Saturday, April 05, 2008

The relay of the ghosts

The relay of the Olympic torch is passed off by the media as a symbol of peace and fraternity among peoples, but in fact history reveals that it was introduced as a piece of Nazi propaganda on the occasion of the Berlin Olympiads of 1936, conceived by Nazi fanatic Carl Diem and carefully staged by the Goebbels propaganda machine.

The Olympic flame dances with many ghosts and so does Germany. Is the new Germany really living its new ideal of peace and fraternity of nations? I have myself benefited largely in recent years from the generosity of the German scientific elite, the prestigious net of eighty something research institutes that form their Max-Planck-Society, one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in Europe.

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes

Yes, I cannot deny that, to this day, I feel uncomfortable with Germany and Germans. If I have to explain why, I might best quote a recent episode that says it all about it. According to the news (see the Washington Post article linked below) at least seven famous American scientists working for the German Max Planck Society face criminal charges in Germany for using the courtesy title "Dr", despite the fact of having received their PhD's in little known American universities such as Caltech instead of world renown German institutions such as the Otto von Guericke Universitaet of Magdeburg. April fool? Not really: these people risk up to a year in jail for the "offence".

In all the time I spent in Germany, I never failed to be astonished by the amount of significance that people there attribute to the silly strings of letters people attach or do not attach before their name. When I once went for a urine test and saw "Prof.Dr..." written on the label of my urine sample I couldn't help thinking that this must be the end of civilization as we know it. Well, I am allergic to this crap, I admit it readily. When I hear people using "titles" I feel like spitting in their face, but even without my high sensitivity, can one really conceive of sending respected scientists to jail on such charges?

" anonymous tipster filed a complaint with federal prosecutors against seven Americans at the prestigious Max Planck Society..."

That tipster is the tip of a huge eisberg which involves xenophobia, blind acceptance of absurd rules, even the perverse enjoyment of absurd rules, and the sense that it is admissible to hurt other human beings in the name of a written regulation, no matter if it was a stupid rule created under an atrocious totalitarian regime (the law invoked in this episode is a Nazi law passed in the 1930s). It also involves a culture where relations between people are based on a hierarchy of power, and the sense that something like "courtesy titles" have nothing courteous about them but exists simply to be used as a weapon to belittle and humiliate others.

Germany has beautiful international scientific institutions. Having worked for one of them myself, I know that they are capable of offering to their scientific members enviable working conditions that are hardly matched by even the most prestigious North American academic institutions.

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes

The flip side of the coin is this undercurrent of aggressive bureaucratization of the society, the humiliations inflicted upon the students and young people (especially the foreign ones) who do not yet have any "titles" to defend themselves with.

Is it acceptable to enjoy the privilege offered by these institutions while having to witness the general malady of the society that hosts them? When does one become an accomplice? The moment when one starts to write "Prof.Dr." on one's business card or webpage or email signature? Accepting to play by the rules of the game is sharing the responsibility. The episode I referred to above may seem trivial: surely we all believe that the courts will drop charges against those seven foreign scientists who
accepted to call themselves "Dr." because that seemed to be what was required of them in that environment, only to find out that it was a dangerous trap. The problem is the "slippery slope" effect: how far is accepting that people are treated differently according to the letter-code before their name from the code of colored symbols - triangles and David stars - attached to people's clothes, or tatooed numbers on people's arms?

The Olympic torch's shadowy past (BBC news)

Max Planck Gesellschaft

Non-European PhD's in Germany (Washington Post)