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Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Chapel Hill, Boston, Istanbul, Calgary, Washington DC, Austin, Tunis, Warszawa and counting

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is the story of a three-generational family that originated in the Midwest, but where the middle part of the family has migrated to Philadelphia and New York. The main characters are the grand-parents (Enid & Alfred) and their three adult children. Alfred is slowly losing his mind and this serves as the string along with the lives of these people are told. None of them is really happy with what they have achieved, none of them is all that successful in his everyday life, in that sense I guess this book is surprisingly dealing with completely normal people. They could live next to you right now.

This book highly confused me. There is no stringent action, no climax, no denouement. The story is carried solely by the inner monologues and problems of the characters. These protagonists furthermore are in no sense extraordinary, they are the kind of people - and stereotypes - you would not care for a minute longer than you would have to if you met them there. But in reality, when forced upon you, or introduced through a book such as this. Their everyday problems, their attempts at grappling with life provide a highly interesting story. It is all pointless in the end, there is no lesson to be learned, nothing to be gained, no moral or political standard upheld or destroyed. Yet, it is a great book, it makes the reader think about himself and his problems, worries and failed interhuman relations. Read it, it is good.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Effects of Income Inequality

I have - finally - finished my last paper for the last semester in Berlin. It is an essay about the effects of income inequality on other economical and societal factors. Honestly, it is a disappointment. I did a lot of empirical work for this essay and out of twenty correlations only three are relevant. Just a load of crap the whole thing. I put so much work into it and got nothing out of it. Check it out only if you are extremely bored.

This means that with the courses that I am taking here right now, I only need one more class next semester to start writing my thesis and graduate. Hasn't really sunk in yet that.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Race and Congress

This might be one of the craziest papers I have ever written. It is for my PhD course on Legislative Politics. This course is a very humbling experience as it is full of well future professors who have been specializing in American politics for the last 3 years already and then I sit in there, with my European point of view and most importantly with a background that is a lot broader and more abstract (or useless) than theirs. Anyway, the point is that I wanted to turn in something good, it is not like most of my other courses where I can just get by on making up crap a little.

So, I got up Sunday morning at seven, had a nice breakfast on Franklin Street with some random, 50-year-old Republican woman (good conversation partner though) and then pretty much read eight books and wrote four pages about those. Tonight I only checked grammar and spelling and will now send it off to my professor (my schedule today was too busy to really change anything anymore). Do I actually think it is good? I don't know, I liked the subject, I feel like I have something to say even if I only scratch the surface of it. Let's see what the professor will have to say about it. I can only repeat that I enjoy the challenge of working a lot and under pressure though.

Check it out here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Memo I

Well, I've actually written my first essay for the university here. I don't like it all that much personally, we'll see what he thinks. I feel like I don't know enough about the subject yet personally, but I don't have the time to really get into it. In any case, here it is. Below you can read what he asked us to do, I have to say that I really like the general principle of the task:

You are a counterterrorism analyst at the CIA and an expert in Islamic fundamentalist groups. It is September 21, 2001 and the Director of the CIA has just read President Bush's speech to Congress the previous evening.

He says to you: "Last night the President said: 'They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other ...They stand against us because we stand in their way.'

Write a short memo to me (of no more than 750 words) telling me whether the President was right about al-Qaeda's motivation or not."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Portrait d'un officier

Un de mes livres que j'ai trouvé dans la librarie de ma fac à Berlin. J'en ai acheté cinq pour sept Euro. Mais il faut admettre, que j'avais aucune idée sur quoi ils seraient ou si les auteurs sont connus. Apparement Pierre-Henri Simon, qui a éecrit Portrait d'un officier ne l'est pas. Quand même je trouvais son livre pas mal. L'histoire s'agit d'un officier de l'armée française, qui a démissioné et qui pendant une voyage au train, raconte à un ancien camarade de la deuxième guerre mondiale ses raison pour cette démission trouvable dans ces expériences en Vietnam et Algerie.

Le bouquin était assez intéressant, même s'il n'y avait presque pas d'histoire, mais que une conversation. Mais je ai trouvé les sujets de conversation stimulant. La guerre, la religion, les colonies, la rôle d'ouest dans le monde. Ma seule problème était avec l'age du bouquin, parce qu'il était écrit dans les années 58 à 59, certains des idées et discussion sont un peu trop conservateur et ridicule même d'un point de vue d'aujourd'hui. La colonalisation par exemple est rarement defendue encore, ou que par les gens d'extrême droit. Même pour la religion, que - en Europe - est presque disparue et a perdu - pour moi en tout cas - la credibilité, qu'elle avait dans ces annés. Quand même, un bouquin intéressant. Mon but originel était d'apprendre plus sur les guerres en Algerie et Vietnam, pour ça le livre était plutôt inutile, mais je suis sûr que je trouverai un autre plus détaillé et moins philosophique une autre fois.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A Tramp Abroad I

As an avid fan of Crevecoeur as well as Mark Twain I figured I had to write at least some commentary on life in the US while being here - and no, this does not mean that I am comparing myself in any way possible with those two, that would be blasphemy. Thus, today my first such entry. Others will (in a more or less structured manner) follow.

Most Europeans don't seem to realize how racially diverse the United States really is. Even while living in the South, in Chapel Hill and thus not even an urban center (even if a university town) it is surprises me over and over again, how many people either have an obvious immigration background (meaning they look as if they came from the Indian subcontinent or South East Asia) or claim one from less exotic places (such as the Netherlands). Now, as a German one will quite often hear the ridiculous statement that one's conversation partner is German too, because his ancestors came from there 100 years ago. This is usually is followed by a comment on how that person is only able to say scheiße (or Autobahn, Guten Tag...). This peculiar fashion of self-identification is not what I mean though.

Contrarily an incredible amount of people grew up mostly in the US, but due to their parents' relatively recent immigration, they still have more or less close ties to their 'homeland' and (importantly) usually speak the language. In the few days I have been here I have already met people with a Bengali, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Iranian background (and these are just some of the more exotic sounding ones). While UNC is dominated by white American-American students, the number of these more international ones should not be underestimated and are incomparable to a society as homogenic as Germany.

Yet, what I really wanted to address today was the question of race. I am after all living in the South and quite close to Greensboro and accordingly one of the hot-spots of the Civil Rights Movement. As already pointed out, most students are white (and come from North Carolina), but there is a sizable black contingent on campus. Admittedly, I was surprised at how few there actually are, but then my high school experience probably had prepared me for different percentages.

Race relations in the USA are notoriously difficult, due mainly to historical reasons. I am simply astounded by how segregated American society still is though, I have not lived here in a while and had seemingly forgotten how sharply distinguished these groups are. Arguably, the separation lies not so much with the actual skin color, but is more due to a cultural expression (clothing, language, music...). Thus, there are white black guys as well as black white guys. Yet, to surprisingly large extent people do not mix. A simple look around in the dining hall makes clear that each group stays mostly to itself (and this does include Asian students btw, who I will kind of ignore for the time being though).

Of course, this is not as simple as I am making it out to be right now. Firstly, there is a lot of interaction between all groups, it is not like people don't talk to or don't know each other at all. Secondly, the groups (as already stressed) are not completely homogenic, just to a large extent. Yet, this de facto separation clearly exists and I am still having a hard time trying to grapple with it.

An important aspect of this racial divide I find is the image of black masculinity. For a lot of black guys at this school it is quite blatant how much they define themselves through their masculinity. Most of them are more or less athletic, most of them are cool - in the sense that they perceive themselves as much as they are actually are, but that latter point really isn't what I am trying to discuss here - and they give off an unapproachable vibe to some extent.

I personally believe that this is still prevalent because of black men's' historical emasculation as the financial provider and protector of the family. Yet, I would be very interested to find out more about this and hope that I will get to do so in my year here.

I want to add that most of the guys I have gotten to know mainly through basketball have been really nice after some initial arrogance phase (white guy + long hair = can't play ball, deserves no respect) and that for others this whole argument is not true in the first place. But I believe it is a fact and would be interested in anyone's comments on this subject matter.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Strategy And Choice in Congressional Elections

American college professors require their students to read quite a lot, if then you are stupid (or vain) enough to actually take a PhD course on Legislative Politics in the USA, you will be positively overwhelmed with literature. That is why I spend my Labour Day Monday ploughing through Strategy and Choice in Congressional Elections by Gary C. Jacobson and Samuel Kernell. The book itself was interesting enough, I just sometimes wish I was reading everything a little slower than I am forced to right now, at the same time I don't want to pretend that I am really complaining, I like the pace, it suits my current mood, and also makes one feel as if one really accomplishes something.

Jacobson and Kernell in their book (even when they call it essay in the introduction, over 100 pages are too much for an essay for me) try to refute the notion that national politics, national sentiments greatly influence congressional elections. Thus, the 1974 landslide victory of Democrats throughout the country was not due to Nixon's - well-deserved - unpopularity or his lack of economic success, nor the 1980 Republican victories to Carter's failures as a president. They claim, that empirical evidence does not support the argument, that national issues (such as Presidential popularity or economic progress) are decisive for either party's electoral success. This simply, because most voters do not vote based on national issues, but rather decide on local or regional factors such as name-recognition of the candidate.

Their argument then is, that the correlation between national issues and these local results is due to elite decisions made on both sides of the political spectrum. If a party will conceive its chances in elections to be low due to its implication as the President's party or a less than stellar economic record, less high-profile candidates (meaning mostly office experience) will run with less financial background (because of party and private resources concentrating on candidates with higher chances of winning) in open elections (meaning no incumbent has to be beat). Instead the money will concentrate on incumbents whose chances of staying in office are higher already and thus actually heightened (if only marginally because of a sinking rate of return on campaign money). On the other side of the spectrum, the party that has favorable ratings in spring of an election year, will have more high-profile candidates with more financial resources simply because of the perceived higher chances of success.

Thus, two main elements determine the results of congressional elections. Firstly, quality candidates need to be willing to put themselves up for elections which they will not do in a climate which disfavors their party. Secondly, private sources will be less willing to finance campaigns of politicians whose chance of winning they consider to be nil. It is thus not the national issue that is the decisive factor in elections, it is not the general public sentiment, but more so the elite perception of that sentiment about six months before those elections.

This is a very, very dense summary of a relatively complicated book (and argument (it is actually not that complicated but summing it up in three paragraphs is), so if I fail at explaining the reasoning please ask me and I will try to clear up any misunderstanding. Oh yeah, do I recommend this book for pleasurable reading? Only if you have nothing better to do in your life or are a complete nutcase for legislative politics. I found it interesting as an idea, as a concept, but not interesting enough to reread it at the beach or with more time next weekend.

Finally, what bothers me about the argument is that the question arises why politicians believe that their chances sink with national party politics failing, when Jacobson and Kernell show they don't. Surely there must be some relation of national policy to local voting behaviour.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Das Urteil

Kafka. Ehrlich gesagt (oder vielleicht eher peinlicherweise) hatte ich bisher noch nicht so viel von Kafka gelesen. Vor 10 Jahren mal Die Verwandlung an meiner damaligen High School in den USA und deswegen perfiderweise in Englisch. Jetzt also nochmal. Das Urteil besteht aus verschiedenen Kurzgeschichten, unter anderem Die Verwandlung, In der Strafkolonie und Ein Hungerkünstler.

Ich finde es im Allgemeinen schwierig Kurzgeschichten zu besprechen, aber Kafkas Geschichten sind irgendwie noch ungreifbarer. Die Geschichten sind sprachlich eindrucksvoll, man ist ihrer Wucht ausgesetzt, kann das Leid der Protagonisten fühlen. Aber gleichzeitig, lassen einen die Geschichten irgendwie sprachlos zurück. Jede Analogie zur Realität, zu meinem Leben, zum Leben von Anderen, scheint unmöglich oder sehr schwierig. Vielleicht reicht mein Intellekt nicht aus um die Parallelen zu sehen, vielleicht müßte ich alles doppelt oder sehr viel langsamer lesen, vielleicht ist es genau das was Kafka nicht will (einen offenkundigen Bezug zur Realität).

Es gefiel mir die Geschichten zu lesen (auch wenn ich seit der Verwandlung eine leichte Kakerlakenphobie entwickelt habe (die sieht man aber halt auch hier im Süden desöfteren)), aber ich fand es schwierig einen Zugang zu ihnen zu finden, der über das Lesen als solches hinausging. Ich habe nicht groß über sie nachdenken müssen, nachdem ich sie gelesen hatte.

Eine schwache Rezension, ich weiß, würde Kafka trotzdem auf jeden Fall empfehlen, einfach weil man ihn als Deutscher (oder deutschsprechender Mensch) mal gelesen haben sollte.