Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Soul of Man Under Social Democracy

I recently read a web article which postulated that if the progenitors of Communism had sexed it up a little, the political system would have been more palatable to the masses, perhaps yielding a longer shelf life. As someone who identifies more with Oscar Wilde's voluptuously naive treatise "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" than anything Karl Marx ever put forth, I second that emotion. Wilde's scrupulously Utopian vision of the abolition of private property makes Socialism seem like nothing less than a mass orgy. One cannot live on borscht and bread, a pig and an acre alone. Such slender means only leaves one spiritually hungry. Marx should have taken a page from the book of Wilde, instead of confusing abundance with excess.

Living in the former East Berlin I see the ghosts of the GDR daily amidst the ever-moving cranes and ever-mutating graffiti . Not to mention the Lego-style old commie housing estates (Altbauen), which, though admittedly sterile, do harbor a certain edge. Our hostess informs us with sang-froid that she has on numerous occasions found blood in the elevators.

In recent years the regulation and standardization of social systems such as medicine and the pension plan have been deleterious to the economy, contributing to unemployment and the rise of darker elements of Deutsche Gesellschaft, such as Neo-Nazis.

The equal and opposing force to the ubiquity of rules and order is what my German friends call the "German craziness", and though there are many more rules here than in the USA, there is a controlled chaos beneath the surface. For instance, there are no open container laws here, so the denizens of Berlin freely roam the streets and subways, ein Bier (oder zwei) in hand. But I've never seen things get out of control.

Maybe I'm talking about two different phenomena here, but bear with me. The Deutsche need for rules is concomitant to the passion for ordnung, in meine Meinung. Centuries of instability and lack of identity have plagued the Germans to the extent that they have fashioned a society built on order and anything less threatens that sense of identity. Hence the punks and the Polizei are friendly with each other, fastidiously kept historical buildings stand cheek by jowl with ugly squats. Respect and Hoflichkeit are key.

Last Saturday I jumped at the chance to attend my first German barbecue, over in Lichtenfield, a tram ride about two miles east from my Friedrichshain flat. The flat was on the tenth floor of one of the old Soviet era high rises. As we entered the claustrophobic steel trap to the top, our host, Andrea, ominously groused about frequently seeing blood there.

Once inside
, der Balkon looked out over a Lego city lousy with graffiti but lush with leafy green avenues. Andrea was proud of her recent purchase of a George Forman smokeless grill, as smoke on the balcony was strictly verboten. The whole affair was incredibly gemutlich (an important German idiom closest to the English "cozy"). The spread featured every kind of Wurst known to man, Auflauf (casserole) and Salatguerke (cucumber salad), along with verschieden stinky cheeses. Orange lighting warmed an economical Ikea-furnished flat riddled with Punkten (polka dots), everything just-so. As I settled into my comfy butterfly chair with an oversized warm beer, Andrea flicked on the widescreen TV and we began to watch the Eurovision song contest. This is unheard of in the US, but is an annual kitsch favorite over here. Andrea, ever the hostess, came over and crouched beside me.

"I hope you enjoy. This is very European."

The voting was interminable but the contest itself a hoot. This year, Russia won over Scandinavian heavy metal groups, Spice Girls copies from Serbia, and French surrealist pop. The common denominator here was showmanship. You cannot vote for your own country, so callers voted for their neighboring countries with unbridled nepotism.

I sat back in my chair with a sigh of contentment. It was all so civilized, but fun. When Russia won with a sappy ballad, fireworks went off of one of the other balconies.

Auf Deutsch, my roommate Jan said: "I think one of your neighbors is Russian."

Andrea responded, "Ich glaube dass, es so ist." (I believe so)

If only Karl Marx had had George Foreman smokeless grills, and Eurovision.

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