Daily Archives: June 8, 2011

I Can Tell I’ve Lived in Europe Too Long

because I find myself increasingly sitting knee-over-knee, rather than figure-four. Sometimes I fold my hands on my upper knee! Socialism!

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Filed under Berlin, Germany, Personal

German History and the Sopranos Problem

I listened to a podcast this morning about the dilemma of making textbooks in postwar Germany. Education of the population was obviously a priority for reconstruction, but the only textbooks were either a) Nazi as hell or b) written before the Nazis came to power, i.e. old as hell. It took years for the administrators to create new textbooks, and in the meantime they simply blacked out the inconvenient parts of the existing textbooks.

According to the podcast, it was only in the 1960s that education materials started including atrocities committed by the Germans. Before then, it was fine to talk about Dresden, or the Allies shelling refugee ships in the Baltic (which I wasn’t aware of before I moved here) or the terrible shit the Russians did as they bulldozed from Stalingrad toBerlin.

You could talk about Hitler as a sort of Pied Piper, entrancing the German people into nemesis without their full consent or understanding. But you couldn’t stretch the blanket of responsibility over the whole country until much later.

It seems to me that the fundamental dilemma for educators is that it’s impossible to educate a population without propagandizing it. You can’t teach people about their country without making them proud.

We think of subjects like history and sociology as somehow neutral, that the methodology is simply 1) find out what happened and 2) tell the story without bias. But evenbeyond the impossibility of ‘objective’ research, there’s no such thing as neutrally telling a story. Here, lemme try something:

  1. A man walks into a store and buys a litre of milk.
  2. A store sits on a street corner. A man enters. Five minutes later, he exits with a litre of milk in his hand.
  3. A jug of milk stands in a refrigerator. A man removes it from the fridge, lays it on the counter, pays and carries it out of the store.

Even to describe an incredibly simple event, you have to decide whose perspective you’re going to tell it from.

Country histories tend to be told by the Washingtons, the Lincolns, the Rockefellers. This is totally understandable. These are people that made stuff happen, and stuff happening is basically a synonym for history.

But the story of America would be significantly different if you told it from the perspective of women, blacks, immigrants, Native Americans, Iowans, deaf people, baristas or bus drivers.

And that’s the dilemma. Whoever’s story you tell, they get to be the main character. Following a protagonist by definition allows them to explain their actions. No matter how hard you try, hearing the full story of what led Hitler to the Final Solution, or what led Mao to the Cultural Revolution, is going to make readers identify with them. However many times we saw Tony Soprano murder, cheat and shittily parent his way through north Jersey, our contempt for him was always tempered with the knowledge of what drove him to his actions.

This is exactly the problem German educators were struggling with in the ‘50s and ‘60s: How do you tell a country’s history without making citizens proud of it?

I know this is all terribly obvious. I’m just in awe of how hard it must have been to write history in Germany for the 30 years after WWII. Before you could even debate which story to tell, you had to decide who got to tell it.

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Filed under Germany, Serious

Defending Strauss-Kahn: ‘He’s Too Weak to Rape a Hotel Maid!’

I know these lawyers are just doing their jobs, but I found this article on Strauss-Kahn’s defense really disturbing.

“You really have to attack the witness’s credibility” in sexual assault cases, a Manhattan defense lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, said. “While it may seem morally unseemly to the public, it’s legally appropriate and we have to do the best we can for our clients.”

He added: “You have to make this into a money thing at the end. Has she defaulted on loans or bounced checks?”

It’s useful to know that bouncing a check forever immunizes you against being sexually assaulted.

I also paused at this bit:

Some details of a potential defense are already coming into focus, a person close to Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s defense team said. The defense is expected to pursue the issue of whether it is even physically possible for an unarmed man, who is not particularly physically imposing, to force a person to engage in oral sex.

That high-priced lawyers are resting their defense on ‘he’s too weak to rape!’ and ‘she’s a gold-digging skank!’ demonstrate the dysfunctionality of American discourse around sexual assault.

In America, we want our victims to be hella victimy. Rape is something that happens exclusively to women, exclusively at the hands of strangers, and exclusively as they are walking home late at night in parking lots or college campuses. Women are not raped by people they know, or people they once wanted sexual contact with, or on nights when they wanted to get laid. It especially doesn’t happen to the kinds of people who default on loans. 

More pernicious, though, is the idea that a man like Strauss-Kahn is incapable of forcing a woman to do something she doesn’t want to do because he’s so weak! And frail! And unimposing!

Rape doesn’t have to happen through the use of physical force alone. Someone in Strauss-Kahn’s position could easily augment a weak threat of force with other kinds of violence.

In the scenario he’s accused of, all he would have to do is grab the victim’s wrists and say something like ‘I’m the president of an international organization. You’re an immigrant hotel maid. If you scream, I’ll tell your boss that you stole my watch. Who are they going to believe?’ Not all rape takes place with the rapist’s hand over the victim’s mouth.

On the specific case of Strauss-Kahn, I’m completely Switzerland. Reading newspaper articles to determine someone’s guilt is like sorting someone’s trash to determine their astrological sign. Maybe he did it, maybe he didn’t. But over and over, when we lack the information required find the truth between he-said and she-said, we fall back on our ugliest arguments.

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Filed under America, Journalism