Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Susan Sontag still rocks our world ...

From the New York Times ...

'At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches'
Essays and speeches written after 9/11, in the final years
of Susan Sontag's life.

“I live,” she wrote after a trip to Vietnam in 1968, “in an unethical society that coarsens the sensibilities and thwarts the capacities for goodness of most people.” In her last speeches Sontag offered a similarly bleak view of the American-style consumer society that spreads itself across the globe, destroying the past, and enclosing all horizons within a selfish materialism. “We live in a culture committed to unifying greeds,” with “everyone on the planet feeding at the same trough of standardized entertainment and fantasies of eros and violence.”



Blogger d. chedwick bryant said...

I wish I could say I was familiar with her work...
Guess I'm off to the Library...

10:00 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...

"American-style consumer society"?!

I've traveled around the world and lived in both Asia and Europe (twice in Germany). The idea that "consumerism" is unique to those of us who were born as Americans is plain nuts. You ever walk down the Kudamm in Berlin? Kaufhaus des Westens ring a bell? Please. Susan Sontang, I grant you, penned a few interesting essays, but she was mostly a shrill political hack. C'mon. Let's get real here. Take a walk through Pudong in Shanghai and then get back to me, okay?

Germany exports dream-cars to high-end consumers. Hypocrisy (and denial) runs deep in German culture. I have a lot of German friends and still go back for trips (last time in September for two weeks in Berlin), but are thoroughly "neidisch" and it fuels a lot of their resentment against Americans (I first lived in Germany back in 1985-6 and Germans were just as anti-American as they are today).

Feel free to disagree, of course. But I do have a lot of experience to back up my views.


11:46 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...


I've come across a very good summary and explanation of cultural differences between Americans and Germans. As someone new to Germany, I'll think you'll both enjoy it and nod your head in agreement a few times.

Now let's go back and review two of those typical, but negative perceptions Germans and Americans have of each other. Germans often view Americans as superficial; Americans often view Germans as opinionated or arrogant. These views, as I hope to have pointed out, are usually based on misconceptions and faulty judgments, often unawares. How does this come about?

Back in the mid-80s, when I first lived in Germany, it took me about six months before I started to locate the sources and different value hierarchies that made German behavior and culture puzzling. And that really helped me adjust. While Americans and Germans share many values, the emphasis is often slightly different, and this can lead to misunderstanding.

Any thoughts on this topic?

6:40 PM  
Blogger Courtney said...

Hi Berlin Bound,
I just noticed your comment on my blog and thought I'd return the favor (yes, it was months ago, sorry). I'm glad to see other expat writers in Cologne. Perhaps we can meet less virtually some day and swap stories. In any case, this is a cool place and I'll definitely come back.

PS To Jeffrey - American-style capitalism begat American-style consumer societies in nearly every nation in the world over the last century. Which is not to say that people in China or Vietnam are not human or don't also appreciate shopping, but to say that the ever-increasing demand for products is not innate but rather a response to American demands on other cultures in order to maintain a strong economy.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...


Tell me then: what is the difference between American-style capitalism and German-style capitalism? This ought to be good. Do you actually think Americans created capitalism? Heh heh. Oh Lord, you need to buy an "Economics for Dummies."

Hey, are Schrebergaetern state-run or privately owned? Jeez, if Germans would just let the poor of Africa live in their Schrebergaetern, think of all the people who would be removed from poverty? Why don't the Germans do that?

LIsten, trade has been going on since humans started living in communities and realized some groups had access to or made things that that other groups didn't and thus they exchanged these goods and products. In the ancient world, for example, the Greeks traded olive oil to the Phoenicians for timber (where on their trading expeditions they learned about this simple set of letters that the Phoenicians used for writing -- and the rest is history, as they say).

Today is no different. Americans never created it. Japan has no oil but it has some of the finest oil refineries in the world. My Nigerian brother-in-law is a oil engineer and has traveled to Japan to look at the refineries there and he was amazed that the Japanese will utilize every drop of oil from a barrel of crude. Japanese also have very little arable soil. So how are they so successful? Excellent education system, hard-working populace, and by lots of TRADE. It's not "American" or "American-style." It's simply trade between groups that has been going on for millennia.

Most trade is a win-win situation. Iranians, for example, have oil, but not many refineries; Japanese have fantastic refineries, but no oil. They both export and import and their countries are better off than if they were completely isolated.

Germans sell us cars and we sell them computers. Both countries are built on free-market capitalism; both countries have private property protected by their law systems; Germany has higher taxes (both federal and sales taxes, as I'm sure you're aware of in Koeln) than the US, but these differences are surely just a matter of degree while the essential similairity is clear for anyone to see -- as I see every time I visit Germany.

Was denkst du denn?


3:35 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...

You guys might want to check out a very good blog by a longtime American expat living in Berlin: Observing Hermann.

Very funny AND wise, which, if you know Germans, is an assault on their sensibilities. If you've suffered through as many Kaffee und Kuchen hours as I have, you'll know what I mean.


4:25 PM  
Anonymous ian said...

I have "suffered" through a lot of kaffee-n-kuchen and can tell you: Germans can be funny, and they are definitely wise, so no, I don't know what you mean in your last comment.
Agree about Hermann though. My vote for Germany's best English-language blogger.

6:01 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...


To be sure, there are many Germans with a great sense of humor and I count several of them as my friends. But I think the generalization still has some validity, especially with older Germans.

Yeah, I just came across "Observing Hermann" a month or so ago, and it's very good.

I also like Andrew Hammel's blog, "German Joys," and a blog by a young American at "JDubBlog" who is giving those "New Berlin" tours right now. While Hammel writes from a lawyer's perspective, JDub writes form a young-man-on-the-town's perspective (and he has some really funny entries in his archives). Check out his recent "Berlin Smells like Ass" for a taste (or smell?).

Ian, are you British? If so, you would probably agree that Brits tend to use more understatement in their humor -- sorry, humour -- and Americans more exaggeration, right? How about the Germans? What do you think? Some German humor is pretty wicked. I remember when AIDS was first detected, Germans called it "Ab in den Sarg."

7:02 PM  
Anonymous ian said...

Not British, not American. My blog'll give you a clue, though.

Left a comment on JDub's blog about the smell of kak. Would have liked to have left another one on yours, but your name only links to a profile which I am not allowed to read.

I read Hammel occasionally. It is quite lawyer-specific, but he does have some incisive observations of a general nature as well.

Don't know about that understated British humour. They'll take the piss out of you five minutes after hello. And what about Monty Python? Exploding fat guys in restaurants? Throw out your dead? This is an ex-parrot? OK, they're history, but they do live on, iconic forever.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...


I would love to read your blog, but every time I try your homepage freezes on my computer. I don't know why, but there are a couple other blogs out of Germany that do that.

There's no question that the British will take the piss out of one pronto. And, as you say, "bring out your dead" is not a good example of understatement. But it does indeed exist there. I've been to Britain a number of times and one finds understatement as a regualar device in their panoply of humo(u)r. But, I would also say that Brits and Americans share more humor than that which might divide us.

I'm reading Bill Bryson's "Notes from a Small Island" right now. Bryson is a genuine hybrid, an American who lived for twenty years in Britain. He uses both nicely phrased understatement and exaggeration one might associate with Mark Twain. Here he comments on having his first tea and cookie in England on arriving in Dover:

"I had never had tea with milk in it before or a cookie of such rocklike cheerlessness. It tasted like something you would give a canary to strengthen its beak."

Any thoughts on German humor?


2:16 PM  
Anonymous ian said...

Whaa? My blog freezes on your computer? How weird. Can you please tell me what exactly you see? Perhaps I can get wordpress to look at the problem. What other German blogs give you trouble? That might also give us a clue.

Bryson's a real hoot. I think I've read all of his books at least twice, though I've heard his recent "history of nearly everything" is more or less a shameless way of cashing in on his fame to pay for the kids' tuition. Won't bother with it.

Have you read his romp through Australia?

3:10 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...


The other German blog that freezes is also a wordpress blog: A Berlin Diary. It loads almost until the end but then it just freezes. I can see the page, but I can't navigate anywhere or click anything and I'm then forced to shut it down with the red close button. I'm using Netscape as a browser. I don't know if that makes a difference.

No, I haven't read Bryson's book on Australia, but I'm sure I'll get to sooner rather than later. It sounds good too.

Hey, I see from you blog that you're originally from Vancouver, Canada, right? Cool. And you're in Hamburg now, judging by the masthead of your blog.


6:09 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...


Oh, and obviously North American humor has been greatly enriched by the many Canadian actors and comedians. Just one quick mention of a show you may recall (depending on your age). I remember years ago watching Kids in the Hall late on Saturday nights here in the States and being amazed at the insane skits they were creating and getting away with. I can still hum that jangly guitar-rock song that started their show. I don't know if it reached the level of Python, but it was very good and I always looked forward to watching it. They could really play some weirdo characters that you just had to laugh at.

6:19 AM  
Anonymous ian said...

Hi jeffrey,

So I guess since I can't get on any site you have and you can't see mine beyond the first page, we'll just have to continue this friendly "blog- jacking" here - if that's all right with Mr. D in Cologne?

I'm from near Vancouver - a city of nearly two million that some Americans already call a small town - so by comparison, I guess I was born in the rainforest and raised by wolves.

I'm going to get on the wordpress tech forum to see if it's a netscape problem. They advise for posting on wordpress to use only firefox, but so far I've read nothing about the public not being able to access wordpress blogs.

Kids in the Hall! Huge laughs there. They borrowed a lot of Monty Python antics like cross-dressing and skits with no punch line, but in a style all their own.

in Hamburg

10:58 AM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

jeffrey and ian ...

make yourselves at home.

11:06 AM  
Anonymous ian said...

OK, thanks!


What version of Netscape are you using? Can you download firefox and try accessing it that way?


12:23 PM  

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