Friday, 1 June 2007

Farmer Klaus' Cows

TV can help you understand a country. But if you want to see the real abyss, tune into some godforsaken local channel, late at night. Anthropology as an academic subject could easily be replaced by a "EuroTrash" selection along those lines. Or "BritTrash" or "AmeriTrash", for that matter…

Last night, for example, I watched the most unbelievably shameless TV show – every sentence was in bad faith, and it went on for a good 45 minutes. The whole point of the show seems to have been to make as many people as possible call a very expensive hotline. Their way of achieving this, though endlessly embarassing, was actually rather ingenious:

They promise 1000 € to anyone who manages to answer a very, very, bleedingly simple question. Then they pretend as best they can that the question is rocket science (as Americans would put it), to make viewers think they alone are intelligent enough to know the answer, and itch to call in. The trick of course must be that if you tried to call, you wouldn't get through, but be charged lots of money – not a single viewer was put through during the entire time I watched.

The question: Farmer Klaus has 17 cows on his farm. All but 6 run away. How many are left?

This simple child's riddle was repeated in the grave, deferential manner of a Field's Medalist who describes Fermat's Last Theorem – about 59 times! They even kept saying: "I really think this question is so difficult that most viewers won't get it. If you do, please call in. The lines are free: you'll win 1000 € immediately".

By the end of the show, the show's host, a slightly dipsy girl who is obviously not THAT stupid, was still pretending that she hadn't worked out the answer.

It is striking that people are willing to lie quite so obviously and persistently, whilst casting themselves as complete fools, in order to be on TV and / or run a scam. You may have been shocked at the voyeurism of Big Brother a few years ago. But Big Brother only allows you to see people's little dirty secrets, which you would have guessed at anyway. This, by comparison, is the real thing, showing quite how far people will debase themselves for an hour's late-night local TV glory…

Thursday, 31 May 2007

Academic Boycott of Israel

Yesterday, I was going to write a blog entry about the UK Union of University Teachers and Lecturers´ support for an academic boycott of Israel. Instead, I collapsed into bed... But I'm glad I didn't, for now I can point you to Henry Midgley's article on this over at Bits of News. (Also be sure regularly to check out his excellent blog here).

I'll write an article on an event which triggered the 1968 student revolution in Germany soon, so check back for sex, violence and rock'n'roll shortly...

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Honouring Dead Soldiers

Soldiers and death have long been a controversial topic in Germany – not just because of the Nazi past. In the German peace movement, for example, a slogan – borrowed from Kurt Tucholsky – is very popular: “Soldiers are Murderers.” A few years ago, the German Constitutional Court ruled that this slogan did not constitute slander, and therefore was a legitimate use of freedom of expression, so long as it wasn't used to describe any particular soldier. A fair enough legal cop-out to resolve the problem.

But now the topic soldiers and death is re-emerging again in a very different way, which, alas, will not be resolved by a clever judge. In the “Bonn Republic” it was taboo to use the German army for military missions abroad. But since 1994, German soldiers have been participating in foreign missions once again – and over the last thirteen years 69 have died in combat, including some who were killed a few days ago in a suicide attack in Afghanistan. It has become increasingly apparent that their comrades and families wish that there was a central monument at which they could remember the dead. This is understandable.

It is also important for a democracy not to turn its eyes away when citizens have died on a mission which the people – represented by Parliament – has sent them on. After all, unnecessary wars can best be avoided when all voters are well-aware of the faces and stories of the nation's own victims. This insight has inspired Immanuel Kant's stipulation in Perpetual Peace that a nation should not have a standing army, so that all citizens must fear that any victims of a war they embark upon might be friend or even family. Not to credit Bush with Kant's analytical gifts, this is also the very reason why the US President wouldn't allow the coffins of American soldiers to be photographed...

At the same time, though, the opposite danger also exists. The pictures of glorifying or simply tasteless war monuments in Germany express this more eloquently than words. All too easily, war monuments can either speak too positively of war, in an attempt to justify the immense suffering (I expressly avoid the word “sacrifice”, though suffering is perhaps also euphemistic) it imposes on victims. Or they speak of the dead, often in their teens when they were slain in the battlefield, as though they had willingly laid down their life in pursuit of a noble ideal. Whilst the former phenomenon is particularly true of 19th century and Nazi-time German monuments, the latter holds for many 20th century designs too – I have, for example, often observed it on English World War I memorials.

It is imperative that we are more honest with ourselves, even when talking about soldiers who died on missions we wholly approve of. Even when soldiers were indeed pursuing a noble ideal, and even when they did make a conscious decision to risk their life, it is too easy too elevate them into a moral sainthood which only serves to mask the fact that we all, as citizens of a democracy, sent them to their death. So please no more talk of teenagers valliantly and willingly laying down their life – whether it be for the most noble cause or the basest nationalism.

Assuming that a new German war memorial will soon be built, the real question therefore is what the inscription should be. I've already noted two possible dangers, which should at all cost be avoided – even if, in the extreme case, the cost is not building the monument.

Let me finish with a suggestion from Munich. On the Leopoldstrasse, a central, representative 19th century boulevard, a rather martial triumph arc has stood for one and a half centuries. Its original inscription: “To the victories of the Bavarian Army”. After it was destroyed in World War II, the monument was rebuilt, with its original inscription on one side. But on the other side, it now reads, in plain latters and sober, evocative language:

“Dem Sieg geweiht. Vom Krieg zerstört. Dem Frieden mahnend”

“Dedicated to Victory. Destroyed by War. Calling to Peace”