American Views Abroad
When you live abroad, you have to adjust to changes and perceptions on just about everything. How different societies approach money, work and leisure time, what government is supposed to be there for, the idea that every one should have an equal chance of surviving illness irregardless of how much it costs are some examples. When you are an American, you are also confronted with myths or ideas about the US, whether correct or not. Truth is the longer you live abroad, the more difficult it gets to grasp all the real changes taking place there. A three part series in the Los Angeles Times on If America Is Richer, What Are Its Families So Much Less Secure is essential, sobering reading at www.latimes.com/business/specials/la-newdeal-cover.story
. It reports in detail on how economic risk has shifted from government and business to working families and how far safety nets have eroded or vanished. It's worth taking the time to read. (via www.barbyawp.blogspot.com
Bush's Victory: Second Thoughts provides the best explanation yet of why he got re-elected. It discusses how the election had more to do with emotions and attitudes than facts, how voting for the Republicans made average voters 'feel superior', how fundamental ideas about masculinity, particularly when connected to fear, played so well for the Republicans and how the 'horse-race coverage' the media gave the campaign all led to the defeat of the Democracts. From The New York Review of Books online site at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17788
Bush's trip to Germany has been covered quite well in the progressive media:http://www.commondreams.org
I just read in Der Spiegel's
online edition that 20 pro-Bush protesters staged a demonstration in Mainz, compared to 12,000 who protested against Bush and his policies.
American needs meet German ambitions, an opinion piece by Gunther Hellmann who teaches political science at J W Goethe University in Frankfurt, can be read at www.iht.com/articles/2005/02/22/opinion/edhell.html
. 'The future of German-American relations hinges to a large extent on the question of whether a new balance can be struck between Washington's desire for supportive partners and Berlin's desire for co-equal leadership. Four factors caution against too much optimism. First, the strategic outlook on the world has always differed in crucial ways between Washington and Berlin. In recent years it has sharpened.'
William Pfaff argues in last Sunday's Observer that Bush's 'trip will fail because he and his administration do not understand what really divides most continental European governments from the United States today. At the same time, Europeans are mostly unwilling to confront these issues because of the trouble with Washington they imply.' The issues are 1) the definition of the crisis. 'Few Europeans believe either in the global 'war on terror' or the 'war against tyranny' as Washington describes them.' 2) American claim to global domination and 'it's hostility to Europe's acquiring political or military power commensurate with European economic power.' 3) The 'US repudiated the system of absolute state sovereignty that has governed international society since 1648, and is the basis of modern international law.' The article is particularly important because it gets to the heart of the differences. The US sees its role as benevolent and of divine origin. Add to that the principle that 'creative destruction' will produce a new order in the world. In contrast, the EU is committed to preserving international order. http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,6903,1418474,00.html
Der Spiegel's English site has 'With a Hush and a Whisper, Bush Drops Town Hall Meeting with Germans.' www.spiegel.de
. It reports on how 'the White House got cold feet. Bush's strategists felt an uncontrolled encounter with the German public would be too unpredictable..... The Germans insisted that a free forum should be exactly that.' An interesting article to read and think about. Should a town hall meeting be so organized that no question comes as a surprise, no real debate takes place and no criticism is expressed publicly or issues discussed in detail?
Here's a blog post I read about the current tone in America:seetheforest.blogspot.com
I would like to repeat a quote by Noam Chomsky which I found in a Wikipedia
article on censorship.
"Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you're really in favor of free speech, then you're in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you're not in favor of free speech."
-Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992)
Chomsky used this to point out the danger of denying Nazis the right of freedom to express their abhorant views. In my opinion, this is the ideal of freedom of speech as it is defined in our American Bill of Rights. I believe one begins to destroy the essence of democracy when one begins making decisions about which opinions may be voiced and which may not be voiced.
Today is "Free Mojtaba and Arash Day
", a global blogger action day for the right of bloggers to express their opinions in the Internet. Two Iranian bloggers, Arash Sigarchi and Mojtaba Saminejad, have been jailed in Iran for doing just that. Here is a BBC article telling what this is about: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4278241.stm
The Website championing the cause of freedom of speech for bloggers is at Committee to Protect Bloggers
. If you feel strongly about freedom of speech, please do everything you can today to express your opinion about this.
Bush will be arriving in Germany for 24 hours on Tuesday; the city of Mainz where he is meeting up with Schroeder is all but pinned down under enormous security; Reuters reported this week that the Germans were greatly relieved when a type of community town meeting with local citizens, originally planned by the US side, was cancelled because his popularity is so low, and in an interview with a German TV Washington correspondent yesterday, one of the main questions was about Iran. Was the US planning to invade soon? What about diplomatic initiatives to try to settle the situation? Bush's face seemed pasty as if he had on too much make-up and he certainly didn't look at ease. He avoided answering directly. Yea, he said, I've heard those rumors about Iran. Common aims is the name of the game. No country wants to see Iran armed with nuclear weapons. Germany is striving for a permanent seat at the UN and in answer to whether or not the US will support this, he talked about Germany being a great nation and he didn't have a stand on the question. I have often heard from far away here about his direct no-nonsense appeal, but I found him very political and not at all prepared to reveal anything. Nor did he look friendly. In the words of my husband, he came across as ueberheblich, i.e. arrogant, and he felt he was not telling the truth on either point about Germany.
The Europeans were immediately taken up with the question of the US invading Iran the day the story broke in The New Yorker. Trying to follow the story from both sides, I get the impression of a cat and mouse game. The mouse scoots around trying to avoid physical destruction, the cat pretends either sleep or through gazing off into the vision thing, being aloof and in control at the same time. Scratch the surface and the picture looks different. The US military is so drained by the situation in Iraq. A good look around the press these last few weeks tells the more realistic story. Truthout has an excellent article on how Experts see the Military Draft as Inevitable at http://forum.truthout.org/blog/story/2005/2/18/9166/09308
In Rolling Stone under politics is Return of the Draft at http://www.rollingstone.com/politics
. Common Dreams News Center picked up a USA Today article on how US Troops Say It's Hard to Get Medical Care (particularly National Guardsmen and reservists) at www.commondreams.org/headlines05/0218-06.htm
. In today's New York Times a headline reads 'Iraq or No, Guard Bonus Lures Some to Re-enlist.'
'Last year, the Guard attracted 49,210 soldiers, about 7,000 short of its goal of 56,000, reflecting its shifting role from weekend duty preparing for national disasters to defending foreign soil.' The article reported a $15,000 bonus for those re-enlisting for six years and $7,500 for three. Not all family members of those re-enlisting were elated at the thought, but there is an economical incentive that pulls in some. 'Particularly in relatively poor areas of the country....., the Guard will be recruiting in coming months as its roster of recruiters swells to 4,100 from 2,700. A low-ranking Guard member can make about $35,000 a year in a combat
tour in Iraq, or about $5,000 more than a young schoolteacher can earn here in a year.'
Here where there is still a draft, a young man has an option of doing either military or community service. School teachers are paid quite well and college education is very inexpensive. No one has to go off to war to pay up college loans, family medical bills or use a bonus for a down payment on a house. No one is trapped into having to pursue such an option: going off to war to pay the bills.
In Part Two of Timebends, Arthur Miller talks about his first wedding (to a Catholic) and meeting her relatives in Ohio in 1940. '....the serenity of that scene begins to tremble as I look at it more closely after nearly half a century. I was far less secure than I have accustomed myself to believe, and the reasons were in great part political.' He recalls how Ohio back then was 'deep in isolationism' and convinced it had no business in another European war. Nor did Miller want the US to enter the conflict but for more radical reasons. He thought the war was 'a new version of the old imperialist conflict of the previous world war.' He was troubled by the ambiguity of the situation. The obvious evil of Hitlerism 'was obvious to us in New York. The further into the country one moved, however, the more human Hitler seemed to look, simply another warlike German leader who was out to avenge his country's defeat of 1918, a not entirely dishonorable ideal, come to think of it, and in any case not our business to interfere with.'
'In short, my conscience was muddled... The end of all this inner turmoil was......it deepened the presumption that should I ever win an audience it would have to be made up of all the people, not merely the educated or sophisticated, since it was this mass that contained the oceanic power to smash everything, including myself, or to create much good. By whatever means, I had somehow arrived at the psychological role of mediator between the Jews and America, and among Americans themselves as well. No doubt as a defense against the immensity of the domestic and European fascistic threat, which in my depths I interpreted as the threat of my own extinction, I had the wish, if not yet the conviction, that art could express the universality of human beings, their common emotions and ideas. And I already had certain clues here in Ohio that at bottom we were all pretty much the same.' (Timebends, pages 81-83)
Last Sunday was the 60th anniversary of the horrible bombing of Dresden. Thousands of citizens wore a white rose in remembrance of that disaster, but also to refute any rewriting of history that a march of several hundred neo-Nazis would attempt to do.
These days when reading a newspaper, coming across a commentary that steps back and takes a look at the larger picture is tonic to the soul. Joanne Bourke whose book Fear: A Cultural History will soon be published discusses how 'the politics of fear has become central to statecraft. Since 9/11 it has become routine for governments to use public hysteria over terrorism to increase support for direct military action and use fear to fuel campaigns to justify torture and assassinations' in the IHT. This has not always been the case in history. She reminds us 'not only do we have a choice as to how we respond to fear-inspiring threats; our future may well depend on it.' For example, 'during the Cold War millions took to the streets to protest nuclear weapons.' Not only that, but throughout history individuals have taken extra-ordinary steps to resist doing things they considered wrong, to look over and beyond the present rhetoric. www.iht.com/articles/2005/02/07/news/edbourke.html
Three articles about three such individuals can be read in a Truthout Special. A US Army sergeant with 10 years service to his credit, deeply troubled by being ordered to open fire on children who were throwing rocks at his unit, among other things, applied for conscientious objector status when facing a second tour in Iraq. The Army has charged him with desertion, his commanding officer has called him a coward, and his chaplain has told him he is ashamed of him. The first article reveals how he came to his decision 'being torn between thoughts of abandoning the soldiers I serve with, or following my conscience, which tells me: war is the ultimate in destruction and a waste of humanity.'
His wife speaks out in the second one. 'What's gone wrong when a man and his wife receive phone calls and emails from all over the country asking them to explain themselves, calling them cowards, wondering if they have ever read the Bible or studied scripture, all because that man has chosen to speak out against war and violence, and his wife has chosen to stand behind him?'
A 22 year old Army veteran who was given an honorable discharge after being granted conscientious objector status has started up a web site http://www.peace-out.com
that provides comprehensive information on how to go about applying for CO status and how to avoid all the pitfalls in the system in the third article. He writes:
'Assuming that you volunteered to join the military, you must have come to the conclusion that war is wrong AFTER your enlistment. You may have been asked if you were a CO when you joined, and you probably answered 'no'. To be considered a CO following enlistment, you must prove that your beliefs against the war crystallized after enlisting. This is far from uncommon as many soldiers simply do not realize how they feel about war until they are actually deployed or start to understand the implications of a deployment.'
What makes a legend? More to the point, Saturday's Sueddeutsche Zeitung asks what makes a German legend in its remembrance of Max Schmeling. Be the underdog and outsider, albeit with talent, and have a public convinced of who the victor will be and then overturn it all in 12 rounds. Two years later lose spectacularly within 124 seconds to the same opponent, the great Joe Lewis who proudly announced how he beat the shit out of the arier. Schmeling, the paper added, was a political figure who never wanted to be one. He wasn't a Nazi, but a man of the Nazis. Did he sympathize with them or did he fight them? He gave the answer in one of his books: I was so caught up in my own private joys and problems I hardly noticed the winds of change Hitler's coming to power would bring. Even legends, the article noted, can sometimes be out of their depths when it comes to the larger picture.
What is so distrubing reading the NYT/IHT obit on him was the frenzy, the madness of a public sitting on the sidelines, giddily, almost panting, putting far too much on the backs of both boxers in the ring at those two fights. Two men struggling to make it with the talent they had, but forced to represent far more. It doesn't surprise me he lost so fast the second time. You would have to be superhuman to face such a hostile audience and not let it get to you. Nor, considering this, can you doubt he wouldn't take in those two Jewish sons of his tailor on Reichskristallnacht. He understood there is no controlling a public in frenzy. Ditto how he later befriended and helped out Joe Lewis after the war and in fact paid for his funeral. The public is notorious for having a short term memory when it wants to.
One interesting point in his story is how two German papers I read claimed no one here had any knowledge of his helping out those two Jewish boys . One paper stated it was known first a few weeks before his death; the other claims the fact he kept this a secret speaks about the heart he had and the kind of person he was. My husband, who is German, has another explanation. Schmeling recognized the acute danger they were in. Others in Germany either didn't recognize it or didn't want to. It would diminish the arguments of those who claimed not to know what was going on around them. Schmeling was honored at a dinner at the Sands Hotel in 1989 by Henri Lewin, the owner and one of the boys protected by him that night. Yet no one in Germany knew about this till he died?
In trying to make sense of what happened in Iraq on Sunday, Reading the Elections by Phyllis Bennis at the Institute of Policy Studies www.ips-dc.org
sums up the six vital facts of what the election was about and then discusses them in detail. First and foremost the Iraqis voted 'to reclaim control of their country.' How high was turnout? According to Bennis, only 280,000 Iraqis abroad even registered, out of 1.2 million qualified to. Short term, Bush emerges as the winner through claiming that Iraqis participation and enthusiasm equals legitmacy for the war and occupation:
' It is a huge insult to the people of Iraq to claim that enthusiasm for democracy only emerged when it was 'offered' to Iraq in the form of elections imposed under the conditions of military occupation. The Iraqi election was not legitimate.'
Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, has a website Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion www.juancole.com
. Today he posted:
'And this is what the winners, if they are winners, think of the U.S.: No one welcomes the foreign troops in Iraq. We believe in the ability of Iraqis to run their own issues, including the security issue.'
In another article published by History News Network, he wrote: 'Many of the voters came out to cast their ballots in the belief that it was the only way to regain enough sovereignty to get American troops back out of their country. The new parlament is unlikely to make such a demand immediately, because its members will be afraid of being killed by the Baath military. One fears a certain amount of resentment among the electorate when this reticence becomes clear.'
And then there is The Story of the Ghost by William Rivers Pitt in www.truthout.org
Where is this taking us all?
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Ephraim Kishon died Jan 29th. Most Americans will not have heard of him. Kishon was a brilliant Israeli humorist and satirist who, though his works have also been available in English, was most well appreciated in Germany. I was especially sorry to hear what happened as I read his satires as a means of learning German. They're always enjoyable. Many of them are classics. A good starting point is perhaps his work "The Seasick Whale: An Israeli Abroad" in which Kishon, a brilliant observer, perhaps on the level of Mark Twain, described with a loving touch of irony the various nationalities he met during his travels through Europe and America. I read it in 1988, during three week travels through West Europe on an Interrail ticket and youth hostel pass.
One short piece of his has him visiting Hamburg. Everyone he's introduced to enthusiastically offers to take him on a tour of St. Pauli, although he's really not interested. But the visit of a stranger to Hamburg is the only occasion when they can get permission from their wives to go near that part of town.
A search at amazon.com shows that none of his books, apparently, are currently in print in English. A scandal!
Here is a short report from an Israeli newspaper
A page in German gives comprehensive information about Kishon: www.kishon.info
An English fan site with online texts: www.ephraimkishon.de/neuenglisch.htm
About Ephraim Kishon the filmmaker: www.brandeis.edu/jewishfilm/Catalogue/kishon.htm