his natural life, costing the taxpayer another €280,000 a year. Now he wants a big send-off.

Apparently, he’s entitled to a Zapfenstreich, a word which can refer either to Last Post, or a full military tattoo. Since he’s not dead (and so still costing the taxpayer €479,000 annually), we’re talking about the tattoo: the sort where a military band plays a selection of songs by torchlight.

Wulff is entitled to choose three songs he’d like to have, and so he chose four. At this point, even his closest allies are starting to shuffle their feet in embarrassment. He’s chosen a march, a hymn, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and…

Over the Rainbow.

Nobody’s quite sure what to make of that, but a song that is indelibly associated with a flight of fancy into a faraway world populated by talking lions and flying monkeys is an odd choice to say the least. I’ll leave you to ponder on what it says about the emotional state of the man, but it strikes me that there must be other songs more suited to politicians than the usual pompous church music.

ABBA’s hit Money, Money, Money, for example, might do for most politicians, including Wulff. Also appropriate for Wulff, and any politician forced to leave in disgrace, might be Ray Charles singing Hit the Road, Jack. The obvious choice for any politician caught out in the more lurid sort of scandal would be It Wasn’t Me by Shaggy. And so on; you get the general idea.

We can only hope that we never have to use Sympathy for the Devil.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Me making money from a scandal

Yes, this is me making money from a political scandal by uploading and monetizing a video on the subject. And in fact, since I made this video, another politician has got himself into a bit of a pickle: as happened to Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg (or Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, as his friends get to call him), it has been discovered that Bijan Djir-Sarai plagiarised his thesis and so has been stripped of his doctorate. How the mighty are fallen.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Vlogger of the flies

Well, it’s a blog, and pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t bother trying to explain it. Although, it is going to be interesting to see what guesses about the mysterious project my wife and I have ahead of us this year. Who would like to have a go?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

See no evil...

Multiculturalism is a topic that raises emotions, especially in Germany, as it is a subject that inevitably sparks violent arguments in which accusations of racism feature prominently. Start trying to investigate the causes of social unease, and whichever side of the argument you come down on, the other side will act as if you had just instituted Satanism as the official national religion. Sit on the fence, or disagree with both sides and come up with some new idea, and nobody will ever speak to you again. So better not to talk about it at all.

Now, let me make one thing clear at the outset. I am an immigrant. I think I have integrated quite well, all things considered, into German society and culture, although I must also point out that my own culture is not far removed from German culture so the transition was quite easy. Although not really relevant to what follows, I personally think that while immigration is generally a good thing, I think it has been mismanaged and the ideal of multiculturalism perverted in a way that in some areas has contributed to a ghettoisation of society.

The background is this: by far the greatest number of immigrants to German are Turkish. There are more Turks living in Berlin than live in any city in Turkey except Istanbul and Ankara — getting off the U-Bahn at Kottbusser Tor is enough to convince you of that (in fact, line U1 is locally known as the “Orient Express”). Mostly, everything seems to go remarkably smoothly, and the kind of race riots that flared up in Britian in the 1980s, or that flare up in Paris every now and again, are pretty much unknown here. Nevertheless, the Turkish community, like most immigrant communities anywhere in the world, features elevated levels of poverty and therefore also crime; and when I was living in Berlin, so-called “honour killings” — young men murdering their sisters for dating Germans — were semi-regularly reported in that sensationalist manner the tabloids have (so such reports have to be taken with a certain amount of salt).

So we have a prominent immigrant community with the typical challenges you’d expect, although you wish you didn’t. But recently, something new has arrived into the mix: the fear of Islamic terrorism. In particular, the fear that young men are being radicalised, a hatred of the West being instilled into them.

It’s easy to imagine how this happens. The children or grandchildren of immigrants, born in Germany to Turkish parents, may experience a sort of identity crisis: expected to be Turkish at home but German outside of the home, and not properly brought up in either culture, form their own identity, based on badly misunderstood Turkish values. Wait for these people to reach hormonal age, make them feel insecure about their identity, give them the beginnings of a persecution complex, and that seed will grow.

So, obviously, if you were the Interior Minister of Germany, you’d probably want to investigate this. Is it true? How much of it is true? Should we be worried? If it is true, what can be done about it? If it isn’t true, what can be done to reassure the general public? You’d probably start by commissioning a report. That’s exactly what Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich did.

It didn’t go down well at all. It probably wasn’t a wise decision to publish it in the Bild, Germany’s biggest tabloid newspaper, but let’s gloss over that. Friedrich’s study — in fact, not just the study itself, but Friedrich’s decision to even commission it — was roundly criticized by the opposition parties.

The Socialist Party’s Integration Representative, Aydan Özoguz, was quoted as saying:
Anyone who is serious about tackling the ghettoisation and violent tendencies of young people should not do so with the obvious intention without abandoning entire religious communities to populist sentiments.
Remember that bit about “entire religious communities”. This will be important later.

But criticism came from the governing coalition itself. The Integration Policy Spokesman of the Free Democrats, the junior coalition partner, a certain Serkan Tören, complained that:
…once more, taxpayers’ money is being used to finance a study to produce headlines but no new knowledge.
And the Justice Minister, who rejoices in the name of Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, gave us this pearl of wisdom:
We do not need a debate which conveys a distorted image of the country of immigration, Germany.
Now, this is true, in the sense that any debate should result, in the end, in an accurate picture. That’s what a debate is for. The study may be seriously flawed, it may be completely wrong; but if so, that should come out of the debate. You conduct a study, then you debate it, then you see what conclusions you come to. What you don’t do — and if she doesn’t grasp this fundamental point, she has no business being Justice Minister — is look at the study and then refuse to debate it on the grounds that it conflicts with your beliefs. If it conflicts with your beliefs, either it is wrong, or your beliefs are wrong, or, more likely, both are flawed.

By now, you may be wondering what on earth this study said that was so awful. Well, according to the Spiegel, the study found that about a quarter of young (between the ages of 14 and 32) Turks living in Germany with Turkish passports, and about 15% of those with German passports, were strongly religious, had strong aversions to the west, tended to be violent and tended not to have any wish to integrate.

Remember that bit of Özoguz’s statement I asked you to remember, the bit about “entire religious communities”? Would you say that the study concluded that all Muslims were unwilling to integrate? Özoguz apparently things so. As does Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, since she felt it necessary to point out that “citizens of Islamic faith live in Germany today, quite naturally, and are at home here”.

But of course, they’re falling into the classic trap of thinking that if all potential terrorists are Muslim, then all Muslims must be potential terrorists. It’s difficult to explain the fallacy to anyone who doesn’t get it, without drawing a Venn diagram, but Friedrich had a shot at it:
The bigger picture shows that Muslims in Germany categorically reject terrorism.
In other words, Friedrich is accusing his critics of concentrating on the sensationalist headlines instead of looking at the report properly. Which does rather make me wonder why he chose a sensationalist tabloid to publish his study, but politicians aren’t always known for their expert handling of the press.

Really, there needs to be a better way of dealing with the situation. It strikes me that either the study is accurate, or it is not accurate. If it is accurate, it must be taken seriously and acted on; if it is not accurate, we need to know exactly what isn’t accurate about it. Either way, refusing to debate, or even read, it properly is utterly counter-productive.