Tuesday, July 11, 2017

After the German historian Rolf Peter Sieferle took his own life last September at age 67, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the country’s progressive paper of record, called his erudition “breathtaking.” For three decades Mr. Sieferle had applied the old traditions of German social science to new preoccupations, from ecological sustainability to social capital. He was among the pioneers of German environmental history. He wrote on Marx, German conservatism around World War I and the end of Communism. He advised Angela Merkel’s government on climate change.

But last month, a posthumous collection of Mr. Sieferle’s observations on Germany’s political culture, “Finis Germania” (the title plays on a phrase meaning “the end of Germany”), hit No. 9 on the prestigious Nonfiction Book of the Month list — and a scandal erupted. Certain passages on Germany’s way of dealing with the Holocaust horrified reviewers. Die Zeit called it a book of “brazen obscenity.” The Berliner Zeitung wrote of Mr. Sieferle’s “intellectual decline.” Süddeutsche Zeitung retracted its earlier praise. The Nonfiction Book of the Month list was suspended until further notice.

The book-buying public reacted otherwise. As critical anger rose, so did sales. Soon the book was selling 250 copies an hour, according to its publisher, and ranked No. 1 on Amazon’s German best-seller list, a position it held for almost two weeks, until the publisher ran out of copies.

What exactly had Mr. Sieferle said? Was this a betrayal of his intellectual legacy, as critics claimed? A vindication of it, as his sales suggested? Or had he simply gone off the rails at a time when public opinion was doing the same?

...Mr. Sieferle neither denies nor minimizes the Holocaust. He describes it as a “Verbrechen,” or “crime.” Nor does he traffic in any obvious kind of anti-Semitism. In a letter he wrote three weeks before his death to the blogger-novelist Michael Klonovsky, who is close to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, he warned the party to keep its distance from the anti-Semites (“a delusional, irrational and ignorant ideology”) who would inevitably gravitate to it.

But Mr. Sieferle is critical of Germany’s postwar culture of Holocaust memory, which he argues has taken on the traits of a religion. The country’s sins are held to be unique and absolute, beyond either redemption or comparison. “The First Commandment,” he writes, “is ‘Thou shalt have no Holocausts before me.’ ” Hitler, in retrospect, turns out to have done a paradoxical thing: He bound Germans and Jews together in a narrative for all time. In an otherwise relativistic and disenchanted world, Mr. Sieferle writes, Germans appear in this narrative as the absolute enemies of our common humanity, as a scapegoat people. The role is hereditary. There are Germans whose grandparents were not born when the war ended, yet they, too, must take on the role.
Snyder's speech is almost unbearable. Lecturing people about their responsibility, trying to make them understand. It proves Sieferle's point, or marks it as the obviously predictable reaction.

"Deutschland ist kein Einwanderungsland" Germans are racist, but they're not going to get over it being lectured by earnest moralists. So earnest: Snyder loves Germans. He wants them to be more than they are. Everything he's done has just delayed the change that's needed.

Back to Sebald and Grass, On the Natural History of Destruction and Crabwalk.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Every so often along 99 between Bakersfield and Sacramento there is a town: Delano, Tulare, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Modesto, Stockton. Some of these towns are pretty big now, but they are all the same at heart, one- and two- and three-story buildings artlessly arranged, so that what appears to be the good dress shop stands beside a W.T. Grant store, so that the big Bank of America faces a Mexican movie house. Dos Peliculas, Bingo Bingo Bingo. Beyond the downtown (pronounced downtown, with the Okie accent that now pervades Valley speech patterns) lie blocks of old frame houses—paint peeling, sidewalks cracking, their occasional leaded amber windows overlooking a Foster's Freeze or a five-minute car wash or a State Farm Insurance office; beyond those spread the shopping centers and the miles of tract houses, pastel with redwood siding, the unmistakable signs of cheap building already blossoming on those houses which have survived the first rain. To a stranger driving 99 in an air-conditioned car (he would be on business, I suppose, any stranger driving 99, for 99 would never get a tourist to Big Sur or San Simeon, never get him to the California he came to see), these towns must seem so flat, to impoverished, as to drain the imagination. They hint at evenings spent hanging around gas stations, and suicide pacts sealed in drive-ins. 
By the time I get to the last line I'm almost on the floor, laughing.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

distinctions without differences LLC

John Quiggin,  professor of agnotology  (etc.), speaks out forcefully against epistocracy (ditto).

And then a followup.

The last two paragraphs.
I just saw this review of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols which is obviously relevant. A crucial requirement for a successful defence of expertise is that we avoid defending authority based on mere punditry.

I’ll leave it to readers to discuss which areas of public policy discussions are dominated by expertise, which by punditry, and which by conflict between the two.
You can't make this shit up

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The frat boy, the liberal, and the actual existing Africans



A memoir is an opportunity for a writer to put his or her life on trial, but few follow through and condemn themselves too. Jeffrey Gettleman, this newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning East Africa correspondent, fell in love with Africa while still a self-described frat boy; at Cornell he met his other great love, Courtenay, an alluring sorority girl. The twisted road that eventually allows him to unite these two conflicting passions takes the reader through a melodrama that squats uncomfortably between “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Heart of Darkness.”

Africa. That vast swell of nations, languages, landscapes and histories has always had a peculiar impact on foreigners, but Gettleman seems to have been hit harder than most. The continent is described as his “imaginary friend,” a place that his fraternity brothers cannot possibly understand: basically a high-five-happy Shangri-La where the people are poor but rarely resentful. 
...I have perceived in many works on Somalia by Western journalists some of the wild-eyed joy you see in photos of youths running with the bulls in Pamplona — a macho thrill that life there is supposed to be short and cheap, an almost sensual delight in, say, the “dark, unblinking eyes” and “chains of bullets.” “Love, Africa” follows in that tradition, but it does a useful thing too: It shows just how impervious that gaze is to the work of African writers, and how the call of the tribe — the media tribe — cuts through whatever good intentions are put before it.

By the end of the memoir, ensconced in comfort in Nairobi, Gettleman strikes a conflicted figure. He is still in love with Africa, though the postelection violence in Kenya as well as the Westgate Mall attack by Al Shabab have torn away some of his illusions. Both he and Courtenay have accepted the wisdom of their predecessors, ruefully recalling what a Zimbabwean farmer told them once at a truck stop near the South African border: “These people can survive on very little. They’re not like us whites. They don’t need a hamburger or an apple. They’ll be fine for a month with a slab of rancid donkey meat.”

After spending years living in Africa, after questioning the inequality he sees around him, and after conversing with numerous politicians, activists and ordinary men and women, Gettleman allows the embittered white farmer to get in a parting shot, which he and his wife seem to take as brutal honesty. This unintentionally amusing scene fits what is a bewildering memoir. The whole narrative reminds me of those books written by colonial adventurers such as Sir Richard Burton, aimed at readers interested in Africa mainly as a site for their dreams and nightmares.
Review by Nadifa Mohamed

the liberal, played by Elon Green

I've never read Gettleman. It should be shocking that he'd ever be hired by the NYT, shocking to defenders of reason and enlightenment. It should be shocking that the NYT defends Zionism. It took an outsider to point out the obvious, a change made possible only because she was given the opportunity to publish in the Times.

I'm tagging this under Freedom of Speech, because it ties so closely to recent posts on censorship and race, Nadifa Mohamed alongside Jordan Peele.