bookmark_borderPost-359: Martin Luther at 500 / Scenes from the Luther Party

Count me among the many fans or admirers of Martin Luther. Today is his day. Not his birthday, but the day he crossed his own Rubicon in life and began to really achieve his life’s purpose.

Five hundred years ago today (Oct. 31, 1517), Luther the young monk, Luther the German dissident nobody, walked a short distance to the town center and nailed a document he’d been working on to the door of the main church. This was the church in a no-name town with a third-rate university (Wittenberg). His document called for a theological debate; he’d been mulling over the issues at hand for a few years; he was sure the authorities were wrong and equally sure there was a need for someone to take a stand. If not me, who? And the rest, as we like to say, is history.

I have been twice to this very site. The church still stands in Germany and the door has been re-created. Wittenberg is today a tourist site. The town center, preserved, is not much different, i imagine, than it was in the 1510s. It is not a bad place but not the most impressive place you’ll ever see, either.

How could it be? A country-bumpkin type, not one of the important people, someone who’d stumbled his way through early life, someone who seemed adrift and obsessed over his religious uncertainties. This character rises out of nowhere to confront and defeat the Church and the entire established order of Europe?

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(Thanks to my friend James A. for this version)

One reason why the Luther story has inspired so many for so long is that there are many Luthers. People can see what they want to see in him; he is not a figure easily classifiable, partly because he is a bridge between historical eras. partly because he was such a trailblazer that he came before most such classifications were even roughly in place.

We have Luther the Devout Christian; Luther the Discoverer of Grace and thus Luther the Religious Revivalist. Ending it there cannot begin to capture what’s going on. We have Luther the Common Man (against the ‘Fatcat’ or the priestly elite caste); Luther the Uncompromising Crusader for Truth and Honest-Dealing (against the slick con-men types); Luther the Optimist (following his discovery of Grace); Luther the Intellectual and Scholar; Luther the Bombastic Propagandist; Luther the Country-Bumpkin and anti-Elitist (and yet his patron is the King of Saxony); Luther the flouter of early-16th-century Political Correctness is enjoyable to watch. We have a Luther whose immediate ancestors were Late-Medieval men yet Luther is not one, thus Luther the New Man, the Early Modern Man; the latter leads us to another enduring image, Luther the German (or perhaps Luther the Northern European); Luther the modern-style Patriot or proto-Nationalist is a sure extension from that. Lest anyone accuse him of being a proto-Prussian-militarist aligning to some kind of late 19th-to-eary-20th-century stereotype, we also have Luther the Pacifist who consistently refuses and denounces any armed struggle. Lest any of this seem too serious, we cannot miss Luther the Lover of Life (following his discovery of Grace, and following his marriage); and Luther the Joke-Teller, the Dry-Humorist.

But the Luther that most endures would seem to be Luther the crusading, righteous Dissident; the (Religio-)Political Insurgent. And what of politics? We have a Luther the Conservative coexisting with a Luther the Overturner of things Conservative’; Luther the abandoner of established, inherited, dominant orthodoxies that are not defensible. Tradition itself ipso facto is no justification for Luther, after all, if it means indifference and lazy acceptance or wrong or harmful ideas. Hence, after all, Luther the Reformer.


The German press in this the 500th Reformation Year, has called Luther Der erste Wutbürger, or “the First ‘Angry Citizen’.” The term Wutbürger‘ [Anger/Rage+Citizen] is a recent coinage in German, voted 2010’s “new word of the year.” Wutbürger is defined in English by a Wiki writer as “an angry or enraged citizen, especially one who feels politically marginalized.” The term was coined to describe, among others, Thilo Sarrazin, an ex-official who published a book highly critical of the German state, and also various civic movements on the scene in 2010. The seven years since have seen many more Wutbürger on the scene and many are now in the Bundestag.

Usually, political anger is a flash in the pan and by its nature cannot sustain itself, or in some cases it is crushed by force. In other words, very few Luther-type figures ever achieve anything. He quickly became

The early days of mass printing allowed his writings to spread widely, quickly, cheaply and for him to become a symbol for the aspirations of millions. (I learned from the new Luther movie that 100% of his writings were 100% ‘pirated’ by early printers; he never received one cent of royalties for any of the millions of copies of his many writings; he didn’t mind.)

If words can be printed, so could pictures. Some of the pro-Reformation artwork that took off with the Luther movement is very clever and like nothing we see today. They must be among the earliest political cartoons. They range from “agitation propaganda,” to serious lionization of Luther and the reformers (“Luther’s Triumph“), to mockery, belittlement or demonization of the detractors (“papists”), to the satirical, like this:

This pro-Lutheran cartoon (1524) makes me laugh: “The Devil proclaims the opening of his feud with Luther.” The And how else does one inform one of one’s intention to open a feud but to write as much in a letter and hand deliver it? Naturally!

I found this Reformation cartoon in a Luther biography I found at the library which I have tried reading during spare moments but failed to get through before the 500th has finally come:


.I was briefly (a few days) in Germany again in early 2017, on the way to and from Korea. I recall that commemorations and excitement about the Reformation anniversary were around. I understand the whole country, by special proclamation, has October 31st off this year for the anniversary, and many have Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday all off. A Luther Vacation.

I commemorated the great man in multiple ways, one of which you are now reading, i.e. my attempt to write something of some meaning on him that hasn’t already been said a hundred times (in this perhaps I have not succeeded; my insights on him cannot be said to be novel). There was also the new Luther movie in early October (I went with M. who was in town that week; a great time).

Another commemoration was a last-minute decision on Sunday October 29th (Reformation Sunday). I snuck in a visit to the Washington, D.C., National Cathedral, which, for the occasion, was full of thousands of Lutherans (and others, I presume). Every one of the thousands of seats was full and there were people crowding all along the sides and in the back, myself included. I have never seen so many Lutherans in one place. “Jubilant” is how I’d describe the atmosphere. As if a war had just been won. I’m glad I went, despite rainy/windy conditions and my having an exam in International Trade the next day.

Then there was the hugely successful Reformation Party / Luther Party at the church, some moments from which I include here:

I created (below) a shorter version of the above exposition by Luther, using a few props:
Below: The dining room stood ready for the Luther Party. Above: some of the Luther-related books on the rear bookshelf visible in the picture below.
The food was great and all-you-can-eat. There were over a hundred attendees, among whom was me. It was I who took all these pictures. I brought a friend, G.S., and he enjoyed it very much, especially given how long (5+ years) he spent in Germany. Many of the rest of the attendees are people I know now a little bit, or used to know. There were also many guests I had never seen before.

A fitting tribute, one of countless thousands of tributes to 1517 across the world in 2017.

Oh! And the Luther impersonator. How can there be a Luther Party without a Luther impersonator?

Here he is. “Luther enters the building”:

Luther preaches! The people listen:
Lots else happened as well. There was one guest, who may be related to me, who seemed to be heckling or teasing Luther, all in good fun: I am quite sure Luther didn’t mind.

Oh, and an “indulgence peddler” was also active before dinner, wandering around selling them in a big basket. I managed to procure one which gives me “Permission to not attend one meeting you really don’t want to attend.”

Among many others, told E.S., an Australian I know who is in Korea for the year, about the Luther party. E.S. was impressed and replied that if there is one thing the world needs more of, it is “more Luther impersonators.”

bookmark_borderPost-358: Hundred-Dollar Bill

An ATM at a 7-11 gave me a one-hundred-dollar bill today, a first-ever experience for me.

It did not give me the option of what denomination bill I wanted but just thrust the hundred-dollar bill at me. It then beeped in annoyance that I wasn’t quicker on the draw, and then was done with me.

Since when have ATMs stocked hundreds? I ask.


As any true American knows, only criminals (drug dealers) and ignorant foreign tourists ever carry hundred dollar bills. Cashiers are known to reject them; even when accepted, he who pays with a hundred-dollar bill is viewed with suspicion. I have always understood/felt this stigma against hundreds. In fact, growing up I recall never even seeing a hundred-dollar bill, with one exception.

I remember the hundred-dollar bill as a reference point in the distant and mysterious world described by the rap music of the late 1990s, music we were all exposed to. Rappers used the word ‘Benjamin’ to refer to hundreds (“It’s All About the Benjamins,” circa 1997-1998; they were implicitly bragging about dealing drugs, which fueled a high-life with hundred-dollar bills, drug earnings, flowing freely).

This puts the hundred-dollar bill way outside any mainstream use for people of my generation or older. Getting this hundred-dollar bill at the ATM leads me to ask whether this social prejudice has changed; are people born in the 2000s, now in K-12 schooling, going to be much less prone to this prejudice against the ‘Benjamin’? Or will an emergent anti-cash prejudice reinforce the anti-hundred prejudice?

The first time I ever saw a hundred-dollar bill.
An anecdote. An eight-year-old me: enthusiastic about doing well in 2nd grade, involved in speculation with others about whether ghosts inhabited the boys’ bathroom at school, keen to play soccer at ‘recess’ after lunch, and a daily rider of the school bus with many peers. A character called Hosmann, a friend at the time, rode the same bus. Hosmann, on the bus one day, produced a hundred-dollar bill out of his backpack. He proudly showed the bill off to other students, including me.

Second-grade students, of course, don’t even carry cash beyond something like a dollar and a few coins for school cafeteria lunch money. Hosmann was of Bolivian origin. He had odd turns-of-phrase in English (he would say “twist” instead of “turn”). How did he procure this hundred-dollar bill? I presume he pilfered it from  home, from his mom, to show off to his peers. Why did he think it a great idea to flash it around on the school bus? A bad sign for where he was headed in later years. I recall his tendency to giggle at everything. I recall him giggling whenever a student saw the hundred that day, which he kept half-concealed in his backpack.

This little experience, around the middle 1990s, made such an impression on the eight-year-old me that I still remember it. A hundred-dollar bill! It may as well have been an artifact from the lost city of Atlantis. I remember criticizing Hosmann to other students at the time for this recklessness.

I cannot remember much else about the school-bus experience from that year. This experience stands out. (Side anecdote: The only other thing I can now clearly pull out of my memory about that year’s school bus is Oscar the Bus Driver, Hispanic, perhaps Salvadorean, a fat man always keen to joke around with students. He acquired the endearing nickname “the Garbage Man” among the student-passengers, which he didn’t mind. This came from a game he would play in which he or students would point to someone outside on the sidewalk or street and say “That is you in the future!” He would give as good as he got. It must have been that once a student was playing this game when a garbage truck came around at an (in)opportune time; the nickname stuck.)


So what of the origin of the American anti-hundred-dollar-bill prejudice? I am guessing that it was probably considered too risky due to its high value, especially when street crime rose from the mid-1960s. Before that, it was probably also stigmatized as an unnecessarily-high-value bill. However! Both of these factors (street robbery, as of the 2010s, and the real value of the $100 bill today, accounting for inflation) have declined:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator,

  • $100 in October 1957 equals $870 today (October 2017).
  • $100 in October 1977 equals $400 today.
  • $100 in October 1997 equals $150 today.
  • $100 in October 2017 equals less than four hours of work (gross pay) for the average worker ($25/hour in 2015).

So maybe our anti-hundred-dollar-bill prejudice should be discarded as an anachronism.

bookmark_borderPost-357: Young Metternich

Austria’s 2017 general election has come and gone, following Germany’s a month ago. The key issue in both elections was the 2015-2016 Migrant Crisis, disgruntlement over which appears to have energized large numbers and shifted the political discourse to the right; turnout was high. In Austria’s case, parties of the right will have over two-thirds of the seats in the new legislature, and that is with proportional representation.

The age of the new Austrian Chancellor has been the main coverage of the election I have seen. It is amazing, actually, that he is so young. The German press has called this character a ‘Young Metternich’ ever since he became Foreign Minister, at age 27, a few years ago. He is now 31.

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Sebastian Kurz (b. 1986), is Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs [Dec. 2013 to Present], and Head of the Austrian People’s Party (OVP) from mid 2017. His party will control 34% of seats in the legislature as the largest party, and Kurz will soon be Chancellor, the youngest head of government in the world.

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Sebastian Kurz
 

The original Metternich (1773-1859) is characterized as a political genius who dominated Austrian politics from the 1810s to the 1840s, starting, as Kurz has, as Foreign Minister.

Metternich’s great achievement is the preservation of Austrian power. At that time, Austria was a true power, a major power, but could have disappeared after the Napoleonic disruption. Metternich gave the Austrian Empire another century of life, for better of worse. The Austria of that era was a multi-national, pan-central-European empire with a German ruling minority and a long-established royal family (the Hapsburgs). It era represented a Catholic, multi-ethnic, ‘multicultural’ alternative model to north-German Protestant ‘Prussianism’ based in Berlin.

 
 

(Having long since lost the struggle against Berlin, Austrian/Hapsburg power ended forever in 1918, after the loss of legitimacy caused by its poor performance in the war and an embarrassing-and-obvious dependence on Germany from summer 1914 onward (actually earlier). With Vienna discredited and totally unable to suppress ethnic secession movements, the pan-central-European ‘Austria’ fell apart and this new German-Austria, as we know it today, was born.)

 
 

 
 

The ‘Young Metternich’ appellation for Kurz doesn’t make much sense, to me. The Austria of today is, unlike its imperial predecessor namesake, a very small state (7.5 million citizens in a Europe of 750 million). Also critically for this comparison, modern Austria is, by tradition, not a player in international politics. It is not now and never has been a NATO member, and, for a Western country, was quite a late entrant into the EU (1995, about forty years late).

 
 

Kurz and Metternich might be compared in broader terms. Metternich is credited not just with preserving/restoring Austrian power after the Napoleonic crisis, but with being a/the central figure in doing the same for the whole of Europe’s quasi-aristocratic order which was seriously threatened, discredited, and injured during Napoleonic period. A lot of ‘centrists’ around today’s Europe dream of a figure to play this role of defending the European post-1945 order of social-democractic liberal democracy in a time it is (widely believed to be) “under threat.

 
 

Skeptics would say that Kurz is not such a figure, even discounting the small size and disengagement of Austria, as he led his party to a 7.5% popular vote gain using, many have said, a watered-down version of the rhetoric of the insurgent Austrian Freedom Party (FPO). The latter is a party of the populist-nationalist right, whose campaign was based on slogans like “Stop the Islamization of Austria.”

 
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“A new style. It’s time.”
 
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Who will be Kurz’s coalition partner? 

He can form a ‘coalition of the Center’ with the Social Democrats (SPO), or he can rule in a right-wing coalition with the FPO. If the latter coalition governs, Austria will seem to have entered the ‘Viktor Orban’ Wing of European politics.

bookmark_borderPost-356: Unlimited Economic Growth Forever

There is a sense among economists, I would propose, that they constitute a latter-day priestly class ruling over the destiny of civilization regardless of who sits on the throne of overt political power, thus that the priestly (economist) class is above the political class. This priestly economist class sees itself as responsible for the steering of society in the right direction, as responsible for pleasing the gods, for performing the proper rituals, for overseeing that the holy teachings be obeyed to a sufficient degree that the good times go on and the wrath of the gods be averted.

This priestly class has its own debates over theological specifics:  Continue reading “Post-356: Unlimited Economic Growth Forever”

bookmark_borderPost-355: “Chinese Government of Beijing is Rogue Government”

The Chinese students here (a graduate school in Washington, D.C. at which I study) tend to kneejerkingly defend the Chinese government whenever it is even implicitly criticized in some venue, as if they were paid agents of their state. (Some, of course, will be ‘paid agents of their state,’ government officials and things.) Anyway, this kind of thing is not well received. The Chinese students here, taken as a whole, are generally seen as politically drab “party line” (Communist Party) people. Not all are exactly like this. A large number are. The rest seem to be politically neutral.

So we have a Chinese Student political spectrum ranging from “extremely pro-regime,” to “highly pro-regime,” to “moderately pro-regime,” with a further contingent of “silent.” There are no dissidents.

What must go through their minds when they see actual anti-Communist demonstrations:

This is in front of the White House about May 2017. The head demonstrator of this small platoon, a short woman with poor English syntax and a bullhorn, kept repeating: “Chinese government is mafia! Chinese government is mafia!” She occasionally let ‘mafia’ have a rest and substituted one or the other of the words ‘evil’ or ‘criminal.’

I cannot judge the merits of their issue as I do not understand it. Many neutral onlookers probably saw them as purely cranks or malcontents, especially due to their incoherent sloganeering and grammatical deficiencies; if cranks is what they are, they are far from alone in the civic space in front of the White House. (There is one Flat Earth activist who often shows up with whom a friend and I once talked for a few minutes.)

A policeman came by to silence the bullhorn after a few minutes, but the ‘Beijing is Rogue Government’ squad remained.

I am glad that the street in front of the White House is closed to traffic. Its enormous pedestrian- and bicycle-only space creates a kind of Town Square atmosphere. One anchor of this is the perennial protest tent across from the White House. The main issue has always been nuclear weapons. Over the years that protest tent has accumulated many other issues. It is, today, completely covered in various slogans. I once talked to the guy manning that tent once. He didn’t even know what some of the issues were. One, anyway, it should come as no surprise, is ‘Tibet.’

The Tibet issue is one of the few that unites the entire political spectrum in the USA; to be angrily anti-Tibet puts you in an odd place, as both U.S. Left and Right are pro-Tibet with no domestic U.S. faction I know of (or can imagine) that is anti-Tibet. I have heard Chinese students, though, unaware perhaps of how isolating such talk is within U.S. political discourse, refer to the Tibet movement as a terrorist movement. (The Communist Party approves.)

One day, perhaps it was late 2016, someone in a class told me one of our Chinese classmates was a Communist Party member. I was a little surprised because I didn’t see her as one of these ‘enforcers’ for the Beijing government I have alluded to above. She seemed to me rather one of those ambitious-and-smart-but-somehow-uncurious types (this is, for me, a tragic type). I saw her, further, as someone who who didn’t take strong stands on things, didn’t fully develop independent ideas, didn’t challenge things (she would often ask softball questions to the teacher that I found a waste of time), and she didn’t have the kind of awareness of issues I’d expect an equivalent Westerner to have. She was, though, someone who did always want to show how smart she was. Is this the political type that today’s technocratic China has produced en masse?

bookmark_borderPost-354: Grandfather in 1943

“The year was 1943,” as they say; the Glenn Miller Orchestra was at the top of the music charts.

If you were in the right place at the right time, in summer 1943, you could have caught glimpse of my grandfather in the uniform of the U.S. Army Air Corps. His term of service began in June 1943. I think he was conscripted. He would have been passed over in the first waves in 1942 due to having a dependent wife and son and his occupation (farmer). He spent most of the period from later 1943 to the end of the war (May 1945) in England, fixing airplanes, or so is my understanding. When the war was over, he returned to farming in Iowa, as he and his family had been doing for several generations (except for a brief stint in Colorado).

My Iowa cousin, J., looks a lot like our grandfather in these pictures.

J. would, himself, serve in the U.S. Army some six decades after our grandfather (the 2000s). I haven’t seen much of J. recently but I remember him telling me, after his discharge from active service some years ago, that he hadn’t really liked being in the army. I have heard similar things from a lot of people. Sometimes they also add something like “well, but, you know, it was a great experience to have gone through all the same.”

I saw my grandfather often when I was ages 0-13 or so, but don’t now recall him saying anything about his military service.

A farm scene. The baby is my uncle.

My grandfather died in 2007. I don’t recall how I came to find these photographs. I think I came across them in 2014, probably in the possession of my father.

Who took these pictures? It may have been my grandmother. He seems to have been on leave visiting her, anyway.

Some letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother at this time survive. He would have written them while stationed at some airbase in England as a U.S. Army Air Corps mechanic. They remained at the house in Iowa until they died. Seventy years after their writing, I had the chance to read one of these letters. It was nothing special, in fact; just saying ‘Hi,’ really. He talked about on-base friends he had and that the big pastime was going to the movies on off-time. He wrote the name of a movie he’d recently seen. He was never near any active fighting that I know of.

(On the custom of writing letters by hand, on paper, and mailing them. It makes me think what it takes to ensure something you write survives into the distant future. A lot of it may really be luck, hence our use of the phrase “[this document] survives,” as everyday life constitutes a constant storm of destruction of small things like small letters;  most of what we do ends up discarded or otherwise lost, sooner or later. Losing what we’ve written may actually be more of a risk under higher technology: The great majority of my own digital correspondences, since about the late 1990s when I was first online as a child, are now gone without a trace. Early email accounts, passwords forgotten or deactivated with little or nothing saved; instant messenger programs, long lost; school email accounts, inaccessible to students upon graduation; and so on. I can only hope that the contents of this humble blog are not lost too easily.)