Saturday, April 20, 2013

Willfully ignorant about race

Over at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote about how Americans are not in a position to speak about race because we simply do not know our own history: Americans, he wrote, "do not know, not because they are ignorant, stupid, or immoral, they do not know because they are part of country that has decided that 'not knowing' is in its interest. There's no room for any sort of serious conversation when the basic facts of history are not accessible."

A recent episode of the Daily Show is a good example. Guest Denise Kiernan has written a book about how Oak Ridge TN, a town created in the mid-1940s for the creation of material for the first atomic bomb, led to a lot of jobs for women, but remained racially segregated. Kiernan says: "after all, this was the South in 1942," to which Jon responds, "even in a manufacturing town in an integrated army." (See around minute 20.)

So here's the deal: the South was segregated like a plantation. Blacks and whites lived together but drank from different water fountains and went to different schools. We took the same buses but sat in different parts – and the whites were the ones who decided where. We did not have segregated cities. The North did

And the Army was not by any means integrated during World War II. President Truman desegregated the military forces in 1948. Elderly Germans remember being "liberated by a segregated US army" in 1945.

Americans need to accept the depth and extent of racism in its past. The North often makes itself out to be freedom fighters who opposed slavery. We have yet to come to terms with the pro-slavery demonstrations in the North, the existence of Black Codes outside the South at the beginning of the 19th century, the building codes and housing practices that effectively segregated northern cities, etc.

As Coates puts it, we are willfully ignorant.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

YouTube in Blurmany

Sometimes, it is hard to overlook how exceptional Germany is, even in negative instances. A few years ago, when Google began rolling out its Street View for more locations in Germany, there was unusual resistance among the general public, with quite a number of people participating in a campaign to have their own homes blurred – leading to the new word "Blurmany."

The most ludicrous thing about the campaign was that Deutsche Telekom already offered a similar Street View service that no one had objected to – mainly because almost no one knew existed. The result was blurred images on Google and perfectly normal pictures for the competition.

Recently, there was news confirming what everyone in Germany already knows: popular videos in Germany are generally blocked on YouTube because GEMA,, which collects copyright fees, cannot reach an agreement with YouTube on how much should be paid per video view. Similar agreements have been reached around the world, so Germans are now experts at tunneling into YouTube from servers abroad by means of browser plug-ins. We then get to watch, for instance, advertising in Dutch before we see our video of Gangnam Style, which was blocked the first time I tried to view it.

The study found that 61.5 percent of the 1,000 most popular videos worldwide cannot be viewed legally in Germany on YouTube. Germany comes in second worldwide in the list of blocked videos on YouTube behind the newly founded South Sudan, but ahead of Vatican City, Myanmar, Palestine, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan, for instance.

Perhaps Blurmany and the YouTube dispute are not related. A small number of people objected to Google Street View in Germany, and the dispute about YouTube videos is not at all between the general public and Google. Nonetheless, Germany seems to be having trouble with the Internet on different levels.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Life after Google Reader

The announcement that Google is shutting down its RSS Reader came as a shock to me this week, though apparently insiders saw this coming a few years ago. Rather than mope about what a lot of other people are saying – Google is evil – I am trying to take the situation as an opportunity.

In 2008, a colleague recommended that I switch to Gmail, which I had already had for a few years but was not using. I explained all the reasons why I didn't think it was an option for me, and she pointed out all the ways in which Gmail was not a simple online e-mail account like Yahoo. After two days of test driving, I switched completely and have not looked back.

Could the same thing be happening now with RSS? Is there something better in the works?

I use Google Reader all the time. It is my morning newspaper, and it is an indispensable tool for me as a journalist to keep track of what is being said. It has also become a place for me to simply drop feeds to websites I don't want to forget.

Over the years, I have never really trimmed down my Reader, and in switching to Feedly (which is apparently the best alternative currently) I realize how much junk has piled up over the years – but also how important Reader is for the 10 or 20 feeds I rely on.

In switching over and reorganizing my feeds, I found that a number of them were dead, and I felt that I was no longer reading a whole slew of others. But the trimmed down selection on Feedly does not make me happy. Maybe I will find a way to organize my feeds so that I think I can see what I'm looking for, but I am not blown away yet.

The bigger question is whether there is a future for RSS at all. Is this just the first nail in the coffin? Is everything going to switch to apps, with each subscription being its own app? That would, of course, solve the financial issue that is dogging journalism today – and indeed, it seems that Google is ditching its Reader not because it is unpopular, but because the firm cannot see any way to make money from it.

One thing's for certain – getting feeds from social media is not an option. As someone who has to produce material for social media (as a journalist), I need to be able to aggregate information, so I need the overview – not the end product. And while Google Currents looks a lot sleeker, I don't need sleek – and the app does not run on my Windows desktop.

After a brief test drive, I do not think that I am going to be much happier with whatever new set up I create, as I was with the switch to Gmail. It seems that the loss of Google Reader is just that: a loss.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

US Nazi researchers "better at PR"

You may have read that a group of US historians found that far more Nazi concentration camps, labor camps, and ghettos existed than was previously known – some 40,000, in fact.

Over at Die Zeit, a German historian has reacted to the publication with charges of plagiarism. German historian Wolfgang Benz says he was surprised to hear the US historian claim that German researchers were not given the funding to look into the matter. He reiterates that his research group published a nine-volume (!) work called "Der Ort des Terrors." And he says the Americans copied out of it.

Benz seems to be quite upset, for he calls the American authors "frech, überheblich und größenwahnsinnig" (insulting, arrogant, and megalomaniac) for calling their publication an encyclopedia; he claims it is "full of gaps." He calls his group's nine volumes "a summary or documentation of what we know today."

Mainly, he says the Americans are better at PR.

What bothers him the most (and I can understand it) is the general assumption in the US that the Germans are not doing enough to work through their history. Benz says that no other nation spends so much time and money researching the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and national Socialism as Germany does.

I can confirm that television and the media in general are full of documentaries about these 12 years of German history; my American-German kids are already sick of me trying to get them to watch the next one.

And I agree that Americans generally think that Germans somehow refuse to deal with these 12 years of their history enough, as I wrote 10 years ago. I have even had Americans ask me why Freiburgers (I live in Freiburg) don't know about the concentration camp that existed here. I tell them it's because there was none (they may be thinking of this). But there are "stumbling stones" all over town where Jews deported to concentration camps used to live, and there is a sign on the Old Synagogue Square pointing to Gurs, the concentration camp in southern France where a lot of Freiburg Jews were eventually sent.

Are there such monuments in New York City showing where slaves were traded? Yes, it's the UN's. Look at the history of the old burial ground for slaves in New York City. Is this the way Americans want Germans to deal with their history?

One reason why Americans probably think the Germans refused to deal with their own past is because we Americans refuse to deal with our past. How else to explain the possibility of such recent publications as "Slavery by another name" (which discusses how Whites continued to oppress blacks in the South for a century after the Civil War) or "Sundown towns" (which discusses how whites outside the South oppressed blacks from the beginning of the 19th century all the way up to the 1980s)?

Ever heard the song "Strange fruit"? It begins, "Southern trees bear a strange fruit." The composer wrote this after seeing a photo of a lynching in Indiana – Indiana!

American TV is not full of reports about sundown towns, pro-slavery riots in Ohio, black codes in the antebellum North, etc. Maybe it should be.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

American notions of good writing

Over at the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks, a writer/translator from the UK recently published a summary of his trials and tribulations with American publishing houses “correcting” his English and imposing all kinds of inexplicable style changes.

My experience has been the same. When I wrote my book "Zukunftsenergien" in German, my editor found all kinds of things that needed improving on every page, and I agreed with all of the changes.

But when I wrote the English version of that book a year later, my American editor also made all kinds of changes on every page, much of which I did not agree with. For instance, where I would write “it has also been claimed” she would "correct" it to “it also has been claimed.” I remember sending her and the publisher a list of similar items showing the number of Google hits being very strongly in my favor.

Granted, the rules in English are less black and white than in German. Take commas, for instance – my editor changed commas all over the place, and when I asked her why, she said that the publisher generally did not like to use commas where they were not necessary, to which I could only reply that I did not either...

Perhaps more exposure to foreign languages would at least reveal to Americans that is quite uncommon in other languages for things that are perfectly native to nonetheless be attacked as ungrammatical. There is no equivalent in German, Dutch, or French of  the commotion surrounding split infinitives, prepositions at the end of the sentence, passive verbs, and a slew of other misconceived notions.

Anyway, read Parks' story for yourself.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Oder = and (continued again)

Still trying to get my head around German "oder":

Essentially, the German says (and I shorten): "one example is the use of inefficient cookers or the installation of biogas units running on household waste." Is it just me, or does that sound illogical? Don't we need to say, "Two examples are inefficient cookers and simple biogas units"?

I don't follow the logic of "one example is X or Y." For me, that would best be expressed as "X and Y are two examples."

Monday, February 11, 2013

Oder = and (continued)

Another great example of how the German "oder" actually means "and, not "or."

A colleague writes:

"It makes sense [to translate "oder" as "or" here], since, I believe, the stickers are for each city, and having a sticker from one city doesn't necessarily mean you can enter another city...or does it?"

In fact, Germany has green, yellow, and red stickers for cars now, and those stickers apply across the nation. Wherever I get my green sticker, it is green throughout Germany – yet another example of how the Germans use "oder" incorrectly, thereby misleading readers.

Yes, you can use the same green sticker to get into downtown Munich, Stuttgart, Berlin, and (!) Heidelberg.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Does Nazi Germany show that citizens need guns?

Eighty years ago today, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.

One of the arguments used by gun lobbyists in the US is that Hitler took away people's guns in Germany, and we see where that went. Until Newtown, I had not heard the argument, and I certainly haven't come across it in my 20+ years in Germany – so I wondered why it was new to me.

A closer look – and all of this is available in English online – reveals that it is all based on a misunderstanding. The Nazis did not take guns away from all Germans. In fact, in 1938 they actually made gun ownership and purchases easier in a number of ways.

Hitler did, of course, take guns away from his political opponents starting in 1933 and from the Jews in 1938. He also made it illegal for them to work, have pets, and all sorts of other things before sending them off to death camps (starting, again, with his political opponents in 1933).

That year, he had already rounded up 45,000 of his political opponents. In 1932, public support for his party dropped from the all-time high of 37 percent down to 33 percent in the November elections. Historians generally agree that the Nazis were on their way to becoming irrelevant politically, and Hitler managed to grab political control by force just in time. One newspaper even wrote in December 1932, when top ranking party members began stepping down and the Nazis lost large blocs of voters in local elections, that "the tremendous Nazi assault on the Democratic state has been repelled" (see this report in German).

He did so largely with his SA, which basically consisted of disgruntled young men who bullied Hitler's political opponents on the street. The organization might well fall under what the Second Amendment describes as a "well regulated militia," but I have not seen that comparison before. What ever the case, by the time the Nazis took power, the SA – remember, this is just a bunch of guys who got together to put on uniforms and carry weapons – was bigger than the Reichswehr, as the German Armed Forces were known under the Weimar Republic that Hitler toppled.

A number of things make a comparison with current events in the US inappropriate. First, no one in the US is calling for gun ownership to be banned for certain groups – such as, say, Hispanics or disgruntled white guys; rather, we are talking about where restrictions, which already exist (a normal citizen cannot own missiles), should be for everyone, not for particular groups.

Second, if any comparison is to be made, I would like to see a discussion on whether the SA provides good evidence that "well regulated militia" are actually fairly dangerous. There has always been a debate on what that wording means – is it just the military, or can private citizens arm themselves in small groups? – but I'm not asking for clarification of what the Founding Fathers meant.

No, what I'm trying to figure out is whether the Nazis do not demonstrate that all citizens need to be armed, but rather that we should not allow fringe groups to go ballistic.

As for the idea that the Jews could have prevented the Holocaust had they had weapons, Jon Stewart has already dealt with that.

Monday, January 21, 2013

And = or?

One absolutely bizarre thing about German is the tendency to use the word "or" (oder) in a list where we would always use "and" in English:

The problem for me here is that "or" is not motivated; no argument can be made in the sentence above that the PV market will only boom in one of the three regions, but not in all of them.

If this were and aberrancy – one writer's careless mistake – I would not bother writing about it, but in fact it is everywhere. I get this from all of my clients and read it frequently in various newspapers. Bizarre.