a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Congratulations to the EU on the Nobel Peace Prize! You guys *rock*!

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th October 2012

Now please consider earning it.

I don’t have much of a problem with the European Union getting a Nobel Peace Prize — I just have a problem with it getting one right now.*   Europe’s elites are using a a cause that once seemed noble — to make Europe too busy, too integrated, and too prosperous to conceive of another war — as a blunt instrument to exacerbate hardship, create conflict, exploit natural resources, and unravel the social contract:

  • Greek health system crumbles under weight of crisis (Tagaris, Reuters, 6/14/12): “Greece’s rundown state hospitals are cutting off vital drugs, limiting non-urgent operations and rationing even basic medical materials for exhausted doctors as a combination of economic crisis and political stalemate strangle health funding.”
  • Hunger on the rise in Spain (Daley, NYTimes, 9/24/12):  “[Dumpster diving] tactics are becoming increasingly commonplace here, with an unemployment rate over 50 percent among young people and more and more households having adults without jobs. So pervasive is the problem of scavenging that one Spanish city has resorted to installing locks on supermarket trash bins as a public health precaution. “
  • Greek anti-fascist protesters ‘tortured by police’ after Golden Dawn clash (Margaronis, Guardian, 10/9/12): ““This is not just a case of police brutality of the kind you hear about now and then in every European country. This is happening daily. We have the pictures, we have the evidence of what happens to people getting arrested protesting against the rise of the neo-Nazi party in Greece. This is the new face of the police, with the collaboration of the justice system.””
  • Greece to become Europe’s biggest gold producer (Zacharikis, Die Zeit, 10/11/12): “The Greek government has been working on administrative reforms since the beginning of the debt crisis. The “Fast Track” accelerated licensing process developed last year is apparently attracting international gold mining companies. […] But there’s popular opposition to the mining projects. People fear serious environmental damage, for instance from clearing about 26,000 hectares of forestland. […] there were violent encounters with police during September protests against the gold mines in the northern Greece region of Chalkdiki.”  (transl. by the author)
  • Eurozone demands six-day week for Greece (Traynor, Guardian, 9/4/12): “In the letter, the officials policing Greece’s compliance with the austerity package imposed in return for the bailout insist on radical labour market reforms, from minimum wages to overtime limits to flexible working hours, that are likely to worsen the standoff between the government and organised labour in Greece.”

Stack these things up next to each other, and it seems reasonably clear that the European Union, led by German right-wing chancellor Angela Merkel, is basically executing a bald “Shock Doctrine”-style economic takeover of the region’s southern tier, with the help of conservative and sometimes fairly fascist political groups in the region.

Opposition is loud, angry, sometimes violent, but as yet apparently quite ineffectual in countries like Greece and Spain. But it appears to be timid-to-nonexistent within Germany, where the middle and working classes are coming off a prolonged period of income stagnation and “Hartz IV” semi-austerity of their own.  A recent report (by Josh Rosner for Graham LLC, via “naked capitalism”) suggests that

Unfortunately for the German population, while German business profited handsomely, and German Banks exported capital to the rest of the world, the costs were borne by German workers who faced wage pressure. German households never reaped the fruits of their labor. The imbalances … were being built into the very structure of the Eurozone by the German government’s sole focus on protecting domestic business interests at the expense of their own population.  […]

The German population has been led to believe, over the past decade, that they are frugal and that frugal is good. [Germans] are indeed frugal, but not entirely by choice. This is a perverse spin on the real situation, the German people have been deprived of wage increases and therefore of consumption of goods.

Rosner warns that “the German government will be forced to choose either a large share of the costs of supporting a further integration of the European Monetary Union or, alternately, the larger economic and social costs of its failure, including the massive costs of recapitalizing German banks and financial support for German industry.”

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A German “Bell Curve”? Sarrazin’s “Deutschland schafft sich ab”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th September 2010

Thilo Sarrazin (TEE-lo sahr-ah-TSEEN) is a high-ranking member of Germany’s left-wing SPD party, having served in the “Treuhand” agency charged with privatizing East German assets after reunification, and as finance minister for the city-state of Berlin.  In 2009, he was appointed to the Executive board of the Deutsche Bundesbank — more or less Germany’s Federal Reserve.

“Germany is abolishing itself: How
we are putting our country at risk”

None of which is particularly interesting.  But Mr. Sarrazin is also the author of a regrettable book titled “Deutschland schafft sich ab” — “Germany is abolishing itself.”  How is Germany doing so?  By allowing Muslim immigration that inexorably makes Germany less integrated, poorer and less intelligent.

Establishment Germany — most prominently Chancellor Angela Merkel — has for the most part reacted with disdain to Sarrazin’s book and arguments, but advance book sales are apparently high enough that the book is currently at or near the top of the German charts, and the continued publicity is likely to keep it there for a while.

SPIEGEL Online reports that Merkel’s reaction was: “The statements from Mr. Sarrazin are completely unacceptable. They are exclusionary in a way that shows contempt for entire groups within our society. For me, the worst part is that by confronting the issue the way he does, he makes a discussion of that issue much more difficult.”

So what are those statements?  It would be best if I had a copy, of course, but excerpts show a book that seems to range from Islamophobia to outright eugenic racism:

  • In no other religion [than Islam] is there such an easy crossover to violence, dictatorship, and terrorism.” (link)
  • The cultural foreignness of Muslim immigrants could be deemed less significant if these immigrants promised special skills or intellectual potential.  But indications are the opposite, and it’s by no means certain that this is only due to the educational poverty of their origins.   Genetic burdens — caused by the common intermarriage of relatives — also play a major role among immigrants from the Middle East and bring about higher than average proportion of various heritable diseases.” (link)
  • “The problem is not that the number of descendants of people with an advanced education shrinks from generation to generation. That would not be so important if all people were equally gifted, because then education would be a mere question of upbringing. But since the education level and inherited intelligence impact one another, this represents a negative trend over time for the population’s intellectual potential when people with a high educational level show below average fertility and people with low education show an above average fertility. […] …human evolution ultimately depends on the process of natural selection: The genetic material of those who survive the best and reproduce the most spreads. Since the survival chances in modern society are identical, the genes of those with the highest fertility are spread the farthest.” (link)

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German blogger series: Barack in Berlin

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th July 2008

It’s time for another installment of everyone’s favorite transatlantic blogosphere extravaganza — the “” German blogger series, now in our handsome, spacious new web site! This week’s episode — the first in over two years, I regret to say — takes us, of course, to Barack in Berlin. Play the video of the speech, if you like, as you read the reactions. It’s an utterly unscientific sample, of course, but some of the bloggers cited have fairly large readership in Germany.

The various reactions I found are below the fold; the upshot is… well, who knows. Maybe the obvious will do: clearly, it was the political event of the summer in Germany; clearly, there’s quite a lot of good will for Obama and what people hope he stands for in this country. There’s also some wariness and some hostility to the hype, just like here. Make of it what you will, but I think both the crowd and many of the reactions I found bear out that there’s a world out there that would like to be better friends again. That seems like good news, and a deserved plus for Obama.

Speech transcript here. Reactions follow.

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Book Review: Among the Dead Cities, A.C. Grayling

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th June 2008

Among the Dead Cities, A.C. GraylingThis is a scrupulous and ultimately devastating indictment of the British RAF bombing campaign in Europe and the USAAF one in Japan during World War II. These so-called “area” or (at least in Grayling’s book) “strategic” bombing campaigns had the purpose of creating maximum deaths among citizens of the enemy nation, and of thereby breaking the will and ability to continue supporting their nation’s war effort.

Grayling contrasts these campaigns with so-called “precision bombing” attacks — however inaccurate such bombing often was in practice. Examples of the latter include the RAF’s dam-buster or Peenemunde rocket production facility attacks, the USAAF’s attacks on Schweinfurt ball bearing plants, or similarly motivated and targeted attacks on oil and gas production facilities such as those at Leuna or Ploesti.

Instead, Grayling focuses especially on “Operation Gomorrah”, the mid-1943 attacks on Hamburg, as a hard case in that the war was not yet won as it arguably was in the more famous cases of Dresden, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki. Grayling finds (and rightly, in my view) that “Gomorrah” served no useful purpose and was immoral, conducted with a view simply to maximum casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure.* The bombing raid and ones like it may well have qualified as a war crime even by standards prevailing before and after the war (including those employed at the Nuremberg trials).

Grayling conveys some of the horror and terror of that attack — streetcar glass melting, follow-on bomber crews able to feel the heat from the first attacks in their planes, at least 45,000 dead. (While Grayling draws on many sources, including W. G. Sebald’s famous “On the Natural History of Destruction,” one eyewitness account — “Der Untergang”,** by Hans-Erich Nossack — is an understated classic in its own right.) It should be noted that Grayling explicitly judges the Holocaust to be worse, but adds that has no bearing on whether “Gomorrah” and similar raids were crimes.

Not all of Grayling’s arguments are fully convincing, but to his credit he always considers and evaluates counterarguments. In the main example of this, he argues that morale was if anything hardened and war production was unaffected by area bombing. Yet he also notes that the German war economy had plentiful slave labor and had plundered Europe for raw materials, machinery, and production.*** To employ the kind of analogy Grayling frequently does, if the Nazis devised a machine that repaired factories and fed refugees, but was fueled by concentration camp corpses, would this “success” invalidate attacking those factories and cities? I’m unpersuaded in this respect; the case against “area bombing” ultimately isn’t one of efficacy, but of proportion and humanity.

Yet even by the RAF’s lights, Grayling is right to consider the pragmatic military arguments for and against area bombing; a staggering 55,000 RAF bomber crew members lost their lives in the campaign. Grayling disposes effectively of another argument — the diversion of military manpower and materiel (esp. the feared dual antitank/antiaircraft “88s”) to antiaircraft duty within Germany — by pointing out the same diversion would have happened for a “precision” bombing strategy focused on war industries.

As Grayling points out, this debate is far from academic or “merely” historical. US military doctrine still holds that economic (not merely military industrial) targets are fair game in war, and that weakening enemy civilian morale is a valid strategic goal of bombing. Both postulates appear to contravene elements of newer Geneva Conventions to which the US is not a signatory — but to which much the rest of the world is. Attacks on civilian targets, or undiscriminating attacks to which too many civilians will fall victim, may also be among the indictments of some US actions in Iraq, such as in Fallujah or Sadr City (quite aside from the necessity of the Iraq war in the first place). But those will be the topics of a different book.


* Bomb payloads were calibrated to cause firestorms (hurricane-force winds caused by combined fires, incinerating and suffocating whole city neighborhoods) by inclusion of incendiary devices — and by the inclusion of delayed action bombs calculated to injure or kill firefighters. A version of the latter “one-two punch” tactic was also adopted by some terrorist suicide bomber team attacks in Israel and elsewhere.
** The title of Nossack’s book has been translated as “The End” in English editions. Fair enough, but the word is more complex than that; the literal meaning is “under going,” and Nossack uses it the way it is generally used: for the sinking of a great ship.
*** The explanation Grayling seems to prefer for the puzzling increases in German wartime production was that the Nazi command economy may have had a good deal of slack — room for efficiency improvements — before the war.

NOTE: This review was adapted and expanded from a version published to “Visual Bookshelf”/ReadingSocial; however, I may do more with LibraryThing as I figure out ways to integrate that here.
EDIT, 6/18: “(While Grayling draws…” sentence and ref. to 2d footnote added. Thanks, Nell.

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The Lives of Others

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 26th March 2007

I saw the Oscar-winning German movie “The Lives of Others” yesterday, about the surveillance of a fictitious playwright Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch) by East German “Stasi” operative Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe).

The movie — written and directed by relative newcomer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck — succeeds completely in immersing its audience in the fear and omnipresence of the East German surveillance state. The infamous “Stasi” — “Ministerium für Staatssicherheit,” or department of state security — was ruthless, efficient, and perhaps above all else huge, with an estimated 91,000 employees by 1989 — and an additional 100,000 informers on its rolls. Conceiving itself as the “sword and shield” of the state, the Stasi relied on intensive surveillance, lengthy interrogations, secret imprisonments, and that vast network of informants — called “inoffizielle Mitarbeiter” or “IM”: unofficial co-workers — to suppress and deter political opposition.

Von Donnersmarck brings a humanistic sensibility to the story; indeed, he says the germ of the movie is not what those who’ve seen the movie might have expected. Instead, it’s the playwright’s moody, sad performance of a lovely piano piece on hearing of the death of a good friend — with the Stasi agent listening in via bugs and electronic equipment. Turning to his girlfriend, the man asks, Could someone listening to such music — really listening — really be a bad person? That in turn was inspired by a story about Lenin related by Maxim Gorky; Lenin, said Gorky, once confessed that he was no longer willing to listen to Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” or he’d just be telling people loving banalities and stroking their heads, instead of pitilessly striking those heads to complete his revolution. Von Donnersmarck resolved to, in effect, force Lenin — in the form of Stasi agent Wiesler — to really listen to that music.

One might argue that’s nice, but potentially also a weakness of the story. Would a top East German security agent really respond to the pathos of a piano piece quite the way Wiesler does? And so what if just one did?

Yet Von Donnersmarck’s script and Mühe’s acting at least make it plausible — a lonely man, rather idealistic in his own way, gradually realizes he may have less in common with his bosses than with his surveillance targets. And I thought it was interesting to notice that Agent Wiesler — in his capacity as an official of the surveillance state, to be sure — is in fact strangely, breathtakingly free to observe, to draw his own conclusions, and then to act on them as he sees fit. Freedom’s diminishment as a whole is achieved, in part, by giving people like Wiesler greater freedoms and greater powers — powers that are generally abused as intended, but perhaps sometimes, very rarely, used differently as well. Freedom doesn’t vanish completely — it shrinks to the size of a headset.

Ulrich Mühe — an East German actor who was himself surveilled, with his wife among the informants — was interviewed for the German movie web site, and asked how he prepared himself for the movie. His answer: “I remembered.” When asked whether the film succeeded in depicting an authentic picture of life in East Germany, Mühe replied:

In my opinion, absolutely. Althought the story is fictional, the film … was able to evoke the climate of repression very exactly (meaning above all without exaggeration). Dictatorship feels like that.

My point with the news items at the top of this post is not to claim the United States is the same as East Germany, but to suggest that we’re not different enough any more to suit me. (True, we have nowhere near the number of political informers in the US that East Germany could “boast” of, but we make up for that with any number of people who excuse and defend steps towards a surveillance state and away from liberty — unofficial state security co-workers indeed.)

Once the Stasi was up and running, it was too late for East Germans to do more than grouse about it — if they dared even do that. At the risk of sounding like Chicken Little or Cassandra, it’s better to nip “Stasi”s in the bud — restrict surveillance to the minimum necessary, prevent fishing expeditions or political abuse, insist on strict judicial and legislative oversight, resist expansions of state surveillance powers. In other words, we must remind ourselves that it is people, not governments, who are endowed with unalienable rights, and that governments are instituted merely to secure those rights — not to suspend, abrogate, or diminish them.

NOTES: Damian TPoD (“Danger West”) was also impressed with the movie and points to a “Fresh Air” interview with director Von Donnersmarck on NPR; this is where I learned some of the background to the movie and about Mühe. For a couple of other worthwhile reviews of the movie see Roger Ebert and Anthony Lane.
EDIT, 3/26: “official” for “functionary,” fifth paragraph.

UPDATES, 3/27: This post is included in a NYTimes “EmpireZone” blog roundup of blog responses to the Dwyer “City Police Spied Broadly…” article. Unofficial — at least, so I assume — state security co-workers commenting there say it’s not so bad that police spied on demonstrators. (Ahead of a ruling party conference.) Also, in a second post Damian TPoD discusses the post reunification part of the movie — which Von Donnersmarck had to argue to keep.
UPDATE, 5/15: Huh. Kevin Drum can’t figure out why Wiesler might have protected his surveillance targets: “There was simply no serious motivation provided for this transformation. It was almost as if the writer figured he didn’t really need to bother.” I respond in comments.

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Contra Godwin

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th November 2006

Writing in Slate, Diane McWhorter discusses the causes and effects of our curious and frankly dangerous reluctance to even consider the worst historical parallel there could be to our own state of affairs:

The taboo is itself a precept of the propaganda state. Usually its enforcers profess a politically correct motive: the exceptionalism of genocidal Jewish victimhood. Thus, poor Sen. Richard Durbin, the Democrat from Illinois, found himself apologizing to the Anti-Defamation League after Republicans jumped all over him for invoking Nazi Germany to describe the conditions at Guantanamo. And so by allowing the issue to be defined by the unique suffering of the Jews, we ignore the Holocaust’s more universal hallmark: the banal ordinariness of the citizens who perpetrated it. The relevance of Third Reich Germany to today’s America is not that Bush equals Hitler or that the United States government is a death machine. It’s that it provides a rather spectacular example of the insidious process by which decent people come to regard the unthinkable as not only thinkable but doable, justifiable. Of the way freethinkers and speakers become compliant and self-censoring. Of the mechanism by which moral or humanistic categories are converted into bureaucratic ones. And finally, of the willingness with which we hand control over to the state and convince ourselves that we are the masters of our destiny.

The analogies between then and now don’t need to be exact to have been and continue to be deeply troubling — see McWhorter for a detailed listing if you need it. As the Israeli historian Avi Schlaim once put it, the question is not whether we’re the same as Nazis; it’s whether we’re different enough.

If you tape over half your rear view mirror, you’re going to be missing a lot of traffic behind you, closing fast.

Via Jim Henley.

EDIT, 12/4: italics shifted from “whether” to “same.” The precise quote: “The issue isn’t whether or not we are the same as the Nazis, the issue is that we aren’t different enough.”
UPDATE, 12/12: Welcome, Sideshow visitors! Comments are always welcome.

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Five years

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 26th September 2006

I started blogging on this site five years ago yesterday. It took me several tries fiddling with the FTP target address, if I recall correctly; at any rate, I still remember the pleased “hey! it worked!” feeling I got when I saw my first post.

It’s a memory tempered these days by what I feel when I re-read that post and others like it early on. There’s nothing all that wrong with that first one, but still if I were to go back in time and take over the keyboard again, I wouldn’t write it or many of the ones that follow that way now, and I might not have written some of them at all.

Still, there they all are. My blog, to me, is half an argument with myself, half a message in a bottle to the rest of the world. In its daily guise, like any journal, it seems declaratory and fairly certain in its statements. Over time, it becomes something else, a journey — and one I sometimes read between my fingers.

It’s actually been a fair amount of work and trouble: late nights reading things, writing things, re-writing them, re-writing them again and yet again; sometimes feeling (and sometimes being told) I’m spending too much time on it.

Has it been worth it? Has it been worth anything?

With regrets
Given my opinions these days, that’s questionable, if influence is the measure of value. For one thing, I’m not all that widely read; for another, that’s not surprising, given my tacks back and forth on Iraq in particular. Starting out leaning against an Iraq war for many of the right reasons, I changed my mind after a long hiatus; one of my most widely read posts was the February 2003 “With regrets — for war on Saddam.” Seemingly independent reports about Iraqi WMD from Germany and arguments like those in “The Threatening Storm” had helped convince me there was a real threat, and that the war was the best way to solve it. Regardless of my sincerity, I was wrong. A lot of people linked to that post, and a lot of people read it and commented* on it, both here and elsewhere.

I’ve since distanced myself from it and rebutted it, at least in part. But that’s been to the tune of perhaps dozens of readers, not hundreds upon hundreds. And I was more than just wrong; in particular, I hadn’t stuck by my own demands for convincing proof of WMD, and my “come what may” line was particularly callow in view of what indeed has come for that country and our soldiers fighting there.

Looking back, I see how furious and on edge I was after 9/11. In part, my trust in the institutions of this country betrayed me — I believed, even of Bush and Cheney, that they would recommend war only when it was truly the least worst option. Wrong. But I’m also afraid that although I would have denied it then, events like 9/11, the anthrax attacks, and the sniper attacks around DC the following year made me more and more jumpy, and more and more open to poorly conceived “solutions” like Iraq. I don’t think I was alone in that. A lot of people who started blogging after 9/11 — the so-called “warblogger” cohort — never really got over it; a better description for many of them may be “post traumatic stress bloggers.”

Writing like this can be, then, a bit of a dangerous hobby. A problem I’ve mentioned before is that it’s easy to become committed not just to the position, but to your public arguments and stand for it. It’s harder for me, at least, to consider unwinding from something I’ve argued for in writing than from something I say in a conversation. I wonder how many bloggers find themselves trapped in their own arguments, unwilling to alienate particular readers or an imagined readership, and therefore unwilling to reverse course.

At the time, I also aspired to bridge a European-American perceptions and risk assessment gap I saw; I would frequently write about German reactions in particular, since I speak the language. While some of that was to the good — I think that on the whole, my German bloggers series posts have been worthwhile — I also spent time and effort arguing with German bloggers and their readers at their sites about U.S. Iraq policy in particular. Given that I was basically wrong about it, that’s fairly painful to recall — public diplomacy in the service of a poor cause.

A reminder
So I’m reminded that humility on my part is in order, certainly more than I like to display. I was against torture, but at first ignored what news there was as “bad apples” at worst — including news e-mailed to me about “American Taliban” John Walker’s treatment, which was a pretty clear sign of trouble ahead. I was less of a stickler than I am now, taking issue with this or that, but reckoning that little things like hoods, or a little sleep interruption, or the ad hoc Guantanamo system were not so bad — details got slightly wrong in hot pursuit perhaps, but not the tip of some iceberg of malfeasance and coolly chosen wrongdoing. Of course, I could not have been more wrong in that, either.

It took Abu Ghraib to viscerally remind me of what I can and can not stand for; I intuited and then confirmed to my (dis)satisfaction that there was much more and worse than what I’d seen. That’s when I pretty much pulled out my red card, once and for all, on an administration I admittedly never had all that much use for. Beware of people who call for changes in the rule books when the game is going badly. Beware of yourself and be aware of yourself if you decide to consider those rule changes.

For all the regrets, shouldas, wouldas, and couldas, I think this blog has been a decent effort. Realizing that I can’t be and don’t want to be a “full service” comment-on-everything blog, I’ve tended to settle on issues and themes that I care about, (e.g., Abu Ghraib etc., Wal-Mart, the “TexasGate” redistricting saga, verified voting, Srebrenica, Katrina, global warming) and come back to them repeatedly. I’ve tried not to let other stories I’ve followed drop either, via the clunkily-named “Department of followups” posts. I’ve also tried to not be too much of a scold — how could I be, given my own inconsistencies — and to lighten things up with a little humor now and then.

In conclusion, thanks for reading, for bearing with my long-winded posts, and for commenting when the spirit moves you. Thanks in particular to Paul, eRobin, Gary, Nell, anonymousgf, Karen, and Brett, who are frequent visitors and valued commenters these days, and who I think of as friends whether I’ve met them or not; likewise for Jens, Sven, Scott, and Peter, who drop by occasionally from overseas; and likewise for those like Tom T. who dropped out over the years, possibly as I became too shrill for their taste.

Others drop by regularly as well, I think, but choose not to comment — although they’re welcome to regardless of whether they disagree with me. Other than my own mental grades for posts, comments are how I tell whether I’m writing anything worth the trouble of reading; although I’ve sometimes failed badly, I do welcome opposing views.

But mainly, thanks for dropping in and reading. While this blog has been mainly for my own benefit — I think the practice has improved my writing a little — I hope it’s also occasionally been worth it to you.

* Although the comments are missing because of a glitch in the prior system, I still have them, and hope to get them reconnected with Haloscan’s help.

Selected Iraq posts:


Selected detainee treatment posts:


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Go Germany!

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th June 2006

BBC SPORT | Football | World Cup 2006 | Live: Germany v Argentina:

1556 BST: Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann seems relaxed and happy in the dug-out – and why not? Before the World Cup started, 86% of fans did not think Germany could win the World Cup. Now you would be hard-pressed to find a German who is not backing the side to the hilt. […]

1600 BST: Argentina get the game under way.

Jens Scholz predicts 4:2 for Germany. May it be so.

UPDATE, 1:45: Nice call, Jens! (Even if you didn’t mean just the penalty shootout.) And nice going, Jens! After 1:1 in double overtime, Argentina couldn’t convert two of its first four penalty kicks:

Germany 4-2 Argentina: Esteban Cambiasso sees his spot-kick saved. Germany are in the semi-final.

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Mein Gott — Budweiser is World Cup’s beer

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd May 2006


With the 2006 World Cup in Germany only weeks away, tragedy seems unavoidable:

…Germans are furious that Budweiser will be the official tipple for the World Cup, which starts next month. The American lager has secured a near-monopoly of beer sales inside World Cup stadiums and within a 500m radius of the grounds, supplanting more than 1,270 domestic breweries.

(Via “Notes from the Basement.”) The Anheuser-Busch web site confirms the travesty — and announces that the company has locked up the 2010 and 2014 concessions as well.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not one of those people who would never buy a Budweiser. I use it for beer can chicken barbequeing all the time, and when chilled as close as possible to freezing, it’s an acceptable emergency drink when safe water supplies aren’t available.

But with German-American relations only just back on the mend, this is too much to ask of our good German compadres … our Kumpel … our buds. (Oops.) To any Germans reading this: I am so very, very sorry. If there’s anything I can do — short of drinking it myself — let me know.

UPDATE, 5/23: Here’s one small thing we can do to try to help out. Just click through and sign the (ahem)

[…] 4. We insist on the right of the German Brewers, who supported soccer in Germany for decades and assisted in making the FIFA World Cup 2006 possible, to present their own German Beer in and around the stadiums of the World Cup – in a friendly coexistence with Anheuser-Busch.

Brilliant! Freedom of beer choice — what could be more American? We can do this — for them …for world peace … (sob) … for beer.

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Lawmakers investigate journalist surveillance

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th May 2006

In Germany, that is.

German lawmakers are looking into allegations that the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst) intelligence agency put German journalists under surveillance to find out who was leaking information to them. News of the scandal broke last week, when the Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported on the findings of Gerhard Schäfer, a special investigator commissioned by — imagine this — a parliamentary oversight committee:

As Süddeutsche Zeitung [SZ] has learned, Schäfer’s investigations show that the BND did not only shadow individual journalists. The agency also used journalists against targeted colleagues to learn about the topics they were working on. […]

Judge Schäfer described the practices, according to SZ’s information, as “disproportionate” and “clearly illegal” and spoke of flagrant “interference in the freedom of the press.”

The tactics are all too similar to those of the notorious East German Stasi, which is estimated to have had around one in every fifty East Germans on its payroll, spying on the rest.

So far, so bad. But while Siegfried Kauder, the chairman of the oversight committee (PKG: Parlementarischer Kontroll Gremium) was none too pleased that word of the secret report reached the press, the decision was apparently made to make the best of the situation and release the full report next week.

Adding to the “Alice in Wonderland” quality of the story for Americans now sadly accustomed to so much less, the newsweekly SPIEGEL reports that the “BND informant affair” will be on the agenda of the German parliament’s Interior Committee by the end of May. Moreover, a BND spokesman said no harm would be done to BND by releasing the Schaefer report — contradicting Kauder, who had argued against the release. And BND chief Ernst Uhrlau told German TV network ARD: “We conclude that the methods used in the past don’t belong to the core business of the BND, and also don’t belong to the legal tools of the agency, as we see them.”

SPIEGEL’s Matthias Gebauer warns that the report hasn’t made it out the government’s door yet, and Die Zeit’s Martin Klingst points out that the story has revealed that too many reporters are too willing to make unethical deals with the intelligence agencies they cover.

But viewed from this side of the Atlantic, this seems on the whole to be a democratic success story: a secretive agency is caught out in questionable activity; an actual parliamentary investigation results — and one that features vigorous efforts by opposition party members, who are not iced out of meaningful oversight roles; an independent, active press helps the public learn of the broad outlines of the resulting report; intelligence officials appear to agree that keeping that report secret serves no good purpose; followup legislative oversight hearings are scheduled.

Would that my own country’s institutions could do as well.

UPDATE, 5/18: The plot thickens — SPIEGEL’s Matthias Gebauer reports that at least one of the alleged targets of BND surveillance says he’ll go to court to stop the PKG’s release of the Schaefer report. In addition to privacy concerns, some worry that they will be miscast as stool pigeons for their own conversations with the BND. While Schaefer is meeting with all the targets, it’s not clear whether they will have a binding say in what is and is not released.
UPDATE, 5/21: SPIEGEL’s”mgb” (Gebauer?) reports that the target involved, Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, now supports the full release of the report after seeing it — and disputes an SZ claim that he was an informant himself.
UPDATE, 5/25: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports a Berlin court has ruled that personal information in the report about FOCUS editor Josef Hufelschulte — one of the reporters being surveilled, not one of the informants — can’t be published.

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