Odd Political Moves: John McCain’s Benghazi Press Conference Edition

I also demand a hearing into which hearings
I should have attended while demanding more hearings.
– Liberal blog Daily Kos summing up John McCain’s press conference on Benghazi1

Former GOP presidential candidate Senator John McCain recently gave a press conference on the Benghazi terrorist attack, demanding more investigation of the incident. When a CNN reporter pointed out to McCain that, instead of giving a press conference, he might be attending a confidential briefing at the Senate Homeland Security Committee, of which he is a member, McCain lost it. Oh my…

[Update]: “McCain Backs Away From Benghazi Conspiracies.” (Think Progress, 11/20/2012)

A Mere Two Days Until the 2012 American Presidential Election

On Tuesday, November 6, the 2012 presidential election will finally be decided. What is the latest state of affairs? The prospects of the incumbent, President Barack Obama, seem to increase towards the finishing line of this election cycle.

How Likely Is It That the Current POTUS (President of the United States) Will Also Be the Next?

The Princeton Election Consortium has calculated a 98.2 percent chance for Obama to be re-elected.

Statistician Nate Silver at the New York Times has calculated a 83.7 percent chance for Obama to win the Electoral College (November 2, 2012).

Nevertheless, polls do not amount to anything if voters do not show up at the voting booth or cast an absentee ballot. So what are the odds here? According to Gallup, voter turnout will be slightly lower than in 2008 and in 2004 (October 30, 2012).

Meanwhile…Robo-Calls, Commies Love Obama, and Voting Machine Software

While the chances of the Romney campaign are decreasing, there is no shortage of election shenanigans that may or may not be directly connected to said campaign (in some cases they are clearly not). Here are some examples of dirty campaign tricks of late:

Robo-Calls:

In Massachusetts, voters reported robo-calls encouraging them to vote on the wrong date, i.e. one day after the election.

Red Cross Annoyed By Romney Disaster Relief Campaign Stunt:

The Red Cross was not amused about the Romney campaign’s window-dressing of a rally as disaster relief effort through busing in canned goods in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy.

Abe Lincoln’s GOP Loves Black Voters:

A recent Super Pac ad tries to persuade African Americans to vote for Romney because the Republican Party freed the slaves—in the nineteenth century. While that is technically correct (Abraham Lincoln was a Republican), a quick glance at a quality American history textbook will reveal the historic realignments that have taken place in the American party system. Especially since the 1960s, the GOP, along with Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats), who soon joined the GOP, has deployed the Southern Strategy: appealing to white racism to peel off voters from Democrats. In short, the Republican Party of 1865 is not the Republican Party of 2012.

(Dead) Latin American Socialists and Communists For Obama:

In Florida, one of the important battleground states, the Romney campaign attempts to appeal to older anti-communist Cuban American voters in a Spanish-language ad by associating Obama with Fidel Castro (via his niece, who says she would vote for Obama), Ché Guevara (via a background picture from an EPA email featuring the famous portrait), and Hugo Chavez (who said that he would vote for Obama if he were American). In reality, the relationship between the actual socialist President of Venezuela, and Obama, who has been called a socialist by political opponents, has never been that cozy. Since July of 2010, there is no US ambassador in Caracas and no Venezuelan ambassador in Washington, respectively, because Chavez did not accept Washington’s appointee, due to his previous anti-Chavez remarks.

Voting Machines Get ‘Experimental Software Patches’:

In Ohio, another important swing state, Secretary of State Jon Husted plans to install “experimental software patches” on voting machines, which, due to a legal loophole, do not have to be certified in any way. Civil rights groups are worried about the potential for manipulation.

Vote For Romney Or Face Eternal Damnation:

All these prior arguments in favor of Romney may or may not help him win against Obama on Tuesday. But if that is not enough, there is still the biggest gun of American politics: the Christian God.

Not associated with the Romney campaign, but in support of him, are some clergymen. Their argument: Vote for Romney or face God’s wrath. Of course, they are not telling their flock whom to vote for—that would, in theory, endanger their tax-exempt status as a church. But their hints are not all that subtle either.

In September, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, IL, wrote in an email to his parishioners that voting for a Democrat might “plac[e] the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.”

In late October, another Roman Catholic Bishop, David L. Ricken of Green Bay, WI, wrote in an email to his parishioners that voting for a party supporting “intrinsically evil actions” including “homosexual ‘marriage'” (which Democrats support) “could put your own soul in jeopardy.”

Also in late October, former Republican presidential candidate and Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee narrated an ad framing the upcoming election as a “test of fire” wherein “[y]our vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity.” You can watch it here:

Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose.

You can find more background information on the 2012 presidential election in my previous posts, for instance here.

 

 

October Halftime: And Now For Something Completely Similar

In the press landscape, the Biden-Ryan debate last week (October 11, 2012) was for the most part counted as a strong comeback for the Obama campaign, following the president’s lackluster performance against Mitt Romney the week before (October 3, 2012). Biden pointed out the glaring factual flaws of his opponents arguments. You can find some links detailing these in my last post here. So what is left for the Romney campaign between now and the second presidential debate tonight in Hempstead, New York (October 16, 2012)? For one thing, it is damage control. In an attempt at portraying himself as a compassionate conservative, as opposed to the long-time follower of Ayn Rand that he is, Paul Ryan went to a soup kitchen in northeast Ohio for a photo op showing him and his family cleaning some dishes. That did not go so well, as the artificiality of the whole maneuver was quite apparent:

Charity president: Paul Ryan “did nothing” at soup kitchen photo-op.” (CBSNews, 10/15/2012)

Charity president unhappy about Paul Ryan soup kitchen ‘photo op’.” (Washington Post, 10/15/2012)

According to the head of that apolitical charity, Ryan entered the soup kitchen without permission. And here is how he characterized what followed:

He [Ryan] did nothing. He just came in here to get his picture taken at the dining hall.

On top of that, the pots and pans Ryan and his family ‘cleaned’ for the photo op “did not appear to be dirty.”

As of October 13, 2012, Ohio leans slightly towards Obama (51% versus 46%), according to a PPP poll.

[Infographic] Here you can find the electoral map from the New York Times.

Scripted Reality: The 2012 TV Debates Between Romney and Obama

Tonight (October 3, 2012), the first TV debate between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney in Denver, Colorado was will be broadcast on American TV and on the Internet.

2012 Election Central has a schedule of all upcoming debates here.

The YouTube election hub has a live stream of the debates here.

You can also watch the complete first Obama-Romney debate at the New York Times, which has a nifty running transcript next to the video.

Here is the debate divided into five parts, courtesy of the YouTube Politics channel:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

 

Fact-checking:

Suddenly Centrist: The New Moderate Mitt Romney.” (Think Progress, 10/10/2012)

The Lying Precedent.” (New York Times Editorial Page, 10/10/2012) – Not particularly about fact-checking per se, but a compilation of video clips, including ads from the Obama campaign, illustrating how Mitt Romney changes his political positions opportunistically throughout the campaign, from “severely conservative” to “moderate.”

Romney Wants Voters To Believe He’s A Moderate. It’s A Little Late For That.” (The New Republic, 10/08/2012) – Op-Ed arguing the same point as the New York Times editorial above.

At Last Night’s Debate: Romney Told 27 Myths In 38 Minutes.” (Think Progress, 10/04/2012)

Romney Goes On Offense, Pays For It In First Wave Of Fact Checks.” (npr, 10/04/2012)

Fact-checking Websites:

factcheck.org

politifact.com

Fact-checking the Denver presidential debate.” (PolitiFact, 10/03/2012)

How to get the facts during the presidential debate.” (PolitiFact)

Presidential Debate Fact-Check and Updates.” (New York Times)

How to Prime Your BS Detection Skills Before the Presidential Debates.” (Lifehacker, 10/03/2012)

Debate Coverage:

A Clash of Philosophies.” (New York Times, 10/04/2012)

Romney goes on offense, forcing Obama to defend record.” (Washington Post, 10/04/2012)

Romney’s Threat to Big Bird Sows Confusion Abroad, and Feeds It at Home.” (New York Times, 10/05/2012):

“Most Americans think public broadcasting receives a much larger share of the federal budget than it actually does [polls and data linked in article].”

Romney Promises To Cut Taxpayer Funding For PBS (But Says He Still Loves Big Bird).” (Forbes, 10/04/2012):

“That [funding for PBS through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)] [i]s less than 1% of the budget. Way less. It’s about 1/100th of a 1%.”

The federal budget in the fiscal year 2011 was $3.69 trillion, according to the New York Times.

Colorado presidential debate: 5 things to watch.” (Politico, 10/03/2012)

Obama and Romney, in First Debate, Spar Over Fixing the Economy.” (New York Times, 10/03/2012)

Obama-Romney Debate: Mitt Romney Stays Light On Detail.” (Huffington Post, 10/03/2012)

Pundits Hammer Obama’s Debate Performance.” (Huffington Post, 10/03/2012)

Romney Backs Away From Own Tax Plan.” (Talking Points Memo, 10/03/2012)

[Poll] “Romney Maintains Economic Edge Heading Into Debates.” (Gallup, 10/03/2012)

German Language Debate Coverage:

Präsidentschaftswahlkampf: Romney punktet im Fernsehduell gegen Obama.” (FAZ, 04.10.2012)

TV-Duell Obama Romney: Präsident ohne Passion.” (Zeit Online, 04.10.2012)

Background information:

[Podcast] “Science and the 2012 Election.” (Point of Inquiry, 10/15/2012)  – A discussion about the candidates’ positions on matters of science

[Podcast] “All That Stuff Before The Debate.” (My History Can Beat Up Your Politics, 09/12/2012) -A discussion about the intensely scripted nature of presidential debates

[Video] “As Obama, Romney Hold First Debate, Behind the Secret GOP-Dem Effort to Shut Out Third Parties.” (Democracy Now, 10/03/2012)

Do the US presidential debates matter?” (BBC News, 10/03/2012)

Election 2012: Your Free Ticket to a Popular Stanford Course.” —Stanford University lets you watch a lecture series about this year’s presidential election and broader themes behind political campaigns in the US (via Open Culture)

First Debate Often Helps Challenger in Polls.” (New York Times, 10/03/2012)

[Audio] “How Politicians Get Away With Dodging The Question.” (npr, 10/03/2012)

[Podcast] “How Presidential Debates Work.” (Stuff You Should Know, 11/10/2011)

How Presidential Debates Work.” (HowStuffWorks, 10/13/2000)

German Language Background Information:

Das Streben nach Glück – Anspruch und Wirklichkeit: Amerika vor der Wahl.” (Deutschlandradio Kultur, 28.10.2012) – Die Diskussionsrunde nimmt Bezug auf Mark Twains kürzlich nach hundert Jahren der Geheimhaltung veröffentlichten “Geheimen Biographie” sowie David Remnicks Obama-Biographie “Die Brücke – Barack Obama und die Vollendung der schwarzen Bürgerrechtsbewegung”, im Original “The Bridge – The Life and Rise of Barack Obama” (2010).

Debattenkultur: Warum wir Amis keine kritischen Denker sind.” (Zeit Online, 02.10.2012)

The Texas GOP Versus Critical Thinking in Schools

Texas State Capitol: North side by night. By Kumar Appaiah (http://www.flickr.com/photos/akumar/4195756025/) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

It is probably a truism to say that these days there is extreme partisanship and division between the different political camps in the US. There are broad ideological differences regarding the right way to govern the country. But sometimes, things happen that seem to go way beyond mere disagreement on a particular policy matter.

Exhibit A:

In their 2012 party platform, the Texas GOP argues against teaching students critical thinking skills in public schools.

The full section reads as follows:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

You can read about HOTS here and here (pyramid chart), and about Outcome-Based Education here.

Higher Order Thinking Skills, based on the works of educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom (1956), are a taxonomy that establish a pyramid of thinking skills, from basic to advanced levels:

  • knowledge
  • comprehension
  • application
  • analysis
  • synthesis
  • evaluation

I fully admit that I am not familiar with the minute details of the educational system(s) in the US, but I was truly amazed that something I had assumed would be valued by most people regardless of their politics, would be so overtly attacked by one of the major political parties, if only on a state level.

Indeed, a student armed with critical thinking skills will ask many questions. And it is possible that, when presented with facts and the mental tools to evaluate them, students may arrive at different conclusions than their parents regarding any given issue at some point in the future. But such is the price of education. Is it not a good thing to be able to make up one’s mind independently?

The Argument From Authority and Democracy

As the Fallacy Files blog explains, the appeal to authority, also known as argumentum ad verecundiam (argument from respect/modesty (Latin)) is a logical fallacy structured in the following way:

Authority A believes that P is true. Therefore, P is true.

Note that the authority is not required to present any good reasons for its position.

I assume that the Texas GOP, perhaps instinctively, correctly understands that a citizenry trained in critical thinking will be less susceptible to arguments from authority. In the beginning, these arguments are necessarily coming from parents, but later in life the crowd of authority figures widens to include other public figures, such as the local clergy, news anchors, or politicians. Certainly, this makes it more difficult for authorities to defend the state of affairs, be it social or political. If the targets of their messages ask “Why do you think this?,” then the authority in question is forced to justify their position. “Do as I tell you, because!” becomes increasingly unconvincing.

That might be an unpleasant annoyance for those without good arguments, but it is necessary in a free and open society.

For a democratic society, an uncritical citizenry poses a fundamental problem. If citizens do not develop the mental capabilities to evaluate statements or actions by public figures, then their ability to hold elected representatives or any other authorities accountable diminishes.

Progressive American educational reformer John Dewey (1859 – 1952) formulates this argument in his Democracy and Education (1916) (Chapter 7) in the following way:

The superficial explanation is that a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated. Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education.

Dewey also notes that education in a democracy is a prerequisite of social mobility. Preventing the education of the broader population, on the other hand, works towards establishing a hierarchical, static, class-based society, and is thus intrinsically undemocratic:

A society marked off into classes need be specially attentive only to the education of its ruling elements. A society which is mobile, which is full of channels for the distribution of a change occurring anywhere, must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability. Otherwise, they will be overwhelmed by the changes in which they are caught and whose significance or connections they do not perceive. The result will be a confusion in which a few will appropriate to themselves the results of the blind and externally directed activities of others.

A 2011 study1 by Georgetown University seems to confirm this notion from a century ago for the near future, as far as predictions of the future based on current trends go. According to its findings, by 2018 almost two thirds of all occupations in the United States will require a college degree. On the face of it, Higher Order Thinking Skills as conceptualized by Bloom are essential to mastering college. Reading fairly complex texts and extracting concepts and ideas are going to be extremely difficult without some form of prior training. But as Dewey’s argument illustrates, the ability to think critically has implications far beyond mere personal future economic prospects.

Anti-Intellectualism in the 2012 Presidential Primaries

During the 2012 Republican Primary, Rick Santorum lambasted President Obama as a snob for wanting to enable more Americans to get easier access to some form of higher education. Pushing for this would be an elitist endeavor and out of touch with the average American. He also claimed that college education would lead to religious students losing their faith,2 which he, as an ultra-conservative Catholic, disapproves of.

But expanding higher education to larger parts of the population rather than limiting it to a tinier part is, by definition, neither snobbish nor elitist. What can be observed in this piece of political theater is an anti-intellectual populist gesture promoting the antagonistic image of an overeducated (liberal) elite in order to mobilize the resentment of blue-collar voters.

On a closer look, it becomes quite clear that for many of the the major players in the GOP, by whom, for the purpose of this argument, I just mean potential presidential candidates, agitating against higher education is but a political prop.

The hypocrisy on the part of Santorum, most of all, is that he himself holds several college degrees (a B.A. in political science, an M.B.A., and a law degree). In fact, most major Republican contenders at the time held advanced college degrees. Ron Paul has an M.D., Newt Gingrich has a Ph.D., and the victor of the 2012 Republican presidential primaries,  Mitt Romney, has an M.B.A. and J.D. from Harvard. 3

How serious can you take a person who tries to discourage you from pursuing higher education because only sinister elites would be interested in such a thing, only to tell you the next moment that they themself are heading for the ivory tower? Not very much, in my opinion.

Even the most famous Texas politicians are no strangers to higher education. POTUS #43, George W. Bush, who was, on the one hand, depicted by his opponents as intellectually challenged, but on the other hand also forged his own public image as anti-intellectual, down-to-earth Texas cowboy, holds an M.B.A. from Harvard and a B.A. in history from Yale. It does not get much more ivy league than this.

The idea that democracy’s prospects are not bright when education is held in low regard is not new. Today’s Texas GOP might revisit the advice of POTUS #3, Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826):

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

Supreme Court Upholds Health Care Reform

On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court upheld President Obama’s health care reform, stating that the individual health care mandate was a legal form of taxation. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. enabled the 5 to 4 vote by joining the liberal side of the court.

Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.
– Chief Justice John Roberts

This article from Politico has a handy chart that shows how the health care law looks like after the ruling.

The cause of repealing ‘Obamacare’ had been a key mobilizing issue for the GOP and the Tea Party Movement since the law was enacted in 2010.

Here is an incomplete collection of news articles on the Supreme Court’s ruling:

NY Times here, Washington Post here, Huffington Post here, Wall St. Journal here, Politico here and here (key quotes from the ruling), SCOTUSblog here, Think Progress here, USA Today here, Daily Beast here.

Politico’s analysis of Justive Roberts’ motivations can be read here. In brief, some professional observers think that the conservative-leaning Roberts’ surprising decision has to do with creating his own legacy, a “Roberts Court,” and deflecting critics’ arguments about a Supreme Court characterized by conservative judicial activism.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who had introduced an almost identical individual health care mandate in Massachusetts as Governor, continues to campaign on repealing ‘Obamacare’ despite the fact that he had earlier advocated for the Massachusetts health care reform to become a model for national health care reform.

The Obama administration highlights this inconvenient fact in their campaign ads against Romney.

One of Romney’s arguments is that “Obamacare adds trillions to our deficits and to our national debt.” The fact-checking website PolitiFact rates Romney’s statement as ‘false.’

At Politiwhoops, a website of the Sunlight Foundation, you can read all the tweets deleted by politicians who were against the health care reform. Some of them falsely tweeted that the Supreme Court had repealed the individual mandate.

Holidays of Interest: Juneteenth (June 19)

Juneteenth day celebration in Texas, 19 June 1900. From Wikimedia Commons. The picture is in the public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEmancipation_Day_celebration_-_1900-06-19.jpg

Juneteenth falls on June 19 every year and commemorates the liberation of African Americans from slavery. It was first celebrated by former slaves in Texas in 1865, when, two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the American Civil War, Union General Gordon Granger reached Galveston Bay, accompanied by 2,000 troops.

On June 19, General Order No. 3 was publicly announced. It read:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere. 1

The former slaves celebrated their newfound freedom with exuberant songs, barbecue, and rodeos. Throughout the late nineteenth century, Juneteenth was established an African American tradition. But with the Great Migration towards the Northern industrial centers, the holiday declined in prominence.

Moreover, during the Reconstruction Era and the rise of Jim Crow, Juneteenth was not widely endorsed by state and federal governments, especially in the former Confederate States. In Texas, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in 1890.

Since the last decades of the twentieth century, however, there has been an increased activism to bring back Juneteenth into public conscience. Currently, Juneteenth is recognized as an official holiday in thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia. [Update: It is now celebrated in fourty-two states]2

At the Griot blog, you can read about Barack Obama’s proclamation for Juneteenth 2012.3

Sources:
Davis, Kenneth C. “Juneteenth: Our Other Independence Day.” Smithsonian Magazine. 16 June 2011. Web. 20 June 2012. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Juneteenth-Our-Other-Independence-Day.html

http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm

Wikipedia: Juneteenth. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juneteenth

When in the US, Dress Like a Nurse, When in Germany, Be a Firefighter!

*'''Description:''' Rettung von Verletzten bei einer Einsatzübung der Freiwilligen Feuerwehr Dußlingen (Baden-Württemberg), LIZENZFREI, fotografiert und freigegeben von Alexander Blum (www.alexanderblum.de) *'''Source:''' German Wikipedia, original upl
Firefighters: The most trusted professional group in Germany.

That is the conclusion you could draw from reading two recent polls, one from Gallup asking Americans,1 and a second one from GfK asking Germans 2 about their trust in various professional groups.

 

The five most trusted professions
United States Germany
Nurses (84%) Firefighters (98%)
Pharmacists (73%) Medical doctors (89%)
Medical doctors (70%) Post office workers (86%)
High school teachers (62%) Police officers (85%)
Police officers (54%) Teachers (84%)

The five least trusted professions:

The five least trusted professions
United States Germany
Members of Congress  (64% ‘Very Low’ or ‘Low’) Politicians (91% ‘Distrust)
Lobbyists (62%) Corporate Managers (80%)
Telemarketers 53%) Advertising executives (67%)
Car salespeople (47%) Marketing executives (62%)
Labor union leaders (41%) Journalists (56%)

Conclusion

If you were a shameless impostor who wants to gain the the local population’s trust quickly (which I am certain you are not), you might go for the nurse outfit (in the US) or the firefighter look (in Germany). As an alternative, you could also consider wearing a white lab coat and/or a stethoscope (works in both countries). A police uniform might also help, although I do not recommend this—it is likely to be illegal. If you, American traveler, would like to enchant Germans, why not try post office chic? In both countries, If you carry around a few textbooks, you could pass for a teacher. People may like you for it.

Whether you walk the streets of Berlin or Washington, avoid looking like a person who just walked out of Congress or the Bundestag. And to you, German tourist, do not even think of starting the casual conversation by trying to sell a car!

  1. Jones, Jeffrey M. “Record 64% Rate Honesty, Ethics of Members of Congress Low.” Gallup. 12 Dec. 2011. Web. 3 June 2012.
  2. GfK. “Vertrauen in Verschiedene Berufsgruppen.” Statista. June 2011. Web. 24 May 2012.

Historian Ulrich Adelt on the Blues in Cold War Germany

On April 26, Dr. Ulrich Adelt, Junior Professor of American Studies from the University of Wyoming, gave a talk at American Studies Leipzig as part of the Fulbright lecture series. His presentation was titled “Just Play the Blues: African Americans, Afro-Germans, white Germans and the Politics of Primitivism.”

Professor Adelt’s research interests include pop music, transnationalism, and racial politics.

In the 1960s, blues music underwent a shift from black artists and audiences to white artists and audiences. With the appropriation of the blues by white artists and audiences, the genre shifted away from its former black working class base. The white middle-class embrace of certain notions of blackness stood in contrast to black audiences’ increasing attraction to new music genres emphasizing civil rights and black power, such as Soul and Funk. For white audiences, black masculinity was perceived as a marker of authenticity. Nevertheless, African American performers often resisted such forced constructions of blackness.

Adelt used the American Folk Blues Festival, a music festival organized by German promoters starting in the early 1960s to illustrate the complex relationships between transnational popular culture and race during the Cold War.

The Transatlantic Dimension of the Blues

In the 1960s, blues music became a transatlantic phenomenon in its own way. Black American blues musicians, some of whom became expatriates, brought their music to eager European audiences. After a while, blues in an updated form was re-imported to the US, mostly through British rock bands.

As an example of an expatriate blues musician, Adelt mentioned Memphis Slim (1915 – 1988), who was portrayed in the June 1966 issue of Ebony magazine while living in Paris (You can read the issue in the Ebony archives). But this was not the norm. Most African American blues performers did not become expatriates.

Memphis Slim, American Folk Blues Festival, Hamburg 1972. Picture by Heinrich Klaffs. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. From Wikipedia.
Memphis Slim, American Folk Blues Festival, Hamburg 1972. Picture by Heinrich Klaffs. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. From Wikipedia.

 

 

Germany Gets the Blues (Sort of)

In Germany, promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau organized the American Folk Blues Festival, beginning in 1962. Their construction of the blues was highly romantic. It used the genre’s blackness to highlight blues as the primitive root of Rock’n’Roll. Lippmann and Rau saw the blues as a vehicle of Denazificiation and Anti-racism. In retrospect, however, they continued to deploy racial constructions that are uncomfortably close to that of the Third Reich.

Adelt argued that pop culture is not always a liberating force, but can also work to uphold racial hierarchies and oppression.

Primitivism in Germany

In Germany, positive racism in the form of appropriating the art of ‘savages’ has a long history. African bodies used in art were seen as modern, fresh, or lively. Examples of works of art in this vein include Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Emil Nolde‘s Dance Around the Golden Calf (1910), or the enthusiasm for American-born French dancer/singer/actress Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975).

Josephine Baker in Banana Skirt from the Folies Bergère production "Un Vent de Folie," 1927. Picture by Walery, French, (1863-1935). PD by age (Walery died more than 70 years ago). From Wikipedia.
Josephine Baker in Banana Skirt from the Folies Bergère production “Un Vent de Folie,” 1927. Picture by Walery, French, (1863-1935). PD by age (Walery died more than 70 years ago). From Wikipedia.

 

 

During the Third Reich, this former positive racism was replaced by negative racism, exemplified by terms such as Entartete Musik (‘Degenerate music’) (see also here) for jazz, and a fear of Vernegerung (‘Negroidization’) or Verjudung (‘Jewification’) of German culture through ‘foreign’ popular culture.

 

 

 

 

 

After World War II, certain Nazi imagery survived in popular children’s television series such as Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver (Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer) (1960). [There is a debate in Germany about whether Jim Button has to be read as racist or anti-racist.]

Racism was also present among parts of the white German left. Here, a “fascination with the real” drove the interest in the black embodiment of suffering.

Race in Germany Before and After World War Two

Transplanting the blues to Germany brought with it certain traveling problematic racial conceptions. While the US certainly had its own historic issues with race, the blues was entering a German culture that was no stranger to racist ideas, even before National Socialism. Among these were the ‘Black Horror on the Rhine’ (“Die Schwarze Schmach“)—fear of the presence of black French troops during the Occupation of the Rhineland following World War I, the vilification of interracial fraternization in the phenomenon of  ‘Occupation Babies’ (“Besatzungskinder”) after World War II, caused by sexual relationships between black American GIs and white German women.

Such negative racial constructs were later challenged by Afro-German activists, for instance in the book Farbe Bekennen (‘Showing our Colors’) in 1986.

After the reunification of Germany, a wave of Neo-Nazi attacks on immigrants and non-white persons conveyed an urgency among ethnic minorities and sympathetic parts of the mainstream German population to organize against racial stereotypes. Within German popular culture, Hip Hop artists, especially multi-ethnic or Afro-German Hip Hop artists, such as Advanced Chemistry (early 1990s), Samy Deluxe (starting in the late 1990s), or Brothers Keepers (early 2000s) were involved in anti-racist activism.

Blues as Cold War Propaganda in East and West

The blues was used as a propaganda tool on both sides of the Cold War divide. The capitalist West promoted blues and Jazz as symbols of openness in  contrast to the Soviet system. Nonetheless, during the early Cold War, the Jim Crow system was still very much intact in the US, and the Civil Rights Movement had not yet gained that strong a foothold.

The communist East was eager to point out these contradictions, presenting blues and jazz as a signs of resistance against the inherent racism of the capitalist system. In the German Democratic Republic, blues was promoted as music of the oppressed masses, embedded into a critique of US capitalism. On the other hand, there were crackdowns on long-haired blues fans nonetheless, and racial stereotypes were not absent.

Lippmann and Rau Bring American Popular Music to Germany

The organizers of the American Folk Blues Festival were coming from very different backgrounds. Lippmann was Jewish and his family had been persecuted by the Nazis. He saw similarities between black suffering in the US and the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany. Rau, on the other hand, came from a family that had profited from the Nazis’ war buildup. He discovered Jazz in the 1950s and imagined the possibility of Dennazification and “rebirth through Jazz.”

When Lippmann and Rau began to organize jazz concerts featuring African American artists, for instance the Modern Jazz Quartet, they sought to give Jazz an aura of “respectability” by having artists wear tuxedos, advertising events with abstract art, and setting up concerts in symphony halls instead of small, smoke-filled clubs. As Adelt argued, this idea of having to make jazz and its performers respectable can be traced back to racial ideas of the Nazi era.

While organizing blues concerts, Lippmann and Rau gave up on the concept of creating respectability and appealed to primitivist ideas instead. The American Folk Blues Festival, staged between 1962 and 1972, and 1980 to 1985, usually went for three to four hours and featured eight to ten headliners.

What was presented in these concerts can be described as nostalgic blues for white audiences. Both folk music from the 1930s and 1950s blues were at this point somewhat outdated. Older blues artists, such as Willie Dixon (1915 – 1992), were rediscovered during the 1960s. In this context, there was also a conflict between older black and younger white blues performers.

Big Joe Williams, American Folk Blues Festival, Hamburg 1972. Photo by Heinrich Klaffs. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. From Wikipedia.
Big Joe Williams, American Folk Blues Festival, Hamburg 1972. Photo by Heinrich Klaffs. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. From Wikipedia.

Lippmann and Rau’s posters advertising their events made extensive use of romantic primitivist imagery. The artwork often featured guitars and earthy colors, reminiscent of nameless black bodies. Overall, their design conveyed a “non-threatening” nostalgia.

The events themselves even surpassed the posters in their stagecraft. To enhance the atmosphere of the spectacle, concerts sometimes featured recreated juke joints and other scenery, and African American GIs were bused in as studio audience in Germany.

Here, here, and here are some videos of typical performances (you can find much more material on youtube).

In 1967, Lippmann and Rau started booking Soul and Funk artists such as James Brown. With a turn towards these more contemporary forms of black popular music, the audience also shifted notably from white Germans to black American GIs.

Blues, Civil Rights, and Well-Meaning Racism

In 1965, Lippmann and Rau linked their American Folk Blues Festival to the US Civil Rights Movement. While well-meaning, in retrospect they upheld problematic racial constructions. In concert booklets, for example, blacks were presented as victims without an agency of their own. In a sense, Lippmann and Rau catered to their audience’s expectations of blues as a primitive, raw, emotional, but certainly not intellectual form of art.

Some African American blues artists developed what Adelt sees as strategies to counter such forced constructions of identity. At times, they spontaneously changed playlists at their shows. Some defied stereotyping by showing off their extraordinary skills and gimmicks in musicianship, for instance on the guitar. Stage antics, appearance in decidedly flashy clothes, or the performance of novelty songs were forms of resistance against expectations. White audiences did not always take this too well. In 1965, Buddy Guy (born in 1936) was booed for playing a medley of James Brown songs. To some degree, the blues resisted against expectations of white middle class respectability.

In conclusion, Adelt remarked that the appropriation of the blues by white German audiences was characterized by ambiguity. While there was great optimism about the prospects of Denazification through American popular culture, the project of transplanting the blues to Europe had a blind spot in its continuation of racial stereotypes.

Here is American Studies Leipzig’s video interview with Ulrich Adelt:

Further Reading:

Adelt, Ulrich. Blues Music in the Sixties: A Story in Black and White. First Paperback ed. Rutgers UP, 2011.
Balitzki, Jürgen et al. Bye Bye, Lübben City. Bluesfreaks, Tramps Und Hippies in Der DDR. 1st ed. Schwarzkopf + Schwarzkopf, 2004.
Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Harvard UP, 2000.
Filene, Benjamin. Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music. U of North Carolina P, 2000.
Hamilton, Marybeth. In Search of the Blues. Reprint. Basic Books, 2009.
Hohn, Maria. GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany. U of North Carolina P, 2002.
Oguntoye, Katharina, May Ayim, and Dagmar Schultz. Farbe Bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen Auf Den Spuren Ihrer Geschichte. 3., veränd. Aufl. (REV). Orlanda Frauenverlag, 2007.
Von Eschen, Penny M. Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Harvard UP, 2006.

American Studies Leipzig Graduate Conference 2012

Tomorrow I will be going to American Studies Leipzig’s third graduate conference, organized by the second year MA students.

This year’s topic is “Global Games, Global Goals: Locating America in the Cultural, Social, and Political Realms of Sports.”

As the website describes it, the conference

will explore different notions of sports in a forum integrating students and professionals. Since sports touches upon many aspects of life such as politics, media, popular culture, history, and health, it offers a myriad of possible research foci. In fact, American sports and sport lifestyle(s) influence cultures around the world while simultaneously being subject to influences from other cultures as well. The study of sports within an American context is thus not limited to the national level: Sports organizations, sports gear enterprises, and athletes of all possible types operate internationally, making the topic of sports highly relevant on a global scale.

As a ‘veteran’ conference organizer (I was part of the organizing team in 2010), I am of course very excited to see how this year’s MA class manages to pull it all off. I am confident in this year’s organizing team, as the previous conferences went quite well.

I am also curious about the presentations and certain to learn about many aspects of sports that I had not thought about earlier. If I find the time, I will put up some more posts after the weekend.

John C. Hulsman on the Upcoming 2012 U.S. Presidential Election and U.S. Foreign Policy

This Tuesday [March 27, 2012] I attended a talk on “The Upcoming U.S. Presidential Elections and U.S. Foreign Policy” by Dr. John C. Hulsman, who is a Senior Research Fellow at the The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS). The talk was held at the Bibliotheca Albertina, the main university library in Leipzig, and presented by the AmCham Forum of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany.

Hulsman, who described himself as a left-leaning Republican, has worked for a number of think tanks, among them the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, the conservative Heritage Foundation, and the German Council on Foreign Relations.

In his talk, Hulsman argued that five issues were crucial to current developments in US foreign policy:

  • the decline of the US economy
  • the decline of the European economies
  • the Arab Spring
  • rising powers such as India and China
  • the question of an Iranian nuclear program

Elections and Political Views in the US

Concerning the elections, Hulsman said that polls show that more more Americans consider themselves conservatives [He was probably talking about this Gallup poll].

Independent Voters in the US

Presidential elections in the US, Hulsman mentioned, are won by courting independent voters, who are neither attached to Democrats or Republicans.

These independents are disaffected and are most concerned about the economy.

In 2008, independents were largely for Barack Obama. Before the crash of investment bank Lehman Brothers, however, John McCain was ahead of Obama in the polls with independents.

In 2010, independents swung back to Republicans, mainly because of opposition to the Obama administration’s health care reform bill.

To independents, Hulsman explained, the health care reform was another ‘entitlement,’ which they dislike, and they felt that their main concern—the economy—was neglected.

[Here is a Pew poll from April 2012 on general election preferences.]

Economic Troubles Illustrated

To illustrate the severity of economic troubles in the US, Hulsman gave these examples:

One third of Americans have no retirement savings. When the Social Security system was initiated, life expectancy was much lower than today. During the 1990s, many who owned real estate, such as a house, felt this was securing their retirement.

One fourth of all homes in the US are now ‘underwater,’ meaning that homeowners owe the bank more in mortgage than the house is worth on the market. The house thus loses saving potential and becomes a drag for the owner. Hulsman said that the Hayekian idea (after classical liberal Austrian economist Friedrich August von Hayek) would have been to just leave the keys and get out of the house.

One fifth of all savings were wiped out during the financial crash that started in late 2007. Hulsman stressed that in a federal system such as that of the US, it is important to examine the respective figures for state and local levels to get the full scope of the financial crisis’ impact.

If the US economy would not grow by eight per cent, it would not be able to cushion these problems.

Anger at Washington and the Labor Market

Hulsman explained that part of the general dissatisfaction of voters with the Washington establishment is the great disparity of experiences in the labor market.

Jobs within the Washington political class are generally very secure, and it is hard to get fired. On the other hand, regular employees and workers get fired very easily in the US, compared to Germany.

The economic difficulties of the US, Huntsman noted, might produce a spillover effect with ramifications for foreign policy, due to constraints on the federal budget. The high costs of war and nation-building [see below] come under closer scrutiny in this climate.

The Republican Primaries in Early 2012

In January 2012, Mitt Romney was twenty points ahead with independents in the polls.

This time, more Republican primaries allocate their delegates proportionally.

By doing so, they adopt the Democratic system of primaries, wherein two candidates fight for the nomination.

Splitting the Republican Vote with Culture Wars

A problem for Republicans in their relationship with independent voters is their focus on ‘culture war’ issues such as abortion, contraception, and the separation of church and state. For instance, Rick Santorum has put the issues of contraception and state-church separation front and center in his campaign. This does not fit well with independents, who worry most about the economy.

As of March 2012, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are splitting the conservative vote. This is beneficial to Mitt Romney, who is considered the more socially moderate Republican candidate.

Romney, Hulsman noted, does not like to talk about social issues. He is simultaneously forced to move to the right o social issues in order to appease conservatives, while trying to avoid alienating independents.

Hulsman bets his money on Romney becoming the Republican nominee in the end.

Obama’s campaign narrative to counter Romney will be that he stopped the ‘Great Depression.’

Partisan Differences in Foreign Policy

How would Republicans and Democrats differ on foreign policy?

Hulsman said that Republicans are always to the right of Obama and the Democrats, for instance on the issue of Israel.

Current Challenges in US Foreign Policy

Dealing with a Multipolar World

An ongoing general challenge for the US is how to deal with the new multipolar world, exemplified by the rise of countries such as Brazil, India, China, South Africa, or Malaysia.

The European financial crisis the tensions with Iran are examples of issues that the US cannot control alone. This is a new situation for the US and makes the Obama administration nervous.

The Arab Spring

Hulsman was skeptical about the long-term success of the Arab Spring, saying that he viewed it in Burkeian terms. History shows, he said, that the most well-organized groups prevail in revolutions. In Egypt, this would be the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. While Hulsman was optimistic about the situation in Tunesia, he had a very bleak outlook about developments in Syria.

Obama’s foreign policy style, Hulsman held, is basically one that focuses on limiting losses.

Iran, the US, and Israel

Hulsman noted that the US government realizes its own security interest does not equal Israeli security interest, even if both are close allies.

To illustrate this point, Hulsman explained that the US and Israel have different red lines in considering military action against Iran.

For Israel, an Iranian capability to build a nuclear weapon would be a reason to attack. For the US, the actual possession of nuclear weapons would be that flashpoint.

In Israel, the hawkish faction around Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Avigdor Liebermann want a military strike, but cannot get a majority of the population behind them without US support.

In addition, several former Mossad chiefs have publicly argued against attacking Iran.

In the US, public opinion is such that 75% strongly support Israel, but also do not want a unilateral strike. In Israel, the number concerning a unilateral strike is similar.

If Iran would at some point in the future have a nuclear weapon, nuclear proliferation would spread throughout the Middle East, especially the gulf states.

A bombing of Iran would have terrible results, according to Hulsman. If Israel attacked Iran unilaterally, that would perhaps set back the Iranian nuclear program for a year. But the high price to pay would be that hope for peace in the Middle East would be gone for a generation. Already now, an Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz has caused a spike in oil prices.

Currently, Washington talks to Tel Aviv to convince the Israelis to get more time to let the sanctions on Iran work.

Hulsman told the audience to behold the coming September, because the chance of a military strike at this time would be fifty-fifty.

Afghanistan

Concerning Afghanistan, Hulsman, who is opposed to neoconservatives, held that it was a case of failed nation building, with a cost of $ 1 million per soldier per year. He said that failed nation builders always claim they need more time and money.

The US, the EU, and Global Influence

On the US as a global ordering power via the EU, Hulsman said that if the EU wants to play a greater role, it needs to spend more on defense. He said that the US cross-subsidizes European defense, while European nations spend very few on defense, and more on their social systems.

Here is a video from the US Embassy in Germany featuring John C. Hulsman talking about the 2012 elections:

Parochista Khakpour: Contemporary Iranian American Literature (Leipzig Book Fair 2012 Update 2)

On Sunday, I attended the reading by Iranian American writer Parochista Khakpour, supported by the US Consulate Leipzig.

Khakpour was born in Tehran in 1978 and raised in the Greater Los Angeles Area.

At the Leipzig Book Fair, Parochista Khakpour read excerpts from her debut novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove, 2007), which is set in suburban California of the late 1980s and deals with questions of identity among Iranian immigrants to the US and their children. The negotiation and struggles of identity, both Iranian and American, is a key theme of the novel, and Khakpour noted that the figure of her father is central to treating this issue in her work.

Khakpour also presented some excerpts from an autobiographical essay titled “Camel Ride, Los Angeles, 1986,” originally published in Guernica, an online “magazine of art and politics.” In the essay, she describes the traumatic experience of being taken to a camel ride in the Los Angeles Zoo by her father.

Parochista Khakpour also spent a semester in Germany in the Winter Term 2011/2012 as Picador professor at American Studies Leipzig and worked on various writing projects. Khakpour remarked that writing about identity in a foreign country gives an author a different perspective, that she liked Leipzig as a city very much, and made friends while there.

Currently she is working on her second novel and a number of essays.

Yay, I am Going to the Leipzig Book Fair (Leipziger Buchmesse)

The Leipzig Book Fair (Leipziger Buchmesse) is one of the biggest of its kind in Germany (the other heavyweight being the Frankfurt Book Fair), with a long tradition going back to the mid-eighteenth century. This year it takes place from March 15 to March 18.

According to the official booklet (Strukturdatenbroschüre 2012, available on the official website), there will be over 2,000 exhibitors from 36 countries this year. In 2011, 163,000 visitors, among them 45,000 trade visitors were attending. Not too bad!

As a Leipzig humanities graduate looking for a job, this seems like a good place to go. I will buy me a ticket for the whole four days and immerse myself in the experience.

During the past years, I had sporadically been visiting some reading events, which are scattered all across town at various venues in Leipzig during the book fair. Until now, I did not fancy going to the fair ground directly because I thought it would be much too crowded. I shall see first hand this time.

I am particularly interested in Friday, March 16, which is scheduled as Career Day (Karrieretag). There will be quite a few talks on the state of the publishing industry and career opportunities. I hope to get a few ideas and talk to some professionals in the field. Yes, this will be my attempt at networking. Wish me luck!

When I get back from the action, I will write some more posts about my impressions.