Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Museums and the Power of Facts

A unique collection of museums sits on an island in the center of Berlin. Beginning in 1830, Prussian Kings and German Emperors built four large museums on the so-called Museumsinsel, Museum Island, now designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. A fifth museum was added in 1930.

These great neoclassical buildings displayed the enormous art collections of German monarchs, demonstrating their wealth, power, and cultured taste. Showing off vast collections of painting and sculptures was one means of competing with the other ruling families of Europe, proud of their self-appointed status as god-like rulers of the most civilized human societies.

In the 19th century, Germany was a world leader in scientific research and discovery. The German model of universities as scientific centers of teaching and unbiased research uniting the arts and sciences influenced higher education across Europe and the US. In the first years that Nobel prizes in science were given, from 1901 to the beginning of World War I, Germany won more than any other country.

At this moment of German leadership in the pursuit of knowledge, interest in the long history of human societies developed into new scientific disciplines in the Western world. The study of human history became systematized into the fields of archaeology, ethnography, and anthropology. One of the museums on the Museumsinsel, the Neues Museum (New Museum, opened in 1855), was devoted to organizing and displaying the ethnological and archaeological artifacts that German scientists were busily digging up where ancient cultures had thrived around the eastern Mediterranean.

Heavily damaged during World War II, the Neues Museum was closed for 70 years until it reopened in 2009. Once again, its halls display remarkable objects of human creation during the past 5000 years.

As a teenager, I was fascinated by the story of Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), who was determined to find the site of Homer’s Troy on the Turkish coast. His excavations and those of other Europeans contributed to the understanding of the development of human cultures. European scientists in the late 19th century used such artifacts to formulate the so-called Three Age system, dividing human history into the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages.

The comparative study of thousands of artifacts unearthed on Cyprus from the millennium before Christ’s birth allows us to understand the successive waves of settlers, conquerors, and traders in the eastern Mediterranean,  where the most advanced human societies outside of China developed. The Neues Museum holds one of the world’s most important collections of documents written on papyrus, whose study by linguistic scientists revealed the succession of languages in ancient Egypt.

At the same time, German historians reshaped the writing of history from the glorification of great leaders, powerful nations, and military victories to a scientific investigation of what happened in the past. Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) moved the historical profession toward the study of archival documents in order to understand “how things actually were”.

The fundamental principle upon which both science and history were founded was the reliance on the understanding and interpretation of empirical information, in short, facts. While there may be disagreement about what data means, scientists of all kinds, physical and social, all over the world, came to base their work on reliable evidence.

After the Nazis took over in 1933, these hard-won scientific insights were rejected. Human history was rewritten to demonstrate the superiority of white northern Europeans. Racist beliefs became state policy, unwelcome science was disparaged as a Jewish conspiracy, and modern art was labeled “degenerate”. Journalism based on real events was branded as lies and replaced with a state propaganda of alternative facts. Eventually the big lies at the heart of Nazi ideology led to their own destruction, but not before they did unprecedented damage to Europe and its people.

There are always those who insist on mythical understandings of history and who reject science if it conflicts with their ideologies. A racist dictatorship must suspend a population’s belief in the value of facts and the primacy of evidence in order to sustain the myths which legitimize its inhumanity. Seekers of illegitimate power always create distorted narratives to justify their dominance. Freedom and justice depend on popular insistence on learning the truth about themselves, their world and their rulers.

Science, history and journalism are the means of discovering those truths, figuring out what they mean, and communicating that to everyone. A society which does not protect these fundamental human tasks from the enemies of truth risks losing its freedom.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 28, 2017

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