A Tour of FU Berlin

October, 2019

Berlin – While much was going on in this blog's other capital cities (in Washington, a top federal student loan official quit to run for the Senate; and in Lincoln, the Board of Regents picked a new NU president), I spent the day of October 25th on a walking tour of the Berlin university campus where I studied and wrote a dissertation three decades ago.

• From the U-Bahn at Thielplatz, the Harnack Haus is only a short walk.  It is a conference center now, but once was an American military officers' club where my family and I had privileges.  It was often a welcome place of respite from the academic pressures at Freie Universität Berlin.

• Onward to the Audimax, a large auditorium noted for the famous speakers it has accommodated.  President Kennedy spoke here in 1963 before his more famous speech at Schöneberger Rathaus.  Rudi Dutschke changed German politics forever with his 1967 protest speeches on behalf of the student movement.  Some two dozen portraits of famous Audimax speakers hang suspended in the grand staircase, above the comings and goings of present-day students.

• Across a campus mall of grasses and forbs in the direction of Corrensplatz is the forgotten site of the home of Fritz Haber, the German scientist whose reputation is still disputed despite his Nobel prize.  During WWI, he was on the faculty of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, a research organization that was converted after WWII into the FU Berlin campus.

• Adjacent to Corrensplatz are two buildings with small plaques to explain their significance.  One is the former Kommandantura, where after WWII the four victorious powers administered the city.  It now houses the FU president's office.  Across the street is the Hahn-Meintner building, once a physics laboratory for the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where the atom was first split in 1938.  Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel prize for physics.

• Across Habelschwerterallee is the huge classroom complex known as the Rostlaube and the Silberlaube.  Here I once made friends with many other foreign students who were working on their German language requirements (necessary for all exams).

• Toward the U-Bahn at Dahlem-Dorf is the JFK Institute, where my advisor, Professor Dr. Ekkehart Krippendorff, had his office.  A political scientist and peace researcher, he was also famous for his own academic freedom case.

FU Berlin has, for me, the feel of a real university, dedicated solely to education and research.  Its current president is a mathematician, from the ranks of the faculty.  It has been designated as one of Germany's elite universities and therefore qualifies for extra funding from the government.  It has no football team.  Translated into English, it is known as the Free University of Berlin.  The word free does not refer to its cost of attendance (although fees are minimal, if one is admitted), but to the freedom of ideas and to political freedoms.

Threats Foreign and Domestic

October, 2019

Berlin – Last week there was a large demonstration here, coursing through the streets of Berlin's Neukölln and Kreuzberg neighborhoods on behalf of Rojava, the Kurdish homeland in northern Syria.  Many Kurds live in Berlin.  Signs of support hang from windows.

At least some of the many Turks who also live in Berlin are not happy with the Turkish invasion of Rojava, or with the Turkish government generally.  At a sundries shop in Kreuzberg, the owners engaged us about our respective homelands.  We said we were Americans from Washington, DC, but at the moment not proud of our country's actions in the Middle East.  They identified their hometown in Turkey and said they were not happy with their government, either.

Russia, with Turkey's help, is moving in on Syria, to expand territories under the Syrian tyrant Assad.  Rojava is threatened with genocide.

The Russian threat also looms in Ukraine, abetted by feckless Americans, which include not only the president but his so-called base.  It casts a shadow over Europe, as described so well yesterday by Ambassador William Taylor in his testimony to Congress:

"...if Ukraine succeeds in breaking free of Russian influence, it is possible for Europe to be whole, free, democratic, and at peace.  In contrast, if Russia dominates Ukraine, Russia will again become an empire, oppressing its people and threatening its neighbors and the rest of the world."

I look for some sign that my all-Republican Nebraska congressional delegation will come to its senses, but they seem paralyzed by fear of the money and power being amassed to discipline any Republican who steps out of line.  Whose money and power it is, is not clear.  Some of it, recent developments show, is foreign.

What with Ambassador Taylor's testimony, the impeachment inquiry may move from definitions of high crimes and misdemeanors to what constitutes bribery and even treason.  How is withholding military aid for a political favor not bribery?  How does advancing Russia's interests above America's, repeatedly, not raise issues of treason?  Let's not dance around the issues.  Ambassador Taylor has done America a great service and we need to make the most of it, the sooner the better.


European Flags as Symbols

October, 2019

Berlin – On a day when the British parliament voted to delay Brexit once again, the flag of the European Union flew proudly in Berlin in front of the Chancellery.  As if in victory.

I happened to walk by the Chancellery during this symbolic occasion and take the photo below.  As it so happens, the E.U. flag is unfurling briskly in the breeze, as the German flag remains comparatively listless.  Internationalism over nationalism, symbolically, and fitting for 21st century Germany, which has staked its future on collective European strength.  

Later the same evening, at the Brandenburg gate the recorded words of two American presidents rang out over a crowd assembled to see a light show at Pariser Platz.  There was sustained applause for each:  

"Ich bin ein Berliner;" 

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Just what do the current British and American leaders think they are accomplishing by pushing for the return to a kind of nationalism that resulted in world wars?  They should instead be building on the British and American achievements that have given the world decades of relative peace and brought tyrants to account.  

The British must hold a second referendum on Brexit.  The first one was demonstrably tainted.  Now it's clear what is at stake.  

The Americans should get back as quickly as possible to world leadership based on freedom and human rights.  May we soon see a successful Amtsenthebungsverfahren. 

Berlin Billboards

October, 2019

Berlin – Two bestsellers of long ago focused on this city and its turbulent 20th century history:  Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich and Leon Uris's Armageddon.  I've been reading them in a new context, the 21st century American foreign-policy collapse.

Speer wrote first-hand of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.  Uris wrote of the heroic Berlin Airlift, when the city was saved from the grasp of the Soviet Union by a constant rotation of supply aircraft between Berlin and the western zone. 

Berlin is now capital of a free, democratic, united Germany and de facto leader of Europe.  The sacrifices of Americans to defeat the Nazis and the communist totalitarians paid off, which should be a constant celebration of a united America.

Instead, past American sacrifices and efforts are now being mocked in our own country and around the globe by those who would tear down the free world step by step through disinformation and propaganda and replace it with authoritarian governments subservient to the likes of Russia, China, Turkey, Hungary, and the Philippines.

Germany has a special history with propaganda.  Speer reminds us how Josef Goebbels mastered its use in the rise of the Nazis with his Hitler-featured rallies and his command of the mass media.  It is no wonder that the current German government is mounting its own counter-propaganda campaign against authoritarianism by reminding its citizens that it is a Rechtsstaat, or country of the rule of law.

Today, at the S-Bahn at Botanischer Garten and the U-Bahn at Kottbusser Tor, I saw large billboards placed by the federal ministry of justice.  See an example in the photo below, which offers the Rechtsstaat, the backbone of democracy, as protection against arbitrariness and as pursuer of justice. 

The billboards are shocking, not for what they say, but that they exist at all.  They are evidence that the American successes of the last century to help establish Germany as a strong democracy, and to protect our own, are in peril, the sacrifices perhaps for naught.  This is more than sobering, it is frightening.

First Sea Duty, USS Rainier (AE-5)

October, 2019

Washington –  Three recent memoir posts have recounted naval training in the early 1960s, in preparation for U.S. Navy active duty service.  This post recalls my first tour of active duty, aboard USS Rainier (AE-5), home-ported in Concord, California.

In 1966, I was to become the ship's communications officer and division officer for Rainier's radiomen, signalmen, and electronics technicians.

I reported aboard ship in the fall of 1966, in San Diego, after several weeks of training at the naval base in Newport, Rhode Island, where I learned cryptographic methods and how to operate crypto equipment.  From San Diego, Rainier sailed to San Francisco and then departed from Mare Island in February of 1967 for the Philippines and attachment to the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

For the next several months, Rainier's mission was to replenish other Navy ships in the South China Sea, the Tonkin Gulf, and along the South Vietnamese coast.  Mostly we operated out of Subic Bay in the Philippines, but also put in at other ports:  Manila; Hong Kong; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; and Sattahip, Thailand.

Rainier was an old ship, built in 1940 as a C-2 cargo hull with two massive Nordberg diesels for propulsion.  Despite antiquated equipment, we won a coveted "E" award for efficiency.  Late in 1967 Rainier returned to its homeport via Yokosuka, Japan, and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

This was the height of the Vietnam War.  See an earlier, longer post reflecting on it.  My hope in 1967 was that both North and South regimes could be replaced.  I bought the books of war analyst and critic Bernard Fall in Kaohsiung and read them aboard ship.  Bernard Fall was killed in Vietnam that year.  In 1968, first with the Tet Offensive and then with Richard Nixon's sabotage of the peace talks, any such hopes were dashed.

For me personally, the Rainier experience was good.  Navy officers get the benefit of being thrust at an early age into responsibility.  There's nothing like being the officer-of-the-deck in tight situations at sea.  I learned much from my first captain, Vincent P. O'Rourke, the very model of a wise sea captain, and from my second, John C. "Jack" Smith, the very opposite, who wrecked the ship's car in the Philippines while driving drunk, and once plowed Rainier into a pier.

With few officers, our wardroom was close-knit; I recall them fondly:  Howard Murphy, chief engineer; Bob Lee, first lieutenant; Tom Stuart, operations officer; Dave Johnson, navigator; George Raines, damage control assistant; Chris Henderson, assistant engineer; pork-chops Pat Ryan and Jim Graber; and Charlie Alderman, gunnery officer and diver.  Murphy and Lee were mustangs, as was the XO. 

The crew was a proud and tough cohort of many different races and backgrounds.  Some ships had racial conflicts.  Not so much on Rainier.  In port, we often sought out a gym for a basketball game, which I organized.  Captain O'Rourke joined us once, which impressed the crew as they enjoyed playing with the captain.

The photos below show the work of our deck division sailors, who risked their lives daily to fulfill the ship's mission; my view through binoculars at two approaching ships in the South China Sea; Rainier signalmen at a day's end; in-port at Yokosuka, Japan, late 1967. 

Inured to Corruption

October, 2019

Washington – A federal judge has made waves by threatening to put Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in jail for contempt of court.  Under DeVos, and in contradiction to Judge Sallie Kim's order, the Department of Education has continued to collect on thousands of student loans that should have been cancelled because the loans were made fraudulently by a for-profit school, Corinthian College.

Judge Kim may not actually jail DeVos, but she has raised the possibility.

The waves were not high enough, however, to draw the attention of the higher education trade press, namely The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, neither of which took note.  It is not higher education news, quite apparently, when borrowers are stiffed in the thousands and the Secretary ignores the courts.  It has become routine.  Perhaps it will be news to the trade press if and when the law and judges' orders are followed.*

Later this month we'll learn what Judge Kim will do in the face of the Secretary's contempt.  I hope it is not a fine that the Department will pay with taxpayer dollars.  That would be adding insult to injury.  A fine to be paid personally by the Secretary would be almost as bad, as she is a billionaire.  More fitting would be a hefty personal fine that would be paid to the non-profit organizations that have had to bring suits on behalf of borrowers whose protections have been violated in a variety of Department programs, to include TEACH and PSLF.  Or a few days in jail.

To some, it is not particularly newsworthy when a federal agency like the Department of Education is captured and controlled by the interests it is supposed to be regulating.  There is a vast amount of political science literature on the subject.  In this case, there is even a smoking gun: the for-profit college association publicly asked the Secretary to ignore the law on "borrower defense," and she did.  But she is not the first cabinet official to take her orders from those she is regulating.

Arguably, the whole higher education community has now become inured to the corruption that feeds off the victimization of student loan borrowers.   It is almost as if there is a law of nature that determines how industries and organizations exploit the vulnerable.  In biology, such a natural relationship is observed between ants and aphids. Aphids supply the sweet nourishment for ants that herd them.  If the aphids grow wings and try to take off, like borrowers trying properly under the law to escape their loans, the ants strip them of their wings and keep them captive.  It's hard to think of a better analogy to describe the DeVos Department and how it strips borrowers of their rights.  Borrowers who were legally entitled to loan discharge were slapped instead with new collection actions, like wage garnishment and tax refund seizures.

For public consumption, the Department has recently started to put blame on its servicers and loan collection contractors for violations of laws and regulations.  This would resonate truthfully were it not for the existence of a robust revolving door network between the Department and the servicers.  If the Department is serious about servicer shortcomings, it would disqualify offending servicers from competing for more business, including the upcoming NextGen awards.  Unless that happens, it looks like business as usual.

Why not some jail time for contempt of court?  Nothing else has worked.
* During the week following Judge Kim's condemnation of Secretary Devos, Inside Higher Ed covered stories such as a student who sold pot out of a dorm room, a professor who used grant money at a strip club, and a study by a conservative organization (AEI)  that suggested borrower complaints are misguided, the real problem being over-complicated legislation.  But about contempt of court for ruining the lives of thousands of borrowers?  Nichts. Nada. 

Shocking Declines in Birds and Insects

October, 2019

Lincoln – Regardless how important other events seem this year, the top bad-news development is the shocking decline of birds and insects.  The natural world seems to be on the edge of collapse, judging by these two indicators.

Bird species like quail and eastern and western meadowlarks are down precipitously.  In fact, such grassland birds are declining more rapidly than all others.

On our local grassland here, one can still see these birds.  Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks, too, are present in the adjacent riparian areas.

But for how long?  We're hopeful that a new environmental plan for the area will soon start a process to protect these streams and grasslands.  It can't come soon enough.

Our national bird, the bald eagle, was saved from extinction by purposeful action some years ago, so there is hope.

What about our state bird, the western meadowlark?  We'll soon know local reactions when the environmental plan is published later this year.  Will historic grassland habitats be saved, or bulldozed?

It's harder to know what to make of the "insect apocalypse."  Among our most beneficial insects, bees, the decline has been so severe that the Adee beekeeper family, originally from Nebraska, has taken its bees out of our state because the environmental challenges are just too great.  According to press reports"The official Nebraska state insect is feeling the sting of agricultural chemicals, unfavorable weather, flooding and mites, according to beekeepers big and small." 

We raise bees on our property, trying to provide suitable habitat.  But last year was the worst ever, according to our beekeepers.  

It's all shocking.  When the natural world is in peril, all else must be put in diminished context.

More on Hong Kong and U.S. Policy Toward China

October, 2019

Lincoln – In an earlier post, I looked at Hong Kong then and now, five decades apart.  Soon thereafter, the NYT also looked back at the 1967 riots, which were much different compared to the 2019 riots.

Back then some of the rioters waved Little Red Books, with the sayings of Chairman Mao, which could be purchased at a special Red China outlet store in British Hong Kong.  This is also where Hong Kong residents lined up to read newspapers published on the Communist mainland.  See top photo, below.

The store was off limits to U.S. Navy personnel, which two of us conveniently learned only after getting our own personal copies of the Little Red Book.  (Know your enemy – I still have my copy.)

Our ship was not off limits to the Mary Soo painters, who made a living by painting ships as they lay at anchor in Hong Kong harbor.  They painted in exchange for spent brass, not for money.  Ships saved up on spent brass when anticipating a visit to Hong Kong.  Mary Soo's crew was mostly women, rescued from orphanages and shelters.  See second photo, of a Mary Soo crew painting USS Rainier.

Back then, Red China was a threat to the United States' efforts in Vietnam and Korea, as well as an authoritarian regime dangerous to its own people and to peace in the area.  It is now capitalist but still an authoritarian regime ruled with a heavy hand by the 70-year-old Chinese Communist Party, so not everything has changed.

But China increasingly blocks U.S. Navy ships from visiting Hong Kong.  The Chinese Navy dominates the South China Sea from new bases in the Paracels and Spratlys.  The United States is a fading force in the Pacific.

U.S. farmers have lost much of their carefully-developed Chinese markets because of tariff wars.  Curiously, some farmers support the tariffs as leverage over China's theft of intellectual property (IP), although it is clear the leverage works the other way, against farmers. This might make sense if the theft of agricultural sector IP was of particular value to farmers, but the theft is from monopolist seed companies which, with their patents, have already made rural life in the American heartland difficult financially.

What would help U.S. farmers with China is a Congress that would take back tariff authority from the Executive (as provided in the Constitution) and a Congress that would break up seed monopolies and override, with legislation, the 2001 Supreme Court opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas (a former Monsanto attorney who did not recuse himself), which took away many farmers' rights to their own seeds.

The U.S. should also be more helpful to the Hong Kong protesters of 2019, who are making a courageous stand for democracy.  Silence only encourages authoritarian regimes, and underscores our maritime weakness.

The bottom photo was not supposed to be blurry, but sometimes accidental photos also work out.