Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The World is Laughing at America

On a Sunday at the end of January, a Dutch television program aired a satirical video with a voice-over pretending to be Donald Trump. The TV host, Arjen Lubach, began by showing a clip of Trump saying at his inauguration, “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.” Lubach said about Trump, “He had a clear message to the rest of the world: ‘I will screw you over big time.’”

Then he played the video, supposedly an official Dutch government introduction of the Netherlands, in English, to the new American President. “We speak Dutch. It’s the best language in Europe. We’ve got all the best words. All the other languages failed. Danish – total disaster. German is not even a real language. It’s fake.” The video shows a Dutch dike: “This is the Afsluitdijk. It’s a great, great wall, that we built to protect us from all the water from Mexico.” The video made fun of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, his negative comments about NATO, and his attitudes toward blacks. The Dutch politician Jetta Klijnsma is shown using a walker: “We also have a disabled politician for you to make fun of.”

The video ends, “We totally understand it’s going to be America first. But can we just say, the Netherlands second? Is that okay?” The clip was downloaded 42 million times from the show’s Facebook page.

A German late-night TV host reacted to the viral video about a week later. Jan B√∂hmermann said he was furious that the Netherlands wanted to be second. “Stop, Holland! We want to be number two. Germany wants to be second, because we are strong, we are big. And who, if not us, deserves a third chance?” So he presented a similar video, saying he wanted to make it as simple as possible for our President, who “reads nothing”. “Mr. President, this is for you.”

The German video is more pointed. There are photos of Hitler, who “made Germany great again. Steve Bannon absolutely loves him.” “Germany hosted two world wars in the last 100 years. They were the best world wars in the world, and we won both of them. Bigly. Anyone who says anything else is fake news.” “We built a great German wall. And we made the Russians pay for it.” The video referenced Trump’s comments about being backstage at the Miss Universe pageant and about grabbing women. It’s very funny.

By that time, similar videos were being produced by late-night shows across Europe. They all poked fun at their own nation’s histories and politics, and at their neighbors, by references to Trump. Most of them are not as funny, perhaps because they are less subtle. Serbia: “Mr. President, just like you, we also like to grab women by the genitals.” Poland: “You want to destroy the EU, we’re already doing it from the inside.” Switzerland said the KKK were Trump’s friends. “We also love to treat our women badly. Love it. We didn’t let them vote until 1971. In some places, even until 1990. We grabbed them by the civil rights. And they let us do it. It was great.” Norway: “We might even award you the Nobel peace prize. You’ve already done more than Obama to bring people of the world together. Against you.”

Soon the viral video craze spread beyond Europe. A version from India said, “We know you love grabbing women by the [cat meows]. We have an ancient manual, the Kamasutra, which lists more than 245 ways to grab someone by their [cat meows].” Mexico: “We build walls. Nobody builds walls better than us.” An Israeli one was very funny, saying that Jews controlled Hollywood, but that Alec Baldwin was not Jewish. It contained frequent references to sexual assault and making fun of the handicapped. The website collecting the videos displays 29 of them, mostly from Europe, but ranging to Australia and Namibia. A bit of web surfing reveals many others.

The idea seemed so good that non-nations got into the act. A video from the 566 sovereign nations of the USA, meaning Native American tribes, said, “We know all about cleansing, immigrants coming in, destroying your communities, taking your water, taking your land, taking your women.” Others came from Mars, Mordor (the evil empire in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), the Galactic Empire, former East Germany, and the North Pole, which stresses all the different white animals there. “Everybody is white for sure.”

These videos typically make fun of insignificant issues, like the size of Trump’s hands or the way he combs his hair. But they all address in a joking way much more serious issues. His most important policy ideas, his demeaning behavior towards the handicapped, and his prejudices about blacks, Mexicans and Muslims are treated in his own words, seemingly in his own voice. Trump’s comments about grabbing women come up in all of these videos.

The whole world is invited to laugh at, and simultaneously disdain, the American President. After showing the video, B√∂hmermann said in English: “When the whole world is standing up to make fun of you, you really achieved something truly great.”

America has become the laughingstock of the world. That’s not so great.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 21, 2017

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Capitalism + Bauhaus = Ikea

A visit to Ikea to buy a few household items and on another day to the Bauhaus Museum opened my eyes to another irony of modern history.

Ikea is the largest furniture retailer in the world. It was founded in 1943 by the young Swede Ingvar Kamprad, who named his mail-order company after himself and his family farm. Fifteen years later he opened the first Ikea store. Last year, nearly 400 mostly gigantic stores in 48 countries sold about $40 billion worth of goods. Ikea is one of largest consumers of commercial wood products in the world.

Ikea has been so successful partly because of Kamprad’s use of the techniques of capitalism. Ikea stores are laid out as labyrinths: once you enter, it is nearly impossible not to wind your way along a predetermined path through countless rooms selling furniture and products for every part of a house. Prices are remarkably low, because the products are standardized and simply constructed. They are made in a few giant factories scattered around the world, shipped in pieces in cleverly arranged flat packages, and sold unassembled with clear instruction booklets and a few necessary tools. In big cities in Europe and America, Ikea products can be found in countless apartments.

Ikea has been a world leader in promoting non-traditional family structures. A 1994 ad featured two men shopping for a dining room table, probably the first TV ad in the US with openly gay characters. It was shown only a few times, before conservatives tried to organize boycotts and threatened to bomb Ikea stores. The company has continued to feature non-traditional families in ads and catalogs around the world.

Like many other global concerns, Ikea uses international differences in tax structures to minimize taxes. The stores are owned by a supposedly non-profit foundation seated in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. Various European organizations have criticized Ikea for its tax avoidance policies. Ikea is a capitalist success story. Kamprad is one of the richest people in the world.

Although Ikea promotional materials like to discuss “the Ikea concept”, the idea of mass-produced, affordable, functional products for everyday use was conceived after the First World War by leftist radicals who rejected conventional ideas about art. In Germany and Russia, revolutionary artists and architects attempted to combine fine arts with practical crafts to produce beautiful and functional products using modern technology and industrial materials. Schools of modern design were founded to develop and teach innovative design techniques to improve the daily lives of average people: Bauhaus (loosely, “House of Construction”) in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, and Vkhutemas (acronym for "Higher Art and Technical Studios") in 1920 in Moscow.

These schools and their staff shared radical political and aesthetic ideas. Their founders were socialists and communists, who focused their energies on improving working-class life by developing well-designed and affordable objects. They rejected the conventional separation between high art for the elite and lowly craft skills, eagerly incorporated new industrial materials like steel tubing into furniture-making, and favored simple geometric constructions. They dreamed of the integration of art and life. This revolutionary aesthetic angered political leaders of the far left and far right. Vkhutemas was closed by Stalin in 1930, and the Bauhaus was raided a few months after Hitler came to power in 1933. The political project of a better life for workers through design was killed by authoritarian governments.

But the Bauhaus concept has been successfully revived in capitalist nations by capitalist entrepreneurs. Undecorated, geometrically simple, functional yet colorful creations in our modern lives have their origin in these radical artistic projects. Stackable chairs with metal skeletons were pioneered at the Bauhaus.

Former Bauhaus teachers like Mies van der Rohe helped create the rectangular skyscrapers of Chicago and founded the Chicago School of Design, which became the Illinois Institute of Technology. The flat painted cabinet doors of Ikea kitchens look just like the 1920s kitchen displayed at the Bauhaus Museum.

Seeking general lessons in history is a dangerous project, but also a tempting one. The failure and success of the Bauhaus idea might demonstrate that the radical leftists of the early 20th century produced some wonderful ideas for improving daily life, but that their social implementation needed capitalist economic structures. Perhaps in our world, the needs of the majority can only be met if someone becomes a billionaire.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 14, 2017

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Get Out of the Country

People say that travel broadens your horizons. I think they mean that observing different cultures expands our sense of what is possible and possibly good, that we had not known about before.

Some things that people do in other countries don’t seem desirable. Driving on the left side of the street, as they do in England and many former English colonies, is crazy. Driving like crazy, as they do in Italy, is also crazy. Other things can be confusing: “football” is mainly played with a round ball which can’t be touched by the hand, except in a few countries like the US. But we can learn many valuable things from foreign travel, as I have discovered again by observing what is different on a trip to Germany.

Coffee is different. Coffee in Germany, and in most of Europe, is a drink to be savored, not gulped. A cup of coffee in a restaurant is prepared individually and actually served in a cup, not a mug or a giant container. The coffee is strong, more like espresso. A refill? Pay for another cup.

Eating in Germany more generally is different from eating in the US. Germans spend about as much as Americans on eating out, but what they eat is not comparable. Americans eat more fast food than anyone else, mainly from giant chains which serve simple familiar foods. The low significance of food quality in American eating is clear from a burger taste test, which put McDonald’s dead last among 21 fast food chains. Germans favor individually owned local restaurants, whether for fast food or sit-down meals. In my neighborhood in Berlin, there are dozens of restaurants serving every variety of international cuisine, but no chain except Einstein Kaffee, which has 12 coffee shops in the city.

A visit to Einstein, or to any other restaurant, is slower than in the US. Servers do not appear right away and they don’t expect you to eat, drink, and leave. Tables are expected to turn over only once every couple of hours. Americans are likely to get impatient for service in a German restaurant, while Germans would feel hurried in America.

Driving is different here. Economics is crucial: gas costs over $5.50 per gallon in Germany, while prices are below $2.50 in the US. Americans use more than 5 times as much gasoline per person as Germans. That difference is partly explained by smaller vehicles, but more by different daily driving habits. Public transportation networks are much thicker in Europe, covering not just big cities but connecting every community. The commuting traffic jams which plague every American city during rush hours are rare in Germany.

Eating habits also affect driving habits. I can’t remember the last time I did food shopping in America on foot. We all drive to the grocery story, as we drive to do nearly all of our shopping. Food shopping is done in giant chain stores surrounded by expanses of parking.

In Germany, much more food is purchased at specialty shops, like bakeries, which dot the landscape. Food shopping is a daily chore, so the packages can more easily be carried the shorter distance home. Much more fresh food is purchased, which requires more frequent trips to the store.

Those are just a few examples of cultural differences that affect daily life. In our globalized world, these national variations are being erased. Tiny European autos now appear on American streets. People in Berlin carry containers of coffee on the street, while Americans have shifted away from instant coffee to more expensive and better tasting individually brewed cups. German stores are open longer than they used to be, some even on Sundays, but the 24/7 buying culture of America is still far away.

These differences have developed over many years and are particularly suited to each country’s economy, landscape, traditions, and social structures. Some are habits for which there is no better explanation than “That’s the way we do things here.” None of them prove that any country is greater than another.

There is no reason to abandon the bottomless cup of Joe at uniquely American diners or to make fun of Germans for obsessively obeying pedestrian crossing signals. Experiencing a different culture can broaden the horizon of the possible without necessarily altering familiar behavior. You learn that what you take for granted as one of life’s rules may just be local peculiarity.

And you can still enjoy those social traits which span the globe. People everywhere seem to share an excitement about sports. Although we were certainly among a minority who watched the Super Bowl here in Berlin after midnight, the German TV announcers shouted just as loud as any American commentator when the Patriots completed their amazing comeback.

So let’s celebrate both our similarities and our differences.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 7, 2017