American Views Abroad

Sunday, May 29, 2005
A beautiful Sunday in May here in Hamburg, but talk of elections whether the perhaps upcoming German elections in September or the more immediate French vote today on the European constitution is the number one topic. An American group in France has been having a very interesting debate on how the French might vote and why. Here are some highlights from a rather long piece an Englishman living in France wrote yesterday about his impression of the debate:

The oui have been using all the arguments I thought they would, but to my surprise they are not working. The fear argument seems to have worked the other way round. People are not afraid to take a chance and say no. No one knows what will happen if the no wins, and everyone knows there will be increased uncertainty suddenly. We have been told this over and over.
And still people will take the risk and vote non. This is not normal. Something is going on. People do not usually vote for uncertainty and risk.

The 'don't ruin it for everyone else' argument seems to have not worked. Even now, in addition to the words and warnings of the political elite of France, there are constant warnings from other European leaders. They all seem quite clear that they will be very disappointed in the French people, and in France, if they do anything to delay or change the direction of
the Euro train. They tell the people that everything is fine, this is just an even better extension of what we Europeans have been doing for 50 years. And in some sense it is, that is, more or less an extension of what has been happening all along. And it's probably better, in the sense of making everything slightly tidier and adding a few new clauses, all directed to carrying on in much the same vein. But for some reason, an astounding number of French people, in a great variety (the non is obviously not homogenous in any sense, nor is the oui), do not mind 'ruining it' for everyone else. We ignore the fact that the Netherlands, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Britain and Ireland at least have some doubts as well. Those French somehow insist on their right to be French, to say non, to make the train take another track. This is not a big surprise. But many write this off, especially the foreign press, as a peculiar French trait. In France there has been a very long and very informational filled campaign. In my experience of politics, this has been the longest, most detailed and most occupying political campaign I have known. I guess maybe it's simple, and one document so everyone has the same text. I think more people have been talking about politics, through the constitution debate, than in any other election I know. There is often great passion in normal elections, but usually nothing of substance. Here there were top politicians forced to discuss with loads of people the issues themselves. Everyone agrees that the press /media bias was overwhelmingly yes, as were all the 'normal' parties. But still loads of grass roots publications, and loads of grass roots organising. I heard over 200 local non committees in France sprang up. I started getting stuff in the autumn about it in Attac, and there were a few articles in the mass press last year. But basically it has been going on for months. You can find someone to debate, maybe, the oui or non value of every single article in the constitution. Each will argue with intelligence or stupidity, ignorance or studied understanding, that this or that article will be great for 'us' or not. So what does this rather unusual discussion mean?

One meaning is that all the publicity, politics, debates about words and meanings, campaigns of fear or reason, has nearly been done, and crudest equality of mass democracy has been very well practiced in a strange way, oui or non. Sometimes the debate was really classy. Regardless of who wins, the voting camps are clear. To me anyway. Those who are comfortable and who are able to look the future in the eye and not be afraid, those people will vote yes, to a greater extent. Those who cannot look the future in the eye without serious apprehension, and who see 'more of the same' to be not that good for them and 'their kind', they will vote non, more or less.

.... I think the French realise that there is not going to be a serious debate in any other country that anyone outside that country hears. The debates when legislatures approve the treaty, seem to be non-existent. The legislatures vote for approval in overwhelming numbers. The debate in Spain hardly happened. The one in Britain will be basically British and involve no sophistication at all. In a sense I think the French think, consciously or not, that they are speaking for more than themselves. Maybe they are.

.... But if I were to sum it all up, and try to find one variable that would explain the most variance, the single thing that struck me most…I would say it was comfort and wealth. Those who are happy with life in France, more or less happy, more or less have enough of what they want, those who can pay all the bills and are confident their job will last for quite a while, those who have adequate housing and a car that works, they vote oui. Those who are afraid, unhappy, feel a bit left out, don't have any sense of security in a changing world, they vote non. Generally. And I guess France is, overall, about fifty fifty on that dimension. As the vote will be.

So we shall see.

Here too a comment by Timothy Garton Ash on this topic in The Guardian yesterday.,,1492196,00.html#article_continue.

Friday, May 27, 2005
It's a very important, interesting weekend for Europe with the French voting on the EU constitution on Sunday and the Dutch on June 1. William Pfaff in today's International Herald Tribune has a very good read on the situation in a nutshell in It's All About Germany.

Thursday, May 26, 2005
Philip Berg, a U.S. attorney from Lafayette, PA, whose aim is to re-open the 9-11 investigations campaign is presently on a seven country/eight city tour of Europe with a panel of scientists and journalists. Complete information on where the panel discussions will take place at under new press release.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005
An article came in via a discussion group yesterday, Torture Inc. Americas Brutal Prisons---Does such barbaric abuse inside U.S. jails explain the horrors committed in Iraq? Written after a four month investigation for BBC Channel 4, it describes gruelling, graphic, unbearable details of what takes place in some U.S. prisons and can be read at Something nagged at me that I had heard a lot of this before. Back in April 2001 there was an article in Harper's by Barry Graham,, entitled Star of Justice: On the Job with America's Toughest Sheriff. About two months before this article appeared, public German TV had done a special on Sheriff Joe on a Friday evening that shocked me. What made it so appalling was how the report kept hammering home how these weren't convicted prisoners of hideous crimes, but people simply awaiting their day in court. I can't recall what was worse: the pink underwear or stripes they had to wear or whether it was the foul food they were given or the chain gang. Whatever it was, I recall feeling sick to my stomach. So when that issue of Harper's appeared, I was looking forward to reading what I thought would be many letters to the editor outraged by it all. None appeared as far as I remember or could account for today. A strange eerie silence I had difficulty understanding. Around that time I recall an advertisement plastered everywhere here using the image of a US policeman which I found troubling. It projected a big guy with mirrored glasses, lots of gadgets on, distanced and untouchable. What I can't recall is what product that image was pushing, but back then I was bothered about it. And that was before 9/11.

Saturday, May 21, 2005
From Mark Twain to Tina Dupuy via Will Rogers
I've always thought humor that stands above partisanship is that much closer to the sublime. Will Rogers did this well. While stateside(and I still owe you part two of my travel diary - I haven't forgotten), I found a wonderful book by Will Rogers entitled "The Illiterate Digest" (1923), 25 dollars it cost, but the pages were lined with gold. There were a few particular passages I thought I would love to quote somewhere, but I just wasn't sure where, so I might as well do it here:

"[Governer Allen of Kansas] said I was the only man in America who was able to tell the truth about our Men and Affairs. When he finished I explained to the audience why I was able to tell the truth. It is because I have never mixed up in Politics...You know the more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that's out always looks the best."

Reflecting on sentiments like that tends, I think, to put things into perspective for those of us troubled by current politics. And the more I read books like this, and, another example, the story by Mark Twain "Running for Governor" (1870) I sense that the United States of America is too great for one man or party to ever destroy.

Today I read a post by the humorist Tina Dupuy at her WeblogThe Sardonic Sideshow which I think repeats in a modern fashion the idea Will Rogers left us with:

"It's Simple"

Thursday, May 19, 2005
Having spent last weekend in Potsdam where the heart of the city was bombed out two weeks before the end of WW II and some time at the new Holocaust memorial in Berlin which brought out in me a feeling of emptiness for all the lives lost, trampled over in a most horrible way, and how generations after that have to deal with it, I realized I didn't even want to read a Sunday newspaper or follow what was happening with the whole Newsweek episode. First there was the British Smoking Gun Memo and now this-----so where is the surprise here? Instead, I was intrigued by the young children at the memorial who saw the stones and the waves of paths as something to touch and climb on. There was a chubby boy who started rolling from one to the other, on and off, in these days getting some much needed exercise and smiling through it all. There were groups standing around stones, talking away. I was reminded of a Mexican day where the families go to the graves to eat and talk and think about the dead. The stones which were not lined up in single file reminded me of the old Jewish cemetery in Prague.

Yet, reality struck back and Molly Ivins has a column we Americans have to read. Her last paragraph reads:

Get you minds around it. Our country is guilty of torture. To quote myself once more: 'What are you going to do about this? It's your country, your money, your government. You own this country, you run it, you are the board of directors. They are doing this in your name. The people we elected to public office do what you want them to. Perhaps you should get in touch with them.'

Read it at

Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq, a photography collection on wounded American soldiers by Nina Berman will open as an exhibition in Tuebingen, a university town in south-west Germany on May 19 in the Claus-Schurz-Haus. To mark the second anniversary of the start of the Iraq war in March, opendemocracy presented ten portraits from Purple Hearts on its site. It is hard reading, even harder viewing the photos, yet absolutely essential.

Friday, May 13, 2005
Originally published in a Polish in March, in German in April and now in English, As Many Wars as Nations -- The Myths and Truths of World War II by Adam Krzeminski

The Insular America about America, Baseball and Geography here

Wednesday, May 11, 2005
The Russian news & information agency "RIA Novosti" has sponsored a project to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII called "Keinen Krieg! Kein Leid!", in English: "No War! No Suffering!" It is an especially charming project involving two children of Russian and German descent, Xenia-Luisa Maria Becker (8) and Nikita Charitonow (7). The two gifted children drew their vision of a world without war and misfortune, and these were then animated into two respective video spots seen in Berlin by hundreds of thousands of U-Bahn passengers. From the press release:

"The current relations between Russia and Germany stand as an example how two countries, once irreconcilable opponents in a devastating war, overcame the painful experiences and memories to begin a new future together on a common basis open to friendship and cooperation."
"RIA Novosti hopes that the light of goodness and tenderness shining from these films will reach the hearts of those who see them... Perhaps we will be reminded of the mistakes made in the past, and make a conscious decision not to repeat them."

The animations were shown in Berlin on the city projective screens and the monitors in the municipal transport from April 27th through May 7th. The animation project was conceived and realized by: Denis Ozirchenko and Alexander Shilov. What a wonderful present this was to the children, and to all of us. And thank you Xenia and Nikita for sharing your vision. You may find out more at the project's Website at Because the site has been slow in responding we are hosting the videos (Windows Media Player) here at the American Views Abroad domain:

Xenia's Video
Nikita's Video

How do I know about all this living in Hamburg and not Berlin? Denis and Astrid, Xenia's parents, are old friends from my student days at Bielefeld University.

Monday, May 09, 2005
There were many emotional reports yesterday, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. One aspect worth mentioning is how --- depending on which newspapers here one reads --- anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 people assembled in the middle of Berlin to prevent 3,000 neo-Nazis from marching through the heart of the city. In the last few months there was a heated national debate on whether or not they should be permitted to march past the new Holocaust memorial. In the end a special law was passed to prevent it. Yesterday so many opposed to having any neo-Nazi demonstration on this day assembled, some with peaceful intentions and some with not so tame thoughts --- one of the slogans being chanted was: Give them the street, one stone at a time. In the end the neo-Nazis had no other alternative than to cancel their march and slink away to the nearest subway. The police then publicly thanked all the others for their help.

Thursday, May 05, 2005
The maiden flight of Airbus A 380 last week was perfectly timed to the arrival of spring which here means acres of fruit trees in bloom along the Elbe, where walks on the dikes offer splendid views of old farm houses as well as glimpses of ships making their way into Hamburg's port. The way out to one of Europe's largest fruit growing regions means crossing the Elbe, crawling through traffic in one of Hamburg's oldest parts, technically an island, called Finkenwerder, and passing Airbus industries into pristine countryside. All within Hamburg's borders, but not necessarily residing together in perfect harmony. Late last October peaceful co-existence came to a standstill when a court decided the city government had no right to force private owners to hand over their property for the extension of the runway Airbus claimed was necessary for its latest project. The public was riveted by this saga, the atmosphere charged. It was more than a classic NIMBY - not in my back yard - a true desire to preserve a way of life and a village with a beautiful church versus those desperately seeking good employment.

The media here provided extensive coverage of the A 380's flight. Trying to get my facts straight on the latest news on the runway, I came upon an interesting website in German and in English by the organist of the St Pankratius Church in Neuenfelde. This parish church plays a leading role in opposing any extension of the runway. The organist provides complete details of their arguments including photos and maps at

Last Sunday we decided to go out to Neuenfelde and have a look at the church and the area first hand as well as trying out a new digital camera. Were I a member of that parish I suppose I would be opposed to the idea of Airbus drawing even closer to its center. Of course, that would depend on my source of employment - Airbus or fruit trees. It is particularly haunting this month to read about the last days of WW II which one Hamburg newspaper has been documenting daily with photos and excerpts from diaries. This makes it even more painful to think of yet another old relic of the past being infringed upon. On the other hand, much like the church and the orchards evolved over a long period of time, so has the port and even the airplane industry. Paradoxes abound. For example, much is made in arguments contra Airbus that it would ruin a natural environment, the mudwater flats on the Elbe called Muehlenberger Loch. These flats, however, were not a product of the Ice Age or naturally formed, but were man-made in 1935. They also sit opposite one of the wealthiest areas of Hamburg along the Elbe. It is difficult to say what role the environment plays here and how much is another NIMBY. Airbus was placed there on the Elbe because back in the 1930s that same area was being used as an airport for developing water planes. Finkenwerder, choking on traffic, has been waiting for years for a bypass which some fruit growers are resisting because they are unwilling to give up parts of their land for it. Yet, right outside the immediate area, there are marshlands which could be used as replacements for lost orchards. In short it's an old never-ending saga.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Bob Herbert's hard hitting column describes the reasons why one young GI, Aidan Delgado, who enlisted into the Army on the morning of September 11, 2001 before hearing about the terror attacks, was sent to Iraq in the spring of 2003 where he was stationed at the prison compound in Abu Ghraib eventually applies for and was granted conscientious objector status. Delgado recalls the violence he encountered at Abu Ghraib as 'sickening.' From 'gook' to 'raghead' can be read at

Monday, May 02, 2005
The International Herald Tribune has been doing a series on mayors around the world and today's article deals with Berlin. Broke but dynamic, Berlin seeks new identity can be read at

Today's Hamburger Abendblatt reports on a young woman engineer who has revolutionized how to find unexploded bombs from World War II using digital technology. There are over 14,000 bombs still buried in Hamburg. It costs 20,000 to 25,000 euros to dig out and defuse a bomb, depending on how deep it is buried. The article in German can be read at

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