North Sea neuroses

Matthias Matussek, once London correspondent of Der Spiegel and now its culture editor, not to mention brother of top diplomat Thomas Matussek, has a book out. Wir Deutschen: warum die anderen uns gern haben können is meant to be a call for a renewed German patriotism and pride in culture. This would usually suggest a very dull book, but I enjoyed it immensely. Not for the right reasons, though.

Matussek’s approach is idiosyncratic, not that there is anything wrong with that, and the book is really a collection of essays, on topics ranging from Heinrich Heine and Angela Merkel to Britain, Britain, the German economy, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the World Cup, Britain, Danish cartoonists, the East after reunification, and Britain. In fact, an obsession with Britain runs through this book like letters through a stick of rock-hardly a page passes without comparing some German institution, writer, company, statesman or building to one in Britain, and no chapter is complete with a volley of snark directed roughly westward.

Now, it is a truism that Britain and Germany share a mutual obsession. But this would be less interesting if it wasn’t for the sheer wordcount devoted to complaining about the British obsession with Germany. There is a complete chapter on Anglo-German relations, which I looked forward to-the possibilities are immense. Would he dig into the pre-1914 closeness that gave Bradford a Little Germany (and its own Nazi, Ernst-Wilhelm Bohle, born there in 1903 and later Rudolf Hess’s right hand) and Leeds a Dortmund Square, Robert Graves a relative on the Oberste Heeresleitung?

Nah. Instead, most of the chapter is dedicated to the results of a trip to Germany for some schoolteachers his brother’s embassy organised, and a pleasant but uninformative weekend in the country with John Le Carré.
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Why reform has become a dirty word.

This anniversary guest post was written by the indispensable Jérôme Guillet, who normally writes for The European Tribune.

Laurence Parisot, the head of MEDEF, the French business
organisation, recently complained that:

There is one word who meaning for the public has changed in the past 25 years: “reform”. It used to be synonymous with progress, and now it means social regression.

One wonders why. Or not. As I’ve written incessantly over the past year at European Tribune (for instance here), “reform” has come to mean only one thing: less regulation of corporations, lower wages, fewer rights for workers, and weaker unions, i.e. the elimination of anything that can impede corporations’ freedom to make profits in the short term.
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American Dreamz: When satire doesn’t go far enough

A few months back, I picked up, on a lark, a short French novel called Allah Superstar authored by the pseudonymous Y.B. (generally known to be Yassir Benmiloud, columnist for the Algerian daily El Watan). I bought it entirely on the basis of the excerpt on the back cover:

Une fatwa, voilà ce qu’il me faut pour devenir à la mode. C’est plus rapide que Star Academy, ça dure plus longtemps, tu voyages dans le monde entier, tu donnes des conférences, tu descends dans des palaces, tu montes sur scène avec U2, tu prends le thé avec le pape, une bière ou deux voire trois avec Chirac, une vodka givrée avec Poutine, un cigare humide avec Clinton, une grosse ligne avec Bush Junior, un masque à gaz avec Saddam Hussein, à chaque fois que tu dis une connerie tout le monde entier il t’écoute vu que tu as une fatwa au cul le pauvre, alors que le monde entier il est autant dans la merde que toi vu que c’est bientôt la fin du monde pour tout le monde.

A fatwa, that what I need to get famous! It’s faster than Star Academy [a French American Idol-type show], it lasts longer, you can travel the world, give speeches, stay in palaces, be up on stage with U2, take tea with the Pope, a beer or two or even three with Chirac, a chilled vodka with Putin, a humid cigar with Clinton, snort up a thick line with Bush Junior, share a gas mask with Saddam Hussein, and no matter what stupid thing you say everybody listens because you have a fatwa on your ass, while everybody else is just as deep in shit as you are seeing how the world’s gonna end real soon.

Allah Superstar, written as a monologue in several chapters, follows a young Frenchman of half Arab, half-European ancestry as he tries to become a famous comedian. Ultimately, he is seduced to, well, the Dark Side of Islam, gets his fatwa as part of a fundamentalist plot to make him famous, and when he is finally asked to perform at the Olympia in Paris (think: the French version of Radio City Music Hall) for a special September 11th performance, he blows himself up on stage, killing most of the audience.

This plot is similar enough to the one in the film American Dreamz (which has already been out for six weeks in the States, but only just came out here, and which I went to see this afternoon because, frankly, the World Cup is not my bag) that I wonder if “Y.B.” has considered suing the film’s producers. It’s far from identical, but weaker claims have led to studios to pay up.

But where Allah Superstar is a satire of French society that brings together the desire for fame at all costs, transgressive comedy and fears of terrorism, American Dreamz, directed by the man responsible for American Pie, is merely a little joke on shows like American Idol and President Bush. As satire, it falls far below the potential implicit in its concept.

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so you decide if you want to read it.
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Overdue Evaluation (The Prize, by Daniel Yergin)

There is not much market for reviews of books published almost a decade and a half ago, so without further ado, my thoughts on The Prize, by Daniel Yergin. This evaluation is overdue because I started reading the book when I bought it, back in 1997. I put it down around page 400 (which is a little more than halfway), so this review is likely, very likely, to be stronger on the second half of the book.

Yergin’s subtitle is The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, which gives both theme and thesis. The title, if I am remembering an early part of the book correctly, comes from a statement made about oil by Winston Churchill: “The prize was mastery itself.” The argument is that understanding oil is central to understanding the twentieth century and, by extension, the world today. To complaints that the war in Iraq is “all about oil,” the only proper answer is “Of course.” The last century’s major conflicts, and many of its smaller ones, were driven by oil, determined by oil, or both. Without an understanding of oil, much of the period will remain opaque.
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Start in Cologne.

The New York Times’ Jeff Z. Klein decided to go to Germany early so he could tell his travelling countrymen how to best organize their trip to and through Germany during the football world cup next month. Now he’s all figured it out, and it’s easy: If You’re going to “The World Cup’s World Class Party“, start in Cologne, he says,

“… where the spirit is welcoming and properly fixated on fussball.

“The World Cup is not really for us here,” said Christian, a 40-ish punk musician who was watching the German Cup Final in a tiny bar on Weidengasse. “It’s for all the people coming from around the world.”

Raising his glass of whiskey and laughing he added, “And we’ll be right here ready to show everyone a good time.”

The System of the World

Sorry, this is not a post proclaiming a political theory of everything. It’s a note saying “‘Tis done!” I picked up Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World sooner than I thought and finished it up right quick.

Previous posts on the Baroque Cycle are here, here, here and here. The argument of the trilogy and further thoughts below the fold. Spoilers abound. Doug Muir, I’m finished, we can discuss.
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The Con-fusion

I’m probably the last blogger still reading Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, and chances are good that I won’t take on the third part, The System of the World, immediately after finishing the second, The Confusion. Not because the books aren’t good, just that it is a lot to read consecutively.

The good news is that the main characters, Jack Shaftoe and Eliza the Improbable Welshwoman, are much more interesting than they were in Quicksilver.
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Why Finland?

I just put up a post on the economic situation of Finland. Now I am putting another. Why the sudden interest? What is there about the Finnish economy which could be of interest to more people than the five million or so who actually live there?
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Two on Turkey

With Turkish accession one of the most important issues facing the European Union, people interested in the question could do much worse than read these two recent, and reasonably short, books that focus on the country: Crescent and Star, by Stephen Kinzer, and The Turks Today, by Andrew Mango. Both illustrate and explain contemporary Turkey, and both have accession as a theme throughout their books.
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Italy’s Deficit Also Balloons

Italy posted a trade deficit with the rest of the world of 1.354 billion euros in April, widening sharply from a deficit of 155 million euros in the same month of 2004, national statistics office ISTAT said on Thursday. The deficit also increased from March, when it stood at 845 million euros.

Trade with European Union countries alone showed an April deficit of 368 million euros, compared with a 109 million euro deficit in April last year.

A 5.854 billion euro cumulative trade deficit with the rest of the world in the first four months of this year was the largest Jan-April deficit since at least 1991.

Italian imports from the rest of the world rose 6.5 percent year-on-year in April, far outstripping a 1.6 percent increase in exports. Imports from the EU in April were up 1.8 percent on the year, while exports were flat compared with the year before.
Source: Reuters via NTC Research

I don’t think I am being too alarmist if I say that something nasty is happening to the international competitiveness of Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal.