Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why I’m not going to start punching Nazis

In case you missed it, a short video is doing the rounds of the internet of Richard Spencer, the leader of the alt-right movement whose meetings tend to feature cries of “Heil Trump”, being punched. And all of a sudden, my Twitter feed is full of different versions of this video and a whole slew of likes and retweets featuring people seeking to justify the act.

It will, of course, depend on who you actually choose to follow, but I appear to be getting one half of the argument. In essence, it boils down to this: Richard Spencer is a Nazi, and it is the duty of everyone who values democracy to punch any Nazi they see. From what I can gather, the other side of the argument is that violence is wrong, and those using violence to combat violence are guilty of double standards.

Let me begin by saying that I think Richard Spencer’s policies, so far as I understand them, are repulsive and dangerous. At least, that’s my opinion. I also can’t bring myself to feel sorry for him, if I’m honest: if you are going to adopt the rhetoric of a hated and hateful tyrannical regime, you’re not going to be universally loved. Those who live by the sword die by the sword: you reap what you sow. Call it “karma” if you must.

But I must confess I do start to feel uncomfortable when people start using excuses for violence and vigilantism, because I begin to wonder where it ends. One Tweet I saw took the position that violence is only justified when used in self-defence, and punching a Nazi is always self-defence.

Is it, though? If I punch a Nazi who just happens to cross my path, what am I defending myself from? The theoretical possibility that one day he may come to power and enact policies which will be disadvantageous to me? I mean, he might; but there’s a theoretical possibility that anyone I meet might stab me in the back. It’s not a particularly good argument.

And who decides who is a Nazi and who isn’t? In the case of Richard Spencer it seems clear, despite the fact that since the word “Nazi” means “member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party” we’re already using it inaccurately. Spencer clearly draws much inspiration from that movement, that’s good enough for me.

But how about somebody who thinks there’s something in what Spencer says? How about somebody who voted Trump? Somebody who once shared a Breitbart article on Facebook?

More importantly, though: exactly what does punching a Nazi achieve? It might give the puncher the satisfaction of a job well done, but beyond that? If we’re defending ourselves from a theoretical future Nazi dictatorship, how does raining blows on somebody prevent that? Do we think that the likes of Spencer would go home, holding a blooded hankerchief to the nose, and think: “Goodness, some people don’t like me. I should turn over a new leaf.”

The issue here is actually quite a simple one, because it’s a basic human tendency. I am certain every single human does it. You do it, I do it, we all do it, even if we don’t want to admit it even to ourselves. I’m trying my hardest not to do it right now, but I have no way of knowing how successful I am.

We discriminate.

We can’t help it, because it’s pretty much hard-wired into our brains. We need to have some way of distinguishing between things that threaten us and things that don’t. But we modern humans, thanks to our innate ability to use language, have developed some very highly sophisticated and incredibly subtles ways of discrimination.

Basically, we divide humanity into two parts: one good, and one bad. But we carefully do it so that we’re always in the “good” part. No matter how many different ways we divide humanity, we always draw the line so that we ourselves are on the “good” side.

We can be phenomenally clever with this. We are even able to put ourselves on the “good” side while pretending to put ourselves on the “bad” side: if I say, for example, that I’m a racist, I’m not dividing humanity into “racist” and “non-racist”; I’m dividing it into “deluded” and “self-aware”, and putting myself on the “self-aware” side.

Following this line of argument much further, of course, we have to conclude that my simply saying “We all discriminate” is making exactly that distinction in exactly that way, as is this paragraph I am typing now, and we disappear into a pretty nasty paradox. I’ll simply have to ask you to bear with me and consider whether or not my basic point here makes sense to you.

This is the same phenomenon behind all those competing theories about how Donald Trump got elected, or how Brexit happened. Every time you see one of those essays, always imagine the author carefully constructing the argument in order to be innocent. The simpler the argument, the more likely it is to be self-serving. “People voted Trump because they’re all racist” means “I didn’t vote Trump, therefore I am not racist.” Conversely, “People voted Trump because they wanted to get rid of the political establishment” means “I voted Trump because I believe mainstream politicians are trying to destroy me.”

And this is why I’m not going to start punching Nazis. The sequence of events thus far is:
  1. Spencer divides humanity into “good” white people of European stock — people who look like him — and everyone else, who are “bad”.
  2. Somebody else divides humanity into “bad” Nazis, and the “good” people who actively resists them, and so justifies landing a punch.
  3. Countless other people divide humanity into “bad” people who attack, and “good” people who merely defend themselves. Some put Spencer into the “bad” group, some put him into the “good” group. They all put themselves into the “good” group, of course.
But this is a lazy, and ultimately counter-productive, way to go about it. Quite simply, humanity doesn’t divide up so neatly, and all of these divisions are arbitrary. But the more we do this, and the more importance we attach to these divisions, the more polarized society becomes, and before you know it, we’re drawing up the battle lines.

There are better ways of resisting and counteracting extremism. Forcing people to decide between one of two extremes is not at all helpful.

Friday, January 20, 2017

How not to be green

A few days ago, I spotted an advert for a device that promised something little short of a green revolution. I say “advert”: it was actually one of those social media posts that people reflexively share, not realizing that they’re basically doing the job of advertising the product for free, which is what the company intend them to do.

This device is installed in the kitchen. You put left-over food in it, which it then apparently grinds up and magically transforms it into the perfect fertilizer for your garden. That way, your food waste doesn’t go to landfill, and it also means you don’t have to buy chemical fertilizers: the perfect green solution!

I imagine that most of you have already spotted it. For those who haven’t, I should explain that gardeners have been “magically” transforming food waste into fertilizer since time immemorial: the process is known as “composting” and involves no technology more complex than a large wooden box.

Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t actually smell.

The truly worrying thing about this amazing device is that it claims to do this within 24 hours, which means either that it’s a scam, or it uses vast amounts of power. The vast amounts of power must come from somewhere, and even “clean” wind energy comes at a cost: in this part of Germany, the cost of surprisingly large numbers of trees, since the only place you can build a wind farm in hilly country is on hilltops, which are very often forested. (I once got into conversation with a northerner — a flatlander, therefore — who actually told me I was lying about that last point, because what kind of idiot would build wind farms on hilltops? There are times when you’re left with no choice but to quietly drop the subject and tiptoe away.)

It strikes me as one of the odd paradoxes of our time that so many people are paying lip-service to supposedly “green” initiatives, while at the same time we as a society are becoming increasingly less green. A controversial statement, I know, but stay with me here: the idea of a “green” solution that is actually, objectively, less green than the age-old solution the manufacturers are pretending doesn’t exist is a perfect illustration.

So you have a five-year-old car which is not the most fuel-efficient. Do you (a) replace it with a new electric car, or (b) walk, cycle or take public transport as often as possible and the car only when completely unavoidable?

If you answered (a), you would almost certainly be responsible for more environmental damage than you would cause if you changed nothing at all: your old car has to be scrapped and a new car built, and an electric car’s batteries contain some quite rare materials that have to be mined at great cost to the environment.

“But,” you protest, “public transport is not an option for me: the bus only goes once an hour.” That never worried your great-grandparents, and in any case if you truly want to save the planet, you’re going to have to make some personal sacrifices.

I do, of course, understand that in many parts of the world — large areas of the US, for example — public transport is virtually non-existent, which is why you need to persuade your President that Trump-branded streetcars are just the thing to Make America Great Again, or at least to Make America Move Again.

Trump Trams, made in Detroit. Make it happen, America. Just don’t tell Donald Trump it’s to help save the environment.

(Disclaimer: Building trams may require lots of power and natural resources. Dammit, this isn’t as easy as I thought.)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Farewell, quirky Christmas tree

If you’re in Germany and like to do things the traditional way, you put your Christmas decorations up on Christmas Eve and don’t take them down until after Twelfth Night. If you’re in a rural area where local volunteers provide a service to pick up and dispose of spent Christmas trees and they announce they’re coming round on 14th January, you wait until then to strip your tree and dump it outside. Well, normally, you’d have done that on 13th, unless the tail end of Storm Egon threatens to blow it into the path of unsuspecting cars.

Which explains why, if you’d been spying on me at breakfast this morning, you’d have seen me suddenly point excitedly out of the window, leap out of my seat and start wrestling with the tree.

The tree, by the way, was a rescue tree. In the same way that if we’d got our cats from a shelter we’d have come home with a one-eyed tom and a kitten with a limp, my wife took pity on this hard-luck case:

Please give this tree a home.
Yes, we loved our special tree, and we don’t care what anyone says: it was a delight to have around and we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Of course, we would have loved it more if it hadn’t dripped resin all over the floor, but that’s one reason we don’t have carpets.

Of course, even though we had already stripped the tree, it was still not the easiest thing in the world to get it outside. When you buy a tree, they have a special machine to bundle it up into some netting so it will fit through any door. We don’t have one of those machines lying around in our living room, so I had to try to squeeze it through the patio door, as my wife held it open and gave me useful pieces of advice like, “Take a run-up!” All of this before I had quite finished my first coffee.

I made it in time and returned to find the floor green with the needles that had been shaved off the tree during its passage through the door.

So, farewell, Christmas tree; you were a part of our lives for three weeks, and now you have gone to that great forest in the sky. We shall miss you, and will always remember the... the stickiness you brought to our tiles.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Well, that was some year

I appear to have survived the year 2016, which is more than a lot of other people can say. A huge number of celebrities chose this year to shuffle off their mortal coils: David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Carrie Fisher to name but three. If you’re British, you’ll also be mourning the loss of the likes of Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels and Victoria Wood. For Germans, the list includes Tamme Hanken, Guido Westerwelle and Götz George.

It seems as if there isn’t a single person who hasn’t felt the loss of some childhood-defining figure or other: there was that anguished moment when three generations of Germans simultaneously cried, “No, not Peter Lustig!” My wife very kindly suggested that I should be grateful I’m not famous enough, which I suppose is one way of looking at my continued lack of stardom.

I like to think of myself as a bit rational most of the time, so I can console myself with probability theory, which suggests that actually all is right with the universe and that it would in fact be very strange if we never experienced a year as unusual as this one from time to time. All the same, when you hear the rhetoric of the US President Elect on things like nuclear weapons and the manaical world-domination plans of heavily-armed Islamic terrorists, you can’t help but imagine a mass exodus before the impending apocalypse.

It remains to be seen what the next year will bring. As my local paper helpfully explained this morning, as if this was some deep new insight currently sending shockwaves through the philosophical community, 2017 is the logical follow-on to 2016. Given that, I suppose we’ll just have to expect the unexpected. By this time next year, the new leader of the free world could be me.

Now, there’s a scary thought.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Why I’m a bit worried right now

This isn’t going to be a learned, academic piece. It’s my gut reaction to a news story, and so entirely subjective. Perhaps I’m being needlessly hysterical here — and if it’s any consolation, I really hope I’m badly mistaken. For once in my life, I would be really happy if, some time in the future, I have to stand up and say, “I was wrong, and I apologize to anyone who took my word for it.”

A few days ago, a man called Richard Spencer stood up in front of a small crowd of white men (I suppose there were some women there as well, but I didn’t notice any), told them their nation was created for them and for them only, and led them in a chorus of “Hail Trump”. Cue Nazi salutes.

A lot of people, on seeing that, will have felt shudders down the spine. I certainly did: there’s something very unsettling about witnessing the sort of scene you might expect in satirical comedy when it isn’t satire. The nearest thing you get to a laugh is watching an American trying to pronounce the “ü” in “Lügenpresse”.

It’s not the mere existence of people like this that worries me — they’ve always existed, and usually there aren’t enough of them to be more than a slight irritant. It’s the fact that they are uncomfortably close to power.

To be sure, I don’t think President Elect Trump is deliberately racist, or a Nazi. I think he’s a hopeless politician who lacks all the necessary skills to play the game, and he will lose. He certainly does have some very unpalatable views, and his despicable attitude towards women (to pick one example) doesn’t seem like an act. But I actually believe him when he says he condemns Spencer’s Alternative Right movement: it’s just that he doesn’t understand why it’s so important to nip that sort of thing in the bud, rather than wait for a journalist to ask him about it a few days later.

But it seems that the “alt-right” view Trump as their route to the White House, and it looks as if they’ve secured their first victory by installing their PR man as one of Trump’s key advisors. I am referring to Steve Bannon.

Until recently, Bannon ran Breitbart News, an online news platform that leans so far right it’s less of a platform and more of a slippery slope. This organisation appears very much to be the mouthpiece of the “alt-right”, in much the same way that Der Stürmer was the mouthpiece of the Nazi movement.

Would you rather your child had Nazism or Alt-Rightism?

Of course, I can’t find any official link between Breitbart and Spencer. But that doesn’t matter, because there was no official link between Der Stürmer and Hitler; indeed, for a brief period, the Nazis banned Der Stürmer (not for its content, but for its crude and borderline pornographic style). But Breitbart has no problems supporting Trump and echoing Spencer’s rhetoric, just as Der Stürmer had no problem introducing the wider public to Nazi propaganda.

Both publications criticized their champions for being “too soft” (Hitler was not ruthless enough against the Jews, Trump has gone soft on illegal immigrants), both purport to tell the truth while the evil “mainstream media” pander to elitist interests. The differences are that Breitbart looks superficially more respectable, and its former chief now has the President Elect’s ear.

Of course, Spencer’s movement is small, and most people — including most, I am sure, who voted Trump — would be horrified by it. But that’s basically the position the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — the NSDAP to give it its German abbreviation, also known as the Nazi Party by its detractors — was in less than 15 years before Hitler was appointed Chancellor: it was a small protest group based in Munich, whose members brawled in pubs. Its membership was so pitifully small that when it began issuing membership cards, it started the numbering at 500 just for the sake of saving its own embarrassment.

But it grew. It grew for many reasons, but feeding off the resentment of the masses was a big one. It benefitted from national emergencies, some fabricated (the Communist plot to burn down the Reichstag building), most not (the Great Depression). In fact, these national emergencies were exactly what the party needed, as it made it easier to bypass all the usual democratic checks and balances that should have stopped Hitler eventually — and illegally — assuming the role of President to become absolute ruler.

Looking at America today, there are plenty of national emergencies waiting in the wings. One of the first may well happen when it dawns on about 60 million Americans that Trump isn’t going to deliver half of what he promised. I have a very nasty suspicion that in later years, historians will point to how, in the decades leading up to whatever is about to be leashed upon us, large numbers of the citizenry weaponized themselves while the police became militarized to a degree that had even the military shaking its head in disbelief.

Of course, all of this is entirely speculative. I have no idea what will happen. Perhaps it will all blow over and we’ll all come to our senses. I hope it does. This is one of those rare moments when I actually hope that I end up looking like an ignorant idiot.

Friday, September 30, 2016

John’s pics

Every once in a while, something lands in my PO box that pretty much deserves its own video. Such is the case with a letter I received with some photos taken in Aschaffenburg in the mid-1950s, which immediately prompted a video in which I was able to compare the town as it was then with the modern town. The best thing about this video is that the historic images are ones you won’t find anywhere else — not those exact photos, in any case.

But while it was a great video (at least, I think so), it doesn’t really let you study the photos (either the old ones or the new ones) at your leisure. So here they are, in order they appear in the video (remember you can click to expand).

First, looking up Herstallstraße:

A few people commented on the video to complain about the ugly new building on the left. Bear in mind, though, that German cities did have to rebuild very extensively, and very rapidly, after the war. In the decade after, the emphasis was on building homes to deal with a massive shortage of housing stock. That said, Germany did a much better job of preserving or recreating historical buildings than, say, the UK.

Next, the Collegiate Church:

You can quite clearly see how I was unable to get the right angle. I found one photo taken from the air just after the completion of the new Town Hall, which was in 1958, and most of the buildings opposite the church simply weren’t there: it was basically a parking lot. I think that must be where John was standing when he took the photo, because try as I might I couldn’t get the whole spire in and also get the fountain where it appears on the old photo. Not without stepping backwards through a plate-glass window.

The Hotel is up next:

I like this one because at first sight it looks as if it’s hardly changed at all. And it hasn’t: it’s still run by the same family (well, at some point it passed to the in-laws, but I still count that as “in the family”), as it has been for over 100 years. It’s only when you look closely that you notice the little changes.

Finally, the castle:

What a shame that tower is under scaffolding, but the reality is that historic buildings like this require an awful lot of maintenance. I am, though, surprised that nobody picked me up on mentioning the “symbol of the six-spoked wheel” while showing images of wheels with at least eight spokes each. I probably should have watched the rough cut more closely before recording the commentary, but in fact the Mainz Wheel is supposed to have six spokes. It’s often depicted as having more, and in previous centuries people didn’t always pay attention to such fine details: nevertheless, the symbol of Mainz is supposed to have exactly six spokes.

Also notice that there are more trees (and vines, too) in the newer picture. John did take his photos in the winter (you can see a light dusting of snow in some), but still air raids and things like the lack of firewood during the war took their toll on the local tree population: this has, as you can see, since been corrected.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Public transport in Frankfurt: Additional notes

I could have picked a better day to make my video about the public transport system of Frankfurt; it was, if not the hottest day of the year, certainly not the ideal weather to be stomping about in the city. But into every life a little rain must fall (metaphorically, in this case), so I braved the elements and tried not to choke on the smog.

Of course, it’s tricky getting everything into a five-minute video (any more and people would have fallen asleep), so here are a few little extra bits — starting, though, with the map of the airport that did actually make the final cut:

There are, as I mentioned in the video, two stations. Or rather, the station is divided into two: tracks 1, 2 and 3 are in the older station, right below the entrance to Terminal 1, and are for local traffic; while tracks 4 to 7 are on the other side of the autobahn, and are for long-distance trains. You’d notice if you were going for the long-distance station by mistake: it’s quite a long walk. Printed timetables helpfully number the tracks “Regio 1” to “Regio 3” for local trains, and “Fern 4” to “Fern 7” for long-distance trains.

To get there from Terminal 2, you can walk if you’re a glutton for punishment, or you can take a courtesy bus or the SkyLine monorail. Currently under construction is Terminal 3, which is at the other end of the airport to the south, and will require an even longer journey by SkyLine.

I’m not completely sure of the logic of using an “S” to indicate the regional station and “T” to indicate the long-distance station, but that’s what’s on the signs at the airport.

For S-Bahn trains into Frankfurt, you need track 1: during the day, there should be one train every 15 minutes. Any S-Bahn train will do. Other regional trains departing from that platform will be travelling in the right direction, but those headed for Hanau or Aschaffenburg will call at Frankfurt Süd (also known as “Südbahnhof”): that’s okay, because you can still get off there and take the U-Bahn into the centre.

Some regional trains going towards Frankfurt depart, rather confusingly, from track 2, which also has trains travelling away from the city. It’s probably best simply to go to track 1 and take whichever S-Bahn train comes in next.

Regarding the Hauptbahnhof (“Hauptbahnhof” or “Hbf” indicates a city’s most important — not necessarily the most central — station), don’t be worried by the fact that track numbers go up to 104. It’s common, when a station is in two separate sections, for tracks in one section to be numbered beginning at 1, and in another section beginning at 101. That way, you can tell at a glance which part of the station the track you need is going to be. In this case, ground-level platforms are numbered 1 to 24, and low-level platforms (for most S-Bahn trains) are numbered 101 to 104.

The next map shows Frankfurt’s railways, with the S-Bahn in green and other lines in red:

Names of regional and long-distance stations are given, along with the types of train that stop there: anything in red is long-distance; “RB” indicates the “RegionalBahn”, with trains that call at every stop; and “RE” is “RegionalExpress”, with trains that, well, don’t call at every stop. The main point about this one is to give a brief overview of where the various long-distance stations are: probably a bit useless, but it might be useful for somebody.

Potentially more useful is this map of central Frankfurt:

Here, names of S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations are in white, while blue-green is for important areas of the city.

The only other thing to say is that the area around the Hauptbahnhof is not particularly pleasant. Frankfurt has, by German standards, a very high crime rate, and this is concentrated around the Hauptbahnhof area. This mostly involves drugs, and with it associated problems like violence (due to turf wars) and the like. The authorities have been unable to get a proper handle on the issue, and attempts to clean it up only result in temporarily moving it elsewhere. At the time of writing, the dealers have left Münchener Straße and are instead on Niddastraße.

It’s important to stress that while the crime rate is high, it is high by German standards — compared to many US cities, for example, it’s really not that bad. Still, walking out of the station to get a lungful of the aroma of urine is not a pleasant introduction to Germany, or to Frankfurt. You might, if this sort of thing worries you, want to avoid getting hotel or hostel accommodation in this area.