Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reductio ad Hitlerum

Godwin’s Law states that as an internet debate continues, the probability of somebody making an inappropriate comparison with Hitler or the nazis tends towards 1. In plain English, this means that if you get into a long argument, somebody is bound to say something crass and stupid, like “Hitler had a dog, therefore all dog-owners are nazis.” The unwritten rule is that when this happens, the debate is over, and whoever made that comparison is automatically deemed to have lost it. I imagine there is an equivalent law for inappropriate references to Stalin or communism, and if anyone knows what it’s called, I’d be interested to find out.

It’s an important point for me because I personally cringe whenever, for example, people complain that Google is staffed by Nazis just because YouTube redesigned its site. I’ve thought long and hard about why I don’t have the same reaction when people make light of the Spanish Inquisition, and come to the conclusion that it’s several generations removed from us, no longer so clearly in the collective consciousness. That, and the fact that it always makes me think of Monty Python.

Nazi Germany, though, is still just about in living memory, and not something Germans feel they can joke about. There is also the point that there are extremist political groups that draw on nazi ideology for their inspiration — which is to say, there are actual groups of people that can fairly and almost accurately be termed “nazi”. These groups do not include people who insist on criticizing every split infinitive and misattached modifier.

I recently saw a fairly old tweet (which I won’t attempt to identify, as I’m not trying to start a twit-storm) featuring an image of a Venn diagram. Various circles with labels like “MRAs” (i.e., “Men’s Rights Activists”) and “Gamers” all intersected to such a degree that very little was outside of the intersection labelled “Nazis”.

Now, I suspect this is supposed to be sarcastic, but I can’t really tell. Mostly, I can’t really tell because, well, it looks sarcastic, but then somebody tweeted to him that you can’t call these people Nazis, and he tweeted back that yes, he could. Well... yes, he can. I just don’t think it’s a good idea, and if he was being serious, he was also being horribly ignorant. Looking through his Twitter feed, he certainly seems to have it in for gamers.

I think “gamers” probably refers to the storm-in-a-teacup story known as “gamergate” which revealed to a barely credulous world the astounding fact that some people who play or create video games are (gasp!) nasty bullies who are prepared to use threats of physical (including sexual) violence to intimidate. Which is a horrible situation that should never be, but hardly a surprise to anyone who has had any kind of experience with human beings, and certainly doesn’t warrant classing nearly all gamers as nazis. MRAs, for those who don’t know, are men who ostensibly worry that feminism has gone too far, but when you speak to them they turn out to be what my mother euphemistically calls “male chauvinist pigs”.

Nasty people. But “nazis”?

In my estimation, nazis are also nasty people, but it doesn’t follow that all nasty people are nazis. Let’s be clear what we are talking about: National socialism is a political ideology which takes fascism (which itself replaces socialism’s class warfare with warfare between nations) and grafts onto it “scientific racism” (a nice way to refer to the practice of using pseudo-science to justify xenophobia). Having established a one-party state, the nazis set about imprisoning and murdering millions and millions of people, spending vast amounts of money nobody had which would have ruined Germany’s economy had they not also provoked a deadly war which laid waste to much of Europe. Estimates of the number of people killed by the nazi regime go up to about 21 million.

There is, quite simply, no comparison there. It jars to see people using the word “nazi” to mean “unpleasant” or “unnecessarily strict” because while many members of the Nazi Party were undoubtedly both, the term means a whole lot more besides.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

On turning a setback into an opportunity

Germans are regularly accused of not having a sense of humour, which of course isn’t true. (To clarify: yes, it is true they are regularly accused; it is not true they don’t have one.) German humour may sometimes be laboured and overly goofy, and it is true there are areas of life where humour is definitely unwelcome (try giving a light-hearted eulogy at a German funeral, for example, and nobody will speak to you for three months); but that’s not the same as saying Germans are humourless. It’s just that there is a Time And A Place.

Sometimes, though, a little humour can pop up in unexpected places, and the sheer rarity of that happening makes it all the more awesome.

Case in point: a little while back, an optician’s in our area was broken into, and the thieves made off with thousands of euros’ worth of spectacle frames.

Yes, spectacle frames. It’s hard to imagine a black market in spectacle frames, but unless the burglars were themselves in dire need of eye tests and broke into the wrong establishment, it seems there is, somewhere on this planet, a man sidling up to opticians in pubs and whispering out of the corner of his mouth: “Got some stuff for you. Two dozen frames. Fell off the back of a lorry. To you, half a grand.”

It is a pretty weird story, but the optician’s managed to find a way to turn it to their advantage. In this morning’s paper was their latest ad, featuring a man in a balaclava and brandishing a flashlight. “Our frames are so good,” proclaimed the ad, “people are even stealing them.” Which is definitely a more positive way of looking at it. “We welcome all customers,” it went on. “But please, during business hours only.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How to get yourself arrested

Generally speaking, in Germany, if you want to get yourself arrested, you have to be fairly determined or terminally stupid. Where possible, the police prefer the non-confrontational approach; so how, you might well ask, can you get yourself arrested for not getting up from your seat? By being really, incredibly dumb, that’s how.

The story begins on one of Germany’s high-speed trains, an ICE (Intercity Express for the uninitiated). A passenger, who has just boarded the train, has finally found his reserved seat and is slightly dismayed to find a young man already sitting there. I personally hate it when that happens, because it means I have to speak to a stranger, which, for an Englishman, is up there with “being waterboarded” on the list of things I would rather not have to do. But since our unfortunate passenger is German, he doesn’t hesitate to politely ask the young man to move.

He stays put.

Nobody likes to have to move, but there it is: if you didn’t pay to reserve that seat, you’re supposed to give it up to whoever did. That’s sort of the point, really. So there began what our newspaper referred to as “a discussion”.

And then the young man decided that the only way to be allowed to stay in his seat (which wasn’t his seat) would be to commit a crime, so he operated the emergency brake. Yes, in Germany, it’s a crime. The fines can be massive, not to mention the court costs; and if the sudden halt caused any injuries, you can be looking at a bill with a six-figure sum on it.

You have to wonder which planet this guy’s brain was orbiting at the time. The guards came to discover that the “emergency” was a squabble over a seat reservation. Any other passengers whose sympathies may have been with the young man were unlikely, at this point, to be as well-disposed towards him. Unsurprisingly, the guards informed him that when the train arrived at the next stop (fifteen minutes late now, because... well, y’know, emergency brake and everything), the young man would have to leave the train.

For some reason, and don’t try this at home, he thought to himself, “How can I possibly make this even worse for myself?” It was a stroke of genius (of a kind) what he came up with: not only did he still refuse to leave, meaning the police would have to be called to physically haul him off the train, but he casually explained that he had a knife and wasn’t afraid to use it, meaning that the police, when they came, came in force.

I don’t know the details of his arrest, but I can guarantee it was a spectacle of the sort you so rarely get in this country. Accusations of police brutality do surface from time to time, but what was this guy thinking? Did he think everyone would back down? Did he suppose he would be let off with a warning? Perhaps a free ticket and an apology for the inconvenience?

At any rate, the police — however many of them there were — manhandled him off the train using whatever technique they had of dealing with potentially armed idiots to prevent them from sticking their knife into anything, and of course found, perhaps predictably, that he didn’t have any kind of weapon on him.

I think the only way anyone would be able to top this would be to board a plane, smile apologetically at the cabin crew and say, “I’m a bit nervous — this is my first suicide bombing mission.”

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Those untrustworthy Hessians

There’s a story about an American doing some historical research in England, who stumbles on two towns, just a couple of miles apart. The inhabitants of one refuse to speak to the inhabitants of the other, and vice versa. This intrigued the American, and he scoured the local libraries and museums for clues as to how and why this came about. After three years of hard work, he finally discovered that the problem started after one of the towns neglected to warn the other that the Danes were invading, 1,000 years previously.

You’d think the Germans would be more sensible than that, but you’d be wrong, as a recent conversation that took place bears testimony. As a bonus, it also describes, in a nutshell, the typical mode of communication employed by me and my wife.

Wife: So, I was at the store, and this man — Hessian, of course — came in with a bottle and told the cashier she’d just sold it to his brother. Well, obviously, her face fell; she could get into serious trouble for that. So, anyway—

Me: (interrupting) Hang on — trouble? Why?

Wife: Well, him being under 18 and everything.

Me: Oh! She sold a bottle of something alcoholic to somebody who was under age?

You see what I’m up against? I usually have to remember half my wife’s lines for her.

Wife: That’s what I said.

Me: Then what?

Wife: Well, I’d already paid, so I didn’t hang around. But I saw him leave the store, with the bottle, and get into the only car there registered in Hesse.

Me: What does his being Hessian have to do with it?

Wife: Well, nothing. But... you know, Hessian. What else would you expect?