Opinionated rants

These posts come with a warning: gross generalisations and broad strokes are rife here. Enter at your own risk.

FEAR OF FREEDOM

Citizen Four and the Snowden Storm

In 1941 Erich Fromm wrote “Fear of Freedom” in which he writes about the individual’s need for community and freedom and the inherent conflicts of those two needs.
Being free “from” and free “to” are two very different types of freedom, and currently our fear and need to be free “from” is leading us down a dangerous road in some misguided pursuit of security and safety. A common substitute for exercising our own agency and authenticity is to submit to an authoritarian system that can eliminate uncertainty by prescribing what we think and how we act. That’s how dictatorships start, right?
Why are we so desperate for “security” that we would willingly give up agency? Why are we so scared of being free?

I just finished watching Laura Poitras’ masterly documentary about Edward Snowden: hero for some, exposing government agency lies and betrayal of citizens’ trust; for others, a spy who betrayed his country.

Berlin, my chosen home, also plays a minor role, as the place where the film was edited and where both Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras sought refuge repeatedly (a nice touch was a long shot of Rosa Luxemburg Platz, the square dedicated to the memory of a woman who fought for democracy and who was murdered by the police and thrown in the local canal for her troubles in 1919). It is also the place where lawyers got together to brainstorm about the fact that Edward Snowden would be tried under the Espionage Act, which would effectively condemn him to life-long imprisonment despite the fact that his perceived crime was based on revealing the fact that the NSA is actively tracking the movements of 1.7 million Americans, unsanctioned by the public.

Spending time both in London and Berlin, I am all too aware of a different atmosphere that pervades the two cities when it comes to issues like fear, privacy and civil liberties. It starts with the way kids get to school (London: accompanied, or by car, Berlin: alone, in groups, on foot/by bike) and continues with the divergent security measures at airports, to the perceived or real danger on the streets at night.

We tend to think of Germans as more law abiding: the cliché (but still largely true) image of people standing at an empty crossroads at 2am waiting for the light to turn green. But a shift has taken place. The British seem to have become afraid of freedom. Everything has to be fenced off and secured: ‘Adult Supervision Required’ signs pepper the playgrounds, conjuring fears before the kid has even scraped his knee.

And then there’s the CCTV. Wherever I walked, wherever I looked, I saw cameras. Maybe Londoners don’t even notice it anymore, but for me it was a constant presence, like having some old uncle twitching his Nikon every time you moved at a birthday party. A constant reminder not to pick your nose. Above me at the underground station, in the stores I shopped in, in any public place and street.

Ten years ago, my eight-year-old daughter was playing alone on the street outside my dad’s house in a suburban corner of London. The neighbour, who had been watching for a while through the window, came out, and upon discovering my dad was the person who had “allowed her” to play alone, berated him and threatened to call the police because of neglect. The punch line is, my daughter had been pretending to be a “spy” a game that involved looking through hedges, writing down car number plates and making notes. We laughed about it at the time, but given the same situation now I probably wouldn’t let her play alone outside, not in London, despite the CCTV camera mounted across the road. Not for fear of crime or abduction, but simply because of the attention it would attract, and the hassle it would cause.

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights gives all of us a right to privacy, even in public places if the public interest does not outweigh our right to privacy:

1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Yet I am forced to keep my kid at home to conform with the societal norms of a country gone security-mad. Germans have a deep and healthy distrust of surveillance of any kind, perhaps one of the more positive side effects of their chequered history when it comes to civil liberties.

In an interesting mirroring of the “war on terror” in the US after 9/11, West Germany also used the fear of terrorism in the seventies, personified by the RAF (Baader Meinhof Group), as a justification for a massive broadening of police powers and crackdowns on anyone to the left of the SPD. The crackdowns had a strong left-wing bias…while teachers were being hauled out of classrooms for being too left-wing, the neo-fascist NPD (National Democratic Party) was deemed “not anti-constitutional” by a Mannheim court in the seventies. Which was just as well, since any ban on fascists in the public service would have seriously debilitated the civil service, which, after the Second World War, absorbed the bureaucracy of the Third Reich intact.

The West German “war on terror” took the form of widespread surveillance of journalists, “Berufsverbot” (blacklists effectively preventing people of left wing political persuasion to work in their professions) and the “Kontaktsperregesetz” a law under which people suspected of terrorist activity could be denied the right to a lawyer. Meanwhile, in the East the Stasi collected information on anyone deemed not to be “Staatstreu” (loyal to the state). So, rightly, the German government feels an extra pressure now to justify any intelligence gathering undertaken amongst its citizens.

A Snowden explains, “Terror is what we call a cover for action. Terror provokes an emotional response that allows people to rationalize authorizing powers and programmes that they wouldn’t give otherwise.”*

The fact that we are willing to have our every move recorded doesn’t bode well for any resistance to being tracked in our entirety.
Snowden puts it like this:

“Allowing the NSA to continue gathering information is like giving up our rights ahead of time, saying “hey you know I am probably not going to need them…I haven’t done anything wrong…But your rights matter because you never know when you are going to need them.“*

We know that we are being tracked by our mobile phones, by our unencrypted browsing activities, we know that using our credit cards, our oyster cards, activating our GPS location finder whilst jogging, we are creating an enormous pile of metadata and real content with which governments whom we have elected can create a profile, detailing our consumer behaviour, our political allegiances, our movements, our workout capabilities, hell even our nutritional preferences.

We have been tricked into giving up information willingly out of fear and complacency, for ease of moving through this world. Want to get through immigration quickly? Pick the short line or no line at all for retina recognition. The long line is for losers and people with kids.
Want reduced prices for product X? Use paypal and an app, and you can pay for taxi fares cash-free. But know that the date, time, duration, destination of the taxi trip is forever stored in some data bank for later use.

Who will protect us from ourselves and our desire to eradicate uncertainty and fear?

In order to ensure “freedom” we are willing to become enslaved. Surely that’s how all dictatorships start out? Phrases like “sometimes hard decisions have to be made” or “for the greater good” or “so that the streets are safe for our children” echo desolately up through the decades, conjuring conformism to norms, forcing children and women back in to the home, discouraging political discourse and diversity, fear, as you witness your rights being whittled away in the mad pursuit of some elusive idea of security.

There is no such thing. Freedom is scary. And involves making decisions and choices. It’s much harder than being told what to do. But as Erich Fromm said:

“There is only one meaning of life: the act of living it.”

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVwAodrjZMY

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MONEY ISSUES

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I have money issues. Major money issues. But not how you would think. I don’t have debts, I don’t run up crazy credit card bills. No, I am actually scared of money. I hate it. I don’t mind spending it; in fact I quite enjoy that part, especially if I can see the face of the person I am buying stuff of, like at a shop, or a market. It brings a feeling of relief. Because actually having it sit there in my bank account just makes me feel uneasy.

That’s my parent’s fault of course. I remember the first time that Marx’ concept of “surplus value” was explained to me by my mum. It was bed time and I can’t have been older than eight. Ok I feel I am losing you here but bear with me, it features diamonds and tinned fish and stuff.

You know how at some point, all kids ask that question, at the latest when you are in some toy store, they want something and you don’t want to buy it, and at a loss as to what reason to give (it’s ugly, it’s crap, you’ll only play with it for five minutes) you say “I don’t have enough money.” The kid looks up at you as if you are a few cards short of a full deck and says “But why don’t you just go to the bank to get some more?” This question then inexorably leading on to “But where does money come from?” and “Why doesn’t the bank just print enough for everyone then?”

My mum was a pretty clued up kind of gal having known great wealth and also great poverty within the first 7 years of her little life (she had also spent 3 nights in prison before she hit the three-week mark but that’s another story) so didn’t do things by halves: she just jumped straight in and introduced me to Marx’ theory of surplus value.

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She told me about the diamond miners in South Africa, and talked me through the whole product chain, the dirty raw diamond becoming shinier and prettier as it passed from black hand to increasingly whiter hand until it landed in Antwerp at the diamond centre of the world, and onward to adorn some elderly rich lady’s wattle (ok, I might have just added that detail myself).

The process of actually mining the diamonds and cleaning and selling them on brings a mere 0.4% of added value; in contrast, the retail end, the polishing and the cutting EACH add 25% of added value*. So broken down it means that the miner risking his life is getting paid a pittance, whilst the guys in Antwerp, even considering the skill involved, are getting paid a ridiculous amount. We could argue about which person in the chain contributes more added value, but let’s be honest: Without the guy going down that black hole risking his life, there IS no diamond to cut and polish.

But my favourite example of surplus value (which also doubled as a bedtime story: an example of two-for-one if ever there was one) was a very practical and visual tale of my own family history.

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My mum was born the daughter of a rich industrialist in Czechoslovakia. A fish factory owner to put it baldly. I know. Go on, have a giggle. Yes, apparently there was money to be made in kippers. But not just normal fish fresh from the sea. That’s where the issue of surplus value comes in.

My great-great grandfather Anton Kalla figured out that it was cheaper to import raw fish from the Baltic Coast down to the ore mountains of Czechoslovakia where he lived, and then salt, smoke, and marinate it and then finally fill it into pretty tins. If he had done the canning in Germany where the fish was caught, the price of importing tinned goods was much higher, thus reducing the profit margin substantially. So, instead, he built a smokehouse, a cannery, a large factory with 400 workers. All those women standing in rows cutting gherkins and onions (300 tonnes of each a year!), pouring vinegar (200,000 litres a year). THEY were the adding value.

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The factory tinned 1 million tins of fish a year and his house, set apart on a small hill, presiding over the whole village and factory was a manifestation of this surplus value.

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To his defence he was apparently not a bad geezer, as capitalists go. He was what we like to call a benevolent capitalist, the kind that apologists of free market economy are always hoping will some how magically multiply, turning the world of rampant capitalism into a kind of Victorian idyll, with well-fed peasants walking round (barefoot but only in the summer) with baskets of flowers tugging their forelock as the capitalist lord, fair but strict, walks by.

Anyway, that was the sobering moment when I realised that money really doesn’t grow on trees. Someone somewhere is doing double the hard graft for half the pay, to create that surplus value. Someone is going without, so that someone else along the line can afford that extra side of wagyu tartare (ok I invented that, but admit it, it’s making you want some). So now, every time I pick up an object that screams “Reduced! Only £2!” or “Three for the price of one!” at me, I wonder in what part of the production chain that surplus value was created.

I get that someone who takes risks (financially and otherwise) to found a business, to employ people, someone who has great innovative ideas, deserves to be paid for it. I am not suggesting that the fish cutter should earn exactly the same as the guy doing the book-keeping. But why does the scale have to be tipped so drastically in favour of the cushy warm jobs where no physical risk is involved, no stink, no eye-watering onion cutting? Because the spectre of being an onion cutter myself is so completely unattractive, and my discomfort around money makes me a bit of a liability when it comes to paying bills and raising two kids, I have made a compromise: I allow myself to earn good money by exploiting only myself. Oh and then I go out and spend it all on Karl Marx biographies for my friends for Xmas. Yes, I am going to spread all that surplus value all over town.

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So when I see the crazy pre-Xmas rush for presents, and all the advice doled out for “The Woman/Man who has Everything” (diamonds, or tinned fish anyone?) I wonder what kind of group hysteria we have managed to manoeuvre ourselves into as a society. You want to give me a present? (I know, you won’t want to after reading this!) Bake some cookies and be done with. My re-gifting present draw is already overflowing. (and let me know if you’re interested in a can of kippers or the Victorian cast iron nut cracker I have in there…)

*http://www.bain.com/publications/articles/global-diamond-report-2013.aspx

 

It’s my Birthday and I’ll Gay if I want to

So, it’s that time of year again. I really hate birthdays. With a passion. Especially in Germany. I swear this must be the only country on earth where YOU are expected to spend all day brewing coffee for an endless stream of relatives and friends. The flat is trashed, you are exhausted, and the only mitigating factor is the pile of new bathroom condiments on the side table. Yes, enough shampoo and shower gel to keep the whole cast of Orange is the New Black happy for a week.

So after years of being mobbed by various well-meaning members of my German family and circle of friends, attempts to fend them off explaining I wanted some “me time” on my birthday, I gave up the fight, and decided I might as well throw a decent party with fun music where, instead of making coffee I could get the barman to rustle up 50-odd Pimm’s on ice (aspirational British that’s me down).

But throwing a big party is just as much hard work as making coffee, well, at least at my age, where I have this misguided idea that I am responsible for networking people and ensuring their comfort. No longer can I rely on the tried and tested “Ey, is that a beer? Where did you get that?” ice-breaker conversation that used to do just fine upon entering a stranger’s kitchen. Many parties would pass without me ever having to leave the side of the fridge door again, snogs included.

But things change. Now people try and break the ice with phrases like “So what do YOU do?” and “How do you know BritBitch?”

Anyways, party was ok.  I realised that I have lots of friends who have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, but luckily the language of music kicked in at everyone’s third Pimm’s and everyone stopped trying to talk and shook their dance leg*, as we say here in Germany.

Luckily a good girlfriend from London was in town, and the next night she dragged me out to the down and dirty western side of town where she had spent a good part of her misspent youth.

When I suggested a few bars of repute she asked me, in her iconic way:

“So do you want to have fun, or do you want to stand around looking at men looking at you, looking at them, looking at you?”

“Fun, please,” I answered meekly.

As she works in the rarified world of fashion, she tended to gravitate towards and be surrounded by a constant stream of beautiful, charming and very funny men. Who are more often than not gay. (Well, apart from her young Venezuelan lover, but more of that another time…) So, we headed to “insert-obscure-German-bar-name-here” which had walls of glass with lots of bodies squeezed up against them, and they were all men. All of them. So I thought, hmm, won’t they resent a couple of fag hags breaking in on the party? Oh, how wrong I could be. “Hi darlin’! Where you from?” “You’re Irish!” “Yes I am,” went the conversations… Squeezed into a hot bar with about 100 rather handsome young men, whilst knowing they weren’t in the least bit interested in me as a potential “dance partner”, was at once liberating and disconcerting. They were all so friendly, and happy to interrupt their own conversations to talk to you. In the course of 2 hours I met 5 complete strangers, had been hugged and cuddled, complimented, laughed with and at, and all round had a great time. I am thinking of suggesting it as a therapy approach: “Gay Care” provisions for women lacking in self-esteem or just in need of a cuddle.

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Welcome to Gay Care, the new kind of Day Care for women in need of a cuddle…

The next night we headed to a normal bar. Ok so I did choose the one Saturday of the year where Fresher’s Week was just kicking off, so my normal local bar which usually covers an age range of 20 to 50 had morphed into club-21 wonderland, complete with DJ playing “get lucky”. My friend and I grabbed our (crappy) gin tonics and fled, glasses and all. Headed to a bar more conducive to our age group. But German hetero men really do not seem to want to have fun.

They are too busy pretending not to look at you. You know, heaven forbid, you might accuse them of coming on to you or something. We spent the evening standing next to the coat rack talking to each other (not that that isn’t wonderful, but we could’ve done that just as well on my sofa). And the only convo I had with a guy was when he came to get his coat and I instinctively went to help him because my coat was hanging on top of his, and he snapped “Don’t worry, I would’ve put it back!” like I was accusing him of stealing my bloody ASOS coat. Crikey.

So men, get a grip. Women also go out to have a good time. So let’s take a leaf out of the gay party people’s user manual and smile at each other once in a while.

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*Das Tanzbein schwingen

ANGER MANAGEMENT

Ask my friends, I am a sweet natured soul. I will bring you soup if you are feeling poorly, and I will smile sweetly even as you take my last cookie.

But some things make me ANGRY.

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And by the time you reach my age, you will know, “we” (society) don’t like angry women. Be honest, society doesn’t even like “neutral face in repose” women. No, we have to be Pharell-friggin-Williams-happy just to be considered normal women.

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Cheer up, luv, it might never happen! (This is the male equivalent of me on a normal day.)

The other day my friend was standing in line at the cash till at Kaisers (Germany’s equivalent of Sainsburys). Just for all you lucky non-Germans out there living in capitalism-gone-crazy-land where you get fired if you don’t zap 10 barcodes every 4 seconds, in Germany it is quite normal to wait 15 minutes in line for the privilege of paying for your groceries. Let’s just say it’s not my favourite part of the day after working, picking up the kids and picking out food for our dinner. I try to turn it into “meditation-time-of-the-day”, thinking, “Oh look wow, I have time to just BE for 15 minutes because I have absolutely no other option.” Works almost never but I am not giving up just yet.

So my friend must have been doing something similar and had her “resting face” face on. Ok and we ain’t 20 anymore. Gravity is having its dirty little way with us. But despite this, she is a happy soul. Good man, good kids, good genes, great skincare products and great coffee shop on the street corner. What more does a Berlin gal need? So she definitely wasn’t miserable.

And this TOURIST in front of her at the till starts SINGING about MISERABLE Germans….I mean, really??? Said tourist was a younger woman, English or American and not quite hitting the high notes. But the gist of it was, that Germans are miserable and should cheer the fuck up. Yeah, thanks for that. My friend isn’t even German. (Like 90% of the population in New-Prenzlauer Berg). She happens to be Polish. But she has been here long enough to bark out our Brötchen-order in a Berlin-appropriate fashion.

You try standing in a queue every day of the week flanked by visitors to the city having deep conversations about the pros and cons of cotton tote bags over plastic or how cheap the rent is here and where the best club to have darkroom sex is and why the fuck don’t they sell decent bagels. We try to be tolerant, we really do. We are well aware that we are also tourists almost everywhere in the world and also need to buy groceries there.

But where is the sign that says we can’t look miserable if we want to? We are not here for your entertainment! If my friend had been a guy, she could have looked like her wife just walked out with her best friend and her cat just got run over and no one would have raised an eyebrow. Men are always looking miserable. But their resting faces get called things like “enigmatic” “grave” or at the very worst “asshole resting face”. I’ll still take being an asshole over being miserable any old time.

But really, I would just like to actually exist without the whole world assuming they have a right to comment on my exterior. Luckily, usually it’s positive stuff…But sometimes I just want to put a paper bag over my face and not have anyone comment either way. It really doesn’t affect my ability to go buy milk and bread for my kids. It makes me start to understand the women who wear Yashmaks.

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Last week I was standing on the pavement across from the selfsame supermarket having a natter with a mother from my older daughter’s class whilst holding my youngest’s hand. This guy, trying to push some newspaper or other, makes the journey all the way across the road and asks if we want a newspaper. Slightly startled at being so rudely interrupted in mid-flow, we both shake our heads, and by way of explanation the guy says “I couldn’t resist coming over, seeing three generations all together in one spot.” My friend and I exchanged looks and started giggling. We were both in the same glorious fifth decade of our lives and neither of us had plans to be a grandmother in the near future. The young dude (18 tops) beat a hasty embarrassed retreat realizing his mistake.

But afterwards, I actually felt kind of angry. a) because he interrupted my conversation and b) because, had we been men, (going as grey as we pleased, thank you) he would never have had the nerve to assume anything about our relative ages c) because he imposed his vision of us on us. There we were, contentedly discussing our latest romantic exploits, she with a New York curator, me with an Italian wide boy, and this overly self-assured guy felt the need to tell us what WE look like to him. Just go ahead and guess how many fucks I don’t give.

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Advanced German for Germans

Last month I decided it was finally time to improve my German writing skills. I figured after 20 years of living in the country it was kind of embarrassing to have to ask my teenage daughter to correct me every time I needed to write a proposal for work. I was also curious to see what it would be like to write in a different language and to see if what I consider to be humorous would also work in German. Whether or not Germans would laugh was another matter all together. Ironically, on my way down to the Volkshochschule (look it up suckers, I had to) I passed a trendy clothes store with a dummy in the window wearing a T-shirt that stated in no uncertain terms, “Life is too short for learning German.” I chose not to take this as a bad omen.

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I also tried to ignore the fact that literally every single person I passed (mainly groups of people who actually have a life on a Friday night and are going out to have fun) were speaking English. ALL OF THEM. Was I perhaps 20 years too late with my mission? Who would I be writing for? Would anyone in Berlin still be speaking German 10 years from now?  So off I walked, bravely into the world of German night classes and excel computer courses. The group of 12 consisted of Peter, with a personality disorder, (his words not mine) Oswald, a 75-year-old vicar, Chantal, a transsexual with a not so great wig but great taste in clothes, two Henriettes, 1 Gertrude who deserves her very own category and six other women of indeterminate age including me.

The course started off with the teacher coming in and feeling miffed because the table she coveted was taken (the delinquent offered to move, but it was TOO late for that, the mood had been ruined), tore open all the windows and then proceeded to bark at everyone who accidentally walked into the room looking for – how could it be otherwise – the excel computer course. Man, I was catapulted back to my school days faster than an atomic accelerator time machine.

Kicking off with some great writing tips she told us that early mornings were the best time for writing, even if it was just for half an hour, and when one woman interjected that she didn’t think she could find the time in the mornings, one of the “good girls” of the class said “Well, I just make the time.” An image flashed in my mind of three kids of pre-school age crying and peeing all over the kitchen floor whilst she sat with Buddha-like calm at the kitchen table taking her half an hour to write. Luckily the teacher then admitted that perhaps “Everyone has to find what works for them.” Phew, thank God for that then.

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Germans like things to be structured and categorised. Even rubbish.

I don’t know what I was expecting, I guess I was pretty open for anything, but she is really giving us our money’s worth. And there are two more days to go! I now know all the categories and sub-categories and sub-sub-categories of lyrical, narrative,  scenic and reflective types of writing. And it wouldn’t be Germany if there wasn’t a right old shindig about the definition of “autobiographical” writing, and about the legal repercussions of slandering one’s own mother.

That was very important because, turns out pretty much everyone in the room has issues with their parents. And not all of them because they were Nazis! Some because they were just plain old crappy parents. I can’t WAIT for tomorrow!

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